The battle of Pydna, of course, was not the end of the contest. The Roman legion would go on to fight more variations of the phalanx in the centuries to come, taking on the other armies influenced by the Hellenistic phalanx and employing, to varying degrees, similar methods. There was a Fourth Macedonian War, followed by a war against the Achaeans, and the kingdoms of Numidia and Pontus, in north Africa and north Turkey, respectively. But the writing was already on the wall. The phalanx had met the legion on multiple occasions, in all variations of leadership, terrain, weather, states of troop discipline and supply, and the various morale-influencing factors of divine inspiration and omen. The legion was the hands-down winner, and would continue to dominate the battlefield for hundreds of years to come.
But we already knew this. Again, the interesting question is, “why?” let’s take some time to go over the evidence, and more importantly, to return to Polybius’ original statement as to why the legion won out over the phalanx, agility, flexibility and adaptability. So, was Polybius right?
Was Polybius Right?
The answer, supported by the evidence of the six battles we’ve just examined, is “yes, but only partly.”
Let’s take a look. Polybius is certainly correct in that while both the legion and the phalanx required tight unit cohesion, and were limited by the fundamentals of the battle line, the legion certainly required less of it. The short sword is, by its very nature, a weapon well suited to both whole unit combat and individual fighting. Legionaries deployed at larger intervals, which gave them more space to maneuver as individuals, able to absorb the shock of a charge, to dodge incoming missiles, to fence with an opponent if required. More importantly, they were trained to do this very thing. The sword was their weapon, and they were skilled in employing it both as an instrument of a formed maniple, and as an individual fencer.
Contrast this with the phalangite, whose primary weapon, the massive pike, was only effective when formed. Fighting as an individual, a phalangite was left with little option but to drop the giant weapon and draw his own sword, with which he was not nearly as well trained as his Roman enemy.
There’s a great example of the ineffectiveness of the phalangite pike in an individual duel in Diodorus. He tells a story of a fight that breaks out in the camp of the army of Alexander the Great at Alexandria – not Alexandria, Egypt, but a different city named for him in modern day Uch, Pakistan. Coragus, one of Alexander’s Macedonian phalangites, had a bit too much to drink and got into it with Dioxippus, one of the Athenian allied soldiers in Alexander’s army.
Both men were, by all accounts, tough as nails. Coragus was a veteran of many battles, and had secured a solid reputation as a fighter. Dioxippus had won the boxing title in the Olympics of 336 BC. It’s not clear if Dioxippus had won at ancient boxing, which was mostly similar to the modern sport, or at pankration (all-force), a kind of mixed martial art that combined throws, holds, punches, kicks and whatever else you could think of, apart from biting and eye-gouging. Either way, Dioxippus was nobody to take lightly, but that didn’t scare Coragus, who wound up challenging him to a duel. The whole thing turned into a kind of contest between the Macedonians and the Greeks, with each side cheering on their respective champion.
Everybody cleared a space for them to fight, and Coragus put on his armor. Dioxippus showed up naked and oiled. Coragus appears to have brought his pike and a javelin, while Dioxippus brought only a club. Now, we don’t know how long this club was, but it makes more sense to me if it was a short, one-handed weapon, not all that different from the Roman sword. You should keep in mind that the club was the favored weapon of the mythical hero Herakles, which lent a symbolic flair to Dioxippus’ choice.
The fight began, and Dioxippus easily dodged Coragus’ thrown javelin. Diodorus alternately calls Coragus’ weapon a “spear” and later a “long lance,” which likely means he’s talking about the pike. Whatever the weapon, Diodorus is clear that Dioxippus got inside the weapon’s effective range, slammed the pike shaft with his club, and snapped it.
Coragus doesn’t appear to have had time to reverse the weapon to make use of his butt-spike, so he drew his sword, but Dioxippus was already close enough to grab his wrist and execute a wrestling throw, evidence that Dioxippus had won at pankration and not boxing, to put Coragus on his back. Then, boot on his opponent’s neck, Dioxippus raised his club and proclaimed victory.
It was a great moment for Dioxippus, but it ultimately led to his downfall. The Macedonians were furious at the embarrassing loss, falsely accused him of theft and the poor Athenian wound up committing suicide in protest. He was largely ridiculed for this overreaction, but Alexander was furious at the senseless waste of a powerful life.
Now, Dioxippus was not a Roman legionary, but the story does illustrate the effectiveness of a fast-moving individual armed with a short weapon against a Hellenistic phalangite who is without the protection of his formed phalanx. It is possible that the Roman legionary had some speed advantage. The average phalangite wore the linen or bronze cuirass, helmet, shield and greaves and carried the pike. The hastati front line of the Romans would only have worn a much lighter pectoral, and possibly a single greave. The Roman shield was much heavier, but the lighter armor, in the front line at least, may have given the hastati a speed edge in engaging the phalanx.
Even more importantly, the Romans introduced a tactical innovation, in that they combined the missile functions of the skirmisher with the shock combat function of the heavy infantry. The Roman legionary, possibly with the exception of the triarii, had a limited missile weapon role – it was most often used to soften up the enemy line, but also could be used to return missile fire from skirmishers in a pinch. The pilum was purpose-built in a way that most ancient javelins were not – uniquely designed to cause an enemy to discard his shield, thus preparing the battleground to allow the legionary the chance to engage in close combat under the most advantageous circumstances possible.
Roman legionaries did not skirmish as the velites did, but their hybrid role as a limited kind of missile troop is often underappreciated. The argument can be made that this is because it wasn’t new. The famous Persian “Immortals” of Xerxes I, who fought Leonidas and his Spartans at Thermopylae, are described by Herodotus and depicted in carvings at Persepolis – modern day Marvdasht in Iran – as being spear- and shield-armed heavy infantry who also carried bows. But the general belief is that the Immortals acted either as formed groups of either archers or spearmen, and didn’t combine the two as the Roman legionary did, using their missiles to soften up the enemy just before the charge to close combat, a similar tactic to the 17th century cavalry cuirassier, who discharged his pistol at point-blank range just before his charge hit home.
The effectiveness of this combining of skirmishing and shock-combat capabilities in a single infantry class is illustrated by the abolition of the velites during the Marian reforms of 107 BC, after which the legions had no dedicated skirmishing body (though auxiliaries still skirmished). Each legionary had their javelins, and that was that.
Polybius is certainly right that terrain played an important role. Looking at the tactical subunits of the Hellenistic phalanx and their respective depth and frontage gives us some clues. The Hellenistic lochos of 16 men would have been useless, just a long line of 16 men in single file, and even the tetrarchia of 64 would still have only had a frontage of four men, or 16 feet, and would therefore be easily enveloped. At the speira level of 256 men, you’re covering a little less than 50 feet, which still isn’t great. It isn’t until you get up to the chiliarchia level of 1,024 men that you’re getting to just under 200 feet of frontage. And all of this assumes that the phalanx is deploying in the usual lochoi of 16 soldiers. In many instances, as at Cynoscephalae, the phalanx’s depth was doubled, with the resulting loss of 50 percent of its frontage.
Now, compare this with the Roman legion. We’re not sure of the exact depth of the maniple (the sources point to either three or six ranks deep) but we are still looking at units of approximately 120 soldiers. If we assume they’re three ranks deep, and we believe Polybius’ statement that the soldiers have 6 feet each, we’re looking at almost 250 feet of frontage for a single maniple. And this doesn’t even count the likelihood that the two centuries were able to function independently of one another (after all, each had its own centurion), which would result in two tactical units covering over 100 feet of frontage each. The checkerboard deployment of these units would have allowed them to operate independently of each other without having to worry too much about their flanks. If one maniple or century was attacked on their exposed flank, there would be another one not far off who could come to their aid. And any unit that hit a Roman flank would in turn have to expose their own flank to the other maniples.
Polybius is right that the Roman system was much more flexible, and it is clearly geared to take maximum advantage of the legionary’s ability to fight in all directions, and even on his own if need be. Further, the smaller units, stationed at intervals, allowed the Romans to handle broken terrain much more easily, weaving around boulders or sinkholes or whatever other irregularities the battlefield presented.
The phalanx could only fight in one direction, and because it was so reliant on its depth (without at least five ranks, you wouldn’t have the interleaving pike heads critical to defending the front rank), it required far more troops to be effective. And because it could only fight in one direction, protecting the flanks became even more critical than usual, and it was pretty damn critical already. The best way to protect the flanks was to expand the frontage of the phalanx, with the result that phalanxes tended to deploy, as we have seen in all six of the battles we’ve examined in this book, as more or less one enormous line. This is necessarily more vulnerable to terrain than a checkerboard deployment, and made the phalanx far more dependent on flat, level ground to prevent gaps from forming in the line.
Another thing you may notice when you look at these battles is the role of the general in the fighting. Roman generals certainly could and did participate in battles directly, fighting hand to hand in the front ranks and exposing themselves willingly to danger. In fact, one of the highest honors a Roman general could earn was the spolia opima (rich plunder), which were the weapons, armor and other treasure stripped from an enemy leader killed in single combat.
The Romans in three battles we examined had a recent example of this – the consul Marcus Claudius Marcellus, who in 222 BC met Viridomarus, king of the Gaesatae tribe of Gauls, in single combat and killed him. The winning of this high honor cemented Marcellus’ place in history, and would certainly have encouraged other Roman generals to get out front in the fighting. This wasn’t a one-off event. Over a century and a half later, Julius Caesar would grab a shield and join his own front line fighting against the Nervii in what is now northern France. Casualty rates among Roman centurions were notoriously high, in part due to the culture of valor and risk-taking that dominated.
But at least in the battles we’ve examined here, that appears to be the exception rather than the rule. Note Flamininus’ moving to his right wing at Cynoscephalae when he realized he couldn’t salvage things on his left. Witness Paullus moving bodies of troops around as events unfolded at Pydna. The general impression is that the Roman consul led from immediately behind the battle line, on horseback, which not only made him more mobile for purposes of acting as an observer and giving orders, but gave him a higher vantage point from which to see the evolution of the battle and to allow him to direct his troops.
That doesn’t appear to be the case with Hellenistic generals. They were stamped in the mold of Alexander the Great, a general famous for his personal role as a warrior. In many of his most famous battles, Alexander charged at the head of his cavalry, acting as a tactical unit in the fight and personally giving and receiving blows, almost at the cost of his life at the Battle of the Granicus in 334 BC. It is believed that Alexander set his troops in line before the battle, but once the order was set, he abdicated actual command to his subordinates in favor of acting as a fighting cavalryman.
Remember that all of the Hellenistic generals we’ve examined were descendants of the successors of Alexander, and likely considered themselves the rightful inheritors of his legacy. The stories of his personal valor and style of command would have been much fresher to them than they are to us.
We see this in the behavior of the generals here. Pyrrhus of Epirus is always in the thick of the fighting, and is killed, though not in the most heroic manner, in a battle. We see Philip V personally leading his troops on the ridge at Cynoscephalae, and Antiochus leading the cavalry charge that breaks the Roman left at Magnesia. It seems likely that they, in the tradition of Alexander, were happy to lay out their general plans for the battle and then leave it to their subordinate commanders to enact it while they rode off to fight.
This makes sense in the plodding, defensive context of the phalanx. Here was a formation that wasn’t expected to move much. It was supposed to be laid out in a position and then to hold that position, or to march straight forward from it, while other units conducted any more complex maneuvers required. In fact, it’s generally considered that during the time of Alexander at least, the phalanx’s job wasn’t to win the battle at all, but merely to pin the enemy battle line in place long enough for Alexander and his heavy cavalry to strike the critical blow that would begin the rout. The formation’s tremendous depth, along with the difficulty of maneuvering with the enormous pike, lend it to this style of generalship. We don’t see Hellenistic generals breaking off pieces of their phalanxes to respond to contingencies the way the unnamed Roman tribune does at Cynoscephalae. We also don’t really see them rallying up small units of phalangites as Marcus does the Roman routers at Magnesia.
It’s possible that this focus on personal heroism on the part of the commander deprived the phalanx of much needed leadership in the thick of battle, but it’s equally possible that it was simply part of the Hellenistic military ecosystem. A static, defensive formation like the phalanx wouldn’t require as much attention from the general of the entire army, freeing him to engage in the kind of personal heroism that would inspire everyone, boost morale and thus prevent the infectious panic that could be the end of a battle.
Some of this may also be due to the nature and position of the Hellenistic versus the Roman leader. Romans had despised the word rex (king) ever since the expulsion of Lucius Tarquinius Superbus, Rome’s last king, in 509 BC, and the government of the Republic was carefully devised to prevent any one person from amassing too much personal power. A Roman consul was, despite his enormous authority, a servant of the Roman civitas, the social body of Roman citizens. Abstracting loyalty to a state, instead of a person, is a sophisticated concept, and one that the Romans excelled at, at least until their first civil war. Personal glory was absolutely a priority for the Roman consul, and Rome’s history is rife with unnecessary military action specifically brought on by a Roman public official’s need to win glory in battle. This need was driven partly by the limited term of office. Roman commanders only held imperium for a short period, and once it expired, so did their authority to lead an army. But, at least conceptually, the Roman consul was a public servant.
The Hellenistic king was a royal monarch. His military authority never waned. The army, like everything else in his kingdom, was his personal property.
Command and Control, Independence of Action and Initiative
There’s something else, the extent to which command and control is pushed down to the lowest level in the Roman army.
Command and control (also known as “C2”) is a modern military concept that refers simply to the ability to command military actions and personnel. C2 obviously accrues to the highest in rank, who have the authority to make more and bigger decisions. When that C2 is assigned to officers and soldiers of lower rank, it’s said to be “pushed down” or “pushed out” to a lower level. This is a judgment-neutral statement, and military theorists can disagree about whether or when pushing C2 down is a good idea. The Coast Guard is known for pushing C2 down as far as it can.
A lot of evidence of distributed C2 in the army of the Roman Republic that isn’t in evidence in their Hellenistic opponents. We’ve already talked a little about the power and influence of the Roman centurion, and we’ve seen them taking individual initiatives at Pydna to get their troops into the phalanx as the gaps opened up. We also know that senior centurions participated directly in counsel with the consular leadership of the Roman army, and that there was some interplay between these operational leaders and the highest ranks of Roman society, as evidenced by the 1st century AD Roman consul C. Silius Italicus’ poem Punica, which tells the story of the centurion Ennius, whose feats endeared him to the famous Scipio family to the degree that he was buried in their family plot.
The casualties among Roman centurions were extremely high. Julius Caesar, writing in the 1st century BC, describes casualties at the Battle of Pharsalus in 48 BC, where Roman centurions (per capita) died around 700 percent more frequently than milites (soldiers, common legionaries). This is a clear indicator of the personal initiative they were expected to show in leading their troops into combat, and may be an indicator of a military culture that encouraged the seizing of tactical initiative at this comparatively low level. We also hear of the velites wearing animal skins over their helmets, in part to distinguish themselves and make themselves visible to their superiors who could then mark them out for reward, promotion or praise. This isn’t absolute proof, but it is certainly evidence of individual initiative on the part of the average soldier.
But we have more concrete examples, and in the battles we examine here, no less. At Cynoscephalae, we see a tribune feeling confident enough in his ability to make major strategic decisions without consulting his general or the overall commander, to the degree where he wheels off 20 maniples from the rear of the line to execute a flanking maneuver that may well have won the battle.
At Magnesia, we see a tribune taking it upon himself not only to rally fleeing troops, but to punish them with death, re-form them, and then lead them in a countercharge, all on his own initiative and without any consultation.
At Pydna, we see an allied commander make the call to throw the unit standard into the enemy ranks in order to motivate his own troops. It’s a precursor of Caesar’s standard-bearer in 55 BC, jumping into the sea to motivate his frightened comrades. All of these decisions appear to be self-initiated, made in a split second, and without consulting higher command.
Correlation is not causation, and these are just a few data points, but they are enough to give the feeling of a military culture that rewarded initiative and personal resourcefulness to the degree where comparatively lower-ranking individuals felt comfortable making operational decisions.
We have no comparative examples in the Hellenistic armies we’ve examined. At Heraclea, Megacles dons Pyrrhus’ armor, a decision which, if anything, nearly jeopardizes the outcome of the battle. At Cynoscephalae, Nicanor hurries with his foraging troops in a column over the ridge, at the command of his superior. Nicanor is unable to make any tactical decision that might have saved his men, such as forming them up before setting off. We don’t hear much of individual brilliance during the battles we’ve examined. Some of this may be due to history being written by the winners, but reckoned as a whole with the cohesive nature of the phalanx, the royal system of government that accrued all personal power with a king, a picture of a more rigid system that discouraged individual initiative starts to make itself seen.
The medieval and early modern world saw their share of phalanxes. There’s a great translation of Aelian’s tactics published in 1616 by John Bingham under the title of The Tactiks of Aelian or Art of Embattailing an Army After Ye Grecian Manner Englished & Illustrated Wth [sic] Figures Throughout: & Notes Vpon Ye Chapters of Ye Ordinary Motions of Ye Phalange. The book is remarkable for, apart from its great title and equally amusing English, its illustrations of phalangites in 17th century armor. They wear the crested morion-style helmets you might see on one of Cortes’ conquistadores, and iron peascod breastplates over buff leather coats. These men are as far from a Hellenistic phalangite as you could imagine, but the legacy is clear and the connection to it is powerful.
The fact remains that the people reading Bingham’s translation of Aelian weren’t doing so for nostalgia’s sake. The 17th century AD was every bit as bloody as the 3rd century BC, and the commanders looking to writers like Aelian were hard-bitten war leaders like the Swedish King Gustavus Adolphus and the Holy Roman Empire’s general Count Albrecht von Wallenstein. They were looking to the ancient world because they genuinely believed that the military methodology of the period still had value, and it’s fair to argue that it did. The “pike and shot” formations that were the core of 17th century armies married the Hellenistic phalanx of pikemen with the emerging firearms of the period.
Even here we see the legacy of the ancient world. The matchlock arquebus (an early type of firearm), much like the Hellenistic pike, was of little use on its own. It was only truly effective deployed in a tightly packed formation that could pour on concentrated volumes of fire. Worse, it was incredibly slow to reload, far slower than the bows and javelins that were still used on early modern battlefields. In order to employ them effectively, you had to marshal thousands of arquebusiers to maneuver, reload and fire in perfect unison, as part of a giant and complex formation.
There’s only one way this kind of military operation can be accomplished: constant and relentless drill. Make no mistake: these are concepts that grew out of the ancient military experience and of the legion and the phalanx in particular. It may seem like a silly point. Of course all soldiers drill constantly. How else would they ever be effective? The truth is that in pre-modern armies, it’s a lot rarer than you think. Outside the organized city-state cultures we’ve examined here, many cultures fought as warbands, and even inside them, they could frequently not resist the temptation to pursue individual honor and glory at the expense of critical unit cohesion.
But even if it seems simple, even if it seems commonplace, it remains the fact that the notions of troop cohesion, drill, keeping formation and even conceptions modern professional militaries take for granted (numbered corps, uniform standards, military retirement, span of control, etc …) reached a level of refinement in these two formations that endures to this day. The legion and the phalanx certainly didn’t invent these concepts, but they cemented them. They are timeless because these concepts are universal and effective. They endure, all around us, every day.
The result was a massive cultural shift. The same is true of the legion and the phalanx. In their organization, esprit de corps, deployment, method of arming, and in hundreds of other fine details, they represent an expression of how people mobilize for war that seems so incredibly familiar.
Perhaps what’s most fascinating about the legion and the phalanx is how they were, ultimately, expressions of culture – of a Rome struggling to come to grips with brutal Celtic invasions that swept away its burgeoning hoplite phalanx and put its nascent city to the sack. Of a fractious Greece with disparate city-states constantly striving against one another, until the threat of the enormous Persian Empire gave them a common enemy, if only for a little while. These cultures bled into and informed one another, and in a way we can see the conflict between the legion and the phalanx as a conflict between two branches of Greek legacy, drifting apart and then coming together again.
But in the end, it is this above all: a great story, full of blood and sweat and adventure and more than anything – people, fascinating, complicated and ambitious.
In other words – us.