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Centurion-Macro

Roman Cavalry.

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"The problem the infantry have is that besides the frightening aspect of facing oncoming horses (and I can confirm personally, it can be seriously hair-raising), the constant need to raise a shield high to defend themselves is tiring, thus we can see a major advantage of being on a horse provided the infantry is on the defensive and not sticking spears at them. Add to that the problems of secure footing on a field, possibly muddy or slippery with blood, strewn with discarded articles and bodies. The cavalry have a real possibility of breaking into a formation and causing havoc if the infantry don't stay firm."

 

While not disagreeing with any of the above, I'd like to point to the experience of Hortensius at the battle of Charonea, when his cohorts tried to charge a Pontic cavalry unit in the flank. Sadly they had underestimated the discipline of the Pontics who wheeled and counter-charged. What appears to have happened is that the Romans, though not formed into a coherent formation, still had the sense to stop in mid-charge and form small, tight spiky groups which the Pontic cavalry were unable to penetrate. The cavalry milled among them for a while, and eventually found more urgent business to occupy them and departed before anyone got hurt.

 

The caveat is that these were experienced Roman legionaries in mid-season form. Had the Pontics hit almost anyone else in the same circumstances it would probably have been a massacre.

 

As a further aside, I'm told by re-enactors that if you have a greave, you can rest the bottom of your shield comfortably on that, and with a large enough shield, still crouch behind it at need.

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Entirely plausible, but bear in mind these re-enactors weren't in fear of their lives and in real combat situations (however many bruises they suffered :D ). To deliberately place your shield like that with your attention diverted by the risk and chaos (not to mention noise) of the fight going on around you requires a cool head.

 

In fact, as long as you remember that half of combat is psychology, there's all sorts of differing emphasis in warfare, such as the containment of the legions at Adrianople, with Goths forcing them to defend against missiles thrown at their crowd of disorganised men, suffering occaisional sallies by gothic swordsmen, unable to any more than stand there and take it.

 

I also note there are hints about the realities of warfare made by ancient writers - Marcellinus talks about the experience of being on the battlefield of Adrianople (and a terrible experience it must have been, his account carries a lot of conviction). The greeks too apparently mention the fear troops feel immediately before that clash of weapons, soiling themselves and so on, even describing how one unit was so crushed together in mutual nervousness and protection that one dead soldier remained standing upright among them.

Edited by caldrail

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...I'd like to point to the experience of Hortensius at the battle of Charonea, when his cohorts tried to charge a Pontic cavalry unit in the flank. Sadly they had underestimated the discipline of the Pontics who wheeled and counter-charged. What appears to have happened is that the Romans, though not formed into a coherent formation, still had the sense to stop in mid-charge and form small, tight spiky groups which the Pontic cavalry were unable to penetrate. The cavalry milled among them for a while, and eventually found more urgent business to occupy them and departed before anyone got hurt.

 

The caveat is that these were experienced Roman legionaries in mid-season form. Had the Pontics hit almost anyone else in the same circumstances it would probably have been a massacre.

 

I was just reading your description of that battle in your recent book about Mithradates.

 

It seems as though the Pontics had a reasonable plan, but they were not able to take advantage of their vast superiority in cavalry, and ultimatelly they were not able to protect their own flanks, and their massive phalanx fell apart.

 

I find it interesting that the Roman infantry was so effective with those tight spiky groups against cavalry even though their spears (pila) were raltively short.

 

The phalanx itself seemed to do a good job up front. It dindn't come apart at the seams (as in the battle of Pydna) but the Pontics were unable to come up with a plan for effective flank support. Neither superior cavalry, nor additional infantry were able to protect the flanks. Was there anything else that they could have done?

 

In comparing a phalanx to the legion against cavalry, it seems to me that the phalanx is more of a deterrent to charging cavalry because of the longer reach of the pikes. A well disciplined group of pikemen can do more than just stand firm against cavalry, but actually advance against them. The best example would be the Swiss infantry of the late middle ages.

Edited by barca

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Provided the cavalry don't outflank them. Otherwise a phalanx is in deep trouble.

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Provided the cavalry don't outflank them. Otherwise a phalanx is in deep trouble.

 

An yet the Swiss Pikemen never had that problem as they advanced in columns.

 

Also many of Alexander's formations were far from linear. wedges, circles, etc.

 

Scottish schiltrons were also very effecting against cavalry.

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I was just reading your description of that battle in your recent book about Mithradates.

 

It seems as though the Pontics had a reasonable plan, but they were not able to take advantage of their vast superiority in cavalry, and ultimatelly they were not able to protect their own flanks, and their massive phalanx fell apart.

 

I find it interesting that the Roman infantry was so effective with those tight spiky groups against cavalry even though their spears (pila) were raltively short.

 

The phalanx itself seemed to do a good job up front. It dindn't come apart at the seams (as in the battle of Pydna) but the Pontics were unable to come up with a plan for effective flank support. Neither superior cavalry, nor additional infantry were able to protect the flanks. Was there anything else that they could have done?

 

I think Sulla was either lucky or skillful in his choice of battlegrounds here (with Sulla it's sometimes hard to tell luck and skill apart). As you say the Pontic phalanx did its job, but the flexibility of the still legions did them in. As Caldrail says, the psychological aspect is vastly important. Experienced legionaries know that cavalry won't charge home if they stand firm - but it's hard to convince your bowels of that.

 

As for cavalry getting round your flanks - this is always a risk, and not just for phalangites (cf Cannae) but the phalanx is uniquely vulnerable. And Hellenistic armies never got the idea of using shovels in the field the way the legionaries did to make earthworks that limited cavalry's ability to maneuver.

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Prepration of the battlefield was one strategy employed by sneaky commanders who had the initiaitive - and that's another aspect to this - superior leadership. Like any endeavour, there's only a minority of people with talent and charisma to lead an army effectively. History shows that these individuals are far and few between.

 

Regarding the advance of phalanxi and their apparent safety - I would argue that had nothing to do with the phalanx at all, which is pretty well as vulnerable as can be from the flanks. It had more to do with mutual support and cavalry on the flanks, as that's generally what the ancient armies did in battle - face off with cavalry on the flanks to win a primary advantage.

 

There is an interesting battle (Leuctra, 371BC) in which the Thebans and Spartans did bloody battle. The Spartans, whose cavalry was admittedly a little lacklustre, lined up with cavalry in front, phalanxes behind. The Thebans advanced with cavalry (always face horsemen with horsemen on the ancient battlefield! - Caldrails Tips For Generalship No1) and the phalanxes right flank refused (diagonal with the right hand side trailing).

 

Result? The Theban cavalry got out through the 'open door', the Spartan cavalry didn't, and the Thebans won convincingly.

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As for cavalry getting round your flanks - this is always a risk, and not just for phalangites (cf Cannae) but the phalanx is uniquely vulnerable. And Hellenistic armies never got the idea of using shovels in the field the way the legionaries did to make earthworks that limited cavalry's ability to maneuver.

 

And yet not all phalanx formations exhibited such vulnerability. The Swiss were able to advance in a square formation, with all sides protected. Alexander's phalangites had multiple formations, such as the circle (p 147 of Alexander by TA Dodge)

 

In the case of Mithridates's army, did they need earthworks when they had the vast superiority in cavalry?

 

It almost seems as though the phalanx was a liabilty rather than a help. It was just sitting there waiting for its flanks to be exposed, thereby tying down the freedom of movement of the cavalry. The Pontic cavalry had both cataphracts and horse archers (Sarmatians, Scythians, etc) and were similar to the Parthians who were able to annihilate the Roman legions at Carrhae.

Edited by barca

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All phalanxes are vulnerable on their flanks, period, that was why cavalry support on the wings of the army was vital.

 

As for the swiss, advancing in columns is not the same as phalanxes (who would usually advance in a line of large blocks, and any other macro-formation is inherently for defensive purposes where phalanxes are concerned, except an encircling one that is). Nor for that matter, were the swiss formations phalanxes, and I seriously doubt the swiss troops used pikes as long as the ancient greeks did.

 

As to why the swiss could advance in coloumn without disaster, it's impossible to answer until more is known about the circumstances. If there's no threat, then yes, of course they could do that. Was that advance intended to come to blows? Bear in mind the following blocks could not present pikes without spearing their friends in front had they contacted the enemy in a melee, and the weight of numbers in an attack of that kind only makes sense if the intention was to make a 'push of pikes', typical of pikemen around the world, and not the wall of sharp points a phalanx would present to the front.

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All phalanxes are vulnerable on their flanks, period, that was why cavalry support on the wings of the army was vital.

 

 

My understanding is that in Hellenistic armies the purpose of the cavalry was more offensive than defensive; the so-called hammer and anvil effect. Flank protection was supposed to be provided by the some more mobile infantry units. Unfortunatelly these moble infantry units never were able to hold their ground very well, and the heavy Roman infantry was able to strip them away from the flank of the phalanx.

 

This bring up the question of the "brazen shields" at Chaeronea II. What sort of infantry were they? Were they the equivalent of Alexander's hypaspists, who were supposed to function as a flexible bridge between the companion cavalry and the phalanx? Whatever they were, they didn't hold up too well against the cohorts as they were driven back in a route.

 

And regarding flank protection of the phalanx. Certain formations don't need it. As I mentioned before, Alexander had circular formations, but I don't know if he actually used these formations in battle. However, the Scots did use these circular formations very effectively against cavalry:

http://scottishhistory.suite101.com/articl...ttish_schiltron

The English were only able to break these formations by using the longbow (Falkirk)

Edited by barca

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As for the swiss, advancing in columns is not the same as phalanxes (who would usually advance in a line of large blocks, and any other macro-formation is inherently for defensive purposes where phalanxes are concerned, except an encircling one that is). Nor for that matter, were the swiss formations phalanxes, and I seriously doubt the swiss troops used pikes as long as the ancient greeks did.

 

As to why the swiss could advance in coloumn without disaster, it's impossible to answer until more is known about the circumstances. If there's no threat, then yes, of course they could do that. Was that advance intended to come to blows?

 

 

Here's a description of the advancing columns:

 

http://books.google.com/books?id=8dmBNpj1A...lon&f=false

 

Generally there were three columns advancing in some sort of echelon. The columns in the rear provided support for the advanced columns.

 

Why the Hellenistic commanders weren't able to grasp the concept of echelons to support their flanks is what I don't understand.

Hannibal understood this concept, but the Greeks certainly didn't.

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Some did (Thebans at Leuctra), but the ability to create superior strategy is rarer than you think. Some commanders simply aren't talented, knowledgeable, or lucky enough to make the right decisions. Remember that on the ancient battlefield it was unlikely to see a commander sat in a tent behind lines directing the battle by pointing a dagger on a map as might happen in later periods. In their day, the ciommander decided his strategy beforehand and the army went with it, bad decision or not, whilst the commander himself was often personally involved in the fighting or busy rallying his troops.

 

Think of it is a larger and complex version of paper, rock, scissors. The commanders often gambled they'd made the right choice of formation.

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Why the Hellenistic commanders weren't able to grasp the concept of echelons to support their flanks is what I don't understand.

Hannibal understood this concept, but the Greeks certainly didn't.

 

Medieval infantry was designed for fighting against cavalry or at least dismounted man-at-war while their antiquity counterparts were designed to fight against other heavy infantry.

Hellenistic warfare was developed from the head-on collisions usual for war in Classical Greece and cavalry, light infantry, missile troops etc were often just auxiliaries supporting the heavy infantry.

The Leuctra maneuver described above was a form of echelon.

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The Leuctra maneuver described above was a form of echelon.

 

 

The precise interpretations of that maneuver seem to vary with different sources. I do find it interesing how that deep Theban column was able to turn without losing its cohesion.

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Turn? What turn was that? The descrioption of the battle I have (via John Drogo Montagu) is that that the Thebans advanced in a more or less straight toward the spartan line.

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