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Maximus_Superbus_Bongus

Roman Cohort versus a Macedonian Phalanx.

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The cohorts were a great fighting unit not just in mobility but in having darts to throw at an enemy before making contact thus reducing the Phalanx formations ability .
The darts that you refer to - plumbatae - were not a part of legionary weaponry until the late third century AD long after any encounter with a phalanx based adversary.

That's a nice trivia; however I would think S. was talking about the pila as a missile weapon as contrasted with the sarissa. The decimation of the Phalanx by missile weapons from more mobile units (specially cavalry) was the latter's best chance, even if the Phalanx line integrity was preserved, like Appian described for Magnesia, undoubtedly with the contemporary Imperial wars against the Persians in mind.

 

Roman historians were well aware of the decisive role played by the hit-and-run tactics of their mostly auxiliary cavalry units against the Phalanx, notoriously:

- the Aetolians in Cynoscephalae (Polybius' account);

- Eumenes II and Domitius in Magnesia (Appian);

and on their enemies' side against the legions:

- Midon and Meno in Callicinus (Livy);

- and even the Macedonian sacred cavalry (by default for its absence) in Pydna (Plutarch).

 

When comparing Legions with Phalanges, it should be noted that the Roman tactics were not so great when they were used by non-Romans under non-Roman command; after all, the famous thirty cohorts of Galantians from Deiotarius were utterly decimated by Pharnaces (the vini, vidi, vici king). In any case, by the time of the Roman Civil Wars most of the Roman allies seem to have been using cohort and even legion formations, even the proud Egyptians. The Seleucids themselves (Antiochus IV) adopted some of their enemies' tactics; however, it seems it was hard for the Hellenistic soldiers to change pikes for swords.

 

Unfortunately, it seems there is not much information on Mithridates Eupator and Archelaus tactics for routing the legions more than once; their army was probably a mixture of quite diverse units. If we should rely on the mostly absurd figures (even by Roman standards) given by Appian and Plutarch (undoubtedly coming down from Sulla's memoirs and similar sources) the Pontic victories were almost entirely based on sheer numbers.

Edited by sylla

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Hello. I am new to these fourums so if my question is out of place please tell me.

I was always facsinated with this question. Now one on one. 1 cohort of Legionnaires versus 1 unit of silver pikemen. Who has the advantage? Now the cohort has mobility and the phalanx has reach. With no cavalry to support the cohort can they overcome the Phalanx? What do you think? And I am talking late republic cohorts.

 

 

I

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There's a lot to consider. What sort of ground are they fighting on? Who has higher ground? Where is the sun? What weather prevails?

 

In general, the phalanx is fairly formidable provided you meet them head on without missile support (I mean ancient missiles ;) ). Thats why the Romans adopted it earlier to your chosen period. The cohort has a lot of tactical flexibility the phalanx doesn't. That's why the Romans dropped the pikes when they realised just how vulnerable the phalanx can be.

 

 

You never answered the question ;) hehe

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I think that the Phalanx would lose. It would not have the mobility that the Roman formation would have, so the Romans would be able to encircle the Phalanx and attack from multiple sides. The Romans would be disadvantaged by the length of the Macedonian spears, but when they throw their Javelins then they could get into the formation and rip it apart. Once that happens the Romans would win easily.

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And if constrained by terrain? Or unable to outflank a larger army using phalanxes?

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I don't see many differences between the two as both evolved in time and were influenced by various factors. In the end they were both infantry with defensive armor, a shield, a short sword or a dagger and a spear that had to have officers and units.

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Possibly, but then why didn't that always happen? But even more interestinglym why didn't armies fighting each other with phalanxes employ javeliners and slingers to achieve the same result?

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Possibly, but then why didn't that always happen? But even more interestinglym why didn't armies fighting each other with phalanxes employ javeliners and slingers to achieve the same result?

 

 

Isn't there some reference to the javelins and arrows not being that effective due to the "hedge of spears"? I seem to remember reading that somewhere.

 

I've been reading a book recently on Hellenistic warfare and the truth is that luck seemed to play a huge part in these engagements - usually for the Romans and against the Macedonians. Cyconsephale is a good example of this - what started out as a minor scuffle suddenly turned into a full scale battle. It does expose the lack flexibility in the macedonian formations of the time, but even so. Even the most ardent Romanophile won't be able to deny the roll of the dice in these engagements...but - Fortune favours the brave I guess.

 

This is the book - http://www.amazon.co.uk/Great-Battles-Hell...9762&sr=8-1

 

but it's a bit harsh of the reviewers to claim its for wargamers only. Its a light read for the militarially inclined!

 

Cheers

 

Russ

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My point is a bit abstract. The problem is essentially that we have a dilemma (how to deal with an oncoming phalanx) and require a solution. Now we humans are creatures of habit, and if we spot a solution to a given problem, we tend to use that without any more thought. Thinking is something many humans prefer not to bother with. In other words, to any problem we tend to apply procedural and methodical solutions, which we expect to work before we begin applying the remedy. Computer game players are the worst for that. Since such games are essentially predictable, then any single method of dealing with a virtual obstacle results in the same action from the player every time, because we know it works and thinking about how to solve the problem is no longer necessary.

 

That's all very well, but we human beings are also social animals and sensitive to other peoples repetitive actions if we're of an alert and wiley disposition. That's a hunting instinct. Spotting where the prey is likely to be and where it's vulnerable. Warfare is unfortunately not a procedural enviroment. It might seem so, and various games on a warlike theme might reinforce that image, but if you confront an enemy in a procedural and methopdical manner you will lose spectacularly as soon as the enemy leader realises that.

 

In fact, Rome suffered this very problem. Their own penchant for organisation and caution made them vulnerable as we often see in the historical record, whatever the quality of men, arms, and equipment at any given period. Succesful leaders in ancient warfare are those who were observant, intelligent, quick thinkers. I don't want to get too deeply involved in the philosophy of battle and quote endlessly from Sun Tzu, but knowing your enemy really does have benefits to your chances of winning a campaign. Performing as expected and doing the routine things every time will soon make your practises known to an enemy, and once he knows that, he can plan around you.

 

It's therefore very easy to say that all you need to do is X Y and Z in any given situation, but can you actually do that? I remember a lecture by an experienced F16 pilot. He said that there is no given solution to any situation. It isn't chess. It isn't procedural. It's thinking faster than your enemy and being able to place yourself at an advantage. So it was with warfare in Roman times, as the Romans themselves repeatedly found.

 

It is true the Romans ditched the phalanx for a more flexible system, but the Romans as a whole didn't think of that. It would have been down to one clever individual to realise there was something better and the influence to see changes put into practice. However, whilst the Roman manipular system worked to their advantage in many cases, there are also situations where it wouldn't, and to blithely say all they needed to was this or that is a procedural manner of thinking that ignores to variable enviroment of the battlefield. Situation, condition, and tactics are all important factors as much as swords and shields, something that ancient writers sometimes hint at (even if the lesson wasn't always learned). In fact, many ancient battles were won the night before, when the commander told his troop leaders what he wanted.

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"IMHO, by now a more interesting question would be why the Macedonians were still able to win some significant battles over the Roman legions, notoriously when Perseus routed Crassus at Callicinus."

 

I'll have a stab at answering this one. Though we should first note that this was not a legion v phalanx battle. It wasn't completely a rout either, but I'll come to that.

 

Basically Perseus had his army all drawn up near Tempe in Thessaly waiting for the Romans to come to him. Crassus had a hellish time getting his troops through the mountains and took so long arriving that Perseus came looking for him.(Perseus spent a lot of this war wondering where the Romans were and what they were doing. Military intelligence was not his strong suit.)

 

He caught up with Crassus at Callicinus, a few miles from Larissa. Because of the broken ground around the Roman camp, neither side deployed its heavy infantry, with both phalanx and legions kept in reserve. The battle was mainly light-to-medium foot and cavalry - about 12,000 per side. So rather than Roman v Macedonian this battle was Thracian and Gallic irregulars v Peltasts, and Macedonian v Greek and Roman cavalry.

 

The Greeks were unenthusiastic allies in the first place, and a direct charge by the Macedonian companion cavalry did not make them feel any better about being there. After losing about 2000 men the Greeks legged it for camp, and their retreat was covered by Thessalian cavalry which held formation. The next day Crassus pulled his army to more secure quarters over the river Peneaus.

 

 

That was Callicinus. I'd say a better example might be the crushing of a legion under Iuventius Thalna by Andriscus in 149. It was definitely a legion in action here, and it was virtually wiped out. Regrettably, the Romans are generally a bit vague about battles in which they got thumped (apart from claiming their allies let them down), and the sources for this period are poor anyway (e.g. no Livy, Polybius in fragments). If anyone does have excellent sources for this battle please don't tell me. I've just done 80,000 words on the Macedonian wars and it's too late to change anything.

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It's thinking faster than your enemy and being able to place yourself at an advantage. So it was with warfare in Roman times, as the Romans themselves repeatedly found.

...

In fact, many ancient battles were won the night before, when the commander told his troop leaders what he wanted.

 

I doubt that most ancient armies were capable of complicated tactic movement on the battlefield. The units were placed in lines then ordered to move forward or to stand their ground. Flanking movements were usually predictable when possible and countermeasures were taken so we don't see many battles won like that. Reserve units were deployed when needed... etc

Most armies were of levies/recruits with little ability to do more then keep formations and not even the principate romans that had a professional army did not had professional officers until much later.

I also doubt that a maniple was a unit designed for movement and maneuvering because it did not had an officer but 2 centurions and an unit with 2 commanders/2 standards can not keep cohesion during movement.

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It's thinking faster than your enemy and being able to place yourself at an advantage. So it was with warfare in Roman times, as the Romans themselves repeatedly found.

...

In fact, many ancient battles were won the night before, when the commander told his troop leaders what he wanted.

 

I doubt that most ancient armies were capable of complicated tactic movement on the battlefield. The units were placed in lines then ordered to move forward or to stand their ground. Flanking movements were usually predictable when possible and countermeasures were taken so we don't see many battles won like that. Reserve units were deployed when needed... etc

Most armies were of levies/recruits with little ability to do more then keep formations and not even the principate romans that had a professional army did not had professional officers until much later.

I also doubt that a maniple was a unit designed for movement and maneuvering because it did not had an officer but 2 centurions and an unit with 2 commanders/2 standards can not keep cohesion during movement.

 

With respect to Roman armies, perhaps prior to the Carthaginian Wars most of what you say is true. However, as the citizen militia increased its time in the field and gained experience, more complex tactics could be used and would pay off. Scipio on his arrival in Spain was not allowed a significant levy to supplement the surviving armies of his father and uncle. He was renowned for his caution, gathering of intelligence and training that perhaps made him an exception, but nevertheless he gives rise to a good example that contradicts your view. His victory at Ilipa was the result of intelligence, patience, audacious planning and knowledge of his own weakness - the Spanish Allies.

 

The complicated manoeuvers involved were absolutely pre-planned. The Roman commander, or any other in the ancient world, did not have the opportunity on the day of battle to ride up and down a line of battle barking impromptu or ad hoc orders. It simply was not possible to communicate in this way and therefore, the good General would make best use of the 'consilium' to explain to his officers the general plan, ensure that it was understood and make plain what was expected. Of course an inadequate commander would be unable to make adequate use of this forum or any other and that has and will always be the case.

 

To return to the 'legion/phalanx' comparison, it was in some instances the fact that the maniples were controlled by the Centurion/Optio the carried the day. The Centurion was the operational trump card of the legion. Whilst the General would be unable to alter tactics once the battle had commenced, the Centurion was encouraged to think on his feet and use his unit to best advantage. The Syntagmatarch who by contrast occupied the extreme right of a unit about double the size of a maniple, but forming one block of the dense phalanx, was not afforded the same flexible opportunities. It was precisely the experience and flexibility of the manipular structure that allowed the Centurions at Pydna to take advantage of the gaps created in Perseus' phalanx by the uneven territory that led to such a comprehensive victory for Paullus.

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Most armies were of levies/recruits with little ability to do more then keep formations and not even the principate romans that had a professional army did not had professional officers until much later.
On the purported "unprofessional" nature of the Pre-Marian Roman army, please check on post # 90 from this other thread.

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Most armies were of levies/recruits with little ability to do more then keep formations and not even the principate romans that had a professional army did not had professional officers until much later.
On the purported "unprofessional" nature of the Pre-Marian Roman army, please check on post # 90 from this other thread.

 

Roman army was clearly the best of it's era and I believe that the pre-Marian army was as good as the principate one, only with higher reserves and far more politically loyal.

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