Home Forums Ancients Phalanx vs. Legion on the table top

Viewing 9 posts - 1 through 9 (of 9 total)
  • Author
  • #166993
    Avatar photovtsaogames

    In a previous century I played some games of phalanx vs. legion using the complex Wargames Research Ancient rules, 5th or 6th edition. The phalanx was 4 bases deep, the legion 2. The game consisted of the legionaries trying to rout the inferior troops supporting the phalanx before the massed pikes broke the legion in front of them. More recently, DBX games see two ranks of pikes facing one rank of blades, basically the same situation. The legion has a longer line and tries to roll up the shorter pike army flanks before the pikes break though.

    I recently read Goldsworthy’s biography of Julius Caesar, which features numerous battles by the late Republican legions, precisely those who conquered the phalanx armies of Greece and Anatolia. The legions invariably formed up in three lines, 4 cohorts in the first line and 3 in each of the other two lines. The cohorts usually formed 4 ranks deep, sometimes 5 or 6. Pompey deployed his green infantry 10 deep against Caesar’s Gallic veterans at Pharsalus. The Roman army of this period relied on three waves of troops, while the phalanx army relied on the power of 16 ranks of pikemen in solid blocks.

    A Roman legion deployed in three lines, a total of at least 12 ranks deep (4 ranks in each line). This would make a line slightly longer than an opposing phalanx of the same strength, but not anywhere where near twice as long. The Roman formation should be nimbler than the pikes, but not markedly shallower and longer.

    I have not found a set of rules that rewards the Roman three lines. Most often seen is a single line with perhaps a smallish reserve behind, usually of cavalry. Those times I played rules other than Barker’s (WRG Ancients or DBM/DBA), Rome vs. phalanx armies weren’t available.

    While the roll up the flanks vs. the hammer blow in the center makes for an exciting game, I don’t see how this reprsents actual combats between these armies. The legionary line wasn’t half as deep and twice as long. It was 12 or more ranks against 16. The phalanx had more problems if it became disordered by combat or terrain, but that is different from the long line/deep formation issue.

    Perhaps some out there have played rules that handle this differently. Please enlighten me.

    It's never too late to have a happy childhood


    I have been coming to the conclusion that we actually know little about ancient warfare, based on too few sources and making too many assumptions. Ergo why I am moving my ancients to Glorantha. At least there I can make up what works.

    Your case is a classical example. We assume Republican Legions (triari, hastati, principes, velites) defeated the Phalanxes by using better ability to fight on broken ground (Essentially drilled thyeropohoroi), but if that is that case why did not hellenstic thyeroforoi do the same (And many were professionals)? Well they sometimes did, and sometimes did not. Which tells me that the battle was not decided by type of weapons or drill, but the broader contextual matter.

    One thing on your specific scenario. A phalanx probably could not remain in pikes level formation for long. This would be tiring for the men. So the Roman advantage of three lines might be exactly that they could outlast the phalanx that would tire first?

    Avatar photovtsaogames

    Hi Konstantinos, good to hear from you. Stay safe, my man. And your wife and child too.

    First, I think It was the cohort legion (post Marius) that defeated the phalanx, not the manipular legion. A minor point.

    Since we don’t now exactly what went on, we have to make assumptions. My assumption is that there were short clashes between formed bodies that tired the fighters out, both physically and mentally. Stabbing and hacking at people in close proximity is terrifying. I assume that both sides broke apart to catch their breath and recover their nerve from time, with the more combative picking up missiles to hurl, shouting taunts. There are accounts of officers being hit by missiles mid-battle. I assume it was during these pauses. A well drilled formation might be able to head to the rear in the intervals between the next line while this happened, allowing fresh troops to take up the next round of hand-to-hand combat. Anyway, that’s my view of what transpired. Your mileage may vary.

    Not about this, but Xenophon’s Anabasis notes that enemy troops would usually fade before contact with hoplites. Those few times they did not, the fighting was fierce, even if the enemy wasn’t as well armored.

    It's never too late to have a happy childhood


    We are doing well my friend. Hunkered down, online teaching, but also visited Greece so my parents could meet Zoe. Also applying for jobs

    The Palanxes defeated ın Pynda and Magnesıa were defeated by manipular legions. By the time of Ceasar many of the armies in the east were moving to imitation legionaries, and we are not sure if phalanx meant pikes.

    I agree with your image, but I am reading Armies and Enemies of the Dragon Pass, and the author Martin Helsdon pretty much bases it on historical antiquity. And it hit me when he noted that because of the size of the sarissa, chances are phalangites would get fatigued pretty quickly when pikes are level. My guess is the Roman system was better at relieving fatiqued troops than the phalanx. Essentially the phalanx got tired first, with the Romans not permitting them to change ranks (impossible to do with pikes leveled)  by being able to keep the pressure up. The evil beauty of this is the following. Because the Phalangites in open order would be no match to the Romans in melee (romans being superior thyeroforoi) , they would have to close order and level pikes to face the legions (this works with both manipular and marian). Which meant harder time refreshing comapred to the romans. I.e the romans did not outfight the phalanx, they outlasted it.


    If we accept the revisionist view on how hoplites fought (essentially as auxillia in DBA terms) then the rise of the Macedonia phalanx makes sense as a reaction to a) superior southern Greek hoplites that could outfight Macedonian ones in close combat b) Thracian infantry. It worked for Alex because he had combined arms and his opponents did not and their infantry was not drilled enough. But the Romans had numbers and training to stand up and outtire the phalanx.

    Avatar photovtsaogames

    I prefer that to outflanking it due to a longer line.

    It's never too late to have a happy childhood

    Avatar photowillb

    Polybius wrote a number of accounts of battles between the legion and the phalanx.   Pyrrhus, who faced the manipular legion, was victorious after a long hard fight with heavy losses.  Then there are the battles against Macedonia and the Seleucid Empire.   These all took place before the formal adoption of the cohort as the standard formation with everyone armed the same.   The Seleucids had their left flank routed, the phalanx surrounded and pelted with missiles until the elephants went mad and broke the square so no direct face to face combat.   At Pydna the phalanx pushed the legions back into rough ground that caused greater disorder to the phalanx.   The Romans had a more flexible formation.   Cynochephalae was a meeting engagement with both armies starting on opposite sides of a ridge.   Only half the phalanx was formed with the other half still arriving when combat was engaged.   Again the phalanx was pushing the legions back when an enterprising officer attacked the exposed center flank of the formed phalanx.

    So what does all this tell us?  From the front a formed phalanx could defeat a legion, though it would be a long hard fight.  However, it was more susceptible to rough terrain and disorder.  The extra lines of the legion allowed fresh troops to engage increasingly more tired phalangites.

    We have been using a set of rules from Hoplite Research called Scutarii that encourage the use of multiple lines for the Roman legions.   We had one club member who failed to do this moving the second line up to fight with the first and lost heavily.

    Below is a photo of Asculum with Pyrrhus on the right and the Romans on the left.   There are four Roman legions and four Latin Ala totaling about 40-45,000 men facing a similar number of Pyrrhus troops, Tarantines, and Latin allies.   Figures are 6mm, mostly Rapier Miniatures with some Baccus.  Game was from a convention.



    Scutarii sounds like it captures possible reality well. Good show!

    Avatar photoOB

    I think Willb has it about right on the historical record. It’s worth looking at how Mithridates phalanx fared too.

    Piquet Pulse of Battle caters for the Legion/ Pike match up quite well.  Just one Roman line replacement but it feels OK and could be extended.


Viewing 9 posts - 1 through 9 (of 9 total)
  • You must be logged in to reply to this topic.