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PHALANX VERSUS LEGION Analysis of the Greco-Roman conflict in the Hellenistic era


The conflict between the Greeks and the Romans in the Hellenistic period brought in conflict not only two people but also two different approaches to warfare. To understand the nature of this conflict, we must study the military system of each side separately.

The Greek approach

In the Aegean basin regular armies have appeared from the Bronze Age. The infantry fought in close order and used long spears. The collapse of the Palace Societies brought up a chaotic way of battle, where the well trained heavily armored aristocrats dominated. The nearly cataphract lord, after neutralizing the best enemy fighters, led his followers in the obliteration of the less well armed and trained enemy units. By the time of Homer, the deep formation that checked effectively the enemy rush reappeared. (1) According to Herodotus, the Argive king Pheidon transformed the deep spearmen-formation into an offensive weapon. The mass of spearmen repulsed and crushed the thinner enemy formations. The attempts of raising the number of heavily armed infantrymen, who must buy their own equipment was one of the reasons of the introduction of the democratic rule in the Greek city-states.

The effectiveness of the hoplite phalanx was demonstrated during the Persian Wars, where it literally preserved with its success the Western Civilization. The martial philosophy of the East was the crushing of the enemy from heavy cavalry units, after “soften him up” by infantry archers. The battle of Marathon proved that the lightly armored infantry of the East could not face up to hoplites in the open field. Modern experiments proved that the arrows of the era could not penetrate the 15 layers of cloth composing the Greek armor; much less the metal armors. As long as the hoplites were in locked shields formation, it was almost impossible to be neutralized by archers. The battle of Platea proved that not even the mounted aristocratic warriors could break infantry that could maintain its cohesion. During the Peloponnesian War the hoplites moral and their training were the factors determining the outcome of battles. The Spartans dominated this type of battle, but their defeat at Sfacteria proved that a good general and the correct usage of light troops could neutralize the phalanx. The only modernism was the use by the Beotians of the deep ranks formations for gaining of local superiority. The method was called  “oblique” phalanx and it is attributed to the Theban general Epameinondas, although Thukidides considers as first user the Beotarch Pagondas at Delion. The revolution in tactics came from Philip II king of Macedonia. Philip, who once lived as a hostage in Thebes, noticed that only the first two ranks were engaged in the “oblique column”. The rest of the hoplites simply aided in the application of pressure upon the enemy column. Philip doubled the length of the column and called it “sarisa”. This had as a result the shifting of the gravity center and the need to use both arms while handling the weapon. The shield became smaller and it was now hanging with a leather stripe from the shoulder, not essential anymore in pushing and shoving the enemy. In contrast though to the hoplite phalanx, the first five ranks could engage the enemy. This gave local superiority five vs. two in evenly file of opposing fighters. The new formation showed its teeth crushing the Phokian army in Thessaly and the only time that faced problems was when the Phokians beat the phalanx using their catapults as field artillery. (2) Phillip and Alexander realized the limitations of the new formation and developed other troop types like cavalry and light infantry. Alexander covered the phalanx flanks with light infantry especially in areas where terrain was unsuitable for solid formations. Alexander used the phalanx to pin the enemy down and forced victory by using his cavalry.

Realistic scene of Macedonian phalanx from O.Stone’s «Alexander». Source:

Contact with the Indians introduced a new weapon, the war elephant. The elephants terrorized men and horses but proved no match for light infantry. The eastern Hellenistic kingdomspreferred to spend their money on elephants and cavalry and neglected the infantry. The phalanx was kept because of its low maintenance cost and the ease of training the troopers. This attitude was destined to have consequences in the future. Plutarch in “life of Flamininos” describes the phalangites of the Seleucids as timid Syrians who bear Macedonian weapons. The only innovation of the Hellenistic period was the “Thyreophoroi”. They were peltasts carrying an elliptic or rectangular shield called “Thyreos”. By the second century B.C. they bore armor and they were called “Thorakitae”.

The Roman approach

At the end of 6th century B.C. the Romans experienced the effectiveness of the phalanx when their Cymean allies helped them to beat the Etruscans. The Romans swiftly adopted the Greek way of battle. But, in 390 B.C., their badly led and inadequately trained phalanx was crushed by the ferocious Celtic warbands by the river Allia. (3) According to Plutarch Camillus is considered the reformer of the Roman armybut probably the reforms were a product of many years slow evolution. Descriptions of the Roman army of the era come from Polyvius. (4) The Romans abandoned the rigid spearmen formations for the more flexible manipular system and gave priority to the individual soldier’s ability to cope in the battlefield. They obliged every citizen less than 46 years of age and income above four hundred drachmae in ten years of service in the cavalry or sixteen years in the infantry. Responsible to enforce this, were the censors and the tribunes. No one was allowed to run for public office until he had first serve in at least twelve campaigns. The fact that none could advance without first had seen action was producing good leaders of proven value.

Roman hastatus Source:

The legion of the Hellenistic erahad in its strength about 4000 infantrymen and 300 horsemen and was a combined arms unit, namely light infantry, heavy infantry and cavalry. The light infantrymen (velites) were armed with javelins and daggers. They wore animal skins to be recognized and their protection was around shield with a metal boss in the center. The men of the heavy infantry were divided in two subcategories: the hastati and the principes. The first wore helmet and carried a rectangular shield that covered a large part of the body and were armed with the “Spanish sword” and two heavy javelins. Their only armor was a square plaque on the chest, suspended with leather stripes. The principes were armed like the hastati but they additionally wore full chain mail (lorica hamata). Lastly the older and most experienced were called triarii and were armed with spears instead of javelins. Six hundred triarii were posted in each legion.

Roman princeps. Source:

The heavy infantry javelin was called pilum and was composed from a heavy wooden shaft and had a very thin iron point. The point bent on impact and many times was hooked on the shields. It was very difficult to be removed during the fight wand made the enemy vulnerable to the legionaries that charged with their swords. The sword was carried in front the right thigh and the legionary could use both the point and the edge. Additionally, the hastati, the principes and the triarii wore bronze helmets decorated with feathers that made them look taller and more terrifying to the enemy. Τhe Roman cavalry initially, was a type of fast moving infantry. Other missions included scouting and raiding. Patrolling and sentry checks at night, was also responsibility of the cavalry. Gradually the mounted arm was transformed into heavy cavalry with the addition of armor and light shields like the Greek cavalry. Usually the Romans recruited good cavalry from their allies, as they did not excel in this type of service.

Roman skirmiser (Veles). Source:

The Romans also took very seriously safety during the night. If any sentry was found negligent, he was executed in the morning. They never pitched tents before they fortified their camp. Each soldier carried two wooden stakes and entrenching tools to make a ditch. This allowed them to fortify their camp wherever it was positioned in contrast to the Greeks who tried to find a naturally strong position and fenced the perimeter loosely with fallen tree logs-if they found them. The organization of the Roman camps always the same so every soldier to know his place and the position of his superiors, wherever he is, even if he was transferred in another formation. The Romans made sure that the system of discipline and camp regulations was enforced to their allies too.

Roman triarius. Source:

The tactic of the Romans was to cover the flanks of heavy infantry with cavalry and skirmishers.  The infantry was the main offensive weapon. The hastati entered the battle first. They cast their pila and then charged with their swords. If they fail to drive off the enemy, the principes engaged in their turn and fought in the same manner. If the battle did not turn well they retreated covered by the triarii spearmen. This prevented the general root that ended in disaster in case of a defeat.

The Conflict

Αs we saw previously the approaches of the Greeks and the Romans towards war differed substantially. The Greeks, accustomed from fighting between them concluded the outcome of a war with one or two decisive battles. If they couldn’t conquer they capitulated only to fight again later in more favourable conditions. Their experience was derived from the Persian Wars and Alexander’s conquests where everything was decided in three at the most battles in every case. On the contrary, the Romans were struggling to grab arable land from their neighbors and fought to annihilate their opponent so that he wouldn’t challenge them in the future. Their aim was to impose their own peace terms. Their political system was exceptionally stable for the time and allowed them to fight their enemies without internal policy distractions. The star of Rome rise when in its neighbours was only darkness and chaos because of the political instability. The constant civil wars had sapped the strength of Hellenism. The majority of the populations were bankrupt landless masses upon which tyrants had forced themselves with the aid of mercenaries. The landless citizens either revolted creating an almost permanent source of unrest or seek their fortune in the armies of the Hellenistic Empires leaving mainland Greece bereft of men. In the Italiotic colonies, the citizens had abandoned their military duties and relied on mercenaries for their defence. They considered the mainland Greeks as simple peasants who paid them to take the war risks but they also suspected them as potential tyrants. The treatment of Pyrrhus by the Tarentines is a typical example. (6)

King Pyrrhus of Epeiros

Rivers of ink have been used to explain the superiority of the legion versus the phalanx. The scholars “barricade themselves” behind Polyvius analysis (5) that it was written mainly for his Roman readers and miss many details. The pila by themselves, failed to break the phalanx. Modern research has shown that only Olympic class athletes with modern made javelins could easily penetrate armour. The reconstructed pila yielded poor results. Furthermore, the conflict between phalangites and legionaries was just apart if the whole conflict and did not by itself determined the outcome of the battle. The frontage of the legion, because of the javelin use had greater width that of the phalanx. That meant that the Greek light troops faced armoured legionaries and naturally retreated exposing the phalanx. This fact was many times the deciding factor in the battles, as the analysis will show. The conflict between Pyrrhus and the Romans at Herakleia is the first time that the two different systems of waging war come into collision. It seems that the phalanx of Pyrrhus held the legionaries initially on the river Siris. (7) Pyrrhus could not interfere as he was attacked but an Italian horseman and nearly got him killed. His idea to change attire with one of his officers nearly cost him the battle when his subordinate was killed. (8) In the meantime the Romans probably inflict heavy casualties to the light troops that probably composed Pyrrhus flanks and only the intervention of the elephants turned the tide in his favor. (9) The Romans, thanks to the triarii spearmen manage to retreat in an orderly manner and avoid annihilation. That battle proved if nothing else that the legion was not defeated easily and that the phalanx had difficulties with water obstacles but it also proved that the legion could not penetrate the front of the phalanx. If Pyrrhus believed that the Romans would bow to his demands, the stance of the herald Favrikius, which reflected the Roman spirit of the Era, dispelled his illusions. The Romans do not accept doubt about their military prowess. Favrikius warns Pyrros about the conspiracy of his doctor Nicias against him so that anyone can see and especially the allies that the Romans could vanquish him in combat. (10) Pyrrhus overestimating his strength and in his haste to advance and speedily beat the Romans He faced them at Asculum. Plutarch describes the battlefield as unsuitable and mentions the battle as a two-day conflict. (11) But Dionysios of Alikarnassos gives us more details and describes it as a one-day event. (12) The unsuitability of the ground presented problems for the phalanx. Pyrrhus neutralized the “anti-elephant” wagons of the Romans but they concentrated their efforts against his unwilling allies. They kept Pyrrhus cavalry occupied at the flanks of the formation and gave time to their infantry to attempt to gain the upper hand. Again the legionaries could not break the front of the phalanx but the phalanx suffered from flank attacks. Pyrrhus since he could not overpower the Roman flanks was entangled in a fight of attrition in the centre and only the intervention of the elephants and the reserves stabilized the situation albeit with heavy Greek losses.  The loss of also of the Greek camp increased the casualties, as the wounded could not be properly treated from the loss of supplies.

The Romans lost the battle but they had learned their lesson and proved it a bit later at Beneventum where they chose the ground. It is true that Pyrrhus had suffered losses from his conflict with the Carthaginians at Sicily and the losses suffered by his fleet affected a number of his units (13) but it seems that his scouts were not up to the task since they let him to fight in such unfavorable ground. The Romans exploited the maneuverability of their formation and put pressure on the phalanx flanks. They also forced the elephants of Pyrrhus who were left unsupported to fall on Greek units. The value of the flexible formations had been proven. If they couldn’t break the phalanx front they could fight it in favorable ground. It was now clear that the Greeks had no generals of the caliber of Philip II or Alexander the Great. After the neutralization of Carthage, the Romans were ready to expand. Rome posed as a democracy that would aid the Greeks in their struggle against the autocratic despots of Macedonia and the Hellenistic empires.  The contribution of Rome’s Greek allies in the roman successes is usually ignored. Philip V had correctly predicted that the Romans with the aid of the Aetolians would attempt to invade from the west following the rout of the Apsos valley. Here we have a tragic repetition of Thermopylae. The Roman alliance started facing difficulties as the terrain was favoring the defenders. But the anti-Macedonian fraction of Epirus sent a guide to Flamininus that helped him surround and neutralize the defenders of the pass. (14) The Archaic spirit of unity against the barbarian was dead. The Romans with the Aetolian cavalry invaded Thessaly and Philip attempted to stop them in the place called “Kynos Kefalae”. Again the phalanx overpowered the front of the legion. But when the Aetolians charged on the Macedonian flank, the phalanx was crushed. Livy believes that the phalanx was in no danger from the legion in a frontal clash and mentions the example of Atrax where the phalangites repulsed the legionaries, despite their numerical disparity since they had their flanks covered. (15) But Livy stresses the poor performance of the Greek light troops and the insufficient fortification of the Greek camps. (16) Poor camp security was the reason of the Roman victory at Thermopylae in 191 B.C.  The nightly Roman attack surprised the Aetolians, who guarded the Annopea Pass. But it is almost certain that sentries were negligent resulting in the annihilation of the garrison and the breach of the pass. Similar case of poor security that lead to breaching a pass we see in the war against Perseus in 168 B.C. when the Romans destroyed the army of Milo. (17)

Pydna. Copyright Johhny Schumate

Plutarch presents Perseus, with “black colors” in life of Aemilius Paullus. Truth is that he was worried about the legitimacy of his success and in order to become agreeable to the Greek people he abandoned the traditional philo-oligarchic policy of his father and supports the popular or “populist” to some demands of the majority. Polyvios and Plutarch consider him perhaps with some justifications as a demagogue and not a king. The information about Perseus actions in Pydna is contradictory. They all agree though, that the Macedonian army was poorly led at that time. The legionaries initially had a hard time with the pikes, but Paullus had probably learned well from Alexander the Great. He checked the phalanx in the center and when he realized that he couldn’t break its front he put pressure on the flanks especially to the point where the elephants of the Aetolians fought. The elephants beat the cavalry of Perseus and exposed the flank of the phalanx. Some officer Sallius led his men in the gap and outflanked the Macedonians. (18) The way for conquering the rest of Greece was now open. No effort for the creation of an anti Roman front was made. They leaders of Greece were on only interested in brutally exploiting the citizens as it appears in Polybius accounts. (19) Greece in 146 B.C. collapsed in the midst of conflicting interests and opportunism. The generals of the Achaean League recruited slaves into the ranks because of manpower shortages. It is rather unlikely that they had organized phalanx and if they did, the men were inadequately trained and equipped. The last Greek armies were nothing more than armed mobs that wanted only to loot and not fight the Romans. (20) The crushing of the generals Critolaos and Dieos from the legions is hardly a surprise. The triumph of Rome, as mentioned before it was more the result of the ability of its commanders and the stability of its political system and not the superiority of the legion versus the phalanx. The Roman commanders learned from their mistakes and adapted their tactics so as to neutralize the advantages of the Greek armies. The Roman army was led by officers and not by demagogues. On the contrary, the Greeks could not rise above fraction politics and came to the point of becoming allies of the Romans in order to exterminate their opponents.


1. Homer HILIAD 22 131-133, 145-150

2. Polyenos 2 38, 2

3. Plutarch Camillus 18, 19 Loeb Classical Library1920

4. Polyvios “Military Institutions of the Romans” The Library of Original Sources, Oliver J. Thatcher 1901), pp. 172-186

5. Polyvios Vol. 2, translated by Evelyn S. Shuckburgh (London: Macmillan, 1889), pp. 226-230.

6. Plutarch Pyrros 13 2-6 Loeb Classical Library1920

7. Dionysios of Alikarnassos19 11.1-12.6 Loeb Classical Library 1950

8. Plutarch Pyrros 16.6 –18.2 Loeb Classical Library1920

9. Frontinus “Stratagems” 2 4.9 J. M. Dent & Sons, Ltd., London, 1905

10. Plutarch Pyrros 21 7-15 Loeb Classical Library1920 Dionysios of Alikarnassos19 11.1- 12.6 Loeb Classical Library 1950

11. Plutarch Pyrros 20 1-10 and 21. 1-6 Loeb Classical Library1920 Livy Roman history13.a 13b 13c  J. M. Dent & Sons, Ltd., London, 1905

12. Dionysios of Alikarnassos 20 1 1-37 Loeb Classical Library1950

13. Plutarch Pyrros 23.7- 24.8 Loeb Classical Library1920 Polyvios 1.23.4 translated by Evelyn S. Shuckburgh London: Macmillan, 1889

14. Plutarch Τίτος Φλαμινίνος 4.4 – 5.2 Loeb Classical Library1920 Livy Roman history 32 11.1 – 12.1   J. M. Dent & Sons, Ltd., London, 1905

15. Livy Roman history 32 17.4 – 18.9   J. M. Dent & Sons, Ltd., London, 1905

16. Livy Roman history 36.17.1   J. M. Dent & Sons, Ltd., London, 1905

17. Plutarch Paullus16 Loeb Classical Library1920 Dio Cassius19 τομ.2 Loeb Classical Library1914 pp. 313

18. Plutarch Paullus23.8 36.4 Loeb Classical Library1920

19. Polyvios 20.4-6 38.1 translated by Evelyn S. Shuckburgh London: Macmillan, 1889

20. Polyvios 36.17, 38.15-16 39.8 translated by Evelyn S. Shuckburgh London: Macmillan, 1889 Pausanias “Description of Greece”7.16.3 translated by John Dreyden London: Macmillan, 1889

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