LEGION VERSUS PHALANX: The Epic Struggle for Infantry Supremacy in the Ancient World

Myke Cole

Osprey (2018) h/b 288pp £20.00 (ISBN 9781472828422)

‘So you’ll notice that this book is targeting the uninitiated. If I did my job right, a person who knows nothing about ancient history should be able to pick it up and first and foremost enjoy it, with the second order effect of maybe learning something.’ Thus C. in his preface, and he sets about exciting our interest with detailed coverage of six battles, from 280 to 168 BC. It is also important to note C.’s background, and the experience he brings to this task. He is a military man with battlefield experience, has worked in intelligence, crisis response and policing. He is also a military historian who has published in the science fiction and fantasy genres, and is a veteran of reality T.V. So assuming the first ninety pages of dispositions, tactics, armour and weapons are accepted, what does he bring to the text we might not expect elsewhere? It is, thankfully, what he knows best, and can imagine, as a result of his own experience—what it must mean to be serving in a phalanx, and how this differs from the experience of a legionary.

 In the first case you are at your best as a defensive formation—you present to the enemy what appears to be an impenetrable forest of blades. You are in tight formation, so it is difficult for the enemy to break in. On the other hand, movement, even measured forward movement, is difficult if you want to maintain the formation, difficult on uneven ground, and difficult if you are to march over comrades brought down by enemy pilum fire. But maintain formation you must, because any break could present open house to the enemy. Similarly, the flanks are exposed, so that the line needs to extend beyond that of the facing legion. If not, how does the phalanx respond to a flanking attack? Turn aside, and the front line offers ways in. And how, in such a tight formation, are orders given and received? On the other hand, the legionary has much more space to operate in (about twice that of the phalangite), and has the capacity for missile and hand-to-hand warfare. Maniples, being generally smaller, are more easily commanded and can change tactics much more quickly, whilst the off-set, chequerboard formation makes flanks easier to defend.

C. is particularly strong on the personal experience of the soldier. How the terrifying wait for battle is relieved, if anything, by the opening of hostilities; the deadening weight and sheer awkwardness of manipulating a twenty foot pike; the temptation to rest it on your shield, itself wedged against something you hope will take the weight; the fear of losing the pike and being forced to rely on your sword against a more expert fencer, in a formation that seriously inhibits your movement; being on horseback and facing an elephant charge; but perhaps most of all, facing an army that had been wiped out at Cannae, but still comes back at you, again and again.

The legion, of course, won out over the Hellenistic phalanx, but the daily experience of the legionary or phalangite had much in common—elated by victory and a good day’s looting, or covering the ground with a pack of 40 plus badly distributed pounds, exhausted, under threat in a distant land and worrying about what’s going on at home. C. knows more about this than most of us and brings it vividly to life. 

There are what look like editing gaffes—‘in the mid-4th century BC Rome became a republic’, or the date of 275 BC on the diagram of Cynoscephalae, but that aside, this book will appeal to C.’s target audience of war gamers, reenactors, fantasy fans and anyone who would be turned on by the film 300 or even by ancient history, given the exposure. If there is such a one near you, drop a copy into the Christmas stocking.

Adrian Spooner

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