This week’s lab was very much focused on the experiential side of things, as we were trying to asses the battle formations of the hoplite, the phalanx and the maniple in three very qualitative metrics: the time needed to learn the basic functions within the formation, the feeling of safety within the formation, and whether each formation was self-evidently superior to the formation that came before.
This formation, the earliest among the ones that we recreated, is characterized by rows of interlocked shields and 7 foot spears. For our recreation we used shields made out of garbage can lids and 7-foot lengths of PVC pipe for our spears. We only had 12 shields because of shipping delays.
Learning the basic movements of the hoplites was fairly straightforward and we were all able to pick it up quickly. Moving in formation was made very easy because of how tightly packed we were and how our shields were interlocked, all of which contributed to severely limiting our individual freedom of movement and forcing us to move as a single unit. There were a couple things that stood out to me as we were executing various maneuvers. First, and this was consistent across all of the formations, turning proved to be much more difficult than moving in a straight line. The person leading the turn would often misjudge their path which would lead to the formation becoming spread out along its width. Additionally, it always seemed to be that when turning everyone would end up misjudging their own speed, resulting in a warping of the formation throughout the turn, though this would be ironed out by the time the turn was complete as people would readjust themselves back into position.
The hoplite formation got its sense of safety in two different ways. In the front row the feeling of safety was much more than we expected, and was entirely produced by the shields covering up most of our body, as well as the people behind us giving support by their close proximity. However, the feeling of safety in the back rows was much greater as there was at least one row of people in front of you. The sides, however, felt significantly more dangerous, especially the front right corner, being in both the front row, and the right side, which was not protected by someone else’s shield.
This style of fighting seemed like it would be clearly superior to a loosely packed army with individual wicker shields, and would certainly be very intimidating to face in battle, potentially creating routs that would not otherwise have occurred.
This formation–what replaced the hoplites in ancient greece, and then spread to much of the rest of the world–is characterized by 5 rows of spears extending beyond the front rank, creating a multi-layered “porcupine” that enemies would have to make their way through before reaching a person in the front row. For our recreation we used 15ft PVC pipes for spears.
The basic movements in the phalanx were much harder than what we were doing in the hoplite formation. This was due to the long length of the spears extending both in front and behind us and the greater space between each of us–instead of being shoulder to shoulder, we were spaced so there were three feet between the center of each of us. This resulted in us, when we were just moving forward, to tend to scrunch together. This also may have been us adjusting from the hoplite fighting style. Even with this consolidation in straight line movement, we still found ourselves spreading out in turns. Additionally, while turning I often noticed that the rear corner furthest away from the pivot would lag behind the rest of the group because they had the largest radius to cover. I think this might have made it impractical for larger formations to turn without each individual person turning in one spot, which could only be done with the spears raised. Overall, however, this formation seemed more mobile than the hoplites because there was just more space between people.
For feeling of safety, we mostly felt that the phalanx was a step up in safety from the hoplite. The feeling of having people between you and the enemy was still there, but the front row felt more safe than the one of hoplites because the long spears created a lot of distance to the enemy. The trade-off of this was, however, that the sides felt much more exposed because there were no shields to protect yourself and the long spears would prevent you from turning to meet anyone coming from the side.
This was a clear step up from the hoplite formation. When we had half of our group form up in each style and approach each other, we could clearly feel the phalanx’s superiority.
The Roman Maniple, which beat the phalanx handedly, was the final formation we tried. For our recreation we used half a garbage can (cut vertically) as our shield, and a 3 foot PVC pipe as our sword.
Learning to move as a unit was much harder for the maniple than anything else we had tried. Because of the large distance between people it was harder to gauge the place you were supposed to be, however, maintaining that spacing was necessary because the 6ft per person was more or less the minimum space required to enable someone to rotate from the front to the back. The rotations themselves were fairly easy to execute with a clear command, however it did take some practice to get the backpedal correct so as not to expose your back to the enemy.
The safety of this formation came both in the curved shield, which almost felt like it was hugging you, and the rotations that we did, which produced a lot of forward momentum, even when we were not advancing. Additionally, there were not glaring spots that felt especially unsafe because everyone had autonomy to turn and face a threat.
While it was not as clear that this was superior to the phalanx as the phalanx was to the hoplites, there were several areas where the maniple excelled. Where this was most apparent was when moving over rough terrain. Because there was 6ft between people and each person was better individually protected, it was much easier–and felt much safer–moving around obstacles and over rough terrain.