This week’s experiment into ancient military formations ended up being much more experiential than it was experimental. The questions we were investigating, such as the learning curve for each formation and ease of tactics or holding positions, are quite subjective metrics to try to quantify and so we generally asked ourselves how we were feeling both in the moment and in a hypothetical battle scenario when faced with an opposing army.
Approximately 45 minutes of lab time was spent investigating the hoplite formation. In order to maintain focus and experimental integrity, we used trash can lids that were close in size and shape to the actual hoplite shields. We had a set of 5 of these shields (55cm in diameter) and a set of smaller shields that were not that size due to logistical issues with the supplier. In addition to this, we used 7 ft PVC pipes to approximate the spears that would have been held in the right hand, where the shields would go in the left (there were no left-handed people in the ancient world, as noted by Prof. Jake Morton). Though there was some confusion in how exactly to line up right at the start, such as how exactly we should overlap our shields or how the rows behind the frontline should move and interact with the frontline itself, we eventually got the formation going. We started off small, as we took small steps forward before moving onto turns, pivots and light jogs in formation. It turns out that being packed together so close acted as a great guide for when to stop and move in comparison to the people to your side and in front/behind you. The shields interlocked to the side were akin to a door stopper, where if you try to take a pace when interlocked with someone who had stopped, the shields would actually push into each other and stop you. This happened several times and was commented on by a few different members of the class.
Our brave hoplites
In terms of safety, the person on the frontlines to the far right was definitely the most unsafe. The reason for this was due to how the shields would sit on the body. The hoplite shields, in actuality and recreated with our materials, are designed to sit towards the left side of the body and actually leaves about half of the body uncovered. This is made up for by the person standing next to you having their shield cover the right side of your body. But the person standing farthest has no such protection, and is therefore the most vulnerable.
This sense of safety, even when not in that precarious position, varied from person to person. Some people found comfort in being surrounded by others whereas others found the formation to be extremely claustrophobic and offering very little chance of escape in the event that something went wrong. Having enacted a faux battle between two opposing hoplite armies, we were able to see firsthand that once these opposing lines got close enough to where the spears would poke past the frontline of the other line, it did indeed become a pushing match. This pushing match to hold the line came down to the fortitude of the frontline in addition to the pressure of all the subsequent lines bearing down on the frontline to try and break through the other line.
We also investigated strategies within the hoplite formation, such as the slant line and overload, where generals would weight one end of their line with more troops in an attempt to punch through an opposing line. Though effective in some cases, it seemed to be a risky gamble due to the possibility of the opposing force employing the same strategy.
The muscles most involved in this process were the upper shoulder that held the weight of the shield as well as the bicep that was keeping the arm straight when held in the straps of the shield. The zipties left marks in our skins from how much we were holding them, but the Greek leather straps depicted in their art and ceramics may not have caused such issues for them. By the end, it was the left shoulder that bore most of the weight, from the shield in specific and was the most sore at the end of the exercise. It should also be noted that the trash can lids were much lighter in weight than the bronze shields that the ancient Greeks used in hoplite warfare, and so this soreness must have been much greater than we had felt due to the difference in density and weight of material used in the shield’s construction.
The phalanx formation was much more spread out than the hoplite formation. Where we were originally right next to one another, we were now about three feet apart, with more space between each successive row as well. The spear length had also changed from 7 ft to 10 ft, and we could no longer hold them in one hand and so adopted a two hand grip towards one end of the time This meant that initially we felt much more exposed than in the hoplite formation, but once we set the spears down, it became apparent that this formation still offered a lot of protection since even at the frontlines there were at least five spears between you and the opposing force. The increased range of the spears also lent a sense of safety since there was a ten foot spear keeping anyone in front of you away. Due to both time and logistical constraints, we were not able to construct the shield worn by phalanx soldiers but had we had access to those shields we likely would have felt even more protected than we were.
The phalanx formation presented more issues than the hoplite formation in terms of running the training drills. We used a similar routine of exercises in formation as earlier, starting with a simple forward walk before moving into turning about a pivot and moving faster. The main struggle was in maintaining the appropriate spacing between troops and holding the spears steady as we moved around. It improved over time, but there was a sense that there was much more we could have done to make our formation better and that there was more refinement to be made in how we moved as one.
In accordance with the Polybius readings we were assigned, we did experiments into putting the phalanx in unfavorable conditions. The first was moving past an obstacle, where we decided to split in half which made it so that the left side of either split formation was basically entirely exposed without much protection. The other unfavorable condition was uneven ground, where we attempted to move over a small hill in the Mini Bald-Spot. This resulted in a ruination of the precise spacing we were trying to maintain as the formation collapsed inwards to fit through the space available.
Additionally, we put the phalanx formation against the hoplite formation and it became apparent why one replaced the other. When done according to the hoplite method of warfare where one force simply rushed at the other, the phalanx appeared to hold every advantage in terms of reach and range to keep the hoplites at range while still being able to break their line.
Towards the end of the lab, we (under the watchful eye of our Alexander the Great stand-in, Prof. Jake Morton) recreated the training exercise of the Macedonian army when they were stranded in a valley in Afghanistan and used their disciplined training routine, done in complete silence, to intimidate the locals into simply letting them go. We alternated between dropping and raising our spears to moving and turning with our spears in either position. We needed a brief pause in order to readjust due to some confusion in our lines and spacing as we turned. Despite these hiccups, we felt as though we were able to reasonably approximate (albeit with far less discipline) what the Macedonian army was able to accomplish in that valley, but gained a deeper appreciation of just how difficult that training and maintenance of discipline is within a phalanx formation.
In terms of formation, the Roman formation was the most spread out where each individual stood a whole six feet apart from each other. The shield shape was radically different, made of an actual garbage can that was split in half to form a curved half cylinder that wrapped around the body. Our weapons were now three feet swords as opposed to spears, and were used in a forward stabbing motion. This extra space allowed for a maneuver that was not possible in either of the other formations, replacing the frontline with new soldiers in a way that did not require the death of said frontline soldier. By utilizing the extra space, the frontline soldiers had an effective escape where they could move into the additional space backwards while the soldier in the row behind them stepped forward to take their place.
Discipline became even more important since it was even harder to maintain consistent spacing while performing movement exercises due to the increased space. The benefit of this spacing, in addition to the more mobile equipment, was that navigating obstacles that had presented such an issue to a phalanx formation became trivial as the splits in formation did not compromise the overall structural integrity of either the individual soldier or the formation.
Surprisingly, there was not an obvious winner when it came time to test the formation against the phalanx. If anything, the phalanx seemed to win out simply due to the range of the spears and their capability to penetrate shields. However, applying a tactic of sending in shock troops to overload and break a specific point in the line and then flooding that break with many more troops to then deal with the interior lines, who were left quite defenseless due to their inability to turn, proved to be quite effective at eviscerating the phalanx.
Tortoise formation (pictured above)