Lab Summary Week 8: Tactics


This week in Experimental Archaeology, we learned about ancient Greek and Roman military tactics by recreating ancient battle equipment and army formations on the Mini Bald Spot. Before lab, we read about the different tactics of the Greek hoplites, Greek phalanxes, and Roman maniples. In a hoplite, soldiers stood close together with interlocking shields and approximately 7-foot spears. This technology helped the Greeks to win their battle against the Persians and kept them from being conquered by the Persian Empire. However, the hoplite was soon replaced by the phalanx, as Philip II of Macedon decided to double the length of the spears to make them 15-foot sarissas and rely on individual shields instead. This formation was quite menacing and was able to win many battles through intimidation alone. Unfortunately, the phalanx was very vulnerable to uneven ground, obstacles, and attacks from the rear, and eventually, these weaknesses led to the Roman maniple taking over. The Roman maniple was a military formation consisting of many individual units of men all with their own curved shields and 3-foot swords. Due to the self-sufficiency of these soldiers, and their ability to strategize and move around with ease (unlike the hoplite and phalanx), the maniple ultimately became the most popular and successful military technology of its time.

During our lab, we used plastic garbage bins and lids and PVC pipe to act as our shields and spears. Throughout the course of 2.5 hours, we learned how to move together as a hoplite, a phalanx, and a maniple. The purpose of this lab was to answer three research questions: 

  • How fast was the learning curve of each technology? 
  • How does your personal feeling of safety differ between the three techniques? 
  • Why did each formation replace the other? 


Our procedure for this lab actually began the day before our battle recreation, as we worked on making Roman maniple shields out of plastic garbage bins. Each of the six lab groups cut a bin in half and then cut a semi-circular handle into each half of the bin. Each group also cut out the bottom of the bin so that it would curve more easily around the person holding it as a shield. The hoplite shields and the PVC spears and swords were already prepared by a previous class.

Our Roman maniple shields

On the day of the lab, we gathered all of the materials outside and went over the three research questions above. We began by organizing ourselves into a hoplite with 4 rows of 6 people. The front two rows had interlocking shields and 7-foot spears while the back two rows just had spears. After learning how to move together in this technique, we switched to the phalanx. Each person connected a 5-foot PVC pipe with a 10-foot PVC pipe to recreate Philip II of Macedon’s infamous sarissa. No one held a shield in the phalanx formation, but everyone learned how to move with a 15-foot spear in hand. For this formation, we stood in 5 rows of 5 people and learned how to move ourselves and our spears in unison. We then moved on to learning the formation of the Roman maniple, for which we stood in 3 rows of 8 people. The front two rows held shields (as depicted above) and 3-foot swords, and the back row just held the 3-foot swords. We learned how to move as a unit and to rotate each row to the front on command. We also learned how to position ourselves in the Testudo or “tortoiseshell” formation used by Roman soldiers in siege warfare. 


Our data from this lab was mainly qualitative as there was very little we could actually measure from this experience. One member from each of the six lab groups gathered data on the three military technologies. The data is compiled as follows:



This formation is characterized by rows of soldiers standing with interlocking shields in one arm and 7-foot spears in the other. Our materials included garbage can lids as shields and 7-foot PVC pipes as the spears. Due to shipping delays, we only had 6 shields that were true to size at 55 cm in diameter, and 6 that were slightly smaller. Zip ties were used to make the handles on each of the shields, attached in the center and far right to enable the person to hold the shield with their left elbow and hand. 

When holding the shield, you hold it in your left arm—slightly offset–so that the right half of it is covering the left side of your body. The person to the right of you will then cover the right side of your body with the left half of their shield. The repetition of this stance is crucial to the hoplite formation. Our formation was 6 people across, and 4 rows deep, with the first 2 rows of people holding shields. 


The basic movements of soldiers in the hoplite formation are simple, and they were easy to pick up on. Walking in a straight line came easily to us, and it was not hard to stay in formation while moving because the interlocked shields forced us to stay in a tightly packed group. Attempting to pivot and turn as a group was more difficult. The person leading the turn would often overestimate and the line would spread out significantly. In this formation more than the others, it was more common that the rows reassembled by the time we had fully completed a turn. We returned to this formation multiple times throughout the lab and as we did, the turning got much easier and more efficient. 


This formation provided a strong sense of safety for almost everyone involved. For the soldiers in the front row, a feeling of safety was provided by the large shields covering almost the entirety of our bodies, as well as being supported by the people directly behind us. Everyone had at least two people in close proximity to them, so that provided a strong sense of security in general, although it made it so that no one could turn and run if they decided to give up. The least secure places to stand were the sides due to the exposure to the side of one’s body. Particularly, the person in the front row and on the right end was the least safe. They have a shield, but it is only covering the left side of their body, so the right side of their body is completely exposed when facing the enemy. 


We briefly lined up two hoplite armies against each other, each consisting of 2 rows of 6 people, with the people in the front row holding the shields and interlocking them. When we eventually made contact with the other army, it quickly just became a game of who can push each other the hardest with the force of all the bodies behind them. It did not seem incredibly strategic, although it was effective. 


We briefly discussed hoplite strategies, including the slant line and overload. A slant line is where one line of hoplites comes at the other at an angle so that they can punch through the opposing line. This proved to be an effective strategy, but only when the opposition did not also employ the same one. It is important to note that it was impossible for a hoplite to change strategies in the middle of a battle, as the generals would have been fighting in the front lines as well, so all of the strategies had to be decided upon before the battle began. 


A charging phalanx


The phalanx formation is what ultimately usurped the hoplite formation and spread to much of the ancient world. It is characterized by numerous rows of soldiers, each with a lengthy spear called a sarissa. The idea is that this created a multi-layered “porcupine” and the abundance of spears easily protects the soldiers. 

For our lab, we used 10-foot PVC pipes and 5-foot PVC pipes that were attached using a plastic connector to make a pipe just over 15 feet in length. We had 5 rows of 5 soldiers. In the real world formation, this would have been a 16 by 16 square. Additionally, in the real-world formation, each soldier would have had their own individual shield hanging over their shoulder covering their body. 


Moving as one large unit proved to be much more difficult in this formation than in the hoplite formation. There were approximately 3 feet of distance between any given person and the people around them, so it made it harder to move without condensing or stretching that distance at least a little bit. When we walked in a straight line, each person had a tendency to get closer to those around them, so our formation would ultimately shrink. Though our spacing would shift slightly, it was easy to naturally spread ourselves out again and our movements became streamlined. Eventually, we were even able to run in this formation. Still, uneven terrain is a weakness in this formation. We attempted to walk over a hill and many of the people in the formation were stabbed by the spears coming from behind them. Overall, basic movements in this formation were not hard to learn, but they would take a while to completely master. 

When we would pivot and turn, the person in the rear corner opposite the pivot would often lag behind everyone else because they had the longest distance to cover. Walking in an arc in order to turn was almost impossible, but when everyone would raise their spears in unison, turn, and put them back down again it was quite efficient. 

Most people were quite clumsy with their spears. This could be due to many factors: how flimsy the PVC was, how easily the connector would fall off, or just how long and lanky they were. No matter what the reason was, people were very commonly poking and hitting each other with the spears on accident. With more practice, spear coordination would become a lot more streamlined and effective. We were already much better at raising and lowering the spears by the end of the lab than we were at the beginning. 


The phalanx was a slight step up from the hoplite in terms of feeling safe and secure. The long spears created significant distance between you and the enemy, and everyone was still surrounded by supports. The only trade-off was those on the sides could not easily turn due to the lanky nature of the spears, and they would be much more vulnerable to attacks from the side or rear. 


When we faced the hoplite formation against the phalanx formation, it was incredibly clear that phalanx was the dominant tactic. The lengthy spears created considerable distance and the hoplite soldiers were not able to get remotely close to the phalanx soldiers without getting stabbed.

Roman Maniple

The Roman maniple testudo formation in action


The main characteristic that differentiates the Roman maniple formation from the two previous formations is the size and shape of the shield. The maniple shield is much larger than the hoplite shield, and it is curved to fit around the shape of one’s body. The soldier holds the shield directly in front of their body using their left hand and holds a short sword in their right hand.

For our recreation, we cut plastic garbage cans in half vertically and used them as shields, then used a 3-foot PVC pipe as a sword. We ended up with 12 shields for 24 students, so we rotated usage quite often. 


Moving as a unit in this formation was significantly harder than in either of the former two formations. We were spaced significantly further apart from one another (about 6 feet apart in each row and 3 feet apart in each column), so it was very easy to expand and/or contract while walking. 

The actual battle movement in this formation is a significant part of why this formation was so successful. In each column of soldiers, the front person would be repeatedly stabbing and fighting whoever was approaching them until they got tired, and then they would turn and backpedal to the back of the line so that they could have a break. Then, the next soldier would step up and take over on the front line. This rotation was fairly simple to learn and execute, and we became quite efficient at it very quickly. 


Most of the safety of this formation was provided by the unique curvature of the shield. It is quite big and hugs the body very effectively. There were no glaring weak spots, and the opponent’s spears often even were deflected by the curvature of the shield. Overall, the design of the maniple shield was very successful in making us feel more comfortable and secure. 


The maniple was successful in breaking the ranks of the phalanx when all of the Roman soldiers were directed to target and attack one specific point in the phalanx formation. If the phalanx formation was repeatedly attacked in the same spot, the spot would eventually weaken and the maniple soldiers could completely infiltrate. This was an effective strategy. 

Although maniple formation was not outwardly better than either of the previous strategies, it did have many benefits that make it an attractive war tactic. 


Our findings were that the hoplite and the Roman maniple had a faster learning curve in respect to formation and preparing for battle. The phalanx on the other hand was more unwieldy especially when we were trying to bring the spears into a ready position as we would hit each other while bringing our spears down. The easiest learning curve for movement was the hoplite formation as the interlocked shields helped guide everyone while keeping us in formation. The phalanx and maniple each had problems with keeping formation, though in different ways. The phalanx, while initially being hard to move in, became easier over the course of the lab; however, there were problems with turning in formation where the lines would shift. An example of this would be when we started as a 5×5 grid and after making a ninety-degree turn ended as a 6×4 grid. The maniple had the issue of the formation compressing while we were moving as each person was further spaced out. Both of these issues could be resolved with more time and practice. 

On a personal level, class members felt that they were safest in the maniple on account of two reasons. First, the curved shield felt like it protected more of your body and was described as comforting. Secondly, the ability to rotate out of the front lines also gave a sense of comfort when compared to the phalanx and the hoplite formations where the people in front either won or died. However, for the phalanx and the hoplite formations, there was a sense of safety for the people in the middle of the formation. Also, the phalanx gave a better sense of safety to the frontline when against the hoplite formation. In a class poll, the class was split between the maniple and the phalanx as being the formation that would make you the most confident about winning with the maniple having 10 votes and the phalanx having 13.

It was clear to our class why the phalanx replaced the hoplite formation as soon as we saw the spears preventing the hoplites from approaching. However, initially, our class was unable to understand why the phalanx was replaced by the maniple until we saw how they could focus on one area and punch a hole through the phalanx and attack from the inside. It was also helpful to realize that the maniple’s success in part came from its capacity for strategic fighting that the soldiers in the phalanx and hoplite were unable to achieve. 


This lab was more on the experiential side of experimental archaeology, and we were mostly measuring qualitative data. We were not solving for a variable but instead trying to understand the thought behind why certain formations were used and eventually discarded in favor of another. This process gave us a good understanding of how each of the three military formations functioned by having us experience how the formation was set up and what it was like to move within a formation. Likewise, we were also able to experience what it would be like to have each formation fighting its competing formation, and because of that, we were able to see why one formation would overcome the previous. While reading research on these various formations is educational, it was certainly easier to understand and answer our research questions after acting out each formation. Although we can never reach a full understanding of these formations without the real-life pressure that comes from being on the battlefield, we certainly put in a good-faith effort to understand them the best we could today. 

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