I had an absolutely incredible time experimenting and testing out ancient tactics today on the Mini Bald Spot. Going into the exercise, I was unsure of the extent to which trying to “play-test” (an imperfect term) ancient tactics would help me understand them, but I am glad to say my suspicions were firmly off-base. After doing the readings, I felt I had a basic understanding of the progression of tactics and why one was better than the other, but I didn’t really understand how it would actually work for one of them to face the other. I was also not convinced that the maniple arrangement would actually be able to defeat a phalanx, because it was hard for me to see how soldiers would be able to penetrate the wall of spear tips.
We went through the chronological progression of military tactics as they developed in response to one another, and took the time to experiment with each different tactic before putting it to the test against the tactic that led to its eventual obsolescence. We started with the hoplite formation, which felt not particularly safe nor secure. I was immediately struck by the extent to which this formation would lead to complete and utter chaos as opposing forces pushed against each other, mostly unable to use their spears. The hoplite formation felt much closer to the maniple formation than to the phalanx, but I understand how the phalanx was developed as a sort of hard-counter to the hoplite. As soon as we set up a phalanx, it was abundantly clear that a hoplite formation would be deftly handled by the multiple layers of spears of the phalanx. It took very little testing for us to realize the superiority of the phalanx relative to the hoplite, but being able to actually test it made it much easier to come to this conclusion than through the readings alone.
Once we got the phalanx down, we set ourselves the task of learning to march in unison (a task we had already started with the hoplite formation yet was much more difficult with our incredibly long spears). It took us quite a while to arrive at a point of basic facility with the spears, as they were quite unwieldy – at one point, I was brutally thwacked over the head with one of my compatriots’ spears. Once we got the hang of things, we were able to move surprisingly quickly. Our movement challenges proved what we had discussed in class about the challenges of communicating and changing plans once battle had started, as we had a very hard time redirecting the movement of our phalanx when we were moving even slightly off our desired line. At one point, while trying to traverse in between two trees, I yelled “forward” but not everyone was ready to go, which created a very dangerous gap in our ranks. The phalanx was offensively potent, but easily compromised when ranks split or its front line of spears was infiltrated.
Speaking of easily infiltrated, the maniple made quick work of the phalanx. At first I wasn’t convinced, but the tactic of creating a sharp point of shielded soldiers with swords and sending them into the sea of spear points demonstrated incredible efficacy in our tests. Once that first line of spears was overcome, there was nothing the phalanx could do to protect itself from being hacked to pieces. All in all, putting these formations to the test gave me a much more concrete idea of how each of them worked, their strengths and weaknesses, and the emotional effects of being in each different formation. I felt safe when I was in the middle or back of the hoplite formations, but they quickly descended into chaos which felt quite unsafe. The phalanx felt safe until we had to face a maniple formation, not to mention how it would have felt if our opposition had archers raining down arrows on us. The phalanx seemed to adhere to the idea that “the best defense is a good offense,” which, of course, left us completely defenseless. I did not feel particularly safe in the maniple formation because there was less of a sense of strength in numbers and mass, but I understood its benefits of being able to substitute, move more freely, and wield effective shields. I think that, if I were trained in sword and shield combat, the maniple would certainly feel and be the most effective of the three.