The legionary in battle

Silveryou

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Many years have passed since my first interest in military tactics. It all began playing Medieval Total War. Not a serious motivation, you might think, but nonetheless it inspired me to reading some books on military tactics and the great battles of the ancient world (how ancient though?). The Western Way of War by Victor Davis Hanson and Il guerriero, l'oplita e il legionario by Giovanni Brizzi were the ones I liked the most. Now for me it's impossible to describe the process of visual thoughts that brought me to the ideas I want to share with you. A major part of my interest in tactics was (and is) surely connected to a desire to see a vivid representation of those battles.

My interest lingered on the legion, described as the most formidable battle formation of the ancient world. First of all I want to clarify that this “title” is obviously (at least for me) quite exaggerated. But at the same time I think that if we restrict our discussion to infantry, it is fair to say that the legion was the king of that specific type of combat, and it was so good to be useful even against other specific units and capable to (partially) replace other units in other roles.

That said, I really think there is a misconception regarding how the soldiers were organized in the battle formation. I'll try to explain my point of view with some images, even though they are not portraying the legion as I envision it.

Nowadays it is assumed that legionaries formed a line in battle, some sort of shield wall, against the enemies who faced them. Whether it was really their way of fighting or not, I think a really good reconstruction can be seen in the image below. My personal view is that the most defining weapon of the legionary was his shield, not the sword, not the javelin.

1.jpg


But here is the thing. I know that many can point out that we have authentic historical images carved in stone depicting how the legionary fought, nonetheless there are three things which I find strange, or at least not well thought.

First: the way in which the legionary held the gladius in his hand opened a gap between him and his fellow soldier on his right, whenever he decided to attack standing behind the shield. Those gaps would have obviously been a flaw in the shield wall formation. They were inevitable in a one on one fight, but that would have occured only when became impossible to keep the battle formation.

2.jpg

Second: the legionary could fully engage one on one only opening his defense and that seems to me really awkward, because the strenght of the legion, I think, was not in individual fighting. The enemies of Rome were generally better on a one on one fight, the Romans themselves recognised that! And also the equipment was not so good for that endeavour... a short sword, a shield way too big... The legionary was a soldier, not a warrior, and he had to stay in line with his fellow soldiers. (Also, I think that in cinematic and graphic representations the enemies of the legionary in one on one combat are always minimized in their capabilities).

3.jpg


Third: why the legionaries kept that gladius on their right side? This is really the most awkward thing of all. If you don't know what I am talking about, look at this video, minute 4:52.
View: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0-IPiO04Fl0

Imagine those Romans in formation. They stand in tight formation with their pilums in hand (the javelins), the enemy is approaching and the ferocious fight will soon begin... they throw the javelin at the last second, to have their first kill... and then they are supposed to draw out their swords. They have to do it quickly and efficiently, it's a matter of life or death. Can you imagine them in that contest, giving clumsy elbow strikes to the guy on their right in the attempt? Is it a well thought tactic? I don't believe so.

And now my possible explanation, which combines, I think, the most advantageous use of the shield, no one on one fights and a different use of the gladius.
I imagine the legionaries standing side by side in a compact and impenetrable shield wall, with non gap between them. While keeping this formation, they moved towards the enemy, probably at low speed. After having thrown their javelin to eventually disrupt the enemy charge or the enemy formation or both, they eventually sustained the diminished charge (always in a completely close shield wall formation) and then they drew their swords. How? Like this...

4.jpg

They drew their gladius with their right hand and held it like a long knife. The formation, without a single gap, pressed the enemy with all his mass, without individual fights at all. They stabbed their enemies in the face with the swords held as knives while the whole formation continued to advance. The enemies with long swords or spears could not stand because their weapons were too long and uncomfortable in such tight spaces, and at the same time the legionary was completely hidden behind his shield, no gaps on the right and no gaps on the left. Pressing and stabbing from above was the key to success. Look at the first picture, replace the javelin with the gladius and you will see more or less what I am envisioning.

Is there someone who can draw an “action-picture”?
Hope you enjoyed it.
 
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JWW427

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My ancestors the Scots were the Picts.
Don't forget the Romans had long swords too, especially the cavalry.

The real question is who taught them the tight and cohesive battle formation, one that took in account of the law of averages, not individual valor.
They learned from the Persians, Greeks, Macedonians, and the Spartans, but I wonder who came up with the actual tactics?
The Testudo formation?
Acting as one armored unit?
The flexible armor?
I believe they inherited their military technology from others and perfected it over time.
 

Silveryou

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My ancestors the Scots were the Picts.
Don't forget they had long swords too.

The real question is who taught them the tight and cohesive battle formation, one that took in account of the law of averages, not individual valor.
They learned from the Persians, Greeks, Macedonians, and the Spartans, but I wonder who came up with the actual tactics?
I don't know if this formation has ever been an historical thing, though. I'm only talking about theory. The books I've read on the subject say that the Greeks were the first to use that battle formation called phalanx. Then it was supposedly perfected by Philip of Macedon (the Macedonian phalanx) and then the Romans modified it to create the legion. Nonetheless all these theories are based upon conventional chronology and it is known by the experts that these formations suddenly reappeared during the late middle ages and renaissance. So I am more likely to believe that these events were given some thousands years more then what really was. But in the end I don't know
 

Silveryou

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I'm with you on that. But I'm not so sure about who were really these Romans. I think that the Roman Empire of antiquity and that from the Middle Ages were not two separate entities. The reconstruction is surely difficult...

By the way, Pope Francis has apparently said that he is ok for civil gay marriage. allelujaaaa
 

codis

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I'm with you on that. But I'm not so sure about who were really these Romans. I think that the Roman Empire of antiquity and that from the Middle Ages were not two separate entities. The reconstruction is surely difficult...
I would second that.
The mentioned shield wall was also a famous tactic of the vikings.
OTOH, the large "Roman" shield prevented any effective stabbing from above.
The "viking" two-rows tactics seems more promising.
One row of warriors form the shield wall, the second row behind them makes a thrusting attack through the gaps.
 

Silveryou

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I'm with you on that. But I'm not so sure about who were really these Romans. I think that the Roman Empire of antiquity and that from the Middle Ages were not two separate entities. The reconstruction is surely difficult...
I would second that.
The mentioned shield wall was also a famous tactic of the vikings.
OTOH, the large "Roman" shield prevented any effective stabbing from above.
The "viking" two-rows tactics seems more promising.
One row of warriors form the shield wall, the second row behind them makes a thrusting attack through the gaps.
Yes, about the attack from the second row, that was also the phalanx tactic. I am personally inclined to think that Greeks, Romans and Vikings were part of the same family. Here we are dealing with details. It is said that Greeks started their attack with their spear in a way very similar to the first picture of this thread, and then at a certain point of the battle they switched to their swords, which were used only to cut, not to thrust. The Romans did the same until they found the gladius used by the Spanish (whoever they were) and they began using the sword (the triarii were the "residue" of the old style of combat). So maybe the short sword, or long knife, was more easy to use in tight space??? Maybe they sacrificed the second row to have a more precise aim at the enemy with a more handy weapon! I don't know..
 

codis

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Yes, about the attack from the second row, that was also the phalanx tactic.
No, the Phalanx of the (supposed) Greeks were very long, hitting the enemy outside the effective range of their weapons.
The viking tactics I alluded to were use in close combat, with formations facing each other.
The foremost shield bearers opened up on command, and the second row thrusted forward through the gaps. Then the gaps were closed again.
Attributing such tactics to Roman legions is IMHO nothing but aggrandizement. Every warfaring cuture with some experience and a brain could come up with it.
BTW, the (supposed) Roman shields and helmet had quite a hard time when facing Dacian falxs ...
 

Silveryou

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Well, the phalanx which I am referring to is the original one, involved in the battles between the oplites in the Greek city-states. I think you are referring to the Macedonian one.
I don't know anything about these Viking tactics, though I clearly remember that Anglo-Saxons presumably used the shield-wall and they opened the ranks only when the enemy charges lost their impetus, but I can be wrong on that (I am referring to Hastings).
What I am talking about was what is explained in books such as "The Western Way of War" by Victor Davis Hanson. The oplite warrior hit his enemy from the second row from above, thanks to the lenght of the spear. The same did the first row. The Romans copied that same style, but substituted the spear with a javelin, then proceeding their combat with the sword.
My reconstruction is just pure theory based on the concept of legionary that came down to us. I don't know if this concept was true, as well as I doubt everything related to the actual reality of ancient warfare. But I think that, if this was their equipment, then it shoul be done differently.
As for the Dacian-Roman wars as a concept, I don't really know who the Romans and the Dacians were in reality. I no more believe in naked barbarians with the sword in hand, so I can accept their falxs and schytes as a different kind of combat, more suited for guerrilla warfare, more flexible in terms of command and surely better for one on one fights. But official history tells that they went in battle without armour... I don't believe that.
 

codis

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As for the Dacian-Roman wars as a concept, I don't really know who the Romans and the Dacians were in reality.
Keeping that thought before calling it a day ...
Don't you find it peculiar that the land of the Dacians is nowadays called ROMANia ?
And their language seems a mix between slavic and Latin, while no neighbors speaking a "romanic" language ?
 

Silveryou

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I see you are from Austria. It is more than a possibility (in which I personally kinda believe) that the House of Habsburg legitimately inherited the succession of the Roman Empire, because they and their people were simply related to the Romans who preceeded them. So I am not really sure about what we are really talking about in historical terms... I know what you are talking about but for me it's not enough to come to conclusions. There are many other things to take into consideration, I hope to contribute a little to advance the research...
 

Silveryou

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And their language seems a mix between slavic and Latin,
It's practically Italian. I speak Spanish, but I can read Romanian.
About that, Italian language was called Volgare, which has a name similar, to my ears, to Bulgarian. It was considered the language of the people, called volgo. I don't know where these explanations come from, but the similarity is there from my point of view
 

Felix Noille

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Volgare, which has a name similar, to my ears, to Bulgarian
Having lived in Bulgaria for 9 years (which weirdly I just mentioned in another thread) I can assure you that neither Italian or Romanian are anything like Bulgarian.
 

JWW427

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You never hear of the technology that the older Etruscans or Plesagians had.
Isn't that mostly because there's basically no written sources from Etruscans or Plesagians about anything?
Gee whiz, I wonder why not?
Telling us that the Romans did this or built that is a conversation-ender. No one questions the Romans except for a few.
 

dreamtime

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You never hear of the technology that the older Etruscans or Plesagians had.
Isn't that mostly because there's basically no written sources from Etruscans or Plesagians about anything?
Gee whiz, I wonder why not?
Telling us that the Romans did this or built that is a conversation-ender. No one questions the Romans except for a few.
And who knows whether the Etruscans really came before the Romans? Since the concept of 'Rome' is so flawed in itself.
 

codis

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Volgare, which has a name similar, to my ears, to Bulgarian
Having lived in Bulgaria for 9 years (which weirdly I just mentioned in another thread) I can assure you that neither Italian or Romanian are anything like Bulgarian.
Speaking a bit Russian (my first foreign language), I can read and understand quite a bit Bulgarian.
 

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