Roman Legion vs Greek Phalanx: who would win?

The Greek and Roman warriors are remembered for their power, their strength and their ability to strategise. The epic battles between the two of them, as well as other parties and them, have most certainly changed history. But who would win in a battle between a Roman Legion and a Greek Phalanx? Keep reading to find out!

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Phalanx. Source: Wikimedia

The Greek Phalanx typically acted as a single, dense mass, whereas the Romans split themselves into several “maniple” with gaps between them – usually 30-35 maniples per legion. They used a “three-line” system – the youngest warriors in the front (Hastati), the men in their prime in the middle (Principes), and the veterans at the back (Triarii). The Greeks’ heavy armour, coupled with this tendency towards dense formations, increased their staying power in the shoving matches. On the other hand, however, it made it harder for them to maneuver, especially on rough terrains, and they could only operate as a single giant unit. The Roman legions didn’t have those problems – the maniples were very flexible and while they weren’t as dense as the Phalanxes, the low number of people in maniples allowed for complex formations, making them more adaptable for various kinds of terrains. The three-line system allowed for additional flexibility – front-liners could be substituted by Principes in order to get some rest, for instance. They were also real professionals, led by a centurion – the soldiers were trained from a young age.


Greek Phalanx using othismos

Greek Phalanx using othismos. Source: Wikimedia

The dense Phalanx required the Greeks to employ the tactics of the kind during battles. One of those tactics was known as “othismos” – roughly translated as “the push of shields” – and basically involved the soldiers pushing their shields into the backs of their fellow soldiers in front of them in order to make the Phalanx even denser. This tactic worked really well in a shoving contest, and it served its purpose – to push the enemy backwards and shatter their own formation to pick them off later as they fled. However, it left a lot to be desired, particularly in terms of protection – flank and rear were practically exposed.

The main weapons that the Greek Phalanxes employed in addition to their shields were pikes and spears. They were usually arranged into walls, making it easy to keep the enemy at a distance. However, they don’t appear to be as practical as they were intimidating – the density of the formations made it hard to maneuver them swiftly in a battle. The Roman legions, on the other hand, preferred short swords, javelins, large shields and light chain armour. These weapons allowed for more defence advantage at a short range than the Greeks had. However, the lower density combined with shorter swords did mean that the Romans’ shoving power was not as great as that of the Greek Phalanxes.

Who would win? Case in point

The Battle of Zama

The Battle of Zama. Source: Flickr

In order to reach a definite conclusion as to who would win in a battle between a Greek Phalanx and the Roman legion, let’s look at some real-life historical examples. The Romans lost the Battle of Heraclea in 280 BC against a kinsman of Alexander the Great – the very man who came up with the idea of a Phalanx in the first place. However, there is strong evidence that suggest that the only reason the Romans had lost this battle is because the elephants got involved in it and Roman legions had no experience fighting them. The Roman legions had gone on to win the Battle of Pydna in 168 BC due to their superior ability to maneuver on a rough terrain, and the Battle of Zama in 202 BC which marked the end of the Second Punic War. The latter was arguably won by the Romans due to their superior professionalism and experience, as well as ability to use their troops more efficiently than a single dense mass of people. The Mithridatic Wars were also won by the Romans, with Mithradates eventually choosing to restructure his military forces Roman style.

To conclude, while both the Greek Phalanx and the Roman legions were powerful in their own ways, the Roman legions would be most likely to win the battle between them.

What do you think?

Greek Phalanx vs. Roman Legion.

Greek Phalanx vs. Roman Legion. Source: Pinterest

Do you agree with my conclusions? Who do you think would win between a formation that uses the techniques designed by Alexander the Great himself and a legion that chooses maneuverability over brute force? Do let us know!

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