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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What do you think?

  • MrSherlockGoal

    Greeks would win . Romans would have severe loses before even reach the Greeks for a single combat. Their legions would be weaken and could not keep the preferred formation and shape.

    • Thanks @MrSherlockGoal, good to hear another view on this!

    • BigT89

      untrue. The Romans are able to quickly change and outflank the phalanx with the proper time. They also have their pila and they have the Velites to back them up. When the Romans met up with Philip II he was unable to commit his full forces because his pikemen required time to get into formation. The romans can come at you with either a tight or loose formation. By the time Philip II was able to commit his full force the romans had half their forces come up behind the pikemen who could not even turn around and defend themselves. They also had the numerical advantage and the hill but they were massacred and Rome conquered the Hellenic world. The Seleucids and Pontics tried to copy the legion as did the Armenians and some others. The Phalanx is a beauty to behold and against a more dated army it works wonders. But the flexibility of the legion is astounding and they had counters for most of the old world tactics the greeks used. And despite what some may say about the Phalanx formation and the usefulness of the Hoplon shield the Hoplites and Pikemen suffered heavy losses under missile fire. This was also the reason why the Greeks feared the Thracians. All those damn javelins and hit and run. Tore them apart.

  • Anthony Christopher Morey
  • deChelca

    I think with the Superior reach, the Greeks would have the upper hand in the beginning. But as the Romans got around to their flanks and rear, and eventually opened up slots in the front, it’s clear the Romans would win.

  • Nathan

    No need to wonder about this, as the Romans fought Greek and Macedonian phalanxes numerous times in actual history. The first time was against Pyrrhus of Epirus, from whom we get the term “Pyrrhic victory” for his first two battles with the Romans, which he won but at high cost. His third battle with them, at Beneventum in 275 BC, he was crushed. The Romans defeated Macedonian phalanx-based armies at Cynoscephalae (197 BC) and Pydna (168 BC), and a Seleucid phalanx at Magnesia (190 BC). They finished off the last bit of Greek independence at Corinth (146 BC), and then finished off their last phalanx-using challenger, Mithridates VI of Pontus, in a series of lopsided victories, despite his superior numbers, in three wars from 89 to 65 BC (Mithridates did win one battle). Overall, there is no question of the superiority of the legion over the phalanx…the phalanx only stood a chance on open, nicely level ground, with its flanks completely protected (Perseus of Macedon managed a few minor victories that way). In any other situation, the superior flexibility of the legions, and close-quarters capabilities of the legionaries, doomed the phalanx.

  • Marcelo Oberauer

    Do not forget the clashes between Romans and Spartans in the War against Nabis, 195BC. First in the siege of Gythium; and after that the two armies clashed just outside Sparta front walls(yes Sparta had walls) the first days were just simple skirmishes but the last day it was a regular battle, the spartans run inside the city. And finally on the narrow streets inside Sparta. After that Nabis and the spartans surrendered.
    Both armies had allieds, but the romans were more numerous, and the spartans weren’t what they were in the past.

  • Nicolás Lemir

    There is a misconception about the Macedonian Style Phalanx being outdated and unwieldy, that is because most Sucessor states didnt employed the clever Combined Arms tactics that Alexander had conceived: The Phalanx was supposed to be supported by nimble skirmishers troops (Peltasts and Thureophoroi) able to protect the exposed flanks and rear of the formation and were also to count with elite cavalry to take advantage the Phalanx staying power.

    Succesors neglected these two aspects of Phalanx Warfare: The constant state of Warfare lead to economic depression that could no longer sustain the elite Cavalry Corps that the Phalanx needed to finish the job. That, coupled with excessive conservatism to use skirmisher troops effectively, led to the Diadochi custom of deploying denser phalanxes with longer pikes that without the support of skirmishers and cavalry could not keep up with more flexible forces

    It should be noted that when the Phalanx was properly supported it was capable of defeating the Roman Legion: The triumphs of Pyrrhus of Epirus and the early victories of Hannibal prove that. The Phalanx was never supposed to the Swords that brings the victory, but the Anvil upon which triumph was forged

  • BigT89

    The Roman Legion was the most flexible fighting force for generations after it’s death. The golden days of the legion had the Legionaries backed by numerous Auxiliary allies and had things that could decimate the Greek fighting style. If we too the best of Rome and Greece the Romans would win. Tightly packed pikes? Send in the Scorpions. Peltasts in the front? Form testudo. Annoying/week Greek cavalry? Send in the Numidian Auxiliary Cavalry. PIkes giving you issue? Fall back and throw more pila., support with Syrian Auxiliary Foot Archers and Horse Archers.

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