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Ancient Warfare: How the Greco-Romans Fought Their Battles

Ever wonder how the ancients fought their battles, or how the different empires conducted warfare and organized their troops? Ancient warfare was as diverse as the cultures that waged them.

ancient greco roman warfare
Corinthian Hoplite Helmet, susceptible only to a spear to the eye or mouth, ca. 500 BC; with Re-enactment of a Roman unit in testudo formation

 

From culture to culture, each kingdom of the ancient world conducted warfare by its own means. Ancient warfare tactics would be broadly applied in conflict against otherworldly powers, and sometimes internally within a kingdom or culture. Ancient civilizations commonly worshipped deities who oversaw the conduct of warfare – the conflict was seen as the means of politicking and was crucial in this era for survival. Cunning strategy and tactics needed to be applied to ensure victory. Which culture or kingdom proved militarily superior? Below is a comparison of ancient warfare tactics of European civilizations in the classical Greco-Roman era.

 

The Greek Fundamentals Of Ancient Warfare

corinthian hoplite helmet ancient warfare
Corinthian Hoplite Helmet, susceptible only to a spear to the eye or mouth, ca. 500 BC, in the Staatliche Antikensammlungen, Berlin, via thehoplites.com

 

Despite having a common language and culture, ancient Greece was never politically unified.  The Greeks were only united under one banner proceeding the conquest of the region by Alexander the Great in 335 BCE. Before Alexander, the politics of the region were fragmented into the authority of varying city-states, or poleis (πόλεις) in Greek, which numbered in the thousands. With a sheer number of small yet substantial hubs of power, it was not uncommon for πόλεις to fight one another.

 

Standard ancient Greek infantrymen were referred to as hoplites (όπλίτης); a word which infantrymen in the modern Hellenic Army are called to this day. Ancient hoplites, in addition to their helmets and armor, were armed with a spear, a round shield, and a short-sword.

 

rendering macedonian phalanx
A rendering of a Macedonian phalanx in formation post-military reform, via helenic-art.com

 

Ancient hoplite regiments were a quasi-civilian militia composed of men living within the city-state they would take up arms for. The city-state was not responsible for training professional troops. A man was expected to serve and protect his community when called upon.  Standardized equipment was also unavailable to hoplites: they were left to purchase and upkeep their own gear. Those who did not make as much of an income simply had to deal with using cheaper, weaker equipment.

 

In terms of warfare tactics, Greek hoplites would adhere to the formation of the phalanx (φάλαγξ) on the battlefield. Virtually unstoppable from the front, the phalanx was a collaborative effort in which hoplites were densely packed together, shields protecting partially themselves and partially the neighbor to their left in formation, spears pointing straight outward. The unit acted and moved in unison as one.

 

The Legendary Macedonian Army

alexander the great mosaic pompeii
Closeup of Alexander the Great from the Roman Alexander Mosaic, originally from Pompeii, c. 100 BCE, via the National Archeological Museum of Naples

 

Ancient Macedonia (also referred to as Macedon) was a kingdom situated on the northernmost periphery of ancient Greece. Though they also spoke Greek, scholars claim the ancient Macedonian language was likely either a different dialect of ancient Greek or was a separate (and now extinct) Hellenic language related to Greek. Whether ancient Macedonians were ethnically Greeks or not is disputed to this day.

 

The profound Greek philosopher Aristotle was born at the Macedonian border. The Philosopher served as a private tutor to his young contemporary, the Prince of Macedon, Alexander the Great. Alexander’s father, Philip II, served as King of Macedon from 359 to 336 BCE.

 

Philip II himself proved to be an incredibly competent ruler – a trait he evidently passed on to his son. Of his many accomplishments, some of the most important were Philip’s military reforms.

 

philip ii macedon
Portrait of Philip II of Macedon, 1825, photographed by Ken Welsh, via National Geographic 

 

Philip adapted the ancient warfare tactic of the Greek phalanx by implementing much longer spears and much smaller shields. Philip also increased the number of men per unit. As a centralized state, Philip fielded his wealthy nobility class as cavalry units to serve as protectors of the flanks of his phalanx, as they were vulnerable from the sides and rear.

 

Philip’s military reforms and new warfare tactics proved virtually unstoppable. Most importantly, this was the army inherited by Alexander: the army that would bring Alexander as far east as India, importing Hellenic culture to the vast majority of the ancient world. The army that would deliver Alexander his massive empire before the young king turned thirty-three, though he never would.

 

Sparta: Greek Military Powerhouse 

spartan mother and son
Spartan Mother and Son by Louis-Jean-François Lagrenée, the elder, 1770, via National Trust Collections

 

Contemporary to Alexander and to the city-states in Greece, Sparta was revered throughout the Greek world for its legendary military prowess. The Spartans militarized 100% of their male population, forcing them into brutally vigorous state-sponsored training known as agoge (άγωγή) starting at the ripe age of seven.

 

Strict martial discipline earned the Spartan city-state a feared reputation as well as one of the most deadly and precise standing armies in the ancient world. The Spartan essence was cultivated of imposing physical aptitude, intense and rigorous military training, and blunt rhetoric.

 

Famously, the Spartans adhered to a policy of keeping their gene pool small and as “Spartan” as possible – intermarriage was forced to ensure each generation possessed the same sharp genetics as the last. Newborn babies were each inspected by the city-state and discarded should any imperfections be discovered, likely left to perish alone in the wilderness or mountains of Laconia.

 

spartan warrior military dress
Rendering of a Spartan warrior in military dress, later emulated by the Roman armies and even by the imperial era British redcoats, with a lambda (Λ) for Spartan capital Laconia, via ancientmilitary.com

 

Though the Spartans fought with the same phalanx warfare tactic as their contemporaries, their warrior ethos yielded an elevated stature in its application. Ancient warfare steeped directly into their government and genetics; the Spartan army was feared throughout Greece.

 

Spartans moved on the battlefield as one unit in the phalanx formation. Their iconic red cloaks, long hair, and precise, steady, simultaneous footsteps in unison to the incessant beat of a drum was the Spartan military tactic that set them apart in the conduct of ancient warfare. The sight and sound of this alone likely terrified any and all opponents in their path.

 

Ancient Warfare In Rome: Increased Imperium, Increased Military

marble statue wounded roman warrior
Marble statue of a Wounded Roman Warrior, ca. 138-81 CE, via The Met Museum, New York 

 

The imperial Roman state acted more like a centralized modern government than its Greek predecessors. Initially, Rome did not have a professional standing army much, like the ancient Greek city-states, and would arm and subsequently disband any fighting force on an ad hoc basis.

 

In 107 BCE Roman general Gaius Marius issued what came to be known as the Marian Reforms.  Akin to Philip II of Macedon over two hundred years prior, Marius’ reforms expanded the role of the state to take responsibility for training as well as upkeeping and providing equipment for a standing fighting force. The new Roman Imperial Legion consisted of 4800-5000 men, subdivided into ten groups of 480-500 men (called cohorts), further subdivided into five groups of 80-100 men (called a century).

 

The Marian Reforms facilitated communication and the chain of command on the battlefield.

 

roman testudo formation
Re-enactment of a Roman unit in testudo formation, via historyhit.com

 

In terms of warfare tactics, the Romans implemented the innovative Greek phalanx in their ranks. Ancient warfare conducted by the Romans was adapted further than the Greeks could muster due to the Marian role of the Roman state in military training and upkeep.

 

An example of Roman ingenuity on the battlefield was their testudo (tortoise) formation.  Creating a literal wall (or tortoiseshell) with shields was a crucial aspect of Roman ancient warfare. Testudo provided excellent cover from arrow and missile fire and allowed troops to safely approach the walls of a city during a siege. The unit in formation also moved with the speed of a tortoise. Though safe, it was not an efficient way to mobilize troops.

 

the wedge pig's head formation
Illustration of the ‘wedge’ or ‘pig’s head’ formation 

 

The Roman “wedge” or “pig head” formation is one of the oldest and consistently used ancient warfare tactics implemented by both republic and empire. Spearheaded by the most capable warrior in the unit, the wedge formation would be used to charge and split an enemy unit in two, dominating and separating enemy combatants. It was essentially ‘divide and conquer.’

 

The wedge formation was implemented by both Roman infantry and Roman cavalry. The military tactic was an effective one consistently used by Roman commanders even before the Marian Reforms.

 

Pig head formation notoriously halted the advancements of the Macedonian army – at one time one of the most successful armies of the ancient world under Alexander. At the Battle of Pydna in 168 BCE, Roman consul Aemilius faced off with the infamous Macedonian army under their King Perseus of Macedon, who was descended from one of Alexander’s generals/diadochi (διάδοχοι).

 

The ancient warfare tactic employed by the Romans at Pydna warded off the Macedonians and established the Roman Republic as a dominant political figure in the ancient world.

 

Greco-Roman Ancient Warfare Tactics In Summary

perseus surrenders to aemilius paulus
Perseus Surrenders to Aemilius Paulus by Jean-François-Pierre Peyron, 1802, via the Budapest Museum of Fine Arts

 

Beginning with the Greeks, furthered by the Macedonians, Spartans, Romans, and Egyptians, ancient warfare strategy was as ubiquitous as the Greek or Latin language in this era. Be it infantry or cavalry formation strategy, each culture of the ancient world provided its own flare and styling in ancient combat.

 

These infantry formations first implemented in ancient warfare prove timeless: some two thousand years later, Napoleon would deploy similar tactics to protect his infantry from cavalry charges.

 

hoplites phalanx formation chigi vase
Depiction of ancient Greek hoplites in the phalanx formation on the Chigi Vase, ca. 650-640 BCE, via Brown University, Providence

 

The ancient Chinese military strategy text known as the Art of War, written by Sun Tzu in the 5th century BCE, offers strategic thought on the battlefield. Though no direct battlefield formations are discussed, the art of skillfully employing a strategy to decimate the enemy with minimal costs proves to be the most crucial part of warfare. Strategy is the most effective means of doing so.  Without the fundamentals established in ancient warfare, the political scape of the ancient world would have been completely different.

 

ancient greco roman warfare
Corinthian Hoplite Helmet, susceptible only to a spear to the eye or mouth, ca. 500 BC; with Re-enactment of a Roman unit in testudo formation

 

From culture to culture, each kingdom of the ancient world conducted warfare by its own means. Ancient warfare tactics would be broadly applied in conflict against otherworldly powers, and sometimes internally within a kingdom or culture. Ancient civilizations commonly worshipped deities who oversaw the conduct of warfare – the conflict was seen as the means of politicking and was crucial in this era for survival. Cunning strategy and tactics needed to be applied to ensure victory. Which culture or kingdom proved militarily superior? Below is a comparison of ancient warfare tactics of European civilizations in the classical Greco-Roman era.

 

The Greek Fundamentals Of Ancient Warfare

corinthian hoplite helmet ancient warfare
Corinthian Hoplite Helmet, susceptible only to a spear to the eye or mouth, ca. 500 BC, in the Staatliche Antikensammlungen, Berlin, via thehoplites.com

 

Despite having a common language and culture, ancient Greece was never politically unified.  The Greeks were only united under one banner proceeding the conquest of the region by Alexander the Great in 335 BCE. Before Alexander, the politics of the region were fragmented into the authority of varying city-states, or poleis (πόλεις) in Greek, which numbered in the thousands. With a sheer number of small yet substantial hubs of power, it was not uncommon for πόλεις to fight one another.

 

Standard ancient Greek infantrymen were referred to as hoplites (όπλίτης); a word which infantrymen in the modern Hellenic Army are called to this day. Ancient hoplites, in addition to their helmets and armor, were armed with a spear, a round shield, and a short-sword.

 

rendering macedonian phalanx
A rendering of a Macedonian phalanx in formation post-military reform, via helenic-art.com

 

Ancient hoplite regiments were a quasi-civilian militia composed of men living within the city-state they would take up arms for. The city-state was not responsible for training professional troops. A man was expected to serve and protect his community when called upon.  Standardized equipment was also unavailable to hoplites: they were left to purchase and upkeep their own gear. Those who did not make as much of an income simply had to deal with using cheaper, weaker equipment.

 

In terms of warfare tactics, Greek hoplites would adhere to the formation of the phalanx (φάλαγξ) on the battlefield. Virtually unstoppable from the front, the phalanx was a collaborative effort in which hoplites were densely packed together, shields protecting partially themselves and partially the neighbor to their left in formation, spears pointing straight outward. The unit acted and moved in unison as one.

 

The Legendary Macedonian Army

alexander the great mosaic pompeii
Closeup of Alexander the Great from the Roman Alexander Mosaic, originally from Pompeii, c. 100 BCE, via the National Archeological Museum of Naples

 

Ancient Macedonia (also referred to as Macedon) was a kingdom situated on the northernmost periphery of ancient Greece. Though they also spoke Greek, scholars claim the ancient Macedonian language was likely either a different dialect of ancient Greek or was a separate (and now extinct) Hellenic language related to Greek. Whether ancient Macedonians were ethnically Greeks or not is disputed to this day.

 

The profound Greek philosopher Aristotle was born at the Macedonian border. The Philosopher served as a private tutor to his young contemporary, the Prince of Macedon, Alexander the Great. Alexander’s father, Philip II, served as King of Macedon from 359 to 336 BCE.

 

Philip II himself proved to be an incredibly competent ruler – a trait he evidently passed on to his son. Of his many accomplishments, some of the most important were Philip’s military reforms.

 

philip ii macedon
Portrait of Philip II of Macedon, 1825, photographed by Ken Welsh, via National Geographic 

 

Philip adapted the ancient warfare tactic of the Greek phalanx by implementing much longer spears and much smaller shields. Philip also increased the number of men per unit. As a centralized state, Philip fielded his wealthy nobility class as cavalry units to serve as protectors of the flanks of his phalanx, as they were vulnerable from the sides and rear.

 

Philip’s military reforms and new warfare tactics proved virtually unstoppable. Most importantly, this was the army inherited by Alexander: the army that would bring Alexander as far east as India, importing Hellenic culture to the vast majority of the ancient world. The army that would deliver Alexander his massive empire before the young king turned thirty-three, though he never would.

 

Sparta: Greek Military Powerhouse 

spartan mother and son
Spartan Mother and Son by Louis-Jean-François Lagrenée, the elder, 1770, via National Trust Collections

 

Contemporary to Alexander and to the city-states in Greece, Sparta was revered throughout the Greek world for its legendary military prowess. The Spartans militarized 100% of their male population, forcing them into brutally vigorous state-sponsored training known as agoge (άγωγή) starting at the ripe age of seven.

 

Strict martial discipline earned the Spartan city-state a feared reputation as well as one of the most deadly and precise standing armies in the ancient world. The Spartan essence was cultivated of imposing physical aptitude, intense and rigorous military training, and blunt rhetoric.

 

Famously, the Spartans adhered to a policy of keeping their gene pool small and as “Spartan” as possible – intermarriage was forced to ensure each generation possessed the same sharp genetics as the last. Newborn babies were each inspected by the city-state and discarded should any imperfections be discovered, likely left to perish alone in the wilderness or mountains of Laconia.

 

spartan warrior military dress
Rendering of a Spartan warrior in military dress, later emulated by the Roman armies and even by the imperial era British redcoats, with a lambda (Λ) for Spartan capital Laconia, via ancientmilitary.com

 

Though the Spartans fought with the same phalanx warfare tactic as their contemporaries, their warrior ethos yielded an elevated stature in its application. Ancient warfare steeped directly into their government and genetics; the Spartan army was feared throughout Greece.

 

Spartans moved on the battlefield as one unit in the phalanx formation. Their iconic red cloaks, long hair, and precise, steady, simultaneous footsteps in unison to the incessant beat of a drum was the Spartan military tactic that set them apart in the conduct of ancient warfare. The sight and sound of this alone likely terrified any and all opponents in their path.

 

Ancient Warfare In Rome: Increased Imperium, Increased Military

marble statue wounded roman warrior
Marble statue of a Wounded Roman Warrior, ca. 138-81 CE, via The Met Museum, New York 

 

The imperial Roman state acted more like a centralized modern government than its Greek predecessors. Initially, Rome did not have a professional standing army much, like the ancient Greek city-states, and would arm and subsequently disband any fighting force on an ad hoc basis.

 

In 107 BCE Roman general Gaius Marius issued what came to be known as the Marian Reforms.  Akin to Philip II of Macedon over two hundred years prior, Marius’ reforms expanded the role of the state to take responsibility for training as well as upkeeping and providing equipment for a standing fighting force. The new Roman Imperial Legion consisted of 4800-5000 men, subdivided into ten groups of 480-500 men (called cohorts), further subdivided into five groups of 80-100 men (called a century).

 

The Marian Reforms facilitated communication and the chain of command on the battlefield.

 

roman testudo formation
Re-enactment of a Roman unit in testudo formation, via historyhit.com

 

In terms of warfare tactics, the Romans implemented the innovative Greek phalanx in their ranks. Ancient warfare conducted by the Romans was adapted further than the Greeks could muster due to the Marian role of the Roman state in military training and upkeep.

 

An example of Roman ingenuity on the battlefield was their testudo (tortoise) formation.  Creating a literal wall (or tortoiseshell) with shields was a crucial aspect of Roman ancient warfare. Testudo provided excellent cover from arrow and missile fire and allowed troops to safely approach the walls of a city during a siege. The unit in formation also moved with the speed of a tortoise. Though safe, it was not an efficient way to mobilize troops.

 

the wedge pig's head formation
Illustration of the ‘wedge’ or ‘pig’s head’ formation 

 

The Roman “wedge” or “pig head” formation is one of the oldest and consistently used ancient warfare tactics implemented by both republic and empire. Spearheaded by the most capable warrior in the unit, the wedge formation would be used to charge and split an enemy unit in two, dominating and separating enemy combatants. It was essentially ‘divide and conquer.’

 

The wedge formation was implemented by both Roman infantry and Roman cavalry. The military tactic was an effective one consistently used by Roman commanders even before the Marian Reforms.

 

Pig head formation notoriously halted the advancements of the Macedonian army – at one time one of the most successful armies of the ancient world under Alexander. At the Battle of Pydna in 168 BCE, Roman consul Aemilius faced off with the infamous Macedonian army under their King Perseus of Macedon, who was descended from one of Alexander’s generals/diadochi (διάδοχοι).

 

The ancient warfare tactic employed by the Romans at Pydna warded off the Macedonians and established the Roman Republic as a dominant political figure in the ancient world.

 

Greco-Roman Ancient Warfare Tactics In Summary

perseus surrenders to aemilius paulus
Perseus Surrenders to Aemilius Paulus by Jean-François-Pierre Peyron, 1802, via the Budapest Museum of Fine Arts

 

Beginning with the Greeks, furthered by the Macedonians, Spartans, Romans, and Egyptians, ancient warfare strategy was as ubiquitous as the Greek or Latin language in this era. Be it infantry or cavalry formation strategy, each culture of the ancient world provided its own flare and styling in ancient combat.

 

These infantry formations first implemented in ancient warfare prove timeless: some two thousand years later, Napoleon would deploy similar tactics to protect his infantry from cavalry charges.

 

hoplites phalanx formation chigi vase
Depiction of ancient Greek hoplites in the phalanx formation on the Chigi Vase, ca. 650-640 BCE, via Brown University, Providence

 

The ancient Chinese military strategy text known as the Art of War, written by Sun Tzu in the 5th century BCE, offers strategic thought on the battlefield. Though no direct battlefield formations are discussed, the art of skillfully employing a strategy to decimate the enemy with minimal costs proves to be the most crucial part of warfare. Strategy is the most effective means of doing so.  Without the fundamentals established in ancient warfare, the political scape of the ancient world would have been completely different.

 

Alexander Standjofski
Alexander Standjofski
Alexander holds a BA in history and political theory from Concordia University in Montreal, Canada. He has studied the historical narrative of the western world as well as pre and post-Christian political thought and ideology spanning from 500 BCE to 1800 CE.

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