Roman Formation Fighting in the Antiquity Era

Can someone explain to me how formation fighting worked?

How did spacing work? In movies and video games you see them fighting shoulder to shoulder. But if you read Polybius and Vegetius both claim that each individual Romans fought with 3-6 feet between them. If this is true, then wouldn't Romans be in danger of encirclements?

If Romans fought in formation, how did they maintain lines during a charge? What if half of Roman army reached the enemy before the other half? Wouldn't they immediate be swarmed and die?

Furthermore, if a soldier killed the enemy in front of him. Did he stand and wait for the next to approach him? Or did he advance ahead of his unit? And what if 20-50 men cleaved through enemy lines, but the rest of the army was stalemated with the enemy? Was this common? Or did Romans know to withdraw and prevent themselves from overextending?

What did the reserves do in a battle. It's obvious that the first 1-2 ranks of a unit would engage the enemy, but what about the rest? Did they simply stand there?

How could battles last hours?

How could the romans shift out their wounded and tired men? How did they rotate between the Hastai, Principes, and Tristai?

How did a rout / retreat work? Wouldn't pretty much literally everyone die the moment they turned their back to their enemy?

How were casualties so low on both sides if they were fighting for literal hours?

Is there any credence to Philip Sabin's pulse theory? Basically, soldiers on both sides would fight for 5 minutes and then withdraw to regain stamina and rotate their units. HBO put out a fight in their Roman series based on his model.

Sabin also claims that most of a battle consisted of soldiers simply staring at each other from a safe distance, while they shouted at each other, threw shit at each other, and then shoved at each other. Was this true? If so, this goes against literally everything I've ever seen depicting formation combat.

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  1. 3 weeks ago
    Anonymous

    I'm going to lost some sources that started these questions. First up, Polybius:

    >"Such being in general and in detail the disposition of the phalanx, I have now, for purposes of comparison, to speak of the peculiarities of the Roman equipment and system of formation and the points of difference in both. 6 Now in the case of the Romans also each soldier with his arms occupies a space of •three feet in breadth, 7 but as in their mode of fighting each man must move separately, as he has to cover his person with his long shield, turning to meet each expected blow, and as he uses his sword both for cutting and thrusting it is obvious that a looser order is required, 8 and each man must be at a distance of at least three feet from the man next him in the same rank and those in front of and behind him, if they are to be of proper use. 9 The consequence will be that one Roman must stand opposite two men in the first rank of the phalanx, so that he has to face and encounter ten pikes, and it is both impossible for a single man to cut through them all in time once they are at close quarters and by no means easy to force their points away, as the rear ranks can be of no help to the front rank either in thus forcing the pikes away or in the use of the sword. 11 So it is easy to see that, as I said at the beginning, nothing can withstand the charge of the phalanx as long as it preserves its characteristic formation and force." - Fragments of Book XVIII, The Histories by Polybius

    Here Polybius claims that Roman soldiers fight up to 6 feet apart in formations.
    Link to chapter: https://penelope.uchicago.edu/Thayer/E/Roman/Texts/Polybius/18*.html

  2. 3 weeks ago
    Anonymous

    Next up, Caesar.

    “When the fight was going on most vigorously before the fortifications, Pullo, one of them, says, "Why do you hesitate, Vorenus? or what [better] opportunity of signalizing your valor do you seek? This very day shall decide our disputes." When he had uttered these words, he proceeds beyond the fortifications, and rushes on that part of the enemy which appeared the thickest. Nor does Vorenus remain within the rampart, but respecting the high opinion of all, follows close after.” (De Bello Gallico, Book 5, Chapter 44).

    How were Pullo and his men able to advance ahead of the rest of the formation without instantly dying? And if he did this once and with such confidence, doesn't this imply that it was a common occurrence for parts of a legion to break off and fight the enemy out of formation?

    • 3 weeks ago
      Anonymous

      This is a siege line not a battle formation so that might be why he was able to overcome it

  3. 3 weeks ago
    Anonymous

    More Caesar.

    >“Caesar, having accomplished the object which he had in view, ordered the signal to be sounded for a retreat; and the soldiers of the tenth legion, by which he was then accompanied, halted. But the soldiers of the other legions, not hearing the sound of the trumpet, because there was a very large valley between them, were however kept back by the tribunes of the soldiers and the lieutenants, according to Caesar's orders; but being animated by the prospect of speedy victory, and the flight of the enemy, and the favorable battles of former periods, they thought nothing so difficult that their bravery could not accomplish it; nor did they put an end to the pursuit, until they drew nigh to the wall of the town and the gates.” (De Bello Gallico, Book 7, Chapter 47)

    This is clear insubordinate. It calls into question the famed Roman discipline. Moreover, it also calls into question how some legions could stay engaged with the enemy even if literally thousands of their comrades withdrew from a battle. If the formation was the life and death of a soldier like some sources claim, then how did these soldiers not only survive, but thrive while breaking off from it?

  4. 3 weeks ago
    Anonymous

    Sorry to break it to you OP but it's all orgy fueled fantasies by bored monks to help pass the time in their monasteries. If made today it would receive the based on a true story labels.

  5. 3 weeks ago
    Anonymous

    >How were casualties so low on both sides if they were fighting for literal hours?
    The basic gist of it as I heard it explained once is this:

    Both armies would show up, engage and pretty quickly it became clear which side was outclassed and they'd go "right, frick it, we're off" and the only deaths would usually be the first wave or stragglers in the retreat. The vast majority would live to fight another day. Especially before the romans invented the career soldier, when armies were comprised of men who'd be temporarily conscripted and then allowed to return to normal life. People don't want to kill each other, so there was probably a lot of "oi frick off c**t" type attacks that were more like "go away" than "die fricker".

    • 3 weeks ago
      Anonymous

      >and the only deaths would usually be the first wave or stragglers in the retreat.
      Makes sense. So I'm assuming either the frontline or the rearguard would stall while everyone else ran away.

      >Why the hostility and eagerness to dismiss my post? Nothing I even said here was wrong.
      cant you imagine how small a distance that actually is? if not, I think any of your other questions are similarly dumb. sorry bro

      >cant you imagine how small a distance that actually is?
      It's a person sized distance.
      >I think any of your other questions are similarly dumb.
      I disagree. I think my questions are worth introspection, especially the ones about routs, the pulse theory, and how battles could last for hours

      • 3 weeks ago
        Anonymous

        Battles lasting hours is easy to understand because we do have insight on these matters. We have an hour to hour commentry on the Battle of Agincourt (or it could have been the other one) and we have hour by hour commentary on modern combat as well. Sometimes soldiers are quite literally doing nothing due to the formations whilst others were engaging. We do this in modern combat as well with platoon reserves. If you get stuck in charlie and delta you arent gonna see much and will instead follow up the advancing elements securing the battlefield.

  6. 3 weeks ago
    Anonymous

    >How did spacing work? In movies and video games you see them fighting shoulder to shoulder. But if you read Polybius and Vegetius both claim that each individual Romans fought with 3-6 feet between them. If this is true, then wouldn't Romans be in danger of encirclements?

    3-6 feet isnt a big deal. You literally quoted why Polybus thought it must be that way. They have bigger shields then say a Hoplite and they used those swords to swing. Also for you to be encircled the enemy would have to leave their phalanx and push through the gaps individually which negates the entire strengths of an unit.

    There exists medieval formations where it starts with 15 paces per line and ends up with 6 paces so 3-6 really isnt much.

    If Romans fought in formation, how did they maintain lines during a charge? What if half of Roman army reached the enemy before the other half? Wouldn't they immediate be swarmed and die?

    Charges are a quick coordinated walk. Every man next to each other would be bounding like a rubber band and keeping check how fast their friends next to them can go. If the other half did reach first by a wide margin then yes they would actually be in a danger before the next sections bound up and relieve them.

    >Furthermore, if a soldier killed the enemy in front of him. Did he stand and wait for the next to approach him? Or did he advance ahead of his unit?

    Soldiers dont get to make that decision their section leaders do. They would stay put until they are told to advance.

    If you get your hands on an outdated section fighting manual from an modern army that may help you understand ancient tactics as well.

  7. 3 weeks ago
    Anonymous

    The short answer is we don't know.

    • 3 weeks ago
      Anonymous

      >The short answer is we don't know.
      This is what I figured. I've been studying a lot of historians on the subject, and basically, everyone seems to have their own theories on how formation warfare looked.

      >How did spacing work? In movies and video games you see them fighting shoulder to shoulder. But if you read Polybius and Vegetius both claim that each individual Romans fought with 3-6 feet between them. If this is true, then wouldn't Romans be in danger of encirclements?

      3-6 feet isnt a big deal. You literally quoted why Polybus thought it must be that way. They have bigger shields then say a Hoplite and they used those swords to swing. Also for you to be encircled the enemy would have to leave their phalanx and push through the gaps individually which negates the entire strengths of an unit.

      There exists medieval formations where it starts with 15 paces per line and ends up with 6 paces so 3-6 really isnt much.

      If Romans fought in formation, how did they maintain lines during a charge? What if half of Roman army reached the enemy before the other half? Wouldn't they immediate be swarmed and die?

      Charges are a quick coordinated walk. Every man next to each other would be bounding like a rubber band and keeping check how fast their friends next to them can go. If the other half did reach first by a wide margin then yes they would actually be in a danger before the next sections bound up and relieve them.

      >Furthermore, if a soldier killed the enemy in front of him. Did he stand and wait for the next to approach him? Or did he advance ahead of his unit?

      Soldiers dont get to make that decision their section leaders do. They would stay put until they are told to advance.

      If you get your hands on an outdated section fighting manual from an modern army that may help you understand ancient tactics as well.

      >Charges are a quick coordinated walk. Every man next to each other would be bounding like a rubber band and keeping check how fast their friends next to them can go. If the other half did reach first by a wide margin then yes they would actually be in a danger before the next sections bound up and relieve them.
      Makes sense. You'd keep track of your allies in your peripheral vision and try to match their pace

      • 3 weeks ago
        Anonymous

        > everyone seems to have their own theories
        That's the best we can do until society starts redoing large scale melee formation warfare, until then you can look at riot videos of police with shield breaking up non-shielded protestors and maybe get a few ideas of a roman squad vs some gauls inc fail and success scenarios.

  8. 3 weeks ago
    Anonymous

    >3-6 feet between them.
    this is an incredibly small distance in regards to CQC with edged weapons.
    post dismissed.

    • 3 weeks ago
      Anonymous

      >this is an incredibly small distance in regards to CQC with edged weapons.
      It's still far more than most people think of, especially if you go by Roman army depictions in popular culture.
      >post dismissed.
      ???? Why the hostility and eagerness to dismiss my post? Nothing I even said here was wrong.

      • 3 weeks ago
        Anonymous

        >Why the hostility and eagerness to dismiss my post? Nothing I even said here was wrong.
        cant you imagine how small a distance that actually is? if not, I think any of your other questions are similarly dumb. sorry bro

      • 3 weeks ago
        Anonymous

        >It's still far more than most people think of, especially if you go by Roman army depictions in popular culture.
        If you watch Gladiator's opening scene, they're in formation but still bare minimum 1.5ft - 2ft apart. 3ft isn't that unbelievable. If you've ever performed any kind of physical labour in your life, you can conceptualise yourself in that scenario. A gladius is a stabbing weapon, but you don't swing your arm down a straight axis you follow a curve with a twist for maximum force.

  9. 3 weeks ago
    Anonymous

    >3-6 feet between them
    Grab a broomstick in the middle and hold it out horizontally. That's about the amount of space you have to fight in. It's more snug than you imagine.

  10. 3 weeks ago
    Anonymous

    >In movies and video games you see them fighting shoulder to shoulder. But if you read Polybius and Vegetius both claim that each individual Romans fought with 3-6 feet between them
    You're wrong. That's not a lot of feet. And some popular depictions of media do get it right, like Alexander and Gladiator

    • 3 weeks ago
      Anonymous

      Note the spacing of Alexander's troops here.

      While it's a Macedonian formation, it still shows what a Roman formation would've looked like spacing wise

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