Book Review: Legion Versus Phalanx by Myke Cole.

Nerd isn’t the name one would generally associate with Myke Cole & from the picture on the back flap of Legion versus Phalanx, as a stranger you’d certainly think twice about calling any name he didn’t OK to his face. However, Cole is a self-confessed nerd and he has roared. In fact he has roared many times, but this is his first history book and for those of us who have encountered him on Twitter, his bark is worse than his bite, (unless you are a Spartan fanboy of course).

Stats, production and appearance:
Short code: GNM
Publication Date: 18 Oct 2018
Number of Pages: 288
Although Osprey is more famous for its booklet size illustrated publications it produces some excellent hardcovers as well. This one is packed with superb artwork and maps to go along with each battle, an index and a bibliography. It’s an easy read in terms of time, I got through it in about a week and a half. The binding is quite flexible so don’t wedge it in too many places or leave it open, but the paper quality is good. The attractive dust jacket doesn’t have any of that awful faux gilt either, so you can read it without having to take it off.

This book has its origins in a discussion almost as old as the subject. How did the legion defeat the phalanx? Or perhaps the question is why? To look at the stats the phalanx should have won every time, and a lot of people are fascinated with how a head on clash must have gone. However, as Cole says early on, the question has already been answered, the legion won and it won convincingly. Despite this, the debate runs onwards, which makes the fact that there has never been a standalone study of the epic clash for ancient infantry supremacy all the more extraordinary.

Coles’s book is the most accessible introduction to ancient warfare that I’ve read. I believe he is not overstating it when he claims that a complete newcomer to the subject will be able to understand everything that is going on. The book starts strong, and there’s allot to like about it. I mean anyone who sticks to BC and AD is already on the right track for me. Those needing an easy “in” for ancient history would be advised to get Legion Versus Phalanx. Part of the reason is because the author is more than happy to admit he doesn’t have the answers when the source material runs out. So rather than diving into a deep discussion an honest reality is injected. 

The first three chapters are devoted to aspects of ancient warfare and the opposing military systems, the phalanx and the legion. Then you get non stop battles and characters all the way to the finish. These early chapters are the foundation of the book, transmitting the basic picture in the author’s mind effectively onto the page, building up an image of the opposing forces for us to reference when the fighting starts.
Cole’s goal is to reach the uninitiated and asks for patience from the more experienced and scholarly. There is indeed a liberal use of parallels and imagery, yet they aren’t as ghastly as the run of the mill “equivalent to a modern tank” drivel you see parroted around all the flipping time.

The phalanx section will be an eye opener for some, and there’s a lot of soldierly sense included in it, military logic, both ancient and modern is deployed to good effect. Though in the early stages I was concerned that the author would do what some popular writers did in the past, and totally substitute ancient rank names and usage for approximate modern ranks and designations. Dando Collins’ vivid “biographies” of the legions for instance are distracting due to his insistence on using terms like battalion, division, brigade, colonel and General etc. However, Cole is “nerdy” enough to know how annoying that is and only refers a few times to brigades, which is a relief.

In some ways Cole has his work cut out for him. Reconstructing ancient combat is challenging. For while it seems perfectly obvious how a phalanx would engage a Legion, it opposite isn’t as clear. Phalanxes after all derived from a time when warfare was very simple. Citizen hoplites could be relied upon for their warlike, offensive spirit, but not allot of tactical flexibility. Thus much as in the days of the French Republic, the most efficient way of utilising well armed militias, IE getting as many men as possible into action, was to make them stand shoulder to shoulder in a deep formation and make them walk towards the enemy in a straight line. It’s no wonder therefore that in the old classical days opposing phalanx armies would go to a specific, pre agreed spot to fight. 

As this book shows; the phalanx never evolved into a tacitlaly flexible unit. Even under the Hellenistic kings it was best used  as Alexander had used it, as the anvil. Point it at the enemy and let the mobile flanks do the rest. Which is why I was puzzled when Cole describes the phalanx as a defensive formation, something I was unable to reconcile with its most common employment, especially in Hellenistic times, and indeed during the Persian wars and intervening, to attack and pin an enemy, from where it usually forced said enemy back, or held it at bay. Indeed perhaps it might be argued that the ability of the legion’s opposing attack to halt the phalanx was perhaps a vital key to defeating the Hellenistic system. That being said this was my only real qualm, and an anvil is there to absorb punishment, so in a way, Cole still has a point.

Because of this simplistic use of an organisationally complex body, it is not at all apparent how a legion would engage a phalanx and force it back without outflanking it. Yet warfare is much more complicated than it seems in movies and novels. For instance the Persians were consistently able to engage and delay the movement of phalanxes, and indeed at certain battles even put them under extreme pressure. So if the Persians could do that, imagine what a republican legion could do.

What becomes clear as we move through the wars of the Republic, is that this is exactly the point. The Romans found out that they could under certain circumstances get into a phalanx, but it was much simpler to allow it to do the work for them. It drives forwards or stands still, the hard truth is that the phalanx was developed for well armed militias with little tactical ability and never progressed except in weaponry. therefore why not go around the side? But at first they were devilishly tricky to fight, and it seems that it was through fanatical courage alone that the Romans managed to hold against Phyrrus of Epirus.

With Pyrrhus we can quickly see, just like with Alexander, the phalanx doesn’t win the battle, the cavalry does, but then neither does the cavalry win battles without the stolidity of the phalanx, and often (even for the Romans) the winning cards, the elephants.

Cole’s book does what a book on ancient warfare should do, it entertains and it will get you thinking. For instance, this thought occurred to me as I neared the end. The uneven nature of a legionary battle line, drawn up in its famous checkerboard, would theoretically present a difficult environment for a single entity like a phalanx, composed as it was of multiple files (incapable of independent movement) in a continuous line, to oppose. Those gaping gaps and the difficulty of command and control, communications etc, would surely have caused utter confusion in an advancing pike wall, as portions would come into combat while others were still moving. Causing at the very least a loss of cohesion along the entire battle-line and forcing the entire thing to eventually halt and remain static, unable to exert pressure and put onto the defensive. Then again the Roman’s flexible system of supporting lines would allow an efficient rotation of troops without fear of pursuit due to the inability of the components of a Hellenistic phalanx to move independently. Not to mention what the effect of three-quarters of a legion’s worth of javelins would do, thrown over the lowered pikes but below the raised ones, into the faces and chest’s of a front line.

Myke Cole has written an accessible, entertaining and detailed narrative of the development of infantry warfare in the ancient world. If as is suggested st the end, a military system is a representation of the society it comes from, then there is a lesson there. Today western armies work on the model of the intelligence and activity of the individual soldier, who acts nonetheless as part of a team of active individuals. 

Oppose this to the concept of the ancient armies we read about in legion and phalanx, we see the phalanx represents the spirit of the collective, thousands working as one, all dependant on everyone doing the same thing at the same time. Versus the Roman model, still dependant on many minds as one, but organised to afford the possibility of initiative. For there is a difference in the end between training men the same way, and making them think (or not think) the same way. With the Legion we see that the state was one of disciplined individuals, with more emphasis on the intelligence and activity of the soldier. And when we see that we do not see Athens, Sparta or Macedon, can we can yet again see the legacy of Rome today. 

In celebration of the book, please leave a comment detailing what you think is a classic legion vs phalanx battle.

To start the game, I’d like to throw in a battle fought during the first Punic War, the battle of Tunis saw a Spartan Officer called Xanthippus throw a line of elephants, supported by the old phalanx of “doru” wielding Carthaginian levies at the Roman legions and with cavalry superiority on the flanks he won a decisive victory. 

Happy reading!

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