The Nitpicker’s Guide to Ancient Warfare: Shield wall and Pike phalanx

By David Flin

This series of articles is the first draft of what will hopefully be a book published by Sgt. Frosty Publications

Sumerian phalanx-like formation c. 2400 BC, from detail of the victory stele of King Eannatum of Lagash over Umma, called the Stele of the Vultures

Everyone knows that the best defence against a cavalry charge is a spear or pike phalanx. A densely packed crowd of troops all presenting spears or pikes to form a sharp, pointy, lethal hedge of spikes that the oncoming horses sheer away from.

That’s the theory and, to be fair, it usually works very well in practice.

There’s just one problem. Moving a densely packed crowd of troops, each holding a 10-16’ pole, around in any sort of organised way isn’t easy. If you aren’t used to doing it, that crowd of troops quickly starts getting in each other’s way as they try to move from A to B. It isn’t long before they become an ineffective mob.

That’s where training comes in – to enable the pike block to move as a coordinated group.

It gets more complicated, and hence needs more practice, for troops armed with spear and shield (such as hoplites or a traditional shield wall) to move in a coordinated fashion.

Traditionally, Saxon shield walls tended to be static for precisely the reason that the fyrd were part-time troops. Manoeuvres with interlocked shields were beyond their training. Groups with greater training levels – such as the Greek hoplites – could conduct basic manoeuvres while retaining formation integrity.

If we extend the shield wall to include troops armed with short swords, then you get the Roman legions, trained to a very high standard. A legion consisted of a number of smaller units, the cohort, which itself was subdivided into centuries, which was a unit of manoeuvre. This gave the legion very flexible and sophisticated tactical options.

To give an idea of how much the Romans trained as units, Vegetius in his Dr Re Militari, wrote:

No part of drill is more essential in action than for soldiers to keep their ranks with the greatest exactness, without opening or closing too much. Troops too much crowded can never fight as they ought, and only embarrass one another. If their order is too open and loose, they give the enemy an opportunity of penetrating. Whenever this happens and they are attacked in the rear, universal disorder and confusion are inevitable.

He then talks about different drills, and goes on to say:

These evolutions, often practised in the field of exercise, will be found easy in execution on actual service.


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David Flin is a writer and owner of Sgt. Frosty Publications. His books can be found there.