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Old May 3rd, 2010, 06:30 PM   #1

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Cool Imperial Rome's Greek Phalanxes


On another recent thread I mentioned several units in the Roman Imperial Army - the first dating to the reign of Caracalla (211-217 AD) and the second to the reign of Severus Alexander (222-235 AD) - that were allegedly armed in imitation of the old Spartan and/or Macedonian phalanxes.

Our only contemporary sources on these units are the historians Cassius Dio Cocceianus and Herodianus, and the dubious Historia Augustae. Dio was a Bithynian who had a distinguished, if somewhat stormy public career under all the Severan Emperors, dying in his homeland c. 230 AD around the age of 70. Though he despised Antoninus - "Caracalla" - he was nonetheless a close member of his retinue and observed many of the events of his reign firsthand.

Herodianus was a Syrian who wrote in the middle of the Third Century. His history covers Rome from the ascension of Marcus Aurelius in 161 AD to the death of Severus Alexander in 235 AD. He also mentions, though in less detail, the phalanx of Caracalla.

In this brief article, I will quote what Dio, Herodian, and the Historia Augustae all have to say about these phalanxes, before briefly looking some modern theories about them.

He (Antoninus) organized a phalanx, sixteen thousand men, of Macedonians alone, named it "Alexander's Phalanx" (Phalanx Alexandriana), and equipped it with the arms which warriors had used in his day. These were: a helmet of raw oxhide, a three-ply linen breastplate, a bronze shield, long pike (sarissa), short spear (pilum?), high boots, sword (gladius).

That was his behavior while in winter quarters at Nicomedea. He also trained the Macedonian phalanx. He constructed to very large engines for the Armenian and for the Parthian war, so that he could take them to pieces and carry them over on boats to Syria.

-Dio

Caracalla himself went around in Macedonian dress, affecting especially the broad sun hat and short boots. He enrolled picked youths in a unit which he labeled his Macedonian phalanx (Phalanx Macedonica); its officers bore the names of Alexander's generals. He also summoned picked young men from Sparta and formed a unit which he called his Laconian and Pitanate Battalion (Cohors Laconica et Pitanata?)

When he (Caracalla) observed that the city was overflowing with people who had come in from the surrounding area, he issued a public proclamation directing all the young men to assemble in a broad plain, saying that he wished to organized a phalanx in honor of Alexander similar to his Macedonian and Spartan battalions, this unit to bear the name of the hero.

Furthermore (Caracalla wrote to Artabanus), the Roman infantry were invincible in close-quarter combat with spears

-Herodian

He (Severus Alexander) made every attempt to...surpass the Macedonian king. He had a phalanx of 30,000 men whom he ordered to be called phalangarii, and with these he won many victories in Persia. This phalanx...was formed from six legions, and was armed like the other troops

-Historia Augusta account of Severus Alexander

These are, to my knowledge, the only contemporary accounts of the phalanxes raised by Caracalla and apparently also Severus Alexander. Both of these men - especially the former - were obsessed with Alexander the Great, and like him dreamed of conquering the East.

The Historia Augustae was written during the reign of Diocletian (284-305) and is generally considered to be of little worth, just propoganda, malicious gossip, and legends commited to writing. Though it is very unlikely that Alexander mustered up six full legions for his Persian Wars (at that time, most legions were operating in cohort-sized detachments called vexillations), there is nothing directly implausible about the Historia Augustae's account of his calling his Persian War veterans "phalangarii". Indeed, there is an unpublished tombstone of a legionary of the II Parthica who died in Persian in the mid 230's AD, whose epitaph allegedly describes him as a "phalangarius" - a direct confirmation of the above account.

There is nothing overly shocking about Severus Alexander's naming his army a "phalanx" in imitation of the Macedonian - especially since even the usually far-fetched Historia Augustae claims that no changes were made to their equipment. Caracalla's phalanx, however, is far more interesting and challenging to look at...

Caracalla was not only responsible for inventing or popularizing a type of cloak, but also for instigating a bizarre military experiment unique in the Roman world - which, if nothing else, reminds us of the effects one individual could have on Roman equipment.

-Graham Sumner on Caracalla's phalanxes

Caracalla's Spartan/Laconian et Pitanate Phalanx, raised from youthful recruits from the Peloponnese, appears to have been a standard sized cohort. They presumably had "legionary" status, though as a special unit raised at the whim of a ruler, they do not appear to have been officially considered legionaries or auxiliaries. Several tombstones of men from this unit have been found, which apparently prove that it was a standardly-organized cohort of 480 or 960 fighting men with divided into six or twelve companies commanded by centurions. The tombstone of one of these men - Aurelius Alexianus - depicts him as a typical legionary, even wearing the soon-to-be-outdated lorica segmentata armor. Only his Spartan "pilos" cap - and his Latinized Greek name - give away his Hellenistic identity.

In his book Imperial Roman Legionary AD 161 - 284, Scottish historian Ross Cowan takes a rather cynical view of the Macedonian Phalanx. He suggests that - like Severus Alexander's phalanx - it was a normal army of typically equipped legionaries. He even suggests that - based on the number of 16,000 men - it was the name given to the combined strength of the Emperor's twin guard units, the Praetorian Guard and the II Parthica Legion.

Dio specifically describes the equipment of the Phalanx, but Cowan reminds us that most of them were also in use by the Roman army. Some legionaries had always carried thrusting spears (hasta) - even if these could hardly be compared with Macedonian sarissae. The shorter spear could be a pilum or a lancaea, and the linen armor could be the padded subarmilis that Roman soldiers had always worn as a lighter alternative to chainmail or loricas.

Whether Caracalla's Macedonian Phalanx was simply a grandly-named army of typical legionaries - or whether it truly was a bizarre early experiment in historical reenacting - may now be impossible to determine.
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Old May 4th, 2010, 02:31 AM   #2

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Re: Imperial Rome's Greek Phalanxes


You star. Is there any evidence of any battles they fought in?
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Old May 4th, 2010, 05:37 AM   #3

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Re: Imperial Rome's Greek Phalanxes


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Originally Posted by Sargon of Akkad View Post
You star. Is there any evidence of any battles they fought in?
None directly, but they very likely fought in Caracalla's Parthian/Armenian wars (215-217 AD), possibly the brief civil war of 218, and likely subsequent battles with Parthians and early Sassanid Persians, at least as late as the 230's.
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Old May 4th, 2010, 05:43 AM   #4

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Re: Imperial Rome's Greek Phalanxes


Darn, I really wanted to know how they fared, as they're quite anachronistic during this time period.

You're still my Roman History Hero, though, Salah ad-Din!
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Old May 4th, 2010, 05:44 AM   #5

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Re: Imperial Rome's Greek Phalanxes


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You're still my Roman History Hero, though, Salah ad-Din!
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Old May 4th, 2010, 07:43 AM   #6
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Re: Imperial Rome's Greek Phalanxes


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Confirmation that Caracalla's phalanx really existed and fought as a phalanx, and is not just anti-Caracallan propaganda from two hostile
writers, is provided by the 3rd-century inscription of a trainee (or instructor?) phalangite, "discen[s? or t?] phalang[arii?]", of leg.
II Parthica, from Apamea - see http://members.tripod.com/~S_van_Dorst/Ancient_Warfare/Rome/Sources/ektaxis.html and
http://pub45.ezboard.com/fromanarmytalkfrm1.showPrevMessage?topicID=423.top ic This legion was in winter quarters there frequently in the first half of the 3rd century, including in 215-216 and 217-8 (Balty p.13).
Since II Parthica was previously stationed at Alba near Rome by Caracalla's father Severus, it may have been that legion that formed the nucleus of Caracalla's phalanx.
In that case Dio may be right that the first elements of the phalanx were trained as early as 212, drawing on men of II Parthica, but it was only
expanded to a real combat formation from drafts of Macedonian recruits trained in Nicomedia in preparation for the Armenian and Parthian campaigns that began in 214.
The existence of a large force fighting with the pike may be why Caracalla allegedly told the Parthian king that "the Romans had an infantry force which was invincible in close-quarter fighting with spears" (ten dia doraton sustaden machen - Herodian 4.10.3), using the same word that Dio uses
for the Macedonian-style pike rather than emphasising the legions' traditional throwing-spears and swords.

(It is also possible that the Apamea instructor was later, training Severus Alexander's "phalangarii"; but since the text of the Historia Augusta seems to say that their weapons were the same as those of the other legions, they are unlikely to have needed specialist training.) ...

Ross Cowan has recently suggested (in "Imperial Roman Legionary AD 161-284") that Caracalla's Macedonians were in fact armed in normal Roman style, and that Severus Alexander's use of phalangarii for troops armed in normal Roman style and the artistic evidence that Caracalla's Spartan lochos were also armed in Roman style (see below) "proves that the `phalanx' was simply a title applied to regular units fighting in the East wishing to emulate the glorious victories of Alexander the Great". Clearly this was one factor, and in the case of Nero's and Severus Alexander's forces it was
presumably the overriding one. But I am not at all convinced in the case of Caracalla's Macedonians.
Read more within this wonderful review (please quote it rightly if required) http://tabulaenovaeexercituum.pbwork...Imperial+Roman
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Old May 4th, 2010, 07:46 AM   #7

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Re: Imperial Rome's Greek Phalanxes


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Read more within this wonderful review (please quote it rightly if required) http://tabulaenovaeexercituum.pbwork...Imperial+Roman
I've read this article before, though I couldn't find it whilst looking for sources for this thread. Thank you for bringing it into the discussion, Sylla.
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Old May 4th, 2010, 07:56 AM   #8
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Re: Imperial Rome's Greek Phalanxes


My own impression (just that!) is that the purported affinity with Alexander from the later Severans was a deliberate propagandistic maneuver that probably came from the founder of the dynasty.

In all likelihood it pretended to justify the ascendancy of the predictably young Severan rulers over the great Roman military state (i.e. analogous to the famous Macedonian king).

Even if useless in the long run, it seems like a nice strategy to me; in hindsight, it was well worth a try.
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Old May 4th, 2010, 09:21 AM   #9

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Re: Imperial Rome's Greek Phalanxes


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Originally Posted by sylla1 View Post
My own impression (just that!) is that the purported affinity with Alexander from the later Severans was a deliberate propagandistic maneuver that probably came from the founder of the dynasty.

In all likelihood it pretended to justify the ascendancy of the predictably young Severan rulers over the great Roman military state (i.e. analogous to the famous Macedonian king).

Even if useless in the long run, it seems like a nice strategy to me; in hindsight, it was well worth a try.
I agree with you here fully. Propoganda was a weapon that the Severans - perhaps most of all, Septimius Severus himself - loved to use. When he first took the reigns of the Empire, Severus renamed his sons Bassianus and Septimius Geta: Marcus Aurelius Antoninus and Marcus Aurelius Geta, respectively, and encouraged a rumor that Marcus Aurelius had adopted him on his deathbed.
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Old May 4th, 2010, 09:32 AM   #10
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Re: Imperial Rome's Greek Phalanxes


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I agree with you here fully. Propoganda was a weapon that the Severans - perhaps most of all, Septimius Severus himself - loved to use. When he first took the reigns of the Empire, Severus renamed his sons Bassianus and Septimius Geta: Marcus Aurelius Antoninus and Marcus Aurelius Geta, respectively, and encouraged a rumor that Marcus Aurelius had adopted him on his deathbed.
Actually far more than a rumor; it was the official version. That's where the Imperial name of Bassianus (aka Caracalla) came; from his official "grandad". In fact, Commodus himself was eventually rehabilitated and deified, as the "brother" of the founder of the dynasty.
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