Ancient and Medieval battles: going deep vs going long. Isn't going deep a terrible idea?

Feb 2019
9
USA
Going deep gives you one big advantage: reserves. Even if your front line gets broken, there is another line of infantry step up and stabilize the situation. If you have only one line, then, generally, once that line gets broken, the whole army routs. Also, your 2nd and third line troops are rested, and if need be, they can be peeled off and respond to developments on the battlefield, like at Pharsalus.

Romans used triplex acies for centuries. Clearly it had something going for it. Here's what Wikipedia had to say about it: Roman infantry tactics - Wikipedia

Right, but again, why have them pressed right up against the back of another Unit when you can have them farther back so they can both reinforce whatever area of the line is breaking (not just the area they are pressed against), while also preventing total envelopment?

Oops, I accidentally responded to you twice, I meant to respond to someone else and it doesn't let you delete replies.
 
Feb 2019
9
USA
Not saying that Total War is anywhere close to an accurate representation of ancient warfare, but I've been working wonders in multiplayer in Rome 2 putting my forces into a triple line rather than one extended line.

Why? Because of reserves.

I can send detachments around the flank of my enemy, guard against flanking attacks, and reinforce my battle line if the front rank is broken. I've only had two foes successfully deal with it, one of them also using a multi-line approach as opposed to the more common enveloping tactic.

That's probably the most critical part; if a long, but thin line breaks anywhere, then it's pretty much game over as the men swarm in the breech and split the army in half. In battle, the frontline troops are likely to get battered, tired, and demoralized. While ideally you can swap them out in lulls in the fighting, if they do break, there's men behind them who can fill in the gap and prevent the army from being split. And, they are less likely to break if there's a large amount of men behind them.

Interesting, but why have reserves pressed right up against the back of one unit when you can have them farther back so they can respond to any breaks in the line more easily while also preventing envelopment?
 
Feb 2019
9
USA
Did it? At Leuktra, the Spartans were in the middle of extending their phalanx to the right in order to outflank the Thebans when their own cavalry retreated in disorder and disrupted the phalanx. THEN they were hit by the Theban infantry, apparently including the 50-deep phalanx (though only the Sacred Band is specifically mentioned). At that point "a furious fight broke out". The Spartans did NOT break instantly, nor were they swept from the battlefield. It sounds like they stopped that Theban column cold, in spite of being overextended and disordered.

I strongly suspect the deep Theban phalanx was designed to counter an outflanking wheel by the Spartan right, it which case it just might have worked. Hopefully it wasn't designed to punch through the Spartan line like a battering ram, because it seems to have failed at that.

I tend to agree that deep formations have their use, but are not (and *were* not) automatically assumed to be better at punching through an enemy line, nor for simply adding more weight to the "push". But getting definite answers may be impossible without training several armies to try killing each other with historical weapons, and experimenting with various formations and concepts. We *can* learn a lot from reenactments, riot police actions, the mechanisms of moving crowds, etc., but without the same lethal intent as an ancient battle, our conclusions must be cautious at best.

Matthew
Leuctra was one of the battles that really made me question this. In a reconstruction of the battle by BazBattles on YouTube, the narrator says it added "pushing power." They also went deep in only the left flank which makes the argument that they were preventing some sort of break in the line at the center irrelevant. Here's the video here
skip to 7:20 to go straight to the battle.
 
Mar 2018
890
UK
Right, but again, why have them pressed right up against the back of another Unit when you can have them farther back so they can both reinforce whatever area of the line is breaking (not just the area they are pressed against), while also preventing total envelopment?

Oops, I accidentally responded to you twice, I meant to respond to someone else and it doesn't let you delete replies.

The formations were often not that deep! Even for a deep formation like a phalanx it was only ~10. It doesn't take many people in a file to get injured, and then for a few to get a bit wobbly before everyone turns back and runs. Not to mention that this isn't Napoleonic warfare were the fighting is done at a distance, this is in man-on-man. There's a lot of pushing and shoving at close distance. If one part of your line gets pushed back by even only 10 meters, the flanks of its neighbouring units are already vulnerable. Not to mention that people in the front line are going to have minor injuries from thrown missiles or glancing slashes/stabs and will need to at least temporarily have a breather. Having a local reserve is useful for that. Not to mention that if a line is less than 5 or so men deep, it would quite easily be literally cut in half by a single cavalry charge.

Depth might not help hugely in breaking the enemy line, but it definitely gives its own line staying power. It's note worthy to hold that the armies that depended the most on the cohesiveness of their own formations preferred a deeper deployment to the more "horde-like" armies.

Now you do also went a strategic reserve that the general can distribute at will. The Romans did that with the triplex axies with world conquering success. Phalanxes are a bit different as they are a solid block of men, rotating a whole phalanx from the front line to the middle line is impossible. You want the phalanx to be as cohesive as possible, so it's easier to have it's reserves "fused on" where the rear ranks fold out to the flanks or vice-versa.
 

aggienation

Ad Honorem
Jul 2016
9,813
USA
Did it? At Leuktra, the Spartans were in the middle of extending their phalanx to the right in order to outflank the Thebans when their own cavalry retreated in disorder and disrupted the phalanx. THEN they were hit by the Theban infantry, apparently including the 50-deep phalanx (though only the Sacred Band is specifically mentioned). At that point "a furious fight broke out". The Spartans did NOT break instantly, nor were they swept from the battlefield. It sounds like they stopped that Theban column cold, in spite of being overextended and disordered.

I strongly suspect the deep Theban phalanx was designed to counter an outflanking wheel by the Spartan right, it which case it just might have worked. Hopefully it wasn't designed to punch through the Spartan line like a battering ram, because it seems to have failed at that.

I tend to agree that deep formations have their use, but are not (and *were* not) automatically assumed to be better at punching through an enemy line, nor for simply adding more weight to the "push". But getting definite answers may be impossible without training several armies to try killing each other with historical weapons, and experimenting with various formations and concepts. We *can* learn a lot from reenactments, riot police actions, the mechanisms of moving crowds, etc., but without the same lethal intent as an ancient battle, our conclusions must be cautious at best.

Matthew
I like Paul Bardunias' theory that the Thebans, who were noted for their skill in wrestling, stopped the Spartans, who were noted for their love of music and supposedly practiced a flute synchronized othismos pushing tactic, by stacking their phalanx deep. This worked because the bowl of the aspis allows the carrier to breath unrestricted while sticking his aspis into the back of the man in front, and while having an aspis wedged against his own back. With most other shield types it doesn't work, especially the Roman scutum.
 
Feb 2019
9
USA
The formations were often not that deep! Even for a deep formation like a phalanx it was only ~10. It doesn't take many people in a file to get injured, and then for a few to get a bit wobbly before everyone turns back and runs. Not to mention that this isn't Napoleonic warfare were the fighting is done at a distance, this is in man-on-man. There's a lot of pushing and shoving at close distance. If one part of your line gets pushed back by even only 10 meters, the flanks of its neighbouring units are already vulnerable. Not to mention that people in the front line are going to have minor injuries from thrown missiles or glancing slashes/stabs and will need to at least temporarily have a breather. Having a local reserve is useful for that. Not to mention that if a line is less than 5 or so men deep, it would quite easily be literally cut in half by a single cavalry charge.

Depth might not help hugely in breaking the enemy line, but it definitely gives its own line staying power. It's note worthy to hold that the armies that depended the most on the cohesiveness of their own formations preferred a deeper deployment to the more "horde-like" armies.

Now you do also went a strategic reserve that the general can distribute at will. The Romans did that with the triplex axies with world conquering success. Phalanxes are a bit different as they are a solid block of men, rotating a whole phalanx from the front line to the middle line is impossible. You want the phalanx to be as cohesive as possible, so it's easier to have it's reserves "fused on" where the rear ranks fold out to the flanks or vice-versa.
Those are great points, however, there is one thing you are forgetting when you talk about pushing. "There's a lot of pushing and shoving at close distance. If one part of your line gets pushed back by even only 10 meters, the flanks of its neighbouring units are already vulnerable." How would going deep prevent this? Like I said, if the backline doesn't also move back, all they would be doing is squeezing the frontline. Therefore, no matter how deep a line is, pushing the frontline would push the entire line unless the backlines wanted to help the enemy squeeze them, right?
 

sparky

Ad Honorem
Jan 2017
5,349
Sydney
The normal battle was a center and two wings , that was the deployment across history and locations

if there was some possibility , a force striking from the side ( or even better from behind ) when the battle was engaged was nice to have

for army pre firearms , moving reserves forward wasn't that easy , they would add to the mess in the center
units were at their most efficient when moving as a block , else they quickly turned into a rabble

if there was reserves , they would be better employed to extend the front or to thicken the line

most battle would see a side bending or breaking pretty quickly , all daylight battles were very rare
most of the time , both army were staring at each other ,
one made a move , everybody joined in and something gave way pretty fast

don't forget that communications were rather primitive , command and control was poor
usually there would be an agreed plan the night before ,
the only on the spot command was for the men immediately close
 
Sep 2017
783
United States
Interesting, but why have reserves pressed right up against the back of one unit when you can have them farther back so they can respond to any breaks in the line more easily while also preventing envelopment?
That's what I mean. I don't keep them right behind, I give them some room so that they can either flank, prevent a flank, or reinforce the front line.
 
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Jan 2016
1,146
Victoria, Canada
Those are great points, however, there is one thing you are forgetting when you talk about pushing. "There's a lot of pushing and shoving at close distance. If one part of your line gets pushed back by even only 10 meters, the flanks of its neighbouring units are already vulnerable." How would going deep prevent this? Like I said, if the backline doesn't also move back, all they would be doing is squeezing the frontline. Therefore, no matter how deep a line is, pushing the frontline would push the entire line unless the backlines wanted to help the enemy squeeze them, right?
The "pushing" is something of a metaphor, describing a process much more psychological than physical. You don't literally have guys shoving back enemy soldiers shield-to-shield or anything, but confident and/or better soldiers advancing inch by inch and forcing an inferior enemy force to slowly back up and give up ground, thus being "pushed" back. Concentrating additional men along the line increases the confidence of the attackers, and increases the psychological pressure on the defenders, making them more liable to back up while shielding themselves from enemy attacks and thus eventually break the coherence of the line, which was almost always disastrous. Adding a second line would not only help prevent this, but also help prevent routs, allow sections of the line to be reinforced when necessary, allow a quick response to flanking maneuvers, and from Late Antiquity onward provide an internal refuge for skirmishers and cavalry.
 
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aggienation

Ad Honorem
Jul 2016
9,813
USA
The "pushing" is something of a metaphor, describing a process much more psychological than physical. You don't literally have guys shoving back enemy soldiers shield-to-shield or anything, but confident and/or better soldiers advancing inch by inch and forcing an inferior enemy force to slowly back up and give up ground, thus being "pushed" back. Concentrating additional men along the line increases the confidence of the attackers, and increases the psychological pressure on the defenders, making them more liable to back up while shielding themselves from enemy attacks and thus eventually break the coherence of the line, which was almost always disastrous. Adding a second line would not only help prevent this, but also help prevent routs, allow sections of the line to be reinforced when necessary, allow a quick response to flanking maneuvers, and from Late Antiquity onward provide an internal refuge for skirmishers and cavalry.
Sometimes pushing is a metaphor, other times it was true. There are those who take the literal view of Greek hoplite othismos seriously, for which there is evidence of it at least occasionally to have happened, to the point that it being a possible phase of hoplite vs hoplite battle has lots of merit. Then there are quite a few descriptions of it occasionally happening during Roman battles, medieval too, where sometimes infantry vs infantry combat came down to literally two sides shoving with their shields.

I can say as someone extremely knowledgeable about Republican and early Principate warfare, shield on shield pushing definitely wasn't preferred, as those shield styles (scutum and thureos variations of it) don't do well in that role because of the center shield boss/umbo. And their method of fighting, throwing pila and how they used swords required decent spacing between ranks and side to side, and space in the fore to attack enemy and spring back kind of like boxing, to have the maneuverability described by a few sources that describe a loose form of combat. But even with them it occasional morphed into really close and cramped fighting shield to shield with some shoving (though not as a true collective battle tactic, more as chance).