Was the Greco-Roman phalanx superior to ancient Chinese formations and tactics?

Nov 2017
789
Commune
#1
This is a very common claim I've found here, in Total War and other forums, that part of the reason why the Roman Empire had a superior army to the Han dynasty is that it either had Greek phalanx formations or defeated Greek phalanx formations in its conquest of Greek states, something that the Han supposedly lacked.

So how true is this claim? Is the phalanx really that superior? Is it true the ancient Chinese didn't have any counter to the phalanx? How true is it that the ancient Chinese during the Qin and the Han also didn't have phalanx tactics or formations?

Edit: To better define the time period, I'm talking from 500 BCE to the end of the Three Kingdoms period.
 
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Mar 2018
735
UK
#2
A bunch of bizarre claims here. The romans didn't use phalanxes when they conquered Greece. There's no such thing as a "best" formation in general. At most, there's a best one given the terrain, your equipment, the enemy you're facing, and a million other factors.

By the same argument, there's no such thing as a best army. Both the Hellenistic and the Han armies where very good at what they did. What's the point of further comparisons? How do you even define "best" here?
 
Nov 2017
789
Commune
#3
A bunch of bizarre claims here. The romans didn't use phalanxes when they conquered Greece. There's no such thing as a "best" formation in general. At most, there's a best one given the terrain, your equipment, the enemy you're facing, and a million other factors.

By the same argument, there's no such thing as a best army. Both the Hellenistic and the Han armies where very good at what they did. What's the point of further comparisons? How do you even define "best" here?
Better and superior in that one of the armies would win more often than not against the other if they meet. The claim I constantly see is that ancient Chinese armies would lose against Greek and Roman armies because they lacked or never fought phalanxes.
 
Apr 2018
726
France
#4
This is a very common claim I've found here, in Total War and other forums, that part of the reason why the Roman Empire had a superior army to the Han dynasty is that it either had Greek phalanx formations or defeated Greek phalanx formations in its conquest of Greek states, something that the Han supposedly lacked.

So how true is this claim? Is the phalanx really that superior? Is it true the ancient Chinese didn't have any counter to the phalanx? How true is it that the ancient Chinese during the Qin and the Han also didn't have phalanx tactics or formations?

Edit: To better define the time period, I'm talking from 500 BCE to the end of the Three Kingdoms period.
You can ask to the Persians that have been repeatedly defeated by the hoplitic phalanx first, and annihilated by the macedonian phalanx after. Despite huge number superiority.
These are two different type of phalanxes and there is no evidence that chinese had to fight versus these formations.

Roman used the hoplitic phalanx but changed it introducing the maniple, and then fought versus the macedonian phalanx.
 
Mar 2012
2,351
#5
I think it would initially be a challenge because the Chinese never fought against anything like it. But I have seen (though I cannot source at the moment) where the Han were capable of some very sophisticated formations, so they might have had something in the bag that could deal with it.

I think what a lot of people don't get is that a lot of warfare is like a rocks-scissors-paper game. The Romans occasionally had trouble against mounted archers, for example, because they rarely fought them. But once they got going in a war agasint the Parthians or Scythians, and used proper formations, mounted archers could literally do nothing to them. This would be the same. I could see a phalanx punching through a Chinese line once, but then the Chinese would adapt, and it would not have such a shock value. Han armies has a lot of tools in the toolbox, so to speak.

By the way, the Romans did not use the phalanx, but the more flexible legion.
 
Apr 2018
726
France
#6
Anyway the question is misplaced.
As already written, roman really used only the hoplitic phalanx and defeated the macedonian phalanx using the legion which was based on the more versatile cohort, using a broad range of formations (square, enlarged formations, closed formations, circle, circle with archers inside, wedge, counter wedge, ...) according to the conditions.

The point is not the Roman had superiority because they fought using the phalanx or versus the phalanx, the point is that they fought a wider range of fighting styles.
 
Jul 2016
9,468
USA
#8
A couple points. Legion is Anglicized for Legio, which literally means levy. The legion was a unit type of Roman citizens, composing heavy and light infantry, cavalry, and non-combatants, that would be combined with allies (Socii) to form an army/exercitus.

Early in Rome's history the Romans are said to have fought similarly to a hoplite phalanx, similarly used by the Greeks of Hellas (a place) and Magna Graecia (another place). From this point, the Romans/Italians and the Greeks generally went to separate directions in terms of organization, formations, tactics. The Greeks, by way of the Macedonians, promoted combined arms tactics of pikemen, light infantry, and heavy and light cavalry, while the Roman shifted to the famous manipular system (maniple=handful), breaking down the phalanx into individual units that were separated by gaps, in numerous lines, typically three; the Roman system contained cavalry but was still infantry centric.

The term phalanx, used by Greek writers, had numerous different meanings. Sometimes they refer to hoplite phalanx, other times Macedonian style sarissa phalanx (which are commonly referred to as Phalangites among modern English speaking historians), and it it meant simply battle line of infantry, applied even to Romans during the Manipular and Cohortal Legion period, making it ever more confusing.
 
Nov 2017
789
Commune
#9
You can ask to the Persians that have been repeatedly defeated by the hoplitic phalanx first, and annihilated by the macedonian phalanx after. Despite huge number superiority.
These are two different type of phalanxes and there is no evidence that chinese had to fight versus these formations.

Roman used the hoplitic phalanx but changed it introducing the maniple, and then fought versus the macedonian phalanx.
Yes, but said hoplite and Macedonian phalanx also got defeated by the Persians numerous times. How else did the Parthians repel the Seleucids and prevented a Greek reconquest otherwise? A lot of people love to overrate the successes of the Greeks, forgetting for example that they failed to liberate Ionia during the 490s, which remained part of the Persian Empire until Alexander's conquest. Macedon also became a vassal of the Persians during that period (see Matt Waters, "Ancient Persia" page 199). And of course the Greeks failed to prevent the Persians from razing Athens.

The Greek success in certain battles and the failure of the Persians to fully conquer Greek city-states is more due to the Persians being overstretched and then decaying economically than because of a mythical undefeatable formation.
 
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Nov 2017
789
Commune
#10
The point is not the Roman had superiority because they fought using the phalanx or versus the phalanx, the point is that they fought a wider range of fighting styles.
I see. Yes, I've read similar arguments as well, once having someone that the Chinese didn't fight as many civilisations as the Romans who defeated Celts, Greeks, Carthaginians and Parthians, but I've always seen this as a weak argument.

Qin Shi Huang conquering the many disparate and independent Chinese states of the time is no less a feat than the Roman conquests and they presented a similar variety of formations and fighting styles as the enemies conquered by Rome.

People also downplay to absurdity the "nomadic" enemies of the Chinese. Said "nomads" organised in kingdoms and other types of states, possessed steel weaponry and armour and could fight with a variety of infantry and cavalry formations. One can argue that the Han's defeat of the Xiongnu is more impressive than the failure of the Romans to ever fully defeat the Parthians, as the Xiongnu were no less an empire than the Parthians and the Han were able to disintegrate it.

Not saying this makes the Han superior, but it refutes this idea that the Han dynasty had it easily in comparison to the Romans when that wasn't the case, and they didn't fight a great variety of opponents with different formations and fighting styles.