Tuesday, March 22, 2005

How did they ever get anyone for the first row in a phalanx?

In a conversation with my brother-in-law one day he asked me the question “How did they ever get anyone for the first row in a phalanx?” His assumption was that it was a battle of attrition defeating one row at a time until the formation broke. Military history, being a hobby of mine, I decided to do some research to answer the question.

The answer to that question is it was not much more dangerous for a soldier in the first row than in the later rows. The reason for this was that ancient battles were seldom long drawn out battles of melee attrition. If the phalanx, cohort or shield wall held its formation under attack, casualties were generally light. To the front these formations were very strong. In fact missiles such as arrows, slings, darts and javelins caused most of the casualties. This means it was not much more dangerous to be in the front row since one was as likely to be hit by such a weapon in any of the rows. If the formation broke and the soldiers fled in panic, casualties could be very high as the enemy would send cavalry to run down the fleeing soldiers. The most common reason for a phalanx formation to break was being attacked on the flank or rear where the formation was very weak.