Wednesday, 1 September 2010

A Bit of Depth

So, after the high falutin' abstractness of last week, something a bit more wargamer-ly this.

How deep was a Greek phalanx?

Normally, the answer is fairly simple: 8 ranks. But not always.

At Marathon the Athenians went for 4 in the centre. And numbers have been reported from that up 50.

This leaves us with three questions:
Why did phalanxes vary in depth?
How did this affect how they fought?
How are we going to represent this on the wargames table?

The answer to the first question is, of course "it depends". At Marathon it was to stretch the Athenian line to cover the width of the Persians. At other times, extra depth was used at the point of assault.

The answer to the second question is more difficult. The depth of a phalanx did make a difference, that much is clear. How, or why, is less clear. It can't have affrected the way the front ranks fought, directly at least. There are only so many things that a man can do with a spear and shield, however many there are standing behind him. I guess the only thing which is more difficult is running away, and that may be the key psycological effect. Of course, there is also the effect of all those people on the other side, which may well be the other effect. Even the Spartans might be forgivcen for saying "how many more do we have to kill!?"

As you would expect, the wargaming bit is trickey. Phalanxes were long and thin, no matter how many files deep they were. They were also not notoriously flexible, and don't seem to have varied in depth during a battle. So we can't say something simple like 1 base is 4 ranks and double up the bases for 8. That would give the general too much flexibility, and make the formations too deep.

So I think I'll have to go for a trading system, with bases defined by their number of ranks. The base is 4, and they get a certain fighting value, say, 3. The next up is 8, and they get plus 1, then 12, 16 and so on. You get so many 4 deep hoplite bases, and half the number if you go for 8 deep, and so on. Of course, some means of showing the depth will have to be evolved, but I think it might work, particularly as it must be defined before the game and won't vary during it.

Any comments, thoughts, evidence and brickbats are, of couse, welcome.


  1. OK - so I am slowly catching up on my blog reading. I also read this post on the train this morning, posted a comment on my phone then lost everything in the tunnel when an error 404 was returned.

    I had been saying that another way of looking at it is that 8 ranks appears to be "normal". That was the recommended depth. When the Athenians deployed at 4 ranks at Marathon it was different enough to deserve comment. Similarly when the phalanx was deployed 50 deep.

    Given that then, I would suggest a "normal" factor for an 8 rank phalanx, a positive benefit for 50 ranks (there was a reason for the depth and it was used against other phalanxes so a positive effect seems "right").

    This of course suggests that a 4-rank phalanx should have a negative effect. When facing other phalanxes I would agree that the deeper phalanxes have a little more grunt and therefore should have a little more advantage.

    However, back to the pesky Athenians. They reduced to four ranks and won the battle anyway. Initially, the four ranks meant that the Athenian line matched the Persian line. However, the Persians were also likely more lightly armoured and using more bows. As missiles come in on a target, being a thinner line gives some advantage against bows, you are less likely to have someone hit by the missile.

    I guess what I am getting at is that the different depths have their advantages and disadvantages depending on the circumstances and the opposition.

    Good luck making any sense out of all that :-)

  2. Hi,

    Yes, I suppose there are positive effects from reducing depth against missile fire, although someone reported that all those extra spears being held upright gave some shelter from arrows as they hit the shafts!

    I'm not sure about that, however, it sounds like another scholarly rationalization rather than anything to do with real life.

    However, I'd guess the effect of thinner formations on the effects of bow fire is probably fairly small, so I'll choose not to model it at the moment. But I might change my mind.