‘…With this, he drew the sharp blade at his side, a powerful longsword, and gathering his limbs together swooped like a high-soaring eagle that falls to earth from the dark clouds to seize a sick lamb or a cowering hare. So Hector swooped, brandishing his keen blade. Achilles ran to meet him heart filled with savage power, covering his chest with his great, skilfully worked shield, while above his gleaming helm with its four ridges waved the golden plumes Hephaestus placed thickly at its crest. Bright as the Evening Star that floats among the midnight constellations, set there the loveliest jewel in the sky, gleamed the tip of Achilles sharp spear brandished in his right hand, as he sought to work evil on noble Hector, searching for the likeliest place to land a blow on his fair flesh.
Now, the fine bronze armour he stripped from mighty Patroclus when he killed him covered all Hector’s flesh except for one opening at the throat, where the collarbones knit neck and shoulders, and violent death may come most swiftly. There, as Hector charged at him, noble Achilles aimed his ash spear, and drove its heavy bronze blade clean through the tender neck, though without cutting the windpipe or robbing Hector of the power of speech. Hector fell in the dust and Achilles shouted out in triumph: ‘While you were despoiling Patroclus, no doubt, in your folly, you thought yourself quite safe, Hector, and forgot all about me in my absence. Far from him, by the hollow ships, was a mightier man, who should have been his helper but stayed behind, and that was I, who now have brought you low. The dogs and carrion birds will tear apart your flesh, but him the Achaeans will bury….’
The death of Hector
From the Iliad, book XXII: p247-366
In the above fragment of the Iliad from book XXII, we see the epic duel of Achilles against Hector. We can see that Hector unsheathes his sharp sword, aiming to kill Achilles. However we all know how the duel ended, with the death of Prince of Trojans. Achilles found a gap in his opponent’s armor and killed him. As we can observe, Hector’s armor was almost invulnerable to all attacks, leaving only his neck exposed.
All of the above sounds reasonable. Clearly in a duel of two warriors, the duellists have great freedom of movement, even if they are equipped with heavy armors and shields. But how would they fight in a phalanx formation? Is it the same fighting in the Phalanx formation as in an honourable duel between two men? Can they use all the attacks and all defences that can be performed with their swords and shields?
The answer is no.
Fights between opponents lined up in phalanx or shield wall formation was not ‘ free ‘, and this is what we are going to examine below.
The Phalanx formation, the Shield Wall and the differences between them
First, we must make it quite clear that the phalanx formation is different to the wall of shields formation. The Phalanx formation is younger than the shield wall. The Phalanx was born after the invention of the shield type ‘ oplon ‘ (in Greek ‘όπλων’ ) where it took the name of the fighter of the Phalanx as ‘ hoplite ‘(in Greek ‘οπλίτης’).
The difference between these two mechanisms is that in the shield wall of Danaeans (other nations too used the shield wall. We see the shield wall formation with the Sumerians and the ancient Egyptians who were fighting similarly to the Danaeans), the warriors were hiding behind their huge shields, which was somewhat cumbersome, while in the Phalanx the hoplites had ease of movement and easier use of their spears (the spears was the main offensive weapon of hoplites). In the Phalanx formation the hoplite’s shield covered the shield of the hoplite at his left side, creating a compact shield wall, where all hoplites wore heavy armour, helmets etc. (Of course depending on time period. For example in Peloponisian war the hoplites were armored only with their shields and open faced helmets.)
Similarities can also be found in the Roman phalanx. The fundamental difference with the Greek phalanx is the Roman shield. The Roman shield (in Latin ‘scutum’) was rectangular, and also light enough to be held in one hand. Its height and width covered the entire warrior, making him difficult to hit with missile fire and through hand to hand combat. With this shield, the legionnaire was protecting himself only and not the next warrior, as we can see in common at the Greek phalanx. The innovation of the Roman phalanx was more sophisticated than the Greek phalanx.
In the Greek phalanx the most experienced hoplite takes his position on the right side of the first line and was named champion (in Greek ‘πρόμαχος’). He was not protected by someone on his right side. Also the hoplites of the first line were always in the forefront until they fell (killed or injured or until their faction defeated).
On the other hand, looking at the Romans; by changing their shields in individual use, their champion was better protected, and also they could more easily perform line changes, without having the Legionnaires be killed or injured when doing so. So the Roman phalanx was a more flexible phalanx, compared to the Macedonian and the phalanx of the southern Greeks. We can also see similarities to the phalanx of the Byzantine Eastern Roman Empire.
If we look at the phalanx of the Macedonians, we can see that the phalanx was a bit different from the southern Greek and Roman equivalents. The formation was dense, but what made the Macedonian phalanx innovative for its time was their particular type of spear, the sarisa (in Greek ‘σάρισα’).
The sarissa was a spear of 5 m length with a weight of about 8 kilos. This meant even the 5th line of warriors in the phalanx could be made active in battle. The second difference was that the warriors of the Macedonian phalanx had round shields; however, these shields were smaller than the southern Greek shields and they were for individual use. They had no hoop and could hang on the shoulder leaving both hands free for the use of the sarisa. Of course, these warriors also used swords. The swords were small, straight and two edged while some of them uses kopis sword.
The fundamental difference between the Macedonian and the phalanx of the southern Greeks were the following: The Greek phalanx had one goal. The destruction of the enemy’s phalanx or shield wall. This was done with a quick charge against them. On the other hand the Macedonian phalanx was more static and the goal was the entanglement of the enemy, until the Macedonian cavalry charge from the left and right of the enemy shield wall or phalanx. For this reason the Macedonian phalanx had support units at their sides, in order to protect them, e.g slingers and psilous (light infantry), or else there was always the danger of being outflanked. This happened at 197 BC at the battle of Cynoscephalae between the Macedonians and the Romans. One unit of Romans flanked the right wing of the Macedonian phalanx and they slaughtered almost all the sarissa wielders, and with that the Romans won the day.
Strangely for a long time period, nearly all of the Middle Ages, the Macedonian phalanx was not used by any army. Only the Scots and Picts seem to have fought with long spears, but we can not say that it appears to have correlated with the Macedonian phalanx. However, suddenly a type of Macedonian phalanx formation was resurrected, at the end of the medieval period in central Europe. At first, by the Germans, and later by Swiss warriors. There were battalions and companies; they had spears of 4, 5 m length. The combat tactics were almost identical to the northern Greeks of antiquity with a fundamental difference: These warriors had no shields!
Lets go back in time to the barbaric armies of Gauls, of Saxons, of the Celts, and Goths, we can see that they had a heavy sluggish shield wall that we can say that reminded a bit of the shield wall of the Danaeans and Sumerians, although they used much smaller shields, usually round (apart from the Celts and Gauls which had larger shields). Almost all of the barbarians would charge fairly unorganized towards the enemy. At first they were throwing javelins against their enemies, and then they fought their opponents with swords, axes and spears.
All the above formations we have seen have major differences and some similarities. But all of them had a common denominator: The side who won was the side that did not dismantle the phalanx or the shield wall. So if they did not want to dissolve the Phalanx or the shield wall, they had to keep their lines in short, one being crammed next to each other and the back lines must touch the front. So as we can imagine, the warriors behind a shield wall or phalanx had very little freedom of movement.
The use of sword in the Phalanx and the shield wall
Let us step back bit and examine the place of the hoplite in the first line. At his right and left he had his companions with their shields to cover him. Behind him, he had other hoplites who pushed him with their shields to force him to move ahead, while at the same time, he had near and over his head the spears of his companions. Sometimes in battle the spears were broken or lost, after which they used their short swords or their kopis swords. While the spear was relatively simpler to use, the use of sword changed things.
The first difficulty that he would meet was that if the opponents had spears then he and his fellows were at a disadvantage, because the sword was much shorter than the spears of their enemy. Of course this disadvantage lessens with the shield and armor he wore. If he manages to reach the opponent (and here is the great difficulty, he could not get out of the line of the shield wall or phalanx, had all along to reach the opponent shield wall, if someone did this and lived there were great punishments especially in Roman and later in Byzantine army. For this reason the officers did not put in the first verse the new recruits), moves that could do were limited, however was extremely bloody.
Letting the Greek Hoplite rest for a while, let’s look at the theoretical blows of the sword. There are 8 cuts that can be perform a swordsman. But these blows can be used by the swordsman only in open areas that has free space around him and a distance of the opponent. In the Phalanx and the shield walls the blows are two only. A vertical slash and a diagonal cut (from above) while the main attack and the more effective one would be the thrust. So we have 3 basic attacks for the warriors.
And here I must emphasize something: The thrust attack was the main and most deadly attack. While the strikes and cuts were clearly limited, the warriors could most effectively be hitting their opponents with thrusting attacks. Most prevalent was the thrust attack that began over shoulder height (the sword held over his head, with the point to the eyes of the opponent) and the target area was the head or the neck of the opponent.
The next deadly attack was also a thrust attack, which was aligned at shoulder height and was again aimed at the opponent’s head or neck. Finally we have the attack that came from below towards the abdomen or the breastbone. Of course this last attack could be effective on opponents who weren't wearing heavy armor.
The confrontation of rivals in a shield wall was not easy for any time period (ancient age-middle ages). There was great cornering and pushing from one's opponents, but also from one's companions, and where to push the front line to push their opponents in order to allay the Phalanx or the shield wall. The result of all of this chaos of the battle was the first engagements of two opponents to be extremely close. In this case the two attacks involved cuts and blows which were nearly cancelled. Imagine that the opponents were very close, and the fighter’s shields were in touch. What happened then?
Clearly they could use the thrust attacks, but could also cut with the kopis or a curved sword. The target area was again the head (and usually their aim was not the opponent in front of him, but the one on his right, as due of the shape of the Phalanx he was easier to attack). The warrior could bring his kopis or his sword in vertical stance with the ground in front of the opponent’s eye level and with a simple vertical cut to the ground; he could hurt the enemy’s head. Of course, this move could be performed under certain conditions. For example, against a Corinthian type of helmet this attack was useless, or if we go to medieval times, if a Saracen for example did this attack (which was common from the warriors who had scimitars) to a crusader knight who wore a helmet type ‘heaume’ he would have no hope of succeeding. So this attack was effective against lightly armed warriors or to the warriors with no helmets. We conclude again that the thrust attacks were the most effective.
As we can see, in a duel out of phalanx or a shield wall, or if the phalanx was broken, a swordsman could perform all the 8 line attacks. But it was impossible to use these attacks to fight back from within a shield wall or in a phalanx, except for one specific person in the phalanx; the champion.
The champion (both in ancient times, in Roman or the Byzantine and even in the armies of the barbarians) was the most experienced of the Phalanx. He had to use his spear and sword with great expertise. His sword should be used both offensively and defensively because he has no other warrior to protect him with his shield to the right of him . This warrior we can say with good confidence could use his sword with greater freedom of movement than his companions which is reasonable, as his right side was completely free. However again, the safest attack was again the thrust. By using a thrust attack, the warrior can defend himself more directly, and also the thrusts are more deadly than the cuts as they pierced armour more easily. This has been proven through studies of skeletons found on battlefields, where the death of these people commonly came from thrusts.
Duel between warrior who use small shield and a Byzantine sword of type ‘spathion’ against a spearmen. Equipment courtesy of living history association Koryvantes.
A special type of ‘sword’
Of course behind the shield walls there were not only shield bearers but also warriors who used heavier and larger swords. These swords were called rompaias, and were used with both hands; some of them were fitted on a long pole reminding us of the medieval halberd. This was a sword used by the Thracians and even more often from the Dacians. The sword had a long curved blade and was very sharp and pointed. It could be used by warriors in the second row if it was attached to a pole arm.
The warriors using the rhomphaia was not fully behind the shield walls. For example the Thracians were self-contained units with rhomphaia bearers. They would charge toward their opponents having great distance between them (originally before the hand to hand combat, to be safer from attacks from archers or from slingers) and with their long and deadly sword, they could easily attack their opponents, either kill them by hitting on their head (the Romans suffered severe losses to the Dacian’s rhomphaia bearers and were forced to modify their helmets with metal covering for the neck), or by ruining the shields of enemies with powerful blows.
Since these warriors would charge quickly and then run back to their lines, we can see how they could use their sword more freely especially if it wasn’t in very dense formation. If used behind shield wall (where the rhomphaia was attached to a spear), almost always the swordsman was protected by two shield bearers, whilst he might attempt attacks on the enemy.
The use of the Rompaia was one of the longest-lasting weapons of antiquity until it stopped abruptly after the Roman conquest of Thrace. It disappeared for many years and it survived only in the Eastern Roman Empire. In essence it was another kind of sword that was adapted in the imperial army and got to be used by elite warriors of the Romans of the East, up to the time of emperor Alexios Komnenos, where there are testimonies that he himself had the greatest and most sharp sword (rompaia), being the best swordsman of the Byzantine Empire.
The original form of the Rompaia as we see above was lost with the conquest of the Romans. However the Romans of the East built other swords that they named Romfaies. They were big, one-edged and could be used with both hands, however they also had cross guard, while the swords of the ancients did not. Also the new type of Rompaias had their curve in the other direction compared to the ancient ones. The other type of Rompaia was a double edge sword which was very similar with the great swords of the medieval times.
The large two handed sword of medieval times, the Zweihänder (also called Great Sword, Bidenhänder or Bihänder) also had similarities to the Romphaia. It first appeared in the late Middle Ages and the early Renaissance and it evolved from the German long sword which had great use in the Middle Ages. The Zweihänder was about 1.4m long and had an average weight of ca 2 kg. Due to its length, they were also commonly used as a piercing weapon.
It was commonly used by the German mercenaries, the legendary Landsknecht and those who brought it were called Doppelsöldner. These outstanding swordsmen did not use shields; however they were used against pikemen or warriors with pole arms. With their swords they would cut the pikes and break the formation of the Phalanx, quite similar to the combat tactics of the Thracian and Byzantines where the warriors fought with Romfaias.
In this brief study, we can understand that the sword in ancient times was a secondary weapon, and the king on the field of battle was the spear. But if the spear broke for some reason, then the sword took its place. The Romans on the other hand, as I mentioned above, developed and made the sword their main offensive weapon. They threw their pillums against the shields of the enemy, and they won the battles with their gladius.
The Romans of the East did the same using long double edged swords or the paramirion, a one-edged curved sword, while the same applied also to the barbarians of the West and later the medieval kingdoms of Europe. However the battle in phalanx and behind shield wall with the use of the sword, remains almost the same, with use of 2 or 3 cuts, and the dominant attack being the thrust.
Tactics of the emperor Leon the wise tome B’
Aloi Sideri, Alexias of princes Anna Komnini, Agra publication.
Herodotus book Z’
Goldsworthy, Adrian: In the Name of Rome: The Men Who Won the Roman Empire (Orion,2003) ISBN 0-7538-1789-6
Polybius (c.200-after 118 BCE): The Roman Maniple vs. The Macedonian Phalanx
<Tobler, Christian Henry, Fighting with the German Longsword
Swords and small swords the myth of Spartan sword, Stefanos Skarmitzos
This article has been edited to a somewhat higher degree, to correct the choice of English terms and phrases, and also the chosen tempus for ease of understading. Any misunderstandings or errors resulting from these edits should be blamed on the editor and not the original author.