The battles of ancient armies in films are often depicted as a clash of one crowd with another, exactly the same. Even if before the battle the warriors are lined up in a phalanx or a manipulative formation, all the same, immediately after the start of the battle, the ranks mix and then a chaotic fight between individual characters begins on the screen. Of course, such a spectacle has nothing to do with reality. Only completely wild tribes could run in a crowd without any order, all civilized peoples from ancient times fought only in formation.
Since the ancient Greeks, it was considered the worst disgrace for a warrior to leave his place in the ranks during a battle. It doesn’t matter for what reason the infantryman did this – out of cowardice or, on the contrary, ran forward to show his prowess. In any case, his act left an open hole in the solid wall of shields, which the enemy could immediately take advantage of. Therefore, the main manifestation of discipline in battle was maintaining the formation and maintaining contact with his comrades on the right and left. The killed and seriously wounded were dragged from the front ranks, immediately replacing them with other soldiers.
For the Romans, military discipline was even stricter. All the maneuvers of the basic unit of the Roman army – maniples – were repeatedly worked out. The centurions literally with sticks hammered into their subordinates the skill of instant rebuilding and plugging holes in the ranks. He was not a legionnaire required to masterfully fence or masterfully wield a spear. First of all, he had to be hardy (even just carrying the weight of armor and equipment on himself all day was by no means easy), but the most important thing was to be able to execute any order of the commander, quickly and without question.
In the first row of the Roman legion there were usually ghastats. They were the youngest of the legionnaires, their age was 21-25 years. The older infantrymen stood in the second line, they were called the principles. Veterans, triarii (warriors of the third line) were behind, performing the functions of a reserve and, if necessary, a detachment. During the Punic Wars, the legion of 4,200 had 1,200 Gastats. However, they were not the first to enter the battle.
Each gastat maniple was assigned from 20 to 40 lightly armed infantrymen who fought out of order. It was they who began the battle, first showered the enemy with darts, and then fleeing behind the back rows of the legionnaires, so as not to interfere with the hastats. Before the battle, the maniples were lined up in a checkerboard pattern, in two rows – one after the other. Immediately before the collision with the enemy, the ranks united, filling the gaps in the formation and forming a solid wall of shields.
The fight began with the throw of pilums (heavy throwing darts). Thanks to its long metal point, the pilum would get stuck in the enemy’s shield, forcing the enemy to throw it. Each ghastat had two pilums, the back rows in a chain passed them to the front ones, so a whole flurry of pilums fell on the enemy. After that, the ghastats attacked the enemy with a quick step, trying to knock him to the ground with a coordinated blow of large heavy shields – scutums. With the gladius sword, the legionaries struck stabbing blows in the gap between the shields. If the first blow failed to turn the enemy to flight and the battle dragged on, the fighters of the first line were replaced by their comrades from the back rows at the signal that the centurions gave a special whistle.
Of course, the Triarii had the most chances of surviving such a battle, while the Principles had somewhat less chances. The Gastats had the hardest time. What were their chances? It already depended on the enemy. In a skirmish with a small barbarian tribe, the Romans usually won without bringing matters to hand-to-hand. Even a battle with a large horde of barbarians was not particularly dangerous, because they fought without any formation, and after the first failure they fled from the battlefield. It was much worse to fight with the enemy, who also knew how to fight in formation – the Greeks or the Carthaginians.
It was even worse to fight against their own Romans, and this happened during civil wars that are not so rare in Roman history. But the most dangerous was the battle with the enemy, who had the advantage in the cavalry – that is, the Parthians. Light horsemen bombarded the legions with a shower of arrows, and heavy cataphractarii struck a ramming blow, breaking through the Roman formation of shields. It was difficult to oppose such tactics, so the Romans never managed to conquer Parthia.
The survival of a legionnaire in any major battle did not depend too much on his place in the ranks, because a lost battle could end in the total extermination of the entire legion. Therefore, the chances of each individual legionnaire depended not so much on his personal skills as on the military talent of the commanders.
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