Legion Versus Phalanx: The Epic Struggle for Infantry Supremacy in the Ancient World, by Myke Cole, Osprey Publishing, Oxford, U.K., 2018, $30

Which would win a pitched battle—a phalanx or a legion? According to independent scholar Myke Cole, we needn’t rely on speculation or simulations to answer this question. These unique infantry formations actually did meet in battle, and primary sources relate how those clashes played out.

The phalanx dominated the battlefields of the ancient world from Sumer, an estimated 5,000 years ago, to the 275 BC Battle of Beneventum. Focusing on six battles, from Heraclea in 280 BC to Pydna in 168 BC, the author examines how Roman legionaries eclipsed Greek phalangites as world-class masters of infantry combat and why that shift took place.

Expanding on theories set forth by the second century Greek historian Polybius, Cole contends the Hellenistic phalanx was tactically inferior to the Roman legion. Whereas the phalanx comprised a square of spearmen in tight formation with overlapping shields, he explains, the legion utilized heavily armed formations of men maneuvering in staggered lines with the flexibility and agility to adapt to changing battle conditions. The author notes several specific factors that contributed to the legion’s success, including its skillful use of the versatile short sword vs. the unwieldy pikes employed by the phalanx, its reliance on combat and maneuver, the varying approaches to field command adopted by Roman generals and the individual initiative encouraged among lower ranks in the Roman army, in contrast to the top-heavy command structure of Hellenistic forces. A work of first-rate scholarship, Legion Versus Phalanx is both instructive and compelling.  

—Justin D. Lyons