Justin Swanton, Ancient Battle Formations (Pen & Sword, 2020)
In Ancient Battle Formations, Justin Swanton attempts to expand our understanding of the armies that dominated the classical world and sometimes beyond. Swanton laments the lack of hard source material, so he puts his sources on ‘trial’, setting what they wrote against other evidence to establish their plausibility. He notes how controversial his conclusions might be. Swanton argues that battle formations were designed to instil confidence in the soldiers whose battle usually came down to their fight with the man in front of them. A list of typical troop types follows before Swanton gets into his battle formation descriptions and analysis. Before you get too excited, however, Swanton makes it clear he is only examining three formations: the hoplite and Macedonian phalanxes and the Roman Triplex Acies; the three-line formation used in the Republic.
The discussion of battle formations begins with a chapter on the fundamentals of formations, including heavy infantry, cavalry, skirmishing infantry, peltasts, elephants and chariots (!). Swanton moves on to the Hoplite phalanx. He describes the phalanx’s origins, panoply, the famous shield that gave the hoplite his label, swords, armour, the formation’s structure, deployment and performance in combat, and an analysis of its effectiveness. Swanton’s description of the Macedonian phalanx follows approximately the same structure with detours for specific issues with this formation such as the problems associated with close-order fighting. Like the other two formations, the Triplex Acies begins with a description of an exemplar battle, this time Vesuvius in 340 BCE. Swanton then follows the by now familiar structure with a bit more evolution evident in the Roman legion formation. He also takes the time to dismantle the Roman quincunx formation. Curiously, Swanton does not attribute Roman success to their battle formation, but martial stubbornness, the cost of a soldier’s kit, and citizen military experience. Swanton concludes with a chapter titled The Golden Age of Heavy Infantry, which summarizes and justifies Swanton’s choice of battle formations to analyse.
Ancient Battle Formations falls into the category of creative speculation, which stands or falls on the nature of the ‘extra’ evidence brought into assist the primary sources. Ironically perhaps, Swanton’s best arguments are situated in his translations of those sources. Other interpretations slide along the scale of validity, depending on Swanton’s method of inquiry. In addition, a lack of footnotes for some important points makes it difficult to know where some of the analysis is coming from, although many of the major points made by the sources are made available in the text. It is also difficult to take seriously field experiments conducted with home-made equipment, while asking readers to look up youtube videos as evidence is a strange approach to descriptive writing. Nevertheless, Ancient Battle Formations is a thought-provoking book and Swanton, a graphic designer by profession, incorporates many excellent illustrations to bolster his arguments. He is also immersed in his subject and is worthy of our attention. Readers in ancient military history of the Classical period will certainly find Swanton’s approach and conclusions stimulating.