Testudo formation

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The testudo formation in a Roman military reenactment. Testudo formation.jpg
The testudo formation in a Roman military reenactment.

In Ancient Roman warfare, the testudo or tortoise formation was a type of shield wall formation commonly used by the Roman Legions during battles, particularly sieges.

War Intense violent conflict between states

War is a state of armed conflict between states, governments, societies and informal paramilitary groups, such as mercenaries, insurgents and militias. It is generally characterized by extreme violence, aggression, destruction, and mortality, using regular or irregular military forces. Warfare refers to the common activities and characteristics of types of war, or of wars in general. Total war is warfare that is not restricted to purely legitimate military targets, and can result in massive civilian or other non-combatant suffering and casualties.

Shield wall

The formation of a shield wall is a military tactic that was common in many cultures in the Pre-Early Modern warfare age. There were many slight variations of this tactic among these cultures, but in general, a shield wall was a "wall of shields" formed by soldiers standing in formation shoulder to shoulder, holding their shields so that they abut or overlap. Each soldier benefits from the protection of his neighbours' shields as well as his own.

Contents

Formation

In the testudo formation, the men would align their shields to form a packed formation covered with shields on the front and top. The first row of men, possibly excluding the men on the flanks, would hold their shields from about the height of their shins to their eyes, so as to cover the formation's front. The shields would be held in such a way that they presented a shield wall to all sides. The men in the back ranks would place their shields over their heads to protect the formation from above, balancing the shields on their helmets, overlapping them. If necessary, the legionaries on the sides and rear of the formation could stand sideways or backwards with shields held as the front rows, so as to protect the formation's sides and rear; this reduced the speed and mobility of the formation, but offered consistent defensive strength against opposing infantry and excellent protection against arrows and other missile attacks.

Plutarch describes this formation as used by Mark Antony during his invasion of Parthia in 36 BC:

Plutarch Ancient Greek historian and philosopher

Plutarch, later named, upon becoming a Roman citizen, Lucius Mestrius Plutarchus, was a Greek biographer and essayist, known primarily for his Parallel Lives and Moralia. He is classified as a Middle Platonist. Plutarch's surviving works were written in Greek, but intended for both Greek and Roman readers.

Mark Antony Roman politician and general

Marcus Antonius, commonly known in English as Mark Antony or Anthony, was a Roman politician and general who played a critical role in the transformation of the Roman Republic from an oligarchy into the autocratic Roman Empire.

Parthia Historical region located in north-eastern Iran

Parthia is a historical region located in north-eastern Iran. It was conquered and subjugated by the empire of the Medes during the 7th century BC, was incorporated into the subsequent Achaemenid Empire under Cyrus the Great in the 6th century BC, and formed part of the Hellenistic Seleucid Empire following the 4th-century-BC conquests of Alexander the Great. The region later served as the political and cultural base of the Eastern-Iranian Parni people and Arsacid dynasty, rulers of the Parthian Empire. The Sasanian Empire, the last state of pre-Islamic Iran, also held the region and maintained the Seven Parthian clans as part of their feudal aristocracy.

Then the shield-bearers wheeled round and enclosed the light-armed troops within their ranks, dropped down to one knee, and held their shields out as a defensive barrier. The men behind them held their shields over the heads of the first rank, while the third rank did the same for the second rank. The resulting shape, which is a remarkable sight, looks very like a roof, and is the surest protection against arrows, which just glance off it. [1]

Cassius Dio writes about the testudo when describing the campaign of Mark Antony in 36 BC:

This testudo and the way in which it is formed are as follows. The Baggage animals, the light-armed troops, and the cavalry are placed in the center of the army. The heavy-armed troops who use the oblong, curved, cylindrical shields are drawn up around the outside, making a rectangular figure, and, facing outward and holding their arms at the ready, they enclose the rest. The others who have flat shields, form a compact body in the center and raise their shields over the heads of all the others so that nothing but shields can be seen in every part of the phalanx alike and all the men by the density of the formation are under shelter from missiles. Indeed, it is so marvelously strong that men can walk upon it and whenever they come to a narrow ravine, even horses and vehicles can be driven over it.

Phalanx infantry formation

The phalanx was a rectangular mass military formation, usually composed entirely of heavy infantry armed with spears, pikes, sarissas, or similar pole weapons. The term is particularly used to describe the use of this formation in Ancient Greek warfare, although the ancient Greek writers used it to also describe any massed infantry formation, regardless of its equipment. Arrian uses the term in his Array against the Alans when he refers to his legions. In Greek texts, the phalanx may be deployed for battle, on the march, or even camped, thus describing the mass of infantry or cavalry that would deploy in line during battle. They marched forward as one entity.

Tactical analysis

The testudo was used to protect soldiers from all types of missiles. It could be formed by immobile troops and troops on the march. The primary drawback to the formation was that, because of its density, the men found it more difficult to fight in hand-to-hand combat and because the men were required to move in unison, speed was sacrificed. As "phoulkon", it played a great role in the tactics employed by the Byzantines against their eastern enemies.

The phoulkon, in Latin fulcum, was a infantry formation utilized by the military of the late Roman and Byzantine Empire. It is a formation in which an infantry formation closes ranks and the first two or three lines form a shield wall while those behind them hurl projectiles. It was used in both offensive and defensive stances.

The testudo was not invincible, as Cassius Dio also gives an account of a Roman shield array being defeated by Parthian cataphracts and horse archers at the Battle of Carrhae:

Cassius Dio or Dio Cassius was a Roman statesman and historian of Greek and Roman origin. He published 80 volumes of history on ancient Rome, beginning with the arrival of Aeneas in Italy. The volumes documented the subsequent founding of Rome, the formation of the Republic, and the creation of the Empire, up until 229 AD. Written in ancient Greek over 22 years, Dio's work covers approximately 1,000 years of history. Many of his 80 books have survived intact, or as fragments, providing modern scholars with a detailed perspective on Roman history.

Cataphract Heavily-armored, mounted warrior

A cataphract was a form of armored heavy cavalry used in ancient warfare by a number of peoples in Europe, East Asia, Middle East and North Africa.

The Battle of Carrhae was fought in 53 BC between the Roman Republic and the Parthian Empire near the ancient town of Carrhae. The Parthian general Surena decisively defeated a numerically superior Roman invasion force under the command of Marcus Licinius Crassus. It is commonly seen as one of the earliest and most important battles between the Roman and Parthian empires and one of the most crushing defeats in Roman history.

For if [the legionaries] decided to lock shields for the purpose of avoiding the arrows by the closeness of their array, the [cataphracts] were upon them with a rush, striking down some, and at least scattering the others; and if they extended their rank to avoid this, they would be struck with the arrows.

Later usage

The testudo was a common formation in the Middle Ages, being used by the Carolingian Frankish soldiers of Louis the Pious to advance on the walls of Barcelona during the siege of 800–801, by Vikings during the Siege of Paris in 885–886, by East Frankish soldiers under king Arnulf of Carinthia during the siege of Bergamo in 894, by Lotharingians under Conrad the Red at the siege of Senlis in 949, by Lotharingian defenders at the siege of Verdun in 984 and by the Crusaders of count Raymond IV of Toulouse during the Siege of Nicaea in 1097. [2] [3]

During the Euromaidan protests in Kiev, Ukraine in 2014 the Berkut riot police used the testudo tactic to protect themselves. [4] Israeli forces have been known to use the formation. [5]

See also

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References

  1. Plutarch: Antony, c. 45, quoted in Plutarch, Roman Lives, ed. Robin Waterfield ISBN   978-0-19-282502-5
  2. Bachrach 2012, pp. 155–156.
  3. Bradbury 1992, p. 280.
  4. Ingersoll, Geoffrey (January 22, 2014). "The Battle For Ukraine Is Being Fought Using Ancient Military Tactics". Business Insider.
  5. Arutz Sheva TV (13 October 2014). "Israeli Police Forces vs. Temple Mount Rioters" via YouTube.

Bibliography

Commons-logo.svg Media related to Testudo formations at Wikimedia Commons