When was the earliest known use of the testudo formation by the Romans?

Wikipedia's article on the testudo formation includes a quote from Cassius Dio which mentions the use of a testudo formation at the Battle of Carrhae in 53 B.C.

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.

Is there an earlier example of the testudo? The source does not have to mention the formation by the name "testudo" (as in the above quote). If the earliest mention of the formation does not include the name then when was it first mentioned by name?

  • The question is, what formations would you classify as "phalanx" and which ones as "testudo". Certainly the former was used by the Romans earlier than Carrhae but how closely that resembled the classic "testudo" is up for debate. Certainly Dio's description fits well that of a phalanx
    – Notaras
    Sep 13, 2016 at 22:56
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    @kapetanios There are some notable differences. Troops in a phalanx were typically armed with spears or similar, whereas the Romans (e.g. at Carrhae) would have been armed with a gladius. Also, as I understand it the phalanx was more of a fixed battlefield formation in that it was difficult/undesirable to break ranks while in a phalanx -- but the testudo was more of a temporary formation (Dio suggests above that the Romans could form in and out of the testudo throughout the battle). The shields of the rear men pointing upward also seems specific to the testudo.
    – Null
    Sep 14, 2016 at 14:13
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    It may, however, be difficult to distinguish the phalanx and testudo in ancient sources if the source describes a defensive formation similar to both but doesn't specifically call it a "phalanx" or "testudo". The answer may be that our sources are not clear enough to determine when the Romans started using the "testudo" because of the similarity to the phalanx.
    – Null
    Sep 14, 2016 at 14:16
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    after some googling, i found a very interesting analysis on the Total War forums with two quotes from Livy mentioning a "testudo" formation. But the writer makes a point in saying that the use of the term may very well be an anachronism. I think it is safe to assume that the Roman military had the discipline (as the writer says) to perform defensive tactics which resemble the testudo in some form at least since their wars against the Greeks
    – Notaras
    Sep 15, 2016 at 1:27
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    @kapetanios Good find! I think that's worth turning into an answer, even with the caveat that it may be an anachronism. I would certainly upvote such an answer.
    – Null
    Sep 15, 2016 at 4:16

2 Answers 2


Polybius describes the Testudo being used in the capture of Heracleum during the Third Macedonian War, the year was 169BC.

Polybius "Heracleium was taken in a peculiar manner. The town had a low wall of no great extent on one side, and to attack this the Romans employed three picked maniples. The men of the first held their shields over their heads, and closed up, so that, owing to the density of the bucklers, it became like a tiled roof. The other two in succession..."

Source: The Histories of Polybius


I can't give any sources, but think this was only possible after introduction of the scutum (rectangular) shield. Hoplon (round) shields do not make for good testudos. I have never read anything about testudos when the Roman army employed phalanx tactics. Anyway, a phalanx can very well be seen as a form of a testudo.

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