In the late Medieval/Renaissance period, the concept of the Greek phalanx reappeared in the shape of the pike square.

But, while the maniple system was by no means a straight counter of the phalanx, the Romans managed to defeat it and conquer Greece.

So, in an Europe studying the classics and the spiritual successor of the phalanx proving its effectiveness, did anyone try to adapt the Roman tactics?

2 Answers 2


Although the two formations look similar, the pike square was developed in a very different tactical environment than the phalanx.

The phalanx and the maniple were developed in an environment where the primary weapons were swords, spears, and occasionally slings. Cavalry was rare, and was typically light cavalry used as skirmishers or to protect an army's flanks. Infantry was the supreme fighting force, and the maniple and phalanx were both developed as a counter to infantry.

The phalanx and the maniple were both employed offensively: to push against the enemy's formation and break it.

The Renaissance, on the other hand, was the tail end of a period when heavy cavalry was the dominant force. Ranged weapons such as bows, cannon, and early handheld firearms were common, and infantry were considered a "yes, we've also got some of them" force by many commanders.

Tactically, the job of a pike square is to provide a defensive formation: to keep enemy cavalry away from your artillery and to keep enemy cavalry and infantry away from your arquebusiers (see: pike and shot). The job of breaking the enemy formation was given to the other elements of the army.

  • 1
    There are many stories and accounts of leaders hating "footman" or "infantry". Heavy horse was the "way to go". In fact there accounts of (foolish) leaders thinking that a charge with heavy horse could win anything short of a siege, and that infantry just "got in the way". Pikeman were usually exempt from this though.
    – coteyr
    Dec 29, 2016 at 3:35
  • The Swiss would have some things to say about the notion that pikemen were primarily defensive. See e.g. en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Swiss_mercenaries
    – andejons
    Dec 29, 2016 at 8:00
  • "Cavalry was rare" - cough Persians cough
    – DVK
    Dec 29, 2016 at 13:27
  • @DVK, yes, there were armies that had cavalry. There were even armies that specialized in cavalry. But it wasn't ubiquitous the way it was in the Renaissance, where an army without cavalry was considered a bad joke.
    – Mark
    Dec 29, 2016 at 19:41
  • 1
    @Mark - cough Swiss Pikemen? cough :)
    – DVK
    Dec 29, 2016 at 19:45

This kind of formation was initially adopted, after a "fashion," by the Spanish tercios at the end of the fifteenth century, which consisted of one-third pikemen, one third swordsmen, and one third gunmen.

The reason it didn't last through the sixteenth century was because of the advances that had taken place in weaponry since the Roman times. That is to say that pikes were much more effective "range" weapons than spears,and firearms, much better than bows and arrows. Swords, on the other hand, had not advanced nearly as much in usefulness over one and a half millenia.

So the proportion of swordsmen in the tercios decreased, with most of the difference going to pikemen, a bit going to gunmen. The other thing was that by the end of the Middle Ages, the primary offensive weapon had become cannon, rather than swordsmen. (The pikes still had a role to play in defending the cannon and the musketeers.)

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