The Century's Charge

This page is titled "The Century's Charge" since that covers the general themes addressed. The specific topics covered are the mechanics of the pilum throw, the various arrangements of ranks and files in the century and how they might affect the pilum throw, and an attempt to portray the charge of the century in a more realistic manner.

Mechanics of the Throw

The mechanics of the throwing motion have implications on how the century can be configured.

The first thing is to determine the approximate sequence of steps a running soldier must take to throw his pilum. Observation of javelin throwers yeilds the important key. It is necessary to take a sideways hop-step to generate the necessary body torque. Some javelin throwers take several sideways hop-steps, some take fewer. For the purposes of the model it is assumed that Roman soldiers in full battle armor and charging an enemy which is not far away would take the minimum number of hop-steps -- one.

As will be seen, this hop-step causes problems in the spacing of the ranks. Were a soldier to take two hop-steps the spacing problem would be worse.

Earlier studies determined a reasonable running pace to be three strides of 40" per second. This gives an average of 6.82 MPH, a little over 3 meters per second. The actual length of the stride and speed of the running charge would have varied from one man to the next and from one battlefield to the next. The 3/second -- 40" stride is a little less than the fastest a man could be expected to run (42" or 44" strides would be quite possible). It is a bit faster than a slow jog (6.4 MPH).

The sequence of running steps is illustrated in the drawing below. The footsteps proceed from left to right. The right foot is red; left, blue.

The motion begins with step 3 as the right foot turns out slightly to rotate the body. At step 4 the left foot is at an angle and the whole body is well rotated. Step 5 is shown 10" beyond step 4. This is a fairly aggressive cross-over step with the right foot landing slightly in front of and outside of the former position of the left foot. . A more conservative motion would be for the right foot at step 5 to come just behind the left foot instead of crossing in front. Men in armor, on uncertain ground, might well take this more conservative approach. Step 6 is a full 40 inches beyond step 6. It could be either shorter or longer, depending on circumstances. A very strong throw with a definite lunge in the motion would result in a longer stride. Uncertain ground or problems relating to having other running men on all sides could cause this step to shorten. In the former case, the lunge, the soldier could be slightly off-balance at step 7 resulting in a bit of a stagger at this point. In any case, by step 8 the soldier should be well recovered and back to a standard running pace.

The models use the same 40" pace both before and after the pilum is thrown. Once the soldier has fully drawn his sword his pace could change. Aggressive, confident units might increase their speed so that they meet the enemy with the greatest possible force. Less confident units might actually decrease their running speed and could, conceivably, come to a complete stop to brace themselves against the assault of a particularly strong enemy.

For the purposes of the model, the standard 40" 3/second pace is used both before and after the pilum throw.

The illustration on the right fits some figures into the footprints. This gives a better idea of the actual movements involved in the process.

Because the figures would obscure one another, they are shown in multiple files rather than in one continuous line.

The tendency is to keep a constant rhythm in the footfalls so that each one falls 1/3 of a second apart. But the distance covered changes at the point of the hop-step. It could be the 10 inches shown in the model, but it could also be a negative number if the right foot is placed behind the left instead of crossing over in front.

This change in speed is important when considering how the century could be aligned.

Various Arrangements of the Ranks and Files

Aligned Ranks

This illustration shows a small part of the standard century formation. There are three files on 3 foot centers and three ranks on 4 foot centers. Each man is placed directly behind the man in front -- aligned ranks.

The illustration below begins with this basic running formation at the bottom left. Each block shows the positions one step later. Of particular interest are the central blocks which illustrate the pilum throw.

In this scenario each of the three ranks act in perfect unison; that is, they all throw their pila at precisely the same time. This is not offered as a realistic presentation but serves only as a starting point for further analysis.

The next illustration is a close-up of the 5 central blocks of figures showing the pilum throw in detail. The ranks interfere with each other as they attempt to throw their pila. Clearly, 4 feet is not enough separation for this particular scenario.

Offset Ranks

If each rank were offset so that each man filled the gap between the men in front of him would there be more clearance?

The illustration below shows the same 5 blocks but this time with the middle rank offset.

The clearance between ranks is still not sufficient.

Offset Ranks -- Sequential Throws

The next scenario to be explored uses ranks that are offset from one another and delays the throw of the second rank until the first rank has completed its throw. The supposition is that the problem of clearances might be less with this scenario. And, as will be mentioned later, sequential throws are probably somewhat more realistic than simultaneous throws.

In this illustration only the first and second ranks are shown since all of the clearance problems can be seen without the presence of that third rank.

In this scenario the difficulties caused by the hop-step, alluded to above, become prominent.

The front rank does not run at a steady pace. At the point of the hop-step (the 6th block from the left) the soldier takes a step that is no more than 10" long, and could actually be a negative distance. Since the second rank is running normally it closes up on the first rank. This is shown in the close up below.

Clearly the second rank has to be further back. In the illustration below the second rank is held back so that there is a minimum of 4' of clearance at the time of the hop step.

This is illustrated below.

This shows the minimum clearances with the second rank held further back. After the hop-step by the front rank the minimum distances between the ranks is 4 feet.

To maintain that clearance at the hop-step phase the runners have to start at least 6'5" apart. Even this is too close. In the illustration above the tips of the pila in the second rank are just 10" from the backs of the soldiers in the front rank. In the first grouping above the butts of the pila in the first rank actually touch the scuta of the second rank men.

To allow for different running speeds, variations in speed and even direction caused by terrain, the problems enemy missiles falling on the formation might have it would seem unreasonable to propose a formation with clearances measured in inches.

The conclusion is that the initial spacing of the ranks would need to be no less than 7 feet.

Pilum Volley and Line Reinforcement: Scenario 3 explored the possibility of all 6 ranks throwing their pila at the same time. This was predicated on spacing of 9 feet for each rank. On that spacing it was concluded that the scenario was not workable.

If the ranks were staggered and only 7 feet apart the scenario is better but still would have to be considered unworkable. Six ranks seven feet apart would have a depth of 35 feet. The estimated range for a pilum throw is 60 feet. Therefore the front rank would have to be a mere 25 feet from the enemy line. Running soldiers could cover this distance in aout 2 1/2 seconds. This would hardly be enough time for the front rank to recover from the throw, draw their swords and prepare for contact with the onrushing enemy.

So, even though all six ranks could be put within pilum range at the same time, the distances do not allow enough time and the scenario would have to be considered unlikely.

Scenario 4 explored the possibility of each rank throwing in sequence as they approach the critical 60 foot range. It was considered workable but had problems. The conclusions do not significantly change if the ranks are 7 feet apart and offset.

The Real Problem

The real problem is that all of these scenarios are based on diagrams, on exact spacing, on defined ranks and files. In actuality any notion of ranks and files should be abandoned once the running charge begins.

The century is thought to have charged over a distance of about 120 feet. In that distance order among the ranks and files would be disrupted. Men run at different speeds. Even on relatively clear ground there would be obstructions such as brush, large rocks and small creeks. Men would stumble, some might fall, bringing others down. Enemy arrows or javelins could wound or kill some men at some point in the charge.

So, any system that depends on precise formations or intricate spatial arrangements must be discarded as impractical.

A Realistic Charge

It is difficult to imagine just what an actual charge might have looked like. And certainly there would be no single model. Every battle would be different, every century would have its own character, every piece of ground would impose its own restrictions. Nevertheless, the effort may be worthwhile simply to help destroy the rank and file fixation that is so easy to adopt.

The following illustration will attempt to imagine a century at the approximate time it throws its pila. Some explanation will help.

The century has already run about 60 feet. Even at a medium jogging speed not everyone runs at exactly the same speed so that the "ranks" are not straight. In that distance some men have encountered large rocks and bushes which caused them to deviate from a straight line. As they moved to one side or the other they caused the men adjacent to them to shift as well. Once past the obstacle they moved back toward their original line but now left somewhat wider gaps between "files" on the one side. One man (not shown) has stumbled with a spained ankle. Three men behind him fell or had to stop. These three men are now well back from the others in the century, leaving a hole. Some men are throwing their pila. Some take more than one hop-step in their throwing motion. Some are a bit off balance and stagger some after the throw.

This image was made as large as possible to allow detail to be seen.

The ranks are approximately 8 feet apart -- representing a compromise between the minimum 7 foot clearance and the more generous 9 foot clearance used previously. The rank and file structure is easily identifiable.

What is important to note is that, even though the rank and file structure is easily identifiable, it is disrupted enough that precise positioning or spacing is irrelevant.

There is hardly any question of supposing that one rank is offset slightly from the ranks in front or behind. What governs a man's position is the terrain and the locations of those on either side of him, not the man in front or behind.

As for spacing between the ranks, what determines the distance between a soldier and the man in front of him is only a general sense of what is a reasonably safe distance given the terrain and what is happening in the immediate vicinity. The individual cannot worry about keeping a straight line. At best he can try to stay somewhat close to those on either side. That is about the limit.

The small image below shows how the attempt at a realistic illustration fits into the standard grid. The purple grid lines are 3' apart for the files and 8 feet apart for the ranks.

An attempt was made to try to keep the century generally within the limits of the box since deviation from that would create problems for the adjacent units.

Is this a successful illustration? It is not meant to be taken as an "accurate" model for that is impossible. It is meant to break down some of the unconscious adherence that people have toward fixed, tidy, neat ranks and files and to schemes based on precise intervals. If it does that, it is successful.


The general conclusion reached in this page is that the spacing between ranks needed to be about 8 or 9 feet apart during the running charge. At those distances it would be possible for all of the ranks to throw their pila if they throw in sequence; that is, if each rank throws as soon as it is within 60 feet of the enemy. No scheme for having all of the ranks throw at the same time is workable. The question of having alternate ranks offset is almost moot. During the running charge men will run where they can as the ground allows and as their mates on either side allow. Once hand-to-hand combat begins the soldiers will fight as they can and where they are needed without much regard to ranks and files. The only place where ranks and files might be roughly maintained would be at the very back of the century.

The question of just when the pila were thrown is not conclusively answered. There are difficulties with both of the most attractive alternatives.

1. All ranks throw their pila during the initial charge.

It gets rid of all of the pila at one time.
It provides a massive volley at the onset which would would have the most impact on the enemy line.


For it to work each man has to estimate when he is about 60 feet from the enemy. This would be difficult for those at the back.
Those at the back are throwing blind -- they probably cannot see their own front rank, much less see the enemy.
The pila from the front can be thrown directly at the enemy with great force. Those from the rear have to be lofted higher and may have less force.
For those in the last ranks there is a danger of making a bad throw and hitting one of their own men in the front ranks.

2. Two ranks throw their pila during the initial charge, the rest hold them for later use.

It is a fairly simple system. There are few problems with it.
There are pila to use later during lulls in the hand-to-hand fighting.


If men from the third rank have to step up into hand-to-hand sword fighting what do they do with their pila?

They cannot throw them up over the heads of the two front ranks at such short range with good effect.
They cannot just drop them on the ground to be a hazzard under foot.
They cannot easily pass them back to those behind who are also encumbered with
pila of their own.

The problem remains an open question. But what is clear is that careful arranging of ranks and files will not provide a solution.

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© 2003, Gary Brueggeman. All rights reserved world wide. No part of this work may be reproduced in part or whole, in any form or by any means, without permission from the author.