Problems with Traditional Battlefield Drawings

The traditional way of illustrating battles is to represent bodies of men as rectangles. This is particularly prevelant when ancient armies which were often arranged in ranks and files are described. However the same illustration techniques are used for bodies of men that were unstructured -- barbarian tribal groups, skirmishers and cavalry to list a few.

Below are several drawings from well-known authors which use this technique. The two below are from John Warry, Warfare in the Classical World, page 111, and Theodore Ayrault Dodge, Hannibal, P 252. Bodies of men are represented by rectangles and their movement by arrows.

This should not be interpreted as a criticism for there is simply no other way to represent large bodies of men in a battle. However the technique allows problems to slip by unnoticed.

Problem 1: Movement

In Connolly's illustration, far left, the lines of men appear to move almost sideways (blue arrows) and down hill (topo lines). It would be virtually impossible for the long thin formations to actually execute this maneuver and retain their cohesion.

Warry, illustrating the method of line replacement in the maniple legion, uses rectangles made up of parallel lines (files). This is an improvement but still shows each body of men as, essentially, a rectangle. The movement of the blue centuries through the gaps between the red centuries is reasonable on paper but probably not realistic.

The illustration above used by Dodge, looks reasonable as it is presented. The two wings swing around and attack the rear of the enemy. But the simplicity of the illustration masks the questions of just how two formations that are wider than they are deep could move accross uneven ground and pivot through 180 degrees, and do this in the midst of a battle when dust would obscure vision and noise would drown out trumpet signals.

Here is another illustration used by Dodge [Caesar, p 119], the battle of the Sabis (Sambre). Even more dramatic movements are shown. Legions move as much as 2 miles, cross a river with steep banks and enter a forest all the while maintaining a perfect formation. It all looks plausible on paper but could never have happened as drawn. At the same time the attack of the Nervii are shown as well-formed rectangles when in all probability they were amorphous masses of men probably divided into tribal groupings at best.

Problem 2: Size

The illustrative technique generally uses similar rectangles for similar bodies of men. Warry, for example, shows every century as the same size when, in fact, each would be different because of missing men. The rectangles show the overall size of the formation but not its density so that an open order loose formation looks as strong as a densly packed one. The rectangles do not show how a formation changes size or shape as the body of men move. Men running will be more widely spaced than those standing and fighting, formations should become smaller as they experience losses during battle.

Problem 3: Time and Space

The use of arrows to represent movement are useful in the most general way but have important limitations. The Dodge illustration, for example, leads one to think that both wings swing around to attack the rear at about the same time. In actual fact this probably could not happen. One wing, and even one part of one wing, would attack the rear first. As soon as that happened the enemy would begin to react so that the whole arrangement of men on the battlefield would change before the second assault on the rear could occur. The static drawings disguise these factors and lead the casual reader into a false understanding of the dynamics of the battlefield.

The other problem disguised by the arrows is time. It takes time for maneuvers to be carried out and during that time everyone else on the battlefield is also moving around.

Problem 3: Precision

Perhaps the major problem with the rectangle method is the precision it introduces. In the Warry illustration the files of men are straight, the centuries are exactly aligned, the spaces between each century match the width of the centuries that march through the gaps. The whole thing takes place with parade-ground precision. In the other illustrations we see large bodies of men executing difficult (perhaps impossible) maneuvers and yet maintaining perfect alignment. The problem is that the precision of these illustrations penetrates the subconscious. Even the experts fall prey to schemes of movement that assume, without ever saying so, that large bodies of men can be arranged on the battlefield in precise formations. And, moreover, that they can maintain those formations in battle and during elaborate maneuvers. Thus we have schemes for replacing centuries like that of Warry's which depend on precise formations. If those formations break down in actual combat then the scheme also breaks down. At another scale, we have discussions about the spacing of the Roman soldier -- should the ranks and files be on 3 foot, 4 foot or 6 foot spacings, for example. These are products of rectangular thinking, paper and pencil illustrations, at best, parade-ground formations.

Problem 4: The Devil is in the Details

The rectangles obscure important details by considering the movement and activity of whole bodies of men. In fact, there are no bodies of men, there are only collections of individuals. At best they may try to act in unison but their ability to do that is limited by a thousand factors. To take a small example. The century charges straight ahead over roughly level ground. This is usually shown as a rectangle with an arrow. In fact each man runs at a different speed, there are obstacles on the ground around which the files of men have to maneuver, the whole century or parts of it may veer off to one side or another, enemy missiles may claim casualties or a man may fall with a spained ankle -- either of which would disrupt all of the ranks and files near or behind him. There is virtually no possibility that a century could actually run as little as 50 feet on a flat parade ground and keep to the limits of the rectangle used to represent it. Put that century on the battlefield and the final formation may bear no resemblance to a rectangle at all.

Furthermore, the actual movements of individuals has to correlate to what is possible.

Almost all battle illustrations show the armies in nice straight lines. But, is it possible for a line of some 4 legions to start an attack at the same time? No. Signals have to travel down the line, men have different response times. Some centuries may not be as prepared as others. Any actual attack would, of necessity, be staggered and ragged.

Example: Illustrations of the century typically use a 4' spacing between ranks but it would be impossible to throw a pilum while running with someone just 4 feet behind you. Yet illustrations never show a deeper formation when the century is in motion.

Example: In several of the illustrations above large formations are shown wheeling through 90 or even 180 degrees while maintaining a perfect rectangular arrangement. Anyone who has watched a highly trained marching band try to turn a corner knows how difficult it is for a line of even 7 or 8 men to execute a turn. A single century would have about 10 men across its front, a cohort around 60. Yet some experts show formations of as many as 6 cohorts abreast wheeling through 90 degrees during battle. Not possible.

And, finally, the actions of those individuals making up these rectangles are ultimately governed by the instinct for self-preservation. No matter how neatly the ranks and files and centuries and cohorts are drawn up, in the final analysis the individuals on the field of battle will place themselves in positions that provide a modicum of safety. Motivated individuals will act to protect their friends and tentmates. Aggressive men will lead attacks wherever they are in the line. Men will bunch up for protection or spread out when trying to throw a pilum. They will move around to see the enemy better. They will duck behind the shelter of their neighbor's shield. And they will do these things regardless of the arrangement of ranks and files and centuries and cohorts that may have been used on the parade-ground or, worse, only exist on paper.

A Better Illustration

Recently some experts have been experimenting with more realistic modeling methods. The illustration on the right is from Edward Valerio who uses his own modeling techniques. In this illustration the German forces are shown as gray blobs, amorphous masses of men loosly grouped by tribal associations. The density of the masses is hinted at by the shading. The Roman centuries are kept to their traditional rectangular formations (a flaw Mr. Valerio will likely correct as he refines his illustrative techniques). However in the center of the image several centuries are shown spread out as they retreat from the German press. Notice also that the battleline is not straight or tidy.

This illustration is vastly superior to the traditional ones.


This critique of battlefield drawings is intended to point out the seductive dangers the traditional forms present. Even experts begin to think in terms of tidy formations that can be moved about in ways that are impossible for real-life groups of men. Any number of schemes for ways to answer questions about how the Roman legion worked as a tactical body depend on an unspoken, unrecognized reliance on those traditional diagrams. Better ways to represent the battlefield at different scales are needed.

Site Map

© 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.