The Author’s Club | Warfare in Fantasy: Legions, Cohorts, and the Phalanx

By Author's Club


Hello everyone and thanks for coming. Let’s talk about fantasy and warfare in fantasy. Most fantasy books or series have some sort of martial conflict set within the story. In this article we are going to stick with the kind of warfare found within classical antiquity, rather than that which is found in medieval Europe.

Legions, Cohorts, shield walls, phalanx, marching in lockstep, serried ranks, they moved as one, etc…

These are terms and ideas that are often used within fantasy and are often used incorrectly.

This type of Western style warfare usually takes the form, or is inspired by, the Roman Legions. This isn’t always the case and there are exceptions, ie: fantasy armies that are inspired by Ancient Greece—the phalanx, or different examples of heavy cavalry. For the most part though, we are going to stick with the Romans.

When we think of ‘empire’ why do we so often jump to the Roman Empire? (I’m speaking to American Authors). I think we do this because our culture, our government, our military, and our society, can be in some parts traced back to the foundation of western civilization that the Romans left us. From that list, it’s our own military that creates the strongest connection to the Roman Empire—the Imperial Legions. Furthermore, the Imperial Legions of Rome make a perfect template for us (the Authors of Fantasy) to base our own militaries off of. People already know who the Romans were, know what a Roman Legion was, and can picture in their mind what a Legion looks like.

A legion of Rome

The Legionary is also a term most people know and can picture.

Roman Legionary

So it’s very easy for us to take that foundation, filter it through our story, and give our readers something that is very easy for them to grasp onto and see. The problem appears when we use it improperly.

If you have an ‘empire’ in your story, and the empire has ‘legions’ and they all wear the same armor, and march in step, and fight as a unit, and then as soon as the battle starts have them break into a great melee of individual fights…you’re using the legions incorrectly.

Fantasy has few rules, its why I love the genre, but one of the rules that must be followed is that there needs to be internal story integrity. Our readers must suspend their disbelief, so…we must, as authors, strive to be realistic whenever possible.

Digging Deeper into the Legions

What made the Roman legions so dangerous? Why did Rome come to encompass one of the greatest empires in the history of the world? Was it training? Equipment? The institutionalization of the military? Sophisticated logistics?

The simple answer:

Decisive Shock Warfare: Finding your enemy, going head to head, and bringing every ounce of the organized violence and brutality that is in your arsenal down to bear onto your enemy, until your enemy is either dead or incapable of waging war.

Sounds simple? In some ways it is, but when you zoom out a little and look at the traditional fighting styles of the eastern world (outside of Europe) it becomes a little more muddled. The best example that I can think of, that everyone who is reading this will instantly get, is the fight scene from Troy—when Achilles kills the champion of the enemy army and Agamemnon wins the battle.

That style of battle was not uncommon among non-western armies. Whether that means two champions fight for the outcome of the battle, or whether the outcome of one battle decided the victor in a war. When non-western armies did fight, it was often done in a loose formation— individual warriors fighting individual warriors.
The Romans did not fight this way. When the Romans marched to war, they marched organized into Legions, well-armed, well equipped, and dragging a sophisticated baggage train. When they met the enemy, they attacked as a single beast, in serried ranks, under tight discipline, and mostly murdered their enemies. Keep in mind that this is a complicated subject, there are exceptions to every rule, and there are a lot of different opinionators on the subject. If you want to just take my word for it then keep reading, if not please read my series on The Dynamic Nature of Western Arms.

Warfare in Fantasy

Writing an Epic Fantasy book or series is not easy. There are usually plots within plots, multiple cultures and races, and a lot of world building. We draw upon the real world to create our fake worlds. Because our worlds are fake (or are they?) they almost need to be more real than the real world. We bury the seeds of fantasy within mountains of reality, all with the purpose of convincing our reader to suspend their disbelief.

The more we know as authors, the more detailed our stories can be. I wrote the rough draft of Atlantis Rising without an outline, no character sheet, without knowing the ending, and without taking notes. I did that because I simply didn’t know any better. I had a story, so I brain dumped 136,000 words onto my computer. It took months of hard work to get it all straightened out. The first thing I did was to learn about my characters. I learned things about them that will never make it into the story, but knowing those things will give me options that I didn’t have before.

The same is true for all aspects of our writing. As authors we should know and understand every facet of our stories. If you have a blacksmith in your story you should understand the basics of how steel is made and how its forged. If you have sailing ships in your story, then you should understand how sailing works. You don’t need to be an expert on the subject, but you should know the difference between a foremast and a mizzen mast. The difference between a topsail and a topgallant sail. You may never use it, but what if your main character decides to climb the mast? What mast did he climb? How high up did he go? Did he stop at the topgallant? Or did he go all the way up to the royal?

Your reader may not know the difference but by knowing it yourself you are proving to your reader that you know what you’re talking about. If you can prove that you know what you’re talking about with the real things, then it makes it easier for them to suspend their disbelief on the fake things.

*If you happen to writing a book about sailing I would highly recommend The Shantyman by Rick Spilman. It is a fictional book but Rick does an excellent job of educating through fiction. You can find his blog here and this article about A Warship for Fantasy from Clarion

Hopefully I’ve been able to suspend your disbelief…and now we can get into the terms.

Format of a Legion

These are the organizational terms and ranks for a Roman legion. I am not suggesting that when you write a book with legions in it, that you need to follow this religiously. It is only meant to be an outline.

A legion is comprised of ten cohorts. The first cohort is made up of veterans and has five centuries of 160 men. The other nine cohorts have six centuries of 80 men. A century has ten, eight man squads.

  1. Legate: A senator who had served time as a Lacticlavian Tribune, we would call him a general.
  2. Lacticlavian Tribune: The Chief Tribune, a nobleman of the Senatorial Class, and second in command of the Legion. *Important note: Though the Lacticlavian Tribune was technically second in command, the real power of the legion was held in the hands of the Centurions.
  3. Tribunes: Staff officers, lower nobles, who served six month tours.
  4. Centurion Primus Pilus: Known as the Chief or Master Centurion. The Primus Pilus holds the true power within the legions and is the pinnacle of the career of a roman soldier. Think of a command Master Chief or a command Sergeant Major, but with more power.
  5. Centurion Primus Ordo: These were the Centurions of the first cohort’s centuries. Senior ranking centurions and generally the most veteran. A Centurion Primus Ordo, though only a century commander, is equal in rank to a Centurion Pilus Prior.
  6. Centurion Pilus Prior: The centurion of the first century within a cohort was the Pilus Prior, meaning that he was in charge of the entire Cohort. Cohorts 2-10 are commanded by a Pilus Prior.
  7. Centurion: Commander of a century of 80 men.
  8. Aquilifer: The most senior Signifier and held the Eagle Standard of the Legion.
  9. Optio: The Chosen One, the Optio was the deputy to the Centurion.
  10. Signifier: The Century Treasurer, in charge of making sure everyone got paid, as well as the man who carried the Century’s standard into battle.
  11. Tesserarius: Oversaw the fatigue and guard duties for the Century. This was also the first Principal rank and he was in charge of the duty roster for his Century.
  12. Decanus: Or sergeant, in charge of an eight-man squad.
*If you want a fun way to learn all about the Roman Legions then I would highly recommend The Soldier of Rome series by James Mace.

A typical deployment for a legion is in three lines. Four cohorts, three, and four. A cohort deploys by centuries, six centuries per cohort and I have read accounts that say a cohort deploys in five ranks and also that they deploy in six ranks. If a cohort has six centuries then it would obviously make sense if it deployed by centuries, therefore making six ranks.

In Atlantis Rising I modified and modernized this deployment a little. I split the century into two platoons with five eight-man squads each, so that a century would deploy in two platoons, each platoon eight men across, five deep.

*Note: The founders of Atlantis are former post-modern Americans. They ‘modernized’ the basic organization and deployment.

The Phalanx

Greek Phalanx The Atlantis Project Jake Parrick Warfare in Fantasy

Greek Phalanx The Atlantis Project Jake Parrick Warfare in Fantasy

The Greeks developed a style of warfare known as the phalanx. Heavily armed and armored hoplites would gather into tightly packed and serried ranks, forming blocks of men. The phalanx would generally be ten to fifteen ranks deep, providing a depth of pushing power.

The phalanx proved to be an ingenious fighting formation and few armies in the ancient world could overcome it. We see example after example of an outnumbered Greek phalanx overcoming a more numerous enemy. It wasn’t until the Romans developed the shield wall that the phalanx fell out of favor. The shield wall is more flexible and can overlap and surround a phalanx. But it was pure murder against the less disciplined and less organized enemies that the Greeks had.

Greek Phalanx The Atlantis Project Jake Parrick Warfare in Fantasy Spartan hoplite

I hope that those terms will be useful for you. Part 2 of this series, Combat in Fantasy | A Tradition of Decisive Shock Warfare, will dig deeper into how the Legions were used and how to use them within fantasy. This series runs parallel to a different series that I’m writing: The Dynamic Nature of Western Arms.



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