[July 18, 2020] Among the opening scenes in the movie Gladiator (2000), Roman general Maximus is readying his cavalry to charge into the rear of a large barbarian army. To motivate his men, he encourages them to show strength and honor in the face of the enemy. Maximus, played by Russell Crowe, tells his cavalrymen in their attack to hold the line. The scene can be found here in a YouTube video (2:59 minutes).
Watching this opening scene still gives me chills. It’s a dramatic beginning that provides us with a small glimpse through a window into leadership in combat. Hold the line is a famous leader command known throughout the world.
This leadership article is the first of many that addresses those commands and what they mean.
The main task of a commander in combat, regardless of level, is to impose his will on the enemy. Fundamentals of offense come directly into play. Surprise, concentration (of forces), tempo, and audacity are the hallmarks of successful offensive operations. Historically, these efforts are at the very front of all human behavior that quickly achieves a victory over a vanquished enemy.
“Line. The line formation provides maximum firepower forward. It is used when the platoon crosses danger areas and is provided with overwatch by another element, or when the platoon assaults through the enemy positions.” – U.S. Army Techniques and Procedures “Tank Platoon” 3-20.15, page 3.-12
Hold the line is not just a U.S. Army armor and Infantry tactic but exists in all military services in some form, as well as in commercial and sports competitions. We’ve all seen professional sports teams as they align their tactical formations to win games. The line formation is the most basic in many sports and has specific psychological effects on both the offensive and defense team members.
Imagine, if you will, being the barbarians in their attack upon the Roman formations (which are coming at them from their front). From behind, they are surprised to find Roman general Maximus in their rear coming at them with a line of armored men on horseback. The speed at which the attack develops overwhelms the barbarians rapidly with the Romans to both their front and rear, a classic envelopment.
There is a clear lesson for the leader. Hold the line is part of the tactical tools that great leaders possess. It creates effects that are beyond the standard capabilities of his force, team, community, or nation. Using it requires talent, determination, experience, and strength of will.