Weaponry: Greek Phalanx

9/5/2006 • Gear, Military History

Sometime in the middle of the 7th century bc, a new style of warfare appeared in ancient Greece, requiring a foot soldier to forsake acts of individual valor in favor of standing shoulder-to-shoulder with his comrades in a battle square. This square, called a phalanx, distinguished itself from other heavy infantry formations in the Near East in that it would evolve into a well-articulated tactical system capable of decisive offensive tactical mobility.

How and when the change in emphasis from individual to collective action on the Greek battlefield took place is still a matter of debate. During the Bronze Age and before the invention of the phalanx, Greek fighting had been dominated by aristocratic warriors who reveled in individual duels with their adversaries, in a manner immortalized by Homer in The Iliad. Even as Homer was conceiving his epic, a shift in warfare was taking place. The revival of trade routes and the beginning of colonization in the 8th and 7th centuries bc led to economic prosperity in Greek mother-cities such as Corinth, Thebes and Athens. That prosperity allowed for the democratization of war. Iron had replaced bronze as the metal of choice for weapons, allowing an increasing number of farmer-soldiers to equip themselves with helmets, armor, greaves and shields, and thus take their place in the battle line. The increasing number of armored heavy infantry was probably a major factor in the decline of individual warfare, and the Greek art of war began to change to accommodate larger numbers of soldiers.

How the ancient Greeks utilized those new developments in warfare is a subject of great interest and heated debate in military history. It is universally recognized that the new Greek tactical system required certain preconditions if battle was to take place. In mountainous Greece, each of the opposing phalanxes sought level ground. Normally the defender enjoyed a significant advantage by securing a site on a slight slope so that the attacker would have to march and fight uphill. The uphill advantage, however, was often so great that attackers usually declined to engage, avoiding the defenders’ army and destroying their crops until they were compelled to give up their advantageous position. To avoid such collateral damage to the civilian populace, adversaries fought by mutual consent on open level ground.

Since the late 19th century ad, historians have debated how the Greek armies actually joined battle. The old school of thought advocated an orderly advance into battle in which front rank fought front rank, with soldiers in the second rank waiting to fill the places of the fallen or fatigued. But a new generation of classicists, led by Victor Davis Hanson of the University of California at Santa Cruz, has taken another look at the primary sources and has come to a different conclusion. The new interpretation describes phalanx battle as the collision of two battle squares in which, as the 4th-century bc Spartan soldier and historian Xenophon described it, ‘crashing their shields together, they shoved, fought, slew and died.’

The typical Greek phalanx formation deployed in a closely packed rank and file, usually but not always eight ranks deep. The organization of the phalanx was based more on files than on ranks, with the hoplite belonging to his file rather than his rank. The basic idea was to maintain a solid front after the opposing sides collided, to deny the enemy gaps to penetrate.

The key to the Greek phalanx’s success was in its innovative organization and technologies. The phalangeal formation consisted of heavy infantrymen or hoplites, so named because of the ingenious shield or hoplon each carried into battle. The hoplon itself was a round, convex shield nearly 3 feet in diameter and weighing more than 15 pounds. The essential difference between the hoplon and the older shield was that the latter could hang by its strap from time to time, allowing a soldier to rest his arm, and was used in combat by holding a grip behind the central boss. The newer hoplon remained locked onto the forearm, with its weight borne by the left shoulder, resulting in more effective and prolonged use. The disadvantage was that since the hoplon was now gripped with the left hand near its rim, half the shield projected to the infantryman’s left, effectively protecting only the left side of his body. To compensate for that deficiency, Greek soldiers began to stand side by side, employing the overlap of the shield to protect the right side of their bodies. Thus Thucydides explains the tendency of hoplites to edge to their right as the result of ‘each man, in his anxiety, getting his unprotected side as close as possible to the shield of the man standing on his right, and thinking that the more closely the shields were locked, the better the protection.’

Another consequence of this new defensive formation was the abandonment of the Bronze Age, Homeric-style throwing spear for a thrusting spear, necessarily creating a tactical system that relied exclusively on shock. So important had the thrusting spear become that the sword was only utilized in emergencies.

Scholars are not certain whether the use of this new equipment spawned a radical change in battlefield tactics or vice versa. It is believed, though, that the adoption of the hoplon and the abandonment of the throwing spear reinforced the hoplites’ dependence on collective warfare. Unlike the rectangular shield or scutum of the later Roman legionary or the lighter round shield of the early medieval warrior, the hoplon afforded the Greek heavy infantryman little protection from an attack on his side and rear. In fact, the entire hoplite panoply evolved to satisfy the offensive and defensive role of the collective frontal attack. Perhaps even more important — and more fateful — this newfound dependence on mutual support necessitated innovation in the size and shape of the phalanx.

The invention of a superior tactical system could not be monopolized for long, however, as the phalanx quickly spread throughout Greece. That diffusion instigated an arms race among city-states, one that forced the evolution of the phalanx and in turn introduced phalangeal warfare as a cultural institution in Hellenic civilization. Because of tactical diffusion, heavy infantry all over Greece wore the same type of armor and fought according to identical tactical principles. Overall, greater battlefield articulation remained difficult for phalanxes to achieve, especially since most hoplites were not professional soldiers but militia. For the most part, Greek militia had full-time occupations as farmers, artisans and tradesmen. One city-state, Sparta, solved that problem by creating a professional army, employing a warrior class that drilled for years, while other city-states experimented with the organization of the phalanx itself.

When tactical experimentation did take place, it usually involved an increase in the depth of the files of the phalanx rather than broadening the rank or frontage of the formation. Common belief held that by increasing the depth of the phalanx, greater momentum could be gained in the initial collision, but the philosophy that more was better was not universally accepted. Xenophon once asked, ‘When a phalanx is too deep for the men to reach the enemy with their weapons, what harm do you think they do to the enemy or good to their friends?’

With the widespread adoption of identical tactical principles, a ‘cult of symmetry’ arose in classical hoplite battle. The idea of symmetry on the battlefield goes back to Bronze Age aristocratic warfare, but the ethos that compelled Homer’s Achilles to battle mano a mano with Hector outside the walls of Troy was projected onto collective warfare in Greece between the 8th and 5th century bc. Phalanx-versus-phalanx combat became the preferred mode of warfare in Greece to the exclusion of more efficient means of killing, inasmuch as light infantry was not an acceptable battlefield tactical system for the Greeks. While archery was recognized in early Iron Age Near Eastern warfare as the great battlefield equalizer, allowing death to be dealt at a distance, it simply did not fit the confrontational image that was the essence of heroic warfare as defined by Homer. Consequently, archery was relegated to a subordinate status, usually hunting.

Classical Greek warfare tended to be very localized in its scope, with city-state battling city-state for territorial gain. The relatively short distances between the various Greek city-states, however, were still forgiving to the hoplite army on the march. Greece’s steep slopes, deep gorges, dry washes and narrow passes dictated the use of regular routes to move armies. That alone often compromised strategic surprise and reinforced the ritual character of phalangeal warfare at the same time. Furthermore, hoplite arms and armor were much too heavy to wear in the summer if crossing difficult terrain. It meant that even for a short campaign against a neighboring city-state, the hoplite and his attendant had to transport several weeks’ rations as well at arms and armor. If pack animals or ox-drawn carts were used, the size of the marching column grew exponentially, since at least some fodder for the pack or draft animals had to be carried as well.

Greek victory in the Persian wars in the first half of the 5th century bc contributed greatly to the perceived dominance of the heavy infantry phalanx. Although some Greeks realized that Persian errors had also contributed to their victory, the more common belief was that it represented the triumph of the spear over the bow and of heavy infantry over light. As the 5th century wore on, however, individual Greek city-states began to experiment with their armies by adding light infantry to the tactical mix. During the Peloponnesian War, Athenian use of archers and javelin throwers against the Spartans at Spacteria in 425 bc improved the Greek perception of light infantry, but it was only a step toward a fully integrated army.

The Greek city-states never did adopt a complete combined-arms tactical system. That refusal cost them their freedom when, in the middle of the 4th century bc, King Philip II of Macedon marched south and defeated city-state after city-state with a balanced, combined-arms tactical system that added heavy cavalry lancers and horse archers to an improved phalanx protected by light infantry. With the invention of the Macedonian combined-arms tactical system, Alexander the Great and his Greco-Macedonian army carved an empire and ushered in the Hellenistic Age and a new era of warfare.

This article was written by Brian Todd Carey and originally published in the September 2006 issue of Military History magazine. For more great articles be sure to subscribe to Military History magazine today!

8 Responses to Weaponry: Greek Phalanx

  1. Alyse says:

    this is so confusing yet cool

  2. Caucasus says:

    Author quotes from Xenophon twice (“primary’ source) referring to him as a Spartan soldier and historian. Zenophon was an Athenian which made his leadership of the the 10,000 after Cunaxa (consisting mainly of Spartans) more remarkable so shortly after Athens’ defeat by Sparta only three years earier in the Peloponnesian Wars.

    Interesting, but a distillation of secondary sources. Writing does not flow well. Exempt the obviuosly academic and arcane prose, this works as a primer for Hellenistic warfare.

  3. Michael says:

    “Zenophon was an Athenian which made his leadership of the the 10,000 after Cunaxa (consisting mainly of Spartans) more remarkable so shortly after Athens’ defeat by Sparta only three years earier in the Peloponnesian Wars.”

    What a fascinating statement. The commenter assumes, for some reason, that Cyrus’ mercenary contingent of some 11,000 Greeks consisted “mainly of Spartans”. I’m afraid the source material (Xenophon’s Anabasis ) does not back up that assumption. Perhaps the commenter has confused the command of Clearchus – a Spartan “in exile” and Chirisophus – with the notion that this was a Spartan army of some description.

    Xenophon (Anab. 1.1 – 1.2.4) records the contingents of this mercenary force and how it came together. There is little room in that description for this army to comprise of “mainly Spartans”.

    Cyrus was Sparta’s estwhile finacier – at the pleasure of the Great King. Sparta might well have allowed the occasional “advisor” to join this army but it would – at this moment – shy at the prospect of breaking the alliance with Persia that had won it the Peloponnesian War. That would come later with Thibron, Dercilidas and Agesilaos. The Great King, always holding the whip hand, would smack Sparta back into line by finacing Athens via Conon and bringing his forgetful Greek policeman back to the negotiating table through Antalcidas.

    The writer might inaccurately describe Xenohon as “Spartan”. What is certain is that Xenophon was no Athenian. He might more accurately be described as “Peloponnesian” for that was certainly his outlook and, indeed, his world. His sons underwent the Spartan agoge and his Peloponnesian idyl was rudely cut short by Epaminondas, Pelopidas at Leuctra. He neither forgave nor forgot – to scrub them as far as possible from his history that is.

  4. Andre says:

    Cant you make an article of persian infantry organisation, general wiew is that persian ifantry was just poorly trained levy armed with spears when they were infact highly organised take a wiew at this:

    The Persian army was organised along a very strict decimal organisation that ran right from divisions of ten thousand men, known as a Baivarabam, to ten man squads which included two officers . The reports on the decimal organisation of the Persian army come from Herodotus’ description of Xerxes’ march out of Sardis and Xenophon who had the fortune of both fighting against and alongside the Persian military . His testimony is confirmed by Persian ration tablets found at Persepolis which give us both the original Persian names for the unit divisions and also confirm the evidence given to us that they were organised by tens . This level of close supervision ensured that a high level of military discipline and loyalty was maintained throughout the army as a whole. Moreover the command structure ensured that no soldier was far from an authority figure with the correct orders. This system worked all the way up to the supreme commander or even the Great King himself so no division, regiment or ten-man squad was left without orders or leadership. It also meant that the loss of the supreme commander did not mean ultimate loss for the rest of the army. It is traditionally supposed that the Persian army was too reliant on its commander’s presence on the field. This supposition comes originally from Herodotus’ description of Mardonius’ death at Platea but also the later examples of Darius III at the battles of Issus and Gaugamela. However this interpretation has found its way into modern scholarship as well . By contrast to this ideal we have multiple examples of the Achaemenid Persian army being able to maintain discipline and even fight on to victory after facing the loss of their commander. During the Ionian revolt the Persian general Artybios was charged with the re-conquest of Cyprus. During the land battle Herodotus specifically describes the death of Artybios at the hands of Onesilos and his Carian shield bearer but then goes on to state that Persians were able to go on to win the battle . Whilst the fate of the battle was certainly sealed by the retreat of Stesenor it is clear that the Persian force was able to maintain discipline and finish the fight without Artybios. Moreover, the command structure of the Persian army allowed for the allocation of separate theatres of battle to separate commanders. Because of this, Artabazos was able to keep his division in order after the rout of the Persians at Platea and get the entire corps to safety . Even during the retreat from the Spartans towards the Persian camp the Persian army was sufficiently disciplined by the remaining sub-officers to order the cavalry to screen the infantry’s retreat and get the infantry to rapidly mount the defences of the palisade before the raging Greek army was upon them. Thanks to the initiative and quick action of the army in flight the Persians were able to mount a heavy resistance at their camp until the walls were taken and despair overtook them . Finally the battle of Mycale paints an incredibly disciplined picture of Persian soldiers maintaining their position in the battle line and fighting on despite being assailed by the enemy and their previous allies . The last element of the command structure that was of great importance was the Persian system of field signs and standard bearers. Xenophon tells us that each commander had his own colours for his regiment . This is confirmed by the large amount of attic pottery depicting Persian standard bearers in states of defeat by hoplites . These field signs allowed both orders to be given easily and for messengers to find commanders quickly. Sophisticated communications systems can only be the mark of a well organised and disciplined war machine rather than the stereotypical mass of levy spearmen.

    The command structure of the army simply took the smallest tactical unit and scaled up to a strategic level. As such, to acquire a better understanding of the particular discipline the Persian army adhered to it is important to analyse their basic tactical unit named the Satabam. The Satabam was a one hundred man unit comprised of a combination of archers and spearmen commanded by a Satapatis. The spearmen formed up a solid shield wall whilst the remaining archers drew up in ranks behind them. Xenophon tells us the spearmen made up only the front two ranks of the unit . The one hundred men were divided into ten squads of ten men. This squad was called a Dathabam and was commanded by a Datapatis with his second in command, the Pascadatapatis. Under the supervision of these two command units the Dathabam was ordered into ranks and able to maintain the high level of discipline needed to sustain both a shield wall, an effective close quarters squad and a missile barrage in the same unit. The unit’s aim was to deploy within bowshot of the enemy and discharge their arrows as the enemy moved to engage them. The missile barrage was intended to throw the enemy into disarray and lower their morale before the shield bearers, or Sparabara, in the front ranks of the Satabam engaged and finished the enemy off with the help of flanking cavalry movements. However the Satabam was a flexible unit that could be used for multiple operations. During the Persian wars Iranian contingents fighting in the Satabam formation were deployed to fight exclusively as close quarters troops at Thermopylae, ahead of the heavily armed Lydian hoplites, Ionian hoplites or the well-armoured Assyrian soldiers, albeit with little success . This sort of organisation, even on a low level, is the opposite of the image that Green would have us believe.

    The individual arms of the Sparabara were light for the most part. Herodotus tells us that helmets were only worn by the cavalry of the Persian army . The Persian infantryman wore instead a felt cap upon his head. It is again another misinterpretation to say that the Persians went to war without defensive armour. Herodotus states the lack of Persian armour was the reason for their defeat at Platea . However earlier on in his description of the regular line infantry of the Persian army he states that they wore scale iron corslets . Masistus wore this same style of scale armour during a cavalry raid against the Greek position at Platea. What is interesting is that the Greeks were unable to pierce his armour with their spear thrusts and had to stab him in the eye . The most likely explanation for this contradiction is that the front two ranks of Spearmen in the Satabam wore this scale armour whilst the archers to the rear were much more lightly armoured. This corresponds exactly to many examples of attic pottery depicting the Persian invasion that show Persian archers wearing what appear to be linen cuirasses being assailed by hoplites . From the reliefs at Persepolis we can see that the Persian spear was about 2.2 metres long and had a counter weight at its butt instead of a spike . The feared Persian bow is also seen to be of the powerful re-curve design . The Persians are noted not have worn greaves like their Greek counterparts however the shields they took to war were of the tower design and as such covered their legs . The spara shield was designed primarily to protect the spearman against incoming missile fire from enemy troops. However it appears to have only been able to serve as viable protection for a short while against concentrated enemy heavy infantry. The battle of Mycale is an excellent example of the Persian Spara being very effective whilst upright but prone to crumble after repeated efforts to break though . What we can infer from this is that the Persian line infantry were not supposed to be engaged in a melee for prolonged periods of time. Instead, when facing close combat troops the Persian line was to hold until the cavalry could flank the enemy, charge and win the day. This was exactly how a Persian army defeated Histaios and his army of hoplites at Malene . The cavalry of the Persian army were in Herodotus’ words “armed like the infantry .” However, Xenophon’s later description of the Persian cavalry has them using javelin’s rather than bows and arrows. This is in accordance with the seal of Cyrus the first, which depicts a mounted soldier discharging javelins at his enemy and also a document of the later 5th century describing the equipment a cavalryman was supposed to carry including two spears . In this way it is possible that the Persian cavalry included units using both the Javelin and the bow. Herodotus specifically states that the cavalry Mardonius commanded fired both at the Greeks however the mounted archers would likely have been the Scythian contingents which Herodotus praised as the best of the horsemen.

    The reason for the development of the Persian infantry as light armed in comparison to the Greek hoplites has very much to do with the geography of their homeland and the social structure of their society. Unlike a Greek city-state, the Persian feudal society left very little room for a comfortable middle class to emerge that could afford sophisticated arms and armour. By contrast the Persians relied on a system of granting land to subjects in return for military service. The King would grant certain subjects a military estate named as either a “Bow Estate,” “Horse Estate” or “Chariot Estate.” The mention of “chariot estates” almost certainly means the system of military colonisation, known as the “Hatru” from the Murasu archive, was present before the Persian conquest under the Assyrians . The commoners would be rewarded after their military service which Strabo , Xenophon and Herodotus all maintain that Persian youths undertook once they had matured. Whilst they disagree upon the age that the Persian youths would be incorporated into the army, they all agree that after their years of service they would be de-mobilised but remain liable for military service. It was during this period of demobilisation that the Persians were rewarded with land grants that identified how they fought. The King thus kept his people dependent on him and tied to the land which he personally granted them. As such the class divisions that arose came specifically from those on estates large enough to support a cavalryman’s wage against those on a simple infantryman’s plot. Above all of this of course being the nobility with their personal estates and retinues. Examples of these noble units and bodyguards are plentiful in Herodotus as his description of Xerxes’ army on the march shows us four separate regiments, or Hazarabam, of one thousand noble Persians . Moreover he describes possibly one of these regiments or Mardonius’ personal retinue fighting at Platea . Herodotus describes this noble Hazarabam with much praise, which suggests that they could afford far better equipment and a greater level of training in war. However for the simple soldier tending a “Bow estate” there left very little room for personal aggrandizement and the development of a class able to afford more luxuries or battle equipment than that which they were accustomed to. Nonetheless the geographical nature of the Persian Empire dictated that the light equipment of the Sparabara and archer was in fact the most efficient and tactical for the jobs at hand. All too often it is assumed that the Greeks were simply technologically superior to the Persian army and this was the reason that they favoured heavier arms . However this completely ignores the fact that on the wide-open and sun-smitten plains of the Middle East, a heavily armed and armoured infantryman was simply a very slow and undoubtedly exhausted target for cavalry and light missile troops. When Xenophon’s ten thousand mercenary hoplites of the ill-fated expedition to mount prince Cyrus upon the throne found themselves on a perilous journey home through Asia, Xenophon wisely ordered the creation of both a cavalry unit and the promotion of the use of missile weapons like the sling . Thusly the fugitive Greeks were able to ward off harassing cavalry and missile attacks from their enemies on the plains. Hence what we can note is that the Persian army evolved its equipment to face as many different types of combat as there were different types of terrain in the empire. The idea that they were unable to compete with the advanced Greek methods of war is hence invalid.

    As has been mentioned, Persian society lacked the means to produce a middle class capable of affording better quality arms and armour. However the Persian Kings dealt with this inherent problem in feudal monarchy by creating and supporting a standing army that was in attendance of the Great king. The so-called “Immortals” constituted a Baivarabam of picked Persian infantry that was armed and adorned by the richest standards in the army after the nobility . However the name “Immortals” is almost certainly a mistake on Herodotus’ part. Weishofer believes that Herodotus mistook ‘Anusyia,’ the Persian word for ‘attendant’, for ‘Anausa,’ meaning ‘Immortal .’ What is interesting to note is that Herodotus’ clear distinction made for these soldiers is that their unit was always kept up to full strength. This hints at the idea that the other Persian Baivarabam’s were prone to falling under strength. This is a theory that is confirmed by some Aramaic documents found in the Persian garrison at Aswan. Ration documents issued to the soldiers allow us to reconstruct the number of men present and shows that at least one Satabam had fallen to only fifty or sixty men . Their repeated depiction in the Persian royal palaces of Susa and Persepolis suggest that during peacetime they were in permanent attendance on the King. As such they did not have farms to return to or harvests to collect. The repeated colour schemes on the reliefs at Susa have given rise to the idea that the King issued them uniforms and as such their armour and equipment could well have been personally provided by the king as well. Even if this were not so it is clear from Herodotus that they were afforded large salaries and luxuries and as such would clearly have been able to afford the sort of scale cuirasses that Masistus wore and Herodotus describes for the Persian infantry. Moreover the Persepolis reliefs show the guardsmen depicted with wooden shields rather than wickerwork Spara. It is clear these shields are wooden since they are rimmed with metal and embossed with a circular bronze emblem in the centre. One such boss, which clearly mimics the designs at Persepolis, was found at the Heraion of Samos . In this way we can see that this regiment was equipped to be able to sustain much more protracted melee battles as well as being able to discharge missiles.

  5. reeves says:

    Thanks this will help a lot on my research paper. What an amazing article and factual paper is a good source, but I have papers that have more info

  6. reeves says:

    If any one has more info email me at [email protected]

  7. Kendall says:

    It’s truly a shame the Greeks were so close-minded in their ways. If Alexander had united them at a later date they may have even been able to withstand the Romans.

  8. […] the interlocked shields and cut down the advancing enemy this tactic was called a phalanx. The phalanx formation, famously used by the Greek city-state Sparta, would continue to be used for many years afterwards […]

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