The Macedonian phalanx was based on the sixteen-deep file, although the file leader’s title of dekarch attested to an earlier ten-deep organisation. Alexander’s phalanx fought eight deep; by Polybius’ time, perhaps as a result of Pyrrhus’ experiences against the Romans, the phalanx fought sixteen deep. For much of its existence, the phalanx was formed along the following lines. Four files (‘dekas’) each of 16 men formed the smallest unit, the semaia. Two semaia formed a 128-man lochos, commanded by a lochagos.
Alongside the lochagos, other specialised soldiers also served alongside each lochos. There was the bugler – the salpingetes – who would relay messages with his bugle during the heat of battle. There was also a signalman – called the semeiphoros – who would give visual signals during the march with his standard, as well as an army herald – a stratokerux – who would shout out orders. There was also an aide – a hyperetes – who was to convey messages between units and do whatever the lochagos required, and finally a file closer – the ouragos – who would collect any stragglers from the phalanx.
Two lochoi formed a 256-man syntagma. Two syntagmai formed a 512-man pentakosiarchia and two pentakosiarchiai a 1,024-man chiliarchy. Two such chiliarchies formed a phalanx (or phalanx taxis) of 2,048 men.
Alexander’s phalanx (and hence Philip’s and any preceding phalanx) appears to have been organised somewhat differently, with three 512-man pentakosiarchiai per phalanx (phalanx taxis). Alexander appears to have reorganised them into 2,048-man phalanxes in 326 BC, setting the pattern for the Hellenistic era.
Hellenistic tactical manuals give three individual spacings for phalangites: march order, with each man taking up a space of 6’x6′; tactical order, with each man occupying 3’x3′ and finally combat order, each man having a frontage of 1.5′ and a depth of 3′.
Alexander customarily approached a likely battlefield with his army marching in order of battle. This saved deployment time and enabled him to launch an immediate attack, as at the Granicus, if an opportunity presented itself. The phalanx would march 32 deep with each man taking up 6’x6′ of space. Once the army came in sight of the enemy, the files would close up to 16 deep by inserting alternate files between their neighbours, so each man now occupied a space of 3’x3′. This formation allowed manoeuvring on the battlefield. When the phalanx was close to the enemy and would not require any further manoeuvres, just advancing straight ahead to contact, each half-file inserted itself between neighbouring files, so every man occupied a space of 1.5’x3′ and the phalanx was now eight deep. In this formation it would attack the enemy, presenting an impenetrable forest of sarissa points and being unbeatable on clear, reasonably level terrain by anything except another phalanx.
The phalanx was intended to be used as part of a combined-arms army. The other arms were missile infantry (archers, occasionally also slingers), javelinmen (capable of skirmishing and of supporting cavalry, and able to enter melee at need) and peltasts, the latter being Thracians and/or mercenary Greeks. Alexander also fielded allied Greek hoplites in his army up to the burning of Persepolis and subsequent dissolution of the League of Corinth.
On the flanks of the phalanx were the cavalry. Deployed in support of the cavalry were the missilemen and javelinmen, who appear to have had the role of concentrating missiles where the cavalry were about to strike. Peltasts and allied hoplites in Alexander’s army normally formed a second line, which could retrieve the situation if the phalanx became split for any reason.
The missilemen were composed of Macedonian archers and slingers, who seem to have been reasonably effective, and Cretan archers, who had the reputation of being the best in the Greek world at the time.
At the Granicus, they showered the Persians on the opposite bank with missiles as the Macedonian cavalry surged across. At Issus, Alexander deployed them to do the same but changed his mind and went straight into a charge when the first Persian volleys came over. From this, we can infer that the volume and effect of their shooting was less than that of close formation Persian foot, but useful nevertheless. At Gaugamela, they deployed to screen the cavalry against Darius’ scythed chariots, with the assistance of the Agrianes. Missilemen never formed more than a small proportion of the army, and in later Hellenistic armies appear to have had mainly an elephant support role, although the Seleucids seem to have developed a measure of integration between missilemen and phalanx which came sadly unstuck when the missilemen ran away at Magnesia instead of getting into the pikemen’s hollow rectangle.
The javelinmen comprised mainly Agrianes, fierce hillmen adept at skirmishing and hit-and-run attacks, but also useful for supporting cavalry, and lightly-equipped Thracians of similar nature. Later Hellenistic armies drew javelinmen from wider backgrounds,
The peltasts were somewhat heavier javelinmen, usually Greeks from the League of Corinth or mercenaries, and their main ability was fighting in difficult terrain, an ability rarely called upon in Alexander’s battles. Indeed, the proportion of peltasts in Hellenistic armies appears to have declined over time, to the extent that the designation ‘peltast’ replaced that of ‘hypaspist’ in later Macedonian armies, and these ‘peltasts’ fought in line with pikes. The rough terrain infantry, when present, tended to wear armour and was now known as thorakitai (from thorax, meaning body armour).
The Macedonian cavalry of Alexander’s time were the best melee cavalry in the world. Alexander fielded Macedonian hetairoi (Companions), Thessalian nobles and Thracian (Odrysian and Paeonian) nobles.
These were all formidable in close combat and the Thracians were in addition efective at scouting, as were the Macedonian prodromoi (‘vanguard’), also referred to as sarissophoroi and dimacheri. The prodromoi, like the Paeonians, were committed in a shock role at the Granicus and at Gaugamela; they were not light cavalry, but heavy cavalry who were also adept at scouting. The close combat weapon of choice was the xyston, a 13-foot slender lance held a quarter of the way along its length, outreaching the javelin-length spears of other cavalry and the doru (spear) of ordinary hoplites. The prodromoi may have used the sarissa (hence their alternative name of sarissophoroi), giving them even more reach from horseback.
Alexander added mounted archers to his cavalry as soon as he could get them, and they proved to be a useful addition. Of the later Hellenistic kingdoms, only the Seleucids were able to field mounted archers, and usually only in small numbers. When the Parthians became a problem, the Seleucids instead up-armoured their cavalry, both man and horse, creating the cataphract either on their own initiative or imitating a Parthian model (it is unclear which was the case).
The Successor struggles following Alexander’s death also saw the introduction of a new combat arm: elephants. Their effective debut was at Ipsus in 301 BC where they prevented Demetrius’ successful cavalry from taking any further part in the battle.From that point, they became integrated into Hellenistic armies, usually providing a striking force on the wings overlapping the juncture between the cavalry and the phalanx, and accompanied by a contingent of light infantry, usually missilemen, whose purpose was to support the elephants and keep them alive.
A persistent question is whether elephants had any frontal capability against phalanxes, or whether the dense array of points would render the animals incapable of doing harm. A partial answer to this might be found in the proliferation of elephant leg armour, because lowered sarissas would have their points at the height of an elephant’s leg, so if the leg could be protected the elephant might have a future against pikemen. Armoured legs would have enabled elephants to avoid being injured by pikes and either step or kneel on the pikeshafts as they reached with their trunk to pluck a phalangite out of the front rank. The rate of attrition inflicted on a phalanx would not be high, but at least the elephant would be useful.
Overall, the phalanx was capable of frontally meeting and defeating any other infantry formation, with the result that very quickly the Hellenistic successor powers fielded only phalanxes as their basic heavy infantry. Western Mediterranean powers and Greeks themselves were slow to follow, the Greeks adopting an intermediate type to replace the hoplite, the thureophoros, an infantryman carrying a Gallic-style shield, opinion being divided on whether this shield was adopted from Gauls or Illyrians. Only Sparta continued with hoplites and never adopted the thureophoros, changing directly to pikes under Cleomenes III. Other Greek powers progressively discarded their thureophoroi in favour of pikemen, the Achaeans being among the last to do so.
This proliferation of pikemen was accompanied by a diversity of drill techniques. It appears that two schools of formation handling developed, one Greek and one Macedonian. The Greek method of closing up to fighting density was to move the files inward, to face each other, which meant that the marching formation began considerably wider than the fighting formation (Polybius mistakenly assumes this was also the method used by the Macedonians in his criticism of Callisthenes in Book XII). The Macedonian method, as previously noted, involved halving each file and inserting it between the front halves of its own and the adjoining file. The Macedonian method had the advantage that it kept the frontage exactly the same, but could have been slower to execute, especially for indifferently trained troops. Antigonus II Doson may have combined both methods at the Battle of Sellasia in 222 BC, thus perhaps creating the first 16 deep Macedonian phalanx, which pushed Cleomenes’ shallower phalanx off the high ground it was holding. 16 deep became standard for later Hellenistic phalanxes.
The Sunset of the Macedonian Phalanx
The demise of the phalanx came about when the later Hellenistic powers encountered Rome. Pyrrhus was initially successful, losing at Beneventum only when his own elephants were stampeded into breaking his own ranks. Philip V lost at Cynoscephalane when the left of his phalanx, having ascended the heights but unable to find suitable ground on which to form up, was attacked and routed by the Roman elephants, allowing Philip’s victorious right to be taken in the rear. Antiochus III at Magnesia lost his left wing and missilemen to a panic; his pikemen held out in a square or rectangular formation which the Roman legionaries dared not approach until the Roman and Pergamene cavalry had shot and wounded the elephants inside the square so that they rampaged through their own pikemen. Finally, at Pydna, Perseus’ line, already beginning to look ragged as it pursued the retiring Romans across broken ground, was itself broken when the Roman elephants smashed their way through the ‘anti-elephant corps’ and peltasts (hypaspists) on the Macedonian left.
Legions never beat phalangites in a straight fight, as was illustrated when during the siege of Atrax the Romans made a breach in the walls and the Macedonian garrison deployed in the breach. The Romans found themselves completely incapable of doing the phalangites any harm, and eventually abandoned the assault.
In the twilight of the Hellenistic kingdoms, Mithridates VI of Pontus fielded a quasi-Hellenistic army in his campaigns against the Romans. Initially successful, this army was trounced by Sulla when the latter was able to lure it into difficult terrain, although a phalanx of freed slaves held out against everything the legions could do until demolished by artillery. Mithridates’ subsequent campaigns, and the Armenian king Tigranes’ war against Rome, were equally unsuccessful and the last kingdom with a Hellenistic-style army, Commagene, became a client kingdom of Rome, being absorbed into the empire in AD 74.
This, however, was not the end of the phalanx. The Roman emperors Caracalla and Alexander Severus are both recorded as raising phalanxes, the one for show and the other for war against the new power of Sassanid Persia. Alexander Severus’ army, with its pikemen, is variously reported to have been successful or defeated; the latter may be more probable, because subsequent emperors seem never to have utilised formations of pikemen in any shape or form.
The phalanx as a weapons system, leaving aside Roman imitations, lasted for around 400 years. For about half that time period, it dominated the Hellenistic world as the infantry weapon system of choice, and it provided the main heavy infantry component of the army which overthrew the Persian Empire. For about a thousand years it slumbered, and then reawakened to provide effective infantry for the armies of Renaissance Europe. The Swiss phalanx had little in common with that of the Macedonians, except in the fundamental attribute of providing a line of points no melee opponent could penentrate, but the new European phalanx replaced all other melee infantry systems until ousted by improved musketry. The legacy of Macedon shaped the battlefields of Renaissance Europe.
Polybius. The Histories.
Connolly, Peter: The Greek Armies
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