Wednesday, 14 July 2010


This article is taken and re-edit from Wikipedia.

The phalanx was an offensive infantry formation for hand-to- hand shock combat. It usually fought without light troop or cavalry support, which should have been an important disadvantage, but the Greeks largely ignored these auxiliary troops. As long as they fought among themselves, lack of missile troops and cavalry was not a problem.

The hoplite phalanx of the Archaic and Classical periods in Greece (approx. 750-350 BCE) was a formation in which the hoplites would line up in ranks in close order. The hoplites would lock their shields together, and the first few ranks of soldiers would project their spears out over the first rank of shields. The phalanx therefore presented a shield wall and a mass of spear points to the enemy, making frontal assaults much more difficult. It also allowed a higher proportion of the soldiers to be actively engaged in combat at a given time (rather than just those in the front rank).

The phalanx usually advanced at a walking pace, although it is possible that they picked up speed during the last several yards. One of the main reasons for this slow approach was to maintain formation. If the phalanx lost its shape as it approached the enemy it would be rendered useless. If the hoplites of the phalanx were to pick up speed toward the latter part of the advance it would have been for the purpose of gaining momentum against the enemy in the initial collision. Herodotus states, of the Greeks at the Battle of Marathon, that "They were the first Greeks we know of to charge their enemy at a run". Many historians believe that this innovation was precipitated by their desire to minimize their losses from Persian archery. The opposing sides would collide, possibly shivering many of the spears of the row in front.

The battle would then rely on the valour of the men in the front line; whilst those in the rear maintained forward pressure on the front ranks with their shields. When in combat, the whole formation would consistently press forward trying to break the enemy formation; thus when two phalanx formations engaged, the struggle essentially became a pushing match.

The opposing sides would collide viciously, possibly terrifying many of the hoplites of the front row. The battle would then rely on the valour of the men in the front line; whilst those in the rear maintained forward pressure on the front ranks with their shields. When in combat, the whole formation would consistently press forward trying to break the enemy formation; thus when two phalanx formations engaged, the struggle essentially became a pushing match, in which, as a rule, the deeper phalanx would almost always win, with few recorded exceptions.

Each individual hoplite carried his shield on the left arm, protecting not only himself but the soldier to the left. This meant that the men at the extreme right of the phalanx were only half-protected. In battle, opposing phalanxes would exploit this weakness by attempting to overlap the enemy's right flank. It also meant that, in battle, a phalanx would tend to drift to the right (as hoplites sought to remain behind the shield of their neighbour). The most experienced hoplites were often placed on the right side of the phalanx, to avoid these problems. Some groups, such as the Spartans at Nemea, tried to use this phenomenon to their advantage. In this case the phalanx would sacrifice their left side, which typically consisted of allied troops, in an effort to overtake the enemy from the flank. It is unlikely that this strategy worked very often, as it is not mentioned frequently in ancient Greek literature.

There was a leader in each row of a phalanx, and a rear rank officer, the ouragos (meaning tail-leader), who kept order in the rear. The phalanx is thus an example of a military formation in which the individualistic elements of battle were suppressed for the good of the whole. The hoplites had to trust their neighbours to protect them, and be willing to protect their neighbour; a phalanx was thus only as strong as its weakest elements. The effectiveness of the phalanx therefore depended upon how well the hoplites could maintain this formation while in combat, and how well they could stand their ground, especially when engaged against another phalanx.

For this reason, the formation was deliberately organized to group friends and family closely together, thus providing a psychological incentive to support one's fellows, and a disincentive through shame to panic or attempt to flee. The more disciplined and courageous the army the more likely it was to win – often engagements between the various city-states of Greece would be resolved by one side fleeing before the battle. The Greek word dynamis, the "will to fight", expresses the drive that kept hoplites in formation.

Phalanx composition and strength
The basic combat element of the Greek armies was the stoichis or stoichos (meaning "rank") or enomotia (meaning "sworn") 16 to 25 men strong, led by a decadarchos who was assisted by a dimoerites and two decasteroe (sing. decasteros ). Four to a maximum of 32 enomotiae (depending on the era in question or the city) were forming a lochos led by a lochagos , who in this way was in command of initially 100 hoplites to a maximum of c.a 500 in the late Hellenistic armies. A taxis ( mora for the Spartans) was the greatest standard hoplitic formation of 500 to 1500 men, led by a strategos (general). The entire army, a total of several taxeis or morae was led by a generals' council.

Phalanx front and depth
In contrary to the Middle Eastern civilisations, which disposed large human resources, and thus their armies were deployed in a minimum of 50 lines depth, the Greek phalanxes due to the constant lack of hoplites were deploying in 8 (usual) or 12 (Spartans) to a maximum of 16 lines depth (Macedonians and Hellenistic kingdoms), with one exeption: The "hummerhead" of the "obligue phallanx" (Theban version of the phallanx) had indead 50 lines of elite hoplites depth. The phalanx depth, however, could vary depending on the needs, and the generals' plans.

While the phallanx was in march, an eis bathos formation (loose) was adopted in order to move more freely and maintain order. This was also the initial battle formation as, in addition, permitted friendly units to pass threw either assaulting or retreating. In this status, the phalanx had double depth than the normal and each hoplite had to occupy about 1,8-2m in width (6-7ft). When enemy infantry was approaching, a rapid switch to the pukne formation (tight) was necessary. In that case, each man's space was cut in half (0,9-1m or 3ft in width) and the formation depth was turning on normal. But if the phalanx was experiencing extra pressure, intense missile volleys or frontal cavalry charges, an instant swich to the sunaspismos formation (ultra tight) was obligatory. In sunaspismos the rank depth was half of the normal and the width each men occupied was as less as 0,45m (1,5ft)

Stages of combat
Several stages in hoplite combat can be defined:

Ephodos: The hoplites stop singing their paeanes (battle hymns) and move towards the enemy, gradually picking up pace and momentum. In the instants before impact war cries (alalagmoe, sing. alalagmos) would be made. Notable war cries were the Athenian (elelelelef! elelelelef!) and the Macedonian (alalalalai! alalalalai!) alalagmoe.

Krousis: The opposing phalanxes meet each other almost simultaneously along their front. The promachoe (the front-liners) had to be physically and psychologically fit to sustain and survive the clash.

Doratismos: Repeated, rapid spear thrusts in order to disrupt the enemy formation.

Othismos: Literally "pushing" after most spears have been broken, the hoplites begin to push with their large shields and use their secondary weapon, the sword. This could be the longest phase.

Pararrhexis: "Breaching" the opposing phalanx, the enemy formation shatters and the battle ends

The phalanx at war
The Greek armies of the period 700 to 400 BC may have been the only ones in history to rely completely on shock tactics. The clash of phalanxes was resolved entirely in hand-to-hand fighting. The city-state of Sparta was the recognised master of phalanx warfare. The entire state was organised as a military camp. All non-serf males served in the Spartan phalanx and trained at length..

The early history of the phalanx is largely one of combat between hoplite armies from competing Greek city-states. The usual result was rather identical, inflexible formations pushing against each other until one broke. Phalanx armies were susceptible to missile and cavalry attacks from the right and rear, but only if the enemy had these units and used them. Phalanx warfare reached its peak in two great fifth-century wars: the war with Persia at the start of the century and the Peloponnesian War near its end. In both wars, sea power played a crucial role, but land fighting centered on the phalanx. 

The Peloponnesian War was a Greek civil war for the dominance of Greece between the sea-oriented Athenians and the land-based Spartan League. One major lesson of the war was the inability of the phalanx to be strategically decisive. Heavy infantry alone could not capture cities once the battle outside the walls had been won.

The war with Persia was especially interesting because the Greek phalanx, the finest heavy infantry in the world at the time, faced an integrated army of infantry, skirmishers, and cavalry. The Persians and Assyrians before them backed their infantry with auxiliary troops of every kind. They were also advanced in the art of siege warfare.

The potential of the phalanx to achieve something more was demonstrated at Battle of Marathon (490 BC). Facing the much larger army of Darius I, the Athenians thinned out their phalanx and consequently lengthened their front, to avoid being outflanked. However, even a reduced-depth phalanx proved unstoppable to the lightly armed Persian infantry. After routing the Persian wings, the hoplites on the Athenian wings wheeled inwards, destroying the elite troop at the Persian centre, resulting in a crushing victory for Athens. Throughout the Greco-Persian Wars the hoplite phalanx was to prove superior to the Persian infantry (e.g. the battles of Thermopylae and Plataea)..

At at Marathon in 490 BC and Plataea in 479 a smaller Greek army consisting almost entirely of heavy infantry was victorious. Historians generally agree that Greek discipline and training were greatly responsible for these results, but admit that they were also at least partly due to Persian mistakes and incompetence.

At both battles the Persians had substantial light troops and cavalry that should have been effective against the massed phalanx formations. The Persian army at Plataea contained 10,000 cavalry, for example. At both battles, however, the auxiliary troops were poorly used and ineffective, allowing the Greek heavy infantry to defeat the weaker Persian infantry and achieve victory. Greek heavy infantry morale was not significantly reduced prior to the moment of shock. When the two infantries clashed, the Greeks were able to overwhelm the Persian infantry and drive it from the field.

Perhaps the most prominent example of the phalanx's evolution was the oblique advance, made famous in the Battle of Leuctra. There, the Theban general Epaminondas thinned out the right flank and centre of his phalanx, and deepened his left flank to an unheard-of 50 men deep. In doing so, Epaminondas reversed the convention by which the right flank of the phalanx was strongest. This allowed the Thebans to assault in strength the elite Spartan troops on the right flank of the opposing phalanx. Meanwhile, the centre and right flank of the Theban line were echeloned back, from the opposing phalanx, keeping the weakened parts of the formation from being engaged. Once the Spartan right had been routed by the Theban left, the remainder of the Spartan line also broke. Thus by localising the attacking power of the hoplites, Epaminondas was able to defeat an enemy previously thought invincible.

Taken from Wikipedia

The Greeks resisted the conversion of their heavy infantry armies to integrated armies into the late fourth century. Despite much evidence that the phalanx was at a disadvantage when facing skirmishers and surrounded by cavalry, the concept of the phalanx was too important a fixture of their culture. The phalanx had won the Persian war, with the help of the navy, and Greek heavy infantry served with distinction as mercenaries in surrounding lands. It took a clear demonstration of the system's weakness to bring it to an end. That demonstration was carried out by invaders from Macedonia under the leadership of Philip, father of Alexander the Great

Philip II of Macedon spent several years in Thebes as a hostage, and paid attention to Epaminondas' innovations. Upon return to his homeland, he raised a revolutionary new infantry force, which was to change the face of the Greek world. Phillip's phalangites were the first force of professional soldiers seen in Ancient Greece apart from Sparta. The phalanx of the Ancient Macedonian kingdom and the later Hellenistic successor states was a development of the hoplite phalanx.

Picture from Total War

They were armed with longer spears (the sarissa) and were drilled more thoroughly in more evolved, complicated tactics and manoeuvres. Since the sarissa was wielded two-handed, phalangites carried much smaller shields that were strapped to their arms. Therefore, although a Macedonian phalanx would have formed up in a similar manner to the hoplite phalanx, it possessed very different tactical properties.

Phillip's phalanx was part of a multi-faceted, combined force that included a variety of skirmishers and cavalry, most notably the famous Companion cavalry. With the extra spear length, up to five rows of phalangites could project their weapon beyond the front rank—keeping the enemy troops at a greater distance. The Macedonian phalanx now was used to pin the centre of the enemy line, while cavalry and more mobile infantry struck at the foe's flanks. The Macedonian phalanx was much less able to form a shield wall, but the lengthened spears would have compensated for this. Such a phalanx formation also reduces the likelihood that battles would degenerate into a pushing match. Its supremacy over the more static armies fielded by the Greek city-states was shown at the Battle of Chaeronea, where Philip II's army crushed the allied Theban and Athenian phalanxes.

Picture from Total War

After reaching its zenith in the conquests of Alexander the Great, the phalanx as a military formation began a slow decline, mirrored by the decline in the Macedonian successor states themselves. The combined arms tactics used by Alexander and his father were gradually replaced by a return to the simpler frontal charge tactics of the hoplite phalanx.

The decline of the diadochi and the phalanx was inextricably linked with the rise of Rome and the Roman legion, from the 3rd century BC. Before the formation of the Roman Republic, the Romans had originally employed the phalanx themselves, but gradually evolved more flexible tactics resulting in the three-line Roman legion of the middle period of the Roman Republic. The phalanx continued to be employed by the Romans as a tactic for their third military line or triarii of veteran reserve troops armed with the hastae or spear. Rome would eventually conquer most of the Macedonian successor states, and the various Greek city-states and leagues. These territories were incorporated into the Roman Republic, and as these Hellenic states had ceased to exist, so did the armies which had used the traditional phalanx formation. Subsequently, troops raised from these regions by the Romans would have been equipped and fought in line on the Roman model.


The Hoplite Phalanx was weakest when facing an enemy fielding lighter and more flexible troops without its own such supporting troops. An example of this would be the Battle of Lechaeum, where an Athenian contingent led by Iphicrates routed an entire Spartan mora (a unit of anywhere from 500 to 900 hoplites). The Athenian force had a considerable proportion of light missile troops armed with javelins and bows which wore down the Spartans with repeated attacks, causing disarray in the Spartan ranks and an eventual rout when they spotted Athenian heavy infantry reinforcements trying to flank them by boat.

The Macedonian Phalanx had weaknesses similar to its hoplitic predecessor. Theoretically indestructible from the front, its flanks and rear were very vulnerable, and once engaged it could probably not easily disengage or redeploy to face a threat from those directions. Thus, a phalanx facing non-phalangite formations required some sort of protection on its flanks—lighter or at least more mobile infantry, cavalry, etc. This was shown at the Battle of Magnesia, where, once the Seleucid supporting infantry elements were driven off, the phalanx was helpless against its Roman opponents.

The Macedonian phalanx could also lose its cohesion without proper coordination and/or while moving through broken terrain; doing so could create gaps between individual blocks/syntagmata, or could prevent a solid front within those sub-units as well, causing other sections of the line to bunch up. In this event, as in the battles of Cynoscephalae and Pydna, the phalanx became vulnerable to attacks by more flexible units—such as Roman legionary centuries, which were able to avoid the sarissae and engage in hand-to-hand combat with the phalangites.

Another important area that must be considered concerns the psychological tendencies of the hoplites. Because the strength of a phalanx was dependent on the ability of the hoplites to maintain their frontline it was crucial that a phalanx be able to quickly and efficiently replace fallen soldiers in the frontal ranks. If a phalanx failed to do this in a structured manner the opposing phalanx would have an opportunity to breach the line which, many times, would lead to a quick defeat. This then implies that the hoplites ranks closer to the front must be mentally prepared to replace their fallen comrade and adapt to his new position without disrupting the structure of the frontline.

Finally, most of the phalanx-centric armies tended to lack supporting echelons behind the main line of battle. This meant that breaking through the line of battle or compromising one of its flanks often ensured victory.

Here is an interesting post from the Total War Center forum about overrated Spartans ;)

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