Classical History

A Guide to the Greek Phalanx

I guess I should break down the actual way the Greek phalanx worked since that was a thing recently for me. It was before I’d had my morning caffeine and it was also too cold out to run or even get out of bed very quickly, so engaging in an internet argument seemed like a good idea at the time.

I keep meaning to discuss Classical history on this blog anyway since I have no one to talk to about it in real life.

 Note that when discussing ancient history, there is a lot of ‘about’ or ‘around’ and ‘perhaps’. Extant records are plentiful enough to get a picture of most events, but the further back you go, the fewer were even made and far fewer even survived. Some information is derived from art, which is…artistic.  We can’t even understand the oldest written languages used by the Greeks (well, Cretans).

The Phalanx

The first use of the word ‘phalanx’ that has survived is found Homer, who used it to denote formation based combat versus the one-on-one duels that he clearly preferred talking about.

Despite a lot of debate and study, no one really knows the origin of the phalanx formation. There’s evidence that it was developed sometime in the 8th century BC, sometime after the development of the hoplite shield known as a hoplon or aspis. Regardless of its development, the phalanx was widely used in Greek warfare until Rome’s more flexible legionary tactics and generally better sociopolitical choices conquered Greece (long since conquered by the Macedonian phalanx, a modified version).

Defining the Greek Phalanx

The Greek phalanx is built around the Greek hoplite.  Hoplites are defined by their equipment, really, and the image of a fully outfitted hoplite is iconic. It’s a fairly basic set of equipment compared to a Roman legionary or a samurai or a modern soldier.

Hoplite Equipment

– The hoplon (or aspis)– the real enabler of phalanx tactics, as mentioned above. The hoplon is a round shield, primarily made of wood. While the popular image is a bronze-faces shield, that wasn’t all that common. Usually, any metal-facing was restricted to the rim. The shield has a deep dish to it, allowing it to be supported on the shoulder, meaning that it could be held up for a long period of time. This was not small, light piece of equipment, coming in around 16 pounds and with a diameter of around 3 feet. The grip was the really important development because, without it, this huge piece of wood would just be impossible to hold. The grip has the handle at the edge of the shield with a leather fastening at the center to bind it to the forearm.  Can’t really drop one of these by accident. It covered the average Greek from shoulder to knee. Only one hoplon has survived in any condition for worthwhile study and is currently located in the Vatican.

– The panoply– this is the term used for a hoplite’s armor: the helmet, breastplate, and greaves (when the troop had them). It actually includes the aspis, but that’s so important I covered it separately and is often used to describe all of a hoplite’s equipment including weapons. The total weight of the panoply was around 50 or 60 pounds, which doesn’t include the shield. The panoply consisted of:

            o Helmet-The Greek hoplite helmet you most recognize is the Corinthian helmet, which got a lot of use because it was very protective. These had cheek guards and left only a pretty narrow slit for the eyes. Hearing in these helmets would be hard since there were no holes or vents for the ears. There were a lot of different helmet designs, however, some much more open, some even more closed off. I can’t find any average weight, but it was made of bronze and had to be solid enough to take a hit; this was not a light (or cool) piece of equipment.

            o Breastplate (cuirass)- we typically picture this breastplate as having a muscle design, which is known as muscle, heroic, or anatomical cuirass and was most commonly an artistic flourish, though there were real versions. Most hoplites had much simpler breastplates. The breastplate consisted of two cast pieces of bronze that were hammered into shape and attached together so, you know, a human being could actually take it on and off. There was a cheaper, lighter variation called a linothorax made of layers of hardened linen glued together by water-soluble animal fat. Part or all of it might be covered in metal scales. This became more common in later periods, probably because it was lighter and less expensive. There was a lot of variation in breastplate designs, sometimes including shoulder guards. Weight could vary, too, but again, considering its purpose and materials, it wouldn’t be light. Naturally, a tunic and leather-strip kilt would be worn under this, because bronze on skin when doing physical activity isn’t the best idea. Also, naked during battle is bad.

             o Greaves— these were long pieces of metal meant to guard the shin, which the shield didn’t cover. There’s some evidence that most soldiers on wore one on one leg and later on many soldiers didn’t use them.

             o Shoes, you may ask? Most Greek hoplites fought barefoot.

– Dory– this is the hoplite spear and their primary weapon. It was 6 1/2 to 10 feet long, had a diameter of about 2 inches at the handle, and weighed 2 to 4 pounds. A very large stick, complete with pointy ends. The iron spearhead was leaf-shaped. It was counterbalanced by a sauroter (“lizard-sticker”, which is such a soldier phrase), a spiked cap that could also be used as a secondary weapon if the spearhead broke off or as a stand. It was also a useful way for the troops at the rear of the phalanx to dispatch fallen enemy soldiers as the phalanx marched over them—the ancient version of double-tapping.

– Xiphos—hoplites carried a sword, but it was an emergency backup. If you spear broke, you pulled out your xiphos and started stabbing. It was very short sword, between 1 and 2 feet long. It could effectively both cut and thrust. It has a leaf-like shape and can be found in iron or bronze. Bronze is more common because it’s easier to forge into the right shape. Bronze has also survived better than iron. If swords were drawn, already close combat had become much more terrifyingly intimate.

This equipment was personally purchased by a hoplite from his own funds, running about $50,000 in modern US dollars. Hoplites were not poor men. Serving as a hoplite was one of the marks of being a citizen and a point of pride. Most city-states did not have a standing army and the citizenry was expected to be able to take up arms in defense of their home. There was a lot of sociopolitical significance tied up in hoplite equipment and phalanx warfare, though interestingly there doesn’t seem to be a lot of mythological significance.

Phalanx Structure

The phalanx was a very simple formation. The front rank was the attacking/defending rank. Shields were interlocked and spear would be thrust outward through gaps and over the shields of the opposing army. Behind this front rank extending the “pushers”, the men who would drive the killing power of the phalanx forward. They used their shields and their eight to push the front rank forward, taking the place of others as they fell. Ranks were arrayed pretty close to each other before they enter battle, about three feet apart, but they fell into a much more compact formation after the battle started.

Armies were often arrayed in lines, or in sequences of lines. Battlefields were selected to facilitate this arrangement in most cases. Leadership was arrayed as a part of this formation (sociopolitical significance!), split up for better control into units that vary by size based on the time period and place of origin.

The depth of the ranks could vary and was one of the most notable ways generals (strategoi; singular, strategos) modified the phalanx. Normally a phalanx was around 8 ranks deep. Deeper phalanxes pushed harder and functioned as hammers against the enemy formation; however, this would often leave weaknesses elsewhere in the overall line.  It was risk. Shallower phalanxes are recorded, with the famous Battle of Marathon featuring a depth of 4 ranks in at least one point of the Athenian line. Much, much deeper phalanxes are also recorded.

Note that Marathon was an Athenian vs. Persian battle, where hoplites were facing a largely non-hoplite force. Most phalanxes faced off against other hoplites. These battles were a giant shoving contest.

As you can imagine, phalanx-based warfare was a brutal and intimate form of warfare. You did not break ranks. The success of the phalanx was a community effort. To break ranks was cowardice and disloyalty. At the front, you protected your brother’s right side, and your other brother protected yours, on and on down the line. The men to the rear of the line had one job, and that was to push. Heads down, shields against shoulders, shoving. They were not aware of what was going on up front unless their ranks broke or the enemy’s did.

Two armies would be doing this against each other. Shield would be pushing against shield in something that resembled a murderous, organized rugby scrum. Spears would eventually break and the battle would just be savage pushing. The army that could hold formation and push through the opposing “current”—the push of the men they were trying to kill who were trying to kill them—won. The ability to do this well took practice and training, something that would take men away from the very important task of feeding (or otherwise developing, but mostly feeding) civilization. For most men, war was another season, like planting season and harvesting season.

Phalanx Tactics

So, with two armies locked in a violent pushing contest, one line against the other, the goal was to get the enemy to break their line, throw away their heavy shields, and flee.

Hoplite warfare normally began with an exchange of missiles as delivered by peltasts, lighter troops who used slings or javelins and carried light shields. Cavalry was there, but without the wondrous invention of the stirrup to grant stability, they were skirmishers and pursuers only, not charging armored knights (I need to find out why the Macedonians started doing this without the stirrup). They engaged enemy cavalry in order to prevent them from flanking the hoplite formation.

Once the peltasts had done their pelting, the hoplites began to charge at each other, chanting and singing. When the two armies met at a run, shields forward, the crash must have been tremendous. From there, they began stabbing and pushing.

As I mentioned above, having more ranks in a phalanx gave it more power. Better trained troops mattered a lot, too, and would move faster against the killing current faster. Normally, the heavier end of the formation of both armies would be lined up on opposing ends. They would push through the less disciplined troops and roll up on the now-open flank of opposing enemy’s heavy end. Whoever got to that point first, won. The enemy formation breaks. Eager hoplites give chase and kill whoever they can catch, taking their panoply as spoils. Cavalry pursued the defeated remnants.

Occasionally, a genius would mix things up. The Theban Epaminondas, for instance, had the very heavy end (50 ranks) of the phalanx at Leuctra face the heavy end of the Spartan army (12 ranks). He also staggered the line, engaging the heavy right end of the Spartan line first with his strong left, smashing it early on.  I have a fondness for analyses of Leuctra because it was one such piece that first endeared me to ancient military history.

Macedonian Phalanx

Some brief notes on the Macedonian phalanx, a modified variation of the formation created and used to great effect by King Philip of Macedon, father of Alexander the Great. Alexander used it to conquer the known world. These soldiers in these formations were professional paid soldiers called phalangites. They carried a spear called a sarissa, 18 feet in length, and kopis sword that had a curved section at its end.  The Macedonian phalanx was often 8 ranks deep. The front 5 ranks held their spears out straight to create a vicious row of spikes, but behind that, the spears were held up at a 45-degree angle to ward off projectiles. 

This formation as used in close concert with the famed Macedonian cavalry, which was how Philip and Alexander themselves entered the battle. The phalangites were the holding action, while the cavalry was the glorious flanking hammer.

Notes and Ephemera

  • It’ s funny to me that we’ve managed to romanticize unit-based combat in the form of the phalanx when the Ancient Greek myths had a romantic view of individual dueling.
  • Human height varies quite a bit depending on nutrition, so if you ever see a shield or breastplate that seems small for a grown man’s use, you now know why. One of the interesting things is that you can trace a direct line from the hold-and-flank principles of the phalanx to the suppress-and-maneuver principles of modern infantry tactics, with the occasional odd jog like trench warfare. I believe these principles have been used to great effect on a strategic level as well; the hold-and-flank principle looks similar to the way in which the Union finally won the American Civil War.
  •  The Spartans choose to design their entire social structure and economy around being able to maintain a well-trained standing citizen army, putting food production entirely upon slaves, freeing up the citizens to train nonstop. They were much more disciplined thanks to their constant drilling and also were capable of simply marching faster, arriving earlier than other armies and in better condition. However, this social structure produced a very stressful population problem. The slaves outnumbered the citizens. Spartans used to regularly make war upon their own massive slave population to keep them from rebelling. I believe that this population pressure stifled attempts at societal and tactical innovation, eventually leading to the loss of their military prowess and downfall. The Spartans were a people who got caught up in their traditions to almost suicidal levels—that’s why there were only 300 Spartans at the Hot Gates. The army could not march due to a religious feast.

 o  To clear up something else about the Spartans: the pedophilic nature of their military training (the agoge) may be a myth. Older men were in fact paired up as one-on-one mentors to younger men. The sources for the sexual component of this relationship, however, are either far removed (Plutarch) or socio-politically opposed to Sparta (Aristotle). The only extant source we have that directly experienced the agoge, Xenophon, explicitly denied the sexual nature of this mentorship. Slandering Sparta this way was par for the course in international relations at the time.

 

o Lots of things we believe about many societies and even many major figures are relics of this tendency. They have moved from slander to rumor to legend to finally being recorded as history (Plutarch!*shakes fist*). It’s all too often impossible to know what was true from what was originally slander. It’s all mixed together and we are so very far removed.

Sources

I could include an MLA formatted bibliography, but since this is not being graded and is being published as a blog post, I’ll list and link.

I owe a lot of this info to Victor Davis Hanson, specifically his A War Like No Other, The Soul of Battle, and The Father of Us All. I’m a big VDH fan. I own a lot of his books and even reread them. Fight me.

Another source is my textbook from my 2010 Ancient Warfare class at Arizona State, Warfare in the Classical World. I also used the first workbook from that class, which contains numerous accounts of Ancient Greek warfare from primary sources. I miss you, SLC/HST/LAT/GRK 394.

I confess to Almighty God and to you, my brother and sisters, that I did, in fact, use Wikipedia to check my numbers, names, and spellings, as well assorted historical odds and ends. But I did it in the history student way, where you make sure the source is legitimate by checking the notes and references. If I hadn’t done that, I’d be flipping through my books and getting sidetracked in a dozen different ways.

Which is what this post is in the first place.

 

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