5 interesting things you should know about the Macedonian phalanx


By the very intrinsic nature of the Greek lands and topography, large scale cavalry forces were never an option for most burgeoning city-states of Greece. This was especially due to the rough nature of the terrain that was not exactly conducive to the trotting of unshod horses. In essence, their relative geographical position made Greeks the ‘men of the spear’ – a military tactic that preferred tight formations over extensive battlefield maneuvering. This ‘tradition’ of hoplites ultimately made way for the famed phalanx of the Macedonians and their Greek successor states – thus dominating the battlefield for the next century after Alexander the Great’s death.

1) A force NOT inspired by either Spartans or Athenians –


The Spartans were dealt a stinging defeat at the Battle of Leuctra in 371 BC, by not their long-term rival Athenians, but rather by the ‘upstart’ city-state of Thebes. This ensured a brief period of Theban military supremacy in the 360s, with its influence and primacy reaching the northern Greek states of Thessaly and Macedon. Suffice it to say, an impressionable man named Philip (who was the youngest son of Macedonian king Amyntas III) took note of the great Theban general Epaminondas and his fascinating tactics – one of which involved the so-called Sacred Band, an elite military force that was often specified as having 150 pairs of homosexual ‘lovers’. Now while explicit evidences of Macedonian pederasty in their military are still not found, there are literary anecdotes on how such relationships played their larger role in political affairs in Philip’s time.

However, beyond sexuality, it was the scope of advanced battlefield tactics of the Thebans that was seriously inspirational to Philip and his Macedonian phalanx. And, as the saying goes – “necessity is the mother of all inventions”. By the time Philip assumed the reign of the nascent Macedon, the state’s army was all but vanquished – with their earlier king and many of the hetairoi (king’s companions) meeting their gruesome deaths in a battle against the invading Illyrians. In essence, Philip had to tread carefully, and take advantage of both delicate diplomacy and military innovation in order to keep his state and kingship intact. As Diodorus of Sicily explained

The Macedonians because of the disaster sustained in the battle and the magnitude of the dangers pressing upon them were in the greatest perplexity. Yet even so, with such fears and dangers threatening them, Philip was not panic-stricken by the magnitude of the expected perils, but, bringing together the Macedonians in a series of assemblies and exhorting them with eloquent speeches to be men, he built up their morale, and, having improved the organization of his forces and equipped the men suitably with weapons of war, he held constant maneuvers of the men under arms and competitive drills. Indeed he devised the compact order and the equipment of the phalanx, imitating the close order fighting with overlapping shields of the warriors at Troy, and was the first to organize the Macedonian phalanx.

2) Phalanx was originally composed of semi-nomadic herders –


The Macedonians had one significant advantage over other southern Greek city states, and that ironically related to ‘simple living’. In other words, the Greek hoplite was essentially a farmer who was tied to his land, and such made up the bulk of the middle class of his society’s economy. This resulted in more stringent campaigning seasons, since the hoplites couldn’t be too far away from their agricultural lands. However, as for the developing state of Macedon, most of its male population took part in simpler economic activities, like herding animals (based on seasons). So, during times of war, when such conscripted men campaigned far and wide, their economics tasks could also be alternatively handled by older men, women and even (in certain cases) children.

Essentially, manpower was never a problem for the Macedonian kings, with the kingdom’s burgeoning population spread across numerous villages, as opposed to being concentrated in urban centers or poleis. These simple yet hardy folk were given the incentive for better economic benefits (read ‘plunder’) that could have supplemented their meager incomes. And thus the factor that limited other Greek city-states, allowed Macedon to field a ‘professional’ phalanx army which was properly motivated and prepared. As Alexander the Great made it clear to his troops, during the mutiny at Opis (as mentioned in Arrian’s Anabasis) –

Macedonians, my speech will not be aimed at stopping your urge to return home; as far as I am concerned you may go where you like. But I want you to realize on departing what I have done for you, and what you have done for me. Let me begin, as is right, with my father Philip. He found you wandering about without resources, many of you clothed in sheepskins and pasturing small flocks in the mountains, defending them with difficulty against the Illyrians, Triballians and neighboring Thracians. He gave you cloaks to wear instead of sheepskins, brought you down from the mountains to the plains, and made you a match in war for the neighboring barbarians, owing your safety to your own bravery and no longer to reliance on your mountain strongholds. He made you city dwellers and civilized you with good laws and customs. Those barbarians who used to harrass you and plunder your property, he made you their leaders instead of their slaves and subjects.

3) A standard phalanx comprised light-armored infantrymen –


According to Polyaenus’ account of Macedonian military training, the infantrymen of phalanx were traditionally armed with helmets (kranos), light shields (pelte), greaves (knemides) and a long pike (sarissa). Now on closer inspection, we can comprehend that the armor is conspicuously missing from this list of items. Now, going forward to a period after 100 years of Alexander’s death, there are accounts of Greek successor states’ phalanx functioning without any sort of heavy armor. From such literary sources, one can surely put forth this conjecture – the Greek and Macedonian armies completely abandoned their unwieldy bronze cuirass. Instead most of their military forces adopted the much lighter linothorax, an evolved armor system made from glued layers of linen.

Interestingly, one of the accounts of Polyaenus (in Stratagemata) record how Alexander spitefully armed his men who had previously fled the battlefield with the so-called hemithorakion – a half armor system that only covered the front part of the body. This punitive experiment made sure that the soldiers wouldn’t turn their backs on the enemy. Lastly, in terms of practicality, heavy metallic breastplates would have been unnecessary for the well-drilled soldiers in the rear-end ranks of a guarded phalanx. This must have been a tactical (and practical) advantage that was welcomed by the kings who were usually short in funds and military equipment. This in turn led to a non-uniform nature of a phalanx – which is surely a far cry from the incorrect ‘heavy’ depictions of Greeks and Macedonians in popular media.

4) The phalanx was far more trained than comparable Greek hoplites –


While the traditional Greek hoplite espoused the bravery and lofty ideals of the citizens of a Greek polis, the phalanx could seen as a tight formation of soldiers specifically ‘engineered’ for war and survival. In essence, the sense of so-called professionalism was more widespread in the Macedonian phalanx, where the troops preferred better army formation over individual prowess of a soldier, thus foreshadowing the evolution of the future Roman legions. Such tactical factors could only be perfected on an actual battlefield when supported by a rigorous training regimen. To that end, according to Polyaenus, Philip passionately drilled his soldiers by sometimes forcing them to march over 300 stades (30 miles) in a single day! This was done with the fully adorned equipment of the phalangite, including his unwieldy sarissa spear that was designed as a 18 ft long pike made of cornel wood (during Alexander’s time).

And, in spite of the rigid formation of the phalanx on the battlefield, Philip preferred mobility of his army when in the marching phase. This led to the curtailing of many facilities for the officers and soldiers, including the reduction in servants for each men. This might have resulted in a single servant for ten to sixteen troops, while the soldiers were expected to additionally carry their rations for 30 days. By Alexander’s time, such ‘efficient’ features were complemented by a slew of exercises, drills and simulated maneuvers – all achieved on a large scale within the training grounds.

Interestingly, one of the ostentatious parade-ground drills was expertly demonstrated by Alexander’s army in an actual battlefield, in a bid to both impress and intimidate the opposing forces of Illyrians in 335 BC (according to Arrian’s Anabasis) –

Then Alexander drew up his army in such a way that the depth of the phalanx was 120 men ; and stationing 200 cavalry on each wing, he ordered them to preserve silence, in order to receive the word of command quickly. Accordingly he gave the signal to the heavy-armed infantry in the first place to hold their spears erect, and then to couch them at the concerted sign ; at one time to incline their spears to the right, closely locked together, and at another time towards the left. He then set the phalanx itself into quick motion forward, and marched it towards the wings, now to the right, and then to the left. After thus arranging and re-arranging his army many times very rapidly, he at last formed his phalanx into a sort of wedge, and led it towards the left against the enemy, who had long been in a state of amazement at seeing both the order and the rapidity of his evolutions.

5) Members of the phalanx were subject to harsher discipline and punishments –


According to Polyaenus, one particular incident related to how a Tarantine cavalry officer was dismissed from Alexander’s army just because he took a bath in warm water. The simple enough reason was  – “…for he did not understand the way of the Macedonians, among whom not even a woman who has just given birth bathes in warm water”. The members of the phalanx were also subject to similar codes of conduct, and as such the ultimate power of doling out judgments rested with the king (as opposed to more ‘democratic’ means in other Greek armies). Such disciplinary actions and punishments of course varied in accordance to the nature of the crimes committed. For example, simple insubordination often required the soldier/s to stand in an attentive posture for extended time intervals while wearing his full war panoply – thus mirroring our modern day military.

However, in some cases relating to violation of dress-codes and inadequate maintenance of weapons, the soldier was required to pay a fine. These monetary sums were specified in accordance with the type of the equipment that was deemed to be in an ‘inappropriate’ condition during the routine inspections. But beyond fines and simple chastisements, there was a dark brutal side to the Macedonian army – especially when the times were tough.

In that regard, the protection of property was a big deal, with the accumulated plunder being divided and specifically allocated to each soldier based on his rank. Oddly enough, the ambit of loot and property also included women, and as such those who were carried off as booty were often perceived as the common-law wives of the soldiers. More intriguingly, the punishments were very strict for seducing women (and thus property) of other soldiers – sometimes even resulting in death sentences. Gruesome forms of death sentence were also reserved for mutineers – with punishments ranging from being stoned to death, being hurled into rivers, to even being trampled by elephants.

Other Sources (Book References): Alexander the Great at War (Edited by Ruth Sheppard) / Macedonian Warrior (Osprey Publishing)Alexander the Great and the Hellenistic Age (Peter Green).

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