The inner workings of a Greek phalanx

Ancient Greece had few horses (except in the plains of Thessalonia), so infantry became the dominant part of land warfare.

The Greek city-states developed heavy infantry and an almost ritualised form of warfare that required the frontal confrontation of two battle lines of heavy infantrymen.

This changed profoundly when Athens (+allies) and Lacedaemonians (Spartans, + allies) faced each other. The Athenians were superior at sea and inferior on land and refused a decisive land battle. This long (one generation!) Peloponnesian War became a civilisation-shattering experience that pretty much ended the phase of cultural prosperity and advances of Greece. On the other hand, it began a time of military innovations in the Hellenic World.

A generation later the Lacedaemonians faced off against the numerically inferior Thebans in the Battle of Leuctra, and the apparently genius Theban general Epaminondas finally introduced serious tactics into Hellennic warfare; the famous oblique order that overwhelmed one wing of the enemy and thus turned the enemy's line. It was a very early application of the Schwerpunkt principle.

Up to that time numbers of men and their quality as hoplites (including their equipment) had been the most decisive factor.

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Hoplite equipment evolved over time. One trend (attributed to the general Iphicrates) took place after the Peloponnesian War and included longer spears, lighter armour (more mobility as sword fighter) and can be considered to have been a reaction to the rise of light infantry (skirmishers) such as the Peltast javelineers.

Most literature about Iphicrates-style hoplites and later Macedonian heavy infantry with even longer Sarissa spears appears to focus on the spear length. I suspect that the Sarissa (r)evolution was overshadowed by the much more drastic changes favoured by Iphicrates. Iphicrates probably deserves to be remembered as the first infantry equipment revolutionary (leaving Marius far behind).

First, an example that helps to understand my point: The German techno music festival "Love Parade" experienced a disaster a few weeks ago when 21 people died and about 500 were injured. The cause? The masses were pressing towards a stair. This pressure sufficed to kill and badly injure people. The deaths occurred because of deadly pressure on the upper bodies.

This scenario is quite similar to how Hellenic battles worked before the spears grew very, very long. The clash was at least as much about pushing as about stabbing with spears and swords (the apparently preferred Greek sword, the kopis, was rather a slashing than a stabbing weapon).
The forward ranks needed a stable bronze cuirass. This did probably provide more crucial protection against the ranks behind its wearer than against the enemy (who was usually behind two shields).
Greek phalanx warfare was almost always decided when one phalanx broke. There was no real exploitation phase, fleeing warrior-citizens were not cut down in a pursuit (remember, few horses!). Losses per battle were therefore low both absolute and in per cent. This made frequent wars over tiny conflicts sustainable for the city-states.

Now think about it; you need no armour on your back to protect against the enemy in such a kind of combat. Greek bronze cuirasses were still a two-part body armour, though: Front and back part. No weight- (and cost-) saving half-cuirasses apparently.

That's because the body armour was apparently very much about protecting against the hoplite's fellow warrior-citizens in ranks behind him. It wasn't only (or mostly) meant to protect against the enemy. That's also why other forms of body armour such as scale armour or composite armour (= less able to protect against pressure) were not important for the forward ranks of the hoplites.

The "pressure" component of phalanx tactics was maximised with the oblique order when the breakthrough wing of the Battle of Leuctra was 50 ranks deep. (BTW, it was led by an elite group, the Sacred Band of Thebes. This is interesting if not funny with DADT in mind.) There can also be no doubt that the psychological effect of facing a formation many times as deep as yours was of great importance, too.

Iphicrates changed this by dropping the bronze cuirass. He preferred the lighter, composite body armour of textile and glue (linothorax), and apparently so also for the front ranks. This seemed to mostly rule out the pushing and to emphasize the stabbing with spears.
The next step was even longer spears and serious training - the Macedonian Phalanx.

In short: I believe that the move towards longer spears was about much more than mere out-ranging the enemy.
It was a radical shift away from a pushing & stabbing tactic to a stabbing tactic. It made extremely deep formations unnecessary and thus enabled very wide (and again relatively thin) battle lines.
This in turn enabled the Hellenic heavy infantry model to be effective on wide plains (Alexander's conquest of Persia) instead of only on the restricting terrain of Greece (where both flanks were secured against heavy infantry formations by hills if not mountains or the sea).

This was something that seems to be missing in many books and webpages about classical Greek warfare. The authors never seemed to connect the dots.
I cannot guarantee for the correctness of my interpretation, of course. It all just fits nicely together if you look at it from this angle.


edited 2017: I should add that some historians believe that the Greeks had largely given up wearing any torso armour prior to what's known as Iphicrates' reforms, and thus the switch to light torso armour (such as linothorax) may have been an uparmouring. That, of course, would take out half of the reasoning behind this blog post. There was still most likely a switch from phalanx warfare in which the opponents closed to within shield-on-shield range to one in which they fought at spear tip-on-shield range, though.

edit October 2017: Here is another interpretation, which assumes that the convex shield gave the hoplite the necessary breathing room in a push. This would coincide with my assertion of a move from push to stab with the introduction of pikes because Iphicrates' reformed hoplites and Macedonian phalangites did have too small shields (~60-64 cm diameter for phalangites) for this.

"The heretics would be correct in assuming that pushing by deep files was not survivable, but for one detail.  In my description of the hoplite shield, I put off discussing the single feature of its construction that appears to be unique - the oddly thickened side-walls.  As I noted, it appears to primarily add depth, not strength, when compared to other convex shields.  It is this depth that allows a man to survive the press of othismos, by protecting his torso from compression.  To do so, it would be held directly in front of the body with the top right half of the shield resting on the hoplite’s upper chest and the front of his left shoulder, the bottom on his left thigh.  Most of the men in files would have been standing upright and leaning forward.  Only the rear few ranks had enough freedom of movement to assume positions that are compatible with active pushing.  Shock waves of the combined weight of the file would be added to the pushing force in the rear rankers in the same manner that the mass of a battering ram is pushed towards a barrier."

edit 2017


  1. Interesting. I don't buy it. If you need a stiff cuirass to breathe, you are already too trapped and crushed to fight, and doomed. If you prefer a longer spear, it's because you DON'T want to have to push. Early hoplite phalanxes are thought to be 4-8 men deep, whereas the later Macedonian pike formation were far deeper, which doesn't fit the theory. Also, early archaic period bell cuirasses were solid bronze plate, but then the apparently more flexible cuirasses came in when the hoplite warfare was at its height.

  2. Well, "too trapepd and crushed to fight" would apply to the opponent as well - a stalemante. That's in part why the losses were so low and why decisions in phalanx vs. phalanx battles were favouring the bigger battalions (excluding battles involving Spartans).

    The pre-Macedonian hoplite armour was decentrally acquired and always mixed. There were always full bronze panoplies mixed with lighter, cheaper panoplies.

    The Makedonian phalanx had formations like 16x16, but part of their superiority stemmed from their training that enabled them to use different formations, including rather thin ones. Alexander would have had a far too short battle line in his steppe battles if he had employed 16 rank formations only.

    There's on the other hand nothing wrong with a very deep formation if you've got a huge army in a valley as in Philipp II's battles.

  3. Excellent article!one minor correction-the region is called Thessalia and not Thessalonia.

  4. http://www.jstor.org/discover/10.2307/1192506?uid=3737864&uid=2129&uid=2&uid=70&uid=4&sid=56213176183

    The mass shove theory is discussed in science, but the bell cuirass is just one among many components for this task. The special form of the Argive aspis serves as well to secure breathing room. Different shields, like the Macedonian aspis or Phoenician aspis were less well suited for this breathing space support. You can compensate with short anaerob burst of great power.
    For the Thebans, their great success in hoplite warfare was linked to the popularity of wrestling that did train them to quickly read body pressures and react as individuals in a fast reacting group. These timed reactions create shockwaves that have been researched as part of the http://hollow-lakedaimon.blogspot.de/2008/11/crowd-othismos-model.html

    The switch to longer spears has several different reasons, Iphicrates reformed his marines and javelin throwing peltasts according to the Egyptian template he met during an earlier campaign. But these "hoplites" or Iphicratean peltasts were employed in a very fluid combat mode on ships and in amphibious warfare, not like the Macedonian phalanx and are surrounded by much dispute, but the marines theory seems to hold as these long spears were quite widespread among marines throughout the ages with similar low density formations.
    The step towards the Macedonian phalanx changes the spear length and seems to have originally consisted of joining two seperable weapons, a long spear and a kind of goedendag together into a formidable range weapon (later development made them one piece extremely long spears). But the Macedonian idea borrows from Iphicrates by arming poor peltasts as infantry of the line.
    The difference was that now it was not fluid and maneuver dependent, but a way to create a cheap infantry line that stood their ground while the cavalry struck home. The original Macedonian infantry was quite lightly armoured and very different from the very heavily armoured very deep ranked very long spear armed shoving of the successors that merged Greek and early Macedonian warfare.

  5. Interesting site, but not enough correct historical facts!
    If you name the Macedonian infantry as Greek, that is the same as if you name the Gaul fighters as Romans, just because they have fought against a common enemy in a single formation!
    The Macedonian Army and its formations are unique, but certainly influenced by its neighbors - the independent cities in what is today Greece, but also Ilir tribes and the armies from Asia Minor.
    Actually, the long spears where developed and implemented to be a counter-weight to Light cavalry, but the Macedonian formation also had "solutions" that would work against the Greek heavy infantry.
    The conclusion is that The Macedonians, as separate form the Greeks as from Persia and others, developed an army formations that will conquer the enemy and its armed forces!

    1. "If you name the Macedonian infantry as Greek"
      Well, IF I had done it, I SHOULD have written "Hellenic" instead.

      Where does your light cav reference come from? The Macedonians weren't much exposed to the more famous light cavalry forces of the era, such as the Scythians (at least not as much as the Thracians).
      Furthermore, light cav of that era fought predominantly as horse arches, against which pikes don't help (big shields would). And their raiding activity required a different melee response than pike formations which only work during more formal battlefield actions. The Thracian Rhomphaia may have been a typical melee response to raiding light cav (see similarity to Nagamaki and Changdao) instead.

  6. Warfare is a fascinating subject. Despite the dubious morality of using violence to achieve personal or political aims. It remains that conflict has been used to do just that throughout recorded history.

    Your article is very well done, a good read.