PHALANX vs LEGION: CLOSING THE DEBATE

Pidna

With the popularity of such films as Alexander,  300, and its sequel 300: Rise of Empire a broader audience is being introduced (sometimes for the first time) to the warriors of ancient Greece. These films are generally poor educational tools, leaving the audience with many misconceptions; and often more questions than answers.

From the Persian Wars (499–449 BC) till the Battle of Chaeronea (338 BC) the Greek phalanx was the dominant battle formation of the ancient Mediterranean and Near East. Against Persians, Carthaginians, and Etruscans the Greeks warriors triumphed. At Chaeronea, however, the Greeks met a superior tactical system: the Macedonian. While the Macedonian army was a well-balanced, combined-arms force of light and heavy infantry and cavalry (as were most Greek armies by this time, though to a lesser degree) it is the Macedonian phalanx that revolutionized warfare for the following century-and-a-half, superseding the earlier Greek hoplite version. The Macedonian phalanx dominated the battlefield until the coming of the Romans, who fought in a very different formation, utilizing a markedly different tactical system: the legion. The Romans defeated phalanxes at nearly every encounter; and with the growth of their empire the phalanx as a tactical system largely disappeared.

Polybius and Livy examined the difference and advantages of each tactical system in depth; and they were MUCH closer to the events than we are, so their opinions should be given much weight. Based upon their analysis and that of other sources as well, we will briefly compare and contrast the three dominant tactical systems of the Classical World; from the Persian Wars to the Roman conquest of the Hellenistic Kingdoms.

HOPLITE VS PHALANGITE

It is important to understand that the Greek hoplite phalanx that defeated the Persians at such battles as Marathon (490 BC) and Plataea (479 BC) was a formation consisting of citizen-soldiers. They fought primarily as “heavy” (close-ordered, close-quarter fighting) infantry. The citizen-soldier heavy infantryman of the Greek city-state (polis) was referred to as a hoplite (man-at-arms).

His weapons and equipment consisted of a large round shield (aspis), 36″-40″ in diameter; and a long, heavy (modern reconstructions are from 4-5lbs) thrusting spear (dory) 7-9 feet in length. A sword (xiphos) was his backup weapon, and for additional defense he wore various pieces of armor, collectively referred to as his panoply.

Hoplite - Early 25th century Greek hoplite. 1-11: shield, deconstructed into various parts. 12: Corinthian-style helmet, with crest. 13: arming cap of felt, worn under helmet. 14: “lineothorax” style of cuirass. May have been made of layers of glued line, or leather covered with linen. 15: bronze greaves. 16: garters tied around ankle to support greaves, and limit chaffing. 17: “dory” (spear), with leather wrapped around grip.

These hoplites fought in a tightly-packed rectangular formation called a phalanx. Within the phalanx, each man’s shield overlapped that of the man to his left, and he partially sheltered behind the shield of the man to his right. The hoplites in phalanx deployed typically in anything from 6 to 12 ranks deep; though the later Theban phalanx was famed for the greater depth upon which it relied, deploying in anywhere from 24 to 50 ranks (referred to as “shields”) deep.

The Classical Age hoplite phalanx relied on a tactic called othismos (the push of shields), a shoving contest in which the hoplites braced and pushed their opliti_grecishields into the backs of their comrade in the rank in front of them in the phalanx; and the weight of the phalanx as a whole attempted to bowl the enemy over or push them back. In this formation only the first and perhaps the second rank could actually use their spears (or swords); the rest merely added their weight to the shoving contest. Pushing the enemy back was more important than actually killing them during this initial phase of the melee. Once large formations of soldiers began to stumble backward, they lost cohesion and began to crumble. So the point of othismos was to drive the enemy backward, and eventually to shatter their formation. Once shattered and routed, the hoplites would pursue, cutting down the fleeing enemy from behind. It was during this later phase of the fighting that the most number of casualties were inflicted and sustained.

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48 Responses to PHALANX vs LEGION: CLOSING THE DEBATE

  1. Michael Park says:

    Pyrrhos did quite well against the Romans. Yes, elephants played their part (as did cavalry), but it is noteworthy that the Roman maniples did not manage to destroy or dislodge the phalanx from its ground. At Asculum the phalanx inflicted severe casualties upon the Roman infantry. In fact, at both Heraklaia and Asculum, the Roman casualties were near double the Epirote. Beneventum is often represented as a total rout of Pyrrhos’ forces. This is almost certainly Roman exaggeration as the figures by Roman sources demonstrate (Eutropius II.8: 23,000; Orosius IV.2,6: 33,000). Polybius claims that all the batles between Pyrrhos and the Romans “were somehow or another always indecisive” (18.28.10). Also, this was a combined arms force of alternate speirai of phalanx and Italiot hoplite (18.28.9). Something that Antigonos Doson would use at Sellasia over fifty years later utilising alternate speirai of Illyrians and chalkaspides (Plb. 2.66.5). Perhaps learned from Pyrrhos’ military writings.

    Kynoskephalae is very often misunderstood. This was no pitched battle of Roman Legion and full Macedonian phalanx. Its use to demonstrate the inflexible nature of the phalanx as opposed to the legion is misplaced. What is overlooked in these incorrect comparisons is that Philip (who should never have fought but these things have a life of their own) fought the battle with less than half of his phalanx. Even with this disadvantage the Roman left was pushed from the field and was almost upon its camp – going in reverse. The rest of the phalanx was taken apart as it crested the hill – in marching order not battle – by the Roman elephants and infantry. Far from losing any cohesion, Philip’s victorious right was taken in the rear after the rest, in no battle order and not on the field, had been destroyed. Had Philip made his chosen ground (many of his light troops were off foraging in preparation for decamping), the result may well have been totally opposite.

    Pydna is well known. The phalanx had the day won until, in the flush of victory, it had to cross the river which divided the field and was before the Roman cam. Fractures appeared and disaster descended.

    Magnesia was a very near run thing. The Roman left was in flight and routed. Although Antiochos’ left was a disaster, only the proximity of the Roman camp prevented Antiochos from completing his envelopment from the right and taking the Roman legions in the flank and saving the day. In fact, the phalanx and the Roman infantry never came into contact. Once Antiochos’ envelopment was blocked by the Roman camp, the Phalanx was left naked. It is instructive that the Roman infantry would not go near it. As the phalanx assumed a hollow square, the Roman infantry stood well off and allowed the cavalry, slingers and archers to deal with it. Memories of Kynoskephalae lingered.

    • barrycjacobsen says:

      There are plenty of what-ifs and excuses for why the phalanx (or phalanx-based armies) lost in nearly every engagement. But the facts speak for themselves: either the Roman system was superior or they were UNGODLY lucky; because they always won.

      Yes, Pyrrhus beat them in bloody encounters at Heraclea or Asculum (so bloody it of course gave rise to the expression “Pyrrhic Victory”). The Romans were in both cases only defeated when the elephants were committed. The phalanx could, at best, hold its own. And Pyrrhus’ Agema was nearly annihilated in the battle. Consider too that Pyrrhus had not only his own Epirot phalangites, he had 5,000 Macedonians on loan from Ptolemy Keranos. These were very likely men who had followed and fought for Seleucus or Lysimachus at Corupedion. These were first-rate veterans. So its not surprising they fought a bloody draw against the Romans. It is telling of the strength of the Roman system that the legions held them as they did; only, again, giving way when attacked by the elephants as well.

      Finally, I think it a stretch to assume that the legions of the Scipio were afraid to engage the phalanx of the Seleucids because of memories of (slaughtering) the phalanx at Cynoscephalae. They let the elephants shatter the phalanx battalions, and cleaned up the mess. Shows a mature approach to battle, not committing to bloody melee till the enemy was in disarray.

      • bertie007 says:

        “But the facts speak for themselves: either the Roman system was superior or they were UNGODLY lucky; because they always won.”

        Not quite Perseus defeated the Romans twice prior to Pydna (Callinicus Plb. 27.7-8; Livy 42.57-62 and Elimiae Plut. Amel. 9.3-4). Following Elimiae, the Romans refused to give battle in Thessaly to Perseus. I cannot call to mind the source attestation but when Amelius Paullus arrived, he had to convince the the army that they could defeat these Macedonians.

        “There are plenty of what-ifs and excuses for why the phalanx (or phalanx-based armies) lost in nearly every engagement.”

        There are always ‘what-ifs’ but I did not offer ‘excuses'; they were reasons. Again, Philip V took on Flaminius with less than half of his phalanx and he’d left camp before the light infantry foragers had returned. Pydna was a crushing defeat and showed the limitations of the late phalanx with its inability to cross the broken ground of the river.

        Justin (17.2.14) is the source for Keraunos’ loan of 5,000 Macedonian infantry. HE also claims 50 elephants when other sources can muster 20 at most. The numbers are questionable and while Keraunos and Antigonos were well served in having the Epirot out of the way, I do not think Keraunos would have given the Epirot that many precious Macedonians. Just how many of the Selukid troops Keraunos had is arguable: Selukos son, Antiochos, required his army to quell unrest following his father’s death. We are simply not told.

        On Magnesia, the Romans did not wish to come to grips with the phalanx which had formed a defensive square a la the Argyraspides at Gabiene (App. Syr. 35):

        “The Macedonian phalanx, which had been stationed between the two bodies of horse in a narrow space in the form of a square, when denuded of cavalry on either side, had opened to receive the light-armed troops, who had been skirmishing in front, and closed again. Thus crowded together, Domitius easily enclosed them with his numerous light cavalry. Having no opportunity to charge or even to deploy their dense mass, they began to suffer severely; and they were indignant that military experience availed them nothing, exposed as they were on all sides to the weapons of the enemy. Nevertheless, they presented their thick-set pikes on all four sides. They challenged the Romans to close combat and preserved at all times the appearance of being about to charge. Yet they did not advance, because they were foot-soldiers and heavily armed, and saw that the enemy were mounted. Most of all they feared to relax their close formation lest they might not readily bring it together again. The Romans did not come to close quarters nor approach them because they feared the discipline, the solidity, and the desperation of this veteran corps ; but circled around them and assailed them with javelins and arrows…”

      • barrycjacobsen says:

        I don’t want to quibble any more on the issue of the superiority of the legion of the phalanx. Suffice to say that the debate continues to this day because there is valid grounds for debate.

        On the issue of the 5,000 Macedonians supposedly lent to Pyrrhus by Ptolemy Keraunos: We have no way of knowing, but a plausible theory is that Keraunos gave him units that had formerly served either Lysimachus or Seleucus up to Corupedion. After defeating Lysimachus, Seleucus took his regiments into his army; a common practice during the Successor Wars. Shortly thereafter, Seleucus was himself assassinated by Ptolemy Keraunos. The Seleucid “Grand Armee” was now commanded by Keraunos, though it is likely the Seleucid portion returned to Antiochus in the east. The former Lysimachian troops would have returned home, but would have had little loyalty to their new king, Keraunos. The 5,000 were likely die-hard veterans who had wish to “settle down” on family farms; or to serve in the guard of the new king (assuming Keraunos maintained a standing army; which is doubtful considering the way the Celts tore through Macedon shortly thereafter). So Keraunos rid himself of potential malcontents to his rule by “lending” them to Pyrrhus. A captain of repute, who promised new adventures (and potential loot) in the west, employment with Pyrrhus would have appealed to these hard men who had known nothing but war for the last 30 years.

  2. dweese33 says:

    You need to write books, your blogs are the best military history blogs on the net, and this one among many others could be a great book.
    Also, I think it’s awesome you used to work on ‘Deadliest Warrior’, I still watch that show from time to time.

    • barrycjacobsen says:

      Well, thank you for your kind words, and I hope you share my blog with your friends (particularly if you have any with connections to the publishing industry) ;-)
      If you like Deadliest Warrior, I recommend our History Bytes podcast on my experiences behind the scenes on that show; found at the link at the top right side of the blog.
      Barry

  3. Boris Jason says:

    The Ancient Macedonians were a Hellenic/Greek Kingdom. I don’t see why they are referred to as a separate entity from the rest of the Greeks. A Dorian Tribe, is a Hellenic tribe.

    • barrycjacobsen says:

      That is a point of great contention. There are arguments both ways. I fall on the side that believes that contrary. Not that the Macedonians weren’t Hellenized and likely a branch of the Greek people. But I don’t believe the ancients viewed it that way. There is overwhelming evidence that the Greeks, Romans, and Macedonians themselves considered themselves a different people than the Greeks.

      • bertie007 says:

        That’s an argument that leads to little but angst. The simple fact of the matter is that the Macedonian kingdom was a separate entity in ancient times to the other Greeks. It is referred to as the Macedonian Empire for that is what it was. One might as well call he Athenian Empire the Hellenic empire.

      • Boris Jason says:

        They were the ‘Northerners’.
        They were a kingdom in contrast with the city state mentality, but they were Hellenes, from the Agread dynasty which was a Greek royal house, and they themselves identified themselves Greeks. What else does one need to say that they were not Hellenes?

        Herodotus mentions this founding myth when Alexander I was asked to prove his Greek descent in order to participate in the Olympic Games, an athletic event in which only men of Greek origin were entitled to participate. Alexander proved his (Argead) descent and was allowed to compete by the Hellanodikai: “And that these descendants of Perdiccas are Greeks, as they themselves say, I happen to know myself, and not only so, but I will prove in the succeeding history that they are Greeks”.
        ———
        Be aware that there is a lot of propaganda that has emerged recently on this issue, mainly coming from the FYROM. If one looks at the sources, he will find, (with no surprise) that only academics from the FYROM & its diaspora, propagate that the Macedonians were not Greeks. For obvious reasons. Name dispute ets.

        In any case, Macedonians were of Dorian tribe and that tribe is a Greek tribe.

  4. Boris Jason says:

    The Athenian empire is the Hellenic empire?
    The Athenian empire was.. the Athenian empire.
    What about the Spartans? To name just one.
    Im sorry but your knowledge of the complicated nature of ancient Greek history
    is not yet very clear.
    Read more on city states, the polis, Delphy, and war between ancient Greeks themselves.

    • bertie007 says:

      Boris, your argument above is that the Macedonians were Hellenes. On that basis they should be referred to as Hellenes not identified as anything separate. The Spartans were Hellenes as were the Athenians. That did not stop them as seeing themselves as Athenians – protecting “their country” first. We refer to Macedonians as that simply because they referred to themselves in that fashion as did the Athenians refer to themselves as ‘Athenians’. We refer to the Macedonian Empire as such because that is what it was.

      We can discuss mythical Argaed lineages to Argos all day or that Pyrrhos was the true descendant of Achilles, but it makes no difference to the fact that the Macedonians saw themselves as that as an identity just as Thebans saw themselves as Thebans before anything else.

      The racial or ethnic argument is a modern construct just as is FYROM. That is a discussion that is absolutely fruitless for it involves modern concepts and desires to lay claim a history.

      Thank you for your advice.

      • Boris Jason says:

        -Every city state & kingdom was a separate entity.
        There was no ‘Greece’ back then. Only alliances and conflict.
        In the center, sacred and common to all, the Olympic Gods and Delphy.
        -Macedonians, Herodotus tells us, were Hellenes, and he should know.
        He was one himself.

  5. bertie007 says:

    Who has said anything different to the above Boris? Particularly in the blog post?

    I have to admit that to being at a complete loss attempting to understand what the point was to your original comment on this thread. Macedonian(s) is mentioned 23 times in the post above and seems eminently intelligible to me.

  6. Boris Jason says:

    Who says anything different?
    The blog states:
    ‘From the Persian Wars (499–449 BC) till the Battle of Chaeronea (338 BC) the Greek phalanx was the dominant battle formation of the ancient Mediterranean and Near East. Against Persians, Carthaginians, and Etruscans the Greeks warriors triumphed. At Chaeronea, however, the Greeks met a superior tactical system: the Macedonian.”

    You can’t call the Athenians and Thebans Greek/Hellenic, and the Macedonians non Greek/Hellenic. This was another Greek ‘civil’ war. The Macedonian phalanx was also,
    technically speaking, a Greek tactical system.

    • bertie007 says:

      I could well be wrong but I sense an agenda. Boris, you can’t really be arguing that, surely? On this logic, we should not refer to Macedon or anything Macedonian as something other than ‘Greek’ and Barry would need to edit his blog piece(s) and remove Macedonian(s) in favour of Hellene(s)!

      No reason to stop there though. Such an exercise in political correctness should surely commence with the sources. Some random examples might illustrate the issue:

      Asklepiodotus (Tactica V.1) clearly thought there was a Macedonian phalanx (“Μακεδονικὴ φάλαγξ” ).

      Arrian (Tactica, 12.6) also thought such a thing as a Macedonian phalanx could be spoken of (“Μακεδονικὴ φάλαγξ”)

      Polybius famously wrote about the strengths and weaknesses of the Macedonian phalanx (18.28-30.4). Just like Barry in the post above, Polybius calls it the Μακεδόνων σύνταξις / the ‘Macedonian system’ or tactical arrangement.

      Most famously Diodorus tells us, at 16.3.2, that Philip II of Macedon (er, Greece) was the bloke who devised τὴν Μακεδονικὴν φάλαγγα / ‘the Macedonian phalanx’.

      The same writer tells that 30,000 Asians were brought to Alexander and these were all ακεδονικαῖς πανοπλίαις πολυτελῶς κεκοσμημένοι / ‘equipped splendidly in Macedonian panoplies’. These became the many attested formations of Asians under the Diadochoi who were (Diod. 19.14.5) Μακεδονικὴν τάξιν καθωπλισμένους παντοδαποὺς / men of all kind (Asians) armed for the Macedonian array (or in the Macedonian arrangement/fashion). Diodorus mentions these men armed in the Macedonian fashion often during these years: they were trained in the Macedonian phalanx and its tactics.

      The ancient writers knew what the ‘Macedonian system’ was. They would call it the ‘Macedonian phalanx’ and they would call the many Asian units used by the Diadochoi as those ‘armed in the Macedonian fashion’. They are making a clear distinction. A distinction that cannot be made should we heed your advice and replace such terms with ‘Greek tactical system’.

      You have much political correcting to do…

      • Boris Jason says:

        I do follow your trait of thought and we are actually saying the same thing,
        putting it down with a different perspective and with one little detail unclarified.

        I am not suggesting that the Macedonian phalanx should be called other than what it was,
        namely, the Macedonian phalanx. No it should not be called a Greek Macedonian phalanx on every occasion.

        I am rather saying that there is no Hellenic/non Hellenic distinction between Athenians,
        Spartans, Thebans and Macedonians, or any other Hellenic tribes.
        Probably unintentionally, the author portrays the Macedonians as non Greek when he refers to them in the war with the the Athenians/thebans in Chaeronea.

        It is not correct to say that the Macedonian phalanx beat the Greek phalanx.
        The Macedonian phalanx beat the Athenian phalanx, or the phalanx system used by the Athenians & Thebans.
        The Macedonian phalanx and the Athenian phalanx, were both Hellenic/Greek phalanxes.

        As far as the Blog is concerned, yes, correcting/editing inaccurate or potentially misleading information is part of the deal.

        I hope its all clear

      • bertie007 says:

        “As far as the Blog is concerned, yes, correcting/editing inaccurate or potentially misleading information is part of the deal”.

        That would only apply if the information is incorrect or ‘potentially misleading’. I do not see that any of the above is and only a very narrow pedantic view could see such. At the risk of repetition, the ancient sources saw the ‘Macedonian phalanx’ as a distinct and instantly identifiable formation; ditto the ‘taxis’ or system/arrangement that produced it. They called it thus to distinguish it from the other phalanx long and far more widely in use at the time, the hoplite phalanx. Historians have long referred to this as the ‘Greek phalanx’. It was this phalanx that was defeated by the Macedonian phalanx at Chaeronea. So, the passage that so irritates you would read:

        ‘From the Persian Wars (499–449 BC) till the Battle of Chaeronea (338 BC) the Greek hoplite phalanx was the dominant battle formation of the ancient Mediterranean and Near East. Against Persians, Carthaginians, and Etruscans the Greeks warriors triumphed. At Chaeronea, however, the Greek hoplite phalanx met a superior tactical system: the Macedonian.”

        Which, at bottom, is nothing more than a nod to pedantry. Without wishing to delve into Arrian’s use of ‘γένεσι’ (‘race’) to qualify ‘τε Ἑλληνικῷ καὶ τῷ Μακεδονικῷ φιλοτιμίας ἐνέπεσεν ἐς ἀλλήλους’, that phrase clearly defines Macedonians and Grekks – separate identities without any doubt – engaged in a fierce ‘rivalry’ with each other (‘the Macedonians and Greeks fell upon each other in ambitious / jealous rivalry’ – again, to leave out ‘γένεσι’). Arrian’s source clearly saw this severe conflict, in which Ptolemy son of Seleukos fell along with 120 ‘Macedonians of note’, as one of Macedonians versus Greeks.

        The ancient sources spoke of Macedonian phalanxes and tactical systems (indeed they wrote treatises upon it) and they also spoke in terms of ‘Macedonians’ and ‘Greeks’. Not, be it noted, ‘Macedonians’ and ‘other Greeks’. Why is it a sin to so speak of them nowadays?

      • barrycjacobsen says:

        Its a matter of modern politics, not true scholarship. The creation of the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia has unhinged the Greeks. They see it as a threat to their national identity and territorial integrity. If Greek Macedonia should begin to see itself as having more in common historically with the new Macedonian nation to the north than with the rest of Greece to the south, it could lead to all kinds of mischief.

  7. Michael Park says:

    Absolutely it is modern politics and it has no bearing whatsoever on the ancient world and how those people perceived themselves. Precisely why I noted that this “only leads to angst”. In fact, it only ever leads to ugly modern politicking.

  8. Michael Park says:

    On the 5,000 troops from Keraunos (the blog won’t let me reply to your post??), it is very doubtful that they were Seleukid. Memnon (FGrH 434 F8) says that Seleukos “set out to cross over to Macedonia” and Keraunos – captured as a result of Korupedion, went with him . He was leaving Phryigia (Hellespontine). At some point, the Thunderbolt murders him after which “he jumped on a horse and rushed to Lysimacheia, where he put on a diadem, and escorted by a splendid bodyguard went out to meet the army; they were forced to accept him and call him king, though they had previously served under Seleucus”.

    So, some of Seleukos army is in Lysimachaea. Keraunos then marches on Macedon ans secures the kingdom. Seleukos’ troops are hardly to have followed – they were, in any case, domiciled in Syria not Macedonia. Keraunos had previously served with Lysimachos where he’d arranged the elimination of Lysimachos’ “treacherous” son. Those troops which followed him are likely to have been Lysimachos’ and mostly of Macedonia rather than Thrace. Whatever the number, these are likely Macedonian in origin if not volunteers. I still find it difficult to credit 5,000. These are the Spartan homoioi of the age and Keraunos still had Gonatas to deal with. The number for the cavalry – 4,000 – is even harder to credit. Even if these are mostly Thessalian, that still supposes a huge drain on precious Macedonian cavalry.

  9. Lobo says:

    I think that it would be important to set wheather phalanx was superior to Roman legionaires in fronal fight or not. If phalanx was in fact superior to other heavy infantry formation it’s easy to imagine building army composition consisting of phalanx in center and heavy, roman style infantry on the wings as well as in second line. Assumin (what could be of course wrong) that phalanx in steady formation was superior to other acient infantry formations implicite that such a hipotetical army composition could be better than pure phalax or roman legion tactics alone. Such an army composition wolud allow to maintain unbeatable center with hipoteticaly as strong as (roman) oponents wings.

    • barrycjacobsen says:

      Interesting idea, Lobo, and one that was likely considered from time-to-time. Antiochus IV seems to have converted half of his Royal Guard (Argyraspides) to “imitation” Romans; about 5,000 in number. (see: http://deadliestblogger.scout.com/story/1439320-armies-of-the-successors-the-seleucids?s=534) He might have envisioned this same deployment. Caracalla in the 3rd century experimented with arming some legionaries as a phalanx before his contemplated war against Persia; but he was demented and had delusions of grandeur, thinking himself a second Alexander. The idea was discarded by the Roman army after his death; so apparently the professionals didn’t think it worth the effort.
      We know that a phalanx is very formidable from the front, but can become disordered by uneven terrain. As few battles are fought on a perfectly flat field, this is a likely occurrence. On the other hand, Alexander made due quite well on every kind of terrain; and the later Renaissance tercios and Swiss or Landsknecht pike blocks didnt’ seem to have labored under this disadvantage…

      • Michael Park says:

        Alexander was something of a master at ‘combined arms’ – learned from his father. ATG’s phalanx was never without specialised light infantry formations (the Agrianians come to mind along with the javelin men and chiliarchies of archers). Not to mention the cavalry. Later Macedonian (Balkan) formations did not have access to the numbers of cavalry after the Diadoch Wars and, especially, the Gallic invasions.

        Pyrrhus (who I’ve about had enough of at present) showed the way with alternate speirai of Italiote troops and phalanx troops at Asculum and was followed in this by Antigonos Doson at Sellasia with alternate Illyrian and chalkaspide speirai on his right. Kynoskephalai, a defeat for Philip, is often held up as an example of the fragility of the phalanx. That Philip almost carried the day here with less than half his phalanx in battle order and engaged speaks rather to its efficacy.

  10. barrycjacobsen says:

    That’s a very good point, Michael!

  11. RobP says:

    This is one thing I have been studying quite a bit. (I’m trying to write an ancient armie wargame – http://ancientarmies.wordpress.com).

    From the historical accounts that I have read, the Roman Legionaries had an exceedingly tough time dealing with a well ordered sarrisa armed phalanx. In fact many accounts describe the Romans not being able to get close enough and have even described the sarrisa points penetrating the Roman shields.

    The weakness of the phalanx is that it must retain its cohesion, both to make the sarrisa a viable weapon and to protect the phalangites.

    The legionary formations on the other hand could fight just as well with a lot lower cohesion – gladius use doesn’t require the teamwork of one’s comrades to be effective.

    The Romans soon learnt that the best way of dealing with a Phalanx was to damage it’s cohesion to the point where Roman Legionaries could work there way between the pikes to use their gladius. Once this had been achieved it is game over for the phalanx.

    Typical techniques involved tactical use of rough ground, or taking advantage of the much smaller Roman maniples to outflank the phalanx.

    Many people claim the phalanx is unwieldy, but one has to remember that the phalanx the Romans met was not the same phalanx used by Alexander. The later versions had longer more unwieldy sarrisa and packed the men into a tighter formation. There is also evidence that they lacked the same level of training too.

    As a case in point Alexander’s phalanx had fought across a stream and extremely rough terrain at Issus and managed to win without any issues. Something I suspect the later Macedonian phalanxes would not be capable of doing.

    Another account with regard to training is that one of Alexander’s early battles was won simply by his phalanx running through various battle drills out in the open. The enemy were apparently taken aback by the demsponstration of arms.

    I have to say, I’m glad I have found your blog – it is a treasure trove of information :)

    • barrycjacobsen says:

      Thank you, my friend. All good points!

    • Michael Park says:

      “Many people claim the phalanx is unwieldy, but one has to remember that the phalanx the Romans met was not the same phalanx used by Alexander. The later versions had longer more unwieldy sarrisa and packed the men into a tighter formation. There is also evidence that they lacked the same level of training too.”

      That would all come down to how late is “later versions” Rob. The near complete loss of Diodorus following Ipsos (there being only fragments) means we’re not much informed of Macedonian battles in the early to mid third century. The Chremonidean War of the late 260s saw two invasions of Attica and at least one land battle where Areus (of Sparta) was killed forcing the Antigonid line near Corinth. It’s not until Polybios that we start to get some details.

      Antigonos Doson’s phalanx performed rather well in mountainous terrain at Sellasia. Here his peltasts and leukaspides attacked and overcame a prepared Spartan position. This necessitated an attack in double depth down and up a saddle between peaks. His right wing, assaulting a ridge from the Gorgylos river, attacked over uneven ground in alternate speirai of thureophoroi (Illyrian) and chalkaspides. This was a well trained phalanx as the descriptions show.

      Later, after decades of warfare, Philip V was left at Kynoskephalai with 2,000 peltasts,16,000 phalangites 3,500 thureophoroi and 2,000 cavalry. His phalanx, due to manpower depredations, included many called to serve who were either below the age for service or well beyond it. Opposing him was a consular army and Greek allies of between 30-32,000 depending on how you work the numbers. Philip, due to an escalating ‘encounter’ on the ridge of Kynoskephalai, was compelled to fight on ground thoroughly unsuitable for the phalanx: a two kilometre E/W ridge with a series of parallel spurs running south creating shallow valleys. With little time he managed to get somewhat less than half his phalanx, 3,500 thureophoroi and a good part of his cavalry into close order and charge the formed Roman left. It was pushed back into the valley and was in the process of defeat (as Polybios makes plain) when the Roman took the phalanx in the rear (due to the Macedonian left being taken in marching order on the ridge). Even a less than experienced phalanx proved more than worthwhile.

      On the “tighter formation”, the formations adopted by the phalanx – in terms of compaction – did not vary. There was a marching order, close order for attack and ‘locked shields’ or synaspismos. Alexander’s phalanx used the lot (synaspismos famously at Hydaspes).

      • RobP says:

        This is an interesting reply. It adds more weight to the fact that where neither side has a tactical advantage, the sarissa armed phalanx would probably steam roller over most opponents including legionaries.

        It seems that Roman success has been down to obtaining the tactical upper hand, most notably by outflanking. And it is here that the Romans have an ace card. Their units (maniples) are far smaller than the phalanx units (120 troops vs 1500) but they had many more of them. Where the Roman command and control is good – which I suspect is most of the time – they could easily use these additional elements to try flank attacks, whilst still having enough elements to engage from the front.

        But certainly from the accounts I have read, the units engaged head-on against the phalanx usually end up suffering casualties and being pushed back as the Roman formation would not be able to get close enough to use their gladius. I guess it becomes a race to establish a flank attack before the phalanx can overcome the main line.

  12. barrycjacobsen says:

    Great discussion , gentlemen!
    There is a reason that the phalanx went out of favor, vis-a-vise Roman tactics (maniples or, by Marius, cohorts): it was less effective in all-terrain. While nearly unbeatable, if well-trained, on relatively level terrain; it relied upon supporting light troops (such as thureophoroi ) to cover gaps caused by uneven terrain (as Michael points out at Sellasia). That worked well enough in the hands of a good general against other, similarly handicapped formations (the Spartans at Sellasia also fought in “Macedonian fashion” as a pike-armed phalanx). Pyrrhus as well as Antigonas Doson used this approach to make-up for the phalanx’s weakness in broken terrain.

    However, the legion was much more flexible, and adapted better to all the variances in terrain. It was always able to get the better of phalanx-based systems (even Pyrrhus was eventually overcome); handing them a very bloody handling (Heraclea and Asculum), if not defeating them outright (nearly every other encounter?).

  13. >>From the Persian Wars (499–449 BC) till the Battle of Chaeronea (338 BC) the Greek phalanx was the dominant battle formation of the ancient Mediterranean and Near East. Against Persians, Carthaginians, and Etruscans the Greeks warriors triumphed. <<

    A bit on an overstatement. They lost plenty of battles too. And the phalanx was not limited to Greeks, although they may have first created it. If you are talking about the Near East, it is the Persians who dominated. If you are talking about much of the western Mediterranean, it is Carthage that dominated. The Romans apparently got phalanx tactics from the Etruscans, but the evolution of Roman battle tactics, formations, equipment, weapons. use of them, etc. were also got from Carthage, I should think.

    • barrycjacobsen says:

      Thank you Charles. Your points are interesting, though you are in error in several.
      First, the Greeks (either as citizen-hoplites serving their cities; or as mercenaries) were the most potent and feared infantry in the Mediterranean during the period in discussion (499-339 BC). Yes, they occasionally lost (who doesn’t?); but that is irrelevant. But they won far more than they lost. The Persians were defeated and driven out of the Eastern Mediterranean during the hey-day of the Athenian Empire; defeated both on land and by sea. Carthage was defeated in (though never completely driven out of) Sicily by the Syracusans (in the 5th century by Gelon; in the 4th century by first Dionysius and later by Agathocles. The Greeks defeated the Etruscans at the naval Battle of Cumae in 474; preventing their expansion into southern Italy and guaranteeing the Greek colonies there.
      As for the Romans learning tactics from the Etruscans and even the Carthaginians: not as much as one might imagine. Though the earliest Roman armies were so influenced, they likely were more influenced by fellow Latins and even the Samnites. But none of these people developed the manipular tactics of the Camillian legion. These seem to have been a Roman innovation that paid great dividends; and led to their dominance over all Italy (over time). As for the Carthaginians, they didn’t use such tactics at all (though Hannibal borrowed some from them; particularly the 3 distinct lines).

      • Usually it is expected to be a bit more specific in pointing out errors and a little less abundant in mostly unrelated ‘facts’. But how about: the Greeks never drove the Carthaginians out of Sicily, and eventually Carthage got control of Sicily. Something appears to have happened to the Syracusan force attacking Carthage. Ultimately the campaign did not end in great victory.

        Greeks lost many battles in Anatolia, for example. And the Persians even occupied much of Greece at one point. I think you need to review the Corinthian War again. As I remember the history, Persian control of Ionia ended with Alexander the Great. In 355 the Second Athenian Empire was forced to leave Asia Minor by the Persians. Under Artaxerxes III, Persian forces in Ionia and Lycia regained their control of the Aegean and the Mediterranean Sea and took over much of Athens’s former island empire.

        Now let’s get back to my main points.

        1. The phalanx was not limited to Greek armies.
        2. The Persians were not driven out of the Near East or E. Mediterranean.
        3. It is said in some accounts that the Romans learned phalanx tactics from the Etruscans. You can dispute it if you want, I don’t really care.

      • barrycjacobsen says:

        I didn’t go into great specifics because of time. But I urge you to read more on the Graeco-Persian Wars; as your perception is in error. The Greeks defeated the Persians at almost every encounter (from Marathon to Cunaxa). I am unsure why you would mention the Corinthian War; as it didn’t involve the Persians. Yes, Persians retained control of Ionia (off-and-on) till Alexander; but that, as with many of your points, is irrelevant to the supremacy of the Greek hoplite phalanx, the point in discussion.
        As to your other points:
        1. No, other armies used a dense, spear-armed infantry formation that could be called a phalanx (particularly the Etruscans). But none were as renown or successful as the Greek version; nor practiced osthismos.
        2. Again, I urge you to increase your scholarship. Cimon of Athens drove the Persians out of the Aegean and Eastern Med in the 5th century. Pericles and the Athenian navy continued this policy till the Peloponnesian War. Thereafter, with the fall of Athens, Persia was able to regain control of the Eastern Med (as well as the Ionian Greek cities; which they’d lost during the heyday of the Athenian Empire during the 5th century).
        3. The Romans did use a phalanx formation of sorts, likely borrowed from the Etruscans; till the beginning of the 4th century when they suffered a catastrophic defeat by the Gauls at Allia. Thereafter, they abandoned the phalanx (the Triarii of the third line of the legion being the last vestige of that formation); as Camillus reformed the army, leading to the multiple lines that we know as the “manipular legion” formation. This too developed over several centuries, but they never went back to that earlier phalanx.

  14. Now the reason why I was thinking about a Carthaginian connection in the adoption of some weapons is that the Romans were known to adopt Iberian weapons, and it was Carthage that had long controlled coastal Iberia. For example (from phoenicia.org)

    As with most of the mercenaries in Carthaginian armies, Spanish troops used their own cultural weapons. One of these was the espasa, a short double-edged stabbing sword. Roughly 25 inches long, the Spaniards were famous for their use of it. When Spanish mercenaries in the service of Carthage fought Roman soldiers in Sicily during the First Punic War the Romans were so impressed by the espasa that they adopted it and called it the gladius hispanicus. The gladius went onto conquer the known world with the legions of Rome.

  15. bertie007 says:

    The notion that the Greeks created the ‘close’ infantry formation (“phalanx”) is a nonsense. This is not to discuss their armour or arms which, of course, altered over time. One really needs to bear in mind that the vast bulk of the ancient testimony comes from one source: the Greeks. Hence we have small Greek armies defeating multitudinous, incontinent eastern hordes. The Diodochi and their successor ‘states’ had no compunctions employing many of these effete, soft ‘degenerates’ in their armies – and to good effect.

    • barrycjacobsen says:

      Bertie: You make straw-arguments to pick a fight with. I agree that it would be “nonsense” to claim the Greeks created the close infantry formation; and never made that argument. What the Greeks created was the phalanx: a formation in which spearmen fought in close order, each pushing the man in front of them, driving back the enemy in disarray (othismos). They became the premiere heavy infantry mercenaries of the 4th century; hired particularly by the Persians because they were so far superior to any eastern heavy infantry.

      Now, you seem to also imply that all the history we have of ancient warfare involving the Greeks is to be disbelieved, because it was written by the Greeks. Do you have an alternative source? Does some Persian source, for instance, claim the Persians actually won at Marathon, Plataea or Mycale; contrary to the Greek histories? Or a Carthaginian source that states that they (the Carthaginians), contrary to what those lying Greeks have told us, really won at Himera, defeated Timoleon at Crimissus? That they never lost countless engagements against Agathocles and Pyrrhus as well?

      No, I don’t think you have. What you do seem to have is a very modern disdain for any notion of western military superiority, starting with the Greeks. You are not alone in that: it seems to be very fashionable in modern academia; which has been heavily infiltrated by leftist, “politically correct” nonsense. It is not egalitarian and borders on racist to suggest that “white” Greeks could have been superior (militarily) to “brown” people like the Persians or the Carthaginians.

      I have never detected, from your other posts, a tendency to accept “PC” revisionist history. So I am a bit puzzled.

      • To some extent, I have to agree with Bertie. I’m glad you figured out you were replying to him and not me here. It is a major lacunae in reconstructing any history of those times that we have to rely on so few sources, none of them written with modern historicity in mind. I doubt that the Greeks or Persians recognized each other as being of a different ‘race’. But the Persian empire incorporated much greater diversity than ‘Greek’ until the rise of Macedonia and the conquests of Alexander.

      • barrycjacobsen says:

        Charles: The Greeks definitely saw themselves as a people apart from the Persians; or any non-Greek, for that matter. All but Hellenes were considered “barbarians”.

      • barrycjacobsen says:

        As for “diversity”, it was not considered of much value historically. The Persian Empire encompassed far more different peoples, races, and cultures, of course. But none were anything but disenfranchised subjects. Even the Persians and Medes, the first and second people of the empire were all just slaves of the King of Kings. Only the Great King owned anything in the Empire; everyone being allowed what they had by his (theoretical) sufferance. The Greeks, though less “diverse”, had democracy, philosophy, and the beginnings of the sciences.

      • Michael Park says:

        Michael Park actually Barry, though you likely know that – the blog seems to have forgotten that ID.

        I do not subscribe to some “politically correct” nonsense spawned by “leftist” academia – unless you’d include the likes of the venerable George Cawkwell, the late Brian Bosworth and others in that pejorative nonsense. That I take issue with some of what VD Hanson and his fellow travellers claim does not make me “PC” or “revisionist”.

        Of course no Persian source claims Marathon as a victory. That, along with your other exaggeration-for-effect questions and “lying Greeks”, is a classic “straw-argument”. I never suggested such and, in your zest to ridicule my view, you’ve missed the point. Which point is that for Greek interaction with Persia (in particular) we must rely upon a source tradition that is almost entirely Greek and as with all such scenarios, due caution must be exercised. One might imagine historians of two centuries hence studying the twentieth century with near only Russian sources from which to work. I’d suggest that century would look remarkably different to what we know. A more apt example would be the war between Seleukos and Antigonos which is unknown to the Greek corpus and known only from Babylonian sources. Or Pyrrhos who bloodily triumphed at Asculum only to have the Roman tradition (Eutropius, Orosios) claim it as a Roman victory with only 5,000 Roman dead and 20,000 of Pyrrhos’ forces dead. A check is available via other sources (notably Hieronymus of Kardia) who gives 6,000 and 3505 respectively. We have few if any such checks with the Greek / Persian interactions.

        The victory over the Persians was a recurrent theme in ancient Greek historiography and culture. It was as unexpected as it was complete; the largest empire of the day had been checked in its westward expansion. It had assumed mythological proportions by the time of the Peloponnesian War (if not before) and its influence is still seen in the Greco-Macedonian tradition of Alexander’s conquests.

        Persian armies had no great trouble with the hoplites of Asia (the “Greeks of Asia”). Persia’s arms and tactics – heavy reliance on missile and mounted troops – were well suited to that theatre. They were hardly as suited to the Greek mainland were tighter fields and the more heavily armoured Greeks were superior. It should be noted that the Greek hoplites suffered terribly at the hands of those missile and mounted troops in the prelude to Plataea.

        Although Charles is off the point as you say, he has a point. Persia, despite Greek hoplites, was the power to be concerned about from the second half of the fifth century until the second half of the third. Athens and Persia, largely exhausted and at a stalemate, agreed a détente in the early 440s (something broached as early as the late 460s). Spheres of influence were delineated and the cities of Asia (the Greeks) were without walls. This lasted until Athens inexplicably involved herself in the Amorges affair sometime near the end of the Sicilian expedition. Sparta sought and obtained Persian alliance with which she destroyed Athens’ Empire. The price was the Greeks of Asia. Sparta could not win nor hold her new hegemony without Persia. A fact made plain by the Peace of Antalkidas in which the Greeks of Asia were sold down the Euphrates for hegemony. This situation was franked by all the mainland competitors in their turn (Sparta, Athens, Thebes). The King had got what he wanted and the mere threat of Persian action was all that was required as Athens recalled Chares and laid up her fleet when so ordered by the King (Social War). Ditto Philip II at Perinthus – Philip not yet ready for that confrontation.

        One also needs to tread carefully with Greeks “commanding” Persian armies. Persians commanded these armies whilst Greeks commanded their troops. Memnon is the classic case. It is unlikely he was ever taken seriously prior to Granikos – the Persian satrap commanded and decided. Yes he was appointed commander of “those on the seaboard” but this is after Halikarnassos fell (though not its naval base) when the war was to be taken to sea and most of the Persian grandees in Asia Minor had been removed from the field. He jointly commanded with a Persian as well though one could be forgiven for missing that. Pierre Briant’s magisterial “From Cyrus to Alexander” should be on anyone’s reading list should they be interested in Persia and her interactions with Greece.

        Oddly enough I just had published one of those classic phalanx v legion battles in January: Kynoskephalai. I believe we discussed this somewhere – probably here somewhere I’d imagine. What’s become of the Successors narrative??

      • I don’t think I’m off the point. I think I raised too many of them for this blogger. The Greeks were one of the expansive, colonialist cultures of the Mediterranean, but I don’t find anything that extraordinary about them when compared to Phoenicians and Punic Phoenicians, Etruscans, Romans, Persians, etc. etc. The idea that they were somehow a bastion of democracy, freedom, human rights, and invulnerable warriors is simply ridiculous garbage.

  16. Case in point, I asked you to review the Corinthian War because it shows that Persia could interfere in the affairs of Greece quite easily, first backing an alliance against Sparta and then siding with Sparta. The Peace of Antalcidas was brokered by Persia and made Sparta dominant in Greece. But what does that mean? It means that Persia made the Spartans top dogs in Greece! To quote the wiki article on the Peace of Antalcidas:

    The single greatest effect of the Peace of Antalcidas was the return of firm Persian control to Ionia and parts of the Aegean. Driven back from the Aegean shores by the Delian League during the 5th century, the Persians had been recovering their position since the later part of the Peloponnesian War, and were now strong enough to dictate terms to Greece. They would maintain this position of strength until the time of Alexander the Great.

  17. barrycjacobsen says:

    Again, Charles, you are arguing apples and I oranges. This has nothing to do with the point of the article or our discussion. Yes, Persian gold interfered in Greek politics and allowed them to influence events.
    How does that have anything to do with a discussion of the military superiority of the Greek phalanx?
    Enough, my friend: I suspect you are merely trolling; creating an argument out of whole cloth.

    • If it was so superior, how come they never conquered Persia until Alexander. I was merely pointing out that you have to reconcile your statements about Greek superiority with the historical reality that we think we know–which is that Persia exercised hegemony over that part of the Mediterranean, including the balance of power in ‘Greece’. You are quite the troll–one set up under a bridge called The Deadliest Blogger: Military History Page . I’m sorry I wasted my time at your goofy page.

  18. It’s hard to argue that the uneven terrain of Greece disfavored the Persian troops. They seem to have had logistical issues more than anything. It’s interesting also how Persian accounts of their defense against the Macedonians so strongly parallel Leonidas and the 300, which makes you wonder about the accuracy of any accounts.

    • Michael Park says:

      Well the Greeks ensured they fought where it would nullify the Persian advantage in missile and mounted troops. At Marathon they refused combat taking up a line with their flanks protected by high ground. When they did attach it was clearly when the Persian cavalry were elsewhere for they are never mentioned in the battle. As I’ve said, the Greeks had a hard time of it at Plataea until they moved to ground which disfavoured the Persians. Even as the battle began they were having a hard time of it via the Persian cavalry and archers.

      I agree the Persians lost due to their own errors and logistical problems: Thucydides says this (well, has Hermocrates say it for him). He is alone in the Greek corpus for this – as usual – rational comment and for noting the Persians were no larger that the Greek forces (6.33.5-6).

      On the Macedonian invasion of Persia one only needs to read Arrian’s description of Gaugamela to see how silly some of the numbers that are mentioned are. Arrian numbers the Persian infantry at one million. He gives the casualties as “nearly 300,000″ which gives the Macedonians a kill ratio of 3,000 to one! But worse is to come: there were “far more men captured than killed” (Arr. 3.15.6). Just how half a million or more prisoners were marshaled by a Macedonian army numbering – at most – 47,000 one is left to ponder.

  19. Boris says:

    Greeks and Macedonians? Macedonians were a Greek tribe. But anyway..

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