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 their 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 this compact formation of armored Greek warriors (supported by small numbers of light infantry and cavalry) 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 phalanx. The Macedonian phalanx, in turn, 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 armies relying upon 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 differences 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 due 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, which 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” infantry: closely-ordered, fighting at close-quarters with spear or sword. These citizen-soldier heavy infantrymen of the Greek city-state (polis) are referred to as a hoplites (men-at-arms)…