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 hoplite phalanx was the dominant battle formation of the ancient Mediterranean and Near East. Against Persians, Carthaginians, and Etruscans this compact formation of Greek armored infantry (supported by small numbers of light infantry and cavalry) everywhere triumphed. At Chaeronea in 338 BC, however, the Greek hoplites of Athens and Thebes met a superior tactical system, that of Philip II of Macedon. 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 and mostly replacing the earlier Greek hoplite phalanx. The Macedonian phalanx, in turn, dominated the battlefield until the coming of the Romans; who brought a very different formation to the battlefield 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 these historicans 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.


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, filled with civic (and national) pride and zeal, but (with the exception of the Spartans and a few elite units in some cities) essentially a part-time militia. They fought primarily as “heavy” infantry: closely-ordered, trained to fight at close-quarters with spear or sword. These citizen-soldier of the Greek city-state (polis) are referred to as a hoplites (men-at-arms).

The hoplite’s weapons and equipment consisted of a large round shield (aspis), 36″-40″ in diameter; and a long, relatively heavy[1] thrusting spear (dory) 7-9 feet in length. A sword (either the straight, double-edged xiphos, or the forward-curving, single-edged kopis) was his backup weapon, and for additional defense he wore various pieces of armor, collectively referred to as his panoply.

13408525th 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” with leather wrapped around grip.

The hoplite 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 hoplite phalanx deployed for battle in six, eight, or twelve ranks deep (referred to by contemporaries as “shields”); though the later Theban phalanx was famed for the greater depth upon which it relied, deploying in anywhere from twenty-four to fifty 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 shields into the backs of their comrade in the rank in front of them; and the weight of the phalanx as a whole attempted to push the enemy back or to bowl them over. In this formation only the first and perhaps the second rank could actually use their spears (or swords), while 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 victorious hoplites would pursue, cutting down the fleeing enemy from behind. It was during this later phase of the fighting that most of the casualties were sustained by the losing side; cut down from behind as they attempted to flee. (For this reason among the Spartans wounds upon a corpse’s back were deemed dishonorable, a sign that the victim had turned coward and ran in battle. Likewise, leaving one’s shield on the battlefield was a disgrace, inferring that the hoplite had dropped it to allow for swifter flight.)


A segment of a Greek hoplite phalanx, 8 ranks deep. Note the flute player in the rear: hoplites marched to the sound of flute, rather than drums or horns. These men are advancing in a looser order than used when facing another phalanx; at which time they massed to the right and braced the man in front with the flat of their shield in his back.

If a hoplite found himself engaged during this later stage of the fighting in personal combat, he relied on his thrusting spear, sword and shield. The individual combat techniques of the hoplite warrior were called hoplomachia. It is suggested by the scenes of hoplites in combat depicted upon ancient Greek vase paintings that spearmen used both over and under-handed methods of thrusting. Practice with the dory by the author showed that a hoplite could rapidly and dexterously change from one grip to the other, as the situation dictated.

The face and throat were the main target areas using the overhand thrusting method, while the enemy’s inner thigh and groin were prime targets for the latter (underhanded) thrust. The edge of the shield may, too, have been used as a weapon. Modern tests have shown such shield strikes to be very deadly, indeed[2].




Note the different methods of spear-handling displayed in these ancient paintings depicting hoplite duels. While scholars often suggest “artistic license” on the part of the painters, its is important to remember that every free-born Greek city-state citizen trained to fight in the phalanx (or some supporting arm, if he couldn’t afford the panoply of a hoplite). So even the painters of these images likely had first-and experience in hoplite training and warfare, as in most cases would their customers buying the vases, plates and bowls upon which these scenes were painted

It was difficult for the average body of Greek hoplites to change direction once deployed and advancing in the great rectangular block that was the phalanx. Sub-divisions were mostly absent, and there is no record of an under-officer or NCO class to help maneuver a Greek phalanx. However, the Spartans, who were well-drilled professionals, divided their phalanx into companies, battalions, and regiments; and did have sub-classes of officers for each of these sub-units. Thus the Spartans were uniquely capable of complicated maneuver and change-of-face-or-front.

Hoplite phalanxes tended to “drift” obliquely to the right as they advanced, the tendency of hoplites to shelter behind the shield of their comrade to their right causing this phenomenon. So the right-wing of opposing phalanxes tended to overlap the left of their opponents. A battle between two phalanxes often tended to pinwheel as the right of each overlapped and drove back the left of the other.


The hoplite phalanx was bested by the Macedonian phalanx in the 4th century at Chaeronea, Issus, and Megalopolis during the reigns of Philip II and Alexander the Great. The pike-armed Macedonian version of the phalanx largely replaced the spear-armed hoplite version of the Classical Age. By the time the Romans arrived on the scene in Greece at the beginning of the 2nd century (first as allies of the Greeks against the Macedonians, then later as conquerors), they were facing armies whose infantry component was either lighter infantry (of the type called thureophoroi) or Macedonian-style phalangites.

Unlike the hoplites of the earlier phalanx, the Macedonian and Hellenistic phalangite (called a pezhetairos or “foot companion” during their earliest days under Philip II and Alexander the Great) was armed with a 15-21 foot two-handed pike called a sarissa. As both hands were necessary to wield this longer, heavier weapon the phalangite was forced to compensate by carrying a smaller shield (only 22″-24″ in diameter) than did the traditional Greek hoplite, relying on the length of his pike to keep the enemy at bay rather than sheltering behind the larger aspis of the traditional hoplite. The size of both pike and shield varied from the time of Philip II in the mid-4th century to that of Perseus I in the mid-2nd century BC, but was largely within that range (though the shield of Alexander’s infantry does not appear to have differed much from that of the southern Greek hoplites of his day; being about 34″-36″ in diameter) [3].


Macedonian phalangite, mid-late 4th century BC. Philip and Alexander called their phalangite infantrymen “pezhetairoi” (Foot Companions). They were armed with the 15′-18′ sarissa; which was made in two pieces, joined together for battle with a metal sheath. Note the figure on the left is phalangite on the march; with his sarissa disassembled.

In contrast to the Greek hoplite, who relied upon the push of shields described above, the Macedonian phalangite relied upon the “push of pike”: driving his heavy sarissa into the shield or body of the enemy before him and pressing forward in mass. The longer reach of the sarissa allowed 4-5 ranks to engage the enemy at a distance, with subsequent ranks raising their pikes over the heads of the ranks ahead of them; this partially sheltering them from in-coming missiles.

1340947A syntagma (company) of the phalanx: 256 men, 16 deep and as many shields across. The first four to five ranks could engage the enemy at various ranges; while subsequent ranks raised their sarissas above the heads of their comrades; creating partial cover against missile attack

While the Classical Age Greek hoplite typically formed his phalanx 12 ranks deep the Macedonian phalanx drew up in 16 ranks. In certain circumstances, it could double to 32 ranks or spread out to give greater frontage, deploying in only 8 ranks.

Supported by lighter infantry and by cavalry on its wings the Macedonian phalanx served as the core of a tactical system that dominated the battlefields of the eastern Mediterranean and near east for two hundred years. The Phalanx was the solid anvil upon which skilled commanders could fix their enemy, and then hammer them with cavalry, elite light infantry, or even elephants. It has been stated by both ancient and modern “authorities” that frontally the phalanx was invincible. This is mostly true. But as we will examine below, circumstances of terrain and tactics make this a qualified truth only; and an opponent was to appear who would change the tactical arithmetic on the battlefield: the Roman legion.


The Roman Republic, cradled in the hills of central Italy, developed a very different tactical system. From the 4th century onward, the Romans relied upon self-contained units called legions (legiones) instead of phalanxes of spear or pike-armed infantry. These legions were composed of citizen-soldiers, who enlisted only for the duration of each campaign. However, there was a deep professionalism permeating the Roman citizen body, as Roman citizens of the middle and upper classes (those who served in the legions) trained with arms from the time they reached adolescence just outside the city, on Mars Field. As many reenlisted for long-duration or on multiple campaigns, the legions that followed the Consuls and Proconsuls were often highly experienced veterans, professional soldiers in all but name. The soldiers who faced the Macedonians in the first decade of the 2nd century BC were just such long-serving veterans; many of which had first joined the legions during the deadly days of the Second Punic War.


Roman soldiers of the early Republic, 3rd century BC. The man on the left with the red shield is a principe of the second line; and has discharged his pilum and drawn his gladius. The man on the right is a veteran triari, carrying a thrusting spear. The man behind both is an Italian allied infantryman.


The legion changed throughout the long history of the Roman Republic and Empire. But what we will describe is the legion that fought the Macedonian and other Hellenistic phalanxes, from the late 3rd through the 2nd centuries BC; as described by Polybius.

Each legion numbered 3,600 infantry who formed up for battle in three distinct lines, one behind the other. Each of these three lines was comprised of ten maniples (“handfuls”), the tactical unit of the legion. Thus each legion was divided into 30 maniples. Each maniple was further divided equally into two centuries of 60 men. The maniple was commanded by a pair of centurions, tough and seasoned under-officers, each directly leading one of the two centuries. It was the use of so many small, well-organized sub-units that allowed the legion the great flexibility it displayed on the battlefield.

The first line of maniples consisted of young men, and were called Hastati. The second line were of men in the prime of their lives, and were called Principes. Both of these first two lines were equipped in the same fashion: with a short sword and javelins, and a large oval shield (scuta). The third line was comprised of half-maniples of older veterans, called Triarii. Unlike the first two ranks of maniples, the Triarii were armed with a longer thrusting spear instead of the javelins of the Hastati and Principes. Each legion had its own intregal light infantry, provided by 10 half-strength maniples of javelin-armed skirmishers, called Velites. These were recruited from the teenage boys just beginning their military service. The maniples of Hastati and Principes were 120 men strong each; while those of the Triarii and Velites were only half that number, 60.


The maniples were compact, deep formations meant to melee with the enemy. The usual order for the first two lines of maniples, the Hastati and Principes, was 10 men per rank, with the maniple 12 ranks deep overall. Thus the first two lines of the legion were each 12 ranks: as deep as a typical Greek phalanx. The third line of Triarii were only half as deep, and was meant to be a final reserve that could cover the withdrawal (in order) of the first two lines if they were unsuccessful in defeating the enemy.

Unlike the phalanx that fought in a single line, engaging the enemy simultaneously across the entire front, the legion deployed its maniples in a checkerboard pattern; leaving deliberate gaps between each maniple equal to its frontage. These gaps were covered by the successive line of maniples, so that when a legion engaged it did so in waves, delivering multiple successive shocks against the enemy all across its front.

First the Hastati would charge the enemy line, and begin to weaken and disorder them. Next the Principes could come up through the intervals and deliver yet another wave of attacks. Or, if the Hastati were in real trouble, they could withdraw in order back through the gaps in the second line of Principes. If the attack was a complete failure, both the first two lines could withdraw, in turn, through the final reserve of veteran Triarii, all seasoned veterans who could be counted upon to stand firm and cover their withdrawal.


It was a hallmark of Roman warfare that a fortified camp was always prepared, and the Romans never fought far from it. So if defeat was imminent, the legions could retreat back into their camp, covered by the steady Triarii, and regroup for another day. Thus a tactical defeat was seldom turned by the enemy into a major disaster by a prolonged pursuit.

Unlike the Greeks and Macedonians, the Roman legionary fought as an individual within a larger formation. The Roman soldier didn’t lock shields or stand shoulder-to-shoulder with his comrade to either side. Each Roman soldier maintained a space around him of three feet, enough room to maneuver and wield his sword, either to cut or thrust.

“Now, a Roman soldier in full armor also requires a space of three square feet. But as their method of fighting admits of individual motion for each man—because he defends his body with a shield, which he moves about to any point from which a blow is coming, and because he uses his sword both for cutting and stabbing—it is evident that each man must have a clear space, and an interval of at least three feet both on flank and rear if he is to do his duty with any effect.” [4]

While the Greek hoplite phalanx of old relied on the massive shoving contest known as othismos, and the Macedonian phalanx upon the “push of pike” to overbear their opponents; the Romans relied on multiple shocks all along the line, and on an individual level employed a combined-arms tactical system revolving around the sword and javelin.

The Roman sword (the gladius hispanicus, or “Spanish Sword”) was a finely tempered steel weapon, 24″ long, effective both for stabbing or cutting. In fact, it was sharp enough to hack through a limb, and was feared for the ghastly wounds it inflicted [5]. The legionary also carried two special javelins, one light and one heavy. These were called pilum (pila). They were made of a wooden shaft with a long iron shank ending in a small head.

1341868.jpgThe pilum resembled the 19th century whaler’s harpoon, and can be characterized accurately as a sort of anti-personnel harpoon. The construction was such that pila tended to imbed themselves in the shields of their opponents, and to either break or malform on impact; so as to render them both difficult to pull out of the shield or impossible to throw back at the Roman sender. The lighter of the two pila was for longer range, and the heavier to be used just before closing with sword, at about 20 paces from the enemy. While the first ranks of the maniples were engaged with the enemy, rear ranks could hurl their javelins over the heads of their comrades, into the enemy formation.


Roman legionaries of the late Republic

As the legion closed with an enemy, the maniples of velites, deployed in front of the legion and screened it from both observation and from being harassed by enemy skirmishers. The velites used an even lighter javelin, called a verutum, to skirmish with the enemy. As the opposing lines drew close, the velites would withdraw through the intervals between maniples to the rear.

As the first line of heavy infantry maniples, the Hastati, approached the enemy line they would hurl their lighter pila into the ranks of the enemy. Then, ast they began their charge, they would hurl their heavier javelin before closing to sword range. This pre-melee shower of pila would distract and at time disorder the enemy ranks with casualties just moments before the impact of the legionaries. Their shields encumbered or disabled altogether by embedded pila an enemy would be at a disadvantage as the maniples smashed into their ranks, driving forward with large shield and deadly swords.

All along the line, individual maniples impacted the enemy line, causing shock and disruption. This was a crucial difference between the Roman system and that of the Greeks and Macedonians: the use of multiple shocks by small units, to break the enemy line rather than a single push by the mass of a phalanx.

The Romans first faced a Macedonian-style phalanx first at the Battle of Heraclea in 280 BC, when warring against King Pyrrhus of Epirus, a kinsman of Alexander the Great. In this as in the subsequent encounter at Asculum, the phalanx was unable to make headway against the push of the legions, and was at many points in great danger, suffering high casualties. Pyrrhus won these first two battles against the Romans not by the push of pike, but because of the destruction and chaos his elephants caused to the unprepared Romans (who had never encountered these great beasts before). In his third, unsuccessful battle against them, at Beneventum the Romans were able to defeat or trap the elephants in bad ground; and went on to defeat the phalanx (some of which entered the battle exhausted from a night march through bad terrain). In all three of these battles, the legions inflicted terrible carnage upon the hitherto invincible phalanx; though receiving heavy casualties of their own in the process.

Later, in their wars against first the Macedonians, and then against the Seleucids and later the Pontians the Romans defeated phalanxes through superior maneuverability, and because of the phalanx’s unfortunate weakness when it lost cohesion. Either because of bad terrain (as at Pydna in 168 BC) or because of “extenuating circumstances” (such as elephants routing back through and disrupting its order, as at Magnesia in 190 BC), or because the unique checkerboard formation of the maniples caused the phalanx to lose order as some sections were pushed back while others advanced into the gaps; the phalanx always tended to become disordered against the legions. Then the swordsmen would come to close-quarters, where their training and equipment was superior to that of the phalangite.

“The Romans do not, then, attempt to extend their front to equal that of a phalanx, and then charge directly upon it with their whole force: but some of their divisions (maniples) are kept in reserve, while others join battle with the enemy at close quarters. Now, whether the phalanx in its charge drives its opponents from their ground (as initially at Cynoscephalae and Pydna), or is itself driven back, in either case its peculiar order is dislocated; for whether in following the retiring, or flying from the advancing enemy, they quit the rest of their forces: and when this takes place, the enemy’s reserves can occupy the space thus left, and the ground which the phalanx had just before been holding, and so no longer charge them face to face, but fall upon them on their flank and rear.”[6]

In theory the long pike of the phalangite could keep the sword-armed legionaries at a distance. But in every battle the Romans found ways to penetrate the wall of pikes and close with the phalangites. At very close quarters the larger shield and better sword-training of the Romans always proved decisive.



While modern historical aficionados and gamers debate the relative effectiveness of spear-armed hoplite phalanx vs pike-armed Macedonian phalanx, and of phalanx vs legion, the verdict of history is certain and unarguable. The pike phalanx bested and replaced that of the spear-armed hoplite; and the Roman system proved superior to the pike phalanx.

Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. It is telling that after a century of experience against the Macedonians in battle (both as enemies and as occasional allies) the southern Greek city-states (including the Spartans) by-and-large adopted the Macedonian-style of phalanx, replacing their own traditional spear-armed hoplite phalanx. (Though, in even more cases, the citizen-levy of the Greek states fought as light-infantry thureophoroi, armed with spear-and-javelin.)

Similarly, by the mid-2nd century BC the Seleucids were retraining a portion of their elite Silver Shields (Argyraspides) phalangites as “imitation Roman” legionaries [7]; arming them in the Roman fashion. By the 1st century BC, the Ptolemaic army of Egypt had abandoned the phalanx altogether, and were using troops who were equipped with spears and javelins as either thureophoroi or imitation legionaries (scholars debate this point). Or, they were hiring Roman veterans wholesale as mercenaries [8].

The last pseudo-Successor state to challenge Rome, the Pontians in the Mithradatic Wars of the 1st century BC, started with a Macedonian phalanx of Chalcaspides (“Brazen Shields”) as the core of their infantry. But after very rough handling by Sulla’s legions, Mithradates rearmed his infantry in the Roman fashion, even hiring renegade Roman soldiers as trainers.

Clearly, the men on the ground at the time recognized which tactical systems were superior. They adopted these as best they could, as their very life (and the safety and independence of their nations) depended upon it.

While the debate will no doubt go on the verdict of history is, I submit, final and should be accepted.


Some of the artwork in this article has been reproduced with the permission of Osprey Publishing, and is © Osprey Publishing, part of Bloomsbury Publishing Plc.


[1] Modern reconstructions of the Greek dory (hoplite spear) weigh from 4-5lbs.

[2] While working on the television show, “The Deadliest Warrior”, the author worked on the scientific testing of the Greek/Spartan aspis. The targets used for the testing were human skull replicas surrounded by an appropriate amount of ballistic gel to simulate the soft tissue of the head; and impact “crash” dummies, as used by experts in the Transportation Safety Administration and the automotive industry. The results showed a tremendous amount of impact delivered by the edge of Greek aspis against a human skull when utilizing the method invented by the author (though based upon research of ancient vase paintings); enough to snap the human neck or cause a depressed skull fracture at the impact site.

[3] Based upon the size of the shields depicted in the contemporary “Alexander Sarcophagus”, there is reason to believe that the phalangites and Hypaspists of Philip II, Alexander, and his immediate Successors might have used the larger Greek aspis. Certainly by the end of the 3rd century, the Macedonian and Hellenistic armies had adopted a smaller shield, sometimes referred to as a “pelta”.

[4] Polybius, The Histories, Book XVIII, Chapters 28-32

[5] Titus Livius: Books XXXI-XLV describes vividly the terrible wounds inflicted by the Roman gladius on its Macedonian victims in early skirmishes with the legions; and the shock of Philip’s troops when they saw the hacked and maimed bodies of their dead comrades.

[6] Polybius, The Histories, Book XVIII, Chapters 28-32

[7] See my earlier article, Armies of the Successors: The Seleucids

[8] See my earlier article, Armies of the Successors: The Ptolemies.

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  8. Elliot says:

    Superb. Love it. Excellent. Creating a piece of work for Norwich City Football Club believe it or not on tactics and this has helped no end for some context.

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