The phalanx (Ancient Greek: φάλαγξ, Modern Greek: φάλαγγα, phālanga) (plural phalanxes or phalanges (Ancient and Modern Greek: φάλαγγες, phālanges)) is a rectangular mass military formation, usually composed entirely of heavy infantry armed with spears, pikes, or similar weapons. The term is particularly (and originally) used to describe the use of this formation in Ancient Greek warfare. The word phalanx is derived from the Greek word phalangos, meaning the finger.
The term 'phalanx' itself does not refer to a distinctive military unit or division (e.g., the Roman legion or the contemporary Western-type battalion) but to the general formation of an army's troops. Thus a phalanx did not have a standard combat strength or composition.
Many spear-armed troops historically fought in what might be termed phalanx-like formations. Indeed, the word has come into use in common English to describe "a group of people standing, or moving forward closely together" ; c.f. "a phalanx of police" . As well, the bone structure in the hands and feet earned its name, the Phalanx bones, from the arrangement of bones and joints which, when viewed from the sides, appear to be standing in a phalanx formation.
The earliest known depiction of a phalanx-like formation occurs in a Sumerian stele from 2450 BC. Here the troops seem to have been equipped with spears, helmets, and large shields covering the whole body. Ancient Egyptian infantry were known to have employed similar formations. The first usage of the term phalanx comes from Homer's "(φαλαγξ)", used to describe hoplites fighting in an organized battle line. Homer used the term to differentiate the formation-based combat from the individual duels so often found in his poems.
Historians have not arrived at a consensus about the relationship between the Greek formation and these predecessors. The principles of shield wall and spear hedge were almost universally known among the armies of major civilizations throughout history, and so the similarities may be due to convergent evolution instead of diffusion.
Traditionally historians date the origin of the hoplite phalanx of ancient Greece to the 8th century BC in Sparta, but this is under revision. It is perhaps more likely that the formation was devised in the 7th century BC after the introduction of the aspis (a shield also known as the hoplon) by the city of Argos, which would have made the formation possible. This is further evidenced by the Chigi vase, dated to 650 BC, identifying hoplites armed with aspis, spear and panoply.
The hoplite phalanx of the Archaic and Classical periods in Greece (approx. 750-350 BCE) was a formation in which the hoplites would line up in ranks in close order. The hoplites would lock their shields together, and the first few ranks of soldiers would project their spears out over the first rank of shields. The phalanx therefore presented a shield wall and a mass of spear points to the enemy, making frontal assaults much more difficult. It also allowed a higher proportion of the soldiers to be actively engaged in combat at a given time (rather than just those in the front rank).
The phalanx usually advanced at a walking pace, although it is possible that they picked up speed during the last several yards. Herodotus states, of the Greeks at the Battle of Marathon, that "They were the first Greeks we know of to charge their enemy at a run". Many historians believe that this innovation was precipitated by their desire to minimize their losses from Persian archery. The opposing sides would collide, possibly shivering many of the spears of the front row. The battle would then rely on the valour of the men in the front line; whilst those in the rear maintained forward pressure on the front ranks with their shields. When in combat, the whole formation would consistently press forward trying to break the enemy formation; thus when two phalanx formations engaged, the struggle essentially became a pushing match, in which, as a rule, the deeper phalanx would almost always win, with few recorded exceptions..
It should be noted that no Greek art ever depicts anything like a phalanx pushing match and this theory, while certainly the most widely accepted by far, is a product of educated speculation rather than explicit testimony from contemporary sources. The Greek term for "push" was used in the same metaphorical manner as the English word is (for example it was also used to describe the process of rhetorical arguments) and so cannot be said to necessarily describe a literal, physical, push of the enemy, although it is possible that it did.
Individual hoplites carried their shields on their left arm, protecting not themselves but the soldier to the left. This meant that the men at the extreme right of the phalanx were only half protected. In battle, opposing phalanxes would exploit this weakness by attempting to overlap the enemy's right flank. It also meant that, in battle, a phalanx would tend to drift to the right (as hoplites sought to remain behind the shield of their neighbour). The most experienced hoplites were often placed on the right side of the phalanx, to counteract these problems. There was a leader in each row of a phalanx, and a rear rank officer, the ouragos (meaning tail-leader), who kept order in the rear. The phalanx is thus an example of a military formation in which the individualistic elements of battle were suppressed for the good of the whole. The hoplites had to trust their neighbours to protect them; and be willing to protect their neighbour; a phalanx was thus only as strong as its weakest elements.The effectiveness of the phalanx therefore depended upon how well the hoplites could maintain this formation while in combat, and how well they could stand their ground, especially when engaged against another phalanx. For this reason, the formation was deliberately organized to group friends and family closely together, thus providing a psychological incentive to support one's fellows, and a disincentive through shame to panic or attempt to flee. The more disciplined and courageous the army the more likely it was to win - often engagements between the various city-states of Greece would be resolved by one side fleeing before the battle. The Greek word dynamis, the "will to fight", expresses the drive that kept hoplites in formation.
“Now of those, who dare, abiding one beside another, to advance to the close fray, and the foremost champions, fewer die, and they save the people in the rear; but in men that fear, all excellence is lost. No one could ever in words go through those several ills, which befall a man, if he has been actuated by cowardice. For ‘tis grievous to wound in the rear the back of a flying man in hostile war. Shameful too is a corpse lying low in the dust, wounded behind in the back by the point of a spear.” [Tyrtaeus: The War Songs Of Tyrtaeus]
The phalanx of the Ancient Macedonian kingdom and the later Hellenistic successor states was a development of the hoplite phalanx. The 'phalangites' were armed with much longer spears (the sarissa; see below), and less heavily armoured. Since the sarissa was wielded two-handed, phalangites carried much smaller shields , strapped to their arms. Therefore, although a Macedonian phalanx would have formed up in similar manner to a hoplite phalanx, it possessed very different tactical properties. With the extra spear length, up to five rows of phalangites could project their weapon beyond the front rank; keeping enemy troops at greater distance. The Macedonian phalanx was much less able to form a shield wall, but the lengthened spears would have compensated for this. Such a phalanx formation also reduces the likelihood that battles would degenerate into a pushing match.
See also Ancient Macedonian army
Each hoplite provided their own equipment. The primary hoplite weapon was a spear around 2.4 meters in length called a doru. Although accounts of its length vary, it is usually now believed to have been seven to nine feet long (~2.1 - ~2.7m). It was held one-handed, the other hand holding the hoplite's shield. The spearhead was usually a curved leaf shape, while the rear of the spear had a spike called a sauroter ('lizard-killer') which was used to stand the spear in the ground (hence the name). It was also used as a secondary weapon if the main shaft snapped, or for the rear ranks to finish off fallen opponents as the phalanx advanced over them. It is a matter of contention among historians whether the hoplite used the spear overarm or underarm. Held underarm, the thrusts would have been less powerful but under more control, and vice versa. It seems likely that both motions were used, depending on the situation. If attack was called for, an overarm motion was more likely to break through an opponent's defense. The upward thrust is more easily deflected by armour due to its lesser leverage. However, when defending, an underarm carry absorbed more shock and could be 'couched' under the shoulder for maximum stability. It should also be said that an overarm motion would allow more effective combination of the aspis and doru if the shield wall had broken down, while the underarm motion would be more effective when the shield had to be interlocked with those of one's neighbours in the battle-line. Hoplites in the rows behind the lead would almost certainly have made overarm thrusts. The rear ranks held their spears underarm, and raised spears upwards at increasing angles. This was an effective defence against missiles, deflecting their force.
Hoplites also carried a short sword called a xiphos. The short sword was a secondary weapon, used if and when spears broke.A hoplite typically wore a bronze breastplate, a bronze helmet with cheekplates, as well as greaves and other armour. Hoplites carried a circular shield called an aspis (often referred to as a hoplon) made from wood and covered in bronze, measuring roughly 1 meter in diameter. This medium-sized shield (and indeed, large for the time) was made possible partly by its dish-like shape, which allowed it to be supported with the rim on the shoulder. It spanned from chin to knee and was very heavy (8-15 kg).
The sarissa was the spear used by the Ancient Macedonian army. The actual length of the sarissa is now unknown, but apparently it was twice as long as the doru. This makes it at least 14 feet (~4.3m), but 18 (~5.5m) appears more likely. (The cavalry xyston was 12.5 feet (~3.8m) by comparison.) The great length of the spear was balanced by a counterweight at the rear end, which also function as butt-spike, allowing the sarissa to be planted into the ground. Due to its great length, weight and different balance, a sarissa was wielded two-handed. This meant that the aspis was no longer a practical defense. Instead, the phalangites strapped a smaller pelte shield (usually reserved for light skirmishers - peltasts) to their left forearm. Although this reduced the shield wall, the extreme length of the spear prevented most enemies from closing, as the spears of the first three to five ranks could all be brought to bear in front of the front row. This spear had to be held underhand, as the shield would have obscured the soldier's vision had it been held overhead. It would also be very hard to remove a sarissa from anything it stuck in (the earth, shields, and soldiers of the opposition) if it were thrust downwards, due to its length.
The basic combat element of the Greek armies was the stoichis or stoichos (meaning "rank") or enomotia (meaning "sworn") 16 to 25 men strong, led by a dekadarchos who was assisted by a dimoirites and two dekasteroi (sing. dekasteros). Four to a maximum of 32 enomotiai (depending on the era in question or the city) were forming a lochos led by a lochagos, who in this way was in command of initially 100 hoplites to a maximum of c.a 500 in the late Hellenistic armies. A taxis (mora for the Spartans) was the greatest standard hoplitic formation of 500 to 1500 men, led by a strategos (general). The entire army, a total of several taxeis or morae was led by a generals' council. In the later, commander-in-chief was a polemarchos (democracies) where a single dissent was almost equivalent of a veto or a strategos autokrator (tyrannies and democratic coalitions) or a king (kingdoms).
Hoplite phalanxes usually deployed in ranks of 8 men or more deep; The Macedonian phalanxes were often up to a maximum of 16 men deep. There are some notable exceptions; for instance, at the battles of Leuctra and Mantinea, the Theban general Epaminondas arranged the left wing of the phalanx into a "hammerhead" of 50 ranks of elite hoplites deep (see below).
The phalanx depth, however, could vary depending on the needs, and the generals' plans. While the phalanx was in march, an eis bathos formation (loose) was adopted in order to move more freely and maintain order. This was also the initial battle formation as, in addition, permitted friendly units to pass through either assaulting or retreating. In this status, the phalanx had double depth than the normal and each hoplite had to occupy about 1.8-2m in width (6-7ft). When enemy infantry was approaching, a rapid swich to the pykne formation (tight) was necessary. In that case, each man's space was cut in half (0.9-1m or 3ft in width) and the formation depth was turning on normal. But if the phalanx was experiencing extra pressure, intense missile volleys or frontal cavalry charges, an instant swich to the synaspismos formation (ultra tight) was obligatory. In synaspismos the rank depth was half of the normal and the width each men occupied was as less as 0.45m (1.5ft)
Several stages in hoplite combat can be defined:
Ephodos: The hoplites stop singing their paeanes (battle hymns) and move towards the enemy, gradually picking up pace and momentum. In the instants before impact war cries would be made.
Krousis: The opposing phalanxes meet each other almost simultaneously along their front. The promachoe (the front-liners) had to be physically and psychologically fit to sustain and survive the clash.
Doratismos: Repeated, rapid spear thrusts in order to disrupt the enemy formation.
Othismos: Litteraly "pushing" after the most spears have broken, the hoplites begin to push with their large shields and use their secondary weapon, the sword. This could be the longest phase.
Pararrhexis: "Breaching" the opposing phalanx, the enemy formation shatters and the battle ends.
The early history of the phalanx is largely one of combat between hoplite armies from competing Greek city-states. The usual result was rather identical, inflexible formations pushing against each other until one broke. The potential of the phalanx to achieve something more was demonstrated at Battle of Marathon (490 BC). Facing the much larger army of Darius I, the Athenians thinned out their phalanx and consequently lengthened their front, to avoid being outflanked. However, even a reduced-depth phalanx proved unstoppable to the lightly armed Persian infantry. After routing the Persian wings, the hoplites on the Athenian wings wheeled inwards, destroying the elite troop at the Persian centre, resulting in a crushing victory for Athens. Throughout the Greco-Persian Wars the hoplite phalanx was to prove superior to the Persian infantry (e.g. The battles of Thermopylae and Plataea).
Perhaps the most prominent example of the phalanx's evolution was the oblique advance, made famous in the Battle of Leuctra. There, the Theban general Epaminondas thinned out the right flank and center of his phalanx, and deepened his left flank to an unheard-of 50 men deep. In doing so, Epaminondas reversed the convention by which the right flank of the phalanx was strongest. This allowed the Thebans to assault in strength the elite Spartan troops on the right flank of the opposing phalanx. Meanwhile, the centre and right flank of the Theban line were echeloned back, from the opposing phalanx, keeping the weakened parts of the formation from being engaged. Once the Spartan right had been routed by the Theban left, the remainder of the Spartan line also broke. Thus by localising the attacking power of the hoplites, Epaminondas was able to defeat an enemy previously thought invincible.
Philip II of Macedon spent several years in Thebes as a hostage, and paid attention to Epaminondas' innovations. Upon return to his homeland, he raised an revolutionary new infantry force, which was to change the face of the Greek world. Phillip's phalangites were the first force of professional soldiers seen in Ancient Greece apart from Sparta. They were armed with longer spears and were drilled more thoroughly in more evolved, complicated tactics and manoeuvers. More importantly, though, Phillip's phalanx was part of a multi-faceted, combined force that included a variety of skirmishers and cavalry, most notably the famous Companion cavalry. The Macedonian phalanx now was used to pin the center of the enemy line, while cavalry and more mobile infantry struck at the foe's flanks. Its supremacy over the more static armies fielded by the Greek city-states was shown the Battle of Chaeronea, where Philip II's army crushed the allied Theban and Athenian phalanxes.
The Hoplite Phalanx was weakest when facing an enemy fielding lighter and more flexible troops without its own such supporting troops. An example of this would be the Battle of Lechaeum, where an Athenian contingent led by Iphicrates routed an entire Spartan mora (a unit of anywhere from 500 to 900 hoplites). The Athenian force had a considerable proportion of light missile troops armed with javelins and bows which wore down the Spartans with repeated attacks, causing disarray in the Spartan ranks and an eventual rout when they spotted Athenian heavy infantry reinforcements trying to flank them by boat.
The Macedonian Phalanx had weaknesses similar to its hoplitic predecessor. Theoretically indestructible from the front, its flanks and rear were very vulnerable, and once engaged it could probably not easily disengage or redeploy to face a threat from those directions. Thus, a phalanx facing non-phalangite formations required some sort of protection on its flanks--lighter or at least more mobile infantry, cavalry, etc. This was shown at the Battle of Magnesia, where, once the Seleucid supporting infantry elements were driven off, the phalanx was helpless against its Roman opponents.
The Macedonian phalanx could also lose its cohesion while moving through broken terrain; doing so could create gaps between individual blocks/syntagmata, or could prevent a solid front within those sub-units as well, causing other sections of the line to bunch up. In this event, as in the Battle of Pydna, the phalanx became vulnerable to attacks by more flexible units--such as Roman legionary centuries, which were able to avoid the sarissae and engage in hand-to-hand combat with the phalangites.
Finally, most of the phalanx-centric armies tended to lack supporting echelons behind the main line of battle. This meant that breaking through the line of battle or compromising one of its flanks often ensured victory.
After reaching its zenith in the conquests of Alexander the Great, the phalanx as a military formation began a slow decline, mirrored by the decline in the Macedonian successor states themselves. The combined arms tactics used by Alexander and his father were gradually replaced by a return to the simpler frontal charge tactics of the hoplite phalanx.
The decline of the diadochi and the phalanx was inextricably linked with the rise of Rome and the Roman Legion, from the 3rd century BCE. The Romans had originally fought in a phalanx formation themselves, but gradually evolved more flexible tactics, resulting in the familiar Legion. Rome would eventually conquer all the Macedonian successor states, and the various Greek city-states and leagues. These territories were incorporated into the Roman Republic, and since the Hellenic states which had ceased to exist, so did the armies which had traditional used the phalanx formation. Subsequently, troops raised from these regions by the Romans would have been equipped and fought in line with the Roman system.
There must remain some question as to whether the phalanx was actually obsolete by the end of its history. In some of the major battles between the Roman Army and Hellenistic phalanxes, Pydna (168 BCE), Cynoscephalae (197 BCE) and Magnesia (190 BCE), the phalanx performed relatively well against the legionaries, initially driving the roman infantry back. However, at Cynoscephalae and Magnesia, failure to defend the flanks of the Phalanx led to defeat; whilst at Pydna, the loss of cohesion of the Phalanx when pursuing the retreating Roman soldiers allowed the Romans to penetrate into the phalanx, where their close combat skills proved decisive.
Spear-armed troops continued to be important elements in many armies until the advent of reliable firearms, but did not fight in the manner of a phalanx. A meaningful comparison can be made between the phalanx and late medieval pike formations. However tactically (being primarily used as an anti-cavalry formation) and organisationally the latter are clearly distinct from the Hellenic phalanx.
Backstory: In Greece, the culture of protest; From nuns on strike to grenades in the ambassador's bathroom, a squall at the cradle of democracy.(FEATURES)(CURRENTS)
Jan 29, 2007; Byline: Nicole Itano Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor ATHENS -- I was just a few blocks from home earlier this...