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Post feature RSS The History and Evolution of the Hellenic Phalanx

The Phalanx is easily one of the most recognizable military formations in history. But the phalanx changed and adapted overtime, as did the equipment, weaponry, and even the men who fought in these formations. In this article we will chronicle the history of the phalanx, its arms and armor, and the men who fought in it from roughly 700 to 323 BC. This article was one of many Christmas gifts in 2007.

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The Phalanx is easily one of the most recognizable military formations in history. But the phalanx changed and adapted overtime, as did the equipment, weaponry, and even the men who fought in these formations. In this article we will chronicle the history of the phalanx, its arms and armor, and the men who fought in it from roughly 700 to 323 BC.

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The rise of the phalanx was tied to a revolution in Hellas. Around 700 BC Hellas was beginning to emerge from the Hellenic Dark Age. The long recovery from the catastrophic collapse of Mycenae had begun. The primary force behind this revival was the rise of the polis, plural poleis, the City-State. These poleis triggered a political and cultural revolution in Hellas, and it was only fitting that a similar military revolution went with it. Up to this point warfare in Hellas had remained unchanged since the days of Mycenae, a ‘heroic’ free-for-all with no sense of order. Argos changed all this with the introduction of the aspis or hoplon shield. The new shield was round, like previous shields, but far larger and with a pronounced convex and reinforced rim. It also did away with the old central handgrip, replacing it with an arm band that was fastened to the left forearm. Pieces of rope were affixed to the rim as a handgrip. From this was born the phalanx and a new soldier, the hoplitai. Meaning “One who is Equipped for War” the name of these soldiers fit nicely with what they were. The hoplitai were not full-time warriors or professionals, but members of the well-to-do middle class who could afford to buy or import the full panoply. This was a military innovation never before seen; the age of the citizen-soldier had begun.Argos would go on to use their invention to maximum effect, taking advantage of the rest of Hellas. By 669Pheidon, the Argive king and the first man to use the phalanx to its full potential had achieved near total hegemony over Hellas. Once knowledge on how to make the aspis shield became widely known all of the poleisbegan to form their own bodies of hoplitai soldiery. Argos had changed the face of Hellas and war forever.

Much about these early hoplitai and their phalanx was transitional. Much has already been said about the revolutionary aspis shield, but more must be said. These shields were made from a core of oak wood. Fittings were added on the inside of the shield with nails and hammered flat on the front side of the shield. The rim of the shield was then reinforced with a sheet of pre-made beaten bronze. Decoration was embossed onto the bronze in a guilloche pattern. The wooden part of the shield was painted over, usually with geometric shapes, plain color, or a family badge. The chief body armor of the period was the bronze, so called bell cuirass. The armor earned its name from the bell-shaped flange at the waist. Sparse etchings following the natural musculature of the body accounted for decoration. Usually early hoplitai would wear nothing underneath the cuirass. Possibly as early as the Second Messenian War the wearing of tunics had been adopted by Sparta, and spread elsewhere. Groin protection, and for that matter any protection for the lower half of the body was not a consideration in the early stages of phalanx warfare. Quickly however the need for leg protection became obvious. In contrast to the plain cuirass the new greaves were highly decorated and stylized. The typical greave of this era went from below the knee to the ankle. Ankle armor was separate and some examples extended to cover the feet. Two additional pieces of the panoply of interest was the arm guard and limb guard. Arm guards were the most decorated part of the set, and hardly ever worn in battle. Limb guards were a legacy ofMycenaean armor, and made from leather. The last component of the full early panoply was the helmet. The two most popular helmet types used by the early hoplitai were the Illyrian and Corinthian styles. The Corinthianhowever was the style that would come to dominate Hellas until the 5th Century. A major flaw in these early helmets soon became clear, they completely blocked the ears. This could be a fatal nuisance in battle. It is believed today the famous horsehair crest that is associated with Greece nearly as much as Corinthian helmets started to appear by this time. Since hearing was made difficult, they used the crests as an easy identifier since no two hoplitai wore the same crest.

The weaponry of the early hoplitai is a matter of considerable debate. While we know a great deal about the panoply of the hoplitai throughout the history of the phalanx we cannot say the same for their weaponry. The original Argive hoplitai used two throwing spears in the Mycenaean fashion. According to the Spartan poetTyrtaios the phalanx of Sparta still used throwing spears as late as the 640s. Eventually these two spears were phased out as they proved more of a hindrance then an aid in phalanx fighting. The replacement was the doruor dory, a spear 9 feet long made from seasoned ash wood mounted with an iron spear point shaped like a leaf. A further innovation led to the mounting of a bronze butt-spike called the sauroter, or lizard-killer, on the opposite end of the spear. It was one-handed, thanks to the lightness of the ash wood. The sword of choice was the Naue II, which had existed in one form or the other since the Late Bronze Age. Roughly a little over 2 feet long the Naue II was a long lasting design. However the Hellenes were never fond of swords and the Naue IIwas judged too long to be of use. A later innovation would see the gradual shrinking of the design.

The original phalanx was progressive for its time. While period sources detailing the organization of the first phalanx are lacking we are able to reconstruct a reasonably accurate model from what we do know about later phalanx organization. The main building block of this phalanx and all future formations of this kind are called anenomotiai, plural enomotia. Each of these consisted of 23 hoplitai with two officers, the ouragos at the rear who kept order and made sure each man did his job, and the enomotarch who lead the unit. These two men were usually the most experienced soldiers in the unit. In battle the enomotiai would be drawn up in formation 3 files wide, each consisting of 8 men. The enomotarch would take position at the head of the file furthest to the right. Two enomotia comprised the next level unit: the pentekostys, plural pentekostyes. Each pentekostys was commanded by an officer called the pentekonter, who was chosen from the enomotarchs. The pentekonterfought at the head of the right-most file. Two pentekostyes made a lochos, plural lochoi. The lochos of this period is technically called the archaic lochos, and it is from this unit that all phalanx formations derive. The total size of an archaic lochos was of 100 men drawn up into 12 files 8 men deep. The commanding officer was called the lochagos. How a lochagos was chosen from the two pentekonters is unknown. What we do know is the lochagos, like all officers, fought at the head of the right most file of the formation. Because he couldn’t control the entire lochos from that position the remaining pentekonter had control of the left side of the formation. While individual details in numbers and officer function vary between the poleis the basic organization given here is true for all of Hellas. Some famous battles of this period were Hysiai, where Argossmashed Sparta, and Deres, the battle which ignited the Second Messenian War.

Within a century the hoplitai were king of the field. By the time the 6th century dawned the phalanx had come to completely dominate. As the last vestiges of the Dark Age faded away and the Hellenes spread out in every direction in a great migration boom the first signs of the golden age of Hellas began to show. This century is most characterized, at least militarily, as the last in which the Hellenes would war near exclusively with themselves and as the first time the phalanx would meet a style of warfare alien to it. The Ionian colonies inAsia Minor provide the best example as the phalanx proved hard-pressed to fight effectively against the Lydiansand later towards the end of the century the Persians. But despite this the reputation of these ‘Men of Bronze’ as they were so called spread far and wide. When Amasis II of Egypt, the last great native Pharaoh, came to power he based the might of Egypt on the backs of his hoplitai mercenaries. Another example is that of theEtruscans and other Italics near the Hellenic colonies of Megale Hellas, who took to phalanx warfare enthusiastically. In Hellas itself the hegemony of Argos was at last broken by Sparta early in the century, but the powerful polis bounced back and the long wars between the two powers continued. Argos’ weakening paved the way for a new structure of power. To the north Korinthos rose to a great position of power. While not inclined towards war the polis gained power by following a policy of trade, colonization, and the arts that paid back a hundredfold. Under the rule of Periandros the city of Korinthos became the preeminent city in southernHellas, fielding more hoplitai then any other power, as well as a formidable navy. Athenai began its rise to prominence in this century, starting with the reforms of the lawgiver Solon, the reign of his cousin and popular tyrant Peisitratos, and lastly the foundation and first years of the Athenian democracy. As the 6th Centurydrew to a close great change in phalanx warfare laid on the horizon as the great Achaemenid Empire turned its attention to the Hellenes and the beginning of the Ionian Revolt.

The classic arms and armor of the hoplitai would reach their peak in this century. For body armor the 6th Century was a time of changing styles. The original hoplitai armor, the bell cuirass, had by the end of the 7th Century proven to be inadequate for the changing demands of warfare. No changes were made to the aspiscuriously enough. However over the course of the first half of the 6th Century the bell cuirass went through several evolutions as advances in bronze-working allowed for extensive metalwork. The introduction of groin flaps, 8 bronze plates attached to the belt of the now standard tunic, solved a long-standing problem in hoplitaiprotection. By mid-century the bell cuirass had advanced to the point of near art. Instead of the musculature of the body being simply sketched onto the bronze the metal was beaten so it followed the musculature exactly. This armor is called the muscled cuirass for this reason. Although a derivative of the bell cuirass the muscled cuirass lacked the distinctive flange at the waist that gave the earlier armor its name. Instead the muscled cuirass curved upwards at the sides and down over the abdomen, allowing for unrestricted hip movement and eliminating the need for groin flaps. Unfortunately the amount of work that went into the muscled cuirass made it more expensive then most hoplitai could afford. As a result the muscled cuirass became the domain of the more wealthy hoplitai and the generals, tyrants, and kings that led the armies of Hellas. As a result the linen corselet became the new armor of choice. The linen corselet had existed since Mycenaean times, but never caught on until the mid 6th Century. The linen corselet was light, durable, and easy to produce in large numbers and adjust. It was also long, extending all the way down to the hips. Another advantage was the flexibility of the material. Altogether the linen corselet quickly soared to a level of popularity that was before unheard-of. The leg greaves of this era retained their previous levels of decoration and were extended far enough to cover both the knee and part of the ankle. Ankle armor was phased out about the same time as the linen corselet first appeared. Arm and limb guards were also phased out by the end of the century. As for the helmets the Illyrian continued to decline in popularity until only a few poleis still used it. The Corinthian type continued to be popular in this period but also began to decline as the problems it caused in hearing proved to be fatal. While the type experienced a major boost in popularity in cap form among the Italics, in Hellas proper adjustments were underway. The Chalcidian helmet was the result of this tinkering. With the Chalcidian helmet the hearing problem was solved, since the helmet did not cover the ears. As a result a revolution in phalanx tactics based on shouted commands and musical cues could now take place. The helmet crests also reached the height of their flamboyancy during this period, resulting in wild color combinations.

The weapons of the hoplitai now assumed their familiar form. At the beginning of the 6th Century the two throwing spears of Mycenae disappeared and the doru took its place as the primary weapon of phalanx fighting. The standardization of the materials and techniques used in the making of the doru led to widespread and easy construction. The chief innovation in weaponry in this period was in sword making. In the 6th Century the Naue II was phased out by the Hellenes and replaced by three new swords. The direct descendent of the Naue II was the xiphos, a short double-edged leaf shaped sword a little more then 1 foot long. In contrast to the longerNaue II the xiphos was the perfect weapon for phalanx fighting as in the melee that followed the breaking of the doru the xiphos was short enough to be used effectively. Alongside the xiphos were two similar recurved (forward curving) swords, the kopis and makhaira. The kopis was the direct descendent of the Egyptian khopesh sickle-sword. It was forward heavy and effective in the breaking of armor and helmets once enough momentum has been built up. The famous Iberian falcata sword was derived from the kopis. The makhaira was also a recurved sword but its curve was not nearly as great as that of the kopis. Neither sword was as popular as the xiphos, although the kopis would become widespread with the Spartans for some time and the makhairabecame a cavalry sword.

The phalanx formations of this period were not much changed from the previous era. By the 6th Century thearchaic lochos was still in use all over Hellas. The primary change in phalanx organization in this era was anAthenian innovation, that of the taxis, plural taxies. The taxis was roughly equivalent to the modern division and usually contained 1,000 men or 10 lochoi drawn up 30 files wide, 8 deep. The Athenian army was organized along the same lines as Athenian society that is by clan. Each of the 4 clans maintained its own taxis, which when not called up to serve the state was used to carry out vendettas between the clans. With the foundation of the Athenian democracy the old clan system was abolished and replaced with 10 tribes drawn and formed from their location, not blood ties. In times of war a taxis was formed from each tribe. Theoretically this would giveAthenai a miltary strength of 10,000 hoplitai, but the polis lacked the wealth to field such a force and Athenianstrength was in reality more like 3,000. Each taxis was led by the most senior soldier in the ranks, who was made taxiarch. The success of the Athenian system in conflict led to the wide spread adaptation of the taxis by the other poleis. Korinthos was one of the earliest non-Attic poleis to adopt the taxis as a formation, mainly to flaunt its wealth. Only a polis as wealthy as Korinthos could field 5 full taxies (that is 5,000 hoplitai) on a whim. Famous phalanx battles of this period include the 1st and 2nd Battle of the Promachoi, two battles betweenArgos and Sparta, and the Battle of Sybaris in Megale Hellas, in which Kroton destroyed Sybaris.

Now begins the Golden Age of Hellas. The 5th Century BC was the Hellenes’ brightest century, the glorious age when Classical Hellas came to full bloom. This is also the age of change for the hoplitai and phalanx warfare as the foes that they faced forced a complete reworking of how the Hellenes understood war. Almost from the get-go the Hellenes became embroiled in a war with the world’s first superpower: Achaemenid Persia. The Persian Wars began when the tyrant Aristagoras of Miletos in Ionia rose in revolt against Achaemenid rule, taking all ofIonia with him. For their part the Persians did not want make war on the poleis of Hellas, but only committed themselves to doing so after a combined Ionian-Athenian-Eretrian army burned the satrapal capital of Sardis to the ground in 498. The resulting war in Ionia was a humiliating defeat for the Hellenes and demonstrated thehoplitai, as he currently was, was not equal to the task of taking on the Achaemenid military. Up to this point the hoplitai had been the undisputed master of the field with little to no attention being paid to either cavalry or archers. The Persians on the other hand were masters of combined arms, using all three branches in tandem, even with their naval forces when appropriate. Clearly the Hellenes had to adapt to the changing face of war and quickly. In 490 the Persians followed up on their victory in Ionia by launching an expedition into mainlandHellas. At Marathon Athenai was able to win a great victory over the Persians by using a quick run in formation to close the distances between the lines, thus forcing the Persians into a melee which the Hellenes could win.Marathon was an important lesson for the Hellenes. From this point on the ability to run, in armor, while keeping in formation became one of the important courses in hoplitai training (the proper name for this course is hoplitodromos, ‘Running in Armor’). Following the battle the Persians withdrew and with the death of Darius the Great in 485 the Hellenes received much needed breathing room. Athenai and Sparta both took advantage of the calm to prepare for what was to come. In 480 Xerxes, son of Darius launched a full-scale invasion ofHellas after nearly 3 years of preparation. The battles that followed have become the stuff of legends and popular myth. The fabled battle of Thermopylae is well-known to all, but the true importance of the battle, from the standpoint of the military evolution of the phalanx, was that it reinforced the lesson of Ionia and Marathon. While Salamis was a naval battle it is often used as the benchmark to measure the effectiveness of the so-called sea hoplitai, the shipboard marines that so far only Korinthos and Athenai used. After Salamis these marines became widely popular with the naval powers of Hellas. At Plataia or Plataea the Hellenes, though divided by their own petty squabbles, were able to successfully defeat the Persians through the mastered tactic of running into the Persian line, defeating them in close combat. Following this battle and its twin naval victory at Mykale the Persians abandoned Hellas and began to retreat. The Hellenes followed them, starting an extended period of warfare between the poleis and Persia that lasted from 478 to 449. After the Peace of Kallias was signed Hellas settled into an uneasy peace, but it was not to last. For the development of thehoplitai the next most important date was the decade of the 440s. In this decade the Delian League, formed byAthenai during the last phase of the Persian Wars, attempted to colonize the Strymon Valley in Thrace. This brought the Delian League into direct contact with the Thracians for the first time in a hostile environment and proved to be a massive shock. The Thracians did not fight like either the Persians or the Hellenes and their unique method of warfare made it almost impossible for a hoplitai to catch them. The first innovation that resulted from contact with Thrace was the adoption by the Hellenes of Thracian dress. It was not uncommon to see Hellenic psiloi (the light infantry) dressed like Thracian peltast infantry. But this didn’t solve the league’s problems with the Thracians. So they began to choose the youngest and most fit hoplitai in the formation to drop their cuirass or corselet and greaves so at a prearranged signal they could run out and catch the Thracian peltasts. Without the weight of the armor the young men would be able to run fast enough to catch up to the fleet-footed Thracians. These new soldiers were called ekdromoi, the ‘Runners-Out’. The advent of the ekdromoiby the Delian League coincided with a similar revolution in the Peloponnesos. For there the Spartans had dropped armor entirely in favor of a new tunic called the exomis. This new tunic was quickly adopted acrossHellas, and with the introduction of the ekdromoi a radical revolution in phalanx warfare had begun, one geared for speed and complex maneuvers.

The stage was set for the next phase of hoplitai evolution: the Peloponnesian War. When the inevitable conflict between the Delian League of Athenai and the Peloponnesian League of Sparta began in the later phase of the5th Century the hoplitai and phalanx warfare had been reconstructed from the ground up. Cavalry, archers, skirmishers, and slingers had all become branches of major importance in warfare. In contrast to the beliefs of the beginning of the century, when soldiers of those kinds were looked down on with scorn, by now they were integral pieces in the army of all self-respecting poleis. The hoplitai was no longer king of the battlefield, and combined arms tactics would be that which won the day. Despite this the phalanx was still the center of all tactical and strategical considerations, and despite the newfound importance of the mounted and light infantry arms there was still a certain air of snobbishness towards them. Standardized equipment handed out and paid for by the state instead of being paid for by the individual hoplitai started during this period. This was a long hard process as the personal natural of each man’s armor and weapons formed a large part of the phalanx psyche. The largest hoplitai battle of war and the largest such battle in the history of Hellas to that point was the First Battle of Mantinea in 418. One of the major innovations of the Peloponnesian War was the enlarging scope of warfare. Up to this point phalanx warfare had been decided by a single decisive battle or a series of battles all driving for that decisive engagement, all with the aim of ending the fighting as quickly as possible. With the beginning of the Peloponnesian War this changed, a single battle was no longer enough to end the fighting. It was no longer simply just a matter of forcing the enemy to fight you in the field and leave his city alone. Now it was necessary to attack the enemy indirectly as well, to drag into the conflict the civilians of the enemy state. This was called the ‘strategy of devastation’. The Spartans and their allies were the first masters of this strategy and used it to full effect against the Delian League. Marching north after their own harvest season (since harvest came early in southern Hellas) the Peloponnesian League could catch their enemies’ right in the middle of their own harvest. And by devastating the countryside starve them out and bring the misery of war to their civilians. King Archidamos II of Sparta used the ‘strategy of devastation’ in the opening stages of the Peloponnesian War when he laid the entire Plain of Acharnae, the breadbasket of Attika, to waste. TheAcharnians demanded that Athenai respond immediately, but Perikles calmed them down and settled in behind the great Long Walls of Athenai. As the war dragged on the ‘strategy of devastation’ was gradually expanded in meaning, encompassing not only the destruction of farmland and plains but also the devastation of the populace itself. The events at the island of Melos proved this when the Athenians killed all the Melian hoplitai and then all non serving males, selling the women and children into slavery. The Peloponnesian War ended, fittingly, in 404 BC not by the victory of hoplitai arms alone, but by both the phalanx and a naval victory at Aigospotamoi the year before. In the closing years of the 5th Century it was clear the previous 100 years had been the most momentous in the history of the hoplitai and the phalanx, if not the entirety of the Hellenic world.

The armor of the hoplitai underwent a drastic reformation during this period. The 5th Century BC was the century of greatest change for the hoplitai especially in terms of equipment. The first change was in the aspisshield itself. For one the convex of the shield was made deeper, which made it easier to carry as the inside edge could rest snuggly onto the hoplitai’s left shoulder, taking most of the weight off the arm. Great advances in bronze-working allowed for the entire aspis to be covered with bronze instead of just the rim. As it did with the rim the new total bronze covering give the aspis shield a great boost in rigidity, effectively eliminating the previous model’s buckle. Decoration design reached the height of form during the 5th Century as the bronze layer of the shield allowed for designs to be painted much more smoothly then on wood. The designs became increasingly elaborate over the years, though towards the end there emerged a standardized pattern betweenpoleis. For example Athenai used the letter Alpha in their shield designs, Sparta used the letter Lambda, andArgos used a golden hydra, Thebes used the Club of Herakles, Korinthos used the Pegasus, and lastly Krotonused the Delphic tripod. Of course actual standardization dates to the 4th Century but has its roots in the later years of the 5th. For body armor the 5th Century is characterized by an increasing trend towards lightness, and eventually armor was abandoned altogether by mid century. Metal armor was replaced by tunics, of which three types we will discuss here. The first type was called the chitoniskos. The original tunic (chiton) first introduced during the 7th Century was thick and heavy though it provided much needed protection and comfort underneath the bell cuirass, muscled cuirass, and linen corselet. With the lightening of armor the chiton was lightened as well. This new model was called the chitoniskos and was made from linen and was light. It enjoyed its greatest popularity during the Persian Wars. The second type and arguably most popular was the exomis, aSpartan design. Previously the exomis was used by workmen and made from thick wool. What made the design so attractive from a military standpoint was the fact the exomis had false sleeves. What this meant was that the wearer could undo the seam on either side of the tunic and the ‘sleeve’ would fall down underneath the armpit. When Sparta dropped body armor following the Third Messenian War they adopted the exomis as the new tunic of choice. The military exomis was made from linen instead of wool, giving protective qualities to the tunic, and dyed Spartan red. When going on campaign the Spartans would loosen the right seam on the tunic, giving their right shoulder and arm unrestricted movement. The exomis was soon copied across Hellas in various colors. The other tunic from this period is the perizoma. The perizoma was originally a heavy blanket like ‘apron’ that was attached to the lower rim of the aspis shield during the Persian Wars or fastened onto the belt of the chiton worn underneath either the muscled cuirass or linen corselet. The material, which has been lost in time, was seemingly quite thick and could catch arrows and other missiles. The result was that after theThracian expeditions the perizoma was transformed into a tunic that became the official body armor of theekdromoi light hoplitai. For the leg greaves the 5th Century marked the end of their heavy decoration and from this century on they simply followed the musculature of the leg. The greaves would fall out of favor following the mass shift towards light armor in the 450s-440s but we know that at least some hoplitai wore leg greaves as late as the Peloponnesian War. As for helmets the 5th Century marks the end of the Corinthian’sreign as the king of hoplitai headgear by the end of the Persian Wars, though the Spartans retained them for some time longer. For a time the Chalcidian helmet took its place as most popular helmet and further tinkering with the design resulted in the creation of the so-called Attic helmet, which was characterized by the lack of a nose guard. Following the Thracian expeditions a new helmet type, the Thracian, gained popularity because of its partial similarity the Thracian cap. By the start of the Peloponnesian War two new helmet types emerged: the Boeotian and the Pilos. The Boeotian helmet was based off the wide-brimmed traveling hat native toBoeotia. A unique feature of this helmet is the inclusion of straps. It gained popularity following the Persian Wars. The second type is the Pilos helmet. This helmet was based off the felt conical cap worn by helots inSparta. It was first used by the Spartans following the Third Messenian War around 450 and spread throughoutHellas.

Weaponry remained mostly unchanged. During the 5th Century the weapons used by the hoplitai did not undergo any drastic change, and for the most part remained the same as it did from the 6th Century. The only real changes would be the increased popularity of the kopis among many of the northern poleis, such asThespiae who maintained a unit called the melanochitones (the Black Cloaks) who were armed near exclusively with the kopis. Towards the end of the century, during the Peloponnesian War, Sparta developed a specialized extra short version of the xiphos. The Spartan xiphos was shorter then l foot long, a fact that was initially ridiculed by the Athenians and others. However the Spartans soon proved that their short xiphos enabled them to be able to maneuver more effectively during the melee.

Phalanx organization did not undergo many changes in this period. Similar to weaponry the basic organization of the hoplitai did not change much during the 5th Century, except in the case of Sparta. At least two different military reorganizations occurred in the 5th Century. Since at least the 7th Century the Spartan phalanx was formed from 5 ‘super lochoi’. Each of these numbered around 900, close to the number fielded by a taxis. The super lochoi were comprised of 30 triakades (singular triakas), which were essentially a regular enomotiai but with 30 hoplitai and officers instead of the regular 23. In addition while retaining the same width of a regularenomotiai the Spartan triakas was deeper, being 10 men deep instead of 8. This gave Sparta a military strength of 4,500 hoplitai altogether. But this changed at the start of the 5th Century. For unknown reasons thetriakas was dropped as the primary building block of the Spartan phalanx. It was replaced by an enlargedenomotiai and the pentekostys which altogether created a super lochoi with the strength of 1,000 hoplitai, giving Sparta a consistent strength of 5,000 hoplitai under arms. Unfortunately much of the details of this organizational structure have been lost. What we do know is that this marks the high tide of Spartan military strength, as never again would they be able to field such an impressive force. The second reorganization of theSpartan phalanx occurred the 450s, following both a devastating earthquake and the Third Messenian War. The new organization was comprised thus: An enomotiai was formed from 32 hoplitai in 4 files 8 men deep. 4enomotia formed a pentekostys of 128. 4 pentekostyes formed a full super lochos of 512 hoplitai organized into 64 files 8 men deep. Sparta still retained the same number of super lochoi, giving the Spartan state during thePeloponnesian War a total military strength of 2,560 hoplitai under arms. This was a drastic decline from the 5,000 hoplitai from the beginning of the century. The famous phalanx battles of this period are more numerous to mention. But to list two from each of the greatest wars of the period: From the Persian Wars, Marathon, were Athenai turned back Persia with clever tactics, and Plataia, were the Hellenes turned a disaster into a crowning victory. From the Peloponnesian War, the First and Second Battle of Syrakusai, where the strength ofAthenai was broken, and the First Battle of Mantinea, the greatest phalanx battle of the age.

The 4th Century was the last hurrah of the traditional phalanx and the hoplitai, and the beginning of something new. By the beginning of the 4th Century warfare in Hellas had changed considerably from the first days of the phalanx. The Peloponnesian War had just ended and for first time in Hellenic history the defeated had not immediately bounced back. The former Delian League was in shambles and Athenai was humiliated. Sparta and her Peloponnesian League were now in complete dominance of Hellas. But Sparta was never meant to be the all-conquering state and the strain of her empire soon broke the Lukourgon Constitution that governed the country. Without the famous rigidity which gave Sparta the strength the rest of Hellas so admired the Spartanslost all control and Hellas began to seethe against them. It reached the boiling point when one of the Spartankings, Agesilaos II, suddenly left Hellas to make war on his former ally Achaemenid Persia in 396, ostensibly on the behalf of the Ionian poleis. This was the last straw and in 395 Athenai, which had since restored its former government, made war on Sparta. Athenai found willing allies in Argos (which Sparta had nearly destroyed in the Persian Wars), Korinthos, and the Theban lead Boeotian League. For the hoplitai and for the phalanx in general this war, commonly called the Korinthian War, is important. Because it showed that so long as the phalanx remained in its current form then the continued hegemony of Sparta over Hellas was assured. It would take a radical change in the organization of the phalanx itself and the way in which battle was joined to finally break the Spartan hegemony. The little known Athenian reformer, the strategos (General) Iphikratesattempted this with an experimental lochos of hoplitai equipped with both his traditional arms and those of apeltast. In 390 Iphikrates used his hybrid peltast-hoplitai formation to defeat a Spartan force on the field. But the so called Iphikratean reforms never gained much popularity outside Athenai, and even then they were not common. The Korinthian War ended in 387 with the famous King’s Peace or koine eirene (Common Peace) which stopped all the fighting and reaffirmed Sparta’s hegemony, but this time in the terms as Hellas’Peacekeeper, with Achaemenid backing. Thus strengthened Sparta continued as the hegemon of Hellas, but their hegemony would never be undisputed. In 379 the uneasy peace was broken once again when Thebanexiles led by the distinguished politician Pelopidas with Athenian support retook control of Thebes from theSpartan garrison in the Kadmeia (the Theban acropolis). From there Thebes was able to quickly reform the oldBoeotian League into a solid federation, a first in Hellenic history. In 375 the Boeotians did the impossible when they, at the battle of Tegyra, defeated a Spartan formation in pitched battle. But the battle was small and the outcome not enough to force a change in Hellas. The true decisive battle did not come until 371 BC, at Leuktra. The Battle of Leuktra has been called one of the most important battles in history, and rightly so. At this battle the Boeotians, led by the rising military star Epaminondas and Pelopidas used revolutionary tactics and unheard-of formations to finally bring Sparta to its knees. In traditional hoplitai battle the best troops; usually alochos strong, that a polis could field was always put on the right most position of the phalanx. These elitelochoi never faced one another at the crashing of the aspis and breaking of the doru because they always faced the opposite sides’ weaker left wing. Epaminondas however did the opposite. He put his hoplitai and the best troops, the Theban hieros lochos (Sacred Band) on the left wing of his army, so they faced the best Spartantroops directly. The hieros lochos was no regular formation however, being deeper then any lochoi in existence at the time. When the battle was joined Epaminondas sent the left wing, which resembled a giant slope, lead by the hieros lochos, forward against the Spartan elite. At the same time he began pulling his right and center back, achieving the first known instance of the oblique order. The victory at Leuktra broke the back of Spartaforever, and never again was Sparta to achieve hegemony over Hellas. The Boeotian League would then go on to take the offensive into the Peloponnesos itself. In the Peloponnesian campaign the Boeotian League madeSparta’s defeat total, destroying the Spartans’ alliance of poleis, creating the Arkadian League, liberating thehelots and rebuilding Messene. As the final measure the Boeotians employed the ‘strategy of devastation’ in the farmlands and plains of Lakonia itself. In little over a decade the Boeotian League had practically turned Hellasupside down.

The new Theban hegemony had begun. By the dawn of the 360s the underdog of Hellas, the previously reviledBoeotians had become the new masters of the peninsula. The federated Boeotian League had achieved a new hegemony, and the influence of Thebes was felt across Hellas. The man who had masterminded it all wasEpaminondas, by now widely acknowledged as the greatest strategic and tactical genius of the age. Perhaps one of the greatest, if not most understated, influences of Epaminondas was that he effectively brought back armor and helmets into style. His tactics on the field of battle caused the other poleis of Hellas to seriously reconsider the direction that they had gone in the 5th Century. The steadily increasing importance of cavalry, which played a vital role at Leuktra, and that of archers and other missile troops in the Boeotian armies, necessitated a return to more practical armor. The Boeotian League was quickly proving itself to be revolutionary in all fields, and it is believed today the Boeotian League may be the first Hellenic state to have attempted true combined arms tactics, however crude they have been. Before long the great poleis of Hellasbegan to resent the Theban hegemony nearly as much as they did the Spartan hegemony before them. Throughout the 360s the allies of the Boeotian League turned against them, even those poleis and alliances theBoeotians had themselves set up. In 362 the Second Battle of Mantinea, the largest hoplitai battle in history, took place with every major power in Hellas taking part either for or against the Boeotians. Epaminondas won the battle with the same revolutionary tactics and marching order that won Leuktra, but lost his life so doing. With Epaminondas dead the Boeotian League could not maintain control and Hellas fractured once more. Within another decade a new force would overtake Hellas and establish hegemony, but not from within Hellas but from without.

The age of Makedon had come. Until recently Philippos II of Makedon had not been fully credited for what he created, the complete tearing down and restructuring of the Hellenic military and Hellenic military thought.Philippos II did away with the old phalanx in its entirety, did away with the hoplitai and nearly all of his equipment, and fashioned from what little remained something new. While a young man Philippos had been held hostage by the Boeotian League and was taken in and perhaps even taught by Epaminondas himself. He was present during a majority of the Theban hegemony. However he was not there at either Leuktra or SecondMantinea. Nevertheless the young prince absorbed the lessons that both those battles taught, and took them to heart. When he became virtual King of Makedon, his title being actually Regent, in 360 he put those lessons to practical use. But Philippos II did not copy the Boeotian tactics and their new phalanx; he used them as the basis for a new kind of soldier and a new tactical formation of his own design. Philippos imposed a stern and regimented set of laws on the previously undisciplined Makedonian infantry first, and then he started to reform them into a fighting machine. The result of this reformation was the creation of the phalangitai, meaning “Phalanx Soldier”. The best of the phalangitai was raised by Philippos later in life to the dignity of pezhetairoi, meaning “Foot Companion”. The new soldiers received new equipment from armor and shields to weapons. Unlike the hoplitai that he superseded, the phalangitai was not a product of the well to do middle class that bought his own kit, or the state equipped and trained citizen levy of later Hellas. But a full professional soldier whose career was the army in which he served and continued in the army until he retired or was killed. The basic formation of the phalangitai was called the syntagma, a formation different to the traditional lochoi based phalanx of Hellas proper. What was probably the greatest difference between the phalanx and the syntagmawas the syntagma was never meant to win a battle alone, like the phalanx was. But was meant to be the ‘anvil’ that held the enemy army in place so the cavalry, the ‘hammer’, could strike the enemy and defeat him. No part of the Makedonian army could win battles alone; all arms had to work together to achieve victory. This was the essence of the Makedonian art of war. When political turmoil in Hellas between the Boeotian Leagueand the city of Phokis resulted in the Third Sacred War Philippos entered Hellas for the first time. In 345, with the end of the Third Sacred War, Philippos of Makedon had become de facto hegemon of Hellas. In 338 at the Battle of Chaironeia he made his hegemony de jure as well by defeating the last ditch attempt by Athenai andThebes to delay the inevitable. Chaironeia proved the old phalanx was inadequate, and that a new age ofHellenic warfare had begun. In 337 Philippos II created the Korinthian League, made himself hegemon, and effectively fulfilled the dream of a unified Hellenic world. Philippos II was assassinated a year later by a disgruntled former guard. In 336 the leadership of Hellas and command of Philippos’ greatest legacy, the new army he created, passed to his teenage son: Alexandros III. Over the course of the next several yearsAlexandros took his father’s army and lead it like never before. It was on the backs of the elite pezhetairoi thatAlexandros conquered the known world, and became Megas Alexandros, Alexander the Great. But when the conqueror died in 323 the leadership that made the pezhetairoi the best infantry in the world died with him. His successors, the diadochi, misused the syntagma and lead them like one would lead the old hoplitai phalanx. From the empires of the diadochi the fame of the phalangitai spread and became adopted by other powers in the Mediterranean. Kart-Hadasht, mighty Carthage, maintained the best of the imitation phalangitai. Unsupported the phalangitai were practically useless and the preeminence that they enjoyed passed to the soldiers of the Roman legio, and remained with them for centuries.

Armored protection was revitalized in the 4th Century. In terms of equipment for the hoplitai the 4th Centurywas the last gasp, while for his successor the phalangitai their equipment was mixed. The aspis shield did not go under any further evolutions in this century and remained unchanged. However the decoration did change as the individual poleis began to hand out standardized kits to their hoplitai with the chosen emblem of the polispainted on the shield. However some individual shields with custom designs still existed, though rare. The shield of choice for the phalangitai actually depended on the situation. In most normal circumstances the shield of choice was the small round shield called the peltai, so called because it resembled the shield carried by theThracians that gave peltasts their name. But unlike the Thracian shield, the peltai was fully round, not crescent shaped. Like the aspis shield the peltai was convex, but the convex of the peltai was not so deeply pronounced as either version of the aspis. Like the 5th Century aspis the peltai was covered by a layer of bronze. Later in time during the Indian Campaign Alexander rewarded his best veterans by adding a layer of silver to their shields, hence their later names: the argyraspidai, the ‘Silver Shields’. A unique feature of the peltai shield was the lack of a rim. The reason was the phalangitai could not handle his weaponry using a rimmed shield. This naturally raises many questions about how the peltai was held. It was held by use of an arm band that was fastened onto the arm. It also had a handgrip, but this was used only when fighting out of the formation. For fighting in formation a strap hung on the neck was used. The neck strap performed the same function as the rim on the aspis; it took the weight of the equipment off the soldier. Decoration on the peltai shield chiefly took the form of embossing or engraving onto the metal. Painted work is not uncommon either. Since these shields were made by the Makedonian state, the emblem of choice was the 16 rayed Argeadai Sun. The pezhetairoiduring the conquest of Persia are known to have had specific ‘medallions’ painted on their shields. Textual and artistic evidence exists that at least on two occasions Alexander also adopted the hoplitai kit for his phalangitai, including aspis shields. For body armor this century marked a revolution of sorts. The muscled cuirass had existed in Hellas since the mid 6th Century but except in Sparta (were the state made the armor) andKorinthos (were wealth was widespread) it wasn’t all that popular. At least compared to the linen corselet. When the poleis began to buy their soldiers’ equipment in the 4th Century and the tactics of the Boeotian League forced a return to armor the muscled cuirass experienced a mass revival. The muscled cuirass of this period incorporated some features of the linen corselet into its design. The most notable was the use ofpteryges. In a linen corselet the pteryges were the second layer in the lower half of the armor. They were used to plug any holes. In the muscled cuirass the pteryges was sewn together into one, two, or three layers and attached to the waist piece in the new shorter model or the abdomen piece in the traditional longer model. The linen corselet also returned with the muscled cuirass and the two kinds of body armor were roughly equal in popularity. Except in some poleis, such as Sparta, the exomis and perizoma was phased out, since neither could be worn comfortably under armor and replaced with the old chiton and newer chitoniskos. For thephalangitai both the muscled cuirass and the linen corselet were used. The Makedonians had their own terms for each armor. The muscled cuirass was called the thorax and the linen corselet the cotthybos. The thorax was worn by the officers and front rank soldiers of the syntagma; the cotthybos was worn by the rank and file. The rear ranks of the syntagma wore no armor at all, just the chitoniskos or chiton depending on the climate. It is interesting to mention that during the later phase of the Persian Conquest Alexander began to de-equip his infantry of their armor. Issuing instead the so called hemi-thorax, ‘half-cuirass’, to the phalangitai front ranks to make them lighter and faster. After entering India the hemi-thorax was replaced with the regular thorax. For the other body armor, the leg greaves, the Hellenes did not adopt them again in 4th Century, though theMakedonians did and made the greaves a part of the official phalangitai kit. For helmets the 4th Century marks a rapid rise and fall in helmet styles. In the early part of the century the Pilos helmet of Sparta is most popular but the design is dropped except in the Peloponnesos following Leuktra. The Boeotian rose to take its place, but the style did not have the popularity of the Pilos. The Thracian style became the most popular helmet in Hellasabout this time, alongside a new derivative from Asia Minor. The Phrygian helmet was based off the Thracianand gained its name from the distinctive cap worn in the region of Phrygia, which it resembled. A unique feature of both helmets was their long cheek pieces, which were heavily decorated with an etched beard or mustache. Both the Chalcidian and Attic helmets experienced a revival during the 4th Century. When Philippos II created his new model army he adopted the Phrygian helmet for the phalangitai, and the Boeotian for his cavalry. When he became king Alexander allowed his men to pick up different helmets if they wished, which is why some of the pezhetairoi in the mosaics and other artwork are depicted as wearing Chalcidians or Attics.

Weaponry was a changing field. For the hoplitai the 4th Century brought about the widespread adoption of theSpartan xiphos as the sidearm of choice during the years of the Spartan hegemony. But unlike the otherSpartan equipment the xiphos was retained after Leuktra by some poleis, though many chose to go back to either the regular xiphos or the kopis. In Athenai the experimental reforms of Iphikrates produced a longerxiphos that he used to equip his unique peltast-hoplitai hybrid. Its length was about halfway between a xiphosand a Naue II according modern estimates. For the phalangitai the sidearm of choice was the kopis, which became so popular that it eclipsed the xiphos, though some phalangitai are recorded as having a xiphos as a back-up sword to their kopis. For the spears this was interesting period. The doru remained mostly unchanged, except in the case of the Iphikratean hybrids, which used a doru lengthened to 12 feet long. The phalangitaihowever used a new weapon. Called a sarissa by the Makedonians, plural sarissai, this new weapon was far longer then any doru in existence at a staggering 18 feet long. There is continuing scholarly debate on the issue of the length of the original sarissa, since many different sarissai of differing lengths have been found, but 18 feet is usually agreed on as being the standard. The sarissa was made in two pieces fashioned out of Cornelian Cherry wood. The pieces were fastened together using an iron sleeve. Because of its great length the sarissawas two-handed, which called for the rimless shield as mentioned above. The spear point of the sarissa was a small, pointed, iron head. This was different from the doru, which had a larger leaf-shaped iron head. Thesarissa also had a bronze butt-spike, still called a sauroter.

It was in formations the 4th Century made the biggest change. Thanks to a wealth of period sources and eyewitness accounts we have information available on the phalanx formations of this century then any other. Three formations stand out in particular: The Spartan mora, the Boeotian systrophe, and the Makedonian syntagma. According to the historian and mercenary Xenophon, the Spartan mora was adopted at the beginning of the 4th Century and organized thus: The basic building block, as always was the enomotiai. As usual with the Spartans the enomotiai was enlarged to 36 hoplitai. The Spartan enomotiai was formed as 3 files long, 12 men deep. At times the enomotiai could divide in half, becoming 6 half-files wide each 6 men deep. TheSpartan admiration for the ouragos, the rear ranker who kept order at the back of the formation, extended so far that when the enomotiai divided into half files then the front half-files had their own ouragoi. The rear half-files were commanded by the most senior file leader in the formation, who when the entire enomotiai was drawn together functioned as the second-in-command to enomotarch. Two enomotia comprised a pentekostys, and the organization level here did not differ from the rest of Hellas except in its depth. Two pentekostyesformed a lochos of 144 hoplitai drawn up 12 files wide and 12 men deep. This was the basic tactical unit of the phalanx. From here is where it differs. Up to this point an enlarged lochos was the highest organization level the Spartans used. But from here on out they started to use a new level, that of the mora, plural morae. Amora was the Spartan equivalent to the wider Hellenic taxis, and was essentially a division level formation. Four lochoi together form a mora, 576 hoplitai in all arranged in 48 files, 12 deep. From the lochagoi (the plural form of lochagos, the commander of a lochos) is chosen the polemarch, who is the overall leader of the mora. As with all other hoplitai officers he takes part in the formation, fighting at the head of the right most file in themora. In recognition to the importance of cavalry each polemarch had at his disposal a separate moracomprised of 60 Peloponnesian cavalrymen. The entire Spartan army was comprised of 6 infantry and cavalrymorae with one of the two kings nominally in direct command, giving Sparta a military strength of 3,456hoplitai and 360 cavalry. This doesn’t mean that Sparta’s population had begun to recover from its devastating decline, but shows the effects of the Spartan decision to start creating helot hoplitai at the beginning of the century to compensate.

Unfortunately we do not have the same level of information available for the Boeotian systrophe. What we do know is that Epaminondas used the hieros lochos as the primary unit in the systrophe, which numbered 300 men in 150 homosexual pairs instead of the normal 100 for most poleis or 144 for Sparta. This allowed for the unit to be deployed and take formation differently then other lochoi. This was exactly what Epaminondas did. He had the hieros lochos take formation thus: The basic unit in this phalanx, like a normal phalanx, was theenomotiai. But unlike other units this enomotiai drew up 6 files wide, 50 men deep. Two enomotia became apentekostys that drew up 12 files wide, 50 deep. Two pentekostyes became a full lochos, which arranged in 24 files, 50 men deep. When put into place on the left wing of the battle line it becomes the hammer of thesystrophe formation as at Leuktra and Second Mantinea. In both battles the right wing and center was denied to the enemy and lead by the hieros lochos the ‘sloped’ left smashed the opposing right. At both Leuktra and Second Mantinea the Boeotian cavalry played a vital role in the left wing advance, making the systrophe a combined arms formation.

This altogether is the basis for the syntagma of Philippos II. According to period sources the original syntagma of Philippos and Alexander was organized thus: The basic building block of the Makedonian phalanx was called the dekas, plural dekades. A dekas consisted of 16 men arranged in a straight file. The commanding officer of a file was called the dekadarch and served at the front of the line. Eight men followed the dekadarch up the line and at halfway was another officer, the dimoirites. The dimoirites served to divide the dekas into two manageable halves, with the dimoirites commanding the rear-half file. At the end of each half-file was another officer, the dekastateroi. Their job was the same of the ouragoi on the traditional phalanx, to keep order and make sure everyone did their jobs. Officers at this level were chosen from the most senior soldiers in the unit. 16 dekades comprised the syntagma. To this day it continues to amaze historians how the syntagma was such an organized and symmetrical unit. It was 16 files of 16 men, 256 in all, drawn into a square that measured to 16 yards by 16 yards when drawn together for battle, with a size twice that on maneuver. The syntagma was the lowest level administrative and tactical unit in the classical Makedonian army, with a professional officer staff. The commanding officer was the syntagmatarch who took position within the unit, though his exact position is unknown, though it would have been were he could control half of the
unit. His second-in-command was the tagamatarch, who helped him to lead the unit by controlling the other half. A third officer was the hyperetes, the chief administrative officer of the unit who took care of odds and ends and the setting of camp and general administrative duties. Another unique feature of the syntagma was the ability of the unit to keep cohesion and effectiveness even when separated from the rest of the formation. Two syntagma comprised a pentekosiarchy, plural pentekosiarchia, of 512 men in 32 files. Like the syntagma the pentekosiarchy was another basic level tactical unit and in some sources the syntagma is skipped over in favor of the pentekosiarchy. This unit is also known as the Makedonian lochos as it was originally named after the hoplitai lochos and gained the present name during the latter part of the reign of Alexander. The commanding officer of the unit was the pentekosiarch or earlier the lochagos. The syntagmatarch of each respective unit functioned as second-in-command to the pentekosiarch. A hyperetes was also attached to the command. A new addition at this level was that of the trumpeter, as musical cues were important in the Makedonian army. Three pentekosiarchia comprised a chiliostys, plural chiliostyes, of 1,536 men in 96 files. Also called a taxis, the chiliostys was the division level formation of the Macedonian phalanx. Often referred to in English as a battalion, the chiliostyes formed the backbone of Makedonian army. The commanding officer was called the chiliarch with the respective pentekosiarchia commanders as his seconds-in-command and all the intending staff. In the Persian Conquest Alexander took with him 6 chiliostyes of pezhetairoi, the honored veterans of Philippos II, with an additional chiliostys added later. In the case of the pezhetairoi we know the chiliostyes was recruited and formed by district. Special precedence was given to the chiliostyes recruited from the Makedonian highlands, which were designated asthetairoi.

Famous phalanx battles of this period are too numerous to mention. But to name two from before and after the Makedonian hegemony: The Battle of Leuktra where the power of Sparta was broken, and the Battle of Second Mantinea, the largest hoplitai battle in history. From after, the Battle of the Granicus River, which began the Conquest of Persia, and the Battle of Gaugamela, Alexander’s greatest victory.

In conclusion the evolution of the phalanx is a matter of continued interest. Ranging from the murky beginnings of the hoplitai at Argos in the 7th Century to the final triumph of the classic phalangitai at the Hydaspes River in India the phalanx is one of the most long-lived formations in history. While eventually eclipsed by Rome’s legionaries the hoplitai and the phalangitai and the formations in which they fought will continue to interest historians for ages to come.


I love this article!

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me too! I wish we got armies as big as that in-game, though... :(

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