Previous to the phalanx formation, fighting was conducted in a method that reflects those in the Homeric poems, and is recorded by Archilochus and from representations on vases. Fighting was on foot and was carried out by a relatively few leading warriors; they had a shield, a sword and a thowing spear, but except of the armour they had little defensive armor for the head and body. Each warrior, fought largely on their own, and the battle tended to become a series of duels. The adversaries might identify themselves before-hand, this was incase of death that the body might be returned to the family for burial  and maybe ransom.
|We need to also add here the alternative view point, and this generally recent theory challenges pre-concieved ideas about the history of the phalanx. The whole idea of 'hoplite reform' is rejected and put forward that the Greeks had always fought in massed ranks, and that the weapon changes from 750 to 650 only marked an improvement in the quality of weaponry and did not lead to any change in military tactics. It is argued that a fundamental misunderstanding of Homer and the images on vase-painters of the time has led to the modern belief of a 'pre-hoplite warfare period'. As they show only individual duels between arisocrates, with no fighting roll for the rest of the people to take part. However, a careful study of Homer shows that his battles were extensive in time and location, and that massed-rank tactics were always employed; but that his story follows singular action during the battle as he 'freezes' the action to explain what is going on. Also, vase painters were not going to draw detailed mass armies in phalanx formation all doing indiviual battles, but they worked on their vases quickly and showed one on one action for dramatic effect.
With the advancement of warfare the phalanx began to take form, from a checkered beginning it soon began to prove formidable in battle and allowed the ability of an army to stand resolute. A solider fighting singularly took his chances of gaining success, but a phalanx held a great advantage.
Before we delve any further into the topic of the phalanx it is important to understand it's main purpose, but before we go there it is better to touch on the subject of what the phalanx is not. It is not a tactic of war for mass killing of the enemy, in fact you will be surprised to notice the relatively low number of casualties in phalanx battles.
The phalanx's purpose is to destroy the moral of the enemy by having the opposition leave the battlefield. Yes, this can be done by alot of killing, but not always.
The Spartans have been recorded as showing up to a battle in phalanx, only to have the opposition line up and then withdraw from the battlefield, intimidated by what they saw before them. The phalanx allowed them to win the victory, but without bloodshed.
So the phalanx is not about who can kill more of the opposition but who can destroy the moral of the opposition to claim victory on the battlefield.
A good hoplite in a phalanx is therefore not necessarily the one that kills the most of the enemy, but the one who 'holds his ground', one that does not desert the battlefield, or more importantly his position in the line. It has been recorded in more than one ancient greek battle of a warrior encoutering bloodlust, a state in which the warrior goes almost crazy, leaving his position in the phalanx, going forward and starts to kill the enemy on his own accord. In these seranios, after the battle, the warrior was then demoted, reprimanded and ridiculed in public. The heap of dead enemy he killed counts little compared to the fact that he gave up his postion in the phalanx lineup.
An example of this is that at the Battle of Champions, two opposing sides of exactly 300 each, fought it out. After both sides had exhausted themselves in the killing, the only ones left were 2 men on one side and only 1 injured opponent on the other. The 2 left the injured man on the field of battle in pity and returned home. The last man left set up a trophy as last man standing and claimed victory, even though his side lost more men.
This is why the setting up of the trophy by the winner was important.
After a battle the winning side would usually set up a trophy. This would include a altar, where it would be set up, allowing victims to be sacrificed to thank the gods. The trophy would usually be positioned at the point the defeated enemy turned and ran, dropping their shields in the process to allow them to run faster. Now the Greek word for 'turn' is 'στροφη' (in English the letters translate to 'STROFI'). So when the altar was set up it became to be know as the STROFI, the place where the enemy turned and fled. This word has now filtered through to be in the English language as well where the word is now called TROPHY (All English words with a PH for a F have their origins from Greek words). This is why trophies are given to the victors, because they are allowed bragging rights after the victory.
A phalanx is a military formation in which the hoplite line up in close order to each other, locking their shields together to make a human wall. They would march in formation towards their adversaries until they got to a close proximity and then hasten to a quicker pace before colliding into their opposition, they would also have their spears projected out between their shields.
It seems the equipment the hoplite warrior would use was adopted piecemeal, not all at the same time, and none before c750 B.C., but all of them by 700 B.C. At first the equipment was used separately, not combined into a complete set of equipment; the full hoplite panoply is first shown on a vase c675. B.C. Further, the adoption of hoplite equipment did not at once bring a change in tactics; men using some or all the items of hoplite equipment continued to fight in the less organised fashion of the eighth century. The hoplite phalanx does not appear on vases before c650 B.C.
How bronze to iron help advance the phalanx
During the bronze age, weapons were relatively expensive and bronze was hard to find, once the discovery and workability of iron took hold, weapons became inexpensive and the ordinary citizen could maintain his own arsenal.
This lead to larger armies being summoned to the battlefield and the rich land owners that ruled during the bronze age, were now being threatened by the lower classes that carried their own weapons, weakening the land owners grip over them and later leading on to the birth to democracy.
With more and more men having access to their own weapons, it would become clear that tactics needed to be more than just a headlong rush into the opposition, the phalanx would advanced that greatly.
Bronze vs Iron
The change from Bronze to Iron age helped advance the importance of the phalanx as the Iron age lead to the flood of new cheaper weapons onto the market. Contrary to popular belief, iron weapons will not shatter or splinter a bronze weapon and indeed bronze weapons are stronger than iron ones. The belief that iron weapons are more durable is due to the fact that a reason was needed to justify the leap from the Bronze Age to the Iron Age.
One reason for this leap was because iron was much more plentiful to find, therefore making it cheaper to manufacture, bronze works was more expensive. Cheaper weapons began to flood the market and the demand for weapons already existed.
Another advantage of iron is that the
production using iron is much more forgiving
than for bronze. Iron can be hot-forged to shape
pretty quickly by a skilled smith, bronze works took more effort to make into a weapon. Also, if a crack develops during
cold-working of iron, it can quite possibly be repaired with no
readily visible sign. All of which means that when a
smith starts an iron sword blade he is almost certain
to end up with an iron sword blade when he finishes.
Regarding bronze, in Jeroen
Zuiderwijk's accounts of casting bronze with ancient
techniques, he shows how incredibly
complex the process is, and that the whole job can
fail completely at any point along the way. Even if
the mold comes out intact and usable, and the pouring of
the molten metal succeeds without bubbles, or charcoal inclusions, and the sword doesn't
fall to pieces when it is removed from the mold, the blade could still crack when trying to harden the
edge. If that happens it cannot be fixed! The bronze must be melted down and started all over again. To make it even more difficult, it might not be known if the weapon is up to standard until a couple of weeks after it has been finished. Though in all fairness, there were still
things that could be done with bronze in the ancient world that couldn't with iron, such as casting
complex shapes. It's an interesting footnote that there was a
lot more bronze around during the Iron Age than there
had been in the Bronze Age! It must have been good
The 'aspis', a large shield that gave the hoplite warrior greater options in battle
History: The first real step towards the use of the phalanx was that the 'aspis' (the shield) became much more larger, replacing the medium size, single hand grip that was more common. The aspis, which is the most distinctive piece of hoplite equipment was called 'generally' in ancient times the 'Argive' (Pausanias 8.50.1), either because it was invented in Argos or because the Argives were remembered for their oustanding skill with it. The new aspis was tougher than its predecessor and allowed for the forearm to be inserted into it and the hand grip was closer towards the outer rim. Previously, the medium aspis was used only for defensive purposes, but now the larger and stronger one gave greater control, allowing for it to be used as a weapon in it's own right. A huge amount of power could be thrusted upon an opponent that could knock him off his feet or unbalance him allowing for the next strike to have much more greater chance of success.
Artwork: The smaller shield
Artwork: The larger aspis
Artwork: The phalanx line gave the hoplite warrior a much more greater amount of defensive cover
The larger aspis allowed for the dawning of the phalanx. Men lined up side-by-side now with their large aspis not only to give them fantastic amounts of cover to be able to strike out from, but also to give them the ability to knock the opponent off their feet.
Size: A person's forearm is about the same length as the his midsection (cross your arms over your midsection to compare). The porpax is in the middle of the aspis and is close to the elbow, therefore only about half of the aspis covers the hoplites own body, the other half overlaps his left side. The round shape means that the right shoulder is uncovered and so potentially the right side is vulnerable in an attack. If we add a additional hoplite to his right, half this hoplites aspis hangs over and covers his compatriots torso.
In the push that follows in battle the hoplites push behind their aspis as they engage the enemy. The aspis of the two hoplites have now created a 'v' about the spot where the hoplite's right arm is and gives the hoplite relative freedom of movement in an overhand position to strike out towards the opponent.
It is recorded by Thukydides, that at the battle of Mantinea, that a phalanx shifts right as men seek the shields of the hoplite to the right to help cover their unprotected side. But the shift occurs regardless of intent because each man is slightly twisted to the right by holding his shield as has been described. One of the weaknesses of the phalanx is that the man on the extreme right is without coverage and is in trouble when the armies clash.
Shape: The outer domed shape of the aspis is to maximise the weight that the face of the shield can bear. The aspis however, are not true domes though, they are flattened, two true domes would tend to slip off each other. The flat apex of the dome, the face of the shield, is what comes in contact with the opponent's shield or the back of the man in front. The poinient feature of the dome shield is that once a hoplite plants it into his fellow hoplites back the force generated transfers through his aspis and accumulates through the hoplite standing in front of him. The aspis design means that it nestles comfortably into another hoplites back.
The phalanx stance, sidewoods or frontal
One of the things that modern military historians would love to know is how did the hoplites in the phalanx line up? Did the hoplites line up shoulder to shoulder, or with one foot forward and one foot back? There is no ancient account of the tactic that was used and the only thing we can go on is modern reconstructions that measured the pluses and minus for both.
The dori (spear) coming through the 'V' area of the shields would be right, but sadly that is about all that is correct in this phalanx. The right hand would not be allowing the dori to be resting between the shields, but would have been used as an over arm stabbing motion. (see Statue of Leonidas below for better arm motion). The picture of a hoplite turned sideways with his shoulder in the bowl of his aspis while pushing is inaccurate, as is any ability to duck behind the shield rim during the peak of pressure. For the hoplite holding the domed aspis, the pressure is passed through his body from the collar bone and through his thighs, the shape of the aspis fully allows him to breath unimpeded. In this position he has absolutely no way of ducking behind the aspis, thus the importance of the helmet, and grieves too were needed to protect the leg from the knee down.
Problems with the sidewards stance. As in the picture to the left, this hoplite is standing sidewards, with his left shoulder leaning into the aspis. It gives the impression that the hoplite is waiting on the coming of the enemy and with his feet planted into the ground, he might be able to withstand their oncoming rush.
One of the problems here is that we know that the hoplites in the rows behind him would help push forward. This is very difficult if the hoplites are standing sidewards it might even be in the push that was to follow that he might break his shoulders, having this own aspis crushing him in front and the hoplite behind him using this aspis to push him forward. The aspis doing nothing more than providing cover to the oncoming spears, this is not very efficient.
Another problem with mentally reconstructing a phalanx is that much of it is not intuitively obvious. We have all seen people turn sideways when in a tug-o-war or pushing a car, but this is to increase their traction- the side of the foot having more surface area. Our musculature is such that we are strongest pushing ahead. In the othismos I'm not even sure how accurate the term "pushing" is, its more like stumbling forward in a mass. That mass will be impossible to resist by men, however strong pushing in an uncoordinated manner.
The frontal stance. In this way the hoplite stands mostly as one would be if he is just standing straight. It would take a well disciplined hoplite to stand this way with the oncoming collision imminent. Rather than getting crushed the concave aspis serves to stave off suffocation, then standing sideways does.
If a hoplite stands in the phalanx in an upright position and holds his aspis across his torso, the outside rim of the aspis would naturally sit across his collar bone and also on his thighs, just as Tyrtaeus described. If you can just picture that you will be able to visualise the helmet covering the head of the hoplite, the aspis covering from the shoulders down to his thighs and his grieves covering his knees to his feet, nearly 100% frontal coverage. The main weakness in this is the neck area as it falls between the seams of the helmet and aspis area. Ancient literature states that the neck area was the weakest spot for a hoplite. The frontal stance confirms this. Spartans were also known experts of being able to stab the necks of their opponents.
If you can fast forward it a bit until the frontal collision, an army of men behind him pushing him forwards and the opposition in front slamming him backwards, the pressure would be immense. It would be less like the impact of a car accident and more like being squeezed between two elephants. The frontal stance allows the pressure to pass through the aspis, through his collar bone and thighs and as the aspis of the hoplite behind him would be pressed into his back (which can't be done in sidewards stance) the pressure passes onto the hoplite behind and so on. The real key is that the aspis being concaved would still allow the hoplite to breath, a watershed advancement and would mean that the aspis held by hoplites even far back in the line had a very valuable purpose. If the opposition (such as the Persians) had a flat shield the pressure alone would crush the men in the front to death.
At he Battle of Themopylae it is thought that more Persians died through being crushed and thrown off cliffs than was slayed by the Greeks. We can more easily see how this could have been done now.
Greek phalanx stages & tactics
There are several stages to an advancing Greek hoplite army;
Ephodos: As they march towards each other each city-stage would sing their battle hymns to enpower their men.
Peltast: As the armies would get closer archers, slingers and other various forces unloaded their weapons from a distance and then got out of the way.
Krousis: The initial clash of sheilds was not necessarily done at a run, this has not yet been proven and there is more than alot of evidence to suggest that hoplite armies were at a disadvantage to break out of formation to run and huttle themselves into opposing forces.
Doratismos: The initial clash over, if they kept their eyes above the rim of their shields, there is no reason why they couldn't strike and continue to strike, as their targets had nowhere to run or room to duck. This is why front-rankers were usually the best hoplites. spears would be repeatedly struck out at oppostion forces, wounding any enemy they could, once the spears broke, the hoplite would use his right hand to reach under his left arm for his sword and continue. If he has not broken his spear in the initial impact, then he is thrusting not at the man in front of him, but back into the mass behind. If he needs to draw out his sword, it would be found high under his left arm to make it easier to draw in the press, he can hack and stab at anything within reach. This is a great example of why the swords were so short in ancient greece, if the use of the spear is no long viable, and the enemy is no more than a nose away he needs to reach for a weapon that can be easily accessed to great effect, a large or even a medium sword would put him at a disadvantage with the opponent pushing up applying pressure, it would make it very hard to be unsheathing anything but a very short sword.
Othismos: This stage is the most deadly out of all of them. The push is best explained as a 'stampede', whos purpose it was to break down the enemies lines and morale. Just as a broken link can make a chain worthless, a broken line in the phalanx causes panic in the ranks, leading to it crumbling away.
The push from behind and infront was asphyxiating, it is not the glamours sword and sandle show seen in Hollywood movies, where there is this large area around each hoplite to swing his sword freely as he sees fit. There is no room to move forward or back, or even to breath, there is no room to fall down, the dead stood upright. It is a crush of monumental force created by men, hell bent on breaking down the oppostions lines, through this push.
What I'm describing is not as romantic as the movies. It is masses of men stumbling forward and back taking small mincing steps, with most trying just to keep their feet. For front rank men it would be horror. They couldn't move to dodge, the right arm was completely exposed- perhaps defending more than attacking and all that could be done was duck the head at oncoming blows.
The force would increase, sometimes subsiding. From above it might look like a Mexican wave up and down the line as some areas gained ground, while others from the same army lost ground, moving backward and forward, like waves in the sea, it would continue until one side capitulated, causing the route.
Pararrhexis: Once one of the sides broke, panic kicked in, those that see the line faultering at the back ran away first leading to a full on route as the rest of the army seeing their countrymen flee also took after them. The formations broke down from there.
Greek vs Persian phalanx
The Greeks held a decisive advantage over the Persians during all the phalanx battles. While the Persians could usually field many more men onto the battlefield the Greeks were able to use the phalanx to lessen the advantage.
The Greeks used Bronze helmets, aspis (shield) and greives, creating a wall of bronze. The Persians' shield was made of wicker and their head was covered by material that was made of cloth, a distinctive advantage to those wearing bronze.
Artwork: I apoligies for my bad artwork, it is for the concept only, you don't have to tell me my pictures are shocking. Greeks to the left are in Blue and the Persians to the right are in Green. I have not included weapons in these images to focus just on movements.
When the two adversiaries engaged, the force of fellow warriors compounded, creating a massive amount of force, that passed through the participants and needed to be pass through to somewhere. In the ensuing movement, gaps between each other and even between the asips and the hoplite that held it were reduced to nearly zero, creating a crush.
In the ensuring push, even without weapons it can be seen how the Persians are at a distinct disadvantage. Indeed, it can be seen how it was reported that more men died in the push of the hoplites, than were killed by actual weapons.
Artifact: The hoplite images on this vase gives the reader a better idea of how the ancients saw the depth of the shield and coverage of the body.
1 - The adversaries engage creating a line of scrimage
2 - The sheer pressure created in the push is emence. The Greeks held the advantage as the domed aspis allows a pocket for the hoplite to be able to continue to breath, there is little pressure on the hoplite's sternum.
3 - The hoplites have to line up and engage the enemy straight on. If they turn and place their shoulder into the aspis, that would allow for more traction on their foot, but the sheer amount of force being created, from infront and from behind would crush their shoulder blades.
4 - The hoplites combination of bronze helmet, aspis and greives creates a wall of bronze for each hoplite, with minimal gaps for weakenss.
5 - The aspis covers the hoplite from collarbone to thighs. The huge amount of pressure created in the push passes through the hoplite through the collarbone and thighs to the hoplite behind. In the push their is little pressure on the hoplites sternum, allowing him to continue breathing.
6 - The Persian use of cloth and wicker, was just not enough to stop a bronze tipped spear from penatreating their defenses.
7 - Their is no room or gap once the adversaries engage for the Persians to breath. Their shields are large, flat and made of wicker. The force created from infront and behind is enough to crush them where they stood. There would not even be enough room for those that died to fall to the ground, the crush being so great, they would have died standing up.
The march toward the enemy and the initial collision of forces was a balance between momentum and cohesion. The phalanx had to meet its enemy with enough momentum to move forward, but it also had to maintain order within the ranks so not to allow gaps between columns. The importance of unity and cohesion among troops cannot be overemphasized. One weak link in the chain of infantrymen could create a gap that was potentially fatal if exploited. For this reason, the best troops were placed in the front and rear lines of the phalanx. Those in the front needed courage to meet the enemy head on, while those in the back had to have the strength and bearing to maintain a constant push forward once past the initial collision. As the opposing armies marched, breathing became difficult; hearing was virtually impossible except for the overbearing sound of war cries and marching feet. Thousands of feet under the weight of panalopies kicked up dust from the dry summer’s ground. Nerve was everything. See the War Songs of Tyrtaeus, a mid seventh century B.C. elegiac poem written about the Second Messenian War, defines the connection between courage and lack thereof on the battlefield and its influence on victory and defeat.
The phalanx in action is hard to understand just through words, much more is understood when it can be visually seen. A great example is what we have found here on this youtube video. In it the riot police of South Korea are training using phalanx formations used by the Greeks and Romans. You will notice that the police do not use any weapons to attack the rioters, just shields, manourvers and their wits. Hopefully, what you might grasp from this video is how the co-ordination of the riot police can be extremely effective.
South Korea riot police training
The larger armies on the battle field would still have no answer to superior cavalry who could easily charge through and decimate the opponent. However, a disciplined force in phalanx formation could still put up resistance to an oncoming charge. Indeed, there is only one record in history in ancient times of a calvary charging straight at a phalanx line, the calvary failed. But a phalanx lines was still greatly threatened by calvary there are many instances in ancient battles of the cavalry riding around the edges looking to plough into the phalanx on its weaker flanks. If they attacked a phalanx line on the wings or could get around the back and attack on the flank that phalanx would crumble. So when you see many large scale battles with calvary in ancient battles you will notice that many a time the forces will line up with a river or mountain on their wing to remove the chance of the cavalry out flanking them.
The Agives started the tactic in what we might call a phalanx in the hoplite
sense. The common wisdom is that an Argives made up formations
of middle class men so as to protect the ruler from the aristocrats of
Argos who might want to depose him. They learned to pack in tightly next to each other and to place themselves between the ruler and his subjects so as not to leave a gap wide enough for a chance for his life to be at risk.
With the threat of a Spartan invasion of Argos these men were the best troops Argos had, and would have been placed in front of the adversaries. They marched out of Argos to meet the Spartans but layed in wait in the town of Hysiae. Usually, two armies would have met in the open fields to do battle leaving more than enough room for maneuverability. It is thought Argos chose the town of Hysiae to be able to tightly pack in their forces and to use the streets and buildings to protect their flank, forcing the Spartans to meet them head on, as the Spartans sending a detachment around their flank was a possibility in the open field.
This force beat the Spartans
the Battle of Hysiae in 669 B.C.
and only then did the Spartans think about changing
formations. The Argives at a later date
formed a force of 1,000 hoplites that were paid by the city to train
so as to match Spartan professionalism.
The next real advancement came from the Spartans. Through their enslavement of the Messenian people to become their helots, grain and food came into Sparta freely. Leaving the male population free to become full time soldiers. From youth they trained to be hoplite warriors, Sparta become what might be considered a military compound.
But it was Thebes, not Sparta that perfected the hoplite phalanx. Epaminondas is the
only name most people know in connection to this, but he might be getting credit for much that was done by others. It seems Pagondas at Delium who first formed the
Thebans 25 deep. This was also done with the Sacred Band almost
accidentally in a small battle just before the more famous Leuctra by
Pelopidas- a companion of Epaminondas- where a much larger Spartan
force was trounced.
This deepening of the phalanx is the key.
Phalanx warfare evolved from its outset to focus more of the
importance of the battle on the physical pushing of enemy forces out
of alignment, thus routing them. This change of depth was a pivotal point of phalanx warfare. For coupled
with enough discipline not to become a mere crowd, it meant that the
forces were very hard to push back and provided local superiority at a
single portion of the enemy line. This local superiority is just
what the Spartans had always relied on. Epaminondas' singular
contribution is the oblique approach- something that may not have even been consciously planned at Leuctra. Assuming it was, its purpose was
simply to keep his Thebans from running away when they saw the right
hand side of their line shatter.
Spartans were used to seeing the
other wing of their line flee and were disciplined enough to finish
their battle and turn inward, so they had no need to hold them back
like this. Refusing a flank of course also serves to allow less men
on that flank and to protect against outflanking, but this cannot
have been the major reason for the Thebans, since the collapse of the
weak wing and the pin wheeling that ensued was a constant feature of
hoplite battles. Thin ranks can have broken no faster than the
Athenians at Mantinea, and yet if the Argives had more discipline to turn towards the center, they would have won the
The Arcadians in the 5th century rarely fought for themselves, but usually
as part of Spartan or other armies. They formed the largest
population of hoplite mercenaries and were physically the biggest of
the Greeks. The Tegeans, for example, fended off an early Spartan
invasion, then soon became close allies, providing very good troops.
The Sciritae, right on the Laconian border, were tied to the spartans
and often given a place of pride in the battle line.
general Iphicrates, was responsible for exposing the weakness of hoplites to missile
armed peltasts when the ground was favorable. He also is given
credit for forming the first pike phalanx in the greek world- a move
which would see the death of the hoplite phalanx.
The Macedonians increased the number of hoplites deeper still, increased the length of the spear and got rid of the cumbersome shield on the left arm and replaced it with a buckle, this allowed the left arm to be free so that now both hands could hold the longer heavier spear.
In short, the Argives invented the phalanx, the Thebans perfected it, the
Arcadians prostituted it, and the Athenians inspired the Macedonians
in how to destroy it.
Paul M. Bardunias' blog on the 'aspis'