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Home /Greek Hoplite Phalanx

Greek Hoplite Phalanx

Greek Hoplite Phalanx

Limited manpower did not allow most
Greek city-states to form large armies which could operate for long
periods, especially in the case of light troops like the psiloi, who
were recruited from the lower citizen classes, and as such, they were
mainly farmers, workers, even slaves. This inevitably reduced the
potential duration of campaigns, as a large portion of any Greek army
would need to return to their own professions (especially in the case
of farmers, for example).

When battles occurred, they were usually set piece and intended to
be decisive. The battlefield would be flat and open to facilitate
phalanx warfare. These battles were usually short and required a high
degree of discipline. At least in the early classical period, cavalry
was usually used to protect the flanks, when present at all, and
cover a possible retreat. Light infantry and missile troops took part
in the battle, but their role was of a lower importance.


Hoplite phalanx in action


Line up of the Spartan phalanx

Charge of the phalanx

The phalanxes would approach each other
in a steady, slow march to keep cohesion or sometimes at a run
(if the enemy was prone to panic, or if they fought against
enemies equipped with bows, as was the case against the Persians at
the Battle of Marathon
).

The two lines would remain at a
small distance to be able to effectively use their spears, while the
psiloi threw stones and javelins from behind their lines. If the
doratismos” (Greek for spear combat) was not decisive,
then the lines would close and swords would be drawn. The shields
would clash and the first lines (protostates) would stab at their
opponents, at the same time trying to keep in position.

The ranks behind them would support them with their own spears and the mass of their shields
gently pushing them, not to force them into the enemy formation but
to keep them steady and in place. At certain points, a command would
be given to the phalanx or a part thereof to collectively take a
certain number of steps forward (ranging from half to multiple
steps). This was the famed “othismos“.

At this point, the phalanx would put its collective weight to push
back the enemy line and thus create fear and panic among its ranks.
There could be multiple such instances of attempts to push, but it
seems from the accounts of the ancients that these were perfectly
orchestrated and attempted organized en masse.

Battles rarely
lasted more than an hour. Once one of the lines broke, the troops
would generally flee from the field, sometimes chased by psiloi,
peltasts or light cavalry
. If a hoplite escaped, he would sometimes
be forced to drop his cumbersome aspis, thereby disgracing himself to
his friends and family (becoming a “ripsaspis“, one
who threw his shield).

Casualties were slight compared to
later battles, rarely amounting to more than 5% of the losing side,
but the slain often included the most prominent citizens and generals
who led from the front. Thus, the whole war could be decided by a
single field battle; victory was enforced by ransoming the fallen
back to the defeated, called the “Custom of the Greeks“.


Holding the line


The Spartan phalanx fending
off the Persians at Thermopylae, 480 BC.



Spartans preparing for battle

Individual hoplites carried their shields on their left arm,
protecting not only themselves but also 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. A phalanx tended to be 8 rows
or more deep, each row with a leader, and a rear rank officer, the
ouragos (meaning: tail-leader), who kept order in the
rear.

The phalanx is an example of a military formation
in which single combat and other individualistic forms of battle were
suppressed for the good of the whole. In earlier Homeric combat, the
words and deeds of supremely powerful heroes turned the tide of
battle. With his friends jostling and pushing on both sides and
behind, and his enemies forming a solid wall in front of him, the
hoplite had little opportunity for feats of technique and weapon
skill, but great need for commitment and mental toughness.

Its
effectiveness depended on 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. 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” or “ability to fight,”
was used to express the drive that kept hoplites in formation – and
from which get dynamic and dynamo.

Hoplite Phalanx
Weaknesses

The last thing to note about the phalanx is its weaknesses. The
major weakness of the phalanx is that it had little to no protection
on its sides and rear.
Since men were marching forward, and
everyone’s spears were pointed in the same forward direction,
hoplites were pretty much defenseless on the flanks and rear. This
was a similar problem encountered by the Macedonian pike phalanx. The phalanx had to face every threat as one; if men acted alone the
strength of the phalanx was gone.This made small, mobile infantry
groups and cavalry
very effective at defeating the phalanx, as they
could effectively strike from the flank or the rear.

Another weakness of the phalanx was
that it required a very specific type of landscape to operate on.
Phalanxes could only fight in large, open areas with even ground.
Otherwise, the “armored wall” of the phalanx would break up and
leave too many openings for the enemy to take advantage of. It
was this specific weakness that the Republican Romans exploited
against the Macedonian phalanx – but it was equally true of any
phalanx formation.



Macedonian phalanx
wielding the sarissa,
a 6 meter (18 feet) long spear.



Macedonian Phalanx.

Note how the spears extend
up to 5 rows to the front

Source:
http://philbancients.blogspot.gr

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Phalanx

Phalanx: ancient Greek expression to signify an organized, dense line of battle; the heavily armed infantry soldiers were known as hoplites .

Hoplites on the Monument of the Nereids from Xanthus
Hoplites on the Monument of the Nereids from Xanthus

Although representations of soldiers in densely packed battle lines date back to the third millennium BCE in the ancient Near East, the word phalanx is usually used to describe Greek armies. The first Greek author to use the word φαλαγξ is Homer , and in his poems it means something like an organized battle line. This is remarkable because in Homer’s poems, warriors fight individual combats whereas the soldiers in a phalanx (the hoplites ) fight as a group. However, it is reasonably clear that Homer’s duels were in his age already becoming anachronistic.

A Sumerian phalanx on the Vulture Stele from Lagash
A Sumerian phalanx on the Vulture Stele from Lagash

Initially, tactics must have been very simple. The heavily-armed soldiers, recruited from the upper class of a town (because only they could afford arms and panoply ), were standing in long, parallel lines, close to each other. Every hoplite carried a large round shield (the aspis) which covered his own left side and the right side of the man to his left. A phalanx was, therefore, very densely packed and could not easily turn to the left or right. If its allowed to compare war with sport: a hoplite battle was something like a “scrum” in a rugby match: both sides, armed with spears, tried to push over the enemy, and once a phalanx was victorious, the losses at the other side were extremely heavy, because the victors would use their swords to kill the defeated men.

A Carian hoplite (sixth century BCE)
A Carian hoplite (sixth century BCE)

Standing in a battle line and waiting for the clash with the enemy took considerable courage, as the playwright Euripides suggests in a diatribe against the demigod Heracles , who was…

… a man who has won a reputation for valor in his contests with beasts, in all else a weakling; who ne’er buckled shield to arm nor faced the spear, but with a bow, that coward’s weapon, was ever ready to run away. Archery is no test of manly bravery; no! he is a man who keeps his post in the ranks and steadily faces the swift wound the spear may plough.

Wounds were likely, and therefore, the hoplites were protected by a breastplate, greaves, their hoplon, and a tunic of stiffened linen. Their offensive weapons were, as already noted, a spear and a sword – the latter only to be used in the second phase of the battle. The soldiers must have been strong men, because the full panoply could weigh as much as 15 kg, and it comes as no surprise that foreigners often noted that the Greek soldiers were “men of bronze” or “men clad in iron”.note[ Herodotus , Histories 2.152 ; Ptolemy III Chronicle .] On the reliefs on the eastern stairs of the Apadana in Persepolis , it is not the Yaunâ (Greeks) but the Carians who are armed like hoplites, but it was generally admitted that the latter had developed part of the hoplite panoply.

Map of the battle of Marathon
Map of the battle of Marathon

The original tactic, which we compared to the rugby scrum, was essentially a one-dimensional way to fight a battle. The development of hoplite warfare made it increasingly two-dimensional. The famous battle of Marathon (490 BCE) is one of the first recorded instances in which the phalanx was employed in a more creative way. The Persians seriously outnumbered the Athenians , and the Greek commander Miltiades was forced to stretch his lines, to prevent outflanking. At the same time he strengthened his wings, even when this meant that the center was weakened.

The plalanx at Marathon
The plalanx at Marathon

During the battle, the Athenian wings destroyed the Persian wings, and turned against the center. If we are to believe the body count after the battle, the Athenians lost 192 men in the ensuing mêlée, their opponents 6,400. This is exaggerated (6,400 = 192 × 331/3), but no doubt the invaders suffered severely.

The obvious response to an attack by a phalanx was a first strike by light armed spearmen and archers. Their missiles would break the ranks of the attacking phalanx. At the same time, cavalry could be placed on the wings, which could attack the enemy’s rear once the battle had started.

Phalanx supported by light-armed troops
Phalanx supported by light-armed troops

In the diagram to the right, the smaller (red) army has a fair chance against the larger (pink) army.

During the Peloponnesian War , which lasted from 431 to 404 and was fought all over the Greek world, warfare became increasingly professionalized. At Mantinea in 418 ( more… ), we see the first instance of a realignment of the troops after the battle had started, something that had never been attempted before.

Oblique phalanx
Oblique phalanx

The main innovation, however, was the oblique phalanx. The first experiments took place during the Corinthian War (395-387), but it was during the Battle of Leuctra in 371 that its devastating potential became clear. The Theban commander Epaminondas placed his troops at an angle with the Spartan troops and fortified one of his wings. in this way, he was able to concentrate his forces on one section of the Spartan battle line. The Thebans broke through the Spartan lines, and their victory was complete.

Philip's phalanx
Philip’s phalanx

King Philip II of Macedonia , who had spent his youth as a hostage in Thebes and knew Epaminondas personally, further improved the phalanx. Until then, it had been eight to sixteen lines deep, but now, twenty lines were more common. The spear, which had been two to three meters long, was now replaced by a lance (sarissa) with a length of about six meters. Because a hoplite now needed both hands to carry his weapon, his shield was made smaller.

Map of the Battle of Chaeronea
Map of the Battle of Chaeronea

Once the battle had started, the battalions of hoplites -or, as they were now called, pezhetairoi, “foot companions”- forced the enemy to stay at the same place (“to hold ’em by the nose”), while the cavalry attempted to break though the lines of the enemy and tried to reach their rear (“kick ’em in their balls”).

Battle had by now become a very flexible affair. At Chaeronea (338), the main cavalry units were on the left wing and the phalanx advanced obliquely; at Issus (333), the phalanx was a straight line and the main cavalry unit, commanded by Philip’s son Alexander the Great , was on the right wing.

Hellenistic phalanx
Hellenistic phalanx

Alexander’s conquest of the Punjab and the valley of the Indus meant the introduction of the war elephant, which was used against enemy cavalry, which could never keep its line of battle when faced by these monsters. (The soldiers in the phalanxes usually had special sarissas that were used to attack the trunks, whereas archers could attack their eyes.) At the same time, units became more varied: heavy cavalry was used to force a break into the enemy’s lines, light troops were used to protect or disturb the phalanx, and sometimes, even catapults could be employed.

As a result, the phalanx was one of several units that could be employed by a general. However, it was still the most important instrument to force the enemy to stay at the same place and it was still the most important part of the army once the battle had been won and the enemy had to be killed.

Macedonian phalanx
Macedonian phalanx

The main weakness of the phalanx alway was that its right wing was poorly protected, because hoplites had their shields on their left arm. (The historian Thucydides describes how phalanxes always drift a bit to the right.) Another important weakness was that the phalanx could only operate on a plain; hills would break the line of battle, and an enemy would enter these openings. Finally, if the battle lasted very long, the first line of men would collapse of sheer exhaustion.

Fifth-century hoplite
Fifth-century hoplite

The first encounter between a Greek phalanx and a Roman legion was the battle of Heraclea in 280, in which Pyrrhus of Epirus overcame his Italian enemies, but suffered heavy losses because the Roman army was more flexible and could replace the soldiers in the first line; they could continue to fight much longer. This flexibility was Rome’s main advantage, especially when rearrangements had to be made during the battle – something that was always necessary during a fight on a hilly terrain. In June 197, at Cynoscephalae , the Roman commander Titus Quinctus Flamininus overcame the Macedonian king Philip V, and the Greek historian Polybius of Megalopolis concluded that this battle was the best example to show that legions were superior to the phalanx.note[Polybius, World History 18.28-31 .]

Author

  • Jona Lendering

Country

  • Greece

Categories

  • Greece
  • Sumer

Subdiscipline

  • History

Tag

  • Military equipment

See also

  • Hoplite (article)
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