The Army Phillip Built

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Phillip and his Companions. Johnny Shumate

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The Macedonian phalanx by A. Karashchuk

Phillip was himself fortunate to be operating in the comparatively permissive environment of a Hellenic world destabilized by 150 years of major warfare that began with the First Persian Invasion about 492.

The Persian threat forced sweeping economic and political change on the deeply conservative Greeks. Before they could adjust fully to the new social realities, internecine Greek warfare reached apotheosis in twenty-seven years of titanic and suicidal struggle for domination between Sparta and Athens known as the Peloponnesian War. These conflicts left the former great powers of Greece diminished and vulnerable. Weakened classical Greek power, however, modifies, but does not entirely explain Phillip’s accomplishments. He still had to subdue numerous Hellenic states for whom war had become a near constant occupation and who could avail themselves of the impressive military innovations and refinements which desperate conflict had driven. To accomplish that, Phillip imaginatively combined, refined, and improved on the best military practices of his age.

In forging the Macedonian military machine Phillip created the first truly professional army in the Western world and established the template upon which all current conventional armies are based. He standardized equipment within formations organized according to their intended tactical function. The rank and file (volunteers as well as conscripts) were issued their kit gratis from government-operated armories and manufactories. Pay and remuneration were standardized according to military rank and duty without excessive regard to private status. Command and administrative structures were rationalized and made permanent with reasonable opportunity for advancement and recognition based (in part) on merit and demonstrated ability. Institutionalized provision was made for the full range of support functions from commissary through medical services to disability and veterans’ pensions. Indirect command and control was exercised through a regular and consistent chain of command from army down to squad with orders relayed by an elaborate system of voice commands, visual signals, and music. In contrast to the rather xenophobic and ad hoc tendency of the Southern Greeks, Phillip adopted and institutionalized the best innovations from both Greek and barbarian military practice, recombining these elements into a singularly effective and synergistic whole.

The Macedonian tactical system was based on four fundamental elements: Heavy Infantry, Light Infantry, Light Cavalry and Heavy Cavalry, but it also made indispensible use of traditionally armed troops, artillery and engineers, naval forces and the specialized skills of local troops as they were available. Phillip modeled his Heavy Infantry after the concepts of the mercenary general, Iphicrates, who had extended the traditional hoplite seven-foot stabbing spear into an eighteen- to twenty-foot pike. In order to effectively manage this heavy and awkward weapon with two hands, individual body armor was greatly reduced or eliminated and the large hoplon shield, from which Greek infantrymen (“hoplites”) derived their name, shrunk to a light buckler that could be suspended from the neck. The members of these modified phalanxes gained protection from the standoff provided by the deep hedge of iron-tipped pikes. Groups of heavy infantrymen were organized into disciplined “syntagma” or companies composed of 256 pikemen arrayed in ranks and files of 16 men each. The heavy Macedonian phalanx had relatively little tactical flexibility and was slow moving, but it could generate enormous momentum in the attack and could establish a formidably intractable defensive base.

Also following the ideas of Iphicrates, The Macedonians fielded large formations of Light Infantry – primarily missile troops called “peltasts” – who rapidly deployed in amorphous, but regulated formations to shower enemy troops with barrages of arrows, javelins, and lead sling bullets, relying on their own agility and mobility for protection. Light Cavalry also relied primarily on missiles as their primary weapons; either short javelins or arrows launched from composite bows. They performed the same range of critical tasks – scouting, flank security, envelopment, and pursuit that modern armies rely upon mechanized cavalry to perform. Under the right tactical circumstances they could even join a general assault against disorganized or badly positioned infantry.

Heavy Cavalry, although perhaps inspired by the eccentric practice of some wealthy steppe warriors, was Phillip’s unique military innovation and was a key to the Macedonian approach to set-piece battle. These were relatively heavily armored horseman armed with a 12-foot lance and a heavy slashing saber. They were mounted on large powerful horses selected for their aggressive spirit and conditioned through patient training to be steady in the confusion of close-quarters combat. Phillip used his heavy horse in the then-non-traditional role of mounted shock troops. He is even credited with developing the remarkable mounted wedge formation designed to penetrate and disrupt enemy infantry and cavalry lines. Although these heavy horsemen were originally drawn from the sons of the aristocratic elite (hence their famous status as “Companions”), they were eventually expanded to include formations comprising the “able” from more modest backgrounds and designated “hetairoi.” The same regularity and consistent command and control Phillip had imposed on his infantry was extended to his cavalry, which were organized into squadrons of 200-300 riders each divided into troops of 50-60. These innovations gave Macedonian cavalry a high degree of flexibility in deployment. They were capable of rapid changes in direction of maneuver and attack with minimal disruption to their formation. In addition to his role as overall commander, Alexander generally led the senior squadron of heavy cavalry as “Hipparch” and placed himself at the very tip of the lead assault formation.

As well as these basic tactical elements, the Macedonian system also comprised significant formations of medium infantry equipped similarly to the traditional Greek hoplite, but under more uniform organization and training. These medium phalanxes provided greater flexibility and mobility than the heavy pikemen and provided the essential connective link to the cavalry formations. They were also indispensible for specialist tasks such as leading a breach assault or escalading a wall in a siege, serving as marines in a naval fight, or providing a rapid infantry reaction to an unexpected threat or opportunity. Phillip also created the first regularly organized corps of engineers whose technical prowess and creativity transformed the ancient practice of siege craft. Under assault from the formidable Macedonian machines directed by highly skilled specialists, Phillip and Alexander successfully concluded their sieges not in months or years, as had been the traditional norm, but often in weeks – sometimes days. The equipment and techniques they developed continued to define siege warfare for millennia until they were eclipsed by the introduction of gunpowder weapons in 13th Century AD. The engineers were also critical in sustaining mobility over difficult terrain and bridging obstacles, an essential element in Alexander’s scheme of relentless, all-season warfare.

While less frequently mentioned by historians, naval forces also represented a vitally important capability for power projection and sustainment. Although generally inferior to the largely Phoenician fleet which served the Persian Empire, the Macedonian and allied Greek fleet was nevertheless critical in securing Alexander’s supply lines and protecting the transport ships which were the most efficient and practical means of transporting the hundreds of tons of food and material required daily by the army in the field.

Under Phillip, the Macedonian nobility was, for all practical purposes, transformed into a professional officer corps. Alexander could and did rely on a large group of capable subordinate commanders and staff officers. As complement to his own remarkable skills, Alexander was well served by a group of highly competent subordinate generals many, such as Parmenion and Ptolemy, justly famous in their own right and some of whom went on to rule powerful successor empires themselves.

Together, these elements made a military machine of unprecedented agility, flexibility, and sustainability capable of adapting itself to dominate virtually any tactical situation, project power across enormous distances and maintain a high operational tempo in difficult, poorly resourced environments far from its strategic base. So sophisticated was the Macedonian system that it even had what approached an institutionalized tactical doctrine in which light forces deployed to create or to deny the enemy tactical opportunities, the heavy infantry formed a solid base of maneuver, and the heavy cavalry was used as a “hammer” to smash through the enemy line then wheel and crush the enemy force against the heavy infantry “anvil.” The medium infantry formed the flexible continuity connecting the different formations ready to provide immediate support to the cavalry and missile troops or act as a reserve. Alexander appreciated the utility of this doctrine, but never allowed himself to be rigidly bound by it. He always found his army able to adjust itself rapidly to his sudden creative insights or unconventional inspirations.

In addition to these impressive capabilities, the Macedonian Army possessed one final attribute that was equally important in explaining Alexander’s unprecedented record of achievement. The Macedonian Army was a fighting force of exceptional and terrifying ferocity. The average Macedonian soldier was, even by the standard of his time, ruthless, relentless, and remorseless. Collectively the Macedonians displayed a singular bloody-mindedness seldom exceeded by any military force in history. Terror and intimidation were primary weapons in their arsenal and they used them with unapologetic vigor. Perhaps the only fundamentally original innovation of Alexander was his technique of aggressively and relentlessly pursuing a defeated enemy. In divergence from traditional Greek warfare and in stark contrast to Asiatic practice, Alexander sought not simply to defeat his enemies, but to annihilate them lest they later discover the temerity to challenge him again. It was in pursuit operations that the inherent ferocity of the Macedonian military found its most terrifying outlet. It is not the least irony surrounding Alexander that in his campaigns – ostensibly undertaken to restore Greek honor, liberty, and fortune lost in persistent conflicts with Persia he killed more Asian and Greek soldiers than had died in the preceding 150 years combined.

For all of the Macedonian Army’s extraordinary potential, to be effective, any military force must be well-led and directed, and it was the gifts of military planning and leadership that Alexander possessed in greatest abundance. It was a legacy of traditional Greek warfare that the military commander should put himself at risk by participating personally in combat. Alexander, in this as in so much else, took the “heroic” leadership model to an extreme. He generally placed himself in the thick of the most desperate fighting and plunged into the attack with reckless disregard for his own safety in the process setting a powerful example for his men. Arrian relates that during a siege of an Indian fortress, Alexander, impatient with the progress of his men storming the enemy wall, impetuously seized a scaling ladder and clambered to the top accompanied by just two companions. In the mad rush to join their commander, the Macedonians over-crowded and broke the ladders, stranding Alexander among the enemy. His men implored him to jump back down into the many arms waiting to catch him, but, espying the enemy commander in the interior court, Alexander instead leaped inside and killed the Indian leader in personal combat. In the process, this tiny group of Macedonians became the focus of the defenders and they were showered with arrows one penetrating Alexander’s lung. Alarmed and enraged, the remaining Macedonians swarmed over the wall to secure what they assumed would be a corpse. That he survived this commonly mortal wound says much about Alexander’s physical stamina and toughness (as well as the modern tendency to underestimate the sophistication of ancient medicine). In all, the various sources record that Alexander received a total of eight major wounds in combat at least two of them very nearly fatal.

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