The Legacy of the Hellenistic Pike-Phalanx

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Diodorus declared that ‘Macedonian spears had conquered Asia and Europe’. The organization of Hellenistic pike formations into units and sub-units, combined with an elaborate and symmetrically distributed command structure, made the pike-phalanx a very ordered instrument of war – one that was mutually supporting, offensively and defensively strong, and adaptable to the varied tactical requirements of the ancient battlefield. Phalangite formations, for example, could be deployed to different depths, with the most common being that of sixteen ranks deep, but could also be arranged in deeper or shallower configurations depending upon the terrain, the size of the opposing force, the decisions of those in command and the situation of the day.

Similarly, the interval that each man and file occupied within the pike-phalanx could also vary depending upon what action was to be performed. The 48cm close-order interval, on the one hand, was only adopted by a pike formation to undertake manoeuvres such as wheeling as the more compressed nature of this close interval meant that the formation had less distance to travel as it changed direction. Importantly, in this order, the pikes of the phalanx had to be held vertically due to its compact nature and, as such, the close-order formation could not be used offensively. The intermediate-order interval of 96cm per man, on the other hand, provided enough space for the weapons held by the first five men of each file to be lowered for combat. In contrast, the open-order interval of 192cm per man was too open to be effective in combat and would have only been used by armies on the march as the larger amount of room between each man facilitated ease of movement while carrying a panoply of equipment in excess of 21kg, including a long pike.

The length of the sarissa meant that the majority of combat in the Hellenistic Age (at least initially) was conducted at ‘pike length’ with the opposing sides separated by several metres. This was due to the way in which the sarissa was employed to hold an opponent at bay, and gave the Hellenistic pike-phalanx a great tactical advantage over opponents who carried weapons with a much shorter effective reach. If an opportune target did present itself, it was the members of the front ranks of the phalanx – the only ones with the freedom of movement to actually thrust their weapon forward – who would have been able to exploit it. For the other members of the phalanx, their role was to cover the gaps between each file, to engage prone opponents and to provide density and reserves to the formation as a whole while the enemy was held back.

The ability to engage an enemy from a safe distance, one where that opponent could not reciprocate offensively, allowed the pike-phalanx to effectively pin an enemy formation in place as part of the standard tactic of pike-phalanx combat – that of the hammer and anvil. Across the entire Hellenistic Period this tactic of using the pike-phalanx in the centre to hold an enemy formation (or part thereof) in position while other, more mobile, troops swept around to strike from the flanks remained unchanged. This in itself demonstrates the integral part that the pike-phalanx played in the conflicts of this time period.

While the functionality of the phalangite remained little changed across the Hellenistic Period, the tools and strategies of war constantly developed in attempts to overcome the advantages held by the pike-phalanx, particularly during the time of the Successors following the death of Alexander the Great in 323BC when pike-phalanx fought pike-phalanx and a decisive tactical advantage of some kind was required to secure victory. Consequently the sarissa itself became longer to outreach an enemy armed in a similar fashion, and beasts such as elephants were more regularly employed to try and smash an opposing formation apart. Many of these tactical ‘experiments’ met with mixed results; the pike could only be increased in length until a point was reached where it was almost impossible to wield, and contingents of elephants could be countered with other elephants, a solid wall of pikes, missile troops or other measures. As a result, the phalangite, and the pike-phalanx, retained its position of supremacy on the battlefield.

Yet for all of its advantages, the pike-phalanx did have its limitations. This was mainly the potential for gaps to open in the line – due in part to the phalanx being comprised of semi-independent units and sub-units. If such gaps could be exploited by a more mobile opponent, one who could get inside the rows of projecting pikes, this was when the pike-phalanx was most vulnerable as the long sarissa made the phalangite a very ineffective individual combatant, and larger units were incapable of turning to meet threats from the sides once their pikes had been lowered. It was the ability of the Roman legionaries to take advantage of this inherent weakness in the Hellenistic pike-phalanx which ultimately led to the formation’s demise.

Yet the defeat of Hellenistic pike-phalanxes by the Romans at Cynoscephalae in 197BC and then at Pydna in 168BC did not see the total removal of the Macedonian way of war from the battlefields of antiquity. In 86BC the legionaries of Rome fought against the pike-phalanx (and other troops) of the Pontic king Mithridates at the second battle of Chaeronea. Much like the phalangites of nearly three centuries earlier, Plutarch describes the Pontic phalangites as being equipped with bronze shields and pikes.² During the battle, and in actions reminiscent of the engagement at Pydna, the Romans are said to have cast their javelins, drawn their swords, and ‘struggled to push aside the pikes so that they could get to close quarters as soon as possible’. As if to confirm that very little change had taken place in both the use of the pike-phalanx and the Roman methods of countering it, the Pontic army was defeated by independent Roman units pressing their advantage along different parts of the line as the pike-phalanx began to break up. The second battle of Chaeronea was the last real offensive action that a Hellenistic-style pike-phalanx would undertake. As has been noted, by a strange quirk of fate, the location of this encounter was very close to the battlefield where, in 338BC, Philip II fought against the Greeks with the new Macedonian army and ushered in the Hellenistic Age and the rise to dominance of the pike-phalanx for almost the next century and a half. Three hundred years after the first battle of Chaeronea things had now come full circle and the demise of this style of warfare would occur in almost the exact same place.

Even this defeat was not the last time the ancient world saw a Macedonian-style phalanx. In AD66 the Roman emperor Nero enrolled recruits into ‘The Phalanx of Alexander the Great’ for an intended campaign against the Parthians. This expedition never occurred and the ‘phalanx’ does not seem to have seen any action. It is also uncertain exactly how these troops were armed. Bennett and Roberts, for example, suggest that they were actually equipped as standard Roman legionaries. There are, however, clues as to their equipment which suggest otherwise. As well as a Parthian campaign, Nero had also planned expeditions to Greece and Alexandria. Both of these locations had strong connections to Alexander and Nero may have been entertaining dreams of attempting to emulate the former conqueror. Additionally, the Parthians were the descendants of the Persians and, if Nero was attempting to emulate Alexander, he may have thought that the best way to defeat the Parthians was with the very instrument that Alexander had used to defeat Persia: a pike-phalanx.

In AD217 the emperor Caracalla, also thinking himself to be the ‘New Alexander’, similarly created a phalanx for a Parthian campaign. Cassius Dio states:

Caracalla was so enthusiastic about Alexander [the Great] that he used certain weapons and cups that he believed had once been his, and he also set up many likenesses of him in both army camps and in Rome. He organized a phalanx, composed entirely of Macedonians, 16,000 strong, named it ‘Alexander’s Phalanx’, and equipped it with the arms that warriors had used in his day. These consisted of a helmet of raw oxhide, a three-ply linen cuirass, a bronze shield, long spear, short spear, high boots and sword. Not even this, however, satisfied him, but he had to call his hero ‘the Augustus of the East’; and once he actually wrote to the senate that Alexander had come to life again in the person of the Augustus, and that he might live on once more in him…

Herodian states:

At times we saw ridiculous portraits [of Caracalla], statues with one body which had on each side of a single head the faces of Alexander and the emperor. Caracalla himself went about in Macedonian dress, especially the broad sun hat and short boots. He enrolled picked youths into a unit which he called his Macedonian phalanx; its officers bore the names of Alexander’s generals.

Cowan suggests that the short spear mentioned by Cassius Dio as part of the panoply for these new phalangites could have been a javelin. This would then find parallels with the ‘regular’ Macedonian equipment carried by Horratus/Coragus in his heroic duel with the Athenian Dioxippus in 326BC as recounted by Curtius and Diodorus. Such equipment would then supply a close connection between a description of one of Alexander’s troops and those of Caracalla who was trying to emulate them. Furthermore, the number of men in Caracalla’s ‘phalanx’ (16,000) bears close similarities with the size of the numerically perfect phalanx (16,348) that is outlined in military manuals such as that of Aelian which, although written a century before the reign of Caracalla, reported to be writing about the army of Alexander the Great.

Cassius Dio reports seeing the training of Caracalla’s phalangites in Nicomedia.¹⁴ However it is still uncertain exactly how such troops were armed. An epitaph from Apamea, for example, refers to a trainee ‘phalangarius’ from Legio II Parthica which had been raised by Septimius Severus in AD197. However, the term ‘phalangarius’ has two meanings – both of which have military connotations. The first is a reference to a member of the phalanx. Yet many Greek writers of the middle empire use the term phalanx to refer to a Roman battle line without specifically meaning that the men within it were armed as pikemen. The other definition refers to someone who carries equipment on a long pole. This last definition bears many similarities to the ‘Marian Mules’ of the late Roman Republic who had to carry their personal equiment suspended from a long pole slung over their shoulder – an operational aspect of the Roman army that was kept in place at least into the second century AD. Consequently, the phalangarii of Legio II Parthica could simply be troops within the standard battle line, or troops porting their own equipment (or both), but they may not have necessarily been armed as pikemen. Cowan suggests that these phalangarii may have been the cause for the brief resurgence of the spear-wielding triarii around AD300. If so, then the phalangarii may have been spearmen rather than pikemen.

Additionally, reports of the Romans fighting in Parthia suggest that they may not have been using long pikes. Both Herodian and Africanus state that the Roman weapons were not long enough to counter the Parthian cavalry lances. This again would suggest that the phalangarii may have been spearmen rather than pikemen.

It seems that the Macedonian-style pike-phalanx itself had disappeared from the battlefields of the Roman Empire, but its prestige, titulature and even some of the materials that its shields had been faced with remained. The achievements of Alexander the Great also remained as a benchmark which Roman emperors attempted to surpass. In the third century AD for example, Severus Alexander:

made every effort to appear worthy of his name and even to surpass the Macedonian king, and he used to say that there should be a great difference between a Roman and a Macedonian Alexander. Finally, he provided himself with soldiers armed with silver shields and with golden [shields], and also a phalanx of 30,000 men, whom he ordered to be called phalangarii, and with these he won many victories in Persia. This phalanx, as a matter of fact, was formed from six legions, and was armed like the other troops, but after the Persian wars received higher pay.

This is a clear demonstration that the soldiers of Severus’ army, while imitating many aspects of the army of Alexander the Great, were armed in their standard fashion rather than as pikemen. As such, if the term phalangarii is not just an anachronistic appellation, it would seem that these troops may have been carting their own equipment which would then warrant such a title.

However, the Macedonian way of war also continued to provide inspiration following the fall of Rome. The Byzantine emperor Leo IV (reigned AD866-912), for example, incorporated much of the content of Aelian’s manual on the Hellenistic pike-phalanx into his own version of the Tactica in the late ninth century AD. An Arabic version of Aelian was also published around 1350. While the Byzantines and the Muslims did not put the principles of the Hellenistic pike-phalanx into widespread practice, the fact that these texts were copied so extensively in Europe and the Middle East attests to the pride of place that an understanding of the Macedonian way of war had in the development of later military institutions.

More than three centuries later, the large European pike and musket armies of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries would be heavily modelled on the Macedonian system and the works of Asclepiodotus, Aelian and Arrian became popular once again as instructional manuals for the reigning monarchs of the time. This would be the last time an army armed and organized (if only in part) in the Macedonian manner would fight on the world stage.

With the defeat of the Pontic army of Mithridates by the Romans at the second battle of Chaeronea in 86BC the use of the pike-phalanx, at least one that would have seemed familiar to Philip, Alexander and the Successors, came to an end. The pike-phalanx was defeated once and for all by an opponent who employed and transmitted a very different way of fighting – one that, as with all developments in the arts and technologies of war, outclassed that which had come before it. Yet in an ironic turn of fate, the pike-phalanx was eclipsed by a culture which still held the principles of the army of Alexander the Great in high regard and which, through the continued emulation and study of it, left the ideals of the Hellenistic pike-phalanx as a lasting legacy which directly influenced western warfare for centuries to come. This, more than anything else, highlights the important part that the ‘invincible beast’ of the Macedonian pike-phalanx has had on shaping the world as we know it.

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