Philip would turn the traditional method of combat on its head by creating an army and introducing new tactics the likes of which the Greeks had never seen. His enemies were no match for him. Nor, as events would prove, were the Persians, Bactrians, and Indians a match for Alexander, thanks to the army he inherited from his father.

A Macedonian phalanx by Johnny Shumate.

Macedonian phalanx formation carrying sarissas. From N. G. L. Hammond, Alexander the Great: King, Commander and Statesman, 2nd ed. (Bristol: 1989), p. 84.
Mechanical bow and torsion catapult.

The strength of Macedonia’s army before Philip had lain in its cavalry, provided by the nobles who alone could bear the costs of horses and armor. The infantry by contrast consisted mostly of peasant farmers, who were hastily conscripted when danger threatened. They were poorly, if at all, trained and armed. When called to fight they had to leave their farms, bringing with them their oxen and wagons, which in turn adversely affected their crop outputs and livelihood. No match for the aggressive tribes on the kingdom’s borders or the trained hoplite Greek armies, the Macedonian army had a torpid track record. Philip changed all that by implementing reforms as soon as he became king to create a professional, full-time fighting force.

Like the Greek cities, Philip relied on mercenaries throughout his reign. However, to attract his own people as well as those whom he conquered to military service, he introduced regular pay and a promotion pathway; he also provided arms and armor to the infantry, although the wealthy cavalrymen still had to pay for their own horses. The elite hypaspist (shield bearer) infantryman was paid one drachma a day, and a cavalryman, three drachmas. These rates were higher than the daily five obols for a Greek hoplite soldier (six obols = one drachma) and two (possibly three) drachmas for a Greek cavalryman. In addition, cash bonuses and even grants of land in conquered territories were awarded to his men in recognition of their service and as an incentive to fight all the more. These simple acts dispensed with the need for conscription and also benefited the economy, as the farmers no longer had to leave their lands to fight.

Philip never considered adopting the Greek hoplite style of hand-to-hand fighting at close quarters. Instead, thanks to the tactical influence of Pammenes and Epaminondas of Thebes, he taught his infantry new skills and grouped them together in various battalions (led by battalion commanders) that together comprised the phalanx, over which he had ultimate control. He may have done so because he lacked money and time to make the armor and train his men in hoplite tactics. On the other hand, given the 4,000 losses under Perdiccas, Philip must have had to hire some mercenaries at the start of his reign, which indicates that he had money. Further, these mercenaries would have been versed in hoplite tactics, affording him the time to train his own men accordingly. Therefore a more plausible reason for fashioning the phalanx as he did is that he wanted it to be utterly different from anything the Greeks had ever been confronted by in battle. To cope with different terrains and enemy formations and numbers Philip varied the depth of the phalanx formation from eight to 32 ranks (he and Alexander preferred 16), thereby affording it weight and power as well as maneuverability in the field.

Philip (or possibly Alexander II) may also have created a contingent of infantry known as pezhetairoi, “foot companions,” as a sort of “special forces” unit. Later, pezhetairoi became the name for all the infantry, perhaps as a “balance” to the Companion Cavalry, and this specialist unit was called the hypaspists (shield bearers), who would prove invaluable to Alexander in Asia. Philip also introduced new weaponry, including the sarissa, a 14- to 18-foot-long pike made of local cornel wood, with a pointed iron head, altogether weighing around 14 pounds-the modern reconstructions of them at Thessaloniki show how intimidating these weapons must have been.

The sarissa required both hands to wield it, but since it came in two parts it could easily be carried and then quickly fitted together before engaging an enemy. The infantryman would then carry the weapon upright (in “close order,” pyknosis), and as the phalanx approached the enemy line the first five ranks of the battalions would lower their sarissas to charge.

The sheer length of the sarissa allowed the Macedonian troops to impale their enemies, whose short swords came nowhere near them, thereby thwarting the close-formation hoplite fighting. Even when the two lines actually did meet the Macedonians’ armor of a cuirass, leg greaves, small shield over one shoulder, a short sword, and an iron, hoplite-style helmet weighed less than that of the Greek hoplite, again giving them an advantage.

Most of Philip’s innovations involved the infantry, but he did not neglect the cavalry and viewed both divisions of his army as equally important. He arranged the cavalry in various divisions (ilai), each of about 200 men, which were based on the regions from which the troops came. A special royal squadron of cavalry (ile basilike) comprised 300 men. He may even have created the fast, mounted cavalry scouts (prodromoi), on whom Alexander relied so heavily in Asia. Instead of a frontal cavalry assault, Philip trained his cavalry to attack in a wedge formation, and its principal role was to disrupt the opposite line. The Macedonian horses pushed and shoved the enemy combatants, while their riders, brandishing spears and short swords, slashed and stabbed from on high. There was also a cavalry squadron named the sarissophoroi, who therefore carried sarissas. These must have been shorter than the infantry sarissas, as the riders could not have used both hands to wield a long sarissa and at the same time control their horses. To wreak havoc among enemy ranks even more, Philip reversed the standard Greek tactic of infantry engaging the enemy before the cavalry. His army was unique in Greece for having its cavalry advance against the adversary’s flanks at the outset of an engagement and wheel behind it while the massed phalanx bore down on the center and poured through gaps opened up by the cavalry. In this way, his opponents were trapped between two offensive fronts.

Philip kept his men in constant training to help prepare them for any type of engagement. The infantry especially had to learn to use their sarissas effortlessly, especially if marching across rivers and rocky terrain, and to run with them in upright and lowered positions. We learn about aspects of the training and drills from a campaign in Illyria that Alexander waged in 335, shortly after he became king. Philip would also have arranged for the infantry and cavalry to work seamlessly together, perhaps charging dummy lines of differing lengths and depths to hone their shock-and-awe tactics. The king also intended his new army to be self-sufficient. To this end, the men were taught to forage for provisions and to carry all their equipment, food, and drink. The “hangerson” who normally accompanied Greek and Persian armies, from wives and families to various attendants and even prostitutes, were banned from traveling with Macedonian troops. The slow-moving carts carrying provisions and equipment that oxen had previously pulled were also abandoned and replaced by faster-moving pack animals such as mules and horses. The end result was an army that could march quickly and effortlessly regardless of terrain or weather conditions.

Philip’s military reforms did not happen overnight but, rather, continued throughout his reign. In about 350 he formed an engineering corps, headed by Polyeides (or Polyidus) of Thessaly, who was designing new siege machinery, including the torsion catapult. This was akin to a spring-loaded crossbow that fired arrows farther and faster than the traditional mechanically drawn catapult. Philip first used the torsion catapult at his siege of Byzantium in 340, and the weapon enabled Alexander to take many walled cities and force others into capitulation. In fact two of Polyidus’s students, Diades and Charias, accompanied Alexander on his campaigns.

Philip also integrated regular and specialist troops from the areas he conquered into his army. For example, after his campaign in Illyria in 358 Agrianian javelin men (who lived above the Strymon River) joined his ranks, as did Thracian javelin men and Scythian archers after his conquest of Thrace in 342-341. Some of the individual regiments of the phalanx had special functions or were held in particular esteem, such as the elite hypaspists, who were lighter-armed and marched at faster speeds and whose number included the royal agema or guard. Competition to be in these units was fierce, and membership meant everything-as Philip intended. Here, the political nature of his military reforms becomes evident. Former opponents who were made to join the army and who were deliberately kept in territorial divisions fought all the harder to prove that their divisions were the best, while outstanding commanders could be rewarded with membership in Philip’s senior staff (like his general Parmenion). In turn they came to owe loyalty to their general and king and maintain a united Macedonia.

To this end Philip may also have introduced the school of royal pages, young noble boys who lived at court from 14 to 18 years of age and received a military training, accompanying the king on campaign in their last year and serving as his personal attendants. This innovation was really a form of hostage-taking and was perhaps inspired by Persian practice. The families of these boys had little say in their sons being taken to court, where their well-being depended on the loyalty of their fathers.

Diodorus grossly overstated that Philip left so vast and powerful an army that Alexander never needed to ask for reinforcements when campaigning against the Persians. Nevertheless, Philip increased the army’s size from only about 10,000 infantry and 600 cavalry in 359 to 24,000 infantry and 3,000 cavalry by the end of his reign in 336. He created an offensive army such as Macedonia had never seen before and in doing so enabled his kingdom to become an imperial power.

Command Structure of the Macedonian Army

Philip II of Macedon

Mercenaries in Macedonian Service


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