Hellenistic Military Developments II


As mentioned earlier, in the Classical period, the style of warfare was dominated by the heavy-armed infantryman, the hoplite. The other arms, cavalry and light-armed troops (psiloi), along with ethnic specialists like Rhodian slingers or Cretan archers, were subordinate to the hoplite and the phalanx. The clash of hoplite armies decided the day. It is fair to say that heavy infantry was still the order of the day throughout most of the Hellenistic period, and the Hellenistic kings were keen to recruit sufficient numbers for their armies. The Macedonians, particularly Philip II, are credited with reforming the hoplite phalanx by a change in arms and armor. Principally, this meant the introduction of a smaller, lighter shield and a much longer thrusting spear, the sarissa. The sarissa came in different lengths at different times, from 15-18 ft at the time of Alexander to 21 ft in the second century (Polybios), and carried a small iron head and butt-spike. It was thus much longer than the traditional hoplite spear and required two hands to wield it. The ranks of soldiers were sixteen rows deep, the first five ranks able to project their sarissai beyond the front line. The rows from six to sixteen held their spears aloft and provided cover from enemy projectiles. The approaching Macedonian phalanx must have been a terrifying sight!

It has been suggested that Philip adopted and adapted a new military arm that was introduced into the Greek world in the late fifth and early fourth century, the peltast. Of Thracian origin, the peltast could be classified as light infantry; he carried a small shield (pelte), wore little body armor, and carried two throwing javelins for fighting from a distance. He had proven his worth in the Amphipolis campaign in 422 (Thuc. 5.10.9), but an army of peltasts, under the command of the Athenian general Iphikrates, surprised the military experts by destroying a contingent of 600 Spartan hoplites near Corinth in 390 (Xen. Hell. 4.5.11-18). Twenty years later, Jason of Pherai had a very large contingent of peltasts in his army (Xen. Hell. 6.1.19). Philip II’s Macedonian phalanx may then have constituted a body of “Iphikratean peltasts,” although now equipped exclusively with a long thrusting spear.

If the peltast inspired changes in Greek warfare in the fourth century, a uniquely Hellenistic innovation occurred approximately 100 years later. A new kind of infantryman appeared in Hellenistic armies, the thureophoros, named after the long oval shield he carried, the thureos. Scholars have suggested two origins for this kind of shield, both western: 1) the scutum used by Oscan peoples that Pyrrhos encountered during his campaigns in southern Italy in the 270s, and 2) the shield used by the Gauls during their invasions of Greece and Asia Minor at about the same time. The thureophoros could fight at a distance with javelins or close in with his sword, machaira. This multitasking gave him greater versatility than the phalangite. This type of shield was adopted by the Achaian and Boiotian Leagues during the early third century and is amply attested in gymnasiarchal victor lists on Samos (IG xii. 6. 179- 183) and in the athletic program of the Athenian festival of the Theseia in the mid-second century. The Attic inscriptions preserve the names of the victors for mock combat, the “hoplomachia en thureoi (kai machaira),” among various age classes of Athenian teenagers and ephebes.

We close this section by mentioning briefly an elite infantry force, the epilektoi, that appears in inscriptions in the late fourth century and into the Hellenistic period. They are attested in Athens, the Boiotian League, and the Achaian League. One Attic inscription records a decree by a contingent of epilektoi, who volunteered for service with Demetrios Poliorketes around 303. Affiliated by tribe and commanded by a tribal taxiarch, they appear to be an elite subset of the citizen hoplites, more highly trained, presumably, and serving as a quasi-permanent city militia, analogous perhaps to the ephebes. The Attic inscriptions are contemporaneous with the ephebic reforms reported in Aristotle’s Athenaion Politeia. They represent an increase in military specialization and professionalism among the hoplite ranks in the late fourth century, perhaps rising to the skill level of the mercenaries. The fact that they issued decrees is a sign that they enjoyed a distinct civic self-identity. The military designation continues well into the Hellenistic period. The tribal competitions for the Athenian epilektoi (euandria [manliness] and euhoplia [good maintenance and use of arms] categories) appear in the Theseia inscriptions of the mid-second century.  


In the Archaic and Classical periods, there were only three states that could claim to be genuine cavalry powers, Macedonia, Thessaly, and Boiotia, in great part because of the aristocratic nature of their societies and the availability of horse-breeding (hippotrophia) land. By the middle of the fifth century, democratic Athens had also created a respectable cavalry force of 1,000 men (with 200 horse archers) to match its imperial ambitions. Other Greek states, including Sparta, relied on the strength of its hoplite armies or light-armed specialty troops. Sparta, in fact, did not feel the need to create a cavalry force until 424, seven years into the Peloponnesian War. The effectiveness, if not the necessity, of cavalry in support of infantry was not lost on contemporary observers, and this attitude spilled over into the struggles of the Greek city-states in the first half of the fourth century. Xenophon, probably a member of the Athenian cavalry in his youth, wrote two military treatises, The Cavalry Commander and On Horsemanship, which emphasize the importance of careful maintenance and training of horse and rider. The goal was to create a more effective fighting force. It is well known that Philip II and, even more so, his son Alexander elevated the cavalry to high military importance, in both quality and quantity, greater than the Greek world had experienced and, to a certain degree, greater than the Macedonian kings who followed in the Hellenistic period. Alexander made his Campanion Cavalry a serious strike force, all the while continuing to emphasize the central role of the Macedonian phalanx. He also may have equipped some of his cavalry with a sarissa- similar to that held by the phalangites – and so identified as sarissophoroi wielding a thrusting lance of up to 15 ft.

Prior to the Macedonian rise to power in the mid-fourth century, cavalry (with the exception of horse archers) was fairly uniform in appearance. Ideally, the horseman carried a javelin (or two) and sword, wore high boots, a Boiotian-style helmet, and a breastplate (thorax), and rode without the benefit of stirrups or a saddle. Apparently, cavalrymen in the fourth century did not carry a shield; this piece of armor does not appear to have been adopted until the third century.

In addition to the “regular” cavalry of the Classical period, there developed in the late fourth century and Hellenistic period variations of lighter and heavier cavalry. The heaviest cavalry were called kataphraktoi, which meant literally “fully armored rider and horse.” To maneuver with this extra weight required a bigger and more powerful horse than those common in the Greek world; the cataphracts should remind us a little of the knights of the Middle Ages (except the latter had the benefit of stirrups!). This type of cavalry was almost certainly borrowed from the eastern provinces of Alexander’s empire, in the Iranian regions. The first Hellenistic king to incorporate cataphracts into his armies appears to have been the Seleukid Antiochos III at the end of the third century. There is no reference to them in his cavalry forces at the battle of Raphia in 217, but under the direct command of the son of Antiochos, they defeated the Aitolian cavalry of Ptolemy V at Panion in 200 (Polyb. 16.18.6-8). In 192, the envoy of Antiochos to T. Quinctius Flamininus could boast of them (Livy 35.48.3) and they figured prominently in Antiochos’ army at the battle of Magnesia in 190/89 against the Romans (Livy 27.40.5, 11). In fact, numerically (3,000 on each flank) they represented the largest distinct cavalry contingent on the field. His defeat at the hands of the Romans apparently did not discourage their use in the armies of his successors. In the grand military procession at Daphne in Syria in 165, Antiochos IV Epiphanes included 1,500 cataphracts (Polyb. 30.25.9).

The cataphract will appear again in the armies of the Pontic king, Mithridates VI Eupator (120-63) as he attempted to expand his empire into Asia Minor and Greece in the early decades of the first century. This led to three wars with Rome. In fact, there may have been Pontic cataphracts stationed in Athens and the Peiraieus during the First Mithridatic War. Later in the first century, the Roman general Lucullus faced Armenian cataphracts, and they will survive as a potent cavalry option in the east hundreds of years later. But one point is important to emphasize: They were absent from the armies of Classical Greece and were only embraced by the Seleukid and Pontic kings whose realms touched on eastern lands once part of Alexander’s empire.

We now turn to two specialized troops of light cavalry, the prodromoi and the Tarentines. They appear for the first time in the fourth century and continue to be attested both in literature and inscriptions into the second century. The prodromoi, as the name implies, functioned as a light-armed mobile advance force, as skirmishers, scouts, couriers, and so forth. In his hippic treatise, The Cavalry Commander, written in the 360s, Xenophon advised the hipparch to equip his prodromoi well and to train them diligently in the use of the javelin. (1.25). These troops were included in the annual review of the Athenian cavalry by the Council of Five Hundred (Ath. Pol. 49.1). They are clearly citizens and must represent a special troop recruited outside of the regular cavalry. It has been plausibly suggested that these prodromoi were introduced to replace Athens’ corps of 200 mounted archers, the hippotoxotai, deployed in the fifth and early fourth centuries. A recently published inscription from the Athenian agora shows that, in later fourth century or early third, the prodromoi could act as a civic corporate entity, issuing a decree in honor of the two cavalry secretaries (grammateis). In addition, references to prodromoi appear on lead cavalry tablets found in the Athenian agora and the Kerameikos (ancient cemetery) as late as the mid-third century. This means that the Athenian prodromoi are attested during the period from ca. 360 to ca. 260, thereby bridging the Classical and Hellenistic periods.

We also hear of prodromoi serving in Alexander’s army, but it is difficult to know whether there is any direct connection between the two other than the name. Alexander deployed four squadrons of prodromoi in his early campaigns. Arrian reports on their various military activities: reconnaissance (3.7.7), leading the charge at Granikos (1.14.5- 7), and participating in the major battles at Issos (2.9.2) and Gaugamela (3.12.3). They were an advanced strike force before the final battle with the Persian king (3.8.1-2) and pursued the king afterward (3.18.2, 3.20.1, 3.21.2). Apparently, they carried a sarissa and are referred to in our sources as sarissophoroi. The use of this special weapon should distinguish them from the Athenian prodromoi, who were customarily equipped with the javelin (Xenophon).

The other light cavalry force in this period was known as the Tarentines. They threw the javelin at the enemy from a distance and were sometimes armed with a sword and a shield (Arrian Tactica 4.5-6). They probably did originate in the southern Italian city of Tarentum, but by the Hellenistic period, the term had come to mean a particular type of cavalry or fighting style, regardless of the ethnic composition of the troop. They figure prominently in the wars of the successors, emerging as a regular element in the armies of Antigonos Monophthalmos and his son Demetrios Poliorketes. In the decisive campaigns between Eumenes and Antigonos in 317-316, Antigonos fielded 2,200 of them “particularly skilled in ambuscade” (Diod. 19.29.2). Diodorus also mentions an advance guard of 100 Tarentines accompanying Antigonos’ own bodyguard of 300 horsemen (19.29.5). On the eve of the battle at Gabiene in 316, Antigonos sent his Median lancers (longchophoroi), 200 Tarentines, and all of his light infantry to intercept Eumenes’ elephants before they linked up with his army, and later during the battle, he dispatched the same Median cavalry and Tarentines to seize Eumenes’ baggage train, with the goal of forcing Eumenes to withdraw (Diod. 19.42.2-3). In the Gaza campaign of 312, Demetrios was guarded by 100 Tarentines divided into three troops (Diod. 19.82.2). Sources attest the presence of Tarentine cavalry in the armies of Sparta, the Achaian League, Elis, and Antiochos III the Great at the end of the third century.

Tarentines are also amply documented in Hellenistic Athens, first as mercenaries, later as a citizen cavalry corps. An inscription dated to the third century (IG ii2 2975) records a dedication by the Tarantinoi from the spoils of war (which enemy or war we cannot tell), and in his Stratagems, Polyainos 3.7.4 places Tarentine horsemen in Athens during the tyranny of Lachares (300-295). In 1994, a new inscription was uncovered in the Athenian agora that records a decree by a foreign mercenary troop of Tarentines in honor of the Athenian hipparchs and phylarchs in 281/0. Because we know from another inscription that the canonical Athenian cavalry of 1,000 had fallen to 300 men at this same time, it is quite likely that the 500 cavalry sent by Athens to confront the invading Gauls at Thermopylai in 279 (Paus. 10.20.5) included this Tarentine mercenary force numbering 200. By the middle of the second century, the Athenians had created a citizen cavalry force modeled on the Tarentines. Tarantinoi are mentioned in the festivals of the Theseia and the Pythais to Delphi, along with their commanders, the Tarantinarchs. It is clear that this specialized force was distinct from the regular cavalry of Athens, whose numbers cannot be securely calculated in this period. The Athenians, by their own experience with mercenary Tarentines and the value attached to their services by other Hellenistic Greek states, must have concluded that they ought to establish their own citizen force of them. We have also suggested elsewhere that these mounted javelin men may have been intended to supersede the prodromoi, who had themselves replaced the hippotoxotai in the fourth century. 59 The tactical role of an advance strike force is shared by all three.

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