Between the rise of Macedonia under Philip II and the eventual defeat of the Hellenistic kingdoms by the Romans, the pike armed Macedonian phalanx was a battle winning weapon. However despite being the dominant military formation for several centuries, the actual workings of the phalanx is still fairly obscure. This book looks at every aspect of the phalanx and attempts to use the most relevant sources to provide as accurate as possible a picture of how it worked.
The author disagrees with many of the orthodox views about the Macedonian phalanx, but he bases his view firmly on the documentary evidence, and makes a very good case for most of his arguments. I found his views on the natural of phalanx warfare, where he makes a very good case against the ‘shoving match’ or ‘rugby scrum’ idea, especially convincing. One of his most convincing points here is that the whole point of the Macedonia phalanx was that it created a wall of spears that was very difficult to get through, but the ‘shoving’ theory generally relies on both sides giving up that advantage and advancing right up each other, coming shield to shield and just pushing.
One big advantage here is that the author is very careful to separate evidence about the Macedonian phalanx from evidence for the earlier Greek classical hoplite. It’s quite surprising how often evidence relating to one is used to justify an argument about the other, but the two types were actually very different. The author also makes careful use of later evidence about the early modern pike, a similar weapon that must have created some of the same problems as the sarissa.
I do feel that the author slightly overplays the idea that the Macedonian phalanx could have been a battle winning weapon against the Roman legion. The Romans won all of the major battles they fought against the Macedonians and Seleucids, and famously fought King Phyrus to a standstill in their first encounters with it. While an unbroken phalanx was indeed capable of holding off the Romans in a face-to-face clash, that was only ever one part of a larger battle, and in every case the phalanx was eventually defeated. The author explains very well why this happened, looking at how the more flexible Roman formations were better able to take advantage of fleeting opportunities on the battlefield, getting into gaps in the enemy line or defeating other parts of the army.
The author makes a very good point about the limits of experimental archaeology when related to the ancient battlefield – it’s perfectly possible to recreate the arms and armour of an ancient army, and line up as described in our sources, but the moment the ‘fighting’ starts the accuracy ends, as the re-enactors have to be careful not to injure each other. A very important part of the real nature of infantry warfare is that the two sides were actively trying to kill each other, and that is something we really can’t recreate! In the case of phalanx clashes this largely eliminates the actual clash of pikes. As a result they can’t really help tell us how the business end of the fighting actually took place (although they do give a good idea of how intimidating the Macedonian phalanx must have been to face, and give a clear idea of how different it was from the Greek hoplite phalanx, with its much shorter spears).
I have one quibble in the section on the nature of battle – the often repeated idea that people couldn’t actively fight for any great length of time. I certainly couldn’t, but away from work I volunteer alongside National Trust and Forestry Commission staff, and their levels of strength and stamina absolutely dwarf mine. I know people who can spend all day carrying heavy fence posts up a steap mountainside, and who without any doubt could wield a pike for prolonged periods of time. I think we tend to underestimate just how physically fit well drilled ancient soldiers would have been. One gets the same impression when reading autobiographies of wartime consripts, who often describe how much fitter they got after a few weeks of training.
This is an excellent examination of this battle winning unit, making good use of the available sources to clarify many of the uncertain aspects of this famous unit and to help explain how it was able to dominate battlefields from the Adriatic to the borders of India.
1 – Origins
2 – Arms and armour
3 – Organization and drill
4 – The men in the phalanx
5 – Manpower and recruitment
6 – Command and control
7 – Battles and tactics
8 – Fighting in the phalanx
9 – Legion and phalanx
Author: Richard Taylor
Publisher: Pen & Sword Military