Phalanx formation

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Image:Greek Phalanx.jpg
A modern reconstruction of Greek hoplites forming a phalanx formation. In reality equipment was not uniform (with the notable exception of Sparta) since each soldier would procure his own equipment and decorate them at will

A phalanx (plural phalanxes or phalanges) is a rectangular mass military formation, usually composed entirely of heavy infantry armed with spears, pikes, or similar weapons. The troops were disciplined to hold a line which created a nearly impenetrable forest of points to the front. The phalanx is a hallmark of Hellenistic or ancient Greek warfare; indeed, the word phalanx is derived from the Greek word phalangos, meaning finger.


[edit] Origins

The earliest known depiction of a phalanx-like formation occurs in a Sumerian stele. In this particular instance the troops seem to have been equipped with spears, helmets, and large shields covering the whole body. Egyptian infantry were also known to have employed similar formations. However, historians have not arrived at a consensus regarding the relationship between the Greek formation and these antecessors; the principles of shield wall and spear hedge were almost universally known among the armies of major civilizations throughout history, and as such it is impossible to reject the possibility that the similarities were due to convergent evolution instead of actual diffusion.

Some historians and authorities date the formation of the hoplite phalanx of ancient Greece to the eighth century BC in Sparta, though this is being revised as it is more likely that the formation was devised in the seventh century BC after the introduction of the Aspis shield (popularly but mistakenly known as the hoplon) by the city of Argos, which would have made the formation possible.

[edit] Operation

[edit] Overview

The hoplite phalanx was a formation in which the hoplites would line up in ranks, no less than four deep, in very close order. In this formation, the hoplites would lock their shields together, while the first few ranks of soldiers would project their spears out over the first rank of shields, thus allowing for the first three or so ranks of spearmen to engage their spears against the enemy. Therefore, one might say that the phalanx was essentially a formation in which the hoplites created a mass spear and shield wall. The effectiveness of the phalanx depended upon how well the hoplites could maintain this formation while in combat, especially when engaged against another phalanx. The main enemy of a phalanx was not the opposition forces (the majority of the soldiers would remain unengaged in a phalanx versus phalanx pushing match) but fear. The more disciplined and courageous the army the more likely it was to win - often disputes between the various city-states of Greece would be resolved by one side fleeing before the engagement. The Greek word dynamis, the "will to fight", expresses the drive that kept hoplites in formation.

Before the advance both sides would sing their paean, the battle-hymn (notably, the Spartans eschewed a battle-hymn, thinking it needless bravado), then advance to the cadence (a marching beat) - on trumpets, pipes, drums or shouted by senior men (essentially the equivalent of the modern day sergeant). When nearing the enemy the phalanx would break into a run sufficient to create momentum but not too much as to lose cohesion. Both sides would collide viciously, breaking many of the spears of the front row. The battle would then rely on the valor of the men in the front line and the rear men to maintain a push forward with their shields.

“Now of those, who dare, abiding one beside another, to advance to the close fray, and the foremost champions, fewer die, and they save the people in the rear; but in men that fear, all excellence is lost. No one could ever in words go through those several ills, which befall a man, if he has been actuated by cowardice. For ‘tis grievous to wound in the rear the back of a flying man in hostile war. Shameful too is a corpse lying low in the dust, wounded behind in the back by the point of a spear.” [Tyrtaeus: The War Songs Of Tyrtaeus]

The natural tendency during battle would be to drift towards the right side, or even for both lines to "wheel" as one side gave ground and the other advanced. This is because the individual hoplites carried their shields on their left arm, protecting not themselves but the soldier to the left (thus giving an incentive to stand very close together). Battles were won when the exposed right side (carrying spears) could overpower the opposing army's left side (carrying shields).

When in combat, the whole formation would consistently press forward trying to break the enemy formation; thus when two phalanx formations engaged, the struggle essentially became a pushing match, in which, as a rule, the deeper phalanx would almost always win, with very few recorded exceptions.

Note: The phalanx is an all or nothing tactic, meaning it either pounded its enemy to submission or was outflanked and completely destroyed. It is nearly impossible to use without light infantry support on the flanks.

[edit] The Doru

The doru was a type of spear in general use in the Hellenistic world. Although accounts of the weapon's length vary, it is usually held today to have been between seven and nine feet long. It was held one-handed, the other hand holding the hoplite's aspis (shield). The front spearhead was usually a curved leaf shape, while the other contained a spike called a sauroter ("lizard-killer") which was used to stand the spear in the ground (hence the name), as a secondary weapon if the main shaft snapped or for the rear ranks to finish off fallen opponents as the phalanx advanced over them. There is debate as to whether the soldier would wield his spear above or below the shoulder. If it was held under-hand the thrusts would have been less powerful but under more control, and vice versa. It seems likely that both motions were used, depending on the situation. If attack was called for, an overhand motion was more likely to break through an opponent's defensive set-up and hit a vital area. The upward thrust is more easily deflected by armour due to its lesser leverage. However, when defending, an underarm carry absorbed more shock and could be "couched" under the shoulder for maximum stability. It should also be said that an overarm motion would allow more effective combination of the aspis and doru if the shield wall had broken down, while the underarm motion would be more effective when the shield had to be interlocked with those of one's neighbours in the battle-line. It is certain, however, that hoplites in the rows behind the lead would thrust overhand. The rear ranks raised their spears upwards at increasing angles. This was an effective defence against missiles, deflecting their force.

[edit] The Sarissa

The sarissa was the spear used by the Macedonian forces that conquered most of the world known to the Greeks. The actual length of the sarissa is now unknown, but it appears to have been at least twice as long as the doru. This makes it a minimum of 14 feet, although 18 appears more likely (the cavalry xyston was 12.5 feet, for comparison). This type was used by the Macedonian, King Phillip, and later used by his son Alexander the Great. Due to its greater length and consequent weight and balance difference a sarissa was wielded two-handed. This meant that the aspis was no longer a practical defence. Instead, the phalangites strapped a smaller pelte shield (usually reserved for light skirmishers - "peltasts") to their left forearm. Although this reduced the shield wall the extreme length of the spear prevented most enemies from closing, as the spears of the first three to five ranks could all be brought to bear in front of the front row. This spear had to be held underhand, as the shield would have obscured the soldier's vision had it been held overhead. It would also be very hard to remove a sarissa from anything it had become stuck on (the earth, shields, and opposition soldiers, usually) if it was thrusted downwards due, once again, to its great length. Sarissa troops gained a reputation for complete immobility at the battle-line. This immobility allowed cavalry to wheel around opposed infantry and strike from the flanks or rear - a tactic used to great effect by the Macedonians.

[edit] Phalanx Strategy

While a largely inflexible formation, commanders did experiment with the possibilities provided by a phalanx. Not just content with the simple pushing match (which in any case was the complete dominion of the Spartans) generals began to change the formation in different ways to adapt to the needs of the situation. A famous example of this adaptation occurred at the Battle of Marathon (490 BC) in which the Athenians thinned out their phalanx and consequently lengthened their front. This minimised the casualties from the overwhelming Persian archers (the Medes) and prevented the Athenians from being outflanked by the numerically superior forces of Darius. The eventual result was a double envelopment and by all accounts a crushing victory for Athens. Despite this demonstration of possible innovation, the superiority of Sparta at this form of warfare would continue for another century.

Top: Traditional hoplite order of battle and advance.
Bottom: Epaminondas's strategy at Leuctra. The strong left wing advanced while the weak right wing retreated or remained stationary. The red blocks show the placement of the elite troops within each phalanx.

At the Battle of Leuctra (371 B.C.) the Theban general Epaminondas devised a phalanx tactic that would defeat Sparta. The tactic involved thinning out the right and center in order to put a massive 50-rank deep phalanx on their left, the hitherto weak flank. This formation, known as the oblique phalanx, allowed the Thebans to turn the Spartan right flank even as the Spartans pushed back the right and center of the Theban line. As the Spartan king and his agema (elite bodyguard) were always stationed on the right, by breaking the strong enemy wing Epaminondas struck a decisive blow and routed the Spartan leadership. The Spartans were decisively defeated, shattering the myth of Sparta's invincibility in land warfare.

As a result of these developments Philip II was able to raise an army of competent, well-drilled infantry at a much lower cost (in terms of both time and money) than the Greek city-states to the south. Even though the longer weapons of the Macedonian phalanx also meant that their formation was less flexible than that of the Greeks, it was not seen as a great disadvantage since the phalanx was meant to serve only as a part of a combined-arms force that also included a variety of skirmishers and mounted troops, most notably the prodromoi scouts and the famous Companion cavalry. The Macedonian phalanx generally worked to pin the center of the enemy line while the Companions attacked the flanks and the light infantry hovered around to cover the phalanx's immediate flanks and plug any gaps in the line caused by advancing through difficult terrain. The Macedonian combined arms phalanx/cavalry was far superior to any static Greek hoplite army. For example, at the Battle Of Chaeronea Philip II's Macedonians crushed the Theban phalanx, which was itself advancing in the oblique. It had been inconceivable to phalanxes before this battle that a force of cavalry would dare charge straight through and over the spears, but the Companion cavalry under Alexander III, the crown prince, ran right over and annihilated the elite Theban Sacred Band. This battle marked the beginning of the end of a single phalanx as a dominant force in warfare.

[edit] Demise

While the phalanx formation was formidable and nearly indestructible from the front, the formation would find it difficult to protect its own flanks and rear because it was relatively slow-moving and once engaged it could not easily disengage or redeploy itself to face a threat from those directions. Therefore, when the phalanx was flanked (attacked from either the left or right side) it was rendered nearly defenseless. This occurred at the battle of Cynoscephalae, in which a force of Roman legionaries defeated one wing of a Macedonian army and then detached several cohorts from the victorious wing to strike the flank of the other Macedonian wing. The Macedonian phalanx could also be disordered while moving through broken terrain and in this condition it had to be supported by friendly light infantry standing ready to plug any gaps in the phalanx line as they appear. When these light troops were either absent or failed to do their duty, as in the battle of Pydna, the phalanx would become extremely vulnerable to attack by more flexible troops such as (again) the Roman legions.

Another weakness the phalanx faced was light missile troops such as archers or slingers. These troops could stay a safe distance from the phalanx while at the same time subjecting it to missile fire, thus forcing it to surrender, retreat, or wait for the foe to run out of ammunition. Skirmishers were often deployed to counter and prevent this. Effective armor could also make missile fire less of a concern.

Thus, the phalanx was at its weakest when the enemy possessed large numbers of lighter and more flexible troops and it had no such supporting troops to match them with. An example of this is the battle of Lechaeum, where an Athenian army led by Iphicrates, containing a considerable proportion of light missile troops armed with javelins and bows, succeeded in routing an entire Spartan mora (a Spartan unit numbering anywhere from five to nine hundred hoplites). Iphicrates accomplished this by wearing the Spartans down with repeated attacks by his peltasts (skirmishers), causing a general disarray in the Spartan ranks and an eventual rout when the Spartans spotted Athenian heavy infantry reinforcements trying to flank them by boat.

It was due to the two abovementioned weaknesses that after the Peloponnesian War the phalanx did not perform very well unless it was deployed as part of a combined-arms force. When the phalanx was employed without cavalry and/or light infantry support, it could not cope with the greater tactical flexibility of the Roman legion. It was dethroned from its prestigious position among ancient tactical formations after the battle of Pydna (168 BC), after which Macedonia and Hellas were made Roman provinces. Some legends, however (with little supporting historical evidence) state that a Spartan phalanx drove off marauding Visigoths after the Battle of Adrianople in AD 378.

[edit] Revival

The phalanx never quite died out; the Roman legionaries at the time of Caesar and Arrian were known to have defended against (and even attacked) cavalry by using their pila as thrusting spears instead of thrown javelins. In the 3rd century the Roman army even directly adopted the phalanx formation for units campaigning in the East, such as the Legio II Parthica. The phalanx also formed an important part of the skoutatoi formations in the later phases of the Eastern Roman Empire.

In addition, the Viking-era swine array and the Anglo-Saxon shieldwall bore striking similarities to the early hoplite phalanx. The Frankish army at the Battle of Tours might have used a phalanx-like formation. Later on the pike phalanx enjoyed a major revival in the form of the Scottish Schiltron and Swiss pike square (see also Landsknecht). The Swiss phalanx was a much narrower formation than the hoplite phalanx, usually no more than 20 or 30 men wide but considerably deeper. The Swiss phalanx had great success — particularly against French cavalry — for almost a half century, but their ascendancy came to an end with the Swiss defeat in the battle of Marignano in 1515. It was replaced by the Spanish tercio, which combined the solidity of the phalanx with the flexibility and firepower of attached musket formations.

[edit] The Phalanx In Greek Culture

The image of the men of the polis (the city-state) taking up arms together in defence of their country remains linked with the Ancient Greek culture. Many grave markers that have survived to the present contain the phrase "died in the front line". The Athenian playwright Aeschylus' grave says nothing of his literary career and marks only his participation at the battle of Marathon. Aeschylus' play The Persians is a celebration of that victory. Some of the abiding images of Grecian art, such as Polycleitus' doryphoros, "spear-bearer" (to the right), contain the image of the warrior (The spear in his right hand, since it was likely bronze, has been lost to time). The attraction is that fear is the main enemy, and if a soldier succumbed he would leave his comrades unprotected. Often the comrade would be a family member or close friend (supposedly in the Theban Sacred Band the line would be composed of pairs of lovers). The valor in protection of your friends and country came to be the most prized attribute of a Greek. The Spartan poet Tyrtaeus wrote:

"It is beautiful when a brave man of the front ranks falls and dies, battling for his homeland... Young men, fight shield to shield and never succumb to panic or miserable flight, but steel the heart in your chests with magnificence and courage. Forget your own life when you grapple with the enemy." [Tyrtaeus: The War Songs Of Tyrtaeus]

or from a less warrior-oriented culture, Euripides the Athenian (from his diatribe against Herakles):

"a man who has won a reputation for valor in his contests with beasts, in all else a weakling; who ne'er buckled shield to arm nor faced the spear, but with a bow, that coward's weapon, was ever ready to run away. Archery is no test of manly bravery; no! he is a man who keeps his post in the ranks and steadily faces the swift wound the spear may plough"

This seems to represent the prevailing view upon valor in the Hellenistic world. Grave markers proudly note death in the front rank, presence at great battles and acts of courage. Much of the art of Ancient Greece, therefore, reflects their desire for recognised bravery.

[edit] Hoplites In Greek Society

Hoplites supplied their own "panoply" (in this context meaning his armour and weapons, from which English has derived the meaning of splendour) from their own personal equipment. This would mean procuring a helmet, cuirass and greaves as well as a spear, sword and shield. As a result no phalanx was uniform (except the Spartans, who had their gear provided). This total kit must have weighed between fifty and seventy pounds, and would have cost quite a few drachmae. As a result, hoplites had to be at least middle-class. To illustrate this one should consider the Athenian class system of the Solon constitution. The four classes (upwards) were thetes, zeugites, hippeis and pentacosiomedimnoi (measured in produce per year of land). The three lower classes were drafted into the military according to what they could provide. The thetes rowed the vast Athenian fleet of ships, the hippeis, capable of supporting a horse (an aristocratic animal, never used agriculturally) formed cavalry and the zeugites formed the phalanx. It was also necessary to be physically fit and able bodied to fight as a hoplite, since the armour was heavy and allowed no ventilation (instant heat and sweating would result). The better nourished middle-class were more likely to be able to cope with the strain. Hoplite armour may also explain the preference for beards among the Greeks. The one piece helmet had no padding, so a beard (and long hair) acted as shock absorbers and kept the helmet from chafing the skin.

[edit] References

  • Livius page on hoplite warfare.

[edit] See also

Similar formations:

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cs:Falanga pěchoty da:Falanks de:Phalanx el:Φάλαγγα es:Falange fr:Phalange (Antiquité) ko:밀집 장창보병대 it:Falange (militare) he:פלנקס hu:Phalanx nl:Falanx ja:ファランクス no:Falanks pl:Falanga (szyk bojowy) pt:Falange (infantaria) ru:Фаланга (строй) sr:Фаланга fi:Falangi sv:Falang tr:Phalanx Taktiği

Phalanx formation

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