Hellenistic Phalanx


The Hellenistic Phalanx was developed from the Macedonian model created by Phillip II. He developed this in his youth while being a hostage to the city of Thebes. There he studied under the renowned general Epaminondas, whose reforms would become the basis for the phalanx of Phillip II.

The common soldiers of the phalanx, the Phalangites, were professional troops and among the first ever soldiers to be drilled. This gave them a distinct advantage over other militarieswho could not execute the complex maneuvers that were second nature for the Phalangite.

The equipment of the Phalangite was the Sarissa, a 18 foot long double pointed spear, which was carried in two separate pieces during march and then attached for battle. In addition, the Phalangite was equipped with a short curved sword called a Kopis. Due to the length of the Sarissa the Phalangite had to use two hands and as a result was only equipped with a small shield that was slung over the shoulder. Alexander The Great’s emphasis on the speed of his army resulted in the Phalangite’s armor being light and the Sarissa being the main defense against the enemy.

The phalanx was usually arrayed in a close-ranked rectangle or square formation with the smallest tactical unit being around 250 men. This formation usually fought thirty-two to sixteen men across and eight to sixteen men deep. Each file of men had a commanding officer in the front with junior officers, one at the rear and one in the center, in place to steady the ranks and maintain cohesion in the formation. The formation also had a commander who fought at the extreme front right of the formation. There were five other individuals in the formation: the messenger, the trumpeter, the standard bearer, an additional officer and a servant. These addition soldiers served to communicate between the units, maintain order and serve to distinguish the units from each other.

Alexander did not actually use the phalanx as the decisive arm of his battles, but instead used it to pin and demoralize the enemy while his heavy calvary would charge selected opponents, or exposed enemy flanks, after they had defeated the opposing enemy calvary. The battle tactics of the phalanx saw the first three to five ranks of the phalanx  level their spears at the enemy while the rest held theirs upright as a way to shield the formation from enemy missiles. The opposing enemy combatant would see multiple spear points facing himfrom an enemy out of reach. this made it nearly impossible to defeat the phalanx in a frontal engagement.
The phalanx had a crucial supporting formation called the Hypaspists. This was the elite ground troop formation that served to protect the phalanx’s weak side and link the phalanx to the Macedonian calvary.  They were armed in the more traditional hoplite form with heavier armor, shorter one handed spear, large shield and short sword. They were used for heavy hand to hand combat such as sieges. They were eventually replaced, under Alexander The Great’s successors, by less reliable mercenaries and local subject people.
Under Alexander’s successors the Hellinistic phalanx began to acquire different characteristics. the armor and overall equipment became heavier and changes in conscription methods led to less discipline in armies outside of Macedonia. The phalanx was now the main arm of attack instead of just a pinning force. This change in strategy, slow discarding of complimentary units, and lack of innovation led to a weaker complacent military.
The advantages of the Phalanx was that its discipline was unmatched during its conception under Philip II, its weaponry, the Sarissa, allowed the Phalanx to outreach enemy infantry and calvary formations. The light equipment under Alexander The Great allowed them to quickly move both in battle and in marches during campaigns. Under the successors the Phalanx lost its edge in training and quick movement.
The weaknesses of the Phalanx became more pronounced under the successors who no longer sought innovation for their militaries. The Phalanx was now more disciplined and as a result was much easier to become disorganized once crossing over broken uneven ground. The loss of supporting units ensured that once the calvary was defeated the phalanx was easily defeated once it was outflanked. The Phalanx was eventually defeated by the Roman Legion whose tactics and training replaced the Hellenistic Phalanx. The Legion was better organized and its tactics emphasized close hand-to-hand combat was effective once the Legion got close to the Phalanx and fighting was reduced to swords. The Legion never defeated the Phalanx in a direct combat but the Romans only won because of their calvary defeating Hellenistic calvary and attacking the Phalanx’s flank. This was achieved due to the successors lack of innovation and reliance on weak supporting units who could no longer protect the Phalanx’s flanks like Alexander the Great’s Hypaspists could.
The Phalanx was the premier infantry formation of the day that conquered and formed the largest empire at the time. Its advantages and strategy changed under Alexander’s successors who no longer fought foreign enemies but each other and no longer had to adapt to different enemies. This lack of innovation and imagination led to the reliance on the Phalanx as the main fighting force instead of one part of a well balanced army. Eventually this led to the Hellenistic world being conquered by Rome who would go on to form the greatest empire in the world.

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