History of the Phalanx
Created | Updated Jul 10, 2013
The phalanx1 was a military formation used by armies from roughly 2500 BC until around 200 BC. It remained a favoured formation throughout these years. Right up to more recent historical events such as the English Civil War, the name has been used for regiments of soldiers armed with long thrusting weapons called pikes - which saw its limited use against cavalry and mounted formations, and also to protect riflemen - but these formations bore little resemblance to the classical phalanx.
The Basic Phalanx
The phalanx was a large tactical formation of tightly-packed infantry, deployed in a rectangle with its wider side facing the enemy. Each person in the phalanx would be armed with a sword or dagger for close-quarter fighting, then a main thrusting weapon which was either a spear, long spear, or sarissa2, depending on the era. The rear ranks of the phalanx were able to fight over the ranks in front, (depending on the length of the weapon). Thus there could be anywhere between two and five fighting ranks, making it a formidable prospect to face.
Some phalanxes were also equipped with shields; this afforded greater protection to the front rank - which was clearly the most vulnerable. The shields used were often large enough to protect the entire torso of the user, and members of the front rank would overlap their shields to form a wall against attackers. If equipped with shields, the unit carried them in their left arm, holding their thrusting weapon in the favoured right hand.
The main weakness of the phalanx was its right flank. This was also its main thrusting side however, and it was known for phalanxes to push each other anti-clockwise in an attempt to beat each other with their more powerful side3.
The Origins of the Phalanx
The first phalanxes have been seen depicted on Sumerian inscriptions. The Sumerians first adopted the phalanx in roughly 2500 BC. In this instance, the Sumerian phalanx adopted an eleven-wide by six-deep formation, allowing it to fight easily in the large land battles of the era. The troops would usually be armed with spears, swords and shields, as well as wearing body armour (which varied from unit to unit). With only spears, the Sumerians would fight in just two ranks, forcing themselves nearer to the enemy, making for closer, bloodier conflicts.
The Greek Phalanx
The ancient Greeks were the first people to develop the phalanx into a deeper formation. They also equipped their soldiers with armour and occasionally shields. The Greeks trained their soldiers, known as hoplites, to use this formation. Greece was one of the first places to train troops in such a fashion. However, the hoplites themselves were still drawn from the populace and consisted of people of all walks of life. Due to this, military campaigns were usually restricted to summer, so that the farmers could sustain themselves at other times of the year.
The training reached its height in Sparta, where a large proportion of the populace was dedicated to warfare; this class were known as homoioi4. These elite soldiers were trained from an early age, and remained in the army for most of their lives. Each Spartan was fully equipped with a long spear, sword, heavy armour and a round shield called a hoplon. This high degree of training was used to great effect by the Spartans, allowing them to conquer their neighbours, the Messenians, and at one point to control much of Greece.
This advanced level of training influenced many, including the fledgling nation of Rome, who also relied on the phalanx in their earliest days.
The Height of the Phalanx in Warfare
The final evolution of the phalanx came in the form of the Macedonian phalanx in 359BC, when its creator came to the throne of Macedonia5. He was Phillip II, father of Alexander III6. The formation consisted of a group of phalangites (mainly recruited from the general populace, although some were regular soldiers). These would be armed with only a sarissa and daggers, and wore no armour (with the front rank carrying small shields if anything); the use of the sarissa kept the enemy at a distance, so armour was deemed unnecessary. In effect, the formation could fight up to five ranks deep, meaning there were more attackers than available targets.
Neither Phillip nor his son relied solely on these formations to win their battles, instead employing the phalanx to hold opponents in position and allow cavalry to sweep into the vulnerable flanks. The Macedonian system was so successful that Alexander was able to extend his realm right up to the borders of India.
The phalanx had always been a good defensive formation, and between 202BC and 218BC the Carthaginian general, Hannibal Barca, proved this by using Libyan troops equipped as phalangites throughout his campaign against Rome7. He used them to great effect at the battle of Cannae (216 BC), where he faced the early beginnings of what was to become the Roman legion8. By placing his Libyan phlangites on the left flank, he was not only able to anchor and protect it, but also to lap around the Romans and surround them with superior numbers. Later in the campaign however, the Roman short sword was developed (known as the gladius). This was used to great effect and marked both the end of the phalanx and the beginnings of the legion.
After the rise of the Roman legion as the supreme military unit, the phalanx saw limited use. The days of phalanx against phalanx warfare were over.
With the unification of Greece by Phillip II, and the adoption of the Macedonian phalanx by most of Greece, also came its downfall. This inflexibility, and its reliance on enemies being either similarly armed or only able to attack from the front, made it useless against the new battlefield tactics of the Roman legion. This heavily-armoured, extremely manoeuvrable unit crushed the phalanx formation, in all its forms, on most occasions. The un-armoured phalangities were no match for the close fighting preferences of the Roman legionnaire.
The phalanx in a way destroyed itself. Had it not been for the Spartans, who possessed one of the most powerful phalanxes at the time Rome was coming into being, then perhaps Rome would never have been encouraged to train its forces, and in turn the Roman legion would never have existed.