Sirwin
Sirwin
Drawing of a hoplite phalanx in battle formation

THE PHALANX: Ancient Greek Battle Formation


The hoplite proved to be an effective citizen soldier of the Greek Poleis, able to defend their homes and cities from the outside world, and indeed from other Greeks. However their panoply alone did not make them the great and iconic soldiers they were, as a soldier is only effective as long as the rest of their unit is too; the phalanx formation would interlock the shields of these soldiers, standing them shoulder to shoulder and brother to brother.

 


 

Check out my previous blog on the Hoplite infantrymen.

 


 

The heavy armour and poor visibility of the hoplite was a disadvantage, but this was balanced out by the way hoplites fought together in war; A phalanx formation (phalanx meaning “stacks” or “rows”) consisted of soldiers interlocking their large shields with the man next to them; as the soldier held his shield via the Argive Grip, holding it with his left arm at the right side of the shield, the right half of his shield covered himself, leaving the left side to cover the man standing to his left. When each soldier overlapped the right side of their shield with the left side of the man standing to their right, this created a scale-like shield wall reinforced by this overlapping of the shields. This created a more brotherly bond in combat, as soldiers were reliant on each other to keep a strong formation.

This was then further reinforced by the fact that a phalanx consisted of several rows of these soldiers all interlocking their shields, to combine maximum push with the desire to not be outflanked. The normal arrangement for a hoplite phalanx was anywhere between 4 to 12 ranks deep, spending on the situation and needs at the time of deployment. Essential on top of all this though was an iron will from all men to hold their formation, or else risk a potential break in the shield wall. This was reinforced by the men training together, and brigading together according to localities so all the men fighting together knew each other better.

 

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[ABOVE: A frieze on the tomb of Pericles of Lycia, c.380-360 BC]

 


 

PHALANX PRACTICALITIES

The tight formation of the phalanx made it an unsuitable form of warfare for fighting on uneven terrain, so opposing hoplite armies would usually seek out flatter terrain first; rigid military thinking was well demonstrated by the fact that Greece itself is such a mountainous and hilly part of the world. It is therefore arguably a better suited battlefield for light troops and guerrilla warfare, something that wouldn’t emerge en mass until the late 5th century BC. Some phalanxes were kept on beat and in formation by flute players, a common sight in Spartan armies.

A disadvantage of the shields overlapping to the left was that the men on the far right of the formation were very exposed in comparison to everyone else. To combat this somewhat, hoplite phalanxes often placed their most experienced fighters on the far right. In Sparta, the right side of a phalanx was considered a position of honour. It was also because of this overlapping to the left that caused phalanx formations to commonly drifted forward to the right as everyone tried to get more behind their neighbours shields, and generals often had no control over this happening. A solid wall of interlocked shields, together with rows upon rows of spears, also made the phalanx very adapt at fending off a good cavalry charge, something which other infantry would usually be very vulnerable to.

 


 

THE PANOPLY

A group of soldiers together in phalanx formation was called a “panoply”, (“panopliā”), and Spartan panoplies were famous for advancing slower and more in step and order than other poleis, marching to the rhythm of the flute and singing war songs, which contrasted everyone else who, as Thucydides notes, marched into battle,

full of sound and fury

The war cry before battle, the Greek “paean”, was Doric in origin, and was known as

a sacred cry uttered in a loud voice… a shout offered in sacrifice, emboldening to comrades, and dissolving fear of the foe

The Spartans were also known to wear leaf crowns, at least while they had stopped to perform their own “blood sacrifice” war cry. It wasn’t uncommon for opposing phalanxes to actually flee and run in sight of these Spartan war cries even before combat had ever begun.

 


 

COMBAT

Pushing and shoving was in essence the main part of how phalanxes actually fought each other. Opposing armies would push at each other’s shields while stabbing above and below with their spears and swords. As soldiers fell, the man behind would trample over him to make his way to the front rank. Eventually one side would buckle, break formation and begin to flee, often leaving their heavy shields behind to make a quicker escape. In many states, most notably in Sparta, it was considered a huge dishonour to abandon your shield in a fight, as the shield provided structure and protection to more than just one man. If cavalry was not present at a fight, pursuits in routing down fleeing enemy were minimal, otherwise armies light and disorderly enough to run after a fleeing force might in turn invite their opponents to regroup and fight again. This, however, was not an uncommon occurrence at the time. Victorious armies were content afterwards with possession of the battlefield, stripping weapons, armour and goods off of the fallen, burying their fallen comrades, killing or selling off the wounded as slaves, and setting up a trophy. The result from this style of warfare was mostly minimal casualties, since really only the front row of soldiers were the ones in danger, and flight, while a disgrace, was an easy thing to do.

Phalanx in battle

[ABOVE: A typical order of hoplite battle, with elite troops in red on each side's respective right side]

It was indeed a very effective form of combat, as even larger armies with less cohesion than a phalanx would crumble easily under the sheer discipline and strength of the hoplites in formation, but it was also deadly when two hoplite walls faced off against each other. This toe-to-toe form of fighting was known to the Greeks as the “law of hands”.

 


 

ARMOUR AND TACTICS - SUDDEN OR GRADUAL CHANGES?

This new form of fighting greatly affected Greek society as a whole, however it’s not so easy to see exactly how these changes came to be. Armour and tactics might have been interdependent in some way, as more and heavier armour encourages closer and more static forms of combat. yet there is controversy over the exact nature of this relationship, leading to two separate theories: that the change can be dated to be one of gradual development, and that it can be dated to be one of quick and instant change.

 

THE CHANGES IN ARMAMENT

Greek armour and weapons certainly had a gradual change; the 11th century BC saw the use of iron swords and spear tips, and there is no clear break in their development during that time. The sword would gradually get shorter over time, better suiting the close quarter style of hoplite warfare. Spears during the Dark Age seem to have been more commonly for throwing, and there doesn’t seem to be much evidence pointing towards a great difference between these spears, thrown with the aid of a leather thong, and the later hoplite ones. Bronze corsets hinged down on one side, and were fastened at the other and on the wearers shoulders. These were moulded to fit the wearer, but enlarged at the hips to allow for a greater range of movement.

The earliest example of such armour known to us dates back to c.725 BC, Argos, teamed with a helmet with a crest and welded side pieces of a pre-hoplite type. It’s unknown if this armour was originally buried with anything else at the time, but it’s likely this armour, due to the ornate design of the armour, point towards it dating to a time before the coming widespread use of the hoplites. Breastplates weren’t common in the Middle East due to the discomfort of wearing one in the vast heat, but the tradition of wearing breastplates was far more common in Europe; it’s a common theory that the same trade routes which brought metal into Greece also brought the breastplate, perhaps as early as c.750 BC. On the contrary, greaves seem to have no clear prior-used alternative, and seem to have come into creation during the 7th century BC.

 

THE ICONIC HELMET AND SHIELD

The helmets and shields of hoplites are arguably their most distinctive features. The origins of the Greek helmet design are in fact eastern: the horsehair crest is eastern, and both ideas may have originally come from Assyria, whose empire stretched to the eastern Mediterranean coast during the second half of the 8th century BC. Assyrians too used big round shields, partially supported by straps worn around the neck. Greeks believed that the Carians of south-west Asia Minor were the first to develop the hoplite-style helmet and shield; they claimed it was in fact they that first developed the horse-hair crest on the helmet, decorate their shields and fit handles to the inside of their shields. While they did definitely possess hoplite troops by the mid-7th century, archaeology has revealed these developments were Greek first.

The most common, and arguably most iconic, Greek helmet came from Corinth: the Corinthian helmet. shaped from a single piece of bronze, it provided maximum protection to the head and face of the wearer, allowing for just small eye slots and a gap for the mouth, with even a piece protecting the user’s nose. Its first appearance can be attributed to its earliest appearance on vases, dating to around 700 BC. It’s unlikely to have been popular prior to close-quarter hoplite warfare since it forced the wearer to restrict their vision more forward instead of anywhere else, unsuitable for one-on-one champion-style fighting. Hearing through it was near impossible, vision was restricted, and despite its inner leather covering, it was uncomfortable to wear.

It’s not until 675 BC that the first imagery of a hoplite with the full kit and equipment can be seen; It seems clear that all these pieces that made up the full hoplite armour came in gradually, piece by piece. The helmet and shield, however, must have had a closer link to the birth of hoplite warfare; the limited visibility matched with the lumbering shield make it nearly impossible that hoplite warfare could have developed before these two pieces of armour came to be widely used. Therefore, the late 8th century BC is the time dedicated to the earliest date of hoplite warfare being used.

Besides, from all I hear, the Greeks usually wage war in an extremely stupid fashion, because they are ignorant or incompetent. When they declare war on each other, they seek out the best most level piece of land, and that’s where they go to fight. The upshot is that the victors leave the battlefield with massive losses, not to mention the losers, who are completely wiped out.

[Herodotus, "The Histories", 7.9, Mardonius addresses Xerxes]

The hoplite phalanx came to be adopted by several other non-Greek cultures around the Mediterranean due to its effectiveness, which even included none other than the Romans, who adopted the hoplite phalanx before reforming their army to the more familiar sword and javelin armed maniple legions for around 200 to 300 years.

Stele_of_the_vultures_%28phalanx%29.jpg

[ABOVE: The Stele of the Vultures, a victory stele of King Eannatum of Lagash over the Sumerian city of Umma, showcasing spearmen organised into a phalanx-like formation, c.2400 BC]

 


 

NEXT BLOG: LYCURGUS, 8th Century BC: The Reformation of Sparta

LYCURGUS, 8th Century BC: The Reformation of Sparta

 


 

SOURCES

  • Herodotus, "The Histories"
  • Oswyn Murray's "Early Greece"
  • Robin Osborne's "Greece in the Making 1200 - 479 BC"
  • Nic Fields' "Thermopylae 480 BC, Last Stand of the 300"

 


 

YOUTUBE LINKS

(I do Not own these videos)

"Infantry shoving-matches" by "LindyBeige

"History Summarised: Classical Warfare (Feat. Shadiversity!)" by "OverlySarcasticProductions"

 


 

MY ANCIENT GREEK HISTORY BLOG PAGE

 

MY ANCIENT PERSIAN HISTORY BLOG PAGE

 

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YouveBeenGreeked
YouveBeenGreeked

Specialising in Ancient and Classical Greek, Persian and Roman studies, particularly military history.


Ancient Greek History
Ancient Greek History

Historical educational posts on Ancient Greek history. I'll be covering Greek history stretching from the Greek Bronze Age and the days of Achilles and Troy, to the Hellenistic Age of Alexander and Cleopatra, covering topics ranging from daily city life to all-out warfare. I'll also be looking a lot into Iranian/Persian history, and their infamous conflicts with the Greeks throughout history. All feedback, positive and/or negative, is very welcome. Hope ya learn plenty-a-stuff! :)

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