The Greek phalanx was a column formation of heavy infantry carrying long spears,
or pikes, and swords. The pikes were six to twelve feet long, much longer than
spears of the past. Men in the phalanx carried a round shield called a hoplon,
from which the infantry took their name, hoplites. The hoplites wore metal armor
on their chests, forearms, and shins at least, plus a metal helmet that covered
the head down to the neck. The addition of armor classified the hoplites as
heavy infantry, as opposed to light infantry that wore little or no armor. A
typical phalanx unit was ten men across the front rank and ten men deep, but
many such units were combined into one larger unit.
The phalanx in battle
The phalanx was an offensive infantry formation for hand-to-hand shock combat.
It usually fought without light troop or cavalry support, which should have been
an important disadvantage, but the Greeks largely ignored these auxiliary
troops. As long as they fought among themselves, lack of missile troops and
cavalry was not a problem.
The heavy infantry on each side in a battle would close with each other at a
deliberate pace, maintaining formation. When the opposing phalanxes came
together, the first several ranks would lower their pikes and the two sides
would thrust at each other, attempting to strike an unprotected area on an
opponent. The pike points of several men in a file could project beyond the
front rank. Men in the front were simultaneously attacked by several spears.
The Greek armies of the period 700 to 400 BC may have been the only ones in
history to rely completely on shock tactics. The clash of phalanxes was resolved
entirely in hand-to-hand fighting. The city-state of Sparta was the recognized
master of phalanx warfare. The entire state was organized as a military camp.
All non-serf males served in the Spartan phalanx and trained at length.
Because the hoplites carried their shields on their left arm, the phalanx was
most exposed on its right side. For that reason, the best phalanx units were
positioned normally on the right side of the army. Battles often became a
contest to see which armyís right wing would first destroy the other sideís
left wing. Phalanx armies were susceptible to missile and cavalry attacks from
the right and rear, but only if the enemy had these units and used them.
Phalanx warfare reached its peak in two great fifth-century wars: the war with
Persia at the start of the century and the Peloponnesian War near its end. In
both wars, sea power played a crucial role, but land fighting centered on the
The phalanx at war
The Peloponnesian War was a Greek civil war for the dominance of Greece between
the sea-oriented Athenians and the land-based Spartan League. One major lesson
of the war was the inability of the phalanx to be strategically decisive. Heavy
infantry alone could not capture cities once the battle outside the walls had
The war with Persia was especially interesting because the Greek phalanx, the
finest heavy infantry in the world at the time, faced an integrated army of
infantry, skirmishers, and cavalry. The Persians and Assyrians before them
backed their infantry with auxiliary troops of every kind. They were also
advanced in the art of siege warfare.
The two great land battles of the Persian war occurred at Marathon in 490 BC and
Plataea in 479 BC. At both battles a smaller Greek army consisting almost
entirely of heavy infantry was victorious. Historians generally agree that Greek
discipline and training were greatly responsible for these results, but admit
that they were also at least partly due to Persian mistakes and incompetence. At
both battles the Persians had substantial light troops and cavalry that should
have been effective against the massed phalanx formations. The Persian army at
Plataea contained 10,000 cavalry, for example. At both battles, however, the
auxiliary troops were poorly used and ineffective, allowing the Greek heavy
infantry to defeat the weaker Persian infantry and achieve victory. Greek heavy
infantry morale was not significantly reduced prior to the moment of shock. When
the two infantries clashed, the Greeks were able to overwhelm the Persian
infantry and drive it from the field.
The Greeks resisted the conversion of their heavy infantry armies to integrated
armies into the late fourth century. Despite much evidence that the phalanx was
at a disadvantage when facing skirmishers and surrounded by cavalry, the concept
of the phalanx was too important a fixture of their culture. The phalanx had won
the Persian war, with the help of the navy, and Greek heavy infantry served with
distinction as mercenaries in surrounding lands. It took a clear demonstration
of the systemís weakness to bring it to an end. That demonstration was carried
out by invaders from Macedonia under the leadership of Philip, father of
Alexander the Great.