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Was Macedonian phalanx with their long spears and small shields are really more effective then hoplites?

What was the incentive for Philip II to radically change the way infantry fought back in those days? Is there any good source to read about reasons Macedonians used phalanx instead of classic hoplites way of fighting?

I know Alexander the Great conquered the known world with phalanx, but I think to give the credit to phalanx would be false here. Romans seemed to outfight Macedonian phalanx pretty easily.

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While I think Felix Goldberg's answer is pretty good, I would see some more. Setting up a bounty. –  N0ir May 2 at 23:22

3 Answers 3

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At its heyday the phalanx was the most advanced heavy infantry formation of its time. The Romans were able to beat it (at the battle of Pidna, for example) because their manipular legion was more flexible while enjoying a strong cohesion just as the phalanx did. So you can say perhaps that the legion out-phalanxed the phalanx.

Mind also that the victory was not easy at all - the Macedonians first had the upper hand at Pidna but their formation broke when they started pursuing the Romans on uneven ground. Here's wikipedia's telling of the story:

The two centers engaged at about 3pm, with the Macedonians advancing on the Romans a short distance from the Roman camp. Paullus claimed later that the sight of the phalanx filled him with alarm and amazement. The Romans tried to beat down the enemy pikes or hack off their points, but with little success. Unable to get under the thick bristle of spikes, the Romans used a planned retreat over the rough ground.

But as the phalanx pushed forward, the ground became more uneven as it moved into the foothills, and the line lost its cohesion, being forced over the rough terrain. Paullus now ordered the legions into the gaps, attacking the phalangites on their exposed flanks. At close quarters the longer Roman sword and heavier shield easily prevailed over the short sword (little more than a dagger) and lighter armor of the Macedonians. They were soon joined by the Roman right, which had succeeded in routing the Macedonian left.

As for the origins of Philip's reforms, I'm not an expert but at least I can point out that he probably took the idea from the reforms of Epaminondas at Thebes, where young Philip had been a hostage. The main idea was to slant the formation, keeping back one wing of the phalanx to envelop the enemy. Liddell Hart has all the details.

Another thing to note is that Alexander's great successes were due in part to his mastery of combined arms operations - he usually relied on his phalanx to pin the enemy troops while he took them in the flank with heavy cavalry. He also employed judiciously and to great effect light infantry and archers. The phalanx on its own would not have been as effective, as Cyrus the Younger had learnt the hard way.

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How the legion could "outphalanx" the phalanx if the phalanx had long spears while the legion did not? –  Anixx May 1 at 7:57
@Anixx It did not. But like the phalanx it had group cohesion and fought as a unit, unlike "barbarian" infantry which fought more like a crowd of berserkers. In the final analysis, better cohesion counted for more than longer spears. –  Felix Goldberg May 1 at 8:04
hoplites also fought as a unit. This is a false argument. –  Anixx May 1 at 8:09
It seems more like Romans outsmarted phalanx. Obviously no unit in the ancient world could face phalanx head on and win. Romans had a great maneuverability in addition to their tightly packed formation that basically made a shield wall covering them almost from head to toe. Couple that with luring Macedonians into rough ground and you take away all the advantage of their formation and long pikes. –  N0ir May 1 at 15:48
The Legion could work in rough terrain, and outflank the phalanxes. The pilum could inflict losses and cause gaps in the phalanx. Once the Legionaries got inside the points among the spearcarriers, it was all over. –  Oldcat May 1 at 18:41

Your contention that "Romans seemed to outfight Macedonian phalanx pretty easily" is not really true. The critical source for you to read here is Plutarch's life of Paulus Aemilius, the Roman general who conquered Macedonia and was the victor at the key battle of Pydna (168 BC). You may also want to read the Wikipedia article on the battle.

If you read Plutarch, you will find that at the beginning of the battle the Roman army was shattered on the phalanx. The Wikipedia article downplays this, but at the time it was a serious setback. Paulus lost a large number of men for no losses to the enemy at all and was in great danger. Eventually Paulus won by waiting for the phalanx to move into hilly terrain and attack in the spaces in between their ranks.

Now, you may ask, why could not hoplites do the same? There were three key factors that aided Paulus:

(1) Plain old soldier strength. The Macedonian empire was very old and rich, and its soldiers weakened by luxury. When Paulus conquered Macedonia, he took immense riches and booty. The Macedonians had ruled the whole Middle East since the time of Alexander and had grown rich and fat. It's a small factor, but do not discount it.

(2) Signalling. The Romans had developed a very elaborate system of signals that allowed them to do complex maneuvers. They used both trumpets and flags to direct men around. For example, mounted officers could race on horseback with a new message from the commander with a flag and direct a maniple to move in a certain way. Without this capability Paulus would not have had the control he needed at Pydna. The hoplites lacked such a system.

(3) Erosion of the Macedonian Cavalry Advantage. Economy grows better over time. As you are able to grow fodder more cheaply, it becomes cheaper and easier to have horses. In Alexander's time Macedonia had a big advantage in that they were an equestrian culture and usually had a larger cavalry than their opponents. This is very important for the phalanx, because the cavalry protects the phalanx's weak spots and acts as a scout for it. The cavalry is also required to chase the enemy and deliver the crushing blow. If the enemy has greater or equal cavalry the phalanx is weaker. This is exactly what happened at Pydna. The Romans had an equal cavalry, and using their signalling systems used their cavalry better. This was what let them find and exploit the weak spots in the phalanx.

Comeback of the Phalanx

In Medieval and Renaissance times there was a comeback of the basic form of the phalanx as "pikemen". The key invention was to put hooks and wide, forged blades on the pikes to fight horses. If the pikemen could take down horses easily, they became very powerful, just like the old phalanx. An example is the Battle of Falkirk in 1298. There was a military genius named Bertrand du Guesclin (1320 – 1380) who was famous for using massed pikemen.

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+1 for a very good answer, except for (1). Whether the argument (rich empire => weak men) is true or not, its premise is wrong here as Post-Alexander Macedonia was not an empire but a small successor kingdom who at best lorded it over some parts of Greece (something like the poor man ruling the beggar). I'd suggest omitting that part. –  Felix Goldberg May 7 at 6:15
@FelixGoldberg Regardless of its "empire" status, Macedonia was fantastically rich at the time of the Battle of Pydna. Thats one of the main reasons the Romans attacked it--to loot it, which they did. –  Tyler Durden May 7 at 14:21
What is the basis for the assertion that Macedonia was fantastically rich? (Presumably, so rich that its martial skills deteriorated). If you are thinking of Alexander's old loot, it probably never reached Macedonia and was spent in the wars of the Diadochi. Otherwise, I see no basis for such extraordinary claims. If there are sources or secondary research which indicates otherwise, I'd love to hear about them. –  Felix Goldberg May 7 at 18:02
EVERY Latin book that talks about the fourth Macedonian war, which I guess would be Livy and Plutarch for starters, makes a point of mentioning the rich loot Aemilius brought back. –  Tyler Durden May 7 at 18:41
Why don't you calm down a bit - I was polite to you, wasn't I? And I still am. So there is not need to call people names; especially as I have read my Livy and Plutarch years ago. You are making very bold inferences - and not justifying them properly. But I guess we'll have to drop the argument if you start calling names. –  Felix Goldberg May 7 at 19:19

The assumption that Philip of Macedon made radical changes seems questionable. The Macedonian sarissa was longer than the hoplite version, which would give it an advantage over a phalanx with shorter weapons. Certainly with these, and the Macedonian Cavalry, Philip managed to subdue all of Greece aside from Sparta, who also gave him little trouble. Of course, the fact that Macedon was larger than each Greek state might also give them an advantage when taking each city in isolation.

The longer spear remained in use for the phalanx in subsequent wars, so there's no sign that any disadvantage versus the hopite phalanx was ever found.

I'm not sure why you don't credit the phalanx when fighting the Persians. Both types showed well versus Persians, from Xenophon and his long retreat to Alexander and his long advance. Since the Persians did not have good heavy infantry, the superiority was vital when fighting large forces. But this isn't of any relevance to your question.

Finally, the Legion beat the phalanx fairly handily, and it got easier with practice. By the end of the period Rome was thumping successor armies with almost no losses. But, again, there's little reason to think that a hoplite phalanx wouldn't be as easy to beat for them.

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