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Was the Macedonian phalanx, with their long spears and small shields, really more effective than the 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 the reasons the Macedonians used the phalanx instead of the classic hoplites way of fighting?

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

  • Yes they were, their unification of Greece, and invasion of Persia is one proof. Discipline is one the main strength of armies, more than the actual tactics. The Romans legions were superior because they were disciplined and could attack weak spot of the phallanx. Alexander, mostly won his war against Persia, because he was able to protect his phalanxes weak spots, and then striking at the ennemy weak spots. – xrorox Aug 6 '18 at 16:54
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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 '14 at 7:57
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    @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 '14 at 8:04
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    hoplites also fought as a unit. This is a false argument. – Anixx May 1 '14 at 8:09
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    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. – OutFall May 1 '14 at 15:48
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    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 '14 at 18:41
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+50

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 '14 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 '14 at 14:21
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    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 '14 at 18:02
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    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 '14 at 18:41
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    Well, proofs do, in the final account, matter. Do you mind if I open a separate question about this ("how rich was Macedonia" or something like that) to clarify the matter? Or would you rather open one yourself? – Felix Goldberg May 8 '14 at 7:35
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Question:
Was the Macedonian phalanx, with their long spears and small shields, really more effective than the hoplites?

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How do you measure "more effective"? In a 1-1 battle their isn't much reason to believe the Macedonian phalanx would outperform the more traditional Greek phalanx consistently, and even less reason to suspect it would do so on all terrains. The Macedonian phalanx unlike the traditional Greek Hoplite phalanx was not engineered to defeat its enemy all by itself. The Macedonian success was not due to their phalanx's superiority (with the sarissa pike). The Macedonian phalanx advantage was protection, but it had disadvantages. Although the larger spears required two hands to hold and reduced the size of the shield the Macedonian could wield, it's length also allowed five rows of spearmen to contribute to the defense of the formation. Any infantryman or rival phalanx attempting to battle such a formation would be out ranged and outnumbered by the spear tips of the Macedonian formation. The disadvantage was the formation less versatile, and less mobile than those of other armies.(-1-). So while the Macedonian Phalanx was more defended unless the enemy infantry was willing to throw themselves upon the spear tips of the Macedonians it was not really capable of closing with the enemy consistently to make it a reliable offensive threat. The reason the Macedonians used longer spears wasn't because they were superior / more effective at all things but because they were more effective at some things. The Macedonians asked different things of their phalanx(heavy infantry) than did the Hoplite greeks, and so the longer spears helped the phalanx achieve their particular role in the Macedonian battle tactics. Because the Macedonians had light infantry, light calvary and heavy calvary to complement their phalanx, the Macedonian phalanx was designed to hold the enemy, and control space while these more mobile specialized troops destroyed the enemy by flanking or the use of projectile weapons. The Macedonians under Philip and then Alexander utilized an army of mixed components where few others did and fewer still had developed the tactics which made these mixed component armies so lethal.

The innovation which made the Macedonians so formidable wasn't their Phalanx, most of their Greek antagonists fought with phalanxes. Philip of Macedon, who built and trained Alexander's army, primary innovations were:

  • A full time professional army which nobody else had except for perhaps Sparta.
  • Philip of Macedon unlike most of the Greeks whom he would conquer, had an army of mixed units.
  • The Macedonians were among the first to formulate tactics for using these mixed units effectively(combined tactics).

All of these innovations Alexander the Great inherited from his father Philip.

Where as most Greek Armies were made of only one type of Unit, like the Spartans of the time only used the Phalanx, The Macedonians had many types of units. They could use different units depending upon which kind of enemy troops they faced and the properties of the terrain they were fighting on. If it was wooded or rocky terrain, phalanx were dangerous to use because they would be forced apart and thus become vulnerable. They could also bog down and become very slow moving as the phalanx struggled to stay together. The Macedonians mixed units could better exploit these difficulties and counter with light infantry, horse archers or heavy calvery. The Macedonians typically had several versions of each specialized type of unit and this gave them options which few armies in antiquity could counter.

The Macedonian army
The Macedonian army was one of the first military forces to use 'combined arms tactics', using a variety of specialised troops to fulfill specific battlefield roles in order to form a greater whole. Although it did not succeed in every battle, the army of Philip II was able to successfully adopt the military tactics of its enemies, such as the embolon (i.e. 'flying wedge') formation of the Scythians.[104] This offered cavalry far greater manoeuvrability and an edge in battle that previously did not exist in the Classical Greek world.[104]

Philip's Army included

  • Heavy cavalry
    • The Companion cavalry
    • Thessalian cavalry
    • Other Greek cavalry
  • Light cavalry
    • Prodromoi/Sarissophoroi (cavalry unit)
    • Paeonian cavalry
    • Thracian cavalry
    • Horse archers
  • Heavy infantry
    • The Foot Companions (Macedonian phalanx)
    • Hypaspists
    • Greek hoplites
  • Light infantry
    • Peltasts
    • Archers
  • They also had engineers with siege weapons and artillery which was used against enemy formations and not just during seiges.

.

Artillery Alexander the Great appears to have been one of the first generals to employ artillery on the open field of battle, rather than in a siege. He used massed artillery to fire across a river at a Scythian army, causing it to vacate the opposite river bank, thus allowing the Macedonian troops to cross and form a bridgehead.

The Greek Hoplite Phalanxes used Spears too, they used the doru, or dory(spear) as well as the Hoplite sword. Where the Greeks used the phalanx to destroy enemy armies, the Macedonians would ask their phalanxes to hold the enemy in front of them, as other units could pelt them with arrows, or flank them with horses archers or heavy calvary could smash into them. The longer spears were better at defending the phalanx and holding the enemy setting them up for the other units. The Macedonian phalanx was not called to fight apart from the rest of the army. With the superior tactics the Macedonians employed their phalanx was an integrated component of their army. That was the Macedonians under Philip and Alexanders great innovation.

Alexander's Phalanx
Alexander did not use the phalanx as the decisive arm in his battles, but instead used it to pin and demoralize the enemy while his heavy cavalry would charge selected opponents or exposed enemy unit flanks, most usually after driving the enemy horse from the field.[44] Polybius (18.31.5), emphasises that the phalanx required flat open places for its effective deployment, as broken country would hinder and break up its formation.

Rome vs Macedonia

I don't think the premise that the "Macedonians had grown soft due to all the booty sent back by Alexander" is a reasonable answer. The timeline doesn't support that, nor do the events which lead to the fall of Macedonia. Namely 4 separate Wars with Rome spanning five decades, 5 wars if you count the Seleucid War all accusing centuries after Alexander's death. It's like blaming Napoleon's defeat on King Louis XIV's wealth. It's just not supportable given the time and differences occurring over that time. Also it's not like Macedonia was entirely outclassed by Rome, Macedonia actually came away with a draw in the first war. All this happened 130 years after Alexander died and ended about 200 years after Alexander.

Paraphrased from The Macedonian Wars

  • 323 BC Alexander the great died
  • 214 - 205 BC The First Macedonian War with Rome ends indecisively with the Treaty of Phoenice.
  • 205 BC Five year old Ptolemy IV ascends to the throne of Egypt resulting in civil war. This weakens Egypt and makes if vulnerable to attack by Macedon and Seleucids alliance
  • 200 - 196 BC The second Macedonian War, Rome comes to the aid of Greek city states which fear the growing power of Macedonia. ends in the battle of at the Battle of Cynoscephalae a Roman victory, which forces Philip the V to abandon his conquests. After which Rome withdraws and leaves Greece.
  • 192 - 188 BC Seleucid War, with Macedonia and Egypt weakened the Seleucids move to take them. Rome responds and defeats the Seleucid Armies at the battles of Thermopylae and the decisive Battle of Magnesia, (First Roman Army to invade Asia).
  • 172 - 168 BC Third Macedonian War, Philip V died and his son Perseus of > Macedon, tries to reconstitute Macedonians strength, resulting in Rome coming back and addressing them again. Ends in Rome victory, Rome's permanent occupation of Greece, and Macedonia being broken up into 4 Roman client republics.
  • 150 to 148 BC Fourth Macedonian War, Macedonia tries to reform their old kingdom, Rome responds.

So why did Rome defeat the Macedonians. Because after Alexander died, the Macedonians returned to fighting like all the other greeks did. They again grew overly dependent upon the phalanx. This weakness wasn't well understood when it was occurring because all the greeks uses single formations armies and thus could not well exploit the weakness of the post Alexander Macedonians. When the Macedonians fought Rome however, Rome did have a mixed formation army which is ultimately how they won. Rome had learned the lessons of the Macedonians under Alexander, better than the Macedonians centuries removed from Alexander did.

**Why Macedonia Lost to Rome **
Following the fragmentation of the empire of Alexander, Macedon became an independent kingdom once again. The military forces of this successor state, the Antigonid Macedonian army, retained many features of the armies of Philip and Alexander. The Hellenistic armies of the other Macedonian successor-states of the Diadochi period, which followed the death of Alexander, also displayed a continuation of earlier Macedonian equipment, organisation and tactics. Towards the end of the period, however, there was a general decline in the use of the combined arms approach, and the phalanx once more became the arm of decision. The phalangites were armed with longer pikes and as a result the phalanx itself became less mobile and adaptable than it had been in Alexander's era.[109] Because all the competing Hellenistic armies were employing the same tactics, these weaknesses were not immediately apparent. However, the Hellenistic armies were eventually faced by forces from outside the successor kingdoms, such as the Roman and Parthian armies, composed of differing troop types using novel tactics. Against such foes the Hellenistic-era phalanx proved vulnerable. The phalanx finally met its end in the Ancient world when the more flexible Roman manipular tactics contributed to the defeat and partition of Macedon in the 3rd and 2nd centuries B.C

(-1-)
The reason why the Sarissa Pike requires larger formations was because of it's length. It was twice as long as a normal hoplite spear(Dori). In a typical phalanx any foe approaching the phalanx would be faced with layers of spear tips to contend with. The longer spear's advantage was in part due to more layers. The longer spear meant people in the fifth row could use their spear tips against a closing enemy. But this required their be a fifth row of spearmen. Larger base formations meant slower overall units, which were less flexible, more susceptible to difficulties with terrain, but they were also heavier, better protected, and better able to smash smaller enemy units matched against them on even terrain, if they could close, which was challenging. The larger unites with heavier spears were also slower than normal phalanxes. What they excelled at was eating up space, controlling the battlefield. They were essentially a mobile fortification which could roll up on any battlefield and become the fulcrum for the numerous other Macedonian unites to leverage.

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Just wanted to add an observation in some research on the Macedonian and Greek armies...

  1. The Hoplite was a standard infantryman of all Greek nations, also the in Macedonia under Philip and Alexander. All free men (citizens) were by law trained and own Hoplite equipment.

  2. Philip added the pikemen first as a specialist addition to the heavy infantry. They would occupy the center to hold and pin the enemy in place. All pikemen were essentially Hoplites trained and equipped as pikemen. Thus those who served as pikemen were quickly considered some sort elite or of superior training than most others.

  3. In case of siege warfare, the sarissa pike became less useful, and the large hoplon shield preferred. In field battle the sarissa and the smaller shield could effectively pin down normal Hoplites. But the formations would be far more rigid and slow, thus dependent on other units to cover their flanks and rear.

  4. Alexander liked how the pikemen worked and expanded their use. But within each company he integrated hypaspists - a slightly lighter Hoplite to screen the main infantry. For example, regarding the battle of Gaugamela, Alexanders heavy infantry numbers 31,000 - but this number again doesn't mean 31,000 men armed with sarissas. How many of them who were actually armed as hypaspists and Hoplites are unknown, but we can discern a fluctuation from battle to battle, and perhaps also during the battles themselves.

  • All the Greek phalanxes used Spears or pikemen all the phalanx men had swords as secondary weapons. Philip used spears twice as long as typical hoplite phalanxes. When Macedonia fought Rome 130-200 years after Alexander died, the Macedonian spear was even longer than in Alexander’s time. – JMS Apr 10 '18 at 16:54
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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.

  • One benefit from the longer sarissa, surprisingly, is increased protection from archers. The rearmost couple of ranks, whose sarisssas barely reached the front of the formation initially, held their sarissas up at about 30 degrees to shield the unit from arrows. Only when the archery fire ceased to allow the enemy to approach were the sarissas of the rear ranks lowered again. – Pieter Geerkens Aug 30 '17 at 23:00
  • how can sarissa spears protect from archers? – user4951 Sep 4 '18 at 18:57
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The problem Macedon had when facing Rome was manpower - Rome was a world power and could put many men in the field - up to 500,000. Macedon, by the time of Phillip II's death, was a world power whether Athens and all the city states liked it or not. Macedon alone could put into the field 50,000 men, not including their Allies. Their Cavalry was easily the most effective mounted force in the Ancient World. Rome never had such a high class cavalry... ever.

Comparing the Roman Legions in the Macedonian wars to those Legions which served Rome against Pyrrhus is chalk and cheese. Rome suffered defeats against Pyrrhus and, in spite of what the Roman accounts said, had considerable trouble dealing with the Phalanx. Finally, Rome also experienced a lot of trouble with Hannibal. The one battle Macedon should have won was Cynoscephalae where Phillip V mismanaged his army after initial successes. He deserted the high ground...Nutter!

The Phalanx properly supported by its Cavalry and light forces with an Alexander or Phillip II would probably overwhelm the Legions who at the time were more akin to the Greek Hoplites. If I had a choice, I know which army I would like to be in!! The Macedonian army was a professional army, highly organised particularly in the Alexandrian age. It had engineers, doctors and scientists enrolled in it. Finally, it had two great advantages: 1) It had siege engines and could besiege/take towns and, 2) Its Logistics system was highly effective.

Hope this helps.

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    Welcome to History: SE. I'm not sure that this quite answers the question. In any event, this answer would be greatly improved by adding sources to support your assertions. – sempaiscuba Aug 30 '17 at 22:00
  • Heckell, Hammond,Green just a few notables! – issus Aug 31 '17 at 12:13
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After reading some of the responses hear I have to say that everyone who stated that a phalanx equipped with sarissas is superior to a classical hoplite phalanx is categorically wrong. The only advantage the Macedonian phalanx had over the hoplite phalanx was it's use of calvary. In fact there are numerous battles that shown when an unsopported phalangite phalanx meet a hoplite phalanx hoplite would chew their lines ranging from battles that Philip had with the Greeks, to the Persians employing Greek hoplite mercenaries, to the Romans having Greek hoplite allies. A sarissa equipped phalanx could not defeat a hoplite phalanx. Hoplites were to heavily armored in comparison.

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    Welcome to Hist SE. In addition to sources, this answer would benefit from examples. Note that this article Sarissa seems to contradict your answer. – Lars Bosteen Aug 5 '18 at 6:17

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