Was the Macedonian phalanx, with their long spears and small shields, really more effective than the hoplites?
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. This offered cavalry far greater manoeuvrability and an edge in battle that previously did not exist in the Classical Greek world.
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)
- Greek hoplites
- Light infantry
- They also had engineers with siege weapons and artillery which was used against enemy formations and not just during seiges.
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 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. 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
- 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
- 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. 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
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.