For centuries the Phalanx in both its original shape and later as the modified Macedonian Phalanx dominated ancient battlefields. Because of that the Phalanx was not only used by the Classical Greek city-states like Sparta and Athens, but also by the Etruscans and the Romans in Italy while the Macedonian phalanx was a staple in the armies of both Alexander the Great and his successors.
But if the phalanx was so effective, then why did it fall out of use? Well, that had to do with the disadvantages of the Phalanx.
Both the Greek and the Macedonian phalanx had the disadvantage that they had to operate in one continuous and tightly packed formation to be effective. That limited both their tactical flexibility as well as their adaptability to new situations and made the phalanx rigid and ill-suited for combat on rugged terrain. Additionally, the flanks of the phalanx were vulnerable and had to be covered by more mobile and adaptable infantry or cavalry.
Let`s take a closer look.
Please note that in the following I will mostly be talking about the Macedonian phalanx, a type of unit that was an improvement of the classical Greek phalanx that had been made by Philip II of Macedon, the father of Alexander the Great.
However, the disadvantages that I will present in the following were true for both the Greek and the Macedonian Phalanx. But if you want to find out more about how the Greek phalanx that was used in the Greco-Persian Wars and the Peloponnesian war worked then I would like to recommend you my article here.
The Macedonian phalanx – equipment, use, effectiveness
The soldiers within the Macedonian phalanx were called phalangites and used the sarissa, a 15-21 ft (4,5-6,5m) long pike. Because of its length, the Sarissa had to be wielded with both hands so that only a small round shield could be mounted on the left underarm.
In combat, the Macedonian phalanx operated in tight formations and used the long pikes to put as much frontal pressure on the enemy formation as possible. Here the longer reach of the sarissa was an advantage and made the Macedonian phalanx superior to the classical Greek Hoplite phalanx that had been used by Sparta and other city-states.
When it came to depth then the Macedonian phalanx could range from 8 to 32 rows deep (depending on the necessity) although usually, it was 16 rows deep. The length of the pikes (sarissa) allowed the phalangites in the first 5-6 rows to actively engage the enemy while the phalangites in the rear rows pointed their pikes towards the sky to avoid injuring their comrades and block or deflect incoming arrows.
Ok, so that`s how the Macedonian phalanx, the formation that Rome had to face during its expansion into the Eastern Mediterranean, worked.
The combination of deeply packed formations in which phalangites stood shoulder to shoulder and the use of 15-21 ft long pikes to put head-on pressure on their opponents was highly effective in overcoming formations like the classical Greek phalanx that used shorter spears (6 ft 7 in – 9 ft 10 in)
However, the Macedonian (and also the Greek) phalanx had a few crucial disadvantages that led to its downfall.
By the way, the first to abandon the phalanx formation were the Romans around the year 315 BC when the rugged terrain on which Rome fought the Second Samnite War proved unsuited for phalanx warfare. For more information on why Rome abandoned the phalanx and what superior system they introduced I would like to recommend you my article here.
The disadvantages of the phalanx
The main advantage, the focused frontal power with which a tightly packed phalanx could hit its enemy, was also its biggest disadvantage.
Unlike the manipular system that Rome adopted after abandoning the phalanx and which consisted of multiple smaller units that all operated somewhat independently within the army the phalanx only worked as long as one continuous line was held. So maneuvering only parts of the phalanx was impossible which drastically limited the tactical possibilities. That made the phalanx both rigid and inflexible. Apart from that, the pikes became almost useless as soon as an enemy had made it past their tips.
Figuring out a way to make it past the wall of pike points that the phalangites pointed at them was crucial for the Roman soldiers during Rome’s expansion into the East. And in my article here you can find out how Rome did it!
Additionally, the need to maneuver the entire phalanx as a whole made manoeuvering (or effectively fighting) on rugged terrain almost impossible. That was a weak point that was exploited by the Roman army.
A good example of that is the Battle of Pydna where the rigid Macedonian phalanx proved inferior to the more flexible and adaptable manipular system despite being able to push back the Roman forces in the beginning.
While the Roman legions at the Battle of Pydna first failed to overcome the long pikes of the Macedonian phalanx and had to fall back due to the pressure the Macedonian phalanx put onto them, that changed when the Roman troops fell back into the foothills. As the ground became more and more uneven the continuous line formed by the Macedonian phalanx started to lose its cohesion. That was then exploited by the Romans who maneuvered their maniples, the 120 men strong tactical units that made up a legion into the gaps that had opened in the Macedonian phalanx.
And in close combat the scutum and Gladius that the Roman soldiers used proved superior to the small round shield and the Kopis that were left for the phalangites after the Romans had closed the distance resulting in the pikes losing their value.
That eventually resulted in a Roman victory and high losses on the Macedonian side. Here you can find out more about the casualty rate of such a battle and how the casualty rate drastically differed between a victory and a defeat.
Do you want to find out more about how exactly the Roman armies were able to defeat armies that used the phalanx formation? Then you might want to check out my article here.
Another major weakness that also has to do with the armament of the phalangites was the flanks of the Macedonian phalanx. The 15-21 ft long pikes that the phalangites within a Macedonian phalanx used were designed to apply head-on pressure on an enemy formation in front.
The phalanx was not designed to quickly turn towards one side and protect the flank against an attack. For that, the phalanx was too rigid and the 15-21 ft long pikes that the individual phalangites used were too unwieldy. So more flexible and mobile infantry or cavalry were needed to protect the vulnerable flanks of the phalanx.
In the army of Alexander the Great, that job was usually done by the Hypaspists. Here you can find out more about the Hypaspists and the other types of units that made up the Army of Alexander the Great as well as the size of Alexander’s army
And should you also be interested in how a Roman army fought in general then I would like to recommend you my article here.
Take care of yourself because you deserve it. You really do.
Until next time
Johannes Kromayer: Heerwesen und Kriegsführung der Griechen und Römer (München 1963).
Robert M. Ogilvie: Das frühe Rom und die Etrusker (1983 München).