In our modern-day world, the phalanx as a military formation is long obsolete. And yet the word phalanx is still a major part of our language. Terms like „standing together like a phalanx“ are often used.
But what exactly is a phalanx and how did the Phalanx work? And why was the Phalanx so successful that we, after 2.500 years are still speaking about that specific formation while other historic formations are long forgotten?
The goal of the phalanx was to break the hostile formation by putting as much pressure on it as possible. After breaking the hostile formation the phalanx would dissolve into individual combat.
But let’s dive into a little bit more detail:
What is the phalanx?
To find the reasons why the phalanx was such a formidable fighting force we have to find out what a phalanx actually was.
The ancient greek phalanx was a deeply staggered formation of heavy infantrymen, so-called Hoplites.
Hoplites were not professional soldiers (Sparta as the exception). They were Militiamen. Most of them were farmers and Craftsmen who were called to arms in the case of a campaign.
Click here to read my article with more Information on what Hoplites are and what regulations there were for becoming a Hoplite.
Because the hoplites were militiamen they usually didn`t have the skills that a professional soldier would have in the fields of combat and being able to maneuver in complex formations.
In order to compensate for all these disadvantages, the Phalanx was created.
The Idea of the Phalanx was that the Hoplites would stand in a close formation in which they covered each other. Actually, the idea of covering each other must be understood in a literal meaning.
The Hoplon, the shield the Hoplite got his name from, was designed in a way that it would mostly protect the soldier to the left of the actual shield bearer.
It is important to stress that most battles were rather short and didn`t rely on elaborate tactics. (Once again Sparta being the exception). But why didn`t they?
Maneuvering in complex formations and using elaborate tactics only works with highly disciplined and well-trained soldiers. Every soldier has to know exactly what he is supposed to do. That kind of discipline and routine usually only comes with a lot of training. Training that militiamen lacked.
And the Corinthian helmet limited both view and hearing which made it harder to understand commands. That by the way is one of the reasons why the helmet that was used by the Romans had a different design.
Another reason was the militia structure of the army. Except for Sparta the Hoplites were just not trained enough to perform complex tactical maneuvers.
And in addition to that, the leaders of the army usually fought on the right side.
So in contrary to generals of later eras they were not able to overlook the battle. Because of that, the army leaders had a lot less influence on the course of the battle. But why would they fight on the right side of the phalanx?
The leaders of greek phalanxes usually fought on the right side because that was the most dangerous and most vulnerable place.
And coexidentialy also offered the highest glory.
Fighting on the right end of the phalanx was so dangerous because a Hoplite would mostly be protected by the shield of the men on his right. And on the right end of the phalanx, there were no men left whose shields would provide cover for the men next to them.
But now let’s take a look at how the phalanx actually worked:
How did the Phalanx work?
The Goal of the Phalanx, similar to other tactics that used close formations, was to break the hostile formation.
In order to archive that it was necessary to put as much pressure as possible on one or several points in the hostile formation.
In that context, pressure can actually be taken literally.
Staggered to be up to 8 men deep the ancient greek phalanx would advance on the enemy in a more or less closed formation.
Some historians argue that the men would sing the anthem of their city not only to boost morale but also to give a rhythm for the marching men.
It is not known if that was actually the case. But since it is quite difficult for a large group of soldiers to advance while holding a close formation it seems likely that there was some kind of instrument or chant to provide a rhythm.
Once again Sparta is the exception. We actually know that the spartiates, more Information on spartan society here, used flutes to give signals. They did that for example at the battle of Plataea.
The shields would be locked against each other offering Protection to the men on the left of the shieldbearer.
There would also be light infantry, armed with javelins, bow and arrow, and slingshots in front of the actual phalanx. Their goal would be to test the strength of the hostile formation, to inflict casualties, and disrupt the opposing formation if possible.
When the opposing Formations came close to each other these lightly armed men would evade to the sides and fall back behind the phalanx. As lightly armed Infantrymen without noteworthy protection, a close encounter with a Hoplite would have proven fatal.
Click here for more information on the economic difference that decided if a man would fight as a hoplite or as a lightly armed infantryman.
After the light infantrys first encounter, the Phalanx would usually try to run the last distance. That was done to overcome the fear of the coming battle.
To the best modern theories, the phalanx would then stop and would start stabbing at the hostile formations with their spears.
Other historians believe that instead of stabbing at each other the phalanx would use a technique called Othismos.
But more on Othismos in the next paragraph.
What is Othismos?
Othismos, literally meaning pushing, is the supposed concept of ancient greek warfare used by the Phalanx.
About 100 years ago an oxford professor decided that the literal translation of Othismos „pushing“ should actually be seen as a mass-pushing similar to American football.
His Idea was that the Phalanx would run the last distance and would smash into the hostile formation with as much power as possible.
And since the Phalanx was staggered up to 8 men deep not only the men in front but also the 7 men in the back of each man at the frontline would push against the hostile formation.
The idea was that by projecting that kind of force against the hostile formation the formation would break. The enemy soldiers would then flee while throwing away their heavy, the escape obstructing, shields.
If the enemy line would not break under the pressure of the pushing phalanx then the formations would have probably dissolved into one on one combat or fights between groups.
Did Othismos really happen?
It is highly debated if Othismos should really be understood as a literal mass pushing.
There are several reasons why an actual mass-pushing like in American football might not be a good idea.
The most prominent reason is the weapons. Slamming into a formation that holds pointy sticks at you seems like a mediocre Idea. Even if you are covered by a large shield, the Hoplon.
Also, historians are not sure how exactly othismos has to be understood they all agree on the effectiveness of the phalanx.
This leads to the next question. What made the phalanx so effective that it dominated warfare for centuries?
Why was the phalanx so effective?
One of the main reasons why the Phalanx was so successful was the social pressure on the militiamen who were fighting in the phalanx.
Think about it: You are standing in a close formation and you know that if you flee the comrade next to you will lose the bulk of his protection.
Running away and abandoning the comrades would have resulted in life-long shame.
Another reason why the Phalanx was so successful was the psychological damage the enemy took when the phalanx, (especially the spartan phalanx) advanced.
Just imagine, you are standing on a battlefield while a wall of well-protected (actually covered from toe to head) singing men slowly advance. If you were unlucky enough to face Sparta the spartiates would all have the same symbol, the Greek letter „Λ“ on their shields making them even more intimidating.
And also the fact that the equipment of the Hoplite, more on that in my article here, was usually much more protective than the equipment of their non-greek opponents was a reason for the effectiveness of the phalanx.
Because of its specific equipment, close formation, and social pressure on the individual man, the Phalanx was highly effective.
But while the Phalanx dominated the battlefields between the 7th and 4th century BC also had a few weaknesses that should lead to its demise in the 4th century BC.
What kind of losses were normal during a battle?
Now let’s talk about the losses that the phalanx warfare would inflict. First of all, it is important to state that all numbers are merely estimates.
It is estimated that the victorious phalanx would have around 5% casualties while the defeated phalanx would have around 14% casualties.
Historians estimate that the truly bloody part was not so much the Othismos but the moment when one formation broke and the defeated men would try to flee.
The idea behind it was that …
- The fleeing men were hindered by the men behind them.
Think about it. If the first lines of the phalanx (usually 8 men deep) realize that the battle is lost the men at the end of the formation haven`t necessarily gotten that impression yet.
For example. The formation is 8 men deep. The 4 men in front lose hope in their chances of victory and realize that it is time to flee but the 4 men behind decide that the battle isn`t lost yet and that it is still time to push back.
Suddenly you have giant chaos that would have been exploited by the winning side.
Actually, that kind of chaos following the collapse of any tight formation was usually the bloodiest part of the entire battle.
2. The fleeing men would throw away their heavy shields in order to run faster.
But that left them vulnerable. Now that would usually not be a problem because a man without the heavy shield (up to 16 pounds) would be faster than a man with that kind of extra load.
But if you combine that with the chaos that I described in 1. you see the problem.
For centuries the winning side would actually pursue the enemy. It wasn`t until later that especially Sparta banned the pursue of defeated enemies.
Obviously not out of the goodness of their hearts but because they realized that by pursuing the fleeing enemy they were giving up the order of their own phalanx which led the individual hoplite much more vulnerable.
And at one point Sparta could not accept the unnecessary loss of spartiate lives. Click here for my article with more information on why Sparta could not afford to lose men in the useless pursuit of an already beaten enemy.
How many spartans were in one phalanx?
Now let’s give some actual numbers on how many men would fight in a phalanx. That obviously depended on the size of the city.
In order to provide some numbers, I chose Sparta as the largest greek infantry power during the Greco-Persian Wars.
Click here to learn more about how the Greco-Persian war that led to battles like at the Thermopylae actually started.
During the Battle of Plataea, one of the largest Hoplite-battles of History, Sparta fielded about 10.000 Hoplites.
Here you can find my article with more information on the less well known but decisive battle of the greco-persian wars. 5.000 being Spartiates and 5.000 being perioikoi. Click here to read my article for more information about the big difference between spartiates and Perioikoi.
I hope you enjoyed our short visit to ancient Greece.
Take care of yourself because you deserve it. You really do.
Until next time
P. Bardunias, F. Ray Jr., Hoplites at War. A Comprehensive Analysis of Heavy Infantry Combat in the Greek World, 750-100 BC (2016).
L. Burckhardt, Militärgeschichte der Antike (2008).