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What is Greek Phalanx?

What is Greek Phalanx?

The phalanx was one of the simplest and earliest of the tactical formations. It was, in a sense, the natural formation of a bourgeois raid, made up of tight-knit footmen. With a larger number of fighters, the phalanx was either expanded in depth, which gave the phalanx force, or in the length, which resulted in an overflight of the enemy.

The "classical" phalanx of the Greeks consisted of hoplites. Hoplites were heavily armored footmen armed with spears and shields. The hoplites were recruited from the ranks of the citizens, who could afford a suitably expensive armor. Thus, the hoplite army was a classic citizen squad.

Since the army itself consisted of a civic squad, the phalanx almost resulted itself. For a bourgeois commandment required a deep formation, since a corresponding moral support was needed. The usual depth of a phalanx was therefore eight men, but also depths of up to 24 men were not uncommon.

It goes without saying that of these 24 men only a very small part really comes in contact with the enemy, yet the deeper fought the flatter phalanx down. The moral effect, the deeper formation was thus sufficient to "crush" the enemy, because a soldier who is aware of being in the advantage and getting help at any time performs a completely different performance than his opponent.

Formation and Specificity

When setting up a phalanx, the question always arose, depth for force or length for enclosure? If the phalanx was too deep staggered, it was quickly covered by the longer enemy line, attacked and beaten in the flanks.

If, on the other hand, the formation was too shallow, it threatened to diverge as it approached or to be breached by the enemy.

Finding the right balance between depth and width was the great art of the Greek generals.

Another phalanx peculiarity puzzled ancient tacticians. When two identical phalanx formations fought against each other, it was very common for both parties to win on their right wing. Not infrequently it came about then that the two victorious wings again, with wrong front against each other fought.

This may seem odd at first glance, but if you look at the hoplite's armament, you will see how it came about.

The hoplite carried a large round shield in the left hand and the spear in the right (see picture). Thus, each fighter felt his right side as unprotected and tried to protect her by the shield of his neighbor. Every fighter tried to get at the enemy from the right. These two factors made sure that the whole formation moved to the right, so everyone outran his opponent on the right. So it was that most of the right wing won and the entire phalanx began to turn counterclockwise.

The only way to counteract this effect was to reinforce the flanks. Either you reinforced the right flank to overcome the enemy even faster, or on the left to stop the enemy. So it happened that the formation in the middle was often 8, on the flank 24 man, deep.

Strengths and Weaknesses

The phalanx was the undisputed ruler on the ancient battlefield, although auxiliary forces such as archers, slingers, peltasts or riders were also involved in the battles, but they were rarely decisive. Because none of these troops could stand against the onslaught of a phalanx, lightly armed were quickly defeated by the better armored hoplites and riders could not dare a frontal attack against the phalanx.

This does not mean, of course, that a phalanx can only be defeated by a phalanx, in a way it can be compared to the knights of the Middle Ages. In melee and onslaught they were nearly invincible, but if they were not allowed to come to close combat, they were vulnerable because of their slowness.

Another disadvantage of the phalanx was that if it was attacked in the flank (whether by riders or by Überflügelung), it was as good as lost. Because the force of the phalanx arises from the pressure forward, it was now packed in the flank, the pressure was lost. The fighters on the flank have to stop to fight back, the rest are pushing forward, either the onslaught comes to a standstill or the formation is tearing apart. Added to this is the moral effect of overflighting the fear of being circled quickly, so the escape route would be cut off and fate sealed, in such conditions morale breaks down quickly. For example, the entire Persian wars are determined solely by the fear of a flank attack by Persian horsemen. If the Persians succeeded in attacking the flank, the Greeks had as good as lost.

Examples of Use

As an example of the successful use of the phalanx, one can look at the Battle of Marathon. The Greeks succeeded in preventing a flank attack by exploiting the terrain. They reinforced their wings in the fight against the Persians and took for a weak center in purchasing. Although the center of the Greeks was largely beaten, but the impact of the wings and an associated enclosure forced the Persians to their knees.

Imaginative phalanx - old drawing, assignment not exactly possible Of course, there are also numerous examples of the failure of the phalanx. An ideal example of this is the capture of the Spartan hoplites on the small island of Sphakteria. On this densely vegetated island, around 300 Spartiates were captured by the Athenians in the Peloponnesian War. The reason for this was that they could not grasp the enemy. The lightly armed archers, slingers, and peltasts subjected the hoplites to a crossfire, which they finally gnawed. For as soon as the Spartans made an advance, the Athenians retreated, avoiding any close combat. When the Spartan phalanx no longer saw any opportunity to defend themselves, the Spartiates, who until then had been considered invincible, surrendered.


Despite all these disadvantages, the Greeks and after them the Macedonians remained in the phalanx formation. The Macedonians pushed the phalanx even further into the extreme, using longer spears, the so-called sarissi, which were five to seven meters long, to fight from several rows and became even more immovable. However, it was not possible for both the Greeks and the Macedonians to change their method of fighting, since the composition of the army (the banns) made no other formation possible.

Only the Romans gradually began, after numerous setbacks, to effectively develop the phalanx. They moved further and further away from the Greeks in their military development and created the Roman Manipular Phalanx. They began to replace the banns with an army of professional warriors, ultimately perfecting their tactics with drill and discipline, and developing the successful cohort system.