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I got a question (maybe a few) on phalanxes, whenever I use this term I mean the one with pikes that Philip introduced. I haven't read any historical text book in a while (At least two years) so bear with me.

Ok so...

Phalanxes had 5 pikes active facing forward in the formation as far as I know but out of those five can they all reach the front? Or are some like the 5th or 4rth rank simply not long enough.

Supposedly the pike got longer after Alexander's death, how much of this affected the flexibility of the unit in combat?

I got some more but I will present these two for now to allow any of you to present more detailed answered if you guys wish so.

Thanks in advanced.
There is a narrative of "decline and fall" of phalanx which argues that the phalanx was a nimble and flexible beast in the time of Alexander the Great, well coordinated with cavalry and light troops, with a long but not too long pike. This narrative argues for a stultification of phalanx tactics, so that by the time the Romans march in, they encountered a far less effective version of the phalanx used with such effect by Philip and Alexander.

I am not sure this narrative is entirely correct. It does seem that the size of the sarissa grew; in theory this could make phalanx fighting clunkier. But it was compensated for by a reduction in the size of the shield: note on the Alexander mosaic, the phalangite fights with a large, rimmed, hoplite shield; this was replaced in the 3rd century by a somewhat smaller rimless shield, making it easier for the phalangite to wield his growing sarissa.

As to the pikes projecting, this is the analysis of Polybius; the actual number of ranks able to project their pikes would have likely varied somewhat based on the actual deployment of the ranks.
I have always argued that the Macedonian phalanx was ON the battlefield as "nimble" as all heavy infantry lines tasked to fight it out in close combat. However, this is not what you ask here, so I will stick to the OP. Sarisa long pikes were long during Alexander's times and we have information that some generals made them even longer for their armies, but this does not mean that they were of a universal length. Antiochos' sarisas may well have been of a different length to those of Pyrrhus or Mithridates. The length of the sarisa itself is not a real factor of flexibility on the field. However, more weight tires the men more, more length may make the pikes less rigid, will disturb the balance of the pike if not very well balanced. So, although not "less flexible", overall efficiency often suffers when the complexity of the construction of a weapon increases.

We have attestation that it was attempted to make the pikes in front less lengthy than those in the back, so that more of them would be able to take part in the actual combat. However, this stepped variance of length also has its use. You see, it is not difficult to slip past one of those pike points but there is no point in doing so, if then you get to face another one pointing at you behind it and others waiting behind it for your next attempt to slip past.
@Michael

Though the phalanx still did well head on against the Romans, even with levies.
My thought was that it was the quality of recruits for phalanxes (If my memory serves me right later on the Makedonians mainly used levies hastily trained) and lack of innovation in the usage of other troop types which rendered the phalanx out of popularity.

@Macedon

When you speak of such flexibility do you mean how Alexander had his soldiers switch kits?

Thanks for the answers so far!
With flexibility on the field, I mainly mean the capability of any phalanx (closed ordered infantry) to advance against an opponent, withdraw, change facing and generally perform all the normal maneuvers and evolutions expected to be performed during combat as well as the reasonable performance of the formation in normal batlle-field terrain. Role flexibility would be a different thing. Roman legionaries are renowned for their ability to act as skirmishers as well as in line, as were the hypaspists of Alexander.
The point on the quality of the recruit stands well in every army in the world at any given time.

As far as pike phalanx is concerned for example in the Seleucid army there were the elite "Argyraspides", the dependable "katoikoi" and the less reliable "pantodapoi phalangitai." (translated more or less: gleaned from whatever source!)

Yet there are very few cases in history where good troops compensated for the commanders mistakes.

As for the flexibility of the pike formation since my experience with the pike is not yet in tight formation I reserve my answer for the coming summer where I will probably find myself in a reconstructed pike formation and I will be able to compairefrom experience between spear formation and pike formation.

Kind regards
Quote:There is a narrative of "decline and fall" of phalanx which argues that the phalanx was a nimble and flexible beast in the time of Alexander the Great, well coordinated with cavalry and light troops, with a long but not too long pike. This narrative argues for a stultification of phalanx tactics, so that by the time the Romans march in, they encountered a far less effective version of the phalanx used with such effect by Philip and Alexander.

As with so many things, one size never fits all. Generally in the maturing of tactical systems aspects grow more technical or refined. Concomitant with that, other aspects may become hidebound and system rigidity sets in. The tactical abilities of the commanders also come into play. Probably the best metaphor there being the difference between two piano players, both trained but of differing talent: the instrument can only produce to the talent of its user. Ditto tactical systems.

That said, one has also to realise that the phalanx of Philip V at Kynoskephalai was hardly that of Alexander at Pelion. Philip had called up the old and the too young for this campaign where as that of Pelion was already a 'veteran' force. As well, the cavalry that Macedonia was able to muster in support was far from the days of Alexander III as the forces disposed by Doson at Sellasia eloquently testify to. Similarly, battlefield tactics had altered somewhat since Alexander's day. It is a great pity the preservation of Diodorus fails us for Ipsos for we should well have seen just what reliance there was on the phalanx at that time. We have really to wait for Raphia where the notion was clearly the bigger the phalanx the better. What seems to have happened is that the tactically flexible combined arms of Alexander's attacking wing had essentially devolved upon cavalry only with a massive phalangite block holding centre.

I tend to agree with Michael. The latter Hellenistic phalanx might well have just as tactically 'nimble' as that of Alexander's. That it certainly seems not to have been comes down to manpower problems and / or the tactical use of phalanx within Hellenistic armies. The latter comes down to the commanders.


Quote:We have attestation that it was attempted to make the pikes in front less lengthy than those in the back, so that more of them would be able to take part in the actual combat. However, this stepped variance of length also has its use. You see, it is not difficult to slip past one of those pike points but there is no point in doing so, if then you get to face another one pointing at you behind it and others waiting behind it for your next attempt to slip past.

We have what appear to be various attested lengths of the sarisa over the time of its use. Polybius is clear that the second century phalanx had five sarisa points projecting beyond the front rank. These were of diminishing distance due to the fact they were all of a length. I believe the notion that sarisa lengths in the first five (or four) ranks were 'staggered' so as to provide and even hedge of spear points is a modern notion. I cannot see any tactical advantage in it whatsoever; indeed there are only disadvantages one of which is immediately apparent. Once a front ranker is killed, his file mate takes his place. Over the course of battle several may die in a similar position resulting in sarisa lengths of (say) 20 feet to 14 feet occupying the front rank.

As for Alexander's drill outside of Pelion, varying sarisa lengths will have mad a mess of the resultant evolutions. The phalanx was a critter of uniformity and I don't see why such uniformity would not have extended to its weapon. Indeed, I'd think it critical that it was.
Quote:
Michael J. Taylor post=353430 Wrote:There is a narrative of "decline and fall" of phalanx which argues that the phalanx was a nimble and flexible beast in the time of Alexander the Great, well coordinated with cavalry and light troops, with a long but not too long pike. This narrative argues for a stultification of phalanx tactics, so that by the time the Romans march in, they encountered a far less effective version of the phalanx used with such effect by Philip and Alexander.

As with so many things, one size never fits all. Generally in the maturing of tactical systems aspects grow more technical or refined. Concomitant with that, other aspects may become hidebound and system rigidity sets in. The tactical abilities of the commanders also come into play. Probably the best metaphor there being the difference between two piano players, both trained but of differing talent: the instrument can only produce to the talent of its user. Ditto tactical systems.

That said, one has also to realise that the phalanx of Philip V at Kynoskephalai was hardly that of Alexander at Pelion. Philip had called up the old and the too young for this campaign where as that of Pelion was already a 'veteran' force. As well, the cavalry that Macedonia was able to muster in support was far from the days of Alexander III as the forces disposed by Doson at Sellasia eloquently testify to. Similarly, battlefield tactics had altered somewhat since Alexander's day. It is a great pity the preservation of Diodorus fails us for Ipsos for we should well have seen just what reliance there was on the phalanx at that time. We have really to wait for Raphia where the notion was clearly the bigger the phalanx the better. What seems to have happened is that the tactically flexible combined arms of Alexander's attacking wing had essentially devolved upon cavalry only with a massive phalangite block holding centre.

I tend to agree with Michael. The latter Hellenistic phalanx might well have been just as tactically 'nimble' as that of Alexander's. That it certainly seems not to have been comes down to manpower problems and / or the tactical use of phalanx within Hellenistic armies. The latter comes down to the commanders.

Quote:We have attestation that it was attempted to make the pikes in front less lengthy than those in the back, so that more of them would be able to take part in the actual combat. However, this stepped variance of length also has its use. You see, it is not difficult to slip past one of those pike points but there is no point in doing so, if then you get to face another one pointing at you behind it and others waiting behind it for your next attempt to slip past.

We have what appear to be various attested lengths of the sarisa over the time of its use. Polybius is clear that the second century phalanx had five sarisa points projecting beyond the front rank. These were of diminishing distance due to the fact they were all of a length. I believe the notion that sarisa lengths in the first five (or four) ranks were 'staggered' so as to provide and even hedge of spear points is a modern notion. I cannot see any tactical advantage in it whatsoever; indeed there are only disadvantages one of which is immediately apparent. Once a front ranker is killed, his file mate takes his place. Over the course of battle several may die in a similar position resulting in sarisa lengths of (say) 20 feet to 14 feet occupying the front rank.

As for Alexander's drill outside of Pelion, varying sarisa lengths will have mad a mess of the resultant evolutions.
I am probably disturbing the wasp nest here, but what the heck. In my study of the use of the Macedonian phalanx I conclude that it was extremely effect in attacking its front. I am not sure what "nimble" means in relation to its viability. The fact remains that because it used long pikes, it was an awkward formation to turn or reverse directions. Use of cavalry to protect its flanks was effective. Nonetheless by the time the Romans faced the Macedonians, the Macedonian phalanx was antiquated. That has nothing to do with the bravery of its soldiers or the capability of its commander. The Romans discarded the long pikes and adopted the short sword and shield. That made their formations highly flexible and deadly. Granting centurions freedom to control their formations allowed quicker reaction on the battlefield. It was an effective alternative.
Quote: Nonetheless by the time the Romans faced the Macedonians, the Macedonian phalanx was antiquated. That has nothing to do with the bravery of its soldiers or the capability of its commander.

I'm assuming you are referring to the second "Macedonian war" here? I do not agree that he phalanx was 'antiquated' by the time it faced the Romans. It had proven its worth as a tactical system in Italy under Pyrrhos and its defeat at Kynoskephalai - often represented as a catastrophic failure against a better system - was a very near run thing. The latter was far more a result of circumstance and time (or lack of it for Philip) than systemic.
I've been pounding my head a great deal lately on the subject of phalangites and evolution of the Macedonian phalanx and was lucky enough to have a friend send me an article that I had not prevously read on some experimental archaeology done on the sarissa by Peter Connolly back in 2000 (Journal of Roman Military Equipment Studies, Vol. 11). There's many a 'can of worms' to be addressed in what he was looking at, but one item that his re-enactors took on fairly directly was that of the 'flexibility' of their modest pike array of only three files. They found that "advancing in formation with pikes leveled, it was impossible to wheel the three files on less than a fourteen cubit [apparently 5.67m or 18.7ft in this case] radius from the inside file." As a result, they concluded "that it would have required intensive drill to wheel a 16 X 16 speira effectively." Of course, one automatically assumes that Macedonian professionals were, indeed, intensively drilled (though comments here on possible inexperience among Philip V's troops might apply). All the same, it looks like a pike phalanx was a mighty awkward beast if trying to do much more than move straight forward. IMO this raises some interesting questions on the function of potentially much more flexible troops like the 'hypaspist' and later elite 'peltasts' stationed on the far right wing of the pike arrays, where they could use that greater maneuverability to envelop an enemy flank much more effectively than pikemen could ever hope to achieve.
I haven't read the Connolly article but just a thought about the manoeuvrability issue:
the easy fix would be to raise the pikes, wheel like any other types of formations, lower the pikes.
Obviously, raising the pikes in the face of the enemy would be quite tricky and might invite disaster. That would be quite the dilemma for a speira commander depending on how far away the enemy is..

ps: I haven't been able to locate a pdf of Connolly's article, if somebody has it and could share it, I'd really appreciate.
Quote:The fact remains that because it used long pikes, it was an awkward formation to turn or reverse directions. Use of cavalry to protect its flanks was effective. Nonetheless by the time the Romans faced the Macedonians, the Macedonian phalanx was antiquated. That has nothing to do with the bravery of its soldiers or the capability of its commander. The Romans discarded the long pikes and adopted the short sword and shield. That made their formations highly flexible and deadly. Granting centurions freedom to control their formations allowed quicker reaction on the battlefield. It was an effective alternative.

While this may or may not be an accurate description of within its specific context, the notion of the pike phalanx as antiquated rings mighty curious in light the pike's scattered employment over the various centuries and particularly its dramatic revival in the fifteenth century in Western Europe. Obviously Swiss weapons and tactics weren't exactly the same as ancient Macedonian ones - halberds and iron/steel plate armor stand out as gear differences - but I'm skeptical of any linear progress here. The Macedonian-style pike phalanx eventually fell out of favor for a variety of historical, cultural, and military reasons. This doesn't necessarily mean the weapons and tactics of the Roman victors were superior in any abstract sense.

It's additionally worth noting the Macedonian-style pike phalanx performed quite adequately under Pyrrhus. The Romans just happened to be - as they usually were - fiercely tenacious and willing to absorb massive losses and continue fighting. The Roman military didn't always perform especially well at the tactical level, but the Romans rarely gave up.

As far as maneuverability goes, much later Swiss and other pike units often had little trouble in this regard, though results varied.
I don't know whether the phalanx itself became antiquated or less useful by the time it came into contact with the Romans, apart from the issue already mentioned about the degradation of well-trained and experienced troops. The issue of training for the troops of a tightly-packed formation like the phalanx is indeed all-important and understanding the individual troop levels would be critical in understanding the effectiveness of the overall phalanx.

In addition, however, I would posit that Hellenistic armies like the Successor states most usually fought other Hellenistic armies in the period after Alexander and leading up to Roman contact. Evenly matched armies like this may very well have begun disregarding their auxiliary arms such as peltasts, hydaspes, and cavalry and focused on creating larger and larger blocks of phalangites, since that seems to have been the decisive Hellenistic arm. For Hellenistic armies fighting one another this would not have posed too great a problem; the problem came when they fought the Romans, who were most decidedly not focused on phalanxes and their open- and close- order troops were of consistently high quality. This means that while a Hellenistic army might have a strong phalanx its auxiliary arms would be weak, while the Romans were strong across the board. I don't really have enough background on the Successor states to talk about this degradation of auxiliary arms other than to suggest it as a possibility, seeing as militaries generally adapt over time to defeat their enemies.

The other interesting point is that someone made the statement that centurions could direct their maniples more flexibly than a Hellenistic commander could control a phalanx. I thought in another thread we had largely concluded that centurions did not "command" their maniples, but rather led from the front by example, thereby precluding any flexible "maneuvering." :wink:
Quote:The other interesting point is that someone made the statement that centurions could direct their maniples more flexibly than a Hellenistic commander could control a phalanx. I thought in another thread we had largely concluded that centurions did not "command" their maniples, but rather led from the front by example, thereby precluding any flexible "maneuvering." :wink:

Fighting in front, back, sideways, whatever, a centurion only commanded a century, so how much maneuvering in battle could they do? Its only one unit. Maybe lead his men through a gully to exploit a gap in the enemy phalanx, like at Pydna? Get enough together like at Pharsalus and maybe they could stop a line from attacking to redress it but I doubt they could do the same in battle. I think there are plenty of examples of the flexibility of maniples being maneuvered in unusual ways, all being done by tribunes and other senior officers, who actually had the authority to maneuver units. Like at Cynoscephalae, some unnamed tribune pulled 20 maniples for the successful right and use to to hit the Macedonian Phalanx on the Roman left in the rear. Having multiple lines of reserves no doubt helped this. Committing a unit into battle means its committed.
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