The Phalangite, Keystone of the Hellenistic Armies and his Recreation in Re-enactment

Attempt at reconstructing the Macedonian phalanx

Note: This article was originally written by us for the Spanish history magazine Desperata Ferro. It was published in issue #8 in December 2011.

When Alexander the great died, he left an empire forged by the Macedonian army. The backbone of this army was the Macedonian phalanx, an enhanced version of the traditional Greek phalanx with longer spears and a tighter formation. The men who served in the phalanx were called Phalangites or Pezhetairoi (Greek: companions on foot), and their equipment was adjusted to their very own type of warfare.

When Philip II. invented the Macedonian phalanx, he improved the old hoplite phalanx by longer pikes, the famous Sarissa, and a much tighter and deeper formation, enabling 16 rows to take part in the fighting. One phalanx consisted of 64 Syntagma. Each Syntagma had 256 men. That was an improvement over the classical phalanx which usually had 8 rows per 100 men.

A side effect was the demand of smaller shields to allow the tighter formation and the handling of the Sarissa. But in effect, the increased punch of the Macedonian phalanx made the decreased protection of the shield insignificant.

In the battle of Chaironeia in 338 BC the Macedonian phalanx achieved a decisive victory over the Greek Hoplite phalanx, and with the Macedonian hegemony over Greece began the era of the Phalangite, which ended not before the battle of Pydna, when once again a new infantry tactic proved itself successful: The manipular tactic of the Romans.

Several members of the German re-enactment group Hetairoi devoted themselves to the recreation of the Macedonian infantry, including the Phalangite. Arms and armour as well as the necessary clothing were reconstructed regarding to ancient sources, archaeological findings and theories of modern historians and archaeologists.

The Phalangites equipment is basically very similar to that of a classical Greek Hoplite.

The typical Pezhetairos wore a short garment made of wool or linen, called a Chiton. Normally, the Chiton would serve as a kind of underclothing worn by Greek civilians, but in the field it was the standard clothing for soldiers. As the practice showed, the Chiton is a very comfortable type of clothing, allowing the wearer a high level of mobility.

As footwear, the Phalangite could have worn a wide variety of shoes including everything from simple sandals up to short Macedonian boots as it is shown in contemporary art.

The shins would have been protected by bronze greaves, called Knemides in Greek, covering both legs from the ankle to the knee. The upper part of the body could be covered in basically two types of armour. One possibility was a bronze Cuirass replicating the anatomy of a male torso called Thorax. This type of body armour is very well known from archaeological findings, and thus a very supposable armour. The alternative is the so called Linothorax. Although mentioned in ancient sources and strongly represented in ancient art it is still not clear how it was really made. A very common theory proposes up to twelve layers of linen which are glued together producing a very stable and rigid , but still comfortable armour. Other theories suggest thick leather or quilted fabric as material of choice. But without archaeological proof the Linothorax remains a very hypothetical type of armour.

Two members of our group have tried the glued linen theory and their experiments resulted in stable and practicable reconstructions with a tight fit and a high grade of comfort to the wearer. Regarding to that, the glued Linothorax is at least a very reasonable approach to that kind of armour. However, the advantage of the Linothorax has to be seen more in its comfort and availability than in its weight. A reconstruction of a glued Linothorax including all necessary fittings weighs 4.2 kg while at the same time a bronze thorax (depending on material thickness) weighs about 3.4 – 4.2 kg.

The head of the Phalangite would have been covered by one out of a wide variety of helmets most of which would have been open faced and decorated with horsehair crests, feathers or even sometimes painted in bright colours. Open faced helmets provide enough head protection while at the same time allow a wide view, which is needed in combat. Typical helmets would have been of the Attic or Thracian type with hinged cheek pieces, the cheaper conical Pilos or sometimes the more fancier Phrygian style helmet with its characteristic drawn out calotte.

As shield, the Phalangite would have carried the so called Macedonian Pelta, a small round shield with a diameter of approximately 60 cm. It would have normally consisted of a shallow domed core made of wood, covered in linen or faced with bronze sheet metal. On the inner side a bronze Porpax would have been fixed, a loop through which the soldier would pass his left arm, and a grip called Antilabe. The Antilabe would have only been used as a hand grip when the shield was needed in close quarters. Normally it would serve as a support loop at the wrist while handling the pike. In addition to that a shoulder strap made of leather which could be worn around the neck would support the shield and release the left shoulder from its weight (Connolly 2000). The shield front would have been painted in bright colours using symbols like the Argead sun, the royal Macedonian symbol, or other distinct motives. For the reconstructions we used casein paint, a water-soluble medium based on milk casein, which was already known in antiquity and thus a possible paint for Hellenistic shields.

The main weapon of the Phalangite would have been the famous Sarissa which was, according to ancient sources like Teophrastos a pike with a length of circa 12 cubits (5.50 metres). The Sarissa would have consisted of a wooden shaft armed with an iron spearhead and butt spike. According to the theories of Prof. Andronikos (Andronikos and Turner 1984) the Sarissa had a shaft made of two pieces joined together by a metal sleeve. This would have simplified the transport of the weapon on the march, and the use of the remaining part after it was broken in battle.

Based on findings from the royal tombs in Vergina, our members planned their reconstructions of  the spearhead with a length of 51 cm and a weight of 1,2 kg, a butt spike with a length of 44,5 cm weighing 1,7 kg and a 17 cm long tube as connecting socket. Due to the used material the butt spike turned out to weigh 2 kg instead of the approximated value.

Several experiments with various spearhead sizes and a shaft diameter of 3 cm proved unusable. In the end a shaft diameter of 4 cm successfully reduced the bending of the Sarissa to an insignificant level.

Regarding to ancient sources the shaft was made of European cornel (Cornus mas). Unfortunately, this kind of wood is very rare in our time and very seldom available in adequate length. In the end, a compromise had to be found without loosing to much authenticity. In his Iliad, Homer mentioned the use of spears made of ash (Homer and Smith 1869), and indeed the wood of the common ash (Fraxinus excelsior) was widely used for this purpose. According to this it was legitimate to use ash wood for the reconstruction of the Sarissa as it could have also been used as a material for this particular weapon in the 4th century BC. Luckily ash wood is still available in sufficient dimensions and due to that was used in our reconstructions.

Of course the use of such a long and uncommon weapon is unusual at first, especially when the Sarissa is upright. But, as one of our friends stated during a training: “You have to loose the fear for your weapons first.”

This supports the assumption, that Phalangites would have trained the use of their Sarissas intensively to eliminate any source of disorder in battle. In effect, unlike the traditional Hoplite Phalanx, the Macedonian Phalanx could no longer be used by fresh recruited city state contingents. As a result, the formerly usual city state army which could be called to arms in cases of war was displaced by professional armies, well trained and deadly in battle.

As a secondary weapon, the soldier would have carried a sword which could have been either a Xiphos with a straight leave shaped blade for thrusting, or a curved Kopis which was most effective  for slashes. The Pezhetairos would have carried the sword in its scabbard on the left side, fixed with a baldric called Imas in Greek. The sword was commonly used as a last defence when the Sarissa was broken, the remaining part with the butt spike was lost and the formation broken or engaged in fierce hand to hand combat.

The complete kit of a Phalangite, including all arms and armour as mentioned above, weighs 23.1 kg in total according to the reconstructions of our members.

In comparison to a classical Hoplite with similar armour but different weaponry, who has to carry a total weight of 20.3 kg, the Pezhetairos is slightly heavier due to his Sarissa which adds far more weight than the Hoplites 2.5 m long lance called Dory. For a detailed comparison of the equipment see Table 1.

Table 1: Weight of the reconstructed equipment of a Phalangite compared to a Classical Hoplite (Values may vary depending on the type of armour, helmets etc. used.)
Equipment Phalangite Hoplite
Armour and Sword 11.4 kg 9.2 kg
Shield 4.6 kg 9.0 kg
Sarissa / Dory 7.1 kg 2.0 kg
Total Weight 23.1 kg 20.3 kg

As mentioned above, the Phalangite would have been in need of intense training to enable him to use his heavy equipment effectively. While ancient sources provide us with hints on contemporary commands and exercises from the age of the Hoplite (early 6th to late 5th century BC), only little is known from the era of the Macedonian Phalanx. So we had to take older commands in Greek and adapt them to the Macedonian Phalanx, as Philip II. probably did when inventing the Macedonian Phalanx. This enabled our members to train the use of the Sarissa and demonstrate its handling on the parade ground or in battle.

The Pezhetairos, heavily equipped and well trained, who won the hegemony over Greece, who saw the crumbling of the huge Persian empire and proved superior to any other heavy infantryman, was finally put to the hardest test when Alexander the Great died and left a vast empire without a  successor. Suddenly, armies of similar structure and equipment had to face each other in a long struggle for supremacy. Alexander's generals, once members of the same successful army, became sworn enemies and a long period of war began with each of them building an own kingdom and trying to crush the old comrades. Many battles were fought of which most brought neither hegemony nor peace. However some battles brought short periods of armistice. One example for such a key victory is the battle of Ipsos in 301 BC during the 4th war of succession.

In this battle, Kassandros I., supported by a coalition of Egypt, Thracia and the Seleucids, defeated Antigonos I. who was killed in battle. After the battle of Ipsos, where Phalangites fought against Phalangites, and the better strategy finally won, the Hellenistic world was rearranged. Kassandros now ruled over Macedonia an a part of Cilicia, leaving Thracia and Asia minor to Lysimachos, Syria, Mesopotamia and the Persian east to Seleukos and Egypt including its neighbouring countries to Ptolemaios. It took only twenty years before the fragile peace between the Diadochoi empires ended and hostilities once again started (Droysen 1877).

The Hellenistic world remained restless, constantly threatened by war, and disrupted by numerous new dynasties.

Through all these conflicts, the Phalangite remained the reliable core of the various Hellenistic armies and for a long period of time no other infantry proved at least equal.

During all these years and all these battles the equipment of the Pezhetairos was scarcely changed. And in fact changes were not needed, as long as the Phalanx had to fight enemies of the same style.

It was finally up to the Romans to end the successful career of the Pezhetairos. At the battle of Pydna in northern Greece  the Macedonian Phalanx, by then known for its absolute supremacy on the field, was confronted with the new tactics of the Roman legions. On uneven ground where the formation was hard to maintain, the flexible Roman battle line defeated the Phalanx. Even if Pydna did not end the use of the Macedonian Phalanx abruptly, its weaknesses were revealed.

The once invincible Macedonian Phalanx could now be defeated.