How the Macedonian Phalanx Conquered the World

Tristan Hughes

4 mins

05 Oct 2018

Of all the formations and tactics in military history, few live up to the power and majesty of the Macedonian phalanx. In its time, this intricately designed method of fighting proved a super weapon, forming the nucleus of armies commanded by some of history’s best military leaders – from Pyrrhus to Alexander the Great.

Indeed, even when its supremacy was eventually toppled by the Roman legion, the Macedonian phalanx never lost its stellar reputation and remains to this day one of the most iconic military formations of all time.

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The origins of the formation

In 359 BC, King Philip II ascended the Macedonian throne and inherited an infantry class that was deep in poverty. Having been the victim of numerous invasions by various tribes, the Macedonian footmen were ill-equipped and lacking in training – no more than a rabble.

Recognising that this needed to change, and having already been inspired by the reforms of the Theban general Epaminondas and the Athenian general Iphicrates, Philip initiated reform of his infantry.

Taking advantage of Macedonia’s natural resources – mainly the region’s abundance of high-quality timber called “cornel wood” and bronze and iron reserves – Philip equipped his army’s footmen with a four to six-metre-long pike called a sarissa. Carried in both hands and held four-fifths of the way down the shaft, the sarissa’s extreme length made up for the infantrymen’s light body armour.

In addition, each soldier carried a small pelta shield strapped on his left arm.

A fresco depicting Macedonian soldiers with light armour, spears and shields.

What did the Macedonian phalanx look like and how did it work?

Philip’s men were then trained to fight in large, densely packed formations called phalanxes.

Usually measuring eight rows across and 16 ranks deep, the Macedonian phalanx was virtually unstoppable from the front. The extreme length of the sarissa meant that up to five layers of pikes protruded ahead of the front man – allowing the phalanx to steamroll any opponent.

So long as its rear and flank were protected, the formation was extremely powerful both as a defensive and an offensive weapon.

An illustration of the Macedonian phalanx. This one is formed of 256 men.

Yet the key to the Macedonian phalanx’s power was actually the professionalism of the Macedonian soldiers. Philip ensured that his newly reformed footmen were drilled relentlessly to quickly and effectively alter the direction and depth of the phalanx – even in the heat of battle.

They also regularly endured arduous long-distance marches while carrying heavy packs containing their personal belongings.

Thanks to this regular training, Philip’s introduction of the Macedonian phalanx transformed his infantry from an ill-equipped rabble into the most powerful and well-disciplined force of the age. This was something his enemies soon found out for themselves.

From the hardened Illyrians in the west, to the Greek city states to the south, none could match Philip’s disciplined sarissa-wielding infantry. So long as its flanks and rear were protected, the Macedonian phalanx proved unstoppable.

The Macedonian Empire of King Philip II, prior to his victory at Chaeronea in 338 BC. A keystone to Philip’s success was his creation and use of the Macedonian phalanx.

By the time that Philip was unexpectedly assassinated in 336 BC, the Macedonian phalanx men had already established themselves as the dominant military force on the Greek mainland. Philip’s son and successor, Alexander, thus inherited the greatest infantry force of the time. And he was sure to use it.

The heart of Alexander’s success

For Alexander, the Macedonian phalanx would be the nucleus of his army throughout his conquests – from his first victory on Asian soil at the Granicus in 334 BC, to his final pitched battle against Porus, King of the Parauvas, at the Hydaspes River in India.

Indeed, so vital was the Macedonian phalanx to the perceived invincibility of Alexander’s army, that he even recruited 30,000 Asian levies and had them trained in the Macedonian manner.

This provided Alexander another phalanx formation to rival the one made up of now-grumbling Macedonian veterans; it also provided him a ready supply of pikemen, available for future conquests.

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The Macedonian phalanx was thus critical to Alexander’s entire campaigning life. This was partly due to a brilliant battle tactic Alexander used that made the most of his core infantrymen: the hammer and anvil.

The hammer and anvil

This tactic, the bread and butter of many of Alexander’s greatest military successes, was made up of two main parts.

The “anvil” consisted of the Macedonian phalanx – the crucial defensive arm of Alexander’s army. The king would task his footmen with engaging the opposing infantry and then holding them in place with the numerous layers and sheer length of their sarissae.

As the phalanx held its foe in position, Alexander would lead his powerful shock Macedonian cavalry, his hetairoi (companions), against a weak part of the enemy line.

A visual diagram of the hammer and anvil tactic. The phalanx acted as the anvil, while Alexander’s companion cavalry – shown here in a wedge formation – acted as the hammer. Credit: Cogito / YouTube

Having landed a critical blow against their opponents, Alexander and his hetairoi would then wheel round behind the enemy infantry, who were already engaged with the Macedonian phalanx, and deal a death blow from behind. They thus acted as the hammer delivering the fatal blow while the phalanx acted as the anvil, sandwiching the enemy infantry in a deadly trap between the two nuclei of Alexander’s force.

Employing tactics such as the hammer and anvil, Alexander’s Macedonian phalanx proved more than a match for any opposing force it faced.