Why Cavalry Were Critical to the Rise of Macedon | History Hit

Why Cavalry Were Critical to the Rise of Macedon

Image Credit: History Hit

The Macedonian cavalry had a rich history. The fertile grasslands of the north-eastern Greek peninsula had always been ideal for breeding fine war horses. Consequently, Macedonian horsemen had become some of the greatest in the central Mediterranean long before 359 BC and the rise of King Philip II, Alexander the Great‘s father.

Their riders came from the Macedonian nobility and were called the Companions, or hetairoi, to emphasise their closeness to the king. However, contrary to some beliefs, it was not Philip who created the title ‘Companions’; it had been in use long before 359 BC.

During both the Peloponnesian War and the Spartan-Olynthian War in 381 BC, we hear of the Companions’ prowess in battle against larger forces of enemy cavalry. Philip thus inherited a kingdom that for decades had a rich equestrian heritage among its elite.

Yet many of these nobles had perished along with his Philip II’s brother, Perdiccas III, when fighting against the Illyrians in 359 BC. Upon his accession, it appears he did not have a large surviving force available to him.

Statue of Philip II, 4th century AD,

Image Credit: History Hit / Rheinisches Landesmuseum Trier

Philip quickly solved this by promoting many of his supporters to the Macedonian nobility, thus making them Companions. Later in his reign, Philip also incorporated Thessalians and other Greeks into the nobility to increase numbers.


The Companion’s primary weapon was a lance called the xyston. Around two metres in length, the xyston’s shaft was made from cornel wood – like the Macedonian infantry’s sarrisa. Yet unlike the sarissa the Companions wielded the xyston with one hand due to its lighter weight and smaller size.

At its end was a stout iron tip, designed to penetrate both armour and flesh. The Companions also had a short sword, either a kopis or xiphos, as a secondary weapon if the xyston shaft broke on impact.

For their armour, the Companions were equipped with a cuirass made of either bronze or leather. They were also armed with metal greaves and a gorget, both usually made of bronze. Their helmet was the famed Phrygian helmet made of iron. Later however, around the time of Alexander’s succession, it appears they replaced this helmet-style with the more suitable Boeotian style.

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Scholars debate whether Philip’s Companions also had a small shield like the pelta of his Macedonian infantrymen. Whether this is the case or not, it appears they discarded it by the time of Alexander’s crossing into Asia in 334 BC.


Philip arranged his Companion cavalry into squadrons called ile. Each squadron consisted of around 200 men and were based on the Macedonian districts possessed by the Companions – we know for example that there was an squadron formed from Companions from the Upper-Macedonian region of Elimiotis.

Among these squadrons was an elite squadron called, the Basilike ile, the royal squadron. This squadron was the elite of the Companions squadrons and comprised 300 men. Each Companion in every squadron was attended by a groom, who would not only tend the horse but was also armed and would fight alongside the squadrons in battle.

The greatest reform Philip made to his Companions was in their training. The Companions were to be the shock-arm of his new-look army, meant to disrupt an enemy’s line and shatter their resolve with the power of their charge and the deadliness of their lances. To do this, he trained them in a special formation: the wedge.

The wedge

The wedge had been traditionally used among the Scythians and Thracians and it was Philip who adopted this formation for his Macedonian cavalry. It was triangular, with one rider at the front and the number increasing in each row further back.

The squadron commander would lead the wedge, being the most visible and easiest position from where he could guide the rest of the formation. In a solid wedge, each squadron of 200 men would be 20-men deep and 20-men wide at its base. The wedge could also be hollow which would give the formation a greater size.

Depiction of the Companion Cavalry from Marshall Monroe Kirkman’s History of Alexander the Great (1913)

Image Credit: Public Domain

Why were the Macedonian cavalry so effective?

Combined with the use of the xyston lance, the wedge formation was devastating at disrupting enemy lines and creating panic. The narrowness of its head meant that the leading horse could exploit and charge through even small gaps in an enemy line. The cavalrymen behind would follow and very quickly the opposing formation would be shattered, which the following infantry would exploit.

Philip knew that used correctly, the shock element of his new-look companions trained in the wedge formation would be devastating.

The wedge was not faultless in its design. Regardless of how much rigorous training Philip provided his companions or of how formidable the Macedonian steeds were, the wedge would only prove devastating if there was a gap in the enemy lines for the horse to charge through.

No matter how disciplined its training, a horse would never charge into a solid unbroken infantry phalanx standing its ground; instead it would shy away and refuse to run into a cohesive line of spears. Any impetus of the charge would be lost. If the wedge was to be effective, they had to first disrupt the enemy formation and create gaps. This was what his new-look infantry was for.

Fighting in unison

Armed with lines of deadly sarissae, the offensive power of the Macedonian phalanx, supported by both archers and javelin men, was perfect for shattering the cohesion of enemy formations: being also under fire from both javelins and arrows, their foe would struggle to oppose the sarissae with the shorter length of their own weapons.

The Macedonian phalanx, from “Cassell’s Illustrated Universal History” (1893).

Image Credit: British Library / Public Domain

Unable to counter, the enemy formation would soon suffer casualties and lose its cohesion; gaps would emerge in the enemy line. And it was these gaps that the companions could exploit in the wedge.

This was the tactic that scholars believe Philip used to gain his first great victory against the Illyrians in 357 BC. His son Alexander would most famously use the wedge formation to exploit the gap in Darius’ line at Gaugamela.

Philip would also develop the hammer and anvil tactic, used most effectively by his son Alexander and many other commanders since. We will talk about this tactic in more detail in a separate History Hit documentary.

For Philip’s new-look Macedonian army, he designed the Companion cavalry to fight in unison with the infantry to gain victory. Neither unit was more important; both were indispensable.

The Prodromoi

Although evidently the most integral to his military successes, the Companions were not the only Macedonian cavalry force Philip reformed. Alongside the heavy cavalry, Philip introduced a new, lighter unit called the prodromoi literally meaning ‘the runners ahead.’

The prodromoi were the lighter compliment to the Companions. Unlike the Companions, they did not have metal armour and instead wore tunics. They also had the traditional Macedonian hat called the kausia.

Bronze statuette of a rider, Greek, 3rd century BC.

Image Credit: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

It appears the prodromoi served a variety of roles and their primary weapon depended on their role at a given time.

Primarily, as the name suggests, the prodromoi served as scouts. They would have been armed with javelins and acted as swift skirmishers. They would use their javelins to inflict the first casualties in a battle from distance.

Later, we also hear of the prodromoi being referred to as sarisaphoroi or ‘sarisa-bearing cavalry.’ This suggests the prodromoi could also serve as lancer cavalry, used primarily against enemy horsemen. At the Battle of Gaugamela for example, we hear of Sarisaphoroi routing the opposing Persian cavalry.

Although their name suggests otherwise, the sarisaphoroi did not carry a lance as long as the infantry sarisa – it would have been too cumbersome for the rider to carry. Instead, they were armed with longer versions of the Companions’ xyston lance, still held with one hand.

Just as with the Companions, Philip divided the prodromoi into ile squadrons and trained them in the wedge formation.

Tags: Alexander the Great Philip II of Macedon

Tristan Hughes