The earliest known depiction of a phalanx-like formation occurs in a Sumerian stele from the 25th century BC. Here the troops seem to have been equipped with spears, helmets, and large shields covering the whole body. Ancient Egyptian infantry were known to have employed similar formations. The first usage of the term phalanx comes from Homer's "(φαλαγξ)", used to describe hoplites fighting in an organized battle line. Homer used the term to differentiate the formation-based combat from the individual duels so often found in his poems.
Historians have not arrived at a consensus about the relationship between the Greek formation and these predecessors of the hoplites. The principles of shield wall and spear hedge were almost universally known among the armies of major civilizations throughout history, and so the similarities may be related to convergent evolution instead of diffusion.
Traditionally, historians date the origin of the hoplite phalanx of ancient Greece to the 8th century BC in Sparta, but this is under revision. It is perhaps more likely that the formation was devised in the 7th century BC after the introduction of the aspis by the city of Argos, which would have made the formation possible. This is further evidenced by the Chigi vase, dated to 650 BC, identifying hoplites armed with aspis, spear and panoply.
Another possible theory as to the birth of Greek phalanx warfare stems from the idea that some of the basic aspects of the phalanx were present in earlier times yet were not fully developed due to the lack of appropriate technology. Two of the basic strategies seen in earlier warfare include the principle of cohesion and the use of large groups of soldiers. This would suggest that the Greek phalanx was rather the culmination and perfection of a slowly developed idea that originated many years earlier. As weaponry and armour advanced through the years in different city-states, the phalanx became complex and effective.
The hoplite phalanx of the Archaic and Classical periods in Greece (ca. 800–350 BC) was a formation in which the hoplites would line up in ranks in close order. The hoplites would lock their shields together, and the first few ranks of soldiers would project their spears out over the first rank of shields. The phalanx therefore presented a shield wall and a mass of spear points to the enemy, making frontal assaults against it very difficult. It also allowed a higher proportion of the soldiers to be actively engaged in combat at a given time (rather than just those in the front rank).
Battles between two phalanxes usually took place in open, flat plains where it was easier to advance and stay in formation. Rough terrain or hilly regions would have made it difficult to maintain a steady line and would have defeated the purpose of employing the use of a phalanx. As a result, battles between Greek city-states would not take place in any possible location, nor would they be limited to sometimes obvious strategic points. Rather, many times, the two opposing sides would find the most suitable piece of land where the conflict could be settled. Mostly, the battle ended with one of the two fighting sides fleeing to safety.
The phalanx usually advanced at a walking pace, although it is possible that they picked up speed during the last several yards. One of the main reasons for this slow approach was to maintain formation. If the phalanx lost its shape as it approached the enemy it would be rendered useless. If the hoplites of the phalanx were to pick up speed toward the latter part of the advance it would have been for the purpose of gaining momentum against the enemy in the initial collision. Herodotus states, of the Greeks at the Battle of Marathon, that "They were the first Greeks we know of to charge their enemy at a run". Many historians believe that this innovation was precipitated by their desire to minimize their losses from Persian archery. The opposing sides would collide, possibly severing many of the spears of the row in front and killing the front part of the enemy army due to the bone breaking collision of the start of the battle. The battle would then rely on the valour of the men in the front line; whilst those in the rear maintained forward pressure on the front ranks with their shields. When in combat, the whole formation would consistently press forward trying to break the enemy formation; thus when two phalanx formations engaged, the struggle essentially became a pushing match.
This "physical pushing match" theory is the most widely accepted interpretation of the ancient sources. Historians such as Victor Davis Hanson point out that it is difficult to account for exceptionally deep phalanx formations unless they were necessary to facilitate the physical pushing depicted by this theory, as those behind the first two ranks could not take part in the actual spear thrusting.
Yet, it should be noted that no Greek art ever depicts anything like a phalanx pushing match and this hypothesis is a product of educated speculation rather than explicit testimony from contemporary sources. The Greek term for "push" was used in the same metaphorical manner as the English word is (for example it was also used to describe the process of rhetorical arguments) and so cannot be said to necessarily describe a literal, physical, push of the enemy, although it is possible that it did. In short, the hypothesis is far from being academically resolved.
For instance, if Othismos were to accurately describe a physical pushing match, it would be logical to state that the deeper phalanx would always win an engagement, since the physical strength of individuals would not compensate for even one additional rank on the enemy side. However, there are numerous examples of shallow phalanxes holding off an opponent. For instance, at Delium in 424 the Athenian left flank, a formation eight men deep, held off a formation of Thebans twenty-five deep without immediate collapse. It is difficult with the physical pushing model to imagine eight men withstanding the pushing force of twenty-five opponents for a matter of seconds, let alone half the battle.
Such arguments have led to a wave of counter-criticism to physical shoving theorists. Adrian Goldsworthy, in his article "The Othismos, Myths and Heresies: The nature of Hoplite Battle" argues that the physical pushing match model does not fit with the average casualty figures of hoplite warfare, nor the practical realities of moving large formations of men in battle. This debate has yet to be resolved amongst scholars.
Practical difficulties with this theory also include the fact that, in a shoving match, an 8-foot spear is too long to fight effectively or even parry attacks. Spears enable a formation of men to keep their enemies at a distance, parry attacks aimed at them and their comrades, and give the necessary reach to strike multiple men in the opposite formation. A pushing match would put enemies so close together that a quick stabbing with a knife would kill the front row almost instantly. The crush of men would also prevent the formation from withdrawing or retreating, which would result in much higher casualties than is recorded. The speed at which this would occur would also end the battle very quickly, instead of prolonged battles lasting hours.
Each individual hoplite carried his shield on the left arm, protecting not only himself but the soldier to the left. This meant that the men at the extreme right of the phalanx were only half-protected. In battle, opposing phalanxes would exploit this weakness by attempting to overlap the enemy's right flank. It also meant that, in battle, a phalanx would tend to drift to the right (as hoplites sought to remain behind the shield of their neighbour). The most experienced hoplites were often placed on the right side of the phalanx, to avoid these problems. Some groups, such as the Spartans at Nemea, tried to use this phenomenon to their advantage. In this case, the phalanx would sacrifice its left side, which typically consisted of allied troops, in an effort to overtake the enemy from the flank. It is unlikely that this strategy worked very often, as it is not mentioned frequently in ancient Greek literature.
There was a leader in each row of a phalanx, and a rear rank officer, the ouragos (meaning tail-leader), who kept order in the rear. The phalanx is thus an example of a military formation in which the individualistic elements of battle were suppressed for the good of the whole. The hoplites had to trust their neighbours to protect them, and be willing to protect their neighbours; a phalanx was thus only as strong as its weakest elements. The effectiveness of the phalanx therefore depended on how well the hoplites could maintain this formation while in combat, and how well they could stand their ground, especially when engaged against another phalanx. For this reason, the formation was deliberately organized to group friends and family closely together, thus providing a psychological incentive to support one's fellows, and a disincentive through shame to panic or attempt to flee. The more disciplined and courageous the army, the more likely it was to win – often engagements between the various city-states of Greece would be resolved by one side fleeing before the battle. The Greek word dynamis, the "will to fight", expresses the drive that kept hoplites in formation.
"Now of those, who dare, abiding one beside another, to advance to the close fray, and the foremost champions, fewer die, and they save the people in the rear; but in men that fear, all excellence is lost. No one could ever in words go through those several ills, which befall a man, if he has been actuated by cowardice. For 'tis grievous to wound in the rear the back of a flying man in hostile war. Shameful too is a corpse lying low in the dust, wounded behind in the back by the point of a spear."
The phalanx of the Ancient Macedonian kingdom and the later Hellenistic successor states was a development of the hoplite phalanx. The 'phalangites' were armed with much longer spears (the sarissa; see below), and less heavily armoured. Since the sarissa was wielded two-handed, phalangites carried much smaller shields that were strapped to their arms. Therefore, although a Macedonian phalanx would have formed up in a similar manner to the hoplite phalanx, it possessed very different tactical properties. With the extra spear length, up to five rows of phalangites could project their weapon beyond the front rank—keeping the enemy troops at a greater distance. The Macedonian phalanx was much less able to form a shield wall, but the lengthened spears would have compensated for this. Such a phalanx formation also reduces the likelihood that battles would degenerate into a pushing match.
Each hoplite provided his own equipment. The primary hoplite weapon was a spear around 2.4 metres (7.9 ft) in length called a dory. Although accounts of its length vary, it is usually now believed to have been seven to nine feet long (~2.1–2.7 m). It was held one-handed, with the other hand holding the hoplite's shield (called Aspis). The spearhead was usually a curved leaf shape, while the rear of the spear had a spike called a sauroter ('lizard-killer') which was used to stand the spear in the ground (hence the name). It was also used as a secondary weapon if the main shaft snapped or to kill enemies lying on the ground as the formation passed over. This was a common problem, especially for soldiers who were involved with the initial clash with the enemy. Despite the snapping of the spear, Hoplites could easily switch to the sauroter without great consequence. The rear ranks used the secondary end to finish off fallen opponents as the phalanx advanced over them.
Throughout the hoplite era, the standard hoplite armour went through many cyclical changes. An Archaic hoplite typically wore a bronze breastplate, a bronze helmet with cheekplates, as well as greaves and other armour. Later, in the classical period, the breastplate became less common, replaced instead with a corselet that some claim was made of layers of linen glued together, or perhaps of leather, sometimes covered in whole or in part with overlapping metal scales. Eventually, even greaves became less commonly used, although degrees of heavier armour remained, as attested by Xenophon as late as 401 BC.
These changes reflected the balancing of mobility with protection, especially as cavalry became more prominent in the Peloponnesian War and the need to combat light troops, which were increasingly used to negate the hoplites role as the primary force in battle. Yet bronze armour remained in some form until the end of the hoplite era. Some archaeologists have pointed out that bronze armour does not actually provide as much protection from direct blows as more extensive corselet padding, and have suggested its continued use was a matter of status for those who could afford it. In classical Greek dialect, there is no word for swordsmen; yet hoplites also carried a short sword, called a xiphos. The short sword was a secondary weapon, used if the dory was broken or lost. Samples of the xiphos recovered at excavation sites typically were found to be around 60 cm in length. These swords were double sided and could therefore be used in both the swinging and thrusting motion. These short swords were usually used to slice the enemy's throat during close combat.
Hoplites carried a circular shield called a hoplon (often referred to as an aspis) made from wood and covered in bronze, measuring roughly 1 metre (3.3 ft) in diameter. It spanned from chin to knee and was very heavy (8–15 kg). This medium-sized shield (and indeed, large for the time) was made possible partly by its dish-like shape, which allowed it to be supported with the rim on the shoulder. This was quite an important feature of the shield, especially for the hoplites that remained in the latter ranks. While these soldiers continued to help press forward, they did not have the added burden of holding up their shield. But the circular shield was not without its disadvantages. Despite its mobility, protective curve, and double straps the circular shape created gaps in the shield wall at both its top and bottom. These gaps left parts of the hoplite exposed to potentially lethal spear thrusts and were a persistent vulnerability for hoplites controlling the front lines.
The sarissa was the pike used by the Ancient Macedonian army. The actual length of the sarissa is now unknown, but apparently it was twice as long as the dory. This makes it at least 14 feet (4.3 m), but 18 feet (5.5 m) appears more likely. (The cavalry xyston was 12.5 feet (3.8 m) by comparison.) The great length of the pike was balanced by a counterweight at the rear end, which also functions as a butt-spike, allowing the sarissa to be planted into the ground. Because of its great length, weight and differing balance, a sarissa was wielded two-handed. This meant that the aspis was no longer a practical defence. Instead, the phalangites strapped a smaller pelte shield (usually reserved for light skirmishers – peltasts) to their left forearm. Although this reduced the shield wall, the extreme length of the spear prevented most enemies from closing, as the pikes of the first three to five ranks could all be brought to bear in front of the front row. In addition, the last 6-18 ranks of soldiers held their spears in the air over the front ranks, making an effective barrier against missiles. This pike had to be held underhand, as the shield would have obscured the soldier's vision had it been held overhead. It would also be very hard to remove a sarissa from anything it stuck in (the earth, shields, and soldiers of the opposition) if it were thrust downwards, due to its length.
The basic combat element of the Greek armies was either the stichos (meaning "file"; usually 8-16 men strong) or the enomotia (meaning "sworn" and made up by 2-4 stichœ; totaling up to 32 men), both led by a dimœrites who was assisted by a decadarchos and two decasterœ (sing. decasteros). Four to a maximum of 32 enomotiæ (depending on the era in question or the city) were forming a lochos led by a lochagos, who in this way was in command of initially 100 hoplites to a maximum of ca. 500 in the late Hellenistic armies. Here, it has to be noted that the military manuals of Asclepiodotus and Aelian use the term lochos to denote a file in the phalanx. A taxis (mora for the Spartans) was the greatest standard hoplitic formation of 500 to 1500 men, led by a strategos (general). The entire army, a total of several taxeis or moræ was led by a generals' council. The commander-in-chief was usually called a polemarchos or a strategos autocrator.
Hoplite phalanxes usually deployed in ranks of 8 men or more deep; The Macedonian phalanxes were usually 16 men deep, sometimes reported to have been arrayed 32 men deep. There are some notable extremes; at the battles of Leuctra and Mantinea, the Theban general Epameinondas arranged the left wing of the phalanx into a "hammerhead" of 50 ranks of elite hoplites deep (see below) and when depth was less important, phalanxes just 4 deep are recorded, as at the battle of Marathon.
The phalanx depth could vary depending on the needs of the moment and plans of the general. While the phalanx was in march, an eis bathos formation (loose, meaning literally "in depth") was adopted in order to move more freely and maintain order. This was also the initial battle formation as, in addition, it permitted friendly units to pass through whether assaulting or retreating. In this status, the phalanx had twice the normal depth and each hoplite had to occupy about 1.8–2 metres (5 ft 11 in–6 ft 7 in) in width. When enemy infantry was approaching, a rapid switch to the pycne (spelled also pucne) formation (dense or tight formation) was necessary. In that case, each man's space was halved (0.9–1 metre or 2 feet 11 inches–3 feet 3 inches in width) and the formation depth returned to normal. An even denser formation, the synaspismos or sunaspismos (ultra tight or locked shields formation), was used when the phalanx was expected to experience extra pressure, intense missile volleys or frontal cavalry charges. In synaspismos, the rank depth was half that of a normal phalanx and the width each man occupied was as small as 0.45 metres (1.5 ft).
Several stages in hoplite combat can be defined:
Ephodos: The hoplites stop singing their pæanes (battle hymns) and move towards the enemy, gradually picking up pace and momentum. In the instants before impact, war cries (alalagmœ, sing. alalagmos) would be made. Notable war cries were the Athenian (elelelelef! elelelelef!) and the Macedonian (alalalalai! alalalalai!) alalagmœ.
Krousis: The opposing phalanxes meet each other almost simultaneously along their front. The promachœ (the front-liners) had to be physically and psychologically fit and disciplined to avoid wavering, and were often veterans who had proven themselves in battle before.
Doratismos: Repeated, rapid spear thrusts in order to disrupt the enemy formation. The use of long spears would keep enemies apart as well as allow men in a row to assist their comrades next to them. The prodding could also open up a man to allow a comrade to spear him. Too hard prodding could get a spear stuck in a shield, which would necessitate someone in the back to lend his to the now-disarmed man.
Othismos: Literally "pushing" after most spears have been broken, the hoplites begin to push with their spears and spear shafts against their opponents' shields. This could be the longest phase.
Pararrhexis: "Breaching" the opposing phalanx, the enemy formation shatters and the battle ends. Cavalry would be used at this point to mop up the scattered enemy.
The early history of the phalanx is largely one of combat between hoplite armies from competing Greek city-states. The usual result was rather identical, inflexible formations pushing against each other until one broke. The potential of the phalanx to achieve something more was demonstrated at Battle of Marathon (490 BC). Facing the much larger army of Darius I, the Athenians thinned out their phalanx and consequently lengthened their front, to avoid being outflanked. However, even a reduced-depth phalanx proved unstoppable to the lightly armed Persian infantry. After routing the Persian wings, the hoplites on the Athenian wings wheeled inwards, destroying the elite troop at the Persian centre, resulting in a crushing victory for Athens. Throughout the Greco-Persian Wars the hoplite phalanx was to prove superior to the Persian infantry (e.g. the battles of Thermopylae and Plataea).
Perhaps the most prominent example of the phalanx's evolution was the oblique advance, made famous in the Battle of Leuctra. There, the Theban general Epaminondas thinned out the right flank and centre of his phalanx, and deepened his left flank to an unheard-of 50 men deep. In doing so, Epaminondas reversed the convention by which the right flank of the phalanx was strongest. This allowed the Thebans to assault in strength the elite Spartan troops on the right flank of the opposing phalanx. Meanwhile, the centre and right flank of the Theban line were echeloned back, from the opposing phalanx, keeping the weakened parts of the formation from being engaged. Once the Spartan right had been routed by the Theban left, the remainder of the Spartan line also broke. Thus, by localising the attacking power of the hoplites, Epaminondas was able to defeat an enemy previously thought invincible.
Philip II of Macedon spent several years in Thebes as a hostage, and paid attention to Epaminondas' innovations. On return to his homeland, he raised a revolutionary new infantry force, which was to change the face of the Greek world. Phillip's phalangites were the first force of professional soldiers seen in Ancient Greece apart from Sparta. They were armed with longer spears (the sarissa) and were drilled more thoroughly in more evolved, complicated tactics and manoeuvres. More importantly, though, Phillip's phalanx was part of a multi-faceted, combined force that included a variety of skirmishers and cavalry, most notably the famous Companion cavalry. The Macedonian phalanx now was used to pin the centre of the enemy line, while cavalry and more mobile infantry struck at the foe's flanks. Its supremacy over the more static armies fielded by the Greek city-states was shown at the Battle of Chaeronea, where Philip II's army crushed the allied Theban and Athenian phalanxes.
The Hoplite Phalanx was weakest when facing an enemy fielding lighter and more flexible troops without its own such supporting troops. An example of this would be the Battle of Lechaeum, where an Athenian contingent led by Iphicrates routed an entire Spartan mora (a unit of anywhere from 500 to 900 hoplites). The Athenian force had a considerable proportion of light missile troops armed with javelins and bows that wore down the Spartans with repeated attacks, causing disarray in the Spartan ranks and an eventual rout when they spotted Athenian heavy infantry reinforcements trying to flank them by boat.
The Macedonian Phalanx had weaknesses similar to its hoplitic predecessor. Theoretically indestructible from the front, its flanks and rear were very vulnerable, and once engaged it may not easily disengage or redeploy to face a threat from those directions. Thus, a phalanx facing non-phalangite formations required some sort of protection on its flanks—lighter or at least more mobile infantry, cavalry, etc. This was shown at the Battle of Magnesia, where, once the Seleucid supporting cavalry elements were driven off, the phalanx was static and unable to go on the offensive against its Roman opponents (although they continued to resist stoutly and attempted a fighting withdrawal under a hail of Roman missiles, until the elephants posted on their flanks panicked and disrupted their formation).
The Macedonian phalanx could also lose its cohesion without proper coordination or while moving through broken terrain; doing so could create gaps between individual blocks/syntagmata, or could prevent a solid front within those sub-units as well, causing other sections of the line to bunch up. In this event, as in the battles of Cynoscephalae and Pydna, the phalanx became vulnerable to attacks by more flexible units—such as Roman legionary centuries, which were able to avoid the sarissae and engage in hand-to-hand combat with the phalangites.
Another important area that must be considered concerns the psychological tendencies of the hoplites. Because the strength of a phalanx depended on the ability of the hoplites to maintain their frontline, it was crucial that a phalanx be able to quickly and efficiently replace fallen soldiers in the front ranks. If a phalanx failed to do this in a structured manner, the opposing phalanx would have an opportunity to breach the line which, many times, would lead to a quick defeat. This then implies that the hoplites ranks closer to the front must be mentally prepared to replace their fallen comrade and adapt to his new position without disrupting the structure of the frontline.
Finally, most of the phalanx-centric armies tended to lack supporting echelons behind the main line of battle. This meant that breaking through the line of battle or compromising one of its flanks often ensured victory.
After reaching its zenith in the conquests of Alexander the Great, the phalanx as a military formation began a slow decline, mirrored by the decline in the Macedonian successor states themselves. The combined arms tactics used by Alexander and his father were gradually replaced by a return to the simpler frontal charge tactics of the hoplite phalanx. In the numerous wars of the Successor states the expense of the supporting arms and cavalry, and widespread use of mercenaries, caused the Diadochi to rely on phalanx vs. phalanx tactics.
The decline of the diadochi and the phalanx was inextricably linked with the rise of Rome and the Roman legion, from the 3rd century BC. Before the battle of the Caudine Forks, where the clumsiness of the Roman phalanx was displayed by the Samnites, the Romans had originally employed the phalanx themselves, but gradually evolved more flexible tactics resulting in the three-line Roman legion of the middle period of the Roman Republic. The phalanx continued to be employed by the Romans as a tactic for their third military line or triarii of veteran reserve troops armed with the hastae or spear. Rome would eventually conquer most of the Macedonian successor states, and the various Greek city-states and leagues. These territories were incorporated into the Roman Republic, and as these Hellenic states had ceased to exist, so did the armies which had used the traditional phalanx formation. Subsequently, troops raised from these regions by the Romans would have been equipped and fought in line on the Roman model.
However, the phalanx did not disappear as a military tactic altogether. There is some question as to whether the phalanx was actually obsolete by the end of its history. In some of the major battles between the Roman Army and Hellenistic phalanxes, Pydna (168 BC), Cynoscephalae (197 BC) and Magnesia (190 BC), the phalanx performed relatively well against the Roman army, initially driving back the Roman infantry. However, at Cynoscephalae and Magnesia, failure to defend the flanks of the Phalanx led to defeat; whilst at Pydna, the loss of cohesion of the Phalanx when pursuing retreating Roman soldiers allowed the Romans to penetrate the formation, where the latter's close combat skills proved decisive. The ancient Greek historian Polybius goes into some detail about the effectiveness of the Roman legion against the Phalanx. He deduces that the Romans refused to fight the phalanx where the phalanx was most effective and offered battle only when they felt that they could exploit the clumsiness and immobility of the phalanx.
Spear-armed troops continued to be important elements in many armies until the advent of reliable firearms, but did not necessarily fight in the manner of a phalanx. A meaningful comparison can be made between the Classical phalanx and late medieval pike formations.
Particular parallels can be seen in the Middle Ages and Renaissance city-states of the Low Countries (modern Holland and Belgium), the cantons of Switzerland and the city-states of Northern Italy. Armies of the Low Countries were first armed with spears, then pikes, and were defeating French and Burgundian forces by the 14th century. The Swiss first used the halberd in the 14th century but—outreached by Austrian cavalry armed with lances—the Swiss gradually adopted pikes in the later 15th century. Swiss pike phalanxes of the Burgundian Wars were dynamic and aggressive resulting in the destruction of the 'modern' Burgundian army and the death of Charles the Bold. It is tempting to suggest that Swiss military authorities had read Classical sources and were consciously copying Hellenistic practices. Some Italian states raised their own pike units as well as employing Swiss mercenary pikemen in the 15th and 16th century. The Swiss were also copied by German Landsknechts leading to bitterness and rivalry between competing mercenary units.
Military historians have also suggested that the Scots, particularly under William Wallace and Robert the Bruce, consciously imitated the Hellenistic phalanx to produce the Scots 'hedgehog' or schiltron. However, this ignores possible Early Middle Ages use of long spears by Picts and others in Scotland. It is possible that long spear tactics (also found in North Wales) were an established part of more irregular warfare in parts of Britain prior to 1066. The Scots certainly used imported French pikes and dynamic tactics at the Battle of Flodden. However, this battle found the Scots pitted against effective light artillery and advancing over bad ground, which disorganised the Scottish phalanxes and left them easy prey to English longbow shooting and attacks by shorter but more effective English polearms called bills. Some have interpreted contemporary sources as describing the bills cutting off the heads of Scots pikes.
Pike and shot became a military standard in the 16th and 17th century. With the development of the bayonet the last major use of pike was the early 18th century with the weapon rapidly disappearing in Western European armies by the time of the Battle of Blenheim. A few pikes or half pikes and a few halberds were retained among regimental colour guards but even these were fast disappearing by the time of Napoleon.
The pike was briefly reconsidered as a weapon by European armies in the late 18th and early 19th century as protection for riflemen, whose slower rate of fire made them vulnerable. A collapsible pike was invented but never issued. It was also reconsidered by the Confederate Army at the time of the American Civil War and some were even manufactured but these were probably never issued. Pikes were again manufactured for a short time during World War Two, and became known as "Croft's Pikes".