Macedonian phalanx

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Creation of a Macedonian phalanx with cavalry and auxiliary troops.

The Macedonian Phalanx was a heavy infantry formation of great military historical importance for the states of the ancient Hellenistic epoch . The Macedonian King Philip II († 336 BC), whose son Alexander the Great († 323 BC) made it the pillar of his conquest through Asia , is considered to be the pioneer . Subsequently, the Macedonian phalanx dominated the theaters of war in the Eastern Mediterranean in the Hellenistic successor states of the Antigonids , Seleucids , Ptolemies , Attalids and other ruling houses until it was subject to the Roman legion and had to give way from the 2nd century BC .

Companions on foot

The Macedonian phalanx presented an evolution of the classic hoplites - phalanx of ancient Greece is that compared to this differed mainly in the armament of their warriors. The Macedonian phalangite, called pezhetairos (companion on foot), wore a much smaller and lighter shield tied loosely around his left shoulder or left forearm to protect himself, so that both hands were free to guide a lance that was at least 5 to at times 7 meters long Sarissa , to have. When inserted, the tip of this lance protruded far in front of the body of its wearer and could therefore be used both as a ranged and thrust weapon. The Macedonian phalangite thus had an advantage over the classically armed hoplite in that it could now fight its opponent from the safety of a greater distance with targeted thrusts of its lance. And since several members of the phalanx could insert their long lances at the same time, the enemy was confronted with a correspondingly higher number of lance tips, which he now had to fight off. He had to cope with up to five rows of lances in order to be able to reach the first link of the Macedonians for close combat. For each of the not nearly adequately equipped opponents of the Macedonians, mainly Greeks and Persians, an almost impossible undertaking.

The pezhetairoi were professional warriors who, compared to simple fortified farmers, were paid from the royal treasury and were also socially privileged as the entourage closest to the king. They already existed in the time of Alexander I and initially held a kind of guard function until under Philip II . In the course of his military reform, Philip II expanded it into a standing army and armed it with the Sarissa. According to Diodorus , it was Philip II who introduced the phalanx formation in Macedonia. Suddenly Macedonia was elevated to such a military power as the country had never been in earlier times. The Macedonian phalanx (Μακεδονικήν φάλαγγα), which Diodorus deliberately designated as such for the first time to distinguish it from other formations, advanced for Philip II to the most important instrument of power for gaining kingship, which he was actually supposed to clothe his nephew. But building on the consent of his loyal warriors, his companions, he was able to legitimize his kingship, whereby he gave Macedonia the constitution of a military monarchy. This condition became constitutive for the further history of the country as well as for that of the Macedonian successor states in Asia.

Philip II himself demonstrated the new superiority in warfare for the first time in the battle of Chaeronea in 338 BC. With resounding success when he defeated the classical formations of the Athenians and Thebans , two leading military powers up until then. This victory established Macedonia's hegemony over Greece and at the same time heralded the dominance of the Macedonian school of war in the eastern Mediterranean.

Shield bearer

An important component of the Macedonian phalanx was the unit of the hypaspistes (shield bearers), who as Macedonians in the broader sense were also pezhetairoi , i.e. companions on foot, although they were differentiated from the regular phalangites. Since the phalangites were only protected by their own little shield tied over their left shoulder, they had virtually no protection at all for the right half of their body, on which they wielded their lances with both hands, and were most vulnerable at this point. In battle formation, this disadvantage was largely compensated for due to their close-knit formation, with the exception of those warriors who were at the far right end of the formation.

To close this open flank, the unit of shield bearers was created, which was set up with 3,000 men on the right flank of the phalanx. Due to their equipment, a large hoplon with a one-handed lance and sword, these warriors came largely close to the classical Greek hoplite and they also mastered combat in classical phalanx formation, i.e. direct close combat in a closed position with overlapping shields. In open battle, their main task was limited to protecting the right flank of the phalanx, while they could be used more flexibly in sieges and other military operations. They also provided bodyguards (agēma) for the king as soon as he fought on foot. Their most experienced veterans were called "silver shields".


The Macedonian phalanx was supported on the battlefield by auxiliary troops, which varied in number and nature at different times. Under Philip II and Alexander, their left flank was usually protected by light cavalry and then by the heavy Thessalian cavalry. In front of the phalanx, other light infantrymen, so-called peltasts (psiloi) , were set up, who were supposed to use their weapons to kill off opposing chariots or cavalry. Later, from the Diadoch period , war elephants stormed ahead of the phalanx, which were the first to break into the opposing phalanx and thus do some kind of preparatory work for their own phalanx.


Set up in battle formation, the Macedonian phalanx did not form a rigid, self-contained army body, but was divided into several departments that had their own command structures and could act independently. Nevertheless, it drew its strength from the cohesion of the individual departments with one another, which required a high degree of coordination of the commanders as well as a steady marching speed of the formations, which was practiced by means of the strictest drills .

The basic formation of the army formation was a syntagma (association), which had consisted of 256 men at the latest since Alexander. These were divided into dekades (limbs) and formed a square of 16 men in width and 16 men in depth. Each member was commanded by a decadarchos , whose name was a " ten-man leader ", probably because a dekas had consisted of 10 men in earlier times. The dekadarchos two were dekastateroi as deputy to the side, where they were the two most experienced warriors of the limb, which is why in addition to their ten month pay Stater received. In the limb, one of them stood right next to the decadarchos , while the other closed the limb at its end. Each dekas formed a tent community and had a servant and a donkey who transported the tent and supplies of grain for 30 to 40 days. The common soldier received 30 Attic drachmas a month, whereby the earnings could be increased through looting, prey and awards.

A syntagma had no unit command , but was united with a second syntagma in a lóchos of 512 men, which was commanded by a lochágos . The lóchos thus represented the first and smallest association capable of independent operations. Finally , three lóchoi were united in the 1,536-man large association of taxis , the largest organizational unit of the Macedonian heavy infantry, commanded by a taxiarchos . On the battlefield, the phalanx line was usually composed of several taxeis . In the army of Alexander the Great, for example, it consisted of six taxeis at the beginning of the Asian campaign and was expanded to seven in the further course.

Greek meaning Manpower Roman equivalent modern equivalent
taxis (τάξις) in
command: taxiarchos (ταξίαρχος)
large infantry force 1,536 Legion
Brigadier General
lóchos (λóχος) in
command: lochágos (λοχάγος)
Five hundred shank 512 Cohort
Colonel Regiment
syntagma (σύνταγμα) Combat group 256 Manipel
dekas (δεκάς)
commander: dekadarchos (δεκαδάρχος)
element 16 Decurie
pezhetairos (πεζέταιρος) Companion on foot / phalangite Legionnaire soldier

In the successor states of the Alexander Empire, the organizational forms of the phalanx changed to varying degrees. A fragmentary inscription from Amphipolis that has survived , for example, shows that in the army of Macedonia under the Antigonids, the taxis was renamed strategia , which was led by a strategos . It was divided into six speirarchai of 256 men each, who had therefore taken the place of the syntagma . A speira was again divided into four tétrarchai of 64 men each and these in turn into four lochoi of 16 men each. The lochos had thus taken the place of the old deka .

Greek meaning Manpower Roman equivalent modern equivalent
strategia (στρατηγία)
Commander: strategos (στρατηγος)
large infantry force 1,536 Legion
Brigadier General
speira (σπεῖρα)
Commander: speirarchos (σπεῖραρχος)
Combat group 256 Manipel
tétrarchia (τετραρχία)
Commander: tetrarchos (τετραρχος)
64 Platoon first
lóchos (λóχος) in
command: lochágos (λοχάγος)
element 16 Decurie
pezhetairos (πεζέταιρος) Companion on foot / phalangite Legionnaire soldier

Fighting style

Like all military mobilizations of antiquity, the Macedonian phalanx was also set up in a linear formation on the battlefield , with several taxei standing side by side. In the battle, the phalanx thus formed marched head-on towards the opposing army, whereby the taxarchs were careful to maintain the closed line formation through an even marching speed and precise maneuvering. The division into several independently acting combat groups helped the Macedonian phalanx to be much better maneuverable than the traditional formations of the Greeks of earlier times. So their combat groups were better able to make changes of direction during the march, which among other things could avoid the effect of the legal move that occurs in classical formations. The maintenance of unity required the most level possible marching surface on flat terrain, which is why the Macedonian military leaders were always careful to force the enemy to battle on level ground. Not least because of this, for example, Alexander the Great had on the eve of the Battle of Gaugamela in 331 BC. No objection to it, when Dareios III. had the chosen battlefield leveled for his chariots.

Shortly before the enemy armies met, the first five members of the Macedonians dropped their lances horizontally. The lance tips of the first section protruded about 4.5 m and those of the fifth section almost 1 m ahead of the front. From the sixth link on, the lances were held in position over the shoulders of the person in front, with those of the sixth and seventh links in an angled position and those of the seven others in a vertical position. Due to the crowdedness of their lances, the warriors were able to disturb the trajectory of approaching arrow projectiles and thus protect the formation from above. And if a fighter fell in one of the front rows, the man behind moved to the position of the one in front of him, so that the number of five rows of lances ready to fight was maintained. Furthermore, by producing physical pressure on the fore limbs, the rear limbs caused the phalanx to thrust forward, the rows of lances of which were almost pushed into the ranks of the enemy. The strong impact generated by this gave the Macedonian phalanx the reputation of an insurmountable bulwark, a human cylinder (Greek: phalanx) reinforced with lance tips.

Even during the fight, the taxarchs always made sure to maintain the unity of the formation. They informed each other about their movements and changes of direction via reporters and signal transmitters. If a detachment made a mistake in the march, a gap could arise in the phalanx line through which the enemy could break through and thus endanger the entire formation. Because of their forward thrust, the warriors of a formation could hardly adequately defend them on their flanks and in the rear. A battle was decided by the escape of one of the enemy formations, which could be triggered either by proven inferiority due to excessive losses or by breaking through the formation. With the Macedonian phalanx, however, it should be noted that breaking through did not necessarily mean defeat. This happened, for example, in the battle of Gaugamela, in which the Persian cavalry made a breakthrough at one point, but ignored the favorable situation and left it unused, so that the Macedonians were able to continue the battle until the Persians flee had.


In the tactical concept of Philip II and Alexander the Great, the Macedonian phalanx was always embedded with the heavy Macedonian cavalry ( Hetairenreiterei ) in the battle of the combined arms . Under Alexander, the phalanx usually made up the left wing of the battle formation, while the cavalry was on the right. Their main task in battle was to bind the main forces of the enemy and to allow the cavalry the necessary freedom to attack the flanks of the enemy army offensive, or even to bypass it to attack the enemy center. Alexander, for example, sought a direct attack on Darius III with the cavalry in the battles at Issus and Gaugamela.


The Diadochi and Epigones of Alexander largely retained the tactical concept of the Macedonian school of war. When the Diadochi fought against each other, both warring parties used this military tactic equally. The Macedonian way of fighting, which had proven to be superior to the Greek and Persian, was no longer questioned and largely preserved. It was also taught to the indigenous, previously subjugated peoples in the successor states of the Alexander Empire. Ptolemy IV , for example, had several thousand Egyptians recruited for the battle of Raphia , drilled in phalanx tactics and equipped with Macedonian weapons. He could take an example from Alexander the Great, who once requested 30,000 Persians to be recruited for the Macedonian war school.

Overall, the Macedonian phalanx had advanced to become the main weapon of war in the entire eastern Mediterranean region in the Hellenistic period and was adapted by every power that wanted to have a say in the power-political battle of strength in that region. Even the Spartans appropriated the fight with the Sarissa, which however did not save them from the defeat at Sellasia by the Macedonians.

Inferior to the Romans

The Roman consul Lucius Aemilius Paullus (named after his victory at Pydna Macedonicus ) is said to have repeatedly expressed his dismay at the sight of a Macedonian phalanx marching up in battle, since he had never seen anything more terrible and terrible than this. In fact, the Macedonian phalanx had also proven to be the insurmountable lance roller for the Romans , as it had already established its worldwide reputation in the 3rd century BC. The Romans first came into contact with the Macedonian way of fighting in the war against Pyrrhus (280–275 BC), as the latter's army was connected to several Macedonian formations. In frontal clashes, the Romans were just as inferior to the phalanx as the Greeks and Persians before them. The Romans drew their strength on the battlefield from the abilities of their individual legionaries in direct one-on-one combat, but this strength was neutralized against the Macedonians who fought from a distance. The ten lance tips between himself and his opponent had faced the individual legionnaire as just as insurmountable an obstacle as all the other fighters before.

And yet it was the Romans who in their wars against Philip V , Perseus and Antiochus III. not only defeated the Macedonian phalanx, but literally destroyed it. They achieved these successes by being the first to use the weaknesses of the phalanx to their own advantage. They recognized that the Macedonians were vulnerable to loose formation on uneven terrain as their greatest weakness. It first happened at the Battle of Kynoskephalai in 197 BC. BC, which ended with a crushing defeat for the Macedonians. As usual from their traditional school, the Macedonians always chose flat terrain for battle, which was particularly difficult to find in Greece. The Romans, however, avoided the battle under these conditions and instead occupied the surrounding cities and supply routes, cutting off the phalanx from its food supply. As a result, she was soon forced to give up her exposed position and, to her disadvantage, had to accept the fight on uneven terrain, where her unity quickly dissolved.

In addition, the Romans exploited the gaps in the Macedonian phalanx faster than any earlier army formations. This was due to the much greater flexibility of their army order , which allowed their individual departments, the maniples , to leave the formation in order to carry out operations completely independently of them. As soon as a division of the Macedonians made the mistake and began to pursue a fleeing division of the Romans, they take advantage of the resulting gap to push into it with a manipulate held in reserve. From there, the surrounding Macedonian divisions could be attacked on their flanks or even in the rear. Because of their poor maneuverability to the rear and hardly any suitability for close combat, the Macedonians were completely inferior to the specialized Roman legionaries.

At Kynoskephalai, the Macedonian phalanx was defeated for the first time; the numbers of casualties there far exceeded the level of previous battles. This defeat cost the Macedonian kingdom the hegemony over Greece once founded by Philip II. The Seleucids suffered only a little later in the Battle of Magnesia in 190/189 BC. A disaster with similar consequences and lost their dominance in Asia to Rome. 168 BC After the defeat at Pydna , Macedonia disappeared from the map as a kingdom and became a province in the Roman Empire . This heralded the end of the Macedonian phalanx and the new domination of the Roman legion .


In the Roman Empire , the Macedonian phalanx had become part of the imitatio Alexandri operated by the emperors . For his campaign against the Parthian Empire in 217, Caracalla had 16,000 Macedonians trained and equipped in the old Macedonian war school in order to repeat with them the conquest of Alexander the Great, whose reincarnation he considered himself to be. Because of the murder of the emperor in the same year, the campaign was no longer carried out.


A list of battles in which the Macedonian phalanx was used.

Alexander train

Wars of the Diadochi

Wars of the Epigones

Roman wars

See also


  • John Warry: Warfare in the Classical World , University of Oklahoma Press, Norman 1995, ISBN 0-8061-2794-5
  • Hans Delbück: History of the Art of War. The ancient world , reprint of the first edition from 1900, Nikol Verlag, Hamburg 2003, ISBN 3-933203-73-2
  • Stephen English: The Army of Alexander the Great. Pen & Sword Military, 2009.
  • Joseph Roisman and Ian Worthington (Eds.): A Companion to Ancient Macedonia. Blackwell Publishing Ltd. 2010, pp. 446-472.
  • Minor M. Markle, III: Use of the Sarissa by Philip and Alexander of Macedon. In: American Journal of Archeology. Vol. 82 (1978), pp. 483-497.
  • Andrew Erskine: The πεζέταιϱοι of Philip II and Alexander III. In: Historia: magazine for ancient history. 38: 385-394 (1989).
  • Pierre Juhel: On Orderliness with Respect to the Prizes of War ': The Amphipolis Regulation and the Management of Booty in the Army of the Last Antigonids. In: The Annual of the British School at Athens. Vol. 97 (2002), pp. 401-412.


  1. Anaximenes , The Fragments of the Greek Historians , No. 72, Frag. 4th
  2. a b Diodorus 16, 3, 2.
  3. ^ Arrian , Anabasis. 7, 23, 3-4.
  4. Polybios 18:29 .
  5. Polybios 18, 30.
  6. Polybios 29, 17.
  7. Plutarch , Pyrrhus. 21, 6.
  8. Polybios 18, 30.
  9. Polybios 18, 31.
  10. Polybios 18, 32, 2-5.
  11. Polybios 18, 32, 6-12.
  12. ^ Cassius Dio , Roman History. 78, 7, 1-2.
  13. ^ Frontin , Stratagems. 2, 3, 17.

Web links

Commons : Macedonian Phalanx  - collection of images, videos and audio files