Phalanx Is Developed as a Military Unit Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

The phalanx created the first truly cohesive unit in Western warfare and made heavy infantry supreme on the battlefield.

Summary of Event

Although many factors help determine the characteristic military tactics of a time and place, culture and geography are certainly key among them. These were undoubtedly the two most important elements leading to the rise of the phalanx as the essential military unit among the ancient Greeks. Miltiades the Younger Epaminondas Alexander the Great

Quite early in their development, the inhabitants of Greece coalesced around a surprisingly large number of city-states, each of which controlled a limited portion of the Hellenic countryside. Arable lands on the slopes and hillsides were used to raise vines and olive trees for wine and oil; the relatively small amounts of flat lands were reserved for growing the cereal crops that formed the basis of the Greek diet. During the frequent wars between the city-states, it was the practice of the invader to attempt to seize the level farmland and destroy the crops, thus bringing about their opponent’s eventual starvation and surrender. The natural defensive strategy was therefore to meet the invader as quickly and as close to the border as possible, defeating him in one climactic battle. Thus was born the need for quick decision in ancient Greek warfare.

Because Greece is a highly uneven land, often mountainous and with few expanses of level land—and those often narrow and hemmed in by hills and other rough terrain—even moderately sized forces could be deployed in relatively few areas. This meant that the focus on quick, decisive battle limited the type of warfare and the range of tactics that were available. Essentially it came down to the clash of two forces confined to a limited space; out of this necessity the phalanx was developed as a military unit.

The word “phalanx” itself comes from a Greek term which means, essentially, “a roller,” and that is precisely what the unit was intended to do: roll over the enemy’s battle line through sheer weight of mass and momentum. Throughout most of its career, the essence of phalanx warfare was to push forward until the opposing line broke; once that happened, defeat for the enemy was almost always inevitable.

The phalanx developed, apparently simultaneously throughout Greece, sometime during the eighth century b.c.e. It seems to have grown out of informal, small infantry units of citizen-soldiers armed with spears and shields. To increase their cohesiveness and impact, these units generally ranked shoulder to shoulder in a compact mass. The Greeks seemed to have found that eight ranks was the optimum depth for the spear. This length allowed at least three lines of spearpoints to project beyond the front rank, confronting the enemy with an imposing threat.

By the end of the eighth century, these troops were uniformly equipped. As citizens and landowners, however, each man was expected to purchase his own arms and armor. The primary weapon was the spear, typically 6 to 8 feet (1.8 to 2.4 meters) long and approximately 1 inch (2.5 centimeters) in diameter. It was usually made of ash or cornel wood with an iron spearhead and a bronze butt spike, and generally seems to have weighed only 2 to 4 pounds (0.9 to 1.8 kilograms). The spear was invariably held in the right hand, while the shield was grasped in the left.

Armor consisted of a helmet, breastplate, greaves (shin guards), and a round, bowl-shaped shield, which seems to have been about 3 feet (nearly 1 meter) in diameter and which may have weighed around 16 pounds (7 kilograms). It was clearly unwieldy and difficult to hold, for there are numerous references to those facts by ancient writers. Still, it seems to have offered considerable physical protection, and even greater psychological comfort, during the initial clash of lines in a phalanx battle. This shield was known in Greek as the hoplon, thus giving birth to the term for such a Greek soldier, a hoplite; the phalanx is hoplite warfare par excellence.

From ancient sources such as Thucydides (c. 459-c. 402 b.c.e.) and more recent archaeological evidence, hoplite warfare seems to have been highly ritualistic. Battles were often agreed to beforehand by the combatants and followed a prescribed course. This agreement was, for all practical purposes, necessary, because the phalanx was maneuverable only on fairly level ground; an army that had no wish to fight could simply withdraw into more rugged terrain. Such a shameful act, however, would have been unthinkable to the ancient Greeks. Before battle, each army offered sacrifices, followed by a ceremonial communal breakfast. Once ranged into position, the hoplites heard rousing speeches by their commanders. Then, shouting their battle cry, or paean, they charged.

Throughout most of phalanx warfare, this straightforward charge was the essence of the battle. As the two front lines collided, those in the front sought to find some opening through which to push their spearpoints; failing that, they resorted to a simple push of their hoplon against their opponent’s, seeking to knock him off balance or at least force him backward.

As this struggle went on at the front, the men behind them pushed forward, adding their weight and impetus to the struggle. Eventually, one front line was pushed back until it began to break up in disorder, allowing its opponents to exploit the gap by striking into the heart of the phalanx. That was generally the point when the defeated phalanx collapsed and its men fled, many of them to be slaughtered from behind as they sought to escape. If there were any light troops or cavalry with the victorious army, this would be the time when they might be most useful in pursuing a beaten enemy. Even so, such pursuit seems to have been relatively limited, for generally speaking, the purpose of a phalanx battle was to repulse the enemy, not annihilate him.

After the battle, the ritualistic aspects of Greek warfare would continue, for there would be a truce that allowed for the exchange of the bodies of the dead, followed by their ceremonial burial on the field, often with memorials to honor them. As Homer’s Iliad (c. 750 b.c.e.; English translation, 1611) and Sophocles’ Antigonē (441 b.c.e.; Antigone, 1729) clearly show, refusal to permit proper burial was a shocking and indeed sacrilegious action.

The power of the traditional phalanx was convincingly demonstrated at the battle of Marathon (490 b.c.e.) in which Miltiades the Younger, the Athenian commander, completely defeated a Persian force overwhelmingly superior in numbers. Ancient writers remark on how shocked the Persians were by the ferocity and power of the attack of the Greek phalanx.

The brilliant Theban general Epaminondas made further refinements to the phalanx by increasing its flexibility. The ancient historian Thucydides, among others, had noticed that in battle a phalanx tended to shift to the right, as each soldier unconsciously moved toward the protection of his neighbor’s shield. Others had sought to make use of this fact, but Epaminondas and the Thebans achieved the greatest flexibility and, therefore, the greatest results. At the battles of Leuctra (371 b.c.e.) and Mantinea (362 b.c.e.), Epaminondas defeated the Spartans by skillfully swinging a select force against their exposed and drifting flank.

The ultimate development of phalanx warfare came under the Macedonians, especially in the conquering army of Alexander the Great. The Macedonians, northern neighbors of the Greeks, doubled the length of the spear; this sarissa was held in both hands. The first five rows of sarissas projected beyond the front rank; the other rows held their sarissas at increasing angles of elevation, giving the formation a “hedgehog” effect. The Macedonians also further improved the flexibility of the phalanx and trained it to act as a unit.

Even under Alexander the Great, however, the phalanx remained essentially the same: a compact body of heavily armed spearmen, willing to form up and charge equally courageous and well-armed opponents, until the issue was decided.


The phalanx was an efficient military unit in the environmental and cultural context of ancient Greece. From a military standpoint, it made the best use of its men in the typically constricted areas in which Greek battles were fought. However, the phalanx’s efficiency also depended on the bravery of the soldiers within it, a characteristic encouraged by Greek culture, which admired and rewarded courage and despised and punished cowardice. In larger battlefields with more pragmatic soldiers, the unit would be less optimal.

The phalanx was also developed for a specific type of weaponry: the spear and shield. In situations in which the sword was the dominant weapon, the phalanx was too tightly packed to allow for a free sword arm, and against warriors on horseback, it was less maneuverable. In essence, phalanx warfare operated like a large, armed rugby scrum, in which the mass and momentum of the soldiers/players are the key to victory. This is in contrast to the type of heroic, single combat model of warfare depicted in the liad or practiced by the marauding Celtic tribes. However, whatever military unit was favored, warfare in the ancient world was often as much concerned with ritual and honor as it was with the acquisition of land and goods.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Devine, Albert. “Alexander the Great.” In Warfare in the Ancient World, edited by General Sir John Hackett. New York: Facts On File, 1989. A brief but informative explanation of the weaponry and organization of the Macedonian phalanx.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Hanson, Victor Davis. The Western Way of War: Infantry Battle in Classical Greece. 2d ed. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2000. An outstanding work that presents the full range of phalanx warfare, including its psychological and sociological aspects.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Jones, Archer. The Art of War in the Western World. 1987. Reprint. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2001. An eminent scholar clearly and concisely presents the tactical nature of battle between opposing phalanxes, and explains how victories such as Leuctra came about.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Keegan, John. A History of Warfare. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1993. Within this general survey of human conflict this work presents an outstanding section on phalanx and hoplite warfare, written in Keegan’s unmistakable and entirely admirable style.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Pritchett, W. K. The Greek State at War. 4 vols. 1965-1985. Reprint. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1997. A classic, multivolume set which provides extensive detail about all aspects of ancient Greek warfare.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Sekunda, Nicholas Victor. The Greek Hoplite, 480-323 b.c. Oxford, England: Osprey Publishing, 2000. A short overview of the typical armor and equipment of a Greek hoplite. Plates, illustrations.
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Categories: History