The phalanx was the embodiment of the esprit de corp of the Greek city-states from roughly the thirteenth century to the fourth century BCE. It was the development of the phalanx that culminated into this bravado of strict military rules, conduct, and valor of waging war that created an atmosphere parallel to team sports of the twentieth century.
It was the culture of phalanx combat that allowed non-professional soldiers to wage war. After the battle this enabled the citizen-warriors to quickly return to their homes, farms, and businesses and carry on life as normal. Strict adherence to the values of this code spared the cities and countryside of the Greek peninsula of the devastation of Total War. However, the philosophy of phalanx permeated through a dozen centuries after its effective usefulness that led to such military fiasco as the Battle of the Teuoburg Forest, the Battle of Hasting, the Charge of the Light Brigade, Gettysburg, and even the Battle of the Little Big Horn, to name just a few. It was the idea that battle was fought on level ground, between two equal armies, with specific quarter given to either side, formal rules of engagement, retrieval and burial of the dead, and day time battles. Professional soldiers were looked down upon, as well as secondary or auxiliary units of cavalry, archers, and ancillary combat units.
Much like team sports of today, the phalanx marched often to per-determined fields of play. These battlegrounds were flat open plains and combat took place in the middle of the day, lasting no longer than a few hours. There was the expectation that each side would abide by strict rules of contact, parley, battle, and withdraw. Battle was like that of a Sunday afternoon game, only the losers of phalanx combat often lay dead on the field and the score of the match meant life and death.
In the twilight of the Dark Ages, prior to twelve hundred BCE in the Greek mainland, battles fought between tribes and small kingdoms could not clearly be called warfare since the combatants had no organization, strategy, or tactics. It was during this time that bands of men would simply march, without formation or drill, towards the enemy and attack with whatever means that suited them. Such conflicts were often little more than brawls or riots, killing indiscriminately and ravaging the lands of the countryside. There were no rules of engagement or forms of military conduct, and thus it often devolved into a cloud of disjointed attackers in full and open melee.
It was the spirit of camaraderie that grew out of the city-states, most aptly Sparta and Athens, but all of the small kingdoms of the Greek peninsula that began to change how combat was fought. As the Dorian civilization waned, the city-states began to flourish with massive population explosion, robust trade, innovations in marine technology, and perhaps most importantly the development of advanced metallurgy.
It was the discovery of copper and tin, with the culmination of the two metals that composed bronze that gave these early civilizations a leg up on all manner of trade goods and most importantly military weaponry. From the furnaces came the ability to forge spears and swords, as well as armor. “Most modern estimates of the weight of hoplite equipment ranged from fifty to seventy pounds for the panoply of greaves, shield, breastplate, helmet, spear, and sword.” The panoply, the whole suit of armor as used by the hoplites, was just one facet of the complicated development of ideals and methods of waging war using the strategy of the phalanx.
The hoplite had at his disposal a number of items to protect him in combat. First, the shield was an integral piece of equipment that often weighed sixteen pounds and was round and concave. The use of the shield was more than to protect the user, but used in as much to protect his fellow soldier to his right (since the shield was held in the left hand). The composition of the shield was that of any number of hardwood cores and encased in sheets of bronze. What was unique about the hoplite shield was, “the distinctive arm and handgrips, the porpax and the antilabe, which for the first time distributed the weight all along the left arm rather than concentrating it at the hand and wrist alone.” The nature of the shield and its use to protect the man to the right, often made the entire regiment slowly drift to the right, as the men on the inside of the shield wall sought to protect themselves as much as possible.
The true protection of the hoplite came with the breastplate, however. This was the anchor to which the hoplites surrounded themselves with the rest of the panoply and was composed of two sheets of heavy bronze hammered into the general musculature of the torso. . It was held in place by heavy leather straps or laces, upon the shoulder. The breastplate encased the warrior in a highly resilient piece of armor that warded off spear thrusts, arrows, stones, and blunt shock. The greatest discomfort of the breastplate was its lack of ventilation, often causing the soldier to be drenched in sweat in a matter of minutes of marching or combat. This resulted in, strangely enough, hypothermia on any but the warmest of days.
The favored helmet of the hoplite was known as the Corinthian helmet and was a massive bronze shell that covered the entire head, neck, and face, leaving only small slits for the eyes, nose, and mouth. The helmet was exceedingly uncomfortable to wear and use, as depicted in many vases and literal descriptions. that piece of the panoply was often thrust up and over the soldier’s head until the last minute of combat. It does not need to be said that while the helmet was in place, almost all senses were obliterated. Luckily, the tactics of the phalanx did not necessitate the need to hear or see well.
Outside of the confines of the protection of the shield and breastplate, the hoplite was in need of protection for the shin and calves. This area was augmented with the use of a bronze piece of armor called the greaves. Unlike early armor to protect the lower legs, the hoplite greaves snapped over the leg staying in place by the sheer elasticity of the metal – it did not require clamps, clips, strings, or other attaching laces to hold them in place.
Finally, the panoply of the hoplite concludes with the spear. This weapon saw an exponential growth in design and capabilities over the course of several hundred years. In its original form, it was nothing more than a short, heavy spear with a head of bronze. It was the choice weapon of the Greek phalanx, “. . .men who had no taste for the bow or missile and contempt for soldiers who would or could not come in close to fight.” Over the course of its development, the spearhead became iron and the butt of the shaft developed into a secondary edge, with a spike or heavy knob. The spear shaft also grew from three feet to lengths of over eighteen feet long. The major obstacle, but also bonus, to the spear was its sheer size and reach, which allowed them to extend deep into enemy ranks and also ward of melee and missile attacks.
With the use of the panoply, came new ways of military drill and organization. Unlike in the dark past, the Greeks assembled themselves into dense rectangular squares of men, eight ranks deep. Although not professional soldiers, with little time to train, the phalanx did require some discipline in order to keep the formation intact. Often this would be achieved by anchoring elder or more experienced warriors in key positions within the square, such as the corners and center of each group. The use of the spear, and to some lesser extent the sword, required very little expertise because it was all about the cohesion of the group, rather than the individual. Combat was akin to two rams charging each other with their heads down; it required little knowledge of use of the weapon to simply smash into your opponent. Like the reverse of a tug of war, or perhaps that of a sumo match, each side sought to literally push the other from the field of play, with the goal of breaking the ranks of the other side and causing a route. Once the enemy phalanx was broken, it was easy to trample and stab the retreating enemy.
The panoply of the phalanx and the tactics was just two small parts of the culture of the new terms of waging war. As the soldiers were not professional warriors, but mere citizens of the city-states, the art of conflict could better be understood more as a sporting event than true gruesome war. The engagements were seen as matches of rivalry, more than pure destruction of the other side (both in terms of men but also of their land and towns). Perhaps the only difference between the phalanx and modern sporting events were the lack crowds of observers, though it is conceivable that there were large parties of non-combatants at the battles since each warrior often had in his attendance a number of slaves or family to carry his panoply, as well as the baggage train of cooks, slaves, young boys, and perhaps even curious onlookers. One could argue that this flare for combat and regimented rules were the progeny of gladiatorial combat that manifested itself in the Roman Empire, where tens of thousands watched battles of hundreds of men die daily in the coliseum. “Philip celebrated the one thousandth anniversary of the founding of Rome in giving games with the following were killed: one thousand pairs of gladiators, thirty-two elephants, ten tigers, sixty lions, thirty leopards, and six hippos”
Each city-state had their teams, composed of ordinary men of the community. The citizens were expected to fight, but the commoner did not shirk or dread the call, but openly sought and accepted the commitment. “The unique cohesiveness that existed among individuals within a phalanx, account for much of the success achieved by Greek hoplites, especially in contrast to foreign troops. Although fragmented by city-state rivalries, badly outnumbered, hastily assembled, and plagued by outright betrayal, the Greek defenders during the Persian Wars routed the Eastern invaders in nearly every land battle in which they met.”
The phalanx of each city-state was drawn together by the sheer pride, patriotism, and honor to serve. Regiments of men were comprised from kinship and age, supplemented by close living proximity as citizens. “Unlike most modern armies, the bonds between hoplites on the line did not originate within military service or in weeks of shared drill in boot camp; they were natural extensions of already long-standing peacetime friendships and kinships.” This pride in serving is still evident even today, “Years after the end of the Second World War, American veterans of the armored divisions of the Third Army could still recall with undisguised pride, ‘I rolled with Patton’.”
Subtracting the idea that armies were bent on destroying the enemy lands, as in the tactic of Total War, the phalanx concentrated on the honor of combat. Rules of engagement such as fighting in clear and open terrain, fighting during the day, allowing both sides to remove the dead and injured from the combat, signaling to each other when combat was to commence (such as the blowing of horns, waving of flags, or the beat of drums), and to some lesser extent the use of “dishonorable” forms of combat including archery and cavalry are signs of the phalanx mentality.
With the success of the Greek city-states to repel the Eastern invaders in the Persian War, perpetuated the idea of phalanx combat for the next two thousand years. Hundreds of years later, during the early development of the Roman Republic, the use of the phalanx style army were used in the legions. Men were organized into units of 100 men called centuries, commanded by a general called a centurion. Just as the phalanx marched into combat in tight formation, so did the legions of Rome. During the Punic Wars, the strategy of the phalanx proved disastrous. At the battle of Cannae, eighty-five thousand Romans marched against half that many under the leadership of Hannibal. It was after this loss that the Romans changed their battle formations to a much more open contingency, allowing for greater flexibility in the ranks. With the new formations, the Romans fared significantly better, such as “with the lopsided numbers did not work to the Seleucid king’s advantage. The checkerboard of Roman maniples was like an accordion. The legion could expand or contract by simply opening or closing gaps between the maniples; or it could increase or shrink the distance between the ranks. The Romans typically maintained two-foot intervals between soldiers to allow room for swordplay, with each soldier occupying a front of about six feet. The front of a 5,000-man legion could cover as much as 850 yards, or contract to less than 400 yards”.
Unlike the Greeks, however, the Romans were a militaristic society, with the mindset of Total War at their disposal – the sacking and destruction of cities, towns, and countryside was simply how they waged war. This process of looting and destruction fluctuated over the course of wars for the next thousand years, but the idea of the free citizen army and the ideals of the phalanx continually crept back into armies around the globe.
We can see throughout the next two millennia how the phalanx style of a “bravado military conduct” often forced the hands of the combatants into catastrophic and often ill conceived situations. This was aggravated by the development of weaponry that realistically stripped the need for the phalanx style formation. With the use of gunpowder and its implementation in combat, we truly begin to see the idiocy of close packed formation of troops, but it still took several hundred years to break that military strategy. Such as the battle of Waterloo, the engagements of the American Revolution, the Anglo-Zulu War, the American Civil War, and perhaps even as late as the Vietnam War. The idea of guerrilla warfare never found heart with commanders of Western Warfare, still relying on the military code developed by the Greek phalanx two thousand years earlier.
The idea of Total War came to fruition in the Roman Empire and continued on and off throughout historical battles up until today. The new paradigm of war harkens back to the Dark Ages of the Greek peninsula, with small squad level tactical engagements of terrorists or guerilla combatants rather than huge deployments of divisions of men and machinery. However, for most civilized nations the idea of a Total War concept still sits uncomfortable in the society’s consciousness. The idea of meeting your enemy like that of the Greek phalanx did two thousand years ago still is held in great esteem.
 Victor D. Hanson, The Western Way of War: Infantry Battles in Classiscal Greece (Berkley, 1994), 56.
 Ibid. 65.
 Victor D. Hanson, The Western Way of War: Infantry Battles in Classiscal Greece (Berkley, 1994), 83.
 Grant Showerman, Rome and the Romans (Macmillan Company, 1956), 259.
 Victor D. Hanson, The Western Way of War: Infantry Battles in Classiscal Greece (Berkley, 1994), 117.
 Ibid. 121.
 Ibid. 125.
 Michael J. Taylor, Fear the Phalanx: the Macedonian formation terrified opponents–and at times overwhelmed the vaunted Roman legion (MHQ: Quarterly Journal of Military History, 2011). Article.