Rough draft number one.
Philip of Macedon
And His Army: Heir to the World
J. A. Broussard
Nicea Term History Paper, 2200 Words
Alexander began his inexorable campaign in 333 B.C. Ten years later, he died of a high fever on June 11, 323 B.C, in the palace of Nebuchadnezzar II of Babylon. In these ten years, he overran Anatolia, Syria, Phoenicia, Judea, Gaza, Egypt, Bactria and Mesopotamia, remaining (we presume) undefeated in battle: we know of not even a single loss. He was 32 years old when he died, and his empire became the foundation for the Roman Empire, the largest and longest standing empire that has yet been on the earth. And he began all of this the when he was as old as an average college graduate today.
How is this even possible? The nations that he fought were not weak: many of his battles were fought tooth and nail, and he himself was seriously wounded on several occasions. His army was by no means the largest; his very first battles in foreign territory are battles in which he was severely outnumbered, despite drawing on the resources of the League of Corinth (essentially all of Greece, notably excluding the Spartans ). Yet he never lost a single battle. There is no denying that Alexander was one of the greatest military minds that ever existed, but still: to not once be overmatched to the point of defeat?
The key to Alexander’s success, outside of his own unmatched military genius, lies in the changes that his father, Philip II of Macedon began. The greatest changes were the emphasis upon training, speed, reliance upon non-hoplite troops, and devastatingly, the introduction of the sarissa (see illustration).
To emphasize these changes, you have to see the contrast between the Pre-Philip Macedonian army and the Post-Philip Macedonian army. Before Philip, the primary, almost exclusive force of the Greek world was the Hoplite (see illustration): well protected by a shield of one meter in diameter (just over three feet) called an aspis (which was primarily for the protection of the right side of the man to their left), a helmet, breastplate, and shin greaves. They were armed with a dora (a spear of between seven and nine feet in length), which had a leaf shaped blade on one end and a weighted point on the other (most likely used for planting into the ground or killing wounded enemies as the hoplites advanced over them) as well as a short sword with a concave curve (which greatly increased its efficacy for severing spear shafts and limbs alike). All told, the hoplite’s weapons and armor would combine to a hefty sixty plus pounds, not including the supplies.
The hoplites were a slow moving unit, the first three rows of which could engage an enemy, but there is great debate on how exactly a battle would be fought. Probably the leading opinion is that the strength of hoplites was in shock combat. The two phalanxes would smash into each other to break or encircle the enemy force's line. Failing that, a battle degenerated into a pushing match, with the men in the rear trying to force their front lines through those of the enemy (the othismos), battles rarely lasting more than an hour with very few casualties. Once one of the lines broke, the troops would generally flee from the field, sometimes chased by peltasts or light cavalry.
More probably, there seems to have been a greater element of individual warfare among the front ranks before the supporting ranks (usually seven supporting ranks in the typical eight-rank deep formation) would end up lending much weight to the combat, each side supported by the peltasts the entire time, with each battle lasting on average from two to four hours. Otherwise, with the “othismos” pushing match, the greater force would inevitably win, which history vehemently refutes.
Then, Philip of Macedon decided to take over Greece, and, to increase the strength of his army, he developed the phalanx, with its famous sarissa.Thesarissa wasa spear reaching a length of up to eighteen to twenty-four feet, depending upon the account. In any case, it was a great deal longer than the seven to nine foot dora, and allowed the first five rows of spears to be in contact with the enemies front line before the enemy was within four feet of reaching you, causing a five-one ratio of weapons to targets on one side, and a zero-one on the other. These spears were held with both hands, so a much smaller shield strapped to the left arm (to free their left hand to support the spear) replaced the usual “aspis.” Philip also removed the heavy breastplates to increase mobility and speed. The increased vulnerability to projectiles was somewhat compensated for by the spears of the lines behind the fifth rank deep, who would hold their spears above the first five rows, creating a literal shield of spear heads that, from all accounts, was surprisingly effective. The twenty-foot tall spears of the back rows served also to hide any ongoing activity behind the phalanx (see illustration two).
The flanks of this force would generally be supported by cavalry to prevent any attack upon the unprotected sides, and the most experienced soldiers as well as generals would as a rule take the far right file, which was least protected by the shield upon their left arm. Some accounts hold that the first several ranks wore armor, but, while this seems easily plausible, there appears to be no decisive evidence one way or the other. We do not, of course, know exactly how the sarissa was used, but it seems quite probable that they were not simply held extended as the phalanx marched upon an enemy, but that they were constantly jabbing and slashing, a wall of incessantly moving blades inexorably advancing. Hence, at the battle of Pydna, Roman shields and breastplates were transfixed, and the commander later recalled exactly how terrifying the spectacle of an advancing phalanx was.
The amount of cavalry used was itself somewhat of an innovation, though how they were armed is uncertain (we know that they carried a spear of some type and a short, heavy sword). The appellation “sarissa-bearing” is applied to them, but the sarissa is a very unsuitable weapon for a mounted person, as it needs two hands to be used effectively. It could be that they used it by bracing it against the horse (possibly lain across the neck), but this seems likely to unseat them if they strike with any impact, as stirrups were unknown. Another possibility was that they bore the sarissa in case they needed to be of use when dismounted. More probably, they carried a somewhat shorter sarissa (still longer than the seven or nine foot dora of the other hoplites, and far longer than the swords used by some other nations) for running down fleeing soldiers and breaking through shield walls (again, they also had a stout, heavy sword). They were divided into units called ilai, and became the main striking arm of the Macedonian army. The leading Macedonians primarily supplied the cavalry, and one squadron in particular was used to fight beside Alexander in Asia, reputedly saving his life at one point.
Prior to Philip, cavalry were primarily used to protect the flanks and chase fleeing troops, as they were far less stable than the heavily armed, tank-like hoplite force, however, Philip began using them more and more in the battle itself, both to protect the flanks of the phalanx and to charge the enemy in formation at the precise moment when the line was stretched too thinly or the flank exposed. Alexander perfected this tactic to a devastating extreme, and his cavalry became the most powerful portion of his army, partly due to the great levels of training that were imposed upon them, and partly due to the fact that the horses were most likely developed from Persian stock that was superior to the usual Greek stock. He also preferred to use the Persian “V” shaped formation as opposed to the rectangular Greek formation, which may or may not have made a large difference, but was used to deeply penetrate the front line, which led to the phalanx simply decimating the shield wall that was now presenting its flank to them.
Along with the cavalry, Philip began relying more and more on the “lightly armed” peltasts (some accounts say that he actually used them in the phalanx, behind the shields of the hoplites). The peltasts were lightly armed and not armored. They would have one shield, a short sword, and would generally carry several smaller javelins, which may have been equipped with a sling-like cord to increase their throwing power. They were used to cause confusion and general mayhem. Philip used them to a very great effect upon the other Greeks, who generally held them in an attitude of disdain. In fact, the Spartans would only use their slaves as peltasts, holding it to be an unfit position for a free-born Spartan. Thucydides records of peltasts in the battle of Anapus that “they put each other to flight as you would expect with lightarmed.” Philip had no such qualms. Due to the fact that his phalanx had such an increased range, any disarray in the enemies shield wall would rapidly be exploited to the utter decimation of the impotent hoplites, which were unable to retaliate against either the rapid peltasts or the out-of-reach phalanx.
Also, the level of professionalism within Philip’s army was far superior to that of most of the other Greek city-states, excepting, of course, Sparta. Spartan slaves, “helots,” supported the Spartans so that the free-born Spartan men could practice arms full-time (which was quite necessary, as the helots outnumbered them ten to one, and frequently revolted). Most hoplites were amateurs, which is one of the reasons that the Spartans were as feared as they were: warfare was mandatory up until the age of sixty. Philip saw this, exempted his military from all other vocations at the expense of the state, and began their training full-time, constantly parading them and giving them forced marches and exercises. He saw from this that their speed and mobility was hampered by the amount of equipment that needed to be carried by other, non-military units. So, he removed some of their equipment and compensated (perhaps more than compensated) by having each man carry his own rations: thirty days of rations. As a result of this, they had a vast advantage over all of their enemies in speed and mobility; they became professionals among amateurs.
The greater number of cavalry and lightly armed forces, the smaller shields and the loss of the breastplate for the phalanx (along with each person being required to carry thirty days of rations on his person) removed the need for a baggage train. This, combined with the constant training, drilling and forced marches increased the speed and mobility of the phalanx (along with the rest of the army) to unheard of rates: this was the army that Philip used to conquer nearly all of Greece, and this was the army that Alexander inherited from Philip. It was trained to beat all other Greek armies, who had already demonstrated their superiority to the Persian army, which had conquered all of the cultures surrounding it. It was, therefore, the greatest known army on the earth.
It is in the foreign campaigns of Alexander that the changes to the military become most apparently decisive. His lightning advances in Asia became the stuff of legends. In the battle of the river Granicus, it was his phalanx force that simply annihilated the Greek hoplites and Persian cavalry combined. In the battles of Issus, Pamphylia and Gordium, his cavalry was the deciding force. And in the entirety of his campaign, for ten years, it was his ability to throw his opponent’s forces into chaos while maintaining the order and formation of his own that decided battle after battle, a feat accomplished by vastly superior experience and the application of the ever Dionysian peltasts and cavalry that liberally sowed unbounded chaos.
Without his father’s innovations, Alexander would still have been great. But he would never have been able to do what he did: Philip is the one that united most of Greece into an empire that Alexander drew from; Philip is the one that created an army so fast that when Alexander appeared, armies would surrender on the spot, not having expected him for another week. Philip is the one that created the nearly indestructible phalanx (which has almost never been beaten in a head-on conflict) that Alexander swept Persia with; Philip is the one that introduced cavalry and peltasts that became so essential to Alexander’s army. Were it not for Philip II of Macedon, the great Alexander could not have made deistic claims, would not have inspired a Caesar to become a grave-robber; the great Alexandria would not have been, nor Bucephalus, the city he named after his horse. Were it not for Philip II of Macedon, Greek culture would not have swept the world and enticed, even infected Rome. Were it not for Philip II of Macedon, we would have a different world.