Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Aside on the Peloponnesian War

I know I promised I would start discussing Alexander's Balkans campaigns, but after looking into the Peloponnesian War...I'm at a cross-roads.

Herodotus writes about the Greco-Persian relations prior to the war, Thucydides writes about the war itself.

Thucydides writes about most of the war, but not all of it. He misses the final seven years.

Xenophon's Hellenica (Gutenberg) begins in 411 BC (where Thucydides ends) and continues discussing Greek events until the battle of Mantinea.

These form the most authoritative primary documents for the war. There are other classical authors who wrote about the war, although they lived several centuries after the war concluded.

What about secondary documents on the Peloponnesian war?

JFC Fuller's A Military History of the Western World discusses the Peloponnesian war, and gives a great overview.

Thursday, February 9, 2012

Annotated Bibliography on Alexander's Balkan Campaigns

This is a rather unexciting post, just listing the references for Alexander's Balkan Campaigns.

Diodorus' Library, book XVII, chapters 1-16 (eprint) discuss the rise of Alexander through the siege of Thebes.

Specifically, Book VII chapter 11 for the battle of Thebes.

Plutarch's Life of Alexander, chapters 11-13 (eprint) discusses the same time period.

Plutarch's writing is very superficial on the Balkans campaigns, covering it in a paragraph or two.

Arrian's Anabasis, chapters 1-10 (eprint) deals with the Thracians, the Balkans campaigns, and the fall of Thebes.

These appear to be the only extant "primary" documents (or, more accurately, "as primary as possible despite being written 400 years later"!) on Alexander's Balkan campaigns.

Now, secondary sources!

JFC Fuller's Military History of the World, vol. 1, pp 91-92. Briefly recounts the Balkan campaigns, and the siege of Thebes.

Cambridge Ancient Histories, vol. 6, discusses the rise of Alexander the Great (pp 791-804). This is probably the most authoritative secondary source to use...

Theodore Dodge's Alexander (Google Books, pp. 201-208) discusses everything quite well.

Dodge investigates the beginning of the Balkans campaign pp. 188-197.

And pp. 201-208 discusses the siege of Pelium in some detail.

Dodge also discusses the Battle of Thebes

I'll have to update this post if I find any other references...

If you are waiting with baited breath for my critical analyses, you might want to wait a week or so. I am currently in the middle of writing up a pedagogical review of Vertex Operator Algebras for mathematicians...but after that, I'll be back on the job.

Monday, February 6, 2012

Macedonian Hammer and Anvil

(We will refer the reader to a YouTube Video demonstrating the basic tactic.)

We should recall the Macedonian phalangites formed a phalanx. But the weakness Macedonian phalangites have is being a bit too heavy.

Why is this a problem? One word: mobility. They are slow, and presumably tire quickly if forced to march too far with their pikes prepared.

What to do? Well, imagine a hammer and an anvil. The hammer (weighing only a fraction of the heavy anvil) makes quick strikes against heated metal resting against the anvil.

Why not do likewise? The Macedonian Phalangites form the "anvil", the enemy's infantry form the hot metal. What's our "hammer"?

Cavalry! Preferably heavy cavalry, capable of kicking ass. Recall the Battle of Leuctra, where the cavalry fought each other in a side show.

Why not use the cavalry to attack the rear? This would impact moral the most, causing the enemy to flee or die trying.

Lets stop and ask ourselves: What is this cavalry like, exactly? The Cambridge Ancient History (vol. 6) observes:

It was around this mass of semi-heavy infantry, set in the centre of the line of battle, that the remainder of the troops formed. On the right it was usually flanked by some 1,800 Companions (hetairoi) recruited from the Macedonian nobility; these were horsemen in helmets and corselets, armed with lances and swords and always ready to charge, in wedge formation, into the slightest breach to rout the enemy. On the left were posted 3,000 or 4,000 more lightly armed horsemen, some of them of Macedonian origin (scouts, prodromoi or pikemen), but mainly drawn from allies, such as Greeks, Thessalians, Thracians and other Balkan peoples, while on the extremity of the flank and at other points as required by the course of events were various units of light infantry, armed with javelins, bows and slings. Many of these were also recruited in Macedonia and in the Balkan countries, for example Illyrians, Thracians and Agrianians, but they also included such mercenaries as had not been allocated to garrison service. As for the 7,000 Greek hoplites who, within the framework of the Confederacy of Corinth, accompanied Alexander into Asia, there is little mention of them in the accounts of the campaign before their wholesale conversion into mercenaries.

(Cambridge Ancient History, vol. 6, pg 687)

Note that, although we did not investigate any battle, the tactic discussed does not need one (according to Clausewitz, at least). We are discussing a tactic abstractly, so it suffices to refer the reader to a YouTube Video.

Defending Against Hammer and Anvil?

How to defend against the "Hammer-and-Anvil"?

The first thing to note is the cavalry need to pound the flanks and/or rear. If this is denied to them, there is hope to break the "anvil".

We should recall that the Infantry Square has neither flank nor rear. So one option is: form a giant rectangle.

This naive implementation has severe limitations (marching in formation would be incredibly difficult to pull-off in practice).

On the other hand, having extra units on the flanks and a reserve which can (at a moment's notice) fight off the cavalry "hammer" would be a wiser approach.

The square is no longer a unit formation, but a loose battle-field tactic. This might sound far-fetched, but Thucydides notes the Athenians (and their allies) at the First Battle of Syracuse took a similar formation:

The next day the Athenians and their allies prepared for battle, their dispositions being as follows: Their right wing was occupied by the Argives and Mantineans, the centre by the Athenians, and the rest of the field by the other allies. Half their army was drawn up eight deep in advance, half close to their tents in a hollow square, formed also eight deep, which had orders to look out and be ready to go to the support of the troops hardest pressed. The camp followers were placed inside this reserve. (Thucydides Histories, Book VI, §67)

Note the Athenians' (and friends') formation resembled the standard fighting line, with the reserve forming a hollow infantry square.

I must confess that the details of this battle are unclear to me, but the Athenians won a close victory...then quickly sailed back to their base at Catana.

Fuller reports that (at the First Battle of Syracuse): "The battle opened with a skirmish between the archers and slingers, under cover of which the heavy infantry closed in on each other. The Argives drove in the enemy's left; the Athenians penetrated his centre, and the Syracusans were only saved from annihilation by their cavalry slowing down the Athenian pursuit" (Military History of the World, vol. I, pg 65).

But also observe: we have thus far discussed how to deal with the hammer. What about dismantling the anvil?

In general, the rule of thumb is: spearmen/pikemen are vulnerable to swordsmen or shock infantry.

So if the center of the battle line is swordsmen, the flanks are spearmen (in case the companion cavalry charge the flanks), and a reserve of pikemen (again, in case the companion cavalry attempt to charge the rear)...then both the hammer and anvil are threatened.

Are these the only ways to counter the Macedonian hammer and anvil?

No! We can recall the flaws in Phalanx formations, namely, missile troops can cause serious problems.

So modifying the infantry square tactic to have a "burrito structure": the pikemen tortilla wrapped around the missile filling.

Case Studies?

Next time, we will begin investigating some battles of Alexander the Great.

Macedonian Phalangites

Phalangites (in contrast to hoplites) are professional soldier; the first soldiers who drilled in ancient Greek history.

Warning: we might possibly "abuse language" and simply use the terms "Macedonian Phalanx", "Macedonian Phalangites", "Macedonian Hoplites" as synonyms, even though this is technically not correct. It is a sloppy use (indeed, abuse) of language, but it breaks up monotony.


Macedonian King Philip II introduced many reforms, which he [probably] considered while studying under Theban general Epaminondas (from Battle of Leuctra fame). [Diodorus notes this in his Library Book XVI, Ch. 2, §2.]

Philip II also produced a brilliant innovation: use a longer spear (a pike!). The Greeks called it a "sarissa" (Gk: σάρισα) which was 16 feet or longer (4.8 meters) and weighed 15 pounds (6.8kg). [See James Romm's Alexander's Army and Military Leadership, appendix D in The Landmark Arrian.]

Note that the sarissa broke into two components, which made carrying them (outside of combat) easier.

The Cambridge Ancient Histories (Volume 6) notes:

The distinctive feature, henceforth to be characteristic of the Macedonian infantry, who were recruited from the peasantry of the kingdom, was the long pike called a sarissa, 12 cubits (about 5.50 metres) in length and equipped, as has been learned from a find in a tomb at Vergina, with an iron point 50 cm long, together with a butt-end, also in iron, of 45 cm and a central dowel for reinforcement. Since it could not be wielded without the use of both hands, the diameter of the shield had at the same time to be reduced (possibly to 60—80 cm) and, probably for reasons of economy, the remaining dress was only a simple leather jacket and helmet and greaves of bronze. A small sword was provided in case of hand-to-hand combat. (Cambridge Ancient Histories, vol. 6, pp 686–687)

There is a clear advantage to a longer spear: more men may be involved in the spear hedge. Records indicate that the first 4 or 5 ranks were involved in combat; the others held their sarissas at 70 degrees (not vertically, i.e. at 90 degrees).

The Cambridge Ancient histories notes "The Macedonian phalanx of Foot-Guards (pezetairoi) was drawn up at a depth of eight, ten or sixteen, but sometimes even of thirty-two ranks, the first five of which carried their pikes point-forward, and was subdivided into six battalions (taxeis), each of 1,500 men."

From Elmer May, Gerald Stadler, John Votaw, Thomas Griess, Ancient and Medieval Warfare: The History of the Strategies, Tactics, and Leadership of Classical Warfare (1984), in public domain, via WikiCommons

Arrian reports Alexander [the Great] then drew up his men until the phalanx was 120 ranks deep (1.6.1). Notice how the ranks varies greatly between 8 and 120!


Should we expect the phalangite's weaknesses to be any different than the hoplite's?

The answer is undramatic: no, the phalangite has the same weaknesses. Why? Because the only difference in its combat role amounts to the number of soldiers involved in the fight.

Phalangites are slow heavy infantry, probably slower than hoplites. But they engage the enemy at a slightly farther distance away, and are more effective against cavalry (if charged from the front!).

What other problems unique to phalangites could we imagine? Well, the equipment is heavier, so they probably tire quicker. This is bad: battles need to be shorter.

This also implies a dependence on skirmishers. If encountering missile fire, the phalangite cannot return fire. The only thing a phalangite could do is hope their shields or armor absorbs it.

So there is a dependency on skirmishers and light infantry to counter missile fire, and protect the flanks.

Remember that the intentional role Macedonian Phalangites play is crushing other heavy infantry. Indeed, compared to the Hoplites, the Phalangites seem quite capable of that job!

Next time, we will begin considering how to use Macedonian Phalanx in battle.

Monday, January 30, 2012

Phalanx tactics

So we introduced the notion of a phalanx, which combines the spear hedge with the shield wall.

But what tactics do we have with phalanx?

Line Formation

The basic structure of the phalanx was to take part in a huge line, with the most experienced soldiers on the right.

Then the two armies smash into each other.

Vegetius writes:

The first formation is an oblong square of a large front, of common use both in ancient and modern times, although not thought the best by various judges of the service, because an even and level plain of an extent sufficient to contain its front cannot always be found, and if there should be any irregularity or hollow in the line, it is often pierced in that part. Besides, an enemy superior in number may surround either your right or left wing, the consequence of which will be dangerous, unless you have a reserve ready to advance and sustain his attack. A general should make use of this disposition only when his forces are better and more numerous than the enemy's, it being thereby in his power to attack both the flanks and surround them on every side.

De Re Militare

The battle line's weakness is flanking! That becomes the "name of the game" for tacticians. Flanking could be done with light infantry or cavalry.

This actually leads us to ask: is there any other method of flanking? Yes, indeed there is: if one sets up in a different formation, it becomes trivial. Lets consider that formation.

Oblique Formation

Vegetius was the first to thoroughly study the oblique formation in De Re Militare, Book III §19 "Various Formations for Battle".

Alexander the Great made this formation famous, and with it he conquered the (then) known world.

But the first instance of this echelon/oblique formation dates back to the Boetian war, specifically the Battle of Leuctra.

Case Study: Battle of Leuctra

The Battle of Leuctra (fought July 6, 371 BC) between the Thebans and Spartans. The main sources for this battle are Xenophon's Hellenica, Book 6 Chapter 4; and Diodorus Siculus' Bibliother Historica, Book XV §§53–56. (Although Plutarch's "Pelopidas," §§20–23 mentions it as well!)

JFC Fuller gives us the short version of events:

Had it not been for the Theban commander, Epaminondas, there can be little doubt that Thebes would have succumbed. But he realized that the Spartans would never change their traditional shock tactics, the success of which depended on an advanced in perfect order, all spears of the phalanx striking the enemy's front simultaneously, and devised a tactic which would prevent this and throw the phalanx into confusion. Instead of drawing his troops up into parallel lines to the Spartan army, he formed them into oblique order to it[sic], with his left leading and his right drawn back. At the same time he massed on his left wing a column of troops fifty ranks deep. Its object was to meet shock by supershock and simultaneously to have enough reserve force in hand to lap around the enemy's right wing. In July, 371 BC, he met King Cleombrotus and the Spartan army at Leuctra (near Domvrena) in southern Boeotia, and by means of these tactics decisively defeated him, Cleombrotus being killed. This battle not only broke the charm of Spartan prestige, but brought the short-lived Spartan hegemony to its end.

(Military History of the Western World, vol. 1, pg. 83)

If you dislike reading, you can watch the YouTube video:

Take the narration with a grain of salt, as few records exist indicating the cavalry re-entered the fight or charged the flank of the Spartan battle line.

Xenophon suggests that Spartan heavy infantry got involved in the Theban cavalry when the Spartan cavalry fled (broken in a sideshow engagement with Theban cavalry).

Xenophon's exact phrasing is: "Cleombrotus had hardly begun to lead his division against the foe when, before in fact the troops with him were aware of his advance, the cavalry had already come into collision, and that of the Lacedaemonians was speedily worsted. In their flight they became involved with their own heavy infantry; and to make matters worse, the Theban regiments were already attacking vigorously."

However, Diodorus suggests otherwise: "There being no one in command of the wing, the heavy column led by Epameinondas bore down upon the Lacedaemonians, and at first by sheer force caused the line of the enemy to buckle somewhat; then, however, the Lacedaemonians, fighting gallantly about their king, got possession of his body, but were not strong enough to achieve victory. For as the corps of élite outdid them in feats of courage, and the valour and exhortations of Epameinondas contributed greatly to its prowess, the Lacedaemonians were with great difficulty forced back; at first, as they gave ground they would not break their formation, but finally, as many fell and the commander who would have rallied them had died, the army turned and fled in utter rout."

(And as best I am aware, it was Philip and Alexander the Great who started using cavalry to hammer away at the enemy's line! I suspect if Epameinondas used cavalry in this manner, accidentally or otherwise, the strategy would have been copied quickly and Philip would have had a harder time uniting Greece...)

The battle line is drawn thus (according to the Department of History, United States Military Academy; a dubious source! :p):

From Westpoint, via WikiCommons

Note that the Thebans advanced heavily on the Spartan's right flank and routed it. Lets reiterate: the Thebans routed the most elite portion of Sparta's battle line.

We can understand how the rest of Sparta's battle line chose retiring from battle, rather than fighting it.

Xenophon writes:

The next feature of the combat was that in consequence of the flat space of plain between the opposing armies, the Lacedaemonians posted their cavalry in front of their squares of infantry, and the Thebans followed suit. Only there was this difference--the Theban cavalry was in a high state of training and efficiency, owing to their war with the Orchomenians and again their war with Thespiae, whilst the cavalry of the Lacedaemonians was at its worst at this period. The horses were reared and kept by the wealthiest members of the state; but whenever the ban was called out, an appointed trooper appeared who took the horse with any sort of arms which might be presented to him, and set off on the expedition at a moment's notice. Moreover, these troopers were the least able-bodied of the men: raw recruits set simply astride their horses, and devoid of soldierly ambition. Such was the cavalry of either antagonist.

The heavy infantry of the Lacedaemonians, it is said, advanced by sections three files abreast, allowing a total depth to the whole line of not more than twelve. The Thebans were formed in close order of not less than fifty shields deep, calculating that victory gained over the king's division of the army implied the easy conquest of the rest.

Cleombrotus had hardly begun to lead his division against the foe when, before in fact the troops with him were aware of his advance, the cavalry had already come into collision, and that of the Lacedaemonians was speedily worsted. In their flight they became involved with their own heavy infantry; and to make matters worse, the Theban regiments were already attacking vigorously. Still strong evidence exists for supposing that Cleombrotus and his division were, in the first instance, victorious in the battle, if we consider the fact that they could never have picked him up and brought him back alive unless his vanguard had been masters of the situation for the moment.

When, however, Deinon the polemarch and Sphodrias, a member of the king's council, with his son Cleonymus, had fallen, then it was that the cavalry and the polemarch's adjutants, as they are called, with the rest, under pressure of the mass against them, began retreating; and the left wing of the Lacedaemonians, seeing the right borne down in this way, also swerved. Still, in spite of the numbers slain, and broken as they were, as soon as they had crossed the trench which protected their camp in front, they grounded arms on the spot whence they had rushed to battle. This camp, it must be borne in mind, did not lie at all on the level, but was pitched on a somewhat steep incline. At this juncture there were some of the Lacedaemonians who, looking upon such a disaster as intolerable, maintained that they ought to prevent the enemy from erecting a trophy, and try to recover the dead not under a flag of truce but by another battle. The polemarchs, however, seeing that nearly a thousand men of the total Lacedaemonian troops were slain; seeing also that of the seven hundred Spartans themselves who were on the field something like four hundred lay dead; aware, further, of the despondency which reigned among the allies, and the general disinclination on their parts to fight longer (a frame of mind not far removed in some instances from positive satisfaction at what had taken place)--under the circumstances, I say, the polemarchs called a council of the ablest representatives of the shattered army and deliberated as to what should be done. Finally the unanimous opinion was to pick up the dead under a flag of truce, and they sent a herald to treat for terms. The Thebans after that set up a trophy and gave back the bodies under a truce.

Hellenica VI §10–15

Diodorus writes (regarding the battle):

54. An aider and abettor of this device was Leandrias the Spartan, who had been exiled from Lacedaemonian and was then a member of the Theban expedition. He was produced in the assembly and declared that there was an ancient saying amongst the Spartans, that they would lose the supremacy when they should be defeated at Leuctra at the hands of the Thebans. Certain local oracle-mongers likewise came up to Epameinondas, saying that the Lacedaemonians were destined to meet with a great disaster by the tomb of the daughters of Leuctrus and Scedasus for the following reasons. Leuctrus was the person for whom this plain was named. His daughters and those of a certain Scedasus as well, being maidens, were violated by some Lacedaemonian ambassadors. The outraged girls, unable to endure their misfortune, called down curses on the country that had sent forth their ravishers and took their lives by their own hands. Many other such occurrences were reported, and when Epameinondas had convened an assembly and exhorted the soldiers by the appropriate pleas to meet the issue, they all shifted their resolutions, rid themselves of their superstition, and with courage in their hearts stood ready for the battle. There came also at this time to aid the Thebans an allied contingent from Thessaly, fifteen hundred infantry, and five hundred horsemen, commanded by Jason. He persuaded both the Boeotians and the Lacedaemonians to make an armistice and so to guard against the caprices of Fortune. When the truce came into effect, Cleombrotus set out with his army from Boeotia, and there came to meet him another large army of Lacedaemonians and their allies under the command of Archidamus, son of Agesilaüs. For the Spartans, seeing the preparedness of the Boeotians, and taking measures to meet their boldness and recklessness in battle, had dispatched the second army to overcome by the superior number of their combatants the daring of the enemy. Once these armies had united, the Lacedaemonians thought it cowardly to fear the valour of the Boeotians. So they disregarded the truce and with high spirits returned to Leuctra. The Boeotians too were ready for the battle and both sides marshalled their forces.

55. Now on the Lacedaemonian side the descendants of Heracles were stationed as commanders of the wings, namely Cleombrotus the king and Archidamus, son of the King Agesilaüs, while on the Boeotian side Epameinondas, by employing an unusual disposition of his own, was enabled through his own strategy to achieve his famous victory. He selected from the entire army the bravest men and stationed them on one wing, intending to give to the finish with them himself. The weakest he placed on the other wing and instructed them to avoid battle and withdraw gradually during the enemy's attack. So then, by arranging his phalanx in oblique formation, he planned to decide the issue of the battle by means of the wing in which were the élite. When the trumpets on both sides sounded the charge and the armies simultaneously with the first onset raised the battle-cry, the Lacedaemonians attacked both wings with their phalanx in crescent formation, while the Boeotians retreated on one wing, but on the other engaged the enemy in double-quick time. As they met in hand-to‑hand combat, at first both fought ardently and the battle was evenly poised; shortly, however, as Epameinondas' men began to derive advantage from their valour and the denseness of their lines, many Peloponnesians began to fall. For they were unable to endure the weight of the courageous fighting of the élite corps; of those who had resisted some fell and others were wounded, taking all the blows in front. Now as long as King Cleombrotus of the Lacedaemonians was alive and had with him many comrades-in‑arms who were quite ready to die in his defence, it was uncertain which way the scales of victory inclined; but when, though he shrank from no danger, he proved unable to bear down his opponents, and perished in an heroic resistance after sustaining many wounds, then, as masses of men thronged about his body, there was piled up a great mound of corpses.

56. There being no one in command of the wing, the heavy column led by Epameinondas bore down upon the Lacedaemonians, and at first by sheer force caused the line of the enemy to buckle somewhat; then, however, the Lacedaemonians, fighting gallantly about their king, got possession of his body, but were not strong enough to achieve victory. For as the corps of élite outdid them in feats of courage, and the valour and exhortations of Epameinondas contributed greatly to its prowess, the Lacedaemonians were with great difficulty forced back; at first, as they gave ground they would not break their formation, but finally, as many fell and the commander who would have rallied them had died, the army turned and fled in utter rout. Epameinondas' corps pursued the fugitives, slew many who opposed them, and won for themselves a most glorious victory. For since they had met the bravest of the Greeks and with a small force had miraculously overcome many times their number, they won a great reputation for valour. The highest praises were accorded the general Epameinondas, who chiefly by his own courage and by his shrewdness as a commander had defeated in battle the invincible leaders of Greece. More than four thousand Lacedaemonians fell in the battle but only about three hundred Boeotians. Following the battle they made a truce to allow for taking up the bodies of the dead and the departure of the Lacedaemonians to the Peloponnese.

Bibliother Historica, Book XV

Lets note that the Spartans held their own. Xenophon remarked the Spartans' held their own despite that their situation speedily worsted, whereas Diodorus said otherwise:

As they met in hand-to‑hand combat, at first both fought ardently and the battle was evenly poised; shortly, however, as Epameinondas' men began to derive advantage from their valour and the denseness of their lines, many Peloponnesians began to fall. For they were unable to endure the weight of the courageous fighting of the élite corps; of those who had resisted some fell and others were wounded, taking all the blows in front. Now as long as King Cleombrotus of the Lacedaemonians was alive and had with him many comrades-in‑arms who were quite ready to die in his defence, it was uncertain which way the scales of victory inclined; but when, though he shrank from no danger, he proved unable to bear down his opponents, and perished in an heroic resistance after sustaining many wounds, then, as masses of men thronged about his body, there was piled up a great mound of corpses.

What could have helped the Thebans win this battle faster?

First, the Theban cavalry could have been wheeled around and run down the routing units. This development actually is refined by Alexander the Great into the "Hammer and Anvil" tactic (we discuss this elsewhere).

Note that in this approach, using the cavalry to attack the rear, requires the cavalry being heavy cavalry...although light cavalry could work for a short engagement. If it gets prolonged, the cavalry gets endangered.

Second, being 50 ranks deep but only the first 4 ranks or so could engage the enemy...puts one at a disadvantage.

Wouldn't it be better if more ranks could engage the enemy?

How do we accomplish this? With a longer spear! This leads us to Alexander the Great and Macedonian "phalangites".

Homework: what could the Spartans have done to defeat the Thebans?

Homework: could the Spartans have possibly (re)deployed according to the Theban allocation of manpower?

(NB: we may eventually post some possible solutions to these homework problems, and discuss their merits.)

Hoplites and the Phalanx Formation

(Note: we won't talk about tactics, or applying this phalanx formation in battle, in this post. That will come in the next post!)


Originally Wikipedia, from Archive

The hoplites constituted the heavy infantry of ancient Greece. The word stems from hoplon (Gk: ὅπλον) which describes the circular shield they carried.

A typical 4th century BC hoplite soldier is doodled on the right.

They carried a Doru (Gk: δόρυ), which is a spear roughly 9 feet long (2.1 meters). Regarding the doru:

The primary weapon of the hoplite, the dory spear was 7 to 9 feet in length, weighing 2 to 4 pounds, having a two inch diameter wooden handle, and tipped with an iron spearhead on one end and another iron tip on the other. The spearhead was often leaf-shaped, and the iron cap on the other end, called the sauroter (literally "lizard-killer") was often square in cross section, and was a counterbalance and a second deadly point on the weapon. This counterbalance function is essential, as the spear was handled with a single hand in the Greek phalanx formation.

The Academy of European Swordsmanship 3 (2): 1. 2007.

So, in other words, the doru was not just a spear: its handle was also a deadly weapon. Thus if the shaft broke, the hoplite still had a melee weapon.

Phalanx Formation

From Wikipedia

The strength of hoplites came in numbers, specifically when it takes the form of a phalanx.

Homer first described the hoplite battle line using the word "phalanx" (Gk: φαλαγξ) contrasting it with individual duals between characters.

The phalanx formation combines the concepts of a shield wall with a spear hedge.

As a shield wall, it was peculiar in that the shield covered the man to the left [a source of the term "right-hand man" referring to the person in the phalanx which is shielding another]. This proved to make the right flank particularly weak, since no one shielded them!

Usually some light infantry or cavalry was placed on the right flank to protect against flanking actions.

How was the phalanx as a spear hedge? With the doru, however, only two ranks can form the spear hedge.

From Wikipedia

Did this prove useful? Yes and no.

At the battle of Marathon, the phalanx formed was 4 men deep. (Herodotus said The center, where the line was weakest, was only a few ranks deep, but each wing was strong in numbers VI.111)

But it was the center of the battle line which was badly beaten; the flanks' numerical strength carried the day. Herodotus remarks:

They fought a long time at Marathon. In the center of the line the foreigners prevailed, where the Persians and Sacae were arrayed. The foreigners prevailed there and broke through in pursuit inland, but on each wing the Athenians and Plataeans prevailed.

Herodotus' Histories, VI.113

So how deep was the phalanx, usually?

Well, Xenophon notes that Such was the cavalry of either antagonist. The heavy infantry of the Lacedaemonians, it is said, advanced by sections three files abreast, allowing a total depth to the whole line of not more than twelve. The Thebans were formed in close order of not less than fifty shields deep, calculating that victory gained over the king's division of the army implied the easy conquest of the rest (Hellenika VI.4.12)

So, the Spartans had 12 ranks deep, whereas the Thebans had 50 ranks deep.

The short answer is: it varied. Here the Thebans had an unusually deep formation, so I would speculate the Spartans had the "standard depth"...implying the standard depth is around a dozen ranks or so.

The Cambridge Ancient Histories, vol. 6, remarks phalanxes were "drawn up eight, twelve or sixteen ranks deep" (pg 680).


The phalanx formation had its short comings. For example, it was extremely vulnerable to skirmishers if left alone.

Indeed, this is what occured to the Spartan Phalanx at the Battle of Lechaeum (391 BC). Xenophon gives us the only record of the battle (recall that "Lacedaemonian" means "Spartan", and a Peltast is a Javelin thrower):

Now the tragic fate which befell the division was on this wise: It was the unvaried custom of the men of Amyclae to return home at the Hyacinthia, to join in the sacred paean, a custom not to be interrupted by active service or absence from home or for any other reason. So, too, on this occasion, Agesilaus had left behind all the Amyclaeans serving in any part of his army at Lechaeum. At the right moment the general in command of the garrison at that place had posted the garrison troops of the allies to guard the walls during his absence, and put himself at the head of his division of heavy infantry with that of the cavalry, and led the Amyclaeans past the walls of Corinth. Arrived at a point within three miles or so of Sicyon, the polemarch turned back himself in the direction of Lechaeum with his heavy infantry regiment, six hundred strong, giving orders to the cavalry commandant to escort the Amyclaeans with his division as far as they required, and then to turn and overtake him. It cannot be said that the Lacedaemonians were ignorant of the large number of light troops and heavy infantry inside Corinth, but owing to their former successes they arrogantly presumed that no one would attack them. Within the capital of the Corinthians, however, their scant numbers--a thin line of heavy infantry unsupported by light infantry or cavalry-- had been noted; and Callias, the son of Hipponicus, who was in command of the Athenian hoplites, and Iphicrates at the head of his peltasts, saw no risk in attacking with the light brigade. Since if the enemy continued his march by the high road, he would be cut up by showers of javelins on his exposed right flank; or if he were tempted to take the offensive, they with their peltasts, the nimblest of all light troops, would easily slip out of the grasp of his hoplites.

With this clearly-conceived idea they led out their troops; and while Callias drew up his heavy infantry in line at no great distance from the city, Iphicrates and his peltasts made a dash at the returning division.

The Lacedaemonians were presently within range of the javelins. Here a man was wounded, and there another dropped, not to rise again. Each time orders were given to the attendant shield-bearers to pick up the men and bear them into Lechaeum; and these indeed were the only members of the mora who were, strictly speaking, saved. Then the polemarch ordered the ten-years-service men to charge and drive off their assailants. Charge, however, as they might, they took nothing by their pains--not a man could they come at within javelin range. Being heavy infantry opposed to light troops, before they could get to close quarters the enemy's word of command sounded "Retire!" whilst as soon as their own ranks fell back, scattered as they were in consequence of a charge where each man's individual speed had told, Iphicrates and his men turned right about and renewed the javelin attack, while others, running alongside, harassed their exposed flank. At the very first charge the assailants had shot down nine or ten, and, encouraged by this success, pressed on with increasing audacity. These attacks told so severely that the polemarch a second time gave the order (and this time for the fifteen-years-service men) to charge. The order was promptly obeyed, but on retiring they lost more men than on the first occasion, and it was not until the pick and flower of the division had succumbed that they were joined by their returning cavalry, in whose company they once again attempted a charge. The light infantry gave way, but the attack of the cavalry was feebly enforced. Instead of pressing home the charge until at least they had sabred some of the enemy, they kept their horses abreast of their infantry skirmishers, charging and wheeling side by side.

Again and again the monotonous tale of doing and suffering repeated itself, except that as their own ranks grew thinner and their courage ebbed, the courage of their assailants grew bolder and their numbers increased. In desperation they massed compactly upon the narrow slope of a hillock, distant a couple of furlongs or so from the sea, and a couple of miles perhaps from Lechaeum. Their friends in Lechaeum, perceiving them, embarked in boats and sailed round until they were immediately under the hillock. And now, in the very slough of despair, being so sorely troubled as man after man dropped dead, and unable to strike a blow, to crown their distress they saw the enemy's heavy infantry advancing. Then they took to flight; some of them threw themselves into the sea; others--a mere handful--escaped with the cavalry into Lechaeum. The death-roll, including those who fell in the second fight and the final flight, must have numbered two hundred and fifty slain, or thereabouts. Such is the tale of the destruction of the Lacedaemonian mora.

Xenophon's Hellenica
Book 4, Ch. 5

Note: I removed all footnotes and section numbers from Xenophon's quoted passage.

Friday, January 27, 2012

Infantry Square

The infantry square is a tactic used against cavalry. In this YouTube Video, it is shown in Rome Total War how 8 units form a square, with an additional 2 units reserve, defeated a cavalry force twice as big:

One should observe in the video (e.g., at 0:54 et seq.) how the cavalry charges into the corners.

The corners are the weakest part of the infantry square formation. You can see at 2:14 how the cavalry attacks the corners repeatedly.

Tactical Reasoning

First we should note: an infantry square has neither flanks nor a rear. This is important, because the Macedonian "Hammer-and-Anvil" tactic fails in this situation.

Heavy Cavalry historically worked by flanking the infantry line, eventually causing the entire army to rout and collapse.

But observe: this works if and only if there exists a flank.

As observed in, e.g., the YouTube Video using Rome Total War, the infantry square formation has only fronts. This means any cavalry gets the pike line.

Note the square's weakest points are the corners.

History of the Formation

Ancient Version

Although it is mentioned in Plutarch's Lives, specifically the description of the Battle of Carrhae:

All were greatly disturbed, of course, but Crassus was altogether frightened out of his senses, and began to draw up his forces in haste and with no great consistency. At first, as Cassius recommended, he extended the line of his men-at‑arms as far as possible along the plain, with little depth, to prevent the enemy from surrounding them, and divided all his cavalry between the two wings. Then he changed his mind and concentrated his men, forming them in a hollow square of four fronts, with twelve cohorts on each side.

(Plutarch, Life of Crassus, 23.3)
NB: the Romans did not enter the square formation as defence against cavalry.

I am told the Chinese adopted a square tactic when dealing with Xiongnu nomad armies in the 1st century AD...although I cannot find a source for this.

Medieval History

As far as I can tell, it wasn't until the 14th century that the tactic was used specifically against cavalry.

This tactic was derived from the "schiltrom", which is derived from the Middle English word scild-hreóða meaning "the arrangement of shields as in the scild-burh" (Bosworth and Tuller's An Anglo-Saxon Dictionary, pg 831).

Although the first recorded instance of this tactic in English history is William Wallace's troops at the battle of Falkirk in 1298 (see, e.g., Fisher's William Wallace, pg 80), it may be believed the tactic existed prior to the battle. Note this is the circular formation.

The rectilinear formation was, in English history, formed around 1300. However, unlike the circular schiltrom (which was used for defence), the rectilinear formation was employed for offence and defence.

Robert the Bruce at Bannockburn (1314) first employed rectilinear schiltrom offensively.

Modern History

We will examine the predecessor to the "modern" infantry square (the so-called "Spanish Square", or Tercio), and then we will examine the "modern" Napoleonic infantry square.

The Spanish Square dates back to the (Great) Italian wars (see, e.g., Davies' The Golden Century of Spain 1501-1621 for a brief description of the birth of the Spanish tercio).

Personally, I find this a bit misleading. The Spanish Square looks more like the "5" side of a die, with the center consisting of pikemen and the other units arquebusiers. There might have been an additional unit of musketeers. This is a bit different than the infantry square tactic.

The Napoleonic version dates back to 1745, British General Richard Kane's "A New System of Military Discipline for a Battalion of Foot on Action; With the Most Essential Exercise of the Cavalry, Adorned with a Map of the Seat of War and A Plan to the Exercise" (eprint) details the usefulness for infantry squares against cavalry.

David Chandler's Military Campaigns of Napoleon notes that at the battle of the Pyramids, Napoleon formed squares "to increase the firepower of the exposed sides" (224).

At the Battle of Mount Tabor (16 April 1799), Kleber formed "small French squares" (Chandler, 239). It carried the day.

Colonel Winkel's Saxon genadier battalion formed a square to hold off French Cavalry (commanded by Murat) on 14 October 1806 (Chandler, 486).

Gudin's division had its Demi-Brigades form squares (Chandler, 490) when facing the Prussians at the Battle of Jena-Auerstadt on 14 October 1806.

The last example: during the American Civil War, the Thirty-Second Indiana Volunteer Infantry at the Battle of Rowlett's Station, December 17, 1861 and used the square formation against Terry's Texas Rangers. This is the only recorded instance of the infantry square during the American civil war. (The outcome of the battle was inconclusive, both sides claimed victory.)

Whither Squares?

When repeating weapons came into use, both cavalry and concentrated formations began falling out of use.

Consequently squares are no longer used, except in training (as I understand it).

I was talking about this formation with my dad, and he remarked since the Napoleonic wars it become standard for cavalry units to have horse artillery. Why?

Well, if a cannon hits the infantry square, the cannon ball comes in one edge and out the other.

That's the major weakness of infantry squares: vulnerable to gun fire (viz., artillery fire).

This vulnerability is probably why infantry squares were absent during the Civil War...

Clausewitz "On Examples"

We will be studying tactics and strategy in this blog. The method used to do this is kind of ad hoc (i.e., I don't have one!).

Probably the honest answer is that different time periods have different considerations. This leads to different tactics and different strategies.

I attempt to do, what Clausewitz calls, a "critical analysis" of various scenarios (both historical, fictional, and "toy" wargame problems).

So if we study through examples, how should we treat examples?

We should note Clausewitz's golden words:

But if, through the narrative of a case in history, an abstract truth is to be demonstrated, then everything in the case bearing on the demonstration must be analysed in the most searching and complete manner; it must, to a certain extent, develop itself carefully before the eyes of the reader. The less effectually this is done the weaker will be the proof, and the more necessary it will be to supply the demonstrative proof which is wanting in the single case by a number of cases, because we have a right to suppose that the more minute details which we are unable to give neutralise each other in their effects in a certain number of cases.

If we want to show by example derived from experience that cavalry are better placed behind than in a line with infantry; that it is very hazardous without a decided preponderance of numbers to attempt an enveloping movement, with widely separated columns, either on a field of battle or in the theatre of war—that is, either tactically or strategically—then in the first of these cases it would not be sufficient to specify some lost battles in which the cavalry was on the flanks and some gained in which the cavalry was in rear of the infantry; and in the latter of these cases it is not sufficient to refer to the battles of Rivoli and Wagram, to the attack of the Austrians on the theatre of war in Italy, in 1796, or of the French upon the German theatre of war in the same year. Instead one must accurately trace all the circumstances and individual events, to show the way in which those types of position and attack definitely contributed to the defeat. The result will show to what degree these types are objectionable—a point that must be settled in any case, because a general condemnation would conflict with the truth. [Alt. trans: The way in which these orders of battle or plans of attack essentially contributed to disastrous issues in those particular cases must be shown by closely tracing out circumstances and occurrences. Then it will appear how far such forms or measures are to be condemned, a point which it is very necessary to show, for a total condemnation would be inconsistent with truth.]

It has been already said that when a circumstantial detail of facts is impossible, the demonstrative power which is deficient may to a certain extent be supplied by the number of cases quoted; but this is a very dangerous method of getting out of the difficulty, and one which has been much abused. Instead of one well-explained example, three or four are just touched upon, and thus a show is made of strong evidence. But there are matters where a whole dozen of cases brought forward would prove nothing, if, for instance, they are facts of frequent occurrence, and therefore a dozen other cases with an opposite result might just as easily be brought forward. If any one will instance a dozen lost battles in which the side beaten attacked in separate converging columns, we can instance a dozen that have been gained in which the same order was adopted. It is evident that in this way no result is to be obtained.


It is extremely difficult to put together or unfold historical events before the eyes of a reader in such a way as is necessary, in order to be able to use them as proofs; for the writer very often wants the means, and can neither afford the time nor the requisite space; but we maintain that, when the object is to establish a new or doubtful opinion, one single example, thoroughly analysed, is far more instructive than ten which are superficially treated. The great mischief of these superficial representations is not that the writer puts his story forward as a proof when it has only a false title, but that he has not made himself properly acquainted with the subject, and that from this sort of slovenly, shallow treatment of history, a hundred false views and attempts at the construction of theories arise, which would never have made their appearance if the writer had looked upon it as his duty to deduce from the strict connection of events everything new which he brought to market, and sought to prove from history.

Clausewitz, On War,
Book II Chapter 6
"On Examples"

Emphasis added.

I bring this up, since we will be studying examples of tactics and strategies.