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.