Macedonian Art of War
When Philip II
became king of Macedonia in 359 BCE, he inherited an army that was
relatively ineffective. He immediately initiated a series of military
reforms. Together, Alexander and his father would create an army
unlike anything the ancient world had even seen.
Previous wars such
as the Persian and Peloponnesian
War had demonstrated that the old ways were no longer dependable.
Philip took a poorly disciplined group of men and turned them into a
formidable army. Most historians believed Philip developed his ideas
while a hostage in Thebes, observing their notorious Sacred Band. To
begin with, he increased the size of the army from 10,000 to 24,000,
and enlarged the cavalry from 600 to 3,500; this was no longer an
army of citizen-warriors.
In addition, he created a corp of engineers
to develop siege weaponry such as towers and catapults. Later,
Alexander would use these siege towers with devastating effect at
Tyre (6,000 would be
killed and 30,000 enslaved).
Siege of Tyre
victory at Issus against the Persians opened the road for Syria and Phoenicia for Alexander the Great's Army. In early 332,
Alexander sent general Parmenio to occupy the Syrian cities and himself
marched down the Phoenician coast where he received the surrender of
all major cities except the island city of Tyre which refused to grant
him access to sacrifice at the temple of the native Phoenician god
Melcart. A very difficult seven-month siege of the city followed.
Bust of Alexander the Great, 335 BC.
Acropolis Museum, Athens.
Siege of Tyre
Macedonian Phalanx wielding the sarissa
Battle of Chaeronea, 338 BC
The very nature of the phalanx required constant drilling, and
both men demanded strict obedience; punishments would be meted out
for those who disobeyed.
Like Alexander after him, Philip required an
oath of swearing allegiance to the king. They provided uniforms - a
simple idea that gave each man a sense of unity and solidarity.
Besides the obvious, there was logic behind what they did; each
soldier would no longer be loyal to a particular province or town as
now he would be loyal only to the king. The battle-hardened men who
fought for Philip and Alexander had to remain dedicated to his king
and the glory of Macedonia.
This loyalty and restructuring became
evident at Philip’s victory over Athens and Thebes (with the help
of an eighteen year old Alexander) at the Battle
of Chaeronea; a battle that demonstrated the power and authority
Philip completely restructured the army. The first order of
business was the reorganization of the phalanx, providing each
individual unit with its own commander - thereby allowing for better
The fundamental fighting unit became the taxes
which usually comprised 1,540 men and commanded by a taxiarch.
Every taxis was broken into distinct subdivisions. A taxis
was composed of three lochoi (each commanded by a lochagos)
or 512 men apiece. 32 dekas (a line of ten men – later
sixteen) made up each lochoi.
Each man occupied only two
cubits of space until actual battle, when he used only one cubit.
Macedonian infantry hoplite (4th century BC)
Battle of Gaugamela
Weapons & Tactics
Next, Philip changed the principal weaponry from the hoplite spear
to the sarissa - an 18-20 feet pike; it had the advantage of
reaching over the much shorter spears of the opposition. Obviously,
the length of the sarissa made it difficult to handle,
demanding both strength and dexterity. The hoplite now became a
pezhetairoi or foot companion.
Like his predecessor, he,
too, carried a shield or aspis - similar to the hoplon,
but due to the size of the sarissa (one had to use both
hands); it was carried by a sling over the shoulder. Besides the
sarissa, each man possessed a smaller double-edge sword or
xiphos for close-in-hand fighting.
There was only one drawback to the phalanx - it worked best on
flat, unbroken country; however, despite this disadvantage, Alexander
used it with amazing success. In almost every campaign the formation
of Alexander’s army remained the same; however, due to the nature
of the field of battle, some changes were made at Hydaspes where
archers led the field against Porus’ elephants.
were in the center; the hypaspists were to their right with the
cavalry on either flank. Archers and additional lighter infantry
served on outer flanks and in the rear. The pezhetairoi were
indoctrinated to maintain ranks in all circumstances, although they
were able to break smoothly when necessary; this was evident at
Darius’ scythed chariots. In battle, the five front ranks lowered
their sarissa parallel to the ground while the rear ranks
(usually wearing broad-brimmed a straw hat or kausia instead
of helmets) carried theirs upright.
To the right of these pezhetairoi were
the far more mobile hypaspists also called shield-bearers.
Although not as heavily armed - carrying only a shorter spear or
javelin - they served a special role in both Philip and Alexander’s
army. They were recruited for their skill and physique, requiring a
special level of training. They were mostly from the peasantry of
thereby, had no tribal or regional affiliation meaning they loyal
only to the king himself.
There were three distinct classes of
hypaspists - the “royal” who served as the
bodyguards of the king as well as guards at banquets and official
events, an elite force known as the argyraspids, and finally
the actual hypaspists corp. A special band of veterans
within the hypaspists would become known as the Silver
On both the right and left flanks were the cavalry. The cavalry
was the army’s main strike force and would make the decisive
breakthrough of the enemy lines - this was evident at the battles of
Granicus, Issus and
were two divisions of the cavalry - the Companion and the prodromoi
- the latter was the more flexible and versatile Balkan cavalry which
was used primarily as scouts.
The Companion Cavalry was the more
important division and was commanded at first by Philotas and later
by Cleitus and Hephaestion. They were divided into eight squadrons of
200 men each and each man carried a nine-foot lance but wore little
Due to the extreme value of the cavalry - 1,000 horses would
die at Gaugamela - a steady supply of extra horses was kept at all
times. Of course, the most important of these squadrons was that of
Alexander. Alexander and his Royal Companions always fought on
the right while Parmenio commanded the Thessalian Cavalry on the left
Tactics remained simple - the pezhetairoi would hit
the center of the opposing army in an oblique angle while the cavalry
would attack and punch holes on the flanks. As with the previously
abandoned hoplite phalanx, the new army was designed to attack and
remained a purely offensive weapon. While well-trained soldiers are
always essential for success, an army needs capable leadership, and
besides Alexander, the force that crossed the Hellespont had several
capable officers, namely Parmenio, Perdiccos, Coenus, Cleitus,
Ptolemy, and Hephaestion.
Alexander & his Royal Companions
Macedonian elite Companion cavalry
Macedonian Phalanx attacking the enemy
Before Philip and Alexander, the Persians under Darius I and
Xerxes had been repelled by a smaller force - these men of Greece
fought unlike anyone and anything the Persians had ever experienced.
By the time of Alexander, the fighting force that took him across
both Greece and Persia had been perfected. He crossed Asia into
India, often fighting
a force that outnumbered him. His use of the phalanx and cavalry,
combined with an innate sense of command, put his enemy on the
defensive, enabling him to never lose a battle.
His memory would live
on and his determination brought the Hellenic culture to Asia. He
built great cities and changed forever the customs of a people.
Source: Donald L. Wasson, Ancient History Encyclopedia