Jan 16

Knife Through Butter


Article published here by kind permission of  author Justin Swanton (Member, Society of Ancients)

Graphic enhancement by ~Ed

battle of chaeronea c

In the late summer of 338BC a Macedonian army estimated at about 30,000 infantry and 2,000 cavalry faced off against an allied Greek army of about 35,000 men. The Greeks had chosen a good position. Their left flank lay across the foothills of Mount Thurion, blocking the side road that led to Lebedea, while on the right, the line rested against the Kephisos River, near a projecting spur of Mount Aktion. Hence both their flanks were secure.

This is where Alexander launched his military career, achieving amazing victories and conquests as he expanded his Empire eastward and southward! Note by Ed

Diodorus offers the most complete account of what happened next:

"The armies deployed at dawn, and the king stationed his son Alexander, young in age but noted for his valour and swiftness of action, on one wing, placing beside him his most seasoned generals, while he himself at the head of picked men exercised the command over the other; individual units were stationed where the occasion required. On the other side, dividing the line according to nationality, the Athenians assigned one wing to the Boeotians and kept command of the other themselves. Once joined, the battle was hotly contested for a long time and many fell on both sides, so that for a while the struggle permitted hopes of victory to both. Then Alexander, his heart set on showing his father his prowess and possessing an ambition that gave way to none, was the first of an able body of comrades to break through the continuity of the enemy’s battle line, and striking them down, he crushed the multitude of those drawn up in order near him. And, his comrades with him achieving the same thing, he kept breaking the continuity of the battle-line. With many corpses piled up, those round about Alexander, having first been overpowered like the others, turned and fled. Then the king himself advanced, braving the danger well in front, and, not conceding credit for the victory even to Alexander; he first forced back the troops stationed before him and then by compelling them to flee became the man responsible for the victory." - Diodorus XVI.86.1-4

[warning]The big question about this passage is: did Alexander and Philip lead cavalry, or were they on foot at the head of infantry? If they were mounted, how did they manage to break through a solid phalanx of Greek hoplites?[/warning]

All authors agreed that a formed phalanx had not until then been penetrated frontally by cavalry. Deployed at least 6 men deep, in files 3 feet apart, the hoplite’s large three-foot wide shield, greaves and helmet presented a solidly protected target against a cavalryman. Contemporary vase decorations show javelin-armed horsemen getting the worst of it if they strayed too close to the hoplite and his 7-foot doru. Mounted men fared better if they could attack the phalanx from the flanks or rear, or if they were able to catch the hoplites out of formation. But these options were not available to the Macedonians at Chaeronea. Alexander had no choice but to attack the Greek phalanx frontally, which he did, rupturing the line and opening gaps in it before finally making it give way altogether. Philip was just as successful on the opposite flank, forcing the Greeks back before breaking them.

Could this be the work of cavalry? Diodorus does not specifically state that Alexander and Philip were mounted nor does he affirm they were on foot. The best way to answer the question is to look at how Alexander subsequently used cavalry when fighting against heavy foot – if he used them in that role at all.

hopl2 c

Hoplites in phalanx formation

The Textual Evidence

1. The Triballians
After Chaeronea Philip united Greece in a subordinate alliance under his leadership and, his rear secure, was about to embark on his long-planned invasion of the Persian empire when he was assassinated. His son Alexander succeeded him and immediately faced a string of revolts from Macedonia’s vassal states. He marched his army south to reassert his authority in Greece before turning north against the Triballians and their king Syrmus. Defeated by the Macedonians at Mount Haemus, the Triballians retreated to a wooded gorge which offered them a terrain advantage for their peltast infantry.

Arrian describes what happened next:

"And those who were surprised drew themselves up in battle array in a woody glen along the bank of the river. Alexander drew out his phalanx into a deep column, and led it on in person. He also ordered the archers and slingers to run forward and discharge arrows and stones at the barbarians, hoping to provoke them by this to come out of the woody glen into the ground unencumbered with trees. When they were within reach of the missiles, and were struck by them, they rushed out against the archers, who were undefended by shields, with the purpose of fighting them hand-to-hand. But when Alexander had drawn them thus out of the woody glen, he ordered Philotas to take the cavalry which came from upper Macedonia, and to charge their right wing, where they had advanced furthest in their sally. He also commanded Heraclides and Sopolis to lead on the cavalry which came from Bottiaea and Amphipolis against the left wing; while he himself extended the phalanx of infantry and the rest of the horse in front of the phalanx and led them against the enemy’s centre. And indeed as long as there was only skirmishing on both sides, the Triballians did not get the worst of it; but as soon as the phalanx in dense array attacked them with vigour, and the cavalry fell upon them in various quarters, not striking them with the javelin moreover, but pushing them with their very horses, then at length they turned and fled through the woody glen to the river." – Arrian 1.2.6

Notice how the Macedonian cavalry are used in a shock role, closing with the Triballians without using javelins, the traditional cavalry weapon up until that time. The phrase ‘not striking them with the javelin moreover’ is rendered in Greek as: kai hoi hippeis ouk akontismō eti, the term eti meaning either ‘no longer’ or ‘moreover’. Since there is no mention, nor, given the context, any time for cavalry to indulge in traditional skirmishing tactics using javelins, the text points to the mounted men not using javelins at all, but rather moving into physical contact with the Triballians and fighting them with a different weapon.

Macedonian Cavalry


What could this weapon be? Arrian does not say here, but answers the question in his account of Alexander’s next major battle.      

2. Granicus

Once Greece and the Balkans were quiet, Alexander immediately set out on his great quest to conquer Persia. Crossing the Hellespont he penetrated into Asia Minor where he was met by an army assembled by the local Persian Satraps which included about 18,000 Greek hoplite mercenaries. The Persians deployed behind the Granicus river, placing their cavalry in front of their infantry. battle of granicus 1 - CopyAlexander formed up his heavy infantry in the centre with the cavalry on the flanks. He placed Parmenion in command of the left wing whilst he took charge of the right.

Arrian describes the units in the right wing:

And at the head of the right wing he placed the following officers : Philotas, son of Parmenion, with the cavalry Companions, the archers, and the Agrianian javelin-men ; and Amyntas, son of Arrhabaeus, with the sarissa-carrying cavalry [sarissophoroi], the Paeonians, and the squadron of Socrates, was posted near Philotas. – Arrian: 1.14
A feint by the Macedonian left wing followed by a sudden charge by Alexander on the right wing broke the Persian left. Alexander began to roll up the Persian cavalry line. He met a counter charge by mounted Persian nobles, personally killing several of them:

"At last Alexander's men began, to gain the advantage, both through their superior strength and military discipline, and because they fought with spear- shafts made of cornel-wood, whereas the Persians used only darts.
Then indeed, Alexander's spear being broken to shivers in the conflict, he asked Aretis, one of the royal guards, whose duty it was to assist the king to mount his horse, for another spear. But this man's spear had also been shivered whilst he was in the thickest of the struggle, and he was conspicuous fighting with the half of his broken spear. Showing this to Alexander, he bade him ask someone else for one. Then Demaratus, a man of Corinth, one of his personal Companions, gave him his own spear ; which he had no sooner taken than seeing Mithridates, the son-in-law of Darius, riding far in front of the others, and leading with him a body of cavalry arranged like a wedge, he rode on in front of the others, and hitting at the face of Mithridates with his spear, struck him to the ground. But hereupon, Rhoesaces rode up to Alexander and hit him on the head with his scimitar, breaking off a piece of his helmet. But the helmet broke the force of the blow. This man also Alexander struck to the ground, hitting him in the chest through the breastplate with his lance." – Arrian: 1.46-7

These ‘spears’ or ‘lances’ carried by the Companions were long weapons comparable to those of the sarissaphoroi.

Seeing defeat, the Persian cavalry and infantry fled, leaving the Hoplite mercenaries isolated. The mercenaries tried to make peace with Alexander but the young king was not interested. Enraged that they had fought for Greece’s traditional enemy, he ordered his army to destroy them.

Plutarch and Arrian described what happened next:

The enemy, however, did not resist vigorously, nor for a long time, but fled in a rout, all except the Greek mercenaries. These made a stand at a certain eminence, and asked that Alexander should promise them quarter. But he, influenced by anger more than by reason, charged foremost upon them and lost his horse, which was smitten through the ribs with a sword (it was not Bucephalas, but another); and most of the Macedonians who were slain or wounded fought or fell there, since they came to close quarters with men who knew how to fight and were desperate. – Plutarch: Life of Alexander, 16.6-7

Alexander brought his phalanx against them, ordered his cavalry to attack on all sides, and, surrounded as they were, took little time to massacre them. – Arrian: I.16.2

Alexander ordered his infantry and cavalry to attack the hoplites, who had set up a defensive formation on some high ground, undoubtedly facing all directions as they had lost their cavalry support. Leading the cavalry, Alexander – ahead of the others - charged the mercenary phalanx and had his horse killed under him. Most of the hoplites were killed although 2,000 survived to become slaves.

battle of granicus 2What is interesting in this battle is the existence of the sarissophoroi – cavalry carrying the long pike with which Philip had equipped his infantry. It is also interesting that Alexander had no qualms about charging formed hoplites frontally with his cavalry. The fact that the hoplites were surrounded implies that they had formed a square or something like it (one is reminded of the all-round defensive formation adopted by the Carthaginian veterans following their defeat at Ilipa) meaning they faced all directions and could not be flanked. Despite this, the Companion cavalry charged them, and the mercenaries were soon cut down by the combined infantry-cavalry assault.
Clearly, Macedonian cavalry could attack the front edge of a formed phalanx.
The question is, how?    

3. Issus

After the loss of Asia Minor the Persian king Darius III assembled a huge army, estimated at 600,000 by Arrian battle of issus C(AD86-160) and Plutarch (AD46-120), 400,000 by Diodorus (fl. BC60-30) and Justin (fl. Late Roman imperial period), and 250,000 by Curtius Rufus (fl. AD60). From Babylon he marched into Syria and, in a strategic coup, managed to get around Alexander’s rear as he advanced down the Syrian coastline. Alexander had no choice but to fight the Persians immediately. The two armies deployed on the narrow coastal strip between the sea and the mountains, with a small river, the Pinarus, between them.
Despite successfully cutting off Alexander’s supply line, Darius had made a major mistake. By offering battle on the coastline he had thrown away his principal advantage – numbers. With the battlefield barely a mile wide, the Persians were obliged to deploy in depth, which reduced most of the army to the role of spectators during the crucial action of the battle.

Darius compensated by putting his best troops in front. He concentrated his heavy cavalry on the right wing adjacent to the sea. Next to these were about 30,000 Greek hoplite mercenaries according to Arrian and Diodorus. To their left Darius deployed the Kardakes, Persian heavy infantry possibly armed with spear and bow, and protected by large rectangular wickerwork shields (whatever exactly the Kardakes were, they were not scrappy lightweight troops – their job was to hold the line against Macedonia’s best heavy infantry). A further force of infantry attempted an outflanking move against the Macedonian right anchored on the base of the mountains, but without success.  Darius’s plan was to hold the Macedonians with his infantry and pierce the Macedonian left with his cavalry, outflanking the Macedonian phalanx and rolling up the line.
Alexander’s plan was simpler: slice through the Kardakes with his cavalry and go straight for Darius himself. With the King of Kings out of the battle, the Persian army would quickly disintegrate.

Diodorus describes the dispositions of the Macedonian army:

"He roused his soldiers with appropriate words for a decisive effort and marshalled the battalions of foot and the squadrons of horse appropriately to the location. He set the cavalry along the front of the whole army, and ordered the infantry phalanx to remain in reserve behind it.
He himself advanced at the head of the right wing to the encounter, having with him the best of the mounted troops. The Thessalian horse was on the left, and this was outstanding in bravery and skill." – Diodorus XVII. 33. 1-2

Arrian describes the attack led by Alexander against the Kardakes:

"At first he still led them on in close array with measured step, although he had the forces of Darius already in full view, lest by a more hasty march any part of the phalanx should fluctuate from the line and get separated from the rest. But when they came within range of darts, Alexander himself and those around him being posted on the right wing, advanced first into the river with a run, in order to alarm the Persians by the rapidity of their onset, and by coming sooner to close conflict to receive little damage from the archers. And it turned out just as Alexander had conjectured ; for as soon as the battle became a hand-to-hand one, the part of the Persian army stationed on the left wing was put to rout" – Arrian : 2,10

The Macedonian cavalry cut through the Kardakes with little difficulty and headed straight for Darius, who fled in panic. After his departure Persian defeat was inevitable.  

4. Gaugamela

Alexander’s victory placed Syria, Palestine and Egypt at his feet, but Darius succeeded In escaping to the Persian heartland where he assembled every available man for one last effort to dislodge the Macedonian invader. The two armies met in 331BC at Gaugamela.

Arrian describes the Persian deployment:

The army of Darius was drawn up in the following manner: for, according to the statement of Aristobulus, the written scheme of arrangement drawn up by Darius was afterwards captured. His left wing was held by the Bactrian cavalry, in conjunction with the Daansi and Arachotians near these had been posted the Persians, horse and foot mixed together ; next to these the Susians, and then the Cadusians. This was the arrangement of the left wing as far as the middle of the whole phalanx. On the right had been posted the men from Coele- Syria and Mesopotamia. On the right again were the Medes; next to them the Parthians and Sacians ; then the Tapurians and Hyrcanians, and last the Albanians and Sacesinians, extending as far as the middle of the whole phalanx. In the centre where King Darius was, had been posted the king's kinsmen, the Persian guards carrying spears with golden apples at the butt end, the Indians, the Garians who had been forcibly removed to Central Asia, and the Mardian archers. The Uxians, the Babylonians, the men who dwell near the Red Sea, and the Sitacenians had also been drawn up in deep column. On the left, opposite Alexander's right, had been posted the Scythian cavalry, about 1,000 Bactrians and 100 scythe-bearing chariots. In front of Darius's royal squadron of cavalry stood the elephants and 50 chariots. In front of the right wing the Armenian and Cappadocian cavalry with 50 scythe-bearing chariots bad been posted. The Greek mercenaries, as alone capable of coping with the Macedonians, were stationed right opposite their phalanx, in two divisions close beside Darius himself and his Persian attendants, one division on each side." – Arrian 3.14

What matters here are the troops placed in front of Darius: his 1000 strong force of guard cavalry and about 6,000 – 8,000 Greek hoplite mercenaries placed on either side of the mounted guards. Alexander would have to pass through these to reach the Persian king.

The Persian army was enormous: 1,000,000 infantry and 40,000 cavalry according to Arrian, 800,000 infantry and 200,000 cavalry according to Diodorus, 1,000,000 troops in total according to Plutarch. Modern estimates make the army much smaller, but these are based on contemporary notions of logistics and supply rather than on any textual evidence.

Most of Darius’s infantry would have been poorly armed and trained conscripts whose purpose was to inspire awe in the enemy rather than do any actual fighting. Hence they took up positions behind the elite formations of the Persian army and had no active role in the battle. This still left a force several times larger than Alexander’s own, and this time Darius did not repeat his mistake of choosing a narrow battlefield. Gaugamela was a vast plain, where his numerical superiority could be used to full effect. The Macedonian army would inevitably be outflanked.

Alexander counted on this fact, and devised his battle plan accordingly. His entire army was to move towards the right, gradually leaving the ground Darius had had painstakingly cleared for his chariots. To counter this Darius would be obliged to detach cavalry to sweep around the Macedonian right wing and stop this sideways slide. Alexander, his best cavalry concentrated at the right wing, would have reserves to counter this Persian outflanking move, obliging Darius to commit more cavalry to the right, and still more, until a gap inevitably opened near the Persian centre through which Alexander, who had been waiting for the moment, could lead his Companions in a lightning charge at Darius’s own chariot.

The battle unfolded exactly as Alexander had planned and at the right moment, supported by his phalanx on his left, he led the charge towards the Persian king.

Alexander wheeled round towards the gap, and forming a wedge with the Companion cavalry, with the part of the phalanx which was posted here also formed up, he led them with a quick charge and loud battle-cry straight towards Darius himself. For a short time there ensued a hand-to-hand fight ; but when the Macedonian cavalry, commanded by Alexander himself, pressed on vigorously, thrusting themselves against the Persians and striking their faces with their spears, and when the Macedonian phalanx in dense array and bristling with long pikes had also made an attack upon them, all things at once appeared full of terror to Darius, who had already long been in a state of fear, so that he was the first to turn and flee.

The Alexander mosaic dramatises the moment when Alexander had nearly reached Darius. The mosaic is a copy of a painting executed by Philoxenus of Eretria between 317 and 297 BC - when living witnesses to an event in 331 BC would still have been available. 

mosaic thumbnail C
    A number of details point to the mosaic representing Darius’s flight at Gaugamela rather than at Issus. There are hoplite mercenaries present. Notice the shield just below Darius’s chariot. It is being held by a hoplite of whom the bare legs can be seen to the right and the head just to the left of the shield. The spears in the background are not Macedonian sarissas – Alexander is leading the attack from the left hand side of the picture, and the spears are coming from the opposite direction, pointing towards him.

They are too long to be Persian spears. The best explanation is that they are spears of hoplites armed in the Iphicratic fashion.  Iphicrates (418-353BC) was an Athenian general who introduced several military reforms, among which was the use of longer spears, increasing them from 9 feet in length to about 13.5 feet. Somewhere around 378BC he went with a force of mercenaries to help the Persians conquer Egypt. What happened to the mercenaries is not recorded, but by the time Alexander reached Gaugamela, any surviving hoplites in Darius’ service had been equipped with the longer spears (if they didn’t have them already) to counter the sarissas of the Macedonian phalanx, as recorded by Diodorus:

"By the time he heard of his arrival, Darius had already assembled his forces from all directions and made everything ready for battle. He had fashioned swords [xiphe = xiphos] and lances [xusta = xyston] much longer than his earlier types because it was thought Alexander had had a great advantage in this respect in the battle in Cilicia." - Diodorus: XVII. 53. 1

The presence of long-speared hoplites near the Persian king points to Gaugamela – where part of his personal bodyguard consisted of hoplites – rather than Issus, where he was some distance from hoplites at the moment Alexander set upon him.

The interesting thing about the mosaic is that it shows most of the hoplites in the background, whilst Alexander and his Companions attack the Persian mounted guard in the foreground.
As the Persian royal bodyguard attempted to slow down Alexander, Darius turned and fled.

5. India

After his victory at Gaugamela, the rest of the Persian empire fell to Alexander. With Persia at his feet, the last part of the known world in the east for him to conquer – as far as he knew – was India.
Crossing the Hindu Kush, the Macedonian army defeated Porus, though at a cost, but refused to go any further. The troops’ spokesman, Coenus, finally convinced Alexander to let them return home, but his agreement was conditional: they would not retrace their steps westwards though the Hindu Kush, but rather march south and then turn west once they reached the Indian Ocean.  Alexander may have counted on submitting the territories in his path without any serious fighting, but news arrived that the Mali and the Oxydracians, traditional enemies, had formed an alliance to prevent the Macedonians from passing through their realms. Alexander moved fast, determined to fight them before their forces could unite.
After a sophisticated campaign he met the Mallian army at the river Hydraotis.
He himself led his forces against the largest city of the Mallians, whither he was informed many from the other cities had taken refuge. But this also the Indians abandoned when they heard that Alexander was marching against it. Crossing the river Hydraotes, they remained with their forces drawn up upon its bank, because it was high, and they thought they could obstruct Alexander's passage. When he heard this, he took all the cavalry which he had with him, and went to the part of the river where he was informed that the Mallians had drawn themselves up for battle; and the infantry was ordered to follow. When he reached the river and beheld the enemy drawn up on the opposite bank, he made no delay, but instantly plunged into the ford with the cavalry alone. When they saw that he was now in the middle of the river, though they were drawn up ready for battle, they withdrew from the bank with all speed and Alexander followed them with his cavalry alone. –Arrian 6.8

Notice how Alexander has no inhibitions about charging an infantry force (reckoned by Arrian at about 50 000 infantry) with cavalry alone. The Mallians, already aware of the fearsome reputation of the Macedonians, fled immediately. But when the Indians perceived only cavalry, they wheeled round and fought with desperate valour, being about 50,000 in number. When Alexander perceived that their phalanx was densely compact, and that his own infantry was absent, he rode right round their army and made charges upon them, but did not come to close fighting with them. Meanwhile the archers, the Agrianians and the other battalions of light-armed infantry, being picked men whom he was leading with him, arrived, and his phalanx of infantry was seen not far off. As all kinds of danger were threatening them at once, the Indians now wheeled round again and began to flee with headlong speed into the strongest of their adjacent cities ; but Alexander followed them and slew many, while those who escaped into the city were cooped up within it. – ibid. The Mallians, realising that they are being pursued by only a few thousand cavalry, turn to face and form up in a ‘densely compact’ phalanx. Rather than charging into them, he circles around, making several feints and fixing them in position until his infantry reinforcements can come up.

Clearly, no matter how good Alexander’s Companions are, they are not up to the job of single-handedly defeating an infantry opponent this size. With the Mallians defeated, Alexander’s serious fighting was over. His army faced a hideous return passage over the desert in southern Iran, but finally reached Babylon. Before he could embark on further campaigns in the west he died at the age of 32, possibly by poison. The Cavalry Wedge That completes the textual record of the use of Macedonian cavalry against heavy infantry under Philip and Alexander. To sum up: • Macedonian cavalry do not hesitate to charge into contact with Triballian infantry, granted they were not hoplites, but more lightly-armed peltast type troops. It is not specified what weapons are used by the cavalry, though the text states they did not use javelins when they moved into contact. The cavalry, along with the Macedonian phalanx, succeed in breaking the Triballian infantry. • Alexander with his cavalry charge the mercenary hoplites at Granicus, who are formed up in a defensive formation, probably a square or circle as they had lost their cavalry support. The Macedonian horsemen have long lances and assault the hoplites frontally. Alexander’s horse is killed under him but the hoplites are massacred by the cavalry and Macedonian phalangites. • Alexander’s cavalry punch though Persian heavy infantry at Issus after crossing a river. These foot soldiers, forming a defensive line with mercenary hoplites, cannot be light troops. They are well-armed massed infantry. The cavalry nonetheless penetrate them with ease. • At Gaugamela Alexander leads his cavalry against the Persian mounted guard in order to get to Darius. Whilst his cavalrymen are being slaughtered, Darius flees. It is only an urgent appeal for help from Parmenion that draws Alexander away, allowing Darius to escape. There is, however, no evidence that Alexander actually attacks the long-speared mercenary hoplites frontally. • Alexander avoids assaulting a force of 50,000 Mallian infantry formed up in a phalanx that was ‘densely compact’, but keeps them in place until his infantry can catch up. Granted that Macedonian horsemen were generally not shy about charging heavy foot, the question is, how did they pull it off?

A clue lies in the formation used by the horsemen. Arrian mentions it at Gaugamela: “forming a wedge with the Companion cavalry, with the part of the phalanx which was posted here also formed up, he led them with a quick charge and loud battle-cry straight towards Darius himself.” What is so good about a wedge?

The Greek tactician Asklepiodotos has this to say about it:  " It is said that the Scythians and Thracians invented the wedge formation, and that later the Macedonians used it, since they considered it more practical than the square formation; for the front of the wedge formation is narrow, as in the rhomboid, and only one half as wide, and this made it easiest for them to break through, as well as brought the leaders in front of the rest, while wheeling was thus easier than in the square formation.

Arrian in his Tactica describes the various cavalry formations, comparing them to each other. His section on the wedge is interesting: Next is the wedge-shaped formation, said to have been invented by the Scythians and borrowed from them by the Thracians. Philip of Macedon and the Macedonians perfected this formation. This formation is said to be very useful, as the leaders are deployed close together [lit: 'in a circle']) and the front tapering to a sharp point is excellent for cutting through all [pasan] enemy forces, and turns and retirements can be done sharply and quickly – Tactica 16:7

Why is a cavalry wedge good for breaking though infantry? No ancient source gives anything like a precise answer to this question, and so what follows is a reasoned hypothetical construction, based on what we know about infantry – particularly hoplite – armament and formations, and the weaponry of the Macedonian heavy cavalry. I will test this construction against the two instances where Macedonian cavalry could not charge infantry, and the one instance where it charged and nearly failed. The construction will then be tested against Diodorus’s description of Chaeronea to see if it can give a consistent and coherent interpretation.

1. The Hoplite Phalanx

Until Philip’s reforms of the Macedonian army Greek hoplites were the most effective infantry in the Ancient Mediterranean world. A hoplite was armed with an aspis or hoplon, a slightly convex shield three feet in diameter and made of wood. It was two inches thick at the centre thinning down to about an inch thick at the edges. Some shields were covered with a thin sheeting of bronze, which was decorative rather than contributing to the shield’s strength. In addition to his shield, a hoplite was protected by a bronze helmet, a bronze cuirasse (for richer hoplites) and greaves that covered the legs from the knees downwards. With his shield in front of his body he presented a solidly protected target.  His main weapon was the doru, a spear that varied in length from 8 to 15 feet, though it was usually 10 feet long or less. It could be used overarm or underarm. In addition to his spear the hoplite had a short sword called a xiphos that was usually two feet long (though the Spartan sword could be a foot to a foot and a half in length). When formed up in a phalanx, each hoplite occupied a square about three feet wide and three feet deep, sufficient to give him room to fight but enabling his shield to touch or even slightly overlap that of his neighbour. A phalanx was organised into files – not ranks – and manoeuvred by file when marching and deploying on the battlefield. A typical file consisted of eight men, though files could double up, creating a line sixteen men deep, and phalanxes occasionally deployed even deeper. Files could also be smaller, though the minimum depth at which a phalanx was considered effective was 6 men. Men stood one behind the other in their files when the phalanx was formed up, with the file leader, a kind of NCO , in the front rank, and his second-in-command in the rear rank. For as long as the phalanx remained a coherent formation in battle this file system was kept intact. A javelin-armed cavalryman that tried getting close and personal with a hoplite was asking for trouble. The hoplite’s doru easily outreached the horseman’s javelin and the rider was an exposed target in contrast to the hoplite who offered very little a javelin could pierce. Massed together shield-to-shield, hoplites presented a virtually impenetrable barrier to cavalry, who were reduced to a skirmishing role, leaving the real fighting to the infantry. It was Philip who changed all that. 2. A theory of the Macedonian wedge Around 340BC he re-equipped his infantry - until then generally ineffectual - with the sarissa. The sarissa was a heavy lance about 18 feet in length. Macedonian infantry were formed into new type of phalanx of which the sarissas of the first five ranks projected in front of the formation, creating an impenetrable forest of lances that would impale any enemy before they could even reach the Macedonian foot. What is of interest here, however, is the use of the new lance by the cavalry. A unit of heavy cavalry called the sarissaphoroi was formed, armed with the new weapon (which was probably shorter than the infantry version). They would play a significant part in the battles to come, but they were not the only cavalry unit re-equipped in this fashion. Other cavalry units were equipped with the xyston, a shorter lance about 13 feet long, though whether they were initially issued it by Philip or given it later by Alexander as a more easily manageable weapon than the sarissa is open to debate. At the same time that he supplied them with the sarissa, Philip made his cavalry adopt the wedge as an attack formation, as noted by Asklepiodotos. Long lance and wedge were to be the tools by which Philip and Alexander’s cavalry, for the first time in history, would break through massed heavy infantry. What follows is a reconstruction of the cavalry wedge, using diagrams, to show how it could have taken apart a hoplite phalanx and any similarly structured infantry formation. Everything in the diagrams is to scale. The hoplite spears are 9 feet long, the cavalry lances about 15 feet long, and each hoplite occupies and area 3 feet by 3 feet, a standard formation. Cavalry conventionally deployed in a compact formation, with one horse virtually touching the other, or in a somewhat more open grouping with about 6 feet between the centre point of one horse and the horse next to it. In a wedge, the open grouping would be used, creating a formation that was tailor made for targeting the one weak spot of a hoplite phalanx – the gaps between the files. The average man has a shoulder width of about 18 inches and a depth from back to chest of about 9 ½ inches. This means there is a gap of about 18 inches between one file and the next, a gap which can be easily widened should the men turn 90 degrees and be shoved back. The wedge, in open formation, charges the hoplite phalanx. The leading rider carefully aims his horse at the point between two shields, which will take him into the natural ‘lane’ between two adjacent hoplite files. Notice that the only hoplite threatening the lead rider is the man directly to his front. The two adjacent hoplites are too far across, and their attention will be drawn to the cavalry coming behind the cavalry leader. Notice also that the hoplite will have the point of the cavalry lance in his face before his own spear is capable of doing any damage to the horse, never mind the rider. In this situation, what happens? The hoplite either takes the lance in his head, killing him instantly and ramming him backwards into the man behind him, or he raises his shield, which takes the blow of the lance, bowling the hoplite back against the man behind him. Either way, the front hoplite finds himself flat on his back whilst the hoplite to his rear is knocked off balance. At this point one sees the advantage of a wedge. Once the leading horseman has chosen the point between two hoplite files each leading rider in the two cavalry files next to him will have time to nudge their horses to the next space two files along, permitting the next two file leaders to target their gaps, and so on. What is important here is that the cavalrymen target every other file space in the hoplite phalanx, leaving every alternate file space free. Why do this? Two reasons: first, the infantry are too close together to permit horses to target every adjacent file space – horses and riders make up an entity too wide for that. Secondly, by not targeting alternate file gaps, the cavalry leave spaces for the hoplites to be pushed into by the passing horses, allowing a free passage of the cavalry through the phalanx formation. One sees how a wedge trumps a line for this kind of manoeuvre. The commander of a cavalry unit in line formation would be unable to target the gap between two hoplites as he is obliged to gallop straight ahead, and the riders next to him would have no time to nudge their horses towards the correct file gaps further along the infantry line. Only the two front ranks of a phalanx held their spears at the ready poised to strike. The ranks behind them kept their spears at their sides, buttpoints in the ground. With the first two men of the file incapacited, the horse can safely shove its way between the files and emerge unscathed from the rear of the phalanx. The entire process is very quick. A horse walks at about 3-4 mph. It trots at about 8-10 mph, canters at about 10-17 mph and gallops at about 30 mph. Presuming that a trot is the slowest pace a wedge will move at when contacting enemy, that means the leading horseman will be through a 6-deep infantry line in 2 seconds (work on 12 km/h. That's 12,000 m/h = 3.33 m/second). This leaves the rear ranks no time at all to react. Here are a few more images illustrating the passage of the cavalry through the phalanx. As they pass through, the riders target the hoplites, killing or wounding them one after the other. Within a few seconds it is over. The wedge has passed right through the phalanx, incapacitating many hoplites in its passage with minimal losses of its own. A number of lances may have been lost, but it is a fair assumption that many riders will still have retained their principal weapon, permitting at least one more pass through the hoplites before need of rearming. Applying this theory to the primary sources Does this mechanism for a Macedonian cavalry wedge chime with the textual evidence? A good way to testing it is to look at the one instance in Alexander’s career where cavalry charging infantry was a failure, or nearly so, and the two instances where it was not attempted. At the Granicus, the hoplite mercenaries, after vainly asking for terms from Alexander, prepared to fight to the last. Surrounded and bereft of a cavalry guard, they would have adopted an all-round formation. A hasty ad-hoc improvisation, it is likely they lost their orderly file system in the process, as files were meant to work with straight lines, not with a body of men in an impromptu square or circle. Furthermore, they were desperate men, expecting no quarter. It is hence reasonable to suppose they stood closer together than usual, forming a dense mass more difficult to overcome. Alexander charged into this partially disordered, compact body, and discovered that without neat file gaps to ride through he was soon stopped by the bulk of the men in front of him. One of them had the time to kill his horse and he himself was barely saved by his Companions whilst the rest of his army, infantry and cavalry, pressed upon the mercenaries, probably packing them ever tighter until they no longer had room to fight, and then slaughtering them. Alexander learned his lesson: wedges did not work against a dense mob. At Gaugamela, Alexander faced a different problem. Darius had done a lot of thinking since Issus and had hit on the solution to the problem of the Macedonian cavalry wedge: arm his infantry with spears as long as the cavalry lances of the Macedonians. Alexander dared not charge his cavalry frontally against this kind of infantry, and so he devised a cunning plan. He marched his entire army to the right until his Companions had completely bypassed the frontage of the Greek mercenaries. When a gap opened between the Persian centre and right wing, he led the Companions through it around the Greeks and straight at Darius's mounted bodyguard whilst his phalanx engaged the hoplites frontally. Darius's mounted guards took just long enough to die for their king to make his escape. The battle was a victory for Macedonia, but it was also a harbinger of things to come. Alexander remembered the lesson of the Granicus at the next occasion where his Companions were unable to break through closely-massed infantry. After driving the Mallians from the banks of the Hydraotes river, Alexander finds them prepared to fight further on, and he has only his cavalry with him. But when the Indians perceived only cavalry, they wheeled round and fought with desperate valour, being about 50,000 in number. When Alexander perceived that their phalanx was densely compact, and that his own infantry was absent, he rode right round their army and made charges upon them, but did not come to close fighting with them. Notice that the Mallians are ‘densely compact’, i.e. in a formation similar to that of the mercenary hoplites at the Granicus. It is also to the point that he faces 50,000 footmen determined to fight. Even if he had been able to charge through their ranks in wedge, it is obvious his riders would have run out of lances long before they could inflict significant losses on the Mallians. But is their density that decides Alexander: his wedge-between-files technique will not work here. This point can be turned the other way around: if the Macedonian cavalry charge was meant to be just a frontal smash into an infantry line, striving, by the shock effect of the horses’ impact and lance thrusts, to panic the footmen into a rout, what difference did it make if the infantry stood in files three feet apart or closer together? The effect of a body of horses ramming into them would be exactly the same. Should cavalry charge into infantry in this manner, it is crucial that they panic the infantry into flight almost immediately, otherwise each cavalryman will find himself in an exposed position on a stationary horse confronting several footmen at once. His life will be measured in seconds. Charging through a looser formation removes this danger. Each rider spends only a few moments among the infantry, who do not have the time to orientate themselves and attack him. Furthermore, every rider of the wedge will be able to target a footman, not just the frontmost horsemen of the wedge. A cavalry attack of this kind is devastating, and its effect can be gauged by Arrian’s description of Alexander’s charge against the Kardakes at Issus: ‘And it turned out just as Alexander had conjectured ; for as soon as the battle became a hand-to-hand one, the part of the Persian army stationed on the left wing was put to rout.’ Going back to Chaeronea, how does this theory of a wedge attack fit the textual evidence? Rereading Diodorus: Then Alexander, his heart set on showing his father his prowess and yielding to none in will to win, ably seconded by his men, first succeeded in rupturing the solid front of the enemy line and striking down many he bore heavily on the troops opposite him. His companions, accompanying and following him through in a body, broke right through in formation. Many bodies were strewn behind Alexander, who was first to force his way through the enemy line and put them to flight. The natural sense of the text is that Alexander physically led his men, the frontmost rider in the charge and the first to ‘force his way through the enemy line and put them to flight’. Notice that he forces his way through the line – he doesn’t smash into the line and panic it into a rout. One objection to the idea of cavalry bursting through hoplite infantry is this passage from Plutarch: It is said, moreover, that the Band was never beaten, until the battle of Chaeroneia; and when, after the battle, Philip was surveying the dead, and stopped at the place where the three hundred were lying, all where they had faced the sarisai, with their armour, and mingled one with another, he was amazed... - Life of Pelopidas Sarissas were the armament of the Macedonian heavy infantry, and so the argument is that the Theban Sacred Band (an elite force of hoplites about 300 strong) were killed by infantry. However - as mentioned earlier - Macedonian phalangites were not the only unit in Philip’s army armed with sarissas. There are several mentions in the texts of the sarissaphoroi - ‘sarissa bearers’, a cavalry unit that had an important role in Alexander’s battles. Arrian, in describing them, calls them sarissaphoroi, prodomous hippeas and prodomoi – ‘forerunners’. At the outset of the Battle of the Granicus they are sarissaphoroi under the command of Amyntas (I.14.1), but when they cross the river they are prodomous hippeas, still under the command of Amyntas (I.14.6). After this they are prodomoi, now under Aretes’ command. In both the Granicus and Gaugamela battles they were used as shock troops. At the Granicus they led the cavalry assault across the river along with the Paeonians. At Gaugamela the Persian left wing, about 20,000 men, was broken by “the powerful assault of Aretes and his men” (Arrian III.14.3). Later on – called sarissaphoroi again by Arrian - they lead an assault across the Jaxartes against the heavily armoured Scythians (Arrian IV.4.6). The most senior commander at Chaeronea was Philip, hence the elite cavalry unit, the ile basilike - that is, the Companions - was under his direct command. It is logical then to assume the Alexander commanded the next best cavalry unit, a unit that would have such an important role in his subsequent battles. Armed with sarissas, his ile punched through the Sacred Band who, neither armed, trained nor prepared for Alexander’s audacious attack, were taken apart by the Macedonian cavalry before they had time to do anything about it other than die where they stood without flinching. What happened to the super-weapon? Whilst Alexander lived, his lance-armed Macedonian cavalry were the terror of his enemies, such that 50,000 Mallians fled at the sight of them. Against any infantry formation they were invincible, with one exception – the Macedonian phalanx itself. Formed up to a depth of 16 men, the 18-foot long infantry sarissas of the first five ranks projected ahead of the formation, creating a wall of spearpoints that nothing could penetrate. After Alexander’s death, his empire split into several warring successor states, each making the Macedonian phalanx the core of its army. There is no record of a cavalry wedge attempting to penetrate such a formation frontally; even the great Alexander had not tried it against the similarly-armed Greeks at Gaugamela. Henceforward all mounted attacks against the phalanx would be aimed at its vulnerable flanks. The Macedonian cavalry wedge as an attack formation against infantry was obsolete. Why was it not resurrected later once the phalanx had given way to the legion? There are several possible reasons. The first is that good ideas, once forgotten, do not necessarily arise the moment conditions become favourable for them again. Pike formations are the best answer infantry have against heavy cavalry, yet cavalry dominated the European battlefield for centuries until pikes were resurrected in the late Middle Ages by the Swiss and others. Another reason is that the precision required for a wedge to attack infantry in this manner demands a very high level of training. The cavalrymen need to be professional, long-serving soldiers, used to working together, besides being superlative horsemen, able to keep their files intact in a moving wedge and target exactly the right places in the infantry line. This kind of expertise was well beyond the mediaeval knight and virtually every other cavalryman from Alexander until the present day. It is quite possible to train horses up to this level of performance – circus riders do better – but it requires a professionalism found in few armies. A third reason is that the Macedonian wedge was a surprise weapon whose effectiveness depended to a large extent on its opponents not being ready for it. Since its success came from exploiting the gaps between infantry files it could be countered by simply closing those gaps, and there are several ways of doing that. Stopping a cavalry wedge in the middle of a mass of infantry meant death for the cavalrymen (it nearly meant death for Alexander). Once bitten, twice bites, to turn the expression on its head. 

Whatever the explanation may be, the image of Alexander, leading his invincible Companions in a vast, thundering spearpoint of horses against his enemies who had no choice but to scatter or die, is one that belongs to him alone, not to be emulated by any battlefield commander before or since. Circumstances as much as ambition and ability make a man great, and Alexander, blessed with the right weapon and the right formation, used against the right enemies at the right time, was able to leave a mark on history sufficiently impressive that 2,300 years later we are still busy writing about him.

This article was insipired by a long and interesting thread on the Society of Ancients forum. A large part of the material comes from contributions by fellow SoA members on that thread, and I am grateful for their insights. I’m especially grateful for the input given by Patrick Waterson, whom I pestered non-stop with all sorts of abstruse questions, and who patiently answered every one.

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