The phalanx was the primary infantry battle formation in classical Greece. The Spartans achieved a level of mastery of the phalanx and its associated tactics which for two centuries was unparalleled by contemporary powers. This mastery was achieved through years of drilling, hard physical training and the development of the necessary mental grit.
The Rise of the Phalanx
It is not known when the phalanx was first adopted, but it probably developed gradually and was in use by the late seventh century or early sixth century BC. Prior to the advent of the phalanx, mass infantry combat in Greece probably took place in looser or no formations. In such engagements, numbers, individual skill, armor and weaponry would have played key roles in determining the outcome. What differentiated the phalanx was the scripted positioning and movement of the hoplites, and the synergies in offence and defence which it achieved; in the phalanx, warriors no longer fought as individuals, but as a group. Fighting together they augmented their ability to attack a loosely formed enemy, and likewise to defend against individual attacks. In the infantry battles between the greek city-states, the armies using the phalanx formation would have enjoyed a significant advantage against those which did not. By the sixth century BC therefore, the phalanx was broadly adopted by the Greeks for mass infantry combat.
The Structure of the Phalanx
A phalanx consisted of ranks and files of hoplites in a rectangular mass facing the enemy. Typically, the formation was eight-men deep, but this number would fluctuate depending on tactical decisions and circumstances. Famously, the Spartans were capable of fighting as few as four men deep. Armed with a long spear and a large circular shield, the front rank of hoplites stood shoulder-to-shoulder. The shield of each hoplite, known as a hoplon in Greek, offered protection from the shoulder to the knee, and crucially shielded the spear-side (right-side) of the hoplite to his left. The warrior’s head would be protected by a helmet, his torso by bronze or bronze-linen armor and his legs by greaves. Behind him in the file his fellow hoplites could thrust their spears over his shoulder, and push into his back to support him and push back the enemy phalanx. Hoplites would also carry a short sword for close range attacks once the enemy was in reach. Those in the second rank were capable of striking the enemy with their long spears, and they would move forward to replace the front ranker if he fell or was seriously wounded. Another advantage of the phalanx was the ability for collective pushing of the enemy by use of the shields. Known in Greek as othismos, this tactic could be used to unbalance and even topple an opponent’s front rank when the two phalanxes were shield-to-shield.
The phalanx was designed and effective as a formation for forward attack or defence, but it was vulnerable to flanking and rear attacks. If the ranks and files became disordered or even collapsed, the phalanx tended to rapidly break down into a disorganized mass. Since it was vulnerable at the flanks and rear, phalanx commanders did their best to keep the front of their phalanx as wide as their enemy’s, otherwise they could be outflanked immediately as the two phalanxes clashed. In this regard, terrain could be used to protect the flanks, but conversely terrain could also cause problems for the phalanx. Open terrain permitted cavalry to move quickly to engage the phalanx on its flanks and rear. Rocky or wooded terrain, and bodies of water offered the phalanx protection in this regard.
The phalanx was powerful yet slow and unwieldy in comparison to many other styles of combat. Movement prior to combat and after combat was joined was a significant challenge in phalanx warfare. Keeping the ranks and files in line as they crossed terrain obstacles, or had to turn or to realign in a new direction was difficult. The noise and confusion of battle, fear and exhaustion (infantry combat was very physically demanding), and sheer lack of training and experience made command and control of the phalanx extremely difficult at times.
The Spartan Advantage
In battle after battle, the years that the Spartans had spent drilling and training paid off. Orders were passed in an organized fashion down the lines which at the greatest battles could span kilometers. Their high level of discipline ingrained from years of training ensured that commands were obeyed precisely and promptly. Moving in individual files or groups of files, the Spartans remained organized even as they shifted position. They were capable of complex maneuvers such as false retreats, wheeling 90 degrees and reforming into deeper or shallower files even in the heat of battle. The unique standards for courage in Sparta demanded that their hoplites withstand and endure the intense emotion and fear involved in phalanx combat where the enemy was often close enough to touch. Spartans kept their phalanx tight, and in contrast to others avoided running or charging as they closed with the enemy. To this end, they used trumpets for commands and flute-players to help the hoplites keep time and rhythm as they marched. The Lacedaemonians would also sing with calm confidence, reflecting the manner in which they would fight: bravely and methodically. Often they preferred to endure a long battle rather than take risks to seek a quick victory as they felt confident that their superior stamina would outlast their opponents’. Their stamina was impressive by both ancient and modern standards. In 490 BC, the Spartans narrowly missed the battle of Marathon where forces led by Athens defeated the invading Persians. Rushing to get to Marathon, a force of Spartans marched a distance of nearly 180 miles in three days!
When the Spartans won the day, which was often, but far from always, it was not their practice to give chase to the fleeing enemy. The decision not to pursue was based on several considerations. First of all, a broken enemy phalanx had already offered them opportunity to slaughter their practically defenceless opponents. Secondly, pursuing a running enemy would separate their own phalanx and leave them exposed to counterattack. Moreover, Lacedaemonian forces rarely fought on their own, and while they might be victorious on their flank, their allies might very well be in need of aid or even defeated, partially or completely. The possibility that the Spartan phalanx would need to fight again was real and likely.
In 394 BC at the battle of Nemea, this practice proved its usefulness. Starting in their place of honor on the right flank, the Spartans had veered even further to the right and outflanked their Athenian counterparts whom they routed. Meanwhile their own allies, amongst them the Tegeans, had collapsed and fled on the other flank. They had been pursued by Thebans, Corinthians and Argives (allies of the Athenians) all of whom had lost formation by doing so. The Spartan hoplites refrained from chasing the Athenians and simply wheeled in place so that they were now facing the rear and flanks of the Thebans, Corinthians and Argives. As the latter returned and attempted to reform their phalanx, the Spartan king Agesilaus timed his advance perfectly. Unable to form properly, the enemy units were cut down in their thousands while only six Spartans died. It was an exemplary display of the phalanx’s efficiency.
There was a saying in Lacedaemon which made a virtue of such careful tactics, albeit in terms more ethical than coldly pragmatic. Holding as they did, an honorable conduct on the battlefield as the measure of a man, the Spartans were wont to say that an honorable death should be reserved for those enemies who stood and fought rather than those who turned and fled. Such an ethical notion suited the Spartan mentality, but perhaps it was a convenient rationalization for a careful tactical disposition.
But the Spartans too could pay a heavy price for not keeping the phalanx formation. In the spring of 380 BC, a Spartan army was engaged before the town of Olynthus in Thrace, seeking to extinguish its rebellion. At first contact the Olynthian cavalry was driven off, and the Spartan vanguard of peltasts pressed ahead, crossing the river before the city. Teleutias, the commander, ordered a charge but lost many men to counterattacks and sallies from the city. Losing his cool, the general then ordered his hoplites into action; however the speed of their advance and the obstacle of the river meant that they lost formation after crossing. The Olynthian phalanx sallied from the city and crushed the disorganized Spartans. They lost over a thousand men, including Teleutias and the army was completely routed.
Spartan Hoplite Units
Spartan armies were typically led by the kings, but the ephors could also appoint other leading Spartans as commanders. Hoplite units were considered the most prestigious and formed the backbone of the army. Elite Spartans, or Spartiates, served almost exclusively as hoplites. For this reason, the Spartans never excelled at cavalry and missile warfare (they decidedly frowned upon the latter). Historical sources differ on the exact structure of the armies, but following Xenophon’s descriptions, a general summary can be made:
The Hippeis: the name means horseman, but these were the elite hoplites of Sparta. They served as the King’s guard on campaigns, and service in this unit was a hotly-contested distinction and honor. They numbered three hundred at full strength and were commanded by three officers known as Hippagretai.
The Sciritae: these hoplites were mountain-dwelling Spartans, frequently used as scouts, but they also served in the phalanx as a separate levy. They may have numbered as many as six hundred at times.
The Mora: this was the largest unit in the army (which would usually consist of several Morae). A Mora was commanded by a polemarch who answered directly to the King or army commander. A Mora numbered between five hundred to a thousand hoplites.
The Lochos: the Mora were divided into Lochos, each of which was commanded by an officer know as the Lochagos.
The Pentecostys: Lochos were divided into Pentecostys, each of which was commanded by a Pentecoster. There were probably less than a hundred hoplites in a Pentecostys.
The Enomotia: the smallest unit of the phalanx, akin to the modern infantry platoon in size. The Enomotia would have included a couple or several complete phalanx files. The officer in charge was called an Enomotarch.