Art of War: The ancient Greek phalanx as a bloc

“…And Sarpedon says to Glaukos in the Twelfth Book of The Iliad: My friend, if you and I could escape this battle and live forever, ageless and immortal, I myself would never fight again… But a thousand deaths surround us and no man can escape them. So let us move in for the attack”

-In girum imus nocte et consumimur igni, Guy Debord

At the antipode of all contemporary military operations, war in the ancient Greek world constituted an integral part of everyday life. Thoukydides observed that a state of war, was something natural for Greece, contrary to the short-term ceasefires between the city-states. Such a way of life, was in accordance with the supreme value of struggle, antagonism between individuals and their communities. These could then unify inside the Polis (city-state) and divide outside, since alienation from material means and power could still be limited or at least hidden behind popular customs and “divine” laws. This antagonism, the “generous Eris” as someone as perceptive as Nietzsche reminds us, fulfilled the great purpose of evolution, of the overcoming of the established order, towards a new and higher unity.

If there still exists an analogy with the epic classical battles, this has of course nothing to do with the systematic destruction of human beings and material means carried out by state and private armies, but concerns only the community of struggle that appears again in the battlefields, with a conscience of its common and deprived interest. In its desire to overcome established order in all of its aspects, this community is forced not to rest but to struggle, since it is only through its struggle that it manages to become visible and gain coherence. Before such a possibility and only so, any false community, and any alienated struggle, loses all value. This is a procedure we now need to intensify, in order to realise the possibility, that already exists among us, to humanize the historic movement, towards an authentic evolution.

From the warfare of antiquity, to modern street battles, their heart is the rule that remains unaltered. Regardless of the the personal skills of each fighter, a group that fights as a group will always have the upper hand against an enemy fighting – or forced to fight – as separate individuals. Such a battle group, a bloc, in ancient Greece was the phalanx.

The phalanx, as a tactical battle formation that prevailed over professional/mercenary and disorderly/tribal armies from the 8th to the 3rd century BC, was nothing other than the military formation of the Polis that reigned as an organized social order over the disorder represented by the “barbarians”. The social class that formed it was not the old landowning aristocracy and their slaves, but the emerging free merchants and craftsmen, the independent farmers – owners of their own land, a social figure emerging for the first time in the Mediterranean, “weapon in hand” under the threat of raiders. Former slaves that had gained some independence through their valuable professional skills, thus having a vital interest in defending the Polis, and also the ability to afford maintaining weaponry (:opla>Oplites). From the moment that this class had access to material means and weapons, it imposed its own say on public issues, democratizing the Polis, which from now on and under every authority, democratic or tyrannic, is obliged to be accountable to its armed populace. Thus the Polis made the phalanx out of its image and essence, just as the phalanx made the polis. Just as any social organization is reflected in its armed force, every armed force reflects the social organization that enforces it.

Basic strategic advantages of the phalanx were the small number of loses – decimation (10% loss) was considered too much bloodshed for Greece’s small population -, the brief preparation it asked of participants, while following face-to-face – battles the Oplites could return to their work without further damage to a Polis’ economy. It can be said that strategy was not too much of a concern, since something like that was incompatible with the war ethics of the epoch, but mainly since the battlefield usually sealed the supremacy of one Polis against the other, rather than estimating it from zero. Sun Tzu wrote something relative in his “art of war”: Victorious warriors win first and then go to war, while defeated warriors go to war first and then seek to win.

The classic Greek strategy represented the “purest” (if we define this according to Clausewitz) form of battle: Two distinct forces fighting one another in the sunlight. Hence a known anecdote on the Persian arrows that could “hide the sun”. Up until the Persian Wars, the phalanx had only been put to test in limited conflicts among Greek Poleis, but when it comes to an Empire, in order to survive it perpetually needs to expand, this is something that concerns all those living near its limits. Moreover, the Persian invasion in mainland Greece in retaliation for the support of Ionic insurrection against the Persian empire, reminds us of a basic rule: to eradicate an insurrection is to cut it off and set an example among those supporting it. The Persian threat will force the Spartan defendants to adopt a basic – the most known example probably- asymmetric tactic of defence: The selection of a privileged battlefield. Specifically, they came up with the narrow pass of Thermopylae (since Tempi pass at Olympus had previously been rejected as the existence of parallel passes left to the enemy usually leads to becoming surrounded). Giving a fight in a limited field, may temporarily overturn the advantage of a stronger enemy.

Nevertheless, the inherent weaknesses of the phalanx forced the defendants to a descend to the plains, since a compact formation cannot be kept on anomalous terrain. Sooner or later, gaps will appear in its front line, allowing the enemy to make a breach. In reality, the efficacy of the phalanx was a mediate function of its ability to “keep the line/not to break” during conflict. Formed by lines of Oplites, standing one next to the other (“shoulder to shoulder”), holding spear in the right arm and shield in the left, everyone was thus completely relying on the fighter next to him for protection. Under heavy armour and with their personal senses limited, the basic function they followed was to “push” the enemy backwards, and hold its position. The first army to suffer a rupture would be forced to retreat. It is the rule on such occasions that the desertion of the first fighter plays a decisive role, since it triggers a chain of disorderly flights of fellow fighters, depressed and abandoning all courage. Abandoning a common fight individually, they ended up suffering much more losses and pain as a whole, as the enemy progressed with small swords or cavalry. An organized retreat of the phalanx as a block was the only appropriate move, limiting captures and losses of fighters. It is a fact though, that heavy armour doesn’t keep up with chasing deserters. In such cases, victory is claimed without any need to annihilate the enemy.

Of course, this reality was reflected in the war ethics of the epoch, praising the fighter that, amidst the fires of the battle, gains the trust of his fellows through his courage and responsibility. A reason why the phalanx didn’t break too often, was that the oplites came from the same neighborhood or village, or were members of friendly families or even relatives, since one fights better for tangible relationships rather than abstract ideals or rewards. A step beyond this parameter can be found at the Theban Sacred Batallion, based upon erotic relationships among men and teenage boys. This way, the pressure and obedience of the Oplite is no longer to some fellow citizen, but to his own lover. According to Plutarch, the Sacred Batallion, formed of 150 couples, succeeded in crushing the supernumerary Spartans, while managing to remain undefeated for another 35 years. This victory is of special value. The Spartan phalanx was considered to be the climax of the form, as far as discipline as well as personal training is concerned, that on a massive scale embraced the whole of the Spartans’ lives, which were lived under the dark fear of a possible insurrection of the slaves. A parasitic class based only upon violence is forced to exercise equal violence against itself in order to maintain itself in power. Such a class reveals the irrational that exists in the established social organization, and also the possibilities that could be liberated with its destruction.

Another tactic practised targeted the psychology and morale of the enemy. For a long time before the clash, almost as a ritual, the two adversaries stayed face-to-face, yelling chants and singing paeans, trying to paralyze the enemy, intimidating them with their terrible armour decorated with monstrous medusa heads. Cases of involuntary defecation, urination or nausea were not uncommon. Plutarch characteristically mentions Aratos of Sikyon, whose enemies laughed about his pains and dizzines conquering him each time battle was about to begin. What’s worth mentioning about Aratos however, is the way he brought about a well-known point of Sun Tzu, managing to win wars without having to go to fight in battle.

“War is just when it is necessary; arms are permissible when there is no hope except in arms.”

“Never do an enemy a small injury”

-N. Machiavelli

Invading his homeland Sikyon at night, climbing over the walls with stolen ladders, he stirs the people against tyranny, claiming equal rights for all. He wins the hearts of the Achaic Confederacy that make him their leader. Then the same with Peloponnese, despite the fact he will be defeated twice in a row by the Spartans under King Kleomenes. He goes on to liberate Corinth from the Macedonians, again climbing in the night on Akrocorinth and gaining the support of the population. Removing the Macedonian guard of all its support, he forces them to retreat without actually having to fight them. A few years later he goes on to liberate Athens, bribing the Macedonian guard of Piraeus. Even after all these spectacular successes however, the Macedonian dominion was only grazed on the surface, since there was no antagonistic organizational form to take things over in decadent Greece. His economic and political order unharmed, King Philip V of Macedon was to take him easily out of his way, murdering him in 213 BC.

“All war is based on deception. Hence, when we are able to attack, we must seem unable; when using our forces, we must appear inactive; when we are near, we must make the enemy believe we are far away; when far away, we must make him believe we are near.”
-Sun Tzu

The last tactic we will deal with here was tested in the battle of Marathon (490 BC) by the Athenian general Miltiades and has to do with the Phalanx formation. Outnumbered by the opposing Persian army, he arrays an apparently weak force, with heavily reinforced flanks. These quick and strong side units surround and side-hit the enemy, while he finds it impossible to move forward, as the main body holds its line. It’s worth mentioning here that while the tactics of the smaller force address mainly the enemy’s morale and their goal is to push him backwards or evade him until they become stronger, from the side of the Empire, there is always the will to turn every battle into a slaughterhouse. Subjects are expendable, while the enemies are counted.

Another novelty in this field will be practiced in the Battle of Leuktra (371 BC), with the oblique Phalanx of the Thebans under Epameinondas, against the Spartans. While the main body of the army remained untouched, the reinforced left flank with the Sacred Batallion, strikes the adversary. The rest of the army tries to hold its position to prevent the enemy from moving forward.

Finally – exhausted from the conflicts between them, the Peloponnesian and Corinthian war- Poleis by the “Macedonian gold” (as Plutarch set it), the conquest of the signals, also the overcoming of the outdated classic phalanx by the Macedonian phalanx. This last one, using much longer spears and smaller shields, is far more compound, impenetretable, and a prevailing defensive formation. Also, the more extensive use of archers, cavalry, and – after Alexander’s campaign to the east – elephants, are mobilized to create confusion in the enemy, something that lowers their reflexes and their offensive potential. The defeat, at last, of the Macedonians at Kynos Kephalae in 197 BC sets, according to the historian Polybios, the greatest example of the superiority of the Roman Legion over the phalanx. It is always a fact that an organized and compound battle formation will be defeated by a better organized and funded analogous group. Much more so when someone is dealing with an empire.

The Roman Empire’s military finally kneeled before the unorthodox tactics of the nomadic tribes, only combined with an extensive civil war that had previously disintegrated its inner ranks. An increase in its Barbarian enemies – aka those that are not part of the state’s community – in itself was only indicative of this community’s crisis, and not its catalyst. Without the ability to form a community themselves, without theories to throw into the battle when needed, without creating a higher social organization, hostilities on their own are nothing more than tactics devoid of strategy. They can only represent a danger, that the Empire is well aware of, is a ghost.

Our own power cannot be measured by the force we exercise against our enemies, but by the force that brings us against them. We already know what brings them against us. All we have is to know ourselves.

Michael: [about the unrest in Cuba] We saw a strange thing on our way here. Some rebels were being arrested, and instead of being arrested, one of them pulled the pin on a grenade he had hidden in his jacket. He took himself and the captain of the command with him.
Guest: Ah, the rebels are insane!
Michael: Maybe. But the soldiers are paid to fight; the rebels aren’t.
Hyman Roth: What does that tell you?
Michael: They can win.


Many thanks to J. for the translation notes

[Greek version/Στα ελληνικά]

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