What happened to the Phalanx?

When I first learned about the phalanx, I was impressed that it was the coolest and most impenetrable military formation I could imagine. Yet apparently it went out of style. Can someone tell me why? What were the flaws of the phalanx?

A phalanx works if you’ve got dudes with shields and spears lined up in such a way that they can stab the other guy without getting stabbed themselves.

This doesn’t work very well once the other guy invents gunpowder.

It also doesn’t work well when the other guy invents “walking around behind you.” Especially on open ground, the phalanx was not all that useful unless your opponent buys into the game and fights you with a phalanx head on. This was the case in the wars between the Greek city-states, where fighting for the sake of annihilation wasn’t really on anyone’s minds. Try playing as the Greeks in Rome: Total War, and you’ll see why you have to be quite selective about how you deploy the formation!

There’s an (apocryphal?) story of a Roman force simply splitting down the middle as a phalanx charged, and then walking behind them to occupy the city they were defending.

If you’re talking about the Greek phalanx, the one that Alexander the Great used, then that became out of date long before guns were used.

It lives on here


No to mention that it took a great deal of training.

All it would take is one soldier (say, in the History of the World) to flunk phalanx…

The problems with the (hoplite) phalanx are fairly obvious, really.

  1. Men in a very close-knit formation can’t move very fast. If you set up archers a couple hundred yards away, you could pretty much kill off everybody in an opposing phalanx if you had enough open ground to fire > retreat > fire > retreat, etc.

  2. Because it was a fixed formation- a block, really- it wasn’t much good for fighting on rough terrain. If you had to pass your phalanx through a narrow gap, it stopped being a phalanx and started being “a line”, and if you were attacked while passing through that gap, you’d be screwed. Plus, if you were attacked from in front and in behind, you were equally screwed… if your hoplite were really well drilled, you might be able to turn the rear half of your formation around, but most hoplites weren’t well-drilled. They were civilians with spears and shields. The weakness against attacks from both sides could be minimised by using supporting infantry or cavalry to prevent flanking maneuvers, but they wouldn’t always be available.

Except that it was sort of revived (as the pike formation) around the time guns were invented, and was an essential part of the “pike and shot” warfare of the 16th and 17th centuries.

Actually, that’s being replaced by the Rolling Airframe Missile: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/RIM-116_RAM

That’s what I thought this thread was going to be about.

4 Words: King of Battle: ARTILLERY!!!

I thought artillery was the queen of the battlefield? Anyway, it’s pretty irrelevant to the demise of the original greek phalanx.

As has already been pointed out by many others, it was just too inflexible a formation. Slow to set up, nearly impossible to manouevre, very hard to adapt to the terrain. The military equivalent of trying to win in the NFL using nothing but linemen.

As soon as the phalanx came up against any kind of well-articulated formation, it was in trouble. Philip of Macedon did very well using the (adapted) phalanx combined with cavalry, spearmen and skirmishers, but against the Roman legions it was hopeless.
Can you imagine trying to form up soldiers into blocks 16 wide and 16 deep, shoulder-to-shoulder, for a charge against an enemy who was working with independent groups of 60 or so in a loose three-deep formation? Like trying to swat hornets with a sledgehammer.

Oh hail, oh hail, oh Infantry
Queen of Battle, follow me
The soldiers life is the life for me
For nothing in this world is free

As early as the 15th century, disciplined pikemen were found to be the answer to the heavy cavalry charge. The swiss made it famous and served as mercenaries in latter-day phalanxes. Small groups of gunners, originally rather rare, were added to the sides of the phalanx to provide fire support. As firearms became more common, the roles began to reverse as the pikes were intended to support the gunners who did the bulk of the fighting. It became more common to spread out the formations in lines to maximise firepower. Then the bayonet came along and made the pikemen obsolete since the gunners could defend themselves in close combat. But even as late as the Napoleonic era, the column was seen as the best formation for close combat since it provides greater momentum to the charge and resistance to being charged. Whether it was better than a line formation was debated hotly at the time (and is still discussed by historians). It could be argued that it wasn’t until the long-range, accurate rifles of the American Civil War came along and killed off the massed bayonet charges at Cold Harbor and Chancelorsville that the phalanx was truly snuffed out.

The phalanx never went out of use until Dragoons vanished from the scene! It has been called different things, and was used with different circumstances, but it was a critical components of amost every decent spear-based (and later, bayonet-wielding) army until very modern times.

The Greek Phalanx was probably the pinnacle of its development in the ancient world. However, Scottish Schiltroms, the aforementioned pike squares (which long predated the Swiss), and the later use of block formations to defend against cavalry in the Napoleonix wars were all expamples of this. Over time, this formation became more and more defensive, but the basic practice remained the same

Edit: It probably vanished with the start of the Civil War. Some units tried melee assaults in formation, but the formation never remained intact in the run. Close-ranged assaults which devolved into melees still worked, though. It was a matter of having a good follow-up and being very flexible and not exposing yourself to too much fire.

I disagree. Read Victor Davis Hanson’s book on the Peloponnesian War. The phalanx was actually a very powerful formation when properly deployed in ground of their choosing (i.e., broken terrain that prevented easy maneuver around flanks-- exactly the kind of terrain largely found in Greece).

Cavalry and light infantry (archers/spearmen) were largely impotent against it. Sure, if you could get on the flanks you’d do harm, but that’s what your cavalry and light infantry were there for.

Also recall that cavalry during this time was very light-- small horses, no stirrups. These weren’t all-powerful armored knights on horseback. Ditto archers-- the Greek panoply was effective against the archers of the time, who were not trained from birth to use longbows, but instead used much simpler weapons.

That last point is the most important-- Greek city-state hoplite warfare was predicated on the citizen-soldier. These individuals rarely specialized in martial skills. The legendary Spartans were different, of course, but there were so few of them that even they made large use of foreign auxiliaries to provide their light infantry/cavalry components.

Anyway-- technology is what did the phalanx in, but it wasn’t gunpowder: it was heavy cavalry, professional bowmen, and stone fortification (and defenses). Oh, and Romans who didn’t fight them on good ground :-).

Beat me to it! :smiley:

I don’t think heavy calvary did in the phalanx. The phalanx was only ever used by the Greeks, counting the Macedonians as Greeks. It continued to evolve with time, becoming ever lighter and more mobile. But the it disappeared along with the successor kingdoms to Alexander the Great. Bactria probably mostly disappeared because of how few Greeks moved that far away from the Med. The Romans conquered all the rest, with the exception of pieces of the Seleculid empire, which the Parthians mopped up after the Romans destroyed much of their power.

So, I’d say the Romans are the reason the phalanx disappeared. There are probably courses on why the Romans conquered the Greeks. I personally would say it was a combination of the legion being more effective (IIRC, Patton considered the Roman legion the finest pre-gun formation of all time), the Romans being more inclusive (and thus having more manpower to pick from), the Romans fighting to win and not willing to surrender (although that was probably more important against the Carthaginians).

Of course, the Roman tetegua formation was similar, but also covered its top, sides, and rear with shields.

The Manipole (sp?) system developed by the Romans was far superior as it could be used in rough terrain, and was flexible enough to allow re-deployment once battle had been joined:

The totally awesome History of Rome podcast has an episode about just that.

I think you mean testudo.