Little is known about Dark Age warfare in many previously civilized areas. By 700 BC, however, a new military system called the phalanx had been established in Greece.
The Greek phalanx was a column formation of heavy infantry carrying long spears, or pikes, and swords. The pikes were six to twelve feet long, much longer than spears of the past. Men in the phalanx carried a round shield called a hoplon, from which the infantry took their name, hoplites. The hoplites wore metal armor on their chests, forearms, and shins at least, plus a metal helmet that covered the head down to the neck. The addition of armor classified the hoplites as heavy infantry, as opposed to light infantry that wore little or no armor. A typical phalanx unit was ten men across the front rank and ten men deep, but many such units were combined into one larger unit.
The phalanx in battle.
The phalanx was an offensive infantry formation for hand-to- hand shock combat. It usually fought without light troop or cavalry support, which should have been an important disadvantage, but the Greeks largely ignored these auxiliary troops. As long as they fought among themselves, lack of missile troops and cavalry was not a problem.
The heavy infantry on each side in a battle would close with each other at a deliberate pace, maintaining formation. When the opposing phalanxes came together, the first several ranks would lower their pikes and the two sides would thrust at each other, attempting to strike an unprotected area on an opponent. The pike points of several men in a file could project beyond the front rank. Men in the front were simultaneously attacked by several spears.
The Greek armies of the period 700 to 400 BC may have been the only ones in history to rely completely on shock tactics. The clash of phalanxes was resolved entirely in hand-to-hand fighting. The city-state of Sparta was the recognized master of phalanx warfare. The entire state was organized as a military camp. All non-serf males served in the Spartan phalanx and trained at length.Because the hoplites carried their shields on their left arm, the phalanx was most exposed on its right side. For that reason, the best phalanx units were positioned normally on the right side of the army. Battles often became a contest to see which army's right wing would first destroy the other side's left wing.
Phalanx armies were susceptible to missile and cavalry attacks from the right and rear, but only if the enemy had these units and used them.Phalanx warfare reached its peak in two great fifth-century wars: the war with Persia at the start of the century and the Peloponnesian War near its end. In both wars, sea power played a crucial role, but land fighting centered on the phalanx.
The phalanx at war.
The Peloponnesian War was a Greek civil war for the dominance of Greece between the sea-oriented Athenians and the land-based Spartan League. One major lesson of the war was the inability of the phalanx to be strategically decisive. Heavy infantry alone could not capture cities once the battle outside the walls had been won.
The war with Persia was especially interesting because the Greek phalanx, the finest heavy infantry in the world at the time, faced an integrated army of infantry, skirmishers, and cavalry. The Persians and Assyrians before them backed their infantry with auxiliary troops of every kind. They were also advanced in the art of siege warfare.The two great land battles of the Persian war occurred at Marathon in 490 BC and Plataea in 479 BC. At both battles a smaller Greek army consisting almost entirely of heavy infantry was victorious. Historians generally agree that Greek discipline and training were greatly responsible for these results, but admit that they were also at least partly due to Persian mistakes and incompetence.
At both battles the Persians had substantial light troops and cavalry that should have been effective against the massed phalanx formations. The Persian army at Plataea contained 10,000 cavalry, for example. At both battles, however, the auxiliary troops were poorly used and ineffective, allowing the Greek heavy infantry to defeat the weaker Persian infantry and achieve victory. Greek heavy infantry morale was not significantly reduced prior to the moment of shock. When the two infantries clashed, the Greeks were able to overwhelm the Persian infantry and drive it from the field.
The Greeks resisted the conversion of their heavy infantry armies to integrated armies into the late fourth century. Despite much evidence that the phalanx was at a disadvantage when facing skirmishers and surrounded by cavalry, the concept of the phalanx was too important a fixture of their culture. The phalanx had won the Persian war, with the help of the navy, and Greek heavy infantry served with distinction as mercenaries in surrounding lands. It took a clear demonstration of the system's weakness to bring it to an end. That demonstration was carried out by invaders from Macedonia under the leadership of Philip, father of Alexander the Great.