Greek Phalanx

During the era in history when Ancient Greece was at the height of power, great armies came in many cultures but one dominant formation: the phalanx.

File:Greek Phalanx.jpgAvailable under the wikipedia Greek Phalanx article.

The word phalanx comes from the ancient Greek word for ‘finger.’ And in Greece, the fighters in a phalanx were hoplites.  These warriors were the citizens of the city.  They provided their own weapons and armor and came together for the defense of the city state.  They were armed with spears, short swords, bronze body armor, a helmet and greaves as well as a round ‘hoplon’ (shield) which gave them their name.

This is a formation in which men march in close quarters.  They leave no gaps between rows, and the front ranks hold spears pointed at the enemy.  Because of the way that a phalanx works, the initial arrangement of the formation decided the direction (and sometimes the outcome of the battle) of the phalanx.  They were not very maneuverable and had little way of being directed to move any way but forward.

The strength of a phalanx depended on the discipline, strength, and endurance of the men of which it was composed.  The purpose was a contest of these things as two phalanxes would close together in a kind of brutal pushing war.

During the rise of the Macedonian Empire, Philip II and Alexander the Great modified the phalanx by employing an army of professional soldiers and equipping them with more standardized weapons and armor and significantly longer spears.  These men were much better trained, and their phalanxes were capable of more complex maneuvers.

Heavy Cavalry: An Introduction

During the late years of the Roman Empire, the two halves of the Empire were split and essentially ruled by different leaders.  While the western part dealt with Visigoths and other incursions into the northern border, the eastern half dealt with constant fighting with the Persians.  Between the 500s A.D. and the 700s, much of the fighting between the Persians and the Byzantines was done from horseback.  And the armor of the cavalry on both sides became more and more similar over time, coming to look something like this artistic piece:

Image courtesy of

The armaments of a Byzantine Cataphract, (a name given to the heavy cavalry, literally meaning “armored” from the Greek, Kataphraktos) would include some or all of the following: two bows, a lance, a spear, a sword, a mace, an axe, a sling, full plate armor, full barding armor and in some cases a banner.  Because of the wide variety of their armaments, these warriors likely spent much of each year training in the use of each of their weapons.   They were the elite fighting force of their time.

The horsemanship of each man was as important as his familiarity with his weapons.  The Cataphracts rode in units and were capable of intricate movements to gain advantages on the field, and this was only possible because of expert horsemanship.

The advantage gained by this kind of a fighting force is that the riders could ride in deep (8-10 deep) ranks and punch through an entire rank of enemy infantry without losing all momentum.  They were as much a weapon of fear as an effective fighting force.  This tactic was emulated through history up to and even slightly beyond the development of gunpowder weapons.

Part of what allowed the extensive use of heavy cavalry was a decision made by Heraclius, Emperor of the Eastern Roman Empire from 610-641 A.D., who ordered that soldiers of Byzantium would be assigned a parcel of land in reward for their service.  Because land is very necessary for maintaining horses, this allowed many more of his men to keep and train horses for battle.

Damascus Steel

The creation of Damascus steel blades in the middle east was a phenomenon that begun to take place somewhere between the 300s BC and and the crusades when these blades began to become the legend that they are today.  They are known to be durable, shatter resistant blades which can hold a fine edge under very adverse conditions.

However, in the mid 1700s, the art was lost to metalsmiths, likely because of the fact that the secret of creating such blades was carefully guarded by the craftsmen who made them.  There is much speculation about the chemical processes used in the creation of such blades, but while modern science can create very near matches, there is still some question about how such precise metallurgy could happen so early in history.

It seems likely that a lifetime of study likely went into the creation of the first Damascus steel blades.

Some interesting facts about this form of steel:

1: Damascus steel contains about 1.5% carbon.

2: The famous ‘damask’ pattern found on these high quality blades appeared because there are layers of cementite particles contrasting against the surrounding steel.

Here is an example of that pattern:

Image is freely available through the wiki article on Damascus steel.

Damascus steel represents a sort of peek to the metal mastery race that took place in Europe, northern Africa and western Asia from the first bronze swords on into the best steel available.  The advantage of better armor and weapons became more clear as history formed, and until the age of gunpowder, Damascus steel and some similar arts found in Japan represent the height of that era.  To this day, it would be hard to find a better kind of sword than a handmade Damascus blade or Japanese Katana.

Bronze to Change the World

The ancient Greeks fought two famous battles against the army of the Persian Empire in the early era of bronze between the early and late 400s BC. These were the battles of Thermopylae and Marathon.  And these battles, along with the Greek invention of bronze weapons and armor, allowed the Greek civilizations to weather the storm that was the invasion of the Persian Empire.

An example of a Greek bronze short sword.

Greek bronze helm, C. 600 BC.

The advantage bronze provided to the Greeks allowed a small number of Spartan hoplites to stand and inflict outrageous casualties on a much larger Persian host at a pass known as Thermopylae with cliffs to their left and a fall into the ocean to their right.  Although they were later surrounded and killed down to the last man, this battle lasted much longer than it would be expected for 300 men to stand against hundreds of thousands.

    Metal armor made the difference by making many of the Persian weapons nearly useless against the hoplites.  When the Persians advanced to the Greek line, the contest between each Greek with the Persian advancing toward him was greatly weighted in favor of the Greek.  This is because of a few different factors like extensive training and discipline, but perhaps the greatest advantage was the disparity in their equipment.  Persians were armed with much cruder weapons and wore cloth and leather armors.  These were not adequate to the task of stopping sharp bronze swords, whereas the whips some of the Persians are said to have carried would be totally useless against bronze armor.

    Because the Greeks had these advantages during the Greco-Persian wars, their civilizations survived to influence the western civilizations around the Mediterranean.  In some ways the development of bronze working technology was the basis for the ancient Greek say in how things are today.