Hellenistic armies

The Hellenistic armies is the term applied to the armies of the successor kingdoms which emerged after the death of the Alexander the Great. After his death, Alexander's huge empire was torn between his succesors, the Diadochi. During the Wars of the Diadochi the Macedonian army, developed by Alexander and his father Philip II gradually changed while adopting new units and tactics and further developing Macedonian warfare. The armies of the Diadochi already differ from that of Alexander's but the change was epitomized in the main Hellenistic kingdoms of the Seleucid Empire, the Ptolemaic Egypt, the Antigonid kingdom and in the fraction states of the Attalid Pergamum, Pontus, Epirus and other Hellenistic principalities.

Numerical strength

The Diadochi were capable of bringing to the field some of the largest armies of their day, and could have easily outmatched the numerical strength of either Phillip II or Alexander's Macedonian full strength contingents. However, size of the armies varied extremely in different conflicts.

Typical units and formations

Hellenistic infantry

The infantry was heavily armed for the period in question. Hellenistic armies were, by and large, quite similar to that of Philip and Alexander's Macedonian armies. The Hellenistic Infantry were just one of many components that worked together to form a combined, multi-faceted army. The backbone of these forces was the heavy phalanx infantry formation, characterized by its dense ranks, and long, forward projecting spears. The soldiers of these phalanxes were professional soldiers (known as phalangites), drilled in tactics, weapon use (their spear and short sword) and formation. This made them incredibly efficient when it came to maneuvering on the battlefield, and could therefore execute complex movements with relative ease. It is crucial to note that the role of the phalanx on the battlefield was to act as an anchor for the entire army, holding the enemy in place, while the cavalry struck the enemy flanks and delivered the fatal blow to cripple their opponents. The phalanx was less useful as a purely offensive weapon (it was slow and could not give chase to the enemy, nor could it offer any tactical advantage from maneuverability because it had none).

Equipment varied over the years, and was also dependent on the geographical region, the preference/wealth of the ruler, and the assets of the individual soldier.

Helmets ranged from simple, open-faced affairs to stylized Thracian models (complete with mask-like cheek protectors that often immitated a human face). Historians argue about how common body armour would have been among phalangites (especially those in the middle ranks), but when it was worn it ranged from a cuirass of hardened linen (see the linothorax), that may or may not have been reinforced/decorated with metal scales to metallic (typically bronze) breastplates.

The phalangite's shield--long misconstrued thanks to its description as a "buckler" by several writers--was a convert|2|ft|m|sing=on-diameter affair and less concave than the hoplite's "aspis". It was likely secured by both a shoulder harness and a fore-arm brace, allowing the off-hand to release the hand-grip and make wielding the enormous sarissa pike possible. Metallic greaves may or may not also have been worn (especially by the front and rear-most ranks) to cover the shins of the soldier as he stood his ground.

The primary weapon of the phalangite was the sarissa, a massive spear that ranged from 16 feet (mid-late 4th century BCE) to as much as 22 feet (near the nadir of the phalanx's development). First made famous by Philip of Macedon, it allowed Macedonian infantry to "outrange" the opposition's existing spear formations by several feet. The sarissa would have been largely useless in single combat, but a compact, forward facing infantry formation employing it would have been difficult to challenge. The first 5 ranks of the phalanx would have their sarissae projecting horizontally to face the enemy, with the remaining ranks angling theirs in a serried fashion--often leaning against their fellows' backs. If front-rankers were killed off, those behind would theoretically lower their spears and step forward to maintain a solid front

In the event of close combat, or in circumstances where the sarissa was impractical, a variety of swords were employed--the classic xiphos and the makhaira, for example. It goes without saying that any sword-fighting in vicinity to the phalanx's front was complicated by the sarissae projecting from the 2nd-5th ranks around the 1st rank combatants.

The primary drawback of these infantry formations is no doubt their vulnerability to attack from the rear and flanks. Phalanxes also had a tendency to fracture when led across broken terrain for extended periods of time in battle formation. The Romans would later be able to use this weakness against the phalanx as their individually more mobile maniples could shift between separated spheirae/syntagmata (the basic, 256-man formation) and disrupt the phalanx's cohesion.

As the reign of the Diadochi persisted (late 4th century, to technically the fall of Ptolemy XII of Egypt at the hands of Julius Caesar- mid 1st Century), they grew to rely more and more upon an increasingly deeper and longer-speared phalanx to ensure victory. Complementary arms of the Hellenistic armies either were neglected, fell into disrepair, or became the province of unreliable mercenaries and subject peoples. Sound and creative tactics became increasingly rare, and were replaced by the belief that unbreakable phalanx walls could carry the day.

Historians and students of the field alike have often compared the Hellenistic-era phalanx with the Roman legion, in an attempt to ascertain which of the formations was truly better. Detractors of the former point that in many engagements between the two (such as at Pydna and Cynosephalae), the legion was the clear victor, and hence represented a superior system. Opposing schools of thought, however, point to the Pyrrhic victories as evidence to the contrary. Finally, one might note that these were not conflicts that solely featured Republic Roman Legionnaires engaged against Hellenistic phalangites. The Roman victories of Magnesia, Cynoscephalae and Pydna were won by armies that included thousands of non-Roman (often Hellene!) cavalrymen, elephants, and both heavy and light infantry. The same can of course be said of Pyrrhus' won victories.

Many numerous formations of the phalanx and infantry existed and were developed in the Hellenistic period. Some of the old Alexandrian unit names were kept and units were named after Alexander's units. An example of this is the Argyraspides ('silver shields'), who were origianlly a unit of Alexander's most fearsome and disciplined veterans. However they were disbanded not long after having surrendered their commander Eumenes to Antigonos the One-Eyed. The name however was kept alive and formed into a corps of the Seleucid army. Livy describes them as a Royal Cohort in the army of Antiochus the Great.

The phalanx of the Hellenistic armies used terms such as Chrysaspides ('gold-shields'), Chalkaspides ('bronze-shields') and Leukaspides ('white-shields') to denote formations within their phalanxes, the two latter being important in the composition of the Antigonid phalanx. Antigonus Doson armed the citizens of Megalopolis as Bronze Shields for the Sellasia campaign in 222 BC. These units are mentioned by classical writers when describing the Antigonid army in battle. Although these units most probably ceased to exist after the battle of Pydna in 168, as the Antigonid kingdom had been crushed by Rome.

Amongst the Antigonid armies, there were the Macedonian 'Peltasts', who are not to e confused with the skirmishers. This troop formed a corps, of which their elite unit was called the Agema. The Peltasts themselves were armed lightly and used on forced marches by Philp V of Macedon in his campaigns. Althoguh they may have had a duel role also as parts of the phalanx, as in several battles they are mentioned as being part of the phalanx. So it may have been the case that the Macedonian Peltasts and their elite Agema were armed differently for certain battle roles, being armed and equipped lightly for forced marches and heavily as part of the phalanx as well.

New troop types such as the Thureophoroi and Thorakites were developed, and they used the Celtic Thureos shield, of an oval shape that was similar to the shields of the Romans. The Thureophoroi were armed with a long thrusting spear, a short sword and if needed, javelins. The Thorakitai were similar to the Thureophoroi but different in the sense that they were more heavily armoured, usually by a chain-mail shirt. These troops were used as a link between the light infantry and the phalanx, a form of medium infantry to bridge the gaps. Numerous armies used this form of troop, for example the Achaean League's armies before Philopoemen. However this form of evolved Iphicratean hoplite was to be replaced by the Macedonian fashion of the sarissa based phalanx. Amongst these new forms of troops, we are told by Polybius that Antiochus Epiphanes at a military parade at Daphne in 166 BC had several thousand men armed and dressed in the Roman fashion. Reforms in the late Seleucid and Ptolemaic armies re-organized them and tried to add some Roman aspects to formations and so forth. Although the generalization that there were imitation legions of the eastern Hellenistic kingdoms is false, as much of the original Greek tactics and organisation was kept.

Hellenistic cavalry

Heavy Hellenistic cavalry

The first version of "heavy cavalry" developed and employed by the Hellenic states were the Hetairoi (Companions; Companion Cavalry), the landed aristocracy of Macedon that Philip II and his son Alexander relied so heavily on for their decisive attacks. Stirrups were unknown during this time, so impact charges were limited in their effectiveness--strikes with a xyston spear were likely angled away from the wielder, as opposed to head-on. Hetairoi were well-armoured; Their cuirass ranged from quilted linen models to metal breast-and-back-plates. A variety of helmets were worn; perhaps greaves were, as well. Their weapons consisted of a convert|9|ft|m|sing=on-long xyston, and a sword in the event that their spear was broken. It appears that shields were not used by the Companion Cavalry. In any event, it didn't seem to hamper their effectiveness which relied on a bold charge into the weak link in the enemy lines which were held in place by the phalanx, followed by savage hand to hand combat.


Cataphracts were heavily armed and armoured cavalrymen. Hellenistic-era kingdoms inherited this type of cavalry from the Parthians, who replaced Hellene power in the East. Both man and horse were entirely encased in armour--in the form of scale or banded segments sewn onto a fabric. Riders' faces were covered in seamless metal helmets. The weight carried by the horse was excessive, and prolonged charges were out of the question. Instead, cataphracts trotted to within a reasonable distance before charging, exerting energy only during the decisive engagement. Once in combat, the cataphract and his steed enjoyed superb protection from attacks thanks to their armour. Stamina, endurance and heat were always concerns in extended combat, however.

The standard weapon of the cataphract was a xyston-like spear. For close-quarter combat, a mace or sword was made available as a secondary weapon. The mace and cataphract ideas were combined into the Sassanid-introduced and Roman named Cibinarii who were armoured man and beast in chainmail and armed with a mace.

Light Hellenistic cavalry

Light horse archers

The writings of historians, from Arrian to Appian, detail numerous tribes, nations, and ethnic groups--the Dahae, Mysians, etc.--from whom Hellenistic rulers recruited such warriors.

pecial units


Given that scythed chariots had been obsolete for some time, it remains unknown as to why they were fielded against cutting-edge, veteran armies such as the Roman legions sent to Magnesia. Impractical and ideal only under narrow circumstances, they were useless against Alexander's trained formations of pikemen at Gaugamela and just as susceptible to Eumenes' skirmishers' missile fire at Magnesia (almost a century and a half later).


The war elephant took a tremendous amount of time and money to train. Depending on the kingdom, two different breeds of elephant could be exploited for war: the African elephant (used by the Ptolemies of Egypt), or the Indian elephant (used by the Seleucid Empire). The Indian elephant was much larger than the African elephant used for war(African Forest Elephant)and a force to be reckoned with on the battlefield.

War elephants were typically fitted with a tower on their back which housed several soldiers armed with spears and projectiles (arrows, javelins, darts, sling-stones) to unload on the enemy. The rider(mahaout) sat across the neck and guided the elephant into battle. Armour too, was sometimes wrapped around the elephant to protect them and increase their natural defence offered by their hides. The charge of an elephant column was nearly impossible to withstand, due to the interia and weight that would be bearing down on their opponents. A charge, if successfully executed, could be the deciding factor in the outcome of a battle.

The difficulty with elephants, and every commander that had the luxury (and anxiety) of dealing with them was their tendency to trample their friendly units, as well as the enemy once they were panicked. Hannibal of Carthage was the victim of his own elephants at the Battle of Zama in 202 B.C. when Scipio Africanus had his legionaries clash their weapons against their shields during an elephant rush and it scared them into a panicked rout. This, coupled with the betrayal of the Numidians to Scipio, allowed him to defeat Hannibal in what would have otherwise been a much closer engagement.

Battle arrays

The "typical" Hellenistic array of battle was as follows: A center line or lines composed of the phalanx, these men would (in the ideal situation) do little offensive fighitng of their own. Their main purpose was to "fix" the enemy force in place or in another sense to "define" the battle fields dimensions. With the enemy force "fixed" by the phalanx the decisive blow would be delivered to one of the enemies flanks with cavalry and or War Elephants. Lighter troops would be used to protect the hoplite's own vulnerable flanks.

iege warfare

Catapults and Ballista

Intra-Hellenistic conflicts

Facing different armies

When employed against armies of a dissimilar nature, Hellenistic forces performed with mixed results. Several obvious factors lend themselves to this erratic performance. The ability and intuition of the leader is perhaps the most crucial factor, though by no means a singular one to Hellenic armies. No one, for example, exceeded Alexander the Great's application of a Hellenic force as an instrument of war. Terrain also, can affect the course of a battle in which a Hellenic army is involved. Typically solid, flat terrain is the ideal for any commander wielding the ponderous phalanx; however, sloped terrain can be beneficial to a defending phalanx (assuming it is at the top of the slope). Anchoring one wing against a piece of impassable terrain such as a river or mountain can ultimately yield positive results as well.

Whatever the case may be, Hellenic armies were professional, experienced, and feared by their enemies. Those that did not give these armies their deserved respect often found themselves bounced off the battlefield by the inexorable phalanx and dispersed by the rampaging cavalry. Before continuing with examples of previous landmark battles in which Hellenic armies were involved, it is prudent to note one thing. Some of their most dismal failures were the direct result of the commanders not being mindful of the terrain, or overestimating the phalanx as an offensive tactical weapon (something it was exceedingly poor at).

When first employed as a combined force (infantry, cavalry, irregulars etc.), the phalanx was largely successful against its foes. Philip of Macedon, the touted reformer of Greek tactics was conscious that success was dependent on utilizing the strengths of the different arms of his foe. If one lacked, the other components typically could not offset this shortcoming, and defeat was a distinct possibility.

Military thought

Major wars

*Wars of the Diadochi
*Syrian Wars
*Macedonian War

Major battles

*Battle of Ipsus
*Battle of Raphia
*Battle of Cynoscephalae
*Battle of Pydna
*Battle of Magnesia

Further reading

*Anglim, Simon et al., (2003), Fighting Techniques of the Ancient World (3000 B.C. to 500 A.D.): Equipment, Combat Skills, and Tactics, Thomas Dunne Books.
*Bar-Kochva, B. (1976), "The Seleucid Army: Organisation and Tactics in the Great Campaigns
*Connolly, Peter , (2006), Greece and Rome at War, Greenhill Books, 2nd edition.
*Hansen, Esther V., The Attalids of Pergamon, Ithaca, New York: Cornell University Press; London: Cornell University Press Ltd (1971)
*Livy, "History of Rome", Rev. Canon Roberts (translator), Ernest Rhys (Ed.); (1905) London: J. M. Dent & Sons, Ltd. [http://mcadams.posc.mu.edu/txt/ah/Livy/ ]
*Polybius, "Histories", Evelyn S. Shuckburgh (translator); London, New York. Macmillan (1889); Reprint Bloomington (1962). [http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/cgi-bin/ptext?lookup=Plb.+1.1 ]
*Tarn, W.W. (1930) 'Hellenistic military developments'
*Walbank, F. W. (1940) "Philip V of Macedon"
*Warry, John Gibson, (1995), Warfare in the Classical World: An Illustrated Encyclopedia of Weapons, Warriors and Warfare in the Ancient Civilisations of Greece and Rome, University of Oklahoma Press.
*Wilkes, John, "The Illyrians", Blackwell Publishers (December 1, 1995). ISBN 0-631-19807-5

External links

* [http://www.fordham.edu/halsall/ancient/polybius-maniple.html Polybius famous analogy between the Hellenistic phalanx and the Roman legion]
* [http://wildfiregames.com/0ad/page.php?p=1568 Interesting review of the Hellenistic armies' arms and armours]
* [http://uoregon.edu/~klio/maps/gr/peltast2.jpgPicture of a Thracian Peltast with one javelin in his throwing hand and four javelins in his Pelte hand as additional ammunition]


ee also

*Ancient Macedonian army
*Companion cavalry
*Aelianus Tacticus

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