The Evolution of Hellenistic Infantry, part 1:

The Reforms of Iphikrates

(Part 2 is here)

A print version of this article was published in Slingshot, 222 (May 2002), pages 30-36

This page last modified: January 17, 2002, save for the above citation


Iphikrates, the famous 4th century BC Athenian general, is credited in two ancient sources, Diodoros and Nepos, with military reforms that have long been the subject of scholarly debate. After he returned from service in the armies of the Persian king, in 374 BC, he is credited with reforming the equipment of his hoplites, doing away with the large hoplite shield, the aspis, and replacing it with the smaller pelta, lengthening the sword and the spear, the latter by 50% according to Diodoros, 100% according to Nepos.

Sources for the reforms

Cornelius Nepos' Life of Iphikrates, 1, states the following:

"For example, he changed the arms of the infantry. While before he became commander they used very large shields (maximus clipeis), short spears (brevibus hastis) and little swords (minutis gladius), he on the contrary exchanged peltae for the round ones (peltam pro parma fecit), for which reason the infantry have since been called peltasts, in order that the soldiers might move and charge more easily when less burdened. He doubled the length of the spear and increased that of the swords; he changed the character of their armour (loricarum), giving them linen in place of bronze or chain armour (pro sertis atquae linteas dedit). In that way he made the soldiers more active; for while he diminished the weight of their armour, he contrived to protect their bodies equally well without overloading them".

Diodoros 15.44 records the following:

"Hence we are told, after he had acquired his long experience of military operations in the Persian War, he devised many improvements in the tools of war, devoting himself especially to the matter of arms.1 For instance, the Greeks were using shields which were large (megalais aspisi) and consequently difficult to handle; these he discarded and made small oval ones (peltas summetrous) of moderate size, thus successfully achieving both objects, to furnish the body with adequate cover and to enable the user of the small shield, on account of its lightness, to be completely free in his movements. After a trial of the new shield its easy manipulation secured its adoption, and the infantry who had formerly been called "hoplites" (hoplitai) because of their heavy shield (aspidon), then had their name changed to "peltasts" (peltastai) from the light pelta they carried. As regards spear (doratos) and sword (xiphous), he made changes in the contrary direction: namely, he increased the length of the spears by half, and made the swords almost twice as long. The actual use of these arms confirmed the initial test and from the success of the experiment won great fame for the inventive genius of the general. He made soldiers' boots that were easy to untie and light and they continue to this day to be called "Iphicratids" after him.2 He also introduced many other useful improvements into warfare, but it would be tedious to write about them".3

Modern Interpretations

Because Iphikrates' reformed troops carried the pelta, there has been an unfortunate tendency to call them 'peltasts', as indeed Diodoros himself does. While this may literally be correct, it carries with it, certainly in modern times at least, connotations of troops being able to skirmish with the enemy at a distance, as Iphikrates' own peltasts had done so successfully in 390 BC against the Spartans near Corinth.4 This is one reason for the debate being somewhat confused, since people tend to assume every time they read about a 'peltast' it refers to a lightly-armed skirmisher. It is true that previously peltasts, such as those that served in the Peloponnesian war, are always described as skirmishers, fighting at a distance with their javelins, but this applies only to Greek peltasts: Thracian peltasts are recorded as being able to fight to a limited degree in a close combat.5

In fact Nepos and Diodoros make it clear that the troops given the new equipment were hoplites, not peltasts, and it would probably be better to refer to these troops not as modern commentators tend to do, as 'Iphikratean peltats' but rather as 'Iphikratean hoplites'. With a long spear rather than javelins they would lack the equipment to fight in the traditional peltast manner, but would be able to fight as a hoplite, a spearman in a phalanx, albeit one with lighter equipment; the longer spear would be partial compensation for the weakening of their defensive equipment.

One reason people have continually referred to Iphikrates' troops as 'peltasts' like Diodoros does is that there is plenty of evidence that hoplites continued to be equipped in the traditional manner, both during Iphikrates' lifetime and long after, right until the demise of the Greek polities as independent states. Accordingly, it is normally assumed that Diodoros and Nepos are both mistaken in stating it was hoplites that were reequipped, despite their accounts seeming to derive from two different original sources (the difference in details such as the length of the weapons would indicate that their accounts do not derive from a common intermediate source, but are independent).

The Marine Corps

However, if we take Nepos and Diodoros at face value, and we should be loathe to discard such primary source material without clear contrary information, then who were these 'hoplites' that Iphikrates reformed? I believe the answer lies in Xenophon. Upon his return from Persia, he records that Iphikrates was appointed general by the Athenians to replace the lackadaisical Timotheos (Hellenica, 6.2.13-14). Xenophon records that as "soon as he was made general, Iphikrates went to work vigorously on manning the ships and saw to it that the captains did this work too".6 In other words, Iphikrates was reforming the naval arm. Athens, like other Greek states, made use of hoplites as marines, and indeed, such marines were the only hoplites Athens had at the time that saw regular service, since the bulk of the city's hoplites were a militia force called up only when needed, whereas the Athenian navy was constantly patrolling the seas that linked Athens' scattered territorial possesions.7

I would contend that the hoplites Nepos and Diodoros refer to are the Athenian marines. On ship-board is the one place where for hoplites a solid phalanx formation comprised of overlapping shields is inappropriate; a lighter shield would serve better. Furthermore, decked warships were equipped with a balustrade which protected the lower legs of anyone standing on deck, rendering greaves largely superfluous.8 The advantages of having a long spear for marine service are obvious,9 and Homer had his Achaian heroes use extremely long boarding pikes when defending their vessels, so providing a precedent that every Greek knew about. This would account for why we see no evidence that hoplites in general were reequipped in the Iphikratean manner, yet how it could be recorded that hoplites were the subjects of this reformation: if only the marines were reformed, the vast majority of hoplites would have been totally unaffected.

Such a reform might not be considered very important in the greater scheme of things, the marines were never very numerous, so why then is its implementation detailed in two separate sources? I believe that Iphikrates, having experimented with his new marines, concluded that the equipment was useful on land as well. Iphikrates successfully campaigned with his fleet both in Korkyra, picking up a contingent of peltasts there, and also on the mainland nearby in Akarnania, a campaign that lasted some three years.10 Having decided the equipment was serviceable he then extended it to his mercenary peltasts. To convert a normal Greek peltast into an 'Iphikratean hoplite' would merely require the replacement of the peltast's javelins with a long spear, since they already had a pelta, and lacked greaves or other (heavy) body armour. This would explain Diodoros' passage that "actual use of these arms confirmed the initial test". A limited test (by his marines) followed by more widespread usage (by his peltasts).

Foreign Influences

The source of inspiration for such equipment is not too difficult to devine. Aside from the consideration of Homer, a minority of Thracian peltasts are known to have used spears rather than javelins, including some specifically long spears,11 and Iphikrates, who is known to have campaigned extensively in Thrace prior to his reforms, is extremely unlikely to have been ignorant of the practice.12 Iphikrates is likely to have had Thracian practices in mind when embarking on his reforms. However, the catalyst that sparked his reforms seems to have been Egyptian rather then Thracian. The Egyptians with whom Iphikrates had been fighting against used spears of unusual length.13. In particular, their marines apparently made use of such weapons. Herodotos (7.89.3) records the Egyptian marines of his day in the following manner: "They wore woven helmets and carried convex shields with broad rims, and spears for sea-fighting (dorata te naumacha), and great poleaxes. Most of them wore corselets and carried long swords (machairas de megalas)".

The parallels with Iphikrates' new-style troops are plain to see, such as carrying longer weapons than normal, as befits service at sea, but the differences are just as intruiging - such as the substantial shields. It seems that Iphikrates was more convinced that light equipment, such as the Thracians used was the way forward. Not too light however: although his men carried a light pelta, but it was not the traditional wicker crescent-shaped shield illustrated in so many Greek vases, rather it was apparently oval in shape ('symmetrous' meaning symmetrical seemingly in contrast to both crescent-shaped and round shields). Perhaps Iphikrates felt that the Thracian pelta was insufficient for the rigours hand to hand combat, but that Egyptian shields no less of a burden than Argive ones on board a ship. The pole-axe was also not adopted. If Iphikrates was already looking forward to expanding his marines' new equipment to other men so as to form a new type of phalanx on land (such as other Greeks and Egyptians fought in), such a weapon would have been inappropriate.

If Iphikrates did rearm his mercenary peltasts after rearming his marines, what would his motivation be? Traditional peltasts had served the state well until then; and indeed, had served under none better than him. It is often observed that necessity is the mother of invention. What necessity would prompt the rearming of peltasts, themselves a relatively new addition to the military arsenal of most Greek states, as hoplites? I believe the answer lies in the gradual diminishment of the effectiveness, and perhaps more importantly, the numbers of Greek hoplites to be the root cause. With the increasing polarisation of wealth in Greek society over the course of the 5th and 4th centuries, the numbers of men qualifying for hoplite status, and therefore the number of available hoplites, decreased, even if the overall population may have increased in some places. It is perhaps symptomatic that the equipment of even traditional citizen hoplites seems to have lightened over this period. This may not have anything to do with tactical function, but may have simply been a by-product of the gradual impoverishment of the hoplite class. Throughout this period, the full hoplite panopoly included bronze body armour, the 'thorax', but relatively few now wore such an expensive item.14

Poverty was responsible for the rising number of mercenaries looking for a living both in Greece and abroad. Originally, as in Xenophon's 10000, most were hoplites, and even fewer of these men could have afforded the expensive thorax than their citizen militia equivalents. However, peltasts, with their somewhat cheaper equipment, increasingly became the standard mercenary troop. The employment of such men inevitably led to the citizen armies being used less frequently, particularly by Athens, which had the financial resources to hire relatively large numbers of mercenaries. With lack of use, the efficiency of the citizen forces inevitably declined. Demosthenes in a well-known speech says how Philip II of Macedon's professional army was able to campaign throughout the year,15 and it was the Athenian troops' rash inexperience that led directly to their defeat at Chaironeia in 338 BC. A far cry from the heyday of the Athenian empire, when in the 450s BC, Athens was simultaneously able to maintain two campaigns in Greece, while another large army was serving abroad in Cyprus and Egypt, comprised of citizen troops that could fight overseas for years on end.

If Iphikrates did convert his peltasts to 'hoplites', the practice may have rapidly spread amongst Greek mercenaries if it proved successful under such a famous commander, and indeed, Diodoros states "the success of the experiment won great fame for the inventive genius of the general". It is interesting that while Iphikrates' campaign in Korkyra and Akarnania is praised by Xenophon, his next campaign in 369 BC, when he commanded the full Athenian citizen army, is denigrated. The troops argued with their general, and the expedition proved a fiasco.16 Iphikrates may have been less than impressed with the Athenian citizen troops he led on this occasion. He famously compared an army to a body, with the general as its head, directing the movements of its limbs. Citizen soldiers that complained and disagreed with his decisions had no place in his corporate scheme of things. Yet he had seen that even as he led them to victory, battles could not be won by peltasts alone. His age saw its fair share of pitched battles, battles where the clash of the hoplites was the central issue. Battles could be tipped by the intelligent use of cavalry and light troops, but positive victory required the invlovement of the heavy infantry, of hoplites. A general who did not want to burden himself with citizen levies, yet wanted to be able to fight field battles required another source of hoplites, and Iphikrates solved this problem by rearming his peltasts once his experiment with his marines had proved a success.

If the vast majority of Iphikratean 'peltasts' as recorded by Diodoros were actually originally peltasts, this might provide an alternative explanation of why Diodoros calls them peltasts despite using equipment that would normally be described as a hoplite's. Perhaps Diodoros had one source (the one that Nepos also used?) that said hoplites were (initially) converted, and another that (later) they were peltasts. It would be only natural for him to assume that his hoplites would then be called peltasts because they each had a pelta.17 However, it may be that originally they really were called hoplites, and that their name was changed sometime afterwards. Certainly Xenophon refers to Iphikrates' men after he manned his expedition to Korkyr as both hoplites and peltasts. Diodoros records (16.24.2) that the Phokian general Philomelos, in 355 BC, at the start of the so-called Sacred war, "hired foreign mercenaries and picked a thousand of the Phocians, whom he called peltasts (eplixe chilious, hous onomase peltastas)". This is an interesting choice of words. If they were genuine peltatss, why not just say "a thousand Phokian peltasts"; if they were normal hoplites, why not "a thousand Phokian hoplites"? Why were they "called" (the word might also be translated as described, named, or addressed as) peltasts? It seems that here we may have the man responsible for renaming the Iphikratean hoplite a peltast.

The demise of the "peltast"?

However, the striking thing about the Greek histories recording the second half of the 4th century, an age well documented due to the activities of Alexander and his successors, is the almost complete absence of references to peltasts. Demosthenes for instance refers to Philip having hoplites and mercenaries etc., but not hoplites and peltasts. In all of Arrian and Diodoros' long accounts of Alexander's campaigns, although mercenaries are often mentioned, there is not a single reference to peltasts forming part of his army. One of the last references to peltasts in the 4th century BC comes from Xenophon (Hellenica 6.1.9) referring to akontistai (javelinmen) and peltasts as synonymous. Although the time referred to is 374 BC, the passage was probably written in the 350s (Polyainos also refers to peltasts in the 350s in a passage dealing with the Theban Pammanes). What then had become of the troop type that was so ubiquitous in the earlier part of the century?

I conclude that although Iphikrates' reforms were both widely and rapidly imitated, these new-style troops were not in fact called peltasts at the time. Even in Diodoros' account (who after all describes Iphikrates' troops as peltasts), we hear plenty about Greek mercenary infantry in Alexander's army, but not as mercenary peltasts. It is true that a few may have been traditional hoplites, but if the majority were we would expect to see Alexander making more use of his Greek mercenary troops in front line roles. Instead they usually formed the second reserve line in battle.18

Greek Mercenaries in Alexander's army

It has been customary to simply equate mercenaries in Alexander's day with (traditional style) peltasts . However this then just begs the question of why are Alexander's mercenaries never recorded as fighting as skirmishers? Alexander used archers and (non-Greek) javelinmen for this purpose, especially the Agrianians provided by his close friend King Langarus. In the open plains of Asia, javelin-armed skirmishers were ill suited to countering the Persian's most reliable military asset: their cavalry. In contrast, an Iphikratid-style 'peltast' with a long spear would be as effective as any other hoplite in warding off cavalry: the long experience of constant Greek and Persian confrontation had demonstrated the steadfastness of Greek hoplites in the face of mounted troops. As Alexander had ready access to non-Greek skirmishers, he had no need of traditional Greek peltasts. If the term mercenary had by Alexander's day become synonymous with peltast as understood by Xenophon and Thukydides, we would expect to hear of Alexander using his mercenaries in a skirmishing role, even if only on a single occasion. But we don't. The conclusion is to me inescapable: Alexander's Greek mercenaries were not such traditional peltasts. Instead he employed, in great numbers, the equally cheap Iphikratid-style hoplite which meant he had all the more men capable of standing up to his mounted Persian opponents.

One reason to discount large numbers of Alexander's Greek mercenaries being hoplites is Alexander's reluctance to use them in front line roles in battle. It is true that Alexander's historians focus on his activities to the exclusion of generals like Parmanio who often undertook side campaigns on their own, and that mercenaries often constituted a good proportion of the troops involved in such side expeditions. However, it is obvious from looking at the nature of Alexander's own such side expeditions that the nature of the fighting involved was often markedly different from that expected in a pitched battle; and even then there was usually a nucleus of Macedonian troops around which such expeditions under Parmenio, Krateros, etc. were formed, who were no doubt expected to bear the brunt of the fighting.

Hoplites, when well-trained and experienced, were formidable soldiers, and proved many times to be the match for even Macedonian heavy infantry. Two examples will suffice, others can be found: The Thebans in 335 BC, despite being considerably outnumbered, had the better of the Macedonians until Alexander commited his fresh reserve of footguards,19 while part of Daraios' Greek hoplite phalanx at Issos managed kill no less than 120 Macedonian officers before marching off the battlefield in good order as the rest of the Persian army was routed.20

I have no doubt that if Alexander had sufficient numbers of such troops in his army he would have used them in an aggressive manner. Instead he used his mercenaries in the rear line.21 As Iphikratean hoplites, their long spears meant they could easily hold off Persian cavalry; had they been in the front line they would be very vulnerable to the other troop type the Persians disposed large numbers of: archers and other missile-men. Traditional hoplites had large shields covering their bodies, and greaves to protect their legs. Alexander's phalangites had smaller shields, but unlike Philip's orginal phalangites had acquired body armour, the thorax, in compensation,22 and additionally derived some protection from the forest of pikes sloping over their heads.23 Iphikratean hoplites would have none of these defensive benefits, and so could be expected to take heavy casualties from archery if they were to be positioned in the front line; being in the second line, their most likely opponents would be cavalry outflanking the main formation, as happened at Gaugamela. Alexander's tactical dispositions are entirely sensible if these considerations are taken into account; it is hard to reconcile them if most of his Greek mercenaries were either traditional hoplites or traditional peltasts.

Iphikrates and the Macedonian Phalanx

It is often remarked how similar the equipment of an Iphikratean hoplite is to that of a Macedonian phalangite.24 Philip is credited with inventing the equipment as well as the order of the Macedonian phalanx in or soon after 359 BC, which should probably be taken as a reference to the invention of sarissa (pike), since the other items of equipment said to be carried by Phlilips' men by Polyainos, helmets, greaves and shield, were clearly already in existence, even in Macedonia.25 The spear of a hoplite is usually reckoned as being somewhat under 6 cubits long, about 8 feet. By Diodoros' account, the Iphikratean spear would thus be 8 cubits long, or 12 feet, and hence still shorter than a Macedonian sarissa which had a minimum length of 10 cubits, 15 feet, and was normally 12 cubits or 18 feet long, although later Hellenistic phalanxes apparently used pikes 14 cubits long.26 By Nepos' somewhat less reliable account, the spear would be about 16 feet long which would put it in the sarissa range, although it is hard to see how such a weapon would be wielded one handed, and if it was wielded two handed, Iphikrates would be the inventor of the phalangite, not Philip. It is more likely Nepos' source considered that a normal hoplite's spear was less than 8' long and indeed many artistic depictions show hoplite spears 7 foot long or even slightly less, which would put the Iphikratid spear at under 14 feet long.

It is widely appreciated that Philip is likely to have picked up many of his tactical ideas from living for a time in the house of Pammanes, close friend of that great tactical innovator, the Theban general Epameinondas. It is not generally appreciated however that Philip was even more closely related to Iphikrates, who was Philip's own brother by the adoption carried out by Philip's father Amyntas.27 Philip could not but help but have been aware of Iphikrates' reforms.

The Macedonian army before Philip's time relied on its aristocratic cavalry. It included a few hoplites, but the majority of the men were essentially an ill-armed and untrained rabble.28 Thukydides implies that the infantry situation improved somewhat just before the start of the 4th century, but it is evident from the number of times the Thracians and especially the Illyrians overran the country over the next 50 years that they were still not up to the task of defending the borders, let alone catapulting Macedonia onto the world stage.

Philip took Iphikrates' reforms as his model and adapted them to his own needs. He needed to equip himself with an infantry force that could fight competently in hand-to-hand, in a phalanx, and to do so as cheaply as possible since he would have to pay for it personally, rather than his infantrymen, who being essentially peasants, not middle-class city dwellers, could not possibly afford to do so themselves. Iphikrates had pointed the way. The Macedonians were already using a bronze shield before his time, but it was not the aspis of the Greek hoplite, as it was smaller, between 60 and 75 cm in diameter, and lacked the characteristic rim of the Greek aspis - in other words, something of a hybrid between the traditional pelta and the Argive aspis. It was probably introduced by Archelaos, who sometime between 413/2 BC and 400/399 BC according to Thukidydes (2.100) "reorganised the cavalry, the arming of the infantry, and equipment in general", and the first depictions of it indeed come from circa 400 BC.29 It may have been adapted from the neighbouring Illyrians. The southern Illyrians bordering Macedonia used round shields that are extremely similar to those used by the Macedonians. The Illyrian plate from Gradiste, dating from the 5th or 4th century, shows such shields being used by warriors both on foot and horseback (Fig. 1).

Illyrian shields

Fig. 1. Illyrian warriors, ca. 400 BC.

We have no way of knowing that the shields depicted on this plate were bronze-faced like the Macedonian shield was, but an earlier Illyrian shield, depicted on a 6th-century BC plate from the Liburni complex at Nin shows a different style of round shield, one with concentric rings for decoration.30. This might imply a different sort of construction for these earlier shields than those depicted in the later Gradiste plate, and they may be related to the shields born by the Thracians shown in the similarly early Persian reliefs at Persepolis which look quite different from the 'typical' Thracian pelta.

A fine example of a bronze shield that is apparently of Illyrian origin is preserved in the Tirana museum (Fig. 2). It is of very modest size, being apparently less than 50cm in diameter. Unfortunately, I can neither confirm its origin (its small size might weigh against it being Epeirot, the other likely possibility), nor its date. While the Gradiste shields might well be called aspides, this shield is more clearly a pelta; inevitably there is some overlap of the two terms.

Illyrian armour

Fig. 2. A small Illyrian-style pelta

While such shields might have been equipped with an Argive-style shield grip, their smaller size meant that the position of the forearm brace would have been different from that in a Greek aspis. Equipping such a shield with a Greek-style grip in the same relative positions as a Greek aspis rather than a pelta, so that the forearm brace retained its position near the centre of the shield, would mean that the hand would be positioned much closer to the edge of the shield. This would normally be a disadavantage in terms of balancing the shield and protecting the hand, but it would allow the hand to grip a spear despite the curvature of the shield.31 This I believe was Philip's first military innovation: providing the Balkan bronze pelta with a shield grip in the Greek manner positioned so that the hand was right at the rim of the shield.32 The length of the Greek spear, as carried by Iphikrates' men, had been limited by the requirement for it to be wielded in one hand, but with a two handed grip it could now be lengthened even further and become a true pike. Providing his army with even these arms would have overtaxed the finances of the country at the time, and no doubt only officers got the full kit of greaves, pike, bronze shield and helmet. Even they would not have had armour for the torso, and rear rankers probably had to be content with bare legs or boots (krepides), a cheap mass-produced wicker pelta and a helmet fashioned from leather.33

Unlike a spear, which retains some utility in single combat, a pike is essentially useless outside a compact phalanx. The formation, in both senses of the word, of the Macedonian phalanx, gave Philip an infantry force that was capable of standing up to Greek hoplites in open battle. If it was to retain any strategic utility however, its men needed to be able to fight outside the confines of the phalanx. As with most peoples living in an area surrounded by hills, the traditional Macedonian weapon was the javelin. Philip ensured that his men were trained in the use of both weapons, and carried whichever was the most appropriate for the occasion, so that his infantry could fulfill the role of both hoplite and peltast as need be.34 When marching through broken country, javelins were carried: Polyainos relates how when Onomarchos' Phokian's ambushed Philip's men, they were able to fight back at a distance.35 Similarly, a pike was of little use when assaulting a city, when troops had to climb ladders up walls and inside seige towers, so the javelin was carried in this situation as well.36

Philip's brutally efficient training programme, backed by his autocratic royal power, ensured his men lived up to his expectations. Training men to use two sorts of weapons with equal facility is no easy task, and very few other classes of warriors over the millenia have ever attained such dexterity; the few that readily spring to mind are mostly aristocratic steppe horsemen accustomed to both lance and bow. Training his men to use two weapons that required a completely different formation to fight with, a rigid pike phalanx against the loose order required to hurl javelins, made the achievment all the more outstanding, especially given the inclusive nature of his reforms - it was the entire national levy that was so trained, and not just a picked elite. The result was that not only could Philip eventually come to count on troops as good as any opposition could field, but he would have numbers of his side as well.

Alexander's legacy

This then was the force that Alexander inherited from his father for the conquest of Persia. The evolution of the Macedonian infantry proceeded under Alexander. As already noted, the phalanx had acquired body armour by the seige of Tyre at the very latest, possibly non-metallic, as it was burnt when it was replaced with elaborately decorated cuirasses while in India.37 Expansion of the army entailed reorganisational changes,38 and at his death, Alexander was experimenting with a radically new type of phalanx, incorporating javelinmen and archers in its rear ranks, but it was never used in action. Upon his death, his generals carved his empire up amongst themselves. Quality troops were at a premium, and no-one could afford to dilute the effectiveness of their most valuable units with such Persian missile troops. The struggles of the Diadochoi, the Successors, however set off a new round in the evolution of Hellenistic infantry which I will describe in part 2 of this article.


1. That his reforms are clearly stated by Diodoros to have occurred after his return from Persia would seem to invalidate one hypothesis for the interpretation of the reforms: providing Persian armies in need of hoplites with hoplite substitutes. Although Diodoros is clear the reforms happened after Iphikrates' return from Persian, this has not stopped Griffith (G.T.Griffith, "Peltasts, and the Origins of the Macedonian Phalanx", Ancient Macedonian Studies in Honor of Charles F. Edson, Thessalonoki: Institute for Balkan Studies, 1981, 161-167) arguing that this is unlikely, because he believes Diodoros just added it "as a sort of pendant to the unsuccessful Persian attempt to invade and reconquer Egypt in 374 BC". I find his arguments unconvincing, since he then has to postulate Diodoros has confused several of of Iphikrates' (undescribed) various reforms, and that although there was one connected with the Persian expedition, it had nothing to do with shields. Occam's razor would rule against this sort of convolution. Griffith is on the right track I belive in saying that Iphikrates did however copy something he saw in Persian service ("Egyptians with long spears"). Return

2. Although it is not explicitly stated, Iphikrates' new-style troops most probably did not wear graves, both on account of their 'light' equipment, and the fact that they probably wore the Iphikratid boot (although the introduction of these boots might have been made on a separate occasion). Return

3. In Nepos' account, Iphikrates also has them anachronistically discard their chain mail. Nepos wrote in the Roman period when mail was the normal equipment for heavy infantry and probably assumed that it was worn in Iphikrates' time; in fact mail would not be introduced into Greece until long after Iphikrates was dead, it did not become common until the Roman era. It does reinforce the statement that heavy infantry were the subject of the reform however, and not light troops. Return

4. Xenophon, Hellenica 6.5.11-18. Although this victory is (and indeed, at the time was) rightly seen as a great triumph for Iphikrates and his peltasts, it should not be forgotten that the Spartans only broke when the Athenian hoplites had started to charge them. It still took heavy infantry to finish off a force weakened by missile shooting. Return

5. Eg. the Bithynian Thracian peltasts Xenophon encountered in Asia could fall upon men crossing a river in addition to their usual skirmishing mode of fighting (Anabasis, 6.3), and Thucydides records Thracians fending off Theban cavalry by charging them (7.30). In the early 2nd century BC, elite Macedonian pikemen could be called peltasts (or to Latin authors such as Livy, caetrati) on account of their (relatively) small shields. Needless to say, such troops had no skirmishing capability whatsoever when massed in a pike phalanx. Return

6. Xenophon, Hellenica 6.2.14. That Iphikrates was appointed head of the Athenian marine upon his return from Eqypt is conformed by Diodoros, 15.43.6: "Pharnabazus dispatched ambassadors to Athens and accused Iphicrates of being responsible for the failure to capture Egypt. The Athenians, however, replied to the Persians that if they detected him in wrong-doing they would punish him as he deserved, and shortly afterward appointed Iphicrates general in command of their fleet". Return

7. The Athenenians had, by 350 BC at the latest, one other group of hoplites regularly under arms, the Epilektoi. It is unsure when they were first founded however, and they were probably had not yet been formed in 374 BC. See L.A.Tritle, "Epilektoi at Athens", The Ancient History Bulletin 3.3-4 (1989) 54-59, available on-line at Return

8. See for instance the Roman warship depicted in a relief from Praeneste, illustrated in B.Landstrom's "Sailing Ships", p44. The top of the bulwark comes above the knees of the two marines standing on the outrigger, which formed a gangway know in Greek as the parados. Return

9. Maritime soldiers from cultures as diverse as the Abbassid Caliphate and Scandanavian Vikings used longer spears on ship-board than used by their normal infantry forces. Return

10. Xenophon, Hellenica 6.2. Diodoros 15.46-47 has a rather different slant on events. Diodoros says of Iphikrates that he "also introduced many other useful improvements into warfare, but it would be tedious to write about them". Alas for us! Return

11. D.Head, "The Thracian Sarissa", Slingshot 214 (2001), 10-13. Return

12. Xenophon for instance (Hellenica 4.8.34-39) records Iphikrates campaigning with some 1200 peltasts in Thrace in 389 BC; he was still in the Chersonese in 387 BC (5.1.25). Return

13. Although Xenophon, an eye-witness (Anabasis 1.8.9), records that at Cunaxa the Egyptians carried enormous shields, he says nothing there about long spears or swords. However, he twice mentions in the Kyropaedia (6.2.10, 7.1.33) long Egyptian spears "such as they carry even to this day". It is significant that Iphikrates' men are said to wear light linen armour - exactly the type of armour that Egyptian troops were noted for - the corselets Thucydides mentions are elsewhere described as of linen. The combination of details makes the Egyptian connection clear.Return

14. Eg. Diodoros records (14.43.2-3) how Dionysios the Syracusan tyrant distributed thorakes (the plural of thorax) to his bodyguards and officers, but the rest of the hoplites had to do without. Heavy armour was obviously seen as useful for hoplites, but even an extremely wealthy ruler such as Dionysios could only afford to provide it for the best of his men. In most stares, such as 4th century Athens, the men themselves had to provide their own equipment. Return

15. Demosthenes 9.50: "he makes no difference between summer and winter and has no season set apart for inaction". In 9.49 Demosthemes says "...Philip marches unchecked, not because he leads a phalanx of hoplites, but because he is accompanied by psiloi, cavalry, archers, mercenaries (xenous), and similar troops.". Griffith comments "No one will interpret Demosthenes as meaning that Philip had no phalanx of hoplites at all (but a phalanx of something else, eg. peltasts). He means that the phalanx of hoplites (as he called them) was not the most important feature of his army, which was strong in other arms". Duncan Head has suggested that perhaps it is time to reinvestigate this assumption - perhaps Demosthenes did think that Philip's phalangites were somehow not 'really' hoplites after all. Return

16. Xenophon, Hellenica 6.5.49, Diodoros 15.63.2. Return

17. The most characteristic item in the hoplite's inventory was a shield. The shield did not however have to be the typical round 'Argive' aspis (sometimes referred to as a hoplon and usually over 90cm in diameter): Xenophon's Egyptian 'hoplites' (Anabasis 1.8.9) had wooden shields reaching to the ground and Alexander's phalangites are routinely described as hoplites (e.g. Arrian 1.6.2) despite carrying a considerably smaller shield. The other important item in determining whether a troop might be deemed a hoplite was the possession of a spear, as opposed to javelins or other long-range weapons. Without these two items, a man could not be described as a hoplite. Possession of them alone was not enough however: fighting in close order was also required. Thus Illyrians, who could fight in such a style, as against Philip in 359/8 BC, might be called hoplites, as by Arrian, but Thracians are not called hoplites, since even when they were spear equipped they did not seem to fight in close order (see Duncan Head's article referenced in note 11 above). Note that while in Diodoros' description a peltast is called a peltast because of his pelta, a hoplite is called a hoplite because of his 'aspis'! Return

18. They were at least used slightly more confidently than the Greek allied infantry. These troops, citizens and hence almost all hoplites, were essentially hostages to their states' good behaviour back home, and extremely reluctant soldiers. Alexander got rid of them as soon as it was politically safe to do so: the Argives immediately after Granikos, and none remained after the reorganisation of the army Gaugamela. Return

19. Diodoros 17.11-12, Arrian 1.8. See Peter Hall's scenario in Slingshot 218, 11-12 for one interpretation of events. Return

20. Arrian 2.10. The casualties are described as 'men of note' as opposed to mere rank-and-filers, whose losses were likely far greater. Arrian claims that the Greeks were 'mown down by the (Macedonian) phalanx' but Curtius 3.11.18 affirms that the Greeks, cut off from the rest of the Persian army, got away without recourse to flight and this is confirmed by Arrian's own narrative where they, 8000 strong, retreated off the field, 'in the order they were drawn up' (12.13.2). That these mercenaries were hoplites is shown by the Greek soldier showing his leg (Persians being trousered) in the foreground of the famous Pompeii Mosaic in front of Daraios' position. The proverbially rich Persian king could afford the best and most expensively out-fitted troops (i.e. hoplites), unlike the embarrassingly cash-strapped Alexander who invaded Asia with just two weeks' worth of pay for his army. Duncan Head has recently suggested that the Macedonians may have been carrying their javelins at this battle too, since they were trapped unprepared for battle in a mountain defile, and Curtius (3.11.5) records the Macedonian foot as throwing their weapons. Return

21. The single exception is at Gaugamela, when a small number were stationed in the front line, and it is perhaps noteable that these men came from Achaia, the area with the greatest tradition of hoplite mercenary service. They were stationed on the extreme left wing along with the Cretan mercenaries (Diodoros 17.57.4). Both units are overlooked by Arrian. Return

22. Diodoros 17.44.2. Their armour was later replaced by gold and silver embossed sets (Curtius 8.5.4). Return

23. Polybios (18.30) describes how missiles would have their impetous broken by the pike shafts - most missiles would fall on the phalanx from above rather than be shot from low trajectories at the front rank - who would in case, being officers, be the most heavily armoured men. Return

24. Such a point was made at least as long ago as 1933 by H.W.Parke (Greek Mercenary Soldiers, Oxford). Return

25. Diodoros 16.3.2. It has been argued that there is no direct evidence that Macedonians used the sarissa until Chaironeia in 338 BC, aside from Diodoros' statement about the date of its introduction. I find these arguments less than compelling, not least because their proponents would propose that, recognising the need to have Philip's men being capable of fighting hand-to-hand, they instead were instead armed with a hoplite's spear, for which there is absolutely no evidence whatsoever! I can see no reason to discard Diodoros' explicit testimony for a hypothesis that not only has no evidence for it, but disregards the plentiful evidence that in those instances when Macedonian phalangites did not use the sarissa, they used javelins instead, not spears. It is however possible that the "pelta" used by the phalangites was a new style of pelta not seen before; the pelta was traditionally made of wicker, and Curtius mentions such shields in connection with Philip's men (10.2.23). However, it would seem that many Macedonian infantry shields were bronze, and examples such as the two depicted on a Macedonian tomb painting from Katerini dating from the first half of the 4th century BC rule out their being Philip's innovation. See David Karunanithy's article for illustrations: "Of Ox-Hide Helmets and Three-Ply Armour: The Equipment of Macedonian Phalangites as described through a Roman Source", Slingshot 213 (2001), 33-40. Return

26. The one account that states a sarissa could be as short has 8 cubits has been shown to be a copyist's error for 10, see A.M.Devine, "The Short Sarisa: Tactical Reality or Scribal Error?", The Ancient History Bulletin 8.4 (1994) 132, available on-line at The 14 cubit sarissa is attested by Polubios.Return

27. Nepos, Iphikrates, 3. Return

28. Thukydides 4.124-125. Return

29. K.Liampi, "Der Makedonische Schild", Bonn, 1998. Although the Macedonian shield, variously called an aspis or a pelta, was smaller than the Greek aspis, it was still of substantial construction as can be inferred from it being broze-plated, and the incident in Arrian (1.1.9-10) in which carts are driven over them. Return

30. Alexandar Stipcevic (trans. Stoyjana Culic Burton), The Illyrians: History and Culture, Noyes Press, 1977. There may exist some uncertainty about the dating of some of these items. Return

31. The Argive shield had two points of contact with the arm. The first was a wide bronze strap, the porpax, through which the forearm passed and was positioned near the centre of the shield, taking most of its weight. The second was a smaller handle near the shield rim, the antilabe, which the hand itself gripped. Thracian peltas with such a grip (and many have just a sngle central grip) frequently (although not always) are shown as having both parts about equidistant from the centre of the shield. The porpax of a Greek aspis was removeable so that it could be stored separately, making the shield useless for revolutionaries intent on seizing power unlawfully, as the shield could not be carried at all without it. Without the antilabe to provide a secure grip it was still unstable, but the smaller and lighter Balkan aspis would not be quite so disadvantaged. The antilabe was sometimes made from cord, and in this case, the second hand could still grip another item at the same time such as a pike shaft; the pike itself would also brace the edge of the shield, further stabalising it. Return

32. The soldier depicted in the 'Sack of Troy' painting from the 'House of Menander' in Pompeii has been interpreted by Nik Sekunda (Military Illustrated, Oct.1990, 19-24) as being a late Macedonian "peltast". The inside of his shield is shown, and it has a lop-sided arrangement of grips. The hand grip is positioned low down in the shield, near the rim, while the forearm brace consists of two strips (a feature seen in vase illustrations of some Thracian peltasts, though these often cross each other in an X arrangement rather than run parallel as here), also low down. If such a shield was worn while gripping a pike two handed, the bulk of the shield would be positioned above the weapon, just the position shown on a bronze plate from Pergamon showing Roman cavalry and legionary swordsmen attacking a Macedonian phalanx. (A small picture of this can be seen in M.M.Markle's "A Shield Monument from Veria", Mediterranean Archaeology, 7 (1994), 83-87). Return

33. David Karunanithy's "Of Ox-Hide Helmets and Three-Ply Armour: The Equipment of Macedonian Phalangites as described through a Roman Source", Slingshot 213 (2001), 33-40, has some useful reconstructions of how Philip's men would have looked. Return

34. Curtius 9.7.19. Of the two weapons, the more traditional javelin was used when executions were carried out (Curtius 7.1.9, Arrian 3.26.3). A Macedonian carrying a bronze aspis and javelins would be closer to the normal Balkan peltast than the Greek peltasts of Thukydides' day since his heavier shield would be more suitable for hand to hand combat. Return

35. Polyainos, Stratagems 2.38.2. Even the cavalry could apparently use javelins on occasion (Arrian 1.2.6). Duncan Head has tentatively suggested these may have been the Prodromoi, based an an Atheinan prodromos carrying both javelins and spear. Return

36. Diodoros 17.11.3; another example is Arrian 1.22.2,5. Presumably the pikes were kept with the baggage train when javelins were used. Diodoros records that on this particular occasion, the veterans, in reserve, where able to form up a regular phalanx of overlapping shields, and were able to drive the hitherto victorious Greeks back (17.27.2). A Macedonian with small aspis and javelin would be disadvantaged against a hoplite foe with large shield and spear in an organized hand-to-hand fight. The fighting at Thebes in 335 BC recorded by Arrian was very similar, with javelin-armed Macedonians being beaten by the Theban hoplites who are in turn beaten by the Macedonians guards held in reserve. Since javelins were used when assualting cities, it is not surprising that excavations at such siege sites as Olynthos have revealed many Macedonian arrows, bullets and javelins, but nothing that can be positively identified as a sarissa (since one school of thought holds that the sarissa had a small head, it might in any case be very difficult to distinguish one from a javelin in any archaeological remains). Pikes with their long reach were much more suitable for defending walls; Ptolemy so used one with great skill in Egypt, blinding an elephant with his sarissa (Diodoros 18.34.2). Return

37. These cuirasses could easily have been partly metal however, since by this stage Alexander was the world's richest despot, and could afford almost any luxury. Return

38. See my article: "Macedonian Unit Organisations under Alexander - Part 1: the Infantry", Slingshot, 214 (2001), 35-38, available in updated form here. Return

I would like to thank Duncan Head for so many useful discussions. Thanks also to Michael Anastasiadas for taking the photographs used in this article of objects displayed in the museum at Tirana in Albania, and to John Edmundson for looking up references to Illyrian equipment. Finally, David Karunanithy went well beyond the call of duty in me sending copies of many of the articles mentioned in the footnotes.

Part 2 is here


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