The Nature of Command in the Macedonian Sarissa PhalanxAncient History Bulletin
Publication VersionVersion of Record
AbstractIn his essay, ―Hellenistic military leadership,‖ P. Beston reviews the successes of Hellenistic kings and generals who commanded their armies from the front, inspiring by example.1 In all but one of his examples the individual in question commanded a cavalry squadron. This is hardly surprising. Horses by nature follow each other and so to direct an attack to where it is required the commander would be better served by leading from the front. The relative lack of structure in a cavalry squadron compared with an infantry battalion requires that the commander fight in the front rank. The speed of a cavalry charge would easily disrupt a formation so that maintaining contact within the unit would become increasingly difficult. The best way for a trooper to know where to go and what to do would be to keep his eyes on his commander ahead of him. This also explains why cavalry attacks could dissipate if the commander was killed. Nowhere does Beston comment on the leadership of generals among the infantry and, in his one reference to a general fighting on foot,2 he simply says that he fought among the phalanx. Indeed the source does not say whether he led from the front, the middle, or the rear of the phalanx but merely that he inspired his men to final victory. I propose that infantry officers in the Macedonian armies commanded their units from behind instead of from the front. This is an entirely new advancement in ancient armies. In all previous Greek warfare the general fought in the front ranks, inspiring his troops with personal leadership and direction. In the armies of Philip II and Alexander, however, infantry officers rarely fought in the front line and so rarely died in battle. Positioned behind his unit, the officer could direct the unwieldy phalanx to wherever it needed to go and was better able to communicate with his superior and fellow officers. For this purpose he employed aides, messengers and other signalmen to pass on orders. The need for maintaining formation outweighed the need for inspirational leadership in the front line. This allowed for tighter control of the infantry battalions and of the army as a whole.
Citation InformationGraham Wrightson. "The Nature of Command in the Macedonian Sarissa Phalanx" Ancient History Bulletin Vol. 24 (2010) p. 71 - 92
Available at: http://works.bepress.com/graham-wrightson/3/