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home / news / The Armory Article 9 - Pikes Part 1
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The Armory Article 9 - Pikes Part 1

Published on July 08, 2024

Welcome back to The Armory. Today's article is about the pike, a simple weapon whose introduction and reintroduction has changed warfare multiple times across the globe. Before we get started I wanted to mention we have a sale starting this Monday on Ancient Warfare games along with the Order of Battle and Decisive Campaigns Series. Last week's special was our Fantasy title's, we have a new sale on Matrix starting every Monday so be sure to check the store out regularly for hot deals.

This article’s analysis is pretty heavily based on Sabin’s Face of Roman Battle, which we already wrote about several weeks ago. To briefly summarize it, soldiers need a lot of coaxing and leadership to actually charge into close combat with the enemy and trade blow for blow. If you imagine yourself facing an enemy, every bit as skilled and well armed as yourself, you can just barely conceive of the anxiety and fear an ancient or medieval warrior would face having an actual sword fight. Individual and group psychology matters a tremendous amount in warfare, especially at the sharp end. This article will also engage in some speculation due to the fact that many primary sources are lacking accounts from front line soldiers. We simply don’t have written accounts of a Macedonian Phalangite from the 4th Century B.C.E. so we will do our best to hypothesis and speculate with the evidence available.

I should also mention that like last week’s articles on amphibious assaults, this article will be in two parts. Leaving out pike & shot was simply unacceptable.

In the western world, the Phalanx was famously developed by the father of Alexander the Great, Philip the Second. Philip turned Macedonia, a relatively small and insignificant kingdom at the northern periphery of the Mediterranean, into the hegemon of the all Greece. While his reforms were multifaceted and included significant state building, his most visible military reform was the introduction of the pike, or Sarissa.

Artist's depiction of a Sarissa-armed Phalanx. In Phillip's and Alexander's army these would composed of 256 men and capable of manuevering within the main battle line

Greek warfare had become increasingly sophisticated during the Peloponessian war. Cavalry and light infantry played a significant role in battles and campaigning. Previously, Greek wars were usually limited to very short campaigns consisting purely of spear-armed Hoplites. By the 4th century B.C.E. battles were becoming significantly more complex in their tactics and maneuvers. Philip had been educated by Epaminondas, a Theban general who had smashed the Spartans at Leuctra in 371 B.C.E. with an echelon attack. Phillip was a man of his time, a reformer, and he would use these lessons in designing his new army.

An artist's depiction of Pelopidas and Epaminondas, two Theban generals that helped turn their city into a Greek hegemon and inspired Phillip of Macedon

The Sarissa, a six-meter long pike, gave the Macedonian Phalanx exceptional reach over the traditional two-three meter long Dory spear. While not an agile weapon, the Sarissa had such reach that even men five rows back from the front could still thrust forwards into a charging enemy. Pikes held vertically would disrupt missile fire, deflecting arrows or thrown spears. While the two hands required to wield a pike made holding the traditional Greek Aspis shield impossible, Phalangites could still be protected by a smaller shield, the Pelta.

Tomb artwork of Macedonian soldiers from the 4th century B.C.E.

Like Epaminondas, Philip also concentrated his combat power on his right. His best pikemen and heavy cavalrymen would usually be concentrated on the right flank, the place of honor. The whole of the army would also be screened by light infantry and light cavalry, protecting the flanks and protecting the phalanx from enemy skirmishers. This combined arms approach was extremely successful. If the pikemen could be protected from flank and rear attack, they simply were unstoppable on the open field. Phillip and his son Alexander first conquered Greece, and then the whole Persian empire with this combined arms force, with the pikemen being the anchor of the whole formation.

Pelopidas at Leuctra. Leuctra taught the Greeks the value of en echelon attacks

This army was not cheap. To maintain all the supporting arms of the main Macedonian field armies required plentiful manpower and access to good heavy and light cavalryman, archers, peltasts, and engineers. When Alexander’s empire fractured after his death his successors, or the Diadochi, turned on one another in a series of brutal wars to carve up Alexander’s empire.

The death of Alexander immediatley caused a series of brutal civil war's, and also inspired generations of generals and kings to try to emulate his achivements

These wars had two effects on pikemen. The first was that most successors lost the advantage of the supporting arms Alexander had. No single warlord from their precarious position was able to raise an army as complex and multifaceted as Alexander’s with all the supporting assets. Mercenaries could fill these gaps in the short run, but you never got the benefits of long-term cooperation that Philip and Alexander’s armies had. Instead, pike blocks trended larger and deeper as the warlords relied upon massed levies of raw recruits, rather than expensive long-term professionals or citizens. These deeper pike blocks became far less maneuverable both due to their increased mass, and the more amateur nature of the armies.

The second major impact was that pikemen now were fighting each other. A significant advantage of the pike was psychological. You can actively fight in a phalanx from a position of relative safety, thrusting and stabbing without exposing yourself to too much physical harm. The morale advantage of this can’t really be exaggerated. Now however, when two pike blocks collided, everyone was exposed to danger. We don’t have many sources that describe the wars of the Diadochi. Plutarch and Diodorus only wrote on the wars 400 years after the fact. If the push of pike of the 16th and 17th century is anything to go by, it would have been bloody and indecisive to be caught up in a pike-on-pike clash.

We do know a pike block could surrender by holding their pikes vertically, and units were known to defect. We could speculate here that perhaps the mass levy of raw recruits didn’t seek the push of pike, but perhaps felt each other out from a distance. Perhaps in some battles only the front line tepidly thrust at extreme distance, trying to find an advantage. As is often the case in war, there were probably numerous occasions where pike blocks pitched into each other with bloody gusto, where formations broke into one-another and the men had to use their xiphos in a bloody quagmire. Still in other battles it is likely that the contrary was true, with formations finding it difficult to develop the will to commit to a proper push of pike.

Pikemen were generally an anchor, and not the arm of decision, that remained the heavy cavalry. By the time the Romans encountered Greek armies during the Pyrrhic Wars or the Second Macedonian War, they were not fighting the agile combined arms forces of Alexander. Pyrrhus both benefited from and was ruined by his use of war elephants, which at the battle of Beneventum completely disordered his army and forced him to retreat after the elephants began to panic. While coming close to emulating Alexanders use of multiple different arms to suport the phalanx, Pyrrhus could never secure the decisive victory he needed to dictate terms to the Romans. During the Second Macedonian war at the Battle of Cynosephalae, the 36-man deep Macedonian phalanx was outmaneuvered and flanked by the far more flexible Roman manipular system. As soon as Romans appeared to flank and rear of the Phalanx, all order broke down. It is difficult, verging on impossible, to maneuver a pike block 36 men deep.

Pyrhus won his battles against the Romans mainly with his cavalry, and his Phalanx was certainly equal to the Legion, but he never had the manpower to win a decisive victory

With the dominance of Rome over the Mediterranean the pike lost prominence in the western world for nearly a millennia. The Roman legions were primarily swordsmen or spear men, preferring smaller flexible formations to the pike block. The Germanic successor states to the Roman empire simply didn’t have the government structures to raise large infantry armies. Armies got smaller and were now based on a mounted warrior aristocracy, rather than a paid professional force or the old infantry-centric citizen levy.

In the 14th and 15th century this began to change as urbanization, fiscal institutions, and gunpowder began to shift warfare away from cavalry, and back towards infantry. There is some scholarly dispute of whether there were ever really “military revolutions” around infantry or cavalry, but it is not controversial to say that in the 15th century as armies got larger, the infantryman and the pikeman returned to a far more prominent position in European armies.

We will discuss the return of the pikeman and the role of gunpowder in the next Armory article. Until then, happy hunting everyone.

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