Review: Richard Taylor, “The Macedonian Phalanx”

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Categories: Ancient

Richard Taylor, The Macedonian Phalanx: Equipment, Organization & Tactics from Philip & Alexander to the Roman Conquest (Pen & Sword: Barnsley, 2020) xii + 482 pages ISBN 978-1-52674-815-7

Available from Pen & Sword, biblio.com, and amazon.com

The Macedonian Phalanx is a thoughtful, engaging account of the ancient pike phalanx. By drawing upon literature, inscriptions, archaeology, and comparative evidence it uses the best available methods in ancient history. I am both jealous and relieved that I no longer have to write such a book myself.

The Macedonian Phalanx was partially based on the author’s doctoral dissertation but rewritten for a broader audience. All sources and quotations are translated, and competing theories are discussed without expecting readers to learn the names of different researchers and publications. There are more citations to primary sources and research than in a textbook, but less than in a scholarly monograph. A moderate number of line drawings are provided, particularly to illustrate manoeuvres and changes of formation. These are clear although it is surprising that some of the diagrams of drill movements show a phalanx with short spears and large shields not long pikes! Ninety pages of back matter (pp. 393-482, 19% of the book) include a list of battles, a list of rulers and generals, a glossary, endnotes, a bibliography of about 260 items with bibliographic essay, abbreviations, and a useful index. The works cited are mainly in English and French, but some are in German.

Strengths

Most books on early Greek warfare contain a paragraph with ritualized denunciations of the three surviving manuals of phalanx tactics and then barely cite them (“philosophers with no military experience … (wrote) inferior, pedantic, tactical manuals of much later ages … some were clearly not (of practical value) “). The longest of these manuals, by Aelian, still has no edition based on the best manuscript. Since Polybius and Arrian wrote both tactical manuals and histories, the idea that these can be separated from ‘proper’ literature is peculiar. Taylor takes the position that the tactical manuals deserve the same careful, skeptical attention as any other kind of source. So several parts of this book are a three-way dialogue between the traditional literary sources, the three Hellenistic tacticians, and English practice in the 17th century. Rather than assuming that one kind of evidence has priority, each is considered and compared to the others. So when he turns to specific battles like Issos, he can discuss how the various manoeuvres might have been performed with diagrams (p. 280). He also notes that when we consider the tactical manuals from Arrian to Maurice, there is stronger evidence for massed pushing in the Macedonian and Roman phalanx than in the classical Greek phalanx (pp. 306-314). I would have liked to hear Taylor’s best guess why so many thoughtful and learned people are reduced to stereotyped dismissals when they talk about the tactical manuals. I have always wondered if some eminent philologist in Cambridge or Yale passes down their ur-Doktorvater‘s prejudices to students and refuses to graduate anyone who says anything nice about the tactical manuals.

The comparative evidence from the 17th century is another notable feature. Scholars have often noted that in the 15th century Europeans reinvented drilled formations of pikemen, and that by the late 16th century the soldiers who commanded these formations often studied the ancient manuals, but few scholars have been willing to study these later sources in detail. I would like to see ancient historians work together with early modern historians familiar with old forms of Spanish and Italian, the military credentials of different authors, and how the proscriptions in 17th century manuals relate to practice. In an earlier post I discussed the debate amongst specialists in 16th century warfare whether the practice of firing muskets by countermarch (having the first rank fire then march to the rear to reload while the second rank stepped forward and took aim) was really borrowed from the ancients or just attributed to them. There are even manuals in Arabic which adapt Aelian’s instructions to their context!

Research on early Greek warfare has traditionally been dominated by philologists and written evidence, especially works by the great writers which could not be dismissed as ‘technical.’ The Macedonian Phalanx takes the all-sources approach which has been the gold standard in ancient history since the early 20th century and in Roman Army Studies since the 1980s. For example, there is a lengthy discussion of the three types of shields which were used with the long sarissa and how these relate to Asclepiodotus’ statement that the best shield for the phalanx is eight palms wide and not too hollow. Inscriptions, art, and experiments are cited where appropriate (although artefacts are usually cited through earlier summaries, not detailed archaeological publications).

One of the last chapters follows Polybius to address battles of Roman legion against Macedonian phalanx. The author’s attitude to Polybius is similar to my own. Because Polybius was an ancient soldier familiar with Greek, Carthaginian, and Roman armies, we should be very careful to reject anything he says because it does not fit our preconceptions about how battles happen. But Polybius was a pundit trying to convince other Greeks that the Romans had become unstoppable, not a disinterested historian. Many of his generalizations about Macedonian armies are hard to reconcile with other evidence, especially evidence from the time of Alexander. And his wording is not always as clear as translations make it seem. So he provides valuable evidence for phalanxes in the second century BCE, but he should be read skeptically. I would be interested in comparing this book’s version to Rudolf Schneider’s Legion und Phalanx: Taktische Untersuchung from 1893 https://archive.org/details/legionundphalan00schngoog

Areas for Improvement

The Macedonian Phalanx overlooks some work on similar problems in different fields. Contrary to page 300, there is actually a strong tradition of research on the ‘face of battle’ in the Roman republic and empire, Iberia and Germania during contact with Rome, and even Early Medieval Europe.[1] Yet it is striking that this research draws on research on early Greek warfare, but the researchers on early Greek warfare ignore it. When the the California school and the Krentz/van Wees school hurl analogies at each other like skirmishers exchanging stones and darts, those analogies point to Prussian doctrine in 1870, games of rugby, highland warfare in New Guinea, or riot police and football hooligans today. Somehow the researchers interested in early Greek warfare isolated themselves from other kinds of ancient history, let alone the medieval chronicles which historians up to the 1960s sometimes used to understand supply dumps in Theopompus or linen armour in Suetonius. By the time the ‘heretics’ had clearly won their tug of war with the California ‘orthodoxy’ in 2013, they were so tired and had accepted such a narrow framing of the question that they could no longer lead the next stage of research. Today the most interesting young researchers are looking for ways to build on the work of Krentz and van Wees but use new methods and ask new questions.

Although this book brings in archaeological and experimental evidence, it does not use that evidence quite as comfortably as the texts. Contrary to page 40, some early modern European pikes did have irons to discourage soldiers from shortening the pikestaff or to keep the butt from splitting when it was planted in the ground (Sekunda, “The Sarissa,” pp. 30-33 [2]). You cannot make a bronze helmet or shield by hammering or pressing it against a helmet-shaped or shield-shaped block of limestone (p. 49). The theory that ancient linen armour was made of layers of cloth glued together (p. 66) derives from a misleading English translation of a French summary of a chronicle describing armour in the 12th century CE, and nobody is known to have made armour by gluing together linen before 1970 (Manning forthcoming [3]). Peter Connolly’s description of his test whether a 15-person phalanx could form up with one cubit per file is concise but it does not seem “lacking” details to me (p. 9):

Doubling the files proved far easier than expected. Formed up in the standard two cubit formation, with pikes in the upright position, the right hand file turned about, marched towards the rear, wheeled and came about in the interval between the other two files. They then leveled their pikes proving that it was possible to ‘double’ the formation allowing only one cubit per man. … we had the front rank stand firm and the other four ranks push forward. This resulted in the formation condensing to one cubit per man in file.

(Connolly, “Experiments with the Sarissa,” p. 111 [4])

I did learn some things about archaeology in this book, such as that the paintings and models of sarissae with four-winged counterweights on their butts are based on the single tomb with the infamous not-a-coupling tube! But I hope that more archaeologists join in the debates about early Greek warfare. Their skills and evidence can be valuable contributions to a topic traditionally dominated by philologists and retired soldiers.

Conclusion

The Macedonian Phalanx brings original answers to old questions, and uses sources which have previously been neglected. With this book and Karunanithy’s Macedonian Fighting Machine, we now have reliable, accessible accounts of Macedonian armies as armies to pair with the social, institutional, and kingdom-oriented studies of Christelle Fischer-Bouvet, Bezalel Bar Kochva, M.B. Hatzopoulos, and Angelos Chaniotis . Future work can build on these studies while making the archaeological evidence as accessible as the famous writers and the great art. I hope that this book sells well enough that the small mistakes and oversights can be corrected in a second edition.[5]

The Macedonian Phalanx is available from Pen & Sword, from biblio.com, and from amazon.com. I was given this copy to review. If you want to read more reviews like this, please, support this site on Patreon or paypal.me or even liberapay

Edit 2021-06-14: added a link to my definition of the California School

[1] Some examples of research on the mechanics of Roman battle:

  • Added 2021-06-15: Sabin, Philip (1996) “The Mechanics of Battle in the Second Punic War,” Bulletin of the Institute of Classical Studies, No. 67 (1996), pp. 59-79 https://www.jstor.org/stable/43767903
  • Zhmodikov, A. (2000) “Roman Republican heavy infantrymen in battle (IV–II centuries BC).” Historia 49.1 pp. 67–78
  • Sabin, Philip (2000) “The Face of Roman Battle.” The Journal of Roman Studies, Vol. 90, pp. 1–17
  • Halsall, Guy (2003) Warfare and Society in the Barbarian West, 450-900. War and History (Routledge: London and NY, 2003) {cites VDH}
  • Quesada Sanz, Fernando (2006) “Not so different: individual fighting techniques and small unit tactics of Roman and Iberian armies.” In P. François, P. Moret, S. Péré-Noguès (eds.) L’Hellénisation en Méditerranée Occidentale au temps des guerres puniques. Actes du Colloque International de Toulouse, 31 mars-2 avril 2005. Pallas 70 (Presses universitaires du Mirail: Toulouse) pp. 245–263
  • Bartosz Kontny, “The war as seen by an archaeologist. Reconstruction of barbarian weapons and fighting techniques in the Roman Period based on the analysis of graves containing weapons. The case of the Przeworsk Culture.” Journal of Roman Military Equipment Studies 16 (2008) pp. 107-146
  • Taylor, Michael J. (2014) “Roman Infantry Tactics in the Mid-Republic: A Reassessment.” Historia
  • Michael J. Taylor, “Visual Evidence for Roman Infantry Tactics.” Memoirs of the American Academy in Rome, 2014
  • Anders, Adam (2015) “The ‘Face of Roman Skirmishing’.” Historia 64.3 pp. 263–300

[2] Sekunda, Nicholas Victor (2001) “The Sarissa,” Acta Universitatis Lodziensis Folia Archaeologica 23 pp. 13-41 repozytorium.uni.lodz.pl:8080/xmlui/handle/11089/7892

[3] Manning, Sean, “The History of the Idea of Glued Linen Armour,” Mouseion 17.3 (2021) pp. 492-514 https://doi.org/10.3138/mous.17.3.003

[4] Connolly, Peter (2000) “Experiments with the sarissa – the Macedonian pike and cavalry lance – a functional view.” Journal of Roman Military Equipment Studies 11 pp. 103–112

[5] Miscellaneous pedantry (I may expand this note as I read more sections closely):

To say that depths from 4 to 12 were typical would be better than to say that 8 was typical (pp. 23, 86), since only about 40% of our references to a Greek phalanx’s depth mention eight or “about eight” but 65% mention depths from 4 to 12 (Konijendijk, Classical Greek Tactics, pp. 126-129) Asclepiodotus ii.1 says that 8, 10, 12, or 16 are common depths for the Macedonian phalanx, but as far as I know no ancient writer says that any depth was typical for Greek armies (Asclep. ii.9 implies that at some point the Macedonian phalanx was 8 men deep, since it mentions the supernumeraries which existed in the Macedonian phalanx but not earlier Greek armies).

Battle standards are not documented in the Aegean until the death of Hephaistion, but are known in Egypt and Mesopotamia since the Bronze Age, so they may be one of the Egyptian and Near Eastern practices which Alexander and his successors adopted.

Edit 2021-07-27: Added correct title and link to article in Mouseion after it appeared.

7 thoughts on “Review: Richard Taylor, “The Macedonian Phalanx”

  1. Pavel Vaverka says:

    This book is waiting for me with two others in Oxford Bookshop, I hope I can pick it up soon. I’m glad my shot in the dark made a hit. There are 35 books which I need for work about Pyrrhic wars. I’m glad Taylor was in front of my list what to buy. Karunanithy is there too and few other titles (like Cole’s Legion vs Phalanx), some titles are collective monographies or are in French (I don’t know new book about theme in Russian or German, Italian). Regarding manuals, I haven’t read Matthews (his book about Macedonian phalanx, and translation of Aelian, where I want to read about Arabic use of old manuals). Regarding Polybios, I take him seriously in military matters, but his own tactical manual is gone (this could be a ground breaking discovery), and his opinions about legion vs phalanx are like newspaper titles to me, not serious enough, not deep enough. Sean let me know, if I understand what You want. To compare original Polybios passages about Macedonian phalanx with that 1893 book? Should I do it, or it is your plan? Believe me, I have more than enough work, but in time I could do it.
    Aelian is problem, I don’t know if there will be new edition, I want to buy that Ares Publishing version https://www.amazon.co.uk/dp/B00F18F5ME/ref=olp_aod_redir_impl1/257-0266153-8566221?_encoding=UTF8&aod=1 any info, if this is a better, than that English Napoleonic era translation, or Matthew’s version? I have sharply different views than Matthews, I’m worried his translation is influenced by his opinions, what can Macedonian phalanx do. Please let me know if it’s possible to buy https://arespublishers.com/ANCW.html Aelian translation from here. Normal shops can’t get this. I’m glad that Taylor has succed. But I’m very well aware, that this is not over. Phalanx changed over time, I believe there were differences among countries, kingdoms. Using of reneactment, archeology is a good thing, I’m still not able to do a comparing (which is pain for me) ancient phalanx vs Scottish schiltron, Italian style of pike phalanx, Spanish tercio, Thirty Years’ War (there are Swedish sources in Czech! Italian sources in Czech, etc. I know these books, but I don’t have them. It’s question when I will be able to read them. Or that English books about military matters from 16th, 17th century). What I did is, that I have studied repeatedly Byzantine manuals for comparison, these and passages from Polyanues aren’t easy at all for understanding in some parts. Another problem for my way of research to understand phalanx, its capabilities is absence of knowledge about Arabic, Persian military manuals from late Antiquity/early Medieval period. Something could be there I don’t know. But I’m little bit sceptical how much revealing could be Medieval/Renaissance pike phalanx vs Macedonian phalanx, using a shield is big difference, than just using pike. Pile of work ahead of me, and except Macedonian phalanx, I have long time in head idea to describe better reforms in Hellenistic armies. Sekunda made a push, but we can go even further, I have article/book long time in my head since Ph.D. days.

    1. Sean Manning says:

      I bought Christopher Matthews’ translation of Aelian in London, but he did not learn to read Byzantine script so his translation is based on printed editions not the Laurentianus Graecus (or any manuscrip!). Paleography gives me a headache, creating a new edition of an ancient text is a lot of work, and its always nice to have another translation.

      Richard Taylor liked the book by Myke Cole.

      I would be curious to see what Rudolf Schneider thought. I would also like to read through Asclepiodotus in the Greek. Maybe once I have my career sorted out?

  2. Pavel Vaverka says:

    I think, that today aren’t much people who can do translation from Byzantine folios, do You think that current Greek editions could be very twisted against original Byzantine versions? I’m afraid there aren’t many people who can do such work, or have interest in it and mainly can afford it!!! Except Cole’s book, I hope that You’ll get in time my reading report about other books centred for Macedonian phalanx. I’m little worried how I cope with Schneider’s work (German and French of 19th century aren’t the same languages I know for today:)

    Ilkka Syvänne has fabulous article about battle of Magnesia, what can phalanx do. Also he knows Sassanid tactical manual I never asked him, where I can get this, or other Arabic sources which he uses for Late Antiquity warfare. I’m in little pinch because AWM store has run out of Ares books, perhaps in next months I get lucky, or in a new year. In one book (those waiting for me at store) is article about Iphicrates from Byzantine version of Poylaenus, I’m curious if something revealing would be there. Brexit complicates my plans for getting some books, it was my big mistake not to invest significantly into last year’s into Oxbow books sales.

    Did You know, those robbers in EU parliament invented law about banking identity? I have to buy new mobile phone (and put away my indestructible reliable old Nokia model). Price for this new toy would gets me 3 Khorasani’s books. How can one be a scholar in such circumstances… Yet I’ll do my best to know more about ancient warfare, cavalry is on the way…

    1. Sean Manning says:

      Devine says that the only good manuscript of Aelian is the Laurentianus Graecus. The others, the ones the printed editions are based on, are all either interpolated or bad copies of the Laurentianus Graecus. There are probably a few dozen scholars who know Byzantine paleography well,  they edited and translated the new Galen de indolentia and the Deixippus palimpsest in Vienna. But where Christopher Matthew was studying in Australia, it might have been hard to find those people and learn what he needed to learn.

  3. Pavel Vaverka says:

    Devine and Schneider is in my plan now (today I’m picking up printed version of Legion und Phalanx). If You remember about my Polyanues project, I made an effort to get big names. Kai Brodersen told me back then, that he’s too busy (his work place doesn’t have capacity for such project), except Polyaenus he made translation of Ailianos Taktika and other manuals. Yet I don’t know, if he used Byzantine original. https://www.amazon.de/Antike-Taktiken-Taktika-Zweisprachige-historische/dp/3737410712/ https://www.amazon.de/Die-Kunst-Taktik-Sammlung-Tusculum/dp/3110562162/ I’m too embarrassed to asking him personally…

    1. Sean Manning says:

      My understanding is that there are good editions of all the tacticians except Aelian (and some of the medieval ones, such as the Arabic manuals). Devine says that the Laurentianus Graecus is mildewed and hard to read. It is too bad that his manuscript got lost 🙁

  4. Michael Park says:

    “Many of his generalizations about Macedonian armies are hard to reconcile with other evidence, especially evidence from the time of Alexander. And his wording is not always as clear as translations make it seem. So he provides valuable evidence for phalanxes in the second century BCE, but he should be read skeptically.”

    Oh so true. Reading Polybius one is forever wondering how on Earth the Macedonians ever created an empire. For that matter, how their phalanx ever succeeded in Asia (Issos/Hydaspes) or Greece. How, if we take Polybius at his word, did this formation manage at Sellasia? That battle, incidentally, is yet another of Polybius’ less clear descriptions. Just what he exactly means after describing the order to “close up or compress the sarisai” when he writes χρησάμενοι τῷ τῆς ἐπαλλήλου φάλαγγος ἰδιώματι (2.69.9) has been the subject of argument seemingly forever.

    His comparison of the phalanx and legion post Kynoskephalai is also most problematic. He clearly describes it as formidable when attacking sixteen deep. Another statement occasioning great debate. His analysis ignores the fact that (at Kynoskephalai) Philip’s right would clearly have won the day where it not for the fact that the left was still in column of march and never got to the battle before being taken.

    I shall have to purchase the book.

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