Hellenistic

Hellenistic

Review: Richard Taylor, “The Macedonian Phalanx”

Cover of "The Macedonian Phalanx" by Richard Taylor

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.

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Suppressio Veri and the Battle of Magnesia

Relief of jumbled infantry and horsemen in Greek clothing fighting each other
A detail of a battle on a marble Attic sarcophagus of the early third century CE. State Hermitage Museum, St. Petersburg, inventory number A.521. Photo by Sean Manning, September 2015.

A few weeks ago I was distracting myself by chatting about the Battle of Magnesia with Michael Park, a very thoughtful lover of ancient history. This battle was a shocking upset where the Seleukid king and and army raised from his whole kingdom were scattered by a small army from Rome and Pergamon which had not seemed very eager for the fight. The longest surviving accounts are by Livy (written about 150 years after the fact) and Appian of Alexandria (about 300 years later) both of whom had access to contemporary sources. This campaign is interesting to me because Antiochus’ enemies trotted out some 300-year-old tropes from the Persian wars to depict him as an Asiatic despot seeking to enslave Europe with his countless but feckless soldiers. However, they were limited by the fact that Antiochus and his Friends paid people to tell their story in fashionable Greek, so they could not claim that Antiochus had hundreds of thousands of soldiers or wore foreign clothing or was too cowardly to go into battle himself. If they went too far, people who had heard other versions after dinner or read them in a library would cry foul.

In this battle the fighting began on the wings, and each side won on its right: Antiochus and his Friends drove a legion back to its camp with the first charge, while panic broke out on his left wing and Eumenes of Pergamon found himself in control of the field there. The infantry on both sides had not yet engaged: perhaps Antiochus was nervous of the stories that while thyreophoroi were normally no danger to a Macedonian phalanx, the Roman ones had a way of getting into the small gaps which emerged if a phalanx tried to move too quickly or crossed rough ground. Livy gives us his version of what happened next:

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The Bronze Battle Scene from Pergamon

In 1913 Alexander Conze published some of the antiquities found at Pergamon. One of these was a remarkable relief from the second century BCE showing a battle on land. While Greek artists usually portrayed battle as a fight between scattered individuals, this relief shows different types of soldiers crowded together and even a Macedonian phalanx with its battle standard. The University of Heidelberg has generously digitized their copy of Conze’s book as part of the Heidelberger historische Bestände- Digitaler:

A line drawing of a bronze plate with reliefs of infantry fighting and cavalry dashing back and forth
1. Beschlagstück, mit Eisen gesüttert, darüber in Bronzeblech getriebenes Relief, 0,24 m lang. Im Haputfelde Kampf von Reitern und Fußgängern ganz links scheint ein Feldzeichen zu stehen. Das Dreiecksfeld der einen seitlichen Spitz mit einem Ägismuster und Medusenhaupte geföüllt. Abbilding beistehend. (Caption from Alexander Conze, “Altertümer von Pergamon,” Bd. 1 Text 2 p. 250

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