|Art by Steven DeVon Jones|
If you read some of the previous posts on Sparta, you’ve already got a grasp on what a phalanx is. Simply put, it’s a rectangular formation of heavily armed infantry. They move as one and fight as one. The key item of the phalanx was the Aspis. This large round shield was large enough to protect a man fully if he crouched behind it. The trick to using it with a unit of men is by holding it slightly to their left so the wielder could see around the edge of the right and stab his Dory spear at anything that crossed his vision. Not only the Spartan holding the shield in the front was wielding a spear through the opening. The rows of soldiers behind the front row would stick their spears out as well, creating a layered porcupine effect. The shield would protect the entire left side of the Spartan and offer some protection to the right side of the Spartan on his left.This allowed the men in front to focus on killing what was directly in front of them, and the fewer angles you had to worry about, the more focused you could be on what was in your path.
This second row held their shield up overhead and angled to where it added a higher barrier to the one in the very front row to block arrows, spears or other projectiles from penetrating into the phalanx. Therefore protecting the men not involved in the combat yet. The rows behind these other rows would also hold their shields high, to protect themselves from any projectiles from above. Their shields were made so thick and solid, that no matter how many arrows an enemy could fire, the shield would never be rendered useless.
From a distance, the phalanx would appear as a bronze wall with many spears protruding from the front, either slowly marching toward the enemy or digging into a defensive position. They could literally wait all day when they were defending their place. For example, the Spartans at Thermopylae defended a narrow valley against a tremendous land army. It only took three hundred to defend the pass.
At that time, most nations bowed to Xerxes without even putting up a fight, in fear of being crushed by his massive army. It could possibly be the biggest army to ever be assembled in those times. Yet, despite their numbers, they still had inferior training, and relied more on their ability to overwhelm opponents facing them in open ground. When they came upon the single phalanx in the valley, they assumed they would just crush it with numbers. What a surprise it must have been to Xerxes when not only did they fail to crush it on the first push, but they were repelled. They continued to repel the Persians until scouts found a secret path through the mountains to allow them to flank the Spartans. The seven to eight hundred Greeks protecting the Spartans flanks never stood a chance, because they were not raised like Spartans. They were from places like Athens, and had come to help King Leonidas, but they were nothing but farmers and blacksmiths. None of them were soldiers.
Moving and fighting in unison is not easy, especially without radios or bullhorns to shout over all the screaming in mid combat. The Spartans spent time every day by lining up in their formation and practicing marching and fighting as a unit. Each was trained to fight the correct way no matter where they stood in their formation. This way, if someone fell in front of them, they could immediately close the gap and the phalanx would hold tight. Whenever an order was given by the commander of the phalanx, it was passed on by those around him so that all of the phalanx would know their plans. The video in yesterday’s post about Spartan Culture also shows great examples of the Spartan war machine in action.
The Dory was the main weapon used by the Spartans as the enemy stepped into range. The spear tips would spring out from the small gaps between shields with deadly accuracy and then retract as fast. The double tipped Dory was designed exactly for this purpose. When the tip was broken on one end of the Dory, the Spartan would flip it and use the bladed rear. If both ends were broken, the Spartan drew his Kopis. This meat cleaver usually meant more motion and closer enemies, but this is what the Spartan lived for. Even down to their swords, the Spartans would hold the phalanx and rarely break formation, hacking away their enemies from behind their impenetrable shields.
Next week I will start an in-depth look at the ingenious and rare weapons of the Rajput.
I hope you enjoyed this edition of Weapons and Warriors, click here to view the entire catalog of weapons and cultures. Thank you, see you next week.