Sep 6, 2011

Weapons & Warriors: Spartan Phalanx, The War Machine

Art by Steven DeVon Jones
Part 2 of the double header finale for the Spartans. The conclusion to yesterdays post about the warrior culture that made the Spartan Phalanx the most elite hoplite formation in history.

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.

The secret to the Spartan’s phalanx that allowed this temporary victory against such impossible odds was more than the formation of the bronze wall. It was the Spartan culture, their military training from youth. The entire nation was built for war, and as the war raged on after the battle at Thermopylae was over, the Spartans took command of the united Greek nations to stand against the Persians and not only expel them once and for all, but then advanced into the Persian borders and claimed several key areas that made sure that the Persians would never return. They invaded their invaders. I bet Xerxes never expected a tiny blip on the map to ever do that to his vast empire.

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.


  1. I love that porcupine reference. I can totally picture that. All I can say is the Spartans were like machines. Badass machines. Reminds me of wolves or orca whales with that pack mentality. Or maybe the Borg from Star Trek. Hahahaha! Great post!

  2. Thanks, the wolfpack reference is good, they trained together for so many years it was much instinct as habit to fight as one.
    And just like a machine, each generation built the next with the design of the perfect human being, and as a machine, one glitch had you sent to the scrap heap.
    Sounds heartless, but they felt any weakness in their people would allow them to be conquered. Even after the earthquake that destroyed the city of Sparta, they did not falter when their enemies came to finish them. They survived on.

  3. Nice article. It's hard to imagine what it would have been like back in those days with two phalanxes crashing into each other on the battlefield.

  4. My first thought to that question was loud. It did happen though, I bet those were tough fights. My imagination is going crazy.