Saturday, November 8, 2014

The Use of the Sarissa by the Macedonian Army

There has been much research conducted on the weapons and military tactics employed in antiquity by the Macedonians.  This research can show how effective the sarissa as used by the Macedonians was, as well as how important it might have been to their military superiority.  There have been two weapons used by the Macedonians known by the word sarissa; the cavalry sarissa, or lance, and the infantry sarissa, or pike[1].  This essay shall focus primarily on the sarissa used by the foot soldiers, therefore the pike, and any reference to the sarissa carried by the cavalry shall be for comparison purposes.

King Philip of Macedonia attained power in 359BC[2].  As soon as he took power, Philip began to reorganise and redevelop the army with many changes and upgrades to military tactics.  One of these upgrades that Philip made was the invention of the sarissa for both the cavalry and the infantry.  “The development of the sarissa was such that it surpassed any other weapons technology in the ancient world and was one of the few examples in antiquity of a deliberate intentional change of weapons by a known agent to achieve an advantage in combat; an early example of research and development.”[3]

The creation of the sarissa and the further development of the Macedonian phalanx are also discussed by Hammond.  The sarissa was invented by Philip II when he became king of Macedonia[4].  Hammond sited three different sources from the Roman Empire that talked about the training and improvements of the Macedonian infantry by Philip.  The first source that Hammond uses is Diodorus, who states “…Philip…convene[d] them in assembly after assembly… altering for the better the military units and equipping the men appropriately with weapons of war he held continuous manoeuvres under arms and training exercise under combat conditions.  Indeed he invented the close order and the equipment of the phalanx in imitation of the shield-to-shield order of the heroes at Troy, and he first put together the Macedonian phalanx.”[5]

These passages that Hammond cites gives a timeline of the months between the death of Perdiccas III in 359BC and Philip’s battle against Bardylis in 358BC for when Philip put together the first Macedonian phalanx[6].  Military training and manoeuvres before the Hellenistic period are not documented very well and are quite rare.  Due to this, Hammond surmises that all three of his sources regarding Philip’s invention of the Macedonian phalanx and the training of the pikemen, along with the invention of the sarissa would have come from a common source which was most likely a contemporary of Philip’s, and documented these activities at a time prior to Alexander’s achievements which diverted attention away from Philip[7].  

According to Hammond, the sarissa was a highly specialised weapon, designed for fighting in the phalanx which is a linear military formation approximately eight or more men deep.  This weapon was not a common weapon and as such was unsuitable for skirmishing, ambushing, street fighting, etc[8].  The sarissa used by the infantry (phalanx) was a long shaft of wood with tips of iron on either end.  The weaponhead of the sarissa was a sharp iron blade.  Above the blade curving back up the shaft was a foreshaftgaurd of iron to protect the shaft from being broken off by attack.  The front of the sarissa was balanced by another spiked iron piece at the other end of the sarissa, called a buttspike[9].  The buttspike (also called a secoma) could be planted in the ground to brace against charging horses.  This buttspike also made the sarissa more balanced and easier to handle. 

Cornel wood was used to make the shaft of the sarissa, as it had been used in spears and javelins from around 700BC, due largely to its hardness, straightness and elasticity properties[10].  According to the research of archaeological evidence done by Manti, the dimensions of the infantry sarissa are as follows[11]:

  • Four-sided tapering buttspike – 18 inches long, 7 inch long socket, 1 11/32 inches diameter socket, and a weight of 2.3 pounds.
  • Pointed weaponhead with flared double edged blade – 20 3/16 inches long, 9 inch socket, 1 14/32 inches diameter socket, and a weight of 2.7 pounds.
  • Tubular forshaftgaurd – 61 2/16 inches long, 13/32 to 1 10/32 inches socket, and the weight was not given.

Around 300BC the length of the sarissa is stated to be sixteen paces, and issued to the infantry at sixteen cubits, but in general use showed up at fourteen cubits[12].  Manti makes note that Arrian wrote cubit as his unit of measure in one instance, he feels that Arrian’s use of poda to be the more appropriate and significant.  Manti goes on to say that poda is usually translated into English as foot, but believes that pace is more correct as it is actually the designation for the measured step taken by a human being, particularly that of the field-march step of the phalangite, or infantry[13].  The Macedonian cubit is 13.5 inches whereas the Attic cubit is 18 inches[14].  This is important as some scholars tend to use different cubits to measure the sarissa, and this results in differing information.  For the sake of this paper, it will be assumed that Manti is correct in using the Macedonian cubit of 13.5 inches.  Drawing from the literary evidence he examined, Manti concludes that the infantry sarissa is longer than the cavalry sarissa and the hoplite spear.  It is made in a variety of lengths; ten, twelve, and sixteen cubits, as well as sixteen paces.  However, in use in the field it appeared at fourteen cubits[15].

The sarissa became an icon of power and authority in Macedon and Greece by the time of Alexander.  In the Alexander mosaic in Naples, Alexander can be seen wielding a sarissa.  However, even though mounted cavalry did have sarissas, the one depicted is an infantry sarissa.  As it is very improbable that Alexander wielded the long infantry sarissa on horseback, and would be impractical to have it for any reason, Manti concludes that this mosaic is a political manoeuvre much like the Boscoreale mural[16].  Further, Manti goes on to say in his footnotes on this subject that this sarissa underlines the legitimacy of the Macedonian king as the king of Macedon since it is pictured in the context of Darius fleeing the field of battle, and thus makes Alexander also the King of Kings of all Persia and all of its empires by fact of royal conquest. 

Continuing to use the pictorial evidence, it can be seen that the sarissa fits the description of the sarissa used by the phalanx due to it having a pointed buttspike, and a tubular foreshaftgaurd near the weaponhead.  Also visible is a type of cord that is wrapped tightly around the shaft near the aft end which will allow a pikeman to have the appropriate measured spacing for his hands as well as make a solid grip, as over time with use the shaft of the sarissa would become too smooth and slippery to hold tightly[17].  Also, had this been a cavalry lance, the cording would have been replaced with a leather sling-type strap to assist with holding while on horseback.

There was flexibility in the phalanx to adjust the formations from the standard eight men deep stance.  The Macedonians could compact and up to double the depth of men to sixteen.  While in open formation, there was a four cubit spacing allowed for each man[18].  This formation was used for speed, both in attacking and in covering ground during marching.  Also, it was used as a defence against enemy chariots and wagons.  The close order was used for maneuvering on the battlefields and movements against a large front.  The Macedonians also used it when facing less disciplined and organised troops.  The compacted order, (also called locked shield) was for closing with an enemy that was equal to the pikemen in discipline.  It was also used if hitting power from mass was more important than the size of the military front, or when receiving a charge from infantry or cavalry[19].  Men only took up one cubit in this formation. 

The Macedonian phalanx when equipped with sarissas was usually eight men deep.  This allowed approximately five weaponheads to be projected forward of the first rank of men.  This required very disciplined depth spacing on the part of the pikemen.  With the structure of the fourteen cubit sarissa, four cubits were used by the distance between the pikeman’s hands and the buttspike for balancing.  This means that there were ten cubits protruding to the front of the pikeman, resulting in four ranks of pikes extending in front of the first rank of pikemen, staggered at two cubit intervals.  This spacing allowed the sarissas to overlap and offer protection from attacking enemies to each other[20].  For example, the front rank’s sarissa would be protected by the blade and foreshaftgaurd of that of the second rank’s sarissas, with the third rank’s blade protruding to the point of the second’s foreshaftgaurd, and so on continuing back.  This meant that any swordman that tried to cut the head off the sarissa would have to reach in a distance of up to two cubits to get to the wooden shaft, but would not be able to cut it off as it is protected by the sarissa behind it.  This made the sarissa invulnerable to frontal assault from swordmen[21].  As Manti stated, “The Romans, each facing ten to twelve pikes, were in this respect at a grave disadvantage with their short swords and training not to cut but to thrust”[22].

When Philip II improved the Macedonian infantry with the invention of the sarissa, he also changed the way that they marched to increase their range and speed, as Greek armies did not march very far overland.  Philip had each pikeman carry enough flour for thirty days and trained them to march 35 miles a day carrying their supplies[23].  This made Philip’s infantry have a speed and range that outdid everyone else in his time.

When Alexander campaigned on the Balkans in 335BC, a clear demonstration of the effect that the sarissa and the pikemen that wielded it had on peoples was seen.  The phalanx used the sarissa to clear a way through high-standing corn near the Danube.  “When Getae saw the phalanx, they were terrified… for the close order of the phalanx was frightening”[24].  A few months later, Alexander was moving against the Illyrians.  They also fled the battlefield from fear when Alexander put on a display of his phalanx changing formations while in movement[25]

The sarissa was not without its limitations and weaknesses, however.  Markle points out some of these in his research, beginning with the fact that the men from the second rank back were trapped in formation on either side by the butts of the sarissas from the pikemen in front of them[26].  Also, the first rank back to the second last rank were likewise trapped by the forward sections of the sarissas of the men behind them.  He continues to state that in a mass such as this, in forward motion everyone would be pressing upon each other, and this would result in an interweaving mix of sarissas and men that render flanking maneuvers, turning, and strategic retreats impossible[27].   Further to this, Markle continues to say that the phalanx was only able to be deployed on level, unbroken ground.  He supports this claim by quoting Polybius ““…the phalanz has only…one kind of place in which it can achieve its purpose… It requires level and smooth plains which have no obstales such as ditches, clefts, ravines running together, ridges, flowing rivers; for all of the aforementioned are sufficient to impede and break up such a formation.”[28] 

There were three ways that Markle stated to counter the sarissa phalanx.  The first was by the enemy getting past all of the sarissas protruding infront of the phalanx formation, grabbing hold of the sarissa, driving it into the ground weaponhead first in order to have it become stuck, and then killing the pikeman.  This was very unlikely to happen due to how well structured the Macedonian phalanx was.  The second way was by attacking the phalanx in the flank or from the rear.  Markle states that the length of the sarissas made it impossible for the pikemen to turn and face the attackers.  The last way was to try and lure the phalanx onto unfavourable ground so as to cause a gap to open up in the front line so that the pikemen could then be routed.[29]  [30]

Yet another way to counter the sarissa was with specialty units.  Manti mentions that there were swordmen called landsknecht doppelsoldner that had been specially trained and equipped with longer swords to reach past the pikehead and foreshaftgaurd in order to sever the shaft of the pike, and received increased pay to compensate for the extra danger[31].  Also, Hammond mentions that Onomarchus defeated Philip’s phalanx by luring him into a trap where Onomarchus had hid his catapults behind a crescent shaped hill[32].  When Onomarchus feigned retreat, the Macedonians followed and when they were in-between the catapults on either side of the hill, the catapults opened fire and “confounded the Macedonian phalanx.”[33]


Hammond, N. G. L. 1980.  "Training in the use of a sarissa and its effect in battle, 359-333 B. C." Antichthon , 14: pg. 53-63

Manti, Peter.  1992.  "The sarissa of the Macedonian infantry" Ancient World, 23:2, pg. 31-42

Markle III, Minor M.  1977.  "The Macedonian sarissa, spear and related armor" American Journal of Archaeology: The Journal of the Archaeological Institute of America, 81:3, pg. 323-339

Mixter, J. R.  1992.  "The length of the Macedonian sarissa during the reigns of Philip II and Alexander the Great" Ancient World, 23:2, pg. 21-29

[1] Manti  p32
[2] Mixter  p21
[3] Ibid
[4] Hammond  p54
[5] Ibid  p55
[6] Ibid  p56
[7] Ibid
[8] Hammond  p53
[9] Manti  p31
[10] Ibid  p32
[11] Ibid  p36
[12] Ibid  p31
[13] Ibid
[14] Ibid  p39
[15] Ibid  p32
[16] Ibid  p34
[17] Ibid  p36
[18] Ibid  p37
[19] Ibid
[20] Ibid  p38
[21] Ibid  p39
[22] Ibid
[23] Hammond  p57
[24] Ibid  p59
[25] Ibid
[26] Markle  p332
[27] Ibid
[28] Ibid
[29] Ibid  p333
[30] In his paper The Macedonian Sarissa, Again, Manti discredits the majority of Markle’s work stating that he (Markle) contradicts himself on most things and that he got the measurements for the sarissa wrong, thus making his sample that he had made for him too long, and thus throwing off all his research into how the sarissa was used and how effective it was, and that had Markle used the proper cubit, he would have seen that it was much more nimble and useable than the sample he had created. 
[31] Manti  p39
[32] Hammond  p60
[33] Ibid

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