What is a Phalanx?

An ancient military formation of infantry in close, deep ranks with shields overlapping and spears extended. In the front there was a leader in each row of a phalanx, and a rear rank officer, the ouragos (meaning tail-leader), who kept order in the rear. The phalanx is an example of a military formation in which the individualistic elements of battle were suppressed for the good of the whole. The soldiers had to trust their neighbors to protect them, and be willing to protect their neighbour; a phalanx was thus only as strong as its weakest elements. The effectiveness of the phalanx therefore depended upon how well the soldiers could maintain this formation while in combat, and how well they could stand their ground, especially when engaged against another phalanx. For this reason, the formation was deliberately organized to group friends and family closely together, thus providing a psychological incentive to support one’s fellows, and a disincentive through shame to panic or attempt to flee. The more disciplined and courageous the army the more likely it was to win. Often engagements between various armies would be resolved by one side fleeing before the battle, the Greek word dynamis, the “will to fight”, expresses the drive that kept soldiers in formation.

“Now of those, who dare, abiding one beside another, to advance to the close fray, and the foremost champions, fewer die, and they save the people in the rear; but in men that fear, all excellence is lost. No one could ever in words go through those several ills, which befall a man , if he has been actuated by cowardice. For ’tis grievous to wound in the rear the back of a flying man in hostile war. Shameful too is a corpse lying low in dust , wounded behind in the back by the point of a spear.”

— The War Songs Of Tytaeus

The earliest known depiction of a phalanx-like formation occurs in a Sumerian steele from the 25th century BCE, depicting victory of king Eannatum of Lagash over Umma, called Steele of Vultures. However historians speculate far earlier usage among armies of major civilizations. Historically the phalanx was proven over and over again as an unstoppable impenetrable battle formation. And such famous battles; Battle of Marathon, Battle of Thermopylae, Battle of Leuctra, Battle of Chaeronea, were crushing victories by smaller forces against larger armies utilizing the phalanx battle formation.