“Social Distancing” Macedonian Style vs Persian Style
Twenty-three centuries ago Alexander the Great’s Macedonians practiced a form of “social distancing” – by using a 5-meter long pike to keep enemies at a distance. The pike or sarissa carried by his foot soldiers was 12 cubits in length (according to the Historia Plantarum of Theophrastus) or approximately 16-18 feet long. The men formed up in massive blocks 16 ranks deep (although this could be reduced to eight ranks if they needed to occupy a broader front, or tightened to 32 for a true “push of pike,” as Polybius reported.
Alexander’s cavalry also used a similarly long spear to keep the enemy at a distance – but this one was “only” 12 feet long and was known as a xyston. It was not couched like a medieval knight’s lance, but was held overhead so the rider could jab at the enemy. For closer work, however, they relied on the kopides, which resembled a Napoleonic hussar’s saber.
The Persians had neither sarissa nor xyston. Their Greek mercenary hoplite infantry and their elite guard infantry, the Immortals, did carry the 8-foot-long doru (also sometimes written as dory). It had a sharp leaf-shaped blade. While the spear was the primary weapon of the hoplites, it was a secondary one for the Immortals and the other Persian battle line foot soldiers – the Kardakes. Their principal weapon was the bow. The Persian cavalry carried similar short jabbing spears and throwing javelins, but also preferred to fight as archers.
Of course anyone who has carried a spear (or a flag, or walked about carrying a mop) knows that you have to hold it about three feet from the bottom end just for balance. Thus the actual “distancing” for a hoplite, Immortal, kardakes or Persian cavalryman is only about four or five feet. Similarly, the Macedonian lancer still has to come within about eight feet of his target, while the pike-armed phalangite can keep an enemy a full 12 or 13 feet away.
Those distances, of course, were still far too close for comfort for the Persians, whose arrows were most effective at 150 feet or closer. A trained archer could launch an arrow three times that far, but unless the target was a big, solid mob (like a phalanx) it would do little good – and less so if their target was armored or carried a shield.