When a Hoplite Spear beats a Phalanx Pike (or when bigger isn’t always better): Part I, The Granicus
When Macedonians with 16 foot-long pikes fought hoplites with 8 foot-long spears the victory did not always go to the boys with the bigger…toys. On flat battlefields, of course, that extra eight feet of wood triumphed, but not all battles are fought on parade grounds. On at least two occasions Alexander the Great’s much-vaunted phalanxes came out on the “short end” when fighting hoplite spearmen. Today we examine the first time (look for the second example later this week).
At the Granicus River in May 334 BC Alexander’s phalanxes struggled to slog their way out of a shallow, slippery, stream and up a muddy embankment against Persian cavalry, who hurled javelins and shot arrows at the vulnerable foot soldiers. The pikemen eventually scrambled and formed up on firm ground, but only after Alexander himself broke that line of enemy horse with his own cavalry. When the Persian cavalry fled, they abandoned their allies: 8,000 Greek mercenary hoplites (among whom stood Dimitrios, the Captain of Thebes in the title of the first book in my series).
Memnon of Rhodes, to whom Darius (yes, THAT Darius, he of “Throne of…”) had given command of his armies, had wanted to line the banks of the Granicus with the spearmen – with cavalry on their flanks. The proud, vain and over-confidant satraps (local governors) refused to follow that plan. Much like medieval knights of a later era, they had nothing but disdain for common foot soldiers. They ordered Memnon to set the Greeks on a hill to the rear where they could serve as the audience to the deeds of the noble horsemen – and could protect the camp with all of its lavish trappings.
Memnon turned over command of the hoplites on the hill to a general named Clearchos. (Memnon took personal command on the 500 Ionian Greek cavalry whom the satraps had disdainfully relegated to the flank). When their cavalry was driven off, the Persian levy infantry fled. That left the hoplites stranded and isolated on the hill. As per the rules of war, their general asked for honors of war or at least terms of surrender. Alexander refused. He ordered an all-out assault, telling his generals to leave no one alive. (Alexander viewed Greeks who fought against him as traitors).
The Macedonian infantry formation was 16 men deep – two to four times as deep as the hoplite line, a line which had to be even more thinned out to cover the ground as the Macedonians overlapped it. The Macedonians valiantly went up the hill, but the rough ground disordered their formation. The hoplites (who also preferred flat ground) with their shorter spears were more agile and were able to get in between and under the long pikes and throw them back. Again and again the Macedonian pikes reformed, charged up the hill – and were forced back down. The hoplite shield wall (also known as a phalanx, by the way) held.
After the failure of the much-vaunted pikes, Alexander’s generals sent their light troops and cavalry to the flank and rear of the hill to surround the Greeks. They wore the hoplites down with javelins, slings and arrows – and then the Macedonians then came at them from all sides. Three out of every four hoplites fell – yet still they did not break.
As dusk came, the old Macedonian general, Parmenion, finally intervened. He ordered his brigades of phalanx pikemen to fall back, and withdrew the light troops and cavalry – much to Alexander’s ire. Parmenion and Hephaestion, Alexander’s favorite companion (in more ways than one), gave the hoplites a chance to surrender. This was as much a smart military decision (to not waste more men) as it was an act of mercy; it also followed the accepted rules of Greek vs. Greek warfare.
The 2,000 mercenaries, however, were not paroled or treated as prisoners of war, as Parmenion had guaranteed. Alexander ordered them chained and sent them home to work as slaves in the mines – where most perished.
All of this and much, much more is in my novel Throne of Darius: A Captain of Thebes.