Tom Owen-Evans returns with the second part of his post on Philip of Macedon. This week, Philip's use of cavalry and knowledge of Greek warfare.

In addition to the infantry, Philip also transformed the Macedonian cavalry into an effective, cohesive unit that played a far more significant role on the field of battle. Until Philip, the use of cavalry was almost exclusively limited to the very start and end of any engagement. The bulk of heavy fighting fell to the hoplite as their long spears and solid shields meant that any frontal assault made by cavalry would be ineffective and rather suicidal. Cavalry were thus a purely supporting element of any 4th-century Greek army, used to flank, harry and pursue, but never to deal a decisive blow.[1] Inspired by the writings of Xenophon, the fabled commander of the Ten Thousand, Philip developed an entirely new system by first splitting the Macedonian cavalry into three divisions (ilia); the Companion cavalry, the Thessalian cavalry and the light or auxiliary cavalry. Each had its own specific role to play on the battlefield. For example, Philip taught the more heavily armed Companion and Thessalian units to fight in a wedge formation; their primary goal being to disrupt the enemy’s line.[2]

These new units were designed to advance with the infantry and target the enemy’s flanks at the very beginning of an engagement thus acting in unison, as opposed to in isolation as before, trapping a foe between two offensive lines. At the battle of Chaeronea in 338 BC, Philip’s Companions under the command of Alexander played a decisive role in the destruction of the Athenian centre by performing such a manoeuvre. In fact Philip’s victory at Chaeronea can be largely attributed to the perfect execution of both cavalry and infantry acting as one. With this in mind, developing and nurturing the might of the Macedonian cavalry can certainly be seen as one of Philip’s greatest achievements.

These simple military reforms highlight Philip’s deep understanding of his enemies’ weaknesses and his ability to adapt – character traits he possessed and developed at a very young age.  At the turn of his 13th birthday Philip was sent to live in Thebes as a hostage for two years. During this time he was exposed to the warlike culture of the Greeks, their polis political system and the many flaws inherent in both. Developing a close relationship with the famed generals Epaminondas and Pelopidas, he learnt about the application of shock tactics and the numerous ways in which cavalry and infantry could be deployed in battle.[3] He was also afforded the honour of watching the legendary Sacred Band in training, whom he greatly admired.[4] These experiences heavily influenced Philip’s decision to reform the Macedonian army in the manner he did. Having identified the weaknesses inherent in the traditional Greek style of warfare Philip quite deliberately set out to construct an entirely different entity, the likes of which the Greeks had never seen. His Macedonian army encompassed all of the hoplites’ strengths and almost none of their weaknesses. In fact a defining characteristic of Philip’s army was its ability to strike hard and fast, while the Greeks were still debating in the agora. In this manner he turned the limitations of their very political system against them.

The importance of Philip’s reforms has received its fair share of criticism to date. In her book Confronting the Classics (2014) Mary Beard highlights the fact that Philip’s sarissa, the so-called revolutionary weapon which has inspired an awe-like culture among many ancient historians, was nothing more than a lengthened spear and that it is hard to see why, for one reason or another, the Greeks simply did not replicate it.[5] While her matter-of-fact assessment makes for a good point, it fails to account for one very important factor which can be found in the traditional Greek perception of Macedonians and Philip’s manipulation of this.

Much like 14th-century France’s refusal to adopt the longbow despite its repeatedly devastating effect in the hands of the English, the Greeks did not react to the introduction of the sarissa nor adapt to the military reforms introduced by Philip – a decision that proved ultimately fatal to their ability to counter the Macedonian army on the field of battle and, of course, to their wider autonomy as an independent city-state. The reason for this stems largely from the fact that most Greek citizens, most notably those residing within Athens, viewed Macedonians with disdain (despite their claim to be direct descendants of the God Heracles).[6] Once more we turn to Demosthenes who, in a speech of 341 BC, describes Philip as ‘a miserable Macedonian, from a land from which previously you could not even buy a decent slave’.[7]The notion, therefore, that Athens or indeed any other Greek city-state should suddenly adopt the military tactics of a people seen as racially inferior would never have been considered, for theirs was seen to be the purer, more honourable way of warfare. Philip can certainly be seen to have played on this misconception throughout his reign, feigning weakness when in fact only growing in strength; presenting himself to the Greeks as an-ever humble servant and champion of justice, as a friend to the preservation of autonomy and the notion of freedom they so dearly held, yet all the while actively eroding both. As Justinian surmised of the Greeks as the sun set on their hegemony after the battle of Chaeronea, ‘For all their attempts to impose their rule on each other, they only succeeded in losing their ability to rule themselves.’[8]

Next time: Philip's other strategies.
For the previous chapter go here:

[1] Xenophon, The Persian Expedition, translated by Rex Warner, with and introduction and notes by George Clawkwell, London: Penguin Books, 1972, p.35.

[2] Worthington, p.36.

[3] Worthington, p.28.

[4] The Sacred Band were Thebes’ elite infantry unit in the fourth century BC Comprising of 150 pairs of male lovers, each were hand-picked for their courage on the battlefield and dedication to the pursuit of perfection in combat. Plutarch remains our most reliable source for information on their exploits and training.

[5] Mary Beard, Confronting the Classics: Traditions, Adventures and Innovations, London: Profile Books, 2014, p.50.

[6] French reluctance to use the longbow stemmed largely from notions of honour and the chivalric code. Fourteenth-century France relied heavily on its mounted knights who saw the use of longbows on the field of battle as cowardly and beneath them. However, there were more practical reasons behind France’s inability to replicate or use this weapon, as the longbow required a lifetime of training. It could not be simply be picked up from the hands of dead archer on the battlefield and used against the English. Athens and Thebes in the fourth century BC faced a similar problem with the sarissa.

[7] Demosthenes, Philippic, 3.31

[8] Worthington, p.12.