Imagine sparring against a boxing opponent that outreaches you by a factor of three and you’ll understand what it was like fighting against an opponent armed with the long pike known as the sarissa. At 15-18 feet long, it afforded the bearer an extremely long reach over a traditional spear wielding hoplite.
This article will discuss the origins of this long pike and use within the Macedonian phalanx. Strengths will be discussed and weaknesses explored.
What exactly is a sarissa?
The sarissa is a long wooden pike with an iron point at one end and a butt spike at the other. At the time of Alexander the Great, it is generally attributed to have a length of between fifteen and eighteen feet (note the comparative size of in the image to the right).
The butt spike served a triple purpose in the design, to act as a counterweight, to allow the sarissa to be implanted into the ground and as a replacement should the main point be broken. It was held in two hands and (dependant on the size) allowed for a combat reach of around twelve feet. This long reach is to be contrasted to the conventional Greek hoplite that held a seven-foot spear in one hand and had a reach of only four feet.
How was the sarissa used?
The sarissa was used in a traditional Greek phalanx, a large tactical formation of tightly-packed infantry, deployed in a rectangle with its wider side facing the enemy. The traditional phalanx used a spear allowing the 2nd rank of hoplites to thrust out a spear when the unit was engaged with an enemy (the reach of a spear has already been mentioned as 4 feet).
In comparison, a phalanx wielding the sarissa allowed the first five ranks to point the sarissa forward, providing an extra three points for each enemy soldier to navigate before they reached the front line.
The extended reach of the sarissa (12 feet) meant the enemy had to engage the points much sooner than the phalangite whom remained at a safer distance. The remaining ranks in the sarissa-phalanx held their weapons aloft to block incoming missiles.
Cavalry using the Sarissa
Arrian tells us that the sarissophoroi were part of the assault force at Alexander’s battle at the Granicus River. In the Alexander mosaic (see a more completed reconstruction below), we can see Alexander wielding the sarissa as he skewers his opponent. It is held in one hand and carried in the middle to evenly support the weight. Furthermore, it is shorter than the infantry equivalent at 12.5 feet but still longer than a spear wielding opponent.
Arrian describes the attributes of the cavalry sarissa as a composition of cornel-wood, appreciably lighter and liable to break. The Alexander sarcophagus also provides visual evidence of cavalry wielding the sarissa (note that Alexander would have been carrying it below, it has broken off however).
When was the sarissa developed?
There is some debate over the origins of the sarissa, although most people attribute it to the battle of Bardyllis in 358 BC.
In the prior year, the Macedonian king Perdiccas III fell at the hands of the Illyrians along with 4,000 of his soldiers. Philip II (father of Alexander the Great) rallied the defeated army and through the virtue of his personality, extensive military training and his invention of the sarissa-phalanx defeated the Illyrians in a single battle.
The battle was fought on an open plain in a traditional set-piece battle. Both armies fielded similar numbers, the Macedonians with 10,000 infantry and 600 cavalry, the Illyrians with 10,000 infantry and 500 cavalry.
Philip positioned himself on the right wing and led his finest infantry forward, delaying the advancement of his centre and left wings. The Illyrians formed themselves into a square formation to counter outflanking cavalry manoeuvres. As the right wing of Philip’s infantry engaged the enemy, the infantry pierced the left corner of the Illyrian square and pushed it back spreading confusion throughout the flank and rear. As this occurred the cavalry charged through the hole that was created and shattered the left half of the Illyrian square. This battle demonstrates the combined use of cavalry/infantry tactics that became a hallmark of Philip II’s military genius and that of his son, Alexander the Great.
As for exclusive mention of the sarissa, we need to look at the ancient sources. Previously, it was mentioned that Philip had personally led his finest infantry and it was this unit that had decisively pierced the Illyrian square. The sources reveal the extent of the infantry transformations undertaken by Philip:
Despite the presence of such great terrors and dangers Philip was not dismayed at the gravity of the impending trials … 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 (Diodorus Siculus, The Library of History XVI.3.1-2.).
The equipment of the phalanx is provided in further detail by Polyaenus:
Philip was training the Macedonians before the dangers. He made them take up their arms and march often three hundred stades carrying helmet, shield, greaves, sarissa (Polyaenus, Stratagems in War 4.2.10).
The above two passages supplement each other, it was Philip that trained the Macedonians to fight in a Greek hoplite-phalanx and he gave them ‘weapons of war’ consisting of ‘helmet, shield, greaves, [and] sarissa’. The timeliness is revealed in the sentence ‘Philip was training the Macedonians before the dangers’, implying that the training took place before the battle against the Illyrians whom occupied the cantons of Upper Macedonia. For Diodorus Siculus, the unique transformations had been the ‘close order’ and the equipment provided to the phalanx.
Note: The ‘close order’ refers to the condensing of the phalanx into a tight formation with the first five ranks pointing the sarissa forward and the remaining ranks holding them aloft to block missiles.
However, there is some debate over the sources. Evidence has already been provided of the sarissa in the ancient literary sources, the alexander mosaic and the alexander sarcophagus.
Objection #1: Nature of our sources
The evidence that we do have from Diodorus Siculus, Polyaenus and Frontinus are likely to have stemmed from a single source, that is, Ephorus, a contemporary of Philip. They each provide a passage that forms a coherent narrative, that it was Philip that invented the Macedonian phalanx before the ‘danger’ and equipped them explicitly with the sarissa. It is reasonably likely that we can trust the source for this reason, although it is frustrating that we don’t have more corroborating evidence.
Objection #2: Archaeological evidence
On archaeological remains there has also been debate, why isn’t there more evidence among the ‘arrow-heads, sling-bullets and spear-heads’ at the siege of Olynthus for example? Well, this is because it was a siege and the sarissa would have been no use in a siege (or skirmishing for that matter).
Objection #3: Misinterpretation
At the battle of Chaeronea, we first hear of Alexander in a military battle (at the age of 18), we also hear mention of the Theban Sacred Band ‘facing the sarissa’. Some have asked who was wielding it? The cavalry or the infantry? This is countered in the retreat manoeuvre of the infantry on the right flank, whom likely benefited from the extended reach of the sarissa on the ordered retreat.
Limitations of the sarissa
Throughout this article the strengths have been quite clear, the extended reach of the sarissa deployed in a phalanx made it a formidable proposition for a frontal assault. When supported on the flanks by other troops as both Alexander & Philip did (and their military records speak for themselves), it goes a long way to show how the sarissa added to Macedonian military superiority.
For the limitations we should turn to Polybius who discusses the Roman maniple over the phalanx:
What then is the reason of the Roman success, and what is it that defeats the purpose of who use the phalanx? It is because in war the time and place of action is uncertain the phalanx has only one time and one place in which it can perform its peculiar service (Polybius, The Histories 18.31.1).
The key points are ‘peculiar service’ attributing the sarissa-phalanx to a frontal charge and ‘place of action is uncertain’ as requiring favourable ground to maintain formation. If we consider the difficulty in maintaining this formation on favourable ground, the soldiers certainly did not need uncertain terrain as an obstacle. A Roman testudo formation would have had a similar problem on uneven ground, it requires intense discipline to make it work on open ground.
If the enemy could be denied favourable ground, the sarissa-phalanx may lose its formation, as happened at the battle of Pydna in 168 BC when the Romans forced the sarissa-phalanx over uneven ground and attacked the flanks when gaps appeared. When the Romans engaged the flanks, they easily cut down the lightly armoured sarissa-phalanx at close quarters highlighting the vulnerability of the flanks and the dangers of close quarter fighting.
In praise of the Roman maniple, Polybius had this to say:
For the Romans do not make their line equal in force to the enemy and expose all the legions to a frontal attack by the phalanx, but part of their forces remain in reserve and the rest engage the enemy (Polybius, The Histories, 18.32.2).
The purpose of keeping units in reserve was both reinforcement and adaptability, as it allowed lateral movements on an enemy line exploiting weakness as they appear. Therefore, the limitation of the sarissa-phalanx is the lack of versatility, weakness on the flanks and its requirement of favourable ground. An enemy that can exploit these vulnerabilities can counter the sarissa-phalanx, as was the case at the battle of Pydna in 168 BC.
For further information, see our recommended books on Alexander the Great.