Armed in the Macedonian fashion

I’ve been re-reading all my books and articles on the Macedonian Wars. These covers the campaigns of Alexander through the Wars of the Successors (Diadochi), and ultimately to the wars against Rome. Fuelled with all that historical goodness, I want to write a series of posts on the Hellenistic armies with troops fighting “armed in the Macedonian fashion”. I start with, what does “armed in the Macedonian fashion” actually mean?

Macedonian Phalanghite - Red and white uniform - Bronze helmet, shield and greaves
Macedonian Phalanghite – Red and white uniform – Bronze helmet, shield and greaves

The invincible beast

Being “armed in the Macedonian fashion” was a thing. I know because it was a phrase used by the ancient sources, although the last word gets variously translated as “fashion”, “manner” or “style”. The point is, the Macedonians looked and fought differently to their contemporaries. In practice this meant the heavy infantry, the phalangites. And, for a long time, the heavy Macedonian phalanx were invincible (Plutarch Flamininus 8.4)

[4] For the phalanx is like an animal of invincible strength as long as it is one body and can keep its shields locked together in a single formation

According to Polybius 18.29.1, a well-formed Macedonian phalanx was irresistible:

Many considerations may easily convince us that, if only the phalanx has its proper formation and strength, nothing can resist it face to face or withstand its charge. For as a man in close order of battle occupies a space of three feet; and as the length of the sarissae is sixteen cubits according to the original design, which has been reduced in practice to fourteen; and as of these fourteen four must be deducted, to allow for the distance between the two hands holding it, and to balance the weight in front; it follows clearly that each hoplite will have ten cubits of his sarissae projecting beyond his body, when he lowers it with both hands, as he advances against the enemy: hence, too, though the men of the second, third, and fourth rank will have their sarissae projecting farther beyond the front rank than the men of the fifth, yet even these last will have two cubits of their sarissae beyond the front rank; if only the phalanx is properly formed and the men close up properly both flank and rear, like the description in Homer—

“So buckler pressed on buckler; helm on helm;
And man on man: and waving horse-hair plumes
In polished head-piece mingled, as they swayed
In order: in such serried rank they stood.”

And if my description is true and exact, it is clear that in front of each man of the front rank there will be five sarissae projecting to distances varying by a descending scale of two cubits.

Going into action those armed in Macedonian fashion swung their shields down from their shoulders and levelled their pikes. The pikes were so long the pinned opponents with shorter weapons in place by pressing into the enemy shields. Plutarch Aemilius 19.1 describes this at Pydna:

As the attack began, Aemilius came up and found that the Macedonian battalions had already planted the tips of their long spears in the shields of the Romans, who were thus prevented from reaching them with their swords. And when he saw that the rest of the Macedonian troops also were drawing their targets from their shoulders round in front of them, and with long spears sat at one level were withstanding his shield-bearing troops, and saw too the strength of their interlocked shields and the fierceness of their onset, amazement and fear took possession of him, and he felt that he had never seen a sight more fearful;

Equipment of those armed in the Macedonian fashion

The Military Decree of Amphipolis (c. 200 BC) makes is explicit about what being armed in the Macedonian fashion means (Wikipedia: Military Decree of Amphipolis):

those not bearing the weapons appropriate to them are to be fined according to the regulations: for the kotthybos [linen armour], two obols, the same amount for the konos [simple, conical, helmet, usually bronze], three obols for the sarissa [pike], the same for the makhaira [sword], for the knemides [bronze greaves] two obols, for the aspis [bronze shield] a drachma.

Of course, like most things about the Macedonian Wars, bits of this are debatable. Of the items listed the helmet, pike and greaves are fairly uncontroversial. The kotthybos is plausible as linen armour but could be something else (Head, 1997); the rank and file certainly didn’t wear a metal corselet. Although called an aspis (shield) in the decree, those armed in the Macedonian fashion used a shield smaller than that of a hoplite and lacking a rim, hence it was often referred to as a Macedonian pelta.

Asclepiodotus Tactics 5.1 describes the character and appropriate size of the Macedonian shield (pelta) and pike (sarissa):

[1] The best shield for use in the phalanx is the Macedonian, of bronze, eight palms​25 in diameter, and not too concave; and their spear, moreover, is not shorter than ten cubits, so that the part which projects in front of the rank is to be no less than eight cubits — in no case, however, is it longer than twelve cubits, so as to project ten cubits. Now when the Macedonian phalanx used such a spear in a compact formation it appeared to the enemy irresistible. For it is obvious that the spears of the first five ranks project beyond the front, since the soldiers in the second rank, being two cubits back, extend their spears eight cubits beyond the front, those in the third rank six cubits, those in the fourth rank four cubits, those in the fifth rank two cubits, and so five spears extend beyond the first rank. [2] And the Macedonians, men say, with this line of spears do not merely terrify the enemy by their appearance, but also embolden every file-leader, protected as he is by the strength of five;​26 while the men in the line behind the fifth, though they cannot extend their spears beyond the front of the phalanx, nevertheless bear forward with their bodies at all events and deprive their comrades in the front ranks of any hope of flight. But some, who wish to bring all the projecting spear-points to the same distance in front of the line, increase the length of the spears of the rear ranks.27

The Loeb Editor’s Notes:
(25) The ‘palm’ may be considered as •approximately three inches.
(26) This includes the file-leader himself.
(27) Cf. Aelian XIV.7 and the Scholiast on the Iliad, Ν 130; but it is very doubtful if this was ever actually done.

Macedonian sarissa

The starting point for the length of a sarissa is usually Theophrastus Historia Plantarum 3.12.2, yes a treatise on plants, which says of the wild cherry tree:

The wood of the ‘male’ [cornelian] tree has no heart, but is hard throughout, like horn in closeness and strength; whereas that of the ‘female’ tree has heart- wood and is softer and goes into holes; wherefore it is useless for javelins. The height of the male [cornelian cherry] tree is at most twelve cubits, the length of the longest Macedonian spear, the stem up to the point where it divides not being very tall.

12 cubits was the upper limit. Asclepiodotus Tactics 5.1 described the length of the Macedonian pike (sarisssa) as some between 10 and twelve cubits:

their spear, moreover, is not shorter than ten cubits, so that the part which projects in front of the rank is to be no less than eight cubits — in no case, however, is it longer than twelve cubits, so as to project ten cubits

There you go, the longest sarissa was twelve cubits. But there is lots of other evidence and it is generally thought the Macedonians employed sarissa of varying length in he range of 4.6m (15′) to 5.5m (18′) (Markle, 1977).

Many authorities mis-interpret Theophrastus Historia Plantarum 3.12.2 and think this is a claim that the sarissa was made from the male wild cherry tree (cornel wood). Matthew (2015) explains this isn’t possible. The wood of the cornelian cheery tree is too dense for such a long weapon and would make it too heavy. Plus, Theophrastus himself makes it clear that there is no part of the tree that is actually long enough to construct a sarissa as it divides low down. Sekunda (2012 and elsewhere) points out that Theophrastus is just using the sarissa as a commonly known length. He real point about weapons is that the male cornel tree is good for javelins but the female tree is not.

The long pike had to be held in two hands, which meant the shield had to be both smaller and held by a strap over the shoulder. Plutarch Cleomenes 11.2 explains:

[2] Then he filled up the body of citizens with the most promising of the free provincials, and thus raised a body of four thousand men-at-arms, whom he taught to use a long pike, held in both hands, instead of a short spear, and to carry their shields by a strap instead of by a fixed handle.

Grattius Cynegeticon 27 makes it clear that sarissa had small heads:

What if I choose to speak of the enormous Macedonian pikes? How long are the shafts and how small the teeth which furnish their spikes!

I can think of three of reasons for small heads on long pikes. It would make the whole weapon lighter, make it easier to balance the weapon with a hand hold close to a heavy butt spike, and increase the armour piercing ability of the weapon. Grattius was a hunter and didn’t like the Macedonian pike because of the small head; broad heads are better for unarmored foes, like wild animals.

Macedonian pelta

In the literary sources, the shield of those armed in Macedonian fashion has a variety of names: ὀκτωπάλαιστος (‘eight palms wide’), μακεδονική ἀσπίς (Macedonian aspis i.e. shield), πέλτη (pelta) or πέλτη μακεδονική (Macedonian pelta) (Pavlos, 2019).

Markle (1999) uses evidence from coins and monuments to propose a transition from a hoplite shield with a rim and flat curvature to a more bowl like rimless shield. In fact the Macedonian pelta differed from the earlier argive shield of the hoplites. It was much smaller, rimless, more convex in shape, and was carried on a strap.

Asclepiodotus Tactics 5.1 described the ideal Macedonian pelta:

[1] The best shield for use in the phalanx is the Macedonian, of bronze, eight palms​, in diameter, and not too concave

Markle (1999) translates that last word as “hollow”, as in a shield that is more flat and less bowl-like.

A shield “of bronze” does not mean a shield entirely of bronze. The Greek argive shield, made famous by the hoplites, was wooden with a bronze facing. The Macedonian pelta was similarly constructed, bronze sheet over wood, or could have been even lighter with a bronze sheet over wicker (Hammond, 1999; Plutarch Aemilius 20.10). The facing was beaten out of a thin bronze sheet using a mould to get the decoration (Pavlos, 2019).

The Macedonian shields were in a range of sizes. Asclepiodotus thought the “best shield” was “eight palms”, but clearly others were possible. There is disagreement about the size of a “palm”. The Loeb Editor of Asclepiodotus says the “The ‘palm’ may be considered as ‘approximately three inches'”. Hammond (1996) suggests it was slightly bigger. He says, “the Macedonian ‘finger-breadth’ was 2cm. If so, the ‘Palm’ was 8 cm and the ‘foot’ was 32 cm” (Hammond, 1996, p. 365). Hammond then moderates to this with “the Macedonian ‘foot’ was a length of about 320 mm. that is within the higher range of measurement in the Greek states” (p. 365). Using Hammond’s dimensions, the Macedonian shield was about 64 cm in diameter. However, Markle (1999) points out that monumental evidence, and evidence of shield fragments, suggest that actual Macedonian shields were often about 74cm in diameter. Even 74cm is pretty small compared to the argive shield of a hoplite, at about 95cm. Sekunda (2012) mentions six bronze Macedonian shields found at at Staro Bonče in modern North Macedonia; they have diameters of 74cm, 74cm, 73.6cm, 72cm, 66cm, and 66cm. From this Sekunda assumes there were two sizes of Macedonian shield, a smaller one of about 66cm and a larger one about 74cm. The smaller size (66cm) would give a Macedonian palm of 8.25cm and a Macedonian foot of 33cm (matching the Hellenistic standard of the Pergamene foot). Maybe Asclepiodotus was just stating a preference of 66cm over 74cm shields for the Macedonian phalanx.

Bar-Kochva (1976) claimed the Seleucid shield was only 45cm but I echos Markle’s (1978a) scepticism: “Where does he learn that the ‘standard’ Macedonian shield was 45 cm?” (p. 410). I think we’re safe with 66cm to 74cm.

Macedonian Shield - Sizes - Argive, Large Macedonian, Asclepiodotus 8 Palm Ideal
Macedonian Shield – Sizes – Argive, Large Macedonian, Asclepiodotus 8 Palm Ideal

The Macedonian pelta was hung from the neck by a strap (telamon) and had a handle (ochane) (Markle, 1999; Sekunda, 2012). In contrast the hoplite shield had a handgrip (porpax)


In fact it is generally accepted that the Macedonians employed a variety of sizes and types of spears/pikes (Andronikos, 1984, cited in Pavlos, 2019; Markle, 1977). The question is, when and why were the alternative weapons employed?

As Hammond (1997) points out, “this Macedonian equipment was for use only in their phalanx formation” (Hammond, 1997, p. ) “No one would use it in siege warfare or in street-fighting.” (Hammond, 1997, p. 368) In other circumstances the Macedonian infantry would adopt their traditional javelins.

I’ll share just one example: at the siege of Halicarnassus two phalangite attacked the city alone, and with javelins (Arrian Anabasis 1.21.1).

A FEW days after this, two Macedonian hoplites of the brigade of Perdiccas, living in the same tent and being messmates, happened in the course of conversation each to be extolling himself and his own exploits. Hence a quarrel arose between them as to which of them was the braver, and, being somewhat inflamed with wine, they agreed to arm themselves, and of their own accord go and assault the wall facing the citadel, which for the most part was turned towards Mylasa. This they did rather to make a display of their own valour than to engage in a dangerous conflict with the enemy. Some of the men in the city, however, perceiving that there were only two of them, and that they were approaching the wall inconsiderately, rushed out upon them; but they slew those who came near, and hurled darts at those who stood at a distance.

When was this introduced

The Military Decree of Amphipolis was Antigonid, but there are indications Philip II introduced the new Macedonian arms much earlier, in the year of Perdiccas’ death, 360/359 BC (Hammond, 1997). Polyaenus Stratagems 4.2.10 says:

[10] Philippus accustomed the Macedonians to constant exercise, before they went to war: so that he would frequently make them march three hundred stades, carrying with them their helmets, shields [peltas], greaves, and spears [sarissas]; and, besides those arms, their provisions likewise, and utensils for common use.

This translation of Polyaenus Stratagems 4.2.10 highlights a problem with studying the ancient texts via English translations. Each translator uses a different set of words and the translation can introduce bias and confusion. The older the translation the worse the problem. Looking at the original Greek (Polyaenus Stratagems 4.2.10 (Greek)), although “σάρισα” has been translated to spear, the original word is actually sarissa i.e. the Macedonian pike (Greek Vocabulary: Polyaenus Stratagems 4.2). And rather than the generic “shield”, the word “πέλτα” is actual pelta (κράνοςWiktionary: πέλτη). Spear and shield has a totally different, and wider, meaning than sarissa and pelta – equipment of those armed in the Macedonian fashion.

Diodorus 16.3.2 to 16.3.2

[Phillip II] improved the organization of his forces and equipped the men suitably with weapons of war, he held constant manoeuvres of the men under arms and competitive drills.

[2] Indeed he devised the compact order and the equipment of the phalanx, imitating the close order fighting with overlapping shields of the warriors at Troy, and was the first to organize the Macedonian phalanx.

Hammond (1997) offers a perhaps more precise translation to Diodorus 16.3.3: Phillip II “invented the close formation and the fitting out of the phalanx … and he first organised the Macedonian phalanx” (Hammond, 1997, p. 368). But the intent is clear, Phillip II fitted out those armed in Macedonian fashion.

Dating the introduction of the sarissa to Phillip II in 360/359 is controversial. Some modern historians argue that the Battle of Chaeronea (338 BC) is a key date as this is the first time there is archeological evidence for the sarissa (Rahe, 1981). Others argue for even later (Markle, 1978b). All the authorities make good points, but I’l stick with Polyaenus.

Non-Macedonians armed in Macedonian fashion

The nationality of troops armed in the Macedonian fashion was wide ranging and included: the Argead Macedonians, Antigonid Macedonians, Lysimachid, Seleucids, Ptolemaic Egyptians, Attalid (Pergamene), the Greco-Bactrian Kingdom, the Indo-Greek Kingdom, the Hellenized Kingdom of Pontus, other lesser Hellenic and Hellenized states of the Middle East, and in mainland Greece, the Epirots, Achaeans, Boeotians and Spartans in mainland Greece (Deligiannis, 2009). Many of the men in the ranks were Macedonian, descendants of Macedonians, or just called Macedonian because of their troop type (Fischer-Bovet, 2014). This sections includes a few examples.

c. 188 BCE - Map of the Hellenistic World
c. 188 BCE – Map of the Hellenistic World

The trend to arm non-Macedonians in Macedonian fashion started with Alexander. One of grievances of Alexander soldiers against the King was that he equipped foreign soldiers in Macedonian style, the Epigoni (successors):

Arrian Anabasis 7.6.3-5:

The viceroys from the newly-built cities and the rest of the territory subdued in war came to him^ bringing with them youths just growing into manhood to the number of 30,000, all of the same age, whom Alexander called Epigoni (successors). They were accoutred with Macedonian arms, and exercised in military discipline after the Macedonian system.

Arrian Anabasis 7.8.2:

throughout the whole of this expedition they [the Macedonian soldiers] had been offended at many other things; for his adoption of the Persian dress, thereby exhibiting his contempt for their opinion, caused them grief, as did also his accoutring the foreign soldiers called Epigoni in the Macedonian style, and the mixing of the alien horsemen among the ranks of the Companions.

At Paraetacene (317 BC) Eumenes had 5,000 men of all races armed in Macedonian fashion (Diodorus 19.27.6):

[27] [6] When Eumenes had made the left wing strong in this way, he placed the phalanx beside it. The outer end of this consisted of the mercenaries, who numbered more than six thousand; next were about five thousand men who had been equipped in the Macedonian fashion although they were of all races.

Ptolemy IV had 3,000 Libyans were “armed in the Macedonian fashion” at Raphia (217 BC) (Polybius 5.65.8).

From 209 BC Philopoemen retrained the Achaean to fight like Macedonians with Macedonian equipment Plutarch Philopoemen 10.9.1 to 10.9.8). Ptolemy V sent 6,000 “peltast” shields to the Achaean League in 189 BC (Polybius 22.9.2 – 22.9.3).

Duncan Head gave a slightly different translation of that (Head, 2015). Basically this shifts the language from “shields” to “arms”. I tend to agree with him on the bronze faced pelta.

Ptolemy gives the Achaians “6,000 sets of bronze arms for peltasts”, “hexakischilia men hopla chalka peltastika” (Polyb. XXII.9.3) – not literally “shields” as in the Loeb translation, though the fact that they’re bronze panoplies may imply bronze-faced peltai

Bear in mind that the peltasts were “picked troops armed in the Macedonian fashion” (Polybius 5.81.2).

By the time the Romans faced the Seleucid phalanx, the race of the men didn’t matter, only that they were “armed after the manner of the Macedonians”. Livy 37.40.7 says …

[40] The king’s line was more chequered with troops of many nations, dissimilar both in their persons and armour. There was a body of sixteen thousand men armed after the manner of the Macedonians, which were called a phalanx. [2] This formed the centre

The Macedonian-type phalanx was essentially used for the last time after four and a half centuries, in the first century AD, by two non-Greek states: the Kushan Kingdom of Bactria (in modern Afghanistan and Uzbekistan) and the north Syrian Kingdom of Kommagene (Deligiannis, 2009).

All those armed in the Macedonian fashion looked the same, mostly

At a distance men armed in the Macedonian fashion looked alike. But up close enemy could distinguish nationalities. An incident in 209 BC highlights this as an Elean force was willing to face Achaean’s armed in the Macedonian fashion, but surrendered when they realised they were facing real Macedonian bronze shields (Polybius 4.69.4 to 4.69.7).

[4] At first, I must explain, their officers thought it was an Achaean force which had come to opposite them … [6] They therefore kept their ranks and began to retire to some higher ground, not despairing of safety. But as soon as the Macedonians advancing on them drew close, they realized the truth and all took to flight throwing away their shields. [7] About twelve hundred of them were made prisoners and the remainder perished, either at the hands of the Macedonians or by falling down the precipices, only about a hundred escaping.

I suspect they all carried “brazen and glittering bucklers” (Livy 44.40.5). Livy was specifically talking about the Antigonid bronze shields (Chalcaspides), but Antigonus Doson gave the city of Megalopolis bronze shields so they could be armed in the Macedonian fashion during the Sellasia campaign. (222 BC) (Polybius 4.69.4 to 4.69.5)

[4] At first, I must explain, their officers thought it was an Achaean force which had come to opposite them, taken in chiefly by the brazen-shielded hoplites [5] whom they supposed to be Megalopolitans, as the contingent from there had carried such shields in the battle at Sellasia against Cleomenes, King Antigonus having thus armed them for the occasion.

The Eleans probably realised their mistake in 209 BC when they got close enough to see the specific symbols on the shields of the Antigonids. Achaeans and the Macedonians both carried bronze shields, but they carried bronze shields with different patterns. They weren’t the only bronze shields we have evidence of. Plutarch writes of Mithridates VI of Pontus fielding a corps of chalkaspides against Sulla at the Battle of Chaeronea (86 BCE) (Plutarch Sulla 16.7)

For this reason, and because he saw the chalkaspides, or Bronze-shields, of the enemy pushing their way towards it, Sulla wished to occupy the place first; and he did occupy it, now that he found his soldiers eager for action.

Steven's books on the Macedonian Wars
Steven’s books on the Macedonian Wars


Andronikos, M. (1984). Βεργίνα: οι βασιλικοί τάφοι και οι άλλες αρχαιότητες. Εκδοτική Αθηνών Α.Ε, Athens, 143-144.

Arrian Anabasis 1.21.1

Arrian Anabasis 7.6.3-5

Arrian Anabasis 7.8.2

Bar-Kochva, B. (1976). The Seleucid Army: Organization & tactics in the Great Campaigns. Cambridge University Press.

Deligiannis, P. (2009). The Twilight of the Macedonian Phalanx: the last survivals of its use (1st century AD). Author.

Diodorus 16.3.2 to 16.3.2

Fischer-Bovet, C. (2014). Army and Society in Ptolemaic Egypt. Armies of the Ancient World. Cambridge University Press.

Hammond, N. G. L. (1996). A Macedonian Shield and Macedonian Measures. The Annual of the British School at Athens, 91, 365–367.

Hammond, N.G.L. (1997) What May Philip Have Learnt as a Hostage in Thebes?, Greek Roman and Byzantine Studies 38.4, p. 355-372.

Hammond (1999

Head, D. (1997). Antigonid Uniforms and the Kotthubos. Slingshot: Official Journal of the Society of Ancients, 194, p. 24.

Head, D. (2015). Macedonian infantry shields. Society of Ancients.

Livy 44.40.5

Markle, M. M. (1977). The Macedonian sarissa, spear, and related armour. American Journal of Archaeology 81, p. 323-339.

Markle, M. M. (1978a). Review: The Seleucid Army. Organization and Tactics in the Great Campaigns by Bezalel Bar-Kochva. The Classical World, 71(6), p. 407-410.

Markle, M. M. (1978b). Use of the sarissa by Philip and Alexander. American Journal of Archaeology 82, p. 483-497.

Markle, M. M. (1999). A Shield Monument from Veria and the Chronology of Macedonian Shield Types. Hesperia: : The Journal of the American School of Classical Studies at Athens, 68(2), 219-254.

Matthew, C. (2015). An Invincible Beast: Understanding the Hellenistic pike-phalanx at war. Pen & Sword Military.

Pavlos, A. (2019). The Defensive Weapons of the Macedonians. Masters thesis. Thessaloniki – Greece.

Polyaenus Stratagems 4.2.10

Polybius 4.69.4 to 4.69.7

Polybius 5.65.8

Polybius 5.81.2

Polybius 18.29.1

Plutarch Flamininus 8.4

Plutarch Philopoemen 10.9.1 to 10.9.8

Plutarch Sulla 16.7

Rahe, P. (1981). The annihilation of the sacred band at Chaeronea. American Journal of Archaeology 85, p. 84-87.

Sekunda. N. (2012). Macedonian Armies after Alexander 323-168 BC [Men-at-Arms 477]. Osprey Publishing.

Wikipedia: Military Decree of Amphipolis

6 thoughts on “Armed in the Macedonian fashion”

  1. Thanks Stephen, that was really good interesting. I’m try to get my head around the various Successor Eastern kingdoms at the moment, so very timely and useful.


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