Sarissa

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The sarissa or sarisa (Greek: s???sa) was a 4 to 7 meter (13-21 feet) long pike used in the ancient Greek and Hellenistic warfare. It was introduced by Philip II of Macedon and was used in the traditional Greek phalanx formation as a replacement for the earlier dory, which was considerably shorter. The phalanxes of Philip II of Macedon were known as Macedonian phalanxes. The sarissa, made of tough and resilient cornel wood, was very heavy for a spear, weighing over 5 kg (12 pounds). It had a short iron head shaped like a leaf and a bronze shoe (also known as a butt-spike) that would allow it to be anchored to the ground to stop charges by enemy soldiers.[1] The bronze shoe also served to balance out the spear, making it easier for soldiers to wield. Its great length, up to eighteen feet, in two lengths that were joined in a central bronze tube,[2] was an asset against hoplites and other soldiers bearing shorter weapons, because they had to get past the sarissas to engage the phalangites. However, outside the tight formation of the Phalanx the sarissa would have been almost useless as a weapon and a hindrance on the march.

Complicated training ensured that the phalanx wielded their sarissas in unison, swinging them vertically to wheel about, then lowering them to the horizontal. The uniform swish of the sarissas daunted the Illyrian hill tribesmen on whom the young Alexander exerted his early sortie.[3]

The tight formation of the phalanx created a “wall of pikes”, and the pike was so long that there were fully five rows of them projecting in front of the front rank of men—even if an enemy got past the first row, there were still four more to stop him. The back rows bore their pikes angled upwards in readiness, which served the additional purpose of deflecting incoming arrows. The Macedonian phalanx was considered all but invulnerable from the front, except against another such phalanx; the only way it was ever generally defeated was by breaking its formation or outflanking it.

The invention of the sarissa is credited to Philip II, father of Alexander the Great. Philip drilled his soldiers, whose morale was at first low, to use these formidable pikes with two hands. The new tactic was unstoppable, and by the end of Philip’s reign the previously fragile kingdom of Macedon, once of the Hellenised periphery, controlled the whole of Greece, and Thrace.

His son, Alexander, used the new tactic across Asia, conquering Egypt, Persia and the Pauravas (northwest India), victorious all the way. The sarissa-wielding phalanxes were vital in every early battle, including the pivotal battle of Gaugamela where the Persian king’s scythe chariots were utterly destroyed by the phalanx, supported by the combined use of companion cavalry and peltasts (javelineers). Alexander gradually reduced the importance of the phalanx, and the sarissa, as he modified his combined use of arms, and incorporated ‘Asian’ weapons and troops.

The sarissa, however, remained the backbone for every subsequent Hellenistic, and especially Diadochi army. The Battle of Raphia between the Seleucids and Ptolemy IV may represent the pinnacle of sarissa tactics, when only an elephant charge seemed able to disrupt the opposing phalanx. The Successor Kingdoms of Macedon’s empire tried expanding upon Alexander’s design, creating pikes as long as 22 feet, but all of these ideas were eventually abandoned in favor of the battle-tried Alexandrian sarissa. Battles often ended up stalemated in what Oliver Cromwell later described as “the terrible business of push of pike”.

Subsequently, a lack of training and too great a reliance on the Phalanx instead of the combined use of arms (Alexander’s and Philip’s great contributions) led to the final defeat of Macedon by the Romans at the Battle of Pydna. Part of the reason for the rapid deterioration of the sarissa’s ability was that, after Alexander, generals ceased to protect phalanxes with cavalry and light-armed troops, and phalanxes were destroyed too easily by flank attacks owing to the sarissa’s tactical unwieldiness. The sarissa was gradually replaced by variations of the gladius as the weapon of choice.