Taming the “beast” II. The modern sarrisa-formation experience.
Dealing with the basics of the sarrisa was an interesting and exiting experience. While it gave me a glimpse in the world of Great Alexander’s heavy infantryman it raised more questions inside me. How would it be if I had to execute all the drills that my friends of the “Hetairoi” taught me, in a tight formation? Well, my German and Austrian friends dedicated hard work had produced sixteen reconstructed sarissas! Finally the possibility of reconstructing a full “lochos” as described in Asclepiodotus and Aelian works seemed very real. And on the first weekend of August 2014 at Heunburg (Germany) the reconstruction would become a reality and I would be part of it.
An inspection of ancient works of art and a review of the commands as written by the ancient writers has given me and my friends an idea of what might work but, as no ancient weapons technical manual survived to our times, no one could tell how things were really done. We simply had to bridge a 2500 years time gap if not more. Signs were encouraging though. I handled several of the reconstructed sarissas individually and my fear for the weapon had vanished. I wasn’t the worried newbie anymore.
Well finally the time came. Sixteen determined men were ready to put the theories into practice and the reconstructions to the test.Several initial previous conclusions held true. It was not easy to move quickly with the assembled pike in vertical or slightly angled position. We all could move rapidly if need be with disassembled pikes. The rapid marches of the Macedonian army mentioned in the sources were not possible to be executed with the pikes assembled. The synaspismos (shield lock) with overlapping shields could not be executed either. When mentioned in the sources it is most probably either “poetic license” or a generalization to describe a tight formation.
Suddenly we started having new experiences and in this way new knowledge, even if sometimes it came to us in a difficult manner. The first thing we learned that if wood was not well whittled the sarissa was badly balanced and awkward in handling it. Some of the reconstructed pikes suffered from these issues and would be a deadly liability in war conditions. The reconstructed small round shields with the metallic porpax were causing problems to out hands even if we did not put our hands inside the porpax and used only the “telamon” (i.e. baldric attached on the shield). Yet one of our friends with a reconstructed Thracian pelta did not seem to suffer from this. No fully preserved Macedonian shields survive and the fact that were called “pelta” too seems in the light of our experience to had something with the way they were born on the arm. This is a point for further study.
It was also found that the troops could not jog in tight formation towards the enemy so the pikemen assault was probably a slow gradual process. The men advanced with the pikes leveled using “half steps”. When the “lochagos” gave the command “Katavalete ta dorarta” (i.e. level spears/pikes) each man took a side step left and leveled his pike thus being in the back left of the man in front of him. The reason is that the artistically reconstructed pike positioning that has each man leveling his weapon to the right of the man in front of him caused disturbance in tight formation and security problem with the sayroteres (butt-spikes) during the advance. Another interesting observation was that a man who tried to push aside the points of a file with shield and sword, while can push the first and second point out of harms way he was usually exposed to the 3rd or 4th point after them. Several attempts yielded the same result. One is to thing that even the tough Roman legionaries might had an issue when facing the phalanx front; something that was demonstrated during the fighting of the Thessalian city of Atrax were the Romans failed to storm a breach because of the massed pikes. (1)
While advancing in tight formation and focusing in controlling the pike it is possible to feel a type of isolation despite the number of men around you. One the spears are leveled the only way to move is to advance where your sarissa is pointed. All changes of direction have to be done while the pikes are on vertical position. The men are effectively powerless if they are hit in the flank, as the “fence” created by the leveled pikes of their comrades will trap them.
I thank my friends of the “Hetairoi” for the wonderful experience and above all our “lochagos” Marco Grün for his patience while instructing me and answering my endless stream of queries.
(1 ) J. E. Lendon Soldiers & Ghosts: A History of Battle in Classical Antiquity Yale University Press page 204