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The sarissa was long enough (18-22 feet) to keep an enemy at bay but sectioned for easy travel on the march. (Illustration by Gregory Proch)

The most distinctive weapon in the Macedonian army, the sarissa likely evolved from earlier hunting spears used to subdue wild boar. Macedonian infantryman used it to hold off more dangerous game, namely the Spartan phalanx.

When King Philip II campaigned in Greece, he had neither the money to produce armor like that used by Greek hoplites nor the time to train his own conscripts in phalanx maneuvers. Consequently, his men wore lighter armor and carried smaller shields with straps, enabling them to deflect blows while freeing both hands to wield the lightweight sarissa. A Macedonian phalangite’s hardware totaled 40 pounds, compared to 50 pounds for the average hoplite. The sarissa offered other advantages, notably its 18- to 22-foot length and stout iron spearhead, which—given a two-handed thrust—could penetrate an enemy’s armor. Packing his troops in tight formations, 10 men wide and 10 deep, Philip initially kept the maneuvers simple, using his infantry only to pin down an enemy until his cavalry could flank them. As his phalangites gained experience, he used them more flexibly and aggressively.

By the time Philip’s son, Alexander III, inherited the throne, the sarissa and the tactics devised around it had revolutionized warfare and helped launch Macedonia and its conquered Greek client states on a campaign that subjugated an unprecedented portion of the Western world. It continued to dominate combat until even more flexible Roman formations and tactics brought Macedonian independence to an end in 146 BC.