The Army of Antigonid Macedonia

By DominicusUltimus

Macedonia. The land that had given birth to the likes of Philip II and Alexander the Great continued to be an influential force in the Hellenistic Age, until it came in conflict with the rising power of the Roman Republic. However, the Macedonian kingdom that came to blows with the Romans wasn't ruled by the Argead Dynasty of Philip and Alexander. That bloodline had come to an end when Cassander, son of Antipater who was one of Alexander's most trusted generals, executed Alexander's son Alexander IV along with his mother Roxane in 310 BC. No, this Macedonia was led by the Antigonid dynasty.

Descended from Antigonus Monopthalmus, one of the most powerful of Alexander's Successors, the Antigonids were a line of powerful and ambitious kings who warred with the Ptolemies and the Seleucids for control of the Greek speaking world. Though Antigonus Monopthalmus was the progenitor of the royal line, the first official king of Antigonid Macedonia was his grandson Antigonus Gonatas who firmly established himself in 277 b.c. In this article I shall go into detail about the armed forces of the Antigonids. From how closely they followed the military mold set by Philip and Alexander, to how they started to evolve in an attempt to match and exceed the legions of Rome.

The Phalanx

The mighty Antigonid phalanx

The backbone of the Antigonid war machine was the Macedonian phalanx. The men or phalangites of the Antigonid phalanx continued to wield the mighty sarissa pike as the Argead phalanx had before them. However, the Antigonids increased the already prodigious length of the sarissa from sixteen feet to a monstrous twenty-two feet long. This gave their soldiers the advantage of a far greater reach than their opponents as well as their Argead predecessors, but it also had the disadvantage of making the phalanx even more unwieldy than it already was. Another disadvantage of the massive weapon was that it further compounded the phalanx's limited maneuverability, and made it even more vulnerable to outflanking by more mobile opponents such as the Polybian Era legionnaire.

Despite these disadvantages, the Antigonid phalanx was a formidable formation that could be almost unstoppable when commanded by a capable general. The length of the sarissa allowed five spearheads to be aimed at an enemy before he could get close enough to attack the first rank of the phalanx, and forest of spear points presented a powerful and terrifying image that few men had the courage to stand against. The length of the sarissa also had the added advantage of maintaining the cohesion of the phalanx by keeping the ranks of phalangites in line with one another. The unengaged phalangites of the rear ranks held their sarissai at an angle above the first five ranks, and by doing so created a kind of shield that deflected arrows, sling stones and other missiles thrown at them.

The Antigonids initially allowed only pureblooded Macedonians to fight within the ranks of the phalanx, but this slowly began to change as more Macedonians began migrating East into the fertile lands of the Seleucid and Ptolemaic empires. These restrictions were finally abolished after thousands of Macedonians were killed or captured at the disastrous Battle of Cynoscephalae in 197 b.c. Desperately in need of replacements and manpower, the Antigonid king Philip V proclaimed a series of reforms over the course of several years (196 b.c. to his death in 179 b.c.) that allowed non-Macedonians into the ranks of the phalanx and soon thousands of Thracians and Illyrians began flocking to his banner. These men reinvigorated the Antigonid military and gave Philip's son Perseus the strength he needed to fight the Romans at the decisive Battle of Pydna in 168 b.c.

There were also two elite corps within the Antigonid phalanx known as the Chalkaspides (Bronze Shields) and the Leukaspides (White Shields). The two corps numbered roughly five thousand men each, and they were distinguished from the other Antigonid phalangites by their more extravagant weapons and armor. These arms were not just for show, and were said to be of exceptional quality equal to those of the king himself. The two corps were often, but not always, found fighting alongside each other in battle.

Infantry and Auxiliary Forces

To support the phalanx and to protect its vulnerable flanks, the Antigonids fielded many types of light and heavy infantry. The first of these were the Peltastai. Unlike the lighter skirmishing forces of other kingdoms, the Macedonian Peltastai were well protected in linothorax armor and were often found fighting alongside the phalanx. They often served as shock troops and were skilled in ambushing and traversing rough and irregular terrain. Their ranks stood five thousand strong, and two thousand of them formed an elite battalion known as the Agema. The Agema served as the personal guard of the Antigonid kings, and were often deployed in only the most dangerous and rewarding missions.

The Antigonids also field two other types of infantry known as the Thureophoroi and the Thorakitai. The Thureophoroi were light troops armed with a spear, a handful of javelins, a kopis or makhaira short sword and the large thureos shield for which they were named. Their primary role was to skirmish with enemy's own light troops, and to harass the opposing phalanx before it came into contact with their own. The Thorakitai possessed the same weapons used by the Thureophoroi, but were well protected with shirts of mail armor. This added protection allowed them to fight alongside the phalanx, and to charge and exploit any gaps created in the enemy's line. They were also skilled in fighting in rough or mountainous terrain where the more heavily armored phalangites could prove all but useless against lighter opponents.

The light infantry of the Antigonid army were known as the Psiloi. These men were the skirmishers of the Antigonid army and thus were divided into three separate divisions based on their weaponry. These divisions were the Akontistai (javelineers), the Toxotai (archers) and the Sphendonetai (slingers). Together they served to "soften up" the enemy by picking off soldiers or by disrupting the enemy formation with massed volleys of missiles just before they came into contact with the main phalanx. Though not as crucial as the high-riding cavalry or the mighty phalanx, they were still an integral, if somewhat inglorious, component of the Antigonid war machine.

The Cavalry

The last and most prestigious arm of the Antigonid army was the cavalry, the hammer to the phalanx's anvil. However, it was also the most neglected and underappreciated part of the Antigonid army. As warfare in mainland Greece become focused once again on the heavy infantry slugfests between phalanxes, the tradition of horsemanship amongst the Macedonian nobility fell more and more into disuse. The close proximity between Macedon and the various Greek city-states meant there wasn't as much of a need for fast, hard-hitting cavalry as there was during the heyday of Philip and Alexander. Despite this, they were still a crucial component of the Antigonid army.

The Hetairoi

The first of the cavalry squadrons were the world famous shock cavalry known as the Hetairoi or Companion Cavalry. Comprised of the Macedonian nobility, and especially the king's closest friends, the Hetairoi were a small but war-winning force. They were well armored in muscle cuirasses of bronze, silver and in some cases even gold. Their role was to charge directly into the enemy and for this they wielded a large thirteen foot long lance called a xyston, which could impale two men when propelled by a proper charge. If the xyston was lost or broken after a charge they switched to a singed-edged sword known as a kopis. The hacking style of the sword was enhanced by the Hetairoi's increased height, and it wasn't unusual to see a Hetairoi literally disarm his opponent in battle.

The Xystophoroi

The last two cavalry squadrons of the Antigonid army were known as the Loncophoroi and the Xystophoroi. The Loncophoroi were armored similar to the Hetairoi, but instead wielded a shield and short thrusting spear in combat. Their role was to engage and intercept shock cavalry like the Hetairoi before they could unleash their deadly charge. On the other hand, the Xystophoroi were solely meant to charge repeatedly into the enemy line. Like the Hetairoi they wielded the mighty xyston lance, but unlike them they and their mounts were almost completely unarmored. This helped them gain momentum for a charge and escape swiftly afterwards, but if caught in a melee with infantry or other cavalry forces they could be torn to pieces.

Overview and Summary

Despite the difference in tactics, and the shift away from the cavalry to the phalanx as the decisive element of battle, the Antigonid army was a formidable military machine. It was more than capable of matching up to the forces of the Seleucids, the Ptolemies and the citizen armies of the Greek city-states, but against the more flexible and maneuverable legions of the Roman Republic it was found to be somewhat lacking. However, these shortcomings were not insurmountable and the great defeats at Cynoscephalae and Pydna had more to do with the failings of its commanders than the ability of the soldiery.

The disaster at Cynoscephalae in 197 b.c. was caused not by a poor performance on the phalanx's part, but by Philip V's decision to engage the Romans when only half of his army was ready for battle. Indeed, the right wing of the phalanx that managed to form up met the legionnaires head-on and succeeded in driving the vaunted legions of Rome before it. Disaster occurred only when the unformed left wing was routed, and the victorious legionnaires charged into the phalanx's unprotected flanks and rear. Had Philip been more patient and fought the Romans after his army had fully deployed, there is a significant chance that he could've won the day and prevented the Romans from ever gaining a foothold in Greece.

The catastrophe at Pydna in 168 b.c. was another defeat that could've been prevented if the commander had been more aware of the tactical situation and exerted more control over all of his forces. Once again, the phalanx and legion met one another head-on and the legionnaires proved unable to pierce the wall of spear points. Trying in vain to grab the sarissa or hack away their spear points, the legionnaires fell back on uneven ground and unwisely the phalanx pursued. Instead of ordering his men to hold or pulling them back, Perseus let them go forward and allowed the phalanx to lose its unity and cohesion. Seeing their chance in front of them the legionnaires charged into the gaps of the phalanx, but the day could've been saved if Perseus had led his cavalry in a charge into the legion's exposed flanks.

Instead, the last true Antigonid king fled the battlefield while his soldiers fought on until they were slaughtered to the last man.

Had the army of the Antigonids regressed when compared to the army of the Argeads? It had, but it was still capable of meeting almost any other army in battle with a significant chance of achieving victory. The problem was not to be found in the system or in the soldiers themselves, but in the higher echelons of power. Commanders who relied on the brute force of the phalanx whilst ignoring its weaknesses instead of compensating for them led the army to disaster in the face of determined opposition such as the Roman legionnaires. Though the torch of war had been passed from the phalanx to the legion, the armies of the Argeads and the Antigonid's left an incredible impression that men such as I still remember today.

For those who are interested, the links below provide more detailed information about the great battles of the Antigonid army:

The Battle of Cynoscephalae

The Battle of Pydna

Selected Bibliography:

B. Bar-Kochva The Seleucid Army
Joseph Pietrkowski Great Battles of the Hellenistic World
John Warry Warfare in the Classical World
Philip Matyszak The Enemies of Rome: From Hannibal to Attila the Hun
Ruth Sheppard Alexander the Great at War
and of course Wikipedia.

Credits for picture and screenshots:
Ancient Warfare Magazine. Specific issue found here.

The Classical Age: Total War Team. Home page here.