An Invincible Beast: Understanding the Hellenistic Pike Phalanx in Action by Christopher Matthew

Book Review by centurion (Martin Holmes)

Christopher Matthew’s An Invincible Beast is a remarkable piece of military history. It is a comprehensive study of the Macedonian pike-phalanx, describing its origins, logistics, uses in battle, as well as its influence in the ancient world.

A trained classicist, Matthew felt that even though the pike-phalanx was the dominant military formation for two centuries, being used by Alexander the Great himself in his campaigns, serious study of it has been neglected by historians. Thus, he wrote An Invincible Beast to remind readers of the importance of the pike-phalanx, and to banish the many myths that exist about it.

This task has been accomplished well, making Matthew’s book an original addition to classical studies. The book’s strength lies in two areas. Firstly, it provides a solid, reliable history of the origins and development of the pike-phalanx. Matthew notes that historians still disagree about who created it, with some stating it was Alexander the Great, others Phillip II, and still others stating it was Alexander the II. Matthew persuasively argues it was more a development than a creation, beginning with the Iphicrataean Revolution under Alexander II, and slowly evolving into the organised formation used by Alexander the Great. Considering how murky writing about the pike-phalanx has been, Matthew’s work is a welcome addition to the field of classical studies.

The other strength of the book is its emphasis on reconstruction. For Matthew does not only explore the development of the pike-phalanx, he actually discusses how it would be used. He explains the logistics of the formation down to the last detail, focusing particularly on the sarissa – the enlarged pike/spear that gave the pike-phalanx its distinctive look. He explains how the phalangites would have wielded it, and how they carried its extra weight (it was significantly heavier than the Greek spear); the accuracy of the weapon, and the training needed for soldiers to use it properly; what the power of the weapon was, and how much force was needed to incapacitate an opponent.

He discusses the clothing of the Macedonians, their smaller shield, and their helmets. He discusses the tactics used by the pike-phalanx, noting its effectiveness against the traditional Greek phalanx and the cavalry. Finally, he shows its weaknesses, and why it was displaced and made obsolete by the tactics of the Roman legions. The fact he used re-enactors, and actually recreated the pike-phalanx so he could analyse its weapons and strategy in greater depth, adds to the plausibility of his arguments.

Indeed, the only criticism that can be made is that the book is sometimes too detailed! It is not for the faint hearted. Because Matthew is a classicist, An Invincible Beast needed to maintain academic standards. The author dives deep into the historiography, quoting learned people and providing copious footnotes, and amassing an enormous bibliography. While some readers may rejoice, others might find it off-putting. If anyone does wish to buy it, they should know they are not just getting a book about Macedonian military tactics, but a comprehensive, wide-ranging, immensely detailed study.

In conclusion, this is an outstanding book. Because it is an academic work, it is recommended to students studying classical, and particularly Hellenic, history. Those with a passion for military history, re-enacting, ancient Greece, ancient Macedon, or Alexander the Great may also enjoy it.

Considering that historical writing on this topic has been sketchy until recently, I also recommend it to all those with a general interest in the classics.

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