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kmt_sesh

How did Alexander do it?

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One of my favorite historical figures is Alexander the Great, one of the ancient world's greatest conquerers. It's a guy thing, I guess. I was bopping around the web today and stopped in to check out another forum I sometimes visit but to which I don't belong (and have never posted). They sometimes just have interesting discussion topics. One was the question I brought up for this new thread.

And by "do it" I'm not encouraging any randy innuendos. Hear that, Harte? Well, okay, I like that sort of humor as much as anyone else, but I'm attempting to be serious here. How did Alexander and his army defeat the vast Persian empire? He engaged the Persians in three principal battles: Granicus in the Troad (334 BCE), Issus in southern Anatolia (333 BCE), and Gaugamela in Babylonia (331 BCE). Estimates vary but Alexander's army numbered between 40,000 and 50,000 men and horse. In each engagement, the Persian army was at least twice that size, and possibly well over 200,000 at Gaugamela. Despite the odds, however, the Macedonian phalanx crushed the greater Persian forces every time.

There were numerous other battles and sieges, everywhere from Halicarnassus to Tyre and to Egypt, and Alexander's army was successful in every engagement against both Persia and its entrenched vassals.

I'm not even including the Macedonians' campaigns in Central Asia and the Hindu-Kush, because by then the Persian empire was more or less in Alexander's hands.

So, how did he do it? I have my own ideas based on my own reading and research (pretty conventional stuff, no surprise), but I welcome other people's ideas, too.

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Well, he was a God of course !

Just like Ramses the Great did it . :)

A mixture of ... okay, a great achievement, admittedly, but a lot of spin as well.

I dont know enough to comment on your questions (not my area) ... but I am interested to hear your views ... especially on the ' Central Asian' part of his campaign ; Bactria , Sogdiana, Turan, etc) ... that is more around my area.

I think he got a bit of a surprise about what he found there ?

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Issus was a mixture of cavalry and cowardice. Alexander's cavalry strategy was brilliant but would have gone nowhere if Darius would not have run off with his pants full.

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Hamipoi - they were light infantry that ran along with the cavalry. As trivial as this may sound it can make a huge difference. In Alexander at Gaugamela in Babylonia (331 B.C.) you catch a glimpse of them running with the cavalry.

Why is this important? Terry Pratchett constantly tells us a man can outrun a horse at short distances. And a surprise like that can cause huge waves. It takes an interesting mind to run light infantry along heavy cavalry to gain a small shock value edge...but one I would not have come up with. And in this we can get a glimpse of Alex's mind.

Pictured below are Xyston's Hamipoi.

anc20021.jpg

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And by "do it" I'm not encouraging any randy innuendos.

Ohh but I was going to say "on his back".

I suspect though that he succeeded because like Hitler he was a gambler who just succeeded. He was also an excellent cavalry commander and quite possibly the first true "calvary commander" rather then "someone who has cavalry at his command".

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... Terry Pratchett constantly tells us a man can outrun a horse at short distances. ...

I'm sure this is not correct.

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I always thought it was partly because the Greeks had long spears and heavier armor on their infantry, whereas the Persians went to war in regular cloth.

If you see the guy in front of you go down before he even gets withing striking distance and then the next two guys just bounce off the Greeks shield, you're going to think very hard about running away.

Technological advantage used correctly by Genius.

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I'm sure this is not correct.

Depends on how short the distance is I suppose.

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Alexander accomplished all that he did by the power of his personality. For instance, what did Hitler have in the beginning? Nothing but his personality to gather people around him and influence their thoughts and behavior. I've read that many of Hitler's cohorts just loved to be in Hitler's company, and that's almost what they lived for.

Albert Speer, Hitler's archetect said even thoutg he spent 20 years in prison after WW2, if he could live his life over again, he would live it the same, Hitler's magnetic persona was so wonderful to experience.

Without this kind of mesmerising personality, Alexander could not have accomplished what he did. I think this powerful human quality is often overlooked whe we wonder "How could this guy accomplish all this?".

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Depends on how short the distance is I suppose.

Or the definition of short.

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Any empire gets fat and complacent and stuffed with their own grandeur, so that they're just ripe for anyone more dynamic, adaptable and ambitious to come in and pluck them off the tree. Just like with France in 1940. And this was particularly so with the Persians, who were notoriously impressed with themselves. Alexander was fortunate enough to die while he was still a legend, before he could become fat and complacent and stuffed with his own grandeur- as he certainly would have done. And he was probably fortunate to die before he could over-reach himself and come up against a tougher proposition - like A.H. did.

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He didn't have local councils or as many government regulations to deal with back then...

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Or the definition of short.

or what we mean by "definition" ;)

Alexander had the advantage of being the "plucky underdog" who was defending his homeland, which goes a long way for troop morale and reason to fight.

As I say, he was an expert in the use of the cavalry, and had generations of professional horsemen and footsoldiers behind him, while Darius had levied (ie conscripts) and mercenaries. That's got to play in Alexander's favour as well.

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I hope people don't mind if I stick my finger in here, having often fielded Alexander's army in wargaming competitions (with not quite the same success as him).

For me Alexander's success comes from a variety of factors, including a nearly insane personal bravery, a skilful eye for maneuver and terrain, a good sense of the enemy's plan, a balanced professional army, and just plain good luck.

Bravery: Alexander appears to me to have gone into battle genuinely willing to risk his life to gain victory. If my interpretation is correct then the issue of defeat didn't matter to him because he never intended to survive defeat. In all the battles he fought in (adding in Chaeronea in Greece and Hydaspes River in India as well) he personally led the Companion cavalry from the front in a decisive charge, and was often close to death in these combats. He often personally led attacks in siege assaults too. This is a pretty good way to inspire your troops to greater efforts. We only need to look at the siege assault at (IIRC) Mallia in India where the infantry were a little tardy in the assault, and Alexander's response, standing on the wall, was to jump down into the city with only a handful of bodyguards. Well, didn't that motivate his men.

An eye for maneuver and terrain: Alexander's tactics showed incredibly neat skill, but it's important to understand that they didn't come from nothing. Instead they were clever developments of tactics previously developed by people such as the Theban general Epaminondas. He was also a master at presenting multiple threats, or of presenting one threat as a distraction and then defeating the enemy with another. This meant victories were sometimes based on hard fighting frontal attacks and sometimes on attacks on the enemy's flank or rear. At Gaugamela, for example, he stretched the Persians' left flank, risking the right flank of his own army in order to encourage the Persians to send reinforcements from the centre. When Darius obliged by sending a unit of cavalry from directly in front of his own position, that was the signal for Alexander and his Companions to charge straight at Darius. In this regard he was just like a chess player who's willing to throw away any number of pieces in order to open up the enemy's King to checkmate.

A good sense of the enemy's plan: Persian King Darius has generally received a bad press. However I'm one of probably a fairly small group that's willing to give him the benefit of the doubt. Ancients wargaming author Phil Barker agrees. His view of the Battle of Gaugamela is that Darius actually had a sensible plan for his army - use his tremendous advantage in mounted troops to envelop both flanks of Alexander's army while keeping the Macedonian phalanx occupied to the front. Darius's first problem was the Alexander guessed what the plan was. His second problem was that Alexander had worked out how to, judo-like, turn his plan against him. What Alexander did was order the Macedonian army to advance while sliding to the right, ensuring the Macedonians overlapped the Persians on their left flank; Alexander protected the left flank of the Macedonian army by echeloning it back so the Persian cavalry on that flank had further to travel. This combination of actions forced the Persians to attack the Macedonian right flank sooner than they wanted, and led to the call for reinforcements I mentioned above.

The other thing to consider about plans is that, in reality, very few people got to command in more than one battle in their lives. This meant that they usually only had one chance to command an army in battle. And in ancient times, with dust everywhere (even on grassy land) and no radios, it was hard to develop or execute complicated plans. Accordingly, Alexander could probably be confident that his opponent's plan was likely to be little more complex than "Everyone attack".

A balanced professional army: The Macedonian army, like Alexander's plans, was an evolutionary development of Greek armies over the previous 100 years or so. Even as late as the Battle of Chaeronea in 338BC the Greek allied army consisted of little more than a line of hoplites - personally brave but not trained for sophisticated maneuvers on the battlefield. By contrast Alexander's Macedonian army included a wide variety of troops with different specialised functions - heavy cavalry, light cavalry, heavy infantry, medium infantry and light infantry...even artillery occasionally played a part on the battlefield. Most of these troops had already been fielded by various Greek armies (except for heavy cavalry with lances) but never had they been co-ordinated with such skill. On top of that, being paid professionals the Macedonians could stay in the field all year, compared with Greek citizen hoplites and Persian cavalry, both of whom were essentially the gentry of their societies and for whom year-round campaigning was almost unthinkable. This is what kept the army together as it plunged further into the Persian Empire and beyond.

Luck: Yep, there's no doubt he was lucky. If he'd been killed at the Battle of the Granicus River in 334BC (as he very nearly was) he'd have been little more than a footnote in history. But he was willing to ride his luck, and it lasted him all the way to Babylon in 323BC.

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Estimates vary but Alexander's army numbered between 40,000 and 50,000 men and horse.

Yes, around 40,000 infantry and 10,000 cavalry.

In each engagement, the Persian army was at least twice that size, and possibly well over 200,000 at Gaugamela.

Only in raw numbers, not in terms of properly trained troops.

For example, the Persian army at Gaugamela probably numbered around 10,000 trained infantry and 40,000 trained cavalry. The remaining troops, however many they were, were levies of negligible military value. These guys simply lined up at the back and frankly had no military function in battle (they provided labour in camps and at sieges), so including them in the numbers for the Persian army is misleading.

Despite the odds, however, the Macedonian phalanx crushed the greater Persian forces every time.

It's important not to overstate the importance of the phalanx alone. Alexander's tactics involved careful use of each part of his army and the phalanx was no different. They could beat Greek hoplites frontally, but this was at least partly because they fought in a deeper formation than the hoplites. Victory in battle usually seems to have been achieved thanks to a decisive charge by the Companion cavalry, Alexander at their head, screaming his lungs out.

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Well, he was a God of course !

LOL.

Just like Ramses the Great did it . :)

A mixture of ... okay, a great achievement, admittedly, but a lot of spin as well.

I don't think spin played much part in his actual successes in battle - unlike Rameses there's no serious doubt he actually won his battles - he could hardly have fought his later battles if he hadn't won the earlier ones.

I dont know enough to comment on your questions (not my area) ... but I am interested to hear your views ... especially on the ' Central Asian' part of his campaign ; Bactria , Sogdiana, Turan, etc) ... that is more around my area.

I think he got a bit of a surprise about what he found there ?

I agree - it's not something I've seen discussed much, but it took his army as long to conquer those lands as it had to conquer the much larger Persian Empire.

To me the problem was twofold. For one thing these guys were mostly unarmoured horse archers, making for a much more mobile opponent in the the field than the Persians. For another, they seemed to keep revolting and he had to repeatedly go back and deal with them.

However, Alexander's victory at the Battle of the Jaxartes River showed how he could lead an infantry-heavy army to victory against an army of mostly unarmoured horse archers. He used artillery shooting over the river to keep the horse archers well away, while some of the heavy infantry crossed the river first. They drew the attention of the horse archers, who quickly surrounded the infantry. In doing so they didn't notice the rest of the Macedonian army cross the river. Some of the horse archers were trapped between the two Macedonian forces and were killed or captured. Most would have got away, but there was no doubt on both sides who'd had the better of the fighting.

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I always thought it was partly because the Greeks had long spears and heavier armor on their infantry, whereas the Persians went to war in regular cloth.

Not quite the advantages you might be thinking of. Yes, the infantry of the phalanx were better than just about any infantry in the Persian army (apart from the Persians' Greek mercenary hoplites who gave the Macedonians a hard fight at Issus). But the Persian heavy cavalry wore armour just as heavy as that of the Macedonians - they just covered it with their colourful threads.

If you see the guy in front of you go down before he even gets withing striking distance and then the next two guys just bounce off the Greeks shield, you're going to think very hard about running away.

True to some extent. But most of the fighting at Granicus River and Gaugamela was against Persian cavalry, while much of the fighting at Issus was against the Persians' Greek mercenaries.

Technological advantage used correctly by Genius.

Yes, I think I agree. I think Alexander had a far more sophisticated approach to battle than Darius (and, for that matter, the other generals he came up against), and he had a sophisticated military system behind him.

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Quite a bit of Alexanders success can be tied directly to his father, Phillip... Phil had trained the army extremely well, and they were very seasoned, The primary weapon of the Heavy Infantry was the sarissa - basically a pike (very long spear 13' to 21')...

Most asiatic army's of the day (pretty much everyone else as well, used regular spears (6' to 8' long generally)... While this not only allowed the phalangites (infantry troops in a phalanx) to strike the enemy infantry before they themselves are struck,

it also served to pin the enemy units in contact...

Alexanders experimental phalanx (actually created by his father) also used the "mesangylon" which is a type of javelin... as the enemy troops were pinned by the long sarissa, the mesangylons would rain down on them from the rear ranks... Also

the Macedonian "Companion Cavalry" which was very heavy cavalry for the day, would then ride around and strike the enemy fromthe flank while they were pinned... A very deadly tactic...

Another factor was that the Macedonians had served together, and trained together for years, while the Persian armies were raised from across the empire as needed - they had little cohesion and even different languages, and troop/equipment

types could vary greatly from one satrap to another... It is a great advantage to know what the units to either flank are likely to do and what their capabilities are...

As others have pointed out, the Macedonian heavy infantry had heavier armor and weapons, and their auxillaries (light infantry) were quicker and better trained than the Persian levies... Also the Macedonian commanders from the

lowest level up to Alexander, were extremely capable and had a lot of audacity... Plus Darius was a bit easy to panic...

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Alexander had the advantage of being the "plucky underdog" who was defending his homeland, which goes a long way for troop morale and reason to fight.

I have to disagree here. The Macedonians were very much not defending themselves against Persian aggression - rather they initiated the war. Alexander presented the invasion as revenge for the Persian invasion of 150 years earlier. Now while Greek states had occasionally toyed with the idea of a revenge invasion (for example the Spartan King Agesilaus II in 394BC), pretty much every Greek state had been the beneficiary of Persian gold at some stage since 479BC, so the sudden surge of righteous indignation in 334BC looks pretty hypocritical. In other words, Alexander (and for that matter his dad Phillip) wanted to invade Persia, and revenge for the invasion was simply a convenient excuse.

As I say, he was an expert in the use of the cavalry, and had generations of professional horsemen and footsoldiers behind him, while Darius had levied (ie conscripts) and mercenaries. That's got to play in Alexander's favour as well.

Agreed to an extent. The Persian cavalry, which formed the majority of the proper Persian soldiery, were provided by gentry who were as comfortable riding a horse as any Greek. The Greek mercenary hoplites in Persian service were regularly paid and well equipped, and provided some of the toughest fighting for the Macedonian phalanx. It's worth noting that some of the troops accompanying Darius during his final flight were his Greek mercenaries, which shows they were certainly reliable even in adversity. I suspect the main problem with the Persian army was the lack of a commander who could take full advantage of the army's good points. But to some extent that was a cultural thing - the nature of Persian society was such that a leader like that was less likely to emerge than in the somewhat more ruthlessly meritocratic Macedonian society.

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Quite a bit of Alexanders success can be tied directly to his father, Phillip... Phil had trained the army extremely well, and they were very seasoned, The primary weapon of the Heavy Infantry was the sarissa - basically a pike (very long spear 13' to 21')...

Most asiatic army's of the day (pretty much everyone else as well, used regular spears (6' to 8' long generally)... While this not only allowed the phalangites (infantry troops in a phalanx) to strike the enemy infantry before they themselves are struck,

it also served to pin the enemy units in contact...

Alexanders experimental phalanx (actually created by his father) also used the "mesangylon" which is a type of javelin... as the enemy troops were pinned by the long sarissa, the mesangylons would rain down on them from the rear ranks... Also

the Macedonian "Companion Cavalry" which was very heavy cavalry for the day, would then ride around and strike the enemy fromthe flank while they were pinned... A very deadly tactic...

Another factor was that the Macedonians had served together, and trained together for years, while the Persian armies were raised from across the empire as needed - they had little cohesion and even different languages, and troop/equipment

types could vary greatly from one satrap to another... It is a great advantage to know what the units to either flank are likely to do and what their capabilities are...

As others have pointed out, the Macedonian heavy infantry had heavier armor and weapons, and their auxillaries (light infantry) were quicker and better trained than the Persian levies... Also the Macedonian commanders from the

lowest level up to Alexander, were extremely capable and had a lot of audacity... Plus Darius was a bit easy to panic...

After reading on this a little last night, I was about to say very much the same thing. The army was built by Alexander's father Philip, but it was Alexander who used it to beat the Persians.

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Thanks for joining in, folks. I see a lot of intelligent input here, although I don't know that I'd compare Alexander to Hitler. That's my own bias: I've always admired and respected Alexander, while Hitler was…well, Hitler. I think a better comparison might be between General Custer and the Lakota at Little Big Horn. Both Alexander and Custer were highly confident of themselves, perhaps to the point of arrogance (that much must be admitted). Both led inferior numbers into battle, although in Alex's case he probably knew what to expect whereas Custer had to have been rather shocked by the large numbers of Lakota. Both led highly trained veteran soldiers and calvary. The main difference is, Alexander defeated the Persians while Custer was slaughtered by the Lakota.

I also have to say I'm please at what I've not seen in your replies. A lot of us folks with a Western heritage approach this question with a natural bias and assume that the Greeks were just "better." While one can certainly make an argument in favor of the training and tactics of the Macedonians, some people actually look at it racially or ethnically—and that's nonsense. After all, until they met the Greeks (e.g., Marathon in 490 BCE, Salamis in 480 BCE, and on up to Alex's conquests), the Persians were undefeated in almost all of their military conquests; this includes subduing difficult rebellious dissidents such as Egypt (more than once).

Also is the common misconception that Alex merely inherited the professional army of his father, Phillip II, and ran with it without any prowess or improvements of his own. I once read a biography of Egypt's greatest warrior pharaoh, Tuthmosis III, whose author compared this pharaoh to Alexander and went to pains to try to demonstrate how lacking in innovation and skill Alexander was compared to Tuthmosis III. I couldn't read past that point because I don't care to read professional histories in which information is so obviously and painfully wrong. While Alex did indeed inherit the Macedonian phalanx, he certainly adapted it as needed on the long trek through the Near East. In fact, the Macedonian army was significantly larger and contained many companies of foreign auxiliaries by the time he reached the Hindu-Kush. Also true is how Alex fine-tuned his military's siege capabilities, and that's something Philip II himself never mastered before his untimely death.

Both here at UM and in my gallery work at our museum I've met Hindus who insist that Alexander lost at the Hydaspes (326 BCE). I don't know where such individuals get their information or who taught it to them, but this is stunningly (and embarrassingly) incorrect. I mean, that's obvious for any number of reasons.

So there is a lot of misinformation and misinterpretation when it comes to Alex the Great. I prefer the facts.

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I especially like the detailed information Peter B provided and agree with most (if not all) of it. I feel there is no one, simple answer to Alexander's success. It was a combination of factors. One was the status of the Macedonian military: it was a standing, integrated, professional army. The Persians certainly operated their own professional army, but it was not large; as I think Peter B noted, the Persians particularly depended on large numbers of foreign auxiliaries and conscripts. If you were a vassal state of Persia, you were obligated to send men into Persian service (and with Phoenicia and Egypt, not just men but ships). I've always been impressed with the logistical abilities of the ancient Persian army to be able to coordinate and organize so many peoples speaking so many different languages, but this was not a professional army.

Someone mentioned the Macedonian spear. This weapon was known as a sarissa. It was detachable into pieces so it could be carried more easily when the army was on the move, but when assembled for battle, it was more than twice as long as the spears carried by almost all other armies of the time. This must have been terrifying to confront, if you were an unfortunate charging a Macedonian phalanx: I always think of a field mouse running into a porcupine. The effectiveness of the sarissa was dependent on the discipline and order of the phalanx, but in engagements led by Alexander the Macedonian phalanx was never broken or defeated. Even Philip II suffered at least on defeat (as I recall) in his early interactions with the Greeks. And as I recall, the Macedonian phalanx continued to be feared and successful until 168 BCE, when it was broken and defeated by Roman legions at Pydna.

Earlier back to earth was asking about Alexander's problems in Central Asia. This was some of the Macedonians' toughest and hardest fighting. They initially had little trouble subduing and winning over the tribes of Central Asia, but these tribes were used to Persian rule in which the Great King expected tribute and conscripts but beyond that left them alone. Imagine the tribes' displeasure when Alexander started establishing towns and garrisons all over the place. There was a vicious uprising that Alexander eventually put to rest—through no small effort—but in this time a detachment of Macedonians and Greek auxiliaries were slaughtered by dissident tribal fighters. Alexander was not present in this engagement, but it was the one defeat, albeit small, his army suffered in its long years on the march.

Peter B and others stressed the Companion Calvary, and I myself cannot stress the importance of this enough. Alexander personally led the calvary, and he had been successful in doing so ever since his teenage years at Chaeronea in 338 BCE, when Phillip II defeated the Greek coalition and folded Greece into his growing empire. Alexander seems to have been a natural tactician and supposedly could read a battlefield—and the enemy's likely strategies—upon arriving there. His calvary was decisive in many of the battles he led.

As is obvious I'm reverting to form and am prattling on endlessly. It's something I tend to do when discussing a subject I so enjoy. I'll shut up for a while and allow other people to share their input.

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I have to disagree here. The Macedonians were very much not defending themselves against Persian aggression - rather they initiated the war. Alexander presented the invasion as revenge for the Persian invasion of 150 years earlier. Now while Greek states had occasionally toyed with the idea of a revenge invasion (for example the Spartan King Agesilaus II in 394BC), pretty much every Greek state had been the beneficiary of Persian gold at some stage since 479BC, so the sudden surge of righteous indignation in 334BC looks pretty hypocritical. In other words, Alexander (and for that matter his dad Phillip) wanted to invade Persia, and revenge for the invasion was simply a convenient excuse.

...

All right, I lied because I can't resist commenting on this, too. I again agree fully with Peter B. "Revenge" was merely Alexander's pretense to invade Persia and its territories, and the idea was originally his father's. The revenge was supposedly based on the Persians' sacking of Athens in 480 BCE (under Xerxes). But never does Alexander or any of his contemporary historians mention the Ionian Revolt (499-493 BCE) during which Greeks led by Athenians burned the satrapal capital and temple at Sardis. Probably more than anything, this act is what originally put Athens and other Greek mainland polities on the Persians' radar.

When it comes to war in the ancient world, all you need is an excuse. Any excuse will do.

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As mentioned, they just had extra long spears, simple as that.

phalanx.jpg

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As mentioned, they just had extra long spears, simple as that.

...

It's that simple? LOL Well, I needn't have brought up the topic, then.

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