Alexander's military and equestrian inheritance

Founded 30-Jul-2009
Last update 30-Jul-2009

Ann Hyland, The Horse in the Ancient World


Alexander inherited a strong army. The highly trained phalanx was armed with Philip’s invention of the cornel wood sarissa (4½ – 5½ m) with a bladed head and spiked butt.4 The cavalry had been built up steadily by Philip to about 3,300 heavy and 400 light horse. It was raised from the landed gentry, many of whom had been given estates for services rendered. With the land went the obligation to cavalry service.5 The elite heavy horse were known as Companion Cavalry. They were divided into ilai, each at least 200 strong, with the Royal Squadron, the Agema, of 300, which fought around the king. Light horse, the prodromoi (scouts) were also called sarrissaphorai.6 Macedonian cavalry were armed with swords and the cavalry sarissa whose dimensions were as follows:

Total length 4.87 m formed of tapered cherry wood (cornel).
A solid-bladed butt 53 cm long, weighing 1.235 kg.
A hollow head blade 47 cm long, weighing 0.235 kg.
Total weight 3.610 kg.
Balance point 1.47 m from the butt blade (that is, about 30 per cent) behind the grip, 70 per cent before the grip.

This enabled the head to reach well ahead of the horse and cause maximum damage to an opponent, who with a shorter cavalry lance could not come close to his target. Should the shaft break, the butt blade could inflict a stabbing injury. I am indebted to Peter Connolly who crafted a cavalry sarissa, based on archaeological data, and had its use tried out by horseman John Duckham. Cavalry were trained to aim the sarissa at the enemy trooper’s face (or at his horse).7 Impaling an enemy was not practical as without a retaining cantle or stirrup the resistance could have forced the sarissa-wielder over his horse’s rump.

Ann Hyland, The Horse in the Ancient World, pp. 146-147
(Praeger Publishers, 2003)


4Devine, ‘Alexander the Great’, in WAW, p. 106.

5 Worley, Hippeis, p. 155.

6 Devine, ‘Alexander the Great’, in WAW, pp. 104-7, passim.

7 Arrian, Anabasis, Book III.14, p. 169.


Arrian:Anabasis of Alexander – the Campaigns of Alexander. Tr. Aubrey de Selincourt, Penguin Classics, 1986.
Devine, Albert: ‘Alexander the Great’, in Warfare in the Ancient World (henceforth WAW), ed. Sir John Hackett, Sidgwick & Jackson Ltd, 1989, pp. 104-29.
Worley, Leslie J.:Hippeis. The Cavalry of Ancient Greece. Westview Press, Boulder, San Francisco, Oxford, 1994.



The original numbering of the footnotes is preserved. Only sources cited in the excerpts are listed in the bibliography.