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A phalanx was a formation of soldiers that formed multiple ranks of warriors supporting each other with spears, pikes, and/or halberds. The phalanx is an extremely formidable formation on the offensive and defensive. This fighting formation led the Greeks to many victories.
A phalanx is a tightly-packed group of soldiers (depending on the terrain and formation, usually 250-500+ soldiers per phalanx) that is armed with polearms. The first few rows protrude their spears on a horizontal level, while the second, third, and so forth rows point their polearms in upward intervals until the very last rows have their weapons pointed completely upward. They are not to be confused with the similar tercios, a 16th-century Spanish fighting formation.
The phalanx did have its uses. Cavalry did not dare stride anywhere close to the bristling hedgehog of steel weapon-heads, knowing full well that they and their horses would be impaled on the advancing pikes. Thus, it was a cheap and effective anti-cavalry formation that could enable a breakthrough by infantrymen that would otherwise be run down like wheat in the field by horsemen. The only known cavalry in Middle-earth that could possibly negate or minimize the effect of the phalanx were the Kataphrakts of Rhûn, who were thickly-clad in sumptuous and supremely expensive plate armor.
Interestingly enough, the phalanx could also be used to negate or completely nullify the effect or enemy arrowheads. The vast forest of spears facing upward can cause arrows to break, deflect from their targets, or fracture. This would prove a severe disadvantage to civilizations which heavily depended on ranged weaponry (i.e. the Galadhrim, Thranduil's woodland Elves).
Types of Phalanxes
This is the most basic form of a phalanx, quite commonly a defensive phalanx would consist of, the first rank would kneel with their spears or pikes held out at about the height of their shoulders, the next rank would also kneel and hold their spears slightly higher, followed by the next row standing with their spears angled slightly above the row before them. On occasion the phalanx would consist of a few additional rows but they commonly consisted of only three rows of troops.
The First Age
The War of the Great Jewels
During the Nirnaeth Arnoediad (Battle of Unnumbered Tears) of the First Age, the 10,000-strong army of Pikemen sent out by Turgon, the King of Gondolin, would have most certainly utilized this formation in open battle. Although we have no specific mention of it in Tolkien's legendarium, this formation is probably the only thing that stood between the fleeing forces of the Eldarand the Edain and certain destruction at the hands of Orcs and Balrogs. The hitherto-invincible camouflaged cavalry of Morgoth were stayed and broken upon the pikes of Gondolin, while Orcs died by the boatload upon the cold steel of the Elves. Their delaying action kept the flame of resistance going against Morgoth, and the valor of the Elves of Gondolin led to his eventual downfall.
The Second Age
The army of the Númenóreans also used these formations, as evidenced in the Battle of Dagorlad, during the Last Alliance of Elves and Men. It was supremely effective at halting significant Orcish advances and the indomitable reach of the infantrymen in the phalanx gave the archers ample protection to continue the round-the-clock slaughter of Sauron's army.
The Third Age and Beyond
During the Battle of the Pelennor Fields, the army of Orcs vainly utilized a crude and sloppy phalanx formation of even cruder polearms to stop the deluge of Rohirrim. It failed miserably, stating that even the best tactics will be futile while used by a lacking army.
This form of phalanx is far more aggressive form of a phalanx in which all the troops participating in the phalanx remain standing at all times and march towards the enemy lines. This form of attack usually consists of only two rows of troops as this makes the formation just that much more maneuverable, and allows for a quick transit from offensive to defensive formation.
The most common variation of a standard phalanx was known as a "shield-wall phalanx", (employed by the Easterlings) in which all ranks of soldiers would be equipped with shields and would form a wall of shields that would extend across the entire front row and along both of the sides of the formation to protect all troops contained within the phalanx, it also allowed for the troops on the inside to shift themselves to support any side that was pressed by enemies and to easily fill any gaps that were caused by casualties as the battles wore on. This variation also allowed for the rear rows to about face and to protect the rear of the column far more effectively than a standard phalanx. Another clever pike formation invented by the Easterlings (but was used by all spearmen of Middle-earth) was the porcupine formation, it combined the sheer impenetrability of a phalanx with the highly effective Shiltron that protected the flanks. (Featured in battle for middle earth game) It was mainly used as a last stand formation or as an anti-outflanking formation that could defend those in formation from all angles of attack. The way it was used was that the officer would shout "porcupine!" and the spearmen would put their polearms forward and form a circle, hence the name porcupine.
Another common variation of a phalanx was employed by the Guard of the Fountain Court crudely referred to as a "mini phalanx" in which the soldiers would form the phalanx in the same way as stated above, but it would only consist of two rows of troops and they would only be positioned to defend forwards instead of defending their flanks.