Hoplites were heavy infantry citizen-soldiers of the Ancient Greek states, whose name derives from the large distinctive round shield (hoplon) which they used in combat. Since they were expected to provide their own armour, hoplites were primarily free citizens who were able to afford such expenses. Those wealthy enough to raise horses served in the cavalry and those with inadequate means to pay for armour served as auxiliaries, such as archers and peltasts. Although the precise date of the emergence of hoplite warfare is contentious, historians have posited a time frame between the eighth and seventh century BC.
A hoplite’s usual equipment comprised a bronze helmet, a bronze or flax breastplate, bronze greaves, a large wooden and bronze shield (hoplon or aspis), a long thrusting spear (dory) and a sword (xiphos) or short knife (kopis). The Corinthian helmet which covered the entire head and neck and featured slits for the eyes and mouth, became the standardised helmet form, as attested by the artistic and archaeological evidence. Depictions of hoplites on painted pottery often show the soldier wearing the helmet tipped upwards on his head, presumably because of the discomfort caused when the helmet was worn properly.
A range of variants were later developed, including the Thracian, Chalcidian and pilos types, which were lighter, more comfortable and less obscuring of vision. Often, the helmet was decorated with a horsehair crest, which both prevented blows to the head and rendered the wearer’s presence more imposing.
The most important item of the hoplite’s equipment, the shield, was just under a metre in diameter. It rested on the solider’s shoulder down to his knees and was held by inserting the left arm through a central band fixed to the underside of the shield and gripping a cord or strap at the rim, which allowed the wearer more flexibility of movement and also facilitated phalanx formation, since each man’s shield protected the right side of his left hand neighbour. Shields were also often decorated with a blazon featuring the emblem of the family or city, thus immediately asserting the allegiance of the bearer.
The hoplite’s principal tactic was the phalanx formation, a strategy thought to have been developed c. 700 BC. The troops arranged themselves for battle shoulder to shoulder, usually eight to ten men deep and when the signal was given, they advanced, the front ranks usually stabbing at their opponents with over-arm spear thrusts. The hoplites used their shields for en-masse shoving, especially once they had clashed with the enemy line, in a technique known as othismos (“pushing forward”); Herodotus, for example, characterizes the battle at Thermopylae in 480 BC as “a great shoving” (7.225).
Battles tended to be decisive and often relatively short-lived. They required a high degree of discipline, since all members of the phalanx had to work together; there was no place for individual combat as we see in the world of the Homeric epics, but rather each man relied on his neighbour for protection and exceptional mental stamina in order to keep the phalanx in formation and face the enemy wall in front. At least in the early classical period, cavalry was used to protect the phalanx flanks, particularly the right flank which was more vulnerable due to the lack of shield coverage.
If battle was refused by the defender, the aggressors often ravaged the surrounding land until they agreed to engage in combat, as Thucydides records regarding Archidamus’ intended Spartan invasion of Attica in 431 BC, “Even if they are not already deployed pending our arrival, they will surely deploy when they see us in their territory, ravaging their land and destroying their property” (2.11). The dense wall formed by the Greek hoplite phalanx formation proved invincible at the Battle of Marathon in 490 BC and the Battle of Plataea in 479, when the Greeks defeated the Persians, whose light infantry and archers were unable to penetrate the Greek shields.
Sparta, a unique state in the Greek world at this time for a number of reasons, was perhaps one most focused on military training and warfare. Whilst the citizens of other Greek states received basic military training, the free citizens of Sparta (homoioi) served as hoplites their entire lifetime and underwent extensive military training from an early age (agoge), in peacetime as well as during periods of conflict, resulting in the development of a formidable land army.
Despite the success of hoplite warfare, the conflict that ensued between the city-states of Greece after the Persian Wars saw its decline, and the diversification of warfare tactics and strategies. The pooled resources of the Greek states, both in terms of manpower and financial assets meant that new, more practical and economic strategies could be implemented, and there was increased reliance on skirmishes, mercenaries, siege engines and the defence and attack of city walls.
What is more, Athens’ supremacy at sea and consolidation of empire meant that the Athenians, in particular, concentrated on the development of their navy, rather than land army. Hoplites, then, begin wearing less armour, carrying shorter swords and generally adapting for a role involving greater mobility. This led to the emergence of the ekdromoi (“out-runners”), the light hoplites, whose name indicates their ability to exit the phalanx and fight in an irregular order, should circumstance dictate.
Author: Alexandra Hamburger for It’s All Greek.
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