These citizen-soldiers of ancient Greece were nearly unstoppable.
Greek hoplites were infantry warriors who carried shields, were primarily armed with spears, and fought in the disciplined ranks of a phalanx formation – a solid mass of soldiers typically eight ranks deep. From about 700 B.C. to around 300 B.C., the hoplite phalanx dominated warfare in Greece, the Aegean region and western Asia Minor, until it was supplanted by a new, more flexible military formation, the Roman legion.
The hoplites of ancient Greece were free citizens of one of the Greek city-states and were therefore required to perform military service for a specified amount of time and remained subject to call up when a war broke out. The length of service obligation varied by city-state – Athenians became exempt from military service at age 60, while Spartans maintained a lifelong commitment.
Hoplites were required to furnish their own weapons and armor, particularly their characteristic Argive shields that were crucial to phalanx warfare. Since the warriors came from various economic classes, the types of armor they wore ranged from expensive (and heavy, aggregating about 50 pounds) solid bronze breastplates, greaves and helmets, to cheaper (and much lighter) padded linen covered with bronze scales. Poorer hoplites often wore only helmets with no other protective armor.
The principal hoplite weapon was the dory, a 7- to 9-foot-long, metal-tipped wooden spear held in the right hand and used as a thrusting weapon (wielded overhand when attacking and underhand when defending). The secondary weapon was a short sword, either the 2-foot-long, straight-blade xiphos or the curved-blade kopis. The defining piece of hoplite equipment was the apsis, a 3-foot-diameter, bronze-sheathed wooden shield strapped to the left arm. Designed with a concave shape so that the left shoulder could support its weight, the apsis protected the hoplite – and the warrior to his left – from chin to knees.
During a battle, hoplite tactics entailed approaching the enemy in phalanx formation, closing with the rival force (if it did not flee at the sight of the massed hoplites), and pressing the shields of the phalanx’s front rank against those of the opposing formation. Hoplites in the following ranks pushed forward to add weight to the effort to force back the enemy and fatally disrupt the opposing formation. When the weaker side broke, its soldiers usually precipitously fled the battlefield.
Whether fighting the invading Persians at the battles of Marathon (490 B.C.) and Thermopylae (480 B.C.) or clashing with other Greeks during the Peloponnesian War (431- 404 B.C.), hoplites proved they were some of history’s greatest warriors.
Jerry D. Morelock, PhD, “Armchair General” Editor in Chief. “ACG” thanks Ospreypublishing.com for the hoplite image.
Originally published in the January 2013 issue of Armchair General.