The History of the Hoplite in Ancient Greek Warfare
The History of the Hoplite in Ancient Greek Warfare

The History of the Hoplite in Ancient Greek Warfare

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  • Published: December 24, 2017
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The Hoplite is likely the first thing that comes to mind when talking about warfare in the Ancient Greek world.

The history of hoplite warfare in the Aegean is often overlooked in discussions of Ancient warfare, particularly in relation to Greece's western neighbors, who would later dominate European history for several centuries. As a result, much of the attention on Ancient warfare focuses on Rome rather than the Greek poleis. However, I am interested in exploring more than just the history of hoplite warfare among the Greeks. I want to examine how and why hoplite and phalanx warfare originated, the significance of hoplite culture to Ancient Greek identity, and the factors that led to the decline of hoplite warfare and culture. Scholars primarily rely on vase depictions to establish the origins of hoplite warfare.

The depiction of b


attle scenes was highly popular in ancient Greece, as demonstrated by the friezes of the Parthenon and various vase decorations. It is highly likely that the equipment and armor used by hoplites were already in use prior to the emergence of hoplite warfare, which is believed to have originated around 675-50 BC. An example is the Corinthian aryballos dating back to circa 680 BC, which portrays a hoplite engaging in combat with the appropriate gear, albeit not as part of a phalanx formation with other hoplites. Rather, he is accompanied by an archer and potentially a skirmisher, reflecting the nature of skirmishing during the 'Greek Dark Age.'

The Chigi vase, dating back to 650 BC, shows the appearance of the phalanx formation associated with hoplites. However, earlier representations of hoplite equipment can be found as far back as 680 BC. Th

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Aegina stand (c. 675-50 BC) and Berlin aryballos (c. 650 BC) provide more plausible depictions of actual phalanxes, even though they may not show the full eight-deep formation. These depictions show the hoplites wearing bronze bell cuirasses and crested Corinthian helmets, characteristic of later hoplites. Interestingly, the hoplites in these depictions are shown carrying two spears instead of a sword, contrary to what is typically associated with later hoplites. However, the mention by Tyrtaeus, a Spartan poet from the late 7th century, of fighting with a "sword or great spear" in early hoplite warfare seems to confirm that the Chigi vase represents an early form of hoplite, using two spears. Overall, these artifacts and literary references give us a good understanding of when hoplite warfare began to be used.

In the 7th century BC, there was a change in warfare. Snodgrass suggests that this change was brought about by the adoption of new equipment and tactics. It appears that the introduction of heavier armour, similar to that of hoplites, was influenced by foreign sources. Greek ships traveling to Italy, the Levantine coast, and possibly the Euxine Sea could have had an impact. The sudden demand for bronze armour led to the importation of cast cauldrons from distant places. The first helmet of the post-Dark Age era, known as the kegelhelm and dating back to 725 BC, was followed by the Illyrian helmet around 700 BC and then the Corinthian helmet (which was created in the late 8th century). Compared to other helmet designs like the Assyrian-influenced kegelhelm, the Corinthian helmet showcased Greek metallurgy skills.

The reintroduction of bronze armor in the 8th century began with the 'Argos

cuirass', which had earlier versions made of 2mm thick beaten bronze. The bell cuirass, descended from the Argos cuirass, must have been in use by 750 BC. In the late 8th century BC, bronze greaves were reported to have been used as early as 750 BC. Hoplite shields, known as aspis or sometimes hoplo, became the preferred choice by 675 BC. These shields can be identified in vase art by their underside which features two grips, as depicted on the Chigi vase. The depiction of throwing spears and thrusting spears declines by approximately 640 BC, and their actual use in battle appears to have ceased by the 520s BC. The throwing tactic became increasingly ineffective against the phalanx tactic and was also useless against bronze armor.

Swords were frequently utilized as a substitute for spears, although they were seldom depicted in art. Slashing and curved swords, such as the one from Crete around 650 BC, were utilized. However, it seems that a shorter cut and thrust sword was mostly preferred until the 4th century BC. The poems of Tyrtaeus reveal that the array of weapons arrived in Sparta by the mid 7th century. However, due to the territorial disputes among city-states, it is likely that internal wars accelerated the adoption of a uniform arsenal.

The adoption of the aforementioned array of equipment contributed to the development of the hoplite in the context of phalanx warfare, rather than the phalanx itself influencing changes in the equipment. The limitations on sight and sound imposed by the Corinthian helmet prompted soldiers to stick together closely, fostering interdependence. Similarly, the burdensome nature of the aspis shield provided another incentive for warriors

to maintain proximity, thereby creating a shield wall. This formation, known as the phalanx, became an integral component of Greek warfare for the subsequent three centuries. The success of this strategy relied on cohesion, as a single hoplite's recklessness or cowardice could have catastrophic consequences.

Once a hoplite joined the phalanx, they relinquished their individuality and merged into the collective body. During phalanx duels, a neutral area known as "no man's land" often remained between the opposing sides, each exerting effort to penetrate the other with spears. Under certain conditions, such as when weapons had become broken, the phase called Othismos would commence. This entailed the phalanxes pushing against one another in an attempt to achieve a breakthrough. It is still undetermined whether this process unfolded spontaneously or followed a predetermined stage in combat.

The Greeks named the heavy infantryman before the 5th century BC. The practical reasons for creating the phalanx were due to the nature of wearing bronze armor, which required careful combat. Participants preferred to stick together as a unit rather than be confused in open combat. In the next chapter, I will discuss why the Greeks stuck with phalanx warfare. The social, symbolic, and cultural representation of the hoplite is explored by scholars. Given Greece's topographical landscape, it is questioned why soldiers wearing heavy bronze armor would trek through the mountains to fight battles. This can be explained by examining what the phalanx represented socially, culturally, and symbolically to Archaic Greek people. The introduction of new armor and tactics allowed non-aristocrats to participate in Homeric warfare, leading to social change and the rise of tyrants.

However, Bowden argues that the assumption of the existence

of communities capable of forming a warrior class may not be accurate. The high cost of arms and armor meant that only the wealthy could afford to engage in combat. De Polignac and Detienne support this view, stating that hoplite tactics were devised to meet the needs of the emerging communities in the late 8th century. The phalanx formation began to take shape with the introduction of the concept of a boundary chora to a polis.

Phalanx warfare was well-suited for flat plains in Greece, a mountainous country. The initial battles between poleis were often boundary disputes. During the 7th century BC, the phalanx possibly included citizens other than just the wealthiest. The rise of hoplite warfare during this time coincided with the decline of burial customs that involved armor.

Bits of armour could be acquired through competition or taken from fallen enemies. This allowed a city-state to gather enough armour, both looted and passed down through generations, to form a phalanx. In Athens, the fleet provided employment opportunities for the less affluent citizens during the 5th and 4th centuries. Consequently, the phalanx was primarily composed of the wealthy. However, in the earlier period of hoplite warfare, it is possible that membership in the hoplite class was more accessible to a wider range of individuals. Additionally, there existed a strong connection between the phalanx and agriculture. Almost every prominent Greek figure, whether they were authors, statesmen, philosophers or held other statuses, owned a farm or served in battle. Therefore, it is unsurprising that raiding the farmlands of other city-states was a central aspect of warfare during the Classical era. The wealthy were typically landowners and owned farms.


hoplites were not only wealthy but also fought to defend their crop fields. The crops on the plains of the polis inevitably became the primary source of dispute among various Greek city-states. When one city-state invaded another, it would deliberately cause conflict by ravaging the invaded state's agricultural land. This act was considered unimaginable since many citizens of city-states were farmers. As a result, the invaded city-state often engaged in battle to safeguard their crops. In some instances, the invaded polis could choose not to fight and allow their crops to be destroyed, prompting the invader to return home.

Classical Greek warfare held a belief that agricultural devastation was not particularly effective. Lin Foxhall provided an example of a fire in Methana, Attica in 1895 that destroyed 30-50 hectares of farmland. While many of the 104 families who owned land there experienced some loss, none lost a significant amount. Consequently, the efforts of an invading army attempting to ravage the countryside would have been less impactful than the fire. It was the wealthier farmers with larger plots on easily ravaged plains who would have suffered the most damage. However, they did not anticipate their losses to be substantial.

Sparta's invasions of Attica under the Peloponnesian League during the Peloponnesian War did not cause permanent damage to crops or lead to any agricultural depression. The concerns of farmers were mostly unfounded and even became a subject of ridicule in Aristophanes' plays. When one city-state invaded another, if a battle did not occur, the customary practice was to ravage the countryside. As long as the agrarian population held power in political and cultural matters, the destruction of agriculture was

a regular aspect of hoplite warfare in Classical Greek city-states. Symbolically, when a polis's territory was threatened, hoplites would form a united front to defend it, symbolizing the physical boundary of that territory.

The spearheads represent the sharp teeth of the city state. The polis and the phalanx were interrelated. Protecting the polis meant that the hoplite was highly skilled as a citizen, acquiring 'arete' or excellence, a concept comparable to Roman 'virtus'. Safeguarding the chora was a crucial part of arete, which was prominently depicted in contemporary art and literature regarding the 'ideal citizen.'

Hoplite warfare resembled a ritualized contest or sporting event, with artificial conventions. The Thebans were the only ones to challenge this tradition by experimenting with hoplite ranks beyond the conventional 8 deep phalanges. Hoplite battles were typically short-lived as the heavily armored hoplites grew tired quickly. As a result, armies focused on achieving victory in the initial charge and then either setting up a trophy if they won or requesting to bury their dead if they lost. Completely annihilating the enemy army was frowned upon, reminiscent of early forms of chivalry. This aversion to pursuit had both ideological and practical reasons. Ideologically, it was mutually accepted that pursuing the enemy was unjust and that "what was done was done." In practical terms, pursuit was limited by terrain and the lack of horses for chasing. Greek literature also expressed distaste for ambushes and trickery, such as Euripides' scalding of Odysseus in his Rhesus (510-17) and Polybius' association of ambush with deceit. In Athens, the victory at Marathon was emphasized over the naval victory at Salamis as a way to enforce the superiority of

the hoplite.

Plato envisioned that the ideal state would be protected by hoplites, which held significant importance in Ancient Greek culture. The training of hoplites was deeply ingrained, and Athenian ceramic evidence reveals that it was customary to practice hoplite tactics by dancing. Poursat's study shows that Athenians would imitate combat maneuvers such as shield-waving and evasive actions while dancing in hoplite armor. Aristophanes' Clouds mocks young individuals who are unable to properly perform the Pyrrhic dance at the Panathenaia, comparing them unfavorably to the renowned Marathon heroes. The emphasis in hoplite fighting was evidently on agility, which distinctly contrasts with Pyrrhus' recruitment approach.

Upon reaching the age of 18, Greek youths had to participate in Ephebic training, which had a duration of two years. As part of their induction, they were required to take an oath that emphasized the sanctity of a hoplite's weapons. The initial year of training focused on athletics, while the second year was more military-oriented. The expenses for this training were covered by the public. Additionally, the hoplitodromos was a crucial aspect of their preparation, wherein the youths practiced running the original 400 meters that they would later use to charge at the enemy.

After completing their Ephebic training, which marked the transition to manhood in Greek society, men of military age were left unsupervised and expected to fend for themselves in the gymnasia. There were a few exceptions to this, such as the soldier-citizens of Sparta and the specially trained Sacred Band of Thebes. As mentioned earlier, the Ephebic oath implied that one's arms were sacred, and in Sparta, this belief was taken literally. Sparta was a state focused on military affairs,

and its citizens, known as Spartiates, dedicated their time to training for war and engaging in rigorous drill practice. The significance of the aspis (shield) is best demonstrated by the contempt shown towards those who fled battle and discarded their shields in the process.

One recalls the admonition of the Spartan mother to her son, urging him to return from battle either "with his shield or on it". As previously noted, it might have been logical to assume that Greece's landscape would be ideal for deploying lighter troops. However, the Greek city-states remained obstinate in their approach. For instance, in Sparta, when a population crisis arose and necessitated the inclusion of helots and perioeci in the army, they were outfitted as hoplites rather than light infantry. If any polis had recognized the advantages of utilizing lightly armed troops, they would have undoubtedly exploited their potential.

The use of light troops/skirmishers in battle was limited to token preliminary exchanges in battle before being decided by hoplites. Cavalry also had a similar role, being used before and during battle to protect the flanks. The Greek poleis never employed combined arms tactics, unlike Phillip II of Macedon, who recognized the potential of utilizing the phalanx to engage the enemy and flanking them with powerful cavalry. Without a doubt, the idea of the hoplite as invincible played a significant role in their decline according to Spence. This led to various reasons for the decline of the hoplite in Greece.

It may initially seem that the end of the hoplite was a military decision prompted by the tactics of the later 4th century BC. However, there were underlying social issues in Greece during

that time which contributed to this outcome. From a combat standpoint, the hoplite was not very adaptable. There was limited space for maneuvering and fighting, making it difficult to change formation or plan. Even Spartans, despite their training, struggled with maneuvering and suffered consequences at the Battle of Leuctra. The hoplite remained superior as long as battles took place on their terms, but once they ventured beyond their usual parameters, such as on uneven terrain, their formation would be disrupted.

They were also highly susceptible to attacks on their sides and back. Additionally, the high number of casualties in hoplite battles is worth considering. The losing army would typically lose 10-20% of its initial strength, while even the winning side would suffer significant losses ranging from 3-10%. Another significant factor leading to the end of hoplite warfare was a shift in leadership mentality. In the past, Greek generals believed that once the phalanxes started marching, they had no control over altering the outcome.

This static and conservative approach to battle hindered the progress of arms development in Greece. However, the Greek armies acknowledged the need to become more flexible in response to the threat of Macedonia's expansion and their reliance on cavalry and light troops. This led to changes such as discarding cuirasses and adopting lighter helms in the late 5th and early 4th centuries. Despite the introduction of the sarissa armed Macedonian phalanx in the latter half of the 4th century BC, hoplite tactics and equipment persisted for many years. Nonetheless, an army with cavalry possessed the ability to impact the outcome through maneuverability.

The horse's speed enabled the cavalry to surpass both heavily armed and lighter

armed infantry. Additionally, it allowed them to swiftly respond to events on the battlefield. The Theban cavalry's flanking maneuver at Delion in 424 BC and Derdas' cavalry charge at Olynthus in 382 were notable instances of this rapid deployment influencing battle outcomes. Derdas' victory at Olynthus turnaround a situation of impending defeat. As a result, warfare became less centered on fair combat and more focused on capitalizing on advantages. Chasing down fleeing soldiers and inflicting maximum casualties were tactics employed to secure decisive victories.

The Athenians realized the benefit of surprising enemies through ambushes, as seen at Ellomenes and Olpai during the Peloponnesian War. The Greek city-states disdained anything other than hoplite-dominated warfare and looked down upon professional armies. The Classical hoplite, who owned a small plot of land and could only leave his crops for a short period, strongly opposed a professional army. This would involve taxes and hinder his political and cultural dominance by preventing him from defending his city. The end of hoplite dominance occurred in the final years of the Peloponnesian War when the agriculturalists' monopoly on conflict disappeared, along with the confined and ceremonial nature of hoplite warfare. Ironically, Sparta and Athens, two societies with vastly different characteristics, were both exempt from the traditional agricultural requirements of a city-state (Hanson, 1991: 5) and therefore not obligated to adhere to hoplite battle regulations.

Sparta relied on the helots for farming, while Athens relied on imports of wheat and other foodstuffs from trade and tribute. This allowed them to unleash a new type of warfare previously unseen in Greece. Under Pericles, Athens could stay behind the city walls while the Lacedaemonians invaded Attica. They

were confident they could survive and launch seaborne raids on the Peloponnese, causing economic distress and discouraging further Spartan aggression. In conclusion, Hoplite warfare dominated Greek history for 300 years. Hoplites were armed with bronze weapons acquired from foreign ports, and their formation in a phalanx provided both safety and a serious threat to any enemy they encountered.

Gradually, the agrarian elite embraced a style of warfare that allowed them to engage in battles without putting their agricultural prosperity at risk. Over time, more effective forms of warfare emerged, breaking the agrarian elite's monopoly on initiating conflicts. Despite some changes in Hoplite tactics, these adjustments were insufficient and came too late. Ultimately, the era of the hoplite ended with Phillip II's Phalangites and cavalry's triumph at the Battle of Chaeronea in 338 BC. I strongly agree with Victor Davis Hanson's characterization of Greek warfare as a "wonderful, absurd conspiracy."

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