The Hoplitai

The classic Greek Hoplite

About the hoplitic origin

Although "phalanx" tactics has been used since the early bronze age, the Sumerians for example, as shown in representations, fough with discipline in close order and formations has been used each time there was a civilization brillant or advanced enough to think of tactics. We know the Babylonians, Assyrians, or Hittites to name a few, deployed their spearmen in close order.

Of course the invention of the "hoplon" is open to debate (see later). The Mycenians for example used now well-known shields, including the "8" shaped one which was also concave to allow better protection and probably derived into the argive shield, open on both sides to allow the spear to go through. These shields gave an idea of the underhand use of the spear. It gave birth to the classic argive shield (with two middle openings for underhand use of the spear) which maintained itself notably in the east. It fell completely in disuse in Greece. By the time of Alexander the Great, the argive was only used in Asia Minor and by the Persians.

About the Greek Citizen-soldier

A stunning past century illustration about Athens - national geographioc - Alamy stock photos

Of course the hoplitic phenomenon is related to the greek city-state concept. The latter emerged gradually out of the obscurity of the Greek "dark age", seeing the disparition not only of the Mycenian Empire but also all the city states of the time, the Cretans and Minoans, and the great civilisation of the East, notably the feared Assyrians. Only Egypt survived the maestrom invasion of the "sea peoples".

Classic hoplite 600 BC The "Polis" phenomenon described a type of dwelling a bit different from Mycenian age fortresses. The city-state had outer walls for protection of the entire most valuable housings (shops and craftswmen), and a public space including temples and government buildings, often on an acropolis, a local hill or rock. Most often than not on the long run, inhabitants whih flocked the area lived in the outer space delimited by the first walls, and over time, new walls were built to encompass this extension, often over little more than a century. Troy was a good example of that, but ancient walled cities often shows over time a layered defense.

Over 1,000 city-states existed in ancient Greece, but only a few poleis rose to fame and power, such as Athens, Sparta, Corinth, Thebes, Syracus, Aegina, Rhodes, Argos, Eretria, and Elis. Over time, the phenomenon of the league developed as a confederation of city-states (Koinon) attached to a large city. There was the league of Athens, of Sparta, of Corinth, the Bottians, Epirotes, and during the Hellenistic era the Delian or Pelopponesian leagues, and many more. They rested on mutual defence agreements, and this was the main reason behind the Pelopponesian war. So large scale battle involving tens of thousands of hoplite from many city-states became a thing. And since the stakes were much higher, so were the tactics, and the deadly nature of the engagement. Gradually this became even worse, with the involvement of troops that were there only for killing, as the Thracians, Scyhtians, Gauls, and mercenaries in general. Mercenaries became far more common during this era around the 5th century BC (Mistophoroi).

The same civilization move that saw the rise of the Sumerians in the Tigris valley, sparkled the emergence of citizen-soldiers, with a twist: For the Greeks, fighting in a deliberate formation such as the phalanx was a way to show solidarity with other inhabitants and equality. Indeed, in the same line could fight shoulder to shoulder a potter with a noble (Aristoi) or knight ("Hippeis"). This only strenghtened the feeling of belonging its city. The idea of a 'nation' was something actually more complicated in ancient antiquity. Today and since at least the XIXth the concept of nation-state was built on the industrial revolution. But at a time most inhabitants did not had much mobility (possessing a horse or travelling by sea as a rower were a few solutions), mobility was defined by what can be travelled by foot in a day;

Hoplites amphora

Countless studies had been made on the concept of a city-state inhabitant, the equal citizen ("Homoioi"), the invention of politics and democracy. Instead were are going to focus on purely militaristic aspects. For its political and social aspects, the Hoplite represented and fought for its city-state by duty, and this duty went with a serie of rights, notably the right of vote in an open assembly on the public space the Romans would later call the Forum. Other classes of inhabitants did not had this right, notably the Periokoi and Metoikoi. The first were non-citizen inhabitants of Laconia and Messenia which lived in Sparta, and the second was the generic name for "strangers" also living in any city, like Athens. They did not had the citicizenship rights and were not allowed in the hoplitic formation. Instead they fought as javelineers or slingers.

Early times, 8-7th Cent. BC: Ritualized warfare

The hoplitic formation's specific equality did not however implied all hoplites were equal, far from it. There was an immense gap between modest craftsmen and fish sellers and Hippeis or Aristoi. The latter had the finest equipment money can buy. They were not placed the same way in the hoplitic formation, repartition could have been a play of social relation, prestige, experience and age. It must be said that hoplitic warfare was really reitualized, fought only at the right seasons, where the city-state gathered all its male citizen population in arms, kept at home, then departed for a few day's march on a place flat enough for large armies to fight. There were not that many in mountainous Greece.

The goal was not to "exterminate" the other side, but rather to make the enemy formation cracked and flee. It was mostly a morale contest, almost a sport event. The comparison found in modern games is rugby. Two melees of hoplites pushed each others until one collapsed under pressure. Once the formation was broken, there was no point pursuing the adversaries to slaughter them. One of the sides was a winner, the other lost, and matters were settled. This does not prevented hoplites to stab each others with spears and swords if needed, and there were inevitably a few death and many wounded in the process. But there is a wide gap between these hoplitic contests and "total war" as practiced during the Pelopponesian era. ancient athenian warrior

5th cent. BC Pelopponesian war

For a quarter of a century, two greek superpowers, Sparta and Athens and their allies, or "leagues" fought each other on a large scale, on the whole Mediterranean; This was the "classic age" or golden age of the Greek City-states. Hoplites still formed the core of the armies, but for longer campaigns, sometimes for years, and far from home. This completely new and different from the earlier "ritual battles" between city-states. Indeed, tactics took a new twist with the use of cavalry and light infantry at a large scale. The Pelopponesian war will saw indeed a flourishing of new infantry and cavalry tactics which had a deep influence in later wars.

In this new development of classic Greek warfare, the Hoplite was still center stage, but fights were decidedly more decisive, with more victims and troops tactics meant to kill, not only to lower morale. Peltasts became the more visible change in this new battleline. Outside the "psiloi", young peasants pressed as javelineers, shepherd slingers, archers from forested areas, all civilians used to "soften" the enemy lines and provoke them to advance, the Peltast was originally a mercenary from Thrace. The leagues, by gathering donations from their client city-states, had impressive war treasuries, allowing them not only to equip their citizen soldiers, but also, if they could, hire mercenaries.
Battle of Platea

Influence of new units: Psiloi, peltasts and cavalry

The latter were often soldiers of fortune from less adanced civilizations or the misfits of the Greek society, looking for adventure and glory, but also money through loot, plunder and pillage. And the rich city-states of the adversary were ripe for a siege. During these 25 years of war, Peltasts were used as an advances form of "psiloi", just peppering the enemy. But they were also hardy warriors not backing from a close fight, and with the means to fight in melee: Sica, sword, axe, spear, they mastered them well, and were fierce in combat, soon gaining a reputation added to their barbarian origin.

Various Hoplite types over the time of the Pelopponesian war.

So, after they thrown their javelins, Peltasts usually joined the fight. They were prefferred attacking the wings of a battleline, a sort of an in-between cavalry and heavy infantry: The medium infantry was born. Thanks to their mobility, they were often capable to tip the balance between battlelines. To counter them, cavalry, which was at first an afterthought, was hired in greater quantities than before. At the beginning of the war, cavalry units such as the light "hippakontistai" (mounted javelineers) were used as kataskopos, scouts, and represented a very small fraction of the army, perhaps 1%. Greece has never be cavalry-friendly, its rugged and mountaineous, with a few plains. The most reputed at the time were from Thessaly. They were often hired as mercenaries, and used as scouts and lancers, to catch light infantry, such as the psiloi, always easy preys for them, and the better skilled and protected Peltasts.

Fast hoplites: The Ekdromoi

but when cavalry was elsewhere, there was only one way to deal with peltasts: To catch them by the only infantry available: Hoplites. And thus, to counter peltasts, a contermeasure was born, called the Ekdromoi hoplitai, of "fast hoplite". It had boots in order to sustain a run on all terrains (most hoplites of that time were bare-footed), no body armour to be lighter and more agile, only retaining a soft cap rather than a helmet, for its weight and better visbility, of going bare-headed, no greaves, also for mobility, and a sword rather than a spear. The only definitive item they kept was their hoplon, so they were still hoplites. It was hoped these kind of "fast hoplites" could catch up with perltasts and kill them in close combat. This particuliar unit gave ideas well after the war to a new kind of "peltast" used as a mobile bodyguard on the battlefield, the Hypaspistai.

Elite mobile hoplites: The Hyspaspist

The latter were used in particular by the Macedonians, from Philip II which reformed the army, introducing a more profissional, long spear phalanx, to Alexander, which used them as a mobile bodyguard on the battlefield, and elite reserve or commando unit. Externally, they looked like hoplite, with a gear depending of their use. Heavily cladded for guard duties and parade, and lighgtly equipped on the battlefield. A close, late unit was called the "royal peltast", used by the Diadochi, which was in substance a javelin-armed hoplite, also very mobile and a variation of the Hyspaspist.

Epibates: Marine hoplites

The light hoplite idea was also used at sea, were mobility imposed a light combatant able to defend itself out of a phalanx formation: The Epibatai, or marine troops. These were basically hoplites trained to be very versatile, agile, to board enemy vessels or make raiding operation, able then to form a phalanx if needed. Epibats were used in profusion during the Pelopponesian war, especially by the Athenians which possessed the largest fleet. In all, this war saw 14 naval battles, at Abydos, Arginusae, Aegospotami, Cynossema, Cyzicus, Eretria, Mytilene, Naupactus, Notium, Pylos, Rhium in Sicily (landings), at Sybota and Syme. Various tactics were developed, but the Epibat at the end of the conflict dropped its cumbersome hoplon for a peltast thureos.

Iphikrateans: Reformed hoplites

The last chapter in thise serie of developments was a mix between the peltast and hoplite, called the "iphikratean" hoplite. The influence of peltasts, especially in mercenary armies such as the one commanded by the Athenian general Iphrikrates, was prevalent, and he saw the advantage of their agility and versatility, but also their lack of training and discipline which would allowed them to fight defensively and in close order on the battlefield. He saw a perfect balance between the slow moving but heavily protected, able defenders, and the light, fast and versatile peltasts, weak in defense and prolongated melee fighting.

Iphikrates (418 BC – c. 353 BC) therefore developed from his peltasts as a disciplines cracked force able to perform all duties and swapping weapons and tactics. At the end of the war, the peltasts grew in increasing numbers on the battlefield and became indispensible complements to the hoplitic battleline. Thracians were seen as "expandable" troops often used as a first wave in sieges, but many Greeks which could not afford the hoplitic panoply decided to fight as peltasts and their equipment became better for two reasons: When paid, they could afford better equipments, and like all warriors of the time, looted the battlefield in search for helmets, greaves and weapons. A long-lasting mercenary army was not only well experience and well equipped.

The late Greek peltast had a thureos, a large ovoid wooden shield, offering a much better protection than the classic pelte, a Chalcidian helmet, allowing better vision and hearing, bronze greaves and for some, light body armour, paddled jacket or leather thorax ("dermathrorax" ?) and linothorax, which were both light and relatively affordable. Iphikrates draw on these and added light laced boots for better mobility ("iphicratids"), a rounded, wooden pelte smaller than a hoplon (about 60 cm) which could be strapped entirely on the arm, leaving one free. With this extra hand, he gave them spears longer than the average Hoplitic dory, three meters. He made these spears 4-meters long or more. This reach and the disiplined close formation gave them the defensive and melee combat capabilities they lacked. ancient macedonian hoplites with longer spears, Agios tomb He transformed them as an even more versatile infantry and demonstrated their power by beating the seemingly invincible Spartans in 392/390 BC, destroying a mora (600 men batallion) at the Battle of Lechaeum near Corinth. He also gave later a bloody nose to the Argives hoplites during the Corinthian war. In Thrace he lended his army to the Thracian king Seuthes in a family dispute, sent them in Egypt to fight with Persians, and conquered the Thracian Chersonese. His troops and reforms had a profound impact on Philip II, as well as Theban general Epaminondas own tactics, also defeating the Spartans. The late Hellenistic hoplites were called also "reformed hoplites" in the late Hellenistic era as a less mobile form of the thureophoroi and before the introduction of the Thorakitai. Around 143 BC (Ascepiodotos reforms), the "hoplite" in its classic form had all but disappeared, although the use of the hoplon perdured for some uses.

About the Hoplon

The very name "Hoplite" came as we know from the shield, called Hoplon. This particular hemispheric, almost bowl-like compoite shield was peculiar in many ways and despite it was made in mostly perishable materials, we found a few bronze coating leftover to guess the general shape of it, crossed with many drawings, bas-reliefs and painted representations.

The Hoplomachia was a famous game, part of the Olympic serie, basically a race where athletes carried a hoplon. It was also used as a training.

About the rest of the "panoply"

The Hoplon was just a part of the story. However, other elements played a great role and evolved over time. The earliest hoplite was heavily cladded, almost a descendent of the armored chariot driver and heavy spearmen of the Mycenians. In addition to their hoplon (or aspis, a lighter form of the hoplon), they had a full bronze gear protecting their chest, an articulted piece to protect the groin (no pteruges yet), arm bands on at least the exposed right foreram (holding the dory or sword) while the left arm was strapped and protected by the hoplon, and leg band, protecting the thigh in addition to a strapped pair of cnemid, protecting the tibias. These were the classic hoplites around 700-500 BC when the hoplite was first developed. To say the least, only the elite cistizens of any city culd afford this panoply.

Old style elite Spartan Royal bodyguard unit, around 500 BC, heavily protected all around.

Over time, this panoply became less extensive, probably for two reasons: Improved formations and training allowing a better collective defense, and the need for more combatants, therefore allowing less well protected hoplites. This went down to the "Haploi", hastly raised militia in case of war, to bolster the ranks. lower class citizens, they could not afford the full hoplitic panoply and for this reason were provided the second-hand equipments thay can afford or were given City arsenal gear, simplified mass-produced dory, hoplon, and simple helmet, like the Bottian or Konos models, made of a single hammered piece over the stone mold, with not decoration or articulated piece, no cheek guards. Needless to say, these Hapoli had no arour, greaves (Cnemids) and relied on their hoplon for main protection. They were mostly there to bolster the ranks but often placed at the rear in a battleline.

The classic hoplite of the Pelopponesian war had a bronze two-pieced body armor, sometimes an old piece of equipment transmitted through generations, like the helmet, but new ones were forged. When well made, an anamorphic bronze cuirass, in addition to enhancing the aesthetics of a wearer

About the rest of the "panoply"

(More to come...)

evolution of the Greek Helmet

Sources/Read More

wikipedia's chalkaspides
Formidable fighters Hellenistic
Hellenistic armies
Legion versus Phalanx: The Epic Struggle for Infantry Supremacy in the Med (Google book)
Greek Phalanx -
Plutarch. Aemilius Paullus, c. 20, Sulla, c. 16 & c. 19
Sekunda, Nick (2001), "Hellenistic Infantry Reform in the 160's BC"

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