Soldiers of Bronze: The Greek Hoplite, the Phalanx, and the Battle that Defined Them
Hoplite comes from the Greek word “ ta hopla,” which means “tool” or “equipment,” and was the name given to legions of citizen soldiers who were tasked with protecting their territories from outside challengers. With the exception of Sparta, which had a permanent professional army, ancient Greek civilizations only called up soldiers when absolutely necessary. Greek hoplites, armed with a variety of weapons and bronze armor, were an incredibly strong military force and innovators of a battlefield formation known as the phalanx. The phalanx remains one of the most effective tactics ever conceived and was responsible for one of the least likely victories ever accomplished at the Battle of Marathon in 490 BC.
The Hoplite Armory
Hoplites or Greek citizen soldiers, were usually armed with three different types of weapons, and each would serve different functions. The first, which enabled hoplites to thrust from a distance, was a long wooden spear, called a doru, which had an average length of 2.5 meters (8.2 feet) and was tipped with a bronze or iron blade and surrounded by a four-pronged spike on its sides called a sauroter. For more close combat use, they were also equipped with a short-sword called a machaira or kopis which was conventionally just under 60 centimeters (2 feet) long. An additional dagger, called an encheiredon, would ensure that the hoplite could still protect himself if he found himself in a tricky situation on the battlefield and was unable to use his two main weapons.
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A legendary hoplite or Greek citizen-soldier phalanx fighting on a classical black-figure amphora from circa 560 BC. The hoplite phalanx is a frequent subject in ancient Greek art. (Staatliche Antikensammlungen / Public domain)
In his other hand, the hoplite brandished a large round shield known variously as a hoplon or an aspis, which could be 80 centimeters (2.6 feet) in diameter and weighed up to 8 kilograms (18 pounds). It was made of wood and paneled with bronze, with hoplite soldiers holding a strap called an antilabe located on the edge of the shield and their arm set in place through a central band called a porpax. The shields would often feature various designs and emblems on the front, such as the Gorgon from Greek mythology or an inverted V-shape which was characteristic of the Spartans.
For protection, the hoplite was fitted with a bronze helmet to safeguard the head, neck, and face, which was lined with leather, and crested with a diverse array of styles. On his chest the hoplite wore a breastplate, a thorax, made of bronze or leather, and to protect his legs and shins he used bronze greaves named knemides. Armguards were sometimes worn, and as hoplite armor developed the breastplate was reduced in weight and transformed into a laminated linen vest called a linothorax. A warrior in full hoplite armor was expected to carry around 20 kilograms (44 pounds) in weight, and as a result they had to be extremely physically fit.
In order to become a hoplite, an assortment of expensive equipment was necessary. As a result, hoplites usually came from wealthier backgrounds, as poorer Greeks were unable to afford all the required weapons and the costly set of armor. A hoplite enjoyed high status in society, and even noblemen and aristocrats could be found among their bronze ranks.
Chigi Vase from the 7th century BC depicting Greek citizen-soldier hoplites holding javelins and spears. (Chigi Painter / Public domain)
The Hoplite Phalanx and Battlefield Experience
In perhaps one of the most unusual reports ever recorded, Pliny, the Roman sage, described the inhabitants of a mysterious settlement in the East located on the other side of the Himalayan mountains:
“(They) exceeded the ordinary human height, had flaxen hair, and blue eyes, and made an uncouth sort of noise by way of talking, having no language of their own for the purpose of communicating their thoughts.”
Even stranger, they were said to have used a phalanx formation in battle, leading many to speculate that they were the surviving remnants of the Greeks under Alexander the Great who had conquered the known world in the 4th century BC. The phalanx, which involved a tight joining-together of shields to form a protective layer on all sides and from above, was the signature military stratagem of the Greeks, and so it was no surprise that its appearance on the hazy edges of the map led commentators to instinctively attribute it to them.
Greek hoplites were formed into regiments composed of hundreds of men called lokhoi, which would each perform the phalanx on the battlefield. A single phalanx was made up of 8 ranks of men who stood side-by-side and interlocked their shields to create an impenetrable barrier. Half of a warrior’s shield would protect the left-side of his neighbor, which meant that the phalanx would tend to move in a slightly leftward direction.
An Athenian hoplite holding an aspis and a kopis. Photo taken at the exhibition "Democracy and the Battle of Marathon" held in 2010, in Athens, Greece. (Tilemahos Efthimiadis / CC BY-SA 2.0)
Shortly, before battle, hoplites would first sing a hymn to the gods, called a paean, to encourage divine protection. In Greek philosopher Xenophon’s Anabasis, the commander Cyrus the Younger walked his soldiers to within 600 meters (1,969 feet) to start the paean, before advancing 200 meters (656 feet) to within the enemy and ordering the first charge. This pre-battle chant had several useful functions. It would re-organize the men, who could fall into step with the rhythm, and created sense of solidarity and unity among the ranks whose lives would depend on great teamwork.
For Aeschylus, a Roman dramatist who also had experience as a hoplite, this pre-battle ritual gave “courage to friends as it rids them of the fear of the enemy.” (Seven Against Thebes as cited in Krentz p. 141.).
Xenophon reported that as Cyrus the Younger’s phalanxes advanced, they were filled with “…enthusiasm, ambition, strength, courage, exhortation, self-control, and obedience.” (Education of Cyrus as cited in Krentz p. 141.)
The soldiers were also accompanied by the sound of pipe music, which would fulfill many of the same functions as the paean, as it psychologically prepared them to kill the enemy and gave a musical backdrop to the war hymn. Thucydides, the Greek historian, noted how battle-music was particularly important to the Spartans, who were the only Greek hoplites to maintain their phalanx formation throughout martial engagements.
After proceeding at walking pace, however, the majority of Greek armies would break their formation and charge quickly towards the foe, screaming battle-cries of “ eleleu” or “ alala” according to Thucydides in his History of the Peloponnesian War. Colliding together, the opposing sides would often smash into each other at a speed of 10 miles per hour or more, creating a deafening noise of clattering swords and agonizing screams. Xenophon wrote how at the battle of Koroneia in 394 BC, the commander, Agesilaos:
“…made a furious front attack on the Thebans, and clashing their shields together they pushed, they fought, they killed, they died.” (Hellenika and Agesilaos as cited in Krentz p. 142-143.)
After the initial shockwave and a brief burst of open fighting, the hoplites would re-form to engage in a pushing and shoving contest called the othismos, which has often been compared to the violence of a rugby scrum. Homer, the legendary Greek author of the Odyssey and Iliad, described a typical bout of this deadly physical confrontation:
“But when he met the dense phalanges he came close and stopped. The opposing sons of the Achaians, pricking him with swords and leaf-headed spears, pushed him away from them; he shivered as he retreated.” (Iliad as cited in Krentz p. 146.)
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In the final push, the hoplites would once again sing another paean, and would chase down any surviving remnants whilst maintaining formation.
A Spartan hoplite, who were fulltime warriors employed by the Spartan state, in an image from the Vinkhuijzen Collection of Military Costume Illustration, published before 1910. (The collection assembled by H. J. Vinkhuijzen / Public domain)
The Disputed Development of Hoplite Warfare
Due to the age, unreliability, and lack of early sources for Greek society, there has been much scholarly debate surrounding the development of hoplite warfare. The Greek “Age of Heroes,” between 1150 BC and 750 BC is a period largely devoid of reliable records. The only substantial information scholars have been able to use to reconstruct the nature of warfare is from Homer’s Odyssey and Iliad. Although they are fictitious accounts replete with fantastical monsters and gods, the descriptions of battlefield tactics and arms probably mirrored the real life methods and armaments of war being employed during Homer’s life.
Homeric evidence suggests that the early Greeks preferred to use long-range weapons such as the bow and thrown objects, and that open combat, represented in the one-to-one skirmishes of mythical heroes, was more common. This is in stark contrast to the later and more documented time, which witnessed more intimate close-combat techniques and less open fighting, as Greek hoplites preferred to remain inside the protective casings of their fearsome phalanxes.
The transitional period between ranged to close-quarter combat has been fiercely discussed by historians, who have developed three different schools of thought. The first, named Gradualism, was first put forward by Anthony Snodgrass, who proposed a step-by-step model of military evolution. He argued that the distinctive hoplite phalanx and bronze weapons and armor could only have developed at the same rate of technological advances in warfare, which often take centuries to change. Phalanx warfare, he posits, could only have been created after the invention of the double-handed shield, spear, hoplite crested helmet, and their widespread production and availability in society. Such improvements would have taken hundreds of years to introduce, and so the intermediary period between long-ranged tactics to short-range fighting had to be very long.
In contrast to Snodgrass’s hypothesis is the Rapid Adoption Theory, advanced by Paul Cartledge. He has contended that the heaviness of the double-handed sword had to mean an immediate end to open combat, as it was clearly too cumbersome to carry in an open-battle situation. He also proposed that by 650 BC all Greek city states had already adopted the phalanx and close-quarter combat, implying an incredibly quick changeover interval which contested Snodgrass’ theory of a longer phase.
The final approach, established by Hans van Wees, is called Extended Gradualism. Van Wees opted for an even greater period of time than the Gradualists, proclaiming that the transition started during Homer’s age rather than immediately after as Snodgrass and his acolytes are quick to state. Van Wees argues that the phalanx started to be developed during Homer's time but was only fully worked-out by the 5th century BC, which is over 150 years later than the year put forward by the Rapid Adoptionists. Van Wees uses iconographic evidence from pottery, which depicts hoplites as using the double-handed shield of the phalanx at the same time as the spear, a long-ranged missile. The true answer, like most, probably lies in a combination of all three theories.
Hoplites crashing into the Persian army with tremendous force in the heat of the epic Battle of Marathon in a drawing by Walter Crane. (Walter Crane / Public domain)
The Battle of Marathon
At the Battle of Marathon in 490 BC, the phalanx would prove to be the most effective military strategy of the ancient world and was responsible for a victory so shocking it defied belief. From 522 BC, after the accession of Darius I to the throne and conquests stretching from Turkey to the frontiers with India, the Persian Achaemenid Dynasty set their sights westward on the verdant fields and glorious city-states of ancient Greece.
Persian expansion into the Greek world commenced at the end of the 6th century, with Persian forces taking Thrace, Macedonia, Ionia, and the Aegean islands, leaving only a handful of Greek city states such as Athens and Sparta left. Worried at the existential threat posed by the Persian annexations, the Athenians leaped at the chance to provide military aid to the revolting Ionian Greeks, who rose up in 499 BC against their eastern overlords. However, the Persians were too strong, and the Athenian ships and soldiers provided were not enough, as Persia destroyed their opposition in a naval engagement at the Battle of Lade in 494 BC. The Athenians and their support had angered the Persians, who began planning their revenge in the following years.
In 490 BC, Darius I sent and armada of 600 ships with 25,000 men to the Aegean Sea led by his trusty admiral Datis. After harrying and devastating the surrounding islands and settlements, Datis landed his fleet on the beach at Marathon, ready to take Athens. The Athenians had to move quick, and after a general assembly they decided to accept the proposal of Miltiades, the strongest and most capable of the Greek commanders, to meet the Persian foe at Marathon instead of waiting for them to lay siege to Athens.
The Athenian army, comprised of 10,000 hoplites alongside 1,000 additional soldiers from neighboring ally Plataea, was greatly outnumbered as it marched to Marathon to initiate battle with the invading Persian masses. Sensing this disadvantage, the Greeks also sent a messenger called Pheidippides to Sparta to call upon their mutual defense pact, which stipulated that both cities would send soldiers to help in the event that they were attacked. The Greek geographer Herodotus relates how Pheidippides reached Sparta the next day after running an extraordinary 155 miles (249 kilometers). The tale would later be responsible for the establishment of the marathon running event, a 26 mile (41 kilometers) race first inaugurated at the Olympic Games in 1896.
The pitched battle did not start immediately, as the Greeks and Persians stood their ground, waiting for an opportune time to attack. The Persian general Datis became impatient with the stalemate and sent his large cavalry forces back onto the ships to attack Athens further down the coast, which remained unprotected. However, by doing this, Datis had unwittingly removed a major danger to the Greek hoplites who would no longer feel the lethal charges of the cavalry. Commander Miltiades convinced his fellow officers to attack the Persians without the Spartans, who were enroute.
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On September 12th, the hoplite phalanxes advanced at walking pace as the Persians let off thousands of arrows, which supposedly blocked out the sun. Suddenly the hoplites charged forward with pace, dodging the Persian missiles aimed at them, and clashing with the enemy 30 seconds later. The Greek hoplites, only four ranks deep because of their low numbers, were breached at the central line, and the Persians poured in. The Greek flanks immediately turned inwards, and the slaughter off Persians began as the assailants found themselves surrounded on all sides by bloodthirsty hoplites. As the Persians fled back to their ships they were cut down by Greek pursuers. Upon hearing the news, Datis ordered his cavalry to retreat from Athens, and soon after the last Persian ship vanished, the Spartans arrived, finding that their services were no longer required. Thanks to the hoplites and their phalanxes, there were less than 200 Greek casualties and over 6000 Persian dead.
The Wisdom of the Greeks
After the Battle of Marathon, the Greco-Persian Wars would continue until 479 BC, when the Persian menace, under its new supreme leader Xerxes, son of Darius I, was eventually defeated at the Battle of Plataea. Marathon would go down in history as one of the most stunning triumphs ever achieved. Although the Greek hoplites would disappear, in time, the phalanx would enjoy an extended period of supremacy, and continued to be the preferred battlefield formation all the way up to the early Romans. The military wisdom of the Greeks would thus become instrumental in the forging of one of the greatest empires the world has ever known, as the phalanxes of Roman legions overpowered all other adversaries.
Top image: Greek hoplite in armor and with weapons and shield. Source: anibal / Adobe Stock
By Jake Leigh-Howarth
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