10 things you may not have known about the Greek Hoplites

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The Greek word for military equipment roughly translates to hopla, and thus a hoplite simply pertained to the ancient version of the ‘man at arms’ or ‘armored man’. Of course, unlike their late medieval counterparts, the hoplites were first and foremost citizen-soldiers – and thus were expected to take part in battles to safeguard their own interests and farms, as opposed to viewing military as a well-paying career. And while the ‘classic’ well-armored and trained Greek soldier was ultimately eclipsed by the tactical Macedonian phalanx in late 4th century BC, Greek hoplites (and their predecessors) had dominated the European battlefields for almost three centuries before that. So without further ado, let us check out ten incredible facts you might not have known about the Greek hoplites.

1) ‘Tribes’ without blood relations –

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The so-called ‘tribe’ in Greek city-states were rather a politico-military evolution, contrary to what ‘tribal’ warfare suggests. Simply put, the state probably organized its citizens and thus fighting men into tribes that had a purpose both census-wise and politically – as opposed to the conventional tribe that is primarily tied by blood relations. This arrangement possibly took roots by the 7th century as a more immediate solution for organized warfare and defense. In short, the tribe system (with ties of citizenry, not blood) was a natural evolution of the Greek society and military that required disciplined formations and trained men for protracted warfare, a factor that was rarely encountered (beyond literature) in the previous ‘heroic ages’. Such measures over time gave rise to the Greek hoplites, a class of warriors that was not really separate from the citizens themselves. In essence, a hoplite was a citizen-soldier who took up arms to defend or expand the realm of his city-state. And it should be noted that as a general rule, most adult males of the Greek city-states were expected to perform military service.

2) The oath of the ‘youths’ –

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The road to ‘manhood’ for males of most Greek city-states started with military training after the passing of his 18th year (Spartans had a different military system, as discussed here). These adults gathered at one place after their birth records and census was cross-checked – a scenario which happened at the start of every year, which in most ancient Greek calendars was just after the passing of summer. And on clearing these official requirements, they were asked to dress in the full war panoply and then utter an oath. In case of Athens, the oath was taken in the Temple of Aglauros, and the (preserved) text is as follows –

I will not disgrace my sacred arms nor desert my comrade, wherever I am stationed. I will fight for things sacred and things profane. And both alone and with all to help me. I will transmit my fatherland not diminished but greater and better than before. I will obey the ruling magistrates who rule reasonably, and I will observe the established laws and whatever laws in the future may be reasonably established. If any person seek to overturn the laws, both alone and with all to help me, I will oppose him. I will honor the religion of my fathers. I call to witness the Gods Agraulus, Hestia, Enyo, Enyalius, Ares, Athena the Warrior, Zeus, Thallo, Auxo, Hegemone, Heracles, and the boundaries of my native land, the wheat, the barley, the vines, and the trees of the olive and the fig.

It is better known as the Ephebic Oath, while the young men themselves were called the epheboi (youths) after the ceremony. This marked the starting phase of the next two years of introductory military training known as ‘ephebate’, and it mostly entailed a slew of athletic contests. As for the oath in question, it was found in a preserved state on an engraved 4th century BC stele, inside the ancient Athenian deme (township) of Archarnae.

3) Hoplitodromos – the hoplite race ‘instigated’ by the Persians –

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As we discussed in the previous entry, the ephebate training started with the practice of different athletic endeavors. One of these state organized activities entailed the so-called hoplitodromos – an ancient foot race probably making its debut at Olympia in 520 BC. Interestingly, the race event was introduced after the first Greek armies encountered the Persians who were known for their fast archery skills. So the hypothesis can be credibly drawn on how the race was developed and initiated as a fast-moving maneuver for training the Greek hoplites to ‘catch up’ to the Persian archers . To that end, the participants were required to run over a distance of 350-400 m (around 1,300 ft) that covered a single lap of the stadium (or two stades). But at times, the sprinting track was expanded, like at Nemea the distance was increased to 700-800 m, while at Plataea the distance was kept at a whopping 15 stades. This running passage possibly emulated the battlefield tactic of rushing through the enemy skirmishers to reach their actual lines.

Now while the distance in itself was substantial, it also should also be taken into account that the participants had to run in their partial Greek hoplite panoply, including the weighty helmets and greaves. Moreover, they also had to carry shields – which were probably ‘testing’ specimens specifically crafted for the hoplitodromos events. In other words, the shields used in the race might have been lighter counterparts to the actual aspis, the heavier wooden shield (reinforced with a thin sheet of bronze) originally carried in battles.

4) ‘Buddies’ and ‘lovers’ –

In buddy cop movies, the trope usually involves the pairing of a young, ‘green’ but dynamic candidate with the older, wiser and grizzled police veteran. And it seems even the ancient Greeks were quite fond of a similar social set-up where the epheboi (youth) was paired with an older man who still trained in the gymnasia. Now in a conventional scenario, the older male was expected to act as the younger trainee’s guardian, and thus was responsible for the youth’s conduct, courage and even military training during the ephebate period.

However, Greek sources frequently denote such pairs as ‘lovers’ – which is not meant to be taken literally in a sexual sense. In fact, Xenophon makes it clear on how purely physical relationships between males could be officially banned from the state. But that didn’t necessarily stop a few pairs from carrying on their elicit relationships. Some contemporary comedies tended to exaggerate such scenarios of homosexual activities inside the gymnasia. Xenophon also attests to the ‘carnal’ love between young men being prevalent in places like Thebes and Elis.

5) The ‘best’ belonged to the front and the rear of a hoplite phalanx –

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Gone were the days of the euphemistic ‘heroic age’, when men fought in chaotic huddles and chosen warriors picked at one another. The Greek hoplites were part of an ‘institution’ who fought in a phalanx formation where every member looked out for each other – and thus the aspis shield was considered as the most crucial part of a hoplite equipment. For example, when the exiled Spartan king Demaratos was asked the question – why men are dishonored only when they lose their shields but not when they lose their cuirasses? The Spartan king made his case – ‘because the latter [other armors] they put on for their own protection, but the shield for the common good of the whole line.’

Interestingly, Xenophon also talks about the more tactical side to a hoplite phalanx, which was more than just a closely-packed mass of armored spearmen. He draws comparison to the construction of a well-built house (in Memorabilia) – “just as stones, bricks, timber and tiles flung together anyhow are useless, whereas when the materials that neither rot nor decay, that is, the stones and tiles, are placed at the bottom and the top, and the bricks and timber are put together in the middle, as in building, the result is something of great value, a house, in fact.” Similarly, in the case of a phalanx of Greek hoplites, the historian talks about how the best men should be placed both in front and rear of the ranks. With this ‘modified’ formation, the men in the middle (with presumably lesser morale or physical prowess) would be inspired by the front-placed men while also being driven forth by the rear-placed men.

 

6) Classical hoplites probably favored mobility over armor –

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When we talk about Classical Greek hoplites, we mean the armored citizen-soldiers who dominated the Greek military world from early 5th century BC to late 4th century BC (before the advent of Alexander the Great). Now intriguingly enough, while popular depictions allude to superbly heavy and imposing ‘bronzed’ round-shields being carried by the Greek hoplites, the aspis was not necessarily meant to be ‘excessive’ in its structure. In fact, the ‘classic’ hoplite shield weighed around 13.5 lbs, which was just a bit heavier than the reformed Roman scutum that weighed 12 lbs. Even its ‘bronzed’ part pertained to just a thin bronze ring (less than half-millimeter in thickness) that draped the wooden shield on the outer face. As for the wood itself, lightweight varieties like poplar and willow were used in composite layers (much like modern day plywood).

In essence, the aspis was rather tailored to mobility as opposed to a heavy protection equipment. Simply put, the hoplite shield acted as a practical deterrent to spear and sword thrusts that must have been common in melee combat scenarios. But it was not exactly the best solution for projectiles that had greater kinetic energy, like javelins and arrows. Pottery scenes conform to the latter mentioned shortcoming of aspis by depicting various pierced shields.

7) The famed helmet crests were just for show and pomp –

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Horsehair crests upon helmets have long been the favorite of history reenactment groups and (even it seems) in the actual ancient armies. Ubiquitously dyed in bright and gaudy colors, they unsurprisingly didn’t serve any practical purpose; though such ‘decorations’ might have had some psychological value – with the flourishing crest endowing a more imposing air to the wearer while also making him appear taller. And by the latter Classical period, the type of crest also related to the rank of the hoplite. For example, Lamachus, the Athenian general who took part in the Peloponnesian War, embellished his helmet with three crests and two plumes (as mentioned by Nicholas Sekunda in the Greek Hoplite).

Interestingly, the famed Spartan crimson cloaks were also adopted primarily because of their visual predominance. Plutarch mentioned how the red-hued clothing might have psychologically afflicted the enemy while also hiding the Spartan’s blood wounds. This explanation might have some justification, since most Greek armies contemporary to even Xenophon’s time (the first half of 4th century BC) adopted some variants of the crimson clothing, probably inspired by their Spartan counterparts. And lastly, there was/is the association of vibrant colors to regal means and swagger.

8) Physical infirmity was possibly (mostly) overlooked in case of Spartan hoplites –

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While the movie 300 depicted how a physically deformed man named Ephialtes betrayed the Spartans since he was not allowed to serve in the hoplite phalanx, Herodotus’ account doesn’t take such a ‘fantastical’ route. In fact by historical accounts, even men with physical infirmities were liable to serve in the Spartan army, with the greatest example pertaining to Agesilaos (or Agesilaus II), the limping warrior-king of Sparta who oversaw numerous forays into Asia Minor while also playing a successful part in the Corinthian War. And while infant inspections possibly happened as portrayed in the aforementioned movie (at least in few instances), the handicapped adult Spartan probably expected himself to be enrolled in their fighting army. Plutarch gives us an account of a Spartan named Androkleidas who was crippled and thus turned down when he wanted to join the hoplite ranks. His retort was – ‘I do not have to be able to run away, but rather to stand and fight the foe.’

9) Wine before battle –

The ancient Greeks mostly took their meals during two particular times in a day, with ariston mostly equating to what is known as ‘brunch’ nowadays and deipnon equating to dinner – thus allowing most battles to take place in the afternoon period. During both these times, wine was consumed in moderate amounts. However, as Nicholas Sekunda mentions, the Greek hoplites had the tendency to consume extra alcohol or wine just before a battle, so as to calm their nerves. Even a few commanders partook in such ‘reveling’ before serious battlefield encounters. Xenophon mentions how Spartan king Kleombrotos I and his officers drank too much in their council before the disastrous Battle of Leuktra. On the other hand, it should also be noted that ariston was the crucial time when many commanders also ‘soberly’ planned out their moves that involved the formation and maneuvers of the collective host of his army.

10) Morale more important than strength in numbers –

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Another popular depiction of ancient warfare frequently involves the pushing and shoving of the Greek hoplites when it clashed with the enemy. Now while such a scenario was probably the credible outcome of two tight phalanxes clashing with each other, in reality many battles didn’t even come to the scope of ‘physical contact’. In other words, a hoplite charge was often not successful because the citizen-soldiers tended to break their ranks (and disperse) even before starting a bold maneuver. As a result, the army that held its ground often emerged victorious – thus exemplifying how morale was far more important than sheer strength in numbers (which alludes to why the Spartans were considered lethal in a battlefield).

Intriguingly, this once again brings us to Xenophon’s ‘house analogy’, where he says the best men were to be placed in the front and rear of a phalanx. And from a practical perspective, while the front-placed men didn’t have any space to run away from the battlefield, it was the rear-placed men who tended to break away from the subsequent charge, thus ultimately resulting in their cumbersome dispersal. One of the solutions for this morale-based predicament was to make the phalanx deeper with more men, so as to psychologically reinforce (rather than physically support) the ones in the rear. Another deep-rooted tradition entailed the singing of encouraging hymns (paeans) dedicated to gods of war just before the hoplites were to begin their progress and charge. So, as with many Greek customs, there might have been a practical side underneath this seemingly religious veneer. Thucydides himself mentioned how the songs and their tunes kept the marching line in order, which encompassed a major battlefield tactic – since Greek warfare (and victory) generally involved closing in with the enemy with a solid, unbroken line.

Sources: MilitaryFactory / Livius / BBC / Koryvantes / LARP

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