The Hoplite Warband

We have all seen them in contemporary cinematography, depicted on the mosaics of archaeological findings in the ancient world.

The Hoplite (etymologically deriving from la hopla, meaning a tool, or equipment.)  Was the standard armed warrior of the Ancient Greek world from the 7th to the 4th-century B.C.  War played an exceptionally important, but in the same sense dualistic character in Greek society.   The Greek city-states and political entities waged war against each other in a competitive manner, in a healthy pursuit of domination and a demonstration of power, which eventually culminated in the Peloponnesian war (431–404) fought between the Corinthian and Peloponnesian alliances, both led by Sparta and Greece.  There was also the war which was waged with the utmost hatred and annihilation against “Them, the non-Greeks”, the typical representation being the total war and the complete military and political unification of a big portion of the Greek city-states.

Thucydides gives a perfect exemplary summarize on the Greek perception of war in his treatise “History of the Peloponnesian War”  :

“In practice, we always base our preparations against an enemy on the assumption that his plans are good; indeed, it is right to rest our hopes not on a belief in his blunders, but on the soundness of our provisions. Nor ought we to believe that there is much difference between man and man, but to think that the superiority lies with him who is reared in the severest school.”

Most  ordinary citizens of Greek city-states with sufficient means were expected to equip and make themselves available for the role when necessary. War was not treated as something unknown, outlived and absent, but rather as an imminent states which can occur without being chronoligocally predicted.

Athens had a system of compulsory military service for 18-20 year olds, but during a war all male citizens up to the age of 60 could be called up to the armed forces. Other city-states followed a similar policy which meant that hoplites were not professional soldiers and often lacked sufficient military training, although some states did maintain a small elite professional unit, the epilektoi.

The most famous of these was the Sacred Band of Thebes, a unit composed of 150 pairs of male lovers who swore to defend their partner to the death. Sparta, where all male citizens over 20 were members of a permanent professional army, was the notable exception to this approach of only calling up an army when absolutely needed.


The principal weapons of a hoplite infantryman were a long ash wood spear (doru) and a short sword (xiphos). The spear measured on average 2.5 metres (8 ft.) in length and was fitted with a bronze or iron blade and a four-sided end spike (sauroter). The sword was also of iron with a straight or sometimes curved blade (machaira or kopis) no more than 60 cm in length. No doubt many hoplites also carried a dagger (encheiridion) as an extra insurance. Protection was provided by a leather-lined bronze helmet which could vary in design, was often crested, and protected the head, neck, and face. A corselet or breastplate (thorax) of bronze or leather (later reduced to a laminated linen vest to save weight – a linothorax), bronze greaves (knemides) to protect the shins, and sometimes arm-guards were also worn. The hoplite carried a large circular shield (hoplon or aspis) some 80 cm (30 in.) in diameter and weighing as much as 8 kg. This was made of wood or stiff leather, faced with bronze, and was held with the left arm placed through a central band (porpax) and gripped via a strap (antilabe) attached to the shield rim. Shields often carried particular designs – the most famous being the inverted V-shape of Spartan hoplites – and emblems – particularly popular was the gorgon from Greek mythology with its association with changing the onlooker into stone. Surviving examples of breastplates and helmets also display engraved decoration. Fully armoured then, the hoplite was required to carry some 20 kg of equipment and so good physical training must have given one side a strong advantage (e.g. the well-trained and professional Spartans). Precisely because all of this equipment amounted to quite an investment, being a hoplite also indicated that the individual had a certain status in wider Greek society.

Greek Hoplites


Hoplites were organised into regiments or lokhoi (several hundred men strong), and they fought in ranks eight or more men deep (known as a phalanx), and standing close together, half of the shield of one man protected his neighbour on his left side. This, interestingly, meant that the phalanx often moved forward at a slight angle to the right as men sought to keep behind the shield of their neighbour. This resulted in the left flank usually breaking formation first, and so this was the flank a competent commander would attack with priority, and he would, therefore, ensure he had his best troops on his own right flank. The phalanx advanced at a walk or faster, often accompanied by rhythmic music from aulos players, and shouting a tremendous war-cry (paean). On engaging the enemy the hoplites first thrust their spears, usually over-arm. After that initial contact, the opposing lines usually went through a series of pushing and shoving (othismos) and close-quarter fighting with swords which only ended when one side broke ranks. The pursuit of retreating hoplites was usually only over a short distance in order to maintain the protective close-formation.

Greek Hoplites Fighting

Hoplites were instrumental in the Greek victories over Persia at the battles of Marathon(490 BCE) and Plataea (479 BCE). The weaknesses of the phalanx formation – attack from the flanks, rear, or when on rough terrain – were sometimes exploited by more wily commanders; however, the formation, albeit with lighter-armed infantry, was still in use through Hellenistic and early Roman times.


Graf von Marstall

The first Warden and Primus inter Pares. Born in the heart of the Balkans, where he finished his Legal and Political science education. Has a deep and profound fascination with Humanities, Culture, and art and military strength culture. Politics and writing are a passion in their own right. Fighting the Culture war as long as he remembers himself.

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