THE HOPLITE: Ancient Greece's Frontline Soldiers

War exists in all. A warrior’s status in Archaic Greece, and his parts to play in justifying and maintaining a collection of economic benefits, ethical values and political institutions, are already clear. Metal trading, and its importance to those involved in it, were the symptoms of the military’s expanding technology. In turn, this was crucial for the Greeks successful colonisation as they met tough and unfamiliar opponents across the Mediterranean.

At the turn of the 7th century BC, in terms of supplies of raw materials and metal production skills and capacities, the Greek world’s economic base for weapons manufacturing was stable enough to allow for the breakthrough of a new form of warfare; where before the Greek world of the Mycenaeans and the Dark Age had vast and comparatively unorganised armies led by champions, new heavily armoured troops became the most effective military force in the Mediterranean, dominating the sea without a need to change their ways for centuries to come, and influencing other cultures around them in the process, until the rise of Macedon under Philip and Alexander, and eventually until the rise and conquests of Rome. The military changes at the end of the 8th century BC in terms of weaponry, tactics and military personnel in turn brought further changes to social morality and politics.



Check out my previous post on Archaic Greek forms of Government and laws




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[ABOVE: Trade routes, including metals, across the Mediterranean with the Greeks]

The 6th century BC polis was commonly reorganised to produce vast bodies of trained military men, who would come to dominate politics. Political honours were arranged according to the property men owned, and shared on some level by those who could afford to bare their own armament and panoply. While later on this criteria would seem to be somewhat restrictive, it was actually a very wide group, being made up of peasant-farmers who owned at least some of their own land; in most states, this included roughly at least the upper third of the free adult male population. Depending on the size of the city-state, this allowed for a polis army comprised of anywhere between 3,000 and 8,000 fighting men at any one time, and these men would dominate politics of the leading states in several ways. It became the moral, social and political duty of a polis citizen to fight for his country during wartime. Any male citizen was viable for military service from the age of 20, and remained in the muster role for around 40 years until retirement. Desertion from the army could result in the individual loosing his citizenship. To demonstrate that all male citizens were at one point soldiers, even the Athenian poet Aeschylus stood in the army's ranks for most of his life; his grave even states that he wished to be remembered as a warrior, and not a tragedian.




The new soldier that emerged from all this change was called the Hoplite. These men were armed with standardised equipment: bronze shin guards (greaves) and corslet, a bronze helmet designed to provide maximum protection to the head and face while still allowing for decent vision ahead of the wearer, and a heavy convex circular bronze-covered wooden shield called the hoplon, giving the soldiers their name.



[ABOVE: A decorated hoplon shield, covering the user from thigh to neck]

The Greek word for shield is "aspis", and the aspis donned by the Hoplites gave them their name; The hoplon, mostly made of either poplar or willow wood, was backed with leather, and held securely by the user by placing his left forearm through a hoop and holding onto a grip near the shield’s rim; At the advent of hoplite warfare, this was a breakthrough in the military, and was known as the Argive Grip. The strap itself was called a “porpax”, and the handle was called an “antilabē”. Spartans of the 5th century onwards were known to paint on their shields the Greek letter “L” ("lambda", spelt as “Λ” in uppercase and "λ" in lowercase), which represented their homeland of Lakedaimonia in the southern Peloponnese.

Hoplons were wooden and had a bronze rim, and later a bronze covering. This bronze face was usually decorated with imagery. Its decoration usually consisted of geometric or figured blazon, painted or applied bronze. The Argive Grip is what separated this shield from any other before it. The Argive Grip allowed for more of the users arm to control the shield and give it more leverage, meaning the shield could be heavier. The grip also dictated that the shields total diameter should be around twice that of the user’s forearm, and they tended to be one metre in diameter. It also meant that the shield was more capable of allowing the user to push at the enemy in front of them, as it could be moved around less easily. And since it turned a lot less when a weapon impacted it, blows tended to be more frontal and piercing instead of glancing, as it guarded a lot of space to the left of the soldier. While all of these attributes made the hoplon less adapt for single combat, they made it far better for close formation combat. An early pottery design from 685 BC clearly shows the inside of a shield as it is wielded by a hoplite, detailing the strap and grip.


[ABOVE: Vase painting showcasing hoplites in combat, also detailing the inside of a hoplon]



[ABOVE: An undecorated Corinthian helmet]

The helmet was lined inside with leather, fixed to the interior via small pierced holes in the metal. Under the helmet, a soldier may have worn a headband to provide some extra support for the helmet whilst also tying back their hair. The discomfort of wearing such a helmet all the time was countered by the fact that the helmet could easily be lifted and balanced well on top of the head when the soldiers were not in combat. It’s in this position that the helmet mostly appears when shown in iconography, imagery, pottery and coins. Various types and designs of helmets were in use throughout Ancient Greece, but by far the most iconic is the one that offered the most protection: The Corinthian helmet, from the city-state of Corinth.


[ABOVE: Digital recreation of a Corinthian helmet with horsehair crest]



[ABOVE: A Greek bronze breastplate, alongside some helmets and swords]

The corselet, made of either linen or bronze, protected the wearer’s torso. Later versions of the corselet were made of multiple layers of linen glued together with resins, which formed a stiff coverage of roughly half a centimetre thick. Below the waist, the corselet was cut into strips (“pteruges”) to allow for easier movement, and a second layer of pteruges was fixed behind this outer layer, which covered the gaps formed by the outer pteruges and formed a kilt-like skirt that provided some groin coverage. The linen corselet (linothōrax), which first appeared in c.525 BC, was far more comfortable, flexible and cooler than its sculpted bronze counterpart when worn under the hot sun. The bronze corselet though provided better coverage against glancing blows, but a more direct and piercing hit would pierce through, which is why it was commonly worn with padding underneath.



[ABOVE: Decorated bronze knemides]

Finally, the bronze greaves (“knemides”) protected the lower legs. These were clipped around the shins via their own elasticity. And thus, with the full helmet, corselet, greaves and a shield in front covering them from thigh to neck, the hoplite was virtually covered in armour, and very hard to take down.

Where the shield and helmet remained fairly consistent in their design, the body armour of hoplites does seem to have made changes before and during the widespread use of the phalanx, telling us that the body armour was not as important as the shield and helmet, which already provided large amounts of protection together. Altogether, the kit a soldier carried weighed around 30 kg, with the shield itself weighing around 7 kg.




For offence, the hoplites carried into battle a spear roughly one and a half times a man’s height, called a Doru, and a short sword for closer ranged combat.



[ABOVE: An iron leaf-shaped spear head (below) and a bronze butt-spike (above)]

Doru were made of ash wood and typically measured between 2 and 2.5 metres in length. It was tipped with a bronze, and later iron, leaf-shaped spearhead and a bronze butt-spike made the weapon double-edged and provided a counter-balance when holding the spear closer to the bottom. The butt-spike was often called the ‘Lizard Killer’, (“Sauroter”) and allowed the spear to be planted in the ground to finish off wounded enemy or to change weapons when ordered to. Being made of bronze meant it did not rust when placed in the ground. The common grip for fighting in a phalanx formation was overhand, with the spear tip pointing directly towards the foes face, although underarm grips were commonly used, especially when facing against an opponent quickly charging towards them. The middle of the spear’s shaft was wrapped in a leather cord to improve the grip.


[ABOVE: The Kopis sword, used by hoplite foot infantry, but often also used by cavalrymen in some parts of Greece]

The sword (“kopis”, meaning “cutter”) was a heavy, single-edged blade made to be slashed overhand. Both edges were convex, which weighed the sword more towards the tip. Every hoplite carried a kopis, but it was very much a secondary weapon. The Spartans were famous for using the Xiphos sword, however, which was much shorter and almost resembled a dagger more than a sword. They believed it got them even closer to the enemy. In fact, when once a Spartan was jokingly asked by an outsider why his sword was so short, he replied:

It’s long enough to reach your heart.


[ABOVE: Modern recreation of a Xiphos and scabbard]



NEXT POST: THE PHALANX: Ancient Greek Battle Formation

Drawing of a hoplite phalanx in battle formation



  • Herodotus, "The Histories"
  • Oswyn Murray's "Early Greece"
  • Robin Osborne's "Greece in the Making 1200 - 479 BC"
  • Nic Fields' "Thermopylae 480 BC, Last Stand of the 300"




(I do NOT own these videos)

"Hoplite shields" by "LindyBeige"

"Corinthian helmets"

"Hoplite cuirass"

"Greaves (lower leg armour)"

"Hoplite swords"

"The kopis"

"Donning hoplite armour"









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Specialising in Ancient and Classical Greek, Persian and Roman studies, particularly military history.

Ancient Greek History
Ancient Greek History

Historical educational posts on Ancient Greek history. I'll be covering Greek history stretching from the Greek Bronze Age and the days of Achilles and Troy, to the Hellenistic Age of Alexander and Cleopatra, covering topics ranging from daily city life to all-out warfare. I'll also be looking a lot into Iranian/Persian history, and their infamous conflicts with the Greeks throughout history. All feedback, positive and/or negative, is very welcome. Hope ya learn plenty-a-stuff! :)

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