The Evolution of the Hoplite: An Investigation into the origins, sustainment and demise of the Classical citizen-soldier

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The Hoplite is probably the first thing anyone envisages at the mention of warfare in the Ancient Greek world. The history of the hoplite (or the few hundred years in which hoplite warfare dominated the Aegean) is something that I find is often overlooked in terms of Ancient warfare, especially with regards to Greece’s neighbours to the west, who eventually come to dominate European history for the best part of 500 years. In turn, it is no real surprise that a large share of the attention on Ancient warfare is focused on machinations from Rome, as opposed to those poleis in Greece. I would like to explore a lot more than just the history of hoplite warfare in the Hellenes. The points I would like to focus on are how and why hoplite (and phalanx) warfare originated, how much was the hoplite was engrained into Ancient Greek identity (‘hoplite culture’ gives an idea as to why it lasted like it did) and for what reasons did hoplite warfare (and to some extent culture) die out?

The origins of the Hoplite:

To at least try and establish the origins of hoplite warfare, the evidence scholars mostly rely on is vase depiction. Certainly, depictions of battle scenes were very popular in Greece (as one can see on the friezes of the Parthenon as well as the various vase decorations; Hanson, 1991: 7). It is more than likely that the arms and armour used by hoplites were already in use by the time hoplite warfare was considered to have originated around 675-50 BC (Snodgrass, 1964, passim). The Corinthian aryballos (Everson, 2004: 71, fig. 36) dates from circa 680 BC and shows a hoplite fighting with the correct accoutrements but not in a phalanx with other hoplites. Rather, he is supported by an archer and maybe a skirmisher which harks back to the skirmishing nature of the ‘Greek Dark Age’ (Snodgrass, 1964: 189).

So, hoplite equipment is shown from as late as 680 BC, but the phalanx which we associate hoplites with does not appear until 650 BC on the ‘Chigi vase’ (see fig. 1; c.f. Sekunda, 2000: Plate A). It is clear here, that the artist is depicting the phalanx in action (Although, the Aegina stand (c. 675-50 BC) and Berlin aryballos (c. 650 BC) are more plausible representations of actual phalanxes (Snodgrass, 1964: 197-8; Lorimer, 1947: 76ff), although not eight deep (Everson, 2004: 71); we also see the (proto) hoplites wearing bronze bell cuirasses and crested Corinthian helmets that we recognise later hoplites wearing. Although, the depicted hoplites are carrying two spears rather than a sword which we associate later hoplites with. Tyrtaeus, the late 7th century Spartan poet, also writes of early hoplite warfare and he mentions fighting the enemy with ‘his sword or great spear’ (Tyrtaeus, frag. 11), which would seem to confirm that Chigi vase is representing a very early vision of hoplite, using two spears.

The vase and literary depictions give us a good idea of when hoplite warfare was starting to be implemented, i.e. the beginning of the 7th century BC. How can we explain this change though? Why did the people at that time change the form of warfare? Well, Snodgrass implies that the old order of things is suddenly challenged by the adoption of new equipment and tactics (1964: 189). It seems as if the adoption if heavier, hoplite-like armour was helped by foreign influence. With Greek ships travelling to Italy, the Levantine coast and maybe even the Euxine Sea, there are a range of potential influences (Snodgrass, 1964: 193). A huge and sudden demand for bronze armour needed to be appeased by importing cast cauldrons from further abroad (Boardman, 1980: 43-5).

The first helmet of the post Dark Age era, the kegelhelm – dated as far back as 725 BC, was then succeeded by first the Illyrian helmet c. 700 BC (Jackson, 1999: 161) and then the Corinthian helmet (despite being created in the late 8th century), which, in contrast with other helmet examples such as the Assyrian influenced kegelhelm, was a feat of Greek metallurgy (Snodgrass, 1964: 195). The reintroduction of bronze armour in the 8th century began with the ‘Argos cuirass’ (see fig. 2), whose earlier versions were of 2mm thick beaten bronze (Everson, 2004: 88). The bell cuirass descended from the Argos cuirass must have been in use by 750 BC (Everson, 2004: 91) as we see with General Timomachus in the late 8th century BC (Cartledge, 1977: 25); bronze greaves are reported to have been used as early as 750 BC (Jarva, 1995: 86-7). Hoplite shields (aspis or sometimes hoplon) were the shield of choice by 675 B.C. and are indicated in vase art by their underside, with two grips, as can be seen on the Chigi vase (see fig. 1).

Depictions of a throwing spear and thrusting spear die out by c. 640 BC, with the actual use in battle appearing to stop by the 520’s BC (Everson, 2004: 124); the throwing tactic became increasingly at odds with the phalanx tactic and useless against bronze armour anyway (Tyrtaeus, frag. 11). Swords were commonly used to replace the second spear, though artistic depictions of them are rare; slashing swords (Snodgrass, 1964: 100) and curved swords, like one from Crete in c. 650 BC (Snodgrass, 1964: 100) were used. Although, it would appear that a shorter, cut and thrust sword was preferred mostly until the 4th century BC (Connolly, 1998: 63).

The poems of Tyrtaeus provide knowledge of the panoply arriving in Sparta by the mid 7th century (Dawkins et al., 1929: 15-6). However, given the fiercely territorial nature of many poleis, it is likely that internecine wars hastened the use of a standard set of equipment (Snodgrass, 1964: 203). The adoption of the above panoply helped to form the hoplite in what we know as phalanx warfare rather than the adoption of the phalanx changing the panoply (Snodgrass, 1964: 195-6, 199). The Corinthian helmet’s restrictions on seeing and hearing must have made soldiers keep close together, helping to rely on each other. The aspis too was particularly encumbering and was another good reason to stick close to fellow warriors, thus forming a wall of shields.

The phalanx that developed from this was integral to Greek warfare for the next 300 years. Success was based upon the cohesion, one hoplite’s recklessness or cowardice could spell disaster (see Hdt. 7.231 for Aristodemos’ actions at Plataea). Once a hoplite joined the phalanx, and was protected, he dropped his individuality and became a brick in the structure of the phalanx. In phalanx duels, a ”no man’s land was often left in the middle, with each side trying to penetrate the other with spear blows. In the right circumstances (maybe when weapons had broken), the stage called Othismos began, where the phalanxes would push against each other, hoping to break through. It is not yet known whether this occurred naturally or at a set stage during combat (Matthew, 2009: 414).

Eventually, sometime before the advent of the 5th century BC, the Greeks had given a name to this heavy infantryman – ???i??? (Aeschylus, Sept. 466, 717; Pindar, Isthm. 2, 32; Snodgrass, 1964: 204). We can see the practical reasons for creating the phalanx, the nature of wearing bronze armour necessitated careful combat, whereby the participants preferred to stick close together as a unit, rather than be confused out in the open by themselves. What was the reason for sticking by phalanx warfare in Greece? I will discuss this in the next chapter.

The Social, Symbolic and Cultural representation of the Hoplite

As many Scholars have touched upon, and to those with a common sense, one might wonder, given the topographical landscape of Greece, why did soldiers, clad in heavy bronze armour, traipse around the Greek mountains just to fight battles (Bowden, 1993: 48; Cartledge, 1977: 18; Holladay, 1982: 97)? This can explained by exploring just what the phalanx represented to Archaic Greek peoples on a social, cultural and symbolic level.

It has been argued (Andrewes, 1956; Snodgrass, 1980; Holladay, 1982: 99) that introduction of new armour and tactics allowed non aristocrats (Homeric warfare was determined by the warrior nobles) to be included in the fighting, thus pressuring social change (i.e. the rise of tyrants). However, Bowden argues that this assumes that communities existed which could draw up a warrior class (1993: 47). The sheer cost of arms and armour meant that fighting was restricted to those rich enough to be able to afford it (Morris, 1987: 197). De Polignac and Detienne also argue that hoplite tactics were developed for the needs of the communities developing in the late 8th century (1984; 1968). The phalanx started to develop when the concept of a boundary chora to a polis came into existence (De Polignac, 1984: 57). So, in a mountainous country like Greece, phalanx warfare suited flat plains where the territories of two poleis met on a plain (Bowden, 1993: 48). The first battles we hear of were that of boundary disputes.

It may well have been that initially, the phalanx in the 7th century BC included more than just the richest citizens of the community (Bowden, 1993: 48). The growth of hoplite warfare in that period is associated with the decline of burial practices that included armour (Kurtz & Boardman, 1971: 207). Bits of armour could also be won in competition and stripped from dead enemies and thus it was possible for a polis to build up a phalanx from looted armour and armour serving as family heirlooms (Bowden, 1993: 48-9). In Athens, the fleet enabled employment for many of the poorer citizens in the 5th to 4th centuries, and so the phalanx was the preserve of the rich, but in the earlier period of hoplite warfare, it is plausible that hoplite membership was wider open (Bowden, 1993: 49).

There was also an intrinsic link between the phalanx and agriculture. Nearly every major Greek author, statesman or philosopher, aside from his status, owned a farm or served in battle (Hanson, 1998: 1). As a result, it is hardly surprising that ravaging another city state’s farmlands was at the centre of warfare during the Classical era. Those who were wealthy were normally landowners and they owned farms. Not only were the hoplites rich, but they were also fighting to protect their crop fields.

Inevitably, the crops situated on the plain of the polis became the focus of conflict for many Greek city states (Hanson, 1998: 6, 9). When one city state invaded another, it had to provoke conflict. In the vast majority of cases, this was done by ravaging the invaded state’s farmland and agriculture. Since a great deal of a city-state’s citizens were farmers, this was unthinkable and very often, the invaded city state gave battle in an effort to protect crops. In other cases, the invaded polis could refuse to give battle and let her crops be savaged and the invader would return home (Hanson, 1991: 4).

For something to central to the belief of Classical Greek warfare, agricultural devastation was, in fact, quite ineffectual. Lin Foxhall cited the case of a fire on Methana, Attica in 1895 which destroyed 30-50 hectares of farmland. Out of the 104 families who owned land there, many lost a little land, but none lost any significant portion of land. The actions of an invading army trying to ravage the countryside would have been much less effective that the fire of 1895 (Foxhall, 1993: 136). Wealthy famers with larger plots on easily ravaged flat plains will have sustained most of the damage in the case of ravaging (“Xenophon”/The Old Oligarch, Const. Ath.: 2,14-16), but crucially, they did not expect their losses to be significant (SEG 24 [1969] 151.18).

Sparta’s (under the Peloponnesian League) invasions of Attica during the Peloponnesian War made no permanent damage to crops or any agricultural depression (Hanson, 1998: 176). The worries of farmers were mostly hot air, and actually became a target of satire in Aristophanes’ plays (Hanson, 1998: 178; Artistoph., Acharnians: 182-3; 512; cf. Foxhall, 1993: 139). If a polis invaded another state’s lands, and battle was not given, the only thing they knew how to do was ravage the countryside (Athens’ invasion of Melos – Thuc. 3.91.2). As long as the agrarian population maintained its dominance in political and cultural terms, agricultural devastation was a constant part of Classical Greek city state hoplite warfare (cf. Hanson, 1991: 6).

On a symbolic level, when the territory of the polis was challenged, a line of hoplites stood shoulder to shoulder to defend the polis. They were the personified boundary of that territory (Bowden, 1993: 48). Their spear-heads like the city state’s sharp teeth. The polis and the phalanx were synonymous (Thuc. 2.34 – 46). The defence of the polis meant the hoplite was most qualified as a citizen, earning the hoplite ‘arete’ or excellence (a concept similar to Roman ‘virtus’).

The defence of the chora was an important aspect of arete (Spence, 1993: 167), which featured heavily in contemporary art and literature about the ‘ideal citizen’ (Soph., Antig. 661H; Aristoph., Frogs. 1009-17). Hoplite warfare was a ritualised ‘contest’ almost, with artificial conventions, much like a sporting event and only challenged by the Thebans when they experimented with hoplite ranks beyond the conventional 8 deep phalanx (Holladay, 1982: 97). Hoplite battles were normally a brief affair, the bronze encased hoplites tired quickly, which in turn led to armies placing emphasis on achieving victory in the initial charge and then setting up a trophy if they won or asking to bury their dead if they had lost; complete annihilation of the other army was looked down upon (a sort of early version of chivalry).

This was mainly for two reasons, firstly, in the ideological sense of hoplite warfare, pursuit of the enemy was unjust, with it being mutually accepted that ‘what was done was done’ (Hanson, 1991: 4). More realistically however, was the fact that pursuit was limited because of terrain and horses for chasing (Hanson, 1991: 4). There was similar revulsion for ambuscades and trickery among Greek literature, like Euripides’ scalding of Odysseus in his Rhesos (510-17) and Polybius linking ambush with deceit (3.81.9; 4.8.11; 13.3.2-7; 18.3.1-4). The superiority of the hoplite was enforced in Athens, where the victory at Marathon was emphasised at the expense of the naval victory at Salamis (Krentz, 2002: 36). Also, Plato envisaged that the ideal state would be defended by hoplites (Plato, Republic. 347b-d; Laws, 707a-d).

Hoplite training was considerably engrained into Ancient Greek culture. In fact, it was common practice to train in the hoplite panoply by dancing as Poursat’s study of Athenian ceramic shows (1968: 550-615). Borthwick’s studies of the ‘Pyrrhic Dance’ showed that various movements within the dance (shield-waving and ducking to avoid blows) imitated evasive manoeuvres within combat (1970: 318-331). The Dikais Logos in Clouds by Aristophanes lampoons his youths who cannot correctly perform the Pyrrhic dance at the Panathenaia by comparing them to the Marathon heroes (986-989). It’s clear that the focus was on agility when fighting, in clear contrast with Pyrrhus’ recruitment policy (Pritchett, 1985: 63, citing Frontinus, Strat. 4.1.3).

On turning 18, Greek youths were required to attend Ephebic training which lasted two years. They had to swear an oath upon joining; the oath implied that a hoplite’s arms were sacred (Siewert, 1977: 102-3). The first year of training was athletically orientated, the second more geared towards military training; this was all paid at public expense (Sekunda, 2000: 6). The hoplitodromos was another part of training, where youths trained to run over the original 400 metres in which they would charge the enemy (Sekunda, 2000: 6-7).

After having completed Ephebic training (completion of which was the point of becoming a man in Greek society), there was no other supervision and men of military age were expected to look after themselves in the gymnasia (Xen. Memorab. 3.12.5). The exceptions to these were the notable examples of the soldier-citizens of Sparta and the specially trained Sacred Band of Thebes (Theban soldiers trained in wrestling instead of dancing – Pritchett, 1985: 92).

Mentioned earlier was the implication in the Ephebic oath that one’s arms were sacred. In Sparta, this was taken very literally. Sparta was a military orientated state, where the Spartiates, as full time soldiers, spent their time training for war and underwent thorough drill practice (Xen. Hell. 4.2.20, 4.3.18 and 6.5.18-9). The symbolic value of the aspis is best displayed in the contempt for those who fled battle and in doing so ‘flung their shield away’ (rhipsaspides) (Cartledge, 1977: 13). One remembers only too well the Spartan mother telling her son to come home from battle ‘with his shield or on it’ (Plut. Mor. 241F [16]).

Again, as mentioned earlier, one might have thought Greece’s terrain perfect for lighter troops, but the Greek states were stubborn. In Sparta for example, when a population crisis necessitated the use of helots and perioeci in the army, they were equipped as hoplites, not light infantry (Holladay, 1982: 101; despite Sekunda, 1998: 49). If any polis had seen the benefit in lighter armed troops, then they would have made decisive use of them (Holladay, 1982: 103). The use of light troops/skirmishers in battle was confined to token preliminary exchanges before battle was decided by the real soldiers, the hoplites (Pritchett, 1985: 51).

The same could be said for cavalry, who were used before battle and to protect the flanks during battle (Pritchett, 1985: 52). Combined arm tactics were never used by the Greek poleis (despite the 4th century battle trait of deploying cavalry as a screening force – Spence, 1993: 157), unlike Phillip II of Macedon, who realised the potential of being able to fix an enemy with the phalanx and flanking them with powerful cavalry. Undoubtedly, this approach towards the hoplite being untouchable was one of the principle reasons as to why the hoplite began to die out Spence, 1993: 172).

The End of the Hoplite:

There were many reasons as to why the hoplite fell out of favour in Greece. On the surface, it would appear that it was a military decision, necessitated by the tactics of the later 4th century BC, but there were underlying social issues in Greece at the time which brought about the end of the hoplite. From a combat perspective, the hoplite was relatively inflexible; he had little room to manoeuvre and little personal space within which to fight (Spence, 1993: 87). Changing formation or plan were a logistical nightmare for a phalanx, which even the Spartan had trouble with, despite their training (Spartan manoeuvring cost them dear at the Battle of Leuctra). As long as battle was fought on their terms, the hoplite was superior, but as soon as he fought outside his parameters. For example, once a phalanx left flat ground, the terrain would disrupt their formation (Spence, 1993: 48). They were also incredibly vulnerable to assaults on their flanks and rear (Spence, 1993; 110).

Another factor to consider is the heavy casualties in hoplite battles. The defeated army, on average, lost 10-20 % of his original force and even the victor suffered significant losses between 3-10% (Krentz, 1985: 18). A change in the nature of leadership also played a heavy part in the discontinuation of hoplite warfare. Previously, Greek generals thought that once the phalanxes were ordered to march, there was nothing they could do to change the course of events (Plut. Arat. 29.5-6). This static and conservative approach to battle affected the development of arms (Spence, 1993: 173). Despite this, Greek armies were at least able to recognise, with the threat of Macedonian expansion that they had to become more manoeuvrable to counter cavalry and the increased use of light troops. The subsequent dropping of cuirasses and the adoption of lighter helms in the late 5th and early 4th century reflect this (Everson, 2004: 136; Hanson, 1991: 64; Sekunda, 2000: Plate F). Even with the introduction of the sarissa armed Macedonian phalanx in the second half of the 4th century BC, hoplite tactics and equipment remained for many years after (Spence, 1993: 121, citing Markle, 1977: 326-31; see fig. 3).

An army that possessed cavalry had the manoeuvrability to affect that outcome, however (Spence, 1993: 173). The speed of a horse allowed cavalry to overtake infantry whether heavily armed or lighter armed. It could also move across the battlefield quickly to react to events; the Theban cavalry flanking at Delion in 424 BC and Derdas’ cavalry charge at Olynthus in 382 were both prime examples of rapid deployment affecting the outcome of a battle (Spence, 1993: 40. At Olynthus, Derdas snatched victory from the jaws of defeat (Thuc. 4.96.5; Xen. Hell. 5.2.41-2). Warfare also had to become less about fair fighting, and more about exploiting an advantage. Pursuing fleeing troops and inflicting maximum casualties helped to make battlefield victories decisive (Spence, 1993: 158; Krentz, 2002: 30). The Athenians began to realise the benefit of surprising enemies via ambush, as they did at Ellomenes and Olpai during the Peloponnesian War (Thuc. 3.14.1, 107.3, 110.1-112.6, 4.67; Xen. Anab. 4.1.22, 6.17, 7.22).

The Greek poleis’ disdain for anything other than hoplite dominated warfare continued; professional armies were looked down upon. The Classical hoplite, who farmed a small plot of land and could only campaign for a short time away from his crops, was vehemently opposed to a professional army, which would involve taxes and would put an end to his dominance of political and cultural dominance by ensuring he could not defend his city anymore (Hanson, 1998: 7). The end of his dominance came in the last years of the Peloponnesian War, when the agriculturalists monopoly over conflict vanished, along with it the confined, ritual nature of hoplite warfare (Hanson, 1991: 5).

Sparta and Athens, with two vastly different societies were, ironically, both similar in that they were free from the traditional requirements of agriculture for a polis (Hanson, 1991: 5), and in turn, the regulations of hoplite battle. Sparta could rely on the helots to farm, whilst Athens could rely on imports of wheat and other foodstuffs from trade and tribute. As a result, these two superpowers of the Aegean were able to unleash a new type of warfare previously unseen in the Hellenes (Hanson, 1991: 5). Athens, under Pericles, could afford to sit back, behind the city walls whilst the Lacedaemonians invaded Attica, knowing that they could weather the storm and unleash seaborne raids on the Peloponnese, causing economic distress, and dissuading the Spartans from continuing the war (Westlake, 1945: 84; Spence, 1990: 92; Thuc. 1. 143.5).


As we have seen, Hoplite warfare came to dominate the history of Greece for 300 years. Hoplites originated from the influx of bronze into Greek ports from abroad and the armour used by these soldiers required them to stay in a phalanx formation where they maintain their safety, yet pose a serious threat to any enemy they encountered. Gradually, this style of warfare came to be perpetuated by an agrarian elite, who could fight battles without endangering their agricultural prosperity (Hanson, 1991: 6). As the years passed, other forms of warring were found to be more effective, which ended the monopoly the agrarian elite had on forcing conflict. Despite changes in Hoplite tactics, these were too little, too late and the era of the hoplite was ended with the victory of Phillip II’s Phalangites and cavalry at the Battle of Chaeronea in 338 BC. I couldn’t agree much more with Victor Davis Hanson when he described Greek warfare as a “wonderful, absurd conspiracy” (1991: 6).

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