Warfare 1


Infantry Warfare

This is a Greek hoplite.  He is wearing armor made out of bronze.  The individual items of armor are: a helmet with a horsehair crest and cheek pieces, a corselet or cuirass to protect the upper body, and greaves to protect the lower part of the leg.  This hoplite is not depicted with his weaponry.  In battle, he would have first used a  thrusting spear between 6 1/2 and 10 ft. long against the enemy.  When he was closely engaged with enemy, he then used a short sword with which he could both cut and thrust.  The hoplite carried the sword in a wooden scabbard, which was hung from his neck by a cord.  He is carrying a heavy round shield  (around 18 lbs.) called a hoplon, from which the word 'hoplite' is derived.  Note that the left arm of the hoplite has been inserted through an arm band to the point that the hand can grasp the hand grip near the rim of the shield.  The shield at its core was made of wood, but was faced with bronze backed by leather.  Besides its primary function as a protective device, the shield also had symbolic meaning.  A Spartan mother had warned her son to "return either with your shield or on it" (Spartan shields were large enough to serve as stretchers or funeral biers).  If a hoplite returned home alive without the shield, it meant that he had thrown it away while running for his life (its weight made it a formidable obstacle to fast running), an act of cowardice.

Since bronze corselets were quite expensive, many hoplites used a much less expensive body protection made of numerous layers of linen, which were commonly reinforced with metal.  At the bottom of the linen corselet hung flaps called 'feathers' (pteruges), which protected the lower part of the body.  The Athenian state did not provide this hoplite armor for its soldiers.  Commonly a father would purchase it and present it to his son when he entered military service.

Hoplites lined up in battle order called phalanx.  This order consisted of files, usually around eight deep.  The general was no "behind-the-lines" commander; he fought in the first rank.  It was not unusual for a general to be killed in battle as Cleon was at Amphipolis.  The rear ranks moved up to replace those hoplites who fell in battle.  Since the shield only protected the left side of the hoplite (his right arm had to be free to employ the spear and the sword), it was deployed in such a way that it protected the right side of the man on the left in line.  The object of hoplite warfare was to break to line of the enemy and put them to flight.  When victory had been achieved, the victorious army set up a trophy, the arms and armor of the defeated attached to a tree stump.  The word 'trophy' is derived from the verb 'to turn' (trepein) because it symbolized the turning of the enemy to flight.

There were other more lightly armed troops of various kinds who were usually mercenaries serving as auxiliary forces that did not engage enemy hoplites directly, but harassed them. Peltasts, lightly armed troops from Thrace who carried a crescent shaped shield (peltê) made of wicker and covered with goatskin, and a number of javelins.  Slingers (from various places in the Greek world, who with a sling hurled a lead bullet that could penetrate bare skin at a distance of over 300 feet.1  Archers were normally Cretan or Scythian mercenaries.

Like the peltasts, slingers, and archers, the Athenian cavalry was also an auxiliary force that could harass the enemy hoplites but not face them head-on. They also could be quite effective in pursuing  and killing enemy hoplites in flight. They wore broad brimmed hats (to shield them from the sun) and used spears or javelins.  The lack of a saddle and stirrups prevented from them engaging in heavy combat.  Although the Athenian calvary was only an auxiliary force, it nonetheless had considerable prestige because it was recruited from the wealthy (i.e., rich enough to own a horse).



1. On the island of Sphacteria opposite Pylos on the northwestern coast of the Peloponnesus, rough ground prevented Spartan hoplites from moving quickly.  Thus Athenian peltasts and slingers, unencumbered by heavy armor, were able to maneuver much more easily and wrought havoc on the Spartan troops.  Sphacteria was perhaps the most important Athenian victory (424 BC) in the Peloponnesian War. Return to text.

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