AskDefine | Define hoplite

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From ‘heavily armed foot-soldier’, from ‘arms, armor, weapon’. Compare Latin hoplomachus ‘gladiator’.




  1. A heavily-armed infantry soldier of Ancient Greece.


Extensive Definition

The hoplite was a heavy infantryman, the central element of warfare in Ancient Greece. The word hoplite (Greek , hoplitēs) derives from hoplon (, plural hopla, ) meaning an item of armour or equipment, thus 'hoplite' may approximate to 'armoured man'. Hoplites were the citizen-soldiers of the Ancient Greek City-states. They were primarily armed as spear-men and fought in a phalanx formation.
Warfare in ancient Greece appears, for the most part, to have consisted of set-piece battles between independent city-states. The hoplite was an effective solution to this situation. A city-state could not afford a professional and/or standing army, so battles had to be fought by the citizens themselves. The tactics and techniques used in battle therefore had to be simple enough to be quickly mastered. Since the equipment was provided by the individual hoplite, it had to be affordable by an average citizen. The hoplite probably first appeared in the late seventh century BC. In the early Classical Period most battles appear to have primarily involved clashes of opposing phalanxes; tactics were simple and casualties relatively low. Towards the end of the classical period more sophistication seems to have occurred, culminating in the 'new model' army of the Ancient Macedonian Kingdom.
Almost all the famous men of ancient Greece, including philosophers and playwrights, fought as hoplites.. The most well-known hoplites were the Spartans, who were trained from childhood in combat and warfare to become an exceptionally disciplined and superior fighting force.


Each hoplite provided their own equipment. Thus, only those who could afford such weaponry fought as hoplites; as with the Roman Republican army it was the middle classes who formed the bulk of the infantry. Equipment was not standardised, although there were doubtless trends in general designs over time, and between city-states. Hoplites had customized armour, and possibly family symbols on his shield. The equipment might well be passed down in families, since it would have been expensive to manufacture.
Hoplites generally armed themselves just before battle because the equipment was so heavy - the total weight of the hoplites' armour was around 22-27 kilograms (50-60 pounds). A hoplite typically had a bronze breastplate (muscled armour), a bronze helmet with cheekplates, as well as greaves and other armour. The design of the helmets used varied through time. The Corinthian helmet was standardised, and was a very successful design. The crests on the helmet differed for each city-state. The Thracian helmet had a huge visor to further increase protection. In later periods, linen breastplates called linothorax were used, as they were tougher and cheaper to make. The linen was 0.5 cm thick. Hoplites carried a circular shield called an aspis (often referred to as a hoplon) made from wood and covered in bronze, measuring roughly 1 meter in diameter. This medium-sized shield (and indeed, large for the time) was made possible partly by its shape, which allowed it to be supported on the shoulder. It spanned from chin to knee and was very heavy. It weighed 8-15 kg (17.6 - 33 pounds)
The primary weapon was a spear around 2.7 meters in length called a doru. Although accounts of its length vary, it is usually now believed to have been seven to nine feet long (~2.1 - ~2.7m). It was held one-handed, the other hand holding the hoplite's shield. The spearhead was usually a curved leaf shape, while the rear of the spear had a spike called a sauroter ('lizard-killer') which was used to stand the spear in the ground (hence the name). It was also used as a secondary weapon if the main shaft snapped, or for the rear ranks to finish off fallen opponents as the phalanx advanced over them. It is a matter of contention among historians whether the hoplite used the spear overarm or underarm. Held underarm, the thrusts would have been less powerful but under more control, and vice versa. It seems likely that both motions were used, depending on the situation. If attack was called for, an overarm motion was more likely to break through an opponent's defense. The upward thrust is more easily deflected by armour due to its lesser leverage. However, when defending, an underarm carry absorbed more shock and could be 'couched' under the shoulder for maximum stability. It should also be said that an overarm motion would allow more effective combination of the aspis and doru if the shield wall had broken down, while the underarm motion would be more effective when the shield had to be interlocked with those of one's neighbours in the battle-line. Hoplites in the rows behind the lead would almost certainly have made overarm thrusts. The rear ranks held their spears underarm, and raised spears upwards at increasing angles. This was an effective defence against missiles, deflecting their force.
Hoplites also carried a short sword called a xiphos. The short sword was a secondary weapon, used if and when spears broke, or if the phalanx broke rank. When the enemy retreated, hoplites might drop their shield and spear, and pursue the enemy with their swords. A disadvantage to the xiphos though was that it was extremely heavy and did not provide as much reach as most swords from that period.
By contrast with hoplites, other contemporary infantry (e.g. Persian) tended to wear relatively light armour, use wicker shields, and were armed with shorter spears, javelins, and bows.

Hoplite Warfare

The fragmentary nature of Ancient Greece, with many competing city-states, increased the frequency of conflict, but conversely limited the scale of warfare. Unable to maintain professional armies, the city-states relied on their own citizens to fight. This inevitably reduced the potential duration of campaigns, as citizens would need to return to their own professions (especially in the case of e.g. farmers). Campaigns would therefore often be restricted to summer. Armies marched directly to their target, possibly agreed on by the antagonists.
If battle was refused by one side, they would retreat to the city, in which case the attackers generally had to content themselves with ravaging the countryside around, since siegecraft was undeveloped. When battles occurred, they were usually set piece and intended to be decisive. The battlefield would be flat and open, reducing the possibilities for complex tactical manoeuvres. These battles were short, bloody, and brutal, and thus required a high degree of discipline. At least in the early classical period, other troops were less important; (cavalry) generally protected the flanks, when present at all; and both light infantry and missile troops were negligible.
The strength of hoplites was shock combat. The two phalanxes would smash into each other in hopes of breaking or encircling the enemy force's line. Failing that, a battle degenerated into a pushing match, with the men in the rear trying to force the front lines through those of the enemy. This maneuver was known as the othismos. Battles rarely lasted more than an hour. Once one of the lines broke, the troops would generally flee from the field, sometimes chased by peltasts or light cavalry. If a hoplite escaped, he would sometimes be forced to drop his cumbersome aspis, thereby disgracing himself to his friends and family. Casualties were slight compared to later battles, rarely amounting to more than 5% of the losing side, but the slain often included the most prominent citizens and generals who led from the front. Thus, the whole war could be decided by a single field battle; victory was enforced by ransoming the fallen back to the defeated, called the "Custom of The Greeks".
Individual hoplites carried their shields on their left arm, protecting not only themselves but also the soldier to the left. This meant that the men at the extreme right of the phalanx were only half protected. In battle, opposing phalanxes would exploit this weakness by attempting to overlap the enemy's right flank. It also meant that, in battle, a phalanx would tend to drift to the right (as hoplites sought to remain behind the shield of their neighbour). The most experienced hoplites were often placed on the right side of the phalanx, to counteract these problems. There was a leader in each row of a phalanx, and a rear rank officer, the ouragos (meaning tail-leader), who kept order in the rear. The phalanx is thus an example of a military formation in which the individualistic elements of battle were suppressed for the good of the whole. The hoplites had to trust their neighbours to protect them; and be willing to protect their neighbour; a phalanx was thus only as strong as its weakest elements. The effectiveness of a phalanx therefore depended upon how well the hoplites could maintain this formation while in combat, and how well they could stand their ground, especially when engaged against another phalanx. The more disciplined and courageous the army the more likely it was to win - often engagements between the various city-states of Greece would be resolved by one side fleeing before the battle. The Greek word dynamis, the "will to fight", expresses the drive that kept hoplites in formation.


The Spartans

A notable exception to the general pattern of hoplite warfare was the system used by the Spartans. As a result of a social revolution occurring in the 8th-7th centuries BCE, the whole Spartan state became militarised. This was made possible by the conquest of neighbouring lands, and the enserfment of the people. Known as Helots, they farmed the lands owned by the Spartans, thus removing the burden of supporting Sparta from the Spartans themselves. This left the Spartans free to dedicate themselves to the art of war.
From the age of seven onwards, Spartan males were trained for a life of warfare. They were taught iron discipline, and almost programmed to forget about their individuality for the sake of Sparta . The strenuous training and comradeship engendered between Spartans made them ideally suited to hoplite warfare, which required high levels of discipline and selflessness. Spartans did not fear death; only the shame of defeat in battle. In Spartan military culture, throwing away a soldier's aspis was not acceptable. The saying went: "Come home with this shield or upon it".
It is not quite accurate to describe Spartans as professional soldiers - this was not a trade which they chose to do, but a requirement of their birth. Spartans were not employed as soldiers; instead, they were provided with serfs to support them. This can be compared to feudal Europe; knights were not professional soldiers, but a militaristic caste, supported by the local population. Nevertheless, despite their obvious differences to other Greek city-states, the Spartans fought in much the same way as other Greeks, only perhaps more effectively. The Spartans did, unusually, have a standard-issue equipment, including a shield featuring the Greek letter lambda (Λ), in reference to their homeland Lacedaemonia. Every Spartan wore a scarlet robe to represent them as Spartans, though the cape was never worn in combat. The Helots would usually accompany the Spartans in battles and provide ranged support. The Helots also set camps and performed labour for the Spartans whilst on campaign.

Rise and fall

The rise and fall of hoplite warfare was intimately connected to the rise and fall of the city-state. As discussed above, hoplites were a solution to the armed clashes between independent city-states. As Greek civilisation found itself confronted by the world at large, particularly by the Persians, the emphasis in warfare shifted. Confronted by huge numbers of enemy troops, individual city-states could not realistically fight alone. During the Greco-Persian Wars (499-448 BCE), alliances between groups of cities (whose composition varied over time) fought against the Persians. This drastically altered the scale of warfare, and the numbers of troops involved. The hoplite phalanx proved itself far superior to the Persian infantry at such battles as Marathon and Plataea, as long as it was protected from cavalry.
During this period Athens and Sparta rose to the position of dominant states in Greece, and their rivalry in the aftermath of the Persian wars, brought Greece into renewed internal conflict. However, the Peloponnesian War was on a scale unlike conflicts before. Fought between leagues of cities, dominated by Athens and Sparta respectively, the pooled manpower and financial resources allowed a diversification of warfare. Hoplite warfare was in decline; there were three major battles in the Peloponnesian War, and none proved decisive. Instead there was increased reliance on navies, skirmishers, mercenaries, city walls, siege engines, and non-set piece tactics. These reforms made wars of attrition possible and greatly increased the number of casualties. In the Persian war, hoplites faced large number of skirmishers and missile armed troops, and such troops (e.g. Peltasts) became much more commonly used by the Greeks during the Pelopennesian War. As a result, hoplites began wearing less armour, carrying shorter swords, and in general adapting for greater mobility; this led to the development of the ekdromoi light hoplite.
Late on in the hoplite era, more sophisticated tactics were developed, in particular by the Theban general Epaminondas. These tactics inspired the future king Philip II of Macedon, at the time a hostage in Thebes, in the development of new kind of infantry - the Macedonian Phalanx. Although clearly a development of the hoplite, the Macedonian phalanx was tactically more versatile, especially used in the combined arms tactics favoured by the Macedonians. These forces defeated the last major hoplite army, at the Battle of Chaeronea (338 BC), after which Athens and its allies joined the Macedonian empire.

Hoplites in Greek society

Since hoplites supplied their 'panoply' (in this context meaning his armour and weapons) from their own personal equipment, they needed to be sufficiently wealthy to afford this. This would mean procuring a helmet, cuirass and greaves as well as a spear, sword and shield. As a result, hoplites were usually recruited from the middle-classes.
An illustration of this can be found in the Athenian class system of the Solon constitution. The four classes (in ascending order) were thetes, zeugites, hippeis and pentacosiomedimnoi (measured in produce per year of land). The three lower classes were drafted into the military according to what they could provide. The thetes rowed the vast Athenian fleet of ships; the hippeis, who could afford horses (an aristocratic animal, never used agriculturally) formed cavalry; and the zeugites fought as hoplites.
This can be compared to the military system used in the early-to-mid Roman Republic, wherein the Roman citizenry was divided into distinct social classes. These classes (excepting the landless proletarii) were used as different troop types; the lowest formed skirmishers (velites), the highest fought as cavalry (equites), and the middle classes, forming the bulk of the army, fought as heavy infantry. In this system, troops were expected to provide their own equipment, so only those rich enough to afford the armour and weapons could fight as heavy infantry. Indeed, the success of both the Greek hoplite armies, and the early Roman army can be ascribed to their middle class makeup. These were landed, relatively wealthy citizens with a vested interest in the defense of their state; they had much more to lose than the landless classes, and fought with proportional valour .

In Greek culture

The image of the men of the polis (the city-state) taking up arms together in defence of their country remains linked with the Ancient Greek culture. Many grave markers that have survived contain the phrase "died in the front line".
The Parosian poet Archilochus wrapped up a description of the Phalanx with a hint of Greek pride in his famous one-line summary: "The fox knows many tricks, the hedgehog one good one."
The Athenian playwright Aeschylus' grave says nothing of his literary career and marks only his participation at the battle of Marathon. Aeschylus' play The Persians is a celebration of that victory. Some of the abiding images of Grecian art, such as Polycleitus' doryphoros, "spear-bearer", contain the image of the warrior. (The spear in his right hand, since it was likely bronze, has been lost to time.) The attraction is that fear is the main enemy, and if a soldier succumbed he would leave his comrades unprotected. Often the comrade would be a family member or close friend (supposedly in the Theban Sacred Band the line would be composed of pairs of lovers). The valour in protection of your friends and country came to be the most prized attribute of a Greek. The Spartan poet Tyrtaeus wrote:
It is beautiful when a brave man of the front ranks
falls and dies, battling for his homeland...
Young men, fight shield to shield and never succumb
to panic or miserable flight,
but steel the heart in your chests with
magnificence and courage.
Forget your own life
when you grapple with the enemy.
— Tyrtaeus: The War Songs Of Tyrtaeus
or from a less warrior-oriented culture, Euripides the Athenian (from his diatribe against Hercules):
A man who has won a reputation for valour in his contests with beasts, in all else a weakling; who ne'er buckled shield to arm nor faced the spear, but with a bow, that coward's weapon, was ever ready to run away. Archery is no test of manly bravery; nor! is he a man who keeps his post in the ranks and steadily faces the swift wound that the spear may plough
This seems to represent the prevailing view of valour in the Hellenistic world. Grave markers proudly note death in the front rank, presence at great battles and acts of courage. Much of the art of Ancient Greece, therefore, reflects their desire for recognised bravery.

In popular culture


  • Goldsworthy, A.K. "The Othismos, Myths and Heresies: The Nature of Hoplite Battle", War in History, Vol. 4, Issue 1. (1997), pp. 1–26.
  • Hanson, Victor Davis. The Western Way of War: Infantry Battle in Classical Greece. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1989 (hardcover, ISBN 0-394-57188-6); New York: Oxford University Press (USA), 1990 (paperback, ISBN 0-19-506588-3); Berkeley: University of California Press, 2000 (paperback, ISBN 0-520-21911-2).
  • Hanson, Victor Davis. Warfare and Agriculture in Classical Greece (Biblioteca Di Studi Antichi; 40). Berkeley: University of California Press, 1998 (hardcover, ISBN 0-520-21025-5; paperback, ISBN 0-520-21596-6).
  • Hanson, Victor Davis. The Other Greeks: The Family Farm and the Agrarian Roots of Western Civilization. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1999 (paperback, ISBN 0-520-20935-4).
  • Krentz, Peter. "Fighting by the Rules: The Invention of the Hoplite Agôn", Hesperia, Vol. 71, No. 1. (2002), pp. 23–39.
  • C'Connell, Robert L., "Soul of the Sword". Simon and Schuster, 2002, ISBN 0-684-84407-9.


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