Hoplite-Armor, Weapons and Phalanx
Greek Hoplite and his Phalanx formation was a winning combination throughout ancient Greece, well known under Alexander the Great. Hoplite equipment – armor, weapons and phalanx strategy.
The hoplite was primarily a free citizen who was usually individually responsible for procuring his armor and weapon. In most Greek states, citizens received at least basic military training, serving in the standing army for a certain amount of time and were expected to take part in any military campaign they would be called up for. The Lacedaemonian citizens were renowned for their life-long combat training and almost mythical military prowess, while their greatest adversaries, the Athenians, were excepted from service only after the 60th year of their lives.
The hoplite’s armor-the panoply-consisted of a shield, helmet, breastplate, greaves (plate armor worn around the lower leg), sword, spear, and tunic, and weighed about seventy pounds. All this on a soldier who himself probably weighed no more than 150 pounds.
The hoplite’s shield was his defining piece of equipment, even lending its name, hoplon, to the soldier himself. It was a large concave piece of wood, rested on the left shoulder, and stretching down to the soldier’s knees. The shield was large enough to protect the right side of the man to each soldier’s left, and so formed a wall behind which the hoplite was protected.
The rest of the armor was made of thick bronze plate, and was so heavy that the soldiers would not don their armor until the moments before the charge began. In particular, the helmet (always the soldier’s least favorite bit of equipment, then as now) was frequently tilted far back on his head when the soldier was not in combat.
Hoplite helmets: The Corinthian helmet was at first standardised and was a very successful design. Later variants included the Chalcidian helmet, a lightened version of the Corinthian helmet, and the very simple Pilos helmet worn by the later Spartan hoplites. The crests on the helmet differed for each city-state. The Thracian helmet had a huge visor to further increase protection.
Hoplite spear was the main weapon. The spear was used as a thrusting instrument rather than as a thrown missile. The use of the thrusting spear indicates the Greeks’ desire to approach the enemy at close quarters. The spear was heavy, considering only the right hand was used in holding it. Spears measured six to eight feet in length, but only an inch in diameter. A typical spear weighed between two and four pounds. The spear’s shaft was made from cornel or ash wood, with an iron spearhead, and a bronze butt spike on the opposite end. The iron spearheads were socketed and were further secured to the shaft by rivets. There was no standard spearhead but a narrow leaf shaped blade with a strong central rib was common. The spearhead ranged from eight inches to over one foot in length.
Greek sword was an integral part of hoplite combat equipment. Similar in style and construction to the Roman Gladius, the hoplite sword was relatively short, powerful and capable of both slashing and thrusting.
Hoplites were organized in the phalanx as row upon row of men, typically about eight ranks deep, and stretching abreast for a quarter mile or more. The commanding general–the strategos–took position in the front rank, at the extreme right–the most exposed position in the entire army. Greek generals typically had short careers.
Prior to combat, the paen or battle hymn was sung, then the phalanx advanced upon its foe at a trot. The Spartan army was an exception; it saw the paen as needless bravado and was known for its slow, methodical pace, set by musician-boys who marched behind the line. The first four ranks of men marched with spears level, while the rear ranks kept their spears mostly vertical, where they provided an effective defense against missile weapons. The large shields on the left side of each soldier provided an incentive for everyone to snuggle up against the man on his right. This formed the wall of shields that was so crucial to the phalanx’s effectiveness, but there was a definite trend for each army to drift noticeably to its right.
As the lines neared each other, both sides broke into a run. The challenge for the general was to maintain cohesion (and the shield wall) while still gaining enough momentum for the initial crash. When the armies did crash, among the literal rain of spear splinters as the spears shattered, the battle became a scrum of each army trying to push through the other’s line. The forward ranks did what hacking and spearing they could, while the rear ranks drove the enemy forward by pressing their shields into the backs of the men in front of them. The pressure, the noise, the confusion, the gore at the front of the line were immense.
The Greek phalanx was nearly unstoppable in its intended mode of combat: head-on, on straight, level ground, with adequate protection on the flanks. Hoplite battles frequently took place in long, straight valleys–so common in the Greek mainland–where the phalanx could occupy the entire width of the valley and thus protect its flanks and its rear. A single site would frequently be the location of battle after battle through the ages, its desirability as a battlefield undiminished.
Hoplite combat was centered around a single idea: that battle should be bloody, horrible, and decisive. This fit the needs of an agrarian society that could not spare its men to a professional army, but needed them back in time for harvest. Battles were short, and casualties were surprisingly low (proportionally to the combatants) in comparison with modern combat. Through most of their history, the ancient Greeks meant to keep wars short–even just a single battle–so that people combatuld get back to their lives. If they frequently judged war to be necessary, it was still just a necessary evil.