Jason has a masters of education in educational psychology and a BA in history and a BA in philosophy. He's taught high school and middle school
Imagine a world where warfare looks much different than it does today. There are no guns, battleships, missiles, or fighter jets. Instead, it is a much older time where finding yourself in war most likely means that you only have a wooden spear and shield with which to defend yourself. Now imagine being on a battlefield with your wooden spear and shield and over the crest of a hill comes a mass of warriors (in the hundreds) covered in bronze armor from head to toe and carrying large shields, spears, and metal swords. The sun reflects off of their armor, swords, and shields, which only serves to make them look more intimidating. All of these soldiers move as one, moving to loud war chant, matching each other step for step. At this point, if you are only carrying a wooden spear and shield and your fellow soldiers are all spread out waiting to fight, you can already begin to assume that it's not going to turn out well for you and your fellow soldiers knowing that you have to face a Greek hoplite soldier.
The soldiers that fought for the Greek city-states were known as hoplites. The word hoplite is thought to come from the word ta hopla, meaning tool or equipment, which also describes the main piece of equipment that a hoplite carried, a large round shield called a hoplon. Most city-states, like Athens, required male citizens ages 18-20 to serve in the military making the majority of Greek soldiers non-professional, meaning that being a soldier wasn't their full-time job. However, some city-states' armies, like Thebes and the Spartan army, were comprised of elite professional soldiers. Also, even those city-states that did not have a professional army often did maintain small elite professional units.
There is a common saying that goes: 'If you are going to do a job well, make sure that you have the right tool for the job.' It goes without saying that Greek hoplites separated themselves from other armies because they had some of the best tools of the time. The main weapons that a Greek hoplite soldier would use included a long ash-wooden spear that was fitted with a bronze or iron spike that had four bladed edges and measured in at a lengthy 8 ft. long! Hoplites carried a short iron sword that had either a straight or curved blade. It was common, too, for a hoplite to carry a small dagger for extra insurance.
The right tools for the job also included things that provided protection for a hoplite. The main defensive tool that the hoplite used, which we already mentioned earlier, was a large circular shield called a hoplon. This shield was around 30 in. across, weighed around 17 lbs. and was made of wood or stiff leather that was then covered in a thin sheet of bronze. The shield was carried by a banded loop of leather on the back that a hoplite put his left arm through. In addition, Hoplites protected themselves by wearing a leather-lined bronze helmet that protected the head, neck, and face, a breastplate of bronze or leather to protect the chest, and bronze shin guards to protect their legs. It was possible for a hoplite to wear bronze arm-guards to protect their forearms from the slashes of swords. It goes without saying that you had to be pretty strong to be a Greek hoplite if you were going to successfully fight using an 8 ft. spear, support 17 lbs. of shield hanging off your arm, and move in stiff armor.
Fighting Formation & Tactics
If you thought that hoplites were like football players with all of their equipment and protection you would be correct. They were also like football players in that they had very specific formations they used for their movements. While their formations weren't used to set up plays and win games, they were used to set up battles for them to win. Hoplites were organized into groups of several hundred men. They fought in ranks of eight or more men deep, known as a phalanx. The hoplites stood close together so that half of a man's shield helped cover and protect his partner to his left. In order to keep this formation in battle, the phalanx moved at a slight angle to the right so that their shields continued to protect their neighbors.
A weakness, however, did exist in this formation because if each hoplite was helping to cover the person to his left, the hoplites in the first column of the formation were often left unprotected. Thus, this would be the side that would usually get attacked first by an opposing army. To protect the left side of their formation, the hoplites preferred to make quick work of their enemies and often walked faster to the beat of music or war chants. When the hoplites were ready to begin battle, they first used their spears to keep distance between themselves and their enemies by pushing and shoving them away and they only preferred to use their swords in close-quarter fighting.
Most hoplites were non-professional soldiers in Greek armies although some city-states had groups of well-trained professional soldiers. Despite most of the soldiers being non-professional, they were given great equipment (a spear, shield, and sword) and were protected by bronze armor. They were also trained to fight in the phalanx formation, which required the cooperation of each soldier in order to be successful.
Lesson at a Glance
The soldiers that fought for the Greek city-states were known as hoplites. These soldiers were strong and massive, being able to wear stiff armor made of bronze and leather, fight using an 8 ft. spear, an iron sword, and support 17 lbs. of shield known as a hoplon. Hoplites always fought in formation, making sure they protected each other in battle. Although some city-states had small armies of well-trained professional soldiers, many hoplites were non-professional solders.
Show your knowledge of the lesson's sections by doing the following:
- Construct a description of a hoplite soldier
- Point out the type of equipment used by these soldiers
- Paraphrase details about the fighting formations and tactics of hoplite armies
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