The Greek word for military equipment roughly translates to hopla, and thus a hoplite simply pertained to the ancient Greek version of the ‘man at arms’ or ‘armored man’. But as opposed to their late medieval counterparts, the ancient hoplites were first and foremost citizen-soldiers. Simply put, these conscripted men were expected to take part in battles to safeguard their own interests, freedoms and farms, in contrast to viewing military as a contractual well-paying career. And while the ‘classic’ well-armored and trained Greek soldier was ultimately eclipsed by the tactical Macedonian phalanx in late 4th century BC, hoplites (and their predecessors) had dominated the Mediterranean battlefields for almost three centuries before that.
On the other cultural spectrum, the development of ancient Greek art was rather mirrored by the pottery designs that were made between the time-fame of 1000 – 400 BC. Continuing the artistic legacy of the earlier Minoan pottery and Mycenaean pottery, the vase painting in the late Archaic Age (620 to 480 BC) mainly comprised the so-termed ‘black figure’. As Mark Cartwright wrote (for Ancient Encyclopedia) in regard to the predominance of black figures during the aforementioned period –
Although first produced in Corinth, then with fine examples made in Laconia and southern Italy (by Euboean settlers), it would be the potters and painters of Attica who would excel above all others in the black-figure style, and they would go on to dominate the Greek market for the next 150 years. Not all figures were painted black as certain color conventions were adopted, such as white for female flesh and purple-red for clothes and accessories. A greater interest in fine details such as muscles and hair, which were added to the figures using a sharp instrument, is characteristic of the style. However, it is the postures of the figures which also mark out black-figure pottery as the zenith of Greek vase painting. The finest figures are given grace and poise and often illustrated in the moments before actual movement or resting after exertion.
To that end, the Panoply Vase Animation Project has taken up the feat (with the aid of numerous collaborations with other institutions) of composing fascinating animations that solely make use of the Greek black figures – portraying different facets of ancient Greek culture, ranging from mythology to even ‘dance-offs‘. Suffice it to say, (sometimes) the black figures with their ‘refined’ anatomies also represented the Greek military, especially their citizen-soldiers – the hoplites. And that is exactly what is depicted in the following animation, thus covering the incredible scope of ancient Greek warfare –
Now while the animation does a remarkable job of portraying the ancient Greek hoplites from the late-archaic age (as the vase is dated from circa 550 BC), there was more to the tactical ambit of such citizen soldiers that went beyond just ‘pushing and shoving’ in the battlefield. So here are a few ‘facts’ one should know about the Greek hoplite and the associated scope of warfare –
Shield and composition –
As opposed to the chaotic essence of warfare in the earlier eras, by late 6th century BC, the Greek hoplites were beginning to fight as a part of an ‘institution’ which was drilled in a phalanx formation – where every member looked out for each other; and thus the aspis shield was considered as the most crucial part of a hoplite equipment. For example, when the exiled Spartan king Demaratos was asked the question – why men are dishonored only when they lose their shields but not when they lose their cuirasses? The Spartan king made his case – ‘because the latter [other armors] they put on for their own protection, but the shield for the common good of the whole line.’
Interestingly, Xenophon also talks about the more tactical side to a hoplite phalanx, which was more than just a closely-packed mass of armored spearmen. He draws comparison to the construction of a well-built house (in Memorabilia) – “just as stones, bricks, timber and tiles flung together anyhow are useless, whereas when the materials that neither rot nor decay, that is, the stones and tiles, are placed at the bottom and the top, and the bricks and timber are put together in the middle, as in building, the result is something of great value, a house, in fact.” Similarly, in the case of a phalanx of Greek hoplites, the historian talks about how the best men should be placed both in front and rear of the ranks. With this ‘modified’ formation, the men in the middle (with presumably lesser morale or physical prowess) would be inspired by the front-placed men while also being ‘physically’ driven forth by the rear-placed men.
The importance of morale –
Now while ‘pushing and shoving’ was probably the credible outcome of two tight phalanxes clashing with each other, in reality many battles didn’t even come to the scope of ‘physical contact’. In other words, a hoplite charge was often not successful because the citizen-soldiers tended to break their ranks (and disperse) even before starting a bold maneuver. As a result, the army that held its ground often emerged victorious – thus exemplifying how morale was far more important than sheer strength in numbers (which alludes to why the Spartans were considered lethal in a battlefield).
Intriguingly, this once again brings us to Xenophon’s ‘house analogy’, where he says the best men were to be placed in the front and rear of a phalanx. And from a practical perspective, while the front-placed men didn’t have any space to run away from the battlefield, it was the rear-placed men who tended to break away from the subsequent charge, thus ultimately resulting in their cumbersome dispersal. One of the solutions for this morale-based predicament was to make the phalanx deeper with more men, so as to psychologically reinforce (rather than physically support) the ones in the rear. Another deep-rooted tradition entailed the singing of encouraging hymns (paeans) dedicated to gods of war just before the hoplites were to begin their progress and charge. So, as with many Greek customs, there might have been a practical side underneath this seemingly religious veneer. Thucydides himself mentioned how the songs and their tunes kept the marching line in order, which encompassed a major battlefield tactic – since Greek warfare (and victory) generally involved closing in with the enemy with a solid, unbroken line.
Segments of these article are composed from excerpts of our previous article – 10 Things You May Not Have Known About The Greek Hoplites.
Video Source: Steve Simons (YouTube)