Between the 7th and 3rd Centuries BC the Greeks gave the known world artistic, philosophical and scientific advances but also developed a form of warfare that would rule the roost until the time of Alexander. This was the Hoplite, a citizen-soldier defending his city and it's trade, settling in the far flung regions of Asia and Africa and finally becoming the most sought after mercenary in the world.
Before 700BC Greek warfare had been similar to that in the rest of the East, nobles in chariots fighting heroic duels while the lesser followers made up the numbers and fought amongst themselves. The infantry contingents became more solid as time went on until it was they, not the mounted arm, that ruled the battlefields. This formation became known as the phalanx and would be the premier fighting style in the eastern Mediterranean for 400 years. As time went on and Hoplites met different peoples with varied fighting styles they adapted tactics to include an increased skirmishing arm until the heyday of the Hoplite was eclipsed first by the light troops that supported them and finally the pikes of the Makedon.
Our World of the Greeks range was sculpted by Steve Saleh and Nick Collier with Mark Copplestone. Scroll down for historical information by Adrian Garbett. Visit the Spartan or Athenian pages to see a guide to painting Spartan and Athenian armies by Steve Saleh.
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Early and Late Periods: The Hoplite era began around 700BC and continued relatively unchanged for 250 years (when the `early' period is mentioned it refers to this time-span), from the mid 5th Century onwards there were changes in the composition of the armies and innovations in the tactics employed (this is referred to as the `later' period).
The Hoplite's Defences: The basic equipment of the Greek soldier changed little during this period although fashions in detail (e.g. helmet styles) came and went. The most immediately visible piece of kit was the shield known to the Greeks as the aspis (occasionally hoplon). It was around 1 metre in diameter with a flat rim and convex face. The shield was constructed of wood covered with cured leather; the rim was covered in bronze sheet as, usually, was the face. Behind the face was a bronze loop for the forearm and a cord handgrip. Around the inner rim was a knotted cord used for slinging the shield when not in use. [A separate section on shield blazons is included below]
The bronze helmet, with or without a crest of dyed horsehair, was another ubiquitous feature. This changed shape and style from a type that completely enclosing the wearer's head and face in the early period to the lighter pilos helmet that only covered down to the ears. Cheek pieces could be integral and solid or hinged to allow more comfort. Bronze greaves were worn to protect the lower legs and were designed to "clip-on" utilising the natural spring of bronze sheet to hold them in place. They could be richly decorated and moulded but most Hoplites made do with a plain pair moulded to represent the musculature of the leg. In the early period thigh and upper arm armour of a similar type were sometimes worn but soon fell out of use probably because they restricted movement in combat.
The last piece of defensive equipment was the cuirass, in the early period this was made of a front and back plate moulded from bronze and held in place with side and shoulder straps. These ranged from relatively plain examples to highly worked pieces which reproduced the musculature of the torso in Classical style. As this "bell-cuirass" fell out of fashion the lighter but more intricate spolas came into fashion. This was a wrap-around armour which tied at the right side and had a yoke which was secured on the chest enclosing the body, at the waist was a wide belt section which was cut into pteurges ("feathers") to hang in strips to protect the lower abdomen to mid-thigh. The spolas was made of layers of linen or leather and, in the mid-period, could be reinforced with small bronze or iron scales. The material part was normally off-white but could occasionally be coloured as could the yoke, belt section and pteurges.
As mercenary bands came into their own in the later stages of the Hoplite period they might omit the spolas and just fight with shield, helmet and greaves, this does not seem to have effected their reputation or fighting prowess and shows that the best equipment is no substitute for motivation and high morale. This was in some ways a return to the earlier period when some Hoplites fought naked except for similar defensive equipment.
It is interesting to note that this panoply has been deduced to have cost the equivalent of a modern-day family car, the individual paid for it not the city-state so this was not for the poor but the professional classes.
Hoplite Weapons: Throughout the period of Hoplite supremacy his main weapon was the long spear, around 9' long this had a butt spike for balance (or a secondary weapon) and was bound with cord at the centre of balance (easily rendered on models with paint or thin wire). This is most often depicted as being used over-arm in a stabbing motion but could be thrust into the ground to receive cavalry charges.
During the early period Hoplites are shown carrying and throwing javelins in addition to the long spear. This practice may have died out as the phalanx became the primary formation and required individuals to be much closer together not allowing a run-up to cast a missile.
Side arms in the form of swords and long knives were carried, the latter particularly by Spartans. The sword stayed much less used than the spear but did undergo some development, the hoplite could choose from the cut-and-thrust straight version or a single-edged type called the kopis used in a downward slashing motion.
Hoplite shield blazons: One thing that makes a Hoplite Greek collection so special is the colourful and varied shield designs. These were painted on (although rare examples have inlaid precious metals) over the leather or metal face of the shield. The style and content of the blazons changed during the time covered by the hoplite era and it can be divided, very generally, into three phases.
The early period saw the use of mythical beasts and creatures, birds, fish, dolphins and scenes from mythology. These would be the individual Hoplite's choice and no order would be particularly apparent. In the middle of the period the city-states began to introduce their own devices to identify their troops. Sparta is possibly the best known for it's use of the Greek letter lambda (`L' for Lacedaimon), other states used a design that was the first letter as well (Messenia and Sicyion for example). Thebes used a club, Mantinea a trident, Corinth the winged horse and the Boeotian League an archaic Greek shield (like the "violin" shields of the Persian Immortal Guards in shape). After the Peleponnesian Wars with the rise of the mercenary bands the designs became more geometric and less flamboyant utilising circles, stars and discs.
As mentioned above the rim was always polished bronze, the centre of the shield could be bronze or leather which in turn might be painted a plain colour or left natural. A shield might have its centre painted and then a design painted over it for a more dramatic effect or it could be just painted directly onto the bronze. Not all shields would have blazons and these can make a good counterpoint for the more intricate designs of the wealthier Hoplites.
Supporting Troops: Frontally an well ordered phalanx was virtually unstoppable unless considerably outnumbered or faced by other Hoplites with a particularly high level of training and/or morale. However the flanks and rear of such a formation were extremely sensitive to disruption and needed protecting. This role was taken by skirmishers and cavalry, in the early period they were few in number and relatively ineffective retiring to the rear and flanks when the Hoplites clashed.
There were exceptions however, some Greek states came from mountainous areas and their armies contained a larger proportion of skirmishers while those from the Thessalian plains had considerable numbers of cavalry. The Armies section looks at these in more detail.
Skirmishers: The three types of armament for light troops were javelins, bows and slings, there were occasions when rocks and stones were thrown by hand but this was a somewhat desperate measure. The javelinman was the most common skirmisher, they started out being raised from the poorest citizens, they would wear no armour and rarely have a shield (in common with all early skirmishers), they carried several light javelins and only occasionally any side-arms. As time went on a better equipped javelinman, the Peltast, developed from copying native Thracians and other hill peoples (the first Greek Peltasts were raised by Greek colonies on the Thracian coast). During the later period these increased in number and then, around 400BC, their equipment and armament became heavier to the extent that they would sometimes be found fighting in the battle-line in direct support of the phalanx.
Archery was never popular or widespread amongst the Greeks but bowmen were present in Hoplite armies (the Athenians even hired Skythian bowmen at one point but these were used as an early `internal security' force more than on the field of battle) skirmishing at quite close range while ensuring they did not get into combat. One famous exception to this lack of interest in archery was the island of Crete. (In) Famous for their piratical tendencies the Cretans became some of the most sought after mercenaries in the Classical world because of their skill and training with the bow. There are references to them carrying shields and swords and occasionally engaging in hand-to-hand combat.
The sling was the weapon of the peasantry throughout the Mediterranean, Asia Minor and the East but yet again it was not taken up as a weapon of war with much enthusiasm (with one notable exception). The reasons for the lack of missile troops may have much to do with the style of warfare at this time which followed quite a heroic pattern to begin with and then became more and more regimented. As the peasantry were not rich enough to afford the Hoplite panoply they were socially excluded on the battle field and therefore morale and motivation to fight must have been low, missiles were also not considered a "manly" enough weapon. The only exception to this was the island of Rhodes where the art of using the sling was held in high regard, the Rhodians hired themselves out as mercenaries mainly during the later Hoplite and Successor periods and could be found in armies as far apart as Spain and Syria.
Cavalry: To say that the Greek art of horsemanship was not a priority is an understatement, in the main early period cavalry were simply Hoplites on horseback who would have been happier on foot in the phalanx. Only the Thebans seem to have taken any pride in their riding abilities and even they were few in numbers. Even in the later period when cavalry numbers increased they were still mostly poor and only a few states could call upon decent horsemen. One way to get around this was to have lightly armed javelinmen accompany the cavalry (probably to help them back on after a fall!) who would support them when faced with enemy horsemen. Another was to hire good (i.e. better than their own cavalry - not hard!) mercenaries. Popular mercenaries were the Thessalians who bred good horses and the Tarentine troop-type. These skirmishing cavalry were possibly named after the city of Taras but the name soon denoted a way of fighting not their origins.
ARMIES OF THE EARLY HOPLITE PERIOD - 700 TO 450BC:
As has been mentioned above the Hoplite was the mainstay of Greek armies at this time however there were differences between the city states that make for interesting variations in collections. It has been estimated that at the time of the Persian invasions in 480BC there were 100,000 Hoplites in mainland Greece, however the numbers that could actually be raised at any one time from any single city varied enormously. Major states could field a maximum of 10,000 men while the smallest might only have 100 available.
Large forces would be made up from a core of Hoplites from the dominant state with their allied and client cities sending contingents. A good example of this is also the largest purely Greek army raised to fight the Persian Invasion at the Battle of Platea in 479BC. The force comprised 40,000 troops almost all hoplites drawn from 23 states with Sparta as the dominant partner followed by Athens.
Athens: The Athenian city state relied on it's naval power for it's ascendancy in mainland Greece but also fielded an army second only to Sparta. A tribal system was used whereby each of the 10 tribes provided a contingent (called a taxis), these would not be regimented or equal in size and there could be dissent between the tribal commanders (called taxiarchs). The maximum number of Hoplites fielded seems to have been 10,000; in addition skirmishers and cavalry would accompany them but not exceed 15% of the Hoplite total.
Sparta: While most other states were happy to have their citizens turn up for battle fully equipped and able to march forward in a line the Spartan state took a far more regimented view of life generally. Training began at a young age and discipline was harsh, enabling the Spartans to field the most powerful land army on mainland Greece. The Spartans had the only standing army of the period and this was regimented and drilled to a degree not seen elsewhere. The other advantage was a defined command structure. Most Greek states would have a committee of amateur generals vying for honour and prestige while Spartan generals were subordinate to the commander in chief and used to carrying out orders without questioning them first.
The Spartan regiments (called Lochos or Meros) were recruited only from free Spartan citizens (the Spartiates) and were 600 to 700 strong. The number of Meros would vary as to the number of Spartiates available for service but a number between 4 and 7 seems common (less as time went on). These Hoplites were drilled to march and countermarch so were far more manoeuvrable on the battlefield than other states. Their reputation was well founded as a Spartan Meros was not beaten in battle until 425BC on the island of Pylos when they were besieged on broken ground and worn down by Athenian light troops.
As can be seen the Spartiates were an elite component of the Spartan army but they were only the core, direct client cities that provided troops were also expected to have a high level of training. Although this did not match the standard of the Spartans it was still considerably better than most of their opponents. In addition small cities would be expected to supply contingents of Hoplites who would have only the most basic of training.
Spartan armies in this period do not seem to have used cavalry to any noticeable degree and seldom employed mercenaries, the light troops would be in similar proportions to the Hoplites as other armies but they did on occasion arm their slaves (Helots) to protect the camp and baggage although their military skills must have been extremely low.
Acharnania, Aitolia and Phokia: These lesser states differed from the richer ones by employing massed javelinmen, citizens in full Hoplite equipment were much rarer and were often accompanied by equal numbers of skirmishers. Their cavalry contingents could be larger as well as they allied themselves with the Thessalians who could provide excellent skirmishers.
Greeks overseas: There were four main areas of Greek expansion from the mainland, the Ionians on the Asiatic coast were the same as the mainland but other armies differed slightly from the norm. In Sicily and Italy Greek trading centres were protected by citizen Hoplites who seem to have been less enthusiastic than those on the mainland, this could be reproduced by giving them a lower combat factor in gaming terms. They also started the trend for employing Tarentine mercenary horse.
The Kyrenean State of North Africa is probably one of the most exotic Greek armies to collect, while the Hoplites were the same as mainland Greeks their method of reaching was by large carts. This was to enable them to arrive refreshed and ready for battle; the site of all those hoplite taxis to the rear of their army would make a very unusual camp. Skirmishers could make up a quarter of the army and these could be supplemented by massed Libyans (see the separate list) who allied with the Greeks. They were still using chariots into the mid-3rd Century BC even though these had fallen out of favour some 400 years before in mainstream Hoplite warfare.
Later developments: From around 450BC the sphere of Greek influence began to shift away from the Hellenic mainland towards the East and their opponents there required a shift in Hoplite tactics. Many of their enemies lived in areas where there was much broken ground, woods, mountains etc so the increase in skirmishing troops numbers and quality was noticeable. This was also the time of the great mercenary companies who performed incredible feats of martial skill and personal endurance as they fought for control of Empires and Kingdoms.
Although the armies described above remained based upon the Hoplite the percentage of supporting troops increased from around 10% to 15%. This was mainly due to a developing cavalry arm, several states recruited more citizen cavalry and the Thessalian, Theban, Sicilian and Italian Greeks especially improved the training. Athens even experimented with mounted archers for a time. Thracian tribal foot were employed as mercenaries to augment the numbers of Peltasts, Sparta and Athens also hired Thracian cavalry. After 400BC Peltasts began to use the heavier defensive and offensive equipment noted above and take more of a part in the main battle. The use of mixed cavalry and javelin skirmishers became more widespread especially by Athens, Thebes, Thessaly and Sparta.
Unusual Hoplite armies: During this period the use of a "combined force" where all the different troops in some way supported the others in the army was in it's infancy. Two instances stand out, one was the overseas expedition of the Spartan King Agesilaus II and the other the rise of the Syracusan's on Sicily.
The Spartans in Asia: Between 400 and 387BC Sparta was at war with the early Achaemenid Persian Empire due to the Greek support of the Ionian cities. The Asiatic Greeks had backed a losing usurper, Cyrus satrap (governor) of Lydia, in a revolt of 401BC. The Persian King of Kings Artaxerxes II decided to punish them and they called upon Sparta for assistance. This arrived in 396BC when one of the Spartan kings (they often had two) Agesilaus II arrived on the Asian mainland with a picked force of Spartiates and well trained allies. They were swiftly joined by the remnants of the mercenary Greek Hoplite bands which had fought, and won, for the usurper Cyrus. These dogs of war were now well versed in the art of fighting not only the Persians arrayed against them but also the hill tribes who usually gave Hoplite armies so much trouble. To this brew was added the warlike Paphlagon tribe who supplied large numbers of skirmishers, both horse and foot, and an unlikely ally in the form of some local Iranian cavalry who were followers of the Persian satrap Spithridates.
This unusual Spartan army rampaged through the Persian territory and even reached Thrace where they trounced several tribes in combat. The use of flying columns of troops deep in enemy held areas was almost unheard of for Greek armies but the mixture of relatively invincible, heavy infantry and skirmishers proved to be an almost total success. Unfortunately, this adventure only lasted until 394BC, as the war had by then been carried to the Spartan homeland, and Agesilaus was recalled.
Syracuse: From the early 5th century BC the city of Syracuse took over most of eastern Sicily and, due to its unusual geographical position, formed an army that was unique in the Greek World. Like the Carthaginians of Africa, the Syracusans employed large numbers of mercenaries from all around the Mediterranean and beyond and blended them into a potent force that had designs on Africa and parts of Italy.
The Syracusan citizens provided a trained but not particularly aggresive Hoplite force, which was bolstered (and sometimes outnumbered) by mercenary Hoplites of better quality. Some Syracusan rules recruited the best Hoplites into a superbly equipped and trained bodyguard, equal to the Spartans, but these were few in number. They had the usual Peltasts, javelinmen, archers and slingers from the Greek populace, supported in addition by fierce mountain-men from Liguria and the Sicilian interior. Alongside these could be found Spaniards, Campanians, Samnites and Tarentines. To this colourful host can be added a few of the fearsome Gallic warriors described in the article about Continental Celts. If you enjoy collecting many different troops for an army this is an excellent place to start. But it becomes yet more diverse...
In 310BC Agothocles the Tyrant of Syracuse invaded Africa as a startling response to the Carthaginian siege of his city (he had already lost one battle on Sicily to the Carthaginians, led by Hamilcar, in 311BC). Agothocles set out to attack the city if Carthage and on his way picked up a strange array of allies. The Macedonian governor of Kyrene (see above) was murdered and his army incorporated. Then two indigenous tribal peoples joined in: the Libyans were still very active in North Africa and joined Agothocles on his great adventure; and the Numidian tribes, who seemed to fight both for and against anyone in the area, signed up for the showdown battle outside the walls of mighty Carthage. Unfortunately this fairytale sees Agothocles beaten at the city walls in 307BC and fleeing back to Sicily, where the besieging Carthaginians had just defeated his son. Syracuse nevertheless maintained its independence for another century, until conquered by the Romans.
The Peloponnesian Wars: After 479BC the Athenians began to expand their influence to encompass their former allies, who they dominated as vassals, and to the Aegean states, whose sea power was added to the already formidable Athenian navy. The First Peloponnesian War ran from 460-445BC and started with Athens at war with Corinth. Sparta mobilised her forces and defeated the Athenians at Tanagra (457BC) near Thebes. Later that year the Spartans seem to have left the Corinthians and Thebans to fight alone, and Athens took revenge at the battle of Oenophyta. After this success Athens suffered many minor reversals and a stalemate developed, with Athens controlling the seas and Sparta the land. In 445 the Athenian leader Pericles bartered what was to become known as the Thirty Years' Peace and the conflict ended.
This peace lasted only until 435BC, when Corinth entered into a naval war with Athens' ally Corcyra (Corfu). Athens intervened, and in 432BC the Spartans declared war again, this time in alliance with the Peloponnesian and Boeotian Leagues. So began the Second Peloponnesian War. Initially Athens successfully defended on land and attacked and blockaded at sea. By 426BC cracks were appearing in the Spartan alliance and the Athenian Cleon took the offensive and inflicted several reverses on the Allies. Eventually however he was overconfident and was surprised by a swift attack by the Spartans led by Brasidas outside the city of Amphipolis in 422BC. Both generals died in the battle but the large Athenian army was routed. This led into the Fifty Years peace that lasted precisely 8 years!
Between 422 and 414BC the Spartan allies fought amongst themselves while Athens invaded Sicily and in particular the city of Syracuse. Although the defenders lost a pitched battle outside their walls they held their city against the besieging Athenians. While they were held up at Syracuse a combined Syracusan/Corinthian fleet destroyed the Athenian flotilla. Reinforcements led by the Athenian Demosthenes arrived and he ordered an immediate withdrawal but the local commander, Nicias, delayed so long the Corinthians and Syracusans were able to destroy the second Athenian fleet and a full rout began. The Athenian army was captured wholesale and ended its days in slavery while Demosthenes and Nicias were executed. This was the moment that Sparta once again declared war.
From 414BC Sparta began an almost decade-long siege of Athens but the Allies now attempted to challenge Athenian sea power. Persia also became involved offering funds in return for Athenian lands in Asia, the money never materialised and the Spartan fleet had to face a revitalised Athenian force. In several battles the new Athenian fleet proved itself again and again. The resurgent Athenians then won an overwhelming victory against a combined Peleponnesian fleet and Persian army in the Sea of Marmora. Sparta sued for peace but this was rejected.
Sparta now knew it had to fight to the death and, in league with Persia, redoubled its efforts to gain a naval ascendancy. After much cat and mouse manoeuvring the Spartans blockaded the Athenian fleet Mitylene. In a superhuman effort the Athenian people raised another fleet and at the battle of Arginusae beat off the Spartan ships. The Athenians believed they had won at last and the fleet moored at Aegospotami, in a lightning attack the Spartans struck and annihilated the Athenian force of over 200 ships, the crews were slaughtered and the victory total. The Spartans now blockaded the Athenians at sea and besieged them on land. After 6 months of starvation Athens surrendered and Sparta was supreme.
Text by Adrian Garbett.