Greek Warfare was endemic in ancient Greece for all periods. In this blog we will deal with warfare in the classical age of Greece from about 500 B.C.E. to around 404 B.C.E. This was the time that ancient Greece fought off the Persian Empire twice, and then entered into a fratricidal war with itself that ended in 404 B.C.E. with the defeat of Athens in the Peloponnesian War. What kind of people fought in these wars? What equipment did they use? This blog gives a basic introduction to these topics.

 

The Hoplite

The figure above shows a single hoplite heavy infantryman standing in his full kit. A hoplite was a citizen of a polis (city-state) that was fulfilling his civic duty by presently himself as a solider to defend the interest of the polis. The hoplite was the backbone of Greek Warfare in this period. For armor, he has on his helmet, grieves, shield, and breast plate. Some also wore shoulder guards. These would protect him from most attacks, and except for a lucky hit, he was fairly safe. He was far from immune from injury, however. As weapons, he carries a long spear, a sword and maybe a knife. All of these would most likely be made of bronze although a form of composite cloth armor was coming into common use. The estimate of the total weight of this kit I have seen run anywhere from 19-30 kilograms. Not only were you expected to march with this on, but even run at a charge while keeping a tight formation. Running in full armor was actually an Olympic sport at  the time. Your primary weapon was the spear because of its reach. It could also take more punishment than the sword if it was made from bronze.

Most hoplite battles occurred on flat, open terrain. Marching over hills and forests tended to break up the hoplite formation called a phalanx and shown in the main picture. The power of the phalanx came from its tight formation. If you could get the formation to break up, that mean you usually won the battle. You stood close to your neighbor with your shield covering part of the person to the left of you. The person to your right covered part of you with his shield. You marched forward against an enemy similarly kitted out like you and when you closed, you literally tried to push each other off the field of battle. You would fight until one side gave way. Once you turned your back on the enemy, you lost most of your protection and the slaughter could be horrendous. Greeks, however, usually did not usually try and slaughter other Greeks on the battle field. Once you won, that was usually enough. The losing side would make a peace deal with the winning side and that would be it until the next time. Fights were short and to the point. In Ancient Greece you could not spend too long away from your farm and business. Therefore Greek Warfare between poleis was usually over and done with in days. These rules on warfare however, did not apply to foreign invaders. These wars could, and did, go on for a while. The Greek gleefully slaughtered the Persians whenever they had the chance.

Now for the fun parts of being a hoplite. Not only were you expected to fight when called upon (See my blog on citizenship), but you had to pay for your own armor, weapons and supply yourself with provisions for the campaign. How much did this kit cost? I have been able to find no real good estimates. What I have read is the cost of a full suit with weapons ran anywhere from a few hundred to over a thousand drachmae. Some of the upper prices I doubt because the average wage of a professional or a rower was about 1-2 silver drachmae per day. Shelling out a thousand drachmae would seem a little much with those pay scales. Most armor was passed down through generations. Also, fighting was not something you did two or three times in your life. You were also expected to fight from the age of 18 until the age of 50 to 60. Getting skewered, therefore, was a distinct possibility for most of your life.

 

 

 The Peltast

So what happened if you are too broke to shell out the drachmae for a full hoplite suit, were you off the hook for military service. No way! If you were a citizen and could not afford hoplite armor, you would fight as light infantryman, a peltast as seen above. You would not stand in the line of battle like a hoplite, but you would stand off to the side and throw javelins, maybe sling stones, or even shoot arrows into the enemy formation as they approached, trying to disrupt their cohesiveness. Other than a light shield, you had no protection (a few may have had helmets). Your faster speed was supposed to protect you. You would also be utilized to run down any stragglers if they tried to escape. They might also use you as scouts since you can move a lot easier over broken terrain and a lot faster than someone wearing 25 kilos of metal. It was found in the Peloponnesian War that well trained peltasts could defeat a hoplite formation if the terrain was right. Like the hoplite, you were expected to do this job whenever your polis asked you to, and for most of your life.

Final Thoughts

The most interesting part I found about being a citizen/solider in this period was that men actually looked happy to do it. I have never read an article that said polis citizens refused to go, or objected to go. Service to the polis was looked upon at as part of your duty. The Greeks were very serious about duty. In fact many people looked at their military actions as some of the proudest things they ever did in their lives. This is what is written on the tombstone of the great Greek playwright Aeschylus:

“Beneath this stone lies Aeschylus, son of Euphorion, the Athenian, who died in the wheat-bearing land of Gela; of his noble prowess the grove of Marathon can speak, and the long-haired Persian knows it well”.

Despite the many honors given to him in his life, he thought his service at Marathon should be the one thing that should be memorialized.

Finally, there are many books on hoplite fighting and Greek Warfare. The best illustrated ones are put out by Osprey Books. Their website is located at:

https://ospreypublishing.com/

There are books in any major library that will expand your knowledge of this period. In my next blog I will undertake a brief explanation of Greek Warfare on land in the Hellenistic period from the mid third century B.C.E. until the Roman conquest in the first century B.C.E.

 

Enjoy!

 

WA

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