The hoplite was the definitive soldier of ancient Greece. Hoplites are interesting not just for how they fought but for the social conditions that created them and the consequences that the hoplite style of warfare had for ancient Greek society.
A hoplite was a heavily-armored infantry soldier equipped with a large, round shield and a thrusting spear a little over two meters in length. While the shield and spear were the two crucial pieces of equipment, most hoplites also wore heavy armor including a helmet, breastplate, and greaves (armor for the shins). Altogether this armor weighed as much as 30 kilograms. Weighed down by so much equipment, hoplites were slow-moving and not adept at maneuvering. A lone hoplite was easy prey for a more mobile skirmisher or cavalry soldier. Hoplites were only effective when fighting as a group.
Hoplites fought in a tightly-packed formation called a phalanx. Their equipment was designed to be most effective in this formation: the center of the large round shield rested at the elbow, meaning that only half of a hoplite’s shield was protecting their body. The other half of the shield protected the soldier standing to their left, while they were sheltered by the shield of the soldier to their right.
The phalanx formation was designed first and foremost to offer as much protection as possible to the soldiers fighting in it. As long as the phalanx kept its order, casualties were low. When phalanges fought, they clashed head-on in a massive shoving match that was usually quickly resolved when one side lost its nerve, broke formation, and fled. Fleeing hoplites typically dropped their heavy shields to get away faster, but once one phalanx started to flee, the soldiers of the opposing phalanx were ill-equipped to give chase. The goal of a hoplite battle was to drive the enemy from the field, not kill them.
In order to fight effectively, hoplites needed several things in addition to their equipment. First of all, they needed lots of training. Maintaining the phalanx formation while advancing into the fray and clashing with opposing forces was difficult. Even more important, it required cohesion among the individual hoplites. A formation that depended on every individual in it standing firm and protecting those around them could only work when those in it felt they could trust and rely on their fellow soldiers. That kind of unit cohesion could be created in several ways. Spartans created it through a brutal indoctrination into a culture of conformity. Companies of mercenary hoplites created it through shared experience in the field. But in most Greek cities, the solidarity of hoplite warfare was intertwined with democracy.
Hoplites appear quite suddenly in Greek history around 650 BCE, so suddenly that they seem to have been a deliberate innovation rather than a gradual development out of earlier traditions. There were other dramatic changes happening in Greek society at the time. For centuries, Greek society had been dominated by aristocratic families who monopolized both control of farmland and political power, but the growth of overseas trade undermined their authority. Some ordinary people began to get rich off of trade with the larger Mediterranean world and to demand more of a say in how things were run.
In many places, aristocrats who were on the outs took advantage of popular discontent to put themselves forward as sole leaders who could keep the other aristocrats in check and represent the interests of the common people. The Greeks called these rulers tyrants, a word that did not originally have the negative connotations it carries today. These tyrants organized the people into a political force that could overwhelm the old aristocracies, and it seems likely they were also responsible for organizing them into a military force for the same purpose. The old aristocrats had relied on followings of professional warriors to compete with one another and protect their power. The hoplite phalanx was made up not of professional soldiers but farmers, crafters, merchants, and other ordinary folks who paid for their own armor and took time away from their livelihoods to train together. Their cohesion and solidarity overwhelmed the aristocrats’ paid fighters.
The tyrants, backed by their hoplite forces, enjoyed a brief ascendancy, but most soon revealed themselves as little more than ambitious opportunists who had little real commitment to making life better for their supporters. The ordinary people turned against them. The experience of solidarity in common cause that had been instilled by the hoplite style of fighting became the core of a new way of organizing society, and after ousting their tyrants most Greek cities embraced forms of government that allowed for broad citizen participation. It is significant though that Greek democracy was always centered on the hoplite phalanx. People who did not have a role in the phalanx—women, the poor, slaves, resident foreigners—rarely had any role to play in Greek democracy.
Thoughts for writers
Human societies are complex systems. Their various parts interlock and affect one another. The ways in which people fight are shaped by the societies they live in, and shape them in turn. If your story has characters fighting in a particular way, you should construct your world to reflect the origins of that fighting style and its consequences. It is possible to have a hoplite phalanx without democracy (Sparta), and it is possible to have a democracy without a hoplite phalanx (medieval Iceland), but understanding how each one supported the rise of the other in ancient Greece will help you construct fuller and more believable alternatives.
Image: Chigi Vase, reconstructed frieze via Wikimedia (7th c. BCE; painted pottery)
History for Writers is a weekly feature which looks at how history can be a fiction writer’s most useful tool. From worldbuilding to dialogue, history helps you write. Check out the introduction to History for Writers here.