Were the weapons and tactics utilized by Ancient Greek hoplites static or dynamic, conservative or innovative?
Following the collapse of the Mycenaean and Minoan civilizations the nature of warfare within Greece changed dramatically: large armies had been transformed into bands of ship-borne raiders. For additional, see From Warrior to Raiders (Dec. 2016). From the shadows of the Geometric Dark Age and through the later half of the 7th century BCE numerous Greek poleis (city-states) were founded. These independent and self-governing communities generally lacked the ability to maintain and/or support a professional army. Confronted with the need to provide for their security and defense, these evolving poleis typically adopted a system which required military service from their adult male citizenry. These citizen-soldiers, known as hoplites because the shield which they bore, dominated warfare in Greece and to a lesser extent Magna Graecia and Anatolia for nearly four centuries. To the casual observer, the weapons, armor and tactics of this period (hoplitic warfare) can appear static and non-malleable. While the transformation of the hoplitic system was by no means rapid, the cumulative effect of incremental adaptation(s) is nonetheless significant. At odds with innovation was a deeply-seeded warrior ethos within Greek society. Regardless of these forces in opposition, evolution would win out, and the hoplite of the early 7th century BCE would be markedly different warrior than its progeny of the late 4th century BCE.
Warriors of the Archaic Period
Sometime around 750-700 BCE we see the adoption of new equipment throughout Greece which successively lead to the implementation of heavily armored spearmen. One of the most striking depictions of these developments appears on the Chigi Vase (dated to c. 650 BCE). Unlike the warriors of the Late Geometric Period, these heavily armed proto-hoplites wore armor fashioned from bronze on their heads, torso and lower legs (in the form of greaves). Strong archaeological evidence- as well as the writings of Herodotus would suggest the double-handled hoplon shield was originally of Carian design, replacing the large shield strap (telamon) commonly associated with earlier Greek shields., In addition, each of these proto-hoplites carried a thrusting spear and possibly 1-2 lighter javelins.
The exact point of transitions from warrior to hoplite is unclear, but from the adoption of the hoplite panoply in the late 8th century BCE to the widespread adoption of the phalanx by the 5th century BCE, visible permutations of battle formations did occur. For instance, artistic representations of archers intermixed with hoplites dated to the late 6th century BCE were found at Athens.
Closely related to the preeminence of proto-hoplites of the Early Archaic Period the formation of poleis by autocratic tyrants (from the Greek tyrannos meaning ‘ruler’). In order to ensure the succession of power of their throne and exert their own military prowess, tyrants relied upon a trusted cohort of family, friends and political supporters who provided a retinue of well-equipped fighting men. Yet, by the beginning of the 6th century BCE it was not only the equipment of warfare that was changing, but also the nature of the polis.
The Greek Citizen-Soldier
Most of the freeborn men of a polis were considered as politai or citizens. It was from this body of men that warriors could be called upon, but not every man was equally equipped or suited for battle. Among the aristocracy, who could afford to purchase the finest weapons and armor, there existed not only an ethos of military service but also desire to serve in the lead positions. Normally the aristocracy alone could not provide the manpower necessary to field an army of sufficient size to ensure victory upon the battlefield. This meant additional able-bodied men were needed. These ‘men-behind’ or zeugitae as the Athenians called them hailed from the so-called middle-class. While often unable to afford the full array of equipment possessed by the aristocracy, these men typically provided their own shields, spears and helmets- and became known as ‘those who provide their own shields’.
As the polis grew, so did the concepts of citizenship and civic duty, once powerful tyrants were slowly being replaced by aristocratic oligarchies. This resulted in the distribution of political power within the polis to broader group(s) of men. As the power bases shifted there was a shrinking gap between the ‘warrior elite’ of the aristocracy and the ‘common’ warriors of the non-aristocratic class. While the aristocracy was still expected to lead by way of example, every man (citizen-warrior), regardless of station, was expected to act bravely and could achieve greatness upon the field of battle. The men of Greece were not without numerous illustrations of valor as recorded in the works of Homer, the Illad often served as the blueprint for the warrior ideal. Homer was not alone in shaping of the warrior ethos, the Greek poet Tyrtaeus of Sparta (c. 7th century BCE) wrote, “It is a beautiful thing when a good man falls and dies for country.”,
With the spread of Athenian hegemony during the 5th century BCE the nature of the polis and citizenship progressed with it. Citizenship and the civic duty to serve as a hoplite in times of war became synonymous. While requirements in regards to training varied, most poleis developed traditions and customs which supported a warrior ethos. While few poleis could aspire to the dedicated agoge of the Spartans, seasonal training in the basics of combat and maneuver were commonplace. Poorer citizens or freemen (non-citizens), who could not afford a shield often served as psiloi, or skirmishers- but this role was also known to have been performed by slaves.
By the mid 5th Century BCE evidence supports the widespread adoption of the phalanx as it is commonly understood in hoplitic warfare; a body of warriors arrayed in close-order formation with interlocking shields., Gone from the phalanx were the archers of a century earlier, as were the javelins carried by individual warriors. The hoplite and the phalanx together became an instrument of war and were inseparable from each other. The strength of the phalanx relied largely on the Greek warrior ethos- bravery, and civic duty. It wasn’t just the duty for a hoplite to take his place in the line of battle, but to remain there and protect the man next to (the left of) him, who in turn protected the man next to him… and so on.
The exact nature of the phalanx and its relation to hoplite warfare is by no means a settled issue. The key point of controversy stems from the use of a single word- othismos, which in Ancient Greek meant to ‘push’ or ‘shove’. The two opposing views can be summarized as follows: the ‘traditional’ view which sees the nature of hoplite warfare as primarily a contest of strength and the ‘reformed’ view which asserts a more fluid and martial dependent view. The traditional view is defended by scholars such as Victor Davis Hanson and A.J. Holladay, with the reformed view is being championed by scholars like G.L. Cawkwell and Peter Krentz. Each side offers conflicting explanation(s) from the largely the same body of available historical evidence, largely based upon modern interpretations, reconstruction and experimentation.
Regardless of interpretation, the inflexibility of the phalanx was well known. Xenophon relates how Bithynian peltasts were able to defeat Greek hoplites by the use of hit and run tactics. While defeats such as these did occur, the Greeks seemed resolved to continue the use of hoplites, particularly against other Greeks. Convention dictated the place and time of most battles; upon flat ground during the summer months as not to interfere with harvest time.
The very nature of polis as well as its survival was closely linked to three key components; military service, citizenship and the warrior ethos. Out of this grew tradition(s) and status. To take one’s place within an assembled phalanx was not only an obligation, but much more- it was the ability to prove yourself worthy and deserving of respect not only among your peers, but to every member of the polis. Glorious victories were often accompanied by significant shares of loot which enriched those who fought bravely and survived. It is also important to note that the very nature of warfare within Greece often meant harsh treatment(s) for the defeated; including reparations, enslavement or execution.
While social constraints and tradition can explain some of the reasons for the longevity of the hoplite system, they can not explain it fully. Another key factor is the success of the hoplitic system was just that, it worked. It was the Greek phalanx which had ultimately defeated the Darius and then Xerxes in the Persian Wars. It was the Greek phalanx which had defeated the Carthaginians in Sicily and the various tribes of Southern Italy. When fighting among themselves, individual poleis understood the nature of warfare and seemed resigned to maintaining tradition and to preserve the Greek warrior ethos.
No discussion regarding the nature either hoplites or the phalanx would be complete with discussing a key development of each. The first are the reforms of Iphicrates during the mid 4th century B.C. Iphicrates (418-353 B.C.), the Athenian general who enacted a series of ‘reforms’ which included lengthening the length of hoplite spear (dori) and replacing the heavy hoplon shield with a lighter pelta shield which allowed the spear to be gripped with both hands, allowing for a stronger thrust by the wielder. Iphicrates’ reforms also fully abandoned the use of bronze torso armor in favor of lighter linothorax, and in some instances abandoned torso armor completely. I believe this allowed for the development of a faster, more aggressive intermediate form of hoplite, a progenitor to the Macedonian phalangite.
The second evolution was not in terms of equipment, but in disposition of the phalanx itself. It was the Theban general Epaminondas who first conceptualized the implementation of the ‘deep-phalanx’ at the Battle of Leuctra in 371 B.C. and the defeat of Sparta. By deepening his phalanx to fifty men (compared to the 8-12 typically seen) the Thebans were able to break the lines of a numerically superior force.
Neither the reforms of Iphicrates, nor Epaminondas’ deep-phalanx’ were universally adopted throughout Greece. Many poleis remained entrenched in the tactics of war which had served them well and sometimes not so well in the past. Yet, these changes did not go unnoticed by the future King of Macedonia, Philip II.
With the many advances in technology that are quickly exploited upon the battlefields of today it is often hard to conceptualize the evolution of warfare in ancient Greece. But in a culture which linked the very nature of one’s status with a system of warfare the reluctance to enact sweeping changes- which could threaten that status, resistance is understandable. To some historians innovation during this period might appear to be largely stagnant. Yet innovation(s) did occur. Innovations that affected the very nature of warfare throughout the Mediterranean. Under Philip II, the development of a levied, but highly professional army (infantry) removed the property requirements of the hoplitic system– removing the question of social status as a prerequisite for military service. Building upon the tactical innovations of Iphicrates and Epaminondas, Philip II would build one of the most successful armies in the known world, which I believe to be the true legacy of the phalanx and warfare in ancient Greece.
Bibliography & Citations:
Adcock, F. E. The Greek and Macedonian Art of War. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1957.
Baker, Patrick. “With Spear and Shield: Hoplite Training in the Age of Xenophon.” Ancient Warfare Magazine VII, no. 5, 12-15.
Brouwers, Josho. Henchmen of Ares: Warriors and Warfare in Early Greece. Rotterdam: Karwansaray Publishers, 2013.
Dahm, Murray. “‘The Shove’ or Not ‘The Shove’: The Othismos Question.” Ancient Warfare Magazine IV, no. 2, 48-53.
Dahm, Murray. “Waxing Lyrical on the Ideal Warrior: Warfare and Greek Poetry.” Ancient Warfare Magazine VII, no. 4, 41-47.
Herodotus. The Histories: Herodotus. Translated by Aubrey De Sélincourt. Harmondsworth, Middlesex: Penguin Books, 1981.
Higgins, Reynold. Minoan and Mycenaean Art. London: Thames and Hudson, 1997.
Lendon, J. E. Soldiers and Ghosts: A History of Battle in Classical Antiquity. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2005.
Mulroy, David D. Early Greek Lyric Poetry. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1992.
Pomeroy, Sarah B., and Stanley M. Burstein. Ancient Greece: A Political, Social, and Cultural History. 3rd ed. New York: Oxford University Press, 2012.
Sage, Michael M. Warfare in Ancient Greece: A Sourcebook. London: Routledge, 1996.
Thucydides, and Victor Davis. Hanson. The Landmark Thucydides: A Comprehensive Guide to the Peloponnesian War ; with Maps, Annotations, Appendices, and Encyclopedic Index. Edited by Robert B. Strassler. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1998.
Xenophon, and David Thomas. The Landmark Xenophon’s Hellenika: A New Translation. Translated by John Marincola. Edited by Robert B. Strassler. New York: Pantheon Books, 2009.
 Pomeroy, Sarah B., and Stanley M. Burstein. Ancient Greece: A Political, Social, and Cultural History. 3rd ed. (New York: Oxford University Press), 104-106.
 Ibid., 123-127.
 Higgins, Reynold. Minoan and Mycenaean Art. (London: Thames and Hudson), 121.
 Brouwers, Josho. Henchmen of Ares: Warriors and Warfare in Early Greece. (Rotterdam: Karwansaray Publishers), 75.
 Herodotus. The Histories: Herodotus. Translated by Aubrey De Sélincourt. Harmondsworth, (Middlesex: Penguin Books), 1.171-172.
 Lendon, J. E. Soldiers and Ghosts: A History of Battle in Classical Antiquity. (New Haven: Yale University Press), 48-49.
 Ibid., 48.
 Pomeroy, Sarah B., and Stanley M. Burstein. Ancient Greece: A Political, Social, and Cultural History. 3rd ed. (New York: Oxford University Press), 76-78
 Ibid., 118.
 Adcock, F. E. The Greek and Macedonian Art of War. (Berkeley: University of California Press), 4-5.
 Ibid., 5-6.
 Pomeroy, Sarah B., and Stanley M. Burstein. Ancient Greece: A Political, Social, and Cultural History. 3rd ed. (New York: Oxford University Press), 116-119.
 Mulroy, David D. Early Greek Lyric Poetry. (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press), 48-49.
 Dahm, Murray. “Waxing Lyrical on the Ideal Warrior: Warfare and Greek Poetry.” Ancient Warfare Magazine VII, no. 4, 41-47.
 Baker, Patrick. “With Spear and Shield: Hoplite Training in the Age of Xenophon.” Ancient Warfare Magazine VII, no. 5, 12-15.
 Lendon, J. E. Soldiers and Ghosts: A History of Battle in Classical Antiquity. (New Haven: Yale University Press), 39-42.
 Thucydides, and Victor Davis. Hanson. The Landmark Thucydides: A Comprehensive Guide to the Peloponnesian War ; with Maps, Annotations, Appendices, and Encyclopedic Index. (Edited by Robert B. Strassler. New York: Simon & Schuster), 8.25.2-4.
 Dahm, Murray. “‘The Shove’ or Not ‘The Shove’: The Othismos Question.” Ancient Warfare Magazine IV, no. 2, 48-53.
 Dahm, Murray. “‘The Shove’ or Not ‘The Shove’: The Othismos Question.” Ancient Warfare Magazine IV, no. 2, 48-53.
Xenophon, and David Thomas. The Landmark Xenophon’s Hellenika: A New Translation. (Translated by John Marincola. Edited by Robert B. Strassler. New York: Pantheon Books), 3.2.2-5.
Lendon, J. E. Soldiers and Ghosts: A History of Battle in Classical Antiquity. (New Haven: Yale University Press), 93-95.
 Sage, Michael M. Warfare in Ancient Greece: A Sourcebook. (London: Routledge), 137-138.