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definitions - Hoplite

hoplite (n.)

1.a serviceman who ranks below a commissioned officer

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Merriam Webster

HopliteHop"lite (?), n. [Gr. �, fr. � tool, weapon: cf. F. hoplite.] (Gr. Antiq.) A heavy-armed infantry soldier. Milford.

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hoplite (n.)

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Hoplite

                   
  Re-creation of a 4th–3rd century BC hoplite, shown carrying an aspis shield (or hoplon).
  Hoplites shown in two attack positions, with both an overhand and underhand thrust

A hoplite was a citizen-soldier of the Ancient Greek city-states. Hoplites were primarily armed as spearmen and fought in a phalanx formation. The word "hoplite" (Greek: ὁπλίτης hoplitēs; pl. ὁπλίται hoplitai) derives from "hoplon" (ὅπλον, plural hopla ὅπλα), the type of the shield used by the soldiers,[1] although, as a word, "hopla" could also denote weapons held or even full armament. In later texts, the term hoplite is used to denote any armoured infantry, regardless of armament or ethnicity.

A hoplite was primarily a free citizen who was usually individually responsible for procuring his armour and weapon. In most Greek city-states, citizens received at least basic military training, serving in the standing army for a certain amount of time. They were expected to take part in any military campaign when they would be called for duty. The Lacedaemonian citizens (Sparta) were renowned for their lifelong combat training and almost mythical military prowess, while their greatest adversaries, the Athenians, were exempted from service only after the 60th year of their lives.

The exact time when hoplitic warfare was developed is uncertain, the prevalent theory being that it was established sometime during the 8th or 7th century BC, when the "heroic age was abandoned and a far more disciplined system introduced" [2] and the Argive shield became popular. Peter Krentz argues that "the ideology of hoplitic warfare as a ritualized contest developed not in the 7th century, but only after 480, when non-hoplite arms began to be excluded from the phalanx".[3] Anagnostis Agelarakis based on recent archaeo-anthropological discoveries of the earliest monumental polyandrion (communal burial of male warriors) at Paros Island in Greece, unveils a last quarter of the 8th century BC date for a hoplitic phalangeal military organization.[4]

After the Macedonian conquests of the 4th century BC, the hoplite was slowly abandoned in favour of the phalangite, armed in the Macedonian fashion, in the armies of the southern Greek states.

Many famous personalities, philosophers, artists and poets, fought as hoplites.[5][6]

Contents

  History

  Greek Hoplite Guards (390–380 BC) at Xanthos, modern-day Turkey, now in the British Museum

The rise and fall of hoplite warfare was intimately connected to the rise and fall of the city-state. As discussed above, hoplites were a solution to the armed clashes between independent city-states. As Greek civilization found itself confronted by the world at large, particularly by the Persians, the emphasis in warfare shifted. Confronted by huge numbers of enemy troops, individual city-states could not realistically fight alone. During the Greco-Persian Wars (499–448 BC), alliances between groups of cities (whose composition varied over time) fought against the Persians. This drastically altered the scale of warfare and the numbers of troops involved. The hoplite phalanx proved itself far superior to the Persian infantry at such conflicts as the Battle of Marathon, Thermopylae, and the Battle of Plataea.

During this period, Athens and Sparta rose to a position of political eminence in Greece, and their rivalry in the aftermath of the Persian wars brought Greece into renewed internal conflict. However, the Peloponnesian War was on a scale unlike conflicts before. Fought between leagues of cities, dominated by Athens and Sparta respectively, the pooled manpower and financial resources allowed a diversification of warfare. Hoplite warfare was in decline; there were three major battles in the Peloponnesian War, and none proved decisive. Instead there was increased reliance on navies, skirmishers, mercenaries, city walls, siege engines, and non-set piece tactics. These reforms made wars of attrition possible and greatly increased the number of casualties. In the Persian war, hoplites faced large numbers of skirmishers and missile-armed troops, and such troops (e.g. Peltasts) became much more commonly used by the Greeks during the Peloponnesian War. As a result, hoplites began wearing less armour, carrying shorter swords, and in general adapting for greater mobility; this led to the development of the ekdromoi light hoplite.

Late on in the hoplite era, more sophisticated tactics were developed, in particular by the Theban general Epaminondas. These tactics inspired the future king Philip II of Macedon, at the time a hostage in Thebes, in the development of new kind of infantry – the Macedonian Phalanx. Although clearly a development of the hoplite, the Macedonian phalanx was tactically more versatile, especially used in the combined arms tactics favoured by the Macedonians. These forces defeated the last major hoplite army, at the Battle of Chaeronea (338 BC), after which Athens and its allies joined the Macedonian empire.

  Oinochoe depicting a hoplite wearing his armour, 550–525 BC, Athens Agora Museum, in the Stoa of Attalus.

  Warfare

The fragmentary nature of Ancient Greece, with many competing city-states, increased the frequency of conflict, but conversely limited the scale of warfare. Limited manpower did not allow most Greek city-states to form large armies which could operate for long periods, especially in the case of light troops like the psiloi, who were recruited from the lower citizen classes, and as such, they were mainly farmers, workers, even slaves. This inevitably reduced the potential duration of campaigns, as a large portion of any Greek army would need to return to their own professions (especially in the case of farmers, for example). Campaigns would therefore often be restricted to summer. Armies marched directly to their target, the battlefield having possibly already been agreed on by the contestants.

If battle was refused by the defender, they would generally retreat to their city, in which case the attackers generally had to content themselves with ravaging the surrounding countryside, since siegecraft was not efficient, at least until the 5th century BC. When battles occurred, they were usually set piece and intended to be decisive. The battlefield would be flat and open to facilitate phalanx warfare. These battles were usually short and required a high degree of discipline. At least in the early classical period, cavalry was usually used to protect the flanks, when present at all, and cover a possible retreat. Light infantry and missile troops took part in the battle, but their role was of a lower importance.

The phalanxes would approach each other in a steady, slow march to keep cohesion or rarely at a run, if the enemy was prone to panic, or if they fought against enemies equipped with bows, as was the case against the Persians at the Battle of Marathon. The two lines would remain at a small distance to be able to effectively use their spears, while the psiloi threw stones and javelins from behind their lines. If the "doratismos" (Greek for spear combat) was not decisive, then the lines would close and swords would be drawn. The shields would clash and the first lines (protostates) would stab at their opponents, at the same time trying to keep in position. The ranks behind them would support them with their own spears and the mass of their shields gently pushing them, not to force them into the enemy formation but to keep them steady and in place. At certain points, a command would be given to the phalanx or a part thereof to collectively take a certain number of steps forward (ranging from half to multiple steps). This was the famed "othismos".

  Hoplites depicted on an Attic vase dated to 510–500 BC.

At this point, the phalanx would put its collective weight to push back the enemy line and thus create fear and panic among its ranks. There could be multiple such instances of attempts to push, but it seems from the accounts of the ancients that these were perfectly orchestrated and attempted organized en masse. Battles rarely lasted more than an hour. Once one of the lines broke, the troops would generally flee from the field, sometimes chased by psiloi, peltasts or light cavalry. If a hoplite escaped, he would sometimes be forced to drop his cumbersome aspis, thereby disgracing himself to his friends and family (becoming a "ripsaspis", one who threw his shield). Casualties were slight compared to later battles, rarely amounting to more than 5% of the losing side, but the slain often included the most prominent citizens and generals who led from the front. Thus, the whole war could be decided by a single field battle; victory was enforced by ransoming the fallen back to the defeated, called the "Custom of the Greeks".

Individual hoplites carried their shields on their left arm, protecting not only themselves but also the soldier to the left. This meant that the men at the extreme right of the phalanx were only half-protected. In battle, opposing phalanxes would exploit this weakness by attempting to overlap the enemy's right flank. It also meant that, in battle, a phalanx would tend to drift to the right (as hoplites sought to remain behind the shield of their neighbour). The most experienced hoplites were often placed on the right side of the phalanx, to counteract these problems. A phalanx tended to be 8 rows or more deep, each row with a leader, and a rear rank officer, the ouragos (meaning: tail-leader), who kept order in the rear.

The phalanx is an example of a military formation in which single combat and other individualistic forms of battle were suppressed for the good of the whole. In earlier Homeric combat, the words and deeds of supremely powerful heroes turned the tide of battle. With his friends jostling and pushing on both sides and behind, and his enemies forming a solid wall in front of him, the hoplite had little opportunity for feats of technique and weapon skill, but great need for commitment and mental toughness. The hoplites had to trust their neighbours for mutual protection, so a phalanx was only as strong as its weakest elements. Its effectiveness depended on how well the hoplites could maintain this formation while in combat, and how well they could stand their ground, especially when engaged against another phalanx. The more disciplined and courageous the army, the more likely it was to win – often engagements between the various city-states of Greece would be resolved by one side fleeing before the battle. The Greek word dynamis, the "will" or "ability to fight," was used to express the drive that kept hoplites in formation.

  Equipment

  Hoplite armour exhibit from the Archaeological Museum of Corfu. Note the gold inserts around the chest area of the bronze breastplate at the centre of the exhibit. The helmet on the upper left is a restored version of the oxidised helmet on the right.
  Hoplite. Print from Vinkhuijzen Collection of Military Costume Illustration.
  Greek soldiers of Greco-Persian Wars. Left – Greek slinger. Right – hoplites. Left hoplite's shield has a curtain which serves as a protection from arrows.
  A hoplite by painter Alkimachos, on an Attic red-figure vase, c. 460 BC. Shield has a curtain which serves as a protection from arrows.

Each hoplite provided his own equipment. Thus, only those who could afford such weaponry fought as hoplites; as with the Roman Republican army it was the middle classes who formed the bulk of the infantry. Equipment was not standardised, although there were doubtless trends in general designs over time, and between city-states. Hoplites had customized armour, and possibly family symbols on his shield. The equipment might well be passed down in families, since it would have been expensive to manufacture.

Hoplites generally armed themselves just before battle. Hoplite equipment ranged from light to heavy – the total weight of a set of heavy bronze breastplate armour was around 22–27 kilograms (49–60 pounds). The average farmer-peasant hoplite typically wore no armour, carrying only a shield, a spear, and perhaps a helmet plus a secondary weapon. Some hoplite spears were 9 feet long (2.7 m). A more well-to-do hoplite would have linothorax, armour composed of stitched/laminated linen fabrics that was sometimes reinforced with animal skins and/or bronze scales. The linothorax was the most popular type armour worn by the hoplites, since it was cost-effective and provided decent protection. The richer upper-class hoplites typically had a bronze breastplate of either the bell or muscled variety, a bronze helmet with cheekplates, as well as greaves and other armour. The design of the helmets used varied through time. The Corinthian helmet was at first standardised and was a very successful design. Later variants included the Chalcidian helmet, a lightened version of the Corinthian helmet, and the very simple Pilos helmet worn by the later Spartan hoplites. The crests on the helmet differed for each city-state. The Thracian helmet had a huge visor to further increase protection. In later periods, linen breastplates called "linothorax" were used, as they were tougher and cheaper to make. The linen was 0.5-centimetre (0.20 in) thick. Hoplites carried a circular shield called an aspis (often referred to as a hoplon) made from wood and covered in bronze, measuring roughly 1 metre in diameter. This large shield was made possible partly by its shape, which allowed it to be supported on the shoulder. The revolutionary part of the shield was, in fact, the grip. Known as an Argive grip, it placed the handle at the edge of the shield, and was supported by a leather fastening (for the forearm) at the centre. This allowed the Hoplite soldier more mobility with the shield, as well as the ability to capitalize on its offensive capabilities and better support the Phalanx. It spanned from chin to knee and was very heavy. It weighed 8–15 kg (17.6–33 pounds)

  Greek marble relief c. 330 BC depicting a hoplite in combat, holding his weapon above his head as he prepares to strike a fallen enemy. His plumed Corinthian helmet and bronze breastplate are clearly depicted. The relief may have been part of an official Athenian state memorial

The primary weapon was a spear called a dory. Although accounts of its length vary, it is usually now believed to have been seven to nine feet long (~2.1 – ~2.7m). It was held one-handed, the other hand holding the hoplite's shield. The spearhead was usually a curved leaf shape, while the rear of the spear had a spike called a sauroter ('lizard-killer') which was used to stand the spear in the ground (hence the name). It was also used as a secondary weapon if the main shaft snapped, or for the rear ranks to finish off fallen opponents as the phalanx advanced over them. In addition to being used as a secondary weapon, the sauroter also doubled to balance the spear, but not for throwing purposes. It is a matter of contention, among historians, whether the hoplite used the spear overarm or underarm. Held underarm, the thrusts would have been less powerful but under more control, and vice versa. It seems likely that both motions were used, depending on the situation. If attack was called for, an overarm motion was more likely to break through an opponent's defence. The upward thrust is more easily deflected by armour due to its lesser leverage. However, when defending, an underarm carry absorbed more shock and could be 'couched' under the shoulder for maximum stability. It should also be said that an overarm motion would allow more effective combination of the aspis and doru if the shield wall had broken down, while the underarm motion would be more effective when the shield had to be interlocked with those of one's neighbours in the battle-line. Hoplites in the rows behind the lead would almost certainly have made overarm thrusts. The rear ranks held their spears underarm, and raised their shields upwards at increasing angles. This was an effective defence against missiles, deflecting their force.

Hoplites also carried a short sword called a xiphos. The short sword was a secondary weapon, used if or when their spears were broken or lost, or if the phalanx broke rank. The xiphos usually has a blade around 2 feet (0.61 m) long, however those used by the Spartans were often only 12–18 inches long. This very short xiphos would be very advantageous in the press that occurred when two lines of hoplites met, capable of being thrust through gaps in the shieldwall into an enemy's unprotected groin or throat, while there was no room to swing a longer sword. Such a small weapon would be particularly useful after many hoplites had started to abandon body armour during the Peloponnesian War. Hoplites could also alternatively carry the curved kopis, a particularly vicious hacking weapon. Spartan hoplites were often depicted using a kopis, instead of the xiphos, in Athenian art, as the kopis was seen as a quintessential "bad guys" weapon in Greek eyes.

By contrast with hoplites, other contemporary infantry (e.g. Persian) tended to wear relatively light armour, use wicker shields, and were armed with shorter spears, javelins, and bows.

  In popular culture

Hoplite warfare has been portrayed (with varying accuracy) in several films including Troy, The 300 Spartans and 300.

Several strategy games, such as Rise of Nations, Rome: Total War, Spartan Total Warrior, Empire Earth, Civilization, Ancient Wars: Sparta, Age of Empires, Etrian Odyssey III: The Drowned City and Age of Mythology, feature infantry units called "Hoplites" or "Phalanx". The action RTS title League of Legends features a hero modeled after a Spartan hoplite.

  References

Notes
  1. ^ Diodorus Siculus, 15.44.3 "hoi [men] proteron apo tôn aspidôn hoplitai kaloumenoi tote [de] apo tês peltês peltastai metônomasthêsan"
  2. ^ Peter Connoly, Greece and Rome at War, p.37.
  3. ^ Peter Krentz, Fighting by the Rules – The Invention of the Hoplite Agon.
  4. ^ F. Zafeiropoulou and A. Agelarakis, “Warriors of Paros”, Archaeology 58.1(2005): 30–35
  5. ^ Socrates as a hoplite: Plato, Symposium 219e–221b.
  6. ^ Epicurus as a hoplite: Diogenes Laertius, Lives of Eminent Philosophers, Book X.
Bibliography
  • Crowley, Jason. "The Psychology of the Athenian Hoplite: The Culture of Combat in Classical Athens". Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012 (hardcover, ISBN 1-107-02061-1).
  • Goldsworthy, A.K. "The Othismos, Myths and Heresies: The Nature of Hoplite Battle", War in History, Vol. 4, Issue 1. (1997), pp. 1–26.
  • Hanson, Victor Davis. The Western Way of War: Infantry Battle in Classical Greece. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1989 (hardcover, ISBN 0-394-57188-6); New York: Oxford University Press (USA), 1990 (paperback, ISBN 0-19-506588-3); Berkeley: University of California Press, 2000 (paperback, ISBN 0-520-21911-2).
  • Hanson, Victor Davis. Warfare and Agriculture in Classical Greece (Biblioteca Di Studi Antichi; 40). Berkeley: University of California Press, 1998 (hardcover, ISBN 0-520-21025-5; paperback, ISBN 0-520-21596-6).
  • Hanson, Victor Davis. The Other Greeks: The Family Farm and the Agrarian Roots of Western Civilization. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1999 (paperback, ISBN 0-520-20935-4).
  • Krentz, Peter. "Fighting by the Rules: The Invention of the Hoplite Agôn", Hesperia, Vol. 71, No. 1. (2002), pp. 23–39.
  • O'Connell, Robert L., "Soul of the Sword". Simon and Schuster, 2002, ISBN 0-684-84407-9.
  • Roisman, Joseph, and translated by J.C Yardley, Ancient Greece from Homer to Alexander (Blackwell Publishing Ltd, 2011) ISBN 1-4051-2776-7

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