Wednesday, 14 July 2010

Hoplite - history


The hoplite was a heavy infantryman, the central element of warfare in Ancient Greece. The hoplites were the masters of heavy infantry and were unstoppable to other heavy infantry but their systems greatest weakness was its lack of inflexibility and Greek refusal to include auxiliary troops.

Hoplites were the citizen-soldiers of the Ancient Greek City-states. They were primarily armed as spear-men and fought in a phalanx.

The Hoplite as a type of soldier evolved in the Archaic period, at a time when two short spears would be carried instead of the distinctive long spear of later years and 'one-on-one' fighting was deemed to be the way forward. Examples of armor from the early days of the Hoplite are quite thick in construction and could clearly take a lot of punishment. As the Hoplite evolved over the years, however, one-on-one gave way to phalanx on phalanx and the two short spears became the long, distinctive spear. This coincided with a change in the nature of the armour, with the protection given by weight giving way to the flexibility that lighter armour could offer.

As a military force, the Hoplite, in its various forms, dominated the battlefield for around 700 years and only disappeared in the time of Alexander during the 4th Century BC, when its inflexibility against differing troop types and on extended campaigns made it ineffective.


Certainly, by approximately 650 BCE, the 'hoplite revolution' was complete. The major innovation in the development of the hoplite seems to have been the characteristic circular shield (Aspis), roughly 1 m (3.3 ft) in diameter, and made of wood faced with bronze. Although very heavy (8–15 kg/18–33 lb), the design of this shield was such that it could be supported on the shoulder. More importantly, it permitted the formation of a shield-wall by an army, an impenetrable mass of men and shields. Men were also equipped with metal greaves and also a breast plate made of bronze, leather, or stiff cloth. When this was combined with the primary weapon of the hoplite, 2–3 m (6.6–9.8 ft) long spear (the doru), it gave both offensive and defensive capabilities.

With the invention of the hoplite phalanx formation, the practice became well copied throughout Greece. With the successes derived from the use of hoplites throughout battles in early Greece, the hoplites as men began growing into a ruling class. The most notable societal development of the hoplite occurred in Sparta where this new citizen class was organized as a permanent army dedicated to being a soldier. The persuasive qualities of the phalanx were probably its relative simplicity (allowing its use by a citizen militia), low fatality rate (important for small city-states), and relatively low cost (enough for each hoplite to provide their own equipment). The Phalanx also became a source of political influence because men had to provide their own equipment in order to be a part of the army.

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.

In 480 B.C. the son of Darius, Xerxes invaded Greece with the biggest integrated army the world has thus far seen. For the Greeks this invasion was a surprise and the tactics used by Xerxes was foreign to the Greeks (Xerxes used not just heavy infantry, but light troops such as peltasts as well). 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.

The Greeks eventually won the war but they learned a hard lesson on warfare: heavy infantry alone cannot win against an integrated force. In the period between the end of the Persian Wars and the Peolponnesian War the Greek army went under drastic change: Ekdromoi (light hoplite) became wide spread, javelin-throwing troops (Peltasts) became commonplace, and mercenaries were beginning to form large parts of the main armies. The hoplites themselves went under changes such as: lighter armor, slightly wider shields, and more practical helmets.

The Peolponnesian War was the last war the traditional hoplite was in and what was learned in the Peolponnesian War would be essential for the formation of the Macedonian Phalangite.

New type of hoplites

During the hegemony of Thebes (roughly from 371 to the 350s) an Athenian named Ifikrates created a new type of hoplite that was later named for him: the “Ifkratican Hoplite”. The changes made by Ifikrates were so radical that hoplites would never be the same again. He made the shield of the hoplite smaller, so small that it could slung on the shoulder. The length of the spear was increased to 10 meters and the cuirass was made of linen instead of multiple layers of canvas. Finally the helmet was changed to the advanced “Thracian” type. The reason for these changes was that Ifikrates saw that even with the new post-Persian Wars changes the hoplites could still be tormented by the aggravating peltasts. The new Ifkratican Hoplites had a large effect on the Greeks states and their way of fighting, improving the hoplites speed but not their stoicness.

In 338 B.C. King Philip II of Macedon decided to intervene in the matters of Greeks to his south, marching with him was a new type of hoplite that was to dominate warfare in the Mediterranean area until the advent of the Roman Legionnaire. The new Macedonian Phalangites were an improvement on the Ifkratican reforms and the changes included were, lighter shields, a new main weapon called the “sarissa” (a huge pike 18-ft long).

They also created a new "Macedonian" style helmet made for the purpose of not only protection but for being able to hear orders as well. The new Macedonian Phalanx was also a big improvement on the Greek one, with the ability to be much more flexible as well to being able to quickly adjust to newest battle situation. But by far the biggest change was the Macedonian Phalanx was used not as the main force but as a support for the powerful Macedonian cavalry.

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.

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