With the fall of the Mycenaean civilization, remnants moved on to the mountains of Greece to begin anew, farming the land for crops and raising livestock as best they could, all the while defending their newfound territories from one another and miscellaneous roaming bands. Along the way, various individuals stood out, claiming their lineage as indisputable direct links to the true Greek gods. These particular men would rise up as leaders in their local communities and be called upon as one of the first to fight in the defense of their properties.
With this responsibility arose the need for these men to become trained in the methods of warfare and all the elements that went along with it in the form of armor and weaponry. The end result was an individual that became quite a capable battlefield unit, one that would eventually learn to work together with other like-units in the defense of larger groups of inhabitants and dwellings covering even larger territories. Such was the birth of organized combat in the Greek city-state. The new organized approach to combat forged ties between some groups over others and, with these organizations, armies were now fit to colonize nearby territories even further. Thus began the expansion of the once-individual groups of Greek dwellers.
Rise of the Spartans
The Spartans were a group of inhabitants that claimed organization within their once-growing towns and graduated into a full-fledged city, or polis (hence the modern usage of the term of metropolis). Already a somewhat dominant peoples, the Spartans were blessed with taking one of the more fertile portions of Greek land from neighboring Messenians which offered an abundance of raw materials and territory - up to half of everything the conquered Messenians could produce in fact.
The Greek hoplite choice of armor: Hoplites were heavy infantry that operated efficiently in large organized formations known as a phalanx. Armor was designed to protect the most vital areas of the soldier. Spartan and Macedonian Hoplites differed somewhat from the base Greek counterpart. Illustration © www.MilitaryFactory.com • No Reproduction Permitted
The Hoplite Soldier
With the conquering of neighboring peoples, the issue of policing these new territories arose. Stemming from the creation of a new strategy of warfare created by a named King Pheidon, the "phalanx" formation was now born - and with it, the hoplite infantryman as well. A new generation of successful citizens was called upon to become this organized band of warriors, armed with principle elements such as the hopla – essentially a word derived to encompass the individual elements making up the whole in the form of an armored helmet, cuirass, leg greaves, the shield (incidentally identified as the hoplon) and a spear, held overhand and used for thrusting. These elements came together to present the collective naming convention recognized as "hoplite", a term today generally associated with the Greek phalanx formation. The Hoplite would go on to become the symbol of power and masculinity in the Ancient Greek world, operating as a team of heavy infantry against lightly-armored and less-organized foes.
The individual hoplite was fielded with his most important tool - the thrusting spear, measuring between 6 to 10 feet in length depending on construction practices (later hoplites would be fielded with thrusting spears measuring some 18 feet long to keep enemies further at bay - these longer forms were known as Sarissas). For maximum effectiveness, the hoplite could wield the spear in an underhand hold when maneuvering and in an over-shoulder grip when thrusting. A bronze construction butt-spike was added to the aft-end of the spear to help balance the weight of the iron spearhead and could be used as an alternate weapon should the spear head break off. The butt spike could fortify the spear into the ground to deflect against enemy cavalry charges (as a "pike"). For close-in fighting, the hoplite retained a 2-foot long straight sword held in an underarm wooden scabbard covered with reinforced leather (complete with bronze fittings). A dagger might replace the sword in some instances. The sword was of a pretty basic and generally nondescript, suitable for cutting and thrusting but held as a secondary weapon to the spear.
The next important element in the hopla was the hoplite shield. Weighing in at some 12 to 15 pounds, the hoplon was a relatively large rounded piece of protection that shielded the user by covering his lower face on down to about mid-knee. The hoplon was predominantly made of wood with a bronze-constructed facing and furthered strengthened by a leather inner lining. The wearer would slip his forearm into a band on the inside of the shield for maximum fit and grip another available loop band in his hand. This allowed the hoplite the freedom to quickly wield his hoplon in the defensive or offensive position. The hoplite could swing the flat or edge sides of the hoplon at his enemy as equally as he could adjust to deflect enemy artillery or spear blows. Later evolutions of the hoplite shield would see a smaller, lighter version fielded (Macedonian hoplites), allowing for improved mobility and creating a new generation of equally-feared infantry unit in the form of the Macedonian hoplite.
Body protection was provided in the form of a cuirass made of metal scales backed by stiffened linen strips. Lower torsos were protected in a limited fashion by the use of pteruges, allowing the hoplite full freedom to run at full speed should the situation require it. Molded bronze greaves were allotted to the shins with basic sandals used for footwear (these greaves were later dropped during Alexander's reign in favor of making the hoplite a lighter battlefield implement). Head protection came from the well known use of Corinthian-style helmets though these could come in a myriad of designs and shapes. Evolved throughout decades of conflict, the basic helmet design offered protection to the head, nose and cheeks while later designs opened ear holes for better battlefield communications. Decorative measures on the helmet were taken as well and these were seen in the form of horse-plumes which could be died for added customizability and battlefield recognition.
The Hoplite's name is derived from the wood/bronze shield he carries, known as the Hoplon. Later, more efficient Macedonian Hoplites would field a smaller round shield as opposed to the larger round one.
The phalanx formation was designed to take the benefits of team-oriented combat and organization against foes without those qualities. The formation depended on each individual soldier operating in unison, standing closely to one another with shield affixed on the left arm and the thrusting spear firmly gripped in the right hand. In this standing fashion, the phalanx – some 4 rows or more deep – would protect the next man over with a shield making the rightmost group of soldier the most vulnerable. These soldiers would be called upon to be the lead in the formation, to which the rest of the phalanx would follow as the group moved about the battlefield.
The largest weakness inherent in the phalanx formation was in the weak flanks. Basically left unprotected, the phalanx flanks were open to cavalry charges, artillery barrages and rushing hordes of enemy infantrymen. As such, phalanx formations would depend on the single soldier to keep the flanks from becoming overrun and keep the center-most formations facing forward – the strongest and most lethal point of the phalanx. As long as the phalanx formation could hold with shield and spear, the formation was a relatively immobile object to defeat. In the same vein, lighter armored and armed units such as skirmishers or bowmen could wreak havoc at distance with their javelins and arrows, realizing that the pondering hoplites could never catch then – even if spear and shield were thrown aside (total weight of the hoplite armor and weapon are estimated at some 50 to 60 pounds!).
Evolution of the Hoplite Warrior
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. Spartan society was ruled by two kings and strengthened by a council of 28 ruling members charged with discussion and voting on political issues.
Young Spartan males were prized for their military development. Males as young as six years would be tabbed to train in the ways of the hoplite soldier, but more importantly in the strategies of the phalanx formation. From age six to thirteen, boys underwent various forms of exercise, training and education that developed their sense of loyalty to all things Sparta. At about age eighteen, the young Spartan man was now called upon to raise other young Spartan boys in the same soldiering vein. It was also at this age that Spartan males might also be called upon to kill helots (serfs in the Spartan society) being it that every year, Spartans would declare war on them.
From age twenty on, the Spartan man would be placed into his organizational barracks and become an integral cog in the Spartan war machine. This organized army would become the Spartan army and be on call for all things needed by the nation. The warring mentality bred at such an early age would make the Greek Spartans some of the world’s best soldiers, respected even in their own Greek circles so much so that Spartans even boldly regarded themselves as the best fighters in the world.
Reaching later years, most often after thirty and before sixty years of age, the Spartan male was expected to marry and continue the cycle. After sixty, males were no longer expected to perform military functions. Though the 28-man governing council required the male to be over the age of sixty, it was also reserved for members of the aristocracy and thus limited to most.
Such was the ever-growing power of the hoplite infantry that later times a union-like conglomerate would form, much to the dislike of the governing aristocracy. The muscle power of the hoplites on the battlefield would prove equally as effective in political circles where their influence could promote favorable leaders into positions of power. From there, the hoplites – in particular the Spartan hoplite – forced a social and cultural change in the way Greek matters were handled. As divided as the city-states of Greece were at this time, the one item of note that most would agree on was in the power of the Spartan hoplite, only to be mirrored in other Greek areas for years to come.
Though not touched upon in this article to any great detail, the Spartan female was equally revered in Spartan culture for her child-bearing capabilities. As such, it was seen as honorable for a Spartan female to die in child birth as it was for a Spartan male to die in combat. This type of thinking allowed the Spartan culture to produce an organized result at many levels, even so much so that individual Spartan mothers would hold all the Spartan sons on equal footing. Such was the culture that even at the stand at Thermopylae against Persian aggression, the 300 select Spartans were chosen based on those who had living sons to carry the family name back in Sparta should the father die in battle.