Hoplites and the Phalanx Formation in Ancient Greek and Athens (2024)

Hoplites were heavily armored soldier-citizens whose development paralleled that of the ancient Greek city-states they served. The term hoplite originates from the Greek word "hoplon," or shield. These shields, and the methods in which they were used, were instrumental in the function and formation of the phalanx, the primary unit of Greek armies during the Classical period.


Greek warfare during the Heroic Age (1600-1100 BC) was often chaotic and undisciplined. Conflicts during this era began with duels between champions followed by a general melee, with each warrior fighting as an individual for his own personal glory rather than as part of a disciplined battalion. During the rise of Greek city-states starting in the eighth century BC, battle tactics changed and the hoplite, rather than the champion, became the primary unit of ancient Greek armies.

Unlike the warriors composing Sparta’s standing, professional army, Athenian hoplites were true soldier-citizens. They were middle-and upper-class men able to afford the armor and weaponry necessary for battle. A hoplite’s equipment was not provided for him by the city-state; he was expected to commission and finance his own.

In Athens, a young man’s military career began at age 18 with two years of training. Between the ages of 20 and 60 he was available to be called up for duty. Those over 50 generally stayed behind to guard the city. Because most hoplites were land owners and farmers with other obligations, military campaigns between Greek city-states were generally limited to the late summer months after harvest. Warfare between city-states became somewhat standardized, with short, decisive conflicts that allowed the survivors time to return to their normal lives as farms and tradesmen.

Weapons and Armor of a Hoplite

The most important piece of armor carried by a hoplite was his shield, or hoplon. This shield was shaped like a large, shallow, wooden bowl - round, convex and 3-3.5 feet in diameter. Bronze plates reinforced the outside, and leather cushioned the inside.

Although the hoplon was quite heavy, weighing up to 30 pounds, its innovative grip facilitated maximum use and mobility. Placed at the edge of the shield rather than in the center, this grip allowed the soldier to brace the shield’s weight against his entire forearm and to use the shield as a bashing weapon, not simply for protection. Shields were always carried on the left arm, and when resting against the shoulder they protected the soldier (and the man to his left) from chin to knees. A skirt of leather was sometimes attached to the lower edge of the shield; this helped protect the legs from arrows. Warriors painted and decorated their own shields, often choosing animals or mythical creatures as their design.

In addition to his shield, a hoplite wore a breastplate, greaves and helmet. The quality of his armor depended on a man’s wealth; upper class warriors opted for expensive bronze breastplates, while those with less money settled for the linothorax, a sturdy cuirass made of layered linen or canvas, sometimes reinforced with bronze scales. Because this equipment was so expensive, a father often passed his armor and weapons to his son.

Bronze helmets were usually of the Corinthian design, although Greek soldiers often chose others, such as those fashioned in the Illyrian design with protective cheek plates. Helmets were often topped with a horsehair crest mounted on a block of wood. Bronze greaves protected a warriors legs.

The main weapon of a hoplite was his doru, or spear. The doru was between seven and nine feet long, topped with an iron spear point, and counterbalanced with a spiked end called a sauroter. The sauroter allowed the warrior to stand the spear on end by driving it into the ground, or to upend the spear and use it as a stab fallen enemies as his phalanx marched over them. A hoplite wielded his spear in combat as a jabbing weapon both under- and overhand, and never threw it. His secondary weapon was a xiphos, or short sword with an iron blade, drawn to use during close combat when the spear became unwieldy.

An entire set of weaponry weighed up to 70 pounds, and was only donned right before battle.

The Phalanx Formation in Combat

The Greek phalanx formation was rectangular in shape and consisted of rows of hoplite warriors, usually eight men deep but ranging up to 50 men deep. Each warrior carried his shield on his left arm, where it provided protection for both himself and for the man to his immediate left. Standing together with their shields overlapping, these men formed a formidable wall, with the front lines supported and propelled forward by pressure from the ranks behind.

Warriors in the first ranks carried their spears level and pointed directly towards the front, while those in the very back rows carried their spears pointed straight upwards. Middle rankers carried their spears in gradually increasing angles. This “hedgehog” shape provided some protection from arrows and javelins raining downwards.

Quarreling city-states with matched phalanxes preferred to meet in set piece battles on level ground (preferably in a long valley that provided natural protection for the flanks.) Opposing Greek phalanxes marched towards each other in orderly fashion, singing battle hymns, with the soldiers dropping into a run in the final yards to meet with a resounding, forceful crash that splintered spears and crushed the front lines together. The military objective was simple and straightforward - break your enemy’s lines, rout them and force them to flee.

As men fell, their comrades in the ranks behind them stepped forward to fill their space. Often dead and dying men in the front lines remained standing, supported by the immense crush of the two straining armies. Phalanx battles often degenerated into a pushing match, with the deeper army usually victorious.

The strengths of the phalanx formation were offset by inevitable weaknesses. Hoplites were disciplined and moved in unison with their fellow soldiers. Fighting together in such close quarters, with each man dependant on the other for protection and support, fostered a sense of camaraderie and trust, for the phalanx was no stronger than the weakest of its warriors.

The wall of shields they presented to the front easily withstood assaults by unorganized, undisciplined attackers. However, because all of the men in the phalanx wielded their shields on the left arm, the right flank was less protected and armies tended to drift right to compensate. The phalanx was vulnerable to flanking maneuvers and attacks from the rear.

In addition, the formation was cumbersome and slow to change direction. Once engaged, a phalanx was committed to the fight and unable to disengage or regroup. Phalanxes were most effective on open, level ground - hilly or forested terrain caused gaps in the ranks that were easily exploited by more mobile armies.

Legacy of the Hoplite and Phalanx

The unified discipline of hoplite warriors proved especially important during the two Persian invasions between 499-448 BC. Although the Greeks were badly outnumbered, their heavily armored and organized phalanxes devastated the light Persian infantry in battles at Marathon (490 BC) and Thermopylae (480 BC).

Philip II of Macedon and his son Alexander the Great both adopted the phalanx formation while adding their own innovations. Macedonian troops used much longer spears, which reduced the tendency for a battle to devolve into a pushing match. Alexander added light cavalry troops and mobile infantry that enabled him to outflank an enemy while his heavily armored phalanx units engaged the center lines. Early Roman armies also adopted the phalanx as their central military unit. Ultimately, the phalanx proved excessively vulnerable to mounted attackers in hilly terrain, and the Roman legion replaced the Greek phalanx as antiquity‘s premier fighting force.

The fundamental principles behind the phalanx - discipline, unity and trust in your fellow soldier - endured.

Hoplites and the Phalanx Formation in Ancient Greek and Athens (2024)
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