Ancient Greek Hoplite Shields
6th Grade History Class – 2/27/14
Each City-State maintained an army of citizen soldiers who served in the army only when called upon. After basic training (usually between the ages of 18-20) these citizens worked as farmers, merchants, and craftsmen. They were not professional soldiers, however, because the Greek City-States were constantly fighting with each other, many of these citizen soldiers served with the army for a few months every year.
Each citizen was expected to provide his own armor and weapons, which could be quite expensive. The cost of the full panoply for a foot soldier was about the same as the price of a modern automobile. Thus the very rich would serve as cavalry (because they could afford the cost of a horse) while poor citizens would serve as light infantry (with simple weapons and little or no armor). It was the middle class, citizens just like your parents, who formed the backbone of the army – the heavy infantry called Hoplites.
The word hoplite comes from the word hoplon, which is the name for the soldier’s distinctive shield. (The word hoplon also refers to the hoplite’s complete panoply of armor & weapons).
The Hoplite’s shield was 3 feet in diameter and weighed from 15 to 20 pounds!
It was made of wood covered in bronze with the inner side covered in leather. The arm and handgrips were made of leather reinforced with bronze. The shield was carried on the left arm and protected the hoplite’s left side as well as the right side of his neighbor. So it was then that each hoplite depended upon his fellow soldiers for protection.
The Hoplite also wore a bronze helmet, often with a horsehair crest to make the Hoplite appear taller, and greaves made of bronze to protect his legs. Over his body he wore a cuirass made of linen or leather sometimes reinforced with bronze scales. The very rich could afford armor made of bronze or brass, but the linen cuirass (called a linothorax) was favored by the hoplites because of its lightweight and easy maneuverability.
Although the Hoplite was well armed with a thrusting spear (6-8 feet long) and a sword (about 2’ long) there was a problem. These weapons were, generally speaking, not strong enough to penetrate a Hoplite’s shield. Thus most battles between hoplites became a shoving match, much like a modern day rugby scrum – the first formation to fall apart or to be knocked over lost the battle. Most soldiers did not die in the battle itself, but were killed when they broke ranks and retreated.
Unlike his fellow Greeks, the Spartan Hoplite was a professional soldier – all he ever did, throughout his entire life from the age of 7 until he was 60, was train for war. Although armed like other Hoplites, the Spartan did have two very distinctive items: his red tunic and cape.
What set the Spartan Hoplite apart from those of the other City States was his superior training and discipline. The Spartans did sometimes lose a battle and on very rare occasions they did retreat, but their reputation as formidable soldiers was well earned. At Thermopylae, the Spartans did hold their ground and fought to the death.
The Persian Immortals
By contrast, consider the Persian Immortals. Like the Spartan Hoplites, the Immortals were professional soldiers who spent their days training for war. During times of peace the Immortals were the King’s bodyguard, while on campaign they were the elite backbone of the entire Persian army.
This sculptural freeze from the royal palace at Susa shows the Immortals in their parade uniforms richly adorned with silver, gold and precious stones. Each Immortal was armed with a bow & arrows, a short sword and a thrusting spear with a counter weight of sliver (gold for officers). There is no doubt that the Immortals looked impressive on parade.
Were they really immortal?
No, not exactly. They were called ‘The Immortals’ because whenever they suffered casualties those soldiers were immediately replaced so that there were always 10,000 soldiers on duty. The Greek historian Herodotus was the first to use the title ‘Immortals’ but it is possible he confused the Persian word for Companions with that for Immortals.
(See Jona Lendering’s excellent website for details http://www.livius.org/ia-in/immortals/immortals.html )
How did they compare to the Hoplites in battle?
The Immortals were professional soldiers, well trained and highly motivated. They always displayed great courage and steadfast discipline as did their officers. They were good soldiers, however …
The Immortals were ill equipped for fighting against the Hoplites.
Their arrows were ineffective against the Hoplite’s armor and although their spear points were made of iron, they could not penetrate the bronze shields of the Hoplites. The Immortals did wear scale armor underneath their tunic, but unlike the Hoplites they had no protection for their legs. Instead of bronze helmets the Immortals wore a cloth cap.
As for their shields, the Immortals carried shields made of wicker and covered in animal hide. These were lightweight and easy to handle but offered little protection against the heavy weapons of the Greeks.
Now About Those Hoplite Shields …
The Hoplites often decorated their shields with images and symbols that held a special meaning to them. Some cities, like Sparta, used the same symbol on all their shields, while others displayed a wide range of images taken from mythology or nature.
As you can see from these examples mythical creatures like the Cyclopes, Medusa and Pegasus were very popular. So too were animals like the dolphin, octopus, horse and bull. Some hoplites favored geometric patterns while others used the image of a ship or a soldier.
Design your own Hoplite shield. You may use a classical image from mythology or something more modern. The choice is your, but it should be an image that has a special meaning to you. Perhaps something from your family history (where you were born) or an item you really like (a family pet or your favorite hero). The design and colors are totally up to you. However …
Be prepared to explain your shield and its meaning.
This assignment is due at the beginning of the next class and you may be called upon to explain your shield’s meaning to the rest of the class.
Sources, Further Reading and Links of Interest
Warfare In The Classical World by John Warry, ©1980 ISBN: 0-312-85614-8
Greece And Rome At War by Peter Connolly, ©1981 ISBN:0-13-364976-8
The Spartans by Nicholas V Sekunda, ©1998 ISBN:1-85532-948-4
Ancient Greece by Anne Pearson, ©1992 ISBN: 0-7894-5724-4
The Greeks by Susan Peach & Anne Millard, ©1990 ISBN: 0-7460-0342-0
Thermopylae The Battle For The West by Ernle Bradford, ©1980 ISBN: 0-306-80531-6
Hoplite Shield Construction http://larp.com/hoplite/hoplon.html
The Hoplite / Hoplon Controversy http://ancienthistory.about.com/od/greekweapons/g/Hoplite.htm
Hoplite in the Ancient History Encyclopedia http://www.ancient.eu.com/hoplite/
The Immortals & Spartans http://www.300spartanwarriors.com/battleofthermopylae/theimmortals.html
The Immortals or The Companions http://www.livius.org/ia-in/immortals/immortals.html
One of the very best websites for Ancient history and in particular Ancient Persia is Livius created by Dutch Historian Jona Lendering. His command of the ancient sources is remarkable and his analysis always insightful. His web site should be your ‘go to’ source on the internet.