During the classical period of Greece the main military power of the greek city-states laid in the Hoplites. But what is a hoplite, which requirements did you have to meet to qualify as a hoplite? And how did Hoplites train for battle?
All these questions will be explained in the following article.
From the 7th to the 4th century BC Hoplites were the heavily armored greek infantrymen. The Hoplites were named after their shield, the Hoplon. In most greek city-states outside of Sparta hoplites were (unpaid) militiamen, not professional soldiers.
What is a Hoplite?
A Hoplite was a heavily armored Infantryman.
The Hoplite was named after the most important part of his equipment, the shield. That large round shield, the so-called hoplon, was highly important for the phalanx, the system the Hoplites fought in.
Click here for further information in my article on how the phalanx actually worked and why it was so effective.
Apart from the Hoplon the Hoplite also carried a variety of other weapons and armor that made him capable of defeating numerically superior hostile armies.
The origin of the Hoplites is closely linked to the idea of the polis, a Greek city-state that was formed and ruled by its free citizens.
During the time of the Persian wars, click here to read my article on what started the persian wars, there were somewhere between 700 and 1000 city-states (Poleis).
Some were ruled as Democracies, some as Tyrannies, and some as Oligarchies. But all of them had one important similarity. In order to be a full citizen of the Greek polis, you had to serve in the military.
Now the military of the ancient greek city-states was quite different from our modern military, Sparta being the exception. More information on that here in my article.
In the city-states apart from Sparta the military, including the hoplites, consisted of Militiamen. That means the men who would go to war were not professional soldiers.
They were farmers, craftsmen, and aristocrats who could afford to pay for all of the equipment a Hoplite needed.
As a direct consequence of Hoplites being militiamen war in ancient Greece was usually limited to the early summer, Sparta once again being the exception. The reason for that was that the farmers who made up a large amount of the Hoplites had to be home at their farms for sowing in spring and harvesting in late summer/early fall.
Due to its social structure, Sparta on the other hand did not have these kinds of temporal limitations. Click here to read my article on how the social structure of Sparta made it possible for the hoplites to also fight during the summer.
The financial burden of buying all the equipment obviously limited the number of Holites to the wealthy citizens of the polis.
However, the less wealthy men could either join the lighter armored troops or the navy.
The possibility for poor citizens to serve in the navy was a key step in the democratization of Athens since it allowed men without the necassary wealth for service as Hoplites to take part in the wars of their city states. That legitimated their political say.
Who could be a Hoplite?
So I just argued that a Hoplite had to pay for his own armor. But were there any other requirements for being a Hoplite? Actually no.
Being a citizen of the city-state and the possibility of being able to afford the armor and weapons of a Hoplite (and to provide for himself during a campaign) was the only requirement for becoming a Hoplite in most greek city-states.
But the burden of paying for the own equipment was already tall enough to exclude a large part of the male population.
In Addition, to that, the burden was increased by the fact that Hoplites usually did not get paid.
Sure, after a battle one might be able to plunder a bit. But the material profit was extremely limited. Especially since Hoplites were expected to provide for themselves during a campaign.
So the men were not only burdened with the costs of the equipment but they were also burdened with a loss of work time that wasn`t balanced by pay for their military service.
By the way, centuries later early Rome (more on how Rome was really founded here in my article) adopted the Hoplites. And the mentioned problems brought the roman republic into serious trouble.
Athens as the city-state with the highest population had approximately 50.000 male citizens.
The ancient greek writer and Historian Thucydides, living from around 460 to 400 BC in Athens, claimed that in the year 431 BC only a maximum of 13.000 men (of the mentioned athenain 50.000 male citizens) were monetarily and physically fit for fighting as a Hoplite.
The age of the Holites greatly varied. There were some Hoplites even under 20 years old and some around 60 years old. Remember, being a Hoplite was actually seen as an achievement one could be proud of. So it seems realistic that even older men tried to remain active hoplites as long as their health allowed it.
Now since the Hoplites were basically only part-time soldiers one might ask how they prepared and trained for war.
How did Hoplites train?
The answer is that they didn`t train for war. At least not according to our modern-day understanding of military training.
Since most Hoplites were Farmers one can imagine that due to the daily hard work on the fields they were in excellent physical shape. Aristocrats on the other hand dedicated a lot of their time to hunting which also improved their physical condition.
Except for Sparta Hoplites were not obliged to train the actual use of weapons or the advancing in formations. Their military training mostly consisted of weapon dances.
That lack of proper training was also a reason why the phalanx was chosen as the battle formation. Due to its organization one did not have to be particularly brave or skilled in combat.
Click here to read my article where I go into depth about how a phalanx works and why it’s such an effective formation.
What if you could not afford the armor of a hoplite?
If you as a citizen of your polis had some money but not enough to buy the necessary equipment for serving in the phalanx you could be a part of the lightly armed infantry.
These men, armed with javelins, slingshots, and bow and arrows would try to disrupt the opposing phalanx with their missiles.
In my article here you can read more on how these lightly armed men would be integrated into warfare that was specialized on the use of the phalanx.
I hope you enjoyed our trip to ancient Greece.
Take care of yourself because you deserve it. You really do.
Until next time
P. Bardunias, F. Ray Jr., Hoplites at War. A Comprehensive Analysis of Heavy Infantry Combat in the Greek World, 750-100 BC (2016).
L. Burckhardt, Militärgeschichte der Antike (2008).