In the times of the Spartans and Athenians, warfare was very common. There was constantly someone who wanted more power, so there were many wars and battles over land, people, and power. For some of the civilizations, like Sparta, war was everything; even a way of life. One might ask, how did these people in ancient times do battle then? Of course it is nothing like to day. There were no guns, no technology, and certainly no aircrafts. So, in this post today, I will answer this question of how these people fought. I am going to also talk specifically about the organization of these groups and what each member of the army did.
First off, the armies were split up into three main categories: the armed men on foot, the cavalry, and the special forces. The special forces consisted of spear throwers, archers, and even elephant riders. The cavalry were armed men on horseback whose main purpose was often to shape the battlefield. But the group I want to focus on mainly is the armed soldiers on foot.
There were three main types of soldiers: the hoplites, the phalanx, and the helots. The helots were the most basic form of soldier and were most commonly known as the peasants or servants. These soldiers were only armed with simple weapons and armor, generally farming tools and other cheap types of weaponry. The most commonly type of soldier used by all of the ancient civilizations was the Hoplite. The hoplite was a heavy infantry unit, armed with a shield called a Hoplon, helmet, breastplate, greaves, spear, and sword. The Hoplon “was round, wide (three feet in diameter), heavy (about 16 pounds), and deeply concave on the inside” (Sacks 117). It was made out of wood reinforced with bronze. The shield was very heavy and hard to hold up for long periods of time. In battle, the shield was the first thing to usually be cast aside when either retreating or chasing the enemy’s forces, as it is heavy and cumbersome. But, for the Spartans, keeping their shield meant keeping their honor, so many did not throw away their shields.
The hoplite was the main force in most armies and took up the majority of the population. Some people even ruled with just an army of hoplites. For example, Around 375 BCE, Jason of Pherai, a powerful man who sought to take control of Thessaly, became tagos, or ruler, over all of Thessaly. When he became tagos, “he assessed how many horsemen and hoplites each city of Thessaly was able to contribute, and he found that he had in all more than 8,000 cavalry and more than 20,000 hoplites. His peltasts were sufficiently numerous to array against those of the whole world – indeed, it would be a difficult task simply to list the cities that furnished them” (Strassler 225). With his great army, he marched through Phocis and destroyed the wall of Herakleia; on his return to Thessaly he is the greatest man in Greece. From fear of Jason becoming tyrannical and too powerful, 7 young men assassinated him.
The other main unit in the army was the phalanx. The phalanx was “the body of Greek heavy-armed infantrymen deployed in lines that usually takes the center of the battlefield and plays the most relevant role in combat” (Fernando 304). The phalanx consisted of rows of men, sometimes up to a few hundred, who all had long spears and shields strapped to their shoulder. They would then march forward towards the enemy troops. The phalanx could be “drawn up in open order with two paces per man or doubled up to form close order” (Connolly 37). An Argive shield was strapped to the left shoulder. In close order, the shield was wide enough to offer protection to the unguarded side of the man on the left.
Connolly, Peter. Greece and Rome at War. Great Britain: Frontline Books, 2012. Print.
Echeverría, Fernando. “Hoplite and Phalanx in Archaic and Classical Greece: A Reassessment.” Classical Philology: Vol. 107, No. 4 (October 2012): pp. 291-318. JSTOR. Web. 2 Feb. 2014.
Sacks, David. A Dictionary of the Ancient Greek World. New York: Oxford University Press, 1995. Print.
Shumate, Johnny. Ancient Greece Hoplite with his Hoplon and Dory. 2006. Wikimedia Commons. Wikimedia Foundation. Web. 17 November 2006.
Strassler, Robert. The Landmark Xenophon’s Hellenika. New York: Pantheon Books, 2009. Print.