By Professor Daniel Moran
Last updated 2011-02-17
Hoplites acquired their name from their round wooden shield, the hoplon. This shield, together with a brass helmet, breastplate, greaves, a nine-foot spear designed for thrusting, and a short iron sword as a reserve weapon, constituted the hoplite's panoply (his complete armour and weaponry). Membership in the phalanx was confined to those male inhabitants of a city who could afford such relatively elaborate equipment.
Prior to the advent of the phalanx, ancient warfare featured individual combat between aristocratic champions on the one hand, and mass confrontations between loosely-organised mobs on the other. Compared to these immemorial methods, the advantages afforded by the phalanx were partly psychological.
Hoplites advanced shoulder-to-shoulder in tight columns that were normally eight rows deep, a formation that was both reassuring to its members and intimidating to those awaiting its approach. Such a mass could move at no more than a moderate walking pace - the illustration on the jug includes a piper, who helped the warriors keep in step - but even so an advancing phalanx could deliver a considerable shock, sufficient to shatter a less rigorously organised opponent.
Given that only the first one or two rows of hoplites could have hoped to employ their weapons, combat between opposing phalanxes must have amounted to highly ritualised, intensely lethal shoving matches, in which those in the front ranks were pushed forward by their comrades in the rear.
In such circumstances the skill and bravery of individuals would have counted for less than the discipline of the group. The phalanx was thus a natural military expression of the democratic ethos of the Greek cities. Its cohesion and strength were rooted in, and gave form to, the communal values and civic equality of its citizen-soldiers.
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