Hoplite Arms and Armor
Jonathan Zimmel and Todd Girard
Once the decision was made to fight head-on at close quarters, as opposed to throwing objects or fighting from horseback, body armor became a necessity. The typical Greek fighter was a heavy-armed infantryman called a "hoplite" from the most distinctive piece of his body armor, the large round shield, or hoplon. All males between the ages of eighteen and sixty who were physically able were expected to render military service whenever the need arose. Those wealthy enough to raise horses served in the cavalry, those too poor to provide their own arms and armor served in auxiliary capacities (rock throwers, archers, etc.), but most ordinary folk owned their own armor and served as hoplites in a mass formation called the phalanx. The arms and armor of a hoplite consisted primarily of a shield, helmet, greaves, breastplate, and spear, as seen in this photo of a modern re-enactor.
The shield was the most important defensive armament. It was round in shape, concave, and made of wood. The diameter of the shield often exceeded three feet, but the exact size depended on the strength and arm length on its wearer. The shield was one to one and a half inches thick, and typically weighed approximately sixteen pounds. The shield was very concave, with the lip in some cases approaching a ninety-degree angle. This curvature allowed the wearer to rest the upper lip of the shield on his left shoulder. Most early shields had a bronze strip around the edge to prevent splintering and rotting, but later on the shield's entire exterior surface was covered with a thin bronze sheet.
The shield had distinctive arm and hand straps (porpax and antilabe) near its center and right edge. These straps distributed the weight of the shield evenly to the entire left arm instead of just to the left wrist and hand. The carrier was expected to hold the shield waist high with the elbow bent and the forearm parallel to the ground. (The average wearer was only five and a half feet tall, and so the shield had to be held up or else it would drag.) This somewhat awkward position dictated by the shield severely altered the balance of the wearer and impaired body movement.
The shape of the shield suggests that it was designed for pushing ahead (othismos). It also left the right side of the body vulnerable, and the hoplite had to depend on the fighter to his right for protection on this side. It was thus essential that hoplites fight in formation, each man protecting the otherwise exposed right flank of the man to his left.
Because of the size and shape of shields, severe winds could sometimes pull them from the arms of their wearers. Finally, shields often shattered upon impact, especially on the front lines during the initial attack.
The most common helmet was the "Corinthian Helmet." which covered the head as well as most of the neck, extending down to the collarbone. As the helmet evolved, cheek pieces and nose guards swept forward to such a degree that they nearly met in the center of the face, and the eyes, nose, and mouth were virtually enclosed. These helmets weighed approximately five pounds.
The helmet was extremely uncomfortable and impaired the vision and hearing of the wearer. For obvious reasons it also eliminated the option of nighttime attacks. The helmet was also not molded to the wearer's head, and so could slide up and down as well as turn sideways, resulting in complete loss of vision. Moreover, the heat generated in the facial area was a major problem because day-time summer temperatures in Greece typically exceeded ninety degrees.
There was no interior suspension system within the helmet to absorb shock; therefore, direct blows could still kill a man wearing a helmet. Some helmets had crests on top of them, which provided defense against falling spears and blows to the top of the head, and which also made the wearer taller and therefore fiercer in their opponents’ eyes. However, the crest could be grabbed, and added to the discomfort of the helmet's wearer. In fact, a majority of paintings on vases show the helmet propped up on the head. The helmet was only lowered at the last moment before collision. This indicates the amount of discomfort it caused when lowered.
The shield did not cover the lower legs, leaving them vulnerable to minor injuries. Therefore, the shins and calves were covered by greaves. Greaves are sheets of bronze extending from the kneecap to the ankle. The two edges nearly met at the back of the calf muscle. The snugness and elasticity of the bronze kept them on the wearer. The greaves were thin and unlike the other accessories did not add much weight to the wearer. The greaves needed to be re-bent in order for them to stay on, which was troublesome. Later on, greaves were affixed using straps, which suggests the elastic ones were not completely successful.
The most common breastplate was the simply designed bell corselet. The front and back had sheets of bronze, which were connected at the shoulders. Above the hip socket, the armor curved outward giving it the bell shape which allowed for movement of the hips. However, it was still difficult to move wearing the breastplate, and the wearer needed assistance in putting it on. The breastplate had to fit exactly to be of any benefit at all. If it were too loose it weighed down on the shoulders, and it were too tight it restricted movement. The biggest problem with the breastplate was the weight of the bronze. Breastplates weighed anywhere from thirty to forty pounds. The breastplate accounted for half of the weight the wearer carried. There was also a lack of ventilation, and severe perspiration, which was a major problem. Many men collapsed due to dehydration. Paradoxically the breastplate had another problem, precipitation, which lead to water being retained by the breastplate, causing the wearer to feel cold and become ill.
Sometimes instead of a metal breastplate the Greeks wore body armor made of layers of stiffened linen glued together. The closely woven layers of fabric did a good job resisting a spear’s penetration, and the outfit weighed considerably less than a metal corselet (modern reconstruction). For a further discussion of the linen thorax see this link (optional).
The spear was used as a thrusting instrument rather than as a thrown missile. The use of the thrusting spear indicates the Greeks' desire to approach the enemy at close quarters. The spear was heavy, considering only the right hand was used in holding it. Spears measured six to eight feet in length, but only an inch in diameter. A typical spear weighed between two and four pounds. The spear's shaft was made from cornel or ash wood, with an iron spearhead, and a bronze butt spike on the opposite end. The iron spearheads were socketed and were further secured to the shaft by rivets. There was no standard spearhead but a narrow leaf shaped blade with a strong central rib was common. The spearhead ranged from eight inches to over one foot in length.
While approaching the enemy the spear was held in an underhand position, but once in close quarters the spear was held in an overhand position for downward striking. There were several disadvantages to the spear. Because of its small diameter spears often shattered (although the butt spike could still be used on an otherwise shattered spear). Also, in massed formations moving the spear was difficult and often resulted in accidental injuries to one's fellow soldiers on the same line. Finally, after piercing an enemy's armor it was not always easy to retrieve one's spear for future use. In case they lost their spear the only secondary weapon that the hoplites carried was the short sword, which was was useful to some degree as a defensive weapon, but as an offensive weapon was not as effective.