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The Athenian hoplite.

[Athenian hoplite]Organization of the Athenian army in the Classical period.

The Athenian army was lead by ten generals known as strategos, who were each year chosen by the people's council. The same people could become strategos year after year, unlike as in many other Greek cities. The problem was that this gave more power in the hands of the strategos, but it also made sure that policy of the city did remained consistent. The strategos were responsible for the security and the defences of the city and the surrounding plains. Below them there was a large military hierarchy. The infantry was commanded by ten taxiarchoi, who had several officers, or lochagoi, under them who led the companies of the army. The cavalry on its turn was commanded by two officers who were called the hiparchen, and they were assisted by ten Phylarchen. Phylarch means as much as chieftain and this reminds us of the social structure of Athens: the population was divided in ten tribes. The recruitment of soldiers was also based on this division in tribes.

The precise strength of the taxeis would vary from expedition to expedition depending on how many the government required the call-up would be up to a certain year, this was called an 'eponymous levy' an expedition requiring the call-up of all age classes was a 'pandemei'. 

At the age of 18 the boys from the rich classes of the hoplites received a training (ephebic) which took two years. They learned how to handle the weapons, but they also learned several tactical manoeuvres and fortification methods. After this they remained liable to military service till the age of 60. However, men younger than 20 or older than 50 could only be used for garrison duties in Attica itself. Pericles estimated the number of hoplites at 13,000 in 431 BC, while 16,000 had garrison duties. Rich citizens who could afford themselves a panoply are also included in the 16,000 people who had garrison duties.

The equipment of a hoplite.

The suit of armour of the Athenian hoplite was hardly any different from the hoplites of other Greek cities. This hoplite (above) is wearing a good suit of Armour, (a panoply) The costs of such a panoply would be very high. That is why the hoplites only consisted of nobility at first. Later on the costs were reduced because new construction techniques were used. This enabled the middle classes to buy a decent panoply. More and more people bought one as it not only improved their chance of survival on the battlefield, but it also raised their social status. At a certain time there were enough hoplites to form a phalanx, and since then was the Greek army superior to any other army for a very long time. The creation of the phalanx not only resulted in military superiority, it also had social effects.

On the head of this hoplite we find a bronze Corinthian style helmet. The Corinthian helmet remained the most commonly used helmet throughout the classical period, but there were many types available. Examples of this are the Chalkidic and Illyrian helmets which were better than the Corinthian type as they gave better protection to the cheeks and neck, and they had openings for the ears so that the orders were heard better. Sculptures always show hoplites with a helmet crest, but know from archaeological studies that it was often not present. 

The body was protected by a cuirass. The most expensive type was the bronze jointed cuirass, but the most common one was a tunic with multiple layers of linen or canvas glued together to form a strong protection. This tunic was often reinforced with small metal plates or bronze rings as we see in the picture. The cuirass itself consisted of a part for the chest, and one for the shoulders. The part for the chest had openings for the arms, and at the bottom there were two rows of plates which were placed like roofing tiles, the so-called wings or pteruges. The cuirass was wrapped around the body and closed at the left side were it was protected by the shield. The part for the shoulders completed the cuirass. Different types were used: the wings which protected the shoulders were shaped differently, or they were removable. This type of cuirass replaced the older type Armour which was shaped like a bell.

In his left hand he is holding the  hoplon, or shield.  Basically it was a wooden bowl which was protected on the outside with bronze plates, while the inside was covered in leather. It was held with a handle for the lower arm and a grip. The part of the shield that rested against the arm was often protected with an additional plate of bronze. The size of the shield resulted in quite a heavy shield: about 8 kilograms. Sometimes a piece of leather was hung at the lower side of the shield to protect the legs of the hoplite for arrows. The hoplites picked the decoration on their shields by themselves, and often drawings of animals or mythological characters were chosen. Here you see the head of a Gorgon, and popular decoration for the shield.

The hoplon was not big enough to cover the legs, that is why they are protected by a pair of bronze greaves, which were shaped in such a way that they followed the muscles in the legs. This had a decorative purpose, but it also reinforced them and now they could be clamped around the legs instead of using straps. In earlier times the warriors also used plates for the thighs, arms and feet but at the time of the Persian wars they were not used anymore as they were to heavy and they decreased the manoeuvrability of the hoplite drastically. The hoplite was very well armoured nevertheless.

The main weapon was the long spear, which could vary in length from 7 to 9 feet. The iron point has a bronze counterbalance, for a better balance, but it also could be used during an attack. The spear was normally drilled over arm, and the grasp was entwined with a leather strap for better grip. The spear was not thrown as was the case with the spears in the time of Homer: they were only used for thrusting. The second weapon was a short sword, which was carried around in a wooden scabbard which was wrapped in leather. The blade of such a sword was made from iron and around the 60 centimetres long, while the remaining parts were normally constructed of bronze. It was used for cutting as well for thrusting.

Other Greek infantry types


The Peltast  derived his name from his shield, the pelta, which was regarded by the Greeks as a specifically Thracian attribute. A descriptions of the Pelta by Aristotle is as follows - "the pelte was smaller and lighter than the hoplite shield, it lacked a rim or any kind of bronze facing and was merely covered with skin of a sheep or a goat". Arrian says that the category of the Peltast lies somewhere between the light-armed and the hoplite, being inferior in armour to the hoplite but superior to the light troops carrying no shields. This description applies to both the Classical and Hellenistic Periods. We here their use mentioned in the Peloponnesian War when Demosthenes' Athenian hoplites were cut to pieces in the mountains by the Aetolians but only after their supporting archers had used all their arrows. At other times were hoplites without support were defeated by peltasts alone or as a combined force with hoplites as in Chalcidice in 429 BC and at Sphacteria in 425 BC. Demosthenes recruited 1,300 Thracian peltasts for his Sicilian campaign. Brasidas also used them successfully in his campaign in the north. It was the post war period that saw a hoplite/peltast/cavalry army using co-ordinated tactics previously planned, and it was this co-ordination that successfully brought the 'Ten Thousand' to safety. It was a co-operation which had to be built on as they fought and marched. This successful use of peltasts was a lesson to be built on and a further development of the tactics used in the Peloponnesian War.

Iphicrates  is regarded as the reformer who made the peltast a dominating military factor. Iphicrates' peltasts were probably the mercenary contingent which Pharnabazos and Conon brought from the Hellespont to Greece in 393 BC. The tactics used by Iphicrates were similar to those used by the Aetolians against Demosthenes and which were later adopted by the latter with equal success. It is as a result of  these successes that the appearance of peltasts in all armies especially in the Athenian during the next half century can be seen. Peltasts now start to replace the less specific  varieties of light infantry. The increasing use of peltasts over time was rather at the expense of citizen hoplites rather than in addition to them, hence they later replace hoplites rather than supplement them, economic conditions and the cost of a hoplite panoply being factors in this. Their numbers could be considerable, and some smaller forces after the end of the Peloponnesian war seem to have been almost entirely without hoplites.  A force of 500 Argive peltasts were given heavy armour while serving in the expedition to Samos in 411 BC (Thucydides 8.25). A few similar men were also used in the Sicilian expedition (Thucydides, 6.100).

Iphicrates is noted as carrying out his reforms after he arrived back in Greece having served in Persia (374 BC).  When Iphicrates returned to Greece, his first appointment was in the navy. Both Nepos and Diodoros) say that it was hoplites, not peltasts, who were re-equipped. Since the one place were hoplites regularly served in Greek forces were their heavy shields were a handicap is on board ship, it seems likely that it was the Athenian marines who were reformed. This also fits in with the abandoning of greaves (since ships have bulwarks to protect the lower legs, making greaves superfluous), and the longer spears introduced have obvious advantages in ship to ship fighting. Iphicrates' peltasts were probably soon re-equipped in a similar manner, and that this fashion then spread to all Greek states.


From about the middle of the 5th century BC the appearance of ekdromoi (runner outs) in Greek armies was probably a result of contact with Thracians. Ekdromoi were young, physically fit warriors that were instructed to run out and prevent Thracian peltasts from harassing Greek formation and were recruited from the first 10 or 15 year age classes. Consequently, ekdromoi had to give up some of their heavy armour to gain manoeuvrability retaining just the hoplon and the helmet, and possibly a thicker tunic. Towards the end of the century this lightened equipment probably spread to the whole hoplite phalanx  in its use as increased contact with light troops was met. This trend then was reversed in the mid 4th century with the adoption of longer pikes and more rigid formations for the line infantry.


Athens formed its own body of Epilektoi, specially picked and trained hoplites, sometime before 350 BC organised on a tribal basis. After the defeat of the Greeks at Chaeronea, Athens introduced a compulsory military training programme. Citizen morale was poor after this time, since Athens was no longer a world power, and it was also usually a much narrower democracy than before, so that civic patriotism was wearing rather thin. As a consequence, mercenaries were now Athens's normal instrument of land power, along with the Epilektoi. Those citizens that still clung to democratic ideals were also the most rash. Before the ephebic reform (reform in recruitment) at Athens in 335 BC, the Athenian infantryman or hoplite was expected to provide his own 'panoply' (assemblage of arms and armour). The reform, spurred by defeat at the hands of the Macedonians at Chaeronea in 358, introduced large numbers of 'thetes' (the Athenian poor) into the hoplite ranks for the first time, which inaugurated the practice of state issue of shields and spears. The ephebic system had only a limited utility, since after the Lamian war, the enfranchised citizen body to which it applied was much smaller than before (a mere 9,000 men), and the system was abandoned around the start of the 3rd century BC, after which time the number of members dwindled away. Athens could only send 1,000 Epilektoi to aid the Aetolians against the Galatians invasion in 278.

 In the year 421, the Argives selected a thousand of their younger, rich citizens, with better physical training and condition, and allowed them to be free of other public duties. They maintained them at the public expense so that they could dedicate themselves to continuous training and military exercises. They assumed that  only having their own force  trained permanently would  they be able to challenge the  supremacy of the Lacedaemonians at war.  "The Thousand", to who Diodoros (12,75, 79, 80) calls  epilektoi  or "selected troops", were used in the first battle of Mantinea in  418. After the defeat of the Argives in this battle, "the Thousand"  agreed to dissolve the democracy and to assume the positions of power. This government lasted only eight months.  Although the term epilektoi is used widely by some historians, especially by Diodoros, in a strict sense epilektoi means "selected" citizens, who are maintained at the expense of the state so that they are committed permanently to military training. Epilektoi were more common  in the 4th century, but having a standing army was also a constant danger for the governors that a body of armed citizens, maintained permanently, could take possession of power, since there would be little trained opposition to oppose them. 

 In 370 an Arcadian League was formed under Theban protection as a counterweight to Sparta, and Mantinea was restored as a city after having been broken up into 5 villages by Agesipolis of Sparta in 385. The Arcadians founded Megalopolis as a federal capital In the following year. The government of the Arcadian League consisted of a general assembly (the Ten Thousand), made up of all freeborn citizens, with sovereignty in matters of war and peace. A council of damiurgoi  gave proportional representation to the member cities, and a college of generals (strategoi) served as a civil and military executive. A standing mercenary army (eparitoi, Arcadian for epilektoi?) was set up. There was no shortage of available manpower as Arcadians had always constituted the most numerous of Greek mercenaries.  Diodorus' gives a figure of 5,000 for the membership of the Eparitoi, the federal standing army: Although this poses the question of the difficulty of paying for such a large permanent force.

Xenophon mentions two forces of picked troops raised by the Eleans. A body of 300 raised by the oligarchic party and a force of 400 raised by the democrats in the 360's.

The most famous of the picked troops in this period was the Theban 'Sacred Band'. The Sacred Band of Thebes was an elite troop of 150 pairs of 'lovers' formed by Gorgidas in 385 and maintained at the states expense as the city band in the Cadmeia. Gorgidas initially distributed the Sacred Band of Thebes throughout his battle lines as an elite to strengthen the others' resolve, but later Pelopidas, after the Band had fought successfully at Tegyra in 375 BC, used it as a sort of shock force. In 338 BC the Theban 'Sacred Band' was wiped out at Chaeronea.