Before the hoplite phalanx
In the Bronze Age, and in the early part of the Archaic period, Greek soldiers fought their battles the same way most other soldiers did in the Mediterranean and West Asia. They learned to fight as individuals. Some rich men fought in horse-drawn chariots.
Most men fought on foot, carrying a spear and a shield, or a bow and arrow. The shields were made of wood. They had decorations painted on them to show who you were. Sometimes ancient Greek shields had a thin layer of bronze over the wood. When a battle started, the soldiers ran towards each other independently and chose someone to fight.
New kinds of Greek soldiers
About 650 BC, Greek generals in various different city-states came up with a new way of fighting battles that gave Greek soldiers of the Archaic period a big advantage over the soldiers of other countries like Egypt or the Lydians.
Instead of fighting all in a big crowd, running forward and just trying to get at the enemy any which way, Greek generals trained their soldiers to fight in lines, shoulder to shoulder.
In this way each man (Greek men didn’t let women be soldiers) was protected by the shield of the man standing next to him. When they all marched forward together, no enemy spears or arrows could get through their wall of shields. If the people you were fighting were still using the old methods, you could win most of your battles. And you could win battles even when there were a lot more of them than there were of you.
The Greek hoplite phalanx
Greek people called a soldier who fought this way a hoplite (HOP-light), and they called a group of soldiers who fought this way a hoplite phalanx (FAY-lanks).A hoplite phalanx was a very strong military formation – but it only worked if all the soldiers were well trained, and if they were all brave enough to hold the line.
A short video explaining the Greek hoplite phalanx
If anyone started to run away, the whole line would fall apart, and it wouldn’t work. Or, if some men went slower than others, or got out of step, it wouldn’t work. So hoplites needed to spend a lot of time training, just the way people today train to be in a marching band.
Like a marching band, Greek hoplite soldiers had to learn to all walk forward at the same speed, staying together – even when the enemy was shooting arrows at them and piercing them with spears! They had to learn to turn right or left all together, too, without messing up the shield wall that protected them. Musicians walked alongside the soldiers, playing drums or pipes to help keep the men in step with each other.
Greek hoplites win the Persian Wars
The first big war where the Greeks had a chance to really try out the hoplite phalanx was when the Persians invaded Greece in 490 BC. They were pretty nervous about it. These were the Persians! They had a great army that had already defeated lots of other armies! Would the new hoplite phalanx even work against the Persian army?
But at the Battle of Marathon, facing the Persian army, the Athenians stuck to their training, and they did win the battle! That showed that a well-trained hoplite phalanx could beat even very experienced, highly trained Persian soldiers who were still fighting in the old way. Hoplite warfare really worked!
Did you learn what you wanted to about Greek soldiers and the Greek hoplite phalanx? Let us know in the comments!
Learn by doing: a Greek shield
Greek hoplites and democracy
And more about the Persian Wars
More about the Peloponnesian War
Greek Hoplite (Soldier Through the Ages), by Martin Windrow (1985). , from Scholastic.
Greek Hoplite 480-323 BC, by Nicholas Sekunda (2000). From Britain. A good first guide, useful for painting models or illustrating reports.
Warfare in the Classical World: An Illustrated Encyclopedia of Weapons, Warriors and Warfare in the Ancient Civilisations of Greece and Rome, by John Warry. Lots of pictures, and not too much text.
Greece and Rome at War, by Peter Connolly (1998). Not too hard.
Hoplites: The Classical Greek Battle Experience, edited by Victor Davis Hanson (reprinted 1993). Essays by different specialists, more or less accessible to interested and confident readers. The writers don’t discuss strategy and tactics so much as the experience of the actual individual soldier.