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Corinthian helmet from the 600s BC: Greek hoplites and democracy

Greek hoplites and democracy – a Corinthian helmet from the 600s BC

Hoplites needed armor

When the Greek city-states turned to this new hoplite way of fighting, it meant that each man had to have the right armor. Nobody could fight without a shield, and a helmet, and all that. So you could only be a soldier if you could afford the hoplite armor.

Hoplite soldiers and the phalanx
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Hoplite armor was expensive

The bronze and leather armor was pretty expensive, and the expense kept a lot of poor men from being in the army. But it made each of the men who were still in the army very important – one weak link, and the whole chain would break and the battle would be lost.

History of leather
What is bronze?

Hoplites and democracy

Some people think that this new emphasis on the importance of each ordinary soldier (instead of just the rich, powerful heroes of the Iliad) helped democracy to develop in Greece.

What is democracy?
Democracy in Athens
And in Corinth

These men knew the city-state needed them to fight, so they started to demand a vote in what wars they were going to fight in. Athens  and Corinth both became more democratic about this time.

On the other hand, there were plenty of Greek city-states where the army was made up of hoplites, and yet they never got a democratic government.

What is a city-state?
Classical Sparta
What about Thebes?

Sparta, for example, had a famous hoplite army, but they always had kings and not a democracy. And in Thebes, they kept their oligarchy until the 300s BC. In Athens, too, the shift to democracy also meant that about half the population was enslaved. Women and children and immigrants couldn’t vote either. So it’s not clear that’s a democracy.

What is an oligarchy?
Slavery in ancient Greece
Women in ancient Greece

Greaves (leg armor) from ancient Greece

Greaves (leg armor) from ancient Greece

Mercenary soldiers

In addition, the hoplite phalanx made Greek soldiers very good fighters, so that richer countries, like Lydia, the Persian Empire, and Egypt, wanted to hire them as mercenaries for the next several hundred years.

Mercenary soldiers
The Lydians
Egypt under the Persians
The Persian Empire

Those well-paid soldiers brought a lot of money back to Greece. These same hoplite tactics helped the Greeks to fight off those same Persians during the Persian Wars.

The Persian Wars

Red-figure vase with a hoplite in armor (about 450 BC)

Red-figure vase with a Greek hoplite in armor (about 450 BC)

Hoplites and the Roman army

And it was more or less the same hoplite tactics, when the Roman army used them, that helped the Romans to put together the Roman empire – and eventually defeat the Greeks.

Roman army

Did you find out what you wanted to know about the relationship between Greek hoplites and democracy? Let us know in the comments!

Learn by doing: make a Spartan shield
More about Greek warfare

Bibliography and further reading about Greek hoplites:

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.

More about Greek warfare
And more about Greek warships
More about Greek democracy
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