Ancient History & Civilisation


The Arms, Armor, and Iconography of Early Greek Hoplite Warfare

The Greek Hoplite (c. 700–500 BC)

Although elements of the bronze panoply associated with the classical hoplite began to appear in the late eighth century, what set the hoplite apart from his predecessors was above all his distinctive heavy wooden shield with a double handle, which is first attested circa 700 BC (see below, fig. 2-4). This date may therefore be regarded as the beginning of the hoplite era. A great deal of the debate about the origins of the classical phalanx centers on what the adoption of this type of shield might imply about the nature of hoplite fighting and battle formations.

The Hoplite Shield

The simple scene of combat shown in figure 2-1 is representative of a very common type in archaic vase painting. It is a scene from heroic legend—explicitly identified by captions as Menelaus facing Hector over the dead body of Euphorbus (described in the Iliad17.1–113)—but the combatants are equipped with the panoply of the contemporary hoplite. It is included here primarily to illustrate the nature of the double grip of the hoplite shield, as shown on the figure on the left: the shield has a central metal armband (theporpax), through which the bearer thrust his left forearm up to the elbow, and a hand grip (antilabe), at the rim of the shield, that he grasped with his left hand.

It is worth noting that in archaic art the hoplite shield is almost always shown in scenes like this, used by combatants who are “dueling” or otherwise engaging in what looks like combat in a quite open order, rather than in a regular, close formation of the classical type. On a view widely adopted since the study of Lorimer, all such images show a combination of contemporary arms and armor with unrealistic “heroic” combat tactics. Alternatively, it could be argued that early hoplite tactics were not yet like those of the classical phalanx and that both the equipment and the manner of fighting shown on the vases may reflect contemporary reality.

The common view is that the double-grip hoplite shield could be effectively employed only in a dense formation because the bearer used the protection of only half the shield, leaving him vulnerable on his right unless he exploited the cover of the “redundant” half of his right-hand neighbor’s shield, as shown in figure 2-2a. If so, the presence of the shield implies the existence of a close-order phalanx in which the intervals between men are such that their shields nearly touch, that is, about three feet. On Victor Hanson’s view, the shield was adopted to meet the needs of an already existing form of massed combat; more commonly, it has been argued that the invention of the shield immediately, or in the course of some fifty years, brought about the adoption of close-order formations. Others, by contrast, have argued that the double-grip system was invented primarily to enable warriors to carry heavier shields that offered more protection, and that the hoplite shield could be used without serious disadvantage in more open formations. In particular, van Wees has suggested that hoplites stood sideways (left side forward) when in close combat with their opponents, as shown in figure 2-2b, and that in this position they would make full use of the cover of their entire shield, leaving no “redundant” section and thus little opportunity or need for men to rely on the shelter of their neighbor’s shield. He argues that this pose is both the more natural stance to adopt in fighting with a spear, and is frequently shown in Greek art; see figures 2-2c and d.1 If so, the hoplite formation could have been more open, with intervals of, say, six feet between soldiers, which are attested elsewhere and would have allowed room for brandishing spear and sword, as well as for some movement between the lines, without losing the cohesion of ranks; in archaic hoplite combat, the formation may have been still more open.


FIGURE 2-1. Rhodian plate, c. 600 BC. London, British Museum 4914. Redrawn by Nathan Lewis.

Other significant features of the large wooden hoplite shield are its more limited maneuverability compared with the single-grip shield and its greater weight compared with a variety of types that were smaller and/or made of lighter materials such as leather or wicker. A hoplite shield could be held out no farther than the length of the upper arm, whereas a single-grip shield could in principle be held out at arm’s length, though if it was carried on a strap (telamon) the range of its forward movement was in practice limited. The hoplite shield could not be brought over to the right-hand side as far as a single-grip shield, though in practice the lateral range of the latter was restricted by how much space the bearer needed in order to wield the spear or sword in his right hand. A hoplite shield was not carried on a telamon and could thus not be slung across the shoulders, as a single-grip shield on a strap could; it thus offered no protection for one’s back in retreat or flight, though the bronze corselet, which was introduced at the same time, would have at least partly compensated for this.2 The greater weight of the hoplite shield made the bearer less mobile, but how much less mobile depends on one’s estimation of its actual weight (see Krentz, chapter 7 this volume), and literary and iconographic evidence show that it did not stop hoplites from being able to charge into battle at a run (see fig. 2-2e and the Chigi vase, fig. 2-8).

Many scholars argue that the cumulative effect of the above factors was enough to make the bearer of a hoplite shield a largely static fighter who relied heavily on the protection of a close-order formation. For some, however, the effect of the shield was primarily to provide much greater frontal protection, and neither the reduced mobility nor the reduced protection for the right flank and the back were significant enough to produce (or reflect) a fundamental change in manner of combat. On this latter view, “If this change to the shield did not necessarily entail a change in formation, it does suggest that in the late eighth century BC the trend in warfare was towards more frequent or prolonged hand-to-hand fighting, where improved protection was vital since blows landed with more force and were less easily dodged than in missile exchanges.”3

Finally, Victor Hanson has argued that the bowl-shaped hoplite shield was particularly well suited to physical “shoving” of the enemy: the bearer could lean his shoulder into the hollow of the shield and thus push with his whole bodily weight against the enemy, or into the back of the comrade in the rank ahead of him.4 Krentz, however, has argued that most references to “pushing” refer to a forward drive in combat, not to a physical shove,5 and van Wees has suggested that hoplite shields were tilted back (see figs. 2-2e and2-2f), so that the upper rim rested on the shoulder and the lower rim pointed outward, and any physical “pushing of shields” could not have involved shoving with one’s whole bodily weight into the shield, but rather “shoving the protruding lower part of one’s shield against the corresponding part of the enemy’s shield—with the aim, no doubt, of driving him back, disturbing his balance, or at least breaking his cover.”6 The rear ranks would not engage in this type of pushing, but played a more passive role, including replacing fallen or tired men from the front ranks.



FIGURE 2-2. Line drawings illustrating the use of the hoplite shield. (a) Phalanx formation, assuming three-foot intervals and a frontal stance. (b) Phalanx formation, assuming six-foot intervals and a sideways stance. (c and d) Profile views of hoplite shields as carried in combat, tilted back against the left shoulder, on (c) a Middle Protocorinthian vase, the Berlin aryballos attributed to the Chigi/Macmillan Painter, c. 650 BC, from Kamiros (Berlin inv. 3773), and (d) a Siana cup by the Heidelberg Painter, c. 560 BC, from Boeotia (Athens, NM 435). (e and f) Hoplites running and squatting with left shoulder turned forward, torso almost at a right angle to the shield, on (e) a terra-cotta plaque from Athens, c. 520–510 BC (Acropolis Museum 1037) and (f) an Attic red-figure cup, c. 520–510 BC, from Chiusi (Louvre G25). Drawings courtesy of Hans van Wees.

Hoplite Body Armor

After the hoplite shield, the Corinthian helmet has been regarded as the piece of equipment with the greatest impact on the manner of fighting.7 Its weight may have contributed to making warriors less mobile, but more importantly its extensive cover restricted the hoplite’s range of vision and reduced his ability to hear. It is commonly argued that these limitations meant that the wearer of a Corinthian helmet could operate in relative safety if he were surrounded by comrades in a close-order formation; as in the case of the shield, the counterargument is that the limitations were not so severe that a hoplite could not still operate in a relatively independent fashion.

The hoplite corselet was composed of two bronze sheets: a breastplate modeled to the shape of the chest, and another plate for the back connected by metal bands and leather lacing over the shoulders and down the sides. Corselets are commonly worn by hoplites in archaic art, but it has been noted that they are very much less common than helmets and shields in actual finds, which may suggest that only about one in ten hoplites wore a bronze cuirass.8

The panoply also included greaves, which were hammered out of a sheet of bronze, and customized to fit the fighter and the shape of his calf muscles. The greaves covered the warrior’s ankles and shins, and were held in place by the pliability of the metal itself. The clear differences between the greaves that first appear on vase paintings of the seventh century, and the types known from the Mycenaean period, argue against continuity.9 Although it was once argued that greaves were the last major addition to the hoplite panoply, circa 650 BC, it is now clear that they were introduced at about the same time as the rest of the armor, in the late eighth century.10 As in the case of the corselet, greaves are much more common in archaic art than among actual finds, and it has been suggested that only about one in three hoplites wore them.11

Thigh guards and arm guards are also attested in archaic archaeology and iconography, but were probably quite rare. By contrast, finds and images from the classical period (fig. 2-3) suggest that hoplite body armor at this time was generally very limited: a simplepilos (conical cap) helmet, protecting only the top of the head, and a tunic were all the cover most classical hoplites seem to have enjoyed, apart from their shields. Whatever restrictions body armor may have imposed on the most heavily armed hoplites, they evidently were no longer in force by the late fifth century.


FIGURE 2-3. Classical hoplite equipment. Attic tombstone, late fifth century BC. Berlin. Staatliche Museen zu Berlin. Photo: Anderson 1970, pl. 12. Redrawn by Nathan Lewis.

The Early Hoplite Phalanx in Greek Art

Representations of battle in archaic vase painting have played a major role in the debate about the origins of the phalanx. A series of images on Protocorinthian vases in particular has often been adduced as evidence for the development of the classical phalanx in or before the seventh century. Some doubts about this interpretation have been raised, however; it has been suggested that these vases represent scenes which have parallels in Homer’s Iliad. If so, the images do not provide evidence for the existence of the phalanx but may instead reflect a more open and fluid battle order. The captions below set out the main points of contention.

The scene reproduced in figure 2-4 is the earliest to show the inside of a shield and therefore the earliest to show an unmistakable hoplite shield, with central armband and peripheral handle. However, a few Geometric vases from circa 700 BC show round shields with figured blazons, which almost certainly also represent hoplite shields.12 Unlike his classical successors, the hoplite on the Lechaion aryballos is equipped with two spears, the second of which is held in the left hand gripping the shield handle; most other hoplites on later Protoattic and Protocorinthian vases also carry two spears in the same way, and it seems very likely that at least one of the spears would be thrown rather than thrust at the enemy. The other figures in the scene are differently equipped. To the left of the hoplite, a kneeling archer may be thought of as fighting the enemy from behind the shelter of the other man’s shield, as described in the Iliad. The fighters on the right all carry Boeotian shields, with their distinctive scalloped edges; one man has the shield slung across his back, which shows that it must be suspended by a telamon.

The first iconographic appearance of a hoplite is thus as a single figure backed by an archer and opposed by nonhoplites. The hoplite shield here may be interpreted as a contemporary element in an otherwise unrealistic “heroic” scene (based on epic poetry and/or the conventions of Geometric art), in which case the image provides no further evidence for the nature of seventh-century battle. Alternatively, one or more of the other elements may also be derived from contemporary warfare, in which case the image may imply that in the early seventh century the hoplite shield was not yet used to the exclusion of other types, that hoplites still used throwing spears, and that archers mingled with hoplites on the battlefield.


FIGURE 2-4. Protocorinthian aryballos from Lechaion, c. 690 BC. Source: Snodgrass 1964a (plate 15b). Reprinted by permission of Edinburgh University Press,


FIGURE 2-5. Protocorinthian aryballos from Perachora, c. 675 BC. Plate 57 from Perachora, vol. 2, Pottery, Ivories, Scarabs, and Other Objects edited by T. J. Dunbabin (Oxford, 1962). Reproduced with the permission of the British School at Athens.

The surface of the vase in figure 2-5 has suffered extensive damage, so that many details are lost or uncertain. In the center, two figures on each side are locked in combat. On the right, one man appears to be attacking another while a third figure comes to the backward-leaning fighter’s aid; the advancing attacker may be imagined as belonging to the same side as the two men on the left of the central group. On the far left, a kneeling archer has released an arrow that is about to penetrate the shin of the leading fighter on the right of the central group. Behind the archer, a flute player, unarmed and wearing a chiton, has turned his feet to the left and is about to leave the battle for safety.

The armor of the figures shows a mix of hoplite and nonhoplite elements.13 Judging from the crest and the neck protection, the five helmets that are visible seem to be Corinthian, though only the lead fighter on the left has what looks like a cheek piece. There are no greaves but, apart from the archer, the warriors are armed with single thrusting spears, which they use in an overhand style aimed at the opponent’s throat. The lead fighter on the left carries a hoplite shield; though the porpax and antilabe are not visible, the position of the arm leaves no question. Lorimer inferred corselets on several of the men as well. As for the nonhoplite elements, she argued that the figure between the archer and the lead fighter on the left is nude and that the warriors on either side of the figure with the hoplite shield carry Dipylon or Boeotian shields. However, whereas in Geometric art the Dipylon shield is always held vertically, here the fighters carry them slantwise like a hoplite shield.

Lorimer concluded from the mixture of hoplite and nonhoplite equipment and the presence of “heroic nudity” that, “though I have no doubt that one object of the Perachora aryballos was to depict the encounter of two hoplite forces, I have also felt certain from the first that the scene was at the same time meant to be heroic.”14 On the suggestion of Dunbabin, she identified the scene as the slaying of Achilles by Paris. Whether or not the scene represents a specific legend, and whether or not nudity is an indicator that the image is “heroic,” the Boeotian shield and the presence of an archer are not necessarily fictional or archaizing, so alternatively one could take the scene as evidence that hoplite and Boeotian shields continued to be in simultaneous use, and that archers still mingled with hoplites.

Apart from the use of hoplite equipment, further possible evidence for this image representing a closed phalanx in action, rather than a purely “heroic” scene, is the presence of a piper, who is assumed to have set a marching rhythm to help keep the formation intact (as in classical Sparta, according to Thucydides 5.70). However, the piper may instead have been present “for religious reasons” (as Thucydides implied was customary elsewhere in Greece), that is, to accompany the singing of a paean by the soldiers as they advanced into battle, without implying a regular formation.

An aryballos in the Berlin museum (fig. 2-6), which dates to about 650, depicts the encounter of four men on the far left opposing an advancing group of five, and then three men on the left of center face three on the right of center. On the far right, at the back of the vase, two hoplites attack two men that have fallen to their knees, and a third is in retreat. The wounded man to the left is about to receive the death blow in the back of his neck. It is not clear whether the three groups represent different stages of battle, or simultaneous actions on the right, center, and left of the battlefield, as one sometimes finds in the Iliad (esp. 13.308–29).

The fading paint has caused most of the spears to disappear, but there is no indication that any soldier had a second spear. All ten warriors on each side hold shields with blazons, including flying birds, bulls’ heads, a lion’s head, and a hare; all wear Corinthian helmets with crests, and greaves, and the left-hand man of each group, the only men whose torsos are visible, wear corselets. Lorimer inferred corselets where the border of a chiton is visible. The equipment is thus typical of the hoplite, although, as in the whole Protocorinthian battle series, there is not a single representation of a sword or dagger, which every man presumably carried.15

This is the first image that shows lines of hoplites with significantly overlapping figures, and this has generally been interpreted as an indication that the artist is trying to represent a high-density formation, specifically closely spaced organized ranks, as in the classical phalanx. It has been suggested, however, that what appear to be straight ranks may rather be stylized images of dense but irregular crowds, and it has been pointed out that the spacing of the different groups of figures on this aryballos varies. Van Wees argues that the closeness of the men on the far left and their short stride indicate that “they are standing still, packed tightly together,” while the wider strides of their opponents suggest that the enemy is “moving towards them in rather more open formation.” In the central groups, the even more generous spacing and long strides of the men suggest “a much looser order as the troops briskly advance into battle.”16 He suggests that even the densest of these formations, on the far left, may not represent a regular phalanx, but rather an irregular stationary crowd massed together in defense, as occasionally described in the Iliad (“leaning their shields against their shoulders, raising their spears,” 11.592–5; also 13.126–35, 152).17


FIGURE 2-6. Battle frieze from the Berlin aryballos. Middle Protocorinthian, c. 650 BC. Berlin 3773; drawing after E. Pfuhl, Malerei und Zeichnung der Griechen (Munich, 1923), no. 58. Redrawn by Nathan Lewis.

The Macmillan aryballos (fig. 2-7), ca. 650, was painted by the same artist as the Berlin aryballos and the Chigi olpe. Nine figures moving from right to left are apparently in the process of defeating nine opponents. From the right, the first five victorious hoplites are dispatching four opponents who have fallen to their knees in flight. The sixth hoplite on the winning side is meeting with resistance from a retreating enemy. The seventh hoplite has exceptionally been defeated by an opponent on the side that is otherwise losing. The final group on the far left shows another two victorious hoplites driving back two retreating opponents who are evidently trying to cover a wounded comrade collapsed behind them. All wear Corinthian helmets and greaves; almost all, including the defeated, carry two spears.

This is the first scene in Greek art to represent a collective rout and pursuit; in classical hoplite battle, a rout almost always meant defeat without any chance of rallying and resuming the fight, so the attempt to portray this crucial moment may reflect the emergence of the phalanx.18 On the other hand, rout and pursuit are inevitably part of most kinds of infantry combat, and are frequently described in the Iliad in a manner similar to the image on this vase, that is, as a series of hand-to-hand combats in which the casualties are all on one side, even if a few put up some resistance (e.g., 5.37–84; 16.306–56).19 Supplication of the victor by a defeated soldier is also a new feature; it is prominent in epic (e.g., Il. 21.72ff.) and might be a “heroic” feature, as Lorimer suggested, but could equally reflect contemporary practice. Again the use of two spears, in the Homeric manner, could be either a heroizing element that “crops up to mar the perfect picture of hoplite equipment”20 or else an indication that mid-seventh-century hoplites were indeed still equipped in this way, and sometimes used spears for throwing.21


FIGURE 2-7. Battle frieze from the Macmillan aryballos. Middle Protocorinthian, c. 650 BC. British Museum, London 1889.4-18.1; drawing after JHS 11 (1890), pl. II 5.


FIGURE 2-8. Chigi vase. Middle Protocorinthian olpe from Veii, c. 640 BC. Museo di Villa Giulia 22679. Redrawn by Nathan Lewis.

Most complex of all surviving battle scenes in seventh-century art, the Chigi vase (fig. 2-8) shows four groups of hoplites, two on each side, about to engage in combat. On the far left, two men are arming themselves. Each of the hoplites carries two spears, one in the right hand and another, apparently larger, in the shield hand. Snodgrass has refuted Lorimer’s attempt to explain these second spears as representing an extra rank of hoplites not shown: “contrary to what she says, in the original illustration of the scene in Antike Denkmaler, the shafts of at least two of the spears are visible, passing across the shields of the main group of the left, and grasped in their left hands together with the antilabe.”22 The men arming on the far left each have two spears planted in the ground beside them, and here it is clear not only that the spears are of unequal sizes but also that they have throwing loops attached to their shafts.

This is the first scene, and one of the very few scenes ever, to show hoplites in more than one rank, and as a result scholars since at least Nilsson have regarded the Chigi vase as the first undeniable depiction of the classical phalanx; Snodgrass describes the image as follows: “the men fight in close-packed ranks; they advance and join battle in step, to the music of a piper; they balance their first spear for an overhand thrust; they are all equipped with Corinthian helmet, plate-corselet, greaves and hoplite shield.”23

But the image raises some questions. First, if, as Snodgrass pointed out, the two front ranks of hoplites are raising the smaller of their pairs of spears with loops, the implication seems to be that they are preparing to throw. The two sides, despite standing so close together, would thus be engaging in missile rather than hand-to-hand combat. Van Wees concludes that “whether we have here a picture of close combat with the wrong weapons, or of missile warfare at the wrong distance, we do not have a picture that matches the classical phalanx.”24

Second, van Wees observes the extra pair of legs in the front line on the left. He doubts that this can be a careless mistake by the meticulous Chigi Painter. He also notes the redundant spear in the other army (i.e., the third, shorter, upright spear that protrudes behind them), which “must belong to some other, unseen hoplite. In other words, these rows of overlapping figures are not realistic images of single ranks, but schematic representations of larger groups of hoplites—whether in regular formations or bunched together, we cannot tell.”25 Third, he points out that the second rank of hoplites is in each case larger than the first, and is not marching in step with the men ahead of them, but “unmistakably running.” The running hoplites on the left, moreover, are still carrying their spears upright rather than leveled, which may suggest that they are imagined as farther from the front than the second rank on the right, which has begun to level its spears. His overall interpretation of the scene is as follows:

In the centre, two groups of hoplites are about to join battle and throw javelins at one another. The army on the right is about to be reinforced by a larger group of hoplites who have come running up and are just raising their spears to join the fray. In danger of being overwhelmed, the troops on the left call for help in turn, but their reinforcements, the largest group of all, still have some way to run, and indeed some are only just getting armed. The role of the piper in this scenario is not to set a marching rhythm, but to sound a call to arms, as trumpeters do elsewhere: this explains why he is evidently blowing at the top of his lungs, and why we see no piper on the other side, which has the temporary advantage.26

On this interpretation, the Chigi vase does not, after all, represent a classical hoplite phalanx, but a stylized version of the scenes of escalating combat by sizable but irregular crowds of warriors that one finds described in the Iliad (e.g., in the sequence at 13.330–495; men arming while their comrades are already fighting has a parallel at 13.83–128).27

Van Wees thus contends that these three remarkable vase paintings “prove nothing about the existence of a fully developed phalanx.” Unlike earlier Greek art, they show armies moving into battle and armies in flight and pursuit, as well as “an unprecedented degree of overlapping between figures to create an impression of density.”28 However, van Wees sees closer analogies to Homeric battle narratives than to the classical phalanx in the work of the Chigi Painter.

Further explicit evidence that hoplites in the seventh century were sometimes armed with throwing spears comes from the alabastron from Corinth (fig. 2-9). The still-life arrangement of a hoplite’s equipment shows both a long (i.e., thrusting) spear and a shorter javelin with a throwing loop. The fact that this appears in a still life rather than a battle scene makes it unlikely to be a “heroic” feature. “It seems an inescapable conclusion,” Snodgrass argues, “that the early hoplite often, though not invariably, went into battle carrying two or more spears; and it is very probable that one at least of these was habitually thrown.”29 He also argues that the use of throwing spears in the Geometric age “took such a strong hold on current practices that the advent of the heavy infantry panoply, and even of the rudimentary hoplite phalanx, did not at first expunge it.”30 It is not clear how the use of throwing spears by hoplites was compatible with a dense phalanx formation—which in classical times engaged only in hand-to-hand combat—and it could be argued that the use of this weapon implies a more open and fluid formation even as late as 625 BC.


FIGURE 2-9. Alabastron from Corinth, c. 625 BC. Formerly Berlin 3148; after Snodgrass 1964, pl. 33. Source: Snodgrass 1964a (plate 33). Reprinted by permission of Edinburgh University Press,

A battle scene from a badly broken Corinthian krater (fig. 2-10) presents a group of at least five hoplites crouching—some stooping slightly, others almost down on one knee—behind a scene of combat. They hold their spears horizontally in an underarm grip, or rest them on the ground, pointing diagonally forward and upward. These rear ranks are not represented in the way one would expect to see in the classical phalanx. They seem closer to the relatively passive “crowd of companions,” waiting some way behind the “frontline fighters,” which is often mentioned in the Iliad. The scene may be taken either as “heroic” or, as Van Wees has suggested, a reflection of the looseness of the battle order even in the early sixth century.31


FIGURE 2-10. Middle Corinthian krater, c. 600–575 BC. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Gift of John Marshall, 1912; New York 12.229.9. Redrawn by Nathan Lewis.

There are no images of the phalanx, archaic or classical, that illustrate the traditional views regarding the part played in the battle by the rear ranks in either adding weight to the phalanx or pushing on the front ranks.

As an alternative to the classical phalanx as a model for the style of fighting adopted by hoplites in the archaic age, van Wees has suggested an open and fluid kind of combat often attested in “primitive” warfare. He illustrates this with the particular example of battles as they were still fought in the 1960s by warriors in the Highlands of Papua New Guinea.

A series of remarkable photos32 illustrates their fighting techniques.

Before combat, Highlands warriors gather round their leaders in dense crowds [fig. 2-11a] and after a harangue set off at a run towards the battlefield, scattering as they do [2-11b] and slowing as they draw closer to the enemy [2-11c], until they come within firing range of the opposing lines. At this point the warriors are widely dispersed [2-11d] and in constant movement, not only across the front line ‘to avoid presenting too easy a target,’ but to and from the front: ‘men move up from the rear, stay to fight for a while, and then drop back for a rest.’ Warriors fight as archers or spearmen as a matter of personal preference. Spears, as in Homer, are used both for thrusting and throwing. At any one time, only about a third of each army takes an active part in the battle, while two-thirds stand or sit well back and observe the action. In the course of a day’s fighting, a man spends much time at the back, but he will also go several times to take his turn at doing battle.

In the course of this open order skirmishing, ‘the front continually fluctuates, moving backwards and forwards as one side or the other mounts a charge’. ‘As the early afternoon wears on, the pace of battle develops into a steady series of brief clashes and relatively long interruptions…. An average day’s fighting will consist of ten to twenty clashes between the opposing forces’, lasting between ten and fifteen minutes each.33

Van Wees argues that, in essence, this model fits the depictions of combat in Geometric and archaic art, and the descriptions of battle in the Iliad (as well as the allusions to battle in the seventh-century martial poems of Callinus and Tyrtaeus); he concludes that this is also how archaic hoplites actually fought.

Whether this “primitive” model is viable depends largely on one’s interpretation of hoplite equipment. The Papua New Guinea Highlanders do not carry shields or swords, or wear body armor, so that they are certainly more mobile and more dependent on missile fighting than were archaic hoplites. If one believes that the weight of their armor made hoplites largely immobile, that they fought only with thrusting spears, and that the double-grip shield was designed for use in dense formations, then they clearly cannot have fought in the Papua New Guinea manner. If however one believes that hoplites were relatively mobile despite their armor, that the double-grip shield and the rest of the bronze panoply could be effectively used also outside dense formations, and finally that hoplites used throwing as well as thrusting spears in the seventh century and mingled in combat with archers and infantry carrying lighter Boeotian shields, as the vase paintings suggest, then it is conceivable that they practiced a rather slower and denser form of Papua New Guinea combat.


FIGURE 2-11. Battle in the Highlands of Papua New Guinea.
Source: R. Gardner and K. G. Heider, Gardens of War: Life and Death in the New Guinea Stone Age. (Harmondsworth, 1974).


    1. Hans Van Wees “The Development of the Hoplite Phalanx: Iconography and Reality in the Seventh Century,” 128, in Van Wees, ed., War and Violence in Ancient Greece (London, 2000), 125–66; drawing (c) after a terra-cotta plaque, c. 520–510 BC, from Athens (Acropolis Museum 1037; photo in J. Charbonneaux et al., Archaic Greek Art [London 1971], 313, fig. 359); (d) after an Attic red-figure cup, c. 520–510 BC, from Chiusi (Louvre G25; photo in P. Ducrey, Warfare in Ancient Greece, New York, 1986), 120, pl. 84.

    2. Van Wees (2000, 127).

    3. Van Wees (2000, 130–31).

    4. Victor Davis Hanson, “Hoplite Technology in Phalanx Battle,” in Hanson, ed., Hoplites: The Classical Battle Experience (London, 1991), 63–84.

    5. Peter Krentz, “The Nature of Hoplite Battle,” ClAnt 4 (1985), 50–61; Krentz, “Continuing the Othismos on Othismos,” AHB 8 (1994), 45–49.

    6. Van Wees (2000, 131).

    7. A. M. Snodgrass, Arms and Armour of the Greeks (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1967), 51, explains the significance of the helmet’s craftsmanship: “To beat a complete head-piece out of one sheet of bronze has always been a feat requiring exceptional skill on the part of the smith; in the seventeenth century AD, for instance, armourers seem to have lost this art, and resorted to constructing helmets in two or more pieces with a join over the crown; while even in 1939 a modern Greek artificer, making a replica of a similar form, found it difficult to beat out the back of the helmet unless a deep recess was left over the forehead. So far as we can tell, the Greek bronzesmiths at the end of the eighth century had no foreign model or precedent for their achievement.”

    8. E. Jarva, Archaiologia on Archaic Greek Body Armour (Rovaniemi, 1995), 111–13, 124–80, with n. 10 below.

    9. Snodgrass (1967, 52–53).

  10. A. Snodgrass, Early Greek Armour and Weapons (Edinburgh, 1964), 86–88; E. Kunze, Beinschienen. Olympische Forschungen XXI (Berlin, 1991), 4–5 n. 10.

  11. Hans Van Wees, Greek Warfare: Myths and Realities (London, 2004), 50 n. 10.

  12. See, e.g., the Benaki amphora: H. Lorimer, “The Hoplite Phalanx,” BSA 42 (1947), 76–138, pl. 19.

  13. Lorimer (1947, 94).

  14. Lorimer (1947, 95).

  15. Lorimer (1947, 85).

  16. Van Wees (2000, 140).

  17. Van Wees (2000, 140–42).

  18. Lorimer (1947, 104–5).

  19. Van Wees (2000, 142).

  20. Lorimer (1947, 104).

  21. Van Wees 2000, 142.

  22. Snodgrass (1964, 138).

  23. Snodgrass (1967, 58).

  24. Van Wees (2000, 136) quotes W. Helbig, “Über die Einführungszeit der geschlos-senen Phalanz,” Sitzungsberichte der Königlichen Bayerischen Akademie der Wissenschaften. Philosophisch-philogische und historische Klasse, (Munich, 1911), 3–41.

  25. Van Wees (2000, 138).

  26. Van Wees (2000, 139).

  27. Van Wees (2000, 139).

  28. Van Wees (2000, 142).

  29. Snodgrass (1964, 138).

  30. Snodgrass (1964, 139).

  31. Van Wees (2000, 132).

  32. Originally published in R. Gardner and K. G. Heider, Gardens of War: Life and Death in the New Guinea Stone Age (Harmondsworth, 1974).

  33. Van Wees (2004, 154).

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