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Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History Essays

Warfare in Ancient Greece

As the economic resources of Greek city-states and individuals increased during the seventh century B.C., armies of foot soldiers were formed within the wealthier city-states. Known as hoplites, these soldiers were characteristically equipped with about seventy pounds of armor, most of which was made of bronze. The typical panoply included an eight- to ten-foot thrusting spear with an iron tip and butt, and bronze armor consisting of a helmet, cuirass (chest armor), greaves (shin guards), and a large shield about 30 inches in diameter. The heavy bronze shield, which was secured on the left arm and hand by a metal band on its inner rim, was the most important part of a hoplite’s panoply, as it was his chief defense.

In nearly every medium of Attic art of the sixth century B.C., the hoplite and warfare feature prominently, as military service was a primary distinction of citizenship—a mark of status and often of wealth, as well as a means of attaining glory. Furthermore, the initiatives taken during the latter part of the sixth century to standardize the Homeric epics in written form fostered a broader interest in heroic subject matter. In Athens, military service was determined by a citizen’s social and economic position. In the early sixth century B.C., the archon Solon instituted four classes defined by income and gave each class a proportionate measure of political responsibility. The second wealthiest class, the hippeis (“horsemen”), earned enough from their land to maintain a horse and so fought as cavalry; the third wealthiest group, the zeugitai, were able to afford the equipment of a hoplite; the wealthiest class, the pentakosiomedimnoi (“five-hundred-bushel men”), supplied the leaders for the armed forces; and the poorest class, the thetes, were hired laborers who served as oarsmen in the Athenian fleet, or as archers and light-armed men on land.

Backed up by archers and light-armed troops, the hoplite phalanx remained the most important fighting unit for centuries. They advanced in close formation while protected by their overlapping shields. A successful battle often consisted of one phalanx, hundreds of men across and eight or more warriors deep, pushing against an enemy’s phalanx until one or the other broke formation, exposing its hoplites to danger and death.