Greek Hoplite Armor

This article  focuses specifically on the pieces of hoplite armor used in the ancient Greek sport hoplitodromos.

hoplite helmet  (8th–6th century BC) - Hoplite Armor
hoplite helmet  (8th–6th century BC)

Hoplites were volunteer soldiers of the ancient Greek world who were characterized by the large, wooden shields most of them carried; the hoplon (also commonly called the aspis). As they had to purchase their own equipment, their armament varied among different soldiers. The ones who could afford more gear wore heavy bronze greaves, a cuirass, and a helmet, all in addition to the standard hoplon and spear. The weapons used varied from soldier to soldier throughout Greek history, from short swords to javelins to spears, but the armor remained fairly steadfast.

Pieces of the hoplite armor entered the athletic field with the introduction of the hoplitodromos to the ancient Olympic Games in 520 BC (and the Pythian Games and Nemean Games later on). This encumbered sprint* had the athletes wearing various pieces of hoplite armor to test their muscular strength. These athletes always donned the helmet and shield, but after the first 70 years of the event the greaves were abandoned, likely due to their impedance in leg movement. Altogether, the three pieces weighed around 50 pounds.

*The hoplitodromos was typically a sprint, but was sometimes an endurance race. See the referred article for details.


Greaves

a single Greek greave (6th century BC)

The bronze greaves were one of the most basic pieces of armor in the hoplite armament since they didn’t cost as much to purchase as the breastplate did. They were fashioned as one solid piece of bronze reaching from the top of the ankle to the top of the knee, engraved with a wide variety of designs. They were designed to protect the shin and knee, leaving the back of the leg exposed.

It is unlikely that the greaves were removed from the hoplitodromos around 450 BC because of their weight, but rather because of their impedance in leg movement. Depending on the fit of the greaves on the athlete, it is possible that the upper portion of the greaves could impact and bruise the knee or lowest portion of the thigh during leg extension. In addition, the greaves may have sometimes come unbound, or otherwise hampered leg movement beyond reasonable levels.


Helmet

hoplite helmet (8th–6th century BC) - Greek Hoplite Armor
hoplite helmet (8th–6th century BC)

Greek hoplite helmets, like the rest of their armor, were made entirely of bronze. The design varied from region to region throughout Greek history, with face coverage being one of the primary details subject to change. These helmets could be open-faced, feature plates covering the cheeks, or designed with a full frontal cover with openings for the eyes and a small vertical slit for the mouth. They were typically crafted with a slightly conical forehead to help protect the head from direct blows.

Greek artwork depicts the use of open-faced helmets in the hoplitodromos more often than those with cheek pieces. These same pieces of artwork also indicate that the variant of helmets that covered the majority of the face were not used.


Shield

The hoplon was a wooden shield overlaid with bronze and measuring 3 feet in diameter. The bronze overlay could be applied only to the edges, making the shield 16 pounds at its lightest, or applied to the whole face, adding several pounds to its base weight. A handle at the edge and leather straps in the middle for the forearm allowed the shield to be held by one arm alone. As it was worn on only one arm, its weight would asymmetrically affect the balance of the hoplitodromos athlete to a great degree, adding another layer of challenge to the sprint.

Bibliography

Sekunda, N. (2002). Marathon, 490 BC: The first Persian invasion of Greece. Oxford: Osprey Publishing.

Gat, A. (2008). War in human civilization. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Sage, M. M. (1996). Warfare in ancient Greece: A sourcebook. London: Routledge.

Scanlon, T. F. (2014). Sport in the Greek and Roman worlds. Vol 1. Oxford: Oxford University Press.