This is a brief look at Greek combat formations and their evolution over time.
Initially, Hoplites used linothorax armor. As time went on, hoplites “up-armored” themselves with bronze plates. They wore the Corinthian style helmet, bronze curaiss, the circular aspis wooden shield with bronze plating, and bronze greaves. The Corinthian Helmet is odd. It had no cushioning excepting the hair of the soldier. It could turn away blades from spears, swords and arrows, but it left the user very vulnerable to blunt trauma that could fracture the skull. The net weight of the gear weighed around 70-80 pounds. Users would strap the gear on only moments before battle.
Hoplites dominated the field in southern Greece. Horses were too few and small to create effective cavalry. The Greeks lacked the knowledge and material to create composite bows like the easterners, so the local short bows were ineffective against bronze armor. Javelins had some use, but skirmishers did not win battles. Hoplites tended to be in the upper class as well. They had to pay for their own armor and equipment and they had a vested interest in defending their city-states.
Hoplites used 8 foot spears, in tight formations. The Shield covered the man to your left. Each shield appeared to be placed into the back of the man before you. The formations would charge each other. The battle turned into a congested mash-pit where individual knowledge was limited.
Oddly historians did not discuss battlefield tactics. Thuchydides mentions that Hoplites alwas drifted to the right, but didn’t comment much beyond that. So it seems each hoplite soldier leaned into the shield to the right for cover and protection. Even the most disciplined Spartan formations drifted.
The Spartans were the masters of the classical hoplite battle because they created professional soldiers instead of militias. In Hoplite combat, advanced strategies were not as useful as discipline and training of individual soldiers. Hoplites took their greatest losses when they broke formation or routed. If they held formation, they could win most battles.
The evolution of Hoplites is interesting. They dropped excess armor. Greaves were the first to go. Men dropped the back half of the bronze curaiss. Shoulder plates disappeared. Hoplites switched from the large Corinthian Helmet to the smaller conical Pilos helm. Some dropped helmets altogether and used leather caps.
By the Peloponnesian War, Peltastai became important. They were initially hoplite scouts and rangers. They carried several javelins, a small shield, light armor and a sword. The Athenians used Peltasts to great effect against Spartan Hoplites. The Athenian Peltasts refused direct combat and managed to destroy or capture Spartan hoplites.
After the Peloponnesian War ended, Greek Warfare was much more diverse. Hoplites needed to be supported by Peltasts and slingers to be effective. Hoplites were equipped lighter so they would be more mobile and flexible.
The Thebans modified classical hoplite warfare. They increased the spear length to 12 feet and created 30 man deep ranks. At the Battle of Leuctra, the new Theban Hoplite Phalanx defeated the classical Hoplites of Sparta.
King Philip of Macedonian learned from the Theban military and made further modifications. In Macedonia, he formed more professional infantry to supplement traditional Macedonian Cavalry. He increased the spear length to 17 feet – a pike. The Phalanx fought in very deep formations. The Pikes of the first five ranks would be leveled at the enemy. Some in the first ranks may have crouched to prevent enemy infantry from moving under the layer of pikes. The ranks behind kept their pikes leveled at a 45 degree angle – this shielded the unit from arrows.
The Pikemen only wore leather or linothorax armor with a small shield strapped to their shoulders. The Phalanx line was superior in most ways to the classical hoplites. Few enemies without pikes could even reach the front lines of a Phalanx.
The Macedonians used their Cavalry to supplement their pikemen. Macedonian Companion Cavalry used 12 foot lances and appeared to have used “shock” tactics by charging directly into enemy cavalry and infantry – much like the hoplites once did. This created the infamous hammer and anvil strategy that created the Macedonian Empire.
The Macedonian Phalanx defeated the Theban Hoplites and secured Macedonian Hegemony over all of Greece. Alexander the Great used this military to great effect against the Persians. Head on – the Phalanx was indestructible.
The later rulers of the Macedonian Empire, like the Ptolemies in Egypt, the Seleucids and others continued to rely on the Phalanx as their main force. They were increasingly fighting other Phalanxes so they adopted different tactics. One thing they did was extend the pike length to 21 feet. This was very unwieldy but it gave an edge to pikemen when fighting other pikes.
Later era hoplites
The Greek City States, usually led by Athens frequently revolted against the Macedonian hegemony.
The southern Greeks relied on Peltestai and Theureuporoi. The Theureuporoi were used by the urban Greeks and the Seleucid Empire in the East. The most striking thing is it’s similarities to the Roman Republic legionaries.
Theureuporoi used light leather or linen armor and an oval wooden shield. They carried several javelins and a longer spear. They were flexible enough that they could serve as both Peltasts and Hoplite roles. More importantly, they outmaneuvered Macedonian Phalanxes. They could attack the flanks of cumbersome phalanxes.
In function, the Theureuporoi was like the Greek version of the Roman legionary during the Punic War era. There may have been a cultural exchange between the two – Romans and Greeks fought over Southern Italy for decades. But maybe it was a case of parallel evolution. Both militaries had to fight a variety of enemies – Celtic warbands, Macedonian Phalanxes, swordsmen, spearmen, and skirmishers of all sorts. The Romans and Greeks created a “balanced” infantrymen that was a useful counter to various styles of warfare.
During the age of the Roman Empire, iron scale and mail armor and sword combat in the Celtic style would become the new standard in the Roman and Greek armies.