PATRICIA KARVELAS: Shouting, their spears held high, their bronze armour glistening in the sun. Few sights were more terrifying in the ancient world than the vision of massed ranks of Greek soldiers bearing down on you.
This collection of armour, although drawn from different places and time periods, gives you a good sense of the type of protection worn by heavily armed foot soldiers as they went into battle. The name for such a soldier was a hoplite, after the Greek hoplon, the name of the large distinctive shield that he carried. From the 7th until the 4th century BCE, these infantry forces were decisive in determining the outcome of Greek battle.
In the Greek world, only Sparta had anything that resembled a professional standing army. The rest of the Greek city-states, Athens included, relied upon the equivalent of a militia.
Individual soldiers were called up from the citizen body to fight. They had to provide their own equipment and, in many cases, their own rations. For this reason, the nature and quality of armour in any particular unit varied considerably. The cheapest set of bronze armour would have cost the equivalent of $14,000 Australian dollars, and these were often passed down from father to son. In Athens, children who were orphaned due to losing a father in the war were given gifts of weapons and armour by the state. Very few soldiers would have fought with an expensive bronze cuirass like the one on display. Scholars estimate probably as few as one in 10 soldiers would have one. Most soldiers would have relied instead on padded linen garments for protection.
Bronze armour was a very effective way of protecting the body. Modern reconstructions have demonstrated that ancient armour would have provided excellent protection against arrows and other projectile weapons. However, this protection came at a cost. The armour is heavy to wear. Estimates for the weight of armour vary from 22.5 kg to 31.7 kg. In addition, the soldier would need to carry a spear and a large heavy round shield weighing approximately 7.5 kg. Given that the average Ancient Greek would have only weighed 60–65 kg, this is a tremendous weight to bear. And to make things more challenging, the close-fitting helmet had a severe impact on a soldier’s peripheral vision and his ability to hear in battle.
For these reasons, Greek hoplites tended to favour fighting in large formations in which they stood shoulder to shoulder with other soldiers and moved in a solid group with their shields overlapping. This was called a phalanx. In such formations, soldiers would burst through enemy lines through sheer weight of numbers. Greek warfare was conducted in close quarters. It was intimate and it was brutal.
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Date published: 17 December 2021