By Periklis Deligiannis
A vase painting depicting a hoplite, 5th century BC. He is armed with a bronze cuirass, a hoplite sword and a hoplite shield of the Argive type. In the interior of the hoplite shield, you can see the “antilave” («αντιλαβή», handle/handgrip), the “porpax” («πόρπαξ», fastener for the elbow) and the “telamons” («τελαμώνες», shoulder belts)/ (Paris, Louvre Museum)
The Geometric Period (11th-8th centuries BC) preceded the invention of the hoplite warfare and the hoplite phalanx (about 700 BC). The shields of the Geometric period belonged to two main types: the “Dipylon” type shield and the “Herzsprung” type. The Dipylon shield is named after the Athenian Dipylon gate, where a number of pottery with depictions of that type of shield, was discovered. It was a large and long shield, covering the warrior from chin to knees. It was made of wicker and leather, without excluding further strengthening of wooden parts. Despite its size, the Dipylon shield was light due to its materials. It had a curved form in order to embrace the warrior’s body. In the middle of its surface, the Dipylon shield had two semicircular notches for the easier handling of the offensive weapons (spear or sword). Notches also facilitated the hanging (suspension) of the Dipylon shield on the warrior’s back, in order not to restrict his elbows when he walked. The shield had at least one central handle for its holding by the warrior in battle, and one or more shoulder belts, in order to hang it on his back when not used. These belts were called “telamones” (τελαμώνες). The shape of the Dipylon shield denotes its origins from the famous Minoan and Mycenaean eight-shaped shield. During the Greek Archaic Era (7th cent – 479 BC), the Dipylon shield was made mostly of bronze and had a smaller size: that is the “Boeotian” type of shield, named after Boeotia, where it was popular.
A reenactment of a hoplite phalanx, with hoplite shields in detail. We can see a unique variety of popular Greek emblems on the shields of the hoplites: the lion, the snake, the laurel, the octopus, Gorgo etc. The same emblems were popular to the Etruscans, the Early Romans, the Latins and other Italian hoplites (Reenactment by the Australian Association of Historical studies Ancienthoplitikon).
The ‘Herzsprung’ type of shield is named after a site in northern Germany, where the earliest archaeological finds of this type were excavated. This is a very general name for a group of shield types that were used in most parts of the Western, Central and Southeast Europe, including Greece and the Aegean world. The Herzsprung shield types belong mostly to the arsenal of the famous Urnfield culture of Central and Western Europe and also to the arsenal of the Mycenaean World, perhaps deriving from the interaction of these two cultural areas. However, the Later Mycenaean Herzsprung shields were proved to be of local origin and not of Central European origin as is often thought to be. It has been estimated (almost a certainty) that the famous shield of Achilles described by Homer in the Iliad, belonged to that type. The Herzsprung shield was the most expensive type during the long time of its use in Greece, covering the Late Mycenaean and the Geometric period. It was made of bronze and it was usually decorated with hammered decorations, often elaborate. The typical Herzsprung shields of proto-Celtic Europe were ornamented with hammered decorations of concentric circles, interrupted by an interpolation of ‘V’ or ‘U’ scheme. In Greece this type of shield disappeared only with the emergence of the Argive shield at the end of the eighth century BC, while in Western Europe remained in use for several centuries more.
A Herzsprung shield, found in Central Europe.
The typical hoplite shield was called “hoplon” (Οπλον) and it was introduced at the end of the eighth century BC. In antiquity it was also known as the “Argive shield” because the first Greeks who adopted it were the Dorian Argives. Herodotus informs us that the Carians, a Luwian people of Asia Minor, invented the ‘hoplon’. Possibly the Carians invented an earlier lighter type of the hoplon, which the Argives took over and developed it in the famous hoplite (Argive) shield. The ‘hoplite’, the ‘hoplite warfare’ and the ‘hoplite phalanx’ took their name from the ‘hoplon’. The shield was identified with the honour of the hoplite in the ancient Greek world (and also in the Etruscan etc). In case of despondency and flight of the hoplite, its heavy hoplite shield was the first of his defensive arms and armour that he would have to drop, because of its weight and its ease of dropping as it did not require any special effort to be worn or to be removed from the body (as it did require for example, the cuirass). The despondency of the hoplite was evidenced by the loss of his shield, which is why the last event was a real shame for the Greeks. The hoplite who lost his shield was considered a “ripsaspis” (ρίψασπις, “shield-dropper”) and faced the contempt of his fellow citizens, as well as his social isolation.
Spartan warriors of the Geometric Period with Dipylon shields (artwork by Richard Hook. Copyright: Osprey publishing).
The material of construction of the surface of the hoplite shield was bronze, but its interior (the main body) was made of thick wood. The hoplite/argive shield had a circular shape with a diameter of about 90 cm and a surface area of about 0.6 to 0.7 of a square meter. Its circular shape was in harmony with the movements of the hand that held it, because whatever the inclination of the arm or the forearm, the circular surface of the shield rotated almost around its center, without leaving uncovered parts of the hoplite’s torso, and without covering the hoplite’s field of vision. Another key feature of the hoplite shield was the curvature of its outer surface, constructed in this way rather to ostracize the strokes of the hostile spears, swords, javelins, arrows, stones etc. The convex surface of the hoplite shield ended in a strong brazen rim that covered its perimeter. This brazen rim was flat (contrary to the convex main body) and at this point lied probably its main utility: due to its lack of slope, it ostracized the tips of spears, swords, etc., in order not to end up in the body of the hoplite.
A genuine hoplite shield, excavated in Peloponnesus. You can see the convex main body of the shield and the flat outer rim (photograph from the British Historical Association Comitatus. Archaeological Museum of Olympia).
The hollow interior of the shield embraced the hoplite’s torso, protecting it effectively to its sides as well. This was necessary because while the conflict was holding, the hoplite had to hold his shield at some distance from his body, so that he could handle with ease not only his shield (for the repulse of the enemy blows) but his offensive weapon as well. If the argive/hoplite shield was flat, the hoplite would be jeopardized by side blows. The inner part of the rim of the shield, was relaxing for the hoplite during a long time march or a standing position: the warrior could hang his shield on his shoulder by the inside of its rim. During the march he could hang the shield on his back by its shoulder belts. These belts and the handles of the shield were located in the hollow interior. When the hoplite was fighting, the enhanced brazen fastener (πόρπαξ,“porpax”) along the diameter of the shield, was the reception for the hoplite’s elbow, while at the same time he was holding the handle/handgrip (αντιλαβή, “antilave”) with his hand, located near the rim. The ‘antilave’ was used more for controlling the movement of the shield, while the ‘porpax’ was holding its weight. The ancient writers inform us that the Spartans used to remove the fastener when they were not using the shield, in order to make it temporarily incapacitated and thus it could not be used by the helots in case of a helot revolution. In some cases, the hoplites used to hang at the bottom of their shield, a piece of thick cloth or leather to protect their lower body and legs from enemy blows, especially when they were not wearing armour and greaves.
A Gorgon head from the great temple of Athena in the Athenian Acropolis. Gorgon was a popular emblem on the shields of the Greek and Etruscan warriors of the Archaic period. Early 6th century B.C. (Acropolis Museum).
The “episemon” (επίσημον), meaning the emblem on the outer surface of the hoplite shield, was initially a personal choice of its owner. This was because every hoplite purchased and maintained his own equipment. This habit produced a problem of identification between friends and enemies in the battle, particularly in the case of irregular (free-order) fighting. The emblem could be the symbol of the family or genus of the hoplite, or some scary creature from the Greek mythology (e.g. Gorgo, griffins, etc.). Sometimes the emblem of the hoplite’s city-state was used. This state emblem is usually verified by the coins of each city-state. These state emblems were usually the symbols of the protecting deities of the city.
The hoplite/Argive shield was used in southern Greece until the 3rd century BC, when it began gradually to be replaced either by the Celtic-Italian scutum (θυρεός, “thyreos” in Greek) or by the Macedonian “pelte” (πέλτη), a medium-sized brazen shield used by the Northern Greeks. In the same century the Argive shield was abolished by the Greek hoplites of Italy, Sicily, Asia Minor, the Black Sea, Cyrenaeca and Massalia (Marseilles).
During the Archaic period the aforementioned Boeotian shield was used together with the Argive. The Boeotian shield had the same elliptical shape as its ancestor Dipylon shield, having notches on the sides, but it had a smaller size and it was bronze (except its wooden interior). It had not the same success as the hoplite/Argive one and it disappeared in the 5th century BC.
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(2) Hanson, V. D. : THE WESTERN WAY OF WAR. INFANTRY BATTLE IN CLASSICAL GREECE, Oxford 1989
(3) Snodgrass AM: EARLY GREEK ARMOUR, London 1964
(4) Steinhauer G. : THE MUSEUM OF SPARTA, Athens 1978