Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2011.02.23

Adam Schwartz, Reinstating the Hoplite: Arms, Armour and Phalanx Fighting in Archaic and Classical Greece. Historia. Einzelschriften 207.   Stuttgart:  Franz Steiner Verlag, 2009.  Pp. 337.  ISBN 9783515093309.  €64.00.  

Reviewed by Stewart Flory, Gustavus Adolphus College (

Schwartz attempts to explicate in a new way the nature and function of hoplite phalanx fighters. The book has a number of interesting pages, but the author focuses so narrowly on his vision of his topic that some readers will find more frustration than enlightenment.

The volume falls into three parts. First, Schwartz minutely examines hoplite military equipage. Second, he gives a diachronic account of hoplites in Greek history. Finally he presents a select annotated list of recorded battles in which hoplites played some role.

Schwartz takes the Argos panoply of the 8th century B.C. as the start of his study and the battle of Chaeronea in 338 as his ending. He will focus, he says, on the “practical” side of being a hoplite. Schwartz’s readers then plunge, after these few preliminaries, into a detailed chapter (123 footnotes) on the hoplite shield, beginning with “materials and measurements.” The hoplite shield (hoplon) comes first evidently because it defines the warrior, since he could discard virtually every other element in his panoply and still be a hoplite. The shield, we might add, serves as both a defensive and offensive weapon and also determines the simple tactics of the phalanx.

In the next chapter Schwartz moves on to body armor, beginning with the Argos panoply itself. For this surviving bronze we happen to have the exact weight of the bell cuirass, 3.360 kilos, as measured by the French excavators. This exact information is precious since few if any other cuirasses have been weighed. But the question remains and seems unanswerable: Is 3.360 kilos impossibly heavy or unexpectedly light?1

After shields we get helmets. Schwartz even makes his own replica of a Corinthian helmet (material not specified), using dimensions supplied, he reports, by the Olympia museum. He also finds an experimental subject to wear the object, presumably a subject with a small head. Schwartz calculates and reports the restricted peripheral vision in metric terms and concludes: “It is difficult to achieve complete accuracy, but it is certainly safe to say that a helmet of Corinthian type does restrict vision” (p. 61). Schwartz can be congratulated for extracting information from the notoriously unhelpful officials at Olympia.

From protective gear we come to chapters on offensive weapons, spears and swords. Attached to this section is a separate brief chapter on physical limitations imposed by hoplite equipment, especially the weight of armor. Here, the reader might expect some detailed reference to the military historian John Keegan, who stresses the hellishness of war, focusing on the physical discomfort of soldiers (for example, the need to urinate while wearing heavy metal armor in the hot sun).

Schwartz takes no account of the ample evidence that hoplite battles were not normally gritty and horrible, as a Keegan approach would suggest. Much of our contemporary ancient testimony about hoplite battles, Tyrtaeus, for example, is not that they were nasty affairs, but that they were glorious. The many ancient vase paintings of warriors arming for battle show them primping as for a party, not grimly preparing for death or disfigurement. Attention to the hair before battle was famously essential, especially the Theseis, a style trimmed and curled short in front and allowed to flow long.

As to the aesthetics of ancient armor, Schwartz cites and apparently misunderstands (p. 75) an anecdote about Socrates’ interview with an armorer, Pistias, as reported in Xenophon’s Memorabilia (3.10.9). Pistias boasts of the quality of his cuirasses because they fit the body so closely and because they are so beautiful. Socrates asks how Pistias can well serve a client who has an ugly body. Pistias is confused but doesn’t see a problem. Xenophon himself, not the sharpest knife in the drawer, may not get the joke either, but the significant underlying assumption is that Pistias’ clients want him to make them look more beautiful. This aim is borne out in surviving bronze cuirasses, both the bell cuirass, that makes the wearer’s waist look smaller and chest larger and the muscle cuirass, that exaggerates chest and stomach musculature. Schwartz overlooks this underlying assumption, assuming that Pistias makes “compound linen” cuirasses, as a tailor might fit a bespoke suit.

In the next section Schwartz touches on the controversial question of the development of the phalanx and whether Homer ever depicts hoplite fighting or its ghost. In general he seems persuaded by the arguments of Latacz and others (but not all) that the Iliad does indeed suggest hoplite fighting and shows that this fighting style began in the 8th century.

The focus of the book now shifts from the minutiae of hoplite equipment to how it functioned in historical battles. In this second major section of the book, Schwartz rehearses briefly, as many have done, the archaic period’s testimony to hoplite fighting. He then moves on to the Persian wars (which the Index seems to have confused with the Peloponnesian war), even though, technically, wars with Persians, involving dissimilar non-hoplite Persian combatants, do not qualify for treatment in a book on phalanx fighting. Passing on to the Peloponnesian war, readers may be disappointed by its scant treatment and only a few references to Thucydides.

A long section on Deployment presents technical information on arrangement of the phalanx, mostly coming from late, non-military sources.

The last long section of this part of the book covers the duration of hoplite battles though this topic does not fit neatly into Schwartz’s diachronic scheme. The subject has already been covered in part, but it is significant and worthy of further study. Unfortunately, Schwartz does not apply the level of critical study that the topic requires. The vast majority of our ancient sources, where they touch on length, remark on battles being long, yet both victors and vanquished had every reason to exaggerate battle duration. The ancient Hellenes, in any case, had no clocks or clear sense of how 15 minutes differed from 45.

Modern comparisons clearly fascinate Schwartz, a fascination perhaps to be shared by some readers. In the case of the hoplon he enlists the Danish police, who use large shields in crowd control. Interesting, but it is hard to see what the Danish statistics add to our knowledge of hoplites. Here, and elsewhere, in giving weights and dimensions Schwartz’s comparisons with modern equipment would have more meaning if he took into account, for example, the height and weight of the average Danish policeman relative to the Greek soldiers.

At the end, the book presents in its final main division, an appendix Battle Inventory of 41 select battles arranged in alphabetical order. For each battle Schwartz gives brief notes, in 29 categories ranging from name and date to select bibliography. A number of observations could be made from perusing this list, though Schwartz does not make them. What stands out is the generally unconvincing ancient numbers of combatants and casualties. Marathon stands out with its 192 Athenian casualties, a convincing number because the Athenians obviously thought it horrifically large and remembered it—at a time when the slaughters of modern war and even bloody ancient conflicts like Cannae were still to come. One might also have expected more categories of notes such as What was this battle about? and Why these battles and not others? In trying to reduce his topic to a bare list of numbers, Schwartz demonstrates the fallacy of accepting a mathematical average of speculative numbers as anything more than further speculation.

Schwartz’s book includes 19 small but clear black and white illustrations. Only one of them depicts an actual surviving cuirass, the Argos panoply. There are, however, 5 line drawings of helmets, but all the other illustrations are pictures of vases with scenes showing armor or weapons. Five of these last are familiar depictions of hoplite phalanx battles. On these vases the artists must struggle with impossibly complex perspectives on curved surfaces, but the fact that they do struggle seems to show the importance of this kind of fighting for the artists’ contemporary audiences.

Unfortunately, the book as a whole disappoints. Of the three sections, the only original part is the initial compilation of details about equipment. But this compilation is original only because no one has ever thought these details were interesting or convincingly true. The number of footnotes is impressive, but of very few can we say specifically why they are there. The bibliography includes many items that are not in the footnotes or at least difficult to find.2 Finally, there are some surprising omissions. Where is the helmet of Miltiades or the Spartan shields from Pylos? Speaking of shields, what about shield decorations, especially that of Alcibiades? And did not even a single drive around the Peloponnese provoke him to remark on the unsuitability of the land to phalanx fighting?

One misses the observation and imagination of a scholar like Victor Hanson, admirable even when we think him wrong.


1.  The cuirass weight question is mostly moot, in any case since we don’t know how many cuirasses were metal and how many were “compound,” made of fabric much lighter (and presumably cheaper and more comfortable) than bronze. We do not even know if all hoplites always wore the cuirass in battle. A similar complication is the possible existence of both fancy “parade” armor and more practical combat armor.
2.  A good example is the well-known article of N. Whateley, “On the Possibility of Reconstructing Marathon and Other Ancient Battles,” JHS 84 (1964), 119-39. Schwartz includes Whateley in a list of sources for Marathon, but does not discuss Whateley’s criticisms of many assumptions about ancient battles.

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