Battles in ancient Greece

Face to face with spears and shields

The opposing armies of Athens and Sparta were lined up in the narrow plain. The densely packed formations of men begin to move towards one another, advancing at a measured pace until they were close enough to jab at each other with their heavy 8 ft (2.4 m) iron-headed spears.

Some men in the front ranks fell, killed or wounded, but others immediately came from behind to pull them out of the way and take their places. Then both sides began pushing with their shileds and the battle became little more than a vast scrum. After a few minutes, one side began to give ground. Soon it had been reduced to a disorganized rabble fleeing to the rear.

Between 650 and 300 BC Greek warfare was dominated by the hoplite, a heavily armored infantryman who fought alongside his fellows in a formation known as a phalanx. The soldiers of the Greek city states - apart from Sparta - were part-timers mobilized in times of emergency who had to provide their own arms and equipment.

The phalanx was devised to overcome their lack of training - and by massing the men together, to foster fighting spirit. It consisted of eight or more ranks, usually 120 hoplites in each, with the best soldiers positioned by convention at the right-hand end.

Outflanking the enemy 

The phalanx was a powerful weapon in any battle and was particularly effective against frontal cavalry charges and in the face of bowmen and missile throwers. But it did have drawbacks. Phalanxes of 16 raks, each of 256 men, were not unknown, and such a dense body was difficult to manuever in conflict. The Spartans, the most dedicated and highly trained warriors in ancient Greece, divided the phalanx into smaller, independent groups of 40 men..

Some experts argued that the phalanx wasted manpower, because only the leading ranks engage the enemy: as the Greek soldier and historian Xenophon (435-354 BC) said, "When a phalanx is too deep for the men to reach the enemy with their weapons, what harm do you think they do to the enemy or good to their friends?" Another problem was that the right flank - unprotected by shields - was vulnerable to attack.

Eventually the more manueverable smaller groups favored by the Spartans took over from the large phalanx. The Romans took it a stage further by forsaking the long spear for the short sword - a much more effective weapon in close combat.

Running battle

When one phalanx is forced to give way, the battle turns into a series of individual skirmishes. Soldiers push with their heavy bronze-skinned wood and leather shields to try to force their opponents to the ground, where they can be finished off with the spears. The shields, decorated with the heads of lions or other animals, protect the hoplites' bodies from the neck to the knees.

Battle wear

A full-face battle helmet gave the hoplite a fierce appearance. He could breathe easily through a long slit in the chin guard beneath the nose and over the mouth. On the battlefield he usually wore a splendid plume of horsehair on top of the helmet.