Weaponry of the Ancient Greek Military

by Joseph Cummins

The ancient Greeks were skilled and determined warriors who generally fought in phalanx formations – i.e., in ranks of infantrymen eight rows deep who moved as a unit, protecting one another with shields and spears. The Greek soldier who fought in the phalanx was called a hoplite (named after his heavy circular shield, the hoplon) and his most effective weapon was his spear.

The Long Spear

The spear, or doru, was between six and 10 feet in length, tipped with a leaf-shaped iron spearhead, and with a bronze buttspike at the end to balance the weapon and allow it to be planted in the ground, if necessary. (The buttspike was also used by the rear ranks of soldiers in the phalanx to kill wounded enemies as the phalanx advanced over them, while still keeping their spears upright.). The doru was held under the arm when the hoplites approached the enemy, but thrust overhand during actual combat.

Stabbing and Slashing Swords

Another weapon of the hoplite was the iron sword, or xiphos, which was about two feet long and carried in a shoulder-scabbard. While spears were the hoplites’ primary weapons, the xiphoi were employed for close-in fighting when spears broke or when two opposing phalanxes crashed together and spears were unwieldy to use. Another form of short sword used by the Greeks was the kopis, a curving weapon best suite for slashing and often employed by Spartan hoplites.

Light and Fast

Aside from the heavily armed troops fighting in their phalanx formations, the Greeks employed more lightly-armed auxiliary forces. Some of the light troops may have been slaves or servants of the hoplites themselves; these men were generally only armed with stones, which they threw by hand or via slings. Others were javelin throwers called peltasts, named after their crescent-shaped wicker shield, the pelta. The peltasts were skirmishers, thrown out in front of the main phalanx to weaken the enemy by showering javelins down on them. They also carried deadly scythes with a curving iron blade that could decapitate an enemy in a stroke.

Archers and Horsemen

The ancient Greeks also employed archers, although they were definitely in the minority (at the beginning of the Peloponnesian Wars, from about 431 to 404 B.C., Athenian forces had 15,000 hoplites as opposed to 1,200 archers). However lightly-armored archers played an important role, either in harassing the flanks of opposing phalanxes or in defending cities during sieges. Greek horsemen were armed with javelins for throwing and trusting, as well as longer spears. They also may have carried the same curving kopis as the Spartan hoplites.

About the Author

Based in New Jersey, Joseph Cummins has been a freelance writer since 2002. He has written 17 books covering history, politics and culture. He has a Master of Fine Arts in writing from Columbia University. His work has been featured in "The New York Times" Freakonomics blog, "Politico," "New York Archives" magazine, "The Carolina Quarterly," "The Michigan Quarterly" and elsewhere.

Photo Credits

  • Hulton Archive/Hulton Archive/Getty Images