The ancient Greek heavy infantryman referred to as a “hoplite” derives his name from hoplon, the Greek word for “shield”.
Is the ancient Greek hoplite named after his shield?
In the study of classical Greek warfare, the emphasis is usually placed – rightly or wrongly – on the ancient Greek “hoplite”. The hoplite is an infantryman armed with a thrusting spear and sporting a round, hollow shield. The shield is large, usually up to one metre in diameter, and features two grips: a central armband or porpax through which the left arm was thrust, and a a handle or antilabe near the rim for the left hand.
The shield is regarded as the defining feature of the hoplite. Without the shield, the warrior in question cannot be referred to as a hoplite. Many writers, including scholars who ought to know better, claim that the ancient Greeks referred to this shield as a hoplon, and that the hoplite is therefore named after this shield.
However, this is a mistake. In ancient Greek, hoplon is used to refer to a tool, an implement, or a weapon. It is, in other words, a rather generic term, and the ancient Greek hoplitēs means nothing more than someone who is equipped. The normal Greek word for shield is aspis (plural: aspides).
Already in 1996, J.F. Lazenby and David Whitehead tried to put this mistake to bed in an article published in the Classical Quarterly. They suggest that the origin of this error probably dates back to Diodorus Siculus (15.44.3). However, the authors point out the logical fallacy commited by Diodorus who claims that peltasts – a type of light infantry – were named after their pelte, and hoplites were “named after their… aspides!” (p. 28).
Incidentally, the term hoplitēs first appears in Pindar (Isthmian 1.23), who lived ca. 518-438 BC, and in Aeschylus’s Seven Against Thebes (466 and 717), first produced in 467 BC (Echeverría 2012). Earlier writers, including the poet Homer, refers to heavy-armed warriors instead by terms such as aichmētēs (spearman) or, in the case of the poet Tyrtaeus, panoplos (armoured man).
- Fernando Echeverría, “Hoplite and phalanx in Archaic and Classical Greece: a reassessment”, Classical Philology 107.4 (2012), pp. 291-318.
- J.F. Lazenby and David Whitehead, “The myth of the hoplite’s hoplon”, Classical Quarterly 46.1 (1996), pp. 27-33.
- Louis Rawlings, The Ancient Greeks at War (2007).
- Hans van Wees, Greek Warfare: Myths & Realities (2004).