The aspis

A global shield

A round shield, with a double grip, swept the Mediterranean by storm. But why did this happen?

Written by Joshua R. Hall on

Most images of ancient Greek soldiers show them armed with a large, round, shield. A beautiful sixth-century hyrdria, currently held in the Louvre, is a great example of this. A detail is shown above, used as this article’s featured image (source). Not only do we see the face of the shield (soldier on the viewer’s right), but we also see the double-grip system (porpax and antilabē) on the viewer’s left.

The association of this shield with the Greek “hoplite” is ubiquitous. In later generations, in fact, ancient authors drew a direct line between the shield which was by then referred to as a hoplon and the hoplite. Diodorus Siculus straightforwardly says that they “had been called hoplites on account of their shield the hoplon” (15.44.3). But this is most certainly an anachronism. As John Lazenby and David Whitehead poignantly argued, in the period of its supremacy, this type of shield was called an aspis by the Greeks.Show J.F. Lazenby and D. Whitehead, “The myth of the hoplite’s hoplon”, Classical Quarterly 46.1 (1996), pp. 27-33.

It is important for us to recognize the proper name of this shield, as it was central to the warfare of Archaic and Classical Greece, and indeed the rest of the Mediterranean. Anthony Snodgrass put it authoritatively: “the most important single item in the panoply of the hoplite (…) was the great round shield.”Show A.M. Snodgrass, Arms & Armor of the Greeks (1998, second edition), p. 53. Its gradual dominance in militaristic depictions from the Greek world implies that from its origins (probably in the eighth century BC) onward,Show the chronology is, as Josho wrote, “shrouded in mystery”; cf. Josho Brouwers, “From horsemen to hoplites: some remarks on Archaic Greek Warfare”, BABesch 82 (2007), pp. 305-319. soldiers began to think of it as superior to older and other designs.Show There is no reason to think it was inferior in certain settings, as implied by V.D. Hanson, The Western Way of War (second edition, 1989), p. 28. As Louis Rawlings, amongst others, has shown, the supposed limitations of the aspis were not nearly as severe as previously proposed; “Alternative agonies: Hoplite martial and combat experiences beyond the phalanx”, in H. van Wees (ed.), War and Violence in Ancient Greece (2009), pp. 233-259. It could have been better suited to use on horseback than earlier designs, thus popular in an Archaic Greece in which cavalry were very important.Show Again, see Josho’s article in BABesch.

Beyond looking at the effectiveness of the aspis in battles between Greeks, or between Greeks and others, its adoption by many other cultures throughout the Mediterranean is indicative of either its effectiveness or its popularity for other reasons.

The aspis abroad

One of the earliest adopters of the aspis outside of Greece were the Etruscans. From about the middle of the seventh century, this type of shield began to appear throughout Etruria, along with other elements of Hellenic kit, such as the heavy and visually-restrictive Corinthian helmet (and its derivatives).Show P.F. Stary, “Foreign elements in Etruscan arms and armour: 8th to 3rd centuries BC”, Proceedings of the Prehistoric Society 45 (1979), pp. 179-206. This is still a reliable survey, though the same author wrote a more authoritative and comprehensive analysis on arms and armour in central Italy, accessible only to readers of German: idem, Zur eisenzeitlichen Bewaffnun und Kampfesweise in Mittelitalien (1981).

A cippus from Chiusi beautifully shows soldiers carrying aspides, probably showing the porpax-antilabē system (after P.F. Stary 1981, Taf. 32.1):

Because we lack extensive literary evidence from Etruria, we do not know why the shield was adopted. It could have been through conflicts with the Greeks who had begun trading and settling in the central Mediterranean, with Anthony Snodgrass claiming that “hoplite armies fought with signal success against Etruscans.”Show A.M. Snodgrass, “Interaction by design: the Greek city state”, in C. Renfrew and J.F. Cherry (eds.), Peer Polity Interaction and Socio-Political Change (1986), pp. 47-58, at p. 51. See also Stary, Foreign Elements…, p.193. But, there are problems with this theory. How often would Greek armies actually have been encountered? Certainly, traders and pirates would be fighting in a different way than the large armies of Aegean poleis. One of the only battles between an Etruscan-led army and a Hellenic polis, at Cumae in 524/523 BC, does not emphasize the infantry combat. Instead, the cavalry encounter takes centre stage in the narrative (Dion. Hal. Ant. Rom. 7.4).

But, that the adoption of the aspis was based on military necessity is corroborated by a passage from an unknown historian of Rome, writing in Greek. He stated that from the Etruscans the Romans learned to fight with “bronze shields” (χαλκάσπιδες) and “in phalanxes” (φαλαγγηδόν).Show H. von Arnim, “Ineditum Vaticanum”, Hermes 27.1 (1892), pp. 118-30, at p. 121. On the surface, this appears to be concrete proof that it was necessary to take up this fighting style when it was encountered in an enemy. But, the explanation found in the Ineditum Vaticanum must be read in context. It is part of a wider Roman topos of being a militarily adaptable people. Even in this otherwise unknown text, it is stated in a speech being delivered by a man named Kaeso to some Carthaginians in the context of the First Punic War. He is making the point that Rome will emerge victorious because of how they, as a nation, can imitate their adversary’s way of fighting and then surpass them.

We find a similar story told in Diodorus Siculus. Here, when the Romans were crossing to Sicily in the First Punic War, envoys were sent to them by Carthage, asking how they planned to do this, seeing as the Carthaginians were in control of the sea. The Roman response was to not underestimate them, as they “were pupils who always outstripped their masters”, giving the following as examples (Diod. Sic. 23.2):

in ancient times, when [we] were using rectangular shields, the Etruscans, who fought with round shields of bronze and in phalanx formation, impelled them to adopt similar arms and were in consequence defeated. Then again, when other peoples were using shields such as the Romans now use, and were fighting by maniples, they had imitated both and had overcome those who introduced the excellent models. From the Greeks they had learned siegecraft and the use of engines of war for demolishing walls, and had then forced the cities of their teachers to do their bidding.

Because of the highly rhetorical nature of this speech, it is best to treat its conclusions with caution. The origin of this passage is more probably in Roman notions of superiority rather than any historical reality. In fact, a number of modern scholars have pointed out that the warfare practiced in early Rome and Etruria was not compatible with the traditional version of “hoplite warfare”.Show e.g. N. Rosenstein, “Phalanges in Rome?” in: G.G. Fagan and M. Trundle (eds.), New Perspectives on Ancient Warfare (2010), pp. 289-304. So, could there have been another reason that the aspis was adopted outside of Greece?

An element of fashion

The aspis may have spread throughout the Mediterranean as an element of globalizing fashion, perhaps serving as a marker of social status. There could be evidence of this on a number of situlae from north-eastern Italy. Both of these show armies (or units?) composed of troops with different arms.

On the Situla della Certosa, we see horsemen, followed by soldiers carrying ovular shields, square shields, and finally round shields, which look like aspides (source):

Similarly, the Situla Arnoaldi depicts a musician followed by a horseman, soldiers carrying rectangular shields, and then a single soldier with a round shield, followed by another rectangular shield, and then finally a horseman (source):

In both of these, the soldiers using round shields (quite possibly aspides) are at the back of the formation. In the case of the Situla Arnoaldi, there is a single figure carrying one of these. Based on this, I believe that they are a marker of the bearer’s rank as being more important (read: elite) than the others.Show See the lengthy discussion in A. Cherici, “Armati e tombe con armi nella società dell’etruria padana: analisi di alcuni monumenti”, AnnFaina 15 (2008), pp. 187-246. A similar situation can be found in sixth century BC Rome, in the so-called Servian Constitution. In this regal reorganization of the Roman army (and state), the wealthy were required to supply themselves with a round shield when serving in the army, whilst poorer classes were to acquire rectangular shields (Livy 1.43; Dion. Hal. Ant. Rom. 4.16-18).

There are historiographical problems with this bit of Archaic Roman history, however, and it is often taken to be anachronistic by modern scholars.Show See the comments in T.J. Cornell, The Beginnings of Rome: Italy and Rome From the Bronze Age to the Punic Wars (c. 1000-264 BC) (1995), pp. 173-197. If we look further afield, however, we find an example of shield shape being used as a status marker. The evidence for a mid-fourth century BC fighting force was found in a bog sacrifice at Hjortspring, on the island of Als. Here, narrow shields were used by the “commanders” while broad shields were used by “common warriors”.Show K. Randsborg, “Into the Iron Age: a discourse on war and society”, in J. Carman and A. Harding (eds.), Ancient Warfare: Archaeological Perspectives (2009), pp. 191-202.

Conclusions

It is very attractive to suggest that the aspis was adopted as a status marker. Indeed, the graves in Etruria which evidence the shield design are “princely”, which is a way of saying that they were wealthy burials. It would fit in with a larger pattern of bringing in foreign designs which stretched back to the Early Iron Age.Show e.g. C. Iaia, “Warrior identity and the materialisation of power in Early Iron Age Etruria”, in R.D. Whitehouse and J.B. Wilkins (eds.), Accordia Research Papers Volume 12 (2009-2012), pp. 71-95; idem, “Metalwork, rituals and the making of elite identity in central Italy at the Bronze Age-Iron Age transition”, in M.E. Alberti and S. Sabatini (eds.), Exchange Networks and Local Transformations: Interaction and Local Change in Europe and the Mediterranean from the Bronze Age to the Iron Age (2013), pp. 102-116; cf. G. Camporeale, “Foreign artists in Etruria”, in: J.M. Turfa (ed.), The Etruscan World (2013), pp. 885-902. This explanation also makes sense within the wider Hellenizing phenomenon, in which aspects of Greek culture (such as ritualized wine consumption) were adopted throughout Italy and the Mediterranean.

But, this does not fully discount the military explanation. As Nigel Spivey and Simon Stoddart pointed out a few decades ago, however, “the archaeological evidence cannot sustain the theory that there was in the sixth century a considerable body of (…) [Etruscan soldiers] (…) who could afford to equip themselves in (…) [this newer fashion] (…). Panoplies [such as these] (…) should be understood as luxury acquisitions either from the Greek world or produced under Greek influence.”Show N. Spivey and S. Stoddart, Etruscan Italy: An Archaeological History (1990), p. 131.

The question can never be answered beyond doubt as to why the aspis was adopted across the Mediterranean, but by looking specifically at Italy in this article, I have mustered enough evidence to suggest that there were considerations beyond military at play. As a symbol of social status, the large round shield was impressive and would remind others on the battlefield of the bearer’s position.

Further reading

Suggestions for further reading:

  • M.E. Alberti and S. Sabatini (eds.), Exchange Networks and Local Transformations: Interaction and Local Change in Europe and the Mediterranean from the Bronze Age to the Iron Age (2013).
  • Josho Brouwers, “From horsemen to hoplites: some remarks on Archaic Greek Warfare”, BABesch 82 (2007), pp. 305-319.
  • J. Carman and A. Harding (eds.), Ancient Warfare: Archaeological Perspectives (2009).
  • G.G. Fagan and M. Trundle (eds.), New Perspectives on Ancient Warfare (2010).
  • J.F. Lazenby and D. Whitehead, “The myth of the hoplite’s hoplon”, Classical Quarterly 46.1 (1996), pp. 27-33.
  • C. Renfrew and J.F. Cherry (eds.), Peer Polity Interaction and Socio-Political Change (1986).
  • A.M. Snodgrass, Arms & Armor of the Greeks (1998, second edition).
  • N. Spivey and S. Stoddart, Etruscan Italy: An Archaeological History (1990).
  • P.F. Stary, Zur eisenzeitlichen Bewaffnun und Kampfesweise in Mittelitalien (1981).
  • H. van Wees (ed.), War and Violence in Ancient Greece (2009).

Think we needed to include something else in this list? Let us know.