A marble lekythos in Leiden

Hoplites during the Classical period

“Hoplites” of the seventh century BC were “men of bronze”. A few centuries later, they had shed most of their armour, as a marble lekythos in Leiden shows.

Josho Brouwers

The new Classical department of the National Museum of Antiquities in Leiden includes, among the many objects on display, a marble lekythos. A lekythos is usually a small oil flask and was a common gift to put in a grave. This monumental marble lekythos, many times the size of actual pottery lekythoi, was used as a grave marker.

A Classical Greek hoplite

This lekythos is made of marble and comes from Attica, even though the exact provenance is unknown. The museum notes in its description that the lekythos was purchased in Athens in 1819 by Colonel B.E.A. Rottiers. The grave marker has been dated to between ca. 350 and 320 BC. This corresponds to the period in which Philip II of Macedon rose to power and, following the Battle of Chaeronea in 338 BC, managed to seize control over all of Greece.

The main scene on the belly of the lekythos depicts a man with shield and helmet sitting down; another man stands in front of him and extends his right hand. This is a type of scene commonly encountered on funerary monuments: the seated figure represents the deceased, while the figure in front, extending the hand, is bidding the deceased farewell. The museum suggests that this other man is perhaps a brother or son; this seems plausible.

A marble lekythos from Attica, dated to ca. 350-320 BC. This is what Greek hoplites looked like from about the time of the Peloponnesian War (431-404 BC) onwards. Currently on display at the National Museum of Antiquities in Leiden. Photo: Josho Brouwers.

The deceased is represented as a warrior: we’re probably to imagine that he was killed in battle. He is shown as a hoplite with equipment typical for this period: wearing a simple tunic, equipped with an Argive shield and a simple conical helmet of pilos type. The latter was in use from about ca. 450 BC and was probably modelled after conical headgear made from felt or some other perishable material. Helmets like this would have been made of bronze.

Explaining change

This hoplite is quite different from what they looked like a few centuries earlier. In the seventh and sixth centuries BC, hoplites typically wore lots of armour: bronze greaves, bronze breastplates or linen corslets, helmets that enclosed the entire head (the Corinthian helmet being the best known example), and so on. A lot of this armour was shed over the course of time. Bronze breastplates were already being replaced by lighter linen corslets towards the end of the sixth century BC. Corinthian helmets went largely into disuse by 450 BC, even though they persisted in art much longer as symbols of a glorious past.

By the time of the Peloponnesian War (431-404 BC), the typical hoplite of the age looked more or less like our man does in this relief. Gone were the many pounds of armour, replaced instead by simpler, lighter, and more affordable equipment. There are many reasons for this, each of which deserves fuller treatment than what I can offer here at present (but our podcast episode on the Greek hoplite is a good starting point, as is my book on Greek warfare).

A very brief explanation for this change is connected to processes of state formation and cities becoming more inclusive. As populations and armies grew, aristocratic warbands of the Archaic period made way for the more centrally-organized and larger armies of the Classical age. With more people being required to fight, the equipment, which the warriors needed to acquire themselves, needed to be cheaper and simpler. This is not to say that hoplites were “poor” or “middling”: these were still relatively well-to-do members of society.

At the same time, during the Classical period, wealthier members of society, men like the Athenian writer Xenophon (ca. 430-354 BC), fought not as hoplites, but as cavalrymen, where there were more possibilities for ostentatious display of wealth, including wearing more bronze armour, such as breastplates, greaves, more elaborate helmets, and various forms of protection for the arms.

Again, this is a greatly simplified summary of a highly complex issue. It’s often easy to look back at the past and think that much of it was unchanging or static. But the reality is that the world is continually changing, and the past was just as dynamic as the present. Greek warfare is just one aspect in which change is noticeable across the centuries.