The hoplite's "hoplon"

The typical Greek word for shield was not hoplon, and the hoplite is therefore not named after it. Yet, the myth persists.

Written by Josho Brouwers on

Today, I wanted to write a brief bit on a particular error that I encounter again and again despite the fact that most people by now ought to know better. It concerns the origin of the word “hoplite”, the term applied to denote a Greek heavily-armed warrior. The term itself is not without problems: it’s not used before the fifth century BC, for example, and Xenophon is able to refer to Egyptian warriors with shields also as hoplites (Anabasis 1.8.9).

In any event, the main issue is that a lot of people still claim that hoplites are named after their shield, which in Greek is supposedly called a hoplon. This mistake is so widespread that few seem to notice it any more. It still pops up frequently in academic and non-academic contexts alike. Here, let me pick an example at random. This is the entry for “hoplite” in Phil Sabin’s book Lost Battles, published originally in 2007:

Hoplite. The Greek term for heavy infantry, usually used today to refer specifically to the spearmen of Classical Greek poleis with their distinctive round ‘hoplon’ shields.

But back in 1996, J.F. Lazenby and David Whitehead wrote an article entitled “The myth of the hoplite’s hoplon”, published in Classical Quarterly 46.1, pp. 27–33. The abstract reads as follows:

“Hoplites are troops who take their name from their shields”. “The individual infantryman took his name, hoplites, from the hoplon or shield”. Such is the orthodox view. This paper will endeavour to show that its basis is inadequate. Rather, we shall argue, hoplites took their name from their arms and armour as a whole, their hopla in that all-encompassing sense; so that the original and essential meaning of the word hoplite was nothing more than “(heavily-)armed (infantry-)man”.

As the authors show, hoplon in Greek does not refer specifically to a shield, but rather to some piece, any piece, of equipment. Aspis is the typical Greek word for shield. But for some reason, ten and even twenty years after the publication of this article, the error continues to be replicated. Hopefully, this article can help set the record straight.

You can read Lazenby and Whitehead’s article over on JStor. If you don’t have access to JStor via a university library, you can sign up for a free account and read it that way. (Under no circumstances should you ever pay $19 for a single article.)

Note

Roel Konijnendijk points out that the error goes back to Diodorus. (I didn’t mention this because Lazenby & Whitehead also discuss the relevant passage on page 28, where they point out the logical fallacy of peltasts being named after their pelte and hoplites being “named after their… aspides!”).