Romans and the Classical Greek Hoplite

AlpinLuke

Forum Staff
Oct 2011
27,183
Italy, Lago Maggiore
Internet is full of pages about "Ancient Spartans" vs "Ancient Roman Legionaries" [or something like that].

What I know is that during the conquest of Greek lands Romans had occasions [and they already deployed legions on the battle field, it was late III - early II century BCE] to face Spartants. One example was the siege of Gynthium [195 BCE]. In that case the Romans were part of a coalition and the Spartan weren't able to resist. The Spartan leader Nabis had 1,000 Cretans, 3,000 mercenaries and 10,000 citizens with him.

At the beginning the Romans got defeated, but then they were able to defeat the Spartans forcing them to retreat within the walls. After different events, at the end Nabis surrendered, leaving the city to the Romans and going aways. Romans didn't request him to renounce to his crown [they wanted a little state in that area] and Nabis tried again to conquer Gynthium without success.
 
Sep 2012
1,139
Tarkington, Texas
Guys, the effectiveness of a Hoplite Phalanx is disrupted when you fight on uneven terrain. It is hard to make a straight line with overlapping shields when you are going through hills. Roman Cohorts and Maniples are designed to fight in uneven terrain. By the time of Phillip II, the Hoplite Phalanx was out of date and the Macedonian Phalanx ground them into the dirt. I have been reading that the traditional Hoplite Phalanx was not a push and shove contest that often. There was a transition to Thureophoroi by Macedon and many Greek States.

Pruitt
 
Sep 2012
1,139
Tarkington, Texas
Internet is full of pages about "Ancient Spartans" vs "Ancient Roman Legionaries" [or something like that].

What I know is that during the conquest of Greek lands Romans had occasions [and they already deployed legions on the battle field, it was late III - early II century BCE] to face Spartants. One example was the siege of Gynthium [195 BCE]. In that case the Romans were part of a coalition and the Spartan weren't able to resist. The Spartan leader Nabis had 1,000 Cretans, 3,000 mercenaries and 10,000 citizens with him.

At the beginning the Romans got defeated, but then they were able to defeat the Spartans forcing them to retreat within the walls. After different events, at the end Nabis surrendered, leaving the city to the Romans and going aways. Romans didn't request him to renounce to his crown [they wanted a little state in that area] and Nabis tried again to conquer Gynthium without success.
That is a lot of Citizens (full Spartans?)! That sounds like 1000 Cretan Archers and 3000 Mercenaries of different types. The Spartans would normally be broken up into Full Citizens, Non Citizens, and Psiloi. When Leonidas took 300 Spartans with him to Thermopylae, each Spartan brought along 7 attendants. On the March they looked a bit like servants and baggage handlers, but when battle neared they armed themselves! They would be Psiloi in support behind (or to the side) of the Spartan Citizens.

Pruitt
 

AlpinLuke

Forum Staff
Oct 2011
27,183
Italy, Lago Maggiore
First of all, an errata corrige: I note I've written "Gynthium", the correct name of the city was "Gythium".

Then, as for I remember Nabis got the power when Sparta was short of full citizens and he run a real social reform [also setting helots free] to have again enough warriors.
He modified also the basic formation a bit [equipping the hoplites with longer spears].
 

Dan Howard

Ad Honorem
Aug 2014
4,882
Australia
Guys, the effectiveness of a Hoplite Phalanx is disrupted when you fight on uneven terrain. It is hard to make a straight line with overlapping shields when you are going through hills. Roman Cohorts and Maniples are designed to fight in uneven terrain. By the time of Phillip II, the Hoplite Phalanx was out of date and the Macedonian Phalanx ground them into the dirt. I have been reading that the traditional Hoplite Phalanx was not a push and shove contest that often. There was a transition to Thureophoroi by Macedon and many Greek States.

Pruitt
The legions fought in flat open terrain. They used auxillaries in uneven or wooded terrain. The Dacian campaign, for example, was fought almost entirely by auxilliaries.
 
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Matthew Amt

Ad Honorem
Jan 2015
2,984
MD, USA
The usage of an aspis is heavily indicative that they fought in a phalanx (shield wall). It's not that good a shield when it comes to open-order fighting, because then you'll have a large portion of the shield on the left that's not protecting anyone, but the extra weight of the shield is still going to be there.
Not really. In a typical fighting stance, the shield is pretty well centered on your body, and gives good coverage. It's not quite as maneuverable as a scutum or thureos, or a center-grip roundshield, but it's perfectly functional. There's also no reason to suspect that it was significantly heavier than a scutum, though we do tend to believe the thureos was generally lighter, on average.

Matthew
 

Matthew Amt

Ad Honorem
Jan 2015
2,984
MD, USA
Guys, the effectiveness of a Hoplite Phalanx is disrupted when you fight on uneven terrain. It is hard to make a straight line with overlapping shields when you are going through hills. Roman Cohorts and Maniples are designed to fight in uneven terrain. By the time of Phillip II, the Hoplite Phalanx was out of date and the Macedonian Phalanx ground them into the dirt. I have been reading that the traditional Hoplite Phalanx was not a push and shove contest that often. There was a transition to Thureophoroi by Macedon and many Greek States.

Pruitt
Careful. Hoplites continued in use long after the pike phalanx appeared, often as auxiliary troops, etc. They were far from useless! Philip also suffered 2 defeats in his invasion of Greece before winning at Chaeronea, though I don't know if there is any information on the composition of those forces that were defeated.

I certainly agree that hoplites were generally not the main force in Greece by the time the Romans arrived.

Matthew
 

HackneyedScribe

Ad Honorem
Feb 2011
6,536
Not really. In a typical fighting stance, the shield is pretty well centered on your body, and gives good coverage. It's not quite as maneuverable as a scutum or thureos, or a center-grip roundshield, but it's perfectly functional. There's also no reason to suspect that it was significantly heavier than a scutum, though we do tend to believe the thureos was generally lighter, on average.

Matthew

I'm not saying it's useless. I'm judging the effectiveness of a shield based on it's relativity to that of other shields available. If they didn't fight in a shield wall then what's the point of an aspis when they have things like the thureos available?

I'm also not saying the aspis was heavier, but it covers less of your body than a scutum because a significant part of its weight is meant to cover the guy standing to your left. In open order fighting when there's nobody standing right next to your left, what else does that weight contribute? For an effective shield, each unit of added weight should contribute to something. I'm judging the amount of defense provided relative to its weight, as compared with other shields.
 
Last edited:
Jan 2019
10
CA, U.S.A.
Kind of dodging the question, but what exactly do you mean by "classical" and "hoplite"?

Generally, spearmen fighting in a close order shield wall was a very common method of fighting in the Mediterranean basin pre-Rome (and indeed, everywhere for most of history), the pike formations only replaced it in the successor states. I believe that when Julius Caesar thought the Helveti he described them as forming a phalanx. If you're a purist, did Pyrrhus use spear+hoplite phalanxes or just sarissa ones? I also believe that lots of Greek mercenaries thought in the traditional hoplite formation, the Romans simply must have encountered them in southern Italy or Sicily, or when fighting the Punic wars.

Now if you define a classical hoplite to be precisely the equipment used in Greece pre Peloponnesian War, then the Romans might not have encountered them. But they definitely thought often against foes that were fighting in an almost identical way.
No its a fair counter question. Sorry for the lack of clarity. I am referring to the hoplite as it was prior to the Peloponnesian War. Another follow on question to throw into the mix would be, did other cultures treat their shieldwalls in the same way the greeks did (i.e. the pushing match/othismos)?