Aspis Hoplon Shield: Defender of the Greeks

Almost all images of ancient Greek soldiers have them armed with the aspis hoplon shield. First used by Greek hoplites in the late eighth or early seventh centuries BC, the large circular shield was more than just a piece of defensive equipment. It was perhaps the single most important item in the panoply of ancient armour. This is the story of the aspis.

Military History
14 May 2024

For centuries, the iconic hoplon shield was a pivotal component of ancient Greek warfare. Its creation and development marked a significant evolution in military equipment from the Bronze Age to the Classical period, underscoring a shift toward more organised and strategic combat. First used around the eighth century BC, this famed Greek shield was known as an ‘aspis’ and was the first line of defence for the hoplite infantrymen, the citizen-soldiers of ancient Greece.

Let’s take a trip 2,700 years back into antiquity to discover the astonishing story of the hoplite aspis shield, why it’s sometimes been known as the spartan hoplon, and why it was an essential piece of equipment for an ancient Greek soldier.

The Origins of the World’s Most Famous Shield

Greek soldiers with hoplon shields (Credit: mikroman6 via Getty Images)

The aspis shield was a core element of battlefield equipment for hundreds of years, yet it didn’t suddenly emerge from nowhere, rather it evolved gradually over time. It’s believed this ancient Greek shield was an evolution of earlier, smaller round shields used by soldiers during the early Archaic period (from around 800 BC).

The Archaic period was a transformative era in ancient Greece, serving as the foundation for the subsequent Classical period in numerous aspects of Greek life including politics, economics, international relations, art and literature, and of course, warfare.

At the same time, the hoplite emerged as the backbone of Greek military forces, a pivotal shift that redefined warfare strategies and the role of the citizen-soldier.

This coincided with the rise of over a thousand poleis, or city-states, the most famous being Athens, Sparta, Corinth, Rhodes, Thebes, Syracuse, and Argos. This rise created a need for armies as the first line of defence. These city-states, part of the fragmented political landscape of ancient Greece, were composed of ordinary citizens – farmers, craftsmen, merchants, and others – who were expected to serve as soldiers, or hoplites, during wartime. From a young age, they had military training and held esteemed positions within society, reflecting the high value placed on civic duty and martial readiness.

They were usually expected to pay for their own armour and weaponry, and perhaps the most vital aspect of this panoply of protection was the ancient Greek shield known as the hoplite aspis.

What’s in a Name?

Classic depiction of a Spartan warrior (Credit: DianaHirsch via Getty Images)

Contrary to popular belief, the hoplites weren’t named after the hoplon shield. Indeed it is believed that the Greeks themselves referred to it as the aspis.

The etymology of the word is unclear. It may be derived from the verb apto, meaning ‘to fasten or attach’ in reference to how it was held by the arm. It could also be related to the Greek word aspistos, meaning ‘unseen’ or ‘unexpected,’ possibly alluding to the shield’s purpose of protecting its user from unseen attacks.

The Hoplon Shield

The Owl of Athena (Credit: Paul Campbell via Getty Images)

The aspis, weighing around eight kilograms, was round and approximately one metre in diameter. According to Theophrastus, a contemporary of Aristotle, the hoplite aspis was made from poplar or willow, woods known for resilience and lightness, and either steam-bent or carved to create a concave, bowl-like shape with a depth of up to about fifteen centimetres.

Some versions of the aspis shield had a bronze rim – the Spartan hoplon from 425 BC was covered in a thin layer of bronze – and it had what’s known as a double grip. In the centre of the shield was a strap called a porpax through which the soldier would thread his forearm, and on the outer rim of the shield would be a hand grip known as an antilabe. This helped distribute the weight of the shield across the forearm, enhancing both control and endurance during combat.

It’s also likely to have had strings across the back of the shield – similar to the straps of a rucksack – so it could be easily carried.

These hoplon shields were said to be vividly decorated, some with symbols representing the hoplite’s city-state, including the Greek letter lambda (Λ) for Lacedaemon, another name for Sparta. Some of the Athenian shields were said to be depicted with the Owl of Athena – Athene noctua – from around the late fifth century, and the sphinx, or the Club of Heracles, may have been on the shields used by the Thebian hoplites.

Some were even decorated by local artists to showcase their talent, and many were passed down from father to son.

Since the materials of the ancient Greek shield didn’t survive the ravages of time, there’s believed to be only one example which has been preserved well enough for historians and archaeologists to study. Found in 1830 near the town of Bomarzo, around sixty miles north of Rome, the Bomarzo Shield, sometimes referred to as the Vatican Shield, is on display at the Museo Gregoriano Etrusco in Vatican City.

The Phalanx

The Macedonian phalanx (Credit: mikroman6 via Getty Images)

The design of the hoplite aspis allowed it to be used with extraordinary effectiveness in battle. Each soldier held his shield so that it protected his body while partially overlapping the left side of the man to his right.

This arrangement created a formidable and virtually impenetrable wall of shields, protecting each soldier from chin to knee. The interlocked shields made the phalanx a dense, unified force capable of both withstanding enemy attacks and advancing against opponents with overwhelming might. This tactical use of the hoplon shield was pivotal in maintaining the cohesion and defence of the phalanx, which could be up to several hundred metres wide and twenty men deep, essentially defining Greek infantry combat.

This hallmark of Greek military strategy was notably effective in several key battles throughout ancient Greek history.

Battle of Marathon | 490 BC
During the Greco-Persian Wars, the primarily Athenian Greek forces used the phalanx to hold off and ultimately defeat a numerically superior Persian army.

Battle of Thermopylae | 480 BC
Despite being outnumbered and eventually succumbing to the Persians, the Spartan hoplon-dominated Greek phalanx, led by King Leonidas I of Sparta, utilised the terrain effectively, blocking a pass and inflicting heavy casualties on the enemy.

Battle of Plataea | 479 BC
The city-states united to defeat the Persians during the final land battle of the second Persian invasion of Greece. The hoplite aspis used in the Greek phalanx proved effective in the heavy infantry combat, showcasing its discipline and cohesion.

Battle of Leuctra | 371 BC
This victory, of the Thebians over the traditionally dominant Spartans, highlighted both the strength of the Greek shield in the phalanx, and how variations in its traditional deployment could yield significant battlefield advantages.

The Spartan Hoplon

The Spartans at the Battle of Plataea (Credit: duncan1890 via Getty Images)

The term ‘Spartan Hoplon’ emerged due to the shield’s prominent role in the arsenal of Sparta, the legendary Greek warrior society. Spartans, renowned for their rigorous military training and stoic lifestyle, at times referred to their shields as the hoplon shield, a term that became synonymous with their unyielding military prowess.

Indeed it was the Spartan army – traditionally said to have been founded by lawmaker Lycurgus who referred to his city-state as having ‘a wall of men instead of bricks’ – who first fully covered the aspis shield in a thin sheet of bronze to make it stronger and more powerful.

Such was the importance of the Spartan hoplon, if a soldier lost one in battle it was a sign of disgrace. They were tagged with the word ‘rhipsaspia’ which means ‘dropping the shield’, the army’s way of saying the infantryman was a deserter.

Legend states that Spartan mothers would wave their sons off to war by saying ‘Son, either with this or on this’, suggesting they either returned with their shield or came back dead, with their bodies carried on it.

The Hoplon Shield: Unity & Strength

Hoplite shields in battle (Credit: duncan1890 via Getty Images)

The most famous ancient Greek shield stands as a testament to the military ingenuity and communal spirit that was so important in ancient Greece. It was a powerful symbol of the hoplite’s role within the city-state, and as an integral part of the phalanx, the aspis shield not only safeguarded the individual warrior and his neighbour, but also solidified the collective strength of Greek armies, playing a vitally important role in their many historic victories.


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