Previous page Page 3 of 8 Next page
Index |  History |  Highlights |  WhatWhenWhere
Early civilizations
Greece and Rome
     Classical armour
     Arms of the legionary

Ingenious devices
Middle Ages
The footsoldier
To be completed

Bookmark and Share
Classical armour: 7th century BC - 4th century AD

The armour of the classical world, worn by the infantry of Greece and Rome, is more familiar in design than almost any other (except perhaps the armour of a mounted knight in the Middle Ages) because it features on so many Greek vases and Roman sculptures.

The Greeks set the pattern, later simplified by the Romans, when they evolve the heavy armour of the Greek citizen foot soldier - known as the hoplite.


The armour of the hoplite is a bronze helmet (the famous Greek helmet with a long narrow bridge down the nose), a corselet from shoulders to hips (usually in leather with bronze over the chest), bronze grieves (guarding the shins), a round shield (wood reinforced with iron), a long spear with a sharpened iron tip and a short double-edged iron sword.

Variants of this equipment can be found at this time in other armies. The hoplites are revolutionary not for their equipment but for the way they use it - massed together in the famous Greek phalanx (which has Mesopotamian origins).


The phalanx is a slow-moving but almost irresistible force, with a lethally sharp front edge. It consists of a solid block of men, usually eight ranks deep but often more. Each rank marches close behind the one in front. The first three ranks hold their spears horizontally, pointing them forward, so that three staggered spear points precede each man of the front rank. The men in the rear hold their spears upright in readiness.

Each hoplite is protected partly by the shield of the man to the right of him. It is in his interest to make sure that he keeps safely behind it, and this gives the phalanx its only vulnerable characteristic. The left of the line tends to fall back and curve away.


The first aim of every hoplite, as the opposing ranks meet, is to jab his spear point through the opposing shields to find any gap of flesh unprotected by an enemy's armour - such as neck or armpit. But if the opposing ranks break, the spear is abandoned for the hoplite's other weapon - the short two-sided sword, with which he will attempt to slash the unprotected top or back of an opponent's legs.

Once disaster has turned into flight, the weight of the hoplite's armour becomes a major disadvantage. Now the Greek light infantry, poor relations to the hoplite, come into their own, pursuing and spearing the defeated.


The phalanx undergoes a few tactical developments over the centuries. Its tendency to drift backwards on the left is brilliantly exploited in the 4th century by Epaminondas (see the tactics of Epaminondas). Preliminary assaults on the opposing phalanx by slingers and archers become standard practice. And Alexander the Great increases the weight of the phalanx by doubling its depth to 16 ranks and arming the hoplites with spears of 6 or 7 yards (6 metres) in length - enabling the first five ranks to use their spears in the initial charge.

But these are only modifications. The next real advance in European infantry tactics must wait for the Roman legions.


Arms of the Roman legionary: from the 4th century BC

In a Roman army the long heavy spear of the Greek hoplite is replaced by a javelin. The Roman foot soldier flings this as soon as he is in close contact with the enemy. He then gets to work with his short thrusting sword, the most characteristic weapon of the Roman legionary.

The Roman helmet is simpler than the Greek version, with more of the face exposed. And the Roman shield is rectangular, with a slight curve so that it hugs the body. Held edge to edge above the head, these shields can form a roof to protect soldiers carrying out a siege - the famous Roman testudo or 'tortoise'.


Previous page Page 3 of 8 Next page