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Spartan Facts and Terminology

Hoplite - A heavily armored Greek infantryman whose main weapons were the round hoplon shield (perhaps where the name came from) and the long 6-9 foot thrusting spear.

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Phalanx – The ancient world’s ultimate weapon of war for centuries developed by the Greeks and perfected by the Spartans.  Hoplites stood shoulder-to-shoulder with overlapping shields and spears thrusting towards the enemy.  When asked why Sparta had no walls around her borders for protection the reply given was, “The borders of our frontiers are protected by the tips of our warriors’ spears.”  The depth of the phalanx formation varied depending on the needs, terrain, enemy, etc. as did the width.

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Panoply - The hoplite’s equipment collection of iron weapons and bronze armor, which included his shield, spear, helmet, sword, breastplate and greaves among other pieces.  Spartans were taught never to let their weapons out of arms length distance even when heeding the call of nature or when sleeping and to carry your spear at all times when on campaign.

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Shield (hoplon or aspis) – The hoplite’s most important piece of equipment.  A Spartan could lose his helmet or breastplate with impunity but would be disgraced if he threw away his shield because, “You wear the armor for your own protection but you carry your shield for the protection of the entire line.”  The large (usually at least 36” in diameter), round, heavy (approx. 15 lbs.), concave shield was carried by a Greek hoplite warrior in battle.  It came in three layers with the center made of thick wood (think of a cutting board) with bronze on the outside facing the enemy and leather on the inside.  The revolutionary Argive-style handle on the inside allowed the left arm to slide in the arm band (porpax) up to the forearm while the left hand gripped the handle (antilabe) for better control.

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Spear (dory) –The main offensive weapon of the Greeks, was approx. 6-9 feet long and made of ash wood specifically chosen because of its lightness and strength.  The front leaf-shaped spearhead blade was made of razor-sharp iron and on the back end a bronze butt spike (sauroter meaning “lizard killer”) was attached to help counter balance the weight.  The butt spike’s main purpose was to plant the spear in the ground upright when not in use (this is why bronze was used because it didn’t rust as easily as iron).  It could also serve as a secondary weapon if the spear was broken and the front iron blade was lost or damaged.  Thirdly it was used as a plunging weapon by the rear ranks of the phalanx.  While holding their spears in the upright vertical position they pushed the front ranks forward.  Marching over wounded enemies they would stab down at the fallen to make sure they were dead and not just wounded.  It also kept enemy sappers from faking an injury and lying down so they could get back up behind the phalanx once it had passed over them to attack from the rear.  After row upon row of hoplites jabbed and trampled the downed enemy while stepping over them, the unfortunate foe was full of punctured stab wounds, crushed and quite dead.

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Sword- There were basically two types of swords the Greeks used.  One was a short, straight stabbing sword (xiphos) and the other was a curved, heavier slashing sword (kopis).  Both were secondary sidearm weapons only used when the spears were gone in close hand-to-hand combat.  Many Greeks had regular sized swords that were used when the spear was broken to slash overhand at the enemy but the Spartans were famous for their short swords and there are many comments about them, which have survived through the ages.  A Spartan mother upon hearing her son complain that he wished his sword was just a foot longer scolded him by saying, “Step a foot closer to the enemy and it will be just the right length!”  King Agesilaos was asked why the Spartan swords were so short to which he proudly answered, “We are not afraid to come to grips and fight close to the enemy.”  Spartans considered arrows, javelins, slings and other weapons used from a distance to be the womanly tools of cowards who were too afraid to close man-to-man with an opponent.  They wanted to be close enough to smell what their foe had for breakfast with his last dying breath.  When mocked that Spartan swords were so short a juggler could swallow them King Agis III replied, “Nevertheless we still stab our enemies with them.”  Spartans knowledge of medicine and the human anatomy taught them not to waste energy by slashing wildly with their sword but to thrust effectively under the armor aiming for the vital internal organs of the abdomen, the femoral arteries of the inner thighs, the groin or the throat for the deadliest, most effective and quickest way to dispatch the enemy.

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Helmet – The second most important piece of a hoplite’s equipment behind his shield was his Corinthian style helmet.  Usually forged out of a single piece of bronze it completely covered the head with good protection leaving only two eye slits open giving it an ominous appearance.  A felt padded cap was worn underneath for comfort.  There were no holes for the ears so hearing was difficult.  A brightly colored horsehair crest was worn on the top of the helmet to make the hoplite look taller and more imposing as well as to possibly help soften the blows from enemy weapons.  It could also serve as a badge of rank or designate one’s unit.  Most crests ran front-to-back but some went side-to-side in the case of officers and NCO’s.

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Cuirass – There were different types of bronze chest plate protection worn including the “bell cuirass” with an offset flange at the waist giving it a shape resembling the flaring mouth of a bell and the “muscle cuirass” closely modeled to the musculature of the body.  Both offered good protection of the chest and abdominal cavity covering the front and back.  A different type of armor protection for the torso was the linothorax which was a composite-type armor made of hardened linen or leather.

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Greaves (knemides) – Bronze armor that protected the shins and sometimes even the knees and ankles, they followed the musculature of the calf and were kept in place by the natural springiness of the metal as it was bent to form fit the lower leg.

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Pteruges (cingulum) – The groin area was covered by a double layer of stiffened, hardened leather flaps, which offered flexibility to the legs but also some protection.

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Bracers – Wrist guards usually made of leather used to strengthen and protect the wrist and forearm.

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Cloak (himation or chlamys or ephaptis) – Spartan men were issued only one crimson red tunic per year which was worn year-round regardless of the weather to show one’s physical toughness and to get accustomed to enduring the cold.

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Tunic (chiton or exomis) - The basic item of clothing for all Greeks, it was made of wool or linen.  The great Spartan lawgiver Lycurgus ordered that all Spartan clothing be crimson red because it least resembled women’s clothing and was most warlike.  The blood red color also aroused terror in the opponent and disguised one’s own wounds so the enemy would never see their blood.  Many other Greeks eventually copied the Spartans uniform color as did the Romans and even the British Redcoats centuries later.

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Shoes – All Greek men typically went barefoot for almost all of their outdoor physical activity; farming, hunting, exercise, traveling, etc. so it would be expected that warfare would be no different.  Spartan boys were forbidden to wear shoes even in the winter lest their feet become soft.  Sandals were sometimes worn as were boots under certain circumstances.

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Staff (baktemrion) – The famed Lakonian staff was not a weapon of war but a symbol of the majesty of Sparta carried by Spartan representatives abroad such as generals, envoys, officers or military governors.  They came in various shapes, styles and lengths.

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Hairstyles – Spartan men were known for their long, dreadlocked hair, which they believed, made a man look taller, more dignified and more terrifying.  It was said that long hair makes a handsome man even better looking and an ugly man more terrifying.  The beard was also worn long and braided with the upper lip shaved (no moustache similar to America’s own 16th President Abraham Lincoln).  When asked once why he wore his hair and beard long in the old fashioned style a Spartan replied, “So I can see my grey hairs and never do anything unworthy of them.”

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Pankration - A deadly ancient Greek martial art that is still in practice today.  Similar to modern day mixed martial arts, Pankration combines boxing, wrestling, kicking, joint-manipulation, choke holds and submission techniques in a very violent form of fighting.  The Spartans excelled in this type of hand-to-hand combat.  Legend has it that it was Alexander the Great’s Greek troops who brought this style of fighting with them as they conquered their way from Europe towards the Far East and it was from them that Asian martial arts such as karate, kung fu, tae kwon do and ju jitsu developed years later. 

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Pyrriche - A dance while carrying weapons which trained a young warrior in his movements under arms to avoid enemy attacks while delivering his own blows.  Probably similar to today’s karate katas.

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Armed Race (hoplitodromos) – A race originally run in the Olympics after the Greeks first came into contact with Persian archery.  This athletic event run over a distance of 400 meters (enough to take the hoplite through the beaten zone of the enemy arrows and right up to the Persian lines) with the runners wearing helmets, armor and carrying their shield.  It developed strength, speed and stamina.

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Krypteia - A secret service the best Spartan youths were selected for.  A combination police force/spy network/assassin squad, the best young graduates from the agoge patrolled the Spartan land stealthily at night protecting against robber gangs, gathered intelligence and maintained security in the countryside and on the frontier borders.  Living in the wild and armed only with a knife they stalked and killed rebellious helots at night to keep them in check.  The mysterious, deadly Krypteia were highly feared by all.

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