The Aspis Shield; the Hoplite’s Symbol of Honor

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File:Ancient Greece hoplite with his hoplon and dory.jpgThis post is probably going to be the last about the hoplite’s equipment (no cheering, mind you). And so, I have to save the best for the last. The shield. You all have seen photos of the aspis shield before (yes, it wasn’t called ‘the shield’ it had a name, aspis, which happens to be a type of viper as well. Very annoying when trying to find photos), and so I’ll talk about first why the shield was so ‘honor’ based before I move on. One, if you surrendered to the enemy, they would make you give up your shield as a sign of surrender, and if you somehow managed to get back to your home country,  your friends and family would see you don’t have the shield you left with, showing you surrendered, which was and always is abhorrent to the military commanders, (until they surrender themselves) as usurpers do not like to lose soldiers. Another reason is that if one broke ranks and fled, then to avoid getting run down by enemy cavalry or skirmishers, you had to drop the heavy shield which would slow you down considerably. But then, you get home without your shield. DISGRACE. To come with your shield showed that you were victorious, thus the legend where a Spartan woman, arming her son for battle, gives him his shield and says to come back with it or on it (when a soldier dies, his fellow soldiers use his shield to carry him home). Not an ideal mother, but it shows that surrender and losing your shield was abhorrent and disgraceful.

The shield itself (the detail of the grips shown in the above photo) was wood, and almost three feet across; the size was vital for the Phalanx to succeed, as it was not desirable to get cut down by arrows. So the main part was wood, then covered with several layers of ox hide, then a layer of bronze on the the outside. The shield was curved to help defect blows, but what is interesting is that is the center, it is nearly flat! This is most likely because the phalanx formation had it so that there were several rows deep, the first row having their shields up and the spears out. As the phalanx advanced, the back rows would gently push ahead the rows in front of them, so keeping everybody in formation, but also creating quite a bit of force, and then the phalanx is ordered on the battlefield against another phalanx unit.

Our phalanx advances, and when the two units meet, a few people on either side killed by the spears, but then they get too close for spears to be much use, and suddenly shields crash together, and what is supposed to be a battle turns into a major shoving match, with huge force because all the rows are pushing at the row in front of them. Here it is seen how the shields come into great use through their design. The because the shields ae rounded, the inside of the shield is concave. This enables the hoplites to push against their shields with their thighs and shoulders, the “concavity” keeping the hoplite’s lungs from getting crushed with the incredible pushing force.
This goes on until either a few people on the same side freak out and breaks ranks and runs. Just losing a few people to deserting leaves the phalanx in chaos, and the enemy is able to shove through with little opposition, trampling the offense, or until one side is able to push harder than the other, in which case the weaker unit gets trampled.

The shield was vital against any other troop type as well, could be used with it’s weight to pummel enemies, or just as regular protection from arrows and javelins. In the Greco-Persian wars, when the Persians first met the Greeks in battle, they were very surprised when their javelins could not pierce the Greek Aspis, showing how durable and well made the shields were.

 

 

 

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