The hoplite’s ‘hoplon’

I haven’t been posting a lot here lately because things around the office are a little busy. We’re currently polishing off The Art of Ancient Warfare, a soft cover special. Weighing in at a hundred pages, it contains some of the best artwork that has been published over the course of the first fifty issues of Ancient Warfare. It will be sent to certain backers of the Ancient History Magazine kickstarter campaign and will also be made available for pre-order soon.

I have also been plugging away at this year’s ‘big’ Ancient Warfare special. It will be another hardback book similar to Edge of Empire and Henchmen of Ares. I can’t say too much about it yet, except that fourteen contributors have been working hard on writing each of the book’s chapters over the past year or so, illustrators are working on custom artwork, and we’re currently in the final stages of getting everything ready for layout.

But let’s leave all that for the moment. I wanted to write a brief bit on a particular error that I encounter again and again despite the fact that most people by now ought to know better. It concerns the origin of the word ‘hoplite’, the term applied to denote a Greek heavily-armed warrior. The term itself is not without problems: it’s not used before the fifth century BC, for example, and Xenophon is able to refer to Egyptian warriors with shields also as hoplites (Anabasis 1.8.9).

In any event, the main issue is that a lot of people still claim that hoplites are named after their shield, which in Greek is supposedly called a hoplon. This mistake is so widespread that few seem to notice it any more. It still pops up frequently in academic and non-academic contexts alike. Here, let me pick an example at random. This is the entry for ‘hoplite’ in Phil Sabin’s book Lost Battles, published originally in 2007:

But back in 1996, J.F. Lazenby and David Whitehead wrote an article entitled ‘The myth of the hoplite’s hoplon’, published in Classical Quarterly 46.1, pp. 27–33. The abstract reads as follows:

‘Hoplites are troops who take their name from their shields’. ‘The individual infantryman took his name, hoplites, from the hoplon or shield’. Such is the orthodox view. This paper will endeavour to show that its basis is inadequate. Rather, we shall argue, hoplites took their name from their arms and armour as a whole, their hopla in that all-encompassing sense; so that the original and essential meaning of the word hoplite was nothing more than ‘(heavily-)armed (infantry-)man’.

As the authors show, hoplon in Greek does not refer specifically to a shield, but rather to some piece, any piece, of equipment. Aspis is the typical Greek word for shield. But for some reason, ten and even twenty years after the publication of this article, the error continues to be replicated. Hopefully, this blog post can help set the record straight.

You can read Lazenby and Whitehead’s article over on JStor. If you don’t have access to JStor via a university library, you can sign up for a free account and read it that way. (Under no circumstances should you pay $19 for a single article.)

Edit: Roel Konijnendijk points out that the error of course goes back to Diodorus. I didn’t mention this because Lazenby & Whitehead also discuss the relevant passage on page 28 (where they point out the logical fallacy of peltasts being named after their pelte and hoplites being ‘named after their… aspides!’). 

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