Hoplites? A Greek battle form takes over the UP

Photo Credit Mark Collier

Students enjoy mimicking how Greek hoplite soldiers would have fought more than 2600 years ago. Photo Credit Mark Collier


It is not often that we see a 2,666-year-old battle formation moving across the Upper Parade Ground. For eighty Norwich students, the UP was their classroom on the 29th of September and a reenactment of an ancient Greek hoplite phalanx battle was their assignment.

The hoplite was a specially trained Greek soldier around 650 B.C.  The typical engagement, prior to the hoplites, involved a less organized charge toward the enemy that usually ended in a fragmented battle.

The hoplite soldiers fought in lines, shoulder to shoulder, and a group of hoplites fighting in a formation was called a phalanx. The phalanx provided a wall of protection to the column of soldiers as they protect each other by interlocking their shields from enemy arrows and spears. (Visit http:// quate.us. /greek/war/hoplites for details.)

So what brought the Greek phalanx to NU? Academic research. The event “was an exercise that was originally developed at U. C. Santa Barbara by Dr. John W.I. Lee,” said Christine McCann, a history professor at Norwich.

Professor McCann was the lead professor in coordinating the exercise ,which was first implemented at Norwich four years ago. The purpose of the exercise is to provide students with a better understanding of the Greek battle techniques and formations. The nature of the exercise was to try multiple formations in order to get a better understanding of the positioning of the hoplite.

When the exercise was first planned, Professor McCann was teaching a class on ancient Greek war and society.  She had heard about the exercise at U.C. Santa Barbara and thought it would be helpful for students to be physically involved in a battle instead of just reading about it.

McCann also felt that NU was a perfect place for the hoplite/phalanx exercise given the university’s strong military history program. The exercise would be relevant to students in their roles as both students and soldiers.

Within this exercise, multiple theories from ancient sources of evidence would be tested: How close the soldiers were lined up together, whether their shields were overlapping, and the formation when using spears, were among the theories tested, according to McCann.

The two main components of this exercise were for students to build their own shields and to then test out different battle formations. Some of the formations that were tested did not have specific names, but they were consistent with the manner in which they were documented to have been used in battle or otherwise depicted. Students not only took on the role of hoplites, but also tested different theories of how it was believed the ancient Greeks used these formations to fight.

In some  Greek poetry, there are references of a “push,” said McCann.  The thought is that the different columns once engaged with the enemy began pushing one rank into the next rank. McCann described this as being similar to a rugby match.

The strength of the phalanx came from the trust and discipline of the hoplite to provide protection to their fellow soldiers. The phalanx fought in ranks of several hundred men with each hoplite’s shield protecting himself and the hoplite to his left side partially.

According to the Ancient History Encyclopedia, the hoplites were instrumental in Greek victories over Persia at the battles of Marathon (490 BCE) and Plataea (479 BCE). The phalanx formations were so successful that they continued in use throughout early Roman times.

Another formation tested at NU involved spreading the hoplite four to five feet apart. This would allow for the soldiers to move and maneuver while using their weapons, actions that the hoplite were most likely not able to accomplish in the tighter ranks, according to McCann.

The third formation tested in the exercise focused on the depth of a formation. According to McCann, accounts of hoplite 50 rows deep were reported. The size of the phalanx was critical, as the formation was susceptible to being out flanked by an enemy.

The professors that participated, in addition to McCann, were Emily Gary, Reina Pennington, and Steven Sodergeren. The students who participated were from HI 201- Ancient Greece & Rome History, HI 362- Ancient Greek War Stories, HI 260- Women in Antiquity, HI 236- Military History II, and HI 260-First Year Seminar.

Some of the professors required mandatory participation for their students, while others offered extra credit. The amount of time that each class spent on the hoplite phalanx formations varied.  According to Prof. Sodergeren, history professor, spent a considerable amount of time examining the various hoplite formations.

“The hoplite battle simulation was an experiment in the way of different types of possible Greek battle formations,” said Sodergeren. Sodergeren felt that the exercise was very effective, having provided the participating students the experience of what it felt like to be in a phalanx.

Sodergeren said he believed of the three times the exercise has been conducted on the UP over the past four years, “this is the largest number of students participating.” He added that the hoplite phalanx exercise also appeared to have the most observers watching the exercise from the UP and from within the barracks.

Sodergeren said, “This shows that we just don’t talk at you in the classroom.” This is a point that each of the professors participating in the exercise recognized and credited when discussing the benefits of the experiential learning.

Professor Reina Pennington, history professor, said “people learn differently” and that active learning provided “a hook to hang a memory on” for students.

The exercise also provides benefits to the educators, as the formations of the Greek phalanx are not exactly well-known or documented. There are however specific ideas of how it could have looked.

The exercise involved three different clashes of formations. In-between each clash, the students and professors would stop and access the tactics discussing “lessons learned,” according to Sodergeren. A fourth and final clash was added and would involve a duel between two students. This was an idea that came from the students themselves, who shouted out “like the Iliadm,” said McCann.

Accurately recreating the ancient hoplite soldier was also a challenge for the students,  a challenge that required a little imagination. For the hoplite soldier armor and weaponry weighing 75 pounds would be carried, according to Pennington. The student hoplites would need to go on a quest for materials to build a formidable cardboard shield.

Each N.U. hoplite was on their own to obtain the supplies they needed to build their shields. The students checked the bookstore, library, and the local recycling facility in Northfield for cardboard. Each shield had to be usable with duct tape handles that allowed the students to carry and move the shield with one arm as the hoplite soldiers did. The students were also allowed to paint or draw an insignia or emblazon the shield, according to McCann.

Specifications on the diameter of each shield were provided to the students along with a warning that any weapons not provided by the history faculty had to be pre-approved before being used in battle.


Rooks with their handmade shields on the UP. Photo Credit Mark Collier

Professor McCann explained that at the U.C. Santa Barbara exercise, it was specifically focused on the use of the hoplite shield and students did not brandish weapons as the hoplites actually did. McCann felt that this limited the effectiveness of the exercise.

The Greek hoplite carried an eight-foot spear that was made of ash wood. The spear called a “doru” had a bronze or iron blade on one end and a spike on the other end. Hoplite soldiers also carried a short sword just under two feet long that was called a “xiphos,”  (http:// quate.us. /greek/war/hoplites.) The Norwich-issued weapons would be solidly formed of foam to conform to safety standards.

As far as the results of the N.U. hoplite phalanx exercise, one thing was clear to Prof. Pennington. The freshmen had better formations, which she attributed it to more practice and possibly more discipline than the upperclassmen.

Upperclassmen redeemed themselves in the final exercise (a one-on-one battle) between a nameless defeated rook and junior David Heinsohn, who upheld the honor of the university and all upperclassmen. The students involved were very enthusiastic about the exercise, apparently not wanting the event to conclude after the three battles.

The exercise has been planned for four years and before Professor McCann could hold this event she had to have it approved through Brig. Gen. Frank Vanecek, senior vice president of student affairs and information technology. Vanecek highlighted the importance of using the UP for the exercise, explaining that the hoplite is probably the “only actual curricular event” that takes place on the parade ground. He acknowledged that the UP is where many important events take place and most memorable area for the Corps.

“It is the place where rook training starts,” said Vanecek. Recognizing the benefits of the experiential training, Brig. Gen. Vanecek said, “Creating a hands-on component for any course is very valuable.” He went on to say, “Isn’t that what Partridge was all about?”

The success of this type of exercise could open the doors to other military reenactments at the Wick. In-depth studies of specific battles from the ancient Greeks to the Civil War can provide insight to historians and create concrete lessons for military personnel.

“Even if it’s just being out there with a cardboard shield, I think just having a sense of what it takes to line up properly, maintain your formation, to use a spear and hold it – even if it is pipe insulation instead of an actual spear, does bring it home to the students more due to the sense of body memory than just reading about it,” said Prof. Pennington.

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