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The Greek Shield

"To lose one's shield is the basest of crimes," wrote the Roman historian Cornelius Tacitus. "Come back with your shield or upon it," says the Spartan mother to her son in another popular anecdote. For over two millennia, the shield was a vital cog in the military armory. Of course, it has never been exalted like the sword or other weapons. But, in ancient times, the shield was viewed as the mark of a warrior, even more so than the weapons he carried. Here, we focus on a Greek shield that was in vogue even before the medieval age.

Spartan Shield Licensed Replica

The most common form of Greek warrior shield, originating in the seventh century BC, was the Hoplon. It was a large, acutely concave, circular shield made of bronze and wood. They are also known as Argive shields.

The Hoplon averaged around three feet in diameter. Unlike the ones that preceded it, this shield had a wooden core and featured something more than the hitherto-in-use single handgrip. The shield exhibited a bronze/bronze and leather strap that ran vertically in the center of the back of the shield and a grip at the edge. This meant that the soldier could slide his left arm through the strap and the hand could hold the grip at the edge. Due to its deeply concave nature, the inside of the shield’s rim could rest against the shoulder, which served a two-fold purpose – it helped better absorb enemy blows and more importantly took the strain off the arms. (The Argive weighed around 15.5 lbs).

The Hoplon also made the famous Greek phalanx* possible. The shield’s primary purpose in a phalanx was not to deflect blows, as shields are seemingly meant to do, but to absorb them so they did not deflect to the next man. The great weight of the shield helped in this regard.

The Hoplon was so suited to the Greek way of fighting that the soldier’s name “Hoplite” was derived from it. The shield was venerated in Greece and Sparta. King Demaratos of Sparta, when asked why warriors who came back without their shields faced greater dishonor than those who lost helmets and other equipment, replied thus: "Because the latter they donned for their own protection, but the shield for the common good of the entire line."

So, that is the Greek shield, more than just protection against swords, arrows, or the immensely strong, testosterone-filled lunatic game for a shoulder charge, but an item around which one of the great armies in recorded history built their war tactics.

* “(in ancient Greece) a body of Macedonian infantry drawn up in close order with shields touching and long spears overlapping.” (Oxford Dictionaries)

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