A hoplite was defined by his shield, the hoplon. Soldiers with this sort of shield were hoplites. Those without were not.
The introduction of the hoplon coincides with the adoption of the hoplite phalanx formation, and citizen warfare. Before that, warfare in Greece was between warlords and warrior ťlites, who tended to ride around on horses and chariots, exchanging insults and chucking javelins about the place, and occasionally coming to blows. In the days of the hoplite, armies were made up of large numbers of citizens of the emerging Greek city states.
To qualify for full citizenship, a man had to outfit himself with hoplite panoply, and be available for war. This was quite a commitment, and meant that armies became larger, well-equipped, and composed of reasonably wealthy middle-class men. These men were not full-time soldiers, and had to have faith in their fellows. A large formation of troops which wavered in the face of an attack, would lose against another which held firm. To hold firm, each man must be confident that the man next to him will do his job. This is easy enough for a well-drilled professional killer, but for the manager of a pottery, flanked on one side by a baker, and the other by a poet, does not come so naturally.
It is my belief that the hoplon was designed with the citizen in mind. I write this because it seems to me that its design is specific to the problem outlined above. The main reason why a large formation of spearmen will lose against another is that that it breaks up. It would be worthwhile getting every man to use equipment which would increase group cohesion, even if each man in the group had slightly less efficient kit.
A hoplon is a fairly good shield when used in line with many other men also using hoplons, but it is close to useless in individual combat. Consequently, every man in a formation of hoplites would know that he would stand little chance against his foes were he to break ranks. Better to stick together.
The hoplon is a very unusual shield indeed. The vast majority of shields in the ancient world were centre-grip, that is, were held by a single handle in the centre. Very few shields indeed were cross-grip, that is, held by a handle for the left hand, and a strap which went over the left forearm near the elbow. The hoplon was particularly odd in that the handle for the left hand was not in the centre of the shield, nor were the two points of suspension either side of the centre, but instead, the handle was at the rim of the shield, and the strap for the forearm was in the centre.
This arrangement has several effects. Half of the shield stuck out to the userís left. This was not of great use to him, but did serve to cover his neighbour. This would encourage team fighting and discourage defection from the team. The right-hand edge of the shield would not interfere with an under-arm use of a spear so much as it would with a centre-grip shield. This is useful for a formation of spearmen. The shield is very bad at parrying. Whereas a centre-grip shield can be held at arms-length away from the body and moved independently of the body, a cross-grip shield can only be held close to the body. If the user wanted to parry a low blow, he would have to stoop forwards and move his arm a long way down. By doing this, he would expose his back, and it would be tricky for him to bring his hoplon back up quickly. All hoplites wore greaves to protect their lower legs. These would be quite adequate against spear-thrusts, but would be a lot less use against sword cuts. Their feet appear to have been fairly exposed, in leather sandals. Iím not sure what to make of that.
In one-against one combat, a hoplon is a terrible liability. A foe using a centre-grip shield has an enormous advantage. A centre-grip shield can be punched out in front of the user, one effect of this being to block the enemyís view of the user. The volume of space defended by a centre-grip shield is far greater than cross-grip. The half of the hoplon which sticks out to the left is of little defensive value in duelling, and is an awkward load.
When fighting in re-enactment battles, I had to learn the hard way that a fighter should hold a shield, when he is duelling, away from the body. In time, I became pretty competent in using a centre-grip shield, and I could defeat people who hadnít got the hang of it pretty much every time. When I joined a different society which had made cross-grip shields, I found that with my centre-grip shield, I could be confident of defeating anyone if I could face them alone. A cross-grip shield forces the user to hold the shield close to him, and limits the movement of the shield very greatly. Later, I made myself a hoplon, and used it in a fair few fights. When in line, I found that it wasnít as good as a centre-grip shield, because of its more limited movement, and awkward off-centre position, but it was still pretty useful. In one-on one combat I found that the only way I stood any chance at all was to pull my arm back through the elbow strap and hold the shield by that central strap. In effect, I turned the shield into something like a centre-grip shield, albeit one with a very awkward handle and balance. I canít remember winning any fights that way, but a few times I was able to keep myself alive long enough for someone to come to my aid.
As this diagram shows, the angle of attack is greatly different depending on where the shield is held. In the upper part, the blue man holds his shield centre-grip, and the red man can thrust a spear (green lines) either above the blue manís head or at his front foot. In the lower part, the blue man is exposed to spear thrusts at his head and lower leg, because he holds his shield centre grip. Worse than this, though, is that whereas the upper blue man need only thrust his shield a bit further forward (perhaps using footwork), or lower it slightly, to parry spear thrusts at his foot, the lower blue man would have to bend forwards and reach with his shield arm downwards to fend off a low attack, thus exposing his head and upper body and back to attack.
Because the hoplon is so demonstrably dreadful for duelling, it is my contention that it was designed specifically to be bad at duelling, and useful in phalanx formation. That large numbers of people were persuaded for the good of their city states, to equip themselves with such selfless equipment, is remarkable. No hoplite would want to break ranks, for to break ranks would mean that their useful equipment would become next to useless. Thus did the citizen ranks stand firm. Given that an entire social class was persuaded to engage in large infantry battles for the sake of the state, it seems only a small step further to persuade them to use hoplons.
The hoplon itself was a round shield, nearly three feet in diameter, and weighed around 15 pounds. Its rim was bronze, and sometimes it was faced with a thin sheet of bronze. Sometimes there was a sheet of bronze on the inside of the shield, L-shaped, to protect the left arm. The entire shield was curved like the glass on the front of a wristwatch. This meant that the left elbow was roughly in the centre of gravity of the shield. This is very important, because it means that the shield would hang vertically. If the hoplon were flat, and every bit as heavy, then it would hang with the top edge tipped forwards and away from the user. The curvature would also act to strengthen the structure. A further benefit of this curvature, which becomes apparent when one makes a reconstruction, is that it is possible to hook the shield onto the left shoulder, and so hang it on there, allowing the left arm to rest. Cross-grip shields are a lot more tiring on the shield arm, because you hold them with a bent arm. This feature alleviates that disadvantage.
It has been suggested that the reason a hoplon was round was because it was convex. This strikes me as quite reasonable. Other shields used by other cultures varied quite a bit in shape, but all hoplons were round. The convex design keeps the hoplon uniformly circular.
If battles did come to the shield-against-shield push, which some historians believe was the case, then the curvature and handle arrangement would combine to help the user push strongly against the foe.
The strap at the elbow is very broad, and often quite fancy. The handle gripped by the hand is sometimes a rope-like thing, as on my reconstruction, and sometimes a cut-out hole in the bronze rim of the shield, which I imagine would be a bit stronger.
Around the inside of a hoplon, are eight bronze fittings for attaching a rope. In the embarrassing photograph above, you can just about make a few of these out, each one having a yellow tassel hanging from it. I havenít really sorted out what these were for. The fittings on my reconstruction are the correct distance apart, and the rope passing through them all in a hoop is of the correct length, judging from the slackness shown in pictures and sculptures. The strap does not make it easy or comfortable to sling the shield. The arrangement is so complicated, that I imagine that there were several configurations possible. Perhaps the rope could allow one to sling the hoplon on one shoulder, or across both, or to prop the hoplon up against a spear stuck in the ground. Since my hoplon is not of the correct degree of convex curvature, perhaps I am missing something.
Iím afraid that I cannot give detailed instructions on how to make an authentic hoplon. Mine does not have a bronze rim Ė merely wood painted bronze coloured. Although my hoplon is convex, it is not as convex as a real hoplon would have been. I made mine with a few layers of plywood cut in discs and hoops of different sizes, glued and riveted together, with rounded-off edges. The fittings are fairly authentic, as is the design the front, except that I used modern paints.