Reenactment guidance and ideas

Written by Hoplites, for Hoplites

Recreating the Ancient World

Combatants in Greece

in the 5th Century B.C.

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The Nature of Ancient Warfare



























Lessons from Reenactment

There appears to be a perenial debate around the use of the dory and the nature of close quarter phalanx fighting and the basis of how Hoplites could have closed upon oneanother is something that the lessons of re-enactment can throw some light upon.

To put the following observations into context it might be useful to explain that the Hoplite Association was formed in late 2001 and the observations below are the product of both study AND practice.

We can begin by considering hoplites in general, and around 80% would have been farmers by trade. Consequently a stabbing spear (dory) is a practical weapon for what would have been primarily lightly trained troops. This can be further contextualised if we also consider the nature of the single battle as a means of settling dispute and the social / cultural acceptance of this way of so doing. Not debates to be drawn in particularly, but ones that impact upon the attitude and approach to fighting and an acceptance that closing on the enemy for maximum impact and then consolidating the position by using the strength and depth of the phalanx was both an accepted and expected way of fighting.

The primary purpose of a hoplite was to engage other hoplites face to face and the primary means of doing this was not by individual combat (as in the heroic age) but block on block. Setting aside the wider conflicts with 'barbarians'.

So, the first point on dory use, any 'underarm / over arm' debate has to begin with the fact that hoplites initially fought shoulder to shoulder, not independently. Taking this further, as they closed on the enemy the shields would be to the fore AND they would be locked together.

If you advanced with the dory underarm, therefore, it would be at waist height but you would have no real ability to move it as any upward movement would be blocked by the locked shields and there is little scope for lateral or downward movement / control either. In effect it would just stick out straight with no real force behind it. Pretty useless, it could be argued, in a phalanx fight.

In addition, you are not just in one rank but many (6-8). So let us now think about the colleagues behind and consider, dories have metal points... at both ends.

If your dory is at waist height and you are locked in a phalanx with the sarouter pointing at groin level towards the rear ranks, what do you think would be the effect of a sudden clash with another block of troops? Dories would be thrust backwards from the impact and potentially cause more damage to your own troops than the enemy.

Incidentally, this is drawn from a degree of practical experience not from conjecture. My aspis and those of my colleagues from the early days of trial and error are testimony to this, as are the scars in legs, dents in greaves and torn chitons!

The conclusion - in a phalanx, the only practical means of advancing to engage is over arm.

On the issue of dory length, this too has an impact on how fighting would have occurred.

Archaeological evidence appears to suggest that a stabbing spear (dory) would be between 7'3" and 9'. We have built at both extremes and various lengths in-between and whilst I can understand various comments in the past that, for instance, 8' was most likely the longest from a practical viewpoint, my current dory is 8'10" tip to tip and balanced so that my grip is 2' from the bottom - and I have total control for use, so I would argue that 9' is practical BUT would be very sceptical about making something longer. Mine is really at the edge of technological capability whilst remaining an effective weapon. Greater length requires the shaft becoming too narrow, thus weak, at the business end and the subsequent instability (wobble) in the shaft coupled with an immense weight at the other end makes handling quite difficult despite the centre of gravity effect.

A strange word, technology, but this is quite a technical weapon for a stick with a pointed end and mathematics scholars will probably appreciate this. It is not weight that is the major issue but balance and control. A tapered shaft can draw down the point of balance a little but there has to be a biased relationship between the aichme and sarouter as well to get the weight back. This, you could also hypothesise, supports a belief amongst some scholars that the fighting aichme was probably much smaller than that on the hunting spear.

Why a low point of balance? Well forward reach is one thing - the length sticking behind you towards your own comrades is another, but so is the need to be able to hold the centre of balance when you pick up the dory and have the bottom clear the ground. Anyone who has stood in a full weight panoply will confirm, I am sure, the relative lack of movement available and the need for everything to be 'just right'.

Moving on to the 'fencing' before engagement or 'charge' discussion.

Picking up on the elements above, we have a militia with variable training, a mix of ages from 18-60 (in most cases), the battle as a stand-alone activity, the need to bring the phalanxes together for a conclusion, the relative forward length of the dory (perhaps 6 feet maximum) and then we can add in the unquestionable difficulty in command and control (particularly when you have a helmet on which seems to be tuned in to the sounds of the sea!) coupled with the undoubted (and recorded) fear there must have been amongst the individual hoplites themselves.

So, closing as quickly as you can and denying your troops the opportunity to change their mind and leave the field before engaging has to be yet another factor. It has been recorded, as you will doubtless be aware, that this was not an unusual occurrence.

To shorten my argument, once you start the movement of a phalanx you have little control SO stopping a mere 6 feet from the enemy phalanx with 5-7 rows pushing on your back would, I suggest, be by accident rather than design. So no, neither my colleagues nor I believe that fencing with spears would have been a tactical activity.

And so to finish - walk or run?

The maximum depth we have achieved in a phalanx so far is only 6 ranks, but we can manoeuvre (within the bounds of flat ground, no ditches, straight lines… you know the sort of thing), perform effective arms drill without harming each other and close at the run over a reasonable distance (100 metres - 5 miles per hour) without loosing integrity. Bit dangerous that last bit though and not something we plan to make a feature of as one slip and it could be lethal to both onlookers and ourselves.

You see stopping is the difficult thing. Once you start a run you have to engage, and we do know that this was employed as a tactic, at least in our era. I would disagree with the comments that engaging at a run causes both front rows to collapse as I have been re-enacting since 1972 in a variety of disciplines and closed en-block on enemy formation in the front rank at the walk, jog and run. Yes, you can get winded, yes, your feet often leave the ground and you become so squashed that you have little movement (short swords are better than long ones in this environment -provided you have kept your left arm free - dory overarm again) and yes, one side or the other will eventually start to collapse but I have rarely in the last 30 years been in or seen an engagement where both front ranks go down and the moment the opponents collapse this generally leads to a rapid and victorious conclusion.

For those of you with a full weight panoply, put it on, fall backwards onto the ground, holding onto your aspis, and you will understand what I am getting at. Little control, helmet shifts, the words 'grounded' and whale' come to mind! This is the environment when you are up close that the sarouter becomes more useful than the aichme. You cannot use a point 6 feet from your hand but you can stab with one 2 feet away.

Running, it has been stated, was employed to cover beaten ground in order to clear missiles and again, in our period, missiles were becoming more common on the battlefield, but it is also a good way of making sure that your militia or part-timers actually engage. Back up to the top of this note again!!

We are of the general belief that both would be employed, I am of the personal belief that running would be more commonly employed hoplite on hoplite. None of us know the answer.

Like all of you, my colleagues and I work from snippets of data, have poured over masses of illustrations and taken a few leaps of faith. We do not claim to have the answers nor make any claims that we are right. Our sole aim is to explore, examine and try to understand. We accept errors, criticism and praise with equal spirit because at least we are trying to find out how things work.


Hoplite armour and its reconstruction has been a topic of conversation within the reenacting world for some years.

Many have 'had a go', with variable degrees of success. Between the '4 Hoplites' alone we have made nine complete sets and assisted with many more.

Some of the lessons learned can be found here.


The rules were simple. Two armies meet at an agreed place and the winner of the battlefield wins the war. No extended campaign, no ravaging of the countryside, no deprivation or sacking of populations. Brutal, maybe, but conclusive.