Greek sword fighting

Discover the use of Greek swords

If there is one proof to the strength of Greek sword fighting, it would be the Battle of Marathon in 490 B.C. King Darius I wanted to punish Athens for its involvement in the uprising of Persian colony in Ionia. (Ionian Greeks revolted against Persian governors and with the help of Athens, achieved democracy and freedom in 499 B.C.).

From the start, the Athenians were at a great disadvantage. Firstly, they were outnumbered 1:5, with only 10,000 soldiers against the Persian’s 50,000. Secondly if they were to lose the battle, they would lose Athens as well; they only had one army raised at that time.

Lastly, they could not ask help from anyone else aside from the soldiers of Thebes, although the Spartans responded (they arrived in Marathon three days after the battle).

The dawn of sixth day in battle saw the Athenians rushing against the ranks of Persians, who were mad with illusion that the Greeks could be easily defeated because they were very few. It was to their big dismay, and very certain death, that the Greeks instead vanquished them on the battlefield.

The Greek warfare

What the Persians did not see coming was the Athenian military invention–the Hoplite phalanx. A Hoplite is a soldier trained in the use of Greek swords, spears, and shield. It is a heavily armored infantryman; it has been said that each carried 30 kilos of arms and armors (almost half of each soldier’s weight).

A phalanx is a military formation consisting of Hoplites arrayed in squares, their metal shields covering the front ranks while their spears protruded outward. It is a massive impenetrable wall of iron spear tips, bronze breastplates, shield, and heroism.

Most of the military experiences of Greek hoplites were in small battles among armies of city-states. Thus, it is common that phalanxes crash onto other phalanxes, as all Greek city-states had the same military maneuver. The use of Greek swords would be necessary after phalanxes were broken and duels ensue.

Greek sword fighting guide

A hoplite has to supply his arms and armors. This is the reason that most of the soldiers were plucked from middle-class families. The following are the necessary weaponry he needs to bring before the battle:

• Cuirass is bronze muscled plate armor.

• Bronze helmet is worn to protect the head from traumatic blows. The Corinthian helmet has been the known standard.

• Xiphos is the sword of the Hoplites. It is a heavy short sword in service when spears or phalanx broke. (For more information about xiphos, please read What is a Greek sword.) The sword fighting skills of the Greek soldiers were fairly simple: cutting, stabbing, and slashing.

• Aspis or hoplon is the circular shield carried at the left hand. This half-protects the bearer and the comrade at his left in a phalanx formation. The Spartans bear the Greek letter lambda (Λ) to symbolize their homeland Lacedaemonia.

• Spear (doru) has a leaf-shaped spearhead and the rear with a spike. The spike is used if the spearhead is broken, or to finish off fallen enemies on the ground.

There are many reasons why the Hoplites followed a simple Greek sword fighting guide. Firstly, the history of Greek swords would reveal that the xiphos was heavy and short so it did not require much skills. Secondly, the primary weapon of the foot soldiers was the spear. Thirdly, the phalanx formation limited their performance to pushing and smashing and thrusting their spears. Fourthly, battles of the Greeks ended very quickly. When an enemy’s phalanx is broken, only the front ranks had the chance to hack anything in their way using their xiphos.

Ancient Greek practice swords

The most important reason Greek sword fighting was simple is that city-states did not have a big budget to maintain an army. Instead, they call on their citizens to fight in times of war. The training of hoplites with Greek practice swords had to be memorable and quick.

Not only is budget the problem, but also time. Citizen-soldiers were engaged in other occupations, like agriculture and trading. They were given before the war ancient Greek practice swords which were made of tough wood, train with them, join the campaign, and forget about fighting after the battle as they return to their ordinary lives.

It may be interesting to know that the great Western philosopher Socrates was also a hoplite. His participation to military campaigns, as well as his drills with ancient Greek practice swords, had been mentioned briefly as he faced the Athenian court before he was sentenced to die by poisoning. Socrates said it would be dishonorable for him to stop philosophizing, as much as it is dishonorable for a hoplite to retreat when he is about to be killed.

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