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Greeks at War

The Ancient World and Fashion > Civilizations of Ancient Greece

The ancient Greeks were often at war. For eleven years they fought against the Persians, and there was also a long war between the rival city-states of Athens and Sparta. In 338 BCE the Greeks were conquered by their northern neighbor, the kingdom of Macedonia, led by King Philip II. When Philip died in 336, his son, Alexander the Great, became the leader of the Greek army and led a force of Macedonians and Greeks on a campaign to win a vast empire in Asia and the Middle East. Each of the main fighting groups-the Greeks (led by the city of Athens),the Spartans, and the Macedonians-had their own distinctive battle dress.

Greek Hoplites

The backbone of the Greek army was its company of heavily armed footsoldiers, known as hoplites. Hoplites fought with a long spear and a sword and carried a large circular shield made from bronze, wood, and leather, with a bold design painted on it. They wore a short tunic and their upper body was protected by a bronze and leather breastplate. Bronze leg guards, known
greaves, covered the soldiers’ calves, and they wore sturdy leather sandals on their feet. The hoplites had magnificent bronze helmets with a horsehair crest and flaps to protect the sides of the face.

Mosaic shows Alexander
Mosaic shows Alexander

A Question of Dress

After Alexander the Great had defeated the king of Persia in 331 BCE, he took control of the great Persian Empire. During this period the chroniclers relate that Alexander abandoned his traditional Macedonian dress and adopted instead the dress of the Persians, wearing a loose tunic and pants (see page 25). This infuriated Alexander’s Macedonian generals, who were intensely proud of their kingdom’s military history, which they saw as represented by their dress.

Running in Armor

The ancient Greeks loved to hold athletic competitions, in which men competed against each other in sports such as jumping, boxing, and wrestling. The most famous competition of all was the Olympic Games. Most Olympic sports were performed by naked athletes, but in one running race the competitors had to wear heavy armor. Each of the runners wore a bronze helmet and greaves and carried a heavy shield. The origins of this race probably lay in the strict training of the Greek hoplites.

This detail from a Roman mosaic shows Alexander the Great dressed in the armor of a Macedonian general. Alexander wears a metal breastplate with wide shoulder straps, and a lightweight cloak fastened at the neck. His breastplate has a decoration in the form of a head-possibly the god of war.

Greek hoplites
Greek hoplites

Greek hoplites depicted on a vase from the sixth century BCE. The Hoplites all wear splendid, crested headdresses and carry circular shields-each with its own distinctive design.

Spartan Warriors

All the men of Sparta were full-time soldiers. At the age of seven, boys were taken from their mothers to begin their military training. Spartan warriors dressed in a distinctive way, with long, scarlet cloaks and helmets which covered almost all of the face. The Spartan soldiers also let their hair grow long, so that it streamed out from under their helmets.The overall effect could be very fearsome when they advanced en masse in battle.

Alexander’s Armor

Alexander the Great was one of the finest generals the world has ever known. When he led the Greeks into battle, he wore the traditional armor of his native kingdom of Macedonia: a short-sleeved battle tunic with a metal breastplate and a skirt and sleeves made from metal strips. Alexander rode an enormous charger and fought with a long sword. On his feet he had calf-length boots and he wore a purple cloak to show his royal status. In most of the surviving statues and mosaics, Alexander is bareheaded, but one statue shows him as a fierce conqueror, wearing a lion’s head with its paws tied under his chin.

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