The Greek and Hellenistic Period

Soldiers Through The Ages

Greek Hoplite
5th century BC

This style of equipment was worn through the 5th and 4th centuries, but was gradually replaced, eventually dying out sometime in the late 3rd century. The main weapon is a long thrusting spear around 2.4 to 3m long, made of ash or cornel wood, with an iron head and a bronze or iron butt spike. Swords were a secondary weapon. The “Argive” shield or aspis is 80cm to 1m in diameter, convex with a flat rim. At this time probably planked, covered in leather with the rim or the whole face covered in bronze. The forearm passes through a bronze porpax, with the hand gripping a cord antilabe fixed around the rim. A leather apron could be attached to protect the legs against arrows.

Armour would consist of greaves, a thorax and helmet. Hoplites provided their own equipment which was rarely uniform. After the 6th century the most common form of armour was the so-called tube and yoke. There is some debate over the materials used but laminated vegetable tanned leather seems to be the easiest material to use, often reinforced with bronze scales. The tube wraps around the body and is fastened under the left arm. Beneath the waist a double row of pteruges or feathers allow for ease of movement. A yoke is fixed across the back and is brought forward over the shoulders and laced down the chest. The leather could be coloured white using alum, or dyed or painted bright colours. The Corinthian helmet is perhaps one of the most successful and iconographic helmets in history. It had a long life dating from the 8th century until the late 5th century, and into the late 4th century as a badge of rank for strategoi. Few surviving helmets have points to affix a crest and they were probably used as a badge of rank,

Scythians and Greeks in the Crimea
5th century BC

“Once a year the governor of each district, at a set place in his own province, mingles a bowl of wine, of which all Scythians have a right to drink by whom foes have been slain; while they who have slain no enemy are not allowed to taste of the bowl, but sit aloof in disgrace. No greater shame than this can happen to them. Such as have slain a very large number of foes, have two cups instead of one, and drink from both.”

Herodotus on the Scythians

Thessalian Cavalryman
5th century BC

The best cavalryman in Greece, Thessalian riding dress is easy to recognise, and perfectly adapted to the landlocked plains of Thessaly. The petasos was a sun hat designed to keep off the sun during hot dry dusty summers, worn with a long Thessalian cloak to keep the wearer cool. This would also offer some protection during the very cold winters as well. The petasos can be seen in many representations of countrymen, travellers and horsemen.

The same dress is affected by wealthy Athenian aristocrats visible on surviving grave stele from the 440’s onwards to 317 BC when Demetrious Poliorketes who governed Athens put an end to this lavish display. Cavalry boots complete the image.

Greek Slinger
5th century BC

Some slings shown on coinage seem surprisingly long. Xenophon records that oval lead bullets, generally of 20-55grammes, could outrange the stone shot used by the Persians. Shields are not shown in period iconography, but one 5th century painting shows an animal skin draped over the left arm for protection. Rhodian slingers were especially famous.


Most such archers were mercenaries, the Cretans being the most famous. Indeed it is possible their name was given to indicate a specific troop type and style of fighting in the same way shielded cavalry were often called Tarantines. Archers seem to have been generally unarmoured, with quivers slung on the back or at the hip. Arrows were generally of reed with bronze heads. Xenophon mentions shielded archers using bronze faced peltai, but it is easier to shoot without a shield. Bows seem to have been recurved but perhaps not as well constructed as Scythian examples. The style of shooting is open to question with iconography providing several different examples.

Scythian Horse Archer

The bow was a short recurve weapon made of sinew, wood and horn with a sinew string. Arrows were of reed with bronze heads carried with the bow string upwards in a case called a gorytos hung from the belt on the left hand side of the archer. The case containing up to 200 arrows could even be made from the skins of their enemies, and decorated in human hair, or covered in gold sheet decoration. Bow cases could be moved to the right hand side of the body to make reaching arrows easier.

Scythians could use pad saddles consisting of felt, hair and leather and several examples have amazingly survived in the famous burial mounds of the Altai mountains. At their simplest they consist of two pads held in place either side of the horses spine, raising the rider above the spine and protecting the horses back. They keep horse sweat from the rider and give comfort over long distances. Both horse tack and saddles could be beautifully decorated.

Armoured Scythian Noble

The armour is a flexible scale shirt in copper-alloy. The flexible scale in the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford, from Grave 6 Nymphaeum was backed in goat of sheeps leather edged in cow, this is backed in linen. This is worn with a Corinthian helmet many of which were modified by the Scythians.

Mercenary Scythians
431 BC

Scythians were recruited by Athens and seem to have been the only recorded paid professional cavalry in Greece for over 60 years. Thucydides mentions 200 Scythians in 431, and Xenophon writing in the 360's says they ride before other cavalry in the manner perhaps of Alexander's prodromoi. Lysias in around 395 says serving with them is less prestigious than serving with the "regular" Athenian cavalry. Pericles built his 1,200 cavalry upon this core of 200 horse archers and mentions them in his famous speech of 431 B.C. Mercenary horsemen would be very expensive to hire, perhaps be a mixture of rich exiles and skilled non-Greeks, with a logistic tail of grooms, remounts and baggage animals, serving to give a professional edge to the state's existing cavalry force.

Scythian Infantry

The Scythians could produce large numbers of infantry, some subject peasants tied to the land, some true Scythians, possibly dismounted cavalrymen. Men and on occasion women could have fought. Cross-over riding coats, trousers, low boots and tall hats are all typical. Clothes were colourful - made from silk, leather, felt wool and linen. Coats were decorated and trimmed using furs, silk, felt and even gold dress ornaments.

Weapons could include spears or a dual purpose javelin/spear with a long iron barbed head. Swords changed through time, generally moving from antennae hilts with relatively long thin blades to a shorter weapon. The akinakes was worn strapped to the upper right leg. Bronze and iron axes could also be carried.

Unarmoured Mercenary Hoplite
400 BC

Based on a Boeotian grave relief of Rhynchon in the Thebes Archaeological Museum, dated to the late 5th century. The boots are a distinctive Boeotian feature. A chiton is worn with a soldiers cloak, probably issued to the whole unit and an early item of uniform. The helmet is a bronze pilos, named after the simple felt hat of the same shape. By the turn of the 4th century they may have been the most common helmet type, and lasted into the 3rd century.

A short straight sword is carried inside the aspis in the left hand for instant use. Such a short sword would be ideal for close order fighting and less prone to breakage. By the late 5th century these seem to be associated with Spartans and their Lakedaimonian allies and Plutarch gives various stories relating to the shortness of the sword, but sadly nothing of them survives except a cast bronze model sword purchased in Crete in 1898.

Mercenaries, The Black Sea
400 BC

A famous part of the Anabasis is Xenophon's description of the Greeks, shouting:

"Thalassa, thalassa" (the sea, the sea) at the top of a great dune, when they saw the sea. "Thereupon they began running, rearguard and all, and the baggage animals and horses came galloping up. But when they had reached the summit, then indeed they fell to embracing one another – generals and officers and all – and the tears trickled down their cheeks."

Mercenary Peltast

These are the characteristic mercenary infantry of the 4th century. Better armed than other skirmishers, they can fight at close quarters and at Cunaxa charged Persian cavalry. Their style of fighting originated in Thrace, and their name is derived from their light shield or pelta. The pelta is generally shown as crescent shaped, but could be round or oval, made of wicker or wood covered in leather or bronze and sometimes even mounted with a porpax for the forearm. The exomis allows the right shoulder to be uncovered and the boots could be iphikratides, light and easy to untie.

The pilos is the standard helmet type and with the addition of an aspis these solders could easily become a hoplite. They could be armed with javelins or a long spear and sword. Such soldiers could be easily recruited from the poorer areas of Greece such as Aitolia, Akarnania and the areas around the Thessalian plain. Mercenaries were more likely to be equipped with matching tunics, red being not an uncommon colour, and cloaks.

Thracian Peltast
399 BC

Late Winter, early 399 BC and Xenophon with the remnants of the 10,000 were serving with the Odrysian prince Seuthes fighting against the Thynians. “There was much snow and such frost that the water brought in for the dinner froze, as did the wine in the vessels, and the noses and ears of many of the Greeks were bitten off.”

The Thracians were described as wearing fox fur hats over their ears, long chitons which extended over their thighs and zeiras, the Thracian cloak, reaching down to their feet. The zeira was made of thick blanket-like material of wool and goat hair distinctively decorated, and offering some protecting against weapons.

Fur-lined, tall boots lace up the front so as to let the fur hang down as lappets. The shape of the pelte allows the warrior to throw his long javelins unobstructed, and the face of the shield is painted with a primitive good luck symbol, normally a face probably to look out for incoming missiles. This soldier wears a kausia, a traditional hat worn especially in Macedonia.

Athenian Cavalryman
4th century BC

Several Athenian monuments show unarmed cavalrymen, and either bareheaded or with a Boeotian helmet. Aristophanes’ Lysistrata mentions a cavalry officer in a bronze pilos helmet. Xenophon recommended the Persian cornel wood palta, and there is no evidence of more than two javelins being carried.

Cavalry also carried the kamax, literally 'reed' around 9 feet long, with a small head, large butt, and often tapered to give balance point one-third down shaft. Cavalrymen are generally shown without beards, and where bearded men are depicted we are probably looking at officers.

Southern Illyrian Chieftan and peltast
Early 4th century BC

In the early 4th century BC Bardyllis became king of the Dardanians and succeeded in bringing the various tribes of Illyria together in a single organisation. In 393 BC he beat and expelled Amyntas III of Macedonia, installing a puppet king. Later Amyntas III allied himself with the Thessalians and took back control of Macedonia, paying Bardyllis an annual tribute.

In 385 BC Bardyllis extended his rule over the state of Epirus after defeating the Molossians. Thrown out of Epirus by the Spartan King Agesilaus, in 360 BC, another Illyrian attack forced the Molossian king Arymbas to evacuate his non-combatant population to Aetolia and let the Illyrians loot freely. In 359 BC Bardyllis won a decisive battle against the Macedonian king Perdiccas III in which the king himself was killed along with 4,000 of his soldiers and the Illyrians occupied the cities of upper Macedonia.

When king Philip took control of Macedonian throne in 358 BC, he reaffirmed the treaty with the Illyrians marrying the Illyrian princess Audata, probably the daughter or the niece of Bardyllis[ This gave Philip valuable time to gather his forces and to defeat the Illyrians decisively in the Erigon Valley, killing about 7,000 of them including Bardyllis himself at the age of 90 years old. By 335 BC the southern Illyrian states were all subjected by Alexander the Great. Although somewhat old fashioned in southern Greece, this chieftain wears an Illyrian Type IV helmet first made in the early 6th century. Such a helmet could have lasted into the 3rd century in Illyria. He is primarily armed with dual purpose javelins and uses a curved short sword called a sica, popular in Illyria and Thrace.

Thessalian Cavalrymen
Late 4th century BC

After the mid 4th century representations of Thessalian cavalrymen show helmeted and armoured riders. Diodoros describes Thessalian cavalry using javelins in 368 BC while coins seem to show a cavalry lance used underarm. Athenians enjoyed viewing Thessalians as backward, northern and clannish. This rider wears a slightly old fashioned tube and yoke, with a Thracian helmet based on a ritual deposit from Lake Copais in Boeotia, 450BC-400BC. The side plumes may denote rank.

A contingent of 2,000 Thessalian cavalry accompanied Alexander on his eastern campaign. These fought with distinction, especially the contingent from Pharsalus, in Alexander’s three major set-piece battles at the Granicus, Issus, and Gaugaumela. Some even volunteered to stay on after the League of Corinth’s forces were dismissed at Ecbatana in 330 (Curt. 6.6.35). A number of Thessalians ascended to positions of considerable influence with Alexander, and veterans returned home, well compensated for their efforts.

Sources frequently state the Thessalian cavalry were the best of Alexander’s army, generally fighting on the left of the line under Parmenion. Roughly equal to the Companions in strength, 1,800-2,000 men, it can be assumed they also were organised into eight ilai of 200 men each. The vanguard squadron was the Pharsalian ile, also Parmenion’s personal bodyguard, and perhaps double strength like the Royal Squadron. Arrian (3.11.10) calls it the “finest and most numerous squadron”. The squadrons could have been named after the principle cities in Thessaly, perhaps Larisa, Pherae, Tricca, Pharcadon, Pelinna, Olooson and Philippi/Philippopolis or ancient Gomphi. After Gordian another 200 Thessalian horse joined the army, perhaps used as replacements rather than forming a new squadron. The regiment was disbanded at Ecbatana, but 130 volunteers stayed on as a distinct unit as mercenaries serving under the former hipparch Philippus a further year before being disbanded. The Alexander sarcophagus suggests that a red short sleeved garment was worn under a long sleeved purple tunic, with a purple cloak decorated with white lower borders which would billow out when galloping to give “Thessalian wings”. This Philippus son of Menelaus was a Macedonian first attested as a hipparch of the allied cavalry at the Granicus. By Gaugamela he had been promoted to the Thessalian command.

Macedonian Companion Cavalryman

Taken largely from the Issus mosaic, the rider is wearing a sleeved tunic or possibly a double belted Ionian long tunic. The armour is a high quality tube and yoke and a Boeotian helmet is worn. This was the typical cavalry helmet even before Xenophon's recommendation in the 360's BC. It becomes the standard cavalry helmet of Alexander’s army, and continued in the early 3rd century. The applied silver wreath is probably a badge of rank.

The primary weapon is the xyston, around 3m in length. Once a general term for spear shaft but from this period seldom used except to describe the weapon of the Macedonian shock cavalry. The shaft was made of cornel wood, the cornelian cherry or cornus mas, apparently common in Macedonia. A large bronze butt spike could be used as a weapon if the xyston broke, although Alexander preferred a sword. The horse is a large animal able to barge others out of the way and the rider is equipped mentally and physically for close quarter combat.

Persian cavalryman
Mid 4th century BC

Wearing typical Median costume, and based largely on the Abdalonymus or Alexander Sarcophagus and the Issos mosaic. Late 19th and early 20th century colour plates of the sarcophagus preserve some of the original colours used to paint the reliefs. Large amounts of purple and saffron dye seem to have been used, and all the hats on the Issus mosaic are yellow.

Two cornel-wood javelins called palta are carried, with iron heads. One could be thrown while the other either thrown or retained for thrusting. A kopis is carried but it could be substituted for a sagaris. An akinakes hangs on the right thigh. Horses could be large by ancient standards, especially the famous Nisaean breed. Horses seem to have been supplied from central stud farms. Each cavalryman would have had a groom lead, saddle and bridle the horse as well as to help the rider to mount. Armour for the horse and man seem to have been limited to a minority.

Hellenistic Shielded Cavalryman

Tarantine coins show her cavalry using shields in the 4th century, and cavalry called Tarantines were first employed as mercenaries under Antigonos in Asia in 317 BC. King Pyrrhos may have introduced the use of cavalry shields into Greece in the 3rd century after his adventures in Italy 281-275 BC. The type of shield is open to question but according to Dionysios of Halikarnassos, Pyrrhos was killed while carrying a bronze shield on horseback at Argos, probably a small pelta. This rider is using a typical long cavalry style kopis recommended by Xenophon.

Staff Slinger

The idea of mounting a sling on a pole is probably of Hellenistic origin. Both arms are used to project heavier missiles than normal slings, and these may have been used to sling the kestros or kestrosphendone used by the Macedonians under Perseus. This was a dart-like weapon with a spear head and wood flights used against Romans and described by Livy, Suidas and Polybios.