The Myth of the Heavily Burdened Hoplite

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Categories: Ancient
How much weight did these warriors carry? Archaeological finds let us give a pretty good estimate. A Corinthian aryballos (oil flask)in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Accession Number: 41.162.157

Today, people with detailed direct knowledge of Iron Age arms and armour in the Aegean describe them as for athletes, as lightweight as the smiths could make them. Most hoplites had just one or two spears, a round shield, some kind of headpiece and some kind of sword, dagger, or cleaver. A hoplite was heavily burdened in comparison to man with a club and a selection of rocks in a fold of his tunic, not in comparison with modern ‘light’ (not motor-borne) infantry who often carry their own body weight in equipment. So where does the idea that hoplites wore 30 kilos of equipment come from? Back in 2010, Peter Krentz laid out the sad story.

Most scholars writing in English today estimate the weight of a hoplite’s equipment as 70 pounds (33 kilograms) or more, a figure that goes back to Delbrück, who took the figure 72 pounds from W. Rüstow and H. Köchly’s Geschichte des griechischen Kriegswesens von der ältesten Zeit bis auf Pyrrhos (1852). These are German pounds, each equal to 500 grams or 0.5 kilograms, as is clear from places where Rüstow and Köchly give weights in both pounds and kilograms. Their original estimate, therefore, was actually about 36 kilograms (79 avoirdupois pounds). Even this lofty figure has been exaggerated— in 1994 Richard A. Gabriel and Donald W. Boose gave the weight of a panoply (a full set of hoplite equipment) as 85–90 pounds (39–41 kilograms). But, as I say, most scholars writing in English today favor 70 avoirdupois pounds, which Victor Davis Hanson describes as “an incredible burden to endure for the ancient infantryman, who himself probably weighed no more than some 150 pounds.” Rüstow and Köchly’s figures do not deserve this veneration. They did not weigh museum pieces or attempt to reconstruct the equipment. As a result, a reviewer, Theodor Bergk, dismissed their figures as “purely hypothetical attempts,” while Hans Droysen justified his decision to ignore them by calling them “arbitrary estimates.” After all the archaeological discoveries of the past century and a half, especially in the German excavations at Olympia, we can do better today.

– Peter Krentz, “A Cup by Douris and the Battle of Marathon,” in Garrett G. Fagan and Matthew Trundle (eds.), New Perspectives on Ancient Warfare (Brill: Leiden, 2010) pp. 188-190

In short, this number persisted because it was the first one on the table, and because archaeologists refused to systematically measure and weigh finds until the 1990s (and when they did, they mostly did so in Greek and German, while the people becoming interested in hoplites only read English). Krentz estimates the weight of hoplite equipment as follows:

  • Helmet 1.2 kg {Extant Late Corinthian helmets}
  • Body Armour 3.6–6.8 kg {Extant bronze cuirasses and modern linen and leather armour}
  • Greaves (pair) 1.3 kg {Extant bronze greaves}
  • Shield 3.2–6.8 kg {Reconstructions based on two extant shields from Italy; for example, the poplar wood shield covered in 0.5 mm bronze sheet in the Museuo Gregoriano would have weighed 6.2 kg/13.5 lbs new}
  • Spear 1.5 kg {Reconstructions based on extant spearheads and buttspikes}
  • Sword, Scabbard, and Baldric 1-2 kg {Parallels with Roman gladii, weight of one damaged original}
  • Clothing 1 kg {Reconstructions}
  • Total (rounded) 13–21 kg

All of his figures are consistent with the weight of kit from other cultures. While modern infantry have to carry more than their body weight over the mountains of Afghanistan or the steppes of upper Mesopotamia, a Greek hoplite carried about as much weight into combat as I hauled to and from school five days a week.

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Edit 2019-08-03: Corrected the names of the editors of the collection with Krentz’ article

An grave stele from near Athens c. 390 BCE in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, NY, accession number 40.11.23

5 thoughts on “The Myth of the Heavily Burdened Hoplite

  1. Pavel Vaverka says:

    It’s always sad, when best work for theme isn’t much known or available I don’t understand, what took so long to process Jarva research.

    1. Sean Manning says:

      I also don’t know why they don’t print a thousand softcover copies of Jarva’s book so people could read it. I have never held a copy in my hands despite a lot of trying: I would have to order it by interlibrary loan from Germany and there were always more urgent things to read.

      There is a good review of that book by Hans van Wees.

  2. Dis Manibus: Matthew Trundle (12 July 2019) | Book and Sword says:

    […] They edited “New Perspectives on Ancient Warfare” which contains several useful articles including Peter Krentz on the weight of hoplite kit. […]

  3. Tak Hallus says:

    Taking a leap into more modern times the Heavily burdened Infantry problem may have inspired Cyclist Battalions from ~1890 onwards. I am not sure whether it was a matter of trying to match the mobility of Cavalry supported by horse drawn artillery on open terrain or good roads, or to allow unmounted infantry to move faster with heavier gear loads than they could on foot. Using mules for infantry gear transport posed the same feeding and stabling challenges as using horses to bring shells, munitions and living supplies to the front in WW I. Horse fodder was the #1 commodity shipped to the front by several combatants in WW I.

    Bicycles were also used in WW II. The Swiss Army Bicycle Regiment continued Infantry Drills until 2001, putting a whole different Spin on Mountain Biking.

    A Canadian Armed Forces officer who served in the Balkans in the 1990s told me that he often rode around on a bike, carrying his rifle in a rack over the handlebars.

    1. Sean Manning says:

      Apparently they built collapsible bikes for the Normandy landings which needed to be bolted or screwed back together and had a habit of falling apart in mid-pedal if you assembled them wrong. And the Americans had to use some mules and pack-horses in WW II after discovering that in some rough mountain terrain, jeeps and trucks just could not do the job. These days the Americans are dreaming of “robot mules” or exoskeletons to help soldiers carry more weight, but the exoskeletons will eat batteries which are heavy too.

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