The hoplon (ὅπλον), or sometimes aspis (as is seen, for instance, in the name of the Argyraspides, the bodyguard of Alexander), was the shield of the hoplite, the heavy infantryman of Classical Greece, from which that order of troop took its name. It was a large, round shield, wooden, with a sheet of bronze beaten over it; convex, to permit its owner to breathe in the crash of phalanxes; painted with the figure of a city. The shield was primarily fastened to the wearer's arm by means of a thick strap around the forearm, just below the elbow, emerging from the centre of the shield; the wearer further secured it by grasping a tasselled cord run around the inside of the rim. Most shields work on these same basic principles, but it is an oddity peculiar to the hoplon that the elbow strap attaches to the centre of the shield, since, as is easy to see, this leaves half of the shield hanging uselessly off to the wearer's left side, making it very inconvenient in single combat. In the phalanx formation favored by the ancient Hellenes, this portion of the shield protects the next man over; however, it does not confer any real advantage in this regard over a properly-strapped shield. In consequence it has been theorized that the hoplon was deliberately ill-fitted in order to dissuade its wearers from breaking formation; a man free, as we have noted, finds it hard to protect himself, and especially to fight, as he must expose his right side with each stroke of spear or blade.

The hoplon was a very heavy shield, and in order to flee battle, a hoplite would ordinarily be forced to discard his hoplon in order to get away. On the basis of this and, perhaps particularly and certainly more openly, the necessity of massed charges, a special race was added to the Olympic Games, called the hoplitodromos, in which the runners wore the helmet, hoplon and greaves of a hoplite.


The hoplon, along with and as a symbol of the rest of the hoplite's equipment, was an important status-marker of the owner: it was an expensive object, not used in any everyday situation, frequently also a heirloom, and thereby a proof of lineage: but, most of all, it was a token of the owner's status as a free man. With this in mind, the taunt ripsaspis, »shield-thrower« is perhaps shown more clearly for the stinging, humiliating rebuke it was, and the harsh demand of the ungenerously-named Gorgo to her husband that he should return »with his shield or on it« more fully understood.

This concept of the shield as a token of the freeman demands, perhaps, some elaboration: it's easy in this day and age to get the idea that Sparta was the only city-state of Hellas to be entirely under the thumb of a military caste, but at one time or another all the major city-states of Greece predicated citizenship on military training and the provision of arms: even Socrates, in Plato's Apology, defends himself by making reference to his service record. (Socrates supposedly fought in the Peloponnesian War, acquitting himself splendidly despite most of the battles of his time being complete hashes for Athens.) Even a philosopher is thus a philosopher only by way of comparison to his fellow soldiers. This is not unlike the situation in the early European feudal system, where social rank was primarily contingent on one's ability and willingness to provide a warhorse with one's own person atop it in case of battle. (In both cases, this is eventually commuted to simple heredity, both because privilege seeks to preserve itself and because wealth naturally aggregates, as do magnetic iron filings.*)

In this way we see that one thing stands for many things: a shield is inseparable from the man who wears it, the formation that uses it, the strategy that fields those formations, the wars that use those strategies, the society which fights those wars. In our weaker moments such reflections might impel us to lean toward structuralism: but the French are untrustworthy and stupid.

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