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The Hoplite Class as a Complex Category in Greek Thought

Richard Fernando Buxton


Topographical modeling (van Wees 2004) and the study of literary data for poleis outside Athens (Hansen 2004 and Robinson 2011) has undermined the received wisdom that class and political power in Classical Greece correlated neatly to military contribution; i.e. oligarchy was rule by a combined middling and upper-class of citizen males able to afford armor for hoplite service, whereas Athenian democracy’s empowerment of the poor rested on their service as rowers (Krentz 2007 provides an overview). Instead, there were clearly more citizens serving as hoplites than granted power in even the broadest oligarchical system and democracies existed in Greece without a navy. Nevertheless, this earlier model is ultimately rooted in the contemporary analyses of Aristotle and the Old Oligarch and it is, consequently, worth considering how each thinker came to find the schema so intuitive (Scheidel 2005).


On the one hand, the model is an obvious attempt to modernize a traditional aristocratic-warrior ethos of earning political power through military efficacy (Hom. Il. 12.307-330). But it also reflects how Sparta, the chief sponsor of oligarchic regimes, was itself the acknowledged master of hoplite warfare, producing a close hoplite-oligarchy connection in contemporary ideology.  Recent scholarship has emphasized that Spartiatae were not the city’s only hoplites, as this number included perioeci and helots (Cartledge 1987). Nevertheless, the professionally trained Spartiatae held a definite if fragile “monopoly of violence” (Weber 1994 [1919]) in the Spartan state, as the Helot revolt of 464-55 made clear. The perceived correlation between hoplite service and oligarchic power, therefore, may best be understood not in absolute but relative terms: the propertied elite in other poleis, due to their better arms and leisure for training, could narrowly, like the Spartiatae, monopolize violence in states organized around hoplite warfare, even if there were significant numbers of non-elite hoplites filling out the ranks. This narrow dominance in turn helps explain the frequency of stasis during the Classical period: non-elite hoplites who through the greed or neglect of the elite came to identify their interests with the poor more than the wealthy could pose a credible threat to oligarchic hoplites, particularly when bankrolled by a democratic power like Athens. It is for this reason that Aristotle saw the chief cause of stasis as abuse by the rich of their privileged position, rather than a Marxist-style “class warfare” intrinsic to any unequal society (Ober 1991). 


Aristotle and the “Old Oligarch”, accordingly, seem to have conflated the hoplite class with the elite group that dominated it, just as Classical authors frequently equate the demos not with all citizens but with the poor majority. A contemporary reader could easily understand the two senses, as Aristotle apparently does at Politics 1279a-b, where the hoplites of his moderate politeia-constitution are a citizen-group smaller than that enfranchised under a democracy but larger than the wealthy of an oligarchy. The conflation of these two “hoplite classes” also reflects Sparta’s Late-Classical sponsorship of highly narrow oligarchies (e.g. the Thirty at Athens, the Decarchies in Ionia). The presence of these repositioned broad oligarchies based on the narrow “hoplite class” (e.g. the Five Thousand at Athens) as the logical compromise point between oligarchy and democracy, usurping the role of the “hoplite class” understood broadly.

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Athenian Unity?

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