Mortal Gods: How Should You Paint Your Hoplites?

Hello everyone!

It’s Phatis here again, bringing you another carefully constructed blog post about Mortal Gods. I keep seeing a few comments in the community that have pushed me to write a bit more substantially today than I do typically.

Over at the Mortal Gods Facebook group, a few people have been asking how they should go about painting up their Hoplites. Unsurprisingly, this has led to a debate over every detail of the Hoplite’s equipment, the color of their gear, and so on.

It can get rather confusing (or even intimidating) for the poor hobbyist who just wants some answers.

Well, worry not mortals! Who has two thumbs and is also a shade, who formerly served in the Athenian army in Classical Greece? This guy, that’s who! … I’m pointing to myself and giving a thumbs up–it dawned on me that you can’t see me doing it though.

Right, anyway; So how should you paint your various Hoplites? Well, let’s use the Athenian Hoplite as an example, especially since some people are arguing that Athenians had no uniformity as each soldier had to purchase their own gear. I find that to be an interesting perspective to take, mainly because it isn’t entirely accurate.

The next few sections are history-focused; if you want you can skip down to the ‘too long; didn’t read’ part of the blog (towards the bottom). But if you want to know all the historical background, give it a read.

Who Were Hoplites?

Let’s get this clear right from the start: Hoplites did not get their names from the shield they carried (i.e., a hoplon). The term ‘hoplon’ (that which we associate with the shield) is derived from the Greek word ὁπλά (‘opla’) which in the 5th Century BCE signified any implement or tool of war. It would be at a later period in time when the term would come to signify only the shield. To Classical Greeks, a shield was known as an aspis.

The word ‘hoplite’, however, derives from the Greek ὁπλίτης (‘oplites’) is–like all words within a language–one that evolved over time.  The typical Classical Period understanding of the word meant basically any ‘armored’ warrior.

Herodotus (Hist. 9.30; cf. 7.158), for example, distinguishes between heavy and light warriors, calling the former ὁπλίτῃσι (‘oplitesi’) and the latter ψιλοί (‘psiloi’)–literally ‘bare’ (normally meaning ‘naked’, though in this context it could also mean ‘without armor or protection’). Thucydides makes the same distinction (Pelop. War 4.125.2), as do other ancient authorities who were, you know, contemporaries.

But there is more to the story here. Hoplites and psiloi were not simply distinct in terms of their armor, but also their social and economic status. Here is where things get interesting (well, more interesting).

Whose Panoply Is It, Anyway?

During the time of the First Peloponnesian War, to even be considered for training as a Hoplite, you had to be 18 years old and had to come from one of the wealthy sectors of society–meaning from one of the first three (out of four) Athenian economic classes. That is, you had to own property and have rights above the typical working class citizenry. The poor, known as θῆτες (‘Thetes’) and which made up the lowest, or fourth social class, were not generally permitted (there were exceptions) into the so-called ‘Hoplite class’ until the 4th Century (just a few decades after the Second Peloponnesian War). At that point, even slaves were being conscripted. We’ll touch upon that in a moment.

Once the youth was deemed worthy to train, the state would allot to these new recruits (ephebes) a spear and shield provided by a public military fund (paid for with public monies), at which point they joined the ranks of the two-year training school known as the ephebeia (per Aristotle, Cons. Ath. 42.4).

The issuing of a spear and shield, however, did not complete the armor that finished out the Hoplites’ πανοπλία (a ‘panoplia’ is a full set of hoplite equipment). They also needed a breastplate, sword, helmet, and greaves. These remaining items the warrior would normally have to acquire himself, at least in the early Classical Period. Being of the property-owning classes, this was fairly easy to accomplish as they had the money to afford to get a set of their own liking.

Interpretation of an Athenian Marine

But this wasn’t always the case. When Athens sent an expedition to Sicily during the Peloponnesian War, they actually supplemented their naval forces with Thetes warriors from the fourth class.  According to Thucydides (Pelop. War 6.43), these Thetes warriors were hired as ἐπιβάται (‘epibatai’, Marines), who were typically equipped in the exact same fashion as hoplites (i.e., the same panoply). This was obviously a very rare occurrence as Thetes were usually only able to act as rowers on a ship (and many did if they weren’t already serving as psilons). Obviously too poor to purchase their own armor and equipment, these Marines would have been outfitted at the state’s expense.

This brings me to my next point. In the 5th Century and (definitely more typically) in the 4th Century BCE, the Athenian state did outfit and arm hoplites. And when the state could not, the κοσμητής (‘kosmētes’; basically wealthy Athenian officers in charge of the training at the ephebeia) fronted the expense and purchased full panoply for their own warriors. This was especially true during periods when Thetes were conscripted.

While conscription occurred in minor ways at the onset of the Classical Period, due to the Ephebic Reform of 335 BCE it becomes the standard operating procedure for the state (the standing army at this time was greatly reduced) in the 4th Century. Around this time as well the state was lending out armor to conscripted Hoplites of the poorest class using tokens. Several of these tokens have been found in the Athenian Agora, and depict a letter (possibly denoting size) and a picture of a piece of armor (a helmet, a breastplate, etc..).

It stands to reason (and I would argue) that the gear would have some very uniform elements, particularly if purchased in bulk.

This all leads to three very important points to remember:

  • (1) While it is mostly correct to say that for a large period of time in Classical Athens, Hoplites had to purchase their own equipment, this isn’t always the case.
  • (2) At least with the Athenian army, there existed periods of uniformity in appearance and equipment due to publicly-funded military outfitting, the leasing of panoply during periods of conscription, or due to the purchase of equipment by the kosmetes.
  • (3) Most curiously, depending upon the wealth of the kosmetes purchasing the gear (aside from spear and shield, which were provided by the state to the warrior regardless of social class), some groups of hoplites might have the best equipment, may have subpar equipment, or even some rather interesting thematic elements to their armor.

Within a period of 100 years, the Athenian army faced serious defeats and had to essentially reinvent itself, its traditions, and its military. A lot changed.

I focused here on the Athenians because they happen to be attested to the most (which has a lot to do with the fact that so many of the historians of the period were Athenian). There is still a lot that is not known.

And I’m sure right about now, you’re probably wondering when I am going to get to those blue Athenian cloaks and tunics, right? Well, here’s the thing about that…

What About City Colors?

Modern entertainment media doesn’t make it easy for the historian to explain all this. Movies and video games impact our understanding of the Hoplite and their economic and social setting in antiquity and they affect our interpretations of their equipment as well. But as much as this entertainment distorts our perspective, in a lot of ways it also inspires creativity.

For example, games and movies put forth this notion of ‘city colors’ for the various Greek poleis. The movie 300 and its sequel propose that Spartans wore red cloaks and Athenians wore blue as if to highlight their opposing philosophies. Games like Total War and Assassin’s Creed: Odyssey reinforces these stereotypes. There is some historical basis for this, at least with Sparta.

Xenophon records that one of Lycurgus’ reforms in Sparta was the inclusion of red in their military equipment:

“In the equipment that he devised for the troops in battle he included a red cloak [φοινικίδα], because he believed this garment to have least resemblance to women’s clothing and to be most suitable for war, and a brass shield, because it is very soon polished and tarnishes very slowly. He also permitted men who were past their first youth to wear long hair, believing that it would make them look taller, more dignified and more terrifying.” (Const. Lac. 11.3)

There are a few additional attestations to this from other ancient authorities. Still, Xenophon remains our best source as he is writing as a contemporary witness (he was also a soldier) in the Classical Period.

Beyond Sparta, there is little else that demonstrates that other city-states had their own ‘color scheme’. Or for that matter, there is no evidence that those aligned with Sparta during the Peloponnesian War ever adopted the red cloak and tunic of the Spartans.

It is important to note here that the evidence does not exclude the possibility that some city-states had a preferred color–be it a result of tradition, the prevalence of a local substance used to make a dye, or because a particular officer happened to like it.

Indeed, even if there is no evidence of a city-state taking on a particular color of choice, kosmetes may have purchased a bulk lot of panoply which was painted with a certain primary color.

The ‘Too Long; Didn’t Read’ Version

As we approach the release of Mortal Gods, and with several official miniatures available now to purchase, War Banner has no interest in telling you how to paint your lochos. No one should try to compel you to follow rigid thematic guidelines, or berate you for your creativity and hard work.

If you want all your Athenians to have blue clothes under their golden-bronze armor, then you do that. If you want to paint your lochoi based upon how that army is portrayed in entertainment media (i.e., Spartans with red clothes), go right ahead. If you decide to paint up each Hoplite in a unique way, that sounds tedious and exhausting, but cool!

The extant historical evidence for hoplites from this period is limited. And as I have shown, there is no singular ‘right way’ to paint them. I would never fault someone for wanting to paint their models as historically as the evidence allows; but try to remember that this is all a game and we are here to have fun.

Recall what I said before when asked whether Mortal Gods will be a historical game; we are striving for that historical grounding, but honestly, don’t feel tied up in current historical theory. Explore your creativity.

By recruiting your lochos in Mortal Gods, YOU take on the hypothetical mantle kosmetes. You are responsible for securing the panoplia for your ephebes. You get to decide their appearance.

Be historical, or be creative, or be dull (if you really insist), or just go nuts! In the end, these are your miniatures.

What matters most to us at War Banner is that you have fun playing the game.

About the Author

Phatis
Hi there! I'm Hippias Phatis--or Phatis for short (only my friends call me Hippias). So there I was, minding my own business in Hades, when the War Banner gods summoned me by some ritual or another and bound me to this thankless Fate--writing about Mortal Gods: Test of Courage. But fear not, mortals! I do enjoy my profession, even if I am only compensated by way of caffeinated drinks.

4 Comments on "Mortal Gods: How Should You Paint Your Hoplites?"

  1. Great article. Just right amount of detail for a person like me with slightly more than idle curiosity, but no desire to become a scholar. Keep up the good work.

    • Χαῖρε, Ray! I am happy to hear you liked my article. I will keep it up as long as War Banner continues to provide me with fresh coffee every day! 😉 Thank you for reading.

  2. There is evidence that the colour blue wasn’t named or known in more ancient times and for example in the Iliad the seas were referred to as wine dark rather than blue.

    The link bleow makes for interesting reading and it is by no means unique.

    https://www.sciencealert.com/humans-didn-t-see-the-colour-blue-until-modern-times-evidence-science

    The question becomes do we need to see it to name it or name it to see it?

    So just to stir it up a little it maybe be that no Athenian wore blue as the Egyptians were the first to use and refer to it, so not a common colour.

    • Hello Dranask!

      Oh, that old argument? That’s pretty much nonsense. 😉

      We certainly had a word for blue; in fact we had many words for blue! For example κύανος is the word used to describe a deep blue color like the dark-blue enamel used to paint shields (referenced by Homer in both the Iliad and the Odyssey) and also is used to describe the color of lapis lazuli (a very deep blue rock; Theophratus writes of it a few times), κυάνωσις is a form of κύανος which is also used to describe a dark-blue color, κυανοειδής (another form of κύανος) is used by Euripides (Hel. 179) to mean ‘dark blue’; there is also ὑποχαροπός which refers to extremely blue eyes (Xenophon, Hunt. 5.23).

      Blue dye (as evidence that we have more than one word for it) was absolutely 100% used by the Greeks and even the Romans. This was primarily created using Indigo; lots of recent research into the dying methods and techniques of the Classical Greek period show that something like 50 plants could produce the indigo color, primarily woad. The word for woad in Greek is ἰσάτις (and in Latin: Isatis tinctoria), and is referenced for making blue dye. This process was tedious however, so occasionally with shellfish, as well as color mixtures of other dyes in vats, one created a rich blue dye (closer to a royal blue color). Dyes were used not only to paint shields, or to change the hue of clothes, but also used to add color to statues and buildings; for example Pausanius attests to a statue of Athena with painted blue eyes (γλαυκους; Desc.of Greece 1.14.6). Incidentally, this word can also refer to the color ‘blue-grey’.

      As the Greek world expanded and laid claim to colonies far and wide in the Mediterranean and Near East, trade routes were also expanded. As a result, trade for blue dyes, indigo, and blue clothes were also more obtainable. But the color blue was not only seen, it was appreciated, and worn, and talked about.

      It seems pretty clear to me that the author of this study from the 1800’s was not very familiar with Greek language; it is also important to remember that we are still finding new Classical works and uncovering new archaeological evidence. Fragments here and there give us new clues that the authors of the 19th Century did not have access to or of which they were not aware existed. Distance, time, all of this affected the academic’s ability to do thorough research and with the advent of the internet age it is much easier to review all available sources prior to publishing. So it is no surprise to me that this theory from back then doesn’t hold a lot of ground in our modern time.

      It is also worth mentioning that Aristotle separates blue (κυανέω) and green (πράσινος) in his discussion of primary colors (De sensu 442a); he lists black, white, crimson (red), yellow, green, blue, and violet. This is the clearest indication that the theory that Greeks did not have a word for blue, nor that they couldn’t separate it from green, is false.

      Anyway, I hope that puts that outdated 19th Century notion to rest.

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