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The so-called Hoplite Revolution

Despite the only limited equality characteristic of the Greek city-state, the creation of this new form of political organization nevertheless represented a significant break with the past, and the extension of at least some political rights to the poor stands as one of the most striking developments in this process of change. Unfortunately we cannot identify with certainty the forces that led to the emergence of the polis as a political institution in which even poor men had a vote on political matters. The explanation long favored by many makes a so-called hoplite revolution responsible for the general widening of political rights in the city-state, but recent research has undermined the plausibility of this theory as a completely satisfactory explanation. Hoplites1 were infantrymen clad in metal body armor2, and they constituted the main strike force of the citizen militias that defended Greek city-states in the period before navies became important. Men armed as hoplites marched into combat shoulder to shoulder in a rectangular formation called a phalanx3. Staying in line and working as part of the group was the secret to successful phalanx tactics. A good hoplite, in the words of the seventh-century B.C. poet Archilochus, was “a short man firmly placed upon his legs, with a courageous heart, not to be uprooted from the spot where he plants his feet.” Greeks had fought in phalanxes for a long time, but until the eighth century B.C., only aristocrats and a relatively small number of their non-aristocratic followers could afford the equipment to serve as hoplites. In the eighth century B.C., however, a growing number of men had become sufficiently prosperous to buy metal weapons, especially since the use of iron had made them more readily available. Presumably these new hoplites, since they paid for their own equipment and trained hard to learn phalanx tactics to defend their community, felt they, too, were entitled to political rights. According to the theory of a hoplite revolution, these new hoplite-level men forced the aristocrats to share political power by threatening to refuse to fight and thereby cripple the community's military defense.

The theory correctly assumes that new hoplites had the power to demand an increased political say for themselves, a development of great significance for the development of the city-state as an institution not solely under the power of a small circle of aristocrats. The theory of a hoplite revolution cannot explain, however, one crucial question: why were poor men as well as hoplites given the political right of voting on policy in the city-state?

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