What is a Hoplite?
Ridgeview's Mascot: The Ethos of the Hoplite
In the first year of the school's existence, Ridgeview high school students chose our mascot. Not content with some familiar Classical icon like The Spartans or The Romans, Ridgeview chose a very specialized type of warrior - a soldier defined by a specific type of armor and fighting style who fought during a specific era of history - they chose the ancient Greek citizen-warrior who fought in the Persian and Peloponnesian wars: they chose The Hoplite.
- The Ancient Greek History -
Hoplites were Greek warriors who fought with shield and spear in a tightly ordered formation called the phalanx. They emerged sometime around the Seventh century BC, and their style of warfare dominated the Mediterranean world in the era before the Roman Empire. That famous Greek soldier, Pheidippides, who ran the 26 miles from the battle of Marathon back to Athens was a hoplite; the 300 Spartans who held off the Persian horde and died fighting at the battle of Thermopylae were hoplites; even the famous philosopher Socrates served his polis as a hoplite.
A hoplite's armor and weapons, or panoply, consisted of a bronze breastplate and leather skirt to protect his torso, bronze greaves over his shins, a plumed helmet covering his skull and face, an eight to ten foot spear for jabbing and slashing, a short sword or dagger, and finally the hoplon - the round shield, about three feet in diameter that the hoplite strapped to his left arm. Constructed of wood plated in metal, it weighed about fifteen pounds. Holding up such a large piece of armor and fighting with it for hours at a time would have demanded great strength and endurance in the muscles of the upper body.
Since the hoplon was held by the left arm, it fully protected the left side of the hoplite but his right flank was vulnerable to attack. Therefore, the hoplites stood close together, shoulder to shoulder, so that a warrior would be protected on the left by his own shield and would squeeze in behind the shield of the man fighting next to him on the right. A row of thousands or even a few dozen hoplites would present an imposing front as narrow eye-slits of bronze helmets glared over an impenetrable series of overlapping shields.
Between each pair of shields protruded the hoplites' spears, and not just one spear tip would poke out from the phalanx's front line. The phalanx had several rows of men standing behind the front. Since hoplite spears were long, the spears of warriors in the second, third, and even the seventh row would extend over the shoulders of those men standing in the front line. Creating a porcupine effect, these many spear tips discouraged a frontal attack on the phalanx and offered an offense that was never beaten by the Persian armies that invaded Greece in the fifth century. Moreover, the warriors in the back used their shields to push the front line into the enemy, adding the force and weight of many men to the front line's attack strength as they advanced, both protecting themselves with the hoplons and attacking the enemy with their spears.
The success of the phalanx, therefore, depended upon the unified efforts of all the warriors involved - they had to maintain the discipline of the tightly packed line, move together in step so that the row of shields was never broken, and rely on both the front and the rear lines to supply strength. It was so important to maintain order within the line that some Greek cities actually had laws that would deprive any hoplite of his citizenship if he should drop his shield, because, as the Spartans said, "a warrior wears his helmet to save his own neck, but he carries his shield for the sake of the line as a whole."&
nbsp; Some historians theorize that the first hoplites were responsible for the creation of the polis since they constituted the first citizen body whose militia could defend itself from aggressors and thus define a city as a an entity separate and independent from the other regions around it. Some historians even go so far as to credit hoplites with the creation of democracy because a group of citizens had to agree to fight together against a common foe; furthermore, any men who risked their lives for the good of the city could demand some say in local government. For the ancient Greeks, it was a way of life to be a hoplite. Every citizen was required to train for the army and almost every generation was called upon to serve in battle. It should come as no surprise that Socrates was a hoplite - of course he was: he was an Athenian and he loved his city. To Aeschylus, the famous Athenian author of the Agamemnon and Prometheus Bound, it was more important to have his tombstone declare that he fought at Marathon than boast that he invented Greek tragedy. At Ridgeview, we are thus in good company, with other famous hoplites like Thucydides, Sophocles, Pericles, Leonidas, and Alexander the Great.
At Ridgeview, as in the phalanx, we rely on each other for continued existence and for every achievement we boast to the public. While the analogy might be overly militaristic, for we are not marching into battle, we are advancing together toward education reform and to do that, we have to hold up our shield for the good of the whole community. As a small charter school, we have to prove that what we are doing works. If we really believe that our nation needs a classical education for modern times, then we have to prove it through every member of our phalanx. We must celebrate not only when a senior presents her thesis and matriculates to college, but also when a kindergartner learns his letters or a student no longer needs the support of an IEP. Teachers, students, and parents must work together as we, like a phalanx, inch forward. We move best when we move together under the same banner - all of us working to strengthen and improve our children, our students, ourselves, because education is the most important way to improve and sustain the future of our nation.
As in the phalanx, holding up the shield is hard work and we are all called to serve: the parent who drives 45 minutes each morning to bring children to a great school is holding up the shield; the volunteers who read with the elementary students in the morning are holding up the shield; the board members who stay here until the wee hours figuring out how to balance the budget are holding up the shield; the teachers who devote three weeks in August to training, who are writing grammar books, learning to diagram, and meeting every week before and after school to talk about how to be better teachers are holding up the shield.
To merit the title of hoplites demands much of our students too. Plutarch describes the original hoplite education among the Spartans as so demanding that "for them, uniquely among mankind, war represented a respite from their military training."  For the Spartans, going to war was actually easier than their daily routine! I would assert that our students deserve to be called hoplites: the daily routine of training in our school is so rigorous, that, for Ridgeview students, the state-mandated CSAP testing actually represents a rest from their normal work load!
It matters that we are hoplites, not Spartans, not Trojans. The specificity of the word "hoplite" is important: it reflects our admiration for the Classical Greek era and the men who fought in the battles of Marathon and Thermopylae. Those battles were crucial moments that defined the course of history and preserved Western Civilization so that the Greeks could develop ideas like democracy and Socratic philosophy, the discipline of history and the arts of drama, sculpture, literature, and architecture. Behind that unfamiliar moniker for what's really just a tough, proud Greek warrior is our passion for academic rigor. It confirms our inquisitive attitude that finds dignity in knowing about the details of our cultural heritage. But finally, the beauty of having the hoplite as our mascot is that nobody knows what it means and that invites conversation, giving all of us the opportunity to inform, educate, and to proudly hold up the shield as we talk about what Ridgeview is.
________________ Plutarch, Life of Lycurgus, chapter 22.