Aug 15, 2011

Weapons & Warriors: The Aspis of Sparta

Art by TL Jeffcoat
You think Captain America was the first hero to ever wield a shield as a weapon? Guess again. A shield not only used as a very deadly weapon, it was built ahead of its time. The bronze shield of Sparta was one of the earliest shields that were as dangerous a weapon as much as it was protection. The shield is known as a Hoplon by historians, which is a Greek word for weapon or tool of war. Some people believe Spartan Hoplites took their name from the shield, but that is debatable since the Greek term for weapons and armor was hopla and that the Greeks themselves called the shield an Aspis.

This shield was unusual compared to a lot of ancient shields. It was first designed by the Greeks in around 700 BC or possible a little before that. Like many shields it started out as wood, which was cut into a disc in the shape of a shallow bowl. The Spartan shield was also rather large compared to many shields, but designed to not slow down or impede the warrior using it. They averaged around three feet in diameter. After the wood was prepared, the outer layer of the shield was coated in bronze. Then the Greek letter Lambda (which appears as an upside down V) was painted red across the outside.

What makes this shield ahead of its time was the fact that this wooden and bronze layered disc was light enough to move around a battle field and it was strong enough to stop a blow from a steel sword. Keep in mind that steel wasn’t even invented in the time of the Spartans. So other than a well-aimed arrow fired directly into the shield, nothing was getting through that thing. No spear, sword or mace in 700 BC would break through it.

Deadliest Warrior did a special where they compared Samurai and Spartan weapons and armor, and Samurai steel was unable to penetrate the shield. The 30lb kanabo (huge mace) was ineffective in breaking the arm holding the shield or ruining the shield itself. The show is a bit campy and unbelievable as far as their comparisons to warriors, but they use a Mythbusters style method of testing a weapon's capability for carnage. The results for the Spartan shield were mind blowing.

You could certainly say the Aspis was the glue to Sparta’s elite warriors. Not only was it virtually impenetrable in its time, but if a Spartan was forced to engage in close combat with his sword it wasn’t uncommon for him to swing the shield after his follow through from a sword swing. It was like a one two punch, and the bronze coated shield was like a blow from a  mace, that was capable of shattering an unprotected skull. Even with a helmet on, the shield was capable of delivering a blow that would render the victim unconscious. Think about that for a minute. Hundreds of cultures used shields, and either used them to push enemies or block an attack. How many ever thought to use it like a hammer, bringing me back to the “ahead of its time” comment. Not only did many cultures never think to swing a shield edge at an enemy, they weren’t usually expecting it either.

There’s a reason 300 Spartan’s held back the 2,00,000 warriors of the Persian army of Xerxes at Thermopylae. The movie was a little over the top, but the basic story is pretty spot on as far as history goes. They held their ground in that little niche of a mountain pass without any loss until they were betrayed and flanked.

I hope you enjoyed this edition of Weapons and Warriors, click here to view the entire catalog of weapons and cultures. Thank you, see you next week.


  1. And THAT is why the Spartans were such ass-kickers!

    Thanks for this post. I LOVE ancient Greece and was *almost* a Classics major in college. If I had time, I'd read Homer's ILIAD over and over again on continuous loop. Incredible stuff!

  2. I love ancient history. When I was growing up I would dream of what it would have been like to grow up in the ancient times. Then I remind myself there was no running water, toilet paper or electric guitars and I decide to just read about history instead.

  3. This comment has been removed by the author.

  4. [EDIT: Sorry, Tim! I was writing an email to a coworker named Jeff at the same time I was posting this comment. I suck at multi-tasking!]

    Tim, writing a "weapons weekly" column is a great idea! So many books feature different weapons, and I know I'm hoping to use several different styles of weaponry in my own novel as well. Keep writing these columns - I'm going to bookmark them all!


  5. Lol, it's ok Scott. I actually get called Jeff a lot. It's like a nickname and I don't even notice it anymore.

    I'm glad you like the new column, one of my favorite hobbies is collecting weapons. Not so much movie props as actual weapons themselves. Someday I would love to have one of these shields made exactly the way the Spartans did.