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SPARTAN SHIELD DEVICES (EPISIMON)

16/12/2011

Spartan Emblems and corresponding recruiting areas. Copyright: Nikos Panos

We cannot be sure what the Spartan shield emblems were in the Bronze Age. There is not enough archeological evidence for the time being. We have more details for the Classical Period. Our primary source of knowledge was the «Chigi» vase and an older archaic aryballos currently in the British Museum. This was our main source for depicting and reconstructing the Lakedemonian Classical warrior.

Chigi Vase – Villa Julia Italy

Then in 1916 the British Archeological School excavated the shrine of Artemis Orthia and found a number of lead «seals» that had to be shield devices. They all followed specific patterns and could be categorized. Later studies showed the remains of engravings. Some were clear enough to make out the name of the owner. This has made scientists believe that this is the first example of «dog-tags». These findings along with info given by Tyrtaios, Terpandros, Thukidides, Plutarch and Pausanias serve as the basis of the following study.

Finding from Artemis Orthia. Sparta Museum

The Lakedemonian Army was among the first to divide the phalanx into tactical units: The MORAE, numerically equivalent to a modern army battalion, they seem to have also administrative units like the regiments of the Napoleonic Era. Each one had its own shield device that was based on the symbol of the deity whose cult was dominant in the recruiting area.

Laconian Gorgoneio – National Archaeological Museum Athens. S. Skarmintzos Archive

The MORA of Sparta proper had the «Gorgoneion» of the Chalkioiokos Athena shrine in Sparta. The best example of the device comes from the National Archeological Museum in Athens.

The MORA of Skiritis that later evolved as the Spartan «commandos» had the white hawk in red outline. Lako or Yl-Lako means scream like a hawk hence Laconia the land of the hawks .

The MORA of Amyklae the only indigenous community to have citizen rights sported proudly the rooster, one of the symbols associated with Apollo as a sun god. Amyklae were the center of Karneios Apollo cult whom the Spartans revere ad lord of the campaigning season.

Hoplite from Helos. Courtesy of the living history group «Koryvantes«

The MORA of Elos had the bull’s head with its horns downwards. These rugged tough oxen were in existence in Greece up to the early 20th century amd their distant cousins are still found in the Strymon Area in Northern Greece. In cape Tainaro dominating the Area was the Temple of Poseidon Tauraos. Also according to a legend given by Arnovius Zeus in the form of a bull came from the sea and mated with Demetra in the Elos area and sired Persehpone.

The Geronthrae scorpion. Design by Nikolakopoulos Dimitris, Architect

The MORA of Geronthrae near modern Mystras was a center of the Ares cult. When the main star of the Scorpio was visible about 9th of July ceremonies took place at the temple and women were forbidden entry. Scorpio is a symbol of Ares and very combative species lives in Laconia.

Spartan Hoplite from the Mora of Limnatis. Created by Babis Thangopoulos Location: Kavala Greece

The MORAE with the the goose emblem, symbol of Artemis Limnatis was symbol of those who lived in the Messenian border. The goose had its head turned backwards as a symbol of vigilance.

Hoplite from Pylos. Courtesy of the living history group «Koryvantes«

The leopard was the symbol of Pylos and symbol of he MORA of those who received property after the Messenian Wars (they did not sport the lion badge as many think). The Leopard is associated with Dionysos and the god’s name (Dio-Nu-So-wO) in Linear B script has been found in Pylian clay tablets and the leopard was also appearing in the “Nestor Palace” frescoes .

Shield depicting the boar of Stenyclaros base on exhibit at the sparta Museum. Courtesy of the living history group "Koryvantes"

Hoplite from Pylos. Courtesy of the living history group «Koryvantes«

The MORA that was created after the battle of Stenyklaros was sporting the full sized black wild boar because Hercules had sacrificed a boar where the battle that subjugated Messsenia took place. This unit was last to be created in the Archai Period.

Plaque with the Aegidae snake. Sparta Museum

Also families who could prove land rights from the “Heroic Age” like the Aigidae were sporting a snake with one loop and its head looking upwards on their shield device. Based on pottery depictions it seems to be white on black or red background

With lesser degree of certainty we can place double snakes and twinolive brnaches to the clans of Melabontidae (healers )and Talthybiadae (herlads) respectively.

The Spartan «Lambda». Design by Nikolakopoulos Dimitris, Architect

The widely known Lamda appeared late in the Peloponnesian War, first perhaps on the shields of Brasidas Neodamodeis (newly enfranchised ex-helots). It seems to be the Spartan symbol In the Hellenistic period too.

Royal emblems from Sparta Museum

The King is represented in pottery and sculptures with traverse crest and currying the solar symbol of Sparta as depicted in a plaque found by the British Archeological school in 1916. According to Plutarch he has two bodyguards who are Olympic champions and carry olive wreaths on their helmets. They might have carried the DIOSKOYROI DOKANA on their shields. File leaders probably had high crests to be recognized more easily.

Hoplite photographs  courtesy of the Living History Association «Koryvantes«

13 σχόλια
  1. Howard Johnston permalink

    This interesting, but is it true? I am fascinated by ancient Spartan military history and have been studying it for years – but I have never seen any absolute proof about these unit shield devices before. We know the Lakedaimonian Ʌ ‘lambda’ was adopted before 418BC but prior to that – and certainly during the Persian Wars – the talk was always of personal motifs. Personal to each warrior rather than unit. Like the guy who had a life-size fly on his shield…

    • The individual device for every hoplite, has been an unchallenged «mantra» up to now.
      The «fly anecdote» comes Plutarch’s «Morals». It does not say though what else was painted on the shield!
      The city state monogram exists clearly in pottery dated from 421 B.C.
      In Benaki Museum in Athens exist a plate showing hoplite race, with the letter «A» (Athens?) on all three runners shields but it is not clearly visible. This item is dated in 7th century B.C ! (have photo)
      An alabaster piece in the Vatican Museum shows hoplites participating on a ceremony and they all carry the boar emblem – the very same boar appearing on Chigi Vase! (again dated 6th century B.C. – have photo but not the copyright)
      I will publish more items debunking the «Delium legend» and showing the ways of deciphering the devices
      More detailed articles quoting sources in detail and give the whole method of deciphering the devices
      have been published only in Greek up to now. I am on purpose «stingy» with sources and quotations on-line hoping to publish a book on the subject so please forgive me on that.
      Thank you for taking time to read my article and add your comments.
      Kind regards

    • Howard Johnston permalink

      I am always interested in what you have to say Stefanos. Be it here, or anywhere else – and particularly on the RAT site. I am actually inclined to favour your views – because they make sense to me, and also because of the discussion we were having on RAT about avoiding fighting one’s friends with everybody having different shield motifs, chiton colours, various helmets and plumes etc. As I said there – it could easily have become pandemonium. But there has been a distinct lack of proof or published evidential works in English. It might be different in Greece. I have acquired books by Periscopio Publications (recent Greek works translated into English) particularly with the research work of Christos Giannopoulos, Dimitris Belezos and Ioannis Kotoulas which seem to echo what you are saying. Have you read these books and do you know of/agree with these Greek authors/academics? Regards – Howard

  2. Howard Johnston permalink

    Also with regards to the Skiritai – I had always believed the residents of Skiritis (a border region) to actually be Arkadians who had been ‘persuaded’ to enrol in the Spartan armed forces as semi-light hoplites and scouts/skirkishers. At times they fought as hoplites (with less heavy equipment) and at other times more like hamippoi. In any event the prevailing wisdom is that they weren’t Lakonians and certainly not Lakedaimonians – even though they fought for that state. HJ

    • I started working on the subject 6 months later than Periscopio Publications.
      You could read my post mainly on the Greek shield devices on RAT or in the Spartan threads.
      So far no one has managed to prove my posts unreasonable. They just defend orthodoxy by just sticking to it.

      It is probable that the Skiritae perioikoi were Arcadian,s stiffened probably by a nucleus of Dorians for good measure. In an Army where the troops were lifetime militia you could train them in permorming various and more complex tasks.

      More articles will follow as I promished.

      Kind regards

  3. Thank you very much for the effort and good text…I am not the one to easily accept the morae idea at least in the Archaic period…at least not as we today being able to make a catalogue of the symbols and believing every hoplite from that mora had the exact same symbol…but I am looking forward to more articles from you,as I admire your work and juding by everything I saw some kind of symbol uniformity is certainly the case…Every soldier drawing whatever he wants…not holding much water for me…Family symbol?Village?Morae…possibly..But can there be more than one symbol for a certain village…Or variation of the one symbol…With new proof I will be happy to break even more myths about Lakedaimon..Really looking forward it.

    Two questions however,or three.

    Can you tell me the dating of the bronze Gorgoneion shield device?

    Same is for the solar symbol on the so called kings relief? I saw the solar symbol in bronze Archaic mirror stand from Sparta btw…

    And can you please explain to me the origin of the Dokana=bodyguard theory.Some evidence if you can…I am really interested in that, and idea of us being able to identify the actual symbol of arguably the most feared Lakedaimonians is phenomenal.

    Kind regards

    • Thank yopu for your kind words.
      The Spartans had most likely the doric tribal system in the Geometric Period
      and units were based on the tribal villages «Ovae». But by 800 BC the Doreans had consolidated their hold in Laconia.
      The first Morae probably appear after 800 BC with the induction of Amyklae and Elos in the Spartan Military system.
      A Corinthian vessel in Louvre shows a hoplite bearing the mora emblem (rooster) and his personal emblem or good luck charm. (shamrock)
      A unit is usually can be composed of several villages is mastered arround a shrine and although variations of the gos symbol might exist it is unlikely that someone would riskoffent the gods by choosing something else. If the battle goes bad he might be blamed for that.
      The Gorogneio in Athens Museum is 7th century B.C.
      The kings relief is argued between 8th ot 7th century B.C.
      The «dokana» come from Plutarchs morals where he states that:
      «the dokana advance before the army». The dokana are an animistic representation
      of Castor and Pollux the patron gods of the Laconian army.
      Their most known representation is based on a funeral stele in Sparta Museum.
      My on line text is deliberatly scant in detail as I hope to write abook on the subject.
      Best regards

  4. Great news about the book..I will certainly be looking forward to some quality work on the subject.

    Without any attempt to endanger your work by asking too much I would like however to ask few things trying to get the whole picture a bit better. Please answer what you can…

    So not only Spartans but other Dorians had the morae system,yes?

    Yes I get the mora and personal symbol at one shield idea…That is the terracota piece,no..With two on the right side,one having solar symbol,one rooster and some small sharmock like symbol, one naked on the left and one fallen..yes I know the piece…late 7th BC? But why is the one using solar symbol??

    Is there enough evidence to make a fact out of single Plutarchs quote.It’s a bit late source…a very late source..Do we know Dokana was on the shields and not carried like a holy item. Or like Crusader True cross for example. Or Greeks did not have that kind of custom?

    Can we be sure that the Dokana was used throughout Lakonian history..Especially in the most interesting periods – 7th, 6th, 5th centuries BC? Messenian war, Battle of Champions, Thermopylae, Tanagara…certainly saw very different hoplites..Especially the last one.Did the symbol remain the same…If not what period are we talking about?

    Last but not the least, is this the same symbol used by Spartan kings. Was it some symbol which originated in Dorian tribes,or did the Spartans only used it…It seems a bit strange for Spartan kings and regular Corinthian hoplites using the same symbol…or is it the variation of the same symbol that made the difference.


    Nice talk,

    Respectfully

    • The Spartans were the first to divide the phalanx in tactical units (like modern regiments)
      Other Greeks usually had one «logadae» or «sacred company» unit between 300 to 1000 men.
      Tactical subdivision is evident in all Greek armies after 410 B.C.

      The terracota you refer is shown the images in the dynamic of propaganda not accurate depiction.

      From texts we have evidence to say that Greeks were inspired by «holy relics» but do not carry them in battle.
      Probable exception the «remains of Aeacos» at Salamis but we do not know if they were carried on board of a trireme.

      There are variation of the solar symbol from city state to city state.

      Kind regards

  5. Also..if I might add…Do you have any info on these shield symbols found at Arthemis Orthia,other than Gorgoneion..(figurines in the middle line)..Some of them don’t look random at all..but don’t appear on any morae list.

    http://postimage.org/image/n5wn2ch7f/

    Regards

    • I guess you are referring to the Solar Emblems.
      They appear on Early pottery in many places too.
      The dating is uncertain but they most probably have to do with the Doric royal linages
      of the period between 1100 to 900 B.C. Many indications but few evidence.

      Kind regards

  6. Gary Leon THomas jR. permalink

    Thank you Stefanos for this wealth of information. The device on my sheild depicts the Krakkon. Which of the polis of ancient Greece would this have come from. Thank you,
    Gary Thomas

    • Dear Gary,

      The Krakkon was not in the Greek Mythology. Its a «Hollywood artistic licence» thing.

      If on the other hand you like have an octapus on yourshiled you answer is probaly the city state of Eretria
      Please see here
      Kind rehards

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