In 415 BCE Athens was officially at peace, yet her rivalry with Sparta was undiminished and she looked for new ways to out-manoeuvre her opponent despite the Peace of Nicias six years earlier. On the pretext of aiding a local ally, it was decided to send an expedition to Sicily to attack the city of Syracuse, which as a natural friend of Sparta, and when those that thought this was unwise tried to stop it by suggesting far more resources would be needed, an excited Athens voted the extra resources and the fleet sailed. The expedition was a disaster, Syracuse did not fall and most of the expedition, including numerous reinforcements, died either on campaign or as prisoners. Although Athens would fight on for another decade, the massive loss sustained on Sicily, particularly of experienced crews for her ships, marked a turning point in the war, and ultimately Athens was completely defeated in 404 BCE, being forced to demolish her walls and become a vassal of Sparta.
The hoplite, the well-armed Greek citizen-soldier fighting in the phalanx formation, had been the most important type of soldier in the wars against Persia, and remained important during the Peloponnesian War, although this was changing, and during the two years of the Sicilian Expedition there was just one, relatively small, hoplite battle. Their chief strength lay in their phalanx, where spearmen in close formation with shields forward and spears raised and levelled would move forward toward the enemy, presenting a body of men that was hard to stop or even resist. The top four poses in our photos show such men, and therefore show the most typical and useful hoplite pose. However limitations of the manufacturing process mean these are something of a compromise, since the shield should actually be completely in front of the man, with the left side sticking out to partly protect the man to the left, rather than being somewhat to the side and tight to the body of the bearer, as here. The spears too are to our mind a bit of a compromise, because while their length of 29 mm (2.1 metres tip to toe) is within the acceptable range, they are at the lower end of that range, and look less impressive as a result. The poses all hold their spear overarm, which is generally considered the norm, although underarm is also possible. As these men were in tightly-packed ranks, only the front man would be likely to easily engage the enemy, suggesting this is the last figure in this row with the downward-pointing spear, while the rest have theirs more or less level, so look good.
Four more of the poses hold both spear and shield off the ground, but are standing and have their spear vertical, so are not in action but are ready to move. These are of course useful when you want to portray a phalanx that has yet to be ordered to advance, so they do not mix with the first four, but are an important element nonetheless. Two more men hold their spear diagonally (middle row) and underarm, so could be used for close-quarter combat (particularly the man at the end of row two) or for a pre-combat scene. The last two poses are of a man with spear and shield resting on the ground, so in a relaxed pose, and a man kneeling on the ground, who rather contrasts with the rest of the set. He has no spear (presumably lost or broken), so has drawn his sword ready for hand-to-hand combat. He still holds his shield, but his first priority is likely to be regaining his feet, and in a crush of spearmen in the middle of a battling phalanx that might be a difficult challenge. However in a set of otherwise conventional poses we particularly liked this one as it demonstrates that sometimes a fight would dissolve into individual combat with swords drawn, and he could perhaps also serve as a casualty figure.
Although there is some nice variety of costume and kit here, all these figures are of heavy hoplites. The helmets are of two basic types; seven of the poses wear the Chalcidian helmet, which was similar to the classic Corinthian helmet with the face covered apart from the eyes, nose and mouth, but with cut-outs round the ears to allow the wearer to hear better. The rest have helmets with less or no coverage over the face and often not even a nose guard, which is referred to as the Attic. All examples of both types here have identical crests that run front to back with a long tail. Every man also wears body armour. While this was a period when infantry was gradually lightening their load, and some may well have discarded body armour entirely, all here still have this, and on eight of the poses this looks to be the usual ‘composite’ design, typically made of stiffened linen or metal covered with linen or leather. One of these has been sculpted to look like it is covered with scales, which is possible. The remaining four all have a muscle cuirass, which is also perfectly correct for the period, although we wondered if this was not a rather generous representation of this heavy and expensive item. Those without the muscle cuirass have the usual double row of pteryges - strips of leather protecting the groin - and all have greaves covering knee to ankle, correctly shown without any straps or fittings. The feet appear to be wearing sandals, and this completes the roundup of the costume worn by these figures, all of which is perfectly appropriate for the period (although some historians doubt the greaves at this time).
We have already mentioned the spears most of these figures carry, but of course the other important item of equipment was the shield. This is the Argive shield, the ‘aspis’, and in this set they are 11 mm in diameter, which equates to about 79 cm, so very much at the bottom of the generally accepted range of 80 to 100 cm. Again this is likely to be for ease of production, so is just about valid, but we would certainly have preferred something a bit bigger. The general design, however, with the dished shape and the flattened rim, looks fine.
The standard of sculpting is very good, and we cannot really complain about any lack of detail or issues with body proportions. Textures like helmet crests are nicely done, and even complex areas like the part-hidden faces are very good. Given the difficulties of making blade-and-shield figures all in one piece these are about as good as you can expect, and doubtless many will be grateful that there is no assembly required on any figure. The amount of hidden excess plastic is minimal, but the amount of flash is quite variable, with some areas having a fair amount.
Past sets of ancient Greeks have either been very generic (Atlantic) or aimed at either the Persian Wars or those of Alexander, so having a set specifically for the (Second) Peloponnesian War is a welcome new addition. While the poses do not make sense all placed together (which is also true of most ‘fighting’ sets to some degree), you can put together a decent phalanx either moving to engage or standing and waiting, plus a few interesting extra poses. The main drawback is the positioning of the shield, and the size of both shield and spear, which are perhaps not wrong but could have been bigger in our view. However the return for this is relatively simple figures without needing assembly, and under the circumstances we thought they depicted this complex subject pretty well. There are no particular concerns over accuracy either, so a good-looking set for what was a pivotal period in Greek and indeed European history.