Ancient Warfare – Armor, Helmets, and Shields I


The most militarily significant impact of metal technology on war in the Bronze Age was its contribution to personal defensive systems, the armor, helmets, shields, neck collars, greaves, and other defensive equipment worn by the soldier to protect himself. The development of these protective systems had an enormous impact on warfare and tactics, and the development of new metal weapons during this period was stimulated mostly by the search for new ways to thwart and overcome the effectiveness of defensive armor. The inherent dynamic of weapon development operated then as now, but in reverse. In modern times we are prone to see the advent of some new offensive weapon which provokes a defense against it. In the Bronze Age the more significant military revolution was in defensive systems, which stimulated a search to overcome them.

The major protective devices of the ancient soldier were the helmet, neck collar, thorax body armor, and shield. The leather collar was probably another Mesopotamian invention. Between one and two inches thick, the collar was constructed of sewn leather layers, which sometimes had thin bronze or iron plates sewn between the layers to afford more resistance to penetration. The leather collar could easily withstand a blow from a sword blade and was impervious to arrows. This characteristic made it a favorite of charioteers. The Assyrians used the same principle of sewing iron plates between leather layers to fashion boots that afforded good shin protection. By the time of Mycenaean Greece and Etruscan Rome, bronze greaves to protect the shins and forearms of the soldier were standard items of military equipment.


The first recorded instance of body armor is found on the Stele of Vultures in ancient Sumer (circa 2500 b. c. e.), which shows Eannatum’s soldiers wearing leather cloaks on which are sewn a number of spined metal disks. The disks do not seem arranged in any particular order so as to protect the most vital areas of the body. We do not know if the disks were fashioned of copper or bronze. By 2100 b. c. e. the victory stele of Naram Sin appears to show metal scale armor, and although we cannot be certain, it is likely that metal scale armor had already been in use for a few hundred years. Certainly by 1700 b. c. e. the Hyksos armies possessed scale armor obtained either from the Aryans or the Mesopotamians. Once introduced to Egypt by the Hyksos invaders, metal scale armor became standard throughout the Near East. Like the leather collar, metal scale armor was a favorite with charioteers because of the excellent protection it afforded against all weapons, except the penetrating axe.

Scale armor was constructed of thin bronze plates sewn to a leather shirt or jerkin about one-quarter inch thick. The plates themselves were two millimeters thick and had slightly raised spines to allow them to overlap and hang correctly. The plates were overlapped in the manner of shingles on a roof, an arrangement that ensured an overlap four millimeters thick for one-third of the body area covered by the armor. This type of armor became the standard protection of the Egyptian heavy spear infantry and charioteers of the New Kingdom. The rise of the iron army of Assyria saw the introduction of a similar, though much more effective, form of body armor called lamellar armor. Lamellar armor comprised a shirt constructed of laminated layers of leather or linen sewn or glued together. To the outer surface of this coat were attached fitted iron plates, each plate joined to the next at the edge with no overlap and held in place by stitching or gluing. This armor weighed about thirty to thirty-five pounds.

By 600 b. c. e. the Greeks and Romans introduced the bell muscular cuirass made of cast bronze. Cast in two halves, front and back, the cuirass joined at the side with hinges and locks or belts. The cuirass bears no connection to earlier developments in armor in the Near East and represented an entirely new type of armor. The bell cuirass weighed about twenty-five pounds, was hot and uncomfortable, and slowed the soldier’s movement, factors which worked against its wide use or adoption by other armies. In all likelihood its development arose from the more primitive technology of wearing iron plates sewn to leather shirts. The use of bronze instead of iron at such a late date suggests as well that Etruscan and Greek metal applications may have lagged considerably behind those of the Near East. By the third century b. c. e. the bell cuirass had given way in Greece to the linen cuirass. Constructed of strips of linen glued and sewn together in laminated fashion, it was cheaper and more flexible than the bell cuirass. When outfitted with exterior metal plates, it weighed about fifteen pounds. Without plates it weighed eight pounds. The thickness of both Greek and Roman varieties of this linen armor was around one-half inch.

Early Mycenaean and Minoan charioteers wore an arrangement of bronze armor that almost fully enclosed the soldier, the famous Dendra panoply. The bronze plates assembled to form front and back halves backed with linen or leather loosely fashioned together by leather thongs. The corslet was called a torake (literally, “thorax”), and the component parts were known as opawota. The complete kit came with lower arm guards called quero and leg greaves. The charioteer also wore a boar’s tusk helmet (koreto) with bronze cheek pieces. The kit was very heavy and was intended for use only by charioteers, who, armed with long spears, thrust at each other en passant. The design of the Dendra armor implies the tilt armor of the later Middle Ages and is clearly designed to deflect thrusts. This is, perhaps, what Nestor, a warrior of the old school, had in mind when he advised his warriors in the Iliad not to break ranks and fight alone, but “when a man in his own chariot comes within reach of an enemy chariot, he should attempt a spear thrust.”

The armor of the Chinese Shang Dynasty (1700-1100 b. c. e.) consisted of breastplates fashioned of bronze or leather. Heavy circular bronze neck protectors and bronze helmets were also worn. Some aristocrats were outfitted in two-piece armor kits that protected both chest and back. 9 A thousand years later, during the Spring and Autumn Era (771-464 b. c. e .), the heavy bronze and iron cuirass that had come into fashion were replaced by lighter, more flexible laminar armor made of overlapping rows of hard, lacquered, leather plates. 10 Chinese armor for lower ranks seems often to have been made of quilted cloth stuffed with cotton. It is interesting to speculate (no examples have survived) regarding the construction and effectiveness of this type of Chinese body armor. We find a similar type of armor among the Aztecs of South America circa 1500 c. e. The Aztec armor, ichcahuipilli, was constructed of unspun, brine-saturated cotton quilted between layers of cloth and made into a sleeveless jacket that reached to the knees. The jacket was two inches thick. The principle of using a thick fiber inside a sandwich of cloth to “trap” the projectile is the same principle used today in the construction of modern Kevlar body armor. The Aztec armor was lighter and cooler in the hot climate and afforded such good protection that the Spanish abandoned their metal cuirass for the cotton armor. Cotton armor of this type would have been much cheaper to manufacture than metal armor.

In India, protective body armor was in use around 1600 b. c. e. The Vedic Epics use the word varman to describe what was probably a coat of mail, probably a leather garment or coat reinforced with brass plates at critical points. This arrangement was replaced by a series of shaped plates called kavach made of iron, apparently sewed to a leather coat. The armor was worn underneath the usual clothing garments. There are references in Indian texts to the sewing of the armor, and it may have been that the corslet was made of linen, not leather.

The third century b. c. e. saw the introduction of iron chain mail invented by the Celts, whose iron craft was much more advanced than the Romans and probably the best in Europe. Chain mail was constructed of thousands of small iron circles linked together to form an iron mesh shirt. The shirt weighed about thirty-two pounds, but its close fit distributed the weight proportionally over the soldier’s body. The mail shirt also permitted adequate mobility, unlike the cast bronze cuirass. Once the Romans adopted the Celtic chain mail armor for their troops, the mail shirt remained the basic armor of the Roman infantryman until the first century c. e. The weakness of chain mail was that the tip of a dagger, spear, sword, or arrowhead, if pointed enough, could slip within one of the small iron circles and, with continued thrust, expand the circle sufficiently to permit the penetration of the body.

By the first century c. e. the Roman army was equipped with laminated leather armor that provided sufficient protection against the tribal armies that they encountered most. Perhaps the ultimate in body armor appeared at the same time, the lorica segmentata. By this time Roman iron smiths had learned how to bleed off carbon from iron to less than 2 percent, with the result that Roman weapons and body armor were now made of high-grade steel. The segmentata was constructed of thin sheet steel plates riveted to leather plates held together by straps, buckles, and locks. It weighed about twenty pounds, considerably lighter than the thirty-pound mail shirt it replaced.

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