The Emergence of Hoplite Warfare, 900–525 BC II

The evidence for cuirasses earlier than Argos (c. 725) is slight. It used to be thought that the cuirass did not appear in Greece until well into the seventh century, and it was only after the Argos find that Late Geometric pottery was examined for traces of the bell cuirass. The silhouette technique and exaggerated forms used on such pottery make it difficult to reach definite conclusions, but there are some illustrations which show a flange either side of a warrior’s waist, and it is possible that the artist was trying to depict a bell cuirass (Snodgrass 1965, p. 73, and p. 234 n. 5; but see his plate 4, especially figs b and d). Perhaps the most convincing example is on a large Late Geometric vase in the British Museum. Here there are warriors in chariots, whose torsos seem to be wearing some sort of body armour marked with separate breasts. These could well be bell cuirasses. The bell cuirass in its simplest form must certainly have been in use by 750, if not before, and it would have travelled with the first Greek colonists rather than being discovered by them. There is also the case of General Timomachus, who had a bronze cuirass called a hoplon – apparently from the later eighth century – which was later carried in procession by the Thebans (Cartledge 1977, p. 25).

If we have decided upon where the bronze cuirass came from, we have yet to decide why. As Hanson (1989, pp. 56–7) has pointed out, these cuirasses, along with the helmets and later the hoplite shield, were very heavy, and bronze armour in the Aegean heat seems very impractical. The Mycenaean warrior had occasionally worn bronze, but only chariot warriors wore large amounts of body armour and they would not have had much walking to do. The large numbers of infantrymen in the Late Mycenaean period do not seem to have adopted bronze body armour (apart from greaves), and that may have been because of the heat and weight. If our theory about eighth-century Greeks adopting bronze plate armour because Mycenaeans wore it is correct (they had heard about it in Homer), then that would explain why an armour was adopted that was otherwise perhaps unsuitable. Once adopted, bronze armour did have many advantages for the Greek warrior and later hoplite. As we have seen with the helmets, bronze – especially in the curving forms of the bell cuirass – is very effective at deflecting attacks, and the padding behind would have absorbed many blows. The warrior would have felt like one of Homer’s heroes in his shining panoply, which would have given him great confidence on the battlefield. Also it seems likely that hoplites, burdened by their shields as well as by this bronze armour, may have been able to fight only for an hour or so (Hanson 1989, pp. 55–6). This would have led to fewer casualties as both sides quickly became exhausted, and explains why much effort was put into winning the battle in the initial charge. Hoplite battles at this time were about winning and losing, collecting the dead and putting up trophies. They were not meant to lead to the annihilation of the other side, and bronze armour may have played its part in this ritualisation of hoplite warfare.

The bell cuirass remained virtually unchanged for two centuries, but it does become commoner in both finds and illustrations in the middle of the seventh century, at the point when hoplite warfare emerges (Jarva 1995, pp. 24, 27). It seems that bronze for cuirasses became easier to obtain and so more people were able to fight, although cuirass finds do not come close to the number of helmet finds. This may show that many warriors did not wear this body armour, but artistic depictions such as the Chigi Vase tend to suggest that bronze cuirasses were fairly universally worn after c. 650. The evidence from the sanctuaries shows only that helmets (and perhaps shields) were more likely to be dedicated than cuirasses. They probably had more visual appeal. Only the Argos find is securely datable, because our other finds come from sanctuaries like Olympia and Delphi, and the Afrati group from Crete. Armour captured from the enemy was dedicated at these sanctuaries, and inscriptions on the armour relating to such battles can, very occasionally, be used in dating (Jackson, in Hanson 1991, pp. 228 ff.). The dating problems stem from the fact that when a sanctuary building became packed, offerings were cleared out and thrown into pits, wells, rivers, etc., removing any stratigraphical dating material. At Olympia several pieces of armour have been found built into the bank supporting the stadium, or thrown into a nearby river (Snodgrass 1965a, pp. 73–4; 1967, p. 49).

Courbin tried to devise a typology based on the cuirass becoming shorter in height over time, with a less pronounced bell curve, and the anatomical detail on the shoulder blades becoming more elaborate. Jarva has shown these dating methods to be illusory (Jarva 1995, p. 25). Although highly decorated shoulder blades tend to be found later, there are some demonstrably late cuirasses that have shoulders of a simple form like the Argos model. One cuirass which can be dated is the ‘Crowe’ Cuirass from Olympia, and there is a companion piece almost certainly by the same armourer; these can be dated by their decoration to c. 630–610 (Hoffman and Raubitschek 1972, p. 52). These pieces are both backplates, heavily decorated with incised pictures of animals and figures like the Cretan cuirasses (see below), but the technique is simple and more closely related to Corinthian work (ibid., p. 50). The ‘Crowe’ Cuirass has added interest because of several square holes, which were originally thought to have been caused by arrows. Hoffman and Raubitschek (1972) have now shown that these holes were made with a chisel, and it seems that the cuirass was nailed up on a post, probably in a sanctuary as a battlefield trophy. The decoration shows that it belonged to an officer or a wealthy hoplite, and was presumably chosen as a trophy because of its splendid decoration.

Jarva (1995, p. 24) has shown that the height of cuirasses is not really determinate of age, but more of the size of the man wearing it. A variant of the bell with a jutting flange rather than a gentle bell curve does seem to have become more usual towards the end of the life of the bell cuirass (c. 525), but some examples with such a flange could equally be from the seventh century (Jarva 1995, p. 22, no. 3; Connolly 1998, p. 55, no. 6). The cuirass illustrated by Connolly (from the Olympia Museum) has a highly defined omega curve which is a late feature (Mallwitz and Herrman 1980, p. 93; Jarva 1995, p. 26), and semi-spirals on the breast that also appear to be a late design. Certainly a late feature is a hinged joint at the shoulder that appears on one breastplate from Olympia (Jarva 1995, p. 20, no. 8), but it is otherwise attested only for the muscle cuirass (see below) (Snodgrass 1965a, p. 75).

In Crete, evidence for bell cuirasses begins with a large group of miniature votives from Praisos. As mentioned earlier, this group includes miniature Insular, as well as Corinthian, helmets and must date from c. 700 (Bosanquet 1901–2, passim). Miniature armour would have been cheaper to dedicate than the real thing, and examples tend to be from the earlier seventh century; but there is also a preponderance of finds from Crete, where it may have been a popular custom (Jarva 1995, pp. 15–16). I know of just two miniature votives from the mainland: at Sparta and Bassae in Arcadia (Snodgrass 1965a, p. 74; Cartledge 1977, p. 14).

From Praisos, we have two complete miniatures marked with repoussé breasts and omega curves, and with the breastplate attached to the backplate at the shoulders. There are also ten other single cuirass halves of a long tubular form, as well as miniature helmets, abdominal guards and shields. No full-sized examples of this long, undecorated tubular cuirass have been found, although there is another miniature from Gortyn, also on Crete (Snodgrass 1965a, p. 74). This latter cuirass does have anatomical markings, however. The Cretans seem to have adopted the cuirass, like the helmet, at an early stage and then went ahead with their own tubular design, which reached down to the thighs for extra protection while sacrificing some freedom of movement. It may have had anatomical markings, which are absent from these miniatures (perhaps they were only painted on), and this seems likely given the amount of decoration that Cretan cuirasses had later. On a scale size, some of these tubular plates are excessively long. If this is not a distortion caused by re-creation in miniature, or a stylistic convention, then I would suggest these plain pieces must be backplates. They would reach down past the buttocks, but could be worn with a breastplate of normal length and an abdominal guard (see below). Miniature abdominal guards were found at Praisos but, since they were not attached to the cuirasses, it is difficult to connect them definitely with the tubular cuirasses. Abdominal guards are a peculiarly Cretan item, and the early use of tubular backplates might explain their origin. Only one ‘full-sized’ breastplate was found at Praisos and is about 22cm wide (it is badly crushed). Snodgrass (1965a, p. 74) suggests it might be a large votive, in which case it is the only one known. It could equally well be a proper piece of armour for a small man or even a boy. Armour for children is well known from the Middle Ages, and this could be an ancient Greek example of the practice.

Later seventh-century Cretan cuirasses come mostly from Afrati in Greece and their details have been published by Hoffman and Raubitschek (1972). Apart from the helmets already mentioned, there are nine cuirasses and sixteen abdominal guards. The absence of greaves is particularly noteworthy. Perhaps they took a while to become popular in Crete, or perhaps Cretans never really took to them. Corslet no. 1 in Hoffman and Raubitschek 1972 (plates 19–23) is the most elaborate. It has repoussé figures of lions on the breasts and a pair of griffins marching up the omega line. On either side of the griffins, a warrior wearing an Insular helmet kneels on a curved tendril; and the breasts are marked out with sea dragons. A pair of uncertain animals is below the omega curve. All this repoussé decoration is supplemented with incised lines, and the style dates it to about 660 (Hoffman and Raubitschek 1972, p. 43). The other corslets are plainer, but three have the curved repoussé lines around the breast bulges ending in lotus flowers, with another lotus flower below the neck. Corslet 8 (Hoffman and Raubitschek 1972, plates 28–9) is unusual, in that instead of a repoussé omega line the entire upper thorax is raised in high relief above the stomach region; this shows a very skilled technique. It probably dates from shortly after 600, like some of the abdominal guards (Hoffman and Raubitschek 1972, pp. 44–5). The bronze on these cuirasses is thinner than the Argos cuirass at 0.6–1mm, giving a weight of about 5kg rather than the 7–8kg that the Argos cuirass would have weighed. The edges are also rolled over bronze wire, rather than iron. Where tube slots survive on these cuirasses they show that the breastplate overlapped the backplate, but that hinge pins were now inserted on the outside of the cuirass, making the cuirass easier to put on. The warrior could certainly have taken it off by himself if he needed to, such as to aid flight.

The bell cuirass was the main form of body armour – when body armour was worn – from c. 750 to about 525 or 500, and it seems to have gained in popularity throughout that period, judging by the examples illustrated in art and indeed the dedications at sanctuaries. Examples of the cuirass in seventh-century art invariably show it in its natural bronze colour and with the simple anatomical decoration that we have described. In the sixth century there is some evidence for painting the cuirass, just as we have seen with the helmets. Many cuirasses show spiral curves on the breasts that are much longer than actual examples. Jarva (1995, p. 25) thinks we are dealing with artistic exaggeration here, but it seems quite possible that the repoussé lines were continued with painted lines to give the long spirals that we see. An example on a vase dating to c. 540 (Boardman 1980a, p. 80, no. 98) shows double lines of spirals on the breasts, one painted in red, as well as red lines below the omega curve. The white lines could be repoussé work in bronze, while the red lines were painted to enhance the effect. Another example has white dots painted along the spiral (Arias 1962, fig. 59). There are also examples on vases of bell cuirasses painted in two different colours, often with the omega line as a boundary (Boardman 1980a, p. 50, no. 57). The vase featuring the cuirass with white dots also shows another hoplite in a gold-coloured cuirass. These cuirasses are often worn by Homeric heroes on vases and remind us of Homer’s mentions of gold armour. It is possible that some wealthy hoplites gilded their helmets and armour.

Some late illustrations of ‘bell’ cuirasses show a cuirass stopping at the waist, with the hips protected instead by pteruges, a row of leather or linen flaps probably adapted from the shoulder-piece corslet that was then becoming popular (Jarva 1995, p. 29 Type II). It seems likely that these flaps were attached directly to the cuirass or its lining, rather than being part of a separate arming jack. These late bells date from around 520. An example on a tomb painting at Elmali shows a large circular pattern of scales or feathers on the chest which could be embossed or painted decoration, and also clearly shows the join at the left shoulder where the armour covers the shoulder at the left side. This would have restricted movement a lot, but the shield arm did not need to be so flexible (Boardman 1979, p. 13, no. 1.2).

Jarva also lists another cuirass (Type V) (1995, pp. 46–7), which appears to have features of both bell cuirasses and shoulder-piece corslets, generally showing the breast spirals of the former and the horizontal, decorated bands and pteruges of the latter. A well-known ‘bilingual’ vase (i.e. featuring both black and red figure work) of Ajax and Achilles at play shows one of these, but the horizontal line could be embossed or painted decoration on a normal bell. Even the Argos cuirass had parallel horizontal lines like a belt. Jarva (1995, fig. 17) features two further examples, also from the last quarter of the sixth century. This figure clearly shows a linen corslet, because it is painted white and the ‘breast spiral’ is both small and actually on the back of the hoplite; it could be the sort of woven or embroidered decoration that appears on these (see below). His other example looks more like a mixed bronze and linen cuirass. A black figure vase now in Rome (Jarva 1995, fig. 16) shows a hoplite wearing a cuirass which has breast spirals and an omega curve; but there are two or three bands below that which look much more like a composite corslet, and possible pteruges below those. Altogether, Jarva lists sixteen examples on vases of this kind of mixed corslet, which he sees as a transitional piece of armour. As I have shown, some of these can be assigned to either a bell or a shoulder-piece cuirass, whereas many others are of such poor artistic quality that it is likely that the artist is in error (Jarva 1995, p. 47). There is no archaeological evidence for a cuirass made only partly of metal at this time, which is particularly significant given the amount of armour discovered at sanctuaries dating from this period. The bell cuirass continued to be shown in art until c. 480 (Boardman 1980a, p. 164, no. 283), but these last examples are very crude and are probably cheap copies of earlier vases. It would be safe to assume that the bell cuirass was last made in about 500 and did not see action in the Persian Wars. The shoulder-piece corslet became the popular form of body armour, and bronze armour workers went on from the late sixth century to develop the muscle cuirass.


Another piece of body armour in use at this time was the abdominal or belly guard, a usually semi-circular piece of bronze hung from a waist belt. It is sometimes called the mitra, after a Homeric piece of armour, but the two items are probably not equivalent. Around about fifty of these guards are known, outnumbering the forty or so known cuirasses, but it is significant that two-thirds are from find spots certainly or probably in Crete. The remaining examples are mainly from Olympia, and it is possible that they were all dedicated by Cretans, or taken from Cretans, but the number is such that we can say that the belly guard was probably also used to a small extent by other Greeks (Jarva 1995, pp. 51 ff.). The guards we have date from about 675 for an example from Axos to c. 525 for some examples featuring engraved winged horses (Jarva 1995, pp. 54–6). There are also some miniature belly guards known from Praisos and Gortyn on Crete, and some of these may date from as early as c. 700 (Bosanquet 1901–2, passim).

Unlike cuirasses, belly guards were not made to fit the body and are not lined or padded. For extra protection they are made much thicker than other pieces of armour – generally 5mm to 7.5mm thick – and they do not normally have edges rolled over bronze wire, although this is present in some examples. The belly guards are suspended from a belt by three bronze rings and are generally 25cm wide along the top edge and 15cm deep in the middle. Jarva has noticed a change in shape from the earliest examples, which were shallow crescents. These became longer and squarer before developing into a more aesthetically pleasing true semi-circle (Jarva 1995, pp. 54–5). As with Cretan helmets and cuirasses, many of these belly guards are highly decorated with both repoussé work and engraving. The commonest decorations are facing-horse or winged-horse protomes, but there is also an example with a double-bodied panther, and one from Rethymnon decorated with four youths (Hoffman and Raubitschek, pp. 24–5). The belly guards generally have two or more lines of heavy repoussé decorating the borders.

A second type of belly guard is represented by just two examples from Olympia and one complete example from a tomb in Bulgaria, ancient Thrace (Venedikov 1976, p. 51, no. 193; Webber 2001, p. 34). This type is more of a trapezoidal shape, much longer and with a long horizontal hinge at the midpoint to allow bending. One Olympia example dates to c. 520 and the Thracian example is late fifth century (Jarva 1995, p. 57). With only two examples at Olympia, one could see this late belly guard as being used only on the fringes of the Greek world. The dates correspond with the general use of the stiff linen and composite cuirass in Greece, and the two are not compatible. I think it is much more likely that the two examples from Olympia have come from Thrace or from Italy, where the bell cuirass and its descendants continued to be used.

Returning to the Cretan pieces, the finds from Afrati are inscribed for the most part as dedications, often with the dedicator’s name. This enables us to see that in four cases we have pieces from the same panoply: two cases of helmet and belly guard, and two of cuirass and belly guard (Hoffman and Raubitschek 1972, p. 16). Even allowing for missing pieces, this evidence and the number of belly guards compared to cuirasses suggest that some hoplites chose a belly guard rather than a cuirass as an extra piece of armour. This may well have been on grounds of cost rather than for a specific combat benefit. The number of belly guards also suggests the possibility that they were sometimes worn in pairs. Belly guards no. 1 and no. 8 in Hoffman and Raubitschek (1972, p. 77) seem to have parts of the same dedicatory inscription, suggesting they were both from the same panoply. I would suggest that the plain guard hung at the back and the decorated one at the front. Such a piece of armour might seldom have proved useful, although the same could also be said of a cuirass backplate. The belly guard hardly ever appears in art. As recently as 1965 Snodgrass (1965a, p. 89) could state that it was never shown in art, just as Benton (1940– 5, p. 82) had said earlier. Jarva (1995, p. 58) has now published a photograph of a sculpture from Albania that does clearly show the belly guard. It is worn with a bell cuirass and Corinthian helmet, but is apparently from the fifth century, which is after the bell cuirass and belly guard were in use in Greece and Crete. This fact, and the complete lack of illustrations of the belly guard in mainstream Greek art, shows that it was very much restricted to Crete in the seventh and sixth centuries and to northern Greece (or north of Greece!) in the fifth. There is also some uncertain evidence in the form of a sculpture for its use in Etruria (Jarva 1995, p. 59, fig. 24). Apart from the throat, the groin and thighs formed the other vulnerable area in combat. Spear thrusts deflected downwards by the shield might go below the cuirass to injure a warrior there, and it is perhaps surprising that this belly guard was not more popular. It would have added more weight to the panoply, of course, which was perhaps not thought to justify the added protection. When pteruges were invented in the middle of the sixth century they were widely adopted, showing that the hoplite was well aware of his vulnerability in this area, but had been generally content (until the advent of pteruges) to rely on his shield for protection.


Armour for protecting the limbs was also used extensively through the Archaic period, with the greave being the most popular item. This is due to the fact that the lower legs are the hardest part to protect with a shield and, although the lower legs were not very vulnerable in hand-to-hand combat, they were vulnerable to missiles. Greaves are mentioned late in the seventh century as being specifically worn for protection against missiles (Alcaeus, frag. 54 (Diehl); see Jarva 1995, p. 85). As with helmets and body armour, the greave had been invented in Mycenaean times, but evidence for continuity of use through the Dark Age is problematical (Jarva 1995, p. 85). There are European greaves, which may date from as early as 800, but the same problems of dating exist with them as for the European cuirasses (Schauer 1982, passim).

The earliest Greek greave is almost certainly an example from Olympia, which Kunze dates to c. 750 (1991, p. 5 and plate 1; but see Jarva 1995, p. 85, who suggests it is much later and non-Greek). Although not datable by context, this is an extremely simple short greave, which was laced onto the leg in a similar fashion to Late Mycenaean greaves. The most remarkable feature about it is that it has three parallel repoussé lines at the edges, and two large circle decorations with central bosses near the top. This decoration is almost identical to the best-preserved Late Mycenaean greave from Enkomi and suggests either a possible continuity, or again the resurrection of use through the discovery of examples in Mycenaean tombs, as has been suggested for cuirasses.

The Argos grave containing the cuirass and the Kegel helmet also produced some thin fragments of bronze, which were interpreted as possible greaves. Their fragmentary state in comparison with the cuirass and helmet from the same tomb is a useful reminder of how many pairs of early greaves may have corroded away for ever. Another probable early pair of greaves comes from Kavousi in Crete, although not everyone is agreed on the interpretation, some thinking they may be part of a bronze statue (Jarva 1995, p. 65). Kunze (1991) thinks they are greaves and can be dated to the late eighth century. They are short at 23.5cm, and are decorated with studs rather than repoussé lines around the edges. They could not have fitted onto the leg without lacing and, although there are edging holes for attaching a lining, there seems to be no means of attachment to the leg. The greaves are very fragmentary, however. Apart from a pair of miniature greaves from Gortyn (Yalouris 1960, p. 51) in Crete, the only other early greaves (perhaps c. 680) are a badly crushed pair from Praisos that are only about 20cm high (Astrom 1977, p. 46, fig. 15). Astrom sees these as one greave and one lower arm guard, matching what he found in the Dendra cuirass tomb (Astrom 1977, p. 49; Schauer 1982, p. 148), whereas Snodgrass (1965a, p. 87) thinks they are early short greaves but perhaps not a matched pair. Kunze (1991, p. 6, no. 15) thinks that they are from a bronze statue and not armour at all. In support of Kunze is the fact that they are plain pieces of bronze, whereas the early short greave from Olympia and the Kavousi greaves all have decoration of some form. However, the Kavousi greaves, which I think definitely are greaves, are quite different from the early Olympia greave, and also from the ‘prototype’ greaves from Olympia (see below), which begin in the last quarter of the eighth century, if not earlier. It seems there is no standard design at this early period.

Apart from these early pieces, more than two hundred greaves have been uncovered at Olympia and recently published by Kunze (1991) where they have been sorted into types and dated stylistically. Jarva (1995) has added to this by dating using the edge perforations. Most Archaic greaves had edge perforations for the attachment of a lining, and the gap between each hole narrowed over time. In the early seventh century each hole was about 25mm apart and linings seem to have been fixed with rivets (Jarva 1995, p. 65). By the time we get to c. 525, holes were less than 2mm apart and the lining was probably sewn on to the bronze through these holes (Jarva 1995, pp. 65–72 and fig. 28). Both Jarva’s and Kunze’s methods have exceptions, but between them they help to date approximately many otherwise undatable finds from Olympia. Jarva has divided the Archaic greaves (pre-700 to c. 500) into four groups: prototype, transitional, calf-notch and spiral.

The prototype greaves started in around 700 according to Kunze, but could have begun as early as 750 according to Jarva (1995, pp. 85–6). Their main typological features are that they are short, 32 to 36cm, ending on or below the knee, although this made them much longer than the early greaves discussed above. They also often came with extra lacing holes to secure the greave to the leg. Most have some decoration, perhaps delineating the calf muscle and with a semicircle or volute at the knee, and some are a little more elaborate (Jarva 1995, pp. 86–7; Kunze 1991, plates 2–9). This greave was in use until about 650/640. Jarva’s transitional greave (1995, p. 88) has more of an angle with the front face at both bottom and top and is slightly longer, 34 to 39cm, sometimes covering the knee. Kunze (1991, p. 25) says that there is more elasticity in these greaves and that there is usually only one set of lacing holes near the top of the greave for holding them on. It is this greave type that features on the Chigi Vase as the sharp angle at the top of the greaves can be seen, as well as the fact that they do not cover the knees (Jarva 1995, p. 90). This type lasted until c. 600.

The third type of greave, Jarva’s ‘calf-notch’, was the first to cover the kneecap and generally corresponds to Kunze’s High Archaic greave. These average about 39cm in length, but vary between 36 and 44cm. The inner side of each greave is marked with a distinct notch outlining the calf muscle, and the greaves wrap around the back of each leg much more. Only a few of these had lacing holes, and most were held on just by the elasticity of the bronze. A few of the later greaves in this group did not have edge perforations for a lining, which must have been glued on instead. These greaves have the edges of the bronze rolled over (Furtwangler 1966, no. 988). The calf-notch group lasted from c. 630 to after 540, becoming more elaborate and developing into the spiral group. The spiral group saw the calf-notch develop into decorative spirals, sometimes ending in lotus heads or snake heads and with anatomically decorated kneecaps. Kunze has further divided this group, depending on a decorative feature below the kneecap, into the V variant, S variant and club variant (Kunze, 1991, p. 68; Jarva 1995, pp. 94–5). The V variant dates from c. 560–540, the S variant from c. 540–510 and the club variant from c. 540–525. All variants average about 42cm in height, and the bronze in the spiral group tends to be thinner than in earlier greaves (Kunze 1991, p. 66). Some elaborate greaves had engraved sides or decorated kneecaps (Jarva 1995, p. 95) and this decoration may have been enhanced by painting, as we surmised earlier for helmets and cuirasses. Spiral greaves are sometimes shown on vases of the period and correspond well with the dates formulated by Kunze and Jarva using style and perforations (Boardman 1979, no. 2.1; 1980a, no. 68).