The Hellenistic Period, Weapons and Armour, 400–150 bc II


As with helmets, the body armour in use at this period was not generally specific to either infantry or cavalry, so both cuirasses and corslets will be discussed here. While most scholars agree that Alexander’s Companion cavalry and later Hellenistic cavalry wore cuirasses, there remains some doubt as to what was worn by the infantry, and whether that changed over time.

We will look at metal cuirasses first. Macedonia and Thrace were somewhat backward compared to southern Greece in the Classical period, but in the later sixth century they adopted bronze armour in the form of the bell cuirass and the Illyrian and Corinthian helmets, just as these forms were dying out in the south. Because Thracians often buried their warriors with their armour, we have a series of nine cuirasses from c. 500 to c. 350 that throw light on the metal working of northern Greece of the fifth and fourth centuries (Ognenova 1961, passim). The bell cuirasses of the early fifth century have simple lines with wide bottom flanges and a minimum of anatomical decoration, but it is the cuirasses of the later fifth and early fourth centuries that are most interesting. The cuirass from Dalboki, now in the Ashmolean Museum, has been dated to the early fifth century by Vickers (2002, p. 62), although the tomb it comes from is clearly after 430. Ognenova dates the cuirass to c. 400 and the similar ‘Basova Mogila’ cuirass to c. 380, and this seems more likely to me. Unlike the earlier Thracian cuirasses, these have no high collar but a large semi-circular neck opening instead, and also much larger armholes. The edges are also not rolled over bronze wire, but consist of a flattened border over 1cm wide, marked every 2–3cm by an iron nail. At first sight it seems that these borders may have been for the folding over of a linen or leather lining, but the wide neck hole seems very vulnerable and Ognenova (1961, pp. 528, 533; see also Webber 2001, plate E) suggests this was covered by an iron pectoral. Ognenova herself points out, however, that iron pectorals are sometimes found without a bronze cuirass, and vice versa. The example from Dalboki had a gold pectoral with traces of iron on the back, so this may have been an example of the pectoral as iron armour. Traces of iron at the neck and armholes of the Dalboki cuirass, and especially on the ‘Basova Mogila’ cuirass, do not appear to be from pectorals, however. They seem to me to suggest that these bell cuirasses were half bronze and half iron. The bronze survives better and we are missing an iron collar, iron-reinforced armholes and an iron flange at the bottom. This is reminiscent of the bronze Thracian helmet with iron cheek pieces mentioned above, and shows that Thracians were working in iron fifty years before the first pieces of armour completely made of iron appeared. However, it is important to note that this evidence exists mainly because of Thracian burial customs. It seems highly likely that other areas in Greece experimented with bronze and iron cuirasses, and helmets in the later fourth century, but there just isn’t the evidence because such pieces were hardly ever buried. If they were offered at sanctuaries they would have rusted away before disposal, and sanctuary offerings were severely on the decline by then. The three Greek iron helmets and two iron cuirasses we have come from two tombs: that of Philip II and the cuirass tomb from Prodromi in Thesprotia.


The muscle cuirass continued to be used as the most elaborate piece of body armour available to wealthier officers. It was presumably this type of cuirass that Epaminondas was wearing when he was injured ‘through the breastplate’ at Mantinea in 362 (Diodorus XV, 87.1). On the Nereid monument from Lycia, which dates to about 400 and is now in the British Museum, over 80 per cent of the soldiers are wearing simple material corslets, with only officers in muscle cuirasses. These cuirasses have the abdominal dip of the earlier cuirasses and are now depicted with anatomically correct pectoral muscles, rather than the spiral designs seen in the previous century. These Lycian models also appear without pteruges or shoulder flaps and must have had a fitted padded lining.

In the later fourth century there was an increase in the depiction of the muscle cuirass on the funerary monuments of Athens, which is thought to have been caused by the muscle cuirass having been reintroduced after a period when not much armour was worn. Sekunda suggested this might have been as a result of the defeat of Chaeronea in 338, when Athens and Thebes and their allies lost to the Macedonians, who were using the new sarissa-armed phalanx and heavy cavalry. However, several of the monuments can now be dated to before this. Sekunda (2000, p. 62 and plate J) still sees this as a general rearmament, and suggests that whole armies of Athenian hoplites and indeed Macedonian pikemen were equipped with the muscle cuirass. I think this is highly unlikely. We have seen that this form of cuirass was an expensive item and that at this time arms and armour were provided by the state. I do not see how either Athens or indeed Philip II of Macedon could have afforded large numbers of this form of cuirass for the ordinary soldier. This state funding, for Athens, probably began after Chaeronea and we know it consisted of just a shield, cloak and spear (Sekunda 1986, p. 57). The few stelai we have that feature this cuirass can easily be accounted for by officers, who could personally afford the cuirass (and indeed the grave stele).

These mid- to late-fourth-century cuirasses had separate shoulder pieces giving a double thickness of bronze (or iron) at this point, which now became a standard feature of the muscle cuirass. They were obviously copied from linen and leather shoulder-piece corslets. An example of a bronze-plated iron cuirass of this type was found in Tomb II at Amathus in Cyprus, but may be of Roman date (Gjerstad et al. 1935, vol. II, p. 14, no. 77). The British Museum has a pair of bronze shoulder guards, from Siris in Italy, which are very elaborately decorated. They are probably from the fourth century and so Greek rather than Roman. The only complete surviving muscle cuirass of this type from this period was found in 1978 at Prodromi, near Thesprotia in southern Epirus. The two iron helmets found in this tomb have already been mentioned, and the cuirass is also of iron, dating from about 330. The contemporary iron cuirass from the tomb of Philip II, which is discussed below, is made up of fairly manageable flat plates except at the shoulders, and it is this Prodromi cuirass which shows the real skill in iron working that the Greeks were now attaining. Iron is much harder to work than bronze, but it is a much stronger defence. The drawback is that it is also much heavier, especially because it was hard to work into thin sheets. No width measurements are given for the Prodromi cuirass in its original publication (Choremis 1980, pp. 10–12), but the cuirass of Philip II is 5mm thick compared to the usual 1–2mm for bronze cuirasses.

The Prodromi cuirass clearly reached down at the front to protect the belly, although some of it has broken away here. The edges at the neck and armholes are rolled over for added strength and the cuirass is hinged on the right side and at the shoulders. Straps passing through gold loops fastened the left side. The nipples are marked out in gold and next to these are gold rosettes with loops. Gold lion heads and loops on the shoulder flaps show that this is where the shoulder flaps were fastened down; the lion heads are identical to those on Philip II’s cuirass. The cuirass is very wide in the hips to allow the wearer to ride a horse, and the length of his machaira, 78cm, shows that this man was a cavalry officer. Another proof for this was the absence of greaves from the tomb, although they were not always a prerequisite for infantry at this time, as we have seen. It is an unusual, isolated tomb and Choremis, the excavator, has suggested it was possibly a battlefield burial.

Nothing remained of the pteruges in the Prodromi tomb, and we must return to the Athenian funerary monuments such as the tomb of Aristonautes (Snodgrass 1967, plate 56) and another well-known example from Eleusis (Sekunda 2000, p. 62). Both these monuments show three sets of pteruges protruding from the bottom of the cuirass, rather than the two sets that are more usual in fifth-century depictions. These fourth-century pteruges are also much shorter than earlier ones, barely covering the groin, let alone the thighs. Later illustrations, such as those on the Alexander Sarcophagus and the Alexander mosaic, show two sets of pteruges, one short and one long, frequently with pteruges at the armholes as well. These are material corslets, probably made in one piece, although they are perhaps evidence for a separate arming tunic that could be worn under a cuirass, like Xenophon’s spolas. Russell Robinson (1975, p. 148) illustrates a similar doublet, with one set of short and one set of long pteruges. As he explains, the upper short set of pteruges would have had to be carefully cut if they were to follow the curving, lower abdominal dip of a muscle cuirass, and this might have been a later Roman development. The fourth-century Athenian representations have no pteruges at the armholes, which seems to suggest that the three short rows of pteruges were attached directly to the cuirass or, to be more exact, to its lining. In this case one might have thought that two rows would have been sufficient, one covering the gaps in the other. The lower two rows seem to conform to this pattern but the upper row is generally much shorter, and I would suggest that only this row was attached to the cuirass. The lower two rows are more likely to have been part of an arming tunic, to help cushion the weight of the cuirass, rather than having the cuirass itself padded. Evidence for this (apart from Xenophon and his spolas) comes from the Amphipolis inscription dating from the time of Philip V, c. 200. This has a list of fines for soldiers and officers who needed replacement equipment, which is further evidence for the supply of equipment by the state. Here, ordinary soldiers were issued with a kotthubos for body armour, while officers received a cuirass or ‘half-cuirass’ as well as a kotthubos, suggesting that the two could be worn together. This suggests that the kotthubos was some sort of leather armour like the spolas, over which a metal cuirass could be worn.

There is little pictorial evidence for the use of the muscle cuirass under Philip II and Alexander. One is being worn by a warrior on the Alexander Sarcophagus, but Sekunda (1984, p. 33 and plate H) has shown that he is an allied Greek, not a Macedonian. It is an interesting example, since it has no pteruges and no shoulder guards and so is somewhat old-fashioned. Maybe the sculptor was using an old prop. It seems likely, however, that some of Philip II and Alexander’s soldiers did wear the muscle cuirass, especially the Companion cavalry. The muscle cuirass persisted in art through the third and second centuries and it is clear that wealthier Greeks and Macedonians continued to wear it. The victory frieze at Pergamum, which is now generally dated to c. 170 and celebrates the victory of Eumenes and the Romans over Antiochus III at Magnesia in 190, illustrates captured Seleucid and Galatian armour, and the scenes include three muscle cuirasses. Two are similar to the Prodromi cuirass apart from the shoulders. Instead of being tied down to the chest, the shoulder flaps have a central hole which passes over a stud or loop on the chest through which a securing thong is tied (Jaeckel 1965, pp. 103–4). Both cuirasses have two rows of pteruges at the waist, but only one has shoulder flaps. These are bordered and tasselled, and seem to be made of leather covered with fabric. The third muscle cuirass is shown without pteruges, which may be further evidence for their having been attached to a separate jerkin at this time: or perhaps we are again dealing with an old-fashioned cuirass, since it has no shoulder flaps. A Macedonian officer on the Aemilius Paullus monument also wears a muscle cuirass (Kahler 1965, plate 12), and there are at least four shown on the Artemision at Magnesia. This dates from after 150, and is a little confusing in that all the soldiers, not just those in muscle cuirasses, seem to be wearing officers’ sashes around the waist. Although these soldiers are shown on foot, one at least is clearly wearing boots and may therefore be a cavalry officer (Yaylali 1976, p. 106 and fig. 26.1).

These muscle cuirasses all have clean, unadorned lines (apart from the Siris shoulder flaps), but later Roman muscle cuirasses are often highly embossed. Indeed, some of the relief work is so high that it seems to consist of separate pieces of bronze sculpture, soldered onto the body and shoulder flaps of the cuirass (Russell Robinson 1975, pp. 149–52). This work was probably still further enhanced by painting. The Siris bronzes and a cuirassed statue from Pergamum (Journal of Hellenic Studies, 1985, pp. 77–8) suggest that these elaborate embossings may have begun in the Hellenistic period, but most of our evidence is Roman.


The cuirass from the royal tomb at Vergina, which is almost certainly that of Philip II, merits a section on its own, because it is an iron cuirass but in the shape of a material shoulder-piece corslet. It has not been fully published yet, but has been well illustrated in several books (Andronikos 1977, pp. 26–7; Hatzopoulos and Loukopoulos 1980, p. 225, plate 127; Vokotopoulou 1995, pp. 156–7; Connolly 1998, p. 58). It is made of plates of iron, four forming the body, and two hinged, curved plates coming over the shoulders from the backplate, which itself curves outwards to allow space for the broadening upper back. The iron is 5mm thick, a good deal thicker than was usual for bronze cuirasses, and would have given a good deal of protection, perhaps even being catapult-proof (Plutarch, Life of Demetrius 21). The cuirass is decorated with gold bands around the borders of each piece, and a wide gold band around the body of the cuirass. Decorative gold panels are attached to each side, and there are six gold lion heads on the front of the cuirass. The middle pair and the top two, which are on the shoulder guards, hold gold rings in their mouths, through which straps fastened down the shoulder flaps. The pteruges no longer survive, but they were covered with gold strips which do, showing that there were originally fifty-six of them in two rows. Remains of cloth were found on the inside of the cuirass, which came from the padding or an arming jack, but more interesting was the fact that remains of material were found on the outside of the cuirass, adhering to the iron. It is clear that the outside of the iron was covered with decorative cloth, making it difficult to distinguish this cuirass from the linen and leather corslets also in use at this time.

This suddenly opens up the possibilities mentioned in the last chapter: that artistic depictions of shoulder-piece corslets may show iron or bronze cuirasses covered with cloth, rather than the material corslets most people accept them for. Sekunda advanced this thesis in Greek Hoplite (2000), but there really is no evidence in the form of other surviving metal plates. I think, given the evidence of the Philip II cuirass, that we must accept that such cuirasses may have existed in the Hellenistic period – unless the Philip II cuirass really is a ‘one-off’; but I don’t think we can backdate the idea to the fifth century.

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