Greeks and Romans – the warriors of Empire and their armour

Posted in Ancient History, Historical articles, History, War, Weapons on Tuesday, 24 January 2012

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This edited article about armour originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 614 published on 20 October 1973.

The Dorians, picture, image, illusion

The well-armed Dorians by Roger Payne

Some time before 1,000 BC the colourful world of Bronze Age Greece collapsed before a wave of barbarians called the Dorians. We can imagine the last gallant stand of the Bronze Age Myceneans in their boar’s tusk helmets going down before a horde of howling invaders carrying new iron swords which were cheaper, sharper and less brittle than the beautiful bronze blades of the Myceneans.

Of course it wasn’t as simple as that – but the invading Dorian Greeks were certainly iron-users, in peace as in war, and this technical breakthrough had a great impact on the development of armour. Their strong, slashing iron swords chiefly affected the design of helmets which had to be made thicker and more complicated to protect the face.

After a few centuries of Dorian “Dark Age” the warriors of Greece reappear in statues and on painted pottery dressed in fine helmets which are the most characteristic pieces of Greek armour. There were various types of Greek helmet ranging from the elaborate Corinthian style to the business-like Illyrian shape. All, however, were made of bronze which was still easier than iron to beat into a helmet.

Though swords were important, the thrusting spear was still a soldier’s chief weapon in the days of Classical Greece. This fact, plus the peculiar, almost democratic organisation of Greek armies, made Greek armour develop along very special lines. The citizen-soldiers of the Greek city-states fought shoulder to shoulder on foot in a large disciplined body called a phalanx. Proud war-chiefs in swift chariots were a thing of the past. Instead the Greek warrior now carried a large round shield to protect his body while bronze greaves covered his legs below the shield and a helmet covered his head above it.

A Greek phalanx advancing like a moving wall of shields bristling with 10 foot long spears must have been a frightening sight. Only if a phalanx was broken and the battle degenerated into hand-to-hand combat did a Greek warrior resort to his sword, and it was only then that he really needed his body armour.

Classical Greek armour at first consisted of two great bronze plates covering chest and back, laced down the sides and shaped to fit the body exactly. These breast-plates were almost works of art but they were also terribly heavy and cumbersome. A much older idea, the leather sleeveless jacket covered with small metal plates, was soon brought back. This scale cuirass was easier to put on, having two epaulettes over the shoulders which fastened on the chest. It also gave more freedom of movement and was to remain a popular form of defence around the eastern Mediterranean for another 1,000 years.

Though he was not really a Greek, Alexander the Great inherited from his father an army equipped with an improved version of Greek armour. Alexander himself used a highly developed form of Greek tactics to conquer the ancient world from Europe to India.

Macedonian warriors carried spears yards longer than the original Greek variety and fought in an absolutely iron-disciplined phalanx. But Alexander’s army also took a leaf from the Persians’ book and trained cavalry to take on the Persians at their own game of horse warfare.

Until the Romans came along it seemed that nothing could defeat the armoured phalanx supported by heavy cavalry. Even the Romans had at first copied Greek styles, but in their wars against the Carthaginians and the Celts, Rome’s legions learned a great deal more. From Spain they took the short hacking sword called a gladius. Instead of a round Greek shield they adopted the rectangular scutum and they divided the solid phalanx into smaller, more manoeuvrable formations. Most important of all, perhaps, the Romans abandoned the long thrusting spear in favour of a special type of half-iron, half-wooden throwing javelin called a pilum.

The typical legionary, who was the cream of the Roman army, wore a bronze helmet with a neck-guard, cheek-flaps which did not interfere with his hearing, and a heavy peak to protect his face without obstructing his vision. His body was encased in a cuirass made of metal strips which was flexible enough to fight in, but still terrifically strong. This was called a lorica segmentata.

The legionary’s most devastating weapon was the pilum. When a volley of these heavy javelins crashed on to the enemy’s shields their arrow-shaped heads made a pilum impossible to pull out. Their partly iron shafts were equally impossible to hack off so that the dragging weight of the pilum pulled down the enemy’s shield, leaving him defenceless as the legionaries came charging down with their short swords wreaking havoc in all directions. Altogether the Roman legions were a formidable force.

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