War. To most of us war is something fought far away, fraught with danger but very far from the fabric of our being, from our daily lives. But in ancient societies, war was part of the very foundation of the culture. It declared who was in charge and who would remain so. And it made a statement about a people, their beliefs, and their expectations for any society they would build.
Within this context, antiquities become a vital component of deconstructing ancient societies. Most artifacts disintegrate soon after the culture they represent. But the very nature of armor, helmets and swords is that they have stood the test of time.
Homer’s Iliad offers one of the earliest surviving accounts of ancient warfare. Composed in the 8th century, B.C., the poem celebrates martial prowess and shows military heroes as the noblest members of society. A soldier’s military function and job were closely related to his social and political status. And a military victory could shape the very fabric and economy of a group.
Phoenix Ancient Art recently had a “WARRIOR” exhibition to celebrate the historical understanding of military antiques. Including pieces from Greek, Italic, Scythian, Urar-tian, Assyrian, Roman, Sassanian and other civilizations, Phoenix Ancient Art offered insight into the beliefs of the time through antiques. Across cultures, much of this armor showed zoomorphic decorations and divine favor. The armor was typically decorated with lions, bulls, horses, snakes and other animals, showing the ancient belief in the power of these animals to bring the user physical strength. Success in war was typically ascribed to the gods, and at many sites enemy spoils and captured weapons were found as offerings to the gods as thanks for victory in battle.
Presented by Phoenix Ancient Art, the Helmet of the Illyrian Type from the late 7th to early 5th century B.C. has stood the test of time. This helmet was hammered from one single sheet of bronze. In contrast to the Corinthian helmet whose shape only left the eyes and mouth of the warrior uncovered, this design left an opening for the face so that the warrior would have a broader visual field. The helmet is flared at the back to protect the neck while still allowing the warrior free movement of his neck. The first known example of this type of helmet was dated to around 700 B.C. and was found in Olympia. While the original of such helmets are unknown, they are thought to come from a Peloponnesian city where they would have been created in the late 8th century B.C.
Another military antiquity displayed by Phoenix Ancient Art is an Italic Anatomical Cuirass from the 4th century B.C. The anatomical cuirass was an essential part of the defensive wardrobe of Classical and Hellenistic soldiers. The Italic (from Southern Italy) type of cuirass was shorter than the Greek design and was typically worn with a broad bronze belt. This bronze cuirass features two cast bronze plates and would have had hinges or hooks. The shells are finely molded and represented in a realistic manner with muscles for the warrior’s upper torso, with prominent nipples, abdominal muscles and ribs all made to look like they would in a real torso. On the right shoulder is a small serpentine stem that ends in a snake’s head and was probably part of the closure system that held together the bronze plates. Small perforations along the edges of the cuirass indicate that this armor was lined with leather to add comfort. This cuirass, and many others manufactured in the 4th century B.C. most likely in southern Italian workshops, were worn by Samnite, Lucanian, Apulian and even Etruscan warriors. They were typically discovered in tombs of the late Classical period and early Hellenism.
Military antiques offer a fascinating window into the lives of the people from a particular time period and society. It is interesting to think about which items from today’s society will similarly stand the test of time, and what these items will convey to future generations about our society and the principles upon which it stood.