Homer and His Age, by Andrew Lang

Chapter 8

The Breastplate

No “practicable” breastplates, hauberks, corslets, or any things of the kind have so far been discovered in graves of the Mycenaean prime. A corpse in Grave V. at Mycenae had, however, a golden breastplate, with oval bosses representing the nipples and with prettily interlaced spirals all over the remainder of the gold (Fig. 9). Another corpse had a plain gold breastplate with the nipples indicated. 159 These decorative corslets of gold were probably funereal symbols of practicable breastplates of bronze, but no such pieces of armour are worn by the fighting-men on the gems and other works of art of Mycenae, and none are found in Mycenaean graves. But does this prove anything? Leg-guards, broad metal bands clasping the leg below the knee, are found in the Mycenaean shaft graves, but are never represented in Mycenaean art. 160 Meanwhile, bronze corslets are very frequently mentioned in the “rarely alluded to,” says Mr. Leaf, 161 but this must be a slip of the pen. Connected with the breastplate or thorex ([Greek: thoraex]) is the verb [Greek: thoraesso, thoraessethai], which means “to arm,” or “equip” in general.

The Achaeans are constantly styled in the Iliad and in the Odysseychalkochitones,” “with bronze chitons.” epics have therefore boldly argued that by “bronze chitons” the poet pleasantly alludes to shields. But as the Mycenaeans seem scarcely to have worn any chitons in battle, as far as we are aware from their art, and are not known to have had any bronze shields, the argument evaporates, as Mr. Ridgeway has pointed out. Nothing can be less like a chiton or smock, loose or tight, than either the double-bellied huge shield, the tower-shaped cylindrical shield, or the flat, doorlike shield, covering body and legs in Mycenaean art. “The bronze chiton,” says Helbig, “is only a poetic phrase for the corslet.”

Reichel and Mr. Leaf, however, think that “bronze chitoned” is probably “a picturesque expression . . . and refers to the bronze-covered shield.” 162 The breastplate covered the upper part of the chiton, and so might be called a “bronze chiton,” above all, if it had been evolved, as corselets usually have been, out of a real chiton, interwoven with small plates or rings of bronze. The process of evolution might be from a padded linen chiton ([Greek: linothooraes]) worn by Teucer, and on the Trojan side by Amphius (as by nervous Protestants during Oates’s “Popish Plot”), to a leathern chiton, strengthened by rings, or studs, or scales of bronze, and thence to plates. 163 Here, in this armoured chiton, would be an object that a poet might readily call “a chiton of bronze.” But that, if he lived in the Mycenaean age, when, so far as art shows, chitons were not worn at all, or very little, and scarcely ever in battle, and when we know nothing of bronze-plating on shields, the poet should constantly call a monstrous double-bellied leather shield, or any other Mycemean type of shield, “a bronze chiton,” seems almost unthinkable. “A leather cloak” would be a better term for such shields, if cloaks were in fashion.

According to Mr. Myres (1899) the “stock line” in the Iliad, about piercing a [Greek: poludaidalos thoraex] or corslet, was inserted “to satisfy the practical criticisms of a corslet-wearing age,” the age of the later poets, the Age of Iron. But why did not such practical critics object to the constant presence in the poems of bronze weapons, in their age out of date, if they objected to the absence from the poems of the corslets with which they were familiar? Mr. Myres supposes that the line about the [Greek: poludaidalos] corslet was already old, but had merely meant “many-glittering body clothing”— garments set with the golden discs and other ornaments found in Mycemean graves. The bronze corslet, he says, would not be “many glittering,” but would reflect “a single star of light.” 164 Now, first, even if the star were a single star, it would be as “many glittering” when the warrior was in rapid and changeful motion as the star that danced when Beatrix was born. Secondly, if the contemporary corslets of the Iron Age were not “many glittering,” practical corslet-wearing critics would ask the poet, “why do you call corslets ‘many glittering’?” Thirdly, [Greek: poludaidalos] may surely be translated “a thing of much art,” and Greek corslets were incised with ornamental designs. Thus Messrs. Hogarth and Bosanquet report “a very remarkable ‘Mycemean’ bronze breastplate” from Crete, which “shows four female draped figures, the two central ones holding a wreath over a bird, below which is a sacred tree. The two outer figures are apparently dancing. It is probably a ritual scene, and may help to elucidate the nature of early AEgean cults.” 165 Here, [Greek: poludaidalos]— if that word means “artistically wrought.” Helbig thinks the Epics silent about the gold spangles on dresses. 166

Mr. Myres applauds Reichel’s theory that thorex first meant a man’s chest. If thorex means a man’s breast, then thorex in a secondary sense, one thinks, would mean “breastplate,” as waist of a woman means, first, her waist; next, her blouse (American). But Mr. Myres and Reichel say that the secondary sense of thorex is not breastplate but “body clothing,” as if a man were all breast, or wore only a breast covering, whereas Mycenaean art shows men wearing nothing on their breasts, merely drawers or loin-cloths, which could not be called thorex, as they cover the antipodes of the breast.

The verb [Greek: thoraesestai], the theory runs on, merely meant “to put on body clothing,” which Mycenaeans in works of art, if correctly represented, do not usually put on; they fought naked or in bathing drawers. Surely we might as well argue that a “waistcoat” might come to mean “body clothing in general,” as that a word for the male breast became, first, a synonym for the covering of the male buttocks and for apparel in general, and, next, for a bronze breastplate. These arguments appear rather unconvincing, 167 nor does Mycenaean art instruct us that men went into battle dressed in body clothing which was thickly set with many glittering gold ornaments, and was called “a many-glittering thorex.”

Further, if we follow Reichel and Mr. Leaf, the Mycenaeans wore chitons and called them chitons. They also used bronze-plated shields, though of this we have no evidence. Taking the bronze-plated (?) shield to stand poetically for the chiton, the poet spoke of “the bronze-chitoned Achaeans” But, if we follow Mr. Myres, the Mycenaeans also applied the word thorex to body clothing at large, in place of the word chiton; and when a warrior was transfixed by a spear, they said that his “many-glittering, gold-studded thorex,” that is, his body clothing in general, was pierced. It does seem simpler to hold that chiton meant chiton; that thorex meant, first, “breast,” then “breastplate,” whether of linen, or plaited leather, or bronze, and that to pierce a man through his [Greek: poludaidalos thoraex] meant to pierce him through his handsome corslet. No mortal ever dreamt that this was so till Reichel tried to make out that the original poet describes no armour except the large Mycenaean shield and the mitrê, and that all corslets in the poems were of much later introduction. Possibly they were, but they had plenty of time wherein to be evolved long before the eighth century, Reichel’s date for corslets.

The argument is that a man with a large shield needs no body armour, or uses the shield because he has no body armour.

But the possession and use of a large shield did not in the Middle Ages, or among the Iroquois and Algonquins, make men dispense with corslets, even when the shield was worn, as in Homer, slung round the neck by a telamon (guige in Old French), belt, or baldric.

We turn to a French Chanson de Geste — La Chancun de Willem — of the twelfth century A.D., to judge by the handwriting. One of the heroes, Girard, having failed to rescue Vivien in battle, throws down his weapons and armour, blaming each piece for having failed him. Down goes the heavy lance; down goes the ponderous shield, suspended by a telamon: “Ohitarge grant cume peises al col!” down goes the plated byrnie, “Ohi grant broine cum me vas apesant168

The mediaeval warrior has a heavy byrnie as well as a great shield suspended from his neck. It will be remarked also that the Algonquins and Iroquois of the beginning of the seventeenth century, as described by Champlain, give us the whole line of Mycenaean evolution of armour up to a certain point. Not only had they arrow-proof, body-covering shields of buffalo hide, but, when Champlain used his arquebus against the Iroquois in battle, “they were struck amazed that two of their number should have been killed so promptly, seeing that they wore a sort of armour, woven of cotton thread, and carried arrow-proof shields.” We have already alluded to this passage, but must add that Parkman, describing from French archives a battle of Illinois against Iroquois in 1680, speaks of “corslets of tough twigs interwoven with cordage.” 169 Golden, in his Five Nations, writes of the Red Indians as wearing “a kind of cuirass made of pieces of wood joined together.” 170

To the kindness of Mr. Hill Tout I also owe a description of the armour of the Indian tribes of north-west America, from a work of his own. He says: “For protective purposes in warfare they employed shields and coat-armour. The shields varied in form and material from tribe to tribe. Among the Interior Salish they were commonly made of wood, which was afterwards covered with hide. Sometimes they consisted of several thicknesses of hide only. The hides most commonly used were those of the elk, buffalo, or bear. After the advent of the Hudson’s Bay Co. some of the Indians used to beat out the large copper kettles they obtained from the traders and make polished circular shields of these. In some centres long rectangular shields, made from a single or double hide, were employed. These were often from 4 to 5 feet in length and from 3 to 4 feet in width — large enough to cover the whole body. Among the Déné tribes (Sikanis) the shield was generally made of closely-woven wicker-work, and was of an ovaloid form (exact size not given).

“The coat armour was everywhere used, and varied in form and style in almost every centre. There were two ways in which this was most commonly made. One of these was the slatted cuirass or corslet, which was formed of a series of narrow slats of wood set side by side vertically and fastened in place by interfacings of raw hide. It went all round the body, being hung from the shoulders with straps. The other was a kind of shirt of double or treble elk hide, fastened at the side with thongs. Another kind of armour, less common than that just described, was the long elk-hide tunic, which reached to and even below the knees and was sleeved to the elbow.“

Mr. Hill Tout’s minute description, with the other facts cited, leaves no doubt that even in an early stage, as in later stages of culture, the use of the great shield does not exclude the use of such body armour as the means of the warriors enable them to construct. To take another instance, Pausanias describes the corslets of the neolithic Sarmatae, which he saw dedicated in the temple of Asclepius at Athens. Corslets these bowmen and users of the lasso possessed, though they did not use the metals. They fashioned very elegant corslets out of horses’ hoofs, cutting them into scales like those of a pine cone, and sewing them on to cloth. 171

Certain small, thin, perforated discs of stone found in Scotland have been ingeniously explained as plates to be strung together on a garment of cloth, a neolithic chiton. However this may be, since Iroquois and Algonquins and Déné had some sort of woven, or plaited, or wooden, or buff corslet, in addition to their great shields, we may suppose that the Achaeans would not be less inventive. They would pass from the [Greek: linothoraex] (answering to the cotton corslet of the Iroquois) to a sort of jack or jaseran with rings, scales, or plates, and thence to bronze-plate corslets, represented only by the golden breastplates of the Mycenaean grave. Even if the Mycenaeans did not evolve the corslet, there is no reason why, in the Homeric times, it should not have been evolved.

For linen corslets, such as Homer mentions, in actual use and represented in works of art we consult Mr. Leaf on The Armour of Homeric Heroes.’ He finds Memnon in a white corslet, on a black-figured vase in the British Museum. There is another white corsleted 172 Memnon figured in the Vases Peints of the Duc de Luynes (plate xii.). Mr. Leaf suggests that the white colour represents “a corslet not of metal but of linen,” and cites Iliad, II. 529, 5 30. “Xenophon mentions linen corslets as being worn by the Chalybes” (Anabasis, iv. 15). Two linen corslets, sent from Egypt to Sparta by King Amasis, are recorded by Herodotus (ii. 182; iii. 47). The corslets were of linen, embroidered in cotton and gold. Such a piece of armour or attire might easily develop into the [Greek: streptos chitoon] of Iliad, V. 113, in which Aristarchus appears to have recognised chain or scale armour; but we find no such object represented in Mycenaean art, which, of course, does not depict Homeric armour or costume, and it seems probable that the bronze corslets mentioned by Homer were plate armour. The linen corslet lasted into the early sixth century B.C. In the poem called Stasiotica, Alcaeus (No. 5) speaks of his helmets, bronze greaves and corslets of linen ([Choorakes te neoi linoo]) as a defence against arrows.

Meanwhile a “bronze chiton” or corslet would turn spent arrows and spent spears, and be very useful to a warrior whose shield left him exposed to shafts shot or spears thrown from a distance. Again, such a bronze chiton might stop a spear of which the impetus was spent in penetrating the shield. But Homeric corslets did not, as a rule, avail to keep out a spear driven by the hand at close quarters, or powerfully thrown from a short distance. Even the later Greek corslets do not look as if they could resist a heavy spear wielded by a strong hand.

I proceed to show that the Homeric corslet did not avail against a spear at close quarters, but could turn an arrow point (once), and could sometimes turn a spear which had perforated a shield. So far, and not further, the Homeric corslet was serviceable. But if a warrior’s breast or back was not covered by the shield, and received a thrust at close quarters, the corslet was pierced more easily than the pad of paper which was said to have been used as secret armour in a duel by the Master of Sinclair (1708). 173 It is desirable to prove this feebleness of the corslet, because the poet often says that a man was smitten with the spear in breast or back when unprotected by the shield, without mentioning the corslet, whence it is argued by the critics that corslets were not worn when the original lays were fashioned, and that they have only been sporadically introduced, in an after age when the corslet was universal, by “modernising” later rhapsodists aiming at the up-to-date.

A weak point is the argument that Homer says back or breast was pierced, without mentioning the corslet, whence it follows that he knew no corslets. Quintus Smyrnaeus does the same thing. Of course, Quintus knew all about corslets, yet (Book I. 248, 256, 257) he makes his heroes drive spear or sword through breast or belly without mentioning the resistance of the corslet, even when (I. 144, 594) he has assured us that the victim was wearing a corslet. These facts are not due to inconsistent interpolation of corslets into the work of this post-Christian poet Quintus. 174

Corslets, in Homer, are flimsy; that of Lycaon, worn by Paris, is pierced by a spear which has also perforated his shield, though the spear came only from the weak hand of Menelaus (Iliad, III. 357, 358). The arrow of Pandarus whistles through the corslet of Menelaus (IV. 136). The same archer pierces with an arrow the corslet of Diomede (V. 99, 100). The corslet of Diomede, however, avails to stop a spear which has traversed his shield (V. 281). The spear of Idomeneus pierces the corslet of Othryoneus, and the spear of Antilochus perforates the corslet of a charioteer (XIII. 371, 397). A few lines later Diomede’s spear reaches the midriff of Hypsenor. No corslet is here mentioned, but neither is the shield mentioned (this constantly occurs), and we cannot argue that Hypsenor wore no corslet, unless we are also to contend that he wore no shield, or a small shield. Idomeneus drives his spear through the “bronze chiton” of Alcathöus (XIII. 439, 440). Mr. Leaf reckons these lines “probably an interpolation to turn the linen chiton, the rending of which is the sign of triumph, into a bronze corslet.” But we ask why, if an editor or rhapsodist went through the Iliad introducing corslets, he so often left them out, where the critics detect their absence because they are not mentioned?

The spear of Idomeneus pierces another feeble corslet over the victim’s belly (XIII. 506–508). It is quite a surprise when a corslet does for once avail to turn an arrow (XIII. 586–587). But Aias drives his spear through the corslet of Phorcys, into his belly (XVII 311–312). Thus the corslet scarcely ever, by itself, protects a hero; it never protects him against an unspent spear; even when his shield stands between his corslet and the spear both are sometimes perforated. Yet occasionally the corslet saves a man when the spear has gone through the shield. The poet, therefore, sometimes gives us a man pierced in a part which the corslet covers, without mentioning the flimsy article that could not keep out a spear.

Reichel himself came to see, before his regretted death, that he could not explain away the thorex or corslet, on his original lines, as a mere general name for “a piece of armour”; and he inclined to think that jacks, with metal plates sewn on, did exist before the Ionian corslet. 175 The gold breastplates of the Mycenaean graves pointed in this direction. But his general argument is that corslets were interpolated into the old lays by poets of a corslet-wearing age; and Mr. Leaf holds that corslets may have filtered in, “during the course of successive modernisation, such as the oldest parts of the Iliad seem in many cases to have passed through,” 176 though the new poets were, for all that, “conservatively tenacious of the old material.” We have already pointed out the difficulty.

The poets who did not introduce the new small bucklers with which they were familiar, did stuff the Iliad full of corslets unknown, by the theory, to the original poet, but familiar to rhapsodists living centuries later. Why, if they were bent on modernising, did they not modernise the shields? and how, if they modernised unconsciously, as all uncritical poets do, did the shield fail to be unconsciously “brought up to date”? It seems probable that Homer lived at a period when both huge shield and rather feeble corslet were in vogue.

We shall now examine some of the passages in which Mr. Leaf, mainly following Reichel, raises difficulties about corslets. We do not know their mechanism; they were composed of [Greek: guala], presumed to be a backplate and a breastplate. The word gualon appears to mean a hollow, or the converse, something convex. We cannot understand the mechanism (see a young man putting on a corslet, on an amphora by Euthymides. Walter, vol. ii. p. 176); but, if late poets, familiar with such corslets, did not understand how they worked, they were very dull men. When their descriptions puzzle us, that is more probably because we are not at the point of view than because poets interpolated mentions of pieces of armour which they did not understand, and therefore cannot have been familiar with, and, in that case, would not introduce.

Mr. Leaf starts with a passage in the Iliad (III. 357–360) — it recurs in another case: “Through the bright shield went the ponderous spear, and through the inwrought” (very artfully wrought), [Greek: poludaidalou] “breastplate it pressed on, and straight beside his flank it rent the tunic, but he swerved and escaped black death.” Mr. Leaf says, “It is obvious that, after a spear has passed through a breastplate, there is no longer any possibility for the wearer to bend aside and so to avoid the point. . . . ” But I suppose that the wearer, by a motion very natural, doubled up sideways, so to speak, and so the spear merely grazed his flesh. That is what I suppose the poet to intend. The more he knew of corslets, the less would he mention an impossible circumstance in connection with a corslet.

Again, in many cases the late poets, by the theory — though it is they who bring the corslets in-leave the corslets out! A man without shield, helmet, and spear calls himself “naked.” Why did not these late poets, it is asked, make him take off his corslet, if he had one, as well as his shield? The case occurs in XXII. 111–113,124–125. Hector thinks of laying aside helmet, spear, and shield, and of parleying with Achilles. “But then he will slay me naked,” that is, unarmed. “He still had his corslet,” the critics say, “so how could he be naked? or, if he had no corslet, this is a passage uncontaminated by the late poets of the corslet age.” Now certainly Hector was wearing a corslet, which he had taken from Patroclus: that is the essence of the story. He would, however, be “naked” or unprotected if he laid aside helmet, spear, and shield, because Achilles could hit him in the head or neck (as he did), or lightly drive the spear through the corslet, which, we have proved, was no sound defence against a spear at close quarters, though useful against chance arrows, and occasionally against spears spent by traversing the shield.

We next learn that no corslet occurs in the Odyssey, or in Iliad, Book X., called “very late”: Mr. Leaf suggests that it is of the seventh century B.C. But if the Odyssey and Iliad, Book X., are really very late, their authors and interpolators were perfectly familiar with Ionian corslets. Why did they leave corslets out, while their predecessors and contemporaries were introducing them all up and down the Iliad? In fact, in Book X, no prince is regularly equipped; they have been called up to deliberate in the dead of night, and when two go as spies they wear casual borrowed gear. It is more important that no corslet is mentioned in Nestor’s arms in his tent. But are we to explain this, and the absence of mention of corslets in the Odyssey (where there is little about regular fighting), on the ground that the author of Iliad, Book X., and all the many authors and editors of the Odyssey happened to be profound archaeologists, and, unlike their contemporaries, the later poets and interpolators of the Iliad, had formed the theory that corslets were not known at the time of the siege of Troy and therefore must not be mentioned? This is quite incredible. No hypothesis can be more improbable. We cannot imagine late Ionian rhapsodists listening to the Iliad, and saying, “These poets of the Iliad are all wrong: at the date of the Mycenaean prime, as every educated man knows, corslets were not yet in fashion. So we must have no corslets in the Odyssey?”

A modern critic, who thinks this possible, is bringing the practice of archaising poets of the late nineteenth century into the minds of rhapsodists of the eighth century before Christ. Artists of the middle of the sixteenth century always depict Jeanne d’Arc in the armour and costume of their own time, wholly unlike those of 1430. This is the regular rule. Late rhapsodists would not delve in the archaeology of the Mycenaean prime. Indeed, one does not see how they could discover, in Asia, that corslets were not worn, five centuries earlier, on the other side of the sea.

We are told that Aias and some other heroes are never spoken of as wearing corslets. But Aias certainly did put on a set of pieces of armour, and did not trust to his shield alone, tower-like as it was. The description runs thus: The Achaeans have disarmed, before the duel of Aias and Hector. Aias draws the lucky lot; he is to ‘meet Hector, and bids the others pray to Zeus “while I clothe me in my armour of battle.” While they prayed, Aias “arrayed himself in flashing bronze. And when he had now clothed upon his flesh all his pieces of armour” ([Greek: panta teuchae]) “he went forth to fight.” If Aias wore only a shield, as on Mr. Leaf’s hypothesis, he could sling it on before the Achaeans could breathe a pater noster. His sword he would not have taken off; swords were always worn. What, then, are “all his pieces of armour”? (VII. 193, 206).

Carl Robert cites passages in which the [Greek: teuchea], taken from the shoulders, include corslets, and are late and Ionian, with other passages which are Mycenaean, with no corslet involved. He adds about twenty more passages in which [Greek: teuchea] include corslets. Among these references two are from the Doloneia (X. 254, 272), where Reichel finds no mention of corslets. How Robert can tell [Greek: teuchea], which mean corslets, from [Greek: teuchea], which exclude corslets, is not obvious. But, at all events, he does see corslets, as in VII. 122, where Reichel sees none, 177 and he is obviously right.

It is a strong point with Mr. Leaf that “we never hear of the corslet in the case of Aias. . . . ” 178 Robert, however, like ourselves, detects the corslet among “al the [Greek: teuchea]” which Aias puts on for his duel with Hector (Iliad, VII. 193, 206–207).

In the same Book (VII. 101–103, 122) the same difficulty occurs. Menelaus offers to fight Hector, and says, “I will put on my harness” [Greek: thooraxomai], and does “put on his fair pieces of armour” [Greek: teuchea kala], Agamemnon forbids him to fight, and his friends “joyfully take his pieces of armour” [Greek: teuchea] “from his shoulders” (Iliad, VII. 206–207). They take off pieces of armour, in the plural, and a shield cannot be spoken of in the plural; while the sword would not be taken off — it was worn even in peaceful costume.

Idomeneus is never named as wearing a corslet, but he remarks that he has plenty of corslets (XIII. 264); and in this and many cases opponents of corslets prove their case by cutting out the lines which disprove it. Anything may be demonstrated if we may excise whatever passage does not suit our hypothesis. It is impossible to argue against this logical device, especially when the critic, not satisfied with a clean cut, supposes that some late enthusiast for corslets altered the prayer of Thetis to Hephaestus for the very purpose of dragging in a corslet. 179 If there is no objection to a line except that a corslet occurs in it, where is the logic in excising the line because one happens to think that corslets are later than the oldest parts of the Iliad?

Another plan is to maintain that if the poet does not in any case mention a corslet, there was no corslet. Thus in V. 99, an arrow strikes Diomede “hard by the right shoulder, the plate of the corslet.” Thirteen lines later (V. 112, 113) “Sthenelus drew the swift shaft right through out of Diomede’s shoulder, and the blood darted up through the pliant chiton.” We do not know what the word here translated “pliant” [Greek: streptos] means, and Aristarchus seems to have thought it was “a coat of mail, chain, or scale armour.” If so, here is the corslet, but in this case, if a corslet or jack with intertwisted small plates or scales or rings of bronze be meant, gualon cannot mean a large “plate,” as it does. Mr. Ridgeway says, “It seems certain that [Greek: streptos chitoon] means, as Aristarchus held, a shirt of mail.” 180 Mr. Leaf says just the reverse. As usual, we come to a deadlock; a clash of learned opinion. But any one can see that, in the space of thirteen lines, no poet or interpolator who wrote V. i 12, i 13 could forget that Diomede was said to be wearing a corslet in V. 99; and even if the poet could forget, which is out of the question, the editor of 540 B.C. was simply defrauding his employer, Piaistratus, if he did not bring a remedy for the stupid fault of the poet. When this or that hero is not specifically said to be wearing a corslet, it is usually because the poet has no occasion to mention it, though, as we have seen, a man is occasionally smitten, in the midriff, say, without any remark on the flimsy piece of mail.

That corslets are usually taken for granted as present by the poet, even when they are not explicitly named, seems certain. He constantly represents the heroes as “stripping the pieces of mail” [Greek: teuchea], when they have time and opportunity, from fallen foes. If only the shield is taken, if there is nothing else in the way of bronze body armour to take, why have we the plural, [Greek: teuchea]? The corslet, as well as the shield, must be intended. The stripping is usually “from the shoulders,” and it is “from his shoulders” that Hector hopes to strip the corslet of Diomede (Iliad, VIII. 195) in a passage, to be sure, which the critics think interpolated. However this may be, the stripping of the (same Greek characters), cannot be the mere seizure of the shield, but must refer to other pieces of armour: “all the pieces of armour.” So other pieces of defensive armour besides the shield are throughout taken for granted. If they were not there they could not be stripped. It is the chitons that Agamemnon does something to, in the case of two fallen foes (Iliad, XI. 100), and Aristarchus thought that these chitons were corslets. But the passage is obscure. In Iliad, XI. 373, when Diomede strips helmet from head, shield from shoulder, corslet from breast of Agastrophus, Reichel was for excising the corslet, because it was not mentioned when the hero was struck on the hip joint. I do not see that an inefficient corslet would protect the hip joint. To do that, in our eighteenth century cavalry armour, was the business of a zoster, as may be seen in a portrait of the Chevalier de St. George in youth. It is a thick ribbed zoster that protects the hip joints of the king.

Finally, Mr. Evans observes that the western invaders of Egypt, under Rameses III, are armed, on the monuments, with cuirasses formed of a succession of plates, “horizontal, or rising in a double curve,” while the Enkomi ivories, already referred to, corroborate the existence of corslet, zoster, and zoma as articles of defensive armour. 181 “Recent discoveries,” says Mr. Evans, “thus supply a double corroboration of the Homeric tradition which carries back the use of the round shield and the cuirass or [Greek: thoraex] to the earlier epic period . . . With such a representation before us, a series of Homeric passages on which Dr. Reichel . . . has exhausted his powers of destructive criticism, becomes readily intelligible.” 182

Homer, then, describes armour later than that of the Mycenaean prime, when, as far as works of art show, only a huge leathern shield was carried, though the gold breastplates of the corpses in the grave suggest that corslets existed. Homer’s men, on the other hand, have, at least in certain cases quoted above, large bronze-plated shields and bronze cuirasses of no great resisting power, perhaps in various stages of evolution, from the byrnie with scales or small plates of bronze to the breastplate and backplate, though the plates for breast and back certainly appear to be usually worn.

It seems that some critics cannot divest themselves of the idea that “the original poet” of the “kernel” was contemporary with them who slept in the shaft graves of Mycenae, covered with golden ornaments, and that for body armour he only knew their monstrous shields. Mr. Leaf writes: “The armour of Homeric heroes corresponds closely to that of the Mykenaean age as we learn it from the monuments. The heroes wore no breastplate; their only defensive armour was the enormous Mykenaean shield. . . . ”

This is only true if we excise all the passages which contradict the statement, and go on with Mr. Leaf to say, “by the seventh century B.C., or thereabouts, the idea of a panoply without a breastplate had become absurd. By that time the epic poems had almost ceased to grow; but they still admitted a few minor episodes in which the round shield” (where?) “and corslet played a part, as well as the interpolation of a certain number of lines and couplets in which the new armament was mechanically introduced into narratives which originally knew nothing of it.” 183

On the other hand, Mr. Leaf says that “the small circular shield of later times is unknown to Homer,” with “a very few curious exceptions,” in which the shields are not said to be small or circular. 184

Surely this is rather arbitrary dealing! We start from our theory that the original poet described the armour of “the monuments” though they are “of the, prime,” while he professedly lived long after the prime — lived in an age when there must have been changes in military equipment. We then cut out, as of the seventh century, whatever passages do not suit our theory. Anybody can prove anything by this method. We might say that the siege scene on the Mycenaean silver vase represents the Mycenaean prime, and that, as there is but one jersey among eight men otherwise stark naked, we must cut out seven-eighths of the chitons in the Iliad, these having been interpolated by late poets who did not run about with nothing on. We might call the whole poem late, because the authors know nothing of the Mycenaean bathing-drawers so common on the “monuments.” The argument compels Mr. Leaf to assume that a shield can be called [Greek: teuchea] in the plural, so, in Iliad, VII. 122, when the squires of Menelaus “take the [Greek: teuchea] from his shoulders,” we are assured that “the shield (aspis) was for the chiefs alone” (we have seen that all the host of Pandarus wore shields), “for those who could keep a chariot to carry them, and squires to assist them in taking off this ponderous defence” (see VII 122). 185

We do “see VII. 122,” and find that not a single shield, but pieces of gear in the plural number were taken off Menelaus. The feeblest warrior without any assistance could stoop his head and put it through the belt of his shield, as an angler takes off his fishing creel, and there he was, totally disarmed. No squire was needed to disarm him, any more than to disarm Girard in the Chancun de Willame. Nobody explains why a shield is spoken of as a number of things, in the plural, and that constantly, and in lines where, if the poet means a shield, prosody permits him to say a shield, [Greek: therapontes ap oopoon aspid elonto].

It really does appear that Reichel’s logic, his power of visualising simple things and processes, and his knowledge of the evolution of defensive armour everywhere, were not equal to his industry and classical erudition. Homer seems to describe what he saw: shields, often of great size, made of leather, plated with bronze, and suspended by belts; and, for body armour, feeble bronze corslets and zosters. There is nothing inconsistent in all this: there was no more reason why an Homeric warrior should not wear a corslet as well as a shield than there was reason why a mediaeval knight who carried a targe should not also wear a hauberk, or why an Iroquois with a shield should not also wear his cotton or wicker-work armour. Defensive gear kept pace with offensive weapons. A big leather shield could keep out stone-tipped arrows; but as bronze-tipped arrows came in and also heavy bronze-pointed spears, defensive armour was necessarily strengthened; the shield was plated with bronze, and, if it did not exist before, the bronze corslet was developed.

To keep out stone-tipped arrows was the business of the Mycenaean wooden or leather shield. “Bronze arrow-heads, so common in the Iliad, are never found,” says Schuchardt, speaking of Schliemann’s Mycenaean excavations. 186

There was thus, as far as arrows went, no reason why Mycenaean shields should be plated with bronze. If the piece of wood in Grave V. was a shield, as seems probable, what has become of its bronze plates, if it had any? 187 Gold ornaments, which could only belong to shields, 188 were found, but bronze shield plates never. The inference is certain. The Mycenaean shields of the prime were originally wooden or leather defences against stone-headed arrows. Homer’s shields are bronze-plated shields to keep out bronze-headed or even, perhaps, iron-pointed arrows of primitive construction (IV. 123). Homer describes armour based on Mycenaean lines but developed and advanced as the means of attack improved.

Where everything is so natural it seems fantastic to explain the circumstances by the theory that poets in a late age sometimes did and sometimes did not interpolate the military gear of four centuries posterior to the things known by the original singer. These rhapsodists, we reiterate, are now said to be anxiously conservative of Mycenaean detail and even to be deeply learned archaeologists. 189 At other times they are said to introduce recklessly part of the military gear of their own age, the corslets, while sternly excluding the bucklers. All depends on what the theory of very late developments of the Epic may happen to demand at this or that moment.

Again, Mr. Leaf informs us that “the first rhapsodies were born in the bronze age, in the day of the ponderous Mycenaean shield; the last in the iron age, when men armed themselves with breastplate and light round buckler.” 190 We cannot guess how he found these things out, for corslets are as common in one “rhapsody” as in another when circumstances call for the mention of corslets, and are entirely unnamed in the Odyssey (save that the Achaeans are “bronze-chitoned”), while the Odyssey is alleged to be much later than the Iliad. As for “the iron age,” no “rhapsodist” introduces so much as one iron spear point. It is argued that he speaks of bronze in deference to tradition. Then why does he scout tradition in the matter of greaves and corslets, while he sometimes actually goes behind tradition to find Mycenaean things unknown to the original poets?

These theories appear too strangely inconsistent; really these theories cannot possibly be accepted. The late poets, of the theory, are in the iron age, and are, of course, familiar with iron weapons; yet, in conservative deference to tradition, they keep them absolutely out of their rhapsodies. They are equally familiar with bronze corslets, so, reckless this time of tradition, they thrust them even into rhapsodies which are centuries older than their own day. They are no less familiar with small bucklers, yet they say nothing about them and cling to the traditional body-covering shield. The source of the inconsistent theories which we have been examining is easily discovered. The scholars who hold these opinions see that several things in the Homeric picture of life are based on Mycenaean facts; for example, the size of the shields and their suspension by baldrics. But the scholars also do steadfastly believe, following the Wolfian tradition, that there could be no long epic in the early period. Therefore the greater part, much the greater part of the Iliad, must necessarily, they say, be the work of continuators through several centuries. Critics are fortified in this belief by the discovery of inconsistencies in the Epic, which, they assume, can only be explained as the result of a compilation of the patchwork of ages. But as, on this theory, many men in many lands and ages made the Epic, their contributions cannot but be marked by the inevitable changes in manners, customs, beliefs, implements, laws, weapons, and so on, which could not but arise in the long process of time. Yet traces of change in law, religion, manners, and customs are scarcely, if at all, to be detected; whence it logically follows that a dozen generations of irresponsible minstrels and vagrant reciters were learned, conscientious, and staunchly conservative of the archaic tone. Their erudite conservatism, for example, induced them, in deference to the traditions of the bronze age, to describe all weapons as of bronze, though many of the poets were living in an age of weapons of iron. It also prompted them to describe all shields as made on the far-away old Mycenaean model, though they were themselves used to small circular bucklers, with a bracer and a grip, worn on the left arm.

But at this point the learning and conservatism of the late poets deserted them, and into their new lays, also into the old lays, they eagerly introduced many unwarrantable corslets and greaves — things of the ninth to seventh centuries. We shall find Helbig stating, on the same page, that in the matter of usages “the epic poets shunned, as far as possible, all that was recent,” and also that for fear of puzzling their military audiences they did the reverse: “they probably kept account of the arms and armour of their own day.” 191 Now the late poets, on this showing, must have puzzled warriors who used iron weapons by always speaking of bronze weapons. They pleased the critical warriors, on the other hand, by introducing the corslets and greaves which every military man of their late age possessed. But, again, the poets startled an audience which used light bucklers, worn on the left arm, by talking of enormous targes, slung round the neck.

All these inconsistencies of theory follow from the assumption that the Iliad must be a hotch-potch of many ages. If we assume that, on the whole, it is the work of one age, we see that the poet describes the usages which obtained in his own day. The dead are cremated, not, as in the Mycenaean prime, inhumed. The shield has been strengthened to meet bronze, not stone-tipped, arrows by bronze plates. Corslets and greaves have been elaborated. Bronze, however, is still the metal for swords and spears, and even occasionally for tools and implements, though these are often of iron. In short, we have in Homer a picture of a transitional age of culture; we have not a medley of old and new, of obsolete and modern. The poets do not describe inhumation, as they should do, if they are conservative archaeologists. In that case, though they burn, they would have made their heroes bury their dead, as they did at Mycenas. They do not introduce iron swords and spears, as they must do, if, being late poets, they keep in touch with the armament of their time. If they speak of huge shields only because they are conservative archaeologists, then, on the other hand, they speak of corslets and greaves because they are also reckless innovators.

They cannot be both at once. They are depicting a single age, a single “moment in culture.” That age is certainly sundered from the Mycenaean prime by the century or two in which changing ideas led to the superseding of burial by burning, or it is sundered from the Mycenaean prime by a foreign conquest, a revolution, and the years in which the foreign conquerors acquired the language of their subjects.

In either alternative, and one or other must be actual, there was time enough for many changes in the culture of the Mycenaean prime to be evolved. These changes, we say, are represented by the descriptions of culture in the Iliad. That hypothesis explains, simply and readily, all the facts. The other hypothesis, that the Iliad was begun near the Mycenaean prime and was continued throughout four or five centuries, cannot, first, explain how the Iliad was composed, and, next, it wanders among apparent contradictories and through a maze of inconsistencies.

The Zoster, Zoma, and Mitre

We are far from contending that it is always possible to understand Homer’s descriptions of defensive armour. But as we have never seen the actual objects, perhaps the poet’s phrases were clear enough to his audience and are only difficult to us. I do not, for example, profess to be sure of what happened when Pandarus shot at Menelaus. The arrow lighted “where the golden buckles of the zoster were clasped, and the doubled breastplate met them. So the bitter arrow alighted upon the firm zoster; through the wrought zoster it sped, and through the curiously wrought breastplate it pressed on, and through the mitre he wore to shield his flesh, a barrier against darts; and this best shielded him, yet it passed on even through this,” and grazed the hero’s flesh (Iliad, IV. I 32 seq.). Menelaus next says that “the glistering zoster in front stayed the dart, and the zoma beneath, and the mitrê that the coppersmiths fashioned” (IV. 185–187). Then the surgeon, Machaon, “loosed the glistering zoster and the zoma, and the mitrê beneath that the coppersmiths fashioned” (IV. 215, 216).

Reading as a mere student of poetry I take this to mean that the corslet was of two pieces, fastening in the middle of the back and the middle of the front of a man (though Mr. Monro thinks that the plates met and the zoster was buckled at the side); that the zoster, a mailed belt, buckled just above the place where the plates of the corslet met; that the arrow went through the meeting-place of the belt buckles, through the place where the plates of the corslet met, and then through the mitrê, a piece of bronze armour worn under the corslet, though the nature of this mitrê and of the zoma I do not know. Was the mitrê a separate article or a continuation of the breastplate, lower down, struck by a dropping arrow?

In 1883 Mr. Leaf wrote: “I take it that the zoma means the waist of the cuirass which is covered by the zoster, and has the upper edge of the mitrê or plated apron beneath it fastened round the warrior’s body. . . . This view is strongly supported by all the archaic vase paintings I have been able to find.” 192 We see a “corslet with a projecting rim”; that rim is called zoma and holds the zoster. “The hips and upper part of the thighs were protected either by a belt of leather, sometimes plated, called the mitrê, or else only by the lower part of the chiton, and this corresponds exactly with Homeric description.” 193

At this time, in days before Reichel, Mr. Leaf believed in bronze corslets, whether of plates or plated jacks; he also believed, we have seen, that the huge shields, as of Aias, were survivals in poetry; that “Homer” saw small round bucklers in use, and supposed that the old warriors were muscular enough to wear circular shields as great as those in the vase of Aristonothos, already described. 194

On the corslet, as we have seen, Mr. Leaf now writes as a disciple of Reichel. But as to the mitrê, he rejects Helbig’s and Mr. Ridgeway’s opinion that it was a band of metal a foot wide in front and very narrow behind. Such things have been found in Euboea and in Italy. Mr. Ridgeway mentions examples from Bologna, Corneto, Este, Hallstatt, and Hungary. 195 The zoster is now, in Mr. Leaf’s opinion, a “girdle” “holding up the waist-cloth (zoma), so characteristic of Mycenaean dress!” Reichel’s arguments against corslets “militate just as strongly against the presence of such a mitrê, which is, in fact, just the lower half of a corslet. . . . The conclusion is that the metallic mitrê is just as much an intruder into the armament of the Epos as the corslet.” The process of evolution was, Mr. Leaf suggests, first, the abandonment of the huge shield, with the introduction of small round bucklers in its place. Then, second, a man naturally felt very unprotected, and put on “the metallic mitrê” of Helbig (which covered a foot of him in front and three inches behind). “Only as technical skill improved could the final stage, that of the elaborate cuirass, be attained.”

This appears to us an improbable sequence of processes. While arrows were flying thick, as they do fly in the Iliad, men would not reject body-covering shields for small bucklers while they were still wholly destitute of body armour. Nor would men arm only their stomachs when, if they had skill enough to make a metallic mitrê, they could not have been so unskilled as to be unable to make corslets of some more or less serviceable type. Probably they began with huge shields, added the linothorex (like the Iroquois cotton thorex), and next, as a rule, superseded that with the bronze thorex, while retaining the huge shield, because the bronze thorex was so inadequate to its purpose of defence. Then, when archery ceased to be of so much importance as coming to the shock with heavy spears, and as the bronze thorex really could sometimes keep out an arrow, they reduced the size of their shields, and retained surface enough for parrying spears and meeting point and edge of the sword. That appears to be a natural set of sequences, but I cannot pretend to guess how the corslet fastened or what the mitrê and zoster really were, beyond being guards of the stomach and lower part of the trunk.

Helmets, Greaves, Spears

No helmets of metal, such as Homer mentions, have been found in Mycenaean graves. A quantity of boars’ teeth, sixty in all, were discovered in Grave V. and may have adorned and strengthened leather caps, now mouldered into dust. An ivory head from Mycenae shows a conical cap set with what may be boars’ tusks, with a band of the same round the chin, and an earpiece which was perhaps of bronze? Spata and the graves of the lower town of Mycenae and the Enkomi ivories show similar headgear. 196

This kind of cap set with boars’ tusks is described in Iliad, Book X., in the account of the hasty arraying of two spies in the night of terror after the defeat and retreat to the ships. The Trojan spy, Dolon, also wears a leather cap. The three spies put on no corslets, as far as we can affirm, their object being to remain inconspicuous and unburdened with glittering bronze greaves and corslets. The Trojan camp was brilliantly lit up with fires, and there may have been a moon, so the less bronze the better. In these circumstances alone the heroes of the Iliad are unequipped, certainly, with bronze helmets, corslets, and bronze greaves. 197 198

The author of Book X. is now regarded as a precise archaeologist, who knew that corslets and bronze helmets were not used in Agamemnon’s time, but that leather caps with boars’ tusks were in fashion; while again, as we shall see, he is said to know nothing about heroic costume (cf. The Doloneia). As a fact, he has to describe an incident which occurs nowhere else in Homer, though it may often have occurred in practice — a hurried council during a demoralised night, and the hasty arraying of two spies, who wish to be lightfooted and inconspicuous. The author’s evidence as to the leather cap and its garnishing of boars’ tusks testifies to a survival of such gear in an age of bronze battle-helmets, not to his own minute antiquarian research.


Bronze greaves are not found, so far, in Mycenaean tombs in Greece, and Reichel argued that the original Homer knew none. The greaves, [Greek: kunmides] “were gaiters of stuff or leather”; the one mention of bronze greaves is stuff and nonsense interpolated (VII. 41). But why did men who were interpolating bronze corslets freely introduce bronze so seldom, if at all, as the material of greaves?

Bronze greaves, however, have been found in a Cypro–Mycenaean grave at Enkomi (Tomb XV.), accompanied by an early type of bronze dagger, while bronze greaves adorned with Mycenaean ornament are discovered in the Balkan peninsula at Glassinavç. 199 Thus all Homer’s description of arms is here corroborated by archaeology, and cannot be cut out by what Mr. Evans calls “the Procrustean method” of Dr. Reichel.

A curious feature about the spear may be noticed. In Book X. while the men of Diomede slept, “their spears were driven into the ground erect on the spikes of the butts” (X. 153). Aristotle mentions that this was still the usage of the Illyrians in his day. 200 Though the word for the spike in the butt (sauroter) does not elsewhere occur in the Iliad, the practice of sticking the spears erect in the ground during a truce is mentioned in III. 135: “They lean upon their shields” (clearly large high shields), “and the tall spears are planted by their sides.” No butt-spikes have been found in graves of the Mycenaean prime. The sauroter was still used, or still existed, in the days of Herodotus. 201

On the whole, Homer does not offer a medley of the military gear of four centuries — that view we hope to have shown to be a mass of inconsistencies — but describes a state of military equipment in advance of that of the most famous Mycenaean graves, but other than that of the late “warrior vase.” He is also very familiar with some uses of iron, of which, as we shall see, scarcely any has been found in Mycenaean graves of the central period, save in the shape of rings. Homer never mentions rings of any metal.

159 Schuchardt, Schliemann’s Excavations, pp. 254–257, fig. 256.

160 Leaf, Iliad, vol. i. p. 575.

161 Iliad, vol. i. p. 576.

162 Leaf, Iliad, i. 578.

163 Ridgeway, Early Age of Greece, vol. i. pp. 309, 310.

164 Journal of Hellenic Studies. 1899

165 Journal of Hellenic Studies, vol. xx. p. 322. 1899.

166 Helbig, p. 71.

167 Journal of Hellenic Studies, vol. xx. pp. 149, 150.

168 La Chancun de Willame, lines 716–726.

169 Discovery of the Great West, p. 209. 1869.

170 Dix, Champlain p. 113, Note 1

171 Pausanias, i. 20; ii. 6.

172 Journal of Hellenic Studies, vol. iv. pp. 82, 83, 85.

173 Proceedings in Court Marshal held upon John, Master of Sinclair. Sir Walter Scott. Roxburghe Club. (Date of event, 1708.)

174 I find a similar omission in the Chanson de Roland.

175 Homerische Waffen, pp. 93–94. 1901.

176 Leaf, Iliad, i. p. 578.

177 Robert, Studien zur Ilias, pp. 20–21.

178 Leaf, Iliad, vol. i. p. 576.

179 Leaf, Note to Iliad, xviii. 460, 461.

180 Early Age of Greece, vol. i. p, 306.

181 Journal of Anthropological Institute, xxx. p. 213.

182 Ibid., p. 214.

183 Iliad, vol. i. p. 568.

184 Iliad, vol. i. p, 575.

185 Iliad, vol. i. p. 583.

186 Schuchardt, p. 237.

187 Schuchardt, p. 269

188 Ibid., p. 237.

189 Leaf, Iliad, vol. ii. p. 629.

190 Ibid., vol. ii. p. x.

191 La Question Mycénienne, p. 50. Cf. Note I.

192 Journal of Hellenic studies, vol. iv. pp. 74,75.

193 Journal of Hellenic Studies, pp. 76, 77.

194 Ibid., vol. iv p. 285.

195 Early Age of Greece, p. 31 I.

196 Tsountas and Manatt, pp. 196, 197.

197 Evans, Journal of the Anthropological Institute, xxx. pp. 209–215.

198 Iliad, X. 255–265.

199 Evans, Journal of the Anthropological Institute, pp. 214, 215, figs. 10, 11.

200 Poctica, 25.

201 Tsountas and Manatt, p. 205; Ridgeway, vol. i. pp. 306, 307.


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