The Late Mycenaean Period, the Dark Age and Homer, 1300–900 bc Part I

The period covered, was a period of turmoil and change. The Greek palaces grew in economic wealth, and many of them built or improved impressive fortifications, showing that battle was very much a common occurrence. Greek influence was extended to south-west Asia Minor and to the island of Cyprus. Then, shortly after 1200, the great catastrophe happened. The palaces were destroyed and only some were rebuilt. At the same time the Hittite civilisation was overrun, and Egypt had to battle with invading ‘Sea Peoples’, some of whom may have been Mycenaean Greeks. This calamity was originally thought to be some great natural disaster like an earthquake, but it is unlikely that one such event could have caused such an impact. The main reason seems to have been population movement, probably caused by overpopulation after a long period of relative peace and prosperity. A good parallel is the Viking period in north-west Europe.

Overpopulation at home caused the Vikings to leave in search of plunder to support a way of life, followed by settlement in England, Normandy and elsewhere. Was Mycenaean Greece overcrowded? The increase in prosperity might suggest that, but there is also evidence from linguistics that Greeks from further north, the Dorians, came south and caused the collapse of the Mycenaean palaces and the emigration of some Mycenaeans, forming part of the ‘Sea Peoples’. Whole books have been written on this subject (Drews 1993, passim; see also Sandars 1964 and Snodgrass 2000, p. 311 ff.) and there is not the space to go through all the arguments here. Suffice it to say that the evidence for Greece points to warfare causing the collapse of the civilisation, and that it was warfare among Greeks. The palace system did not disappear overnight. Pylos was destroyed in c. 1200 and never rebuilt, but Mycenae and Thebes were rebuilt and struggled on for perhaps another 100 years or more. Athens, a smaller settlement, seems to have remained unaffected. Many other smaller settlements were simply abandoned, and there is evidence for Mycenaean population movements to Achaea in the Peloponnese and to Cyprus, where there was a final flourishing of Mycenaean civilisation until about 1050.

After this, Greece entered a Dark Age, by which we mean that there is little evidence for what was going on, although it is certain that overseas trade and contacts diminished dramatically, as did the population. To help enlighten us, we have the Iliad and the Odyssey of Homer, epic works written down in the eighth century, but preserved in an oral tradition for generations before. These refer to the Trojan War, traditionally fought in the 1180s, and preserve some memory of those calamitous times and their aftermath. The wanderings of Odysseus in the Odyssey perhaps preserve some memory of the population movements and strife in the homeland, and the Iliad perhaps tells us of Mycenaean expansion eastwards. It also tells us much about how Greek soldiers were thought to have fought at the end of the Mycenaean period, written by Greeks just a few hundred years later. Mixed up with this is the combat of Homer’s own day, and sorting out true Mycenaean memories is difficult.

The form of combat with chariots and infantry appears to have remained virtually the same in this period, except for the demise of the chariot following the final collapse of the palace civilisation in the eleventh century (Crouwel, in Laffineur 1999, p. 456). The last certain use of the chariot is an example excavated at Lefkandi in Euboea, dating to c. 1000 (Popham, Touloupa and Sackett 1982), and by then it may have been a status symbol rather than a weapon of war. At around the same time there is the first certain evidence for cavalry, in the form of a picture on a vase of a mounted warrior with a spear (Greenhalgh 1973, pp. 46–7).

Evidence from vases and frescos seems to show an increase in the use of infantry over chariots, which may have been caused primarily by an increase in the size of armies in general. Chariotry was expensive, and larger armies would be made up of more infantry, especially after the catastrophe when the palace system gradually broke down. Let us now look at the equipment and its use in detail.

HELMETS

As far as helmets go, the boars’ tusk helmet still seemed to be the main form of head protection. It features on the Pylos frescos of c. 1200, and three plates from a helmet were found in Chamber Tomb B at Kallithea in Achaea, dating from c. 1150 (Yalouris 1960, p. 44 and plate 31; Papadopoulos in Laffineur 1999, p. 269). It is perhaps safe to assume that, with the end of the palaces and their elite warriors/hunters, the boars’ tusk helmet ceased being manufactured. It does of course survive in literary form in the Iliad, as mentioned above, but as a rare helmet whose method of construction has to be explained to an unfamiliar audience. The Pylos Linear B tablets of 1200 continue to mention helmets with four ‘strips’ or ‘things hung on’ (as well as cheek pieces), which we interpreted in the earlier period as scale armour guards for the back of the neck on bronze helmets.

Other evidence for bronze helmets continues to be slight. The Mycenaean Warrior Vase of c. 1150 shows lines of warriors marching off to battle. The helmets are black with white dots, which has been interpreted as bronze studs on a leather helmet (Snodgrass 1967, p. 31) or an embossed bronze helmet (Connolly 1977, p. 22), which latter was certainly in use further north in the Balkans and Central Europe at this time. Indeed, the helmets are remarkably similar to the Pass Lueg crested helmet from Austria (Borchhardt 1972, plates 39.1, 39.2). Some other warriors on the vase have a low crest on the helmet, which has been described as a hedgehog crest, probably made of stiff horsehair.

The main surviving line of warriors have high crests with white dots, which seems to favour the idea of an embossed bronze helmet. These also appear to have a flowing horsehair crest behind, and horns on the front.

We have seen that earlier boars’ tusk helmets could have horns, and there is no reason for these not to have been fitted to bronze helmets. Indeed, Homer mentions such helmets in the Iliad (XXII, 314). Mention has been made of Central European helmets of embossed bronze which appeared possibly as early as the twelfth century, and it is likely that they received the idea of bronze plate armour from the Greeks. The fact that helmets were more common in Central Europe, in this and later periods, is because of the abundance of the raw materials there and the greater likelihood of being buried with such items, or of such items being offered in votive deposits (Snodgrass 1971, passim). Greece, by contrast, has little copper, and most would have had to be imported from Anatolia and Cyprus – hence the Mycenaeans’ interest in the island.

The embossing of bronze does seem to be a form of decoration clearly derived from that of reinforcing leather with bronze studs, and so it would seem that leather helmets reinforced with bronze were certainly in use at this time, as well as completely bronze helmets. The evidence of the Mycenaean Warrior Vase shows that foot soldiers during this period were being armoured to a greater extent with body armour and greaves (see below), and there was perhaps more of a demand for bronze than could be met by the supply. The only find of a Late Mycenaean bronze helmet has occurred just recently at Portes-Kephalovryson in Achaea, where many Mycenaeans went after the initial catastrophe of c. 1200. Here in Chamber Tomb 2 a helmet of a ‘tiara’-like construction was found. It consists of strips of embossed bronze in layers or rows built up to form a helmet, and must have been over a leather cap. It is in fact more of a bronze-reinforced leather helmet than an actual bronze one. It has not yet been reconstructed or fully published (Papadopoulos, in Laffineur 1999, p. 271). Similar embossed bronze strips occurred in Chamber Tomb A at Kallithea and were interpreted as part of a cuirass (Yalouris 1960, p. 43 and plate 29). They too could be part of a ‘tiara’ helmet, especially as there was no sign of a helmet in this otherwise very rich grave. Further bronze studs, but no studded strips, have also been found in a tomb at Lakkithra on the island of Kephallenia (Marinatos 1932, plate 16). To confuse the situation, Chamber Tomb 3 at Krini, also in Achaea, had bronze studs and strips which were clearly the decoration for a scabbard (Papadopoulos, in Laffineur 1999, p. 271), so the Kallithea and Lakkithra finds could now be interpreted as scabbards! We will need to wait for the ‘tiara’ helmet from Portes-Kephalovryson to be fully published before we can properly reassess these other finds.

The Mycenaean civilisation based on the palaces seems to have petered out by 1100, and from just after then, perhaps from 1050, we have a helmet find from Tiryns (Bulletin de Correspondance Hellénique, 82, 1958, p. 707; Mitteilungen des Deutschen Archaeologischen Instituts, 78, 1963, pp. 17–24). Although often described as a bronze helmet, this too is really a bronze-reinforced leather helmet. It consists of four plates. There are two triangular side plates which have a decorative border of triangular holes punched right through the plate, presumably the means by which it was attached to its leather or fabric cap; and two long, curved, rectangular plates running along the central ridge from the forehead to the back of the neck. These would leave a join running down the middle, where we might imagine a short horsehair crest was fitted like the ‘hedgehog’ crests on the Mycenaean Warrior Vase. The border of each side plate is also decorated with rows of small, embossed bronze studs, and the centre of each side has a large, embossed bronze stud surrounded by circles of smaller studs. Such decoration is very similar to that found on greaves of the period. The cheek pieces are bronze plates of a scalloped shape, very similar to the earlier helmets of Dendra and Knossos, and were not attached to the helmet plates but separately attached to the lining, just like the Knossos helmet. They have a row of holes all around the edge for attachment to the lining and a central embossed stud and circles matching the helmet plates.

For the next 200 years there is no evidence for helmets in Greece, almost certainly due to a great shortage of bronze following the loss of contacts with the outside world. Bronze or bronze-reinforced helmets may have continued in use, but were simply never buried or lost for archaeologists to find, because the bronze was too precious. However, the evidence we do have, for the period 1025 to 950 roughly, shows that many artefacts which were previously made in bronze, like pins and fibulae, were now made in iron, which was just coming into use. When Greek contacts overseas began again towards the end of the tenth century, these pins and fibulae were again made in bronze (Snodgrass 1971, p. 42). If there was not enough bronze in Greece for such small items, it seems even less likely that there was sufficient to make helmets, and warriors must have resorted to caps made of leather or other perishable materials.

The evidence of Homer adds a little to our knowledge of helmets, apart from the evidence already quoted for the boars’ tusk helmet. Most importantly, the other helmets used in the Iliad are invariably made of bronze or reinforced with bronze (Lorimer 1950, p. 238). An occasional epithet is ‘with bronze cheek pieces’, reminding us of the Dendra boars’ tusk helmet, where only the cheek pieces were of bronze. ‘Bronze helmets’ reminds us of the late fifteenth-century Knossos helmet, whereas ‘bronze-reinforced helmets’ is closer to the Tiryns helmet, and perhaps those shown on the Mycenaean Warrior Vase. There is no detailed description to show us the construction of the helmet, but there is some information on decoration. Horsehair crests are frequently mentioned and must have been of an upright, stiff form rather than just hanging naturally loose, because they are said to nod downwards (Iliad III, 336–7). Achilles’ helmet also has additional golden crests at its sides (Iliad XIX, 382–3). Some helmets are described as four-horned, tetraphalos, and others with four plates, tetraphaleros; Lorimer (1950, p. 241) probably rightly asserts that there may be some confusion between these two words. The Tiryns helmet is constructed of four main plates, so Homer may be remembering a reality there, but there is also evidence for horned helmets from early seals of boars’ tusk helmets, through to the Mycenaean Warrior Vase. Those helmets appear to have just two horns, and Homer also uses the term amphiphalos for this sort of helmet. A problem with this interpretation of phalos, meaning horn, is that it is sometimes described as ‘shining’, which is more suggestive of metal (Iliad XVI, 216). Another passage suggests that the horn is supporting a horsehair crest (Iliad XIII, 614), which also suggests a metal projection. Perhaps the word could mean either; or perhaps we have a mistake here, with phaleros meaning a bronze plate, like the central plates on the Tiryns helmet which would have supported a crest. A final word, which Homer uses in connection with the four-horned helmets, is aulopis. This word is unknown but is related to aulos, meaning a socket, and presumably means that the four horns or crest supports on these helmets were tube-like, which is easily understandable if crests were to be fitted into them. While some of these descriptions can be related to late eighth-century helmets of Homer’s own day, the horns, and certainly the description of a boars’ tusk helmet, seem to be connected only to Mycenaean helmets. With the shortage of bronze in the Dark Age, Mycenaean helmets – or at least their memory – may have been passed down the generations; or old pieces of armour may have been discovered in Mycenaean tombs.

BODY ARMOUR

When we turn to body armour we again have to rely on artistic depictions, supplemented by finds from Central Europe and the evidence from Homer. A short cuirass seems now to have been the order of the day, replacing the much heavier Dendra-style armour, and was being worn by infantry as well as chariot warriors. It was suggested that the warrior who wore the Dendra-style armour found at Thebes may have discarded the subsidiary plates to be left with a short bronze cuirass. Unfortunately there is no Greek bronze cuirass of that date to support this theory, although some vase paintings of around 1200 suggest metal cuirasses rather than the leather corslets they are usually described as. Three examples at least seem to be shown by Vermeule and Karageorghis in their book on vase paintings (1982, figs XI.31, XI.57, XI.64.1). One has the nipples marked out especially and there is a high neck guard, which suggests that this piece of equipment lasted longer than the other Dendra attachments (Greenhalgh 1980, passim).

A bronze neck guard implies a bronze cuirass, and the continued use of the neck guard is also shown by the Pylos Linear B tablets. Another picture of a warrior on a vase fragment (Vermeule and Karageorghis 1982, fig. XI.57), lacks a neck guard, but his cuirass is clearly marked with curved lines representing the pectoral muscles, as well as having the nipples marked. These fragments all date from c. 1200.

Two gold breastplates of this period have also been found at Enkomi in Cyprus with anatomical details; they remind us of the Shaft Grave finds and the possibilities of bronze versions for use in combat (Fasti Archaeologici 4, 1949, no. 1817). As far as I am aware, these finds have not been published further, so I cannot ascertain whether they were full breastplates or just small pectorals.

There are no surviving Greek bronze breastplates from the Late Mycenaean period, but there are two fragmentary examples from Slovakia that are worth looking at, as they are of the same period and were probably derived from Mycenaean examples (Snodgrass 1971, p. 37). The Urnfield peoples of Central Europe certainly had contact and trade with the Mycenaean Greeks and may have been introduced to plate armour in the course of that trade. Lack of evidence prevents us from deciding whether the Central Europeans adapted their simple cuirass from the inner thorax of the Dendra panoply, or whether the Greeks first adopted this short cuirass which was then in turn passed to Europe; this latter reason seems more likely.

The Čaka cuirass from East Slovakia was the first to prove that Urnfield cuirasses really did stretch back to the late Bronze Age, as it was firmly dated to the end of Bronze D or the beginning of Hallstatt A, that is c. 1200 (Snodgrass 1967, p. 42). It consists of only four or five fragments, and the overall shape is indeterminable. It is possible that it was short, ending at the waist, and perhaps with a separate belt below that, rather than a proper bell shape with a flange over the hips as developed later. It has a decorated border of embossed studs and zigzag lines, and over each breast it has a star-shaped design, cut out of a separate piece of bronze and riveted on. It was thought that this was a unique piece of armour, possibly an import from Greece, but further finds now argue convincingly for local manufacture; there was after all a plentiful supply of copper. Most importantly, two large fragments of another cuirass were found at Ducové in Slovakia in a context datable to 1150. Again the overall shape eludes us but, like Čaka, it has a decorated border, this time a double line of small bosses, and star-shaped designs on the breasts. These were executed with a fine punch and, below the design, one of the fragments shows that a repoussé curve was hammered into the metal to delineate the pectoral muscle, as has been described above on one of the Mycenaean vase fragments. In the centre of the chest was a circular design executed, like the border, by embossed studs on a raised line. A point worth noting here is that the remains of both these early cuirasses are from the breastplate only. It is possible that backplates were a luxurious extra and that sometimes a breastplate was worn on its own, simply tied on with leather straps.

Before we return to the Greek evidence, we should examine the significance of the decoration on these cuirasses. The most important things to note are the studs around the edges, which show they were translations into bronze of leather breastplates, which would have had their edges turned over and riveted with bronze to stop them fraying. The separate bronze breast stars from the Čaka cuirass also have bronze studs at each of the points, showing that such stars were originally riveted to leather corslets. This leather corslet with bronze reinforcement reminds us of the evidence we have discussed for Late Mycenaean helmets, and it would seem that bronze-reinforced leather was also in use for body armour. The surviving evidence is rather stronger for this than for bronze cuirasses.

As with helmets, the Mycenaean Warrior Vase is our best evidence. The soldiers, marching with spears over their shoulders, apparently have leather corslets with long sleeves since there is no line at the shoulder (Snodgrass 1967, p. 36). The warriors on the opposite side, however, do have a pair of white lines at the shoulder showing, perhaps, that the corslet they wear has no sleeves and maybe a bronze edging. They also have a series of white lines and dots on the chest that look like bronze attachments and studs. Connolly (1977, p. 22) has argued for these being bronze cuirasses, which remains a possibility but, as we have noted, the decoration – if in bronze – implies derivation from bronze-reinforced corslets, and I think that is what we have here. Astrom, in his work on the Dendra armour (1977, plate XXXII), examined several other pottery fragments featuring warriors, which he thought might show bronze cuirasses. Most are painted black like those on the Warrior Vase, although one is white, and one illustrated by Greenhalgh (1980, p. 202) is decorated with geometric designs. This latter possibly represents embossed or painted bronze, but the other examples are more likely to be leather. They mostly appear to have integral long sleeves. An argument in favour of bronze is that most depictions (including the Warrior Vase) have an outward-turning flange at the waist, very similar to the much later bell cuirasses in bronze. This flange may just be artistic style, however, or it could be that the bell curve did develop at this early period. There is no evidence at this time for cuir-bouilli, that is, leather stiffened and moulded through boiling; but a bell shape could be made from leather by the use of bronze edging or simply through the cut of the leather. This would have given the warrior more freedom of movement.

The most convincing evidence for bronze-reinforced corslets used to be the finds of strips and studs from Kallithea, published by Yalouris (1960, p. 47) but, as mentioned above, it seems that these now came from a scabbard or a ‘tiara’ helmet. Some of the pieces of embossed bronze are curved rather than flat so a helmet is perhaps more likely, as this grave had two swords and a pair of greaves but no sign of a helmet. The only other possibility comes from Cyprus, where Catling assembled a large shield from fragments from a tomb at Kaloriziki dating to the eleventh century (Catling 1964, p. 144 and plates 17, 18; Snodgrass 1967, p. 44 and plate 14). As reconstructed this shield has one large central boss and two small side bosses, but I know of no other shield that has three bosses, and Borchhardt (in Buchholz and Wiesner 1977, p. 34) has suggested that the smaller two bosses are quite possibly breast ornaments from a leather cuirass. The bronze ‘shield edging’ may also have belonged to a cuirass, although it is perhaps too wide for this. Most important are the fragments of bronze, decorated with embossed circle patterns, which Catling (1964, p. 144 and plate 17) also places on the reconstructed shield, although he admits that they could have come from anywhere. These remind one of the cuirasses from Slovakia, but also of contemporary Greek greaves which will be discussed later. They too, then, may be from body armour, although greaves are perhaps more likely. Perhaps the important thing to note is that the find is from Cyprus, which did not suffer the bronze shortages that mainland Greece had at this time. The name of the island means ‘Copper’, and finds of bronze armour are more common there as a result of the occurrence of the metal.

It has been suggested that these bronze or bronze-reinforced leather corslets may have been short, ending at the waist, instead of the flanged bell shape that appears later, although this flanging appears to be shown in some of the contemporary vase depictions. The reason for believing in a short corslet comes from Homer (see below), who occasionally seems to suggest an armoured belt worn below a cuirass of bronze, and also from finds of bronze figurines going through into the Dark Age, which show warriors wearing only a bronze belt and a helmet for protection (Snodgrass 1967, p. 42). A possible example of such a belt was found in a twelfth-century chamber tomb at Mycenae. This example consists of the two surviving ends of a waist belt, 29cm and 16cm long with a width of just over 5cm – much narrower than the earlier Dendra ‘belts’. There are holes along the edge for the attachment of a lining, but no sign of a clasp. We must suppose that this was also attached to the leather backing, but not to the bronze itself. If a leather corslet was worn with this belt, it could have reached down to the hips and the belt could have been worn over it. Of course, the belt could have been worn on its own or perhaps with a short bronze cuirass. A similar usage of plate armour appeared among the Samnites and other Italians in the fourth century (Connolly 1978, pp. 22–7).

Travelling further down the torso, there is good evidence in this period for the wearing of heavy kilts, made of leather or thick material, perhaps reinforced with bronze studs, for the protection of the pelvis and upper thighs. The warriors on the Mycenaean Warrior Vase wear them, and some have the same white dot decoration as on their helmets and corslets, which we have interpreted as bronze reinforcement. Other kilts are shown as plain black, or with a black-and-white check pattern suggesting a woven or quilted material. These kilts often have a fringe on the lower edge (Vermeule and Karageorghis 1982, figs XI.1A, XI.18, XI.42, XI.43, XI.44, XI.59). The warriors on the Pylos frescos appear to be wearing similar black-and-white kilts but with a diagonal pattern. They wear no other body armour, which suggests that a kilt might have been a preferable piece of armour to a corslet. This would have made sense if a small shield was carried, and there are similar examples of kilts being worn in the later hoplite period. The body shield seems to have gone out of favour after c. 1300, and smaller shields meant the legs especially became vulnerable. These kilts would have protected the thighs, and we see a greater use of greaves in this period to protect the lower legs.

A final type of corslet to be considered, which would not have required a separate kilt but would have been worn with a belt, is the scale corslet. This was armour made from small plates of bronze called scales, sewn in rows onto a backing material, presumably leather, and was invented in Egypt or the Near East as early as the seventeenth century. There are two possible large scales from Phaistos in Crete dating to c. 1200, which are trapezoidal in shape and not of Eastern origin. They measure 5 × 4cm and were perhaps a local idea, possibly made by a man who had heard of scale armour but not seen it, and had attempted his own design (Hood and De Jong 1952, p. 261; Snodgrass 1965c, p. 99). Mycenaeans at this period, especially as they colonised south-west Asia Minor and Cyprus, would have seen and perhaps fought warriors wearing scale armour, and would have noticed its advantages.

Each bronze scale is usually 2–3cm wide, 5–6cm long and about 1mm thick, with a reinforcing central spine. Since each scale covers the top half of the scale below, the warrior was protected by two layers of bronze as well as by the coat of leather onto which they were sewn. The design also meant that the corslet was almost as flexible as one made simply of leather, and it did not need too skilled a craftsman to make it, although many hundreds of scales would have been needed for each suit. As might be expected, our main evidence for Mycenaean Greeks using scale armour comes from Cyprus. Here there was a ready supply of bronze, and the influence from the Near East was closest. Two bronze scales have been found at Enkomi dating from c. 1150 (Popham, Sackett and Themelis 1980, p. 251), four more in an eleventh-century tomb on the Karpos Peninsula, and three more from c. 1100 at Alaas in the south of the island (Karageorghis 1975, pp. 6 ff.). These late dates are all contemporary with, or after, the great catastrophe that destroyed the mainland palaces. Cyprus and Achaea seem to have had an influx of Mycenaean Greeks at this time. After this period, Cyprus was very much on the periphery of the Greek World, often succumbing to invaders and influences from the East such as Assyria and Persia. As a result it did not always follow armour developments elsewhere in Greece and, unlike Greece, it was to continue to use scale armour for many centuries.

For the rest of Greece we have just two examples of scales. A solitary scale of twelfth-century date was found at Mycenae (Connolly 1977, p. 23), and there is also an example from Lefkandi on Euboea dating to c. 900 (Popham, Sackett and Themelis 1980, plate 239.1). Both these scales are small at 5 × 2cm, which means they came from high-quality suits. Smaller scales meant more of them were needed, and so the suit became more expensive. The example from Lefkandi comes from a period when Near Eastern and Cypriot scales were being made from iron, and the excavators suggest this might have been an antique piece kept as a souvenir. Even so, it seems that some Greeks at least had access to scale corslets throughout this Late Mycenaean and early Dark Age period.

For artistic representations of scale corslets we must turn to Egyptian paintings and Assyrian reliefs. These generally show a short-sleeved garment, which reaches down to the ankles and is worn with a belt at the waist to take some of the weight off the shoulders. When first introduced, this armour was used as an alternative to a body shield by those soldiers who needed both hands free, like archers and chariot warriors. This is why the armour covers so much of the body, although it must have hampered movement somewhat. It is unlikely, however, that such a long garment was worn in Greece and Cyprus, since we know that the Mycenaeans of the period also wore greaves (see below). The only clear representation of scale armour we have in the Greek sphere is that worn by an archer in a chariot, on a carved ivory box from Enkomi in Cyprus. This shows Hittite influences, however, and does not seem to be of local manufacture. The scale corslet worn here reaches to midway down the warrior’s thighs; this is more likely to be the type worn by Greeks.

Further evidence for the use of scale armour in Greece is provided by Homer. Cinyras of Cyprus gives Agamemnon a unique armour described in detail by Homer (Iliad XI, 15). It is described as being made up of forty-two strips or bands (oimoi). Ten strips were of dark cyanus, that is blue enamel or glass paste, presumably on a base of bronze. Twelve strips were of gold and twenty strips were of tin; both these also must have been plating on bronze. Since this corslet was a gift, the method of manufacture and the materials used were perhaps uncertain. The word oimoi has been interpreted by most scholars as ‘rows’, and this corslet as being a scale corslet. (See Connolly 1986, p. 7 for an alternative interpretation.) Support for this theory is the fact that the corslet was a gift from Cyprus, where we know scale armour was in use. It seems that some wealthy Greeks may have used them. It is interesting that Homer takes the trouble to write about the armour in detail, suggesting that it was a piece of equipment rarely seen or used in his day. However, he does the same with the boars’ tusk helmet, and we have seen that that was a very common piece of equipment in Mycenaean times. Perhaps in the Late Mycenaean period scale corslets were common, but they are a rarity in the Dark Age and into the eighth century. There is certainly no evidence for their use on the mainland after the Lefkandi scale of c. 1000. Returning to the description of Agamemnon’s corslet, if we assume a scale length of 5cm with a good overlap, this gives a width of 2cm per row, and a total length of c. 84cm. As surmised earlier, this means that Agamemnon’s corslet reached down to just above the knees and would have been worn with a waist belt and greaves. The different colours of the rows of armour scales are paralleled in Egyptian paintings of scale corslets worn by Ramses III and Tutankhamun (Yadin 1963, pp. 240–1). These could simply be painted scales, but the tomb of Tutankhamun did produce a scale corslet incorporating gilding and blue glass enamelling (Carter and Mace, 1923–33, plate XXXVIII). Agamemnon’s corslet is further described as having had three serpents of iridescent cyanus on either side of the corslet, writhing towards the neck. This armour was a splendid piece of equipment, then, and it is fitting that it should have been a gift to the great Greek king from one of his allies.

For this period (c. 1200) we also have Linear B tablets from Pylos, twelve of which show corslet ideograms. These differ from the earlier Knossos ones in several important ways. Firstly, they are now named using the classical Greek word thorax implying a simpler piece of equipment than the list of parts accompanying the Knossos ideogram, which was describing a Dendra panoply. Secondly, they are not listed with chariots, although these (or at least their wheels) are listed elsewhere. This implies that the cuirasses could be and were used by infantry as well as charioteers, and were therefore less cumbersome and more widely available. Apart from the word thorax, the Pylos corslets are described as having ‘things hung on’: twenty large and ten small or, in four cases, twenty-two large and twelve small (Chadwick 1976, p. 162). Snodgrass (1965c, p. 99) has interpreted these as quilting or layers for a material armour, but the number seem too large. He backs this idea up by interpreting the horizontal lines on the ideograms as quilting. However, we have seen that the earlier Linear B ideograms from Knossos had these lines because they were representing a Dendra cuirass. It must be remembered that these Linear B ideograms are not accurate illustrations, but a shorthand form. It is clear that by the time of the Pylos ideograms, Dendra cuirasses were no longer used, but the ideogram remains similar because to change it would have been confusing for the scribes.

Chadwick (1976, pp. 162–3) interprets the ‘things hung on’ as scales, but since that gives him only thirty or thirty-four scales, instead of the hundreds needed, he proceeds to design a theoretical armour with a very small number of large scales. It is much more likely that these ‘things hung on’ equate with the oimoi in Homer, and that the numbers refer to rows of scales. Homer describes Agamemnon’s armour by giving the numbers of rows, and it seems reasonable to assume that that is how these Linear B scribes are describing armour in the Pylos tablets. Here we have only thirty or thirty-four rows compared to the forty-two of Agamemnon’s suit, but his was a suit fit for a king and would have had a greater number of smaller scales. If we interpret the Pylos large ‘things hung on’ and small ‘things hung on’ as 6cm scales and 5cm scales, we get rows mostly of 3cm width each after overlapping, with 2cm rows only where the small scales are used, presumably at the neck. This gives suit lengths of 80–90cm, pretty much the same as calculated for Agamemnon’s armour, and giving a knee-length cuirass that would have been supported with a waist belt. If this interpretation is correct, then the palace at Pylos was issuing scale corslets as body armour to its charioteers and foot soldiers in the thirteenth century. The scale from Mycenae and the description in Homer suggest that scale corslets may have been more popular in twelfth-century Greece than has been previously thought rather than just in Cyprus.

The Pylos ideograms differ slightly from the earlier Knossos ones in that they show no shoulder guards, but short sleeves (or the wearer’s arms: it is unclear which), and neck guards and helmets. If the neck guard appears on these tablets, but not on the Knossos ones, it suggests that the guard was a later addition to the panoply. It is also further evidence for the Pylos corslets being metal, since a bronze neck guard would be unlikely with material armour. There is an illustration from Egypt showing a high, bronze neck guard being worn with a scale armour corslet, which is just the armour I am suggesting these Pylos tablets show (Connolly 1986, p. 30, fig. 1).

Apart from his description of Agamemnon’s scale corslet, all other mentions of armour by Homer are of bronze plate armour, and before the discovery of Mycenaean bronze armour it was thought that these mentions of bronze were later additions or interpolations. With the discoveries of Dendra, Knossos, Tiryns and Achaea, and the realisation that commonly occurring epithets such as Achaion chalkochitonon (bronze-corsleted Achaeans) could not possibly be interpolations, as they are the basic structure upon which the epic is built, this idea can happily now be dismissed (Sheratt 1990, p. 814). We still have the problems of uncertain translations, words that later change their meanings and words for which the translation can be guessed only from the context.

The use of the word guala (hollow) in describing this armour shows that the armour consisted of back- and breastplates forming a cuirass, and was not a bronze scale cuirass. Other passages prove that the thorax covered the shoulders (Iliad V, 98–9) and reached to the waist (ibid. IV, 132) but no further. Supplementary pieces of armour were also worn, as is explained below, and we must decide whether they are describing a Dendra-style suit or are just additions to a short cuirass of bronze or bronze-reinforced leather, as has been suggested. The latter seems more likely, and Snodgrass (1965a, pp. 171–2) even equates guala with the later bell cuirass of Homer’s own day. The wide bell curve of such cuirasses does not always fit well with these armour additions, however, as Snodgrass admits (1967, pp. 55–6), and I would see the Homeric cuirass as ending at the waist.

2 thoughts on “The Late Mycenaean Period, the Dark Age and Homer, 1300–900 bc Part I

  1. Pingback: The Late Mycenaean Period, the Dark Age and Homer, 1300–900 bc Part I – Glyn Hnutu-healh: History, Alchemy, and Me

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.