Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2013.08.20
Gregory S. Aldrete, Scott Bartell, Alicia Aldrete, Reconstructing Ancient Linen Body Armor – Unraveling the Linothorax Mystery. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2013. Pp. viii, 279. ISBN 9781421408194. $29.95 (hb).
Reviewed by Christopher Matthew, Australian Catholic University (firstname.lastname@example.org)
The recognition of the importance of a certain level of practical knowledge and experience in the study of history, and particularly military history, is not new. As far back as the Classical Age, Xenophon maintained that ‘how to use a weapon can often be determined by simply holding it’ (Cyr. 2.3.9-10). Not long afterwards Polybius declared that ‘any history, written solely on the review of memoirs and prior historical writings, is completely without value for its readers’ (12.25e-28a). Despite such early recommendations, modern scholarship has yet to fully embrace the study of the past through means other than the examination of texts, artefacts, and art. Over the last decades, however, there has been a growing interest in re-creation and physical testing as methods for the exploration of various aspects of the ancient world. Such procedures can lead to a better understanding of elements of an antique culture which, due to the nature of the other evidence, would have otherwise remained elusive. Reconstructing Ancient Linen Body Armor adds to this corpus of work, using physical and empirical research to examine a well-documented but little understood item of ancient defensive armor.
The approach of the book is relatively straightforward—to wade into the mire of contention over the construction, use and functionality of ancient armor made from materials other than metal, and in particular armor made from linen (called either the linothorax or simply the ‘thorax of linen’ by the Greeks, and ‘Type IV’ armor by Jarva and the authors).1 Yet it is here that any simplicity of topic ends. While the written evidence for the widespread use of the linothorax (or some variant of it) is quite extensive – the authors identify at least sixty five distinct references, by more than forty different ancient writers, to linen armor used by cultures all across the ancient Mediterranean world from the Archaic Age to the Roman Empire – there is a dearth of detail regarding what this type of armor was made of, how it was constructed and, most importantly, how well it protected the wearer in combat. To gain a more comprehensive understanding of the functionality of this style of body armor, the researchers have employed not only traditional scholarly methods, such as literary and artistic analysis, but have also utilized more recently adopted techniques such as physical re-creation, experimental archaeology and ballistics testing. It is the use of these more concrete methods that really brings the physical characteristics of linen armor to life (almost literally in some cases) and provides a great many new insights into the value of this type of personal protection in the ancient world. This, more than anything else, is the great value of this work.
The book is set out in a number of chapters which guide the reader through the entire process of how the research was conducted. The introduction provides an overview of the book’s contents, a review of the current state of scholarship on the issue, an outline of the methodology that will be used, the potential problems and pitfalls associated with this methodology, and finally a discussion of the work’s likely audience.
The first chapter lays the foundation for the ensuing examinations by analysing the references to linen armor in ancient texts and the visual representations of this type of armor on vases, sculpture, and other forms of art. It also includes an overview of the production and processing of flax and linen in the ancient world.
In chapter two the authors examine the varieties of structural design and decoration of linen armor– predominantly based upon images found in Greek art. They review such elements as the changing shape of various parts of the armor, like the shoulder pieces (epomides) and the skirt of flaps (pteruges) which hung below the chest plate to protect the groin and upper legs, and the various ways the shoulder pieces were tied in place. Consideration of additional components, such as the metal scales used to reinforce areas of the armor, and the various design motifs and colors placed on the armor, round out this examination.
The third chapter then engages with the contentious issue of what linen armor was actually made from. Surprisingly this is not as easy as it sounds. There are five main theories: laminated (or glued) sheets of linen, stitched linen, padded linen, leather instead of linen, and a composite version with leather or metal covered with linen. Through careful examination and deductive reasoning the authors are able to dismiss certain options in favour of others and arrive at the method of construction which they will subsequently use for the re-creative experiments – armor made entirely of linen.
Chapter four outlines the procedure used in creating the replica sets of armor to be used in subsequent testing, describing the different types of linen and glues that were used and presenting a detailed, almost step-by-step, description of the making of the armor itself.
This armor is put to the test in chapters five and six. Using linen ‘plates’ of the same material as that of the full linothorakes, the authors examine the protective qualities of linen armor through a number of experiments; bows were used to fire arrows, equipped with replicas of ancient arrow heads, into targets at various distances and angles, in order to assess the armor’s resistance to missile fire. This examination even involved a ‘live fire exercise’ in which one of the researchers, wearing one of the recreated linothorakes, had arrows shot into his chest from a range of only 15m! Other weapons were also fired at the target plates to test their penetrative abilities. All of the details of these experiments are meticulously recorded and presented, at the end of chapter six, in a series of easy-to-read tables of data, displaying the depth of penetration (or lack thereof) of the various missiles against armor of different thicknesses and composition. This information provides great insight into the protective qualities of the armor and the effectiveness of archery fire against warriors wearing it. It also helps dismiss some previous conjectures about the material of the linothorax’s construction, and sheds light on some of the key moments of ancient Greek history such as how well protected Greek hoplites were at the battle of Marathon in 490BC. Interestingly, the results of these examinations correlate almost exactly with similar tests that have been conducted elsewhere – which supports the validity of the researcher’s findings.2
Having established the military efficacy of this armor, in chapter seven the authors examine other questions, such as how linen armor could be waterproofed, its durability, and how damage could be repaired, as well as issues of comfort, weight and encumbrance.
The main body of the book concludes with a final chapter which attempts to determine how much such armor would have cost in the ancient world – both in monetary terms and in sheer number of hours expended on its manufacture – compared to other forms of protection, such as the bronze cuirass. This, in turn, introduces the question of how much women, who did the majority of the weaving in the ancient world, actually contributed to the military efforts of their respective cities or states. This issue will require much more scholarly thought.
The final section of this book is a detailed database of all of the artistic representations of linen armor found by the authors in the course of their research. Each entry contains such information as the type of art on which the image is found, its date, provenance and current location and the publications where it is illustrated. This data, collected here for the first time, constitutes a valuable resource for anyone interested in investigating ancient linen armor further for themselves. Extensive notes and a thorough index conclude the book.
All in all this is a valuable piece of investigative scholarship, and the replications and practical tests carried out by the authors make possible a more extensive analysis of this form of ancient defensive equipment than has previously been possible. The examinations follow the basic scientific principles of being measured, controlled and repeatable – again highlighting the validity of the results. And yet the authors are not afraid to admit, and even outline, the limitations and/or potential problems with their tests or their reconstructions, and they freely acknowledge that at certain points they have chosen to take one path while still leaving the other possibilities open. This policy of ‘full disclosure’ adds value to the results and the research as a whole. The inclusion of numerous images, plates and diagrams to support almost every step and argument of the research also means each piece in the ‘linothorax mystery’ is presented to the reader in a clearly understandable format.
Such small criticisms as can be levelled at this work do not detract from its overall success. Some of the generalisations expressed at the beginning of the work could have been explained in more detail – such as Philip II’s role in introducing linen armor to the Macedonians (p.15) – but such details are not vital to the overall argument. Small sections are also a bit repetitive, such as the overview of colors in chapter three – a topic which had just been extensively covered in the previous chapter. Some elements of the reconstructed armor could have benefited from further examination and/or explanation. For example, the reconstructed armor possessed pteruges only four layers of linen thick in order to provide the wearer with a good range of movement. It would have been interesting to test whether these thin layers protecting the groin could have withstood weapon impacts. If not, does this then suggest that the pteruges must have been thicker and the wearer therefore less mobile?
These points, however, merely highlight the fact that the use of physical re-creation and ballistics testing to examine the past is still an emerging methodology. People should not forget that the application of such techniques is still very much in its infancy and, if faults are to be found with such research, this simply contributes to the refinement of procedures, which in turn will ultimately lead us to a better understanding of the past. In this regard, Reconstructing Ancient Linen Body Armor is essential for anyone interested in ancient warfare and/or experimental archaeology, from academic to layman, and is a defining and valuable contribution to our understanding of the ancient world.
1. Type I being the bronze ‘bell cuirass; Type II, the bronze plate cuirass; and Type II the bronze ‘muscled’ cuirass.
2. For example see: P.H. Blyth, The Effectiveness of Greek Armour against Arrows in the Persian War (490-479BC): An Interdisciplinary Approach (University of Reading, unpublished thesis, 1977); C. Matthew, ‘Testing Herodotus – Using Re-creation to Understand the Battle of Marathon’ Ancient Warfare 5.4 (2011) 41-46.