“Another thing” is a series of occasional posts, each presenting a particularly interesting, beautiful or unusual object on display at one of the museums or sites on our tours.
I'm sure you've already recognised what this object is. Perhaps you've even spotted that - very strictly speaking - we are actually looking at two objects?
It's a bronze cuirass or breastplate, in other words a piece of armour that was meant to protect the wearer's upper body. But more than that, it's an object that reflects both practical and cultural concerns of its era, and one that straddles the topics of ancient technology and ancient art.
If you look carefully, you can see that the front and rear of the cuirass are separate pieces, each of them essentially a bronze sheet hammered (over a mould) into the shape of a male torso and back. On the flank, there are hooks for tying them together. Also, something appears to have been attached at the bottom end of the front part, most likely another piece of armour to cover the abdomen and beyond - very vulnerable parts of the body!
The cuirass is on display in the Archaeological Museum 'Paolo Orsi' in Siracusa, ancient Syracuse, on Sicily. It was found in a grave and dates roughly to 350 BC, during what we call the Late Classical period in Greek history and archaeology. Greek? Syracuse was a Greek city-state, founded in the 730s BC by settlers from Corinth and Tenea in the Peloponnese. For the next five centuries, it was one of the economic, political and cultural centres of what the Romans called Magna Graecia (in Greek Megale Hellas), meaning 'Great(er) Greece' and describing the areas of Greek settlement in Sicily and parts of Southern Italy.
For most Greek city-states, warfare was a common occurrence (in Sicily, it might entail conflict with the native Sicilians, with the Carthaginians who also settled in the island, likewise with the neighbouring Greek city-states and eventually with the Romans). The Greeks had developed a fairly standard system of warfare by the late seventh century BC, relying not on professional warriors, but primarily on hoplites (literally 'shield bearers'). A hoplite was a citizen-solder, fighting on foot in the formation known as a phalanx.
Along with this standard type of fighting, a standard set of equipment had developed. Typically, it included a long spear and a dagger as offensive weapons, and for defence a large circular shield, a helmet and greaves - as well as some kind of body armour.
Since the soldier was normally responsible for his own equipment (at least initially), expensive materials such as iron and bronze would only be used where necessary: for the helmet, the blades/tips of the weapons and the greaves. Most could only afford body armour made of starched linen (which is more effective than it may sound), sometimes also of leather. Such objects do not survive (as organic materials decay), but we know them from ancient descriptions, also from vase paintings and sculpture.
Bronze cuirasses are therefore relatively rare objects and probably always were so, although we should keep in mind that many ancient metal objects have been lost to metal recycling throughout history. That said, in a Greek context they occur by the late seventh century BC, in the Archaic era. We show our guests such early examples when visiting the Archaeological museum at Heraklion on our Exploring Crete tour, or when visiting the great sanctuary of Zeus at Olympia on Exploring the Peloponnese. These objects, which ended up being used as wealthy offerings to the gods, were probably the property of a privileged few, the warrior elite of these early times.
It is interesting to note that even the earliest examples clearly try to emulate the anatomic shape of a male torso, but in much simpler and more stylised fashion than our Syracusan example. This is in keeping with the more stylised depiction of anatomic detail in Greek sculptures of the same era. The typical Archaic male statue, known as kouros, also shows a stylised version of the male torso, albeit more detailed than such early bronze armour.
Over three centuries younger, our Syracusan cuirass reflects the developments in Greek art and metalwork that had taken place in between. Classical Greek sculpture is much more adept at depicting anatomic detail, at showing how bones and muscle interact underneath the skin. Like a statue of that time, the cuirass shows wonderful detail: the torso of a lean and well-trained man, with the collarbone, coastal margin (the arch at the bottom of the thorax) and ribs clearly visible and with powerful pectoral muscles. Before centuries of corrosion turned it green, the breastplate would have been resplendent in the shiny reddish-golden hue of new bronze.
We should probably not see this cuirass, or other muscle cuirasses, as an actual portrait of the wearer's chest. They were not worn directly on the body (imagine the chafing!), but over a garment, and certainly with extra padding. There is no practical reason for a cuirass to model the torso in such detail - it is a choice to have it do so. Thus, we cannot know whether this man was ever as fit as the torso his cuirass depicts - but by wearing what is essentially a sophisticated piece of bronze sculpture on his body, he certainly aimed to project an image of physical strength and beauty. In that sense, it represents a desirable male body image of its time, stressing power rather than emphasising allure, as did the female equivalent.
Unfortunately, but not unusually, we do not know who owned this cuirass. Surely, he was a privileged and affluent man - clearly his descendants or relatives could afford committing this valuable piece of armour to accompany him at his final place of rest. This is supported by another detail I have not mentioned yet. Ending just below the ribcage, the cuirass is much shorter than many comparable examples, which typically extend below the navel. As you have seen already, another piece was attached below, providing extra flexibility. A hoplite would not have required that, but a horseman would! This might indicate that he was a military commander, or at least part of the Syracusan cavalry. Due to the cost of owning and keeping a horse, this role was usually the domain of the wealthier levels of Greek society.
We see examples of ancient armour and weaponry, be it Mycenaean, Greek, Roman, Celtic, Byzantine, Ottoman, Viking or later medieval, on nearly all of Peter Sommer Travels' archaeological tours and cruises. In each case, we are not just looking at an illustration of an era's and an area's traditions of warfare, but also of underlying cultural meanings and connections. Our tour experts are there to tell you those stories.
Leave a Reply