Subterranean Press Magazine: Summer 2013
Rich Men’s Skins; A Social History of Armour by K. J. Parker
In ancient Greece, birthplace of democracy, the concept “too poor to fight” would have been universally understood. At some point around 650BC, the Greeks adopted a highly formalised form of warfare, the phalanx. Battles were all the same. The opposing armies, made up of affluent citizens in heavy armour, lined up opposite each other in wide formations five or so ranks deep. They charged, collided, pushed and shoved until one side gave way and ran. They were all armed with spears, but in the cramped conditions of the phalanx, they couldn’t really use them. The spear was held in one hand, overarm; it was over six feet long and weighed three or four pounds. Simply keeping control of the wretched thing, holding it over your head, while shoving and being crushed from both sides by four ranks of strong men must have been some achievement. Striking downwards hard enough to pierce the enemy’s breastplate, using only the arm muscles, must have been practically impossible.
A phalanx battle was a scrum, pure and simple. The side that was bravest and best nourished, and which shoved hardest, won. The other side broke formation and ran—at which point there was room to use weapons, and the fugitives took losses. A wise general didn’t let his soldiers pursue too far, however. The phalanx was as simple and as basic as two stags locking antlers.
By modern criteria, it was a wildly inefficient way of waging war. You need a wide, flat plain, and Greece is a country of mountains. It allows very little scope for brilliant, innovative strategy (which seems to have been avoided, if anything; phalanx warfare continued unchanged for nearly 300 years). It’s a lousy way of destroying the enemy. The Greeks seemed to take a perverse pride in making it as inefficient as possible; the overhead spear hold, for example—nearly all other spear and pike formations in history held the spear at or below shoulder height, forming a lethal hedge. Archers, the logical choice in a mountainous country, were regarded as cowardly and unfair, and missile weapons were banned by both sides in the Great Lelantine War, the first ever arms limitation treaty.
Or you could read these drawbacks as advantages. On the winning side, casualties were minimal. A phalanx battle usually produced a clear result, and the Greeks fought to decide specific issues—who owns this disputed stretch of pasture, who gets to extort money from that relatively weak city. Most of all, though, because you couldn’t survive in the scrum without heavy armour (you’d be crushed to death), warfare was the monopoly of those citizens who could afford the helmet, breastplate, greaves and shield. Paraphrase that; the rich held the monopoly of force, which, in the fiercely aristocratic city states of ancient and classical Greece, was exactly how it should be.
The Greek panoply, which historians call hoplite armour, was poorly designed for fighting in. The wraparound Corinthian helmet made it hard to see and practically impossible to hear, which ruled out complex manoeuvres. The tight, flanged neck and arm holes of the bell corselet made it difficult and excruciatingly painful to move your arms, bend down or run. What hoplite armour did do was provide a rigid tortoise-shell to protect you from being crushed, while discouraging tactical innovation and pricing the lower classes out of war1.
Hoplite armour was very expensive. There was no copper or tin in Greece worth mentioning, so the raw materials had to be imported. Helmet, breastplate-and-backplate and greaves were all exceptionally complex shapes to beat out of sheet bronze, requiring a level of skill in the mystical art of raising2 that only a few hundred people in the 21st century can emulate. The division between rich-enough-to-serve and too-poor-to-fight was enshrined in law. In Athens, for example, there were rigidly defined property qualifications. If your land produced less than a specified quantity of grain, wine and oil per year, you couldn’t vote and you couldn’t fight3.
Consider, by contrast, the Romans; and a remarkable man by the name of Marius. Before his dictatorship, the Roman Republican armies were made up of men rich enough to afford armour, as in Greece. Marius changed all that. He allowed the poor to join up, paid them adequately, provided them with a pension when they retired and issued them with publicly-owned equipment. A generation later, an off-relation of his by the name of Julius Caesar used the Marian army to stage a coup d’etat; his successor, Augustus Caesar, became the first Roman emperor. Under the Empire, the Roman army was supplied by a vast and sophisticated network of arms factories, and industry as we know it was born; mass production of standardised patterns using interchangeable parts. Those factories remained in existence and in production for most of the 1,400 year lifespan of the Empire, and taught the world a lesson in industrialisation it would never forget.
Marius wasn’t, of course, the first man to enlist the proletariat into military service. The pharaohs had been doing that 3,000 years before he was born. The world-changing revolution that Marius and his successors brought about was to elevate the poor to the status of heavy infantry; armour-wearers, the soldiers who actually mattered in battle, who decided who would win. It was, arguably, the moment when the State was born; when armed force (on which all political power ultimately depends) first came directly under the control of a government owning and issuing military equipment, rather than relying on the private owners of that equipment doing what was asked of them. In Greece, even warships were privately owned. The Greek army was simply an alternative form of the citizen assembly, which voted for a war, elected a general and marched off to fight. When you look at it from that perspective, no wonder Greek warfare was stylized, fossilized, inefficient and as safe as it could be made to be without depriving it of any meaning.
Roman armour was designed with mass production and ease of maintenance and repair very much in mind. It was also superbly efficient and practical. What we think of as typical Roman body armour—lorica segmentata, though they never called it that—consisted of overlapping hoops of iron plate, articulated on leather straps to give the wearer the maximum practical level of mobility consistent with protection. It didn’t actually last very long (about 200 years; a mere interlude in the history of the Empire), mostly because the fastenings that held it together were prone to breakage, and because it only protected the torso. Before and after the lorica segmentata there was mail; a Celtic invention, enthusiastically adopted by Rome, formed of between ten and fifty thousand iron rings linked together, each ring being closed with a weld or a rivet. Or there was scale, possibly the earliest form of body armour, directly inspired by the scales of fish; small overlapping metal plates laced or riveted to a cloth or leather backing. Later on, when the Roman empire entered its Byzantine phase, it borrowed the concept of lamellar armour from the East. Lamellar is scale, but each small metal plate is pierced with holes top, bottom and sides, and attached by laces to the plates above, below and on either side of it, forming an armour that is both rigid and flexible.
Mail, scale and lamellar are all ideal for the large professional army. They can be made, assembled and maintained by unskilled labour, quite possibly the soldiers themselves. They don’t need large pieces of sheet metal, a vital consideration at a time when sheet was made by men with hammers beating red-hot ingots flat. Mail, worn over heavy padding to provide cushioning, will turn most cuts and some thrusts, though it’s not a lot of use against arrows. It’s heavy (though you quickly get used to the weight) but so flexible that it hardly impedes movement at all. Scale offers much more protection, isn’t much heavier than mail, is more prone to go wrong (laces or rivets come loose) and constricts your movements a bit more; there’s also the constant, insufferable clinking. Neither mail nor scale protects you all that much from getting crushed, though the padding invariably worn under it would have helped a bit. Lamellar, on the other hand, is semi-rigid. Because of the way the plates overlap, much of your body is protected by two thicknesses of armour, and the lacing acts as a sort of suspension, absorbing shock like the springs of a car. It’s very heavy, but the weight is efficiently distributed, so after a while you don’t notice it too much. Lamellar was the armour of the Byzantine empire and the Islamic world for most of the Middle Ages, and was worn by the samurai of Japan until they ceased to be relevant in the 19th century4 .
So there are two philosophies of armour, exclusive and inclusive; both pursuing social as well as purely military agendas. The warrior tradition uses armour to promote the position and prestige of the noble individual, and price the common man out of warfare. The soldier tradition supplies armour to the low-class volunteer and the conscript to serve the interests of the state. The warrior wants his armour to be as fine, as well-made, and as expensive as possible. The soldier gets issued with an efficient, cheap and easy-to-make mass-produced pattern, which he can repair and maintain himself. The warriors were responsible for some of the finest examples of engineering and artistry produced in the pre-modern era. In the fifteenth century, there was a keen rivalry between the armourers of Milan and Germany for the custom of the incurably warlike, ridiculously rich European knight. It was a genuine arms race. Milan aimed for elegant functionality (everything we associate today with Italian design, in fact), whereas Germany focused on fluted decoration and the deflective qualities of angled surfaces. Along the way, both schools invented the new concept of research and development; of actively thinking about how to make their product better, rather than simply building it the way it had always been built. The rate of technological advance in 14th and 15th century armour was unprecedented in the history of technology, and not to be repeated until the Industrial Revolution. It was the dawn of deliberate invention, as opposed to happy serendipity. New ways of engineering joints, so that arms and legs could move naturally; designing angled surfaces, so that blows glanced off; heat treatment, to make steel tough and flexible; for the first time, makers of artefacts, spurred on by competition and funded by the bottomless purses of the rich, were thinking of ways to innovate, perfect, or at least sell more units through gimmickry. No other trade called for or rewarded such innovations. It took thousands of years for the pre-Industrial Revolution plough to evolve; it grew like a stalactite, mostly because none of the potential customers had the money to hire someone to design a better version. Helmets, on the other hand, improved dramatically in the comparatively tiny space of time between Crecy and the Wars of the Roses. Thanks to the armour-buying warrior, the age of the better mousetrap had begun5 .
On the one hand, standardised, cost-effective mass production; on the other hand, technological innovation and the concept of advancement through design; between them, the two philosophies of armour played a substantial part in creating the phenomenon we know as industry. If you enjoy that sort of thing, you can picture armour-making as the trunk of a tree whose branches hang heavy with cars, machine tools and tumble-driers; the Tree of Progress, whose roots run deep and whose leaves are forever turning towards the sun. Maybe. The historical fact remains that the Roman Empire, whose technological advances were unmatched until the Industrial Revolution, didn’t do so well against the primitives and savages surrounding its borders. In the west, the empire fell—not in a blazing orgy of destruction, but a slow decline; the savages took over the Imperial institutions more or less intact, decided they were more hassle than they were worth, and let the grass grow over them. The nobly-born warriors of the empire’s Germanic successors preferred an older version of society, in which their supremacy was assured.
The western empire fell because it was rotten inside, not because the Vandals and the Goths were better than the Romans at anything that mattered. Imperial professional soldiers, in mass-produced armour from government factories, could still beat them into a pulp—as the eastern Roman general Belisarius proved, when the eastern emperor Justinian sent him to reconquer Italy, about a century after the Fall. True, Belisarius was a military genius on a par with Hannibal and Napoleon, but the ease with which he crushed the Vandals and the Goths, hopelessly outnumbered, ludicrously ill-supplied and in the face of unrelenting hostility and suspicion from his own government, suggests that Roman soldiers found barbarians as easy to defeat as they had five centuries earlier, when Caesar conquered Gaul. The speed with which Italy was lost again, once Belisarius had gone home, also points to the most important factor in war; the will to fight. It’s that, not superiority in arms, training and technique, that wins wars. From the overthrow of the palace kingdoms of the Near East in the 2nd millennium BC right down to Vietnam and Iraq, the message is painfully clear; if you don’t really want to fight, you can’t buy victory or even security simply by increasing your defence budget. The chariot-riding archers of the Hittites and the Minoans were wiped out so effectively by primitive but ferocious footsoldiers that their existence was forgotten about for nearly 3,000 years, until archaeologists dug up the ruins of their overthrown cities. Technologically, they were light-years ahead of the Sicilian and Sardinian pirates who trashed their mighty kingdoms; but the savages liked to fight and the city-dwellers had evolved beyond that sort of behaviour. Read Kipling’s ‘Arithmetic On The Frontier’6 and go figure.
For this reason, rather than any deficiency in hardware, the soldiers of the Roman Empire lost and gave way to barbarian warriors, among whom only the leaders could afford to wear armour; almost exclusively mail. This begs the question of why the barbarians didn’t at least copy the superior Imperial patterns—scale and lamellar—even if they didn’t keep the captured factories running. As we’ve seen, scale and lamellar are better at keeping you from getting hurt; they’re a bit harder to make, since they call for the use of sheet iron, albeit in small pieces, but the barbarians were perfectly capable of making sheet metal for helmets, and any smith who can draw wire to make mail rings should be able to make small plates. The nomads of the eastern steppes, whose smiths worked by definition on small portable forges, had no trouble making quite sophisticated lamellar armour. The fact remains, though, that scale and lamellar don’t show up much in the west between the fall of Rome and the late 13th century; the exception being among the Vikings, whose art occasionally depicts a scale or lamellar wearer, a phenomenon I’d choose to explain by pointing out that the Byzantine emperor’s personal guard was traditionally recruited from Vikings, who went to Constantinople to win prestige and bring home wonderful treasures (and to the Vikings, luxury arms and armour were wonderful treasures indeed). My guess is that any scale or lamellar found in Scandinavia in the early middle ages was made in Constantinople and brought back by Guard veterans.
So; they knew about better armour, could have made it, but chose to ignore it. Why would men for whom fighting was a way of life do such a thing? I think the answer must lie in what they believed armour, and war itself, was for.
We’ve seen that the Greeks fought to decide issues, while the Romans fought to conquer, contain and retain an empire. The Germanic tribes of Western Europe fought for other reasons—
Men die, cattle die; Only the deeds of heroes live for ever.
That’s how the Vikings saw it; and the only heroic deeds worth remembering were war and fighting. They fought for honour—or call it prestige, or acquiring or maintaining a dominant place in society through actions held to be prestigious by their peers; they fought in the same way that movie stars negotiate their pay, not because they need the money but because it’s the only real way of keeping score. They in this context means the nobility, the ruling elite. It may be hard for us to get our heads around ideas of aristocracy and nobility among fur-clad savages, but barbarian societies were ferociously aristocratic and hierarchical, pyramids of king, great nobles, lesser nobles, rich farmers, poor farmers, nobodies. In materially poor cultures, lacking the palaces, fine tableware and refined manners of the urban Imperials, a member of the elite could really only justify his exalted status by actions, rather than possessions or expenditure. Insofar as they had fine possessions, they had armour and weapons; they also had a deep-rooted tradition of reverence for the past, for tradition itself. The best sword you could own was one that had belonged to a dead hero two hundred years ago; by using his sword, you partook of his deeds, his honour. Accordingly, sword designs don’t change much, even when better designs became available7. Any sword—or helmet, or body armour—that looked different, looked new, couldn’t be a family heirloom and therefore couldn’t be imbued with the honour of one’s glorious ancestors. New armour, like new money, simply isn’t the same. Accordingly, in the graves of these dead heroes we find arms and armour; beautiful arms, made the hard way and decorated and embellished with exceptional skill and lavish expenditure of precious materials, but not better arms. For at least 300 years, until Charlemagne rebooted Rome as the Holy Roman Empire, and Carolingian warriors start wearing a new design of helmet, there is essentially no change in arms, armour or military tactics. When changes do come, it takes a new empire to bring them about; which empire fell apart almost immediately after Charlemagne’s death, because nobody else really seemed to want it. The new two-piece helmet died out too, and people went back to the old four-piece design.
It’s a case—sorry, but the pun’s irresistible—of self-denying ordnance. Greek hoplites created and persevered with military equipment that was (by our standards) inefficient, inconvenient and needlessly overengineered, because it was suitable for what they wanted out of war. They could make highly advanced composite bows when they wanted to, bows every bit as good as the Persians’, but they didn’t want to, because archery warfare would have changed the rules, spoilt the status quo, ruined everything. The Romans had no such compunction, their agenda being so very different; as well as innovating and inventing, they cherry-picked arms and tactics from every nation under the sun, but their successors, the Germanic barbarians, also drew back from progress in military technology, and for the same reason as the Greeks. Mass participation in war by common people in mass-produced armour was the last thing they wanted. It was the exact opposite of what they were fighting for.
We have to fast-forward a long time, from the Fall of Rome to the thirteenth century, before we come to a real change in armour, or attitudes. During that time, the Western European warrior’s outfit, consisting of a mailshirt and a simple conical helmet with a nose-guard, usually made of four plates riveted to a frame, hardly changed at all; hemlines rose and fell, as hemlines do, and we start to see a few helmets made from a single sheet of metal, but that was about all, and there’s no evidence of technical advance or any desire for it. Then, at the end of the eleventh century, westerners came into violent contact with a richer and vastly more sophisticated culture: Islam.
The First Crusade succeeded mostly through sheer ferocity. European knights, predominantly French and Norman, smashed their way into the Holy Land and took Jerusalem. In every aspect of military technology, from equipment to tactics to logistics, they were hopelessly inferior to their enemies; they succeeded largely through the element of surprise. For four hundred years, with only a few reversals, Islam had had no trouble defeating Christians; it was largely to internal divisions in the Muslim world that Byzantium owed its continued existence. The crusaders were, however, a different sort of Christian entirely. Unlike the Byzantines—it’s a sad irony that the most spiritual culture the world has ever known had to spend most of its energy and resources on war—the Crusaders wanted to fight; they were warriors, not soldiers.
A hundred years later, the Christian defenders of the Crusader states weren’t warriors any more; they were demoralised, underresourced soldiers defending their homes against a superior enemy whose victory was inevitable. They had a real and urgent incentive to try and improve their arms and armour; and we begin to see innovations; new helmet designs, defences for legs and arms to supplement the basic mailshirt. Once these changes had become acceptable, it’s no surprise that they start appearing back in the old country, where the prestige of the crusaders would have made emulation of their fashions desirable. Whether the improved equipment prompted increased interest in the chivalric games of the tournament—better armour made jousting safer, so it became more popular—or whether a demand for better jousting gear led to improvements, we can only guess; in any event, supplementary defences for the body, to protect against the horseman’s lance, begin to show up by the end of the thirteenth century.
The mailshirt, even worn over padding, was quite inadequate against the lance. Consider the physics of a galloping knight; three quarters of a ton of horse at thirty miles an hour propelling a needle-sharp point against a target of similar weight moving towards it at similar speed. It’s the doubling effect of the joust that introduces a level of danger never previously experienced; nothing had ever hit that hard before, and something had to be done.
Something took the form of iron plates, sewn inside a cloth or leather jerkin and worn over the mailshirt. Known as the coat or pair of plates (really fancy versions made of hundreds or thousands of small scales sewn into velvet were called brigandines), this essentially makeshift reinvention of 3,000-year-old scale armour was considered entirely adequate until the next disaster happened; the ascendency of the bow.
Read most modern histories of medieval warfare, and you’d be left with the impression that the English yew longbow was a dramatic, game-changing innovation. Not so. It’s not even a particularly good bow, compared with other contemporary designs—its D-shaped section is inefficient, meaning that less of the energy expended in drawing it is converted into arrow velocity than with, say, a rectangular-section flatbow; it’s made of solid wood, and therefore can’t compete with the exquisite, difficult-and-expensive-to-make composite bows (horn, wood and sinew) used since antiquity by the Greeks, the Romans and the medieval world east of the Balkans. It wasn’t even particularly new; the same design and material was used by the Vikings, and very similar bows made by prehistoric cavemen have been fished out of peat bogs. In any event, no longbow capable of being drawn by a human being can shoot an arrow as fast or as hard as the high-powered crossbows used throughout Europe since the twelfth century.
The English longbow wasn’t an outstanding weapon, but it was relatively cheap and easy to make, and it was used by special men. The archers who fought at Crecy, Sluys and Poitiers were extremely strong and very highly trained. It’s unlikely that they were marksmen, like the Genoese crossbowmen8; they’d been trained to shoot volleys, to get as many fast-moving heavy arrows in the air as possible in the shortest possible time. In modern terms, they were machine-guns.
And they could shoot through armour. There’s a lively debate about whether the coats of plates worn by the French nobility could turn the heavy ash-shafted, bodkin-headed English arrows shot from 100-pound draw-weight yew longbows; on the balance of probabilities, it seems like they could, but that still left a lot of the body protected by nothing but mail and padding. Therefore, as a matter of urgency, fourteenth-century armourers turned their attention to finding a way of covering all the other bits with iron plate, in a way that meant the wearer could still move and breathe. A great deal was at stake here; nothing less than the survival of the nobility, the warrior class.
There were an awful lot of noblemen in France in the fourteenth century; a whole army of them, literally. The fact that the French army at Agincourt in 1415 was still based around a substantial core of aristocratic horsemen, in spite of the horrendous losses sustained by that class at Crecy and Poitiers (not to mention the Black Death and other unpleasantnesses) shows just how many of them there were. The Hundred Years War was, quite literally, a class war; French nobility against the English middle class. By the time of Agincourt, coats of plates were widely supplemented with articulated arm and leg armour that covered a man literally from head to toe (the bits for the feet were called sabatons). The particular circumstances of that battle (lost by the French, not won by the English) make it hard to pontificate about whether the armourers had done the job they’d been asked to do; in the later stages of the war, however, particularly once the Milanese armourers had started heat-treating high-carbon steel to make it harder and tougher, it was clear that armour was capable of seeing off the longbow. It was a short and hollow victory. By the beginning of the sixteenth century, knights in shining armour found themselves facing massed matchlock muskets, and the age of armour was drawing to a close.
For a while, though, the European knight was confronted with a wonderful, tantalising possibility; armour so good, so comprehensive9, that it would be proof against anything. Wearing it, provided you were enormously strong and wonderfully fit, you couldn’t be killed. It was the apotheosis of the noble warrior; invulnerability, hitherto the exclusive preserve of Achilles and Siegfried, was now readily available at an armourer’s near you, always provided you had the money to pay for it. For a decade or so, it looked as though the warriors would be vindicated, after three thousand years of murderous debate, going right back to the Lelantine War treaty outlawing the use of missile weapons. That approach had never worked and never will; but the armourers had succeeded in rendering the arrow, and therefore by implication the lower-class soldier, obsolete. Nobody, not even a fellow noble, could kill a knight, unless he did something stupid (like getting off his horse and charging the enemy across a quagmire, as at Agincourt), or unless God willed it. It’s heartbreaking to think that this dream, in pursuit of which so much blood had been spilt and so much money spent, should have been rudely shattered by the perversion of Chinese firework powder.
Sir Thomas Malory’s Morte Darthur is a glorious evocation of what might have been. About three-quarters of the book is blow-by-blow accounts of imaginary tournaments, really fine sports journalism. Wonderful knights knock each other off their horses, beat each other insensible with swords, are set upon by twenty enemies simultaneously and still prevail; and (provided they’ve got their armour on) nobody gets killed or maimed or seriously inconvenienced; the most debilitating injury Lancelot suffers is when he’s accidentally shot in the arse by a lady archer.
Malory lived during the last, brightest blaze of glory of the noble warrior. In his day, armour was better than it ever had been, or would be again, and noble warriors were fighting the Wars of the Roses, the last self-destructive gasp of the independent barons before the Tudor monarchy sorted out the over-mighty aristocracy once and for all and established a modern state protected by gunpowder and low-class professional sailors. You can tell from the way he writes that he knows it’s all a fantasy, even though he desperately yearns for the values and certainties of the imaginary world he claims as history. Malory gave us the image of the knight in shining armour, of Lancelot, able to prevail over any earthly danger provided his cause is just, whose function is to protect the weak against the strong and pursue the Holy Grail of spiritual perfection. There never was such a creature10 but modern palaeontologists can nevertheless examine his fossilised remains, his steel shell which remains after his imperfect flesh has long since rotted away. The evolution of that shell doesn’t obey the usual Darwinian rules; in a sense, the evolution of armour is the survival of the unfittest, because the Gothic and Vandalic chieftains didn’t want to evolve into the most efficient killers they could possibly be. Instead—according to their own values, which aren’t ours—they wanted to be the best men they could be; brave fighters, superior to those who depended on them, men of honour. Laugh all you like; call them Klingons, and charge them with an impressive catalogue of crimes against humanity, including all the customary offences of the rich against the poor, the proud against the humble. But then you might care to consider the things that have been done since, by standing and conscripted armies serving duly elected governments, by soldiers, at the taxpayers’ expense; at which point you might start to wonder if the rich men who wanted to lock antlers and not get killed were quite so misguided after all.
1 The hoplite’s rigid bronze body armour (known to military historians as the ‘bell corselet’) stayed in use for centuries, but was gradually replaced by the linothorax, a form of body armour whose name means ‘linen breastplate’. We have pictures of these things, but very little hard data. A recent academic study at the University of Wisconsin concludes that the linothorax was a three-piece breastplate (front-and-back; two shoulder straps) made out of 18+ layers of linen, glued or quilted together, ending up about half an inch thick. The Wisconsin tests suggest that this model would have turned arrows and sword-cuts.
The advantages over the bell corselet are obvious. It’s cheaper, which means more people can afford one. It can be made by semi- or unskilled labour; even modern university students can make one. The shoulders move, which means the fighter has a better chance of using his weapons. What it doesn’t do is provide a rigid shell to protect you from having your insides squeezed out through your ears in a 10,000 body pileup. It also goes against all the principles I’ve claimed or will claim for Greek hoplite warfare in this essay.
Consider the context. As far as we can tell, the linothorax comes into general use around the time of the Persian wars. Instead of fighting other Greeks in hoplite formation to settle specific points in a sort of armed referendum, the Greek cities are fighting for their existence against the Persian empire; a different war, against different enemies, with a totally different agenda. Suddenly, there’s a strong, unprecedented incentive to innovate, and the stakes had never been higher.
The linothorax appears to have been the dominant form of armour in the Peloponnesian War, the longest and nastiest war in ancient Greek history. During that war, a great deal changed. Basically, the alarming growth and unacceptable behaviour of the Athenian empire so terrified the Spartans that they decided that Athens had to be brought down, and the majority of Greek states outside the Empire agreed with them. This was a very unGreek war—its length, its objectives, its bitterness, the damage and disruption it caused—and during its course the rules changed forever, so that in the final stages, during the Sicilian campaign, light infantry with bows and javelins—the poor, the scum of the earth—were used to pick off, exhaust and harry to death an Athenian hoplite army.
The tactics used against the Athenians in Sicily could have been used at any time in the preceding three centuries. They’re not exactly rocket science. To my mind, they were used in Sicily in the same way that nuclear weapons were used against Japan in WW2; because of desperation, moral exhaustion, an overwhelming desire to get the war over with and the unspeakable enemy beaten, even if it meant changing the rules and unleashing a force that could destroy the world, or at least the world as they knew it.
The linothorax, like the Sicilian light infantry, should, in my view, be seen as part of the breakdown and collapse of the unspoken conventions of gentlemanly hoplite warfare, forced on the Greek cities by circumstances—a foreign enemy, followed by an unprecedented domestic ‘total war’ that proved unwinnable for both sides by conventional means.
2 Raising is the most useful, and the most difficult, of the armourer’s skills. It’s used to form a deeply concave shape – a helmet, a breastplate – out of a single sheet of metal. In order to do this, you need to work from the outside of the piece rather than the inside; squashing the metal onto a form rather than stretching it into one. Basically, you hold the sheet against an upright steel stake and make a dent in it with your hammer; then you deepen and widen this dent, making the metal flow like an extremely thick, sluggish liquid, continually turning it, until the sheet sort of flows downwards from the place where you started into the shape you’re trying to make.
I can’t do this, though God knows, I’ve tried. I can only do dishing (where you hold the sheet over a hollow scooped out of the top of an oak log and hammer the metal down into it). That’s OK. You can make a full suit of armour without knowing how to raise. The Greeks raised all their helmets and probably their bell-corselets too; the Romans didn’t bother with it; they could do it in Dark Age Europe, but it seems to have been largely forgotten about in Europe until the 14th century.
3 An evil genius called Themistocles put an end to all that by turning Athens into a sea power, building ships and enlisting the poor to row them. His excuse was defeating the Persians; the outcome was democracy, followed in short order by ruthless imperialism, the enslavement by Athens of half the Greek world, the Peloponnesian war (qv), the defeat and abject humiliation of the Athenian people and the Macedonian conquest of Greece. But there you go.
4 Lamellar appears to have originated in China around the 3rd century BC; it’s worn by the First Emperor’s terracotta warriors. In the 13th century, an Italian traveller in Asia wrote this description of Mongol lamellar:
“They make a number of thin iron plates, a finger’s breadth wide and a hand’s breadth long, piercing eight holes in each plate; as a foundation they put three strong, narrow straps; they then place the plates one on top of the other so that they overlap, and they tie them to the straps by narrow thongs which they thread through the holes; at the top they attach a thong, so that the plates hold together firmly.”
With minor variations, all lamellar was made that way, from China to Constantinople, for over a thousand years.
5 I’ve wilfully ignored the other fields of endeavour where progress and innovation flourished in the ancient world—shipbuilding and military architecture—because both of these developed in the same way and for roughly the same motives.
I’m lying, by the way, about ploughs, and agricultural equipment in general. Roman aristocrats, owners of vast agricultural estates, were into increased profitability through mechanisation, and were well on the way to inventing the combine harvester. With the fall of the West, however, these advances were quickly forgotten.
6 The text of which should be tattooed on the face of any western politician advocating getting involved in a land war in Asia.
7 There’s a justifiable tendency to confuse beautifully-made with efficient. Take, for example, the pattern-welded sword. In the western European dark ages, and in medieval Japan, there was precious little high-carbon steel capable of being heat-treated to produce a hard, flexible blade that would (a) cut (b) not snap like a carrot; furthermore, although they could make steel, they didn’t understand how they made it. So, to get hardening steel, they went through a complex rigmarole of forge-welding folded strips of different sorts of iron together, a process involving infinite skill and patience, and a side-effect of which was the most exquisite patterns in the finished blade. Pattern-welded swords are inferior to swords made from a single piece of high-carbon steel, and when the latter became freely available, pattern-welding died out in Europe. But not in Japan. There, both the design and the manufacturing process got fossilised in the early Middle ages, and modern Japanese swordsmiths still forgeweld their raw material together out of bits of naturally-occurring carbon steel dredged up from riverbeds. Their products are fine swords, not because the design or the material has any inherent superiority over the alternatives, but because if you’ve been doing something non-stop for over a thousand years, you get to be pretty good at it—in spite of, rather than because of, the design and the materials.
8 Genoa produced the best crossbowmen, and they were very good indeed. They were not, however, used in the field to mow down armoured knights, even though they’d have been perfectly capable of doing so. They were, after all, mercenaries, and armoured knights were paying their wages. Crossbows were mainly used in siege warfare, where the rules and conventions were quite different.
9 It really was that good. When NASA was trying to figure out how to articulate a space suit, to be worn on the Moon, one of their principal sources of inspiration was a suit of armour made for Henry VIII. This extraordinary outfit covered every inch of the royal body (and there was an awful lot of it to cover) while allowing practically unimpeded movement.
10 Indeed. But there’s a tendency these days to dismiss the medieval knight as a steel-clad thug, which may not be entirely fair. If taste in music is any sort of index of civilisation, the 12th century patrons of the troubadours and trouveres were civilised men. Knights could be poets and composers; as witness Jaufre de Rudel and William X of Aquitaine, examples of whose exquisite work is among the heartbreakingly small body of medieval music that has survived. Richard the Lion-heart, rightly condemned as a lousy king, could play all the musical instruments in use at the time.