Oh, those Apulo-Corinthians...

Mars on the Ahenobarbus relief - now in the Louvre, Paris.

For some reason, the Roman Republican era is strongly associated with Roman legionaries wearing Apulo-Corinthian helmets. This is probably due to influential publications such as Duncan Head’s Armies of the Macedonian and Punic Wars or the awesome, grim triarius pictured in John Warry’s Warfare in the Classical World. On the other hand, a likely culprit is the Mars (or officer) figure on the so-called Ahenobarbus relief, who seems to wear an Apulo-Corinthian, or perhaps a straight-up Corinthian, pushed onto the back of his head. Whatever the reason for this widespread image, since these helmets properly belong in the period of Ancient Warfare XI-2, I figured it might be useful to take a more in-depth look at the Apulo-Corinthian helmet.

Origins

Corinthian helmet from Tarentum, Italy, about 600-550 BC. Now in the Antikensammlung, Berlin.

Undoubtedly the Greek colonists who came to southern Italy brought Corinthian style helmets with them. From there, they were modified into a version that could, in due course, only be worn on top of the head with the nose-guard and eye-holes becoming symbolic. From southeastern (hence Apulo, from Apulia, the heel in the Italian boot) Italy, they spread north from the late 6th century BC. It’s not possible to point out exactly when they fell out of use, however. In a militia-style army where the warrior was responsible for his own kit, the use of equipment inherited from father to son over the generations must have been quite common.

Apulo-Corinthian helmet from Capua, 5th century BC

According to Antike Helme about 85 examples of this type of helmet survive. Five subtypes exists, depending on the degree of space between the cheeks, nose-guard and eyes. The final type is entirely closed with only minimal, if any, openings for the eyes remaining. The authors of Antike Helme suggest that may mean the helmets had become entirely ceremonial, both because they could no longer be worn to enclose the face as the original, and because those later types are more nicely decorated with engravings.

Time and place

Apulo-Corinthian helmet from Ruvo, Apulia, about 400-350 BC, now in the British Museum, London.

Only about half the surviving helmets (47) can be attributed to a known findspot. 31 Of those come from southeastern Italy, two from Campania, a single one comes from Etruria (Vulci) and none from Rome itself. Looking at that list suggests they were used by Greek warriors in Italy, Illyrians and perhaps Lucanians, but not by Romans. Unfortunately only 19 surviving helmets can be dated with any certainty and precision. They span a period of about 500 BC – 350 BC. That’s it as far as the hard evidence goes.

Apulo-Corinthian of the final style. 'Said to be from Etruria', about 350-300 BC, now in the British Museum, London.

If you take the above into account, you really wouldn’t expect Romans from, say, the Second Punic War to be wearing Apulo-Corinthian helmets. That is, not unless we have to suppose those helmets had been passed on by at least five generations and the legionary comes from southern Italy. That might be stretching it.

Apulo-Corinthian helmets in art

The two soldiers on the Ahenobarbus relief. The right-hand man seems to be wearing an Apulo-Corinthian helmet.

Then what about the Ahenobarbus relief? It’s hard to make out whether the Mars figure is wearing a classic Corinthian or an Apulo-Corinthian. In fact, at least one of the soldiers seems to be wearing something similar. But then, the cavalryman looks like he’s got a Boeotian helmet on his head; speaking of few surviving helmets...

The cavalryman on the Ahenobarbus relief, who seems to be wearing a taller, more conical version of a Boeotian helmet.

More importantly, Rome was very enamored with all things Greek at the time and it’s not difficult to imagine the (often Greek!) sculptor copying a bust of a Greek strategos. Those are usually portrayed in exactly the same manner, with a Corinthian helmet pushed onto the top of their heads.

The same goes for Etruscan cinerary urns. Though it’s certainly not difficult to find examples of warriors with what seems to be an Apulo-Corinthian helmet, we have to keep in mind that many of those ceramic boxes portray Greek history and legends. So a deliberately archaizing style is a possibility. Alternatively, it’s possible the Apulo-Corinthian helmet was associated with Greeks via Magna Graecia where it did, of course, originate.

Legionaries in Apulo-Corinthians?

Etruscan cinerary urn picturing the Greek story of the fight between Eteocles and Polyneices over the right to rule the city of Thebes. 3-2nd century BC, Archaeological Museum of Chiusi, Italy.

Obviously, with proportionally so many of these helmets unprovenanced in date and time, it is certainly possible that some might be younger and from areas in Italy more strongly associated with Rome. After all, the provenanced and dated ones come from warrior graves, which just was not a Roman ‘thing’. That in itself, in fact, combined with the comparatively small number of surviving helmets might suggest that the helmet remained in longer and more widespread use. But the available evidence doesn’t support Romans sporting Apulo-Corinthians in any numbers.

15 thoughts on “Oh, those Apulo-Corinthians...”

  • Michael J. Taylor
    Michael J. Taylor May 18, 2017 at 6:54 pm

    It is also possible that a figure on the Pydna monument has an Apulo-Corinthian, although this is based on some VERY faint traces that might just be random dents.

    The cavalryman on the Ahenobarbus relief might have a Boeotian helmet, or he might have a Montefortino with a cloth sun cape (it still has a dome with a knob).

    Reply
  • Dan Diffendale
    Dan Diffendale May 19, 2017 at 3:54 am

    "none from Rome itself." Off the top of my head, I can't think of *any* type of helmet known from Rome itself...

    Reply
    • Ross Cowan

      Re. helmets from Rome itself, there's the 7th cent (?) Vetulonia-type 'pot' helmet from the Esquiline, and a Montegiorgio Piceno-type apparently found close to the city. Egg, Italische Helme cat. nos 8 & 28.

      Cheers,

      Ross

      Reply
      • Jasper Oorthuys
        Jasper Oorthuys May 21, 2017 at 10:57 pm

        Thanks Ross! I couldn't think of any either.

        Reply
      • Doug Welch

        [OFF TOPIC] Hey Ross, any plans for a Campaign book about Lugdunum, 197 AD? Or Harzhorn? Maybe an MAA book on Roman-Persian Wars of the 3rd Cent.? You are now my go-to guy on visuals for the 3rd Century Crisis!

        Reply
  • Craig Rose

    Very interesting piece, Jasper. But if the Apulo-Corinthian helmet on that legionary is artistic licence, why hasn't the sculptor taken the same licence with the chap next to him - the one wearing a clearly represented Montefortino helmet? Come to that, why has the sculptor opted for artistic licence with the Apulo-Corinthian helmet, but at the same time chosen to depict the shields and mail shirts of the legionaries with such great accuracy?

    Reply
    • Jasper Oorthuys
      Jasper Oorthuys May 21, 2017 at 8:09 am

      Hi Craig,
      It wouldn't be the first time that ancient artists are inconsistent within a single piece. But to mention one strange thing: apparent Apulo-Corinthian helmets in art are very often depicted with cheek pieces (such as here). None of the actual helmets ever found has even had attachments for those. We're stuck with the conundrum that the actual helmets that survive cannot be dated post 350-300 BC, but that they continue to be seen (or that we recognise them as such, which is not necessarily the same) in artistic representation long past that cut-off date.

      Reply
  • Craig Rose

    Hi Jasper,

    Very good points, but I'm still troubled by the contrast between the supposed artistic licence re the Apulo-Corinithinan helmet (assuming that it is one - see below) and the really quite astonishing accuracy in the depiction of the Montefortino helmet, the shields and the mail shirts. I know that artists can be inconsistent within a single piece, but in the Ahenobarbus monument that inconsistency is so marked that it makes me yearn for an explanation beyond saying that artists can be inconsistent. Still, I accept that may be the best answer we're ever going to come up with.

    I also take the point on the cheek pieces. That's always made be wonder whether the Ahenobarbus sculptor is actually trying to depict some sort of late Hellenistic helmet rather than an Apulo-Corinthian. Having said that, there is at least one helmet of Apulo-Corinthian style with cheek pieces - the famous Autun helmet. True, it's later and not Italian, and it may well have been just a temple display piece or even a theatrical prop. But it is plainly modelled on the Apulo-Corinthian type and it does have cheek pieces, albeit highy ornamental ones.

    A pleasure to read your views as always.

    Craig

    Reply
    • Jasper Oorthuys
      Jasper Oorthuys May 21, 2017 at 11:02 pm

      One comment I read recently on the Ahenobarbus monument suggested there were several sculptors, which might make sense for something that size. I've also wondered if the helmet is supposed to be some kind of Hellenistic helmet. The big volute put right over the cheekpiece is not a feature see on too many Apulo-Corinthians either.
      As for the Autumn helmet, who knows. Just about anything is speculation, I'd say...

      Reply
  • Doug Welch

    Great article on something that's a bit of a mystery and just outside the scope of Robinson's magisterial book. There was also a revival of this form seen on sculptural and numismatic evidence of officers' helmets in the 3rd century CE, particularly helmets of Gallienus on coin portraits. I'm not sure if any actual helmets fitting this later description have actually turned up, so it could also be an artistic fancy. In the Osprey imprint, they consistently refer to this type as pseudo-Corinthian, so the illustration in the thumbnail was very helpful!

    Reply
    • Jasper Oorthuys
      Jasper Oorthuys May 24, 2017 at 9:05 pm

      Again, the first question that comes up is: who or what are the coin-cutters and sculptors imitating? Real life, old examples, someone's idea?

      Reply
  • Brian R. Van De Walker
    Brian R. Van De Walker May 25, 2017 at 4:29 am

    I am no expert in Roman helmets, but wouldn't the style of helmet vary depending on the armorer? maybe even the Legion in question?

    Reply
    • Jasper Oorthuys
      Jasper Oorthuys May 25, 2017 at 11:19 am

      Hi Brian,
      That's a big question. Weapons/armour manufacture is not something we've addressed much in Ancient Warfare, so I can't easily point you to a back issue either I think. Equipment was probably made in regional workshops, so you get helmets that differ in many small details - it's all made by hand, after all - but to broadly the same design. In the Republican era, legionaries paid for / used their own equipment, very possibly inherited from their ancestors, within very broad outlines, so we certainly shouldn't imagine a legion looking too homogenous.

      Reply
      • Nick R

        Would any of these Apulo Corinthian/ Chalcidian ?? helmets have been rendered in other materials at the time or would any such pieces be nineteenth century models? I have a very fine Corinthian ceramic helmet, 15cm high approximately, in a shade of patinated bronze green and I have been trying to research others but found none similar? I would love to post or send images to anyone interested who might advise? Many thanks and congratulations on the site, its fascinating. all the best, Nick

        Reply
        • Jasper Oorthuys

          Hi Nick
          That sounds like a more modern rendition. I've seen ceramic used for helmets, but those are oil-lamps in the shape of one, and the ones I've seen are either from Asia Minor, with a very particular design of helmet, or gladiator helmets. I don't remember ever having seen one of an Apulo-Corinthian.

          Reply
Leave a Reply
Post your comment

Karwansaray Publishers Webstore