Reconstructing ancient linen body armour (review)

This is a review that I have been wanting to write for a while. The book in question is Reconstructing Ancient Linen Body Armor: Unraveling the Linothorax Mystery (2013), written by Gregory S. Aldrete, Scott Bartell, and Alicia Aldrete and published by The John Hopkins University Press in Baltimore. I have referred to this book in an earlier blog post and the topic has previously been discussed by Paul Bardunias in Ancient Warfare IV.3.

The authors of Reconstructing Ancient Linen Body Armor have prepared an article that will be published in the next issue, no. VII.6, of Ancient Warfare, that serves as a summary of their book. Since I am currently preparing the issue to head to layout, now seemed an opportune time to review their work, which I think is probably the definitive account on ancient linen body armour. But before I get ahead of myself, let’s do a quick rundown of the contents.

The book’s introduction does a good job of introducing the topic to the reader and includes a very useful overview of research into ancient linen armour. The authors point out that the armour in question has been referred to as “tube and yoke” armour or “shoulder corslet”; they settle on using Eero Jarva’s classification of the armour as belonging to his type IV category, and refer to it as a linothorax whenever the object in question is actually made from linen. The evidence for this type of armour is discussed in chapter 1, including texts and iconographic sources. This chapter also includes a survey of the use of linen in the ancient world that I found particularly illuminating.

In chapter 3, the authors discuss different types of linen armour and their various elements, such as the shoulder flaps and the pteryges, the flaps cut out along the bottom of the corslet or, in some cases, added as a separate element to be worn underneath a corslet or cuirass. The authors treat each subject with care and provide a good diachronic overview of developments. For example, a double row of pteryges eventually makes way, in art, for a single row of pteryges. This kind of detail will be especially useful to illustrators and reenactors.

In chapter 3, the authors turn to discussing a crucial issue when it comes to this kind of armour: exactly what was it made of? By default, most people assume that these types of armour are indeed made of linen; some, however, have suggested that they might just as easily have been made from leather. In particular, they discuss the use of the term spolas to refer specifically to a corslet of leather and then point out that it is rare in ancient texts, with the identification of the word with a piece of armour based on an unreliable passage from Pollux (second century AD) in particular. In other sources, it seems that spolas referred to “a soft leather jerkin or overshirt worn as a supplemental piece of clothing to give extra warmth” (p. 61). In the end, the authors conclude that the evidence for the use of leather for these corslets is slim. They do not discount the use of leather, but believe it would have been used only for a minority of corslets in Greece.

Chapter 4 deals with reconstructing the linothorax, the linen shoulder-piece corslet; this chapter will be of great interests to reenactors. Chapter 5 then puts the reconstructed armour through a test to see how it stands up against arrow fire. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the linen corslet performs very well against arrows; the book includes a picture of a laughing test subject with an arrow protruding from his chest. The results are further discussed in detail in chapter 6, where also the laminated linen corslet is compared with sewn and quilted linen.

Chapter 7 turns to “wearability issues”, with special attention to problems involving moisture, as well as possible movement limitations and issues of heat, weight, and endurance. Particularly interesting is the observation that linen is much more comfortable to wear than metal body-armour, especially when having to cover larger distances, since it does not heat up as easily and the fabric possess innate breathability. Chapter 8 is on “economic and social considerations” and turns to a discussion of the labour required to construct a linothorax, the cost of the armour, the availability of linen compared to leather (an issue of great importance in the leather vs. linen debate), large-scale production of linen corslets, and, surprisingly, gender issues, which covers the role of female weavers.

The book’s very brief conclusion serves to summarize the main results of the work. Some forty pages are dedicated to an appendix that includes an exhaustive overview of depictions of type IV armour in Greek art, including black-figure vases, white-ground technique vases, red-figure bases, stone and terracotta sculptures and reliefs, metal objects, and finally a small number of wall-paintings. I was pleased to discover a large number of items that I did not yet know about and it will be a useful resource in its own right, even if only a handful are actually illustrated in the book itself.

In sum, this book is a good resource for anyone wanting to learn more about linen body armour. Extensive notes and a detailed bibliography will allow those with a particular interest in the topic to delve even deeper. The book is the definitive study in the field of linen armour and provides a wealth of information, strengthened by a large amount of experimental evidence. For those who want to learn more and are impatient for the next issue of Ancient Warfare to appear, you can get some information on the Linothorax Project over at the website of co-author Gregory S. Aldrete.

Leave a comment

Related Posts