New Yorker Article on Linothorax armor

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New Yorker Article on Linothorax armor

Post by vsolfronk » Fri Jun 27, 2014 5:44 pm

How to Make Your Own Greek Armor
Posted by Joshua Rothman
06/27/2014

Intellectual life thrives on mystery. When it comes to ancient Greece, one of those mysteries is the linothorax—the flimsy-looking, hip-length armor that you see warriors wearing on Greek vases. (Linothorax means, literally, “linen chest.”) Why go to war, archaeologists have wondered, in what looks to be a linen minidress? While a linothorax lets you show off your muscular legs to great effect, it hardly seems like practical protection against the enemy’s swords and arrows. And yet, judging by how frequently linothoraxes are represented in Greek art, they were extraordinarily popular among soldiers in ancient Greece and around the Mediterranean between 600 and 200 B.C. Because no linothoraxes have survived—linen doesn’t last—no one knows why.


About eight years ago, Greg Aldrete, a professor of history at the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay, decided to get to the bottom of this. At the time, he was teaching a course on the history of ancient Greece; among his students was a young man named Scott Bartell. Bartell was so obsessed with Alexander the Great that he got an Alexander tattoo; he was also fascinated by the linothorax, Alexander’s preferred armor. One day, Bartell went to a local fabric store, bought a lot of linen, made his own, and presented it to Aldrete, asking for help in making it more accurate. “It was when I went to look up some info for Scott that I found out that the linothorax is a kind of mystery armor,” Aldrete said. “There are lots of literary attestations that it existed—there are descriptions from Egyptians, Romans, Persians, Carthaginians, Greeks, Macedonians, tribes in Spain, really all over the Mediterranean basin—and we have images. But no one really understood how well it worked or how it was made. We decided to try to reconstruct it.”

Aldrete assembled a crack team for his linothorax project: Bartell, himself, and his wife, Alicia Aldrete. They started by searching out images of the armor. At the university library, Alicia looked through all hundred and fifty volumes of the Corpus Vasorum Antiquorum, a vast reference work that catalogues Greek vases from around the world. They compiled a database with almost a thousand images of linothoraxes, taken from vase paintings, wall paintings, sculptures, sarcophagi, and figurines. From the images, they derived a linothorax pattern, like the sort of pattern a tailor might use. They built prototype linothoraxes out of cardboard, focussing on the little details. “We discovered that a lot of the features that look sort of random are actually highly functional,” Aldrete said. “There’s a little tab on the back of the neck which looks ornamental, but it actually protects you perfectly if someone tries to strike you with an axe.”

There’s considerable debate about what, exactly, linothoraxes were made of. (The texts that mention linothoraxes, like the Iliad, don’t include how-to instructions.) Were they actually made of linen, or could they have been made of leather? Did they have metal plates sewn into them? For that matter, were they sewn together or glued? Glued, or “laminated,” linen, Aldrete knew, was a common ancient-Greek material: scraps of it have been found at Greek archaeological sites, and the Greeks constructed their theatrical masks out of it. Almost as if to prove that linen, all by itself, could be effective as armor, Aldrete’s team decided to go the laminated-linen route. They bought old-school linen from a local artisan weaver, who grew, spun, and wove flax into linen herself, without chemical additives; from art supply stores, they bought rabbit glue, which some oil painters use to prime their canvasses. The ancient world had a number of very advanced glue recipes, including recipes for waterproof glues, but rabbit glue, Aldrete reasoned, was made the same way today as it was back then: “Take a rabbit, take the skin, scrape off some of the stuff, and dry it into a powder.”

In Aldrete’s basement, the team built a giant slab of laminated linen and tried to cut the fabric according to a pattern, the way a tailor would. It was too tough. “We tried scissors, we tried a bolt cutter,” Aldrete said. “Finally, we had to use an electric jigsaw that’s used to cut through metal—obviously, that’s not what the Greeks did.” Chastened, they took a different approach, assembling each piece from individual layers of linen. Agrippa, the Aldretes’ black lab, salivated over the rabbit glue—“from his perspective, we were making tasty chew treats,” Aldrete said—but, once he was shooed away, they were able to make a number of full-size linothoraxes, complete with decorations, including a Gorgon.

Aldrete’s students ran and did exercises in the linothoraxes. The armor turned out to be lightweight and cool in the sun, softening, over time, to conform to each wearer’s body shape. “I’ve worn a lot of different armor—Roman armor, chain mail—and this is much more pleasant,” Aldrete said. Still, the most pressing questions weren’t about comfort. “The university has lots of rules against weapons on campus, so, because of all the bows, arrows, swords, axes, and so on, we couldn’t work there,” Aldrete said. Instead, they set up shop in the back yards of students who lived in rural areas. They used two-by-two panels of the linen armor and shot at them with arrows, tracking their angle and velocity. (They also, for fun, attacked the armor with swords and guns.) “We found that a twelve-milimetre-thick linothorax would have protected you from any arrow you would have encountered from about 600 B.C. to 200 B.C.,” Aldrete said. It wasn’t until the second century B.C. that better metallurgy—which allowed for sharper arrowheads—rendered the linothorax obsolete. (More powerful bows were also a factor.)

Aldrete feels that his work brings him closer to the physical realities of the ancient world. Making your own linothorax can only tell you so much about what the real armor was like. But, by the same token, it forces you to confront the fact that everything in the ancient world was handmade and, therefore, variable. In ancient Greece, he pointed out, “the state wasn’t supplying you with weapons; you had to produce your own.” In fact, the popularity of the linothorax may have stemmed from the fact that you could make one at home. “There’s one Greek vase that shows, on one side, a bunch of women weaving, and, on the other side, a woman handing armor to a man who’s putting it on to go to war. You don’t need expensive metals, or a blacksmith, to make a linothorax. Any farm could produce them. You can envision wives making them for their husbands, mothers making them for their sons,” he said. “In debates about ancient armor, that’s one of the flaws. People say, That’s wrong. They forget that everything was a handmade, artisan object. No two are going to be alike.”

In the past few years, word’s gotten around about the linothorax. (Last year, the Aldretes and Bartell published a book about the project: “Reconstructing Ancient Linen Body Armor: Unraveling the Linothorax Mystery.”) Hoplite reënactors in Greece have contacted Aldrete with offers of collaboration. A documentary crew filmed him shooting a linothorax-clad Bartell with an arrow. A game designer e-mailed to ask whether a linothorax might be tough enough to stop a zombie’s bite. (“I ended up saying, Yes, it would,” Aldrete said.) He doesn’t expect linothoraxes to replace metal armor in the popular imagination any time soon: in the ancient world, bronze armor was more “sexy and prestigious” than linen armor, and that’s true in Hollywood, too. Still, the Wisconsin linothorax, by suggesting what the “basic, default version” of the armor might have looked like, has made the ancient world feel a little more real. Aldrete has moved on, in the meantime, to another project: “I’m looking into the practical aspects of how they sacrificed bulls in the ancient world. We have images of people whacking these animals with axes and hammers, but where do you hit it, and how?” Since recreating those sacrifices isn’t a possibility, he’s been reading up on slaughterhouses.

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Re: New Yorker Article on Linothorax armor

Post by lawrenceg » Mon Jul 21, 2014 7:08 am

Lawrence Greaves

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Re: New Yorker Article on Linothorax armor

Post by grahambriggs » Mon Jul 21, 2014 5:17 pm

What this chap has created sounds a little like te body armour of the central american military pre Columbuse. Theirs was similarly padded (albeit with cotton) fabric armour. It worked fine against local weapons - which tended to be slashing or crushing in their use - but poorly against Spanish steel thrusting swords.

Interesting that he tried to proof the armour by shooting arrows at it. I would have thought a better test for it's intended use would be to thrust a 9 foot spear with a sharp metal point at it. I'm not sure a linen panel (presumably that means flat) is that good a test. Armour curved like a human body might more easily deflect a glancing blow at least.

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Re: New Yorker Article on Linothorax armor

Post by vsolfronk » Mon Jul 21, 2014 5:27 pm

Graham- I thought the same thing as far as Central American armour. Of course having a shield would deflect the sword blows. Perhaps the hoplite swords were more made for cut/crush than the Spanish sword thrusts.

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Re: New Yorker Article on Linothorax armor

Post by pyruse » Tue Jul 22, 2014 8:46 am

grahambriggs wrote:What this chap has created sounds a little like te body armour of the central american military pre Columbuse. Theirs was similarly padded (albeit with cotton) fabric armour. It worked fine against local weapons - which tended to be slashing or crushing in their use - but poorly against Spanish steel thrusting swords.

Interesting that he tried to proof the armour by shooting arrows at it. I would have thought a better test for it's intended use would be to thrust a 9 foot spear with a sharp metal point at it. I'm not sure a linen panel (presumably that means flat) is that good a test. Armour curved like a human body might more easily deflect a glancing blow at least.
Indeed. All the (very little) evidence which exists suggests the linothorax was made of thick leather. That is easier to make and stronger than the glued linen construction; probably heavier, though.

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Re: New Yorker Article on Linothorax armor

Post by grahambriggs » Tue Jul 22, 2014 11:30 am

vsolfronk wrote:Graham- I thought the same thing as far as Central American armour. Of course having a shield would deflect the sword blows. Perhaps the hoplite swords were more made for cut/crush than the Spanish sword thrusts.
Unfortunately for the Mexica their shields were also poor against a Spanish sword or lance thrust. Neither shield nor armour was designed to cope with a sharp steel point with some force behind it. So much so that the lancers were told to aim at the head because the lance would go straight through shield and armours and so far into the body that it was very difficult to pull them out again for the next opponent.

The little I recall of hoplite swords is that they were very much a subsidiary weapon to the spear.

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Re: New Yorker Article on Linothorax armor

Post by dave_r » Tue Jul 22, 2014 1:27 pm

vsolfronk wrote:Graham- I thought the same thing as far as Central American armour. Of course having a shield would deflect the sword blows. Perhaps the hoplite swords were more made for cut/crush than the Spanish sword thrusts.
I suspect the Hoplite swords were designed for getting behind an opponent and hamstringing / slashing from the rear. So once the spear had been lost you would have likely been involved in a shoving match, so use the curved blade to reach around or behind somebody to do them from the rear. So to speak.
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Re: New Yorker Article on Linothorax armor

Post by vsolfronk » Tue Jul 22, 2014 4:34 pm

The Hoplon (shield) probably could take the impact of a spear thrust, or at least divert it over/away from the target. As far as heavy leather Linothorax- once you had set up a system/mass process of glueing the cloth together would seem to be easier and cheaper than the thick leather which would require a lot of animal cultivation compared to the linen.

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Re: New Yorker Article on Linothorax armor

Post by dave_r » Tue Jul 22, 2014 8:48 pm

vsolfronk wrote:The Hoplon (shield) probably could take the impact of a spear thrust, or at least divert it over/away from the target. As far as heavy leather Linothorax- once you had set up a system/mass process of glueing the cloth together would seem to be easier and cheaper than the thick leather which would require a lot of animal cultivation compared to the linen.
When it comes to armour, most people, unsurprisingly, go for the expensive better armour. It's great saying that the hoplon would divert / stop the impact of most spear thrusts - but what about the small proportion it didn't? I know I'd prefer to be in the heaviest best armour possible.

Is there any direct evidence for use of Linen as opposed to Leather?
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Re: New Yorker Article on Linothorax armor

Post by ravenflight » Tue Jul 22, 2014 9:46 pm

dave_r wrote:
vsolfronk wrote:The Hoplon (shield) probably could take the impact of a spear thrust, or at least divert it over/away from the target. As far as heavy leather Linothorax- once you had set up a system/mass process of glueing the cloth together would seem to be easier and cheaper than the thick leather which would require a lot of animal cultivation compared to the linen.
When it comes to armour, most people, unsurprisingly, go for the expensive better armour. It's great saying that the hoplon would divert / stop the impact of most spear thrusts - but what about the small proportion it didn't? I know I'd prefer to be in the heaviest best armour possible.
To a certain extent.

Firstly, you have to be economically able to buy the armour, which falls into your 'heaviest best armour possible' in that it may be impossible to afford a heavier cuirass.

Secondly, there would be a point at which the expense vs the protection would be taken into account. A heavier, more expensive cuirass would seen by the wearer as not important if they were in many battles and were observing that their cuirass was never touched. "Not worth metal, but I still want something for the occasion that the spear thrust does get through" being the thought that comes to mind.

Lastly, there would be the heaviness of the cuirass that you're going to have to lug around for many days which doesn't really offer that much protection on the few days that you need it. I mean, a full metal cuirass would still have occasional use today... but you don't see many people wearing them because they are so rarely useful that it's seen as pointless.

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Re: New Yorker Article on Linothorax armor

Post by vsolfronk » Tue Jul 22, 2014 9:54 pm

Probably most "campaigns" between the Greek City States were short affairs. I also wonder what the "Average Joe" wore. If you were wealthy you could affort the expensive leather/bronze armour, but for an average citizen what was the cost benefit of bronze vs leather vs linen armor>

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Re: New Yorker Article on Linothorax armor

Post by dave_r » Tue Jul 22, 2014 10:03 pm

Seeing as hoplites were citizens they were wealthy and had peasants to carry the armour for them when they weren't wearing it. It was when the wealth of the hoplites was lost that the troops began to decline. But still no evidence of them using linen armour as opposed to leather armour. Compared to the shield, the armour was practically nothing in any case.

No evidence for Linen body armour that I've discovered. Looks like the whole thing is a white elephant.
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Re: New Yorker Article on Linothorax armor

Post by vsolfronk » Tue Jul 22, 2014 10:24 pm

Define wealthy. The information is so limited to be almost non existant. And what evidence is there of leather armor? Linen seemed more available and if glued into multiple layers, seems hjust as viable an armor as leather or bronze and a lot more comfortable and cheaper.

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Re: New Yorker Article on Linothorax armor

Post by dave_r » Tue Jul 22, 2014 10:32 pm

vsolfronk wrote:Define wealthy. The information is so limited to be almost non existant. And what evidence is there of leather armor? Linen seemed more available and if glued into multiple layers, seems hjust as viable an armor as leather or bronze and a lot more comfortable and cheaper.
Wealthy enough to afford to buy what armour they wanted :)

There is plenty of evidence for leather armour per se. Skythians used it, as did lot's of other nations.

Why would the Greeks not use the same? I've asked if there is any direct evidence in the book to support the use of linen armour, seems like there isn't. If you used leather to make your shields, seems to make sense to me that they'd use the same stuff to make their armour with.
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Re: New Yorker Article on Linothorax armor

Post by ravenflight » Tue Jul 22, 2014 11:45 pm

dave_r wrote:I've asked if there is any direct evidence in the book to support the use of linen armour, seems like there isn't. If you used leather to make your shields, seems to make sense to me that they'd use the same stuff to make their armour with.
The most common evidence is artworks, and there are a lot of vases and the like with what appears to be Linothorax. Leather armour seems to appear different (i.e. it looks different and so will be drawn differently in artworks). Leather can be worked to look similar to metal so artworks of 'metal' cuirasses could quite easily be actually leather, but any pictures of Linothorax are probably... linothorax.

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Re: New Yorker Article on Linothorax armor

Post by dave_r » Wed Jul 23, 2014 7:27 am

ravenflight wrote:
dave_r wrote:I've asked if there is any direct evidence in the book to support the use of linen armour, seems like there isn't. If you used leather to make your shields, seems to make sense to me that they'd use the same stuff to make their armour with.
The most common evidence is artworks, and there are a lot of vases and the like with what appears to be Linothorax. Leather armour seems to appear different (i.e. it looks different and so will be drawn differently in artworks). Leather can be worked to look similar to metal so artworks of 'metal' cuirasses could quite easily be actually leather, but any pictures of Linothorax are probably... linothorax.
I believe metal armour has been discounted since if the Linothorax had been made of metal, we would have archaelogical evidence - as there isn't any it must have been made of a materail which degrades fairly rapidly.
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Re: New Yorker Article on Linothorax armor

Post by pyruse » Wed Jul 23, 2014 9:11 am

The artworks show some sort of stiff non-metallic armour - you can see the shoulder pieces standing up before they are laced down.
The armour is painted white.
That could be layers of glued linen, or it could be painted leather - there's no way to tell from the artwork alone.

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Re: New Yorker Article on Linothorax armor

Post by vsolfronk » Wed Jul 23, 2014 1:02 pm

Maybe a combination of both?

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Re: New Yorker Article on Linothorax armor

Post by pyruse » Wed Jul 23, 2014 3:00 pm

The wikipedia page on Linothorax provides a good summary

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Re: New Yorker Article on Linothorax armor

Post by vsolfronk » Wed Jul 23, 2014 4:40 pm

Try here to at the professor's website:

http://www.uwgb.edu/aldreteg/Linothorax.html

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