How Corinthian is the Corinthian helmet?

The best known type of Greek helmet is referred to as being of “Corinthian” type. But why is that?

Written by Josho Brouwers on

There are a great many different types of ancient Greek helmets, ranging across a large span of time, from the boar’s tusk helmets of the Late Bronze Age to the bronze and iron helmets used in the Hellenistic age. But if you were to pick one off the top of your head, you’re probably going to go with one similar to the helmet depicted in the photograph below (from the Allard Pierson Museum in Amsterdam):

This is the so-called Corinthian helmet. Most Greek helmet types are named after places or regions, such as the Illyrian helmet, the Chalcidian, or the Attic variety. In nearly all cases, these names have been applied to the objects in question in modern times. The Illyrian helmet, for example, was initially indeed thought to be typical of Illyria (the region of Europe bordering the Adriatic, opposite of Italy), but has since been shown to have been far more common in Greece.

Enter Snodgrass

When it comes to the Corinthian helmet, though, the situation is a bit more complicated. In his book Arms and Armour of the Greeks, published way back in 1967, Anthony Snodgrass writes (p. 51):

There are good reasons for thinking that this was the helmet that the ancient Greeks called Corinthian. Herodotus (4.180) mentions the name once, and we see it first and most frequently on Corinthian pottery; thereafter it becomes the most conspicuous possession of the Greek hoplite.

Since then, it has become commonplace to accept unquestioningly the identification of this type of helmet as ‘Corinthian’. I’ve also been guilty of just accepting this as true (just check out the textbox on page 77 of my 2013-book Henchmen of Ares: Warriors and Warfare in Early Greece). But Snodgrass’s reasoning is flawed. Let’s start with that passage from Herodotus first. It’s part of Herodotus’ description of Libya. Herodotus is describing the customs of the Auseans, a Libyan (!) tribe. Here’s the relevant part, quoted from my copy of the Landmark Herodotus:

At their annual festival for Athena, their maidens are divided into two groups, which fight each other with sticks and stones, claiming that they are thus fulfilling their ancestral obligations to their native goddess, whom we call Athena. If any maidens die from their wounds, they call them “false” maidens. Before they allow them to engage in battle, they dress up the most beautiful girl of that time in a Corinthian helmet and a Hellenic suit of armour and weapons; then they put her in a chariot and drive her around the circuit of the lake. What they dressed the maidens in long ago before the Hellenes had settled nearby, I cannot say, though I suppose they dressed them in Egyptian armour. For I assert that it was from Egypt that the shield and the helmet came to the Hellenes.

So these Corinthian helmets are introduced within the context of a survey of Libya and the customs of (Hellenized) Libyan tribes. The fact that they are associated with Athena and especially chariots supposes that the helmets may have been associated with the gods or, in the eyes of Classical Greeks, Archaic forms of fighting. That might apply to what we refer to as Corinthian helmets, since they were not as popular anymore when Herodotus wrote down his account, in the final decades of the fifth century BC, as they had been before.

But what we refer to as the Corinthian helmet was, as Snodgrass pointed out, widespread throughout the Greek world between ca. 720 and 450 BC, and continued in use, though sporadically, until well into the fourth century BC. It seems odd for Herodotus to feel the need to specifically identify the helmets used in an arcane ritual of a Libyan tribe if these helmets were the common variety that everyone back then was probably familar with. So the fact that Herodotus describes these helmets explictly as “Corinthian” makes it less likely that the modern designation is correct.

The plot thickens

It gets worse. Snodgrass wrote that the Corinthian helmets from Herodotus should be identified with those that are depicted “first and most frequently on Corinthian pottery”. Yes, Protocorinthian vase-painting of the late eighth century BC is the first that is detailed enough for us to be able to recognize different types of helmets. But is that actually meaningful?

In the eighth century BC, the most popular form of painted pottery belonged to a style referred to as Geometric, with Attic workshops dominant. Figured scenes on these pots were all drawn in silhouets, so details were limited to outlines, which makes identification of particular types of helmets quite difficult.

The most common type of headgear appears to have been something – perhaps made of metal, perhaps note – with a long, drooping plume, but nothing more can be said. Here’s an example of a charioteer on an Attic Geometric sherd (also from the Allard Pierson Museum):

As you can see, it’s difficult to determine what kind of helmet – if any! – is used here.

From the late eighth century BC, Corinthian workshops come to the fore with their more detailed style of vase-painting. Figures are no longer silhouets, but drawn in ever increasing detail, with greaves, cuirasses, and helmets immediately recognizable and – important for the archaeologist – assignable to particular types.

Corinthian pottery displaces Attic work and the vases themselves, as styles inspired by Corinthian art, spread across the Greek world like wildfire. And by the middle of the sixth century BC, Attic pottery has once again taken over from Corinthian: black-figure and, a few decades later, red-figure pots come to dominate the market.

What we identify as ‘Corinthian’ helmets are not – contrary to Snodgrass’s words – most frequently depicted on Corinthian pottery, but on Greek pottery in general, which in practice means mostly Corinthian and Attic of the seventh and sixth centuries BC, and only Attic for the fifth century BC. That ‘Corinthian’ helmets were frequently depicted on Corinthian pottery in the late eighth and seventh centuries BC should therefore not surprise us. It should likewise not be an argument to assume, without further corroborating evidence, that the modern identification of a particular type of bronze helmets as ‘Corinthian’ is also correct.

Furthermore, Corinthian helmets of ca. 700 BC are known from Olympia. Were these solely dedicated to the gods by people from Corinth? We cannot know for sure, but the large quantities of these types of helmets dedicated at this and other sanctuaries over the course of the Archaic period certainly suggest that whatever their original place of origin, they are more likely to have been considered simply ‘Greek’ than typically ‘Corinthian’.

Conclusions

So how Corinthian is the ‘Corinthian’ helmet? The foundation on which the identification is based is shaky at best. The passage in Herodotus is far from clear: it would have been helpful if Herodotus had described the helmets in further detail, but alas (and as always), such is not the case. The fact that he felt the need to identify them in the first place – here and nowhere else! – should be a point of concern.

Furthermore, the notion that this type of helmet is Corinthian simply because it was displayed first on Corinthian pottery is meaningless: there were no other alternatives in the late eighth century BC as far as detailed figurative scenes on painted pottery were concerned.