By Steve Benner for CoinWeek …..
In this article, I want to cover some of the ancient Greek helmets that can be found on ancient coins. This may be a rehash of previous articles, but the subject interested me and also pointed out my ignorance of what were the various types of helmets worn by Greek warriors.
One can readily see the need for a helmet in which battles were fought up close and personal – a single blow to an unprotected head usually ended the fight if it made contact with sufficient force. Pictures of Sumerian warriors from 4000 BCE are shown wearing a helmet (Figure 1), and it seems to be a simple head covering of bronze similar to some of the Greek helmets. Of course, all the militarist empires that followed, such as the Akkadians, the Assyrians, the Babylonians, the Egyptians, the Hittites, etc., used helmets, so there is a long history of helmet construction, modification, and use prior to the height of the Greek Bronze Age of the Iliad. One helmet that is well known in warfare at that time is one made by sewing boar’s teeth onto a leather cap (Figure 1). But one has to believe that this was only for the rich and may have been merely ceremonial. It would have been labor-intensive to make and thus its use was not widespread.
The first true helmet that would lead into the Greek helmets of the Classical Age was the Kegel (German for “cone”) helmet that emerged during the Geometric Period at the end of the Greek Dark Age, approximately 900 to 700 BCE (Figure 1). This is not shown on coins since coinage had not been invented yet.
There has been a lot written on this helmet type, so I’ll just give the basics. It appears to have been developed from a type used by the Minoans and was developed near Argos in the Peloponnesus, where several examples have been found. They were made in five parts that were riveted together: a pointed or rounded crown (1), a forehead (2), cheeks (3 and 4), and the back of the head (5). These were labor-intensive to make and could come apart at the seams if hit hard enough. A showy crest could be added to the crown to make it more intimidating and/or recognizable.
Due to its shortcomings, the Kegel helmet was replaced by the Illyrian helmet in the seventh century (Figure 2). This design was originally made by riveting the two halves together, but by the sixth century, it was being cast as a single piece. It had cheek guards that were gradually extended over time, a swooping neck guard, a crest channel, and a rectangular open face. Either padding was added to the inside of the helmet or a quilted cap was worn under it. The helmet has been found in Greece, Macedonia, the Balkans, the coast of Dalmatia, areas along the Danube, Egypt, and Spain. It was a major trade good manufactured by the Greeks and Macedonians. By the beginning of the fifth century, ear loops had been added.
Figure 2 shows a Macedonian tetrobol with the helmet on a Macedonian coin at a time when the Illyrian helmet had already been replaced by the Corinthian helmet. The Illyrian helmet is not very common on ancient coins; some bronzes from Issa, an island off Illyria, have the helmet on their obverse.
This is the helmet that most people think of when they think of an ancient Greek helmet.
If one does a search on “Corinthian helmet” on a coin website, the number of hits will be in the thousands. Not only is the helmet used on ancient coins but on coins all through history, making it by far the most depicted Greek helmet. It is a very popular symbol and can be seen all through our contemporary culture, especially as part of a logo or mascot for sports teams.
The helmet actually has a crude precursor that was made in the eighth century BCE from two parts with the seam around the circumference but was soon made from a single piece. It reached its iconic form by the sixth century. A cranial ridge was added to provide better protection, the back-neck guard was extended, the crown was made more bulbous to allow greater circulation, the nose guard was retained, and the eye openings were extended to produce an almond shape. The cheek guards were then extended downward, and cutouts were added for the ears (Figures 3 and 4). It was extremely popular among hoplites and has been found in Greece, Italy, Sicily, Sardinia, Spain, Serbia, Bulgaria, Crimea, and Crete. But it fell out of use by the end of the fifth century, though it remained popular in art.
Figure 3 shows a Corinthian stater with Athena wearing a decorative Corinthian helmet on the reverse. Note that the helmet is pulled back on the head to allow the face to be seen. The engravers didn’t want to cover up who was being depicted on the coin.
In fact, it is very hard to find a coin in which the helmet is pulled down. One well-known example is the diobol of Mesambria, Thrace (Figure 4). The obverse has a Corinthian helmet facing forward and clearly shows how intimidating the sight of a soldier wearing this helmet can appear.
The Chalkidian helmet was an offshoot of the Corinthian helmet in the middle of the fifth century. With the greater use of cavalry and light troops by the Greeks, lighter, more open helmets were needed. The cheek covers were replaced by shorter, hinged plates (Figure 5), and the face opening was expanded to give better overall vision. The nose protection would later be removed. The openings for the ears were a little larger and the back neck protection was close-fitting. These helmets have been found from Spain to the Black Sea.
Again, as with the Illyrian, very few coins are available that show the Chalkidian helmet. Figure 5 shows a stater from Orthagoreia, Thrace, that shows a Chalkidian helmet on the reverse. Gold coins of Mytilene on Lesbos and Phocaea in Ionia, and a Macedonian stater of Alexander I also show a Chalkidian helmet with the latter showing a cavalryman as well.
The Phrygian helmet is derived from the forward-leaning, felt hat worn by the shepherds of Phrygia in Anatolia, but it is almost exclusively associated with Thrace, where numerous examples have been found. It is considered an offshoot of the Chalkidian helmet, appearing in the late sixth century, and was most popular during the Hellenistic Period, only falling out of favor with the arrival of the Romans. The notable characteristic is the forward-leaning crest that was riveted onto the top. The lower border was recessed and then flanged out to form a slight visor. The neck guard fit the neck closely, the ears were uncovered, and cheek plates were separately made and could be attached to the lower rim.
Though again not common, a few cities in Macedon and Thrace minted bronze coins showing the Phrygian helmet, and Amisos in Pontus minted a number of bronze coins with the obverse figure wearing the helmet (Figure 6). A famous coin that shows the Phrygian helmet is the decadrachm of Alexander the Great, the “Porus Medallion”. The reverse has Alexander standing left in military attire, wearing a plumed Phrygian helmet and holding a thunderbolt and sarissa.
The Attic helmet evolved from the Corinthian helmet in the late fifth century and became very popular in the fourth century. This helmet would become popular in Italy, as well, and become the standard Roman helmet. The helmet was made out of iron instead of bronze, which would explain why so few have been found due to corrosion. The nose guard was removed, the brow ridge was increased, and a visor was added to some variations. The ear openings were retained, and the cheek plates were made separately and attached. The neck guard was close-fitting, and there was a crest attachment from front to back. These helmets could be elaborately decorated and must have required a considerable amount of skill to make.
Figure 7 shows a nomos of Thourioi, Lucania, with Athena wearing a crested Attic helmet on the obverse. This helmet is the second-most-common helmet to be found on ancient Greek coins. The famous Athenian tetradrachm has Athena wearing an Attic helmet on the obverse, and many other cities from southern Italy to Baktria in Central Asia used the Attic helmet on their coins.
The Boeotian helmet was developed in the fourth century mainly as a cavalryman’s helmet because it gave a very good field of view. It is designed as a folded-down cavalryman’s hat and was usually made of iron, though bronze ones were also made. It is mentioned by Xenophon in one of his treatises as a good helmet for cavalrymen. This and the Corinthian helmet are the only helmets known by their actual ancient name. The Boeotian helmet had a rounded dome and a frill around the bottom that provided a visor in front and a neck cover in the back. Some had prominent brow ridges or pointed tops, and cheekpieces could be added.
Figure 8 shows a Baktrian tetradrachm with Eukratides wearing a Boeotian helmet on the obverse and cavalrymen on the reverse. This was common on Baktrian coins, but aside from these, the helmet is not shown on many coins.
The Pilos helmet is the simplest of the ancient Greek helmets. It probably was developed in the sixth century, but became popular only in the fourth and third centuries BCE – from which most extant examples come. The helmet is based on a felt hat by the same name and had a conical shape made from a single piece of bronze or iron. It was cheap to make and was mass-produced. After the Corinthian helmet fell out of favor, this became the helmet most often seen worn by Spartan warriors. It allowed a wide field of view and left the ears open to commands.
Even though these helmets were widespread, their depiction on coins is very limited. Figure 9 shows a stater from Lycia with Hermes wearing a pilos helmet on the reverse. Some bronze coins of the Chersonesos and Scythia show a crouching warrior wearing this helmet on their reverse and a warrior on the obverse wearing one, respectively.
As a rule, the Greeks much preferred to depict the Corinthian helmet on their coins since they were attracted to its romantic association with the height of Greek culture. It continued to be shown for centuries after it fell out of favor on the battlefield. The Attic helmet was the second most common and, of course, later morphed into the Roman helmet, so its depiction was very common on Roman coins. There are many extant examples of Greek helmets, and a quick look at the internet will bring up many photos of excavated and reproduced ones.
* * *
Anderson, John Kinloch. Ancient Greek Horsemanship. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press. (1961)
Connolly, Peter. Greece and Rome at War. London: Greenhill Books. (1998)
Fraser, A.D. “Xenophon and the Boeotian Helmet”, The Art Bulletin 4 (3): 99–108. (1922)
Heckel, Waldemar, and Ryan Jones. Macedonian Warrior: Alexander’s Elite Infantryman. Osprey Publishing. (2006)
Hixenbaugh, Randall. Ancient Greek Helmets: A Complete Guide and Catalog. Hixenbaugh Ancient Art Ltd. (2019)
Horsnaes, Helle W. The Cultural Development in North Western Lucania C. 600-273 BC. L’Erma di Bretschneider. (2002)
Sekunda, Nicholas. Greek Hoplite, 480-323 BC: 480-323 BC. Osprey Publishing. (2000)
* * *
About the Author
Steve M. Benner has a Ph.D. in engineering from the Ohio State University and worked for NASA at the Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, for almost three decades before retiring in 2016. He has been an ancient coin collector since the early 1970s and is a member of the ANS, the ANA, and the ACCG. He specializes in coins of the ancient Greek leagues and in Roman Imperial bronzes. Dr. Benner has published over 30 ancient coin articles in various publications and is the author of Achaian League Coinage of the 3rd through 1st Centuries B.C.E. (2008) and History and Coinage of the Ancient Greek Leagues, 5th through 1st Centuries B.C.E. (2018).