The Panoply


While this topic seems rather mundane, armor is a large part of war, and Ares is rarely seen without it, and when he is, he’s generally not wearing anything other than a helmet. I had a dream the other night about a ritualized single combat where I was wearing an ancient panoply, and I have to say, it wasn’t as bad as I would have previously thought.

The main form of armor soldiers use is body armor, which the Greeks called a thorax (where we get the word for bugs). Body armor has always been expensive ( a full panoply of helmet, shield, thorax, greaves, sword and spear cost anywhere from 30-100 drachma), and in ancient times was usually passed down in families. Richer families could afford to get forged bronze thoraxes; poorer families utilized the linothorax, which was made of layers of linen which were cut, compressed, and lacquered to form a stiff yet flexible chest piece, which might be covered over with leather or studs/scales of bronze. Body armor then was almost exclusively fastened on the left side, and the soldier’s shield would protect the literal chink in the armor (even if you were left-handed…).

Modern body armor is amazing, due both to its light weight and the fact it can possibly stop a bullet (if you’re lucky). Many modern designs utilize specially formulated “sands” and gels, which force bullets to lose most of their kinetic energy, rendering them little more than a heavy blow.  In addition, ceramic plates offer protection against heavier rounds, and break to disperse the energy of those rounds. Modern body armor also often come with all sorts of straps that you can secure holsters, ammo pouches, flashlights, radios, and other tools to, spreading out the weight of your equipment and making today’s soldier much more dexterous than he would otherwise be.

Shields were big in the ancient world, and the Greeks called theirs either the aspis or the hoplon (from which Hoplites got their name). Often made of wood overlaid with bronze, a hoplite’s shield was as much for offense as it was for defense. The bowl-like construction of the shield and its brazen rim/overlay lent great strength to the design, and could deliver bone-crushing blows in well-trained hands. Shields were often decorated with images to unsettle the enemy, from carrion foul and dogs to griffons and gods.  One could often differentiate between families and clans, who often used similar shield designs for generations.

Modern armies no longer use shields, in the traditional sense. However, they do use “shields” of signals, electrical pulses, and ISR to prevent both the enemy and his weapons from getting close enough to strike. Modern police do use shields, however. Modern shields are often made of strong, transparent plastics, allowing officers to advance and see their opponents while simultaneously allowing them to protect their eyes and faces, something opaque shields could never do.

Of course, to protect the head, the ancient hoplite would often wear a beautifully crested helmet. Forged from a single sheet of bronze, the helmet was designed to protect the head, face, and neck. Later designs opened the face a bit more and made holes for the ears, allowing the hoplite to better hear orders. An interesting part of the Corinthian design (a more or less arbitrary designation) was that it allowed one to tilt the helmet back on the head, revealing the face but leaving it combat-ready should the moment call for it.

Modern helmets are often metal, Kevlar, or both. Contrary to popular belief, they aren’t meant to protect against bullets. Rather, they are meant to mimic hardhats and prevent injury from falling debris. Modern helmets also come with the ability to attach a variety of gadgets to them, from night-vision goggles to radios to cameras.

Greaves were the last non-weapon part of the panoply. These were made of beaten bronze, and stayed attached to the leg by means of pressure rather than straps. Greaves protected the last bit of exposed flesh on the hoplite, and may have helped him maintain his center of balance, adding weight to his lower half (it is unlikely many hoplites wore bracers, as they would have slowed his swings and made wearing his shield difficult).

Modern soldiers may not wear greaves or bracers today, but we do have a modern update that, to my knowledge, was a damn long time coming- elbow and knee pads. Soldiers spend a lot of time in the dirt, and to protect the joints (ask any soldier what the number-one injury on any base is, and they’ll probably say “joints”), today’s armed forces employ an adaptation of the sort of pads you’d find on any professional skateboarder.

While the equipment a soldier carries has changed vastly in appearance and material since ancient times, the function has not: protection and survival. I’ll leave you with two photos, one modern and one ancient. Not really that much difference, huh? Hail Ares!

Photo: of a modern soldier in modern armor.

PS– all those links in the text contain instructions for making your own panoply (you can use the techniques in the helmet link for all metal-working). Enjoy!

2 comments on “The Panoply

  1. I really enjoyed this. You did a great job with the comparison of the past and present. I also loved the way you tied it back to purpose the armor( in it’s entirely) serves a soldier.

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