athenian helmet

This helmet was worn by a soldier of the city-state of Athens who had rather a bad day in the late summer of the year 490 BCE. He was killed at the Battle of Marathon, one of the pivotal battles of the Greco-Persian Wars, evidently beheaded by a Persian sword. We know because the soldier’s skull was found still embedded in this helmet.

The Greco-Persian Wars raged for half a century during the 400s BCE. The great Persian empire had conquered much of the Grecian world, and the Ionian Revolt occurred in 499-93. When the Athenians burned the Persian regional capital, the Persian king, Darius I, vowed he’d take revenge on them. In August or September 490 BCE, the Athenians and Persians clashed in a field at what is now Agios Panteleimon, Greece. Although the Persians had a numerical superiority, the Greek strategy of phalanx warfare–as well as hails of arrows from Athenian archers–proved decisive. After a pitched battle the Persian forces broke and ran. The hoplite who wore this helmet was one of the dead left lying at the site of the battle.

Darius, who regarded himself as the biggest cheese of the ancient world, was understandably ticked off to have lost to the Athenians. He vowed revenge (it seems Darius did that a lot) and tried to raise another army to crush the Greek city-states into submission, but a revolt in Egypt distracted him and he died before he could get back to the project. His son Xerxes finally carried out his old man’s plans. It didn’t go so hot for him either.

I’m not sure when this helmet was discovered, but it is now at the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto, Canada. It’s a stark and very interesting relic of the classical age which so often times seems like more legend than reality (especially when you look at stuff like that silly 300 movie). But the Greek civilization of the 5th century BCE was real, the wars really happened, and real people died in them. I wonder if the soldier whose head now resides in a glass case in downtown Toronto would be honored to know that he helped strike a blow to save his civilization, or if he, like so many other soldiers throughout history, was just an ordinary person caught up in extraordinary events, and who sadly did not live to tell the epic tale that his helmet–and his head–now tell for him.

The photo of the Athenian helmet is by me. If you’d like to use it, please credit Sean Munger and consider it Creative Commons 2.0 (Attribution) license.