Unknown artist, Corinthian (ancient style)
Helmet, 500 BC - 470 BC
28.6 x 17.4 x 23.4 cm (11 1/4 x 6 13/16 x 9 1/4 inches) (maximum)
Museum Works of Art Fund 43.185
Developed in the 5th century BCE, this type of helmet, which offered greater protection than previous designs by encasing the entire head and face, often appears in art of the time. The helmet was cast from bronze and hammered to fit the foot soldier (hoplite), for whom it was made. Because men had to purchase their own armor and equipment, military service in ancient Greece was dictated by socioeconomic status. Hoplites carried more than seventy pounds of equipment, between their spear, shield, helmet, and body armor. Helmets were commonly included in the grave of a deceased soldier, either as a mark of their profession or possibly to perform some function in the afterlife.
Mitten, David Gordon. “Classical Bronzes”. Providence: Museum of Art, Rhode Island School of Design, 1975.
About the work
Corinthian helmets like this one were part of the armor of hoplites, or the ancient Greek foot soldiers. Metalsmiths cast these helmets in bronze and hammered them to fit each individual soldier. The long slender form was elegant and balanced and provided excellent protection for the wearer’s face and neck, although it covered the ears and made hearing very difficult. The helmet also was designed to rest comfortably on the back of the head, allowing the wearer to display himself as a soldier off the battlefield. Lightweight and efficient, this was an extremely popular design, and frequently was featured in depictions of Greek warriors on pottery and statuary.
Defending one’s city was an important aspect of ancient Greek civic life and citizen-soldiers had to pay for their own equipment, so owning a full set of armor was a mark of social status. The helmet was designed to also comfortably rest on the back of the head, allowing the wearer to display himself as a soldier off the battlefield. Only men could fully participate in civic institutions, including the army, and it is significant that a man’s military identity went with him to the grave. Soldiers were often buried with their armor.
While only men went to battle in the Greek world, Athena was a goddess of war, and usually depicted with a spear and helmet. Explore other representations of Athena on these ancient coins at the RISD Museum: see the back of the Thracian four-drachma coin and the Corinthian stater. Also look at the warriors on the ceramic mixing krater and lekythos, and this fragment of a mixing bowl.
The Corinthian helmet, like many of the ancient Greek objects, is both functional and beautiful. What does this balance of usefulness and beauty reveal about the values of ancient Greek society? Do you think modern products tend to share these values? What are some examples?
What are some modern examples of work-related clothing or headwear that have taken on additional meanings outside of their original use? Are any of these examples tied to gender?
Compare and contrast this helmet with helmets from other cultures, such as those of Roman legions, Etruscan warriors, Japanese samurai, or the modern U.S. military. What features of the helmet are emphasized?
What are the most vulnerable parts of the head in battle? With this in mind, draw an alternative design for a helmet. Compare to other students’ designs and discuss strengths and limitations of the different designs.
Document the condition of the helmet by creating an outline of the form and noting the areas of corrosion and other types of wear. How might it have corroded?
Write a narrative from the perspective of the soldier who wore the helmet. To create a detailed and believable text, do some research on the lives of soldiers and the role of the military in ancient Greece.
Catalogue of the Classical Collection: Classical Bronzes. Providence, RI: Museum of Art, Rhode Island School of Design, 1975.