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Work Helmet of a Thracian Gladiator

Department of Greek, Etruscan, and Roman Antiquities: Roman Art

Casque de gladiateur thrace

© 1998 RMN / Hervé Lewandowski

Greek, Etruscan, and Roman Antiquities
Roman Art

Author(s):
Astier Marie-Bénédicte

This bronze helmet, richly decorated with a Gorgon's and a griffin's head, was probably used by Thracian gladiators during the parades preceding the games in the amphitheater at Pompeii, just before Vesuvius erupted in 79 AD. The shape of the visor, which evolved over the course of the first century, is typical of the period. The eye openings have been replaced by a grill covering the upper part of the face, and plume holders have been added on either side of the helmet.

Armor discovered at Pompeii

This bronze helmet is one of a number of pieces of armor given in 1802 to the First Consul Bonaparte by Ferdinand IV, king of Naples. They were buried when Vesuvius erupted and the region of Naples was laid waste on 24 August, AD 79, but saw the light of day when excavations were carried out (1766-67) in the gladiators' barracks at Pompeii. They were kept at Malmaison until the death of Josephine and thereafter entered the Durand collection (1814) and the Comte de Pourtalès collection (1825), before being purchased by the Musées Impériaux in 1865. Finally, they were transferred to the Louvre from the Musée des Antiquités Nationales at Saint-Germain-en-Laye in 1892. The armor, which is richly embossed, was probably used in the parades that preceded the games in the arena.

Part of the armor used by the "Thraces" and the "Mirmillones"

Several examples of highly enveloping helmets of this type have been found at Pompeii. They were part of the equipment used by the most heavily armed gladiators - those from the northeast of Greece, the "Thraces" (Thracians), and those from Gaul, the "mirmillones". The shell of the helmet is highly rounded, with a broad brim, and has a crest decorated with overlapping plumes and terminating in a griffin's head. This mythological creature was the companion of Nemesis, the goddess of fate, who was venerated by gladiators (there was often a chapel dedicated to her inside the amphitheater). On the front of the helmet, the silver-plated head of the Gorgon Medusa stands out. On either side of the helmet are plume holders to which feathers were attached. The face and neck of the gladiator were protected by a movable visor made up of four riveted plates, two of them solid, the other two pierced.

The evolving shape of the gladiator's helmet

To judge from its shape, that of the visor in particular, this helmet would seem to have been made in the decades preceding the catastrophe of 79 AD - between 50 and 75 AD. The shape of the helmet worn by Thracian and "mirmillon" gladiators evolved considerably over the course of the first century AD. At the end of the reign of the emperor Augustus (27 BC--AD 14), the cheek plates were replaced by a visor with openings for the eyes. The rim of the visor was narrow and only slightly curved at the sides. A little after the middle of the century, the rim became broader and more curved. The eye openings were then replaced by a protective grill covering the upper part of the face. By the end of the first century, this protective grill had evolved to cover the whole surface of the visor, which it now replaced. The gorget surrounding the helmet became narrower, closely following the lines of the visor to form a right angle on either side of the face.

Bibliography

- Schutz und Zier. Helme aus dem Antikenmuseum Berlin und Waffen anderer Sammlungen, Antikenmuseum Basel und Sammlung Ludwig, Bâle, 1989, p. 96, n 89.

- Les Gladiateurs, Musée archéologique, éditions Lattes, 1987, p. 122-123, n 20.

- WAHL J., "Gladiatorenhelm-Beschläge vom Limes", in Germania, 55, 1977, p. 116, n 2, pl. 20, 2 et pl. 23.

Technical description

  • Casque de gladiateur thrace

    Troisième quart du Ier siècle après J.-C.

  • La tête de Gorgone, sur le frontal, est argentée

    H. : 38 cm.

  • Cession du Musée des Antiquités Nationales, Saint-Germain-en-Laye, 1892

    Br 1108

  • Greek, Etruscan, and Roman Antiquities

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