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Scuta (Roman Infantry Shield, ca. mid 3rd century AD) painted rawhide and wood

Here is a particularly fascinating historical object: an original Roman semi-cylindrical legionary shield (scutum) from Dura-Europos (a very strange Roman border city which requires its own post). Although pieces of other ancient Roman shields have been found, this is by far the finest and most complete example. Yet even this stunning shield has some deficiencies–it was found in thirteen flattened pieces which had to be reassembled, and it is missing its iron boss (a hardened round dome in the center used for ramming and for deflecting swords, spears, cavalry lances, and javelins). 

Even if the most important piece is gone, this shield demonstrates the construction of such protective devices. These large curved shields were made of steam curved layers of wood annealed together on top of each other in cross-grained patterns to be light yet resistant to the sharpest and hardest stabbing weapons. The edges were lined with metal to strengthen the against hacking attacks or shattering. Plus, in lieu of a boss (of which we have other examples) this shield still has the original legionary artwork in extremely fine condition. Shields were painted with different emblems so that men could swiftly recognize their units in the chaos of battle, however these designs always reflected the Roman iconography of victory. This example features an eagle with a laurel wreath, winged Victories, and a lion. Gorgons, bulls, boars, winged horses, and above all Zeus’ lightning bolts seem to have also been popular.

Probably a military historian would write at length about Roman armor, swords, ironwork, fortresses, roads, organization, ballistae, and goodness knows what else. Yet, to my eyes, this is the definitive piece of Roman military hardware. In order to be useful, a shield of this sort requires endless drilling with lots of other soldiers with the same sort of shield. Imagine going into a battle in the Roman-age world. There would be direct visceral carnage everywhere. Your opponents have war chariots, huge axes, enormous pikes and goodness knows what else and you would have…a curved piece of plywood and a very long iron knife? And yet with training, nerve, and discipline, each shield became an impervious scale of a giant armored monster made of men.

This is the Ferrebeekeeper’s 300th post! Hooray and thank you for reading! We celebrated our 100th post with a write-up of the Afro-Caribbean love goddess, Oshun.  To celebrate the 300th post (and to finish armor week on a glorious high note), we turn our eyes upward to the stern and magnificent armored goddess, Athena, the goddess of wisdom.

Athena of Piraeus (unknown but possibly Euphranor, ca. 360 BC - ca. 340 BC, bronze cult statue)

Athena’s birth has its roots in Zeus’ war with his father Cronus.  In order to win his battle against the ruling race of Titans (and thus usurp his father’s place as the king of the gods), Zeus married the Titan Metis, goddess of cunning and prudence. Her wise counsel and crafty stratagems gave the Olympian gods and edge against the Titans and the latter were ultimately cast down.  Metis was Zeus’ first wife and the secret to his success… but there was a problem.  It was foretold that Metis would bear an extremely powerful offspring:  any son she gave birth to would be mightier than Zeus. To forestall this problem Zeus tricked Metis into transforming into a fly and then he sniffed her up his nose so that he could always have her cunning counsel inside his head. But Metis was already pregnant.  Inside Zeus’ skull she began to craft a suit of armor for her child to wear.  The pounding of her hammer within his temples gave Zeus a terrible headache. Insane with pain, Zeus begged his ally Prometheus (the seer among the Titans) to cure him of this misery through whatever means necessary.  Prometheus seized a labrys (a double headed axe from Crete) and struck open Zeus’ head with a noise louder than a thunderclap. In a burst of radiance Athena sprang forth fully grown and clad in gleaming armor.

Drawing of a Bronze relief depicting the Birth of Athena (shield band panel, 550 BCE)

Athena was Zeus’ first daughter and his favorite child. For his own armor, Zeus had carried an invincible aegis crafted out of the skin of his foster mother, the divine goat Amalthea.  When Athena was born he handed this symbol of his invincible power over to her. Similarly throughout classical mythology Athena is the only other entity whom Zeus trusts to handle his lightning bolts (there is an amazing passage in the first lines of the Aneid where she vaporizes Ajax’s chest with lightning, picks him up with a whirlwind, and impales him on a spire of rock in revenge for an impiety).  Her other symbols were the owl, a peerless predator capable of seeing at night, and the gorgon’s head, a magical talisman capable of  turning humans to stone (which Athena wore affixed to her armor). Although she was first in Zeus’ esteem, Athena did not forget her mother’s fate and she remained a virgin goddess who never dallied with romance of any sort.

Pallas Athena (Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn, ca. 1655)

Wisdom, humankind’s greatest (maybe our only) strength was Athena’s bailiwick as too were the fruits of wisdom. Athena was therefore the goddess of learning, strategy, productive arts, cities, skill, justice, victory, and civilization.  She is often portrayed as the goddess of justified war in opposition to her half-brother Ares, the vainglorious deity representative of the senseless aspects of war.  In classical mythology Athena never loses.  Her side is always victorious.  Her heroes always prosper. She was the Greek representation of the triumph of creativity and intellect.

The Combat of Mars and Minerva (Jacques Louis David, 1771)

Metis never bore Zeus a son to usurp him–but when I read classical mythology such an outcome always seemed unnecessary.  Not only did Athena wield Zeus’ authority and run the world as she saw fit, but Zeus was perfectly happy with the arrangement (a true testament to her wisdom).  The one slight to the grey eyed goddess is that she does not have a planet named after her (nor after her Roman name Minerva), however I have always thought that astronomers have been secretly saving the name. We can use it when we find a planet inhabited by beings of greater intelligence, or when we travel the stars to a second earth and apotheosize into true Athenians.

Athena of Piraeus (detail)

The Romans made use of many crowns during the time of the Republic.  Some proclaimed exceptional soldiers or dominant politicians.  Other crowns were worn by athletes, brides, or festival celebrants.  An entire list of Roman coronae can be found here.  Later on, as the empire began to crumble, Emperors might wear jeweled diadems, but in the republic a very different sort of crown stood above all the rest.

The grass crown was the highest reward a Roman military man could receive during the time of the Roman Republic (and for a brief period at the beginning of the Roman Principate).  A general could only win the grass crown by saving an entire army.  Well, actually, the crown was once given to a mere centurion for saving an army–so it was saving an army that was important.  Usually such a thing could only be accomplished by commanders.  A mere handful of the greatest Roman warriors ever received this singular honor.

The crown was woven out of grass, weeds, and wildflowers taken from the ground where the person receiving the award saved the army.  It was made by soldiers and presented by them to their savior, so it may have lacked the sophistication and loveliness of fancier wreaths and garlands.  Nevertheless the Romans esteemed it above all other headgear. Pliny the Elder described the grass crown in Chapter XXII of his work The Natural History (translated by John Bostock):

Of all the crowns with which, in the days of its majesty, the all-sovereign people, the ruler of the earth, recompensed the valor of its citizens, there was none attended with higher glory than the crown of grass. The crowns bedecked with gems of gold, the vallar, mural, rostrate, civic, and triumphal crowns, were, all of them, inferior to this: great, indeed, was the difference between them, and far in the background were they thrown by it. As to all the rest, a single individual could confer them, a general or commander on his soldiers for instance, or, as on some occasions, on his colleague: the senate, too, exempt from the cares and anxieties of war, and the people in the enjoyment of repose, could award them, together with the honours of a triumph.

But as for the crown of grass, it was never conferred except at a crisis of extreme desperation, never voted except by the acclamation of the whole army, and never to any one but to him who had been its preserver. Other crowns were awarded by the generals to the soldiers, this alone by the soldiers, and to the general. This crown is known also as the “obsidional” crown, from the circumstance of a beleaguered army being delivered, and so preserved from fearful disaster. …

The crown thus presented was made green grass, gathered on the spot where the troops so rescued had been beleaguered. Indeed, in early times, it was the usual token of victory for the vanquished to present to the conqueror a handful of grass; signifying thereby that they surrendered their native soil, the land that had nurtured them, and the very right even there to be interred—a usage which, to my own knowledge, still exists among the nations of Germany.

Pliny went on to list the men who received the grass crown.  It is a short list of Rome’s greatest victors.  Here is that list of peerless Roman commanders with a brief explanation:

  • Lucius Siccius Dentatus (a general during the great civil struggles between the plebians and the patricians)
  • Publius Decius Mus (received two grass crowns—one from his own army, and a second from the legions he had rescued)
  • Fabius Maximus (received the crown for creating and employing “the Fabian strategy” a series of delaying tactics by which Hannibal was ultimately expelled from Italy)
  • Marcus Calpurnius Flamma (a commander who led 300 volunteers on a succesful suicide mission to free the consular army which was caught in a defile during a batule in the First Punic War)
  • Scipio Aemilianus Africanus (adopted grandson of the famous Roman general of the same name: Scipio the younger won his his grass crown in the final Punic war–which saw the utter destruction of Carthage)
  • Gnaeus Petreius Atinas (the previously mentioned centurion, who saved a legion during the Cimbri wars by means of good leadership and heroic battlefield prowess )
  • Lucius Cornelius Sulla (the great dictator won the crown in fishy circumstances during the Social War at Nola  [Pliny is dismissive of the award–and of Sulla])
  • Quintus Sertorius (who defeated several large armies campaigning in Spain–but may not have recived the grass crown[Pliny’s language is unclear])
  • Augustus (the crown was presented to Augustus by the Senate but was it was a political homage to an emperor rather than an army’s reward for its general.)

After Augustus, the grass crown exits history.  It lingers only as a memory of the warlike virtues of the Roman Republic.

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