The Miltiades Helmet
In the collection of battle memorabilia in the museum at Olympia in Greece is the Miltiades Helmet. It looks battered and the crown is missing, and the surface is dull, without the slightest hint of the burnished gold finish it boasted when it graced the head of the man who wore it into battle over two millennia ago. Yet it warrants its own display case in a museum that has many other helmets in far better shape. What distinguishes this helmet from others of a similar type is the inscription indicating that the helmet was dedicated to Zeus by Miltiades, the general who commanded the combined Athenian and Plataian forces against the Persians at the battle of Marathon in 490 B.C.E.
This helmet is made of bronze, and it would have been a part of the armour of elite Athenian soldiers, as only the wealthier citizens of Athens could afford bronze armour and the weapons of a hoplite or citizen soldier. When a soldier was wearing all of his armour he would have looked rather like a Spartan warrior from the movie 300, and, standing shield to shield against the enemy Persians, they would have made an impressive sight.
The Miltiades Helmet. Rozen, 2011.
When it was worn, the helmet would have been topped with a large crest, which would have been attached to metal loops located on the crown and at the back of the neck (which are not visible on this helmet as the crown has not survived) (Weiss 1977, 196). When it was new, the helmet would have gleamed in the sun and the crest on top would have made the man wearing it appear tall and intimidating. We know what these warriors would have looked like from the images on Greek pottery of the time, which were often decorated with battle scenes.
If you look closely at the side of the helmet, you will see a small rivet hole just below ear level where a chin-strap may have been attached to hold the helmet in place (Weiss 1977, 196). A chin-strap would have been needed to keep the helmet on, because the thickness of the bronze and the crest on top would have made it very heavy. Even with a felt liner on the inside to cushion the soldier’s head it must still have been uncomfortable (and hot as well).
A helmet depicted on Greek pottery. Saint-Pol, 2008.
The letters along the front edge of the helmet say that “Miltiades dedicated [it] to Zeus,” and this would surely have been done to thank the god for military success (Mee and Spawforth 2004, 286). Since the name on the helmet is ‘Miltiades,’ it is fairly likely that the dedication was in gratitude for the Athenian victory at the battle of Marathon, since Miltiades was the general responsible for convincing the other Athenian generals to fight the Persians instead of giving in It was Miltiades who led the Athenians into battle (Hdt. 6.110). Against all odds, Miltiades and his men won that battle at Marathon, much to the surprise of the Persians. That victory was the first of several that eventually eliminated the Persian threat, and this battered helmet that Miltiades chose to honour Zeus is a symbol of that hard won victory; one which was remembered as a pivotal event in the history of Athenian democracy. Marathon was not the biggest battle fought by the Greeks, but it was one that they never forgot. Like Waterloo and Vimy Ridge, the name Marathon still resonates in Western history.
Look at this battered helmet and try to imagine what the man who wore it felt like in that long ago battle. Did he and his brothers in arms feel invincible in their bronze armour as they stood in the heat of the September sun? As he looked out through the narrowed field of vision at the Persian forces, did the knowledge that the future of Athens rested upon his shoulders weigh as heavily upon Miltiades as his helmet and armour?
Only one hundred and ninety-two Athenians died on the battlefield that day, compared to 6,400 Persians, which helped to make Miltiades and his men the heroes of Athens (Hdt. 6.117). Of the men who died, some must have remained conscious as a result of their helmets’ protection. Bleeding from throat or leg wounds, their vision limited by their helmets and their movement hampered by the weight of their armour, they may have had time to contemplate their fate as they died surrounded by the sounds of the battle. Small wonder then, that Miltiades was grateful to Zeus…he survived.
Herodotus. The History of Herodotus—Volume 2. Translated by G.C. Macaulay. 1914. E-book. London: MacMillan and Co.
Darvill, Timothy. 2008. The Concise Oxford Dictionary of Archaeology. Oxford: Oxford University Press. www.oxfordreference.com.
Evans, J. A. S. 1993. “Herodotus and the Battle of Marathon.” Historia: Zeitschrift Für Alte Geschichte 42, no. 3: 279-307.
Mee, Christopher and Antony Spawforth. 2004. Oxford Archaeological Guides: Greece. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Rozen, Oren. 2011. “Helmet of Miltiades the Younger, Archaeological Museum of Olympia.” (image) Wikimedia Commons: https://commons.wikimedia.org.
Saint-Pol, Bibi. 2008. “Hephaistus Hands Thetis the Weapons for Achilles.” (image) Wikimedia Commons: https://commons.wikimedia.org.
Weiss, Caroline. 1977. “An Unusual Corinthian Helmet.” California Studies in Classical Antiquity 10: 195-207.