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The following is from a letter written a few yeas ago by Mr. P. Bruce. We wish him the best of luck with his further studies and thank him for his great support. This letter contains many references to earlier works and historic passages, and is the most comprehensive I've seen thus far.


Dear Mr. L,

Greetings from Oregon. It was certainly a pleasure to make your brief acquaintance during my visit to the rare book room in Carrolton. Rarer indeed than choice volumes, are the encounters with scholars, well read in similar fields of study. I remarked to my uncle after you left, that I would be extremely lucky, (within my lifetime) to meet a dozen individuals with the apparent depth of research and interest that you exhibited .

Having taken care of necessary matters upon my return home, I have been able to examine the few volumes upon my shelves that relate to ancient history in an effort to locate specific references to mail armour, especially chain mail. Unfortunately, so much of the answer depends upon the scholarship of others, and the faithfulness of the translators of Hebrew, Greek and Latin texts. On the bright side, I was able to locate a few photographs of Roman sculptures, that illustrate the various types of mail worn, and some of these have the unmistakable appearance that I associate with chain mail.

* * * * *

1450 B.C.

The earliest reference that I can obtain thus far, is located in the days of Moses. The clothing pertaining to the high priests were to be donned and patterned similar to a coat of mail.

EXODUS 28:31-32 " And thou shalt make the robe of the ephod all of blue. And it shall have a binding of woven work round about the hole of it, as it were the hole of a coat of mail, that it be not rent." [American Standard Version, 1901]

Note: The KJV used the words: "...as it were the hole of a habergeon..."

* * * * *

1020 B.C.

In the battle of David against Goliath, it seems both sides used coats of mail in their armour.

I SAMUEL 17:5-7 "And he had a helmet of brass upon his head, and he was clad with a coat of mail; and the weight of the coat was five thousand shekels of brass. And he had greaves of brass upon his legs, and a javelin of brass between his shoulders. And the staff of his spear was like a weaver's beam; and his spear's head weighed six hundred shekels of iron: and his shield-bearer went before him." (ASV)

NOTE: The Hebrew word for this body armour is shiryon.

According to The International Standard Bible Encyclopaedia, the same word is used of:

1020 B.C. * the armour Saul offered David ................I SAMUEL 17:38

853 B.C. * Ahab in fatal battle of Ramoth-Gilead ......I KINGS 22:34

443 B.C. * the armour of Nehemiah's workers ..........NEHEMIAH 4:16

161 B.C. * royal armour protecting war-elephants ....I MACCABEES 6:43

NOTE: In their Commentary On the Old Testament, C. F. Keil and F. Delitzsch, in their comments on I SAMUEL 17:5 ,discuss the differences between scale armour and chain mail :

[...The armour of Goliath corresponded to his gigantic stature: "a helmet of brass upon his head, and clothed in scale armour, the weight of which was five thousand shekels of brass." The meaning scales is sustained by the words...(several Hebrew characters I cannot duplicate. -P. A. Bruce)..., therefore, is not thorax halusidotos (LXX), a coat of mail made of rings worked together like chains, such as were used in the army of the Seleucidae (I MACCABEES 6:35), but according to Aquila's pholidoton (scaled), a coat made of plates of brass lying one upon another like scales, such as we find in the old Assyrian sculptures, where the warriors fighting in chariots, and in attendance upon the king, wear coats of scale armour, descending either to the knees or ankles, and consisting of scales of iron or brass, which were probably fastened to a shirt of felt or coarse linen (see Layard, Ninevah and its Remains, vol. ii. p.335). ]

I gather from this, that all of the armour I have listed thus far was most likely coats of scale mail sewn upon felt or linen padding. But an important clue was revealed from Keil and Delitzsch's comments, namely, that their historical illustration of the occurrence of "mail made of rings worked together like chains" dates to the battle of Bethsura in the Maccabean struggle.

* * * * *

333 B.C.

According to the Dictionary of Wars by George C. Kohn (1986), " the second great battle between King Darius III of Persia and Alexander the Great took place at Issus in present-day Turkey. Alexander's 35,000 troops were greatly outnumbered by the Persians, but the latter were poorly trained ... Alexander's troops pursued the Persians, killing 110,000 of them (Macedonian losses were 302). Darius escaped, leaving the royal family behind to be captured by Alexander." (pp. 221-222)

" Since the battle of Issus, Darius had provided his soldiers with more effective arms; instead of the javelin his horsemen were armed with a longer sword and a short thrusting-spear, such as the Macedonian cavalry carried, in part at least they were provided with link-armour, and the infantry were given a larger shield." [The Generalship of Alexander the Great by Major-General J. F. C. Fuller, Rutgers, 1960.]

* * * * *

220 - 167 B.C.

My favorite history of the early Roman period is that titled The Rise of the Roman Empire based upon the Histories by Polybius. My copy is paperback, of the Penguin Classics series, translated by Ian Scott-Kilvert, copyright 1979.

In Book VI section 23. Polybius discusses the Roman Military System, which he, as a former Greek general, was able to describe in detail, as concerns armament.

" The next age group, known as the hastati, are ordered to wear a complete panoply. The Roman panoply consists in the first place of a long shield (scutum). The surface is convex; it measures two and a half feet in width and four in length, and the thickness at the rim is a palm's breadth. It consists of two layers of wood fastened together with bull's hide glue; the outer surface is then covered first with canvas and then with calf-skin. The upper and lower edges are bound with iron to protect the shield both from the cutting strokes of the sword and from wear when resting on the ground. In the centre is fixed an iron boss, which turns aside the heavy impact of stones, pikes and weighty missiles in general. Besides the shield they also carry a sword which is worn on the right thigh and is called a Spanish sword. This has a sharp point and can deal an effective blow with either edge, as the blade is very strong and unbending.

" In addition, the hastati carry two throwing spears ( pila ), a bronze helmet and greaves. The spears are or two kinds, the slender and the thick. Of the thicker kind some are round and a palm's breadth in diameter, others are a palm square. The slender spears which they carry as well as the thicker variety are like medium-sized hunting spears, the length of the wooden shaft being about four and a half feet. The iron head is barbed and is of the same length as the shaft. They take great pains to ensure the utility of this weapon by attaching the iron firmly to the shaft. It is fastened into the wooden shaft halfway up its length and riveted with a series of clasps, so that in action it will break rather than come loose, although its thickness at the socket where it meets the wood measures only a finger and a half. Finally, the hastati wear as an ornament a plume of three purple or black feathers standing upright about a foot and a half in height. These are placed on the helmet and the general effect combined with the rest of the armour is to make each man look about twice his real height, and gives him an appearance which strikes terror into the enemy. Besides this armament, the private soldiers also wear a brass breast-plate a span square, which is placed in front of the heart, and is called a heart-protector ( pectorale ). This item completes their panoply, but those who are rated at a property qualification of above 10,000 drachmae wear instead a coat of chain-mail (lorica). The principes and triarii are armed with the same weapons, except that instead of the throwing-spear, the triarii carry long thrusting-spears (hastae). "

The above text is also quoted in the I. S. B. E. , from what is obviously a much older text / translation, where the actual Greek words are indicated rather than the Latin:

" The Roman panoply consists in the first place of a shield [thureos].....Along with the shield is a sword [machaira].....Next come two javelins [husson] and a helmet [perikephalaia] and a greave [knemis].....Now the majority, when they have further put on a bronze plate, measuring a span every way, which they wear on their breasts and are called a heart-guard [kardiophulax], are completely armed, but those who are assessed at more than 10,000 drachmae wear instead, together with the other arms, cuirasses made of chain mail [halusidotous thorakas *]."

*Note, this is the same term used to describe the "mail made of rings worked together like chains" in the battle of Bethsura.

One additional source quotes the Polybius passage thus:

" But those whose property qualification is above 10,000 drachmas have, instead of this 'heart-protector,' a coat of chain mail to protect their chests." [History of the Art of War, vol. I, Warfare in Antiquity, Book IV Ancient Rome, Chapter 2 The Manipular Phalanx, p.280]

* * * * *

161 B.C.

The elephants, mentioned in the discussion of scale armour above, were protected by coats of mail, probably scale, but some of the soldiers wore chain-mail:

"Early the next morning the king (Antiochus Eupator) broke camp and rushed his army along the road to Bethzacharia; there his forces were drawn up for battle and the trumpets were sounded. The elephants were roused for battle with the juice of grapes and of mulberries. The great beasts were distributed among the phalanxes; by each were stationed a thousand men, equipped with coats of chain-mail and bronze helmets." I MACCABEES 6:33-35 ( New English Bible ).

* * * * *

28 B.C.

" When Augustus in association with Agrippa was conducting that very unpopular operation, a revision of the senate (28 B.C.), it was said that beneath his toga he wore mailed armour and carried a sword, that he had ten of the toughest and loyalest senators standing round his chair, and that the other senators were allowed to approach him one by one, and even then not until they had been thoroughly searched." [ The Army of the Caesars by Michael Grant, Charles Scribner's Sons, 1974; The Protection of Rome and the Regime 31 BC - AD 14, P.87 ]

* * * * *

98 - 117 A.D.

" But in the next century A.D., the time of Trajan, a corselet in common use possessed overlapping breast- and backplates of metal, strengthened by iron hoops, fastened at the front with studs and slots, and made flexible by hinges at the back, which allowed freedom of movement - or alternatively the fastenings, fore and aft, were leather cords. Further strips of metal served as shoulder-pieces. Sometimes a scarf was worn to prevent the metal plates from chafing the skin. There were also several types of mail armour, one of which consisted of a series of interlocking rings, while another comprised metal scales sewn in overlapping rows on a leather coat." [ The Army of the Caesars by Michael Grant, Introduction: The Roman Soldier, p. xxi ]

In a later chapter of the same text, titled Some Different Kinds of Military Uniform, the author mentions mail armour as common to a couple of ranks:

"B The Eagle-bearer ( aquilifer) Cnaeus Musius, from Veleia (Velleia in Lombardy). The Eagle-bearer, who came next in rank to the centurion, is depicted in full war-dress. Over his tunic he is wearing mail armour, with leather armour over it..."

"C Standard-bearers ranking below the eagle-bearer, namely the signiferi and imaginiferi and the three kinds of trumpeters or aeneatores...

These did not wear a helmet, but a special headress of bear-skin (lion-skin for the signiferi of the praetorian guard), and the skull of the beast (without his jaw) being used as a hood, while the furry skin fell on to the shoulders and down the back, and was fastened at the neck by tying the forelegs together. Further they lacked the segmented cuirass, and wore instead a coat of chain mail (see the Trophy of Trajan at Adamklissi), or a leather or cloth corselet. Their shields (parmae) were round in shape and probably small." [ p. 296, with reference to L. Rossi, Trajan's Column and the Dacian Wars (1971) p. 88 ].

NOTE: This volume also contains several photographs that indicate at least three types of mail armour; two are scale, and one appears to be chain-mail.

* * * * *

ROMAN MAIL

In Warriors of Rome, An Illustrated Military History of the Roman Legions by Michael Simkins (Blanford, 1988), there are several excellent artistic renderings and interpretations of Roman and Gallic armour. In the final chapter, Military Equipment, a lengthy discussion covers the types, history and manufacture of various armour, including chain-mail, under the heading Body Armour:

" The origin of mail remains obscure. The earliest examples of that extraordinary material were found in Sarmatian and Scythian graves, dated to the fifth to sixth centuries BC, and one may conjecture that the invention of the material took place some considerable length of time before that period.

" It has often been supposed that the Celts were the inventors of mail, a suggestion which is supported by an observation from the Roman historian Varro, who referred to Roman mail as 'Gallic'.... the Celts were certainly highly skilled metal-workers and so entirely capable of that innovation. One may, of course, say exactly the same of the Assyrians of the seventh to eighth century BC....

" As a defensive material, mail has one major drawback: it was very laborious to manufacture. The problem was partly overcome by the introduction of alternate rows of punched rings, which did not require to be joined; thus reducing the overall time in manufacture by as much as a quarter. The punched rings still had to be linked together with riveted wire ones, or could be left as a simple butted circlet, without riveting. The latter was ... not as strong ... but the cost ... greatly reduced."

NOTE: The author then goes into the details of construction of both riveted link and scale armour. Along with the illustrations, photos of reconstructed models, and notes, this is an informative volume.

* * * * *

Well, this has certainly been an interesting and educational way to spend the weekend. Several of the details that you mentioned in our conversation were borne out in my own investigation, namely the significance of the Maccabean time frame for chain-mail, as well as the common practice of producing the inferior quality of riveted-link mail. Next time I'll have to explore the Sarmatian and Scythian connection.


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