The Greek and Hellenistic Period

The Petasos and Boeotian helmet

The Petasos
Thessalian riding dress seems easy to recognise, and perfectly adapted to the landlocked plains of Thessaly. The petasos was a sun hat designed to keep off the sun during hot dry dusty summers, worn with a long Thessalian cloak to keep the wearer cool. This would also offer some protection during the very cold winters as well. The petasos can be seen in many representations of countrymen, travellers and horsemen.

The same dress is affected by wealthy Athenian aristocrats visible on surviving grave stele from the 440's onwards to 317 BC when Demetrious Poliorketes who governed Athens put an end to this lavish display. The dead had often been buried with oil flasks, lekythoi, generally showing yellow brown hats and red brown cloaks worn without tunics.

Cavalry boots complete the image. From the 440's these lekythoi, and ritual vessels used to fill the marriage bath called loutrophoroi, were used in marble representations to mark out the grave plot. They are carved with representations of the dead and are a useful source of iconographic evidence of military dress.

The petasos could have been made from felt, leather or even straw although the jaunty angle that it is often worn at suggests something fairly rigid.

The raised nipple at the top of the crown suggests something that is moulded such as felt or leather, worn low on the forehead to act as a sun shield, fastened both around the back of the head and under the chin. These ties can be very long and are perhaps decorative in their own right.

The hat can be easily slung down the back when not needed.

However rather than being perched on the front of the forehead, some Athenian reliefs show the petasos worn squarely on the head. It is thought that such reliefs and paintings such as the lekythos by the Reed Painter in Athens National Museum 12275 show a metal helmet shaped like a petasos. Indeed an actual helmet of this design has been discovered in an Athernian tomb in 1973. The Madytou Street helmet is pierced all the way round the rim either for a lining, a material covering, or a leather or rawhide edging.

The Boeotian
Whilst "pilos" originally referred to a peasant's felt cap, by Thucydides time it also referred to a bronze helmet of identical shape, and it is these "pilos" helmets which became very popular in the Lakedaemonian, Macedonian and other Greek armies. In similar fashion, the Boeotian peasant cap - slightly different from the Peloponnesian style, also became a common bronze helmet type. Originally of felt or leather, it was held in place by two straps as in the case of the Petasos.
Often worn with the straps tied up around the hat, with the straps fastened under the chin and around the occipital bone at the back of the head two dents in the rim develop. A krater in the Lourve (G341) even shows a cavalry man wearing such a hat.

An Attic Red Figure piece from around 460 shows Theseus in a Boeotian helmet with a crest.
Also, a speech of Demosthenes (59.94) mentions the famous painting of the Battle of Marathon in the Painted Stoa Athens where Plataeans can be recognised by their Boeotian helmets. It is seen as characteristically Boeotian, yet around 410-390 it is seldom seen on Boeotian pottery or grave reliefs where the Pilos helmet predominates. Many tend to associate the term Boeotian helmets with the wide open cavalry helmet perhaps best represented by the example in the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford.

Xenophon (Hell. 7.5.20) mentions that at Mantineia in 362 the Theban cavalry whitened their Boeotian helmets, perhaps to differentiate them from the Athenian cavalry who would have been using the same helmet.

It seems hard to date the adoption of the open faced Boeotian helmet. Xenophon writes "On the Duties of the Hipparch" around 365 and recommends the adoption of light troops to accompany cavalry, the hamippoi. The lekythos dedicated to Kephisodotos son of Konon (the Athens National Museum 3620) shows a light infantry man running while clutching a horses tail. The rider is wearing a Boeotian helmet. A similar hamippos is shown on an Athenian relief in the Musee du Lourve (744) where the rider is wearing a petasos or less likely a petasos helmet. And Xenophon famously recommends the use of the Boeotian helmet for not obstructing vision (On Horsemanship 12.3). Which all suggests that while the Boeotian is common in the 360's, not every cavalryman was wearing it.
By the time of Alexander it had become the standard helmet of the cavalry, often marked to denote rank as can be seen on the Alexander Sarcophagus and the Pompeiian mosaic. One helmet on the mosaic is silvered or tinned with a gold wreath and horsehair fixed to the crown, while another is bronze with a white horsetail. On the sarcophagus a helmet is in plain bronze but with a white or silver wreath.

The helmets were made by hammering out sheet bronze on to a stone former, and examples of such armourers models have been found in Egypt. On the top right is a model from the Allard Pierson Museum in Amsterdam, on the bottom right an example from the Louvre (1484), both 3rd century from Memphis.

The Ashmolean Boeotian was found in June 1854 in the River Tigris at the confluence with its tributary the Sert near Tille in present day Turkey. Mr R.B. Oakley of Oswaldkirk in Yorkshire was travelling down the Tigris to Mosul by raft when the helmet was lifted out of the water by accident by boat hook. Bought for around a shilling it was donated to Rugby School before coming to rest in the Ashmolean. This is one of my favourite helmets, with a very definite Yorkshire connection. Several years ago I developed a copy working with an Indian company, and various copies were sold commercially. These are far superior to the truly dreadful copy made and sold by Deepeeka and available via various websites.

My prototype done in brass fitted like a glove, but my production copy was a little large for me. These helmets sometimes display a series of punch holes in them. The Ashmolean example has two holes punched on each side presumably for a tying system. No "D-rings" are found with Greek helmets, so a system of leather or linen string attached directly to the helmet seems likely. I have used linen string in a way that mirrors the fastenings of the earlier Boeotian hat and petasos.

The helmet is prevented from being pulled forward by the tie around the back of the head, and is secured under the chin. The linen can be kept under the correct tension by the double-hole arrangement in the sides of the helmet.

Some Boeotian helmets display a line of punched holes around the rim as with the metal petasos helmet. But these holes are generally around the rear rim of the helmet. I puzzled about this for a number of years until I started to use the helmet. Often the metal rear rim of the helmet rubs the riders back, clothing or armour. But by sewing on a leather or rawhide edging the helmet is rendered more comfortable to wear. Less abrasion takes place and the helmet becomes safer.

Both the felt petasos and Boeotian hat develop into metal helmets, the petasos soon after the 440's and the Boeotian by before Marathon in 490. By the 360's the cavalry version of the Boeotian had developed, although another 30 years would pass before the helmet began to dominate. All of these hats and helmets had similar fastening systems, with one strap below the occipital bone around the rear of the head and another under the chin.

Generally it is believed that the cavalry Boeotian is a development of the earlier helmet, but I find as convincing that it develops from the metal petasos which seems closer to it in form, size of rim and time. Only Xenophon's use of the term Boeotian for his open faced helmet seems to weight against the idea.