Muscle cuirass
In classical antiquity
Classical antiquity
Classical antiquity is a broad term for a long period of cultural history centered on the Mediterranean Sea, comprising the interlocking civilizations of ancient Greece and ancient Rome, collectively known as the Greco-Roman world...

, the muscle cuirass or heroic cuirass is a type of body armor cast to fit the wearer's torso and designed to mimic an idealized human physique. It first appears in late Archaic Greece and became widespread throughout the 5th– 4th centuries BC. It is commonly depicted in Greek and Roman art, where it is worn by generals, emperors, and deities during periods when soldiers used other types.

In Roman sculpture
Roman sculpture
The study of ancient Roman sculpture is complicated by its relation to Greek sculpture. Many examples of even the most famous Greek sculptures, such as the Apollo Belvedere and Barberini Faun, are known only from Roman Imperial or Hellenistic "copies." At one time, this imitation was taken by art...

, the muscle cuirass is often highly ornamented with mythological scenes
Greek mythology
Greek mythology is the body of myths and legends belonging to the ancient Greeks, concerning their gods and heroes, the nature of the world, and the origins and significance of their own cult and ritual practices. They were a part of religion in ancient Greece...

. Archaeological finds of relatively unadorned cuirasses, as well as their depiction by artists in military scenes, indicate that simpler versions were worn in combat situations. The anatomy of muscle cuirasses intended for use might be either realistic or reduced to an abstract design; the fantastically illustrated cuirasses worn by gods and emperors in Roman statues usually incorporate realistic nipple
In its most general form, a nipple is a structure from which a fluid emanates. More specifically, it is the projection on the breasts or udder of a mammal by which breast milk is delivered to a mother's young. In this sense, it is often called a teat, especially when referring to non-humans, and...

s and the navel
The navel is a scar on the abdomen caused when the umbilical cord is removed from a newborn baby...

 within the scene depicted.


Although the heavy muscle cuirass would have afforded sturdy protection, in practical terms it might have been too cumbersome, not to mention cost prohibitive, for regular use by an infantryman. The main purpose of the highly figured cuirass was to impress, and it was likely reserved for military reviews and parades.

The cuirasses were cast in two pieces, the front and the back, then hammered. They were a development from the early Archaic bell-shaped cuirass, weighing about 25 pounds. Fifth-century examples have been found in the tombs of Thracians
The ancient Thracians were a group of Indo-European tribes inhabiting areas including Thrace in Southeastern Europe. They spoke the Thracian language – a scarcely attested branch of the Indo-European language family...

, whose cavalrymen wore them. The earliest surviving depiction in Greek sculpture seems to be an example on a sculptural warrior's torso found on the acropolis of Athens
Acropolis of Athens
The Acropolis of Athens or Citadel of Athens is the best known acropolis in the world. Although there are many other acropoleis in Greece, the significance of the Acropolis of Athens is such that it is commonly known as The Acropolis without qualification...

 and dating around 470–460 BC. The muscle cuirass is also depicted on Attic red-figure pottery, which dates from around 530 BC and into the late 3rd century BC.

From around 475 to 450 BC, the muscle cuirass is shorter, covering less of the abdomen, and more nipped at the waist than in later examples. It was worn over a chitoniskos. In neo-Attic art
Neo-Attic or Atticizing is a sculptural style, beginning in Hellenistic sculpture and vase-painting of the 2nd century BCE and climaxing in Roman art of the 2nd century CE, copying, adapting or closely following the style shown in reliefs and statues of the Classical and Archaic periods...

, the muscle cuirass was worn over a longer chiton
Chiton (costume)
A chiton was a form of clothing worn by men and women in Ancient Greece, from the Archaic period to the Hellenistic period ....

. Tomb II at Vergina contained an iron muscle cuirass that was decorated with embossed gold.

The Italian muscle cuirass lacked the shoulder-guards found on Greek examples. Examples among the Samnites and Oscans sketch a blockier torso more roughly than the anatomically realistic Greek pieces. Many examples come from graves in Campania
Campania is a region in southern Italy. The region has a population of around 5.8 million people, making it the second-most-populous region of Italy; its total area of 13,590 km² makes it the most densely populated region in the country...

, Etruria
Etruria—usually referred to in Greek and Latin source texts as Tyrrhenia—was a region of Central Italy, an area that covered part of what now are Tuscany, Latium, Emilia-Romagna, and Umbria. A particularly noteworthy work dealing with Etruscan locations is D. H...

, and elsewhere in southern Italy.

Polybius , Greek ) was a Greek historian of the Hellenistic Period noted for his work, The Histories, which covered the period of 220–146 BC in detail. The work describes in part the rise of the Roman Republic and its gradual domination over Greece...

 omits the muscle cuirass in his description of the types of armor worn by the Roman army, but archaeological finds and artistic depictions suggest that it was worn in combat. The monument of Aemilius Paulus at Delphi
Delphi is both an archaeological site and a modern town in Greece on the south-western spur of Mount Parnassus in the valley of Phocis.In Greek mythology, Delphi was the site of the Delphic oracle, the most important oracle in the classical Greek world, and a major site for the worship of the god...

 shows two Roman infantrymen wearing mail shirts
Lorica hamata
The lorica hamata is a type of mail armour used by the Roman Republic and the Roman Empire. During the 1st century it was starting to be supplemented by lorica segmentata, but had been reintroduced as sole standard-issue armor by the 4th century. It was issued for both primary Legionary and...

 alongside three who wear muscle cuirasses. They were worn mostly by officers, and may have been molded leather as well as metal, with fringed leather (pteryges) at the armholes and lower edge. The muscle cuirass is one of the elements that distinguished a senior officer's "uniform."

Artistic qualities

Cuirasse esthétique

The sculptural replicating of the human body in the muscle cuirass may be inspired by the concept of heroic nudity
Heroic nudity
Heroic nudity or ideal nudity is a concept in classical scholarship to describe the use of nudity in classical sculpture to indicate that a sculpture's apparently mortal human subject is in fact a hero or semi-divine being. This convention began in archaic and classical Greece and was later adopted...

, and the development of the muscle cuirass has been linked to the idealized portraiture of the male body in Greek art. Kenneth Clark
Kenneth Clark
Kenneth McKenzie Clark, Baron Clark, OM, CH, KCB, FBA was a British author, museum director, broadcaster, and one of the best-known art historians of his generation...

 attributes the development of an idealized standard musculature, varied from the facts of nature, to Polykleitos
Polykleitos ; called the Elder, was a Greek sculptor in bronze of the fifth and the early 4th century BCE...



Hellenistic rulers
Hellenistic civilization
Hellenistic civilization represents the zenith of Greek influence in the ancient world from 323 BCE to about 146 BCE...

 added divine emblems such as thunderbolts to the shoulder flaps.

Another conventional decoration is the gorgoneion
In Ancient Greece, the Gorgoneion was originally a horror-creating apotropaic pendant showing the Gorgon's head. It was assimilated by the Olympian deities Zeus and Athena: both are said to have worn it as a protective pendant...

, or Medusa's head, on the upper chest, and often vegetative motifs on the pectorals. One of the elements of iconography that identify the Greek Athena
In Greek mythology, Athena, Athenê, or Athene , also referred to as Pallas Athena/Athene , is the goddess of wisdom, courage, inspiration, civilization, warfare, strength, strategy, the arts, crafts, justice, and skill. Minerva, Athena's Roman incarnation, embodies similar attributes. Athena is...

 and the Roman Minerva
Minerva was the Roman goddess whom Romans from the 2nd century BC onwards equated with the Greek goddess Athena. She was the virgin goddess of poetry, medicine, wisdom, commerce, weaving, crafts, magic...

, goddesses who embodied the strategic side of warfare, was a breastplate
A breastplate is a device worn over the torso to protect it from injury, as an item of religious significance, or as an item of status. A breastplate is sometimes worn by mythological beings as a distinctive item of clothing.- Armour :...

 bearing a gorgoneion (see Aegis
An aegis is a large collar or cape worn in ancient times to display the protection provided by a high religious authority or the holder of a protective shield signifying the same, such as a bag-like garment that contained a shield. Sometimes the garment and the shield are merged, with a small...

). Other deities, particularly the war gods Ares
Ares is the Greek god of war. He is one of the Twelve Olympians, and the son of Zeus and Hera. In Greek literature, he often represents the physical or violent aspect of war, in contrast to the armored Athena, whose functions as a goddess of intelligence include military strategy and...

 and Mars, could be portrayed with muscle cuirasses.

Roman emperors

Among freestanding sculptures portraying Roman emperor
Roman Emperor
The Roman emperor was the ruler of the Roman State during the imperial period . The Romans had no single term for the office although at any given time, a given title was associated with the emperor...

s, a common type shows the emperor wearing a highly ornamented muscle cuirass, often with a scene from mythology
Roman mythology
Roman mythology is the body of traditional stories pertaining to ancient Rome's legendary origins and religious system, as represented in the literature and visual arts of the Romans...

. Figures such as winged victories
Nike (mythology)
In Greek mythology, Nike was a goddess who personified victory, also known as the Winged Goddess of Victory. The Roman equivalent was Victoria. Depending upon the time of various myths, she was described as the daughter of Pallas and Styx and the sister of Kratos , Bia , and Zelus...

, enemies in defeat, and virtues personified represent the emperor as master of the world. Symbolic arrangements this elaborate never appear on Greek cuirasses.

The cuirass on the famous Augustus of Prima Porta
Augustus of Prima Porta
Augustus of Prima Porta is a 2.04m high marble statue of Augustus Caesar which was discovered on April 20, 1863, in the Villa of Livia at Prima Porta, near Rome. Augustus Caesar's wife, Livia Drusilla, retired to the villa after his death. The sculpture is now displayed in the Braccio Nuovo of...

is particularly ornate. In the center, a Roman officer is about to receive a Roman military standard (aquila
Aquila (Roman)
The Aquila was the eagle standard of a Roman legion, carried by a special grade legionary known as an Aquilifer. One eagle standard was carried by each legion.-History:...

from a bearded "barbarian" who appears to be a Parthian
Parthian Empire
The Parthian Empire , also known as the Arsacid Empire , was a major Iranian political and cultural power in ancient Persia...

. The Roman, who has a hound
A hound is a type of dog that assists hunters by tracking or chasing the animal being hunted. It can be contrasted with the gun dog, which assists hunters by identifying the location of prey, and with the retriever, which recovers shot quarry...

 at his side, is most often identified as a young Tiberius
Tiberius , was Roman Emperor from 14 AD to 37 AD. Tiberius was by birth a Claudian, son of Tiberius Claudius Nero and Livia Drusilla. His mother divorced Nero and married Augustus in 39 BC, making him a step-son of Octavian...

, and the scene is usually read as the return in 20 BC of the standards lost at the Battle of Carrhae
Battle of Carrhae
The Battle of Carrhae, fought in 53 BC near the town of Carrhae, was a major battle between the Parthian Empire and the Roman Republic. The Parthian Spahbod Surena decisively defeated a Roman invasion force led by Marcus Licinius Crassus...

 in 53. The anatomically realistic navel (Greek omphalos
An omphalos is an ancient religious stone artifact, or baetylus. In Greek, the word omphalos means "navel" . According to the ancient Greeks, Zeus sent out two eagles to fly across the world to meet at its center, the "navel" of the world...

, Latin umbilicus) is placed between the two central figures, slightly below ground level in relation to the feet and centered above the personification of Earth, positioned over the abdomen. Her reclining position, cornucopia
The cornucopia or horn of plenty is a symbol of abundance and nourishment, commonly a large horn-shaped container overflowing with produce, flowers, nuts, other edibles, or wealth in some form...

, and the presence of suckling babies is common to other goddesses in Augustan art who represent peace and prosperity. Other figures include a lyre-playing Apollo
Apollo is one of the most important and complex of the Olympian deities in Greek and Roman mythology...

 riding a griffin
The griffin, griffon, or gryphon is a legendary creature with the body of a lion and the head and wings of an eagle...

, Diana
Diana (mythology)
In Roman mythology, Diana was the goddess of the hunt and moon and birthing, being associated with wild animals and woodland, and having the power to talk to and control animals. She was equated with the Greek goddess Artemis, though she had an independent origin in Italy...

 on the back of a hind
Red Deer
The red deer is one of the largest deer species. Depending on taxonomy, the red deer inhabits most of Europe, the Caucasus Mountains region, Asia Minor, parts of western Asia, and central Asia. It also inhabits the Atlas Mountains region between Morocco and Tunisia in northwestern Africa, being...

, and the quadriga
A quadriga is a car or chariot drawn by four horses abreast . It was raced in the Ancient Olympic Games and other contests. It is represented in profile as the chariot of gods and heroes on Greek vases and in bas-relief. The quadriga was adopted in ancient Roman chariot racing...

 of the Sun at the top.

See also

  • Nio dou or dō, a Japanese cuirass embossed to resemble the emaciated torso of a starving monk or old man.
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