Unraveling the linothorax mystery, or how linen armor came to dominate our lives

Guest post by Alicia Aldrete

As the wife, research assistant, and sometimes coauthor of an ancient historian who teaches at the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay, I had expected to spend many hours in libraries, wandering through foreign museums, and climbing around ancient sites. However, I had not foreseen large groups of weapon-wielding students in our yard, or my husband, Gregory Aldrete, shooting arrows at them.

When one of Greg’s students—our coauthor, Scott Bartell—decided to make himself a replica of the armor that Alexander the Great is shown wearing on the famous “Alexander Mosaic” from Pompeii, none of us realized that the next six years of our lives would be dominated by the quest to understand and evaluate that armor. Known as the linothorax, it was a popular form of armor from at least the time of Homer through the Hellenistic period. Apparently made primarily out of linen, the armor had been afforded little attention by scholars because no extant specimens have survived. In order to appreciate how the linothorax might have been constructed and its effectiveness on the battlefield, we worked on reverse engineering it after extensive study of ancient images of linothorax-wearing warriors depicted in vase paintings, reliefs, sculptures, and tomb paintings. I spent countless hours in libraries examining every page of the hundreds of oversized volumes of the Corpus Vasorum Antiquorum, which catalogs the Greek vases in museums around the world; I’m sure that the students assigned to reshelving duties during those weeks dreaded my arrival every morning. Every time we visited a museum, we kept our eyes peeled for possible linothorakes; and while one expects to find plenty represented in the museums of Greece and Italy, we were pleased to find them in Kansas City and Odessa (in the Ukraine) as well.  Suddenly, as so often happens during research, the linothorax was everywhere.

We encountered some special challenges when constructing our linothorakes. At first, like fashion designers, we made numerous patterns out of paper and then cardboard, until we achieved our optimal design. Then came the tricky part. Because we wanted to employ only materials that would have been available in the ancient Mediterranean, we had to get a hold of handspun, handwoven linen. Since most linen these days is machine-made, we couldn’t just go to the local fabric store. However, we soon discovered that even linen purporting to be handwoven was still typically machine-harvested and processed using modern methods, such as treatment with chemicals. To achieve as much historical authenticity as possible, we needed linen made from flax that had been grown, harvested, and processed by hand as well, using only traditional methods. As we discovered, not many people have the dedication to do this. After much searching, we managed to find a woman who actually grew and harvested her own flax and then spun and wove it into linen, practically in our own back yard—in Fond du Lac, Wisconsin. Rabbit glue, which sounds more challenging, was actually easier to acquire, since artists who paint using traditional methods still prime canvases with it; we ordered it from an art supplies catalog, and merely needed to rehydrate and heat the rabbit powder in a double boiler.

Three versions of reconstructed linothorakes. The one on the left is modeled after the linothorax worn by Alexander the Great in the "Alexander Mosaic" from Pompeii.

Three versions of reconstructed linothorakes. The one on the left is modeled after the linothorax worn by Alexander the Great in the “Alexander Mosaic” from Pompeii.

Another challenge was perfecting the construction process. By trial and error, we discovered the ideal tools: a turkey baster to squirt the rabbit glue onto a piece of linen and a putty knife to spread it evenly. We also figured out—the hard way—that the ancients probably cut each layer of linen to the proper shape before gluing them together. For our first linothorax, we glued together 15 layers of linen to form a one centimeter-thick slab, and then tried to cut out the required shape. Large shears were defeated; bolt cutters failed. The only way we were ultimately able to cut the laminated linen slab was with an electric saw equipped with a blade for cutting metal. At least this confirmed our suspicion that linen armor would have been extremely tough. We also found out that linen stiffened with rabbit glue strikes dogs as in irresistibly tasty rabbit-flavored chew toy, and that our Labrador retriever should not be left alone with our research project.

While we subjected our laminated linen patches to hundreds of carefully measured arrow tests, we also engaged in some less scientific testing of their durability. Greg’s students enthusiastically stabbed, hacked, slashed, and pounded them with various maces, axes, spears, and swords, helping us to demonstrate what kind of protection laminated linen armor would have provided. While all of this mayhem (both scientifically controlled and free-form) convinced us that our linothorax was ancient-battlefield-ready, we still felt compelled to try a real-life scenario, so Scott donned the armor and Greg shot him. And while we had confidence in our armor, our relief was still considerable when the arrowhead stuck and lodged in the armor’s outer layers, a safe distance away from flesh.

The aim of our research had been to go back in time, reconstruct something over a millennium old, and experience what it would have been like to use it. The process of doing so certainly led to some memorable and unexpected experiences for all of us.

aldreteAlicia Aldrete is coauthor, with Gregory S. Aldrete and Scott Bartell, of Reconstructing Ancient Linen Body Armor: Unraveling the Linothorax Mystery. The website of the University of Wisconsin–Green Bay’s Linothorax Project contains more behind-the-scenes information on this unparalleled effort, including an eight-minute mini-documentary and additional images.


Filed under Ancient, Behind the Scenes, History, Writing

9 responses to “Unraveling the linothorax mystery, or how linen armor came to dominate our lives

  1. Pingback: Unraveling the linothorax mystery, or how linen armor came to dominate our lives | jhublogs

  2. Wes

    Interesting bit of armor, for sure. Cheap to make, even for the common cannon fodder troops. An obvious drawback would be RAIN, or even high humidity. Also, one would probably soak the armor after assembly to form fit it to the wearer.

    Very interesting indeed. Was it very heavy?

    • We found that even more of a threat than rain was one’s own sweat on a hot day. So, yes, it does need waterproofing, both inside and out. We did a number of experiments along those lines, and found that rubbing a block of beeswax over all sides of the armor provided nice waterproofing. It also makes the armor smell nice! When you wear it for a couple hours, your own body heat softens the glue a bit and makes it conform to your body shape, so it is much more comfortable to wear than rigid types of armor. Our reconstructions weighed about 10 pounds–about one third the weight of bronze armor that would provide the same degree of protection. Thanks for the questions!

  3. Sort of reminiscent of the padded jacks worn by archers in the Wars of te Roses.

  4. Brittney Miler

    Beyond awesome. I love reverse engineering. Never stop !!

  5. Pingback: Linen As Armor | Loudoun Sampler Guild

  6. David Karunanithy

    Interesting video, and by the way I bought a copy of your book and found it an excellent, engrossing read!

    One point I’d like to raise is about colouring the linen cuirass. Do you believe Alexander’s pezhetairoi would have bleached or dyed their armour? I can well imagine the rich, aristocratic Companions doing this (as art attests), but what about the common infantry? Would they have left their armour undyed and / or with minimal colouring (at least before the massive windfall of wealth following the conquest of Persia)? You state on p. 139 of your book that leaving the linen cuirass undyed had practical advantages during a sustained campagin.

    • Thank you for the comments. While we don’t have any written accounts dealing with the coloring of armor in Alexander’s army (in fact not even Alexander’s armor is described in too great of detail), we do, however, have a fair amount of tomb paintings or mosaics showing quite colorful linothorax-wearing Macedonian soldiers. There is also a bit of color still observable on the Alexander Sarcophagus. While it can’t be said for certain that any of these soldiers are pezhetairoi, we can see that it was fairly common to color or dye the linothorax to however it suited your interest; there doesn’t appear to be a standard color scheme or design. I can very well imagine a soldier adding more elaborate designs or dying parts of the armor repeatedly as the campaign went on and the colors began to fade. Unfortunately, there isn’t any written evidence for a lot concerning the individualization of the linothorax, though it is clear from the hundreds of artistic portrayals that it was highly customizable. The advantage to leaving the armor undyed or natural is that the wear and tear from everyday use wouldn’t show as clear; dirt stains would blend in with linen left in its natural state more so than on bleached material. It is worth noting that when exposed to sun over time linen will lose its khaki-like coloring and turn an off-white or beige color due to simple exposure.

  7. David Titterington

    Hi there,
    I was wondering: have you made comparisons between your prototype and other armour types from the era used by other cultures (chain, lorica segmenta, etc)? Do you have any thoughts as to why linothorax died out? It seems like a pretty amazing material, light yet protective – what advantages did other armour types have over it, either in terms of performance or production.
    This is a really fascinating project!