A Different Brand Of Men’s Linen Suit


Raxa Collective is fortunate to have classicist contributor, James, currently in the field with Seth in Costa Rica. Slacklining, occasional ichnologizing, and restoring a coffee plantation are (we think) the perfect prelude to a Ph.D. program in Classics. James will be in Cambridge, Massachusetts for the next few years, utilizing the Latin, Classical Greek and other languages he has already mastered, preparing to teach the next generation in the liberal arts. We never know, nor really need to know, where the liberal arts may take us. They are important for the sake of thinking and communicating effectively, in any walk of life, and we hope they remain alive and well in perpetuity for undergraduate university students.

We also hope that while he is in Costa Rica James has the chance to visit the home Seth grew up in, across the Central Valley from Xandari, where some of Raxa Collective’s contributors have had the opportunity to see the uniform of Seth’s great-great grandfather on display. More than a century old, and lovingly restored by a friend of Seth’s family who does museum restoration work, the uniform looks something like what Alexander the Great may have worn. After seeing it James may have more to say on this post by Joshua Rothman on the New Yorker website’s “New ideas from the arts and sciences” section:

Intellectual life thrives on mystery. When it comes to ancient Greece, one of those mysteries is the linothorax—the flimsy-looking, hip-length armor that you see warriors wearing on Greek vases. (Linothorax means, literally, “linen chest.”) Why go to war, archaeologists have wondered, in what looks to be a linen minidress? While a linothoraxlets you show off your muscular legs to great effect, it hardly seems like practical protection against the enemy’s swords and arrows. And yet, judging by how frequently linothoraxes are represented in Greek art, they were extraordinarily popular among soldiers in ancient Greece and around the Mediterranean between 600 and 200 B.C. Because no linothoraxes have survived—linen doesn’t last—no one knows why.

About eight years ago, Greg Aldrete, a professor of history at the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay, decided to get to the bottom of this. At the time, he was teaching a course on the history of ancient Greece; among his students was a young man named Scott Bartell. Bartell was so obsessed with Alexander the Great that he got an Alexander tattoo; he was also fascinated by the linothorax, Alexander’s preferred armor. One day, Bartell went to a local fabric store, bought a lot of linen, made his own, and presented it to Aldrete, asking for help in making it more accurate. “It was when I went to look up some info for Scott that I found out that the linothorax is a kind of mystery armor,” Aldrete said. “There are lots of literary attestations that it existed—there are descriptions from Egyptians, Romans, Persians, Carthaginians, Greeks, Macedonians, tribes in Spain, really all over the Mediterranean basin—and we have images. But no one really understood how well it worked or how it was made. We decided to try to reconstruct it.”

Aldrete assembled a crack team for his linothorax project: Bartell, himself, and his wife, Alicia Aldrete. They started by searching out images of the armor. At the university library, Alicia looked through all hundred and fifty volumes of the Corpus Vasorum Antiquorum, a vast reference work that catalogues Greek vases from around the world. They compiled a database with almost a thousand images of linothoraxes, taken from vase paintings, wall paintings, sculptures, sarcophagi, and figurines. From the images, they derived a linothorax pattern, like the sort of pattern a tailor might use. They built prototype linothoraxes out of cardboard, focussing on the little details. “We discovered that a lot of the features that look sort of random are actually highly functional,” Aldrete said. “There’s a little tab on the back of the neck which looks ornamental, but it actually protects you perfectly if someone tries to strike you with an axe.”

There’s considerable debate about what, exactly, linothoraxes were made of. (The texts that mention linothoraxes, like the Iliad, don’t include how-to instructions.) Were they actually made of linen, or could they have been made of leather? Did they have metal plates sewn into them? For that matter, were they sewn together or glued? Glued, or “laminated,” linen, Aldrete knew, was a common ancient-Greek material: scraps of it have been found at Greek archaeological sites, and the Greeks constructed their theatrical masks out of it. Almost as if to prove that linen, all by itself, could be effective as armor, Aldrete’s team decided to go the laminated-linen route. They bought old-school linen from a local artisan weaver, who grew, spun, and wove flax into linen herself, without chemical additives; from art supply stores, they bought rabbit glue, which some oil painters use to prime their canvasses. The ancient world had a number of very advanced glue recipes, including recipes for waterproof glues, but rabbit glue, Aldrete reasoned, was made the same way today as it was back then: “Take a rabbit, take the skin, scrape off some of the stuff, and dry it into a powder.”

In Aldrete’s basement, the team built a giant slab of laminated linen and tried to cut the fabric according to a pattern, the way a tailor would. It was too tough. “We tried scissors, we tried a bolt cutter,” Aldrete said. “Finally, we had to use an electric jigsaw that’s used to cut through metal—obviously, that’s not what the Greeks did.” Chastened, they took a different approach, assembling each piece from individual layers of linen. Agrippa, the Aldretes’ black lab, salivated over the rabbit glue—“from his perspective, we were making tasty chew treats,” Aldrete said—but, once he was shooed away, they were able to make a number of full-size linothoraxes, complete with decorations, including a Gorgon…

…“There’s one Greek vase that shows, on one side, a bunch of women weaving, and, on the other side, a woman handing armor to a man who’s putting it on to go to war. You don’t need expensive metals, or a blacksmith, to make a linothorax. Any farm could produce them. You can envision wives making them for their husbands, mothers making them for their sons,” he said. “In debates about ancient armor, that’s one of the flaws. People say, That’s wrong. They forget that everything was a handmade, artisan object. No two are going to be alike.”

In the past few years, word’s gotten around about the linothorax. (Last year, the Aldretes and Bartell published a book about the project: “Reconstructing Ancient Linen Body Armor: Unraveling the Linothorax Mystery.”) Hoplite reënactors in Greece have contacted Aldrete with offers of collaboration…

Read the whole post here.

2 thoughts on “A Different Brand Of Men’s Linen Suit

  1. Pingback: Note To A Classicist, For The Day When He May Seek Employment | Raxa Collective

  2. Pingback: Laughing At, And With, Ancient Rome | Raxa Collective

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