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Why ancient armor had awesome abs

This sculpture from the first century BC depicts a fifth-century BC warrior's amazing abdominal armor.
This sculpture from the first century BC depicts a fifth-century BC warrior's amazing abdominal armor.
Universal History Archive/Getty Images

Why did Greek warriors have awesome abs and pecs hammered into their armor?

We know from ancient texts, pottery, and archaeological evidence that some ancient Greek warriors — like the citizen-soldier hoplites — wore uniforms that had the same aesthetic as a nippled Batman suit. And it's pretty clear that subsequent armies often worked off the buff Greek template.

Just take a look at this Greek cuirass (that's the name for the breastplate/back protective armor below). It's more than 2,000 years old, and you can still see the buff outline of nipples and well-defined abs:

Ancient abs can inspire us all. We don't know the exact date of this cuirass, but it's probably from 700 BC.

Ancient abs can inspire us all. We don't know the exact date of this cuirass, but it's probably from 700 BC.

Leemage/Getty Images

It's not just a historical phenomenon, either. This ripped armor has bled through to our pop culture, as well — Disney even gave its Hercules, the strongest man ever to live, a ripped breastplate just to drive the point home:

Hercules: you never knew he was strong until you saw his super-ripped armor.

Hercules: You never knew he was strong until you saw his super-ripped armor.

Disney via Wikia

Greeks had stylized chests, toned shoulder blades, amazing abs, and even shin plates that showed off their calves. They designed their armor to portray a type of "heroic nudity" — but why?

To find out, I asked Hans Van Wees and Lee L. Brice. Van Wees is a professor of ancient history at University College London and the author of Greek Warfare: Myths and Realities. Brice is a professor of ancient history at Western Illinois University and the editor of Greek Warfare: From the Battle of Marathon to the Conquests of Alexander the Great.

They shared what we know about why, from roughly 750 to 350 BC, Greek armor looked the way it did.

Why Greek armor had great pecs and toned abs

Possibly from the 6th century BC, this pottery shows a battle full of impressive ab-accentuating armor.

Possibly from the sixth century BC, this pottery shows a battle full of impressive ab-accentuating armor.

DEA/G. DAGLI ORTI/De Agostini/Getty Images

  • It was mostly aesthetic: The introduction of toned armor seems uniquely Greek — and the reason is more aesthetic than functional. There was no structural reinforcement that came from having six-pack outlines or little stylized nipples. "All the abstracts were for show," Brice notes. That's not limited to the cuirass — the crest on the helmet made a warrior look taller, but also made him look good.

    "It seems possible," Van Wees says, "that even when thoroughly covered up, they liked to appear as naked as possible." There's also evidence that sometimes the cuirasses were painted, since archaeologists have found traces of red paint.

  • It may have intimidated their enemies: The ancient historian Thucydides mentions cuirasses, and we can piece together more information from plays and works by Spartan poets like Alcman and Tyrtaeus. But the best evidence as to their purpose may come from Herodotus, who wrote glowingly of fighting "men of bronze." That hints at the impression Greek warriors might have given — they weren't just wearing bronze armor. In fact, it seemed like they were made of bronze themselves.

    But that intimidating armor wasn't a given for all soldiers — you only looked ripped on the battlefield if you had the cash.

Hot armor was for the rich. The rest had linen and a shield.

An illustration depicts soldiers fighting in tunics that fail to show off any fake abdominal muscles.

An illustration depicts soldiers fighting in tunics that fail to show off any fake abdominal muscles.

Print Collector/Getty Images

"For the upper classes, the cultivation of a muscular, athletic body was a matter of status and prestige," Van Wees says. "Wearing bronze body armor was also for the elite only."

We can guess that those buff bronze cuirasses were mostly reserved for wealthy soldiers. The data's thin, but one ancient historian tells of a man who armed his forces with just one cuirass for every 10 soldiers. That's backed up by the archaeological evidence we've found in ancient temples. "There are about 10 times as many helmets as pieces of body armor," Van Wees says.

So what did poor soldiers use? Probably linen tunics, which haven't survived in the archeological record. It sounds pitiful compared with bronze breastplates, but both Van Wees and Brice note recent experiments reconstructing ancient linen body armor, and those experiments show it would have been surprisingly effective.

The cuirass was second to more important military innovations: The aspis, the wooden circular shield that you see in the pictures above, and the spear were crucial to Greek military success. That explains the coverage of the cuirass — for the most part, Greeks were protected by their shields. The shield was the key Van Wees says, "and the rest of the armor is on top of that." Some wealthy Greeks had arm or shoulder guards, but these probably served more of an ornamental than functional purpose.

"All the armor we regularly think of was protective," Brice notes, "but could also display wealth and prestige."

Greeks were inspired to heroism by great beach bodies

A modern monument to Leonidas, the famous Spartan. Note the embellished cuirass.

A modern monument to Leonidas, the famous Spartan. Note the embellished cuirass.

PHAS/Getty Images

So if linen got the job done, what's the point of all the armor? These Greek soldiers were frequently amateurs — farming was their main gig. "They were often physically fit," Brice says, "but not always as expert in fighting as those who could afford to train often (like the Spartans)." We can only speculate about the psychology behind Greek armor, but it's a fair guess that there was an aspirational element to the cuirasses — they were about preparing both the soldier and his enemy for epic conflict.

Ancient abs also reveal a lot about Greek values, including how much Greeks idolized the upper body. A toned torso symbolized the ideal in daily life, and that made it the ideal on the battlefield as well.

So ideal, in fact, that soldiers made sure their armor had perfect abs, pecs, and nipples that we can still see today, more than 2,000 years after the fighting has ended.


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