This type of helmet is so called because of its close association with the Samnite warriors of central and southern Italy, and its derivation from the Greek Attic or Chalcidian type. The form of a helmet was first and foremost functional, and its evolution was entirely dependent on the type of warfare fought and the cultural and artistic traditions of those who used it. Greek and Italic helmets of the fifth and fourth centuries BC, such as this example, evolved with new features to adapt to changing tactics in warfare, as the need for lighter equipment and tactical flexibility became increasingly important. This prompted the development of open-faced helmets, which gave the soldier greater visibility and ventilation.
This fine example is particularly striking because of its dense green patina and crystalline, pitted surface that sparkles as the light dances off its fluid contours. Remarkably, it retains its original wings and cheek-pieces. Open-faced with a high gabled brow, the base of the brow band has a slightly pointed V above the area of the nose – a vestige of the nasal-guard on earlier types of helmet across the Greek world in the Archaic and early Classical period. Other features include hinged cheek-pieces, a closefitting, short neck-guard, and tall arching cut-outs for the ears. As with the cheek-pieces, these are perforated along their peripheries and would have been threaded to accommodate an interior lining that acted as padding for the head. The helmet’s specific features indicate that it belongs to the earliest versions of the type, from the late fifth to early fourth century BC. The early examples are usually undecorated, emphasizing the helmet’s inherent beauty and simplicity of form. Some examples contain crest fixtures, removable holders in the form of bronze tubes or springs, sometimes hidden behind the wings or affixed transversely across the dome, which would originally have held brightly-coloured feathers. A fresco from Nola, dating to the fourth century BC, depicts Samnite soldiers wearing Samno-Attic helmets that feature a variety of different crests (National Archaeological Museum, Naples, Inv. 9363).
Samno-Attic helmets have been found predominantly in southern Italy, in Samno-Lucanian inhabited areas of the fifth to third centuries BC, frequently together with the Samnite panoply. This helmet type represents the most frequently depicted headgear in Samno-Lucanian tomb paintings and Campanian pottery wares. Controlling a large swathe of Italy, from coast to coast, the Samnites were a confederation of four of the most powerful tribes, who together formed one of early Rome’s most formidable rivals. Reflecting their military prowess and perhaps out of respect, or fear, the Romans referred to them as belliger Samnis, ‘the warrior Samnites’. In fact, the Samnites fought three bloody wars against the Roman Republic, in 343-341 BC, 326-304 BC, and 298-290 BC, until they were finally quashed by the expanding Roman state. Crucially, it has been suggested that the disappearance of the Samno-Attic helmet and other culturally distinct types from the third century onwards was a marked feature of Rome’s domination of Italy.
Samno-Attic helmets are depicted on a variety of southern Italian vases. For instance, three warriors are shown on a red-figure hydria from Campania attributed to the Ixion Painter in the Museum of Fine Arts (MFA), Boston, MA (Inv. 1970.238, dating to the late fourth century BC). A soldier wears this type of helmet on the celebrated ‘Warrior’s Return’ fresco in the National Archaeological Museum, Paestum (Inv. 5626, early fourth century BC). Similar helmets are displayed in the National Archaeological Museum, Naples (Inv. 5741), and the Louvre (Inv. 1129 C6968), dating to the fifth to fourth century BC.
German Private Collection, 1950s-60s.
Axel Guttmann Collection, inventory (AG569/H 206)
New York art market, 2000s.
Private Collection, London, 2011.