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 and Chalcidian type helmets. The form of any 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 utilized 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, with the increasing importance of lighter equipment and tactical flexibility. This prompted the development of open-faced helmets, which gave the soldier greater visibility and ventilation with the inclusion of apertures for the ears. The Samno-Attic helmet was essentially a further development of the Chalcidian/Attic type that saw the disappearance of the nasal guard and a more spherical dome.
This incredibly well preserved Samno-Attic helmet retains its high-flung wings and hinged cheek-pieces, both remarkably still joined to the headpiece by the original rivets. The contoured dome was hammered from a single thick sheet, with fine carination bifurcating to a peak at the centre visor. The surface throughout displays an exuberant dense green patina that has developed over the last two millennia. The face is fully open, but for a short peaked vestigial nose-guard. This stylistic innovation gave the soldier greater visibility and ventilation, allowing for tactical flexibility and increased mobility. The helmet flares at the back along the short protective neck-guard and curves upwards to arched apertures to accommodate the soldier’s ears. The entire periphery, including the cheek-guards, is edged with small regular perforations which would have been threaded through to join a protective leather liner.
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 featuring a variety of different crests (National Archaeological Museum, Naples, Inv. 9363).
Helmets of this type have been found predominantly in southern Italy, in Samno-Lucanian inhabited areas of the fifth to third centuries BC. They are closely associated with the Samnite panoply, which consisted of a triple-disc or muscled cuirass, a belt and greaves, several examples of which have been found in Campania and Puglia. The Samno-Attic helmet 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 local native Italic tribes that migrated south from central Italy in the late fifth to early fourth century BC, moving into the coastal plains and eventually occupying the entire region from Campania to the southern tip of the Italian peninsula. In doing so, they mingled with other regional peoples and became highly influenced by Greek colonists who had already settled in the area. Their armour reflects this conflation of styles. The Samnites were formidable warriors and they proved to be one of early Rome’s great 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. It has been suggested that the disappearance of the Samno-Attic helmet and other culturally distinct features from the third century onwards was a marked feature of Rome’s domination of Italy.
Samno-Attic helmets can be found depicted in contemporary regional South Italian art, especially vase painting. For instance, three warriors armed in such helmets are shown on a red-figure hydria from Campania, attributed to the Ixion Painter and now in the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston (Inv. 1970.238, dating to the late fourth century BC). A soldier dons 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), the Louvre (Inv. 1129 C6968), and the Mougins Museum of Classical Art (Inv. 591). All are dated to the fifth to fourth century BC.
Private Collection, Germany, 1950-1960s.
New York Art Market, 2000s.
Private Collection, London, 2011-2015.