From Masks to Helmets; specifically the Corinthian, Illyrian and Arcadian/Laconian types pictured from left to right in this photograph taken in the Benaki Museum, Athens. Helmets are of course primarily defensive pieces of armour, but their decoration reveals their auxiliary function identifying friend from foe on the battlefield. Massed ranks of soldiers uniformly attired also have a psychological effect, inspiring what modern tacticians might call “shock and awe” in the opposition, and boosting courage in the wearer.
A uniform also lends an identity to the wearer, sometimes the most important identity a person possesses if they are young and as yet unformed. This graveyard stele (right), photographed in the National Archaeology Museum in Athens, depicts the tomb’s inhabitant, an Athenian soldier.
The accompanying inscription tells the reader that the man died young, in service, and without a family of his own. Wearing his uniform in perpetuam on the stele gives his death some deeper meaning, a tradition we continue to this day with flags, poppies and other symbols of military Remembrance.
Society is generally good at creating roles for its constituent members. Regardless of what sociopolitical system is in place, their continued operation depends on the consent of the population being governed. The Greeks recognised four main systems: tyranny, oligarchy, timocracy and democracy, but were more open-minded than we tend to be today about which system is “best” for the population, and about what metric is optimally suited to define “best”. Regardless, even the most tyrannical regime depends of the consent of a critical mass of its population to survive. Without this, revolution ensues, as the populations of several Arab countries would attest to this year.
People generally like being assigned a role by society, even if the role is to be an angry outsider. It gives them the luxury of a pre-fabricated identity, and saves them the effort to trying to create an identity of their own. Society also benefits, because most people given a social identity tend to be quite predictable in their actions and will reinforce the status quo of the polity governing them. Deciding on one’s own identity/meaning – the process of psychological integration Jung called individuation – is a never-ending process with uncertain outcome.
Nonetheless, it does offer the prospect of defining a more profound and personal meaning. This votive relief (below) depicts an athlete crowning himself with a wreath; the holes show where a metal wreath was attached. It is an appropriate image to end this post with; the ultimate symbolic seizing of one’s own destiny.