The primary purpose of greaves is to protect the tibia from attack. The tibia is a bone very close to the skin, and is therefore extremely vulnerable to just about any kind of attack. Furthermore, a successful attack on the shin results in that leg being rendered useless, greatly hampering one's ability to maneuver in any way. Greaves were used to counteract this. Greaves usually consisted of a metal exterior with an inner padding of felt. The felt padding was particularly important because, without it, any blow would transfer directly from the metal plating to the shin, rendering the piece of armour almost useless.
Ancient Greece and Rome
During Greek times, greaves were mentioned in many texts, including Hesiod’s Shield of Heracles, Homer’s Iliad and Virgil’s Aeneid. While these are primarily mythological texts, they still dealt with warfare and the fact that greaves were mentioned is evidence that they were indeed in use. There are also non-fictional testimonies of their use among Roman light infantry (or hastati) from Polybius and Vegetius. These greaves were thought to be mass-produced by the Romans using presses on sheets of metal and attaching lining, usually leather or cloth. While it is generally assumed that greaves were generally worn in pairs, significant amounts of evidence has been found that many wore just a single greave on their left or right leg. Many skeletons have been found buried with only a single greave, including gladiators and soldiers. It is also thought that people wore single greaves as a sign of status, as opposed to any practical use.
Greaves were common until around the ninth century, where they largely disappeared. There is not much evidence of their use until the second quarter of the thirteenth century. There were a few references to the use of greaves before then, most notably the Bible’s Goliath and the Trinity College Apocalypse, but the lack of other evidence suggests that they were uncommon at the time. Almost all greaves used at this time are known as “Demi-greaves”, or greaves that only protected the shin. Early in the fourteenth century, many illustrations were found showing “closed greaves”, or greaves that protected the entire leg. Closed greaves are made of two plates joined on the outside by hinges and fastening with buckles and straps on the inside.
Japanese greaves, known as suneate, were first introduced during the eleventh century, during the late Heian period. The earliest suneate consisted of three plates of metal covering the shin. By the Kamakura period (1186 - 1333), suneate became a standard part of Japanese armor. Around the Muromachi period (1334 – 1572), suneate eventually became a splint mounted on a piece of fabric with mail in between the metal splint and fabric, not unlike European greaves. This is the most common from of suneate, termed shino-suneate, and saw continued use throughout the Momoyama period (1573 – 1602). Sometimes, cavalrymen used the older three-plate greaves, known as tsutsu-suneate. Like its European counterparts, most suneate contain leather padding on the interior to reduce the impact of blows and to reduce chafing.
Left greave of a Greek Hoplite. This example has elaborate decoration in repoussé (a technique in which metal is impressed from the rear to form a raised design), including the face of a lion over the knee and lines emphasizing the muscles of the calf on either side. Tiny holes lining the top and bottom edges secured a fabric lining and leather strips for attachment to the leg.
Thracian greave found in Romania
- "Greave definition". Yourdictionary.com. Retrieved 2009-04-25.
- Kaminski, J.; Sim, D. (2012). Roman Imperial Armour: The Production of Early Imperial Military Armour. Llandysul, Wales: Gomer Press. pp. 141–145.
- Fortenberry, Diane (Oct 1991). "Single Greaves in the Late Helladic Period". American Journal of Archaeology 95 (4): 623–627. doi:10.2307/505895.
- Oakeshott, R. (1960). The Archaeology of Weapons. New York: Frederick A. Praeger. pp. 284–285.
- Robinson, B. (1950). Arms And Armour of Old Japan. London: HMSO. p. 11.
- Robinson, H. Russell (1969). Japanese Arms and Armour. London: Arms & Armour Press. p. 15.
- Media related to Greaves at Wikimedia Commons