Since the Copts lived under foreign occupation or domination, which reduced them to a tolerated community, one might think that military service would not be accessible to the Copts. Nevertheless, it is known that Saint PACHOMIUS served in the army for a time in the reign of Constantine, although he was soon discharged. Moreover, even posts of high command, and consequently subordinate posts, were entrusted to Copts at the end of the Byzantine occupation.
A statuette that belongs to the Coptic collections of the Louvre gives concrete form to this historical datum. This statuette, about 19 inches (0.47 m) high and made of limestone painted in red ochre, with the pupils of the eyes in black, portrays a standing man holding a buckler. At his belt he carries a sheathed dagger.
He is dressed in a tunic that stops at the knees, and his torso is covered by a cuirass of scales, surmounted by a large plastron. Just above the belt there appears on the cuirass a gorgon’s head, full-face.
This was intended to strike fear into the enemy. The two legs and the feet are enveloped in breeches of coarse latticework, perhaps of leather, since there is no footwear. The head is remarkable for its expression, with almond eyes in antique style on chubby cheeks and a short nose above-closed lips in a rounded face typical of the Copts. The flat hair is drawn close to the top of the forehead, such as we see in Roman art from the end of the third century or beginning of the fourth.
The model was probably a Coptic veteran who had himself portrayed for posterity. It is possible that he attained the rank of centurion, which his accouterments seem to indicate, although he does not bear a sword. Whether he was an auxiliary or a junior officer, his representation supplies an important document for the military costume of the period. But his bearing especially and the striking realism of his face with its wide-opened eyes under thick arching eyebrows show a rare technique in Coptic art. This is the sole known example of military statuary of the period.
The last type of representation of military figures—and, in consequence, of the uniform—encountered in Coptic iconography includes biblical figures, like those of Saul or David, and persons whose function or activity is of some special interest. An episode from the cycle of David that adorns Chapel 3 of the monastery of Bawit (Clédat, 1904, p. 20, pl. 17) catches him at the moment before he confronts Goliath, when he is armed under the direction of Saul.
The king is enthroned between two guards, one holding a lance but neither presenting any other identifying mark. David, according to Clédat’s commentary, wears a cuirass and under it, stopping at the knees, a tunic of metal over a tunic of rose material with darker vertical lines. He is shod with boots to the knees. The left arm is bent under a round buckler adorned with spirals, and the right arm brandishes a sword.
Finally, in the scene of the Massacre of the Innocents at DAYR ABU HINNIS and at Bawit, the soldiers of Herod wear the Persian tunic with three pointed flaps.
Of these representations, only the military costume of the Louvre statuette emerges as an authentic witness to a state and a period. Amid general uncertainty about Roman usage in this regard, the monuments that present it are too badly damaged to contribute to the documentation so far as the imperial period is concerned, and the Louvre piece is unique and precious. The other uniforms mentioned here do not seem to correspond to the periods to which the personages belong. Thus, they seem to be conventional and merely indicative of functions exercised, as happened later in medieval illuminations of Christian manuscripts, Western and Eastern.
- Bourguet, P. du. “A propos d’un militaire égyptien de la période romaine.” Bulletin de la Société française d’Egyptologie 68 (1973):11-16.
- Burmester, O. H. E. The Egyptian or Coptic Church. Cairo, 1967. Clédat, J. Monastère et la nécropole de Baouît, Vol. 1. Cairo, 1904-1906.
- Crum, W. E. Coptic Dictionary. Oxford, 1962.
- Vycichl, W. Dictionnaire étymologique de la langue copte. Louvain, 1983.
PIERRE DU BOURGUET, S. J.