Sometimes Bittner Was Right

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Categories: Ancient
A painted relief of a warrior on horseback stabbing downwards with a spear. His body armour has two layers of short flaps at the waist, a front and back running straight up and down, wide blocky sleeves ending before the arm joint, and a tab behind the head just as tall as the head.
The horseman on the Çan Sarcophagus wears an akinakes strapped to his right thigh. Copyright Troy Excavation Project, photo found at

Specialists in the Achaemenid Empire don’t like to talk about Stefan Bittner. His Doktorarbeit is the only monograph on the Achaemenid army which has ever been published, but it takes exactly the approach which was inspiring another group of scholars to organize conferences and rethink the field: it relies almost completely on Greek literature and artwork, and treats these sources as a precious collection of facts to be worked into a coherent whole. In the decades which followed, those other scholars knocked so many holes in this approach that it is hard for them work with a book like his, so they tend to cite his thesis and say nothing more. I don’t think that this is really fair, since nobody can predict how academic fashion will shift or what new evidence will become available. People who try too hard to ride the crest sometimes find themselves flailing in midair as the wave below them crashes down. There is a sad joke that farming is a simple job where you just have to predict the weather, fuel costs, and food prices a year in advance; PhD students have to predict the job market 3 to 10 years in advance. And in the early 1980s, it was not so easy to hear about conferences and intellectual movements in other countries as it is today. So this week, I would like to mention one of his good ideas which seems to have been ignored.

Quite a few speakers of English translate the Greek words ὰκινάκης “akinakes” and κόπις “cleaver” as “sabre” or “scimitar.” Germans sometimes use the word Krummsabel “crooked sabre” which calls to mind medieval anxieties about swords which were not straight and two-edged with a cruciform guard: James G. Elmslie is researching this topic. Whether sabre, scimitar, or Krümmsabel, many scholars explain that these were typical weapons of the ancient Persians. Robin Lane Fox describes a scene at the battle of Gaugamela like this:

As Alexander routed the Persian centre, he cannot have known that the rest of his line was endangered or able, most fortunately, to rally its several weaknesses. He may have suspected something of the sort, but he could not possibly have seen it. Dust was swirling around him and it was a matter of dodging scimitars and lunging at half-seen turbans in order to stay alive …

But Stefan Bittner noticed that a few things were not right with this translation.

A straight two-edged dagger with a short crossguard above and below the grip
An akinakes from the Achaemenid period cemetery at Deve Hüyük. It is 34 cm long. (British Museum, Museum Number
108723). Image belongs to the British Museum.

First, an akinakes has a short, straight, two-edged blade while a sabre or scimitar has a long, curved, one-edged blade. Even Pollux the lexicographer knew that it was the kind of blade which was worn next to the thigh like in the relief at the top of this post. So it is never right to translate akinakes as ‘sabre’ or ‘scimitar’ (Sicherlich war der Akinakes weder ein ‘Krummschwert’ noch ein ‘Krummsäbel’– Bittner 1987 p. 203).

And second, even the curved single-edged swords from the ancient Aegean are shaped differently than a medieval or modern sabre:

Zussamenfassend kann gesagt werden, daß es sich bei der Kopis um ein leicht gekrümmtes, einseitig geschärftes Hiebschwert, bei der Machaira um eine gerade, beidseitig geschärfte, vorne beidseitig verdichte kombinierte Hieb- und Stichwaffe handelt. Keine der beiden Waffen ist mit einem ‘Türkensäbel’ zu vergleichen. … Der Wessentlich Unterschied zwischen einer persischen Kopis und einem mittelalterlichen Krümmsabel ist wohl, daß die Kopis in Schlagrichtung, der Krümmsäbel aber gegen die Schlagrichtung gekrummt gebogen ist. (Bittner 1987 p. 174)

A man, naked except for a cloak, raises a curved sword overhead ready to cut
A hunter wields a kopis in a mosaic from Pella, Macedonia. These forward-curved, single-edged swords were common around the Aegean but not further east. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons under a Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.

And he even noticed the connection to modern stereotypes about easterners and their curved swords!

Oft wird das Wort ‘Akinakes’ unsinnigerweise mit ‘Krummsäbel,’ ‘Säbel’ oder ‘Scimitar’ übersetzt. Solche Vorstellungen sind sicherlich aus der Bewaffnung des osmanischen Reiches abgeleitet und deswegen anachronistisch. Das Wort ‘Krümmsabel’ is darüberhinaus redundant: ein Säbel ist ein gekrümmtes Schwert. A. Horneffer übersetzt Akinakes mit ‘Säbel,’ W. Müri übersetzt mit ‘Krümmsabel,’ J.C. Rolfe übersetzt mit ‘scimitar.’ (Bittner 1987 p. 203 n. 5)

Bittner was not the only scholar to notice this problem. In 1975, Walther Hinz had given another philological colleague a hard time for the same point in his Altiranisches Sprachgut der Nebenüberlieferungen:

*akināka- (?) m. gr. ἀκινάκης akinakes (R. Schmitt, ZDMG 1967, 138) = ‘Kurtzschwert’, christl. sogd. kynˀk, gefunden von E. Benvieniste (Textes Sogdiens [1940] 202). Wenn R. Schmitt das Περσικὸν ξίφος (a.a.O.) mit ‘Krummsäbel’ wiedergibt, läßt er den archäologischen Befund außer acht: die alten Iranier kannten nur gerade Schwerter.

Or in other words:

… When Schmitt renders the Περσικὸν ξίφος ‘Persian sword’ (loc. cit.) as ‘crooked sabre,’ he fails to consider the archaeological evidence: the ancient Iranians knew only straight swords …

Curved swords appear on vases and in graves from the Aegean, but never on sculptures or in excavations from other parts of the empire. Even the stories about Persians using the kopis are set in the Aegean, so probably represent settlers in a distant province adopting aspects of the local culture. Rüdiger Schmitt accepted this critique: in the Encyclopedia Iranica he simply defines akinakes as “Persian sword.” But outside the German-speaking countries, people still read Anthony Snodgrass’ book from the 1960s and happily describe the Persians using scimitars. The Landmark Arrian (2010) and Lloyd Llewellyn-Jones (2013) both put scimitars in the hands of Persians, and Nicholas Sekunda (1992) and Peter Krentz (2010) explain that curved swords were typical Persian weapons. So this is not just an issue found in writers like Peter Green or Robin Lane Fox who get carried away with poetic inspiration.

Scholars in Achaemenid Studies like to tell themselves that the field was reborn in the 1980s as scholars took a more critical view of the Greek literary sources and modern stereotypes about the timeless east. After reading most of what has been written about Persian warfare in the last century, I think this is fair. Yet specialists in Persian history still make a mistake which some of those unenlightened older scholars already corrected. How many more gems like this lie hidden in such older publications?

Further Reading:

  • Stefan Bittner, Tracht und Bewaffnung des Persischen Heeres zur Zeit des Achaimeniden. Zweiter, verbesserte und erweiterte Auflage (Verlag Klaus Friedrich: München, 1987) ISBN 3-9800481-7-9.
  • Thomas Harrison, Writing Ancient Persia. Bristol Classical Press: London, 2011. {a book critical of my and other Achaemenid Studies scholars’ view that research since the 1980s represents a sharp break with the past}
  • Rainer C.S. Felsch ed., Kalapodi: Ergebnisse der Ausgrabungen im Heiligtum der Artemis und des Apollon von Hyampolis in der antiken Phokis. Band II. Verlag Philipp von Zabern: Mainz am Rhein. 2007. {typology of Greek iron swords and falchions}

0 thoughts on “Sometimes Bittner Was Right

  1. Pavel Vaverka says:

    Dear Sean,

    interestng post, I didn’t know, that such types of mistakes are still present in literature! In our space (Eastern Europe) we have many books from Russian authors, and I think, that even from times of Smirnov (who wrote in 70’s about Scythians, the term akinakes is described right (short, straight, Persian sword). I never read in Czech books, originals or translations such faulty definition of akinakes and Persian weapons in general.

    On the other hand, I would be careful for judgments about Sekunda and Krentz, that curved sword is typical Persian weapons. I know, that on Greek ceramics Persians have curved swords and archeology doesn’t support this much or at all. But still, I believe, many Persians, or their subjects could have had such weapons. We have too little finds of Persian swords and weapons in general. If you remember about that book describing Thracian tomb with unique leather scale armour, on one page author writes, that curved sword found in tomb was typical from India to Egypt and their origin could be also IIlyria. I don’t know, if this book can tell us moreüsse-griechischen-Bewaffnung/dp/3896465007

    Persians could have various weapons, I think it would be mistake, exlude curved swords completely, because iconography isn’t archeological reality. Sarcophagus from Clazomenai 6./5. CE BC has some riders with sabres defeating heavy infantry. Are they Medes, Persians, or Scythians? Much more interesting for me is book of Duncan Head about Persian Army, where are two long straight swords of Massagetae (today Uzbekistan) from 6.or 5. CE BC. They are similar in typology to ideal weapons for cavalryman. So I think, we don’t have enough informations for definitive opinion if the curved swords are typical for Persian army or not.

    1. Sean Manning says:

      Hi Pavel, thanks for the comment. I might change my mind when I have time to write the chapters on art and on archaeology … but so far, all the evidence from curved swords in the Achaemenid empire which I know is local to the Aegean. East of Gordion we have a dozen or so axes and akinakai and straight swords but I don’t know of a single surviving curved sword or a single published picture of a curved sword. Now, whether Athenians or Romans thought of curved swords as a Thracian or Lydian weapon is another question, but in the 5th and 4th centuries BCE all the nations around the Aegean seem to have used curved swords. Swords in this period are really under-studied and I have not seen any evidence for where the first forward-curved, single-edged swords appeared.

    2. Sean Manning says:

      It looks like I will have to order the book by Marek Verčík from interlibrary loan. The review by Marianne Mödlinger makes me think that it has some interesting information about kopides, but says some things about body armour which I will want to look closely at:

      Before the 7th /6th centuries BC, metal cuirasses and composite cuirasses (made of leather or linen with or with-out metal applications) were common in Greece. A newly-introduced organic body armour with metal applications has its origin in Egypt and was probably brought to Greece by Greek mercenaries serving in Egypt. This new introduction, the linothwrax, differs from the Greek version in that the single linen parts were glued together. In contrast to the ‘classical’ armour plating made of linen, the new composite armour was more complicated in terms of production but offered improved characteristics for battle; it weighed less, was more flexible and provided more comfortable temperatures than a bronze bell-shaped armour. Nevertheless, another type with leather as base material (spolas) was equally used.

      But I would never criticize someone based on a reviewer’s summary of their work!

  2. ashimbabbar says:

    If I remember correctly, Arrian said that preparing for Gaugamela Darius had his cavalry switch from javelin+curved sword to lance+straight sword.

    In Arrian’s description of Granicus, the persian sword are much bigger and heavier than the akinakes.

    I believe Xenophon’s account of Cunaxa supports it as well, although I have not checked it.

    In short, I believe that somewhere between Xerxes’ invasion and Cunaxa there was a marked switch in Persian ( and other Iranian ) cavalry. They abandoned the bow-armed horseman with a spear for hand-to-hand ( plus an akinakes for backup ) in favor of a different fighting style based on charging at the enemy, throwing a javelin at him, then going for hand-to-hand with a large sword or axe.

    1. Sean Manning says:

      Bonjour ashimbabbar, good to see you again!

      The story about Darius ordering new types of weapons before the battle of Gaugamela is interesting, since it is one of the few stories about the Persians doing something active … I think the source is Diodorus 17.53.1 (there is another version at Rufus 3.3.6). The Persian cavalry in Xenophon and the Alexander historians, or on the Çan sarcophagus, sure seem different than the ones in Herodotus or painted on the tomb at Tatarli. Christopher Tuplin ended “All the King’s Horse” wondering if that is just Herodotus being less interested in cavalry than the later writers, and he is the researcher who has looked at the sources the most closely … the archaeologists working on Central Asia seem to believe that cataphracts start to appear towards the end of Persian times, and that might be worth bringing into the debate.

      I definitely would not want to be hit by one of the pointed axes from Persepolis or the long cavalry swords from Thrace!

  3. Monarchy and Power in Ancient Macedonia | Book and Sword says:

    […] Iberian archaeology, and specialists in art from the Aegean, say contradictory things! My blog post “Sometimes Bittner Was Right” gives an idea of the kind of things in my talk, although I was able to bring in some more artwork […]

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