A Sword is a Two-Edged Gift
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Categories: Ancient

A Sword is a Two-Edged Gift

A long, straight, two-edged dagger of solid gold with a hilt cast into ram's heads
A golden akinakes in a private collection. “Said to be from Hamadan” (ancient Ecbatana), first documented in 1956. 41.27 cm long, 817 g. For details, see Forgotten Empire: The World of Ancient Persia p. 233 no. 430
Courtesy of Samira Amir https://www.pinterest.com/samiraamir/

A time long ago- maybe in Darius’ Ecbatana, maybe in the bazaars of Tehran around the time Mosaddegh was overthrown- someone made this golden dagger. The classical sources let us see what such gifts could mean.

For who has richer friends to show than the Persian king? Who is there that is known to adorn his friends with more beautiful robes than does the king? Whose gifts are so readily recognized as some of those which the king gives, such as bracelets, necklaces, and horses with gold-studded bridles? For, as everybody knows, no one over there is allowed to have such things except those to whom the king has given them.

Xenophon, Cyropaedia, 8.2.8

I don’t know whether Xenophon was correct about that last point: lots of Persians in sculptures from court or cemeteries in the provinces wear golden bracelets and silver torcs (and in fact, in the sculptures at Persepolis the subjects are giving the king jewellery rather than the other way around). But he knew that gifts were a serious matter.

When Cyrus the Younger invaded Cilicia, he gave it over to his soldiers to plunder, while Syennesis, the local client king, retreated to a remote palace. Eventually they came to terms:

When the two men finally met one another, Syennesis gave Cyrus a large sum of money for his army, while Cyrus gave him gifts which are regarded at court as tokens of honour— a horse with a gold-mounted bridle, a gold torc and bracelets, a gold dagger and a Persian robe— promising him, further, that his land should not be plundered any more and that they might take back the slaves that had been seized in case they should chance upon them anywhere.

Xenophon, Anabasis, 1.2.27

To Xenophon, the really important thing about having a solid gold dagger was not that it was worth more money than most people earned in a lifetime, but that it showed that you had been honoured by the king or someone close to him. And that had its dangers. After Cyrus was killed and Artaxerxes had settled back onto his throne, Syennesis and his formidable wife Epyaxa disappear from the record, although the classical sources have a lot to say about events in neighbouring Cyprus. It is possible that he was not able to persuade Artaxerxes that he knew nothing about the revolt and had not been Cyrus’ friend when everyone had seen Cyrus gird him with a golden dagger.

A court style bracelet from the Oxus Treasure which was recovered in the 1890s. British Museum, Museum Number 124040. Photo courtesy of the British Museum.

Then followed a struggle between the King and Cyrus and the attendants who supported each of them. The number that fell on the King’s side is stated by Ctesias, who was with him; on the other side, Cyrus himself was killed and eight of the noblest of his attendants lay dead upon him. Of Artapates, the one among Cyrus’ chamberlains who was his most faithful follower, it is told that when he saw Cyrus fallen, he leaped down from his horse and threw his arms about him. And one report is that the King ordered someone to slay him upon the body of Cyrus, while others say that he drew his dagger and slew himself with his own hand; for he had a dagger of gold, and he also wore a necklace and bracelets and all the other ornaments that the noblest Persians wear; for he had been honoured by Cyrus because of his affection and fidelity.

Xenophon, Anabasis, 1.8.27-29

Moreover, believing, and wishing all men to think, and say, that he had killed Cyrus with his own hand, {Artaxerxes} sent gifts to Mithridates, the one who first hit Cyrus, and ordered the bearers of the gifts to say: “This is thy reward from the king because thou didst find and bring to him the trappings of the horse of Cyrus.” … Mithridates went away without a word, although he was vexed … Mithridates also came to a miserable end a little while after, of that same folly. For being invited to a banquet at which eunuchs of the king and of the queen-mother were present, he came decked out with raiment and gold which he had received from the king. And when the company were at their cups, the chief eunuch of Parysatis said to him: “Mithridates, how beautiful this raiment is which the king gave thee, and how beautiful the torc and bracelets! Costly, too, is thy sword (machaira). Verily the king has made thee happy in the admiring eyes of all men.” Then Mithridates, now flushed with wine, replied: “Sparamizes, what do these things amount to? Surely my services to the king on that day were worthy of greater and more beautiful gifts.” Here Sparamizes smiled at him and said: “There’s no grudging them to thee, Mithridates; but since, according to the Greek maxim, there is truth in wine, what great or brilliant exploit was it, my good fellow, to find a horse’s trappings that had slipped off, and bring them to the king?” In saying this, Sparamizes was not ignorant of the truth, but he wished to unveil Mithridates to the company, and therefore slyly stirred up his vanity when wine had made him talkative and robbed him of self-control. Accordingly, Mithridates threw away constraint and said: “Ye may talk as ye please about horse-trappings and such nonsense; but I declare to you explicitly that Cyrus was slain by this hand of mine; for I did not, like Artagerses, make a futile and an idle cast of spear, but I narrowly missed his eye, struck him in the temple, pierced it, and brought the man down; and it was of that wound that he died.” The rest of the company, who already saw the end of Mithridates and his hapless fate, bowed their faces towards the ground; and their host said: “My good Mithridates, let us eat and drink now, revering the good genius of the king, and let us waive discourse that is too weighty for us.”

Plutarch, Artaxerxes, 14-15 (in context, Plutarch implies that he is following Ctesias of Cnidus)

So the gifts for Mithridates probably included a dagger of gold or with a gold-studded grip and scabbard. While the dagger in a private collection is solid gold, Artapates’ dagger was clearly of something sharper. Gifts like these were splendid, but they came with weighty obligations: whether to die rather than let your patron be harmed, or to accept the word of the king over your own memory.

A double-edged gift indeed!

Edit 2023-11-25: block editor

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