Provisions, Loin-Girdling, and Battle Gear in the Long Sixth Century

Written by
Categories: Ancient
OK, the things they carried did sometimes include the gods of cities which made an uprising against the king of the world, but only under insolent provocation! A Neo-Assyrian relief in the British Museum.

People who are headed to Plataia 2021 and have picked the King’s side want to know what the King’s Men carried in 479 BCE. While Herodotus and the painters and sculptors focus on clothing, arms, and armour, two kinds of document from Babylonia list what was provided to particular soldiers at specific places and dates. These are contracts between men liable to service and their substitutes, and invoices for the issue of equipment to humble conscripts, many of them dependants of the great temples. They date to the period from Nabonidus to the terrible revolts in the second year of Xerxes (484 BCE), so just before the expedition against the Ionians Across the Sea.

Babylonians divided a soldier’s equipment into consumables, such as food and clothing (ṣidītu), which were provided once a year, and arms (Gadal-Yâma’s unūt tāhāzi “battle gear”) which lasted longer and only had to be provided once. The whole were called loin-girdling (rikis qabli). Some documents only list one category, others list both. A good example of the first kind of text is number 13 in The Arrows of the Sun: each shepherd or ikkaru stationed with the šušānu on horseback shall receive:

12 shekels of silver
8 kur (about 8 × 180 litres) of dates
1 5/8 shekels of silver for oil, salt, and cress
1 mountain garment ({tug2}KUR.RA)
1 širˀam
1 karballatu
x leather nūṭu-container (normally one per man)
x leather shoes (normally one pair per year)

This allowance of one širˀam “tunic” (typically a woollen garment although one text mentions a linen one for a woman) one mountain garment (about 7 by 8 cubits, woollen, weighing about 6 minas/3 kg: perhaps some kind of poncho with a neck slit which was folded two or four layers thick into a garment which hung down to the mid-shin and stretched from fingertip to fingertip), one karballatu (pointed Kimmerian hood, typically a linen garment in Babylonia), and one pair of shoes per soldier per year seems to have been standard for horsemen and bowmen. Soldiers who receive a nūṭu-container usually receive one each (MacGinnis translates it as “water bottle” but (1) none of the passages which uses this word mentions water, wine, or beer, (2) some soldiers receive one nūṭu and one nādu “waterskin” each, and (3) you can’t make a hard pitch-sealed bottle from the kinds of leather which are known to have existed in the ancient Near East). Its possible that the nūṭu was some kind of haversack. None of these soldiers were issued trousers or axes, and in fact we don’t know the Babylonian word for trousers. Babylonians accepted some parts of the new fashions from Eurasia, like hoods with cheek-flaps and arrows with trilobate heads, but rejected others like spiked battleaxes and trousers.

Provisions included silver (to buy supplies from the army market and storehouses), dates, oil, salt, and cress. Gadal-yâma just asked for silver. Food was available from merchants and the King’s storehouses, but it seems that soldiers had to pay for their supplies, whereas small parties travelling on official business sometimes carried a letter authorizing them to collect a specific daily allowance from any storehouse. Its possible that temple soldiers were provided with salt, oil, and greens (or cress seeds for seasoning?) from central stores to avoid having to buy them in a remote area at a high price. So this is a good example of the first kind of text which focuses on food and clothing.

A good example of the second kind of text, with its focus on weapons, is TCL 12, 114:

6 bows, among which 2 Akkadian; 6 lances; 6 iron daggers of the quiver (ša tillu); 6 daggers of the loins; 6 bowcases (šallaṭu), among which 2 Akkadian; 56 Akkadian arrows, among which 26 iron heads; 116 Kimmerian arrows, among which 46 iron heads; 2 pihātu-textiles; total equipment of 8 (!) bowmen.

The Akkadian bows are presumably the good old triangular composite bow which we see in New Kingdom tombs and Neo-Assyrian reliefs, while the Kimmerian bow is our Scythian bow. Most texts just list one kind of dagger and do not describe it as “of the loins” or “of the quiver.” A grave at Uruk contained one dagger by the bronze quiver and one near another part of the body. The pihātu-textile is a rare word (see volume P, page 369, of the Chicago Assyrian Dictionary).

Another document from Sippar lists all three categories of equipment (MacGinnis no. 49). A group of soldiers are issued with:

50 mountain garments
50 širˀam
50 [ka]rballātu
50 (pairs of) shoes (mešenu)
x leather nūṭu-containers

5 donkeys
10 sacks
5 pack saddles (ukapu)
5 girths (zirzu < Aramaic zrz)

50 leather quivers (tillu)

50 bows
50 lances

x qa (roughly litres) of oil
300 qa of salt
300 qa of cress

In other texts from the same archive, bowmen are issued with 25, 40, or 50 arrows each (eg. MacGinnis no. 27, 50). That was a small number by West Scythian standards, but warriors in Babylonia had traditionally used a different style of bow with longer, heavier arrows, and these soldiers did not have a horse to help them carry the weight. Shields are not mentioned in the lists, even though sculptures from Persepolis and Greek writings and paintings show that Persian infantry often used them. Its possible that soldiers made them themselves from reeds and skins, or that the shields are hiding behind a word which we currently translate as something else. The only two of these texts which mentions iron or bronze armour or helmets are the Gadal-yâma contract and YOS 3, 190 from Uruk which I have not tracked down and translated yet (there is an old German translation in Erich Ebeling’s Neubabylonische Briefe aus Uruk but we don’t have that book and some people don’t trust his transcriptions; Edit 2019-09-18: there is a transliteration and French translation on pages 302-304 of Bruno Gombert’s PhD thesis, it mentions širʾannu tunics, gurpisu helmets and arītū shields which have been issued to soldiers but does not describe the materials).

The most detailed lists are things provided to very humble soldiers, while the less detailed lists are usually contracts with veterans who had most of the things they needed and just needed things which they would wear out or drink up over the course of their service. They are usually vague about how these things were carried. All of these lists are missing many things that soldiers need in the field: a small knife, a spoon, a cup and bowl, a kerchief or towel, a purse, grooming implements, bedding, and something to pass the time such as astragals, a flute, or a game board. Some probably had underwear. Groups of soldiers would need cookpots, axes, sickles, bandages and medicine, and other things. Yet unlike the generic descriptions in Josephus or the carvings on Trajan’s column, they are the real things issued to specific soldiers at a single time and place. They often mention details such as a mix of Akkadian and Kimmerian bows and arrows, or that some arrows were missing their heads, and soldiers often appear in groups of 7 or 9 rather than neat multiples of 4 or 10. And if temples ordered to send some of their serfs to the army equipped them with a new suit of clothes, a bow, a spear, and a quiver of arrows, its likely that this was seen as the minimum acceptable equipment.

Gird my loins for more posts with a modest donation on Patreon or paypal.me or even liberapay

Further Reading: Some of the most important tablets are:

  • Dar. 253 (BM 60583) I have an English translation at A Three-Year Campaign
  • MacGinnis, The Arrows of the Sun, no. 13, 27, 49, 50
  • TCL 12, 114 (there is a German translation in Kleber, Kristin (2014) “Zu Waffen und Ausrüstung babylonischer Soldaten in der zweiten Hälfte des 1 Jt. v. Chr.” In Hans Neumann et al., (eds.), Krieg und Frieden im Alten Vorderasien, Alter Orient Altes Testament 401 (Ugarit-Verlag: Münster, 2014) pp. 429-446 on academia.edu
  • Dornauer, Tel Halaf no. 48 (available in translation here)
  • Luigi Malatecca, “Ordinary People’s Garments in Neo- and Late-Babylonian Sources.” https://digitalcommons.unl.edu/zeabook/56/

Edit 2019-07-08: Added link to Kerstin Kleber’s article and to my page on pre-Roman leather.

Edit 2019-07-13: Added an explanation of the Babylonian measures of volume

Edit 2019-07-16: Corrected the quantity of oil in the third text

7 thoughts on “Provisions, Loin-Girdling, and Battle Gear in the Long Sixth Century

  1. Pavel Vaverka says:

    Interesting post, I have no worries for reenactors of Plataia 2021 regarding theirs shoes, clothes, daily utensils. Real mystery are the shields, according to Duncan Head, Nefedkin, Persian cavalry had them (doesn’t matter if the inspirations comes from Scythians). Especially the shields for footsoldiers are on vases, for cavalrymen they are non-existent, Scythian art, archeological artifacts will do. I’m also curios how would looked like shields of soldiers from Babylonia in 479BC, only the big ones from reed? Or also small ones in the style of Neo-Assyrian equipment?

    It’s been some time, when I saw Kleber’s article about Neo-Babylonian weapons, I can’t recall dagger of the quiver and dagger of the loin. Do we have somewhere reconstruction of that Uruk dagger? I’m curios, if two daggers were used simultaneously in some sort of combat style during long 6th CE BC, look there https://www.livius.org/site/assets/files/7181/cyrus_ansan_seal.gif I never found explanation what is the footman holding, daggers? Assyrians also wore two daggers, but in reliefs only one is used, two daggers are some sort of recognition, military decoration. What do You think?

    Btw that book, where is Kleber’s article is sold out in Amazon, Bookdepository etc., only Ugarit-Verlag remains. She is talking there about different prices and weights of swords, which seems according to this as short swords. Check my today’s mail for archive where are archeological remains of Cimmerians weapons (one long sword is there, Massagetae had also straight long swords, or mildly curved, according to D. Head, artifacts from Uzbekistan, perhaps Persians, Medes had them later too). Cimmerians brought not just bow, headgear (helmet), but possibly new type of horse tack, saddle, reining system, in sources from Babylon there is mention about Cimmerian girdles for horses (one Dandamayev’s book, You will surely remember the title). But it’s hard to tell what it was excatly, how did it looked like. Upgrade for saddle?

    1. Sean Manning says:

      I am travelling, but there is a book by Fabrice de Backer on The Neo-Assyrian Shield, its affordable but I would recommend flipping through it before you buy. Marek Verčík has a typology of wicker shields in Greek art in his book on eastern influence on Greek weapons.

      I cite the daggers from Uruk in my PhD thesis in the chapter on archaeology, I may post the photo here after I have moved to the new server. The old links to images will break when I do that, Automattic sticks them on their domain not my domain. I talk about the problem of Herodotus’ Persian gerron in my PhD thesis (aside from the thick ‘siege shields’ of bundles of reeds with an overhanging top, there are three possible shapes and most people just pick one without making an argument that this is the one he means). In the monograph I will add a drawing.

      Unfortunately, the Neo-Assyrians usually show their enemies as missing important equipment, and the sculptors don’t go into as much detail about killing Babylonians as killing Arabs or killing Elamites.

      I added a link to Kleber’s article on academia.edu

      Edit: I think that when Duncan Head and Nefedkin talk about Achaemenid cavalry with shields, they were mislead by the old French translation (and English re-translations) of the Gadal-yâma contract. Maybe there are some pictures from the Aegean, since I am travelling I can’t check Duncan Head’s book.

    2. Sean Manning says:

      Also, I agree that horse equipment, riding styles, etc. would be great topics to look at for cultural exchange and elites borrowing foreign fashions … I feel a bit intimidated because there are horse specialists like Carolyn Willekes and John Conyard.

      I don’t know what the enemy on the Anšan seal is holding either.

      1. Pavel Vaverka says:

        Pardon me, for not citing source (it was academic monography or article), that Anšan seal has warrior with bow cut in two, familiar image from Assyrian iconography about Elam defeat…

  2. Pavel Vaverka says:

    Dear Sean, I know, You are in terrible press, but You have intended to review Verčík’s book. Can You make it? In short, should I buy it or not? He’s working in Prague, Charles University, archeology department. I will write him regarding some plans how to attain higher level of ancient military history in Czech Republic, or to make some work useful both for World and Czech likewise.Regarding the shields of Persian army at Plataia battle, lost of monuments, that I know from Asia Minor are post dated, but in this book You can find something new https://www.amazon.com/Clazomenian-sarcophagi-Forschungen-antiken-Keramik/dp/3805303882/ Also I’m very curios what is there https://www.amazon.co.uk/Highlands-Phrygia-Sites-Monuments-Volumes/dp/0691038635/ I saw some snaps of TV documentary about Phrygian rock reliefs, many are from 8th-5th CE BC, warriors are there (for an example one mounted archer, one heavy infantryman etc.). Such shame that these book are rare and very expensive. I’m trying to get them somehow…

    1. Sean Manning says:

      Hi Pavel, I think I will have time to put my thoughts on the kopis book together in August. I want to draw an infographic so that will take some time.

      I hope to get a chance to cover artwork as part of a postdoc or first teaching job, I will add those books to the list.

      Its frustrating that pinterest pollutes image search engine results right now, its as bad as wikipedia clones in the early 2000s. Flickr often has good Creative Commons licensed photos of reliefs and sculptures.

      I am looking for an open-access journal to publish my next article, but its tough going.

      Edit: In Sekunda’s Osprey page 21, the only sources for cavalry with shields are the Saka beyond the Oxus (ie. beyond Achaemenid territory) in Arrian An. 4.4.4 and the old translation of the dēpu in the Gadal-yâma contract as an umbo which was a wild guess. There is definitely evidence from the western Scythians, like the Solokha Comb.

  3. Achaemenid Shields are a Puzzle | Book and Sword says:

    […] in art, and it does not match his description of how Persian soldiers were armed. And as we saw, lists of equipment for soldiers in Babylonia do not seem to mention shields at all. So like a lot of things in ancient history, the idea that […]

Write a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.