Herodotus Didn’t Say That, Eduard Meyer Did

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Categories: Ancient
A view of a still lake and a cool sky from a stone breakwater
When I walked along the breakwater at Bregenz, I did not meet any old drunks willing to tell me the town’s terrible secrets for a tot of Schnapps, but that is a different winter story.

It has been too long since my last cheerful winter story, so on this Winter Solistice I will tell another.

Like the protagonist of a H.P. Lovecraft story, I came to Innsbruck to look for answers. The scholarship on Achaemenid armies in English was repetitive and fell apart at the first gentle question, but was there something more trustworthy in German? Duncan Head and Nicholas Sekunda cited all kinds of people who nobody else I was reading talked about. So I visited the wood-panelled Law Library reading room on the banks of a river named in a dead tongue, and borrowed an old copy of Eduard Meyer’s Geschichte des Altertums from a librarian who seemed surprised to have visitors. The first edition of Meyer’s Geschichte was completed in 1902, the last revision was in 1965 a generation after his death. Meyer tried to integrate the history of early Greece into the history of Egypt and Mesopotamia. And when I came to the following passage, I realized that the horrors were deeper and older than I had thought:

Among the Persians both infantry and cavalry were armed with large bows and reed arrows, lances of about six feet long and small daggers carried in their belt. Although Darius boasts that the Persian lance had gone forth far, nevertheless the bow was the characteristic national weapon. The king carries it on monuments and coins, where he is portrayed as a warrior; the Persian youths learned to speak the truth, ride the horse, and shoot the bow.

It was the hail of arrows, with which they overshadowed the enemy, and the assault and energetic pursuit of the cavalry to which the Persians owed their victories over the lancers on horseback and the footmen of the Lydians and over the Babylonian army, which was in part only armed with lances and short weapons and also wore iron helmets. The combat between Persians and Greeks is a struggle between bow and lance … The Persians threw together great masses of people for war, but they did not understand how to properly use them. The separation of the horsemen, bowmen, and spear fighters into separate divisions dated back to Kyaxares (Hdt. I.103); but we do not know of a further organizational arrangement. The contingents of the individual nations and the Persian corps were arrayed for battle in large rectangles; in the center the king or the general took his position. The majority of the troops could not participate in the fighting and could only have effect through their mass. In great plains one sought to outflank the enemy and attack them in the flanks and rear, in narrower terrain the monstrous numbers became rather a hindrance and hemmed in the free deployment and movement of the core troops. The decision was achieved by the Persian and Saka horsemen and the bowmen of the infantry. In order to reinforce the attack one placed scythed chariots in front of the battle line, to throw the enemy squadrons into disorder and mow them down. A special type of troops was the camel riders composed of Arabs, who Kyros had used effectively against the Lydian horsemen in his battle against Kroesos.

There are three remarkable things about this passage. The first is that while at first it seems to be based on the classical literary sources, in fact it erases much of what they say and adds things which are not in any ancient writer. No ancient text says that the Persians relied on archers and cavalry, that Babylonian infantry were mostly spearmen, or that the Persians tried to outflank and encircle their enemies more than other nations did. Both Herodotus and Xenophon suggest that the Persians of Cyrus were not particularly good horsemen: Herodotus’ Cyrus needed to use a trick to defeat the Lydian horsemen, and Xenophon’s Cyrus has his big men learn to fight on horseback like the Medes. I can’t think of anything in the ancient sources like the French charge at Courtrai or Marshal Ney’s charge at Waterloo where Persian cavalry rush forward after a preliminary bombardment by the rest of the army. Herodotus’ and Aeschylyus’ Persians don’t have scythed chariots or put the general in the centre of the line, and Xenophon’s and Arrian’s Persians do not have camel riders or lack hoplites. Meyer’s Persian army is not Herodotus’ Persian army, Xenophon’s Persian army, or Curtius’ Persian army. It is a kind of Frankenstein’s Monster, made by breaking up the classical sources into isolated ‘facts,’ choosing a few of them, and reassembling them according to his own vision. The result is impressive until you notice the sutures and start to smell the parts which were not chosen rotting in a back room.

The second remarkable thing is that nothing in this passage is based on indigenous sources, even though documents mentioning soldiers in Babylonia and Egypt were published during Eduard Meyer’s lifetime. It alludes to Darius’ tomb inscription at Naqš-e Rustam, to the Achaemenid ‘archer’ coins, and to the reliefs at Susa and Persepolis, but these are used to confirm ‘facts’ in the classical literary sources, not as independent sources of information. When Darius’ tomb inscription seems to contradict Herodotus and Aeschylus, Meyer tells his readers not to doubt the Greek authorities. Meyer does not believe that texts, artefacts, or artwork from the Achaemenid Empire show us any aspect of the army which classical writers do not mention or force us to reject any statement by those authors.

The third remarkable thing is that modern writer after modern writer says very similar things, whether they are in the habit of reading Wilhelmine German tomes or not. J.M. Cook in 1983 (English, an archaeologist by profession):

The Persian infantry’s normal procedure seems to have been to advance and set up their wicker shields as a hedge from behind which they fired their arrows into the enemy. When these were exhausted they engaged the foe in hand-to-hand fighting. Herodotus describes two battles which went to the second stage and were long drawn out- that of Cyrus with the Massagetai on the Jaxartes and Cambyses’ against the Egyptians at Pelousion. But usually the Persian infantry seems to have expected to make short work of an enemy who had already been harassed and softened up by cavalry and missiles.

Dandamayev and Lukonin 1989 (Soviet, Assyriological):

The combined operations of the cavalry and bowmen assured the Persians victory in many wars, and until the beginning of the Graeco-Persian wars there was no army that could withstand the Persian army. The bowmen would throw the ranks of the opponent into disarray, and after this the cavalry would annihilate them.

And I could go on and on as my hollow voice drilled into your brain like the wind off the Antarctic Plateau.

A full moon in a cloudy gray sky

When I shut the volume in that grey winter I had learned a terrible truth. What looks like a consensus amongst experts is actually 100 years of writers repeating what their teachers and textbooks told them in the latest fashionable phrasing. The standard picture of how Persian armies fought falls apart under a few minutes of gentle questioning, but very few people have posed those questions in print. Much of what we tell ourselves about Persian armies comes from Eduard Meyer (or Michael Caine!) not Herodotus.

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Further Reading: Eduard Meyer, Geschichte des Altertums, 4. Book, 1. Band Das Heerwesen http://www.zeno.org/Geschichte/

This post is based on chapter 6 of my PhD thesis, Armed Force in the Teispid-Achaemenid Empire (2018), soon to be published with a European academic press.

2 thoughts on “Herodotus Didn’t Say That, Eduard Meyer Did

  1. Pavel Vaverka says:

    I’m rooting for You Sean! Right now I have in my schedule City Besieged https://brill.com/view/title/16583 (page 23 now), Homeland and Exile https://brill.com/view/title/16885 (collective monography with interesting chapters usable for Near Eastern Warfare 10th-5th CE BCE), third one is Wozniak https://www.amazon.co.uk/Armies-Ancient-Persia-Founding-Achaemenid/dp/1945430087 does kindle version have colourful plates? Next year Marathon should arrive https://www.pen-and-sword.co.uk/Who-Really-Won-the-Battle-of-Marathon-Hardback/p/16501 I hope it will be finally released.
    I’m deeply shocked from Dandamayev and Lukonin opinion! I knew only Soviet, Russian opinions about Neo-Assyrian warfare.

    Greek Military Service https://www.cambridge.org/core/books/greek-military-service-in-the-ancient-near-east-401330-bce/5B7C73573D23D7F4B03AFA135A032865 is behind me, You can expect report if You are intrested. Some sorties and charges against conventional view well played, some are too much out of military reality, I can parry them or brush them off with ease like Plato horseman against infantryman:)

    Author doesn’t have detailed knowledge of battle and tactics of ancient armies, their operational range. Or he can’t understand it well? Even if he cites van Wees and other important authors (but for an example Sekunda is missing for light infantry and R. M. Sheldon, that’s sacrilege). He’s sometimes too much into idea, linguistic tropes above reality. I hate distortions from both sides You know…

    Sean what about some article for AWM or academic journal, not just to scold old opinions but present variants for composition of Persian armies, their tactics, style of fighting? (I think Nefedking in article implies this, that every Persian army was armed according to the type of enemy, terrain, campaign). Is Your schedule for several years full, or can You make it? Even some poster would be fine… Wish me luck to get into some magazine, so I can present my views, obtain more books, and perhaps go on with book publishing on ancient warfare in Czech Republic.

    Thanks to You I have lot of stuff for introduction into my planned book Persian Achaemenid Empire – New Empire and Military History 550-330BC. Right now I’m still stuck with Assyrians, this time at Mount Uaush… Tough work ahead of me for a year I guess, before book about Military history of Neo-Assyrian Empire will be complete.

    1. Sean Manning says:

      Hi Pavel, thanks for the support! I am glad that you are making progress on the book on Neo-Assyrian warfare.

      The thesis was just one step in a ten-year project to get my criticisms of previous research generally accepted (the first step was a conference paper and article which has been stuck in press for some years). I need to keep presenting versions of my ideas to different audiences, in forms from monographs, short summaries (that is waiting to be printed in another volume), reviews of people’s drafts, conference papers, magazine articles, blog posts cross-posted to social media, and maybe interviews. Most people are not going to read 180,000 words of lightly illustrated academic prose about something they feel like they already understand!

      I would be glad to hear your thoughts on the book by Jeffrey Rop. I think I remember that the book by Wozniak just has black-and-white pictures in the Kindle version.

      I am working on a funding application which will let me look at the archaeological finds and the paintings and sculptures from Anatolia. I also took some time to comment on Kathleen Toohey’s sessions on the battles of Alexander the Great. In 2020 and 2021 I will be working on the edition and commentary to the Gadal-iama contract, and the paper on battle standards from the Achaemenid empire to the Hellenistic world, and some booklets and articles which are military but not ancient or ancient but not military (oh and the big project on material culture for Plataea 2021! and updating the call for sources on scale armour and lamellar armour, probably publishing it, then publishing something based on it).

      I announce new journal articles, chapters, and magazine articles here as they come out! I have submitted proposals to various places, and sometimes they say yes.

      So keep trying!

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