Achaemenid Shields are a Puzzle
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Achaemenid Shields are a Puzzle

Figure 6-2 from my forthcoming book from Franz Steiner Verlag. Some types of gerron (wicker shield) used in the Achaemenid empire in the time of Darius I and Xerxes. Top: peltē and wooden imitation of a sticks-and-leather shield from Tuekta in the Altai (different sections of ‘sticks’ are painted red, white, and black; similar shields appear in Neo-Assyrian art). Middle: rectangular wicker shields. Bottom: violin-shaped or figure-eight shields. Note that they are worn on the arm like a peltē or an Argive shield, not held in the fist like the Tuekta shield. Source: The J. Paul Getty Museum, Malibu CA, no. 83.AE.247 (digital image courtesy of the Getty’s Open Content Program), State Hermitage Museum, St. Petersburg, no. 2179/96 (photo by author); Gerhard 1847: Taf. CLXVI; western entrance of the Tachara of Darius (sketch by author), Persepolis; two reliefs on the Apadana, Persepolis (photo by author)

If you look at modern paintings and miniatures, you would think we have a good idea of the type of shield used by Achaemenid infantry in the time of Darius and Xerxes. They cite Herodotus book 7 chapter 61 and show the large rectangular kind on the middle row of the picture above. But as I argue in chapter 6.5.2 of my forthcoming book from Franz Steiner Verlag, things are more complicated. These large rectangular shields appear on the doorposts of two buildings at Persepolis and on two or three vases from Athens (out of thousands of soldiers at Persepolis and Susa and thousands of Red Figure vases). The person who published the sketch on the middle left thought it showed a battle against the Phrygian allies of the Amazons. And this type of shield does not agree with Herodotus’ words that quivers were hanging beneath the shields, unless we understand ‘beneath’ quite loosely.

The type in the top row is also popular with artists, but it seems specific to the Aegean/Sea of Marmara/Black Sea region. Warriors of all the different nations in this region used small round, rectangular, or crescent-shaped shields, often made of wicker or covered with goatskin, but we do not see these shields in artwork from the heart of the empire. Its also hard to imagine these forming a barrier which needed to be knocked over after a long struggle, like Herodotus describes. But they are the type of shield which artists from Athens most often put in the hands of foreigners, probably because the Athenians were a bit provincial and Thracians and Scythians were the most exotic warriors they were familiar with.

The type in the bottom row is the most common type at Persepolis, but it does not show up in Greek art at all. This might be because it was too similar to the Boeotian or dipylon or figure-eight shield and Greek artists felt that it did not say ‘barbarian.’ A bronze boss for such a shield was found at Samos. It is easy to imagine quivers hanging beneath such a shield, but hard to imagine them forming a solid barrier which needed to be pushed over.

We see even more types of shield in art from the empire, such as the small round center-grip shield on the Çan sarcophagus or the big deep round wicker shields carried by ?Thracians? at Persepolis. But these three types in the three rows are the ones people today are most interested in.

Diodorus describes the Persian shields at Thermopylae a bit differently than Herodotus describes them at Plataia (11.7.3, my translation) “For the barbarians used small aspides and peltai which were advantageous in broad open spaces, being easy to move, so because of the narrow space they were not able to harm their enemies very well because they were packed close together with their whole bodies covered with the great aspides, while being at a disadvantage because of the lightness of their defensive arms, they suffered wound after wound.” He seems to imagine Persian warriors using peltai like the barbarians in paintings (Xen. Cyr. 1.2.13)

People in my lifetime have written a lot of nonsense about wicker shields supposedly being ‘light’ or ‘weak.’ I don’t know of any tests of this, and traditional wooden shields tend to be thinner and lighter than people expect (like 8 mm thick wood plus a layer of linen or parchment in the centre, and 3-5 mm thick wood plus a layer of linen or parchment at the edge). Modern wooden shields often use heavy plywood and rawhide so the shield can stand up to pounding with blunt weapons: the fact that these shields are unnecessarily heavy is not important because the owners don’t have to march 20 miles with them on their backs, camp, cook dinner, and march 20 miles again. Tough warriors like the Ottoman Turks used wicker shields and I don’t know of any of their opponents who said that these were poor protection. Also, until about the time of Xerxes’ punitive expedition against the Ionians-beyond-the-sea, Greek art often shows spearmen with a light figure-eight shields (Dipylon shields, Boeotian shields) which may well have been made of leather or wicker. Neither art not archaeology shows that all Greek “bearers of spear and shield” in 480 BCE carried a heavy Argive shield and a single long thrusting lance.

The type of shield in the middle row is the best fit for Herodotus’ descriptions of combat, but not the most common type 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 Xerxes’ men carried large rectangular wicker shields is our best guess based on pretty thin evidence, not something certain.

Further Reading: There are tests of arrows against reproductions of sticks-through-rawhide shields based on artefacts from Dura Europos and Pazyrzk in Barry Molloy’s The Cutting Edge (Tempus: Stroud, 2007) [ISBN 9780752441696 on Bookfinder]

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4 thoughts on “Achaemenid Shields are a Puzzle

  1. Pavel Vaverka says:

    Just little nostalgie attack after reading title, immediately I thought of It’s a mystery:)
    Now to the serious matters, accidently (how else), I was coming across relatively new book

    Perhaps it could be someting interesting there, regarding the weapons, armour, I was just checking something on Assyrian war againt Elam (650 BC), and this came out. Also I found there mention about night attack of Manneans, Scythians against Assurbanipal army. What sad world, that I don’t have completely all books for Assyrians (c. 14 + 1 magazine) which I wanted. Some books are still int the making. Even so I have gathered solid pile of sources (including one Japanese article about Urartu swords, books, articles for Archeometallurgy, technology of mainly Urartian (and other contemporary cultures) weapons, armour, etc. For future study or article I can use my latest discoveries, 2015 Ph.D. about Assyrian archery, arrowheads, and one new study for antiquity arrowheads c. 60 pages from 1200BC- 450 AD). I think the better understanding of Assyrian warfare, and period after (c. 605-550) could guide us to Persian practices, and their arsenal.

    If anyone has group of exorcists, incantators and other personnel in suite of Assyrian king, or if someone knows the rites, it would be good to advert evil forces (by magical and other means), which are preventing releasing of this book from 2014!!! It’s like an endless horror postponed and postponed over and over again Let’s hope for best, and I don’t want to name other authors who can push us forward in this field, in case of jinx…

    1. Sean Manning says:

      Do you know if Fales’ book is a translation of Guerre et paix en Assyrie: Religion et impérialisme (Les Éditions de Cerf: Paris, 2010)? I think I know books in that series by Chaniotis and by Anthony Spalinger.

      Big expensive books sometimes get delayed because the publisher gets scared of the printing costs, and things with many authors sometimes get stuck because one author is late, but something like that should not be stuck in print for six years.

    2. Sean Manning says:

      I see that T. Dezső released another volume of his Neo-Assyian army book in 2016.

  2. Pavel Vaverka says:

    It should be brand new work.
    Mr. Fales wrote me at 20th July in 2016:
    Alas, my work on War in the Assyrian Empire has fallen a bit behind, due to the appearance of many new sources and to the publication of a number of detailed works dealing with the subject. Next year, I will retire, so I hope to have the time to take up again, and finally complete, my book for Wiley-Blackwell, which is long overdue.
    Then I asked publisher (no answer), mail to Mr. Fales in 2019 also stayed unattended. According to my internal sources, he’s got some issues, but I don’t know if trouble with health, or finances for book…

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