Achaemenid army

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.

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Edward I’s Draft Dodgers

As I have been working on my thesis, I found a reference which I was looking for but could not find back when I was writing my Master’s thesis. It described one of Edward I’s wars in Scotland where over the course of a few months, half of his infantry threw down their issued crossbows... Continue reading: Edward I’s Draft Dodgers

Sometimes Bittner Was Right

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.

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Scythed Chariots

A Persian scythed chariot as imagined by the artists at DBA Online I like the style and colour, although someone should have reminded the artist that these chariots just had a driver, no passengers with bows!

As I write a section of the chapter of my dissertation on Greek literature, I have been thinking about how that literature drives ideas about the Achaemenids along certain channels. Achaemenid historians trained as classicists have trouble forgetting a long list of tropes, stereotypes, and traditions which began in the Achaemenid period but were even more vividly expressed in Roman times. A good example is the most famous Persian weapon, the scythed chariot.

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Gadal-iama, Part 4: English Translation

In another part of the Achaemenid empire, a cavalryman in hood and body armour rides down his enemies with a spear.  Cropped from a photo y Dan Diffendale under a Creative Commons CC BY-NC-SA 2.0 license.
In another part of the Achaemenid empire, a cavalryman in hood and body armour rides down his enemies with a spear. Cropped from a photo by Dan Diffendale under a Creative Commons CC BY-NC-SA 2.0 license.

Although many translations and summaries of the contract between Gadal-iama and Rimut-Ninurta have been printed, most of the English ones are based on earlier translations into French or German rather than on the difficult original text. As part of my dissertation I have read this text, and I thought that I should provide a translation too. The following text and translation is based on my poster at Melammu Symposium 10, Societies at War, presented on 27 September 2016 with one or two typos and careless choices of word corrected. I hope that I have not inserted any more mistakes in converting from PDF to HTML.
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The Armour of Patroklos

A painting of a circle withing which a man in Greek armour is crouching and bandaging the arm of a second who is sitting on his round shield
A Red Figure Vase of Achilles and Patroclus, painted around 500 BCE. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

I am sick again this week and have not been able to finish a craft project which I wanted to talk about, so I thought I would post half a thought about armour instead. The vase painting above is one of the most famous. Pottery geeks try to assign it to a group of paintings from the same workshop, students of mythology appreciate that Akhilles and Patroklos are labeled, and students of material culture enjoy the details of military equipment. The view of the shoulder-piece springing upwards as soon as it is untied, and of the skirt of ‘feathers’ stopping above the genitals, have shaped many modern ideas about Greek armour. Long ago Peter Connolly repainted it for his Greek Armies.
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The Thrust of an Argument

See caption
Impression of a seal on clay: a warrior in a Median hood and a cuirass with a tall projection behind the neck with a piercing axe thrust into it pulls an enemy’s shield down and stabs overhand into his chest as the enemy brandishes a club. From Erich F. Schmidt with contributions by Sydney P. Noe et al., Frederick R. Matson, Lawrence J. Howell, and Louisa Bellinger, Persepolis II: Contents of the Treasury and Other Discoveries. Oriental Institute Publications 69. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1957 plate 9 seal 30.

Sometime in the sixteenth year of Xerxes great king (circa 468/7 BCE in our calendar), someone at Persepolis turned a tablet with Elamite writing on end and rolled his seal along it. A conversation with Josho Brouwers of Karwansaray BV recalled it to memory. Because this seems to show the style of body armour with a tall neck-guard and flaps over the shoulders which is often understood as distinctively Greek and said to have been invented about a hundred years before Xerxes based on its appearance in Greek vase paintings. But there is no hint of the Aegean in this scene, and this armour is missing the skirt of pteryges around the waist which usually appear in depictions of armour with this cut from the Aegean.

Showing where this style of armour was invented and how it spread and changed is more difficult than it sounds. It is true that the earliest evidence is painted pottery from mainland Greece in the early sixth or perhaps the late seventh century BCE. But in the sixth century BCE, it happens that we have much more evidence for arms and armour from the Aegean than from anywhere in the neighbourhood. The people there painted armoured men on their pots with durable glazes and carved them on stone, and they deposited large amounts of armour and weapons in graves and especially temples. So it is very dangerous to say that the Greeks invented an object just because it is first depicted in the Aegean, especially if that object is one which does not survive well in the ground. It is usually thought that the first armours with this cut were of cloth or felt or hide, and none of those materials survives 2500 years in the ground unless the conditions are just right. Although by the second century BCE armour with this cut was being worn all around the Mediterranean and made in every possible material, not a single fragment made from cloth or hide has been identified. So while this style of armour was probably invented somewhere in or near to the Aegean around the sixth century BCE, its hard to say for sure that it was invented by Greeks.

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A Three-Year Campaign

A line drawing of a cuneiform tablet with the lines numbered in the margins
J.N. Strassmeier’s sketch of tablet Dar. 253 from 1892

[number lost] minas 4 shekels of silver, loin-girdling for the horse troops who are going to the encampment of the king [for] three years: 1 donkey which was bought for 50 shekels of silver in the hands of Ina-Esagil-Liša; 1/2 mina 6 shekels of silver, donkey-fodder; 12 mountain garments; 12 coats; twelve caps; 12 leather bags; 24 leather shoes; 1 PI oil; 2 PI salt; 1 PI cress, travel provisions for three years from the month Nisannu 9th year which are given to … [one name lost], Rīmūt-Bēl, Itti-Šamaš-balaṭu, and Akkadaia who are going to the encampment / Month Abu 10th day 9th year of Darius King of Babylon King of Lands.

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Gadal-iama, Part 2: The Cuneiform Text

Lutz UCP 9.3 p278

Digitalizing old cuneiform texts poses some special issues which digitalizing old Teubners and Loebs does not. Working with the Gadal-iama contract has been an excellent excuse to explore them. I hope that they will have some interest for my readers who don’t read Akkadian.

Copyright is the first issue. At present I do not have time to make my own transcription of the published drawings (this has changed since October 2014- ed.). The following edition is based on that published by Henry Frederick Lutz in 1928. On the basis of Cornell University’s handy guide, I believe it to be in the public domain.

Our understanding of cuneiform writing has changed since 1928. An example which leaps out is that Lutz read the signs AN.BAR as the god Ninurta rather than the adjective parzillu “iron.” I have corrected this and noted where Ebeling’s more recent reading of other signs differs.

Conventions for transliterating cuneiform have also changed. I have tried to move Lutz’ text towards the conventions of the Open Richly Annotated Cuneiform Corpus as defined in their Akkadian Stylesheet. I have replaced the most obvious logograms with the corresponding Sumerian, but not tampered with Lutz’ sign numbers and vowel lengths where they are slightly different from the conventions today (this has changed since October 2014- ed.). All capitalized Sumerograms and all material in brackets except for the line numbers are my own.

This is neither a completely modernized edition (which would take more time than I have available) nor an exact transcription of Lutz’s edition (which would be hard for many Assyriologists to use). Serious scholars with access to a good library will want the second edition by Ebeling, but I hope that this will be worthwhile regardless. I would very much appreciate it if anyone who spots an error would email me. In the future I may make my own transcription to practice the script and understand which signs lie behind the logograms in the existing transcriptions.

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