Achaemenid Empire

Achaemenid Empire

Two-Phase Empire Building

In December 2023 my article with an overview of Teispid and Achaemenid armies and warfare became free to download. Whereas my first book is an academic monograph with lots of history of ideas and arguments for and against different position, this article was concise and focused on facts (originally it was intended for a companion or handbook which was derailed by the COVID pandemic). The final published version has some more academic things at the beginning after the three or so rounds of peer review. This week, I want to share why I think its fundamentally wrong to measure the Achaemenids against the Roman empire or the British empire and look for ‘Persian customs’ or ‘ethnic Persians’ in the archaeology and the tablets.

Many imperial powers emerge in two stages: first a city or dynasty gains control of and homogenizes a core territory, and then it expands outwards. During the phase of homogenization, a common language and writing system are spread, laws and customs harmonized, weights and measures standardized, and a sense of common identity develops. During the phase of expansion, the city or dynasty begins to take control of peoples who are too far away, too different, or simply too numerous to assimilate in the same way. It often chooses to rely on troops from the core territory, and to create a few standard patterns of military unit which can be recruited from that core territory and sent wherever needed. These standardized units from the core territory bring their own military culture into distant parts of the empire. The reliance on soldiers and administrators from the core territory can be understood as a political measure to keep power flowing to those who benefit from the empire. However, it also reduces cultural tensions and language barriers within imperial armies and administration and supports the rulers’ claims to be powerful and necessary. This model fits some famous world empires such as the Roman and the British. But it is not a very good fit for the Teispids and Achaemenids, whose kingdom emerged in different circumstances.

“The Armies of the Teispids and Achaemenids: The Armies of an Ancient World Empire,” Journal of Ancient Civilizations Vol. 27 Nr. 2 (2022) pp. 151-153 hosted here
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Two Upcoming Talks in New York

My posting is becoming irregular because, well, its 2022. I have heard of some talks which my gentle readers might be interested in. One is definitely online, one I am not sure about. Amanda Podany, “Ea-naṣir, Microhistory, and Popular Interest in Ancient Mesopotamia” Friday 14 October 11.00-13.00 New York time (I think I remember that... Continue reading: Two Upcoming Talks in New York

How Heavy Were Iron Age Bows? Part 2

In my first post on Iron Age bows, I showed that there is a lot of evidence that archers in England, the Ottoman Empire, and the Manchu Empire used bows with very heavy draw weights (over 100 pounds / 45 kg at the intended draw length) around the 15th-17th centuries CE. People who are keen on early modern archery often project these heavy draw weights onto all war bows in all cultures. But we have reconstructions of ancient bows from the area from Egypt to India by people who examined the remains of bows and arrows from that place and time. What kind of draw weights did those bows have?

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How Heavy were Iron Age Bows? Part 1

See caption for description of painting
Another important detail: A Martyrdom of St. Sebastian in the BNM Munich showing the telltale red belly and yellow back of a bowstave made from the heartwood of a yew tree.

At the moment, many archery enthusiasts are telling anyone who will listen that soldiers’ bows usually had draw weights of 100 lbs and more (Deer hunters today usually use bows with a draw weight on the order of 50 lbs, casual or target archers often use bows about half as heavy, and even hunters of larger game rarely use a bow with a draw weight of 100 lbs or more). In other words, you could draw the bow to its full draw length by hanging it string-down and suspending 100 lbs or more from the middle of the string.  If this idea is correct, many men in the ancient world did something which is much more physically demanding than is commonly thought. This week, I would like to post some of the evidence which I know which might be relevant to the strength of bows used in the eastern Mediterranean around the sixth, fifth, and fourth centuries BCE. I hope that some of my readers can suggest more sources.

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Elbow Brooches

a brooch consisting of a bronze piece like a bent arm and hand.  A steel spring is inserted into the 'shoulder' end of the bronze and pokes towards the hand end which catches it
A Stronach type iii.7 fibula by Mark Shier of http://medievalwares.com/index.php? 4 cm long, price as of 2022 is USD 23.95

Folks preparing for Plataea 2022 know that there are no commercially available fibulae (safety pins) suitable for the Aegean in 479 BCE. Mark Shier of medievalwares.com in Canada now offers a copy of a type which was very common from Egypt to Western Iran during, before, and after the Achaemenid period. These elbow fibulae are often found in graves from Babylonia through Syria to Judea. If you want to learn more, check out these websites and articles:

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Achaemenid Clothing in Greek Eyes

a Greek vase painting of Darius on his throne as a man in Greek dress approaches to give advice
This painting is contemporary with Darius III, but the material culture does not convince me! Note the nice long kopis cleaver and the knobby walking stick. The Darius Krater in the Museo Archaeologico Nazionale, Naples (from Apulia, c. 340-320 BCE), c/o Wikimedia Commons

Greek and Roman literature is certainly an important collection of evidence for clothing in the Achaemenid empire. Most of these passages describe the clothing of the king and satraps, or simply say that such-and-such is the Persian equivalent of a Greek garment. Herodotus and Strabo provide information about the garments of other people. Herodotus says that Babylonian men dress as follows:

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Some Thoughts on Kaplan’s “Imperial Grunts”

Yeehaw! Kaplan wants readers to think about paintings like “Coming and Going of the Pony Express” by Frederick Remington (1900) https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Remington_Coming_and_Going_of_the_Pony_Express.jpg

Robert D. Kaplan, Imperial Grunts: On the Ground with the American Military, from Mongolia to the Philippines to Iraq and Beyond. Random House: New York, 2005 (Reprinted Vintage Books, 2006)

One night while cleaning an old Lee-Enfield rifle on a Bukhara carpet, Custer provided me his theory on the problem with the War on Terror as it was currently being waged in Afghanistan. … It wasn’t really his theory so much as everybody’s- that is, when people were being honest with each other.

Imperial Grunts p. 225

I wanted something silly to read in December, and Imperial Grunts delivered. This book is like a glimpse into an alternate universe, a world where steely-eyed, Protestant soldiers wander the world bringing order not chaos, where US military inventions are hindered only by journalists, metropolitan intellectuals, and the backwardness of the people they operate among, a world where Apple is a has-been and Microsoft is an important company (pp. 262, 263) It is based on the author’s travels as a reporter embedded in various US military units around the world from late 2002 to early 2004 (Yemen, Columbia, Mongolia, the Philippines, Afghanistan, and Iraq). But a considerable part comes from the author’s library and neo-conservative ideology. As I read it, I noticed a way of thinking which I have also seen in writings about the Achaemenids.

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Iranian Tunics for Plataea

A horseman on an Achaemenid Period silver rhyton from Erebuni, Armenia. Note the bands around the upper arms and wrists of the tunic, along the shoulders, and from throat to hem. To learn more about this hoard see Mikhail Yu. Treister, “A Hoard of Silver Rhyta of the Achaemenid Circle from Erebuni,” Ancient Civilizations from Scythia to Siberia Vol. 21 (2015) pp. 23-119 (thanks Christopher Tuplin for the citation). Photo by Jona Lendering https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Erebuni_achaemenid_rhyton_2_mus.jpg

If you want to go to the reenactment event at Plataia (currently scheduled for 26-31 July 2022), the most important things are shoes, clothing, and something to sleep on and eat from. And the most important site for those things is the sale mine at Chehrābād, Zanjan province, Iran. This mine was worked from 700-400 BCE, then from 300 to 600 CE, then from the 17th century to the 20th century. North-West Iran suffers from earthquakes, and bad earthquakes buried some of the miners and their possessions. As of 2016, six salt mummies had been found from the Achaemenid and Sasanid periods. Just like the salt mines at Halstatt, Austria, the salt at Chehrabad preserves things which rot in air and wet. Since the 2010s, the objects from this site have been examined by a joint European-Iranian team with resources to do things like scan the mummies with a CT machine. So far, 600 pieces of textiles have been catalogued. The following post is based on a lecture in German by Dr. Karina Grömer of the Naturhistorisches Museum, Wien, at the University of Innsbruck on 18 January 2016. I delayed posting it partially because I was too sick and busy to make the illustrations, and partially because I was ashamed that I made a mistake in my article on the trousers from Chehrabad. I will continue to edit this post as I have time to make, scan, and clean up illustrations.

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