Achaemenid Empire

Achaemenid Empire

My First Book is Out

the cover of "Armed Force in the Teispid-Achaemenid Empire" (Franz Steiner Verlag, 2021) with a background of coloured rectangles

Armed Force in the Teispid-Achaemenid Empire: Past Approaches, Future Prospects. Oriens et Occidens Band 32 (Franz Steiner Verlag: Stuttgart, 2021) 437 pp., 8 b/w ill., 4 b/w tables. ISBN 978-3-515-12775-2 EUR 74,– (softcover) (publisher’s website)

My first book is coming out from Franz Steiner Verlag this month. It is the first book on Achaemenid armies since 1992, and the first written by someone who can read any ancient Near Eastern language. I show that most of what we think we know about Achaemenid armies and warfare goes back to classical writers and to 19th and 20th century stereotypes about the east. So many books sound the same because they are repeating the ideas of early authorities in new language. By focusing on indigenous, contemporary sources and placing the Achaemenids in their Near Eastern context- the standard methods in Roman Army Studies and Achaemenid Studies since the 1980s- we can tell a different story.

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Battles and Sieges

Eannatum of Lagaš’s Stele of the Vultures in the Louvre, from https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Stele_of_Vultures_detail_01-transparent.png

Academic histories sometimes get very narrowly focused. There are some good reasons for this, but its not so good to read a book on archaic or classical Greek warfare which barely acknowledges that Italy or the Hellenistic period existed. Did I fall into that trap in my book on Achaemenid armies and warfare?

To find out, I made a list of all the battles and sieges which I mentioned in my forthcoming book.

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Cross-Post: Persika

Prolific ancient historian and Iranologist Lloyd Llewellyn-Jones’ latest venture onto the Internet is a vlog on ancient Iran called Persika: Persian Things. Check it out!


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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Herodotus Didn’t Say That, Eduard Meyer Did

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:
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Iranian Trousers for Plataea

A foot and shin in zigzag-patterned trousers and low shoes laced all around the ankle
A glazed brick relief of feet and shins from the palace of Darius I at Susa. Musee du Louvre, Département des Antiquités orientales, number Sb 14426 c/o Achemenet http://www.achemenet.com/fr/item/?/musee-achemenide/categories-d-objets/architecture/decor-architectural/3018977

People representing Median, Persian, or Saka soldiers at Plataea in 2021 will need trousers. Not everyone needs them: the King rules many lands full of all kinds of men, many of whom have not adopted the Median dress. But reenactors representing men (and possibly women?) from those nations will need them.

One kind of evidence to use is artwork. Aside from the reliefs from Persepolis, the goldsmith’s work from Scythian tombs and the Oxus Treasure, and the mosaic from Pompeii which everyone knows, you will want to have a close look at some of the glazed terracottas of servants from Susa in Forgotten Empire: The World of Ancient Persia or on achemenet and of course at the tomb paintings from Tatarlı, Turkey.

By far the most important archaeological find are the trousers of saltman No. 4 from Chehrābād, Iran, radiocarbon dated to around 405-380 BCE. The saltman is still wearing trousers tucked into his shoes and covered by the skirt of his coat, and all of the textiles are so delicate and salt-encrusted that they cannot be removed, spread flat, and examined. What we know can be summarized in the following few sentences:

  • The trousers are woollen, tabby weave, 8 z-spun weft threads per cm, 11 s-spun warp threads per cm.
  • There are lateral seams in the trouser legs to ankle, and a vertical slit in the lateral thigh at hip level with the skin of the deceased exposed underneath. (Whether the seams are at the medial leg (inner thigh) or lateral leg (outer thigh) is not clear to me)
  • A red woollen thread is sewn along the side seams hiding them except at the slit.
  • Overall, they strike the excavators as loose and baggy.

There is no published information about stitches, thread, or dye of saltman 4’s trousers (the cloth looks natural white to me). Edit: Dr. Grömer describes the trousers and tunic as “made of a sturdy, plain natural white woollen cloth” (aus robustem einfarbig naturhellem Wollstoff bestehend).

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How Long are the Spears of the Warriors at Susa?

A glazed brick relief of a man holding a spear in both hands next to a clenched fist.  The fist gripping the spear and the live fist are aboout the same size.
One of the polychrome brick reliefs from Achaemenid Susa, now in the Louvre, Paris.

In an earlier post, I talked about the guards in Persian reliefs from Susa who are 17 bricks tall and have spears 19 or 21 bricks tall. Artists often ‘improve’ human proportions according to different ideas of what the well-formed body looks like: these guards are 5 2/3 bearded faces tall (17/3), Cennino Cennini would have them 6 1/2 bearded faces tall (26/4).

When I visited the Louvre in July I had a chance to look at some of those reliefs for the first time since 2016 (a few are on display behind glass in Tehran). As you see, my hand and the hand of the sculpture are about the same size (and I am not particularly tall or short). My hand is slightly closer to the camera than the sculpture is, so it is slightly enlarged.
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Provisions, Loin-Girdling, and Battle Gear in the Long Sixth Century

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)

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A Luristan Akinakes

A square with trees, modern apartment buildings, old brick buildings, and young people talking and sitting on benches
It is still summer in Rimini! Photo by Sean Manning, October 2018.

I had a post about people being Wrong on the Internet scheduled for this weekend, but last week was a big week in Canada, and it seems like time for something more mellow. So how about a post about another of those studies of early iron from the ancient Near East?

Western Iran is an extremely important area for the history of early ironworking, because in the 9th, 8th, and 7th centuries large amount of iron and bronze were deposited in graves. Beginning in the 1920s and 1930s these have attracted wealthy collectors in rich countries, and almost immediately the locals organized to feed this market: digging up promising mounds, importing old iron to sell under a name foreigners recognized, and casting and forging their own “Luristan bronzes.” This left museums and collectors with drawers full of objects which are interesting as artwork, but hard to use as archaeology. Relatively few sites from this area have been scientifically excavated and published in a western language, and I don’t know of any metallurgical studies of iron from these excavations. In the 1960s Cyril Stanley Smith decided not to wait, bought half a dozen pieces of old iron from dealers in Tehran, and analysed them as best as he could (and while he was working at the dawn of historical metallurgy, that was very well indeed: yes, this is the Cyril Stanley Smith with the Manhattan Project, Theophilius, and Biringuccio on his CV). One of these objects was an akinakes. He guessed that it dated to the 7th century BCE, but I would take that with a pinch of salt.

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