Achaemenid Empire

A Lancehead from Deve Hüyük

A black-and-white closeup of steel with a swirling, lumpy, grainular structure like wood
A 4x magnification (macrograph) of the cross-section of a spearhead from the cemetery at Deve Hüyük. Plate III from Coghlan’s Notes on Prehistoric and Early Iron (1956)

Most studies of old iron begin with the Celts or the Viking age, with a few digressions on exotic eastern steels like the nickel-steel daggers from Tutankhamun’s mummy, wootz from India, krises from the jungles of southeast Asia, and katanas from Japan. In fact, there are a number of studies of very early iron from the Aegean and the Near East. One of the first of these examined a spearhead from the cemetery at Deve Hüyük on the upper Euphrates. (There is some dispute about which country the site is in right now). It was badly rusted and mineralized, but enough elemental iron remained to understand the composition.

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What I Did Instead of My Summer Vacation

A cheap steel bookcase full of academic texts and a thesis bound in linen with the title "Dissertation: Armed Force in the Teispid-Achaemenid Empire" (Sean Manning, MA, 2018)

On a foggy Monday the 3rd of September I sent my dissertation to the printer in Salzburg. I will defend it around the start of November. I suppose I should talk about what I have been working on for five years, aside from learning all of these languages, poking around museums and archaeological sites, and publishing articles.

If you look around for research on armies, soldiers, and warfare under the Teispids and Achaemenids, you will find that there are a lot of articles but only a few short overviews, and the methods behind those overviews are not the best. Scholars have all kinds of opinions, but they generally write what they think rather than list the different interpretations and make a case for one of them, and the people working on lists of equipment from Babylonia don’t talk very often to the people trying to decide what Herodotus was doing or the people excavating mounds in Turkey.

My doctoral dissertation has 348 pages and seven chapters. More specifically, there is a chapter on the history of research and why what we read today sounds so much like what Eduard Meyer wrote under Kaiser Bill, a chapter on war in the time of the the Neo-Assyrians and Achaemenid armies in the context of an ancient Near Eastern tradition, a chapter on warfare in royal inscriptions and imperial ideology, a chapter on warfare in documents and the ordinary soldier, a chapter on archaeological evidence, a chapter on warfare in classical literature and the pitfalls of interpreting those sources, and a conclusion which looks at the problem through Thomas Kuhn’s model of scientific paradigms. This is partially a thesis about the ancient Near East, and partially about the forces and ideologies in the last hundred years which shape how we talk about it.
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Some Thoughts on “Empire, Authority and Autonomy in Achaemenid Anatolia”

An oblong sealstone showing a horseman stabbing a charging boar with a lance
A stamp seal of chalcedony in a ?modern? silver mount and an example of the impressions which it leaves on clay. British Museum, Museum Number 120325. © The Trustees of the British Museum

Elspeth R.M. Dusinberre, Empire, Authority and Autonomy in Achaemenid Anatolia (Cambridge University Press: Cambridge, 2013) ISBN 978-1-107-01826-6 (Oxbow Books)

Empire, Authority, and Autonomy in Achaemenid Anatolia deserves a wide readership because it is brave enough to try to talk about what life was like in Anatolia in the 220 years when it was part of a timeless empire with Persian kings. The only texts which survive come from the far western and southern fringes, where mountain chieftains and coastal cities carved messages into stone and a few writings became part of the classical tradition. But it has been well studied archaeologically, partially because the region is rich in metal and stone, and partially because Turkey is usually a safe and orderly country open to foreigners. For most of the last century, it was easier for foreign archaeologists to work in Turkey than in Turkmenistan or the Sinai.
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Ctesias Corrects Herodotus

A view of Innsbruck looking south between trees over the river and town in the valley
What would Ctesias or Herodotus have made of Innsbruck? We do not have many kings or monsters, although I am told that one village once had a problem with giants.

“Ktesias ‘Korrigiert’ Herodot” is an article which is widely cited, but it first appeared in a Festschrift rather than a downloadable journal, and it is written in beautiful academic German and a somewhat associative style which makes it difficult for foreigners to follow. I recently made my way through it and thought I would write down my thoughts.

Bichler is interested in how to evaluate the Persica of Ctesias of Cnidus, who was very influential and disagrees with our other sources on many points. Ctesias’ work is lost except for one scrap of papyrus containing 27 lines, but he seems to have presented himself as a serious historian, interested in seeing things himself or hearing them from witnesses, and eager to criticize earlier writers for errors. He spent 17 years in the Persian empire as a prisoner and court physician, much of that time at court in Babylonia, Media, and Persis, and his presence is explicitly acknowledged by a contemporary (whereas the only evidence for Herodotus’ travels is Herodotus’ own words, and Herodotus never claimed to have travelled east of Sidon). And the problem is that most of what he says contradicts our other major sources like Herodotus and Xenophon. Since we have few ways to check the things which he and Herodotus say, a lot depends on who we decide to believe and what we think they were trying to do.
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A Sword is a Two-Edged Gift

A long, straight, two-edged dagger of solid gold with a hilt cast into ram's heads
A golden akinakes in a private collection. “Said to be from Hamadan” (ancient Ecbatana), first documented in 1956. 41.27 cm long, 817 g. For details, see Forgotten Empire: The World of Ancient Persia p. 233 no. 430
Courtesy of Samira Amir

A time long ago- maybe in Darius’ Ecbatana, maybe in the bazaars of Tehran around the time Mosaddegh was overthrown- someone made this golden dagger. The classical sources let us see what such gifts could mean.

For who has richer friends to show than the Persian king? Who is there that is known to adorn his friends with more beautiful robes than does the king? Whose gifts are so readily recognized as some of those which the king gives, such as bracelets, necklaces, and horses with gold-studded bridles? For, as everybody knows, no one over there is allowed to have such things except those to whom the king has given them.

Xenophon, Cyropaedia, 8.2.8

I don’t know whether Xenophon was correct about that last point: lots of Persians in sculptures from court or cemeteries in the provinces wear golden bracelets and silver torcs (and in fact, in the sculptures at Persepolis the subjects are giving the king jewellery rather than the other way around). But he knew that gifts were a serious matter.

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Just Like the Persians in Pictures

Like many historians who work with Xenophon, I get very frustrated with the way that his calm, manner-of-fact style can hide evasions of the truth. I don’t think he is more unreliable than most old soldiers (and he does not make any great claims for his own reliability), but he is such a good writer that he often lulls readers into trusting him when they should not. But sometimes, like in a passage which I recently rediscovered, he hints at what he is trying to do.

At the beginning of the Cyropaedia, Xenophon describes Persian institutions for raising young men at some ill-defined time. In their teens and early twenties they spend their time guarding the city, practicing with the bow and javelin, and hunting, and then they graduate to a stage of life where they are expected to engage in more difficult kinds of fighting:

But if soldiering is called for, those who have been educated in this way go soldiering armed not with the bow or even the javelins (palta), but with what is called kit for hand-to-hand combat: body armour (thorax) about the breast, a wicker shield (gerron) in the left hand, just like the Persians are drawn holding, and a machaira or kopis in the right.

Xenophon, Cyropaedia, 1.2.13 (tr. Manning, my Greek is very rusty)

Just like the Persians are drawn (γράφονται) holding? Xenophon is appealing to vase paintings for support! This is remarkable, because the crescent-shaped shields and curved swords which barbarians often wield in Attic art are characteristic of the Aegean. They were popular with nations like the Athenians and Thracians and Lydians, not (as far as we know) amongst the Medes or Persians. Moreover, by Xenophon’s day easterners in South Greek art are hard to identify with specific ethnic groups: their clothing and weapons seem to be a mix of Thracian, Scythian, and Anatolian fashions. So what is he doing when he compares the weapons of Cyrus’ Persians to the weapons of generic orientals?

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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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