Achaemenid Empire

Achaemenid Empire

Rationalizing Cunaxa

At the battle of Cunaxa, two claimants to the Persian throne lined up their armies. One of them had a large force of Greek infantry, and both kings had men in their armies who went on to become famous writers. One of those aristocratic camp followers, Xenophon, tells a story which has puzzled many readers (Anabasis 1.8.19 from the Loeb). When the armies were about 600 or 800 yards apart, the Greek mercenaries ran forward:

And before an arrow reached them, the barbarians broke and fled. Thereupon the Greeks pursued with all their might, but shouted meanwhile to one another not to run at a headlong pace, but to keep their ranks in the pursuit.

It was very common in the 5th century BCE for one side to run away as the enemy approached, or after a few moments of fighting hand-to-hand. Combat is terrifying, and most soldiers of the day did not have a lot of practice working as a group. But it is very unusual for an army to run away before the enemy was within bowshot. What happened?

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The Size of Achaemenid Armies

In the chapter of my dissertation on the Greek sources, I had to talk about the size of Persian armies. One of the few details about Persian armies which most Greek writers give is that they had a specific and very large number of men, and no other kind of evidence lets us estimate the size of armies in the field (the Behistun inscription lists the number of enemies killed and taken alive in various battles, and it is possible to estimate how many bow estates or temple soldiers were available in some parts of Babylonia, but neither is a reliable guide to the size of royal armies in the field). The reason why we are so determined to give the size of Achaemenid armies is that the classical tradition tells us that we should.

I side with the skeptics, such as George Cawkwell, who feel that the numbers for barbarian armies in ancient sources are not worth much, and that as they drew on similar populations and administrative systems, Achaemenid armies were probably about as big as Hellenistic and Roman ones. In a broad survey like my thesis, I had no time to propose numbers for specific cases, even if I decided that that were possible. (My master’s thesis lays out the evidence for Cunaxa as clearly as I could, although today I would add a few sentences). While arguments against vast armies are not always perfectly formed, I am not sure that the remaining believers in countless Persian hordes are really driven by the evidence (a great article by T. Cuyler Young has some suggestions about the psychology and literary forces involved). So instead of arguing back and forth about logistics and the lengths of columns, I focus on some other perspectives.

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Cotton from Dilmun

An eroded ziggurat against the background of the blue sky with bushes and depressions in the foreground
Tschoga Zanbil, the greatest surviving ziggurat in Elam (modern Khuzestan). Photo by Sean Manning, May 2016.

In Achaemenid studies, Wouter Henkelman’s book The Other Gods Who Are is famous for using some very difficult sources to argue that we should not think about Iranians replacing and subjugating Elamites, but that the ancient Persians we know were the product of hundreds of years of interaction between Iranian-speakers and Elamite-speakers sharing the highlands of Fars, so that by the time of Cyrus or Darius it was hard to say what was Iranian and what was Elamite. Elam had traditionally included both lowland Susa and highland Anšan, and by the time of Cyrus the difference between mountain and plain may have felt more real than any difference in language or religion inside one region.

As this study aims to show, the religious landscape of the Achaemenid heartland was a fascinating and variegated tapestry woven from Elamite and (Indo-)Iranian traits. It will be argued that, though heterogeneous, this landscape was nevertheless a unity that was treated as such by the administrators at Persepolis. ‘Iranian’ and ‘Elamite’ cults were not only treated alike, but were actually not separated in clearly distinct sections. The gods venerated and the cults sponsored were only so because they were considered to be Persian, i.e. as belonging to the rich intercultural milieu of first-millennium Fārs. (p. 58)

As I take my first glance through it, I find that it has other treasures:

One question that arises at this point is whether [the hoard of silverware from] Kalmākarra is an exception, or an indication of the overall level of prosperity in the period under discussion [ie. the century after the Assyrian invasions around 640 BCE]. Confirmation of the thesis that ‘Kalmākarra’ is not an exceptional case is the rich inventory of a stone burial chamber, discovered by chance in 1982 at Arǧān near Behbahān in eastern Khūzestān. The funerary deposits, in and outside of a bronze coffin, included an elaborate bronze stand (or ‘candelabrum’), a large gold ceremonial object (‘ring’), a dagger decorated with precious stones and gold filigree, a silver rod, a bronze lion beaker and a large bowl with engraved scenes. Four of the objects have an Elamite inscription reading “Kidin-Hutran, son of Kurluš.” Apart from metal objects, the tomb also contained remains of embroidered garments. The 98 gold bracteates, also found in the coffin, may have been sewn to one or several of these garments. There is now a communis opinio on the tomb’s date: the later seventh or early sixth century BC (i.e. contemporaneous with the Kalmākarra hoard and the Acropole texts).[79] The Arǧān find is of major importance for its international context. The tomb inventory displays a range of different styles and iconographic themes (Phoenician, Syrian, Elamite, Assyrian) and some objects probably reached Kidin-Hutran via long-distance trade. This is particularly true for the textiles found in the tomb, at least three of which are made of cotton – these are, in fact,among the earliest Near Eastern examples of cotton garments. As Javier Álvarez-Mon argues, maritime trade between Elam and Dilmun, where cotton was grown in this period, is the most likely source of the fabric or the raw material (Álvarez-Mon [forthc. 1]).

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The Linen Karballatu

A bascinet with a perforated-metal visor wearing a red hood with cheek flaps and a tall comb at the top folded down
I am cautious about posting closeups of my face on the Internet, but while I am visiting my parents I have a convenient surrogate available

Some years ago, I made up one of the famous Persian hoods in red linen cloth. I machine-sewed it and bag-lined it, and did not have sources other than reliefs, the Darius Mosaic, the bonnet from one of the Pazyryk tombs, and an interesting woodcut which Jona Lendering showed me. I used linen because it was available and appropriately light and flowing. I had a feeling that wool would have been more common. Back then, I knew that Strabo said that ordinary Persians wore a rag of sindōn (fine linen? by the middle ages sindon was a delicate silk) about their heads while rich ones wore a tower-like felt hat, so I had one possible source for linen (the original Greek is ῥάκος σινδόνιόν and πίλημα πυργωτόν and the citation is Strabo, Geography, 15.3.19). In the meantime I learned a bit of Greek, and also some Akkadian. It turned out that both of those languages are relevant.
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Bandits in the Achaemenid and Roman Empires

Map of the Euxine Sea (our Black Sea) showing elevation, rivers, and Greek cities courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
Map of the Euxine Sea (our Black Sea) showing elevation, rivers, and Greek cities courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Achaemenid historians with a background in classics are often impressed by the references to revolts and ungoverned areas in the Greek sources. Pierre Briant published a number of works in French on the subject of unruly mountaineers in the Zagros. Are these a sign that the Achaemenid empire was particularly flimsy, and achieved its great size by not worrying too much about the deserts between the great cities and fertile valleys? Did those wonderful, vigorous Greeks and Romans establish a new kind of state which was much more powerful and ambitious?

I have always thought that evidence from the Hellenistic and Roman periods might be helpful. When I read specialists in Roman history, it seems to me that they often quietly mention that large areas in the backwoods were effectively outside of Caesar’s power and in the habit of robbing, extorting, or murdering travellers and neighbours. Now and then this sort of unrest even appeared in Italy, and the army would have to go and haul a ruffian out of a swamp, proclaim him the ringleader, and put him to death creatively. However, it seems to have been especially common in Anatolia. Searching through some old notes, I finally found one reference:

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The Domain of Cyrus the Younger

A map of the eastern Mediterranean showing the Aegean coast, Lydia, and Greater Phrygia loyal to Cyrus, the Peloponnese, the Chersonesos, Kilikia, and Paphlagonia allied to Cyrus, part of southern Anatolia in revolt, and everything else east ot the Hellespont loyal to the king
Map of Cyrus’ domain [tan], allies [orange], royalist territories [red], and unruly territories [grey] in 401 BCE. Territories uninvolved in the struggle are white. Map by Daniel Dallet with additions based on Xenophon and Strabo, original at

Three years ago I was presenting a poster at a different Melammu conference. Most of the contents of that poster are based on my dissertation (which is available for free download) or paintings and photographs which belong to other people, but I did create one map especially for the poster. This week, I thought I would share it, and some of my thoughts on what is wrong with this picture.

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Some Gargoyles in Prague

One of the original gargoyles from the Gunpowder Tower, Prague, now on display inside the attic of the tower.
One of the original gargoyles from the Gunpowder Tower, Prague, now on display inside the attic of the tower.

Because the Scholarly Skater has not been able to post for a few weeks, the supply of gargoyles on the Internet has been in decline. It is a little known fact that just as gargoyles in the real world channel away water away from flooding or dissolving the building to places where it can be used for irrigation and other useful purposes, gargoyles on the Internet channel spam and trolls so that instead of clogging the tubes they are safely redirected to a server farm in California where they keep spies and PhDs in Physics harmlessly busy. This week, I thought I would step in and fill the gap.

Although Prague is not known for its ancient history, I have some Achaemenid content at the end of this post.

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An Armoured Horseman on a Sasanid Bulla

Clay bulla of a rider on an armoured horse in style of 6th or 7th century CE (late Sasanid period).  "Returned from the USA" to the National Archaeological Museum, Tehran.
Clay bulla of a rider on an armoured horse in style of 6th or 7th century CE (late Sasanid period). “Returned from the USA” to the National Archaeological Museum, Tehran.

In the national archaeological musuem in Tehran were a cluster of a dozen or so clay bullae: hanging attachments to a skin or papyrus document which could take a seal. The name is medieval, but the technique is much older. These ones come from the Sasanid period (6th or 7th century CE), and I suspect that they turned up on the art market or in a private collection and the Iranian government was able to show that they had left the country without permission. Several of them show armed men riding armoured horses.

Unfortunately, I had very limited time to take photos of the whole museum, and I do not have a polarizing filter for my camera to reduce glare from the case. The photo above is my best, but I have include several other legible photos below the fold. All are of the same bulla, but there were one or two others with armed men on them which I was not successful in photographing.

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The Seal of Athenades

Books on ancient warfare often reproduce certain pieces of Greek art from the middle of the fifth century BCE, including a rhyton shaped like a screaming Persian, a series of vase paintings with Greeks striking down cowering barbarians, and another where a man naked except for a cloak and unarmed except for an erection charges at another wearing Scythian dress with the caption “I am Eurymedon / I stand bent over” (the Athenians and their allies won a famous victory over the Persians at the Eurymedon River in southern Anatolia, although spoilsports sometimes point out that Eurymedon seems to be the pursuer instead of the pursued). In the Hermitage in St. Petersburg, there is another Greek depiction of a foreigner which is usually left out, no doubt because the authors are not sure how to obtain the rights to reproduce it.

The oblong face of a signet ring depicting a man in tunic and trousers and hood sitting on a folding chair with a bow at his knee and examining an arrow.
The face of the signet ring of Athenades. In the State Hermitage Museum, St. Petersburg, Inv. No. Π.1854.26. Photo from Yuri Kalashnik, Greek Gold in the Hermitage Collection: Antique Jewellery from the Northern Black Sea Coast. (The State Hermitage Publishers: St. Petersburg, 2014) pp. 76, 77.

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