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An Introduction to

The Achaemenid Military Equipments


 

 

Iran Under Achaemenid Dynasty

 

 

persian-immortal-elites.png (325243 bytes)

  An Armoured Immortal

Recreated by Ardeshir Radpour

(Click to enlarge)

 

Table of Contents:

            1. Apparel:

        Colours/Dyes

2. Armour

3. Battle-Axe or Sagaris

4. Archery

5. Chariots

        Scythed Chariots

6. War Wagons

7. Shields

      a. The Spara Shield

      b. The Violin Shield

      c. The Crescent Shield

8. Spears

9. Swords & Daggers

      a. Akinakes

      b. Kopis

      c. Cavalry Weapons

10. Imperial and Military Standards

 

 

 

 

1. Apparel:
Herodotus described the equipment of the Median and Persian infantry:

"They wore soft caps called tiaras, multicoloured sleeved tunics with iron scale armour looking like the scales of fish, and trousers. Instead of aspides they carried gerrha with their bows cases slung below them. They carried short spears, large bows, cane arrows and daggers hanging from their belts beside the right thigh."

 

1a. Colours/Dyes:

This description is thought to be a general list, rather than a description of what each soldier carried. Infantry on the stone and tile reliefs at Persepolis and Susa are not shown carrying bow, spear and shield, rather, they carry spear and shield, spear and bow or only a spear or bow.

 

The colours of the ancient world were derived from plant and earth pigments. These were mixed with natural resins, animal fats or drying oils to produce paints or boiled with or painted onto cloth as a dye. This range of available colours was quite extensive but in no way anything like the unlimited choice of colours we have today. However, for most peoples, the colours available to them were limited because of geographic isolation, expense or rarity of certain plant or mineral substances.

 

The practices and techniques of dyeing has remained mostly unchanged up until the mid 19th. century with the invention and wide spread use of synthetic dyes. Although much of the properties of natural dyes has been down played by commerial interests behind synthethic dyes, natural dyes, particularly the cheaper ones were prone to quickly wash out or become faded making bright colours or intense dark colours rare.

 

With many dyes only available through trade or others being very expensive to produce, most ancient people were restricted to those colours that could be obtained from locally produced from vegetable dyes or earth pigments. Trade networks from India to Egypt and Greece which had existed well before the beginning of the Persian empire. Trade greatly increased range of colours available but imported dyes were very expensive and would have only been available to the wealthiest. The poorer classes throughout the ancient world, apart from a possible coloured border would have worn unbleached or undyed linen or wool or leather.

 

Reds and browns, particularly in earthy or rusty shades from iron oxides and vegetable dyes were the most common and readily available in the ancient world. Less common would be grassy greens, dull yellows and blues. True black was a difficult colour to fix and pure white would not have remained white for long on campaign.

 

Listed below are some of the better known or more expensive dyes that were available to and were used by the Persians of the Achaemenid period.

 

 

Madder:

Madder, is a bright red dye made from the roots of a small, yellow flowering perennial shrub, 'Rubia Tinctorum' which grows to a height of about one metre. Madder is native to India/ western Asia and had been used as a dye for thousands of years. Its earliest record of use is in Egypt in the fourteenth century BC.

 

Depending on the type of mordant used, it can produce a range of colours from brown, purple, red or pinks. Mordants might include alum, chalk, slaked lime, tin, charcoal, cow or sheep dung milk or fermented milk or grape juice

The process of digging up the roots, drying and making them into a powder made it a fairly expensive dye. Madder has been used on everything from the robes of Persian Kings, to Eygptian mummies and the British redcoats.

 

 

Indigo:

Indigo, (Indigofera tinctoria), is a shrubby legume which can grow to five feet in height. A native of India, it has been in use for over 4000 years. Indigo produces a beautiful blue colour which was prized for its fastness and it's resistance to sunlight. Denim was initially dyed with indigo before synthetic dyes.

 

 

Henna:

was derived from the dried leaf of a shrub or small tree (Lawsonia inermis), which is indigenous to the area between Iran and northern India. A range of colours from black, to red, through to neutral can be produced for use with textiles and leather as well as a cosmetic dye for hair, skin and nails. A hectare would produce approximately 1,000 kg of dried leaf.

 

 

Saffron:

was and still is one of the world's most expensive spices. Originally used as a medicinal herb and a dye, saffron is now principally used for flavoring and colouring foods. Harvesting is still done by hand, the three rusty-red pistils from the crocus blossom, (Crocus sativus), give a range of colours from yellow to orange. Although occurring naturally throughout Persia and Media, the harvesting and drying process made it an expensive, luxury dye.
Each plant only flowers once a year, the blooms lasting for about fifteen days, so harvesting must be timely.
Yields can vary considerably according to local conditions. On average one hectare produces 10 kg of dried saffron or approximately 150 crocus stigmas are required to produce one gram of saffron.

 

 

 

 

 

Purple:

was the most expensive dye of the ancient world. The only source of 'royal' purple was from the Murex shell (Murex trunculus and Murex brandaris) from the waters off the coast of Lebanon. The shades of dye produced from these shellfish could range from bright red, to blue, and to deep, almost black, purple. So expensive it seems that it was only available to the richest. Unlike other dyes which were widely available, access to the Murex shell was limited and the Achaemenid kings seem to have controlled access and use of this resource. Achaemenid kings hoarded purple cloth and only distributed it sparingly. Plutarch's 'Life of Alexander' records that 5,000 talents by weight of purple-dyed cloth taken by Alexander from the treasury of Darius III at Susa had lost none of its freshness of color during almost two centuries of storage.

 

However, it is the 'Egyptian blue' or ultramarine colour that had puzzled historians and scientists for centuries as knowledge of its method of production had been lost. Although referred to as 'Egyptian blue', it was used throughout the middle east region, Egypt, Mycenae and the later Roman empire. The knowledge of producing the world's first synthetic pigment was strangely lost around the 9th century AD after over 4000 years of use.

 

It was not until the late 19th century that chemists rediscovered that the key to this pigment was lapis lazuli, a semi precious stone found only in Afghanistan. The blue stone was crushed with a mixture of sand, lime and copper and heated to between 850 and 1000 degrees C.

 

 

Pomegranates

The pomegranate is a native of Persia and one of the oldest known edible fruits. Its many seeds making it a symbol of fertility and abundance. The rind or skin of the pomegranate was used fresh or dried to produce a range of colours from yellowish brown to a brownish black depending on how it is processed.

 

 

Walnut Tree

The fruit of the walnut tree is covered with a thick green rind. The rind, along with the leaves were used to produce a green or blackish-brown dye. The colour will adhere directly to wool fibers without a fixing agent or mordant. It was also used as a medicine and as a hair dye.

 

 

Ochre

Ochre is one of the oldest dyes or pigment know to man. It is a mineral, an oxide of iron, that produces a dye ranging from a golden yellow to orange or red depending upon mineral content or how it is processed. Ochre is processed by first being ground to a powder then either mixed with a binder to form a paint, or added to water to make a dye. Processing sometimes included it being roasted in an air tight container to form a darker, redder colour. Ochre was both readily available and cheap, but faded quickly.

 

Persian were referred to by Greek authors as very colourful. Their woollen, leather or silk tunics were multi-coloured and decorated with geometric, floral and religious designs. Colours used included blue, red, green, saffron (yellow -orange), almond, brown or purple or breached white. Purple would only be seen on kings or generals. Saffron being more expensive was more likely on guard and 'Immortal' troops. Some uniformity in colours, would be expected, particularly in the guard or full time regiments.

 

 

 

2. Armour:

Achaemenid Armopured Cavalary.jpg (517065 bytes)

Achaemenid Horsemen (image on the right courtesy of Dario T. W.)

 

 

Both Herodotus and Xenophon's mention Persians wearing a cuirass. This is backed up Greek vases that portray Persians in scale or quilted armour. A number of metal scales have also been found in the ruins of Persepolis, these are made of either bronze, iron or gold plated.

 

Masistius, the Persian cavalry commander at Plataea wore a breastplate formed of golden scales under a scarlet tunic. Xenophon also describes the Persian line as cuirassiers in front, javelin-men behind and archers behind them. This formation he says shall not waste a man and stand firm enough.

 

 

 

3. Battle-Axe or Sagaris

 

Achaemenid Armoured Infantry with Battle-Axe.jpg (179092 bytes)Achaemenid Armoured Infantry with Battle-Axe 1.jpg (158992 bytes)

Achaemenid Persian Battle Axe Infantry Soldiers (two images on the right courtesy of Dario T. W.)

 

It is claimed that he Persians had borrowed the battle-axe or Sagaris from of their Scythian cousins.

"..they laid hold of the ships and called aloud for fire. It was in the struggle here that Callimachus the Polemarch, after greatly distinguishing himself, lost his life; ........ having seized on a vessel of the enemy's by the ornament at the stern, had his hand cut off by the blow of an axe, and so perished.

Plutarch, (Life of Alexander) also describes another famous blow stuck by an axe when he tells how the Persian, Spithridates, strikes a almost deadly blow to Alexander at the battle of Gran.

"Spithridates came up on one side of him, and raising himself upon his horse, gave him such a blow with his battle-axe on the helmet, that he cut off the crest of it, with one of his plumes, and the helmet was only just so far strong enough to save him, that the edge of the weapon touched the hair of his head. But as he was about to repeat his stroke, Clitus, called the black Clitus, prevented him, by running him through the body with his spear."

The 'Sagaris' had a long slender handle with a heavy cutting or striking blade or point. It took a number of different styles but it was characteristically a light weight weapon that could be used by both cavalry and infantry. Being light enough to use effectively one handed but still able to penetrate a metal helmet or armour. Below is a Cimmerian or Scythian socketed iron axe with a narrow cutting blade and curled top. (7.25 inches ca. 7th century BC.)

 

The alabaster vase (480 - 470 BC) left, portrays an archer (probably a Blackman from African provinces serving in the Imperial Army) dressed as a Persian, possibly as a marine which may have served in the Persian fleet during eh reign of Emperor Xerxes. He also carries the Eastern-Iranian/Median style bow case and axe.

 

 

 

Achaemenid Archer.gif (60303 bytes)

An Achaemenid Archer with a long bow

 

4. Archery:

 

The Persians used a composite recurve bow, which had a wooden core with strips of horn glued to the back and reinforced with tendon. It was two type of bows were used by Persians, however, the small size bow allowed them to be used both when mounted and on foot.

 

The arrows were of cane or reed, with three-feathered flights and triangular sectioned bronze tips. The arrows seem to be of relatively light weight and with their broad heads were more effective against unarmoured targets than for penetrating shield or armour.


The bow string was pulled back with the index and middle fingers of their right hand with the end of the arrow rested between these two fingers. This was the method used by the Scythians and others throughout the Mediterranean. The Greeks however, held the end of the arrow between the thumb and the index finger, and pulled the string back with the end of the arrow. This was not as effective and so limited distance and penetration of the arrow.


The Persians seemed to have relied on long range shooting, their massed ranks and fast rate of fire would blanket enemy troops.

 

It is the Spartan, Dieneces' famous comment that probably gives us our best impression of Persian archery. One of the Trachinians at the battle of Thermopolyae, remarked,

"Such was the number of the barbarians, that when they shot forth their arrows the sun would be darkened by their multitude." Dieneces, not at all frightened at these words, but making light of the Median numbers, answered "Our Trachinian friend brings us excellent tidings. If the Medes darken the sun, we shall have our fight in the shade." (Herodotus -The Histories, Bk 7,227)

This description of hiding the sun, suggests the Persians were shooting at long range with a high trajectory. Even despite the volume of arrows, the heavily armoured Spartans were able to shield themselves from the worst of it, the Persians lightweight arrows were not able to penetrate their cuirasses or shields.
Against disciplined and trained troops who maintained a tight stationary formation, the Persian archery had little effect. However the high trajectory was most likely due the the presence of the stone wall protecting the Spartans. In other situations such as the battle of Plataea, where they formed up close to the Spartan line, their archery seems to have been more effective.

 

Xerxes boasted, "I will conquer Greece with my archers". Whether his pun was intentional or otherwise, it was never fulfilled. Part of the reason, is that around 490 BC a particularly rich seam of silver was struck in the Laurion mines some 25 miles south of Athens. After some powerful persuasion from Themistocles, the Athenians used the proceeds to build the fleet which destroyed the Persians at the battle of Salamis in 480 BC.

 

The silver coin depicts the King in the stylised archer pose, with spear and bow. It was with such coins that the Persians not only supplied and equipped their armies but bought off minor kingdoms, tyrants and individuals.

 

 

 

5. Chariots:

Seal of Darius the Great

 

Chariots were still being used throughout the Achaemenid period in a number of different roles. Foreign contingents still maintained their use, however Persian's military use was now limited to that of a command vehicle, with a number of exceptions. 

 

Not only is Xerxes recorded as being carried in a chariot during his invasion of Greek city sates, but he also took with him the sacred chariot of Ahura-Madza. The golden solar chariot that was dedicated to the Creator. It was pulled by eight white horses with the charioteer walking behind holding the manes, as no mortal was allowed to ride in it.


In Xerxes invasion of Greek city states, both the Indian and Libyan contingents were said to have brought a chariot force.

 

In the late Achaemenid period chariots were no longer deployed as the main offensive arm, however it was still seen as a symbol of authority and power. Generals would still use them in cultural and military parades, for hunting and to transport themselves to battle.

 


 

 

5a. Scythed Chariots

The_Charge_of_Persian_scythed_chariots_at_the_Battle_of_Gaugamela_by_Andre_Castaigne_1898-1899..jpg (1352636 bytes)

The Charge of Persian scythed chariots at the Battle of Gaugamela,

by Andre Castaigne (1898-1899).

 

Cyrus the Great, according to Xenophon, would never refuse two gifts, horses and good weapons. He captured many chariots but considered them an inefficient use of horse and human resources:

" He abolished this system in favour of the war-chariot proper, with strong wheels to resist the shock of collision, and long axles, on the principle that a broad base is the firmer, while the driver's seat was changed into what might be called a turret, stoutly built with timber and reaching up to the elbow, leaving the driver room to manage the horses above the rim. The driver's themselves were all fully armed, only their eyes uncovered. He had iron scythes about two feet long attached to the axles on either side, and others, under the tree, pointing to the ground, for use in a charge. Such was the type of chariot invented by Cyrus, and it is still in use to-day among the subjects of the Great King."


Cyrus is said to have fielded a force of 300 Chariots divided into 3 commands of 100 against Croesus. One hundred of his own, a hundred from his Assyrian ally Abradatas of Susa and a hundred converted from the old Median chariots.


The scythed chariot was invented by the Persians during the reign of Cyrus the Great and continued to be used till the end of Achaemenid period. It also played an effective role during subduing of the Greek city states.


6. War Wagons

 

Xenophon describes Cyrus' mobile towers as a car with 8 poles, drawn by eight yoke of oxen, to carry the lower compartment of the battering engines, which stood, with its wheels, about twenty seven feet from the ground. The towers were built with galleries and parapets, each of them could carry twenty men. They were built of planks as thick as the boards of a stage.

 

According to Xenophon's description of the battle of Thumbra, they were positioned behind the first line of infantry. The Egyptians forced the Persian infantry backwards until the war wagons behind came into shooting range.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

7. Shields

 

Early Achaemenid armies were characterised by a number of interesting and unique shields. A large wicker shield called the gerrha or the Persian word 'spara'. A violin shaped shield protrayed on the reliefs at Persepolis and a 'pelta' which shows a Greek influence.

 

 

7a. The 'Spara' Shield

The 'Spara' is beleived they were used by the armies of Cyrus the great, up until the time of Cyrus the younger at the battle of Cunaxa in 401 BC.

 

They were carried only by the front rank infantry to form a barrier or shield wall. The man who held it was referred to as the sparabara or shield bearer. I

 

Surviving examples of Sassanian Persian shields from AD 255 are made of reed and leather and are considered to be similar the the earlier Achaemenid Spara. Although it is expected they they were dyed a uniform colour, the Sassanian shields found show no sign of dye or colour.


The spara seems to be supplied to the bulk of the Persian army included the Persian themselves and their bow armed mercenary and levy troops.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

7b. The Violin Shield:

 

This shield, so called because of its oval shape with circular cut-outs on either side gives it the appearance of a violin. It had a central metal boss and possible metal edge, the outside and inside is shown smooth so it would appear to be metal or leather covered wood rather than wicker. It may have been carried by guard regiments or the 2 -3 ranks behind the sparabara, as shown above.


Its shape may be ornamental or functional, it has been suggested that the cut outs enabled it to be used with a two handed grip on the spear. The shield is generally referred to as the Dipylon shield. The name coming from the Dipylon cemetry in Athens where large numbers of representations were found. (Geometric period, 9th and 8th century BC).

 

Earlier, Hittites on the Egyptian reliefs of the battle of Kadesh, are also depicted carrying a violin-shaped shield. Casting moulds for the rims of violin-shaped shields have been found in Ramses' capital in the Nile delta.

 

 

c. The Crescent Shield:

This shield is shown being carried by Persian peltasts, archers and javelin men. Its appears mostly in battle scenes of the later period and may be limited to the western parts of the empire which adopted it from the Greeks.

 

 

8. Spears:

An Immortal, Achaemndi Persia 6-5th century BCE.jpg (23551 bytes)

Members of the Imperial Bodyguard Regime (10,000), called the Immortals. 6/5th century BCE

(Image on the right courtesy of Dr Kaveh Farrokh)

 

 

The spear was the main hand to hand weapon for the Persians. Longer spears are also shown on reliefs at Persepolis (left image), these are 8 to 9 ft to length and held by Persian guards. These may have be used one handed or possibly two handed like a pike. A Persian is shown on a Achaemenid 'seal' a long spear as a two handed pike in a fight against an archer. 

 

The seal on the right, shows a Persian fighting a charging boar. The spear is held in the right hand in an overhand fashion. Notice the cloak ie saddle cloth used as an improvised shield.

 

 

This bronze spearbutt was found in a 5th century BC cemetery at Deve Huyuk in Northern Syria. It is similar those shown on the reliefs at Susa and Persepolis.

 

Herodotus mentions the Guard and Immortals regiments carried spears with silver or gold apple and pomegranate shaped spearbutts. These may have been both a decorative as well functional use. It certainly would have been safer to stand behind a Persian soldier thrusting with a rounded end spear compared to standing behind a Greek hoplite with a sharp spear end.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

9. Sword & Daggers

 

The Persians used a number of various weapons for hand-to-hand combat. These were some of Iranian origins inherited from Median and Scythians, or borrowed or adapted from Assrrians, Babylonians or Egyptian origins.

 

 

a. Akinakes

The characteristic Persian sidearm was the akinakes, which was short in length but could be used for both cut and thrust. It is of Scythian origin, adopted by both the Medes and Persians from at least the seventh century until the second century B.C.

 

The akinakes shown above, has the characteristic mount which allowed the wearer to suspend the weapon from a belt on the right side. The sword had a short, straight, double-edged iron blade, 34-45 cm (14-18") in length.

 

Median & Persian officials are pictured wearing the akinakes on the stone reliefs of Persepolis. Interestingly, only a small number are shown with sidearms. It could be supposed that only the most trusted officials were allowed be bear arms in the presence of the King.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

9b. Kopis

 

Greek art, however, does not show the akinakes but rather portrays Persian figures weilding an axe or kopis.


The kopis sword was predominantly a cutting weapon, similar to a machaira, but with a convex cutting edge of the blade, much like the modern Ghurka kukri. Its heavy, curved blade was large enough to make it the ideal weapon for both infantry and cavalry.


Although the kopis was used by the Greeks, the classical Greek weapon was the phasganon/xiphos, a straight-bladed and double-edged. cut-and-thrust sword

 

 

9c. Cavalry Weapons

 

Achaemenid_Persia_Armoured_Cavalry.jpg (120334 bytes)

Achaemenid Armoured Cavalry (image on the right courtesy of Dario T. W.)

 

Xenophon (Anabasis 1.8.7) describes Cyrus the younger (401 BC.) Persian guard cavalry as carrying look-a-like Greek swords.

"and the men carried, besides their other weapons, Greek sabres."

 

 

10. The Imperial & Military Standards

 

Persian army standards have been mentioned by Greek historians, depicted in Greek art and even

 

Xenophon makes several references to Persian standards in his books. In Cyropaedia he describes a royal standard with a gold eagle as well as each senior officer having their own distinctive standard.

 

In Anabasis, Xenophon describes the standard of Artaxerxes II at Cunaxa;

"the royal standard, a kind of golden eagle, with wings extended, perched on a bar of wood and raised upon a lance."

Herodotus mentions their use at the battle of Plataea 479 BC;

"When the commanders of the other divisions of the barbarians saw the Persians pursuing the Greeks so hastily, they all forthwith seized their standards, and hurried after at their best speed in great disorder and disarray." (Herodotus -The Histories, Bk IX )

 

 

 

 

 

Standards were not an invention of the Achaemenid armies, they had been used by other middle eastern nations for hundreds of years. Interestingly the Greeks had not yet made use of standards for battlefield command. One possible answer was the makeup of Persian armies. With large numbers of mounted troops, Persians armies were not only larger, but battles were much more mobile compared to the rather static Greek hoplite battles. So standards were needed to help control the armies of the wide plains of the middle east.

 

Other uses for Persian standards were as rewards for military service. Plutarch says that Artaxerxes II rewarded a Carian, who was said to have cast the fatal spear that killed Cyrus the Younger at the battle of Cunaxa in 401 B.C,

" the privilege of carrying ever after a golden cock upon his spear before the first ranks of the army in all expeditions"

 

This partly damaged image on the left is from the Alexander mosaic. It is thought to be either a Persian standard or possibly a red banner of the advancing Macedonians. As the latter, it may have been used to signal an attack or possibly to mark the position in the field of Alexander or of Darius.


Zvezda, the Russian plastics company have considered it to be the former and have used it together with the falcon tile (above) to create the plastic Persian standard bearer depicted below.
 

 

Standards could be decorated with a variety of animal, floral, religious or mythical symbols.

 

Animals common to the region were bears, ibex, wolves, leopards, lions, horses, bulls, roosters and falcons.

 

Religious symbols including the out stretched wings of the eagle or the fire fire alter/temples of Zoroastrian religion (the official religion), were possibly used, as were other religious symbols including the lily, lion or lightening bolts associated with the worship of Mithra and mythical symbols including the gryphon and winged bulls.

 

The fallen Persian on this red figure bowl, 470 B.C, (left), carries what appears to be a brightly coloured standard using geometric designs.

The post Achaemenid coin below (275 BC.), also shows a similar standard beside a fire temple.

 

If we consider that Persian standards are only mentioned as belonging to kings, generals, senior officers or individuals, we then need to consider that we have no reference to Persian regiments carrying their own standards.

 

I see it dangerous to assume Persian standards were the Legion standards of the Roman armies or the colours carried by Napoleonic armies. From the references we have, it would be more appropriate to depict Achaemenid standards positioned with the King or commanding officers rather then within infantry or cavalry units.

 

 

 

 

  

(left) Coins of Vabharz satrap of Achaemenid Period and Bagadates (right), a post Achaemenid Ruler 275 BC.

These rulers were known as fratadara, or "Keeper of the Fire." On reverse of both coins showing the imperial standard next to the fire alter.

 

 

 

 

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