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The Achaemenid Army in a Near Eastern Context

Nigel Tallis
Despite the significance accorded the GrecoPersian wars in Greek literary-historical and artistic sources, the Achaemenid Persian army has received little attention in comparison with studies in Greco-Roman military history. This part of my paper will focus on some of the new possibilities for locating the Achaemenid army within the wider framework of Near Eastern military practice and tradition through the exploration of new evidence for military ritual and drill. One of the most vivid and compelling pieces of writing to survive from the ancient world must be Herodotus description of Xerxes the Achaemenid bridging the Hellespont and crossing with his army to bring retribution to the Greeks.1 Such accounts, woven into these literary narratives of conflict by Ancient Greek and Roman writers, have been part of our own historical tradition since at least the Renaissance. These stories, with their mythic themes of resistance and power, were so rich and compelling as tales of high adventure that they have been accepted and absorbed, adopted and remoulded countless times to suit other circumstances and other ages.2 Their lure was such that the complex interactions over some 200 years between the Achaemenid Persian Empire and its westerly neighbours are today almost wholly remembered in popular culture as conflict between Persians and Greeks. While modern studies increasingly demonstrate the subtleties involved in the relationships between centre and periphery, both within and without the empire,3 it is these vivid stories that continue to have popular appeal. Thus, the irony of this account is that it cannot avoid providing a brief glimpse of a quite different army to that intended. Not a rabble of unwilling conscripts under the whip (a motif of regular army discipline itself deliberately misrepresented), but an ordered, technologically advanced army with a core of fully professional and drilled soldiers, quite unlike the amateur warriors of the Greeks.4 This is how Herodotus describes Xerxes and his army marching across the bridge of boats into Europe in 480 bc: When they had done this they crossed over, the foot and horse all by the bridge nearest to the Pontus, the beasts of burden and


the service train by the bridge towards the Aegean. The ten thousand Persians, all wearing garlands [stephanos], led the way, and after them came the mixed army of diverse nations. All that day these crossed; on the next, first crossed the horsemen and the ones who carried their spears reversed; these also wore garlands. After them came the sacred horses and the sacred chariot, then Xerxes himself and the spearmen and the thousand horse, and after them the rest of the army. Meanwhile the ships put out and crossed to the opposite shore. But I have also heard that the king crossed last of all. (Hdt 7.55)5

Herodotus describes how this event was recorded as a painting6 and it seems possible that he actually evoked this scene either through seeing this or one very like it or, more intriguingly, he understood the appropriate rituals and drills for solemn events fraught with dangers, real and supernatural.7 Two pieces of evidence now indicate how this may have been possible: The two badly abraded relief fragments illustrated here (BM 124923, BM 135204) from the North Palace at Nineveh (Figs 27.1a and 1b), show a scene in three registers representing infantry in the Assyrian army marching to the right, perhaps in three columns. In the



Figs 27.1a and b Part of a relief panel in two fragments (BM 124923: lower; BM 135204: upper) from the North Palace at Nineveh of Ashurbanipal, probably representing events of 653 bc. This shows part of a scene in three registers representing infantry in the Assyrian army marching to the right. Four Assyrian guardsmen carrying reversed spears are shown in the central register marching towards three priests wearing fishtail hats who greet themone of whom holds a lotus-shaped holder and a cloth, the second a cloth only and the last nothing. The Assyrians are flanked in the registers above and below by marching Elamite archers wearing garlands. (Figure 1b by Ann Searight)

The Achaemenid Army in a Near Eastern Context


central register there is a file of four Assyrians (although for the left-most only a hand and spearhead is preserved) marching towards three priests wearing fishtail hats. They have long, square-cut beards and hair bunched on the shoulders secured with a corded headband, as often shown on Assyrian guardsmen when not in battle dress (e.g. Barnett et al. 1998: 385c, pl. 312; Barnett & Forman 1960: pl. 61, BM 124850). They are barefoot and wear short-sleeved tunics and kilts with a long vertical fringe and a broad waist belt beneath a narrow sword-belt. Over their left shoulders they carry short spears at the slope, reversed and with the spearheads pointing downwards. The spearheads have a deep socket with an angular blade and a pronounced mid-rib. The shafts have a plain rounded butt with a loop or tassel around the shaft a short distance from it. This is another significant detail. Although ninth-century chariot spears and the javelins carried by cavalry may have what appear to be streamers or tassels at this point (which may also be throwing-loops as well as identifying marks, e.g. Barnett & Forman 1960: pl. 27, BM 124553), it seems likely that in this case these features are throwing-loops. They are in exactly the place where Assyrian soldiers are shown holding their spears when in an overhead striking position (which appears unsuitable as a balanced and secure hold for a thrusting spear) and King Ashurbanipal records that heavy azmar spears of this type could be thrown (Luckenbill 192627, ii: 986; Streck 1916: 256.I.22).8 In the two registers above and below the file of Assyrians there are files of marching archers, with Elamite-style quivers, hairstyles and dress (with kilts hitched up at the front). They also wear feather or floral crowns or garlands in their headbands.

Due to the presence of Elamites, and on the basis of the feather or floral crowns suggesting the fluted caps on guardsmen from the Persepolis reliefs, Barnett proposed that these troops were auxiliary archers from Persia. Barnett also suggested that all these fragments with garlanded figures were from Room S in the North Palace at Nineveh, while admitting the artistic styles of the individual fragments differed quite significantly.9 He also described them as Persian auxiliary bowmen in the Assyrian army, although he noted that, while one group were probably Elamites, it was not clear that any of the others were Persian and that other, more plausible, ethnic attributions had been proposed for some (Barnett 1976: 55). It seems most likely that the scene shown is a ceremonial parade either at Nineveh or near Arbela following the great Assyrian victory over the Elamites at the river Ulai in 653 bc.10 The Assyrian guards do not wear garlands in this fragment, but similar guardsmen do in other surviving pieces.11 It is possible that the fluted caps shown worn by Persian nobles and guardsmen (see e.g. Curtis & Tallis 2005: nos. 2732) might be an evolved, stylized form of ceremonial floral garlands but that is not the significance of these fragments. The garlands most likely indicate a ritual or celebratory aspect to the content, but the key detail is that the Assyrian guardsmen are depicted marching with reversed spears in the manner described by Herodotus for the ones who carried their spears reversed, 1,000 elite spearmen, picked men like the others, who marched in advance of the king.12 The relief is too fragmentary to determine much of the order of the procession approaching the priests, but it is clear that the Assyrian guards with reversed spears are at the head.


It is also notable that these fragments of soldiers wearing garlands in a ceremonial victory parade include priests and apparently a flute-player,13 particularly in view of the wearing of garlands and music in Greek military ritual: Early next morning Agesilaus ordered Gylis, the polemarch, to draw up the army in battle order and to set up a trophy, and to command every man to wear a wreath in honour of the god and all the flute-players to play (Xenophon Agesilaus 2.24). In fact, rituals involving the reversal of the natural or the normal, particularly relating to dangerous activities, battle, death or the supernatural are not difficult to find (even ignoring numerous representations of deliberately reversed weaponry in Ancient Near Eastern art).14 For example, the Hittite text of the fifteenth century bc detailing a number of drills and ceremonies for the royal guard (Gterbock & van den Hout 1991: 3839) describes the proper procedures and circumstances for both reversed and upright spears in the same ceremony and also notes the division of the guards into different grades of spearman, including gold spearmen (cf. the division of the Persian royal bodyguards into grades of golden and silver pomegranate-bearers and apple-bearers).15 The fragmentary end of the tablet, which Gterbock suggested concerned the guards bringing food to the king states: But a spear-man [takes] a spe[ar], but the bronze (blade)[of the sp]ear is tu[rned] down (ibid.: 39; IBoT I 36, 58, 47). For large groups to perform these rituals effectively requires practice and established procedure (as indicated by the Hittite texts, although oral tradition would be adequate). In a military context this means drill. It is possible that the details of reversal in these rituals are both practical (perhaps relating to the specifics of weapons drill, and ease of use of the

weapon in a confined space), and may in addition relate to proximity, with weapons, to the king and to aspects of funerary ritual (which may of course involve strands of all these elements, for which the Tatarli paintings provide conspicuous evidence). The existence of these evidently closely related elite army rituals over wide geographical areas, and their persistence over time, deserves further investigation, but for the moment their significance is as an indicator of a pervasive and now highly visible aspect of a tradition of military ritual and drill in the Ancient Near East.

1. Unless otherwise stated, Greek texts are after the various Loeb editions. 2. This process would appear to have reached a nadir in the 2007 film 300, whose advocates sought to escape criticism for its curiously skewed themes, authoritarian undertones and lurid, ultra-violent content by claiming it was merely fantasy. This largely computer generated epic was a close adaptation of a comic book, which was itself based directly on a 1962 Hollywood film of the Cold War (The 300 Spartans), which was loosely based on the battle of Thermopylae. 3. For recent studies on the interactions with local elites within the western empire see, for example, Dusinberre 2003. 4. For a good modern summary of ancient Greek warfare see van Wees 2004: 8993. 5. This is a culmination of two preceding passages in Herodotus describing the expeditionary forces order of march, with two other descriptions of this practice, and associated with other rituals (a punishment or sacrifice; the presence of the sacred chariot): With that reply, he [Xerxes] immediately ordered those who were assigned to do these things to find the eldest of Pythius sons and cut him in half, then to set one half of his body on the right side of the road and the other on the left, so that the army would pass between them. This they did, and the army passed between. First went the baggage train and the beasts of burden, and after them a mixed army of all

The Achaemenid Army in a Near Eastern Context


sorts of nations, not according to their divisions but all mingled together; when more than half had passed there was a space left, and these did not come near the king. After that, first came a thousand horsemen, chosen out of all Persians; next, a thousand spearmen, picked men like the others, carrying their spears reversed; and after them ten horses of the breed called Nesaean, equipped most splendidly. Behind these ten horses was the place of the sacred chariot of Zeus, drawn by eight white horses, with the charioteer following the horses on foot and holding the reins; for no mortal man may mount into that seat. After these came Xerxes himself in a chariot drawn by Nesaean horses [. . .] In this way Xerxes rode out from Sardis; but whenever the thought took him he would alight from the chariot into a carriage [harmamaxa]. Behind him came a thousand spearmen of the best and noblest blood of Persia, carrying their spears in the customary manner; after them a thousand picked Persian horsemen, and after the horse ten thousand that were foot soldiers, chosen out of the rest of the Persians. One thousand of these had golden pomegranates on their spear-shafts instead of a spike [i.e. a round ferrule instead of a butt-spike], and surrounded the rest; the nine thousand who were inside them had silver pomegranates. Those who held their spears reversed also carried golden pomegranates, and those following nearest to Xerxes had apples of gold. (Hdt. 7.3941) (authors italics). An overview of Assyrian sacred chariots (also with white draught horses) is now conveniently in Reade 2005: 1619. 6. Hdt 4.88: After this, being pleased with his bridge of boats, Darius made a gift of ten of everything to Mandrocles the Samian, the architect of it; Mandrocles took the first-fruits of these and had a picture made with them, showing the whole bridge of the Bosporus, and Darius sitting aloft on his throne and his army crossing; he set this up in the temple of Hera, with this inscription: After bridging the Bosporus that teems with fish, Mandrocles dedicated a memorial of the floating bridge to Hera, having won a crown for himself, and fame for the Samians, doing the will of King Darius. This memorialized the builder of the bridge. (See Borchhardt 2002: 9394). 7. Hittite rituals for an army facing defeat, involving passing through the severed parts of a sacrificial victim, on occasion human (KUB 17.28; CTH 730 iv 4455), are also mirrored in Herodotus (Hdt.

7.39, see above), where a similar ritual is performed by the Achaemenid army. This may reflect specifically local Anatolian customs, either because a significant proportion of the troops present were in fact raised locally, or because the Persians wished to placate local divinities, or perhaps because Herodotus, traditionally from Halicarnassus, knew that such a ritual would be appropriate for his narrative. Herodotus explains this as punishment for Pythius the Lydian, who sought to keep back one of his sons (the victim) from service in the royal army. If Herodotus and his intended audience knew that this ritual was perhaps associated with the warding-off of military defeat then the episode may have been fabricated to foreshadow the eventual Persian defeat. Alternatively it may reflect Herodotus rationalization of a significant ritual reported to him, perhaps as a response to an ill omen for the army (most likely the immediately preceding eclipse of Hdt 7.38), which he did not understand. For this episode as a purification ritual known also in Macedon see Evans 1988: 139; in Boeotia, Plutarch Moralia 209d. A useful summary of work concerning Assyrian royal and public ritual is in Porter 2004: 259260, n. 5. The definition of ritual used (2004: n. 6, a relatively fixed set of symbolically charged elements, such as words, images, music, or actions, that are performed at fixed intervals or on fixed occasions, that may be religious in implication but are not necessarily so, and that are performed before a considerable number of people who are capable of having some impact on the political life of their state or community) is apt in this case, considering the key importance of the military to the political life of ancient states and the practical role that shared ritual plays in military life in terms of group identity, unit cohesion and drill. However, see also Porter 2005: 56 for the difficulties in defining ritual. 8. Note that in DNc (Kent 1953: 140), Old Persian artibara, spear-bearer (with arti- spear having a root in Sanskrit to rush, push, Kent 1953: 172) has arti- translated as azmar in the Akkadian version. Significantly, Xenophon notes that the Persian spear of cornel wood (palton), stronger and more wieldy than the longer Greek spear (doru), was ideal for both throwing and thrusting by the skilful (Xenophon, Horsemanship 9.1.11). Throwing-loops and nocks, of different design, are clearly shown far earlier on javelins of the Early Dynastic period (cf. the javelins shown in the chariot-quiver of Eannatum






of Lagash on the Stela of the Vultures), and archaic Greek warfare featured both javelins and throwing-loops (van Wees 2004: 169170, n. 12 [previous study]; near-identical depiction of NeoAssyrian striking pose, fig. 21B, pl. XVIII etc). Subsequently, two of these fragments have been assigned, based on style and material, to scenes relating to the aftermath of the Ulai battle in the Southwest Palace (Reade 2005: 21; Barnett et al. 1998: nos. 415416). For a brief overview of military ritual and ceremonial in terms of triumphs, see now Reade 2005: 1922 (also Reade 1967: 43, n. 7; 1976: 100). If the fragments attributed to the Southwest Palace are indeed to be associated with the Ulai battle reliefs then the victory parade, or episodes from it, was represented in both palaces. Alternatively, more than one victory may be represented. Assyrian guardsmen, garlands, (chariot) and parasol, Barnett 1976: pl. LXII (Istanbul 6338), assigned to the Southwest Palace, Room XXXIII (BB) in Barnett et al. 1998: 415; archers (from Carchemish? See Wfler 1975: 216231, pl. LXII [BM 124924]); garland worn by a musician in a garden, Barnett 1976: pl. XIV (BM 118916); feather (or floral?) crests of divine crowns, Barnett 1976: pl. XXXVIII. See also Barnett et al. 1998: 312, pl. 320, drawing of slab 10, Room XXII (XX), Southwest Palace, Nineveh, where a celebration after the battle is probably shown. Assyrian auxiliary archers and spearmen with garlands in their headbands and around their helmets, and a beardless figure in a long robe carrying a (perhaps significant) upright plaited object, possibly an unlighted torch. Reade suggests (2005: 22) this may be a triumphal entry into Nineveh with captives from Babylonia and possibly Arabia. See Henkelman 2002, where artibara are attested with missions of some responsibility, comparable to those of Assyrian royal bodyguards (a qurbti)

in Sargonid texts. For a summary of classical texts relating to Persian royal guardsmen, melophoroi or apple-bearers (including Xenophon, Heraclides, Aelian, Curtius, Arrian, Athenaeus and Hesychius), see Briant 2002a: 261262. Since the conference in 2005, the mid- to late fifthcentury bc painted figural decoration from the tomb at Tatarli has been published in greater detail. This includes a remarkable scene of infantry spearmen marching with reversed spears behind a royal (?) chariot, in a funeral procession, as part of an army returning from campaign against unidentified Saka. They are not shown with garlands, but are in Median battledress, with cap and broad stripes down the front of the tunic and apparently led by a standard bearer. Summerer & von Kienlin 2007: 80, 87; Summerer 2007: nos. 12/330. 13. Istanbul 6339, Barnett 1976: 56, pl. XLXX (J), attributed to the Southwest Palace, Room XXXIII (BB) in Barnett et al. 1998: no. 416, pl. 320. 14. For possible reversed spears (rather than gateposts) in a ritual context on seals see e.g. Collon (1987: no. 814). 15. Indicated by the gold or silver spherical ferrules on the butts of their spears (see Curtis & Tallis 2005: no. 51 and Hdt 7.41 [n. 5 above]). Where the ferrules have openings cast into them (as shown in art and found in excavated examples, Moorey 1980: 61, fig. 10, no. 181) it might be so as to give a whistling effect when thrown rather than being purely decorative. The ferrules themselves may have been designed better to balance the spear for throwing, since arrow-length darts, clearly throwing weapons, with rounded ferrules (rare for the Assyrian period, where spike ferrules, if any, are usual) are clearly shown carried in the quivers of seventh-century bc Assyrian chariots (Barnett & Forman 1960: 56 [lower, a pair being carried to the chariot], 6061 [visible in the quivers]).