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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 http://odysseion.blogspot.co.at/2010/05/oft-debated-tube-and-yoke-linothorax.html

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.

Quite a few speakers of English translate the Greek words ὰκινάκης “akinakes” and κόπις “cleaver” as “sabre” or “scimitar.” Germans sometimes use the word Krummsabel “crooked sabre” which calls to mind medieval anxieties about swords which were not straight and two-edged with a cruciform guard: James G. Elmslie is researching this topic. Whether sabre, scimitar, or Krümmsabel, many scholars explain that these were typical weapons of the ancient Persians. Robin Lane Fox describes a scene at the battle of Gaugamela like this:

As Alexander routed the Persian centre, he cannot have known that the rest of his line was endangered or able, most fortunately, to rally its several weaknesses. He may have suspected something of the sort, but he could not possibly have seen it. Dust was swirling around him and it was a matter of dodging scimitars and lunging at half-seen turbans in order to stay alive …

But Stefan Bittner noticed that a few things were not right with this translation.

A straight two-edged dagger with a short crossguard above and below the grip

An akinakes from the Achaemenid period cemetery at Deve Hüyük. It is 34 cm long. (British Museum, Museum Number
108723). Image belongs to the British Museum.

First, an akinakes has a short, straight, two-edged blade while a sabre or scimitar has a long, curved, one-edged blade. Even Pollux the lexicographer knew that it was the kind of blade which was worn next to the thigh like in the relief at the top of this post. So it is never right to translate akinakes as ‘sabre’ or ‘scimitar’ (Sicherlich war der Akinakes weder ein ‘Krummschwert’ noch ein ‘Krummsäbel’– Bittner 1987 p. 203).

And second, even the curved single-edged swords from the ancient Aegean are shaped differently than a medieval or modern sabre:

Zussamenfassend kann gesagt werden, daß es sich bei der Kopis um ein leicht gekrümmtes, einseitig geschärftes Hiebschwert, bei der Machaira um eine gerade, beidseitig geschärfte, vorne beidseitig verdichte kombinierte Hieb- und Stichwaffe handelt. Keine der beiden Waffen ist mit einem ‘Türkensäbel’ zu vergleichen. … Der Wessentlich Unterschied zwischen einer persischen Kopis und einem mittelalterlichen Krümmsabel ist wohl, daß die Kopis in Schlagrichtung, der Krümmsäbel aber gegen die Schlagrichtung gekrummt gebogen ist. (Bittner 1987 p. 174)

A man, naked except for a cloak, raises a curved sword overhead ready to cut

A hunter wields a kopis in a mosaic from Pella, Macedonia. These forward-curved, single-edged swords were common around the Aegean but not further east. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons under a Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.

And he even noticed the connection to modern stereotypes about easterners and their curved swords!

Oft wird das Wort ‘Akinakes’ unsinnigerweise mit ‘Krummsäbel,’ ‘Säbel’ oder ‘Scimitar’ übersetzt. Solche Vorstellungen sind sicherlich aus der Bewaffnung des osmanischen Reiches abgeleitet und deswegen anachronistisch. Das Wort ‘Krümmsabel’ is darüberhinaus redundant: ein Säbel ist ein gekrümmtes Schwert. A. Horneffer übersetzt Akinakes mit ‘Säbel,’ W. Müri übersetzt mit ‘Krümmsabel,’ J.C. Rolfe übersetzt mit ‘scimitar.’ (Bittner 1987 p. 203 n. 5)

Bittner was not the only scholar to notice this problem. In 1975, Walther Hinz had given another philological colleague a hard time for the same point in his Altiranisches Sprachgut der Nebenüberlieferungen:

*akināka- (?) m. gr. ἀκινάκης akinakes (R. Schmitt, ZDMG 1967, 138) = ‘Kurtzschwert’, christl. sogd. kynˀk, gefunden von E. Benvieniste (Textes Sogdiens [1940] 202). Wenn R. Schmitt das Περσικὸν ξίφος (a.a.O.) mit ‘Krummsäbel’ wiedergibt, läßt er den archäologischen Befund außer acht: die alten Iranier kannten nur gerade Schwerter.

Or in other words:

… When Schmitt renders the Περσικὸν ξίφος ‘Persian sword’ (loc. cit.) as ‘crooked sabre,’ he fails to consider the archaeological evidence: the ancient Iranians knew only straight swords …

Curved swords appear on vases and in graves from the Aegean, but never on sculptures or in excavations from other parts of the empire. Even the stories about Persians using the kopis are set in the Aegean, so probably represent settlers in a distant province adopting aspects of the local culture. Rüdiger Schmitt accepted this critique: in the Encyclopedia Iranica he simply defines akinakes as “Persian sword.” But outside the German-speaking countries, people still read Anthony Snodgrass’ book from the 1960s and happily describe the Persians using scimitars. The Landmark Arrian (2010) and Lloyd Llewellyn-Jones (2013) both put scimitars in the hands of Persians, and Nicholas Sekunda (1992) and Peter Krentz (2010) explain that curved swords were typical Persian weapons. So this is not just an issue found in writers like Peter Green or Robin Lane Fox who get carried away with poetic inspiration.

Scholars in Achaemenid Studies like to tell themselves that the field was reborn in the 1980s as scholars took a more critical view of the Greek literary sources and modern stereotypes about the timeless east. After reading most of what has been written about Persian warfare in the last century, I think this is fair. Yet specialists in Persian history still make a mistake which some of those unenlightened older scholars already corrected. How many more gems like this lie hidden in such older publications?

Further Reading:

  • Stefan Bittner, Tracht und Bewaffnung des Persischen Heeres zur Zeit des Achaimeniden. Zweiter, verbesserte und erweiterte Auflage (Verlag Klaus Friedrich: München, 1987) ISBN 3-9800481-7-9.
  • Thomas Harrison, Writing Ancient Persia. Bristol Classical Press: London, 2011. {a book critical of my and other Achaemenid Studies scholars’ view that research since the 1980s represents a sharp break with the past}
  • Rainer C.S. Felsch ed., Kalapodi: Ergebnisse der Ausgrabungen im Heiligtum der Artemis und des Apollon von Hyampolis in der antiken Phokis. Band II. Verlag Philipp von Zabern: Mainz am Rhein. 2007. {typology of Greek iron swords and falchions}