It has been too long since my last cheerful winter story, so on this Winter Solistice I will tell another.
Like the protagonist of a H.P. Lovecraft story, I came to Innsbruck to look for answers. The scholarship on Achaemenid armies in English was repetitive and fell apart at the first gentle question, but was there something more trustworthy in German? Duncan Head and Nicholas Sekunda cited all kinds of people who nobody else I was reading talked about. So I visited the wood-panelled Law Library reading room on the banks of a river named in a dead tongue, and borrowed an old copy of Eduard Meyer’s Geschichte des Altertums from a librarian who seemed surprised to have visitors. The first edition of Meyer’s Geschichte was completed in 1902, the last revision was in 1965 a generation after his death. Meyer tried to integrate the history of early Greece into the history of Egypt and Mesopotamia. And when I came to the following passage, I realized that the horrors were deeper and older than I had thought:
Among the Persians both infantry and cavalry were armed with large bows and reed arrows, lances of about six feet long and small daggers carried in their belt. Although Darius boasts that the Persian lance had gone forth far, nevertheless the bow was the characteristic national weapon. The king carries it on monuments and coins, where he is portrayed as a warrior; the Persian youths learned to speak the truth, ride the horse, and shoot the bow.
It was the hail of arrows, with which they overshadowed the enemy, and the assault and energetic pursuit of the cavalry to which the Persians owed their victories over the lancers on horseback and the footmen of the Lydians and over the Babylonian army, which was in part only armed with lances and short weapons and also wore iron helmets. The combat between Persians and Greeks is a struggle between bow and lance … The Persians threw together great masses of people for war, but they did not understand how to properly use them. The separation of the horsemen, bowmen, and spear fighters into separate divisions dated back to Kyaxares (Hdt. I.103); but we do not know of a further organizational arrangement. The contingents of the individual nations and the Persian corps were arrayed for battle in large rectangles; in the center the king or the general took his position. The majority of the troops could not participate in the fighting and could only have effect through their mass. In great plains one sought to outflank the enemy and attack them in the flanks and rear, in narrower terrain the monstrous numbers became rather a hindrance and hemmed in the free deployment and movement of the core troops. The decision was achieved by the Persian and Saka horsemen and the bowmen of the infantry. In order to reinforce the attack one placed scythed chariots in front of the battle line, to throw the enemy squadrons into disorder and mow them down. A special type of troops was the camel riders composed of Arabs, who Kyros had used effectively against the Lydian horsemen in his battle against Kroesos.
There are three remarkable things about this passage. The first is that while at first it seems to be based on the classical literary sources, in fact it erases much of what they say and adds things which are not in any ancient writer. No ancient text says that the Persians relied on archers and cavalry, that Babylonian infantry were mostly spearmen, or that the Persians tried to outflank and encircle their enemies more than other nations did. Both Herodotus and Xenophon suggest that the Persians of Cyrus were not particularly good horsemen: Herodotus’ Cyrus needed to use a trick to defeat the Lydian horsemen, and Xenophon’s Cyrus has his big men learn to fight on horseback like the Medes. I can’t think of anything in the ancient sources like the French charge at Courtrai or Marshal Ney’s charge at Waterloo where Persian cavalry rush forward after a preliminary bombardment by the rest of the army. Herodotus’ and Aeschylyus’ Persians don’t have scythed chariots or put the general in the centre of the line, and Xenophon’s and Arrian’s Persians do not have camel riders or lack hoplites. Meyer’s Persian army is not Herodotus’ Persian army, Xenophon’s Persian army, or Curtius’ Persian army. It is a kind of Frankenstein’s Monster, made by breaking up the classical sources into isolated ‘facts,’ choosing a few of them, and reassembling them according to his own vision. The result is impressive until you notice the sutures and start to smell the parts which were not chosen rotting in a back room.
The second remarkable thing is that nothing in this passage is based on indigenous sources, even though documents mentioning soldiers in Babylonia and Egypt were published during Eduard Meyer’s lifetime. It alludes to Darius’ tomb inscription at Naqš-e Rustam, to the Achaemenid ‘archer’ coins, and to the reliefs at Susa and Persepolis, but these are used to confirm ‘facts’ in the classical literary sources, not as independent sources of information. When Darius’ tomb inscription seems to contradict Herodotus and Aeschylus, Meyer tells his readers not to doubt the Greek authorities. Meyer does not believe that texts, artefacts, or artwork from the Achaemenid Empire show us any aspect of the army which classical writers do not mention or force us to reject any statement by those authors.
The third remarkable thing is that modern writer after modern writer says very similar things, whether they are in the habit of reading Wilhelmine German tomes or not. J.M. Cook in 1983 (English, an archaeologist by profession):
The Persian infantry’s normal procedure seems to have been to advance and set up their wicker shields as a hedge from behind which they fired their arrows into the enemy. When these were exhausted they engaged the foe in hand-to-hand fighting. Herodotus describes two battles which went to the second stage and were long drawn out- that of Cyrus with the Massagetai on the Jaxartes and Cambyses’ against the Egyptians at Pelousion. But usually the Persian infantry seems to have expected to make short work of an enemy who had already been harassed and softened up by cavalry and missiles.
Dandamayev and Lukonin 1989 (Soviet, Assyriological):
The combined operations of the cavalry and bowmen assured the Persians victory in many wars, and until the beginning of the Graeco-Persian wars there was no army that could withstand the Persian army. The bowmen would throw the ranks of the opponent into disarray, and after this the cavalry would annihilate them.
And I could go on and on as my hollow voice drilled into your brain like the wind off the Antarctic Plateau.
When I shut the volume in that grey winter I had learned a terrible truth. What looks like a consensus amongst experts is actually 100 years of writers repeating what their teachers and textbooks told them in the latest fashionable phrasing. The standard picture of how Persian armies fought falls apart under a few minutes of gentle questioning, but very few people have posed those questions in print. Much of what we tell ourselves about Persian armies comes from Eduard Meyer (or Michael Caine!) not Herodotus.
Further Reading: Eduard Meyer, Geschichte des Altertums, 4. Book, 1. Band Das Heerwesen http://www.zeno.org/Geschichte/
This post is based on chapter 6 of my PhD thesis, Armed Force in the Teispid-Achaemenid Empire (2018), soon to be published with a European academic press.