Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Update: Spears

The good folks at Kelticos demonstrate that a hame ball (or hame tip) makes a functional northern British spear counterweight.  As it happens, it also looks startlingly like a Persian spear counterweight as well.

Hame balls are mostly made of brass (sometimes chrome-plated), which is acceptable for bronze.  Look for one with clearly-defined ball and socket sections, not the teardrop-shaped type.  About the only flaw I can find is that they lack the little ring between the ball and socket that a Persian spear butt had.

Don't go without...

Update 12/10/13:  This post contains information that is probably incorrect.  Please see here.

You need at least two items to get along while in costume:

Drawstring bag
I don't know what ancient Persian luggage looked like, but as a stopgap measure you can use a simple drawstring bag.  It should be big enough to hold your lunch, water, wallet, cell phone, watch, glasses, meds, a mini-first aid kit and any other small objects you think you'll need.  Use soft leather or a heavy period fabric (a lining of finer fabric can help prevent objects bulging or poking through if the outer shell is a loose weave).

At Marathon I used a jute burlap bag with a long drawstring that could be worn over the shoulder.  I found the jute shed far too much and the cord was pretty uncomfortable.  I'm preparing to experiment with linen burlap (rug backing).  Possibly cutting out the section of the cord that actually goes over the shoulder and replacing it with a section of wide leather strap or fabric belting would make wearing it more tolerable.

You may, alternately, wish to keep a few things like your phone in a small bag (pocket) tied to your belt.

Water bottle
Some groups allow members to drink from modern bottles covered in a tight-fitting drawstring leather bag.  Others prefer that you use a waxed leather bottle.  These are readily available, for a hefty price, but are fairly easy to make yourself - see here for detailed instructions.

A few notes on leather bottles:  Make the smallest stitch holes you can still get the needle through, to reduce the chance of leakage.  You don't need a double boiler; a stainless steel bucket on a steaming rack in a pot of water works too.  You do need a massive amount of wax.  To save money, I used non-food-grade paraffin from a nearby candlemakers' supplier.  No idea if this is safe, but it hasn't made me sick yet.  Last but not least, keep your bottle out of the sun - you don't want the wax around the seams to melt.

Next up:  Chapter review!

Monday, May 28, 2012

Update 3

Based on amu1986's very helpful comment below, I've worked on a theoretical model for how a belt button could work.  The "button" part is actually the base of an upside-down button stud.  Since I'm pretty sure there was no such thing as screw threading, it would be attached by rivets in the form of additional stems.
These buttons would have to be custom cast for us.  As a cost-saver, I suppose it might be possible to use a screw-back concho with a longer screw, clamping the concho to the outer belt layer with a square nut and reshaping the screw to act as the stud.

Friday, May 25, 2012

Update 2 on belts

I spent part of yesterday and today finding out why large buttons aren't used on belts:  Heavy vegetable-tanned leather simply doesn't have the flexibility or stretch to get around the button unless the buttonhole is huge.  So either the leather used in an Achaemenid weapon belt was much softer or thinner than would seem to me practical for a belt intended to support a loaded gorytos, or I've yet to really understand how the "button" works.

For the large flower-patterned fasteners, I suppose it's possible that they functioned like cowboy-style buckles.  The smaller ones really do look like just large buttons, though.

Shield yourself from this

Update 12/10/13:  This post contains information that is probably incorrect.  Please see here.

The Achaemenids knew of four or five styles of shields:  round or oval (possibly), violin-shaped, rectangular, crescent and the Greek Argive shield.  Of these, only the rectangular style is attested as having been used in the Graeco-Persian wars period.  In addition, some illustrations have been found of imperial troops (the Negro Alabastrons) and Persian hunters with cloaks draped over their left arms presumably as makeshift protection.

The only attested material for Persian shields is called by the Greeks gerrha ("wicker").  While to my knowledge no Achaemenid shields have been found, four shields dating to the Sassanid dynasty were found in the 1922-37 excavations at the Hellenstic (later Roman) city of Dura-Europos in Syria, and their construction could offer a model for that of earlier shields.  They were not technically wicker, but consist of wood dowels (sometimes incorrectly referred to as reeds) woven vertically through a single sheet of soaked rawhide.  The rawhide was folded over the ends of the sticks and sewn between them.  One or two horizontal sticks were attached to the back, preventing the shield from rolling up as the rawhide dried, and the grip appears to have been a wooden rod tied to the back.

These shields were unpainted.  The holes through which the sticks were threaded form chevrons down the shields' faces.  There is a Greek vase showing a Persian soldier with a rectangular shield bearing an elongated checker pattern which could have been produced the same way.

Round or oval
An enigmatic, slightly elongated shield appears in at least one scene in the reliefs at Persepolis (middle, second from top).  It's roughly the same size and shape as the violin.  Its face is smooth, showing no evidence of wickerwork, boss or rim (though the violin shields in the same scene also lack rims, which they have elsewhere).  If it's a representation of the Argive shield (and that's a big if), it would indicate that the Persians adopted this type far earlier than my research otherwise suggests.  I suppose it's even possible that they are violin shields to which the artists for some reason didn't add the cutouts or bosses, but that seems very unlikely to me.

This double-gripped style is known, as far as I know, almost entirely from Persepolis.  It had a rim (even around the cutouts, which were located halfway or slightly more than halfway down from the top of the shield) and had a round boss right in the middle with four round dimples or cutouts.  It's shown with a smooth face and inside, unlike the rectangular shield (also shown at Persepolis, with its stickwork construction clearly visible), so it may have been made of wood planks and/or had a facing and lining of metal, leather or fabric.  (In fact, a solid bronze shield facing of similar shape is or was held in the Axel Guttmann collection, although I can't find out much about it.)  A bronze boss from one was found on the island of Samos off the coast of Turkey (close, in fact, to Mount Mycale).  However, I've never seen it in battle art and never in Greek art of any kind.  This at least suggests that it wasn't very typical of Persian arms in the war.

I can think of several reasons for this disconnect.  The violin shield may have been relegated to parade wear, perhaps an artifact of a previous generation of soldiers, or it may have been inherited as an item of ceremony from an older culture, perhaps the Elamites. It may have still been in use, but not nearly common enough for the Greeks to think of it as "the" Persian shield.  Search as I might, I can't find anything to back up any of these speculations.

Some people call this style the Dipylon or Boeotian shield, after similar types seen in Greek art.  But I feel this is incorrect.  These are Greek types, with significant differences in details:  Persian shields had large bosses and cutouts that are almost full circles, while the Greek ones had no bosses and their cutouts were more semicircular.  One may be copied from the other via intermediaries or they may derive from the same prehistoric source, but they could just as likely be totally unrelated.

Being perhaps up to five feet high, the rectangular shield was a kind of pavise which could be propped up to stand on its own and (according to Herodotus) attached to others to form a wall.  Of course, against the press of a Greek phalanx, this structure couldn't stand up very long, but it likely served very well against showers of arrows, and would be useable in one-on-one spear combat.

From what I've seen, this type appears to be the most common Persian shield attested in Greek art.  There's at least one picture of one at Persepolis as well.  An RAT member once uploaded a photo of it, which has since been lost, but you can see a line drawing at Mark Drury's site.

This type of shield is usually referred to as a spara.  This word comes from a glossary of Hesychius of Alexandria, who roughly a millennium later defined sparabarai as gerrhophoroi ("wicker-bearers").  While -bara meant "bearer" (and comes from the same PIE root as -bearer and -phoros), the Middle Persian word spar and its Modern Persian derivative sipar mean "shield," so it's possible that *spara also simply meant a shield of any kind.  If, as I suspect, all types of Persian shields were what the Greeks would call wicker, then "wicker-bearer" doesn't indicate what type of shield a soldier bore.  I suppose the reverse might also be true: that *spara did refer to a particular type of shield, but by Middle Persian had become more generic.

Showing up in Greek art late in the 5th century, the crescent shield resembled the Thracian pelte and some Scythian shields.  It could be single- or double-gripped and was somewhat smaller than an Argive shield (which is roughly two-and-a-half to three feet in width).

The Hoplite Association has reproduced crescent shields using 3mm (about eight-ounce) vegetable-tanned leather and wooden dowels; the edging is the same leather, laced on.  Andy Cropper used two grip systems:  one to be held in the hand and the other to be strapped to the arm, allowing archers to hold it while shooting.

In modern literature, this shield in Persian context is called a taka and its bearers takabara, but in fact we have no reason to think the ancients called them that.  The word takabara comes from the Persian phrase Yauna Takabara ("taka-bearing Ionians"), found at Persepolis and generally thought to be a reference to the Macedonians (Yauna or "Ionian" being the generic Persian word for Greeks).  Many researchers think that taka here refers to the petasos, or Greek sun hat, which was round and dished and shaped pretty much like a shield.  The phrase is translated into Akkadian as "who bear shields on their heads."  Nicholas Sekunda in Achaemenid Military Terminology states that taka means "hide," and should by extension be taken to mean a leather shield.  It is, however, difficult to be certain, and of course the petasos isn't crescent-shaped.

One of the main tools of the Greek hoplite, eminently suited for phalanx combat.  Putting aside the possibility that the round Perspolis shields are of this type, so far as I know Persians are only attested as using them in the 4th century, and then only rarely.  Since a great deal of literature on the construction and use of the Argive shield is available elsewhere, I shall refrain from going into it here.

Next up:  You'll need a few other things.

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Armored bruiser

It's generally agreed that the Persian army wasn't very well-armored overall.  However, two types of body armor are known to have been used.

The older type is a scale corslet of the same general sort used in West Asia for centuries.  According to archaeological finds, Persian scale was mostly iron and sometimes bronze.  Xenophon describes Persian cavalry wearing bronze thorakes, but doesn't explicitly describe them as scale.  A cavalry commander named Masistius is reported to have worn golden scale (presumably gilded iron, which would be protective but resist rust) under his tunic (Herodotus IX.22).  If wearing scale under the tunic was standard practice, perhaps to keep the sun off the metal, that could account for the lack of scale portrayed in period art, even among the presumably elite guards of the king in imperial reliefs.

If earlier Mesopotamian art is any indication, it's likely the Persian corslet had short or no sleeves.  Anyone looking to replicate one might look to the work done by Sean Manning.  It is a massive undertaking.

The Persians and Scythians also sometimes used Greek-style corslets.  The type has been widely known as the linothorax ("linen chest"), which is actually a term from Homer, though references to thorakes of linen exist in Classical literature.  In fact there is no clear evidence linking the style of corslet to linen construction, and a competing theory has emerged linking the style to the term spolas, indicating hide (probably leather) construction.

Some long (but worthwhile!) threads at RAT have examined the literary and artistic evidence, cost and protective qualities of quilted linen, glued linen and leather in the style.  One outcome of the discussions is that the style is increasingly referred to as a "tube-and-yoke" or T&Y corslet/cuirass, since the fact that it was made out of a tube around the body and yoke over the shoulders is the only thing that can be said for certain about it.

As for what it all means for us:  To be honest, I haven't done enough research on the experiments many reenactors have performed to recommend what the new XMFM member should use if you choose to wear a T&Y.  The tentative rule will be that you may use any material that could plausibly have existed in the period and demonstrably provides decent protective qualities.  (That is, if your corslet is no more going to save you from a spear thrust than a motorcycle jacket would, you need to go back to the drawing board.)  Keep in mind that the two options aren't mutually exclusive:  It's not impossible, given what we know, for some T&Ys to have been linen and others leather.

After the Graeco-Persian wars, the T&Y was sometimes reinforced with scale, usually around the midsection.

Upon the head
Xenophon states in the Anabasis and the Cyropaedia that the king's cavalry wore helmets, though Persians generally didn't.  A bronze helmet found at Olympia was inscribed with a claim that it had been captured from the "Medes" and is believed to be a trophy from Marathon; it's an old Near Eastern onion shape.

Others have ventured that Persians wore helmets of the Kuban type, more commonly associated with the Scythians; these are low-profile bronze caps, dipping low between the eyes and with a straight, rather high cut from the sides around the back, to which some sort of aventail may have been attached.  The low shape could conceivably allow it to be completely hidden under a tiara.

An interesting but under-publicized find is an iron helmet from Achaemenid Sardis.  Its segmented construction and large cheek guards bear a startling resemblance to those of spangenhelmen of centuries later.

Next time:  If I am not shield... 

Friday, May 18, 2012

— with an ax!

The use of battleaxes is mostly attributed to the Scythians (Herodotus VII.64), although Persians may have used them as well. At Persepolis Darius the Great's weapon carrier is seen with an ornate axe or warhammer; other peoples are shown carrying axes as tribute.  The Greek transcription of the Scythian name is sagaris (pl. sagarides).

The sagaris could have an iron or bronze head.  It was small in profile and similar to a tomahawk, although the edge sometimes flared dramatically.  It typically had a long back spike.  An iron example may be seen here (item 5273 about three-fourths of the way down).  It is 7.25 inches (18.4cm) long and the spike is curled.  Other examples exist where the blade is double-edged or the back resembles a multi-pronged warhammer.  An unusual find, replicated here, has an extraordinarily broad blade and back spike shaped like a griffin head.  Judging by period art, the haft was slim, straight and about a foot and a half to two feet long (46-61cm).  It was probably worn with the haft tucked into the belt.

Sourcing:  Manning Imperial's medium and small Amazon axe heads are probably the best-looking available, but you have to make your own haft.  Pending documentation for its use in the Achaemenid period, the Luristan type is not acceptable.  A cheaper (albeit rather bulky) option, Cold Steel's "Spike Hawk," looks like it should be acceptable once the black coating is sanded off.

I don't know enough about the physics of stage combat with an axe to make any recommendations in that area.  Most sparring axes seem to be made of foam rubber or other bulky nonmetallic materials.  The few metal ones I've seen don't look right for our period either.

Next up:  Now we all have metal skin.

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

How to make a scabbard

Update 12/10/13:  This post contains information that is probably incorrect.  Please see here.

10/24/13 - Please read!
Since this post appears to be getting more and more pageviews, I feel the need to update it in some way.  All the scant evidence I have subsequently gathered on akinakes scabbards indicates that the following method is NOT CORRECT for the Achaemenid period.  Please do not use it in your own replica.  See here for further information.  I am nonetheless leaving this post unaltered.

Scabbards are tedious to make, but not difficult.  If you'd like an even easier method, I'm including instructions for an all-leather sheath at the end of this article.  Pending evidence to the contrary, XMFM accepts all the following methods.  As always, check your group's guidelines before deciding what to do.

The author's rough draft Achaemenid scabbard (bottom) with tin can throat and home-cast pewter chape, and Scythian-style leather sheath (top).

For a wood-cored scabbard, cut two planks slightly wider and longer than the blade.  They may be thick, with deep hollows carved on the inside faces to fit the blade, or thin and held apart with additional strips of wood so the blade fits between (though even in this case it's better to have them a bit closer together and do a little hollowing, so the fit is snug).  File indentations at the top to seat the lobes of the sword's guard.  Glue the halves together along the edges, and sand smooth.
Two ways to make a wood core.  The first is more time-consuming.

Making a pattern for the metal throat.

(Top)  Wrap a sheet of foil or paper around the top of the core.  It should project somewhat higher so that the tab can rise higher than the actual scabbard mouth, as in the originals.
(Bottom left)  Draw the throat on, then add extra width around the tab.  This will be used to crimp around either the front or back half and hold the tab together.
(Bottom right)  Remove the wooden core, cut the throat pattern out, then cut the extra width off of either the front (if you want the back to crimp around the front and be visible) or back (if you want the crimping hidden).

Trace the pattern onto a sheet of brass or bronze and cut it out.  Add little cuts around the edge of whichever half of the tab is wider so that it will crimp neatly.

You'll probably want to cover the scabbard in leather.  Select a soft, thin leather that will be easy to wrap closely.  I use dental floss for all my leather stitching, but for this application I think ordinary thread would suffice.  Measure out at least four times as much of it as the length of the seam you're making (more may be needed if you space the stitches closely, but I've always found four times to be enough).  A double-running or Holbein stitch is easy and secure.  Wrap the leather tightly and stitch either up the back of the scabbard and then down, or down and then up - either way, the end of the seam will be protected by either the throat or chape.  Tie off the thread tightly and trim down the ends.

Some Achaemenid scabbards had a ridge visible down the front.  I don't know how this was created.  I approximated it by inserting a bamboo skewer under the leather.

Stitching up the back.

If you want a fancy scabbard, you could cover the core in embossed brass/bronze sheet instead of leather.

Wrap the metal throat around the top of the scabbard, just like the throat pattern.  Crimp the edge of the wider tab half around the smaller half and hammer the crimping down.  You may also want to sand or file to reduce the raggedness.  Punch a hole through the upper corner of the tab and set a metal grommet through the hole.

I have not found an acceptable chape on the market, but this isn't a problem if you can do home casting or there's a small-item casting studio near you - check the yellow pages or online.  Make the chape out of sculpting wax, rounding the edges and scraping the surfaces smooth.  Decorate it if you like.  Then have it cast in a metal (bronze or brass) that closely matches the metal you used for the throat.  Sand and polish, then glue it over the end of the scabbard with epoxy or other high-strength adhesive.

I have no experience with bone carving and won't try to describe the process, but if you have the skills, feel free to make a chape in bone instead.

Alternately, you can make both throat and chape out of heavy (around 8-ounce) leather.  The instructions for a leather throat are pretty much the same as for a metal one, except that you'll stitch instead of crimp the halves of the tab together, so don't make one wider than the other.  Also, when tracing the pattern onto the leather, do make the middle of the throat pattern - where the side of the finished throat opposite the tab will be - a little bit (say, a quarter inch) wider than it is on the pattern, to account for the thickness of the medium and shrinkage.  Soak the throat after cutting to be able to mold it closely to the scabbard.  Sufficiently heavy leather will require you to punch or drill the stitch holes before stitching, using an awl or very small drill bit.  You don't need to add a grommet to the tab.  The chape is also made from two halves, stitched together, soaked and stretched over the end of the scabbard.  Allow both chape and throat to dry.  They'll probably shrink and either fall off or prove easy to pull off.  Glue them back on.

Lastly, punch a hole in the weapon belt at your right hip.  Insert a leather cord through the tab grommet and tie it through the hole in the belt.  Measure out another cord and tie one end around the scabbard just above the chape, leaving two or three inches of extra cord on the forward edge of the scabbard (the same side as the throat tab) and the rest on the backward edge.  Tie the forward end into a slipknot.  Tie the backward end of the cord into a small tight knot or attach a bead.  Loop the backward length of the cord around your right thigh, then put the knot or bead through the slipknot and tighten it.

But I'm too lazy
A leather sheath can be made in just a few steps.  Draw your sheath on the flesh side of a heavy leather sheet.  Cut it out, flip it over and use it as a pattern for the other half.  Drill stitch holes, stitch the two halves together, punch a hole in the tab, add the belt and thigh cords - and you're done!  If you like, you can now decorate the front of the scabbard with tooling.

I have no documentation that sheaths were made in this manner.

Important update (Sept. 14, 2012):  See A further note on leather sheaths to avoid this project being a huge waste of time and material.

Edit:  I've noticed that I reversed the directions regarding the slipknot system when posting earlier this morning.  Just to be clear:  The slipknot is at the shorter forward end of the cord.  The bead is on the end of the cord that loops around the leg.

Next up:  You're no better than Raskolnikov—

Friday, May 11, 2012

This is a sword... that I use...

While sidearms aren't essential for reenactment, it's a good idea to have one.  At least three types of edged weapons are attributed to the ancient Persian armies.

One - which I won't elaborate on, unless and until I find out about archaeological finds - is the so-called Elamite dagger, shown in the Persepolis reliefs and on the Egyptian statue of Darius the Great.  Unfortunately I've only ever seen it in sculpture, invariably sheathed, so there's very little to tell about what it looked like.

The most well-known type associated with the Persians was called in Greek the akinakes (sometimes akenakes, unattested Persian *akinaka, Latin acinaces).  Because the word means a Persian sword, in early modern times it was taken to refer to a type of saber or scimitar, and by extension other curved swords like the katana.

In truth the Classical akinakes was a short, straight, double-edged weapon, ranging in size from a small dagger to almost as big as a gladius.  The type is closely associated with the culture of the Great Steppe; variations were used from the Ukraine to western China.  While Steppe examples could still be bronze in this period, the Persian akinakes was made of iron.  The guard was typically shaped like an upside-down heart, and the columnar grip and rounded bar pommel formed a T.  Ornate golden examples exist which differ in many aspects.

The easiest way to create an akinakes is to hilt or rehilt a dagger blade of appropriate shape.  While metal hilts are attested, XMFM will approve of the use of organic hilts.  Windlass Steelcrafts and its distributors sell a big and cheap Arkansas toothpick blade which, while perhaps too tapered, is otherwise perfect for the part.  If you can find other examples, use them; just avoid undocumented fullering patterns and ricassos.

If you have the material skills, peen the tang over a washer.  Threaded tangs are okay, but to avoid the glaring anachronism, the securing nut should be either a tang nut sunken into the pommel, or low in profile and round, or a square or hex nut ground down as much as possible.  Unground ones are okay on sparring blades, which will never be entirely realistic anway.

Sparring sword I made for Marathon 2011.  It's much smaller than it looks!  Blade from American Fencers Supply Co., whose website appears to be defunct.

Sparring blades are generally light and flexible and must have either very obtuse rounded points or rolled ones.  Some options may include Darkwood's Wide Flex, Alchem's Safeflex and Hanwei's Practical Main Gauche blade (available from many distributors).

The akinakes was worn at the right hip in an elaborate scabbard.  The chape, generally a rounded triangle, could be made of bronze, chased gold or carved ivory, and probably lots of other materials.  Just above the chape, a cord was tied around the scabbard, passed around the thigh and then through a slipknot next to the chape.  The throat had a large tab, which at its own upper corner was tied through a hole in the weapon belt.  The throat should completely cover the sword's guard, but I haven't worked out a way of doing this yet.  This is a very elegant and handy suspension system for a very small weapon.

The last type(s) of sword was the single-edged, belly-bladed sword, in various forms called a kopis or machaira.  It was Greek in origin but in Greek art often shown wielded by Persian or Scythian warriors.  It was a somewhat longer sword than the akinakes.  Its shape gave it great cutting power (indeed kopis is Greek for "cutter").  It often had a single flared shoulder, on the sharp or forward side of the blade; and normally a full-profile or slab tang and a pommel which was simply a swelling of the tang on the forward side.  The pommel might be bulbous (the grip might then be carved into a curl, like a fiddlehead), or hooked and resemble a bird's head in profile.  Some kopides had a full S-shaped crossguard.

No one, to my knowledge, makes an off-the-shelf kopis that's historically-accurate yet inexpensive.  Windlass makes a small one of dubious historicity (it would require rehilting at the very least).  Their Cobra Steel kopis is a modern interpretation and the slab tang is the wrong shape.  Windlass, Del Tin, Deepeeka and possibly others have historical falcatas in their lineup of varying accuracy, but these are Iberian-style swords which only bear the broadest resemblance to Eastern Mediterranean ones.  If you have enough money, getting a custom blade is the best option.

Next up:  How to make a scabbard.

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Spear counterparts

Any soldier who wasn't armed with a bow, and some who were, would have had a spear (arštiš) or javelins.  According to Xenophon, the javelins were made of dogwood, but for your replica, any wood that works well is acceptable - ash is frequently recommended.  Herodotus notes that the Persian spears were short, at least relative to Greek ones; judging by period art, they would have been roughly 6-7 feet long (183-213cm).  The lack of reach of the arštiš relative to the 7- to 9-foot Greek doru may help account for the difficulty Persians faced in close combat with Greeks.  Ancient javelins tended to be 4-5 feet (122-152cm).  As for thickness, Legio XX (Roman, but the same principles would apply) recommends 1 to 1-1/8 inch (25-29mm) for thrusting spears and 3/4 inch (19mm) for javelins.

The spearhead was small, kite- or leaf-shaped, with a short socket and a strongly-formed mid-rib extending to the tip.  It was probably iron.  Oddly, of the many spearheads I've seen on the market, the only cheap one that answers to this description is Museum Replicas Limited's "Greek Spearhead," though it's rather too big.  If you're willing to pay more for something that looks the part, Manning Imperial sells several spearheads that appear to be small enough.  Otherwise, just get one with a bladed section less than one foot (30cm) and you'll be safe.  Avoid any with partial mid-ribs, or sockets featuring swollen rings, stepped thickness or angular cross-sections; the Achaemenid spearhead's socket was completely plain, widening gradually from the blade's mid-rib.

Speaking of safe, special spearheads will be required for combat.  These come in several forms, and different groups have different preferences:  Some prefer blunt steel with rolled or spherical points, others plastic, others foam rubber, and still others bashed-together devices of springs, tennis balls and whatnot.  The Plataeans, Hoplologia's Classical branch, will be testing various types this summer, but I don't know if Amphictyonia plans to set a league-wide standard.  In any case, XMFM won't be doing contact combat unless and until we get firsthand instructions from someone with experience.

The most distinctive part of the Persian spear was its counterweight, which was spherical, with a ring between the sphere and the socket.  It was cast bronze, with higher-status troops carrying silver or gold ones.  The sphere looks to have been about 2 inches (5cm) across.  One was found at Deve Hüyük in Syria, where T.E. Lawrence (yes, that T.E. Lawrence) excavated many weapons from Achaemenid soldiers' graves, but I've yet to find further information about it.  I'm currently looking into the possibility of using a brass ball finial for a curtain rod or similar, assuming one with a sufficiently wide socket can be found.

Next up:  It does not mean "scimitar."

Monday, May 7, 2012

Addition to the contact list

The Hoplite Association has agreed to be published here as a contact for prospective Persian empire reenactors.  They're based in the UK; mainland European applicants are welcome but must commit to attending at least one UK-based event per year.  They also offer a "try before you buy" membership if you want to start by joining for just a specific event.  I spent most of my time at Marathon 2011 in the HA's company; they provided the lead Persian reenactors there.

Friday, May 4, 2012


Classical arrowheads used by Greeks, Persians and Scythians alike were mostly cast bronze and of the broadhead type, but smaller and lighter than modern ones.  A good overview has been posted at the Hippeis forum (fifth post down).  Period-correct types are available from Neil Burridge in the UK and Manning Imperial, Australia. They are a bit pricey.  I would say that you won't be required to use these exclusively, but I'm still looking for leads on possible substitutes for target-shooting and filling up the quiver.

According to Herodotus (Hist. VII 32), Persian arrows were made of reed.  If you can obtain them, reeds need to be straightened and usually have separate wood nocks installed, although nocks may also be cut just below a node.  A guide may be found near the bottom of this page.

Reed arrows unfortunately have a reputation for breaking with repeated use, so some reenactors prefer just regular wood for target-shooting.  I suspect most commercial wood shafts are too thick, assuming that the arrowheads' outside socket diameter corresponds to shaft thickness (which it doesn't necessarily, as reed arrows often have a wooden insert between the shaft and the arrowhead).  If that's the case, we may face the added complication of selecting and spining hardware store dowels to produce lighter arrows.

Fletchings were of course natural feather.  Attach them with sinew or floss and arrow glue, wrapping down the quills so they won't stab your bow hand on release.

Stage combat
In reenacting fighting, as many steps as possible must be taken to ensure that 1)  impacts, whether from arrows, spears or swords, don't land too hard, 2)  the edge or point of any weapon is unlikely to pierce unprotected skin, and 3)  no part of the weapon is likely to break and produce metal chips or wood splinters.

Amphictyonia discussions seem to be leaning toward requiring bows under 30 pounds draw weight for combat.  Arrows need special materials.  Both tall, untrimmed feather fletchings and flu-flus (spiral-wrapped feathers) are under consideration; these will slow the arrow in flight.  Safety arrowheads are large, blunt and made of rubber.  I've only ever seen them on UK websites; most rubber arrowheads are made for killing small game.  However, I hope at some point to compile a list of manufacturers approved for our use.  Arrows are likely to be marched on or just break on impact, so for a long time some groups have required that combat arrows be wrapped in fiberglass tape, which prevents broken shafts forming splinters.  This is especially important in Classical reenacting, where many participants go barefoot.

Next up:  The other main weapon.

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

The Persian army

It is likely that the Persian army was originally made up mainly of nobles and their immediate bandaka, in early feudal fashion.  Herodotus' famous summary of Persian education (1.136) makes sense only in the context of a military aristocracy, as does Xenophon's more detailed depiction in the Cyropaedia (1.2).  Per Herodotus, Xenophon and Strabo, the sons of nobles were required to serve in the military.  Kings and nobles took part in (and sometimes died in) fighting at the front line.

Land value was sometimes assessed according to feudal underpinnings:  In the Achaemenid Babylonian texts, royal allotments are called bīt qašti, "bow land," bīt sisī, "horse land," and bīt narkabti, "chariot land," probably referring to the valuations of land needed for the support of an archer, a horse and cavalryman, and a chariot and crew.  (Per Erich Ebeling and Bruno Meissner, Reallexikon der Assyriologie und Vorderasiatischen Archäologie, most holders of these estates during the Achaemenid period were not in fact soldiers, and if they were required to provide military service, probably hired soldiers.)

The foreign service
Much of the very large armies employed at various times, such as Xerxes' invasion of Greece, consisted of levies from various subject nations.  They were dressed and armed in their native manner, but led by Persian commanders.  Briant, however, has argued that most of the national contingents at this particular gathering weren't intended as a fighting force but as an imperial review and display of power.  The contingents that Herodotus actually mentions in battle are only a handful of those who turned up.

In the late 5th and 4th centuries, large numbers of Greek mercenaries entered Persian service.  The hoplite panoply and phalanx tactic were difficult to match in head-on combat with anything other than themselves.  Xenophon decries this situation (Cyr. 8.8) as part of, in his opinion, an overall decline in the martial character of the empire.

Troop types
Such a criticism would be most sensible, of course, if the Persians had ever had a tactic for meeting the phalanx head-on.  There are hints that they may have tried to develop such a thing later:  The mysterious kardakes at the Battle of Issus are described by Arrian, ostensibly quoting Ptolemy who was a witness to he battle, as "hoplites," and modern writers have sometimes taken this to mean that they were a Persian adaptation of the Greek infantry type.  From the Alexander Sarcophagus it appears that Persians did occasionally use Argive shields.  Strabo, however, says that the kardakes were young men training for war in the king's service.  In any case, I know of no evidence of Persian hoplites in the early 5th century.

The heaviest infantry contingent at that time was the Immortals.  (I won't repeat the well-known tale of the name's origin except to say that it is disputed - Lendering has ventured that it is a confusion with a similar Persian word meaning "companions," or in other words, the king's personal army/bodyguard.)   These likely carried the full panoply described in the Histories 7.61, including scale corselets and the short akinakes sword.  Despite being, ostensibly, the best Persian soldiers, even they lacked the ability to meet a phalanx head-on, probably due to using an open-order formation and shields unsuitable for the close-order shoving that characterized the phalanx.

For the most part, the Persian army relied on a more static line infantry, light infantry and cavalry.  The line infantry were armed with spears and carried large rectangular shields, which formed a shield wall to protect large numbers of archers.  These, the spearmen and archers, were likely the largest Persian contingents in the Graeco-Persian wars.  From Greek art in the late 5th and 4th centuries Asiatics are shown with smaller crescent shields and spears or javelins.  Slingers were also known.

The cavalry were likewise light cavalry, relying on bows and javelins (which could double as short spears).  By Xenophon's day, at the earliest, they were rather heavier-armored than the typical infantry (likely because they were wealthier, or were furnished by wealthier estate-holders), and the horse also had some armor.  But they lacked stirrups, which would have allowed a proper charge in the manner of heavy cavalry.

Chariots had lost much of their tactical value in the Iron Age, when warriors started riding horses directly, but were still considered a status symbol.  Late in the 5th century, the Persians started employing scythed chariots, but these failed to have much effect at the major battles of Cunaxa and Gaugamela, as well-trained infantry could sidestep them.  Only when catching men unprepared, as in one incident during the early 390s war between Spartan king Agesilaus II and the satrap Pharnabazus of Lydia, did scythed chariots prove useful.

Persians appear to have had a liking for decimal division, per Herodotus (7.81):  The names for subdivisions are commonly given as daθabam (10, commanded by a daθapati or daθapatiš), satabam (100, satapati[š]), hazarabam (1,000, hazarapati[š]) and baivarabam (10,000, baivarapati[š]).  I have yet to track down the original sources for these terms.

Next up:  You can't use a bow without it.