Thursday, October 24, 2013

The akinakes scabbard re-examined

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

¡Hola!  Since it seems my earlier article How to make a scabbard is (as of this writing) the most-read post on this site, I thought now would be the time to go over the evidence once again, and try to direct readers away from what I now believe to be outdated information.

In that post, I assumed akinakes scabbards would be constructed in a similar manner to the popular style from later European history:  a wood core wrapped in thin leather and fitted with a separate chape and thin metal throat.   In fact I have never seen a separate throat from an original akinakes scabbard, and I must admit I've always had trouble imagining how such a thing could be made to work:  A separate throat has to have considerable contact area with the scabbard core for mere pressure or glue to hold it on, whereas we know from art that the akinakes throat usually expanded to cover the sword's guard, which would reduce its surface contact with the core to much less than that of it which was left "free-floating."  The only other methods would be to staple or otherwise physically attach the throat, though even that wouldn't be very secure, or to have the core extend into the throat, which would conceivably work, but again, there is no evidence for it.

The well-publicized archaeological finds of scabbard fittings seem to fall into one of two categories:  chapes, and sheet-metal coverings for the entire scabbard.  I know of only a single one which has the typical Achaemenid features of an enveloping throat and bellied belt tab.  It is commonly associated with the famous Oxus Treasure, though John Boardman has argued, on the basis of the artistic styles on its embossed decoration, that it actually older (Median), Mesopotamian-influenced work from about 600 BC.  The others are of different shape and most or all lack the enveloping throat (as well as the "bellied" profile of the belt tab).

As for chapes, most follow the general rounded triangle or trefoil shapes of those seen at Persepolis and are acceptable as models for Achaemenid impressions.

I know of one and only one preserved scabbard core, the wooden scabbard from Thebes.  In this example, the core comprises front and back halves which include the throat and chape.

Taking the Oxus scabbard cover and the Thebes core together we can say that the akinakes scabbard should comprise an organic core with a (possibly optional?) cover, and that on each half of the core and of the cover, the throat is a contiguous piece with the rest of the half.  This would make for a much stronger, simpler construction than trying to make a separate throat that is still an enveloping one.

I do not have enough practical knowledge to rule out the use of leather in either the core or cover.  A very heavy vegetable-tanned leather, if carefully molded and hardened, could conceivably be used alone, without additional covering or internal stiffening.  The ability of vegetable-tanned leather to be deeply and intricately tooled also makes it an attractive scabbard material, as an alternative to embossed metal.

I'm still looking into the plausibility of painted leather scabbards.  In light of the fact that most if not all ancient types of paint require a rigid substrate to be able to adhere without flaking, my new scabbard may have been a mistake, albeit still much better than the old one.  For what it's worth, veg-tan leather can be made as hard as wood with the right hot water treatment, but doing so without deforming it is tricky.

Tuesday, October 8, 2013

Peoples of the empire: The Thracians

This is the final entry in the "Peoples of the empire" series.

Geographical definition
Thrace (Gk. Thrāikē, probably O.P. Skudra) was located in the eastern Balkans, covering most of southern Bulgaria from the Black Sea coast inward, the northeastern corner of modern Greece and European Turkey (that part of the country north of the Sea of Marmara and its strait).  Thracians were also to be found in Macedonia and other parts of the Balkans, Anatolia and as far east as western Scythia.

According to Leo Klejn, the Thracians originated with the multi-cordoned ware culture at the turn of the second millennium BC, which was pushed west from its native Ukraine by the expanding timber grave culture (widely believed to be proto-Scythian).

Settling west of the Black Sea, the Thracians remained divided into several tribes in Herodotus' day.  Like the Celts in western Europe, they lived mostly in small fortified villages.  Towns such as Byzantium were mainly the domain of Greek colonists in the Archaic period.  The Thracians did, however, become very widespread; Herodotus thought them the largest nation in the world second to the Indians, but weak because of their disunity.

In or about 513, Darius the Great sent his general Megabazus to conquer Thrace.  What happened on the expedition is not described in detail, but Herodotus says that Megabazus passed from place to place and conquered each tribe in turn.

The Persian hold over the area appears to have been weak.  In 492, during his punitive expedition against the Greeks following the Ionian Revolt, Mardonius was attacked by Bryges (a tribe of Thrace thought to be related to the Phrygians) while camped in Macedon.

Thracians called Bithynians, who dwelt just on the Anatolian side of the Bosporus, marched as infantry in Xerxes' invasion of Greece under Bassaces son of Artabanus.  These were part of the satrapy of Phrygia.  Some of them were retained by Mardonius for his reduced force, and may have fought at Plataea.

Herodotus reports that Thracians north of Greece carried off the sacred chariot Xerxes had left in the city of Siris when he was marching forth.  The king of the Bisaltae tribe refused to ally himself with the great king, and when his six sons followed the Persians regardless and then came home, their father had them blinded.  Some of Mardonius' men who survived Plataea were also killed by European Thracians as Artabazus led them toward Byzantium.

Herodotus described the Thracians as having similar customs, "save the Getae, the Trausi, and those who dwell above the Crestonaeans."  The Getae (he says) believed that they did not die, but were called as messengers to their god Salmoxis or Gebeleïzis.  Every five years, a man would be chosen by lot to be killed as a messenger; he would be given whatever prayers the Getae wished to convey, then thrown into the air over three lances.  If he did not die, they judged him an unfit messenger and chose again.

The Trausi believed that to live was to suffer, and lamented births like other peoples lamented deaths (which honestly makes me think of a kind of evil eye superstition), but when a person died, the funeral celebrated their release from suffering.  "Those who dwell above the Crestonaeans" were polygynists whose widows competed for the honor of being the one to be slain and buried with her husband.

Other Thracian tribes, the historian reports, would make lamentation and sacrifice at funerals, then cremate the dead or bury them in mounds, holding funeral games afterward.  They sold their children; husbands bought wives for a bride price and strictly coveted them, but unmarried women's chastity was not considered important.  Tattooing was an honor restricted to nobles, and warriors were held in the highest regard, farmers in the lowest.

Teres I (r. 460-445) and his son Sitalces (r. 431-424), of the Odrysae, united the tribes of the European Thracians in the mid-fifth century.  Although this union was unstable and the Odrysian rulers' political power far from absolute, they were regarded by foreigners as the kings of Thrace.  In 429, Sitalces allied with Athens and invaded Macedon, though had to retreat late in the year because of logistical problems.  This was the beginning of a complex political and military interplay between Thrace, Athens and Macedon lasting into the reign of Philip II.

The Odrysian kings adopted much Greek culture, including clothing and weapons, and used the Greek language for administration.  The kingdom reached its zenith in the first few decades; at the turn of the fourth century it broke into eastern, central and western dominions.  During the revolt of Ariobarzanes in or around 366, Cotys I took the opportunity to invade the Thracian Chersonese (modern Gallipoli), which was then held by Athens.  Cotys conquered the peninsula by 359, and concluded an alliance with Philip II of Macedon, but was murdered the following year by two students of Plato.  In 357 the Athenians retook the Chersonese.

Cotys' kingdom was divided between his son Cersobleptes in the east and two other princes, Berisades in the west and Amadocus II in central Thrace; these may have also been sons of Cotys.  Cersobleptes' Greek mercenary Charidemus was able to negotiate some kind of concession from Athens (the nature of which is uncertain but seems to have related to the Chersonese) which resulted in the breaking of Thrace's alliance with Macedon.

In 352, Berisades died and was succeeded by his son Cetriporis.  Cersobleptes tried to disinherit him, but the Thracians also had to deal with Macedonian incursions that year, when Philip took a son of Cersobleptes hostage.  In 347 Philip forced all the Thracian kings to acknowledge Macedonian suzerainty.  The next year, Philip seems to have returned to fight Cersobleptes, who nonetheless resumed attacks on Greek cities on the Hellespont afterward.  Philip invaded Thrace yet again in 343 to bring Cersobleptes to terms.  In the late 340s, Philip finally managed to reduce European Thrace to a tributary of Macedon.

Upon Philip's assassination in 336, the Triballi tribe allied with the Illyrians and rebelled against the Macedonians, at the same time as many other subjects.  Alexander fought and defeated the Triballi in the Balkan Mountains the next year, then crossed the Danube and skirmished with the Getae.  Thereafter the other Thracian tribes submitted to Alexander.

The Bithynians, meanwhile, seem to have set themselves up as an independent state under King Bas (r. 376-326) late in the Achaemenid period.  After the Granicus and Alexander's appointment of his general Calas as satrap of Hellespontine Phrygia, Calas tried to conquer Bithynia but failed.

Thracians presumably of Europe took part in Alexander's expedition into Asia, fighting as cavalry at Gaugamela in 331.  That year, Seuthes III became king of Thrace.  Following the death of Zopyrion, Seuthes declared independence in 325.  His rebellion was put down by Antipater, but he rebelled again in 323 after Thrace was given to Lysimachus in the Partition of Babylon.  In 320, he founded the new capital Seuthopolis (modern Kazanluk in central Bulgaria).  When Lysimachus came into conflict with Antigonus during the Wars of the Diadochi, Seuthes allied himself with Antigonus, but was again defeated in 313.  The Odrysian kingship continued thereafter under the suzerainty various Hellenistic kingdoms and then under the Romans until the death of Rhoemetalces III in AD 46.  As Rhoemetalces apparently had no heirs, Thrace was thereafter made a Roman province.  As such, the region became culturally Romanized; the Thracian language is believed to have become extinct by the fifth century AD.

Bithynia remained independent during the Hellenistic period, and Bas' grandson Nicomedes founded its new capital at Nicomedia, where it would last until the Pontians drove Nicomedes IV out in 90 BC.  He was restored to his throne by the Romans six years later and Bithynia became effectively a Roman client state, which Nicomedes officially bequeathed to Rome on his death in 74.  All the royals of Bithynia toward the end have Greek names and it seems likely that Bithynia became linguistically Hellenized during this time.

Too little of Thracian from the Classical period and earlier has been preserved to hope to speak it with any fluency.  The surviving corpus consists of some names, a handful of words from Greek texts, and only four, very short inscriptions.  It was clearly Indo-European but its classification is not certain.  It's usually placed along with Dacian (which some linguists regard as a branch of Thracian) in the Daco-Thracian branch.  Daco-Thracian may be part of a larger Thraco-Illyrian branch, or Thracian and Illyrian may form a Sprachbund.

Thracians were polytheists.  Among their chief gods was Sabazios, apparently the same deity worshipped by the Phrygians.  The artistic representation of Sabazios and similar-looking gods is called the "Thracian horseman," and seems to have been adopted in later centuries to represent Saint George.  The war goddess Cotys was widely celebrated at the Cotyttia festival, which involved going into the hills at night and getting drunk.  A cult of Cotys existed in Athens, where she was identified with Persephone.  Other recorded Thracian deities included Zibelthiurdos, whom the Greeks also identified with Zeus due to his association with lightning, and Bendis, a huntress identified with Artemis.  The Greek deities Semele and Dionysus may also have had Thracian roots.

The Getae worshipped a god called Salmoxis or Zalmoxis, whom Herodotus says was a deified human who had taught that humans do not die, but pass to a land of eternal happiness.  He also claims that the Getae believed in no god other than Salmoxis.  These statements have been the subject of much interest among researchers who have interpreted it to mean that Getae were monotheists and "proto-Christians" whose native beliefs facilitated a transition to Christianity.

Thracians wore belted, sleeveless or short-sleeved tunics, cloaks, laced boots and pointed tiaras.  The bold embroidery of Thracian cloaks (which in some illustrations appear kidney-shaped rather than square) is well-illustrated in Greek pottery.  According to Herodotus, their boots were deerskin and their hats were fox skin, though I would consider felt acceptable for the latter.

The boots were of a surprisingly modern laced design and could come up to the mid-calf, with downturned, dagged tops.  I've seen some reenactors use Minnetonka knee-high boots.  In times past these had the same crepe sole as the little ankle-high's I bought in 2011, but their website now seems to show them with a different design that hopefully will prove more durable.  They're also stitched up on the sides and seem less likely to admit sand, though this comes at the expense of a moc-style toe which is not correct for Thracian impressions.  Also they're made of the same suede as the ankle boots, which will pick up dust quickly if you use them on the beach.  Nonetheless, these are probably the best non-custom option out there.

The "Skudra" at Naqš-e Rostam wears a Scythian coat.  I can think of a number of explanations for this, but I think artwork has been consistent enough elsewhere that it's best to stick to simple tunics.

The best-known Thracian weapon is the javelin, which seems to have used a spearhead of size and shape comparable to a thrusting spear, but on a shorter, thinner shaft.  Some also had longer spears, so reenacting as a Thracian doesn't limit you to a missile troop role.

Thracians used a distinctive short sword or large knife similar to a smaller version of a falcata.  In Hellenistic times it came to be known as a sica, and later Roman "Thraex" gladiators were armed with a weapon based on it which resembled a crooked gladius.  According to Xenophon, Thynians (apparently cousins of the Bithynians) carried clubs, which he claimed were intended to knock the heads off spears. 

The famous Thracian shield was the pelta, which was made in both round and crescent shapes, the latter of which was apparently very similar to the crescent shields of West and Central Asia.  Conventional wisdom nowadays is that they were made of sticks woven vertically through a sheet of leather or rawhide, like the Persian rectangular shields and smaller Scythian ones, but militating against this is the fact that in Greek art they are frequently shown with designs on the front which would work best if the front were a smooth, solid surface.  I have seen a few people put forth that wood plank construction would have been common in heavily forested areas like Thrace, while the stick-and-hide construction would more likely prevail in the grassy steppes (ex.:  the Pazyryk finds and Solokha comb) even if the shape were the same.

Several grip systems for the pelta are shown in Greek art:  Most commonly, a handgrip near the rim was combined with some kind of central arm grip, either similar in shape to a porpax or simply a pair of crossed bands.  There are other instances where two non-crossed central bands are used as the grips, pinched together in one hand, like the grips of a sipar or dhal.  In a few cases it appears that a single central grip was used, but this system gives less stability than the double grips.

The famous Thracian infantry called peltasts carried the pelta shield and a spear or several javelins.  Peltasts were versatile; their javelineers were missile troops, but due to their shields, both spear- and javelin-armed peltasts had an advantage in melee over missile troops who had no shields, while still being more mobile than hoplites in phalanx.

Osprey writer Christopher Webber claims that Thracians in the fourth century started wearing helmets.  They were apparently of the Phrygian type, with attached cheek guards giving them a fleeting resemblance to a Chalcidian helmet, but also having a tall curled peak similar to Thracian and Phrygian tiaras.

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

Peoples of the empire: The Sogdians

Geographical definition
Sogdia or Sogdiana (O.P. Suguda, Av. Sughdha) was midway along the Zeravshan River, bordered on the northeast by the Massagetae, some ways to the west of Chorasmia and separated from Bactria in the south by the Oxus River.  In terms of modern geography, it roughly occupied the confluences of Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan.

The Sogdians appear to have arrived in their historical homeland in the early Iron Age; Macaranda - better known as Samarkand, and the most important city in the area - is believed to have been founded between 650 and 550 (the site had been occupied earlier).  Unlike their immediate northerly neighbors, the Amyrgian Scythians and Massagetae, the Sogdians were settled farmers; they traded crops to the nomads in exchange for livestock.

Étienne de La Vaissière says that Cyrus conquered Sogdia around 540 and established Cyropolis, "the farthest extent of the Persian empire of the northeast."  In the Behistun inscription Darius mentions Sogdia among the lands he ruled, but no mention is made of it rebelling.

Herodotus lists the Sogdians with the Parthians, Chorasmians and Arians as the 16th tax district, assessed at 300 talents yearly.  At Persepolis, they are with and indistinguishable from the Chorasmians; the group brings an akinakes, hammers (I think), loop-shaped things and a horse.  In Darius' Susa palace inscription, he states that the lapis lazuli and carnelian used therein came from Sogdia.  The country did not, apparently, have its own satrap, but was governed from Bactria.

In 494 during the late stages of the Ionian Revolt, the Persians sacked the Apollonic oracle at Didyma in Ionia.  There are claims that the Branchidae (the line of priests who tended the oracle) had medized.  They are supposed to have either been deported to Sogdia at this time, or relocated there when Ionia was retaken by the Greeks (which would indicate their complicity in the temple's destruction) following the failure of Xerxes' invasion of mainland Greece.

In Herodotus VII the Sogdians serve in Xerxes' army as infantry under "Azanes son of Artaeus."  He does not mention which if any battles they participated in.

Events in Sogdia are poorly-known for the rest of the fifth century.  In Arrian's Anabasis III.8 Sogdians fight at Gaugamela under Bessus, who commanded the eastern cavalry.  The satrap of Bactria, the man whom Alexander held responsible for Darius III's death, fled to Sogdia in the face of Alexander's campaign of revenge in 329.  There, his courtiers Spitamenes and Datames surrendered him to Alexander's general Ptolemy after the Greek army managed to cross the Oxus.

In Sogdia, according to Quintus Curtius, Alexander encountered the town of the Branchidae, and had the entire population killed and their town destroyed for their ancestors' perfidy.  There seems to be doubt about the veracity of this event.  Alexander made Samarkand his regional base, and it was there in 328 that he killed Cleitus the Black.

The next significant incident that our ancient sources care to describe is the siege of the Sogdian Rock, a nearby fortress to which Bessus' companion Oxyartes of Bactria had sent his family in the spring of 327.  The Macedonians scaled the fortress' walls with tent pegs at night, and the amazed garrison surrendered peacefully.  It was here that Alexander met his first wife, Oxyartes' daughter Roxana.

The same year, Alexander appointed as the new satrap his general Philip.  According to Diodorus, he retained this position at the 323 Partition of Babylon.  The Historiarum Philippicarum libri XLIV, an imperial Roman document by the otherwise-unknown Marcus Junianius Justinus, lists a Scytheaus as the Sogdian satrap.  At the Partition of Triparadisus two years later, Sogdia and Bactria were both given to Stasanor of Soli, which is corroborated by both Diodorus and Arrian.

In 305, the region fell to Seleucus Nicator, and remained part of his empire until the Greco-Bactrians declared their independence in the mid-third century.  Traces of Hellenistic-period Greek architecture have been found at Samarkand.  Invasions of nomads caused the collapse of Greek rule in Bactria and Sogdia in the mid-second century.

Sogdia's fortunes fluctuated until the latter half of the first millennium AD, when land reclamation and growing populations made it a dominant civilization in Central Asia.  For a time, Sogdian was lingua franca on much of the Silk Road.

The country seems to have dwindled under the expansion of Turkic cultures from the east and Persian from the west.  Today, Sogdia survives as the province of Sughd in Tajikistan.  A descendant of its language is spoken there by the Yaghnobi, who may be considered modern-day Sogdians.

Sogdian was an Eastern Iranian language, but its written corpus dates to the 1st millennium AD and as such its attested stage must have evolved considerably from the Achaemenid period.

According to de La Vaissière, the historical religion of Sogdia was "an unreformed version of Zoroastrianism, in which Ahuramazda would never achieve primacy... .  The chief god appears to have been Nana, inherited from Babylon" (I cannot tell whether this references the Sumero-Akkadian love goddess Nanaya, also called Nanâ, or the Akkadian moon god Sin aka Nanna).

However, these references seem to date to some time after the Achaemenid dynasty.  I would venture rather that in our period, religion in the Eastern Iranian cultural spheres was a mix of proto-Iranian polytheism and early Mazdaism.

Sogdians are grouped with Chorasmians in Persian royal art and dress the same, in riding coats with bordered edges, loose trousers, low shoes and low-peaked tiaras.  The delegation at the apadana may be viewed here at the bottom left.  Interestingly, the hems of their trousers appear to be gathered, perhaps with drawstrings or blousing bands, and their shoes show no laces, unlike those of the Mede leading them.

Herodotus holds that the Sogdians were equipped like the Bactrians, who had "reed bows" and short spears.  Given the region they occupied, I think it likely that they used the gorytos.  The Sogdian at Naqs-e Rostam wears an akinakes.