Tuesday, May 7, 2013

Peoples of the empire: The Bactrians

Ancient Bactria (O.P. Bâkhtriš, Bactrian Baktra) is approximately equivalent to modern Balkh province in the middle of northern Afghanistan, which is bordered on the north by the Amu Darya.  But in ancient times the name was extended as far south as the Hindu Kush.  Thus, within the historical region, mountains, fertile plains and deserts could all be found in a fairly small area.

Much of Greater Iranian history is linked with Bactria.  Some archaeologists believe the Bactria-Margiana Archaeological Complex (c. 2300-1700 BC) is the material culture of early proto-Indo-Iranians.  The prophet Zoroaster is widely believed to have lived here c. 1000 BC, and the city of Baktra is named in the later Vendidad among the Sixteen Lands of Ahura Mazda as "crowned with banners" (or "the town with the high-lifted banners").  Popular legend identified Zoroaster's great ally in the Avestas, Vištāspa (later Gushtasp or variants), as a Kayanid king of Bactria.

In the Achaemenid period, at some point special importance was attached to the satrapy (which was the 12th and also incorporated neighboring Margiana), as its satrap became the crown prince of the empire.  According to Iranica, the nobles of Bactria retained their power under the Achaemenid government.  Bactria was a wealthy land due to both trade and agriculture, and was taxed 360 silver talents yearly.

The land enters written history with the Behistun inscription, at which point it is already a satrapy (whether Cyrus or one of his sons conquered it, or it was already tributary to the Medes, is unknown).  According to Darius, Margiana revolted under the native leader Frâda.  At Darius' behest, Dâdarši, satrap of Bactria - not to be confused with the Armenian general of the same name - invaded Margiana and defeated the revolt in battle on December 28, 521.

Bactrians took part in Xerxes' invasion of Greece as both infantry and cavalry; they were marshalled with the Scythians under the command of Xerxes' brother, also called Vištāspa (Hystaspes in Greek) after their paternal grandfather, the father of Darius the Great.  The Bactrian contingents notably fought at the Battle of Plataea, where, according to Herodotus, Mardonius placed them between the Medes and Indians, opposing the Greeks of Epidaurus, Troezen, Lepreum, Tiryns, Mycenae and Phlius (IX.31).

A century and a half later, they would also fight at the Battle of Gaugamela under their satrap, Bessus.  When Darius III fled to Bactria the following year, Bessus and the other satraps executed a coup d'etat, possibly planning to hand the Great King over to Alexander to protect themselves and their offices.  Alexander sent a force to attack the conspirators in July of 330, inducing them to hastily murder Darius and flee (Lendering regards this as a calculated move on Alexander's part to unite the Persians behind him in his war against the king's deposers).

According to Arrian of Nicomedia (c. AD 86-160) the fatal blows were struck by Nabarzanes, a palace officer, and Barsaentes, satrap of Arachosia and Drangiana.  Regardless, Bessus, who was a relative of Darius and ruled one of the most important satrapies, now proclaimed himself King Artaxerxes V.  However, Alexander invaded Bactria in the spring of 329 and pursued Bessus across the desert to Sogdia, where Bessus' courtiers Spitamenes and Datames surrendered him to Alexander's general Ptolemy (the future diadochus of Egypt).  Biographers differ on what grisly manner of death Alexander bestowed on Bessus as punishment for usurpation, but all agree it was really freakin' grisly.

Bactria revolted against Greek rule several times in the 320s.  For a while it remained in the hands of the Seleucids, but around 250 (the date is hard to establish) the satrap Diodotus declared independence and founded the Hellenistic kingdom of Bactria.  During this period, Bactria expanded both east and west, acting as a trade link between the Mediterranean and China in the development of the Silk Road.  It was also a destination for Buddhist emissaries from India from the time of Aśoka the Great.  In the latter 2nd century BC the Greek dynasts were pushed out by migrating Yuezhi, who would later found the Kushan empire.  In the ensuing centuries, the land would be conquered again and again, leading to the disappearance of distinctly Bactrian culture.  Today the majority of people in Balkh are Tajiks, Persian-speakers of Central Asia, but the region is home to many different Iranic and Turkic peoples, and Arabs who descend from settlers of the early caliphates.

As the reputed home of Zoroaster, Bactria was a center of Iranian religion in ancient times.  The capital also housed a shrine to Anahita.  For more on the state of Iranian religion, see my previous entry.  The Rabatak inscription of the Kushan king Kanishka names many gods worshipped there, but this inscription dates to about four centuries after the Achaemenid period and it would be risky to put much stock into it as a source on Classical Bactrian religion.

Bactrian was an Eastern Iranian language.  In the Greek-alphabet inscriptions of the Kushan kingdom it is called the "the Aria (Aryan) language."  It is not, however, attested during the Achaemenid period, when it was probably significantly different (compare the significant changes between Old and Middle Persian).

Avestan was once known as "Old Bactrian" on the notion that it was ancestral to the historical Bactrian language; this is not considered to be the case today, although they are both in the Eastern Iranian sub-branch.

Clothing and arms
Interestingly I have found a sticking point when reviewing relief images:  Livius.org's image of "A Bactrian" is the same Persepolis relief that Nirupars labels as "Arachosier," while Livius' image of "An Arachosian" seems to be dressed very similarly (though only the head and shoulder are shown) except that the end of his headband isn't tucked in.  Meanwhile at Naqš-e Rostam the Bactrian dresses in a fashion that is almost Median (closed tunic, close-fitting trousers and ankle boots) but with a headband instead of a domed cap.  Lastly, Herodotus has gone on record describing the Bactrians as wearing "headgear very similar to the Median," which is mighty confusing, as none of these figures do.  If you want to portray a clearly Bactrian figure, my advice is to go with the headband.

Herodotus describes the Bactrians carrying short spears and "reed bows" (toxa de kalamina), which are an intriguing topic about which I can find very little information.  He states that their cavalry were armed the same as their infantry.  Lastly, the one at Naqš-i Rostam wears an akinakes, portrayed in Medo-Persian fashion.

P.S.  Sorry to say I don't expect to be able to post next week, as I have a test coming up on Monday.

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