11.1.4 Swords of Major Near East Powers in the 1st Millennium BC
|What's It About|
|You know that I'm not an expert for
swords. I do know a thing or two about semiconductors, and I also know
something about the Materials Science and Engineering of metals. I know a sword
if I see one and I have some idea about how it is made and what - mechanically
- it can do. But I did not know about akinakai (singular is akinaka or akinaces), for
example, until I had finished the preceding module and found out about these
things more or less by accident. I also just recently run across the Moroccan
Nimcha sabre. I'm
sure I don't know a lot of other sword-related specifics and I can thus not go
into the swords of the early Afghanistanis, Albanians, Algerians, ... (add 190
more member states of the UN), nor do I feel a necessity to do so - except if I come across something of interest with
regard to iron and steel technology in this context.
This applies to akinakes but not to Nimcha sabres. What I found out about akinakes is: an akinakes is a kind of double-edged straight dagger or short sword, made from bronze or iron. It was mainly used in the first millennium BC in the eastern Mediterranean region or Near East They are also connected to the Scythians and possibly to the Luristani stuff in some not-so-clear way. Now I'm interested.
|But not all that much. Most
akinakes, it seems, are "found" in the antiquities trade and that
means four things:
|The point I'm trying to make is: This
Hyperscipt is about Materials Science (you must have noted that by now). It
places special emphasize on iron and steel, including the history of these
metals. Swords are the paradigmatic embodiments of iron and steel, and that's
what makes them interesting to me. I'm also interested in many of the
other aspects of
swords but my priority is with Materials Science.
It follows that some arbitrary iron sword from the first millennium BC is of some interest to me - but not of much interest if I learn nothing about its metallurgy and how it was made.
|Iron making in bulk did start in the East Mediterranean or Near East, and it is thus straight forward to assume that sword making also started in this region. The Luristani iron swords bear witness to this. That's why in this module I look a bit into the swords of the major powers that were present in this region in the first Millennium BC. However, when I looked more closely into the matter, it came to me as a surprise that only a few swords seem to be known from before 700 BC, say. Let's look at waht we have.|
|Here are some akinakai according to the description given by their sources. As you see, the come in bronze only, iron only, iron with bronze or gold hilts, and solid gold. You can classify them as short swords, dirks, or daggers. Take whatever pleases you; I don't care.|
|The gold betrays Scythian influence
and dates the objects to 600 BC - 650 BC, as stated by the Russian museum and
fitting to the Scythian conquest of "the
West" including what's now Iran. The Medes were able to kick them out to
some extent, while the Scythians were able to fend off an invasion by Darius
the Great of Persia's Achaemenid Empire in 513 BC. The Scythians are still
rather mysterious, but we do know that they were nomadic living people with
horses, and that they had achieved an amazing mastery of gold metallurgy if not
metallurgy at large - just
like the Luristanis. "Scythian gold" is a well-known entity but
they might also have mastered iron as shown be their very specail
akenakai. That's why I
decided to add a "Scythian Special" in 2020.
|The golden akinake is
dated to the
the first Persian empire founded by Cyrus the Great, ca. 550 BC 330 BC. There
was a cultural interchange in other words (like plundering the cities, killing
the men, raping the women,..., as well as taking over the metallurgy knowledge)
and that's probably how Scythians skills made it to the Achaemenids.
All these objects (except possibly the Russian one) come from illegal digging: Their historical value is thus limited.
|The rusty thing above
looks far less fetching than the pieces one can buy. It is far superior,
however: it was dug up by archaeologists in Persepolis, the capital of the Achaemenid Empire.
That allows us to conclude that around 500 BC somebody in the large Achaemenid
Empire knew how to forge a 65 cm long sword in one piece. That's almost
impossible without fire welding.
Unfortunately nothing else seems to be known about the iron /steel used for akinakes. We will have to wait.
|The Scythians might have
"invented " the akinake and used them as weapons and as ceremonial objects. The other cultures,
especially the Persians (and that includes Luristan) adopted the design and
akinakes became popular in the Mediterranean region and Near East. One might
even see akinakes as the forerunner of the Chinese "jinglu sword",
the Greek xiphos, and the Roman
Akinkakes were primarily a thrusting / stabbing weapon. I would tend to believe that they could not have been the main weapon for people living and fighting mostly on horse backs like the Scythians and Parthians.
|Assyrian, Babylonian, Elamite, Achaemenid, and Parthian Swords|
| In the larger Eastern Mediterranean
around 1200 BC iron gradually bcame a less precious item (in some places) and
appeared in larger quantities. However, what we have found so far, tends to be
small and relatively simple stuff.
"first" full iron swords might be from from Luristan, a
hard-to-get-to highland area of apparently no historic consequence then or
ever. Areas of consequence were empires or became parts of empires, like it or
not. The important empires between 1200 BC and roughly 250 BC are the ones
relating to the names in the head line. In addition, we have the (usually
not-so-innocent) bystanders like the Scythians, Greeks, Egyptians, Cimmerians,
Lydians, Phrygians, Luwians, Urarturians...., and, not to forget, the Jews,
Philistines, and so on. King David, one of the more unsavory characters of the
Old Testament / Tanakh lived around 1000 BC - if he lived at all.
It is a complex and possibly close to impossible undertaking to unravel exactly who made big progress in iron technology where and when. However, we may state with some reliability that major iron use, including the forging of complex objects did not take place before, roughly, the 8th century BC
|All these names relate to the
Eastern part of the Mediterranean or Near East. On the West we had the
Etruscians, Phoenicians, Romans, and so on. To the North we had the Celts (and
some proto-Germanic people). All of them (except the North, maybe) had some
iron industry in the first millenium BC and, at the latest after 500 BC or so,
made iron swords.
I have already looked at the iron production in the "West" (Etruscans, Romans) and the North-West (Celts) after 500 BC.
The question is what we know about the Assyrians, Babylonians, and so on. The answer is: Next to nothing. At least I couldn't easily find much that is worthwhile to be mentioned here. And I did spend some time in looking around.
Just so you know what I'm talking about, I give you a quick list of the relevant empires with maps and a few facts in the link.
|Swords of the Assyrian Empire|
|The Assyrians ruled with the
proverbial "iron fist", meaning that they wielded iron weapons that
were superior to the weapons of their opponents and that they were rather
brutal in using their iron. That they did have a large iron industry (or took
over a large industry of vassal states) is proven by the huge hoard of iron
(160.000 kg!) found in the remains of the
Here is all I initially could find about Assyrian iron / steel weapons:
|All I found besides the iron piece from the Khorsabad hoard is an old drawing depicting Assyrian weapons that somebody I don't know made some time ago, and an actual iron plate from some Assyrian armor. The Metropolitan Museum in NYC has many of these sorry things but nothing else the ancient Assyrians made from iron.|
|Well, several years
later (it is now March 2020) I have to correct that statement to some extent. I
1. John Curtis' book: "An Examination of Late Assyrian Metal Work with Special Reference to Nimrud" (Oxford press, 2013). In this book many iron objects are shown and discussed. But it's typically iron spearheads, arrowheads, armor scales and other small stuff. There is a kind of large saw blade but there are still no (good) swords! All we have is the sorry lot shown here. One of the objects shows some similarity to what I have called the Luristan type 2 sword.
2. The article "IF I HAD KNOWN THAT MY LORD WANTED IRON. The beginning of the common use of iron in Assyria" from Caroline van der Brugge. Here is the link. The article is most illuminating and makes for good reading. Caroline argues that no iron ore is found in the Mesopotamian plane and that the Assyrians thus depended on others to supply iron or iron ore. She make a convincing case that large scale iron use in the Assyrian empire did not start before the end of the 8th century BC.
|How do we know that Assyrian swords
looked like the ones shown in the drawing? From numerous large stone reliefs
these guys left all over the place, in particular in
Here is Sargon II, fingering his sword (not necessarilly made from iron!)
|However, these guys weren't just fondling their swords. They defeated about any other power around by then, the list is quite impressive. The following picture shows parts of the taking of a Mannean fortress in 715 BC, as depicted on a now lost relief from room 14 (slab 2) of Sargon II's palace at Khorsabad. Nobody has ever heard from the Manneam kingdom ever since.|
|However! There is some evidence that
the Assyrians did not really use swords in battle. Maybe the cavalry (if they
has that) but not the infantry. The guys up their doing a sword fight actually
use rather short swords (akinakai?), if you look closely.
Whenever the Assyrian (fighting) nobility became bored of killing people, they went out to kill some lions. With their sword!
|There are many more picture like
that, especially on seals.
Those pictures makes me almost a liar. I wrote: "Even hunting animals with just a sword doesn't make much sense." Well. I do believe that even the most dedicated hunters out there today would be reluctant to hunt lions Assyrian style. Except, of course, the Romans. Sometimes they lost. But seriously now: You can't stop a charging lion like that. A grown lion weighs up to 820 pounds or 375 kg, the equivalent of 4 big people. Even if you manage to stab him as shown, he would throw you down quite forcefully and live long enough to take your head or damage you substantially in other ways. It is impossible for mere mortals - and thus only the king could do it as shown.
|What did we learn about Assyrian
swords? Not much. Essentially we can only state:
|A bit more about Assyrians and their contemporaries can be found here|
|Swords of the Neo Babylonian Empire|
|You are never too
old to learn a new trick! Putting "babylon sword" into Google, gives
unexpected and possibly exciting
results; try it.
Otherwise nothing. Nada
|Here is all I could find otherwise:|
|The two books going with the
exhibition mentioned in the figure source contain about 900 pages and more than
1000 pictures. The one above is the only one showing some iron. Maybe the
Babylonian kings didn't use a sword to demonstrate who
Babylonian art, e.g. the famous pictures made from glazed tiles, does show soldiers but none with a sword. One relief showing a guy with a sword is assigned to Babylonians or Assyrians, depending on which source you read. So forget it.
|The end. Sorry.|
|Swords of the Elamite Empire|
|We know the Elamites from way before as the makers of amazing silver and gold objects already around 3000 BC. Here is another example. One might assume that they must have been pretty good at bronze and iron, too. Bronze - yes. Iron - we don't know. Here is just one example for excellence with the three metals mentioned:|
|The Elamite area is East of the
Sumerians and Babylonians, containing mountainous regions of what today is
This map gives a
rough idea. The so-called proto Elamites who made the good stuff were around in
2700 BC. Even then they were having constant fights with the powers down in the
valley like the Sumerians; many of which they lost, leading to occupation and
so on. Just a few highlights.
|There is not much we have from the "iron age" Elamites. They appear rather in not-so-nice reliefs of the Assyrians:|
|I gave you all this because everything I have to say about Elamite swords you can find in this link!|
|Swords of the Achaemanid Empire|
|Let's not waste time and space this time. Cyrus the Great conquered almost all there was to conquer (except the Greek), and he did that seemingly without swords. Even Khorasani's wonderful book doesn't offer a single picture and has very little to say. There seems to be one fries or whatever showing a guy with a long straight sword and one with a kind of kopis. If those things were made from bronze or iron is unknown|
|In Persepolis, Cyrus' capital, we have many reliefs showing all kinds of people including soldiers. Almost none seems to be carrying a sword, Some preferred pretty handbags, it seems:|
|The exception is King Cyrus' weapon bearer who is shown on a large mural / frieze / relief, whatever you like to call that. Here is the important part:|
|Big deal. It's an
Sorry - but that's it. We have no idea what Cyrus' smiths could do with iron.
|Swords of the Parthian Empire|
|The Parthian Empire (247 BC 224 AD) came about because one Arsaces I of Parthia, original a tribe chief, took the region of Parthia from the Seleucid Empire, the sequel to Alexander the Great's masterpiece. That's why it is also known as the Arsacid empire. King Mithridates I of Parthia (ca. 171 BC 138 BC) greatly expanded the empire to what is shown here. The Parthians were essentially Persians and a clash with the Romans who were running a huge empire of their own by then, was unavoidable.|
|Why do I mention Parthian swords
here and not, for example, the "xiphos", the regular sword of the
Greeks, swords from the empire of
Great, and so on. Because there is absolutely nothing to learn about
iron swords from these guys. We simply do
not have many, if any. In contrast to the Parthians!
Here are Parthian iron swords:
|Nothing to get very excited about.
But at least those things were swords. The left one was 67 cm long, the right
one 87 cm. There is no big difference to the blades of the Celts or to any
"Spatha" between 500 BC and 1500 AD. It is hard to say but the blades
appear to have neither a ridge nor a fuller, possibly just the basic lenticular
No seams due to insufficient welding are visible, but also no indication of conscientious piling of different iron / steel grades. And of course there is no way of telling of these swords were hardened by quenching. There is also no way of telling if those sword are perhaps of Celtic origin. After all, my forebears were roaming the area already in 279 BC and even hung around for a few 100 years in Anatolia.
|So, sorry, but the Mediterranean and the Near East is a bit disappointing, sword-lore wise. It is time to move to the more exciting West and North - but not before a closing paragraph.|
|Museums own a lot of weird stuff. You
just will not see it because it is usually stored in the basement and locked
up. Somebody sometime had dug up something weird, and it wasn't clear what it
was or it looked very unassuming. You can't throw it away, and you can't admit
defeat either, so it goes into a box and into the basement. And that's where it
belongs because most of the time it is just random debris, indeed. But not
always. Look up the "machine of Antikythera", for example.
It goes without saying that there many weird metal artifacts, including weird swords, had been dug up and confined to the basement
|Khorasani, in his magnificent book, shows one weird sword. It is actually displayed in the Teheran Museum but nobody seems to have taken notice. Others turned up in auction catalogues. Here are a few:|
|The sword on the left, believed to
come from Luristan, is 91 cm long. It looks like it has a cast-on bronze hilt
of a quite unusual shape since it has no pommel or lobes or other enlargements
ensuring that the hand doesn't slip.
The Teheran sword was confiscated; its length is 104 cm; the blade alone measures 75 cm. What at a first glance looks like a long rusty tang is actually a cast-on slender bronze hilt that tapers to a point instead of of having a pommel of some kind. Its design and the way it is fixed to the blade seems to be unique. It is definitely very unusual.
The "Hermann Historica" sword is described as: "Eisernes Griffzungenschwert" (Naue II), South-East Europe, 8th century BC. It is an exact copy of a bronze sword, a rather unusual thing. Here is a rather similar one.
|Both swords have not been excavated
so it is possible that they are fakes. It is not likely however, because nobody
in his right mind fakes unknown objects. What makes these two swords so special
is the fact that they seem to be the only long iron swords on (easily
accessible) record for the first millennium BC in the East Mediterranean /
Middle East! That is quite remarkable, if you think about it.
Could these swords be younger than 1000 BC? Well, yes - but they also could be older. There is just no way of knowing, short of doing a C14 analysis.
|Could these swords be Celtic in
origin? The Celts, after all, did make it to
Anatolia in 278 BC - as hired mercenaries. Even before that they were employed
as fearsome warriors by Mediterranean potentates. They did have their long
swords then and earlier. Maybe a few made it to the East as booty from some
battle or as trade object.
I do not think that this is a good explanation of the swords above but so far it seems to be the only one.
|Constant warfare was a fact of life in the East Mediterranean / Middle East, just as about everywhere else. Why did we not find long swords in all the stuff dug up from about 1000 BC to 0 AD? The simplest explanation would be that there weren't many around. Depending on the fighting style, a long sword is not necessarily a good weapon. The Roman army, after all, did rather well for many centuries with the short gladius and the pilum (spear). Long swords or spathas were weapons for mounted warriors or crazy single-fighter egomaniacs like the Celts.|
|Long swords also make
there it is a short way to long swords becoming symbols for power over life and
death, a symbol for the King. As a side benefit a normal King, not to mention a
King of the universe,
looks so much better with a long heavily embellished sword (in addition to his
gold dagger or akinake) than with a short
The hilts of the swords above make them not particularly fit for fighting. The balance without a pommel must be rather awful, and your grip could not have been very secure either. It is conceivable that they were only for representation, sort of highlights in the collection of strange war trophies. The hilt must have been added locally, and it is conceivable that is was made deliberately in a strange shape to emphasize the exotic nature of the sword.
This is all wild guessing, of course. But more than that I cannot do.
|There is a whole literature out there about long swords vs. short swords, and thrusting vs. slashing in fighting. Add fighting modes like single combat style to phalanx (closed ranks) style, fighting on horseback other mounted warriors or foot soldiers, and you can come up with endless lists of who should have had what and when. Add on top a certain amount of human stupidity, like fighting tanks on horseback because we are a cavalry unit after all, and everything is possible. The introduction of the metal shields, for example, might have changed fighting style from thrusting (short swords) to slashing (long sword or axe). Or maybe not.|
|Then it also matters to
whom size matters.
|1)||JUSTYNA BARON and BEATA MIAZGA: "Scythian akinakes or medieval kidney-dagger? Archaeometric study of a recent find from Legnica (south-western Poland). Article in: Archaologisches Korrespondenzblatt · January 2013|
© H. Föll (Iron, Steel and Swords script)