When the Persian king Darius II died in 404 BCE, the throne of the Achaemenid Persion Empire passed to his eldest son, as normal, who became Artaxerxes II. However his second son, known as Cyrus the Younger, decided to seize the throne for himself, and built up an army with which he moved to challenge his brother in 401 BCE. His army and that of the king’s met at Cunaxa, 70km north of Babylon, and both sides enjoyed some success. However during the fighting Cyrus was killed, and so his army dispersed and many mercenaries went home. Artaxerxes went on to rule until 358 BCE, conducting conflicts with Greek states and attempting to reconquer the lost Egyptian province, but with no serious external aggressors most of the king’s troubles were ones of internal rebellions.
In the West, mention of the Persian Empire tends to be conjure up two famous campaigns; the unsuccessful invasion of Greece (Marathon, Salamis etc.) and the invasion of Alexander the Great, which destroyed the empire. The revolt of Cyrus the Younger and the battle of Cunaxa are roughly equidistance between these two events, and not so well documented, particularly in terms of the makeup of the king’s Persian Army. In an earlier age Herodotus tells us there were two regiments of 1,000 men each, which he calls ‘spear-bearers’, that were the royal bodyguard and the elite of the army. Ranking below them were the ‘Immortals’, 10,000 infantry that were hand-picked as the best of the rest of the army, and so-called because when anyone left or was killed their numbers were always maintained. This was the heart of the army, the best and most professional troops, and the rest were made up of levies (of often poor quality), mercenaries, and some professional troops in the service of one of the satraps (provincial governors).
This set - the first to cover this period in history - conveniently labels every pose, so we know exactly what the designer had in mind. Our first row starts with a 'Median warrior', then an archer, and then three 'guards' (two 'Persian' and one 'Median'). Row two displays a Persian warrior, three 'Immortals' and a commander. The final row has a slave, another 'Persian' guardsman, standard-bearer, attendant and King Artaxerxes II himself. We will discuss each of these elements separately.
The three Guards in the top row are very obviously taken from the friezes still to be found today at Susa and Persepolis. Two wear the long Achaemenid robe and the third wears the Median dress of a shorter tunic and trousers. All three are a faithful reproduction of these amazing images from the ancient world, but the images are from the sixth century BCE, well before the date of Cunaxa. This matters because during the sixth century Cyrus the Great and others changed the Persian costume to the Median style, which is to say the short tunic and trousers. Obviously this was a far more practical costume than a long robe for fighting, and may well have been adopted well before, but the point is long before Cunaxa Persian forces would have taken the field in the Median dress. To what extent if any the long robe was still worn by this time is not now known, but it remained court dress, so conceivably the elite royal bodyguard spear-bearers may have worn such a costume for formal ceremonies, much as even today there are soldiers paraded in ceremonial costume far removed from actual fighting dress. Whatever form of royal bodyguard existed in 401 BCE would probably have been present at Cunaxa along with their monarch, but there seems no reason to suppose they wore this sort of impractical dress on campaign. The first such figure wears a twisted fabric turban around the head, and the next man wears the fluted hat reserved for nobles, so he may belong to an elite unit raised from the nobility. The third man wears typical Median dress including the round cap, and looks far more appropriate for campaign wear.
The middle three figures in the second row are labelled as immortals, as we have said. In fact, no one knows whether the immortals even existed at this time, as they are not mentioned in any source, and apart from one doubtful reference much later they may have disappeared forever long before this time. More to the point, like the two guards in the top row they wear the robe that would be ceremonial at best, and not seen on the battlefield. Like the first guards, the poses allow them to be used at just such a ceremonial occasion as they are clearly not in combat, except for the first immortal, who has a spear levelled and shield raised, and so looks suspiciously like he is engaging an enemy. The two pacific immortals also look to be taken from the ancient friezes, but here Linear-A has added shields to both, meaning they carry a spear, bow and shield. No such ancient source shows this, and you have to wonder how they managed this with just two hands. Again, no evidence and a lack of practicality.
The first man in the top row is drinking from an animal skin, and is much more appropriately dressed for battle as he wears the Median clothing that any Persian would have worn. He has no armour but a cap (or perhaps a helmet), and carries both shield and bow. He has a light shield (round with crescent cut-out in classic 'Dipylon' style) on his back, and a sword attached to his belt, so is well-armed and looks good. Next to him is an archer, again dressed in normal style but with a scale cuirass and the Persian cloth tiara with flaps. Archers would normally have been less well protected than this, but some surely did wear armour so he is also a good figure. The only other ordinary infantryman starts the second row. With similar dress and armour to the archer, he is much the same, but has drawn his sword and is clearly in close proximity to an enemy. His tiara or cap flops at the top, as was usual (indeed the standing cap of the archer is thought by some to be reserved only for royalty). So, three good figures there. The commander also wears Median dress and has a cuirass, plus an erect cap and a cloak. He does not look so very different from his men, which is as it should be, and a good figure too.
The last row starts with the slave, who wears a long robe and has a fabric band round his head. He seems a bit well dressed for a slave, but could also serve as some emissary or other individual brought in the presence of the king. Indeed this really nice figure could have lots of uses, particularly for those that like to alter their figures. The single guardsman standing next to him has all the same issues of ceremonial dress as the rest already discussed, and is much the same pose. The standard-bearer is also in court costume, and holds a standard of a design we know to have been used, with an emblem that looks like a falcon with outstretched wings, which is appropriate, although some say it might have been a sun disc with wings too. The attendant holding the parasol is more easy to accept wearing court costume, and of course the king could dress as impractically as he liked. He wears a fine crown and for some reason holds a bow.
You can’t fight a battle in long robes, but all the poses wearing this here are clearly doing no such thing, apart from that chap in the second row. Most of the poses are described as guards, and that is exactly what the pose seems to suggest. Those in the first row closely follow the poses on the friezes, but with the left foot forward rather than the right. As the exact frieze pose is often used in ancient art, it is tempting to suggest it depicts some formal 'at attention' or other parade posture, but could simply be artistic convention. Either way, the pose would look good in a palace or a parade. The same applies to the guards in the second row, so in fact we have few poses here that actually look like they are in battle. We are mindful that this is set 1, and so does not pretend to cover all aspects, but the large number of inactive poses was still a surprise. That said, there is nothing inappropriate or wrong with any of the poses, and in fact all are really nicely done.
With the rich decoration that could be added to the long robes, these figures are a lure for those that enjoy very fine painting, and the standard of the sculpting only adds to the appeal. All the figures are really well done, with great proportions and fantastic bearded faces. The clothing, and particularly the robes, are beautifully done with lots of natural folds as well as the great detail. However the sculptor has misunderstood these robes, and given them a sort of cape affair extending to cover the arms rather than the gathered simple robe which was the reality. From the side, as we see the friezes, this is not evident, but from the back it is clearly wrong. That aside the weapons are good and slender, the shield well-positioned, and there is virtually no flash or extra plastic, so a top-notch quality piece of work.
While the quality of the work here is excellent, it is the choices that puzzled us. The fluted hat, said to be reserved for nobility, is very common here, and in any case half the ordinary figures wear a costume that would only have been for ceremonial occasions by the later fifth century BCE. Linear-A say they deliberately added many figures from the friezes, even though they are from a different era, and unlikely to have appeared at the battle dressed in this way. They say this is the first of several sets for this battle, and the rest will be entirely focused on the actual battle and period, which is great news. Still having five statuesque guard figures in a set devoted to a battle is surprising, although the command figures in the bottom row are particularly attractive. This has impacted our scores for pose quality and number, since many of the poses, lovely as they are, are not relevant to the title of the set, so have to be discounted. Indeed as a depiction of the Battle of Cunaxa this set barely makes a start, so it will take several much more focused sets before that day in Babylon can be said to have been properly covered. However these are lovely figures, and most of the guards can also be used for the period of Cyrus the Great, another subject sadly lacking in figures so far.