When Cyrus the Younger confronted his elder brother, the king of Persia, at the Battle of Cunaxa in 401 BCE, he had behind him an army that included perhaps between 2,600 and 3,000 cavalry. The king may have had twice as many, or perhaps more, and much was of excellent quality. In the action that followed, both sets of cavalry saw important action, and it was during a cavalry fight that Cyrus was killed, thus ending the battle and the rebellion.
The Achaemenid Empire incorporated many peoples, including nomads, who made first rate cavalry, and they could also call on their near neighbours for mercenaries, as often happened. As a result, a force of Persian cavalry such as the two that faced each other that day could be made up of many different types and ethnic groups, and in general these fought under their own leaders and in their own particular style. The successful Achaemenid commander was one who could use all these forces effectively, and make the most of their skills both individually and when acting in unison. This set from Linear-A seeks to reflect this diversity with representatives of many of these groups, often acting as light cavalry, but the selection begins in our top row with a heavy cataphract. This man wears a helmet, heavy scale body armour, and carries a spear 36mm long (2.6 metres). He also has thigh-protectors, which may have attached to his body or to the saddle – either works here. This man likely represents the 600-strong bodyguard of Cyrus at the battle, and would be mounted on the horse with the armoured breastplate (the first such mention of Persians with armour on their horses dates to this very unit and battle). He also carries a kopis sword, and although neither he nor his mount look like they are engaged in a battle, he presents a fearsome image of a man that would be hard to defeat.
The man to his left also wears a scale cuirass, this time in the Greek fashion, but carries a sword and bow. He is notable for wearing a long pointed cap, and the box tells us that he is a Massagetae, who were a Saka people from the Steppe (the name actually means ‘wearer of pointed caps’), and, as his appearance amply suggests, part of the Scythian world. With his hands in the air, he gives the impression of having been struck, which is certainly an unusual pose, but it works well. The man to his left is dressed in traditional Median costume, including the hood (correctly worn), tunic and trousers. He is armed with a sword, but his principal weapon is an axe, which is being held here at a more realistic angle than the usual offerings, which tend to have the weapon flat and directly over the head. He is also notable for holding a pelta shield; shields, or at least their prevalence, is a continuing source of disagreement amongst historians, but this is one of only three poses in this set that have one.
The second row begins with a man holding a long (40mm or 2.9 metres) spear, but he also has a sword, bow and quiver; the box describes him as being a Caspian. Next is a man holding several of what look to be palta. A palton was a cross between a javelin and a fighting spear, and could be either thrown or used to stab, and as those on this figure are about 32mm long (2.3 metres), this seems a likely choice. The next man, identified as a Hyrkanian mercenary, carries something similar but slightly shorter, and also holds a small Dipylon-style shield. Finally on this row we have a Sagartian Light Nomad Soldier, who has as his main weapon a lasso, as was common amongst nomadic peoples. This can be a tricky pose to do well, but we thought the sculptor had made a great success of this figure.
Mounted archers were mainly found in the east of the empire, and our third row holds two examples. The first is a Paricanian, but we did not care for this pose because he looks forward while loosing an arrow to the side, which seems unlikely. Interestingly however, he wears a Greek-style cuirass which seems to be quilted, despite his homeland being a very long way from the Greek world. The second archer is looking where his arrow is going, which makes much more sense to us, so we liked this pose a lot more. The third figure is labelled as a commander, although the only thing that particularly marks him out from the rest is he wears a helmet. His pose, which might seem rather comical, is of him either mounting or dismounting, and he is in the act of throwing his leg over the horse. It is an unusual but perfectly valid choice, but of course he will not stay in the saddle like this and will need to be glued in place. His horse is being held by the standing servant in the top row, so obviously must be the standing animal (not the galloping one hilariously chosen for the box artwork!). Lastly there is a foot figure of a Saka soldier, wearing the characteristic long coat and hood, and holding spear and axe in addition to the bow he has slung.
That is a pretty fine selection of different types of Persian cavalry, and their mounts are also very good. The horses come in a range of poses from standing to the gallop (hooray!), so can sensibly be matched with the more or less active riders on offer here. The armoured animal has already been discussed, but all of them have good-looking bridles and saddlecloths that match known designs, so present no issue with accuracy. The Bactrian camel in the last row is something a bit different, however. Certainly the Persians made great use of camels, which they prized above mules for their better carrying load, but camels are not an ideal choice in a cavalry melee. The box suggests that we use the camels for the Paricanian archer (which makes sense as archers don’t usually get involved in melees, and this man comes from the same region as the animal), and for the Caspian, who again is in a relaxed pose and might perhaps dismount to actually engage the enemy. These two figures fit the camel very well, but the fit between the rest and the horses is a bit less certain and will need some work to make secure and natural.
And so to the sculpting, and to borrow a term often used for the cinema we give this two thumbs up. The figures and animals are nicely balanced and with very good detail everywhere. We particularly liked the faces (that on the second archer is extraordinary – full of character), but about the only concern is with some of the spear/javelin heads, which are oddly ‘attached’ to the shaft. The horse poses are pretty good, and that of the camel is perfect, while the amount of flash is fairly low – most is to be found on the animals, particularly the camel.
As has been detailed above, this set is largely an exercise in cataloguing many of the contributors of mounted warriors to Persian armies, which means that, as a group, they do not all make sense arrayed together. This is great when you have a game that requires representative figures for each unit, but less so if you want to create a battle scene, so to an extent your reaction to this set depends on your intended use. As collectors we thought this was a lovely set, with lots of interesting ideas and great variety, plus very good sculpting and poses that avoid most of the flatness so often found in cavalry sets. The mix of light and heavy cavalry, and the balance of weapons, also seem well done to us, so as a representative set of figures this has a great many positive aspects and almost no negative ones.