Cyrus the Great’s Last Campaign: Who Killed Cyrus? – Part II

According to the popular Greek historian Herodotus, Cyrus went on his last campaign to subdue the Massagetae, a tribe located in the southernmost portion of the steppe regions of modern-day Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan around 530 BCE, where he would die in battle. But did he?

The reason to question the narrative surrounding Cyrus’ death is that there are conflicting reports. Therefore, it is crucial to examine the sources of Herodotus, Ctesias, Xenophon, and Berossus to find if Cyrus really died in battle against the Massagetae.

[Read Cyrus the Great: Conquests and Death! – Part I]

Herodotus’ Account

Ten years after subduing the Babylonians in 539 BCE, Cyrus turned his attention towards the northeastern part of the empire to bring “the Massagetae under his dominion. Now the Massagetae are said to be a great and warlike nation, dwelling eastward, toward the rising of the sun, beyond the river Araxes, and opposite the Issedonians. By many they are regarded as a Scythian race.” The Araxes Herodotus mentions is not the Araxes River that runs along the countries of Turkey, Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Iran in the Caucasus, but instead the Jaxartes, which is northeast of the Oxus River, east of the Aral Sea.

Sunset over Sir-Darya river, Kazakhstan. In Ancient Greek river is called Yaxartes (Jaxartes)

Sunset over Sir-Darya river, Kazakhstan. In Ancient Greek river is called Yaxartes (Jaxartes) (Petar Milošević /CC BY-SA 3.0)

Sometime after Cyrus had subdued the Babylonians, he decided to secure his northern borders, probably due to Saka raids into the Chorasmia satrapy by building a series of forts. One such fort was called Cyropolis, and established on the Jaxartes River .

However, the raids did not stop, and why would they? Even with a series of forts built, the nomadic element would still find a way to penetrate the border undetected. Cyrus, seeing that had two options to consider, took the diplomatic approach first by sending ambassadors to Queen Tomyris, Massagetean ruler “with instructions to court her on his part, pretending that he wished to take her to wife.”

Tomyris as imagined by Castagno, 15th century.

Tomyris as imagined by Castagno, 15th century. (Public Domain)

As the Persian ambassadors crossed into Massagetae territory and approached Tomyris’ residence, she must have sent envoys of her own out to ask the Persian ambassadors as to why they had come. This was probably to check the men for weapons and question the reason for being there. After telling the Massagetae officials of their mission, it was relayed back to Tomyris. Tomyris, considering what they said, realized that it was “her kingdom, and not herself, that he courted.” Instead of hearing it from the Persian envoys, she “forbade the men to approach.” When the Persian envoys returned and informed Cyrus of her answer, he mustered his forces.

Asia in 323 BC, showing the Massagetae located in modern-day Central Asia.

Asia in 323 BC, showing the Massagetae located in modern-day Central Asia. (CC BY 3.0)

Cyrus lead his forces to the Jaxartes River, “and openly displaying his hostile intentions; set to work to construct a bridge on which his army might cross the river, and began building towers upon the boats which were to be used in the passage.” As the Persians were securing their passageways into Massagetae territory, envoys from Tomyris arrived to present Cyrus with a message which stated:

King of the Medes, cease to press this enterprise, for you cannot know if what you are doing will be of real advantage to you. Be content to rule in peace your own kingdom, and bear to see us reign over the countries that are ours to govern. As, however, I know you will not choose to hearken to this counsel, since there is nothing you less desires than peace and quietness, come now, if you are so mightily desirous of meeting the Massagetae in arms, leave your useless toil of bridge-making; let us retire three days’ march from the river bank, and do you come across with your soldiers; or, if you like better to give us battle on your side the stream, retire yourself an equal distance.

Cyrus considered this offer, called his advisors together, and made the argument before them. They all agreed to let “Tomyris cross the stream, and giving battle on Persian ground.” However not all were game to this idea. Croesus the Lydian, who was present at the meeting of the chiefs, disapproved of this advice, stating:

Now concerning the matter in hand, my judgment runs counter to the judgment of your other counselors. For if you agree to give the enemy entrance into your country, consider what risk is run! Lose the battle, and there with your whole kingdom is lost. For, assuredly, the Massagetae, if they win the fight, will not return to their homes, but will push forward against the states of your empire. Or, if you win the battle, why, then you win far less than if you were across the stream, where you might follow up your victory. For against your loss, if they defeat you on your own ground, must be set theirs in like case. Rout their army on the other side of the river, and you may push at once into the heart of their country. Moreover, were it not disgrace intolerable for Cyrus the son of Cambyses to retire before and yield ground to a woman?

Therefore, Cyrus agreed with Croesus that it would be best to face the Massagetae on their territory. Persian envoys delivered the message to Tomyris, stating “she should retire, and that he would cross the stream.” Tomyris thus moved her forces and awaited the Persian army. While he gathered his forces to cross the river, he named Cambyses II as the next king should Cyrus die.

Tomyris had her son, Spargapises lead a third of the Massagetae towards Cyrus’ forces. Cyrus left a small detachment behind with food and drink to lure the Massagetae, which they took, and then defeated the small Persian detachment and begin to eat and drink. Once the Massagetae became inebriated, the Persian forces fell on the camp and killed many, taking a few prisoners alive, including Tomyris’ son Spargapises. Spargapises, learning of what had happened, committed suicide. Tomyris, upon learning what had happened, considered the tactics of Cyrus as cowardly. Tomyris vowed revenge and Cyrus did not take heed to the warning. Cyrus pushed further into Massagetae territory where he and his forces met up with the Massagetae face to face. There are no details of the battle. One can speculate that the Massagetae won over the Persians using steppe tactics, which one would think Cyrus would have been accustomed to and able to defend against. However, whatever counter tactics Cyrus used, was all for nothing. The Massagetae won the battle, killed Cyrus, and recovered his body from the battlefield.

Queen Tomyris had the head of Cyrus cut from his body, which she dipped in blood as a symbolic act of revenge for her son, but also you could say she was giving Cyrus his fill as well. As to how much of this is truth and how much of this is fiction is up to the reader to decide. Herodotus does seem plausible in his account but he is not the only one.

"Tomyris Plunges the Head of the Dead Cyrus Into a Vessel of Blood" by Rubens.

“Tomyris Plunges the Head of the Dead Cyrus Into a Vessel of Blood” by Rubens. (Public Domain)

Ctesias’ Account

To support Herodotus’ view as to what happened to Cyrus, the fifth century BC Greek physician and historian Ctesias states the story slightly differently in books VII-IX of Persika, stating, “Cyrus marched against the Derbices, whose king was Amoraeus.” The Derbices or Derbikes according Strabo 11.8.8, 9.1, the first century BCE Greek geographer, philosopher, and historian, are said to have been located east of the Caspian Sea. Pliny indicates in his work Natural History 6.18.48 that the Derbices were on both sides of the Oxus River. However, other modern historians suggest that the Derbices were the Dyrbaians. Ctesias describes the Dyrbaians as living “to the south extending all the way to Bactria and India. Its men are blessed, wealthy, and very just, never committing any crime or killing anybody.” While this seems plausible, more is needed before making conclusions, because Ctesias is describes them as two separate tribes. However, the key words here are “Bactria and India.” As Cyrus entered Derbices territory, they attacked.

Painting of Cyrus the Great in battle

Painting of Cyrus the Great in battle (CC BY 3.0)

By placing their elephants in an ambush, the Derbikes repelled the Persian cavalry causing Cyrus himself to fall off his horse at which point an Indian –  for the Indians were fighting alongside the Derbikes and supplied their elephants –  hit Cyrus after he fell with a javelin below the hip to the bone, inflicting a fatal wound; however, Cyrus was taken up before dying and brought back to camp by his servants.  Each side lost 10,000 men in the battle.  After hearing about Cyrus, Amorges (King of Amyrgians, the Scythians (Saka) tribe) came with all speed at the head of 20,000 cavalries from the Saka; however, after hostilities resumed, Amoraeus (Amoraios, king of the Derbikes) was killed along with his two children in a major victory for the Persian and Sakidian contingent in which 30,000 Derbikes and 9,000 Persians perished.

This inscription seems to suggest that the Derbikes and Dyrbaians may be one in the same. The reason for this is that the Indians were fighting alongside the Derbikes. The Dyrbaians territory extended all the way to Bactria and India, which indicates the plausibility that they had Indian allies who could provide war elephants. If this is the case, Cyrus and his Persian army traveled much further eastward to expand his borders as opposed to Herodotus account. Furthermore, Cyrus does not die but his fell off his horse and was struck with a javelin to the hip. However, he survived only to die later and the battle itself ended up being a Persian victory. Another interesting aspect is where Cyrus fights and dies—fighting the Saka, according to Herodotus, while Ctesias tells us he was aided by them.

The Accounts of Berossus and Xenophon

Herodotus and Ctesias provide the most information concerning Cyrus battle and death. However, two other sources tell a different tale and are short.  According to the Babylonian fourth/third-century priest-chronicler Berossus, Cyrus died fighting the Dahae. According to Xenophon in his work Cyropaedia 8.7.25, Cyrus died peacefully in his own capital with directions for his burial.

Now as to my body, when I am dead, my sons, lay it away neither in gold nor in silver nor in anything else, but commit it to the earth as soon as may be. For what is more blessed than to be united with the earth, which brings forth and nourishes all things beautiful and all things good? I have always been a friend to man, and I think I should gladly now become a part of that which does him so much good.

What can be made from the account provided from Berossus is not much. Yes, Cyrus died against the Dahae or Daai. The Dahae were a Saka tribe much like the Massagetae. However, no details of the reason for war or of the battle survived, thus leaving one to wonder whether the story was similar to Herodotus’ or to that of Ctesias’. As for the account provided by Xenophon, there is no description of being wounded in battle that resulted in his death.

The End of Cyrus

If one takes three out of the four accounts one has a possible connection. Three out of the four speak of war with a Scythian/Saka tribe. Two out of four speak of Cyrus dying in battle. One out of four says he died three days after the battle and the other account of the four speaks of a peaceful death. Only two out of the four accounts mention a name of his adversary. What can be made from this is that Cyrus either sought to expand his empire by attacking the Derbikes/Dyrbaians (if they are truly one and the same) for their riches, or truly fought the Massagetae or Dahae to protect his northeastern borders from further raids. In both cases, he was fighting a Scythian/Saka element. Overall, there is no conclusive way to know how Cyrus died. But given that three of the four accounts speak of a violent death it seems without a doubt that the famous Cyrus the Great, builder of largest empire the ancient world had yet seen, died in battle or shortly after fighting the Scythians/Saka to the northeast of his empire.

Tomb of Cyrus the Great.

Tomb of Cyrus the Great. (CC BY-SA 3.0)

Top Image: Deriv; Tomb of Cyrus the Great (CC BY-SA 4.0) and Painting of Cyrus the Great in battle (CC BY-SA 3.0)

By Cam Rea


Briant, Pierre. From Cyrus to Alexander: A History of the Persian Empire. Winona Lake, Indiana: Eisenbrauns, 2002.

Ctesias, and Nichols, A., (2008) The Complete Fragments of Ctesias of Cnidus: Translation and Commentary with an Introduction (Diss.) University of Florida

Dandamayev, Muhammad A. “Encyclopædia Iranica.” RSS. November 10, 2011. Accessed August 05, 2016.

Herodotus, Histories

Strabo, The geography of Strabo.

Xenophon, Cyropaedia

Cyrus the Great: Conquests and Death! – Part I


Cyrus the Great or “Cyrus II” was King of Anshan from 559-530 BCE and known as the King of Four Corners of the world and founder of the Achaemenid Empire. Cyrus was the son of King Cambyses I of Anshan 580 to 559 BCE and his mother Mandane was the daughter of King Astyages of Media.

Illustration of relief of Cyrus the Great

Illustration of relief of Cyrus the Great (Public Domain)

In 559 BCE, Cyrus ascended the throne of Anshan. Cyrus, a vassal to King Astyages of the Umman-manda, rebelled against his grandfather Astyages in 553 BCE. With the support of several Median nobles, he marched on Ecbatana to overthrow Astyages, according to Herodotus.

Detail; Painting of king Astyages

Detail; Painting of king Astyages (Public Domain)

While lines were drawn between those supporting the new power on the block, Cyrus, and those supporting the establishment, Astyages, many of the Umman-manda forces switched sides and joined Cyrus. In a seesaw war that went on for some time, Cyrus gained the upper hand and went on to defeat the Umman-manda and take Astyages prisoner. However, this was Herodotus’ view, and one must consider other sources.

Dream Visions and Conflicting Chronicles

The Neo-Babylonian King Nabonidus, in his first year as ruler (around 556 or 555 BCE), states in his chronicle that he had a dream given to him by the god Marduk:

At the beginning of my lasting kingship they (the great gods) showed me a vision in a dream…. Marduk said to me, ‘The Umman-manda of whom thou speakest, he, his land, and the kings who go at his side, will not exist for much longer. At the beginning of the third year, Cyrus, king of Anshan, his youthful servant, will come forth. With his few forces he will rout the numerous forces of the Umman-manda. He will capture Astyages, the king of the Umman-manda, and will take him prisoner to his country.

Nabonidus, king of Babylonia.

Nabonidus, king of Babylonia. (CC BY-SA 3.0)

Nabonidus had obviously received intelligence reports that Cyrus intended to rebel and declare independence from Astyages. Notice that in the inscription Nabonidus speaks of the Umman-manda as a burden to his own kingdom. However, on the flipside, his dreams were hope and fear of the unknown. Nabonidus was familiar with Astyages but Cyrus was still a mystery.

In Nabonidus seventh year, he had this to say about the conflict between Cyrus and Astyages:

[Astyages] mobilized [his army] and he marched against Cyrus, king of Anshan, to conquer…. the army rebelled against Astyages and he was taken prisoner. They handed him over to Cyrus […]. Cyrus marched toward Ecbatana, the royal city. Silver, gold, goods, property, […] which he seized as booty [from] Ecbatana, he conveyed to Ansan. The goods [and] property of the army of […].

This inscription paints a very different story than that of Herodotus. The difference is Astyages was the one who invaded Anshan to put down the rebellion, but in turn, his army rebelled and handed him over to Cyrus. However, this is not to say Herodotus is wrong. It is just the opposite as to what happened, since Herodotus says Cyrus invaded Media which is partially right—but only after the battle and imprisonment of Astyages did Cyrus march on Media to take the Umman-manda capital, Ecbatana.

Marduk and the Dragon Marduk, chief god of Babylon, with his thunderbolts destroys Tiamat the dragon of primeval chaos. Drawing from relief

Marduk and the Dragon Marduk, chief god of Babylon, with his thunderbolts destroys Tiamat the dragon of primeval chaos. Drawing from relief (Public Domain)

One must not forget that this was not the end of the war. Even though Astyages was now a prisoner, there were still three more years of bloodshed in store which would not end until around 550 BCE. During this war, Cyrus would lose three more battles before he finally gained the upper hand on the Umman-manda. The war could have ended much earlier for Cyrus had not so many men changed sides during the conflict, prolonging the war. Once the Umman-manda were defeated and vanquished, Cyrus entered Ecbatana, sat on Astyages’ throne, and proclaimed himself the new master of Asia.

War with the West

With Astyages defeated, Cyrus inherited a new problem — the western front. For it was in 585 BCE that the Umman-manda and Lydian Empire made an agreement that the boundary should be the Halys River, which is (modern day Kızılırmak River or Red River) in central Turkey. The king of Lydia at the time was Croesus.

Croesus on the pyre, Attic red-figure amphora.

Croesus on the pyre, Attic red-figure amphora. (Public Domain)

Croesus was famous for his wealth and power throughout Greece and the Near East. With his brother-in-law Astyages now defeated, Croesus saw opportunity to expand his borders in the name of avenging his brother-in-law’s death. However, before Croesus mobilized his forces, he sent an envoy bearing gifts to the oracle of Delphi.

Priestess of the Oracle at ancient Delphi, Greece.

Priestess of the Oracle at ancient Delphi, Greece. (Public Domain)

The envoy asked the oracle a question concerning what Croesus should do, and it is said the oracle turned to the men and declared:

“If Croesus attacked the Persians, he would destroy a great empire.”

The oracle suggested that Croesus should seek allies that were powerful to assist him in his war against Persia. Croesus visited the oracle again, and asked how long the Lydian empire would last. The oracle said to Croesus:

“Wait till the time shall come when a mule is monarch of Media: Then, thou delicate Lydian, away to the pebbles of Hermus: Haste, oh! Haste thee away, nor blush to behave like a coward.”

The mule that is mentioned was none other than Cyrus, for Cyrus was part royalty due to his mother being an Umman-manda princess, while his father Cambyses I was a petty vassal king.


In 547/46 BCE, once Croesus got answers that he thought were in his favor, he mobilized his forces and moved beyond the Halys River and entered into the province of Cappadocia. Cyrus likely had detachments scouting the border and once the large army of Croesus came in sight, they would have quickly dispatched a messenger to Cyrus. Once Cyrus arrived with his army, he sent envoys to Croesus’ camp with a message ordering Croesus to hand Lydia over to him. If agreed, Croesus would be allowed to rule Lydia but would have to remove his crown as king and accept the title Satrap. Croesus turned down the invitation and the two armies did battle at a place called Pteria in Cappadocia. The battle took place in the month of November and Croesus was defeated. Croesus and his forces retreated across the Halys River and back into Lydian territory.

Croesus then made a terrible mistake; he decided to disperse his army for the winter, thinking Cyrus would not attack until spring. Then without warning or thought, Cyrus did the unexpected. Cyrus and his forces fell upon the Lydian men that were in the process of demobilization. They were surprised, routed, and defeated. This was a risky move for Cyrus, due to the stories of Lydia’s army being superior, and the fact that they attacked during the winter, which can be rough. Cyrus probably sent spies throughout Lydia and received vital intelligence that the Lydian forces were demobilizing for the winter, thus making them easy targets. Cyrus understood the risk of waiting for spring to challenge them on their home turf.

Once the Lydian forces were routed, Croesus fled to Sardis where he took refuge. His supposed allies sent no troops and instead many of the provinces in Lydia defected over to Cyrus. Cyrus knew that there was no time to waste, and he pursed Croesus to Sardis, besieged the city, and on the fourteenth day, the city fell. It was during this time that Sparta sent forces to help Croesus, but on hearing that Sardis had fallen, turned back. Word that Sardis fell sent a shock wave through the Near East and is said to have been as great a shock as when the news of Nineveh fell in 612 BCE. In addition, the Chronicle of Nabonidus also mentions the fall of Lydia:

In the month of Nisan, King Cyrus of Persia mustered his army and crossed the Tigris downstream from Arbela and, in the month of Iyyar, [march]ed on Ly[dia]. He put its king to death, seized its possessions, [and] set up his own garrison [there]. After that, the king and his garrison resided there.

The conquest of Lydia as a whole was far from over, for there were still many Greek city-states angered about the situation and wanted the same terms that Cyrus gave to Croesus before the battle of Pteria. Cyrus said no, for he had other issues on his mind, and the revolts began once he had left for Ecbatana.

To suppress the revolts in Asia Minor, Cyrus sent a man by the name Mazares back with some troops to squash the rebellions and enslave those involved. Mazares did just that for some time until he died of unknown causes. The next person to take his place and keep the rebellions down was Harpagus. Harpagus put the final stamp on the rebellious situation in Asia-minor and placed Persian garrisons in the areas affected to secure the peace. However, it was not easy, for it took four years before Persian rule could be established among the populace.

Cyrus’ Eastern and Babylonian Campaigns

As the pacification of Anatolia continued, Cyrus turned his attention to the east. Herodotus tells us Cyrus had the Bactrians and Sacae on his mind and does speak of many minor campaigns but decided that they were not worth mentioning in detail due to their insignificant nature. Even though Herodotus is vague using terms such as Sacae and Bactrians, it is possible to piece together what may have happened in speculative detail. The reason could be that the various Saka and Bactrian tribes may have been a part of the Umman-manda Empire but were quite possibly just tributary states with no direct ties; and when the Umman-manda Empire fell to Cyrus, they stopped paying tribute and became more or less hostile to the new rule.

However, one must not overlook the Behistun Inscription, for Darius in 520 BCE mentions Parthia, Drangiana, Aria, Chrorasmia, Bactria, Sogdiana, Gandara, Scythia, Sattagydia, Arachosia, and Maka as having been areas conquered by Cyrus between 546-540 BCE. If so, then the Behistun Inscription helps us piece together the information Herodotus is reluctant to give in detail.

Behistun Inscription, describing conquests of Darius the Great in Old Persian, Elamite, and Babylonian languages. These reliefs and texts are engraved in a cliff on Mount Behistun (present Kermanshah Province, Iran).

Behistun Inscription, describing conquests of Darius the Great in Old Persian, Elamite, and Babylonian languages. These reliefs and texts are engraved in a cliff on Mount Behistun (present Kermanshah Province, Iran). (Public Domain)

Cyrus’ next campaign was directed towards the Kingdom of Babylon around 539 BCE, but it has also been suggested to have taken place a few years before. His reason for invading Babylonia may have been the ineffectiveness of its ruler Nabonidus, who neglected the primary god of Babylonia known as Marduk. Also it did not help that Nabonidus moved to Teima in Arabia quite unexpectedly and decided to stay there for ten years while his son Belshazzar ruled the kingdom. With an ineffective ruler reigning over the Babylonian Kingdom, it became more desirable to Cyrus while the people of Babylonia wanted a new ruler. Nabonidus did return from Teima around 543 BCE due to the Persian threat. However, it seems too late, for the people of Babylonia were more interested in Cyrus as being their king. He and his forces invaded the Babylonian Kingdom:

In the month of Tesrit, Cyrus having joined battle with the army of Akkad at Upu on the [bank] of the Tigris, the people of Akkad fell back. He pillaged and massacred the population. The fourteenth, Sippar was taken without struggle. Nabonidus fled. The sixteenth, Governor Ugbaru of Gutium and the army of Cyrus made their entrance into Babylon without fighting. Later, having returned, Nabonidus was taken in Babylon. Until the end of the month, the shield-(carriers) of Gutium encircled the gates of the Esagila, but there was no interruption (of rites) of any kind in the Esagila or in any other temple and no (festival) date was missed. In the month of Arahsamnu, the third day, Cyrus entered Babylon. (Drinking) straws (?) were filled up before him. Peace reigned in the city; Cyrus decreed peace for all Babylon. He installed Gubaru as governor of (all) the governors in Babylon.

Cyrus’ first battle against the Babylonians at Upu/Opis was of great significance, for the city of Opis was on the banks of the Tigris River, and by taking Opis/Upu Cyrus had flanked the Median wall that stretched to Sippar, which was on the banks of the Euphrates River but also controlled part of the wall. It was not until the next day that Cyrus took the city of Sippar without a fight and thus was now in full control of the Median wall. The very wall that was intended to keep out the Cimmerians, Scythians, and any other undesirable barbarians was now in their hands.

Mosaic depicting Persian archers. (Pre 4th Century BC)

Mosaic depicting Persian archers. (Pre 4th Century BC) (CC BY 2.0)

With the Median/Umman-manda wall now out of the way, Cyrus then began his march towards Babylon. On October 12, Ugbaru, Governor of Gutium, entered Babylonia without a fight and arrested King Nabonidus of Babylonia who had earlier fled Sippar. Nabonidus was exiled to the region of Carmania. According to Xenophon, this Ugbaru, also known as Gobryas, was in charge of a vast amount of territory for the Babylonians. When Cyrus invaded, Ugbaru/Gobryas reconsidered and switched sides, joining Cyrus’ army, which he most likely guided during the invasion and battle at Opis/Upu. Now Cyrus himself would have entered the city on October 29 to restore the festivals and proclaim peace to all Babylon. But was this what truly happened?

It’s been speculated that the city may have put up a temporary fight. In 1970, Paul-Richard Berger identified a fragment as being a part of the Cyrus Cylinder, which was a part of the Yale Babylonian Collection. This fragment mentions Cyrus restoring the city’s inner walls and moats among other things within Babylon. It becomes possible that the Persian forces may have conducted siege warfare for a short time. Now this is not to say Cyrus was not a peace-loving man. However, one should be careful, for Cyrus also was a propagandist, doing everything he could to restore the gods of the city to gain the respect of the people. An example of this would be his son Cambyses II. Cambyses observed the New Year’s rite on March 24, 538 BCE during which he was humiliated by religious symbolism. In other words, the high priest of Marduk grabbed him by the ear, forcing him to kneel! Cambyses is then to have said:

“I have not sinned, O Lord of the Lands. I have not destroyed Babylon, nor damaged the Esagila, nor neglected the temple rites.”

Then the high priest of Marduk slapped Cambyses’ cheek! As tears flowed down his face, the god was pleased and thus concluded the ritual.


Top Image: Deriv; Tomb of Cyrus the Great (CC BY-SA 4.0) and modern recreation of relief of Cyrus II (CC BY-SA 3.0)

By Cam Rea


Briant, Pierre. From Cyrus to Alexander: A History of the Persian Empire. Winona Lake, Indiana: Eisenbrauns, 2002.

Ctesias, and Nichols, A., (2008) The Complete Fragments of Ctesias of Cnidus: Translation and Commentary with an Introduction (Diss.) University of Florida

Dandamayev, Muhammad A. “Encyclopædia Iranica.” RSS. November 10, 2011. Accessed August 05, 2016.

Herodotus, Histories

Strabo, The geography of Strabo.

Xenophon, Cyropaedia

The Hunnic War Machine: Horsemen of the Steppe – Part II

The fifth century politician and bishop Sidonius Apollinaris, wrote an interesting description on the horsemanship of the Huns, stating, “You would think the limbs of man and beast were born together, so firmly does the rider always stick to the horse.” Such were the abilities of the horsemen of the steppe – an integral part of the success of the Hunnic Invasion and the creation of an empire.

[Read Part 1: The Hunnic War Machine]

Hunnic Horsemen

Being that the majority of the Hunnic cavalry consisted of light horse archers led by petty nobles and their followers, their attire would have been light. The sixth century scholar Procopius states that the Hunnic warrior/herdsman wore “loosely woven” garments. Ammianus, much earlier, describes the dress of the Huns stating:

“They dress in linen cloth or in the skins of field-mice sewn together, and they wear the same clothing indoors and out. But when they have once put their necks into a faded tunic, it is not taken off or changed until by long wear and tear it has been reduced to rags and fallen from them bit by bit. They cover their heads with round caps and protect their hairy legs with goatskins; their shoes are formed upon no lasts, and so prevent their walking with free step.”

Being that the vast majority of Huns wore meager garments, their armor was not much better. In other words, do not expect the poorer Huns to be decked out in armor like the nobles or the wealthy. The type of armor worn would have been scale (sewn on) or lamellar (linked plates) armor reaching to the waist or knee. Hunnic armor also appears to have been sleeveless in some accounts. According to Procopius, he states:

“He came to be surrounded by twelve of the enemy, who carried spears. And they all struck him at once with their spears. But his thorax with-stood the other blows, which therefore did not hurt him much; but one of the Goths succeeded in hitting him from behind, at a place where his body was uncovered, above the armpit, right close to the shoulder, and smote the youth, though not with a mortal blow.”

While the Hunnic warrior could withstand a series of hits to the chest, his armpits were exposed, which indicates that his armor was sleeveless. Another interesting aspect is that the word thorax is used. This may suggest that the armor was not a breastplate but a metal shirt or scale-mail jacket, which protects all sides of the body and is sleeveless. The fourth century panegyric, Pacatus, Sidonius, and Procopius, all mention that the Hunnic horse archers wore iron cuirasses. While most Hunnic horsemen wore meager armor, those lucky enough to serve alongside Rome were decked out. Fifth century Latin poet, Flavius Merobaudes, mentions that Huns serving the Roman general Aetius wore “belts, quivers, horse, bits, helmets, and the armor, studded with precious stones, were gilded.

‘This fine and rare set of horse trappings is decorated with stones in beaded settings- a style Hunnish metalworkers favored. Fourth century. The large piece is a chamfron, which was worn on the horse's head above the eyes. This one is ornamental rather than defensive and indicated the wealth and power of the horse's owner.’

‘This fine and rare set of horse trappings is decorated with stones in beaded settings- a style Hunnish metalworkers favored. Fourth century. The large piece is a chamfron, which was worn on the horse’s head above the eyes. This one is ornamental rather than defensive and indicated the wealth and power of the horse’s owner.’  (Public Domain)

However, some of the Hunnic armor worn may have been Roman. Other Huns, not associated with Aetius, may have donned gilt Persian armor. Understand that the vast majority of Huns were not emblazoned in armor from head to toe, most wore meager amounts while the few nobles and wealthy Huns could afford the luxury of armor.

An example of lamellar armor, a Japanese cuirass.

An example of lamellar armor, a Japanese cuirass. (CC BY-SA 3.0)

One such luxury was the helmet. Huns serving under the Romans were provided helmets. The majority of Huns not serving Rome donned felt or soft leather caps. Reason for this is that many of the so-called Hunnic graves are absent of such an item. Hunnic noblemen and the wealthy could afford a helmet, which could be passed down from generation to generation. The type of helmet the Huns would have worn under the Romans is called a spangenhelm. The spangenhelm is a conical helmet consisting of four to six sections, reinforced by bands over the joins. Most had large cheek pieces, neck guard and a nose piece. The origin of the helmets is said to be of Sassanid origin, which was later adopted by the Romans during the late third early fourth century.

A surviving Spangenhelm, sixth century, Vienna.

A surviving Spangenhelm, sixth century, Vienna. (CC BY-SA 3.0)

The Huns also used a shield. Unfortunately, like most items pertaining to the Huns, it remains elusive. The Hunnic shield would have been small, as a large shield would have been cumbersome to utilize on horseback. The type of small shield used would have been as the ones used by other steppe nomads, and since no shield has been discovered, it is suggested that the shield was made of wicker covered in leather.

As for swords, it is disputed whether the vast majority of Huns carried them. The Hunnic swords likely varied, as some were like that of the Sarmatians and Goths, which was long, straight, and designed for slashing. However, in the 10th century, Latin Germanic epic poem founded on German popular tradition called Waltharius, the hero Walther “arms himself in the Hunnish fashion… with a double-edge long sword belted to his left hip … and a single-edged half-sword at his right.” While the poem is fictional, it provides and indicates that some Huns wore a long sword, spatha, and a single-edged half-sword, semispatha, like that of the Sassanid noblemen who are regularly depicted wearing the same type of swords in this fashion.

Roman cavalry reenactor wearing a replica spatha

Roman cavalry reenactor wearing a replica spatha (CC BY 2.0)

Another side arm the Huns used was the lasso. The lasso was widely used by many steppe nomads like the Scythians and Sarmatians to name a few. Ammianus speaks of the Hun lasso and states “while the enemy are guarding against wounds from the sabre-thrusts, they throw strips of cloth plaited into nooses over their opponents and so entangle them that they fetter their limbs and take from them the power of riding or walking.”

As for heavy horsemen, the Huns had few and mostly relied on those they conquered and incorporated into their own military apparatus. The tribes that aided heavy cavalry to the Huns were the Sarmatians, Alans, and Goths. With heavy cavalry, accompanying the Hunnic horse archers, the Huns had a well-defined military capable of delivering mobility and shock to the enemy on the field of battle.

Bow and Arrow

The primary weapon of the Hunnic horse archer was the composite bow. The Hunnic reflex bow was made of wood, horn, and sinew. The ears of the bow had seven bone plaques, while the handle had three, two on the side one on its top.

The foundation of the bow was made of wood. The type of wood used could have been maple, yew, poplar or ash. When the tree of choice had been selected, the bowyer would choose to use the heartwood of the tree instead of the growing outer layer or sapwood.

Scythians shooting with composite bows, fourth century BCE.

Scythians shooting with composite bows, fourth century BCE. (CC BY-SA 3.0)

After the selecting and fashioning the wood into shape, a layer of sinew is applied. Sinew gives the bow its penetrating power. Once the sinew is applied, the bow would be bellied with horn, which provides compressive strength and on release of the arrow, the bone brings the bow back to original position like a coil. To keep this complex weapon together, glue made from boiled animal hide was used. These multiple layers of bone made the bow quite stiff and powerful upon release.

The Hunnic bow was between 130-160 centimeters long or between four and five feet in length. Unlike other steppe bows, the length of the Hunnic bow was not ideal for use by a horse archer. The ancient Scythian bow was 80 centimeters or (2.6 feet) in length, making it ideal for horse archery, even though some were found to be 127 centimeters or (4.2 feet) in length. The Huns got around this by making the bow asymmetrical. Its upper half was slightly longer than the lower. The reason for the lower half being shorter was so as not to poke the horse in the neck. Another reason why the Huns extended the length of the bow was to produce more power. Upon release, the Hunnic horse archers could effectively hit an unarmored opponent at 150 to 200 meters or (492-656 feet), and an armored opponent at 75 to 100 meters or (246-328 feet).

A modern reconstruction of an historical composite bow.

A modern reconstruction of an historical composite bow. (CC BY-SA 3.0)

The type of bowstring used also varied. The string for the bow must not be too heavy or light nor stretch easily. The materials used could have been from twisted gut, sinew, horsehair, vines, and even silk. The Hunnic horse archer probably had a variety of bowstrings on hand for various climate conditions. Horsehair strings were best suited for colder climates, whereas sinew absorbed moisture, making them less desirable due to stretching.

The Huns used a variety of arrowheads. One type was a large leaf-shaped and the other a large three-bladed iron arrowhead. The Huns are also said to have used “sharp bone” according to Ammianus. They are said to have fixed bone balls behind the tips called “whistlers”, which produce a terrifying sound for psychological effect. When placing the arrowhead on the shaft, the Huns and other eastern steppe peoples did not socket it into place like the Scythians and Sarmatians did. Instead, the Hunnic arrowheads had a tang, which was sunk into the arrow shaft. The possible reason for this is that it was easier to produce arrowheads with tangs than socketed. Later on western steppe tribes adopted the eastern tang style.

The type of arrow shafts possibly used was cane, reed, birch, cornel, rose-willow, hornbeam, and ash. Reed may have been the preferred material to use for it would travel further and easier to produce. The feathers used in fletching would generally have been from either ducks or geese. The number of feathers attached to the shaft was between two and four. The feathers provided aerodynamic stabilization for the flight of the arrow.

Ancient Greek bronze leaf-shaped, trefoil and triangular arrowheads.

Ancient Greek bronze leaf-shaped, trefoil and triangular arrowheads. (Classical Numismatic Group, Inc. / CC BY-SA 3.0)

The Huns carried a broad shaped bow case, which hung on the left side, and an hour glassed shape quiver or tube-like on the right side, which had a flap. The materials used to construct these cases were made of leather, bark or wood. Upon firing the arrow, the Hun would place the arrow on the right side of the bow. The archer would draw the bowstring with three fingers with the thumb locked under the first three fingers and protected by a ring of bone, horn, ivory or even stone.

An Empire of Conquest

In conclusion, the Hunnic war machine was like that of any other nomadic steppe tribe but with a twist. The twist is the Huns could do it better. Whereas the Scythians, Sarmatians, Alans and many others could only do little in terms of conquest and confiscation, their goals to expand beyond the steppe frontier was never considered, even when they were united. This is not to say that they did not take the plunge into the civilized sedentary world. They did, but in small strikes and fast retreats from those who posed a challenge. The Huns, like the others mentioned, became powerful enough to challenge the various steppe tribes and absorbed them through conquest. While the Huns initially were still not united, their appetite for conquest and confiscation could not be quenched and was a shared goal among them. Even when the Huns pushed out the Goths, they still found plunder by joining with the Romans. Once Attila came on the scene with his brother Bleda, the brothers were able to negotiate and coerce the tribes to coalesce as one. Therefore, the Huns were the first true nomadic empire to establish itself before the civilized world.

But their world was not long term, as the Hunnic economy was based on war and extortion with no lasting goal. In the end, the Hunnic war machine that set foot in Europe, before mighty Roman and the fractured Barbarians, would soon disappear, but the carcass of the machine remained to be absorbed by those affected, to be restudied and implemented to make their (Romans and Barbarians) armies much more effective on the battlefield.

Sculpture of Attila the Hun

Sculpture of Attila the Hun (Public Domain)

Top Image: Attila and his Hordes (Public Domain)

By Cam Rea