On the battlefield, the archers were formed up in the centre of the army, many ranks deep, protected by a barricade of shields and spears along their front, such that any enemy formation approaching would face a relentless rain of tens of thousands of high-velocity arrows.
At a glance
Clothing and Jewellery
Tunic and trousers: loose-fitting and often with elaborate woven and applied decoration
Phrygian cap: distinctive headgear worn by many eastern peoples in antiquity
Combined quiver and bow-case
Composite bow: formed of wood, bone, and animal sinew, combing elasticity and strength
Sword: secondary weapon for use if caught by enemy in close-quarters action
Shield wall: front-rank men used large wicker shields and hedge of projecting spear-points to protect ranks of archers behind
The Persian Empire was an amalgam of diverse states, tribes, and peoples. The power of the Great King was based on tribute payments and military conscription. Persian armies, therefore, were polyglot affairs, each segment of the Empire sending its quota of men, dressed, equipped, and trained in the local fashion. The great majority were light-armed skirmishers – foot archers, javelin-men, or cavalry.
Because of this, while the Greeks relied on shock action, the Persians did the opposite, adopting tactics designed to take full advantage of superior firepower and mobility. Massed archery was used to break up the enemy formation, while massed cavalry manoeuvred to attack the flanks and attempt encirclement.
The Iranian plateau, the Persian heartland, was a region of peasant-farmers skilled in the use of the composite bow. This weapon, developed by Central Asian nomads in the mid 2nd millennium BC, had been used by Eastern archers for many centuries. The body of the bow was formed of horn and wood laminated together using animal resin. This was left to dry, allowing a bond to form, strong enough to withstand the immense pressures placed upon it when the bow was drawn. Sinews from animal tendons were then laminated to the outside face of the bow, imbuing it with explosive power.
Complex construction techniques and long drying-times meant that a bow might take up to 18 months to manufacture. Once complete, the unstrung bow would curve outwards. When strung, using a bowstring made from organic fibre or sinew, the ends of the bow were pulled inwards, such that tremendous power was already stored.
The result was a relatively short bow that had the power of a much longer wooden model. In modern tests, the composite bow has proved its accuracy and killing-power by piercing several layers of chain-mail at ranges up to 180m.