The Kardaka: Persian power

This monthly review of ancient warfare bring us to one of the most mysterious and controversial Persian unit, and no, it's not the Immortal. We call it the Kardaka.

Various references from across the web

To the roots: Imitation, imitation

The Kardaka (plural Kardakes) is generally described today the simplest way as a "Persian hoplite". It reflects either an influence, or a battle-drawn makeshift unit (using captured gear for example), or proceeds from the will to reform the army and introduce a new kind of unit able to deal efficiently with Greek warfare. Quite enigmatic and late troops of the persian army they are only described briefly by Xenophon and strabo, as a kind of "youth" or training corps. In at least one battle descriptions, their place in the line is described as specific (for the same reasons elites in the Macedonian armies like the Royal peltast held the extreme left wing of the phalanx). In another description they could be replaced by barbarian mercenaries, with the assumption they might have been kurdish mercenaries. Arrian on his side describes the Kardakes as armed in the hoplite fashion at issos. They were charged and routed by Alexander anyway in the occasion. Polybius describes peltasts on the flank of the greek mercenary hoplites, which add another layer of doubt on their role in battle.It seems in any case the Kardakes were obliged to participate in the battle by feudal obligation, stayed close to the King but seemingly never engaged.

CATW depiction of a Kardaka

CATW depiction of an Armenian Kardaka

A fifth infantry type

The most trusted source on this stays Nicholas Sekunda & Simon Chew's Osprey's Achemenid Armies 560-330 BC which described regular Persian troops using a Greek shield, of the hoplon type. This shield was quite different than the usual Persian shields which were flat and carried by a central handle. Basicall there were three kind of shields described in use by the Persian infantry, all made of wicker, covered (or not) by pelt and decorated.
The Spara, proper to the main spear infantry, the Sparabara, were unusually tall and rectangular. They were so large as to act as a kind of "wicker wall". When assembled in a solid line, with spears protruding in between, they were a sobering sight and protected well the archers behind from enemy arrows. Sparabara were not meant to run and fight close and personal, their shield would have been too cumbersome, and they lacked the skills anyway. Instead they were supposed only to walk in close order and stop when and where ordered, possibly also to advance by steps with the archer following behind. This was suited for simple levies drawn from the early Median and Persians.
The Taka was a light crescent-shaped wicker-pelt shield similar to the ones used by the Thracians. There is a doubt however as who adopted or influenced who. At some stage indeed the Persians conquered the Balkans and subjected the Thracians. Where these "takabara" actually Thracian mercenaries? According to Xenophon at least these were a much older form of infantry used for assault, using an axe or blunt weapon. Possibly drawn from Caucasus mountaineers or from any mountainous region, because they were seemingly more hardy and thougher than the valley peasants. Also this was to avoid possible raids from these tribes.
The Dypilon bearing a greek name and quite ancient (it was already described in the bronze age), this was basically an ovale or round, flat shield with openings on both sides of the central axis, presumably to pass a spear through in a shieldwall. They are described as being used by the famous Immortals.

This would made the Kardaka a fifth type of Persian infantry, after the Sparabara, Takabara, Immortals, and Archers. What's left to us are only conjecture as how these units appeared.

Osprey's Achemenid Armies 560-330 BC - Nicholas Sekunda, Simon Chew

Persian Hoplites, but still Persians

Greek influence over the Persian Army cannot be underestimated: Indeed Xenophon's fabled Anabasis described The March of the Ten Thousand, Greek mercenaries fighting together with Persians, and were hired by Cyrus the Younger in order to seize the throne from his brother Artaxerxes II. However the expedition failed as Cyrus was killed at Cunaxa in Babylon (401 BC). Catch stranded deep in Persia, and struck by treachery the Spartan general Clearchus and other officers executed, the Hoplites were led by Xenophon and a few other leader towards the black sea where they can reach at least boats bound for home. This expedition in now "hostile" territory was the object of the story, a powerful source of inspiration to Philip and Alexander of Macedon as for other Greeks. Was that possible these Hoplites seen in action had some influence on Persian warfare ? Due to their short service and separated use as of all mercenary armies, cultural differences and proper command it is not likely.
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The second hypothesis is drawn from the results of the fiercest fights against the Greeks, like the famous episode of Thermopylae. There is no doubt that a surviving Persian king having seen his troops falling like flies in front of unbreakable hoplites had made quite an impression. The same can be said from the battle of Salamine, also against great odds, and Plataea. Still don not have a clear depiction of what these Kardakes actually looked like, or if the Persians thought Greek successes were attributed to the Hoplon alone, or the whole hoplite kit. We can only guess, but most modern depictions shows a regular Persian infantryman equipped with a Greek hoplon and an armour of some sort. Meaning they still wear the traditional linen cap described by Herodotus, a tunic, with possibly some leather armour above, or traditional scale armor, a less than three-meters dory, or the traditional spear adorned with a counterweight shaped like an apple (Melophoroi), and short dagger/sword of the traditional Sica type. No greaves, trousers. Some depictions however shows a Kardaka wearing a greek-style helmet and a leather cuirass with pteryges. There is absolutely nothing but pure conjecture to explain this configuration, perhaps related to noble Kardakes able to purchase greek gear from the black sea and asia minor's western cities like Phrygia.

Other imitation hoplites

There are at least three other "imitation hoplites" described by ancient sources, later in time.
-One is related to the Illyrians, which at some point possessed some "imitation hoplites": In 385 BC Bardyllis raided Epirus and his army (which was defeated by the Spartans) comprised 2000 allied Greek hoplites and five hundred suits of Greek armourwhich could signify 500 "kits", but there is no indication these were regular troops protected indeed by Greek body armour, including greaves and helmets, but stuill fighting with the traditional Illyrian way, whereas there is nothing about the use of an hoplon, not coined specifically as an "armour". So speaking of "imitation hoplites" is subjected here to guesswork.

-Another is related to the Armenians, that at some point developed the concept of the Kardaka into a more Greek-influenced hoplite, in the same logic that would much later give the imitation legionaries, as for Pontus and Numidia. This was connected to the Hellenic Renaissance during the period of the Artaxiad dynasty (189-14).

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