In the following book I found the passing statement that cornel wood was used by the Persian cavalry for their javelins: Nelson, Richard. Armies of the Greek and Persian Wars 500 to 350 BC, 2015. p30.

Afterwards I found this statement repeated in Pritchett, W. Kendrick. The Greek State at War, Part V. Vol. 7. Univ of California Press, 1974. p57.

Pritchett relies on Xenophon's Hellenica for evidence.

Xen. Hell. 3.4.14

When they came to a hand-to-hand encounter, all of the Greeks who struck anyone broke their spears, while the barbarians, being armed with javelins of cornel-wood, speedily killed twelve men and two horses. Thereupon the Greeks were turned to flight. But when Agesilaus came to the rescue with the hoplites, the barbarians withdrew again and one of them was killed.

Translation from Xenophon. Xenophon in Seven Volumes, 1 and 2. Carleton L. Brownson. Harvard University Press, Cambridge, MA; William Heinemann, Ltd., London. vol. 1:1918; vol. 2: 1921.

According to the distibution map of the cornel wood species at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cornus_mas, cornel exists at the borders of the Achaemenid Empire, close to their Greek enemies that also depended on cornel wood for their weapons.

These territories close to Greece were lost during the 4th century B.C. and the campaigns of Alexander the Great.

I would expect it to be quite hard for the Persian empire to get the wood for their weapons from that point on if they relied heavily on cornel only.

The question: Did the Achaemenid Empire rely heavily on cornel wood for their weaponry, even though it was found at the edges of their empire and thus not very reliable?

  • 2
    "Dependent" or "rely" seems like the wrong words. I'm sure they could have used cornel wood in some weapons. But the Archamenid must have also made weapons out of locally available materials. So it's not like they would have been crippled if they didn't have access to cornel wood. Xenophon's may be the only reference to them using it, anyway. One later writer actually credited Alexander's victory at the Battle of the Granicus River to Macedonians having cornel wood versus Persians who didn't.
    – Semaphore
    Commented Mar 4, 2018 at 15:27

3 Answers 3


It is unlikely that the Achaemenid Empire depended solely on cornel-wood.

That empire started out without direct control over those areas now known as natural distribution of that species. If ancient and current areas of distribution are even largely identical that means they build their empire just fine without cornel-wood or imported it. But take a closer look on the map and you see that natural distribution is not identical with human introduction of that tree elsewhere or indicative of some isolated populations.

Trading your enemy what he needs for his weapons is really an ancient custom, from Noric steel sold to the Romans, over to the USSR selling (unknowingly via proxies) the USA the titanium it needed for the SR-71 and everyone today selling or otherwise delivering weapons to the Islamic State.

The conquests of Alexander were quite quick. It is unlikely that the wood needed for weapons is only ever cut for use as weapons days before battle. If it is of strategic importance, they would have amassed a certain amount of stores of it.

If you do not have your preferred material at hand, you then use something else. The oldest example of wood used for such a purpose is according to Wikipedia spruce. The Romans considered cornel as the best material available and used ash most often for

A hasta was about 2 m (6 ft 7 in) in length, with a shaft generally made from ash, while the head was of iron.

So if you need wood and think cornel is best, you are better off using almost any other wood then to seize making replacement weapons. While cornel wood is fine type of wood, the original premise of this question overstates its military importance, while it may indeed be a small contributing factor over all.

While the Greek hoplites dory were made of either ash or cornel, it seems that only the extremely long Macedonian sarissa really calls for this type of wood.

Much more interesting in this regard is the effect an environmental crisis on the Greek side had at precisely this time:

History of crisis in wood economies: Classical Greece
One of the most famous crisis of a wood-based economy is what happened in Classical Greece, where trees began to disappear specially in the areas of Attica, Boeotia and Peloponnesus where indiscriminate cutting of trees for several uses, associated to drought and wildfires led to a severe lack of timber in order to build lances, shields, ships, etc. and to a slow but progressive weakening in military and naval power of the peninsular kingdoms in Greece, that were overwhelmed by Epirus and by the Kingdom of Macedon, much more fertile lands because of their rainy winters. This process arrived to the apex with the conquest of Greece by Phillip II of Macedon.

Whether cornel even has to be used for sarissas is also somewhat contested:

Lammert thought that the sarissa would have had a shaft of ash, as this wood was used universally by the Swiss and others in the great age of the pike in European warfare. Snodgrass supports this suggestion. The quality of ash which makes it so popular for spears is its combination of strength flexibility and lightness. Pliny (H.N. 16.84 [228]) tells us that “Ash is the most compliant wood in work of any kind, and is better than hazel for spears, lighter than cornel, and more pliable than service-tree (sorb); […] the elm would rival it were not its weight against it”
(From Nicholas Victor Sekunda: "The Sarissa", Acta Universitatis Lodziensis Folia Archaeologica 23, 2001.)

For a modern mathematical examination of wood types have a look at those characteristics which may have mattered more to the Persians, bow wood, and see that there are differences, but on a relatively smooth spectrum. The high specific gravity of cornel wood is in many ways a disadvantage. Using another type of wood would present only different trade-offs but might not be regarded as wholly inferior in every aspect.

  • Considering that the weapons referenced in the question are javelins and not pikes, I would argue that a higher specific gravity is a useful property as it would help to make the blow heavier and reduce the deviation in flight of the projectile as it has more mass.
    – BOB
    Commented Jul 5, 2019 at 12:29

The wood of Cornus mas is extremely dense and, unlike the wood of most other woody plant species, sinks in water. This density makes it valuable for crafting into tool handles, parts for machines, etc. Cornus mas was used from the seventh century BC onward by Greek craftsmen to construct spears, javelins and bows, the craftsmen considering it far superior to any other wood. The wood's association with weaponry was so well known that the Greek name for it was used as a synonym for "spear" in poetry during the fourth and third centuries BC (emphasis mine).

My - entirely speculative - take is that, due the use of cornel as a synonym for spear, maybe spears made from any suitable wood where sometimes referred to as cornels, making if hard to know centuries later what actually was used and if cornel really was such astrategic supply.

(Wikipedia on cornel)


In Arrian's account of the battle of the Granicus he specifically mentions the advantage of the Macedonian cornel spear. This suggests the Persians did not use this wood.

The added length of the Macedonian spear makes it more prone to breaking. Using the stronger wood is thus essential. When Alexander's spear breaks he asks for an replacement. His follower is himself in a (successful) fight using the broken half of his spear. The density and weight of the cornel-wood makes for an excellent club. And thus providing a added advantage. The Persian army was thus problably not as dependent on the Cornel-wood as was Alexander's.

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