Romes Enemies (3): Parthians and Sassanid Persians (Men-at-Arms, Volume 175)

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Sassanian forces on that occasion wore a palm tree insignia and are generally described as highly disciplined. The vanquished forces, their backs to a river, suffered heavy casualties. The term silsilah is very likely a poetic device meant to imply soldiers organized into units. The same term is used to refer to both Persian and Byzantine cavalry, neither of which would have been physically tied together in groups!

Conrad believes silsilah was first used to describe the enemy at Yarmuk, and only later became a topos applied with considerable poetic license, and no sense of accuracy, to battle descriptions. There is no need for yet another account of the two famous Sassanian losses to the Muslims, al-Qadisiyyah and Nihawand , but I will examine one enlightening passage. The Persian commander, Rustom, sat on an elevated gilded throne, the better to direct the battle. From this post he was in frequent communication with the imperial palace in Ctesiphon.

Several other generals were perched on non-combatant elephants. Next to the commander-in-chief the national battle standard, the drafsh i Kavyan or Kaviani , was placed on crossed timbers. This was a huge flag perhaps 15 by 22 feet, embroidered in gold, silver, and gems. It apparently was present at most major battles from the dynasty's inception, guarded by a circle of spearmen surrounded by a ring of archers.

Despite their efforts, it was captured at al-Qadisiyyah. Doubtless they were more organized and professional than any of their other opponents, formidable as those were, in Arabia, the Caucasus, Bactria, India, and the steppes. The battle against feudalism took a major boost with the accession of Khusro I, lapsed somewhat under his successors, and picked up too late under the ill-starred Yazdagird III. The first record of cavalry is literally engraved in stone in a sequence of monumental rock carvings starting from the beginning of the dynasty.

Early sculptures of the shahanshahs show armored lancers riding galloping leather- or cloth-armored horses using a two-handed thrust to impale similarly armed opponents. These are likely the successors of the Parthian cataphracts. Centuries later, Procopius and al-Tabari note that sometimes entire Iranian armies were composed of cavalry, often including mounted contingents from Arab allies, Armenia, and other lands. For example, in a Turk and Hepthalite invasion was defeated by the Persarmenian general Smbat Bagratuni leading a Sassanian imperial army.

In , at Callinicus in Commagene, an all-mounted force of 15, Persians and Arabs attacked Belisarius' 20,strong Byzantine army of horse and foot, defeating them through a combination of bow and melee. A small force of heavy infantry lead by the dismounted Belisarius held out until the fall of night covered their escape. He carries a bow in addition to the lance, and rode an armored horse, though only frontally armored with metal in the Byzantine style. As in the Parthian era, we can expect that lighter- armored horsemen substantially outnumbered the heaviest noble.

Increased availability of mail probably lead to better protection for more riders over time.


Throughout our period, eastern cavalry would have made widespread use of leather and felt horse bards - important when facing nomad horse archers. The mace was commonly used against armored opponents in many times and places, and its presence is another symptom of armor in the region. These date from the Parthian and Sassanian periods, and are often iron with sculpted and gilded bronze heads. Three examples are 39, 50, and Armored cavalry certainly made an impression on enemies of the Persians. In , Ammianus Marcellinus speaks of armored horse archers and claims "all their troops were clad in mail,"with leather-armored horses.

The Strategikon says of the Persians, "They wear body armor and mail, and are armed with bows and swords Bivar constructed an influential theory on the development of Sassanian armor stressing force and counterforce. Out of the Parthian era, the Persians keep the mailed lancers. Improvements in armor from about AD lead to a decline in horse archery in the area. The Chionite Hun invasions of the mid-4th century change this balance, which Arab sources date to about , in favor of the higher- powered compound bow.

Procopius writing in the 6th century laid great stock in the armored horse archer of his day. Bivar's concept attempts to explain this enthusiasm and the regional changes that lead to it. Mitigating this was the establishment of units supported by the shahanshah. The most famous were the 10, Immortals intended as the mounted successors to their Achaemenid namesakes. They were employed tactically as a hard-hitting reserve.

Other such troops included: the pushtighban, who may have numbered and seem to have been a guard regiment at court; the gyanavspar, "sacrificers of their lives,"who may have been ecclesiastical cavalry the Iranians ransomed a slave of the church after one battle or mercenaries; and the Royal Archers, who defended the throne, may have numbered a hundred or more, and often served on foot. Periodically swelling the ranks of the imperial cavalry as opposed to those paid by major nobles were thousands of resettled captives, including Georgians, Alans, and others.

Such peoples were resettled and eventually re-equipped, their fighting spirit apparently bolstering the sometimes lackluster attitude of Iranian regiments. The pool of royal cavalry was expanded by Khusro I.

Rome's Enemies (3): Parthians and Sassanid Persians

In the course of quelling the social chaos of previous years, he apparently redistributed some large estates and other income-producing properties to the lesser knights, or dihqans. While some Sassanian troops were paid in coin from the early 4th century, these dihqans received land and a stipend in exchange for mounted service. As a class in Iranian society, they were further divided into five ranks, indicated by dress. While all cavalry had been subject to official inspection and training from the early days of the dynasty, Khusro now promulgated his famous "equipment list"to be obeyed at periodic musters.

Unusually, the law placed the Royal Personage under its authority.


The shahanshah is fabled to have paid a fine for insufficient equipage at the first muster. This regulation prescribed body and horse armor, sword, lance, two bows, ax or mace, a shield, and paraphernalia. This indicates two things. First, many of the aswaran noble cavalry did not show up for campaigns fully armed and armored. Second, that a strong strain of feudalism must have remained in this otherwise bureaucratic and legalistic empire to require that the top-ranked noble - the shahanshah - acquiesce to a regulation in order to shame the rest into obedience. The mounted are in the open, the foot against enemy fighting from behind rocks.

Persian Cataphracts

We are seeing here a mix of heavy and light horse archers. Thus the picture of Sassanian cavalry painted by the various sources is one of increasing organization and armor for more troopers generally. Over the centuries, the heaviest armor for the noble cavalry lightens to permit archery, while the clouds of Parthian light horse archers acquire mail, regimentation, and perhaps better bows. Regional variations could also be expected, especially among the locally supported aswaran, depending on the non-Iranians faced across the border: Roman or Alan, Indian or Turk, Abyssinian or Lazican.

Some bow-armed foot from the region were used by Alexander and his successors, but they and the Parthians obviously saw little percentage in arming and training a subject population. Yet the people were well aware of their history. As a nationalist dynasty, the Sassanians stressed cultural continuity with their Achaemenid ancestors, and as such employed infantry in peace and war. Nicolle's recent monograph. His figure 7 includes representations from a Dura Europas wall painting from the early 3rd century, showing distinctively mailed and shielded swordsmen who are neither Roman nor Arab, and so are presumably in Iraqi sunjects. The next record is from the siege of Nisibis, where archers in siege towers fire on the Roman- held walls. At the battle of Singara , Libanius writes that the Persians were " From the Acts of the Martyrs of Bezabde, we read that two important officials were guarded by horsemen and infantry escorting the doomed Christians. These last were likely the local paighan. They were a local militia and police force which likely occupied the social strata below the least dihqans but above the mass of peasantry. These may have formed the bulk of the useful infantry seen in many Sassanian armies, mainly serving in corps of archers behind large shields, under officers called tirbadh.

Ammianus Marcellinus has several illuminating comments to make on the Iranian foot of his day.

At the Siege of Amida , from which he narrowly escaped, his enemy used sling- and bow-armed skirmishers, while other foot in mail advanced under mantlets in "serried ranks,"controlled by trumpet. He characterizes the Persian infantry by saying, "Their infantry are armed like gladiators, and obey orders like soldiers' servants.

His famous account of Julian's ill-starred campaign of notes that outside Ctesiphon the Persian heavy cavalry was "supported by detachments of infantry who moved in compact formation carry long, curved shields Roman foot in close order made a mighty push and drove the serried ranks of the enemy before them For their whole infantry is nothing more than a crowd of pitiable peasants who come into battle for no other purpose than to dig through walls For this reason they have no weapons at all with which they might trouble their opponents, and they only hold before themselves those enormous shields Each line had an elephant, with their infantry before their elephant.