1.0 - Introduction
New translations of ancient texts and evidence from archaeology have made knowledge of many once-obscure peoples and places accessible to the amateur historian. This is certainly the case with the Sassanian (also known as Sassanid) dynasty of Iran, an empire which at one time ruled from the Indus to the Nile, from Yemen to the Caucasus. They overthrew the Parthians by 226 (CE, as all dates) and fell to the armies of Islam by 651. Theirs is one of the most poorly-documented empires in the world; even their Achaemenid forebears of half-a-millennium prior are better understood. Instead, their history was written by their enemies, who proceeded to miscast these Persians as villainous archetypes in the sagas of Rome, Constantinople, and Mecca.
In this article I will take a fresh look at topics of interest to wargamers, namely command and control, the famous cavalry, the hidden infantry, and various allies and vassals. For a general examination of the Sassanian military the recently published Montvert monograph Sassanian Armies - The Iranian Empire, by David Nicolle is an excellent resource. For a more detailed examination of the topic I recommend Phil Halewood's excellent series in this journal.
2.0 - Command And Control
Historians agree that the Persia ruled by the first Sassanian shahanshah, Ardashir I (226-240), was not that at the accession of the last Zoroastrian ruler, Yazdagird III (632-651). As with societies in general, one constant was the hegemony of a small number of noble families, several of which carried forward from Parthian times, e.g. the Suren. Their role was to provide candidates for top military and administrative positions in the empire, such as generals and provincial governors, and to supply troops from their large estates. At first, the noble families ruled semi-independent principalities in many parts of the empire, making war on smaller neighboring states, especially in the East. There was little direct involvement of the central government back in the capitol, Ctesiphon, near present-day Bagdad.
With time, power tended to aggregate to the royal court, though this was not an irreversible process. The most sudden shift in power came with the accession of Khusro I (531-579). Iran had suffered a long period of social instability under the influence of Mazdak, a Rasputinesque figure who pushed an extreme proto-socialist doctrine that lead to a redistribution of wealth, property, and sometimes wives! On this chaotic cultural landscape, the new shahanshah imposed a new order more responsive to central authority, reformed the bureaucracy, and reorganized the Zoroastrian church.
Instead of a single military hierarchy, Khusro quartered the empire under four regional rulers serving at the pleasure of the shahanshah. With many of the highest families ruined, he was able to distribute land to the neglected lower nobility, the dihqans. These changes, when combined with a more efficient and fair tax policy, created a loyal and wealthy mounted gentry owning villages and small estates. I suspect this bears more than a coincidental likeness to the later Byzantine thematic system.
2.1 - Tactics
The nature of the Sassanian army over time can be inferred from a few Roman and Arabic sources spanning four centuries. On the Persian campaign of the Roman emperor, Alexander Severus (231-233) writes the "tbarbarians" apparently have no standing paid army. In the next century, Ammianus Marcellinus notes (359-363) the regulation of troops by trumpet and "flame-colored banner".
Skipping ahead, Procopius (527) writes that the Persians at Daras were amazed by the uncharacteristic good order of the Byzantines. At Antioch (540) Khusro as commander-in-chief was "on the tower which is on the height" (seen at Nisibis in 350 as well), the Persians use pontooneers to cross the Euphrates. Finally, in 549, Byzantines and Lazi took "the standards"of the ambushed Persian army. Clearly, Iran's army exhibits a substantial degree of organization.
The Stragikon of Maurice (ca. 570) has much to say regarding the Persians. It notes that they "an orderly approach","battle with calmness and determination,"and "not attack in a disorderly fashion." The author places the Sassanian army in a category with the Byzantines, as opposed to Turks and other "civilized"peoples who organized themselves along tribal lines.
Persian military references from the same period include instruction on many points, such as tactics, ambushes, and camp fortifications. Standard (but not exclusive) deployment for large armies was advised to be in five parts: a main battle line, a reinforcing line, a small reserve (the Immortals, elite cavalry), and two cavalry wings. Another tactic saw the cavalry forming a front line while the army advanced, only to retire to the wings and thus surprising with infantry an enemy who had expected to face mounted troops.
The history of al-Tabari has much to say concerning the Persian armies faced by the Muslims, some if it valuable. At the early Conquest battle of al-Madhar, the Persians covered their retreat from the field with ships. At al-Firad (634), the Byzantines "help from the nearby outposts of the Persians" and their combined forces unsuccessfully attacked Khalid's army. The Sassanians at Shumiya deployed in five parts as noted above, only to be soundly defeated, one of the casualties their light horse commander.
The sole major Persian victory over the forces of Islam was at al-Qarqus, the Battle of the Bridge. When the Arab commander Abu Ubayd "hit and the elephant stood upon him, the Muslims fled," an effective if prosaic description. 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.
One oft-repeated and misleading phrase used by al-Tabari refers to "chained"Persian troops. 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 (1994) 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 (635) and Nihawand (641), 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. Presumably this "elevation"of top officers both gave them a gamer's-eye view of the proceedings and kept them from seeking personal glory in the front ranks.
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.
2.2 - General Organization
Despite its roots in feudal Parthia, and occasional relapses, the Sassanian military showed an increasing degree of sophistication over the years. From a traveling inspector of cavalry quality, to the elaborate system of unit insignia, their armed forces approached but rarely exceeded the overall "gravitas"of the contemporary Romans. 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.
3.0 - Cavalry
The most famous component of the Sassanian military is the mounted arm. 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 619 a Turk and Hepthalite invasion was defeated by the Persarmenian general Smbat Bagratuni leading a Sassanian imperial army. In 531, at Callinicus in Commagene, an all-mounted force of 15,000 Persians and Arabs attacked Belisarius' 20,000-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.
3.1 - Equipment
The famous sculpture of Khusro II at Taq I Bustan shows the epitome of heavy cavalry near the end of the empire. 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.
Another evidence of the wide use of armor is from the artistic depictions and archaeological finds of "ox-headed"maces in the Iranian cultural area. 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 53.5 cm in length.
Armored cavalry certainly made an impression on enemies of the Persians. In 363, 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 ..." At the Battle of the Bridge, al-Tabari relates heavy cavalry "... the horses wearing coats of mail, and the horsemen wearing distinctive emblems ..." which astounded the Arabs - or at least those living far from the borderlands.
Bivar (1972) 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 200-350 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 421, 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.
3.2 - Types of Cavalry
As in medieval Europe, there was a correlation between social status and equipment. Mitigating this was the establishment of units supported by the shahanshah. The most famous were the 10,000 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 1000 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. 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.
We may also note that the Strategikon describes the enemy cavalry as "disturbed"by a "carefully drawn-up formation of infantry,"and "they themselves do not make use of lances and shields." Other evidence comes from an Egyptian textile perhaps, dating to the Persian occupation, on which mounted and dismounted troops, both armored and unarmored, attack Arabs and Africans. The mounted are in the open, the foot against enemy fighting from behind rocks. We are seeing here a mix of heavy and light horse archers.
3.3 - Role of Cavalry
Despite their obvious importance, it must be remembered that, except in cases of all-mounted forces, Sassanian armies were usually less than one-third cavalry. For their organization, I refer you to Phil Halewood's articles, while noting that at Nihawand (641) al-Tabari claims the Persians advanced "... like mountains of steel ..."and "in units of seven," while al-Baladhuri says they were drawn up in "... in tens and fives ..." Whichever the case, a high degree of tactical organization is indicated.
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.