Sassanid army

Sassanid army

The birth of the Sassanid army ( _fa. ارتش ساسانيان "Artesh-e Sāsānīyān", Pahlavi "Spâh" سپاه, "army") dates back to the rise of Ardashir I (r. 226–241), the founder of the Sassanid dynasty, to the throne. Ardashir aimed at the revival of the Persian Empire, and to further this aim, he reformed the military by forming a standing army which was under his personal command and whose officers were separate from satraps, local princes and nobility. He restored the Achaemenid military organizations, retained the Parthian cavalry model, and employed new types of armour and siege warfare techniques. This was the beginning for a military system which served him and his successors for over 400 years, during which the Sassanid Empire was, along with the Roman Empire and later the East Roman Empire, one of the two superpowers of Late Antiquity in Western Eurasia. The Sassanid army protected "Eranshahr" ("the realm of Iran") from the East against the incursions of central Asiatic nomads like the Hephthalites, Turks, while in the west it was engaged in a recurrent struggle against the Roman Empire.Fact|date=July 2007


In the character of their warfare, the Persians of the Sassanid period differed greatly from their forebears under the Achaemenid kings. The principal changes which time had brought about were an almost entire disuse of the war chariot, the advance of the elephant corps into a very prominent and important position, and the increased use and pre-eminence of cavalry on the Parthian model, including both heavy cataphracts and horse-archers. Four main arms of the service were recognized, each standing on adifferent level: the elephants, the horse, the archers, and the ordinary footmen. [George Rawlinson "The Seven Great Monarchies of the Ancient Eastern World: The Seventh Monarchy: History of the Sassanian or New Persian Empire" Page 189]


In Pahlavi language, smaller divisions of the "spāh" were referred to as "vasht" and larger divisions were designated as "gond". [Arthur Christensen, Sassanid Persia, 2nd Ed., 1965, p. 237] Interestingly, the Arabic word "jond" ( _ar. جند), meaning "army", is derived from the latter. [Dehkhoda Persian Dictionary]


* "Erān Spahbod": Commander-in chief.
* "Spahbod": Field general.
* "Pādgospān" or "Padouspān" (Modern Persian: پادوسبان): Commander of each of the four provincial divisions devised during the reign of Khosrau I.
* "Marzbān" or "Kanārang": Equivalent to Margrave or commander of the border guards; according to Procopius, it had been equivalent in rank to the East Roman "strategos" or "magister militum".
* "Poshtikbān Sālār": Head of the royal guard.
* "Erān anbāraghbad": Senior rank responsible for army supplies.
* "Stor-bezashk": Senior vet who looked after the cavalry elite's mounts.
* "Argbadh": Castellan, commander of a castle or fort.
* "Pāyygān Sālār": Chief of an infantry division.
* "Savārān Sardār": Head of a cavalry division.
* "Gond Sālār": Commander of a "gond" division.


The backbone of the "Spâh" in the Sassanid era was its heavy armoured cavalry. This was made up of noblemen who underwent extensive exercises in warfare and military manoeuvres through military training, gaining discipline and becoming truly elite soldiers.Fact|date=July 2007 Within the Sassanid military, the cavalry was the most influential element, and Sassanid cavalry tactics were adopted by the Romans, Arabs, and Turks. Their weaponry, battle tactics, tamgas, medallions, court customs, and costumes greatly influenced their Romano-Byzantine neighbours.Fact|date=February 2008 The Romans had long contended against opponents who fielded heavy cavalry, notably the Sarmatians and the Parthians, and the recurrent wars with the Sassanids were an important factor in the Roman turn to new military organizations and battlefield tactics that centered around the use of heavy cavalry in the 3rd and 4th centuries. The Romans called these newly formed units "clibanarii"; It is said that the word "clibanarii" is derived from Persian word "grivpanvar" or "griva-pana-vara" meaning "neck-guard wearer". Another, more direct and often quoted, etymology is the Greek word "ho klibanos", which refers to a covered pot in which bread was baked or a small oven; perhaps a joking reference to the one-piece mask helmets they wore. The Roman term appears for the first time in the "vita Alexandri Severi" (56.5) in the "Historia Augusta", a work from the very end of the 4th century A.D.

Shapur II (r. 309-379) further reformed the army by adopting heavier and more effective cavalry. These mounted units were clad in thick iron plates which covered their entire body. This made them look very much like moving iron statues. Some were armed with a lance and some with a sword and/or mace.Fact|date=July 2007 Depictions of aforementioned cavalry still survive, with one of the best preserved ones being a rock relief at Taq-e Bostan where Khosrau II is seen riding his favourite horse, Shabdiz.

The fighting equipment of the heavily-armed Sassanid horsemen were:
* "Clibanarii" cavalry: helmet, hauberk (Pahlavi "griwban"), breastplate, mail, gauntlet (Pahlavi "abdast"), girdle, thigh-guards (Pahlavi ran-ban) sword, mace, bowcase with two bows and two bowstrings, quiver with 30 arrows, two extra bowstrings, and horse armour ("zen-abzar").
* Cataphract cavalry: helmet, hauberk, breastplate, mail, gauntlet, girdle, thigh-guards, bowcase with two bows and two bowstrings, quiver with 30 arrows, spear, and horse armour ("zen-abzar"); to these some have added a lasso ("kamand"), or a sling with pellets.Fact|date=July 2007

The heavy cavalry was complemented by lighter cavalry, which were not made up of Sassanids, but were recruited from among their allies and supplemented by mercenary troops. Gelani ("Guilani"), Albani, Hephthalites, Kushans and the Khazars were the main suppliers of this light- to medium-armoured cavalry. They were an essential part of the "Spâh" because of their endurance and speed on the battlefield.

In short, there were the following classes of mobile cavalry troops:
* Persian immortal guard ("Zhayedan")
* "Azadan" nobility "Savaran": elite cavalry also described as the Persian knightly caste (see below)
* War elephants
* Light cavalry: primarily horse-archers
* Medium cavalry: Medium-armoured cavalry armed with lance and shield
* "Clibanarii" cavalry: Heavy shock cavalry armed with maces and swords
* Cataphract cavalry: Heavy cavalry armed with lances

War elephants

Both types of cavalry units were supported by war elephants and elite foot archers who showered the enemy with storms of arrows.Fact|date=July 2007 The elephant corps held the first position. It was recruited from India, but was at no time very numerous. Great store was set by it; and in some of the earlier battles against the Arabs the victory was regarded as gained mainly by this arm of the service. It acted with best effect in an open and level district; but the value put upon it was such that, however rough, mountainous, and woody the country into which the Persian arms penetrated, the elephant always accompanied the march of the Persian troops, and care was taken to make roads by which it could travel. The elephant corps was under a special chief, known as the "Zend−hapet", or "Commander of the Indians," either because the beasts came from that country, or because they were managed by natives of Hindustan. [George Rawlinson "The Seven Great Monarchies of the Ancient Eastern World: The Seventh Monarchy: History of the Sassanian or New Persian Empire" Page 189] These giant beasts acted as walking towers on battlefields and caused panic and disorder in enemy ranks, creating openings in the lines that cavalry could take advantage of.


The infantry were mostly lightly-armoured spearmen, who, like their Achaemenid ancestors, were usually levied troops of little fighting ability. Procopius of Caesarea famously derided them as "a crowd of pitiable peasants who come into battle for no other purpose than to dig through walls and to despoil the slain and in general to serve the soldiers [i.e. the cavalrymen] ". [Procopius, "History of the Wars: Persian War", [ Book I, XIV.22-30] ] In some battles however, heavy infantry was deployed. These well-paid, heavily-armoured infantry (carrying either sword or mace) were the equals of the Roman legions. The Daylam and Sogdiana provinces of the empire in particular were famous for providing high-quality foot soldiers.

The archers formed the elite of the Persian infantry. They were trained to deliver their arrows with extreme rapidity, and with an aim that was almost unerring. The huge wattled shields, adopted by the Achaemenid Persians from the Assyrians (called "spara" by the Achaemenids), still remained in use; and from behind a row of these, rested upon the ground and forming a sort of loop−holed wall, the Sassanid bowmen shot their weapons with great effect; nor was it until their store of arrows was exhausted that the Romans, ordinarily, felt themselves upon even terms with their enemy. Sometimes the archers, instead of thus fighting in line, were intermixed with the heavy horse, with which it was not difficult for them to keep pace. They galled the foe with their constant discharges from between the ranks of the horsemen, remaining themselves in comparative security, as the legions rarely ventured to charge the Persian mailed cavalry. If they were forced to retreat, they still shot backwards as they fled; and it was a proverbial saying with the Romans that they were then especially formidable. [George Rawlinson "The Seven Great Monarchies of the Ancient Eastern World: The Seventh Monarchy: History of the Sassanian or New Persian Empire" Page 184] Infantry was divided into the following types:
* "Daylami": heavy infantry
* "Paygan": medium infantry armed with spears and large shields
* Levy Spearmen
* "Kamandaran": elite foot archers
* Light ranged troops, such as Kurdish javelin-throwers

iege weapons

The Sassanids (unlike the Parthians) had organized and efficient methods of siege warfare for conquering walled towns. Many methods were learned from the Romans, but soon the Sassanids came to match them not only in the use of offensive siege engines such as scorpions, ballistae, battering rams, but also in the use of excellent defensive tactics for their fortifications, such as methods for using and countering catapults, for throwing stones or pouring boiling liquid on the attackers or by hurling fire brands and blazing missiles.Fact|date=July 2007
Tabari reports that the main reason behind victory of Vahriz over Axumites of Yemen has been use of "panjigan" (probably a ballista equipped with heavy darts) against the Yemenites who had not encountered such a military contraption in the past. [Muhammad ibn Jarir al-Tabari, History of the Prophets and Kings, vol. 2, Reign of Anushiravan (Khosrau I): و امرهم ان تکون قسيهم موترة و قال اذا امرتکم ان ترموا فارموهم رشقا بالبنجکان و لم يکن اهل اليمن راوا النشاب قبل ذلک ]

* "Scorpion" (Pahlavi "panjigān" or "çarx" : a ballista equipped with heavy darts) [Dehkhoda Persian Dictionary]
* "Ballista"
* "Battering ram"
* "Onager (siege weapon)" (Pahlavi "koshkanjir" or "mangenik" derived from Greek "mēkhanikos") [Dehkhoda Persian Dictionary]

Azadan nobility

This class of nobility was first formed in Parthian times, and was carried over into the Sassanid state, where they were a force to be reckoned with. They accompanied the king in the wars and displayed great courage and discipline. They are clearly the forerunners and founders of the "Knights" of later Arab history. [David Nicolle "Sassanian Armies : the Iranian empire early 3rd to mid-7th centuries AD" pp. 11] The "Aztan" ("Azadan", آزادان, "freemen") jealously guarded their status as descendants of the ancient Aryan conquerors and rulers of the mass of originally non-Aryan peasantry. These "Azatan" formed a numerous minor aristocracy of lower-ranking administrators, mostly living on their small estates and providing the cavalry backbone of Sassanid army. Most prestigious among them were the armoured "Aswaran" اسوران who normally decided the outcome of a battle. [David Nicolle "Sassanian Armies : the Iranian empire early 3rd to mid-7th centuries AD" pp. 11]

Despite their downfall in the 7th century AD, the legacy of the "Savaran" endured in Europe, the Caucasus, India and the Muslim world. It was the elite cavalry of Sassanid Persia, who were the forerunners of the later Arabian "Faris", the English knights, the Caucasian horsemen, the Indian Suwar (derived from Persian Savar), and the Turkish Tarkhans. [cite web|url=|title="Sassanian Elite Cavalry" Book review by Dr. David Khoupenia|accessdate=2007-01-30]

In point of fact, certain of the later Muslim heavy cavalry, such as the Mamluks, were possibly the descendants of the "clibanarii" cavalry, as they used similar weapons and tactics.Fact|date=July 2007

The amount of money involved in maintaining a warrior of the "Asawaran" ("Azatan") knightly caste required a small estate, and the Asawaran knightly caste received that from the throne, and in return, were the throne's most notable defenders in time of war.

See also

* Spahbod
* Byzantine army
* Late Roman army
* Roman-Persian Wars
* Derbent, the only surviving Sassanid fortress
* Persian war elephants



* A.D.H. Bivar, ‘Cavalry Equipment and Tactics on the Euphrates Frontier’,"Dumbarton Oaks Papers" 26 (1972), pp. 271-291
* Michael B. Charles, ‘The Rise of the Sassanian Elephant Corps: Elephants and the Later Roman Empire’, "Iranica Antiqua" 42 (2007), pp. 301-346
* Kaveh Farrokh, "Sassanian Elite Cavalry, AD224-642" (Osprey Publishing 2005)
* David Nicolle, "Sassanian Armies : the Iranian empire early 3rd to mid-7th centuries AD" (Montvert Publishing 1996). ISBN 1-874101-08-6
* Philip Rance, ‘Elephants in Warfare in Late Antiquity’, "Acta Antiqua Academiae Scientiarum Hungaricae" 43 (2003), pp. 355-84
* Peter Wilcox, "Rome's Enemies 3: Parthians and Sassanid Persians" (Osprey Publishing 2001). ISBN 0-85045-688-6

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