Sassanian [Sassanid] Army I

Emperor Julian is killed during his failed invasion of Sassanian Persia in June 26, 363 AD. Above is a recreation of Sassanian Persia’s elite cavalry, the Savaran, as they would have appeared during Julian’s failed invasion. Note the heavily armored Sassanian elite guardsman (Pushtighban) whose lance has pierced a Roman infantryman. Further right is a Savaran officer whose sword is drawn in what is now known as the “Italian grip” but Sassanian in origin. To the far right can be seen a Zoroastrian or Mithraist Magus brandishing a Sassanian era symbol. Also of interest are the armored elephants in the background. Armored elephants were especially prized as their cabs afforded very high elevation over the battlefield, which was ideal for Sassanian archery.

The Sassanian spah was notably different from its Parthian predecessor in that it was not simply an all-cavalry force. Cavalry of course retained its elite status and continued to develop until the later Sassanian era, but these were not the only elements in the battle order of the spah. There were in fact important auxiliary units, especially infantry, slingers and the elephant corps. There are also references to a camel corps and even chariots, although the latter would have been long obsolete as a battlefield weapon. The spah also recruited light cavalry auxiliaries to support the savaran. Arab Lakhmid cavalry, equipped and trained much like the savaran, also gained an important role, especially by the early fifth century CE. Women also served in the Sassanian military. Another interesting domain is the Sassanian navy in the Persian Gulf and its role since the founding of the dynasty in the early third century CE.

Sassanian Infantry

As in the previous Achaemenid and Parthian dynasties, infantry units were ranked as second in status to the savaran cavalry. Nevertheless, Kolesnikoff has noted that infantry troops formed a significant portion of the Sassanian spah. Extrapolating from the available sources, Jalali identifies three distinct units of infantry: paighan heavy infantry (i.e. heavily armoured and armed), light infantry and infantry archers. To these must also be added the Dailamites, who were to rise in military importance from the sixth century, as well as the neyze-daran and the peasant infantry. While most Western scholarship has acknowledged the importance and efficacy of the Dailamites, assessments of Sassanian infantry are generally negative. This perspective has been challenged by Howard-Johnston, who cautions that ‘the contemptuous dismissal of the Persian infantryman as an ill-equipped, unpaid, rural serf (Ammianus Marcellinus, XXXIII, VI, 83) should be trusted no more than the grossly exaggerated eastward outreach of Sassanian power which is said to embrace China (Ammianus Marcellinus, XXXIII, VI, 14)’.3 This section endeavours to distinguish between the different types of infantry and suggest that Western assessments may have at least partly to do with the poor combat performance of the peasant levies or infantry.

Paighan: heavy infantry. The commander of an infantry detachment was the paighan-salar. However, the term paigh or payg (foot soldier) requires more research as it is not clear if the description refers to lightly armed peasant levies pressed into service or more professional infantry. This may partly explain why there appears to be some confusion in the distinction between the poorly trained and armed peasant light infantry, paighan and the neyze-daran. Penrose, for example, identifies the peasant infantry as the paighan, but does acknowledge the existence of a separate force of ‘regular combat infantry’. As noted by Jalali, the duties of the paighan-salar’s infantry during peacetime were internal security activities for the empire, not unlike modern day policing. While such forces were most likely drawn from the peasant population, they appear to have been distinct from those strictly peasant levies pressed into service for siege works, baggage handling, etc. (see below). Paighan units in every province would be placed under the command of local regional commanders for deployment as security forces or ‘gendarmes’ in urban centres to help maintain law and order. The paighan-salar could also be placed as the head of prisons as seen in reports of such an officer in command of the prison at Dastegerd in late Sassanian times. For such duties and responsibilities, the paighan must have had at least some rudimentary military training and equipment for combat. This was a task for which the strictly peasant infantry were, according to Roman accounts (see Procopius below) wholly unsuited. Daryaee defines the paighan as having been armed with spear and shield, while Jalali defines such spear and shield-equipped troops as a subdivision within the paighan. Both Jalali and Sami concur that the paighan were the spah’s standard heavy infantry, especially until the rise of the highly effective Dailamite infantry of northern Iran appearing from the time of Khosrow I in the sixth century CE.14 Interestingly, the ‘professional’ infantry aspect of the term paighan has entered the Armenian lexicon as payik.  There are indications that professional heavy infantry troops were registered on state rolls and paid in cash like the cavalry elite.

Sami has noted that paighan formations were usually deployed to the rear of the savaran. According to Jalali, the role of the paighan was to provide combat support for the savaran corps as well as protection for the light infantry and foot archers. In practice, foot archers would first be placed ahead of the paighan to fire their missiles. Once their missiles were exhausted, the foot archers would retire to the rear of the paighan. The light ‘peasant’ infantry performed as logistics, support and siege work personnel; and, since they had very low combat skills, they relied on the paighan and savaran for their battlefield survival.

What is certainly clear is that well-armed paighan armoured infantry were in service with the spah from the early days of the dynasty, especially during the campaigns of Shapur I against the Roman Near East in the mid-third century CE.20 It is possible to reconstruct these paighan thanks to the findings of a Franco-American excavation team that discovered the remains of a fallen Sassanian soldier in Tower 19 at Dura-Europos that had been subject to mining operations by the spah. The paighan wore a ‘T-shirt’ style short-sleeved mail garment reaching to his hips. He was armed with a rectangular shield of wickerwork construction and wore a two-piece riveted ‘ridge’ helmet. According to Zoka, Hekmat and Jalali the paighan were typically armed with swords, daggers and other hand-to-hand weapons such as maces. This equipment would suggest that the paighan were expected to engage in close-quarters hand-to-hand combat against their Roman counterparts, especially in siege scenarios. Nevertheless, Roman infantry would often gain the upper hand in close-quarters combat against the paighan. Lee has correctly noted that despite the Roman edge in infantry, the Sassanians were able to compensate for this weakness with their highly effective cavalry forces (the savaran) and efficient siege warfare. Interestingly, Ziapour reports that the paighan wore leg protection (like the cavalry) in the form of lamellar type armour (made of hardened leather or metals) worn over leather trousers. While certainly possible, this assertion has yet to be corroborated by archaeological finds.

Ammianus Marcellinus provides an interesting description of Sassanian heavy infantry (or ‘gladiators’) at the time of Julian’s invasion of Iran in 363 CE. According to Ammianus: ‘Their infantry are armed like Mirmillos [a type of armoured gladiator] and are as obedient as grooms.’ This observation from the fourth century CE is indicative of two things. First, it is clear that these Sassanian infantry are well armed and armoured. But the same description also raises more questions, especially in the use of the term mirmillos. Why would Ammianus refer to this term as opposed to just ‘heavy infantry’? Perhaps he was applying the term mistakenly, but this cannot be substantiated. Another possibility is that the Sassanians may have attempted to develop a heavier version of their regular Dura-Europos-type combat infantry, like the super-heavy savaran. If that is the case, these troops would have had formidable armour, possibly of the ‘combination’ type of mail (possibly worn over lamellar), and metallic ring armour for the arms as well as greaves to give them a more ‘mirmillos’ type appearance. At the very least these troops were equipped with armour in the Dura-Europos style and carried long straight swords, but whether these resembled those of the savaran in 363 CE with respect to dimensions such as length, etc. cannot be fully ascertained. What is clear, however, is that these Sassanian infantry were engaged, overcome and defeated by their Roman counterparts as Julian drew close to Ctesiphon in 363 CE.

The second point made by Ammianus with respect to the ‘mirmillos’ is that they were ‘as obedient as grooms’. This suggests that these were highly disciplined and trained, consistent with Sassanian training regimens in general. In any case, this particular topic certainly requires further study to help shed light onto developments in Sassanian heavy infantry at this time.

The paighan were also employed alongside battle elephants. In the fourth century, the paighan, for example, are reported as advancing alongside battle elephants (as occurred during Shapur II’s siege of Nisibis in 350 CE). In contrast to the prestige of the framandar savaran however, the paighan-salar was not as highly regarded within the spah military, as the infantry corps was considered inferior in status to the cavalry. Nevertheless, this assertion does require further investigation, at least with regard to the Dailamites of the later Sassanian era.

Dailamites. In contrast to peasant recruits, the Dailamites were among the best professional infantry fielded by the spah, being especially adept in close-quarters combat. These could and did engage the formidably trained and resilient Romano-Byzantine infantry. Dailamite warriors were especially adept in the use of a variety of close-quarters combat weapons such as swords and daggers, and two-pronged javelins (known in Persian as zhupin) used for ‘thrusting and hurling’ in close-quarters combat. The Dailamites actually excelled far more in their face-to-face combat skills in comparison to their archery. As noted by Matofi, the Dailamites were especially renowned for their skills in the use of the tabarzin (battle-axe) and shield in close-quarters combat. The tabarzin was especially effective in helping shatter the enemy’s armour.

Overlaet’s exhaustive report on findings made in northern Iran demonstrates that the Dailamites were armed with the same type of late-Sassanian swords, Spangenhelm helmets and archer’s fingercaps as their savaran comrades in the spah. It is also significant that these finds also include strap mountings, gold ornaments, belt decorations, etc. that were worn by members of the nobility and the elite savaran knights. Note that the Dailamites were using the same type of lappet-suspension system swords utilized by the savaran which, unlike the earlier (prelappet) scabbard-slide broadswords, would not drag on the ground when the infantryman was on the march. The use of such equipment and regalia would suggest that the Dailamites may have had a relatively high status within the spah.

Mobbayen has provided an overview of the origins and characteristics of the spah’s Dailamite warriors. These hailed from northern Persia, living mainly in the mountainous regions with their ethnic cousins, the Gels, mainly inhabiting the Caspian Sea coast of northern Iran. Mention has been made of a certain Barvan or Parvan as the primary township of the Dailamites in Islamic times (c. 816 CE), however the exact location of that locale remains uncertain. A prominent clan cited in early pre-Islamic times is the Jastan. The tough climate of forested northern Persia has been home to generations of warriors who not only served the Sassanians, but also defeated several attempts by the Caliphate to absorb the region after the fall of the Sassanian dynasty. The Dailamites were to become especially prominent during the wars of Khosrow I, especially in the Persian Gulf-Yemen theatre and in Lazica (in modern Georgia of the Caucasus). They were to also engage in the Battle of Qadissiyah against the Arabs in 637 CE.

The neyze-daran. There was also a subdivision within the paighan, identified by Jalali as the neyze-daran (foot spearmen). They appear to have been specialized in spear combat and, like all paighan units, were placed in front of the foot archers. It is not clear how the neyze-daran would have confronted attacking Roman troops. If it is assumed that these were armed and armoured like the heavy infantry, then these could presumably engage in close-quarters combat. It is not clear how their spears would be employed, meaning whether these would be used for thrusting or simply hurled at the enemy. If the neyze-daran were lightly armed and lacked armour, then these may have engaged in the ‘hurl-and-run’ tactic, especially in scenarios where Roman infantry would have been rushing towards them. There have been suggestions that the neyze-daran would at times be able to stand up to Roman infantrymen in close-quarter combat situations. Mention must also be made of javeliners recruited from the Mede highlands of Iran who would employ thongs for both hurling and spinning their javelins in flight which would increase their accuracy and power of penetration. These could prove especially effective as auxiliary forces in blunting enemy infantry or cavalry attacks either in support of the neyze-daran or even the savaran.

Light peasant infantry. Hailing from the lowest ranks of Sassanian society, the light infantry were recruited from the peasant population. Treated virtually as serfs, they were typically unpaid by the state during their term of service. Lacking in military training, Sassanian light infantry were poorly armoured and armed, often only having a short dagger for defence. The light infantry, who often worked as servants for the savaran cavalry, were also utilized in siege operations for manual labour and associated tasks such as the construction of mounds, various military earthworks and the digging of trenches. In this respect these personnel were especially valuable for long, drawn-out siege operations in locales such as Amida or Nisibis. The capture of Dara in 573 CE by Khosrow I (r. 531– 579), for example, was greatly assisted by the efforts of 120,000 light infantry who were essentially labourers for Sassanian military engineers building large mounds.

It would appear that the ‘infantry’ so derided by Procopius are these peasant infantry in contrast to the professional types such as the aforementioned Dailamites or paighan types. Note Procopius’ description of the Sassanian infantry contemporary to the reign of Kavad during the battle of Dara (530 CE):

[F]or 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 and to despoil the slain and in general to serve the soldiers. 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 in order that they may not possibly be hit by the enemy.

Such types of ‘infantry’ were a part of General Firouz’s Sassanian forces and indeed performed poorly as they dropped their shields and abandoned the field in haste. They simply had no chance of survival in close-quarter combat against the professionally trained Romano-Byzantine infantry. This would certainly explain why the Romano-Byzantines took such a heavy toll of these troops.

Sassanian infantry: a new view? Not surprisingly, Roman descriptions of Sassanian infantry troops are logically, if not overwhelmingly negative. The question, however, is the calibration of Procopius’ designation of ‘infantry’. His description makes very clear that these were peasant levies pressed into service as infantry. But Procopius’ descriptions are at variance with the earlier Sassanian paighan warriors seen at Dura-Europos (early third century CE) or the Sassanian ‘gladiators’ seen at the time of Julian’s invasion of Persia (363 CE) who wore armour, helmets and swords. Procopius’ own description makes clear that the infantry he was describing ‘have no weapons at all with which they might trouble their opponent’. Overemphasis upon this reference may lead to linear conclusions with respect to Sassanian infantry in general. Western scholarship has in fact acknowledged the need to revise traditional Western views of Sassanian infantry. Penrose, for example, has noted that negative Roman opinions of Sassanian infantry (as a mass of poorly equipped and incapable serfs) was based on their confusion between peasant-type troopers versus regular Sassanian infantry. Ward concurs by stating that ‘although at various times during the dynasty the Sassanian infantry was reported to have been no more than a levy of peasants with little tactical value, for most of this period they appear to have been a disciplined and skilled force’.

Close-quarter combat was in fact highly esteemed in the ancient military tradition of Iran, as seen for example in the Shahname which describes Bahram Gur as having killed two lions with his tabarzin on foot. Nevertheless, as noted by Sidnell, when it came to face-to-face combat against the formidable and superbly trained Roman foot soldiers, the spah placed its primary focus upon the savaran to defeat them.

The Camel Corps

While information on Sassanian camel corps is scant at best, some units of these appear to have existed, at least in the mid-sixth century CE. Russian researchers have cited a rebel named Anoushzad supported by the ‘Imperial Camel Corps’54 who rebelled against Khosrow I (r. 531–579 CE). More research is required to examine the primary sources for this citation as well as the size, composition and armaments of such corps. Interestingly, camels are not mentioned as a primary battlefield weapon by Classical or Arabo-Islamic sources. Perhaps the Parthian experience of employing camel cataphracts by Ardavan (Artabanus) V in the three-day battle against the Roman forces of Macrinus at Nisibis in 217 CE dissuaded the Sassanian spah from organizing such corps into their regular battle order. At Nisibis, the Romans successfully deployed caltrops to disrupt the attacks of the Parthian camel cataphract corps; the caltrops injured the soft spongy feet of the camels, thus dangerously disabling them on the battlefield. Despite this shortcoming, camel cataphracts could be especially effective, given the warrior’s elevated position on the beast, as well as being an excellent platform for archery.

There are two prominent displays of camels in Sassanian arts. The first is Bahram Gur engaged in archery during the hunt as he rides a camel (Hermitage, St. Petersburg, Inv. S-252). The second is seen in the right side of the grand iwan which depicts the royal hunt of Khosrow II. In this display (on the upper left side of the panel) can be seen five camels carrying off deer already killed by the royal hunting party. Apart from the aforementioned Anoushzad case, the camel corps do not appear to have a primary unit in the spah. Perhaps there were ceremonial units or support units (logistics, etc.) but there is little mention of these being used alongside the savaran, battle elephants, infantry, etc., in battlefield situations.

Chariots: Ceremonial or Military role?

Following his defeat at Ctesiphon in 233 by the savaran led by Ardashir I, Emperor Alexander Severus (r. 222–235 CE) delivered a bombastic victory speech to the Roman senate (25 September 233 CE), which among his many claims, was the alleged destruction of ‘1,800 scythed chariots’ of the Sassanian spah. Iranian military historians often refer to the presence of the arabeh (chariot) in Sassanian armies, which may be partly based on a literal interpretation of the Alexander Severus speech of 233. It is very unlikely that the spah would have been using Achaemenid-era type scythed chariots over 500 years after their complete failure against the invasion forces of Alexander. Western military historians are in general agreement that scythed chariots were not a major element in the battle order of the spah and had no (military) role to play in any of the major battles between the Sassanian empire and the Romano-Byzantines.

It is possible that some type of chariot was retained (or resurrected) for ceremonial battlefield purposes. Mashkoor notes that following a major battle between the spah led by General Razutis and the Romano-Byzantines in 12 September 627 CE, the Sassanians were defeated following the death of Razutis, which resulted in the capture of twenty-seven Sassanian drafsh (banners) and a number of arabehaye jangi (war chariots). Perhaps these were ceremonial in nature as the utility of such vehicles would be dubious at best on the battlefields of the time. Perhaps this ceremonial aspect may have been a throwback to a more proto Indo-European tradition; the Irish sagas for example make references to the Carpat (Old Irish: chariot).