Ardashir proclaimed himself king of Persis by 208 CE. His brothers protested this and Ardashir disposed of them. If his brother challenges were not enough, many local petty kings of Persis refused to acknowledge Ardashir rule. Ardashir responded by going to war in which he crushed them. He thus solidified his position as the rightful king of Persis. However, Parthian leadership in Ctesiphon thought otherwise, and sounded the alarm.
The House of Sasan ruled the Sasanian Empire from 224 to 651. Ardashir I named the dynasty in honor of his grandfather, Sasan. The Sassanian Royal Symbol and the Mythology of Persia. (Public Domain)
Ardashir Challenges the Parthians
Ardashir made his challenge known in 224 CE. While risky, he knew that the Parthian power base at Ctesiphon was impotent and the confederation that supported the Arsacid throne weak and tired of Arsacid rule. Ardashir understood that so long as the Arsacid’s stayed in power, the next Roman invasion of Iranian lands would go roughly unchecked. To avoid this from happening, there was a crucial need for a much stronger central government capable of fielding a tough, well-disciplined army with the ability to meet, engage, discharge, and have the ability to give chase and conquer former territory once under Achaemenid rule.
Ardashir I is receiving the Kingship’s ring. (CC BY-SA 2.0)
Ardashir, uncertain, but ready for the challenge, soon gained support beyond the borders of Persis. Many supporters from the provinces of Media, Media Atropatene, Adiabene, and Kurdistan, came to join in the rebellion. But that would not be enough if he was to defeat King Artabanus V. To seal the deal, Ardashir needed the support of the Iranian highlanders in the northwest.
This is mentioned in the Arbela Chronicles which state: “And this was recognized by the Persians and the Medes and they closed a union with Šahrat, the king of Hedajjab, and Domjtana, the king from Karek Selok and made a hefty assault on the Parthians in spring.” With many nations now backing Ardashir, particularly the western Iranians, which was extremely important (for the Parthian seat of power was right in the middle), Ardashir made his move to battle.
Artabanus V, like any king during a time of crises, assembled his forces and marched on the province of Persis to crush Ardashir.
The fate of the Iranian peoples was decided by three battles. The first battle was won by Ardashir but at a considerable cost for both sides. According to the Book of the Deeds of Ardashir son of Babag, Ardashir “came to battle with Ardavan (Artabanus) but Artabanus was not in command of the Parthian forces. Instead, Bahman, the son of Artabanus, led the forces and was killed along with his entire army. Afterwards, Ardashir “seized their wealth, property, horses; and portable lodges, and settled himself in Stakhar.” Some may view this battle as a draw.
The second battle also was a victory for Ardashir and proved pivotal, for the Parthians suffered a great loss of men. With Parthia wounded, Ardashir took advantage of the situation and pressed on. The final battle between the two powers took place at Hormizdeghan, near the modern city of Bandar Abbas, 28 April 224 CE.
Ardashir chose this area, which gave him access to the water supplies, crucial to quench the thirst of men and horses. As for Artabanus, his force took up a position near an inadequate water supply. In such a hot area and with a lack of water, both man and beast grew weary the longer they waited. This may have been Ardashir’s strategy. Taking advantage of the water supply physically weakened the Parthians, which in turn caused psychological distress.
When both armies formed battle lines, the forces of Ardashir were better equipped, as some of his horsemen were wearing the Roman-style, flexible chain armor. Artabanus fielded a much larger force. However, his forces were hastily assembled, ill equipped, and less prepared for battle, for even the king of the Parthians was wearing the old style lamellar armor considered cumbersome at the time. While details of the final battle are scant, Ardashir was victorious as “He killed Ardavan, whose entire wealth and property fell into the hands of Ardashir, who married Ardavan’s daughter, and went back to Pars.”
Details of this battle can be seen at Firuzabad, Iran. The rock carving shows Ardashir unhorsing and killing Artabanus V from his horse in a joust. This ended the House of Arsaces and established the House of Sasan.
Drawing of French orientalist painter and traveler Eugene Flandin (1840): Sasanian king Ardachir Babakan’s rock relief (Firuzabad 1), Scene showing an equestrian victory over Parthian king Artabanus V, province of Fars, Iran. (Public Domain)
Ghal’eh Dokhtar (or “The Maiden’s Castle”) in present-day Fars, Firuzabad, Iran, built by Ardashir in 209, before he was finally able to defeat the Parthian empire. (Public Domain)
Ardashir’s Military Reform and Forces
After defeating the Parthians, Ardashir turned his attention towards driving Rome back into the sea and restoring the former glory of Persia when it was under Cyrus the Great. However, Ardashir needed a professional army, an army that was organized, and not only in structure, but also in capability.
Rome was not an easy army to fight, just look at the many battles fought between Rome and Parthia over time. They were equals to one another. However, one was better at going on the offensive while the other excelled at remaining defensive. Ardashir needed an army that could do both, for he could not afford just a defensive army.
Ardashir consolidated and centralized his forces directly under his command. He was absolute, and an absolute monarchy needed a subjective army that would forcefully submit to the nobility without contestation. In order to do this, the command must start at the very top, which was the king himself, Ardashir.
Bust of a Sasanian king, most likely Shapur II (309 to 379 CE) Representative image. (Public Domain)
The Chain of Command
Ardashir was not only King of Persia, but he was the Shahenshah, “King of kings.” Ardashir’s military chain of command started with the Vuzurg-Framander. The Vuzurg-Framander was in charge of state affairs when the Shahenshah was off on a military campaign. The person in charge of the military forces was the Eran-Spahbad. Under the Eran-Spahbad was the Spahbad who was a general and could be a military governor of a province. The Spahbad received help from his assistants, known as the “Padgospan.” The Padgospan, otherwise known as “Padan” were lower officers assisting the Spahbad. Under the Padan was the Framandar, which were the battlefield commanders. This list provides a somewhat clear detail as to the day-to-day duties of the military chain of command whether in peace or in war. However, other titles are mentioned, but many remain unclear as to their job description or role in war.
Artistic rendering of a Sasanian spahbed. (Public Domain)
Now that we have a glimpse into the command structure of the Sassanid military, one can see that it was highly organized due to its centralized role. Nevertheless, good command structure needs a good army to function, in order to go on the offensive or stay on the defensive when needed.
The Sassanid military was heavy and built for shock for its sole purpose was to dominate the battlefield and beyond. The Sassanid military force was a mirror image of the Parthian military. In other words, cavalry ruled the day throughout the empire. Cavalry was tradition in these parts and the Sassanids continued in that tradition, but with better organization.
The Sassanids primarily relied on two types of cavalry in combat; the heavy cavalry consisted of cataphracts, the clibanarii, and the lighter horse archer cavalry. In addition to the cavalry, the Sassanids also relied upon infantry and elephants as well as having an effective siege train. However, cavalry was the cornerstone of the Sassanid army.
Historical re-enactment of a Sassanid-era cataphract, complete with a full set of scale armor for the horse. (GFDL)
As mentioned before, the cataphracts and the clibanarii were the cornerstone of the Sassanid army, the reason is that they were heavy. What made them heavy was the use of scale or plate armor. Both horse and rider were covered in an elaborate array of armor. This gave the horse and its rider full protection and provided the Sassanid forces with a shock element that could ride down, fleeing enemy forces or piercing through enemy formations thus breaking enemy cohesion into pieces and exposing them.
Horse archers also were pivotal in regards to mounted combat; they provided the heavy cavalry windows of opportunity. Horse archer’s main role was to not only fix an enemy unit or army but to lead them out in open pasture for annihilation by the heavy cavalry once exposed. Nevertheless, horse archers could also be considered psychological warfare, for once the arrows began to rain down the end never seemed to come and when doubt set in, either the enemy fled or its officers made irrational decisions that ultimately exposed the men, which led to certain death.
Cataphracts fighting Roman cavalry during the Dacian wars circa 101 AD. (Public Domain)
An example of both heavy and light cavalry elements combined comes from the battle of Carrhae in 53 BCE. This battle highlights the effective use of both heavy and light cavalries that the Sassanids were accustomed.
Elephants were also deployed upon the field of battle. The elephants the Sassanids used were from India. Every elephant was mounted with howdahs, which carried the armed men including the driver.
Elephant in Battle, Kota, Rajasthan, India circa 1750-70. (Public Domain)
A medieval Armenian miniature representing the Sasanian War elephants in the Battle of Vartanantz. (Public Domain)
Another aspect that sometimes is easily forgotten, or overlooked, is the fact that elephants scare horses due to their smell. Horses that were not accustom to the beasts’ smell, became upset and restless with fear, causing panic among the ranks. This also prompted fear among the Roman ranks who had never encountered such an intimidating and powerful beast. In many ways, the Sassanid use of the elephant was a psychological shock weapon for both men and animals on the opposing side.
Infantry was the weak link to the Sassanid military structure and organization throughout their long history. The reason was due to the Sassanids being grounded in a cavalry based culture that was very much pastoral as well as agricultural. However, it is the pastoral way of life that controlled the Sassanid Empire and the way it fought. Nevertheless, we are not at a complete loss concerning the role of infantry in the Sassanid military apparatus.
The infantry, for the most part, was not what one would think as a traditional infantryman; frankly, they resembled nothing of an infantryman. The historian Procopius, describes the Sassanid infantry as being, “nothing more than a crowd of pitiful peasants who come into battle for no other purpose than to dig through walls and despoil the slain and in general to serve the other soldiers.” As for weapons, it seems that many had none at all, for Procopius states that the only thing between them and the enemy was, “enormous shields.” However, the Sassanid military did have an infantry unit that was effective and heavy, but not great in numbers. They were known as the Dailamites.
A Sasanian army helmet. “There were several different types of army helmet worn by Sassanian soldiers. This rare helmet likely resembled the tall headdresses (kulah) depicted on Sassanian portrait seals and dates to the 6th century AD.” (Public Domain)
The Dailamites (or Daylamites) were a different breed of infantry warrior men. The Dailamites came from Northern Persia and were spoken highly about among the Romans. They were known for sword and dagger skills, but also carried a battle-axe, a two-pronged spear, and to top it all off, they also carried a rather large decorative shield. In addition, they were hardy and able to fight with the best of them—whomever or whatever was thrown their way. However, the only problem was they lacked numbers, as it seems that only four thousand were employed as the king’s elite guard.
A Daylamite mounted soldier. (Public Domain)
Foot archers were another highly prized infantry force among the Sassanid military. An officer known as a “Tribad” led foot archers. Foot archers could add to the already heavy volume of arrows being delivered by the horse archers. It was raining death on a massive scale, as the quantity of arrows would increase and come closer as the foot archers moved forward, showering the enemy with arrows. This tactic did not always work, but it seems to have been effective overall, offsetting the enemy formation on both the offensive and defensive. Nevertheless, foot archers are used for siege operations, as they were placed in the tops of towers to shower arrows down on the enemy protecting the walls and to protect the towers from any would-be saboteur.
Ardashir I was known as the Adashir the Unifier. It was his intelligence, energy, and talent for organization and strategy that enabled him to overthrow an empire and create another, forming a dynasty that would last four hundred years.
The Sasanian Empire at its greatest extent c. 632 CE (CC BY-SA 3.0)
By Cam Rea
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