Wednesday, January 6, 2021

Sasanian military organization

 When Ardashir I (r. 224-241 CE) founded the Sasanian Empire, he created 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 armor and siege warfare techniques. 

Organizationally, the Shahanshah (the King of Kings) served as the head of the military and there were four military commanders under his authority. Initially, the offices of the Great King of Armenia, King of Meshan, King of Gilan, and King of Sakastan fulfilled these roles. After the reforms of Khosrow I, there were four spahbeds (Army Commanders), each for a cardinal direction.

In the character of their warfare, the Persians of the Sasanian period differed greatly, though, from their forebears under the Achaemenid kings. The war chariot was no longer used, the  elephant corps was advanced to a very prominent and important position, and cavalry on the Parthian model, including both heavy cataphracts and horse-archers became pre-eminent. Therefore, the strategic components became the elephants, the horse, the archers, and the ordinary footmen.

The Sasanian army employed foreign mercenary troops from many different regions. The most frequently used types of mercenaries were Kurdish mercenaries from the northern boundary of the Zagros, who begin to appear in 6th-century sources, tribal people from Gilan and Daylam, Caucasian Albanians (regarded as elite soldiers equal to Huns in the 4th-century), and Sakastanis.

The Parthian Azadan nobility continued to serve the Sasanian state, forming a minor aristocracy of lower-ranking administrators, mostly living on their small estates and providing the cavalry backbone of the Sasanian army. Most prestigious among them were the armored Asvaran, sometimes referred to as Savaran, who were the forerunners of  the later Arabian Faris, the Caucasian horsemen, the Indian Sowar (derived from Persian Savar), and the Turkish Tarkhans.

During the early Sasanian period, these fiercesome warriors battled forces of the Roman emperors Valerian, Galerius, and Julian and later the forces of the Byzantine emperors Justin I and II and Justinian directed by his famous general Belisarius.

Sasanian helmet, 4th century CE at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Surviving examples of Sasanian armor are extremely rare, particularly in such stunning condition as this helmet. It consists of a bronze band forming a rim and supporting two arched bands that cross over the top. Between these arched bands there are triangular plates of iron that are overlaid with sheets of silver worked in scale patterns. Sasanian silversmiths were renowned for their craftsmanship.

Iranian Bronze Silver and Iron Helmet 225 to 650 CE that I photographed at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art in Los Angeles, California

Reconstruction of a Sasanian cataphract in Oxford courtesy of Wikimedia Commons contributor John Tremelling

Remnants of a Sasanian gold sword with two-point suspension, 600-650 CE at the Sackler Gallery of Asian Art at the Smithsonian in Washington D.C. courtesy of Wikimedia Commons contributor Quadell.

Sasanian silver plate depicting an equestrian single combat scene at the Azerbaijan Museum in Tabriz, Iran courtesy of Wikimedia Commons contributor Alborz Fallah.  Some scholars think this plate, although in the style of Sasanian plates usually featuring hunt scenes, was likely  manufactured in the late 1920s or 1930s when Iranian national awareness was enhanced by modern archaeological research.

Shahnameh illustration of the Sasanian general Sukhra fighting the Hephthalites (484 CE) attributed to Bashdan Qara ca. 1530-35, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons contributor Abu'l Qasim Firdausi.

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