Emperor Philip the Arab will have to wait a bit. It's about time that I take a break from Rome and write instead about the Persians.
Not that I’m a specialist in Sassanian Persia, far from it; but, when writing the Chronicle of Zenobia: the rebel queen , I had to learn much more about ‘the enemy’ on the other side of the Euphrates than I ever did when I studied Classical Archaeology. Even so, I confess to having a very one-sided view: to me, the Sassanians are always the enemy of Palmyra and Rome.
There’s something wrong with seeing an entire nation and culture as an enemy -- even if the devil, in this case, is ancient Iran. It is limiting, to say the least. It also enforces a very military outlook. For example, I can write at length, about the Persian heavy-armoured cavalry (one such warrior pictured above in a rock relief from Taq-e Bustan), more generally known by their Latin name of clibanarii. I shall now tell you a bit about them, but briefly.
Eye-witnesses have left descriptions of this formidable new force, but some of the best reporting is from Heliodorus, a 3rd C novelist from Emesa in Syria, who writes :
They were clad in iron,and all parts of their bodies were covered with thin circles of iron plates fitted to the curves of their bodies, completely covering their limbs. So dexterously were the joinings made that whichever way they had to move, their garments fitted.In the 4th C, Ammianus Marcellinus accompanied the Emperor Julian [known, alas, as Julian 'the Apostate' when he would have wished to be remembered as the philosopher emperor] on his Persian expedition. Ammianus' history makes clear that Sassanian clibanarii were clad from top to toe:
All the companies clad in iron, and all parts of their bodies were covered with thick plates, so fitted that the stiff joints conformed with those of their limbs; and forms of the human faces were so skillfully fitted to their heads, that since their entire bodies were covered with metal, arrows that fell upon them could lodge only where they could see a little through tiny openings opposite the pupil of the eye, or where through the tips of their noses they were able to get a little breath.When the time for battle came, the warrior gave his equally-armoured horse the reins "and spurred him with his heels and rode upon his enemies at full tilt like a man made of iron or a statue fashioned with hammers. He carried a great lance that ran though every man it hit, and often carried away two men together pierced by one stroke.”
'Two men at one stroke' is probably poetic license, but a formation of 1,000 onrushing clibanarii must have been an awesome sight:
Daunting, to put it mildly. However, they did have an Achilles heel (so to speak). The rider sat in a low saddle with low saddle-bows that made it difficult to maintain balance. Also, unlike medieval knights, they were riding and fighting without the benefits of stirrups: note the position of the foot on this sculptured plaque of an anonymous Sassanian king:
The Persians opposed us serried bands of mail-clad horsemen in such close order that the gleam of moving bodies covered with closely fitting plates of iron dazzled the eyes of those who looked upon them
A fully armoured rider dislodged from the saddle was defeated. He couldn't rise from the ground and would lie there until an enemy trooper put him out of his misery with a knife thrust through the throat, where the helmet met the body armour.
Generals always fight the last war.
Throughout most of the third century, despite the Persian danger, the Roman army essentially remained an infantry force; the legions supported by light cavalry only and - in the east - by Syrian horse archers, also light skirmishers, probably without armour. After the destruction of the army of Alexander Severus in 232/3 AD and, again, when the young Gordian III tried to restore the situation in the east in 243/4, the Roman army still consisted mostly of foot soldiers (which is why I assume that the number of Gordian's cavalry in the Apocalypse of Elijah, cited in the previous post, is an anachronism).
The Palmyrans - but not the Romans - drew the lesson: at some point around mid-century, they began forming their own units of heavily-armoured mounted cavalry. Surely the man responsible for these developments was Odenathus, the husband of Zenobia.
Graffiti from Dura Europos give us a glimpse of what the Palmyran heavy cavalry looked like.
That's not a 'dunce's cap' he's wearing but most probably a crude rendering of a Sassanian-type helmet, looking something like the helmet on the right. His horse appears to be protected by long armour extending almost to its hooves. Specimens of iron and copper plates discovered at Dura Europos and dating to the mid-3rd C, however, are not long and extend only to the horse's belly. Perhaps these finds were not meant for clibanarii but to protect horses of the archers of the XXth Palmyrenes; or perhaps the grafitti artist got carried away. This is hardly the first time that 'art' and archaeology diverge but a close look at the (admittedly later) Taq-e Bustan horse -- at the top of the post -- does seem to show the beast covered as far as its hocks.
Between mid-century and 272 AD, when Zenobia led the Palmyran troops into battle against the Romans, the Palmyran clibanarii had become a force to be remembered. Festus, a Byzantine historian, writing in ca. 370 tells us that
[Zenobia] you see, following her husband’s death held the empire of the East under female sway. Aurelian defeated her, supported as she was by many thousands of clibanarii and archers, at Immae, not far from Antioch....Some Palmyran clibanarii even managed to survive the fall of the city itself. At the close of the 3rd century or early in the 4th, the 'Register of Dignitaries' (Notitia Dignitatum), which lists all the official posts and military units of the later divided empire, mentions a cunea equitum secundorum clibanariorum Palmirenorum.
The Romans still had need, it seems, of Eastern skills -- even when detached from their ruined homeland. By then, the Roman army had started to recruit units of clibanarii from elsewhere in the Empire and, at much the same time, begun state production of armament for the heavy armoured horsemen in Antioch and other eastern centres.
Slow starters, I would say.
Next: Why the Romans Always Seem To Get In First Licks