06 September 2007

Sassanian Stuff

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:

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

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:

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


  1. Dear Judith,

    I hope you'll like this Sassanain stuff we put on line some years ago:


  2. Thanks Chuck.

    I do know the wonderful images that the OI Persepolis project have on line -- and will soon be making use of them as I continue with Sassanian Stuff (II, III, IV -- as is my wont).

    I'm glad to see that you, too, retain the double ss in Sassanian. I don't like 'Sasanian', though it is admittedly becoming the favoured usage. It's just somehow more elegant, the old way :-)


  3. The double s is from the French pronunciation of Sasanian. In English to pronounce the word correctly only one s is used. Elegance has nothing to do with it.

    So how you spell Sasanian depends on which language you are writing in.

  4. Thank you hiker,

    Merci bien. J'ingnorais que le double ss vienne de la langue fran├žaise.

    It is also generally used in English in older texts. Even now, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, where I was yesterday, retains this spelling.

    While you may well be right and 'elegance has nothing to do with it', there is a 'clean-up' effort in archaeology to remove doublings taken from other scripts; for example, from Greek on Crete: 'Knosos' instead of Knossos, and 'Malia' instead of Mallia.

    I think that just looks ugly and makes an unnecessary break with the past ... and we are historians!


  5. To follow the past blindly is to invite disaster.

    The first works on the Sasanians were published in French. The French spelling was followed blindly until English tranliterations of the original Sasanian text were made. This French are still followed blindly in regards to how to spell Sasanian by a lot of places that should know better. Tradition I guess. But Tradition is not always right.

  6. Anonymous24/3/09 17:56

    "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."

    I respectfully beg to differ ma'am, tests and reconstruction shows that people in full armour can run, jump, do cart wheels, etc. it does not encumber and it is not super heavy and clumsy

  7. Anonymous,

    Interesting. Could you give some references to those reconstructions, preferably on-line?

  8. http://www.myarmoury.com/talk/spotlight.php

    Be sure to read armour weights, armour effectiveness in real life

    More to come soon

  9. http://www.thearma.org/essays.htm

  10. http://www.myarmoury.com/talk/viewtopic.php?t=12751&highlight=late+roman+military

  11. I have also met people who have worn full plate and who know people who have performed carthweels, handstands etc,

    These people would have also been accomplished martial artists

  12. Thanks for those links Wraithlord,

    This is all new to me and will take some time to consider and to check other sources, too. I will get back to you via the comments or an update.

    Perhaps other readers will have their own ideas first. Always welcome!

  13. Your welcome :) BTW thank you for considering my posts with an open mind :D

    BTW I have added your blog to those I'm following :)

  14. BTW, could you clarify that the "sticking two men with one lance" bit is from Heliodoros, not Ammianus? Seems like somebody copy-pasted text from your blog here: http://awraithsmusings.blogspot.com/2009/03/ramblings-on-cataphract-cavalry.html and got your meaning wrong, attributing the Heliodoros part to Ammianus as well and making it sound more reliable than it really is.

  15. It is indeed Heliodorus and not Ammianus who has the enemy skewered "two or more" on the lance.

    But I would not discount Heliodorus' testimony even though he is writing fiction rather than history. He was, after all, from Emesa so -- although it's not certain that he lived ca. 250 AD
    (mid-to late 4th C is also possible)-- this might be a real report of what he or others had actually seen when the Persians invaded Syria in the mid-3rd C.

  16. Regardless of how accurate Heliodoros might be, though, I would be very, very reluctant to put him the same league as Ammianus, and right now I also happen to be researching the links between the specific passage in question and earlier descriptions of cataphract lances (Plutarch, etc.). You know, classicizing references and all that stuff.

  17. I wouldn't put the two in the same category either. My point was that, in this case, Heliodorus might well be accurately describing something he either saw himself or knew someone who had seen it.

    For your research, with all classical and later references: M. Mielczarek, Cataphracti and Clibanarii, Lotz, 1993.

    One question Mielczarek doesn't consider (and no one does, afaik) is how the rider could balance himself and the long lance and pierce anything without stirrups.

  18. Anonymous25/3/11 19:13

    Hello and thank you for the note. I wanted to let you know that I do a little bit of Sasanian history and also suggest the webpage:

    touraj daryaee

  19. Very interesting. I have an abiding interest in the Sasanian military, and have had a series on the Sasanian army published in Slingshot, the magazine of the Society of Ancients. Especially interested in why you have identified the cataphract graffiti as being possibly Palmyran? Thanks for an interesting page.

  20. Doug, the graffito shows what a heavily-armoured Palmyran cavalryman would have looked like but it is not certain whether he is Palmyran or Sasanian (or even Parthian). As I said, iron and copper plates were discovered at Dura which supports the literary evidence for Palmyran clibanarii. I imagine that they would have been equipped in the same way as their enemies across the frontier. So, was the graffiti-artist drawing the city's defenders or attackers?

  21. Hi Judith, thanks again, and what an interesting period! Rome withdraws and the Palmyrans effectively become the buffer state.
    Personally, I think it (the Graffito) depicts what a heavily armoured 'Eastern Style' or Iranian cavalryman would have looked like. Interestingly, it looks different from the Parthian predecessor, the Saka/Parthian would have looked like this but with a high armoured collar. So it would be Palmyran or Sasanian. The helmet also looks like a later type, much more the high Spangenhelm which has been identified as a Sasanian style. Personally, I think this is more likely to be a Sasanian model, which would be slightly different to (what I visualise) as the Palmyran. For an example, have a look at the (admittedly much later) Sasanian sigillipharic evidence, http://www.iranian.com/main/albums/sp-hbeds

    Anyway. Much enjoyed.



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