By  Periklis    Deligiannis

A reenactment of a Sassanian horseman by Ardeshir Radpour. Note the common elements of his helmet with the Roman helmets of the Persian group in my article ON THE HELMET TYPES OF THE LATE ROMAN CAVALRY, mainly the strong backing in the eyebrow area and the composite construction. The Romans added cheek-protectors to the original Persian type. Note also the  mail visor of this  helmet (Image by Ardeshir  Radpour).

The Sassanids or Sassanians were a Persian priestly dynasty of Fars (Pars, Persis, the cradle of the Persians) who in 224-226 AD overthrew the Arsacid  royal dynasty of the Parthians and occupied the whole Parthian Kingdom thus turning it into Sassanid Kingdom. The Sassanid Empire was stronger than the Parthian, relying on a strong and large army. In this way, the Sassanians successfully dealt with a number of powerful enemies at their borders, mainly the Kushans (Tokharians), the Romans/Byzantines and the Hunnish tribes, especially the dangerous Ephthalites. The empire was maintained until the early 7th century, when a suicidal war of King Khosroes II against the Byzantines brought its exhaustion. Thereby when the armies of Islam appeared on the western border of the Sassanid Kingdom, its exhausted and dwindling army was almost unable to repel the invaders. By 649 AD, the whole Sassanid territory except the small Daylami country, was conquered by the Arabs and the last Sassanid prince took refuge in China of the Tang Dynasty. There the renowned Persian dynasty faded away from home. Later the Daylami people became Muslim as well.
Like their predecessors the Parthians, the Sassanid Persians relied heavily on cavalry. However they did not commit the same error as the first who ‘annihilated’ the role of the infantry. Generally, their army was more aggressive and more effective comparing to the Parthian.

sassanid empire

The spearhead of the Sassanid army was its heavy cavalry (asavaran), manned by enlisted senior landowners and secondarily by the lower nobility of the provinces (dekhan). It was required from those serving in this heavy cavalry, to be equipped on their own expenses and to campaign together with their vassals. They were mostly cataphract cavalry known as clibanarii ; as the Romans called them together with the term cataphractarii. However, the term clibanarius is of Iranian origin which passed to the Romans. The armor of themselves and their horses consisted of plates, scales, mail or reinforced fabric. The excellent Iranian horses were strong enough to withstand the weight of the total armor (including the armor of the rider). The main offensive weapon of a clibanarius was his long cavalry lance, called kontos by the Sarmatian relatives of the Persians (hence the Byzantine Greek term kontarion). Alternative weapons were the long sword, the bow and the mace. Every Sassanian feudal lord had to provide in the army a fixed number of cavalrymen and horsemen from his feud (fief). His heir, if he wanted to maintain the ancestral feud, he had to serve himself and his vassals in the cavalry. The Sassanid king Khosroes I (Khosrau I) in order to limit the power of the large landowners who were threatening his domination, abolished the old system and gave the main role in the heavy cavalry to the dekhan (the lesser aristocrats). Henceforth, they were enlisted separately from the feudal lords and were paid for their military service. Thus Khosrau managed to significantly enhance the Sassanian army, which by then was passing a phase of decline.


In 260 AD, the Sassanid army achieved near Edessa a major victory on the legions, capturing the Roman emperor Valerian and 70,000 of his soldiers (although this number is inflated). The Sassanid king Shapur settled these prisoners in Elymais (Elam) and Susiane (modern Huzistan). Nothing is known about the fate of Valerian, who probably died in captivity. What remains is the figure of the captive emperor who bows to Shapur, as depicted in the gigantic reliefs on the rocky slopes of Fars, which were made in honor of the military successes of the Sassanid king.

The light and medium cavalry consisted mainly of horse-archers and secondarily of spear-bearers or javelin-bearers and others. In terms of numbers, ten light and medium horsemen were corresponding to each cataphract (clibanarius). Their horses were not armored, although some horse-archers fought on armored horses, in analogy with the corresponding unit of the Roman/Byzantine cavalry (Equites Sagittarii Clibanarii). Apart from the Iranians, the light and medium cavalry included large groups of allied and mercenary cavalrymen and horsemen from different nations inside and around the Sassanid borders: Arabs, Huns, Hirans, Armenians, Caucasian Albanians and others. It also included North Iranian nomads who were the last descendants of the ancient Saka (Sacae) and Massagetae. Many Arabs were members of the Lakhmid tribe who lived to the west of Mesopotamia (in present-day Western Iraq). The Sassanians were using their Lakhmid allies as a counterweight to the neighboring Gassanid Arabs of Syria who were allies of the Byzantines. The Hunnish mercenaries were coming from the tribes of the Ephthalites, Sabirs and Khionites. The Albanians were a Kartvelian-speaking people who lived roughly in modern Azerbaijan. The Lazians and the Iberians (living in modern Georgia) belonged to the same Kartvelian ethno-linguistic group.

A modern representation of a Sassanid cataphract (Source: Wikipedia).

Considering the imperial infantry, I have to note especially the warlike Daylami soldiers as an elite force. The Daylami were an Iranianized indigenous people (of Pre-iranian origins) who lived in the mountains south of the Caspian Sea and formed an elite infantry at the service of the Sassanids. Later they became the bodyguards of the Sassanid king substituting the “Immortals” (see Part II). After the conquest of Iran by the Arabs, the Daylami played an important role in the Middle East and India, constantly supplying men for the armies of Islam, and ultimately dynasties for the Muslim states of these regions.

Periklis    Deligiannis