By  Periklis    Deligiannis

sassanian  cavalry

sassanian cavalry 2
A reconstruction of a Sassanian medium cavalryman by Ardeshir Radpour. He bears a mail cuirass, a helmet of composite structure with mail visor adopted by the Romans as well, forearm-guard plates, light lance, a composite bow of the Sacian type (heritage from the Parthian predecessors of the Sassanids) and a cavalry sword (Image by  Ardeshir  Radpour).


The infantry (and partly cavalry) of the Qadisini and the ‘Immortals’ are also mentioned in the medieval sources (mainly Byzantine) as parts of the Sassanid army. The Qadisini were the Arabo-Aramaic people of Qadisiya (in Arabic), a Semitic region subject to the Persians in modern Western Iraq. The ‘Immortals’ (Varhranigan khvaday in Iranian) were the elite corps of the Persian army, the palace guard of the Great King, corresponding to the homonymous personal guard of the ancient Achaemenid kings of Persia. Xerxes’ ‘Immortals’ had fought against the Greeks in 480-479 BC without success. The Sassanian Empire, claiming steadily the whole Achaemenid heritage had reestablished this unit. Another unit under the direct orders of the Sassanid monarch was called ‘self-sacrificing heroes’. One of the commanders of this unit was of Byzantine origin. This possibly indicates that they were mercenaries or foreign fugitives sheltered by the Persians.

But generally speaking, the Sassanian Empire followed the Persian ‘negative tradition’ of neglecting the infantry. Like the Achaemenids and the Parthians, they did not maintain well-trained infantry. The exceptions were the aforementioned Daylamites and Immortals, and a few mountaineers, such as the Kurds and the Lurs (of Luristan). But their infantry was superior qualitatively and quantitatively comparing to the Parthian one. The bulk of the Sassanid infantry consisted of Iranian and Aramaean untrained villagers, who were mobilized and fought mainly as archers, like the Achaemenid infantry. Other infantry weapons beyond the bow were the javelines, the slings and the spears. They did not bear any kind of armor; only a few were protected by shields of moderate quality and fewer had helmets. The Sassanid infantrymen were rarely engaged in close-quarters fighting. They were normally trying to smite the opponent army from a distance, with massive shots of arrows, javelins and sling missiles, as did the infantry of the Achaemenids and the Parthians. For this reason, the Sassanian infantry was inferior to the Late Roman and Byzantine infantry which included many armored and other infantrymen well-trained in close-quarters fighting, a legacy of the classic Roman legions. This was the most important element that made the East Roman/Byzantine army in total, more powerful than the Sassanid. The excellent Persian cavalry could be addressed by the equally developed Byzantine one, but the Persian infantry could not do much against the respective Byzantine.
Considering the ‘professional’ skirmishers, the best archers and slingers of the Sassanid army were the Kurds, Lurs and the few Syrians.
The Sassanid army had an elephant corps, with elephants from India. They had turrets on their backs, manned with archers, javeliners and spearmen, according to the Hellenistic model.

Sassanid helmet by Nickmard Khoey
Helmet of the Sassanid army (photo by Nickmard Khoey)

On the organization of their army, the Sassanids and Byzantines tried to “keep up” in this also. The Persian empire was divided into provinces according to the Byzantine dioeceses (provinces), which maintained their own military forces until the reign of Khosrau I. The latter, in his attempt to weaken the local commanders and strengthen the frontier defense of the state, removed from the control of the commanders the bulk of their military forces, and gathered them into four regions which lied in the borderlands of the empire. The bulk of the army was now concentrated in these administrative regions: Mesopotamia (western boundary), Persis (Fars, southern boundary), Aria-Margiana (Khorasan, eastern boundary) and Atropatene Media (northern boundary). Heads of those regions were four military commanders who came from the close and trusted circle of Khosrau. Thus the skilled Persian king weakened even more the feudal lords.

border conflicts 387-591
The troubled Roman-Sassanid boundary during Late Antiquity, in which the Sassanid army gave some of its bloodiest battles. Note the permanently controversial area of Armenia.

On the numbers of the army, it is certain that the Sassanids maintained forces equal to those of the Byzantines for the balance of power, ie around 300,000 men during the 4th to 6th centuries AD. But this fact affected negatively the Persian kingdom, because its resources and population was smaller than those of the Byzantine empire. The recruitment of soldiers in the Sassanid state was necessarily greater in percentage, which harassed the population and the economy.
The “Strategikon” (a later Byzantine tactical manual) informs us on the discipline and the patriotism of the Persian soldiers.

Periklis    Deligiannis


(1) Procopius of Caesarea: History of the Wars, with an English translation by H.B. Dewing, London 1914-1928.
(2) Maurice: Strategikon, transl. G.T. Dennis, Philadelphia 1984.
(3) The Cambridge medieval History, Volume IV-Part 1, 2nd edition, Cambridge 1966
(4) Wiesehöfer, Josef, Ancient Persia, New York 1996
(5) Edward Thomas, Early Sassanian inscriptions, seals and coins, London 1868.