Sassanid army
The birth of the Sassanid army ( Artesh-e Sāsānīyān, Pahlavi Spâh سپاه, "army") dates back to the rise of Ardashir I
Ardashir I
Ardashir I was the founder of the Sassanid Empire, was ruler of Istakhr , subsequently Fars Province , and finally "King of Kings of Sassanid Empire " with the overthrow of the Parthian Empire...

 (r. 226–241), the founder of the Sassanid dynasty, to the throne. Ardashir aimed at the revival of the Persian Empire, and to further this aim, he reformed the military by forming a standing army which was under his personal command and whose officers were separate from satrap
Satrap was the name given to the governors of the provinces of the ancient Median and Achaemenid Empires and in several of their successors, such as the Sassanid Empire and the Hellenistic empires....

s, local princes and nobility. He restored the Achaemenid military organizations, retained the Parthia
Parthia is a region of north-eastern Iran, best known for having been the political and cultural base of the Arsacid dynasty, rulers of the Parthian Empire....

n cavalry model, and employed new types of armour and siege warfare techniques. This was the beginning for a military system which served him and his successors for over 400 years, during which the Sassanid Empire was, along with the Roman Empire
Roman Empire
The Roman Empire was the post-Republican period of the ancient Roman civilization, characterised by an autocratic form of government and large territorial holdings in Europe and around the Mediterranean....

 and later the East Roman Empire, one of the two superpowers of Late Antiquity
Late Antiquity
Late Antiquity is a periodization used by historians to describe the time of transition from Classical Antiquity to the Middle Ages, in both mainland Europe and the Mediterranean world. Precise boundaries for the period are a matter of debate, but noted historian of the period Peter Brown proposed...

 in Western Eurasia
Eurasia is a continent or supercontinent comprising the traditional continents of Europe and Asia ; covering about 52,990,000 km2 or about 10.6% of the Earth's surface located primarily in the eastern and northern hemispheres...

. The Sassanid army protected Eranshahr
Iran , officially the Islamic Republic of Iran , is a country in Southern and Western Asia. The name "Iran" has been in use natively since the Sassanian era and came into use internationally in 1935, before which the country was known to the Western world as Persia...

("the realm of Iran") from the East against the incursions of central Asia
Central Asia
Central Asia is a core region of the Asian continent from the Caspian Sea in the west, China in the east, Afghanistan in the south, and Russia in the north...

tic nomads like the Hephthalites, Turks
Turkic peoples
The Turkic peoples are peoples residing in northern, central and western Asia, southern Siberia and northwestern China and parts of eastern Europe. They speak languages belonging to the Turkic language family. They share, to varying degrees, certain cultural traits and historical backgrounds...

, while in the west it was engaged in a recurrent struggle against the Roman Empire.


In the character of their warfare, the Persians of the Sassanid period differed greatly from their forebears under the Achaemenid kings. The principal changes which time had brought about were an almost entire disuse of the war chariot, the advance of the elephant corps into a very prominent and important position, and the increased use and pre-eminence of cavalry on the Parthian model, including both heavy cataphract
A cataphract was a form of armored heavy cavalry utilised in ancient warfare by a number of peoples in Western Eurasia and the Eurasian Steppe....

s and horse-archers. Four main arms of the service were recognized, each standing on a
different level: the elephants, the horse, the archers, and the ordinary footmen.


In Pahlavi language, smaller divisions of the spāh were referred to as vasht and larger divisions were designated as gond. Interestingly, the Arabic
Arabic language
Arabic is a name applied to the descendants of the Classical Arabic language of the 6th century AD, used most prominently in the Quran, the Islamic Holy Book...

 word jond , meaning "army", is derived from the latter.


  • Erān Spahbod: Commander-in chief.
  • Spahbod
    Spahbod or Spahbed , is derived from the words Spah and bod ; or "Aspah'Paeity" , and means commander of cavaliers/ knights; alternatively Spah Salar was a rank used in the Parthian empire and more widely in the Sassanid Empire of Persia...

    : Field general.
  • Pādgospān or Padouspān (Modern Persian: پادوسبان): Commander of each of the four provincial divisions devised during the reign of Khosrau I
    Khosrau I
    Khosrau I , also known as Anushiravan the Just or Anushirawan the Just Khosrau I (also called Chosroes I in classical sources, most commonly known in Persian as Anushirvan or Anushirwan, Persian: انوشيروان meaning the immortal soul), also known as Anushiravan the Just or Anushirawan the Just...

  • Marzbān
    Marzban were a class of margraves or military commanders in charge of border provinces of the Sassanid Empire of Persia between the 3rd and 7th centuries CE....

    or Kanārang
    The kanārang was a unique title in the Sassanid army, given to the commander of the Sassanid Empire's northeasternmost frontier province, Abarshahr...

    : Equivalent to Margrave
    A margrave or margravine was a medieval hereditary nobleman with military responsibilities in a border province of a kingdom. Border provinces usually had more exposure to military incursions from the outside, compared to interior provinces, and thus a margrave usually had larger and more active...

     or commander of the border guards; according to Procopius
    Procopius of Caesarea was a prominent Byzantine scholar from Palestine. Accompanying the general Belisarius in the wars of the Emperor Justinian I, he became the principal historian of the 6th century, writing the Wars of Justinian, the Buildings of Justinian and the celebrated Secret History...

    , it had been equivalent in rank to the East Roman
    Byzantine usually refers to the Roman Empire during the Middle Ages.Byzantine may also refer to:* A citizen of the Byzantine Empire, or native Greek during the Middle Ages...

    Strategos, plural strategoi, is used in Greek to mean "general". In the Hellenistic and Byzantine Empires the term was also used to describe a military governor...

    or magister militum
    Magister militum
    Magister militum was a top-level military command used in the later Roman Empire, dating from the reign of Constantine. Used alone, the term referred to the senior military officer of the Empire...

  • Poshtikbān Sālār: Head of the royal guard.
  • Erān anbāraghbad: Senior rank responsible for army supplies.
  • Stor Bezashk
    Stor Bezashk
    Stor-bezashk were veterinarians within the Sassanid Persian army whose purpose was to ensure the safety and health of the steeds before battles. It was these men would care for the horses feeding them and grooming them...

    : Senior vet who looked after the cavalry elite's mounts.
  • Argbadh
    Argbadh were a class of military commanders in charge of castles and fortresses of the Sassanid Empire of Persia between 3rd and 7th centuries CE....

    : Castellan
    A castellan was the governor or captain of a castle. The word stems from the Latin Castellanus, derived from castellum "castle". Also known as a constable.-Duties:...

    , commander of a castle
    A castle is a type of fortified structure built in Europe and the Middle East during the Middle Ages by European nobility. Scholars debate the scope of the word castle, but usually consider it to be the private fortified residence of a lord or noble...

     or fort.
  • Pāyygān Sālār
    Pāyygān Sālār
    Pāyygān Sālār were commanders of infantry units within the Sassanid armies.The Pāyygān Sālār were very respected and trustworthy men,they would be guarded by the elite Dailamites.- Sources :*Sassanian Elite Cavalry AD 224-642*History Magazine*Historiae...

    : Chief of an infantry division.
  • Savārān Sardār: Head of a cavalry division.
  • Gond Sālār: Commander of a gond division.


The backbone of the Spâh in the Sassanid era was its heavy armoured cavalry, known since Classical antiquity
Classical antiquity
Classical antiquity is a broad term for a long period of cultural history centered on the Mediterranean Sea, comprising the interlocking civilizations of ancient Greece and ancient Rome, collectively known as the Greco-Roman world...

 in the west as: Cataphract
A cataphract was a form of armored heavy cavalry utilised in ancient warfare by a number of peoples in Western Eurasia and the Eurasian Steppe....

s. This was made up of noblemen who underwent extensive exercises in warfare and military manoeuvres through military training, gaining discipline and becoming true soldiers. Within the Sassanid military, the cavalry was the most influential element, and Sassanid cavalry tactics
Cavalry tactics
For much of history , humans have used some form of cavalry for war. Cavalry tactics have evolved over time...

 were adopted by the Romans, Arabs, and Turks. Their weaponry, battle tactics, tamgas, medallions, court customs, and costumes greatly influenced their Romano-Byzantine neighbours. The Romans had long contended against opponents who fielded heavy cavalry, notably the Sarmatians
The Iron Age Sarmatians were an Iranian people in Classical Antiquity, flourishing from about the 5th century BC to the 4th century AD....

 and the Parthia
Parthia is a region of north-eastern Iran, best known for having been the political and cultural base of the Arsacid dynasty, rulers of the Parthian Empire....

ns, and the recurrent wars with the Sassanids were an important factor in the Roman turn to new military organizations and battlefield tactics that centered around the use of heavy cavalry in the 3rd and 4th centuries. The Romans called these newly formed units clibanarii
The Clibanarii or Klibanophoroi were a Sassanid Persian, late Roman and Byzantine military unit of heavy armored horsemen. Similar to the cataphracti, the horsemen themselves and their horses were fully armoured...

; It is said that the word clibanarii is derived from Persian word grivpanvar
The Grivpanvar , were an elite late Parthian and Sassanian division who fought as heavy knights or Cataphract cavalry. According to Roman sources, the Grivpanvar had the ability to impale two men on the long, heavy spears that they carried...

or griva-pana-vara meaning neck-guard wearer. Another, more direct and often quoted, etymology is the Greek word ho klibanos, which refers to a covered pot in which bread was baked or a small oven; perhaps a joking reference to the one-piece mask helmets they wore. The Roman term appears for the first time in the vita Alexandri Severi (56.5) in the Historia Augusta, a work from the very end of the 4th century A.D.

Shapur II
Shapur II
Shapur II the Great was the ninth King of the Persian Sassanid Empire from 309 to 379 and son of Hormizd II. During his long reign, the Sassanid Empire saw its first golden era since the reign of Shapur I...

 (r. 309-379) further reformed the army by adopting heavier and more effective cavalry. These mounted units were clad in thick iron plates which covered their entire body. This made them look very much like moving iron statues. Some were armed with a lance and some with a sword and/or mace. Depictions of aforementioned cavalry still survive, with one of the best preserved ones being a rock relief at Taq-e Bostan
Taq-e Bostan
Taqwasân or Taq-e Bostan or Taq-i-Bustan is a series of large rock relief from the era of Sassanid Empire of Persia, the Iranian dynasty which ruled western Asia from 226 to 650 AD. This example of Sassanid art is located 5 km from the city center of Kermanshah in western Iran...

 where Khosrau II
Khosrau II
250px|thumb|Khosrau II 250px|thumb|Khosrau II 250px|thumb|Khosrau II (Khosrow II, Chosroes II, or Xosrov II in classical sources, sometimes called Parvez, "the Ever Victorious" – (in Persian: خسرو پرویز), was the twenty-second Sassanid King of Persia, reigning from 590 to 628...

 is seen riding his favourite horse, Shabdiz
Shabdiz was the legendary black stallion of Khosrau Parvez, one of the most famed Sassanid Persian kings . Shabdiz, meaning "midnight", was reputedly the "world's fastest horse" according to ancient Persian literature...


The fighting equipment of the heavily armed Sassanid horsemen were:
  • Clibanarii/Cataphract cavalry: helmet, hauberk (Pahlavi griwban), breastplate, mail, gauntlet (Pahlavi abdast), girdle, thigh-guards (Pahlavi ran-ban) sword, mace, bowcase with two bows and two bowstrings, quiver with 30 arrows, two extra bowstrings, and horse armour (zen-abzar).

The heavy cavalry was complemented by lighter cavalry, which were not made up of Sassanids, but were recruited from among their allies and supplemented by mercenary troops. Gelani (Guilani), Albani
Albani (people)
Albani was the Latin name in the Roman Republic for the inhabitants of Alba Longa, southeast of Rome.-Origins:According to legend, Ascanius, son of Trojan War hero Aeneas, founded the Albani tribe when he settled Alba Longa around 1152 BC. Literary sources suggest the city’s name is derived from...

, Hephthalite
The Hephthalites or Hephthalite is a pre-Islamic Greek term for local Abdali Afghans, who's famous ruler was Nazak Abdali . Hephthalites were a Central Asian nomadic confederation of the AD 5th-6th centuries whose precise origins and composition remain obscure...

s, Kushans and the Khazars were the main suppliers of this light- to medium-armoured cavalry. They were an essential part of the Spâh because of their endurance and speed on the battlefield.

It is possible that the mainly light cavalry were intended for the battles with the central Asiatic tribes, while the more heavy cavalry were used in encounters with rome.

In short, there were the following classes of mobile cavalry troops:
  • Persian immortal guard
    Persian Immortals
    The "Immortals" was the name given by Herodotus to an elite force of soldiers who fought for the Achaemenid Empire. This force performed the dual roles of both Imperial Guard and standing army during the Persian Empire's expansion and during the Greco-Persian Wars...

    Zhayedan were an elite unit within the Sassanian army; they numbered at 10,000. They are possibly an orientation to the former Immortals who served the rulers of the Achaemenid Empire and it is possible that they wore the same clothing as their predecessor. These warriors bore some of the finest...

  • Azadan nobility Savaran: elite cavalry also described as the Persian knightly caste (see below)
  • War elephants
  • Light cavalry: primarily horse-archers
  • Medium cavalry: Medium-armoured cavalry armed with lance and shield
  • Cataphract /Clibanarii cavalry: Heavy shock cavalry armed with lances, swords and maces (also known as Savārān cavalry
    Savaran cavalry
    The Savārān cavalry were Persian military units and were a division of cavalry during the time of the Sassanid Persian dynasty; they ranged from light cavalry such as horse archers to heavy cavalry such as Cataphracts. Each Savārān unit would have had its own Drafsh...


War elephants

Both types of cavalry units were supported by war elephant
War elephant
A war elephant was an elephant trained and guided by humans for combat. Their main use was to charge the enemy, trampling them and breaking their ranks. A division of war elephants is known as elephantry....

s and foot archers
Archery is the art, practice, or skill of propelling arrows with the use of a bow, from Latin arcus. Archery has historically been used for hunting and combat; in modern times, however, its main use is that of a recreational activity...

 who showered the enemy with storms of arrows. The elephant corps held the first position. It was recruited from India
Indian subcontinent
The Indian subcontinent, also Indian Subcontinent, Indo-Pak Subcontinent or South Asian Subcontinent is a region of the Asian continent on the Indian tectonic plate from the Hindu Kush or Hindu Koh, Himalayas and including the Kuen Lun and Karakoram ranges, forming a land mass which extends...

, but was at no time very numerous. Great store was set by it; and in some of the earlier battles against the Arabs the victory was regarded as gained mainly by this arm of the service. It acted with best effect in an open and level district; but the value put upon it was such that, however rough, mountainous, and woody the country into which the Persian arms penetrated, the elephant always accompanied the march of the Persian troops, and care was taken to make roads by which it could travel. The elephant corps was under a special chief, known as the Zend−hapet, or "Commander of the Indians," either because the beasts came from that country, or because they were managed by natives of Hindustan
Hindustan or Indostan, literal translation "Land of River Sindhu ", is one of the popular names of South Asia. It can also mean "the land of the Hindus"...

. These giant beasts acted as walking towers on battlefields and caused panic and disorder in enemy ranks, creating openings in the lines that cavalry could take advantage of.


The infantry were mostly lightly armed spearmen, who, like their Achaemenid ancestors, were usually levied troops of little fighting ability. Procopius of Caesarea famously derided them as "a crowd of pitiable peasants who come into battle for no other purpose than to dig through walls and to despoil the slain and in general to serve the soldiers [i.e. the cavalrymen]". In some battles however, heavy infantry was deployed. These were well-paid, heavily armoured infantry (carrying sword and javelin) . The Daylam  provinces of the empire in particular were famous for providing high-quality foot soldiers.

The archers formed the elite of the Persian infantry. They were trained to deliver their arrows with extreme rapidity, and with an aim that was almost unerring. The huge wattled shields, adopted by the Achaemenid Persians from the Assyrians
Assyrian people
The Assyrian people are a distinct ethnic group whose origins lie in ancient Mesopotamia...

 (called spara by the Achaemenids), still remained in use; and from behind a row of these, rested upon the ground and forming a sort of loop−holed wall, the Sassanid bowmen shot their weapons with great effect; nor was it until their store of arrows was exhausted that the Romans, ordinarily, felt themselves upon even terms with their enemy. Sometimes the archers, instead of thus fighting in line, were intermixed with the heavy horse, with which it was not difficult for them to keep pace. They galled the foe with their constant discharges from between the ranks of the horsemen, remaining themselves in comparative security, as the legions rarely ventured to charge the Persian mailed cavalry. If they were forced to retreat, they still shot backwards as they fled; and it was a proverbial saying with the Romans that they were then especially formidable. Infantry was divided into the following types:
  • Daylami: mercenary heavy infantry
  • Dailamites
    The Daylamites or Dailamites were an Iranian people inhabiting the mountainous regions of northern Iran on the southern shore of the Caspian Sea. They were employed as soldiers from the time of the Sassanid Empire, and long resisted the Arab conquest of Iran and subsequent Islamization...

    elite infantry
  • Paighan
    The Paighan were a militia light infantry unit within the Sassanid army and formed the bulk of its infantry force. The Paighan were sometimes referred to as being used as "meat shields".-Recruitment:...

    : levy infantry armed with spears and large shields
  • Kamandaran: foot archers
  • Light ranged troops, such as Kurd
    Kürd or Kyurd or Kyurt may refer to:*Kürd Eldarbəyli, Azerbaijan*Kürd Mahrızlı, Azerbaijan*Kürd, Goychay, Azerbaijan*Kürd, Jalilabad, Azerbaijan*Kürd, Qabala, Azerbaijan*Qurdbayram, Azerbaijan...

    ish javelin
    A Javelin is a light spear intended for throwing. It is commonly known from the modern athletic discipline, the Javelin throw.Javelin may also refer to:-Aviation:* ATG Javelin, an American-Israeli civil jet aircraft, under development...


Siege weapons

The Sassanids (unlike the Parthians) had organized and efficient methods of siege warfare for conquering walled towns. Many methods were learned from the Romans, but soon the Sassanids came to match them not only in the use of offensive siege engines such as scorpion
Scorpio (dart-thrower)
The scorpio or scorpion was type of Roman artillery piece. Also known by the name of the triggerfish, it was described in detail by Vitruvius...

s, ballista
The ballista , plural ballistae, was an ancient missile weapon which launched a large projectile at a distant target....

e, battering ram
Battering ram
A battering ram is a siege engine originating in ancient times and designed to break open the masonry walls of fortifications or splinter their wooden gates...

s, but also in the use of excellent defensive tactics for their fortifications, such as methods for using and countering catapults, for throwing stones or pouring boiling liquid on the attackers or by hurling fire brands and blazing missiles.
Tabari reports that the main reason behind the victory of Vahriz
Vahriz was a Deylamite spahbod in the service of the Sassanid Empire. He was the head of a small expeditionary force of low ranking Azatan nobility, numbering around 700, sent by Khosrau I to Yemen....

 over the Axumite army in Yemen
The Republic of Yemen , commonly known as Yemen , is a country located in the Middle East, occupying the southwestern to southern end of the Arabian Peninsula. It is bordered by Saudi Arabia to the north, the Red Sea to the west, and Oman to the east....

 has been the use of panjigan (probably a ballista equipped with heavy darts) against the Axumite forces who had not encountered such a military contraption in the past.
  • Scorpion
    Scorpio (dart-thrower)
    The scorpio or scorpion was type of Roman artillery piece. Also known by the name of the triggerfish, it was described in detail by Vitruvius...

    (Pahlavi panjigān or çarx : a ballista equipped with heavy darts)
  • Ballista
    The ballista , plural ballistae, was an ancient missile weapon which launched a large projectile at a distant target....

  • Battering ram
  • Onager (siege weapon)
    Onager (siege weapon)
    The onager was a Roman siege engine, which derived its name from the kicking action of the machine, similar to that of an onager , it was created as a simpler, cheaper version of the ballista. The Onager is a type of catapult that uses torsional pressure, generally from twisted rope, to store...

    (Pahlavi koshkanjir or mangenik derived from Greek mēkhanikos)

Azadan nobility

This class of nobility was first formed in Parthian times, and was carried over into the Sassanid state, where they were a force to be reckoned with. They accompanied the king in the wars and displayed great courage and discipline. They are clearly the forerunners and founders of the "Knights" of later Arab history. The Aztan (Azadan, آزادان, "freemen") jealously guarded their status as descendants of the ancient Aryan
Aryan is an English language loanword derived from Sanskrit ārya and denoting variously*In scholarly usage:**Indo-Iranian languages *in dated usage:**the Indo-European languages more generally and their speakers...

 conquerors and rulers of the mass of originally non-Aryan peasantry. These Azatan formed a numerous minor aristocracy of lower-ranking administrators, mostly living on their small estates and providing the cavalry backbone of Sassanid army. Most prestigious among them were the armoured "Asvaran" اسوران who normally decided the outcome of a battle.

Despite their downfall in the 7th century AD, the legacy of the Savaran endured in the Caucasus, India and the Muslim world. It was the elite cavalry of Sassanid Persia, who were the forerunners of the later Arabian Faris, the Caucasian horsemen, the Indian Suwar (derived from Persian Savar), and the Turkish Tarkhans.

In point of fact, certain of the later Muslim heavy cavalry, such as the Mamluks, were possibly the descendants of the clibanarii cavalry, as they used similar weapons and tactics.

The amount of money involved in maintaining a warrior of the Asavaran (Azatan) knightly caste required a small estate, and the Asavaran knightly caste received that from the throne, and in return, were the throne's most notable defenders in time of war.

See also

  • Spahbod
    Spahbod or Spahbed , is derived from the words Spah and bod ; or "Aspah'Paeity" , and means commander of cavaliers/ knights; alternatively Spah Salar was a rank used in the Parthian empire and more widely in the Sassanid Empire of Persia...

  • Byzantine army
    Byzantine army
    The Byzantine army was the primary military body of the Byzantine armed forces, serving alongside the Byzantine navy. A direct descendant of the Roman army, the Byzantine army maintained a similar level of discipline, strategic prowess and organization...

  • Late Roman army
    Late Roman army
    The Late Roman army is the term used to denote the military forces of the Roman Empire from the accession of Emperor Diocletian in 284 until the Empire's definitive division into Eastern and Western halves in 395. A few decades afterwards, the Western army disintegrated as the Western empire...

  • Roman-Persian Wars
    Roman-Persian Wars
    The Roman–Persian Wars were a series of conflicts between states of the Greco-Roman world and two successive Iranic empires: the Parthian and the Sassanid. Contact between the Parthian Empire and the Roman Republic began in 92 BC; wars began under the late Republic, and continued...

  • Derbent
    Derbent |Lak]]: Чурул, Churul; Persian: دربند; Judæo-Tat: דארבּאנד/Дэрбэнд/Dərbənd) is a city in the Republic of Dagestan, Russia, close to the Azerbaijani border. It is the southernmost city in Russia, and it is the second most important city of Dagestan...

    , one of surviving Sassanid fortress
  • Persian war elephants
    Persian war elephants
    Persians used war elephants at the Battle of Gaugamela in 331 BC. The battle raged between king Alexander the Great of Macedon and king Darius III of Persia...

  • Cataphract
    A cataphract was a form of armored heavy cavalry utilised in ancient warfare by a number of peoples in Western Eurasia and the Eurasian Steppe....

  • Savārān cavalry
    Savaran cavalry
    The Savārān cavalry were Persian military units and were a division of cavalry during the time of the Sassanid Persian dynasty; they ranged from light cavalry such as horse archers to heavy cavalry such as Cataphracts. Each Savārān unit would have had its own Drafsh...

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