Arsacid Army

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Arsacid Army

Originally a Scythian group from Central Asia, the Arsacids,
known in the Greek and Roman accounts as the Parthians, founded a powerful
empire that at its zenith ruled a vast territory stretching from Central Asia
to Syria and from Armenia to the Persian Gulf. The armies of the Arsacid
(Parthian) Empire (r. 247/238 BCE–224 CE) were some of the most accomplished,
efficient, and feared of all military forces of antiquity. Raised from a young
age to the arts of horsemanship and archery, Parthian soldiers enjoyed a
reputation that still echoes today in the modern Persian term pahlavan, meaning
“champion” or “warrior” (Shahbazi: “Army I”). Parthian military tactics and
sharpshooting are renowned in military history. Because of the geographical
location of their empire, the Parthians were forced to fight frequently against
various nomadic groups invading from Central Asia as well as against Roman
legions attacking through Armenia or Mesopotamia. To neutralize these threats
to the security of their empire, the Parthians were forced to develop a highly
flexible and elastic military force that could employ exceptional mobility and

Our information about the Arsacid army is extremely scanty.
We do not know the exact size, internal organization, and social composition of
Arsacid armies. Lack of adequate sources has forced scholars to rely almost
exclusively on Roman and Greek accounts, which are characterized by hostility
and disdain toward these eastern neighbors of Rome, denouncing the Arsacids as
treacherous and arrogant barbarians with strange and repugnant customs and
practices. This negative image was manufactured and promoted by the Romans, who
were skilled political propagandists against enemies who stymied Rome’s
expansionist policies. The deep hostility and resentment expressed toward the
Arsacids originated from the failure of Rome to subdue these uncanny Iranians
who refused to be intimidated and submit to the might of Roman legions and had
repeatedly displayed an exceptional talent and brilliance in defeating Roman
armies. As Emperor Julian wrote, “tell me why, after a war of more than three
hundred years, you Romans have never conquered a small province beyond the
Tigris which is still governed by the Parthians? Shall I tell you why? It was
the arrows of the Persians that checked you. Ask Antony to give you an account
of them, since he was trained for war by you” (Julian: 387).

The Arsacid monarchs ruled a highly decentralized empire.
When an Arsacid king had to raise an army, he asked the local kings, vassals,
governors, regional magnates, and tribal chiefs under his suzerainty to mobilize
their forces, which included their families, dependents, servants, and slaves,
and lead them to a designated meeting place. Depending on the movement of enemy
forces, the king divided these units into a number of smaller armies, each responsible
for confronting the enemy as it entered Parthian territory. The cavalry
constituted the backbone of the Arsacid army. According to Justin, the Arsacids
refused to engage their enemy in hand-to-hand combat, and they avoided “close
fight” at all costs (Justin: XLI.2.2–3). They always fought “on horseback,
sometimes advancing, and sometimes turning back upon their enemies” (Justin:
XLI.2.2–3). The Parthians were “armed like the Scythians” from whom they had
“descended” (Justin: XLI.2.2–3). A section of the Arsacid cavalry was armed
with bows and arrows, while other units, namely the cataphracts, were heavily
armed with lance, knife, and bow, with both horse and cavalryman armored and
protected by coats of chain mail. When the Arsacid commander Surena (Suren)
defeated the Roman army under the command of Crassus in the Battle of Carrhae
in 53 BCE, his army was composed of 10,000 cavalry. In the confrontation with
Mark Antony in 36 BCE, the Arsacid cavalry was estimated at 50,000, with 400
members of the nobility constituting the core of the cavalry forces (Justin:
XLI.2.2–3). The Arsacid nobility constituted the highest echelon of the
Parthian military forces, which also included their dependents, servants,
retainers, serfs, and at times foreign mercenaries. According to Justin, the
Arsacids did not have an army composed “wholly of free men,” but the majority
consisted “of slaves” whom they brought up “with as much care as their
children, and [they] teach them with great industry, both riding and shooting”
(Justin: XLI.2.2–3). Justin erroneously equated the Parthian nobles known as
āzāt with “free-men” and the large army of their dependents with “slaves.”
Arsacid units included infantry divisions as well, but these numbers were
small, and their role and impact on the battlefield were negligible.

The Arsacid elite dressed like the Medes, with a garment
translucently thin and fluent (Justin: XLI.2.2–3). The Arsacid cavalry wore
helmets and breastplates of rawhide or steel, which according to Roman
observers blazed like fire under the sun. Their horses were likewise described
as wearing plates of bronze and steel (Justin: XLI.2.2–3). Parthian fighters
painted their faces and gathered their hair “in a mass upon their foreheads
after the Scythian mode” (Plutarch: 1.814). They attacked the enemy with long
spears, lances, and pikes or from a distance by shooting extremely swift arrows
with their strong bows. To the shock of their enemies, the barbed arrowheads
pierced through hard and soft armor, inflicting severe damage on veins and
muscles. The Parthian cavalry was known for the unique and exceptional ability
of its horsemen to shoot arrows as they fled, an old and extremely difficult
technique known as the “Parthian shot.”

The Parthian strategy was to fight with patience, astuteness,
and minimum hand-to-hand contact with the foe, demoralizing the enemy instead
with random unpredictable and shocking moves, such as appearing and
disappearing, hitting and escaping, and retreating and encouraging pursuit but
then suddenly turning back and attacking with a shower of arrows. Parthian
archers had at their disposal a large number of camels loaded with arrows and
standing on the fringes of the battlefield to deliver new supplies of
ammunition (Plutarch: 1.815). The Parthians did not use war chariots. Instead
of using horns or trumpets to sound the attack, the Parthian armies used hollow
drums of animal hide to which they had attached bronze bells. The beating of
these drums all at once across different parts of the battlefield produced a most
eerie and terrifying sound, which according to Roman sources sounded like the
roaring of wild animals accompanied by claps of thunder (Plutarch: 1.814;
Justin: XLI.2.2–3). Parthian armies also resorted to psychological warfare as
well as negotiations to deceive the enemy and force its leadership to
surrender. Even after defeating a formidable foe, they did not make any attempt
to continue pursuit at night, preferring to finish the job at dawn the
following day (Plutarch: 1.819).

The brilliance of the Parthian cavalry on the battlefield
and the defeats they inflicted on Rome at military encounters such as the one
at Carrhae in 53 BCE forced some Roman writers and historians to admit
grudgingly that the Iranian dynasty constituted a formidable adversary worthy
of Rome’s respect and admiration. For example, the Roman consul and historian
Cassius Dio wrote that “They [Parthians] are really formidable in warfare. …
The Parthians make no use of a shield, but their forces consist of mounted
archers and lancers, mostly in full armor. Their infantry is small, made up of
weaker men; but even these are all archers. The land, being for the most part
level, is excellent for raising horses and very suitable for riding about on
horseback. … [E]ven in the war they lead about whole droves of horses, so that
they can use different ones at different times, can ride up suddenly from a
distance and also retire to a distance speedily” (Cassius Dio: XL.14–16).

Recognizing the devastation wrought by war and its destructive
impact on their economy and population, Parthians displayed a genius for
negotiating peace treaties. Contrary to their claims of superiority over the
so-called barbarians, Romans who had suffered military defeats at the hands of
the Parthian forces also strove to avoid dangerous wars, which only resulted in
disgraceful peace treaties. The Parthian armies carried numerous colorful flags
and banners onto the battlefield. These were often adorned with the figures of
animals, including dragons and lions, but the ancient national emblem of Iran,
the jewel-encrusted Derafsh-e Kavyan (Standard of Kaveh) served as their
imperial flag (Shahbazi: “Army I”).

Further Reading

Bivar, A. D. H. “The Political History of Iran under the
Arsacids.” In The Cambridge History of Iran, Vol. 3(I), edited by Ehsan
Yarshater, 21–99. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1983.

Cassius Dio. Dio’s Roman History. Translated by Earnest
Cary. London: William Heinemann, 1928.

Colledge, Malcolm A. R. The Parthians. New York: Praeger,

Julian. The Works of the Emperor Julian: The Caesars.
Translated by Wilmer Cave Wright. London: William Heinemann, 1913.

Justin. The History of the World. Translated by G. Turnbull.
London: Printed for S. Birt and B. Dod, 1746.

Plutarch. Fall of the Roman Republic. London: Penguin, 1972.

Plutarch. Lives. 2 vols. New York: Barnes and Noble, 2006.

Rawlinson, George. The Sixth Great Oriental Monarchy.
Tehran: Imperial Organization for Social Services, 1976.

Schippmann, K. “Arsacids.” Encyclopaedia Iranica, 1986,

Shahbazi, A. Sh. “Army I: Pre-Islamic Iran.” Encyclopaedia
Iranica, 1986,

Strabo. The Geography of Strabo. Translated by Horace
Leonard Jones. London: William Heinemann, 1930.

Forschungsmitarbeiter Mitch Williamson is a technical writer with an interest in military and naval affairs. He has published articles in Cross & Cockade International and Wartime magazines. He was research associate for the Bio-history Cross in the Sky, a book about Charles ‘Moth’ Eaton’s career, in collaboration with the flier’s son, Dr Charles S. Eaton. He also assisted in picture research for John Burton’s Fortnight of Infamy. Mitch is now publishing on the WWW various specialist websites combined with custom website design work. He enjoys working and supporting his local C3 Church. “Curate and Compile“
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