Sassanian [Sassanid] Army II

Arab Contingents of the Spah

Arab contingents were of critical importance to the spah. In practice, the martial abilities of the Arabs were important to both the Sassanians and the Romano-Byzantines. The Arabs were also situated along trade routes, cities and regions that were of vital importance to both the Romano-Byzantines and Sassanian Empires. Arab auxiliary forces played a vital role for the Sassanians in three major ways. First, they were able to protect trade routes, especially those near to or traversing the Arabian Peninsula against Arab raiders. Second, they played a vital role in shielding the cities and villages of southern Iraq (again) against Arab warriors who would launch forays from Arabia towards the southwest. Third, Arab auxiliaries played a vital role in preventing Arabs from entering southern Iran to raid the coastal trading ports of the empire’s Persian Gulf coastline.

While the Arabs had not been trained in regular military doctrines or siege warfare, the Sassanians (as well as their Romano-Byzantine rivals) found two military uses for their Arab recruits. First, the Arabs were masters of the desert and often acted as heralds and guides for Sassanian armies during their campaigns along or across the empire’s southwestern marches. Their mastery of the desert also allowed them to track down political opponents, regular criminals and deserters from the spah. Second, Arab auxiliaries were excellent as light cavalry. The Arabs were able to launch very rapid cavalry raids and pull back just as rapidly before the enemy was able to coordinate an effective response. Often during such raids the Arabs would secure plunder before making good their escape. The spah found this Arab ability of special utility against Roman forces, especially when they would be methodically organizing themselves before the onset of a major battle. Arab warriors recruited for auxiliary roles were presided over by sheikhs and tribal leaders who would cooperate directly with the spah.

Light Cavalry Auxiliaries

The Sassanians also employed Turkic contingents in the role of light cavalry. Depending on battle circumstances these contingents (both Turkic and Arab) provided flank security for Sassanian armies; struck at the enemy’s flanks simultaneous to the main attack by savaran heavy cavalry at the centre of the battle line; and, in the event of a breakthrough by the savaran knights, exploited deep into the enemy’s rear. In general, they operated much like the Parthian horse archers of old, being equipped with light armour only and employing bows as their primary weapon.

There were numerous auxiliary cavalry forces recruited by the spah, including Khazars from the Caucasus, Albanians, and Hephthalites from Central Asia. Iranian light cavalry were also recruited, especially from Gilan in the north, Saka-istanis from southeast Iran and Kushans from Central Asia.


Matofi has noted that slings are one of the oldest battlefield weapons of Iranian armies since antiquity. The pilaxan (sling) was as simple as it was effective. Round pellets or stones were placed inside a fur, or a leather belt attached at the two ends by a rope. The pouch or bag was then spun over the head a few times, then one of the ropes was let go to allow for the release of the stones or pellets over a distance.

Slingers were recruited by the Achaemenids and were certainly reported in Sassanian times by Roman sources such as Libanius in reference to the battle of Singara (343 or 344 CE). The Sassanians continued to recruit slingers from the Mede highlands of Iran. These were especially effective as pellets propelled by slings were very difficult to detect due to their high velocity, which contributed to their deadly impact. Slingshots were used to shoot pellets that were often difficult to evade and could kill or injure a whole array of enemy troops, even those with armour and helmets. An attack by armoured cavalry could be disrupted by experienced slingers. This was due to the stones or pellets acquiring power and momentum through the rotating movements of the sling. Slingers often supported archers during sieges, as reported at Amida where the constant barrages of the archers and slingers reputedly ‘never ceased for a moment’. This suggests that slingers combined and coordinated with massed archery could have possibly been highly effective in blunting enemy infantry and cavalry assaults. The sling was also a much cheaper weapon than the bow and did not require as much physical strength to operate during battle. Despite this, the sling was a very difficult weapon to operate and required much training to ensure battlefield effectiveness.

Interestingly the Pahlavi term ‘pilaxan’ has entered the military lexicons of Georgia and Armenia but not specifically as ‘sling’. In Armenian pilikon, pilikwan, piliwan means ‘a large crossbow or arbalest’, while in Georgian pilakvani or pilagani denotes ‘catapult’.80 The sling possibly also acquired a high status by late Sassanian times among the elite savaran. For example, the post-Sassanian ayyaran (persons associated with the warrior class from the ninth through to the twelfth centuries) regarded the sling as one of their favourite weapons.

Women in the Sassanian Spah

Women have appeared in the armies of ancient Iran. A summary of a report made by the Reuters News Agency in 3 December 2004, entitled ‘Bones Suggest Women Went to War in Ancient Iran’ noted that DNA tests made on a 2,000year-old skeleton of a sword-wielding warrior in northwest Iran have shown that the bones belonged to a woman. The time length of 2,000 years would place the warrior-woman in the Parthian era. Alireza Hojabri-Nobari (head of the archaeology team) reported the following in an article appearing in the Persianlanguage newspaper Hambastegi newspaper in Tabriz: ‘Despite earlier comments that the warrior was a man because of the metal sword, DNA tests showed the skeleton inside the tomb belonged to a female warrior.’ Hojabri-Nobari further emphasized that the tomb which included warrior weapons was just one of 109 unearthed in northwest Iran thus far, with DNA tests scheduled for the other entombed skeletons. The article in Hambastegi further mentioned other ancient tombs belonging to Iranian women warriors that have also been excavated near the Caspian Sea in northern Iran.

Tombs attesting to the existence of Iranian-speaking women warriors have also been excavated in Eastern Europe. Cernenko, for example, has noted of the tomb of a Scythian female warrior contemporary to the Achaemenid era of Iran at Ordzhonikidze which had a javelin, spear, gorytos containing a bow and arrows, and a ‘pocket’ in the gorytos containing a knife. Brzezinski and Mielczarek have noted of the presence of female ‘Amazon’ warriors among the proto-Sarmatians in the fifth century BCE carrying short swords, archery equipment and spears. Pokorny has noted that the etymology of ‘Amazon’ is derived from old Iranian maz (combat) resulting in the North Iranic folkname ha-mazan, meaning ‘warrior’. This is certainly disputed as seen in the arguments of Mayrhofer. Sekunda has noted of Greek vase art depicting ‘Amazon’ women warriors in the 450s BCE typically dressed in the Persian manner (short tunic, trousers elaborately patterned, pointed hat with cheek flaps, long neck guard) and carrying Achaemenid-style shields.

Women did continue to appear in Sassanian armies. As noted by Ward ‘Sassanian armies also included substantial numbers of women’ with Dodgeon and Lieu highlighting the fact that ‘the presence of substantial numbers of women in Persian expeditionary forces is often noted by Roman authors’. Zonaras specifies their military role in the third century CE by noting that ‘in the Persian [Sassanian] army . . . there are said to have been found women also, dressed and armed like men’. Women were also hired as merchants to act as sutlers for the Sassanian army during its campaigns. Women were recruited for combat roles at critical times, one example being at Singara (343 or 344 CE), of which Libanius reports that ‘the Persians enlisted the help of their women’. This strongly suggests that Iranian women, like the menfolk, were trained in the arts of war and capable of wielding weapons when called to duty by the spah.

The Shahname emphasizes the role of warrior women such as Gordafarid who, in a combative encounter with Sohrab, (son of warrior-hero Rustam) is described as ‘turning in her saddle, drew a sharp blade from her waist, struck at his lance, and parted it in two’. There are numerous names in Iranian folklore of anti-Arab resistance fighters including Apranik (daughter of General Piran who fell at Qadissiyah in 637 CE), who fought in 632–640 CE; Negan, who led an anti-Arab resistance movement and died in combat in 638 CE; and the Parthian-descended Azadeh Dailam (the so-called Free One of Dailam), who led the military resistance in northern Iran against the expansion of the Arab-Caliphate in the 750s CE (the Dailamite warriors of northern Persia continued to resist the Arabs long after the fall of the Sassanian empire in 650 CE). Mention in this regard must be made of Banu, wife of Babak Kharramdin who fought against the Caliphate for decades before his castle of Bazz in Azerbaijan was captured and sacked by the Caliphate’s Turkish troops in 838 CE.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.