Sassanian [Sassanid] Army Pil-savaran: The Elephant Corps

Hekmat has ascertained that the Sassanian elephant corps essentially fulfilled the same role in the spah that chariots had during the Achaemenid era. In practice the Sassanian elephant corps were entrusted with a number of duties. First, while the function of the elephant as a primary ‘Durchbruch’ (breakthrough) weapon is not altogether accurate, these animals were highly valued by the spah and did partake in a number of battles. The elephants often played the role of support and stood to the rear, providing a psychological boost for the various arms on the battlefield, especially infantry. The elephant could also be used as a psychological weapon to frighten enemies unaccustomed to such beasts. In this endeavour, the spah did employ battle elephants to target inexperienced Roman troops and Arabian warriors in attempts to influence the course of battles. Interestingly, Sassanian elephants were also used in siege operations as a type of ‘living mobile tower’ in the spah’s inventory of siege engines for the taking of cities. The elephant corps was also utilized for the transportation of men and supplies.

The Achaemenid question. The early Achaemenids did not utilize battle elephants, at least as attested by Classical sources in reference to Cyrus the Great and Darius the Great. Classical sources also make no mention of elephant units in the army of Xerxes during his invasion of Greece in 480 BC. Some Iranian historians have argued that Achaemenid expansion into western India as well as southern Egypt towards Ethiopia must have had (at least in part) the assistance of battle elephants. The Achaemenids were certainly in contact with India and would have had access to elephants. Classical sources however, fail to verify the existence of elephant corps during the early-to-middle part of the Achaemenid dynasty.

The first mention of elephants in Achaemenid service comes from Arrian (3.8.6) who cites fifteen of them in the army of Darius III (r. 336–333 BCE) at the Battle of Gaugamela (331 BCE). The elephants were employed by Darius’ Indian allies. Charles, citing mainstream Western scholarship, notes that Arrian’s account suggests that the elephants were not employed in the battle. Arrian does verify that Alexander captured Darius’ elephants along with his baggage train after the battle. Achaemenid elephants are also reported by Quintus Curtius Rufus, who noted that Alexander received a gift of twelve elephants from the satrap of Susa as Hellenic invasion forces were nearing the city. Mainstream Iranian historiography takes a different view from Classical sources and mainstream Western scholarship. The Iranshahr text, for example, claims105 (1) a total of 500 elephants in the entire Achaemenid military machine of Darius III, with at least 50 of these being present at Gaugamela; and that (2) Achaemenid elephants were a source of great anxiety among Alexander’s forces.

Origins of Sassanian elephant corps. The key question is: when did the Sassanians introduce the elephant into military service? Ardashir I’s Parthian predecessors, who had ruled Iran for nearly 500 years, are not believed to have used elephants, possibly having regarded these as unreliable battlefield weapons. The Parthians (like the Sassanians) relied primarily on cavalry forces but did introduce camel cataphracts towards the end of their dynasty.

The Historia Augusta does claim that Ardashir I had 700 elephants of which Alexander Severus allegedly killed 200 and captured 300 (18 of these were allegedly sent to Rome). Charles, however, notes that the thesis of Ardashir having had elephants is largely based on the Historia Augusta’s highly exaggerated and unreliable claims of Emperor Alexander Severus’ alleged ‘victory’ over the Sassanians. Scullard was of the opinion that Ardashir I’s son and successor, Shapur I, deployed elephants against Roman armies. Shapur is cited by the Historia Augusta as having been halted at Resaina by Gordian III, who is then described as having dispatched to Rome at least twelve elephants. Tabari also gives an interesting reference, stating ‘Shapur, the man of the armies, rode out against them with elephants covered with blankets and with heroic fighters.’ This reference would suggest that such elephants were not protected by armour but the reference to ‘heroic fighters’ is less clear as it does not specify if these are armoured knights or strictly archers.

Nevertheless, the Historia Augusta is generally no longer regarded as a reliable source for the study of Sassanian military affairs in the third century CE. The unreliability of the Historia Augusta leads Charles to ‘refrain from using this material as proof that elephants were used by the Persians in the first half of the third century CE’. Interestingly, neither the Chronica nor other sources mention any Sassanian elephants being encountered in battle by Galerius, who had been tasked with fighting the Sassanians by Emperor Diocletian (r. 284–305 CE)114 in 297 CE. The Armenian historian Moses Khorenatsi, however, notes a contemporary of Diocletian, the Armenian king Tirdad, as having battled the Sassanians and ‘scattered the ranks of elephants’.

While certainly true that the Historia Augusta is unreliable (as Charles avers), the notion that Ardashir had no elephants at all cannot be so singularly dismissed. According to Azari, ‘after his conquests of Khorasan, Khwarezm, Central Asia and Turan, Ardashir I entered northwest India and conquered the Punjab. As Ardashir advanced further he was given gifts of jewels, gold, and a large number of elephants by Junah [a local king].’ Perhaps early Sassanian armies in the third century possessed elephants with the proviso that (1) these were not available in the numbers claimed by the Historia Augusta, and (2) elephants may not have been deployed against Rome as claimed by the Historia Augusta. Support for the latter assumptions is found in Herodian (6.5.1–6.6.6) and Zonaras (12.15), neither of which mention Sassanian elephants being used in battle against Alexander Severus. Nevertheless, more research is required regarding the use of war elephants by the Sassanians in the third century as the Classical sources alone fail to settle the issue. The Islamic-era historian al-Tabari (citing the poet Amr bin Ilah), for example, writes of the fall of Hatra (cited as al-Hadr) to Shapur, which occurred in 240 CE, by stating that ‘Sabur [Shapur I] . . . attacked them [the Hatrenes] with war elephants.’ Interestingly, the Shahname reports that Ardashir I not only deployed battle elephants but that he placed these in the front line, which contradicts other reports of how these elephants were deployed by the spah.

Shapur II’s battle elephants. It is clear that Shapur II (r. 309–379 CE) not only possessed elephants but also deployed these in battle against the Romans. The Orationes of Libanius asserts that Shapur II ‘had acquired a stock of elephants, not just for display but to meet the needs of the future.’ Shapur II put his battle elephants to use in his siege of Nisibis in c. 337 CE, the year in which Emperor Constantine the Great (r. 306–337 CE) died. As noted by Theodoret, ‘Shapur used as many elephants that he could muster’ to prosecute the siege of Nisibis. Interestingly, as claimed by Theodoret, Nisibis’ defenders resorted to sending swarms of gnats to attack the trunks of the Sassanian elephants! The new Roman emperor, Constantius II (r. 324–361 CE; co-Augustus 337–350 CE) arrived at a settlement with Shapur II, which led to a temporary cessation of hostilities. Shapur and his battle elephants returned to resume the siege of Nisibis for the second time in 346 CE.

Elephants were again used by Shapur II in yet another siege of Nisibis in 350 CE. In reference to the latter event, Julian’s encomium of his cousin Constantius II declares of Sassanian battle elephants that they ‘came from India and carried iron towers full of archers’. The elephant’s high platform afforded Sassanian archers a key advantage in the delivery of precise and damaging archery. The sources also note that these elephants, acting in concert with the savaran knights, were deployed against Nisibis’ formidable walls. These describe the elephants moving in concert with armoured infantry or ‘hoplites’ who were then used to press on the attack after the savaran had been repelled with heavy losses. Interestingly, Roman sources also report of Sassanian elephants being armoured, yet these also were repelled by Nisibis’ missiles.

Sassanian battle elephants are described by Amminaus Marcellinus, a Greco-Roman warrior-historian who also partook in the battles against Shapur II. Marcellinus describes Shapur II’s 359 CE siege of Amida (modern-day Diyarbakr, Turkey) as thus: ‘With them [Sassanian army], making a lofty show, slowly marched the lines of elephants, frightful with their wrinkled bodies and loaded with armed men, a hideous spectacle, dreadful beyond every form of horror, as I have often declared.’ Shapur II captured Amida but losses to his elephants were heavy. Despite their frightening appearance, the elephants at Amida were successfully repelled by Roman forces utilizing burning torches. As noted by Azari, the siege of Amida resulted in heavy losses for the Sassanian army, with the elephants proving ineffectual during the siege.

Julian’s invasion of Sassanian Persia in 363 also witnessed the deployment of Sassanian battle elephants. The first battle in which Julian’s forces encountered the beasts was at Coche. Sassanian tactics are of interest as the heavily armoured savaran are placed at the front, followed by lightly-armoured infantry behind them with the elephants situated behind the infantry. Perhaps the elephants served a sort of ‘reserve’ option in case the savaran and infantry failed against the Romans. If this were the function, then these certainly failed as Julian is described as having defeated the Sassanians, who had no recourse but to flee to the safety of the walls of Ctesiphon. Shapur II’s elephants did little to hold the Sassanian lines against Julian’s advance, which resulted in very heavy Sassanian casualties. One theory is that the elephants may have possibly served as the Sassanian army’s baggage train. In later battles Ammianus does describe ‘gleaming elephants ’, most likely referring to the gleaming armour of the beasts. These however are not generally described as forming direct frontal attacks against Roman forces during set-piece battles. As Julian advanced deeper into Sassanian territory the Sassanian spah abandoned set-piece battles in favour of rapid lightning strikes against the advancing Roman forces. It was during one of these attacks when the savaran struck at the rear of Julian’s column. As Julian rushed to intervene against the attacking Sassanians to the rear, the centre of the Roman lines came under attack by the savaran supported by elephants. The Romans succeeded in driving off the elephants at first but when Julian was critically struck by a spear the elephants returned to the theatre. Following Julian’s death, Jovian, who was elected as the new emperor, assumed command. Apparently emboldened by the withdrawal of Roman forces from Iranian territory, the Sassanians launched a frontal attack against Roman forces followed by the thrusts of the savaran.

What is interesting in the Jovian engagement is the application of the elephant savaran doctrine of attacks. In this scenario, the elephants attack first, being apparently employed as a shock arm to cause dislocation and disarray among enemy forces. The savaran would then follow up with the intent of breaking through the Roman ranks. The main focus of these attacks was directed against Roman infantry rather than cavalry. This doctrine, however, appears to have been only applied during rapid-strike attacks rather than regular set-piece battles in 363.

Elephant warfare from Yazdegird II to Khosrow II. Elephants certainly remained within the Sassanian battle order after the long reign of Shapur II. The late Major-General Gholam-Hussein Moghtader notes of the Sassanian elephant corps that ‘the numbers of elephants during . . . the Sassanian era ranged from 200–700 . . . the Iranians were so impressed with the elephant that these would also be deployed in battles in mountainous regions obliging them in these situations to build/pave suitable roads . . . elephants were also used to besiege cities.’ Moghtader’s reference to elephants in mountain warfare refers to Sassanian military operations in the Caucasus. Referring to the works of the Armenian epic histories written in the late fifth century, the late Said Nafisi noted that ‘the elephants imported from India formed a reserve force in the [Sassanian] army with this animal causing fear in the Roman army . . . tall towers were built and placed upon the elephants; these [towers] would then be occupied by armed troops . . . these [towers] were also decorated with many banners . . . these elephants with towers would be placed to the rear of the main force to act as its guardian.’ Nafisi is referring to the role of the elephant corps acting as a kind of reserve force and probably to also help bolster morale among frontline troops (cavalry, infantry and archers). The main issue with the epic histories, however, is that it is not possible to chronologically ascertain specific events/battles as cited by the document.

Yazdegird II (r. 438–457 CE) certainly deployed battle elephants against anti-Zoroastrian Armenian forces at the Battle of Avaryr or Vartanantz (451 CE). A medieval Armenian painting of the battle depicts Sassanian battle elephants being ridden by archers and infantry. These are situated to the left of the painting. According to Armenian art historian, Vrek Nersessian, these troops represent the Sassanian Javidian or ‘Immortals’. The elephants are shown advancing very closely together with no gaps between them, as if these formed a sort of mobile wall. Also notable in the painting is the illustration of the ‘seat’ of the Sassanian troops atop the elephants. The seat is not shown with any walled protection (or indeed any protection), which would imply that the Sassanian troops atop the elephants are vulnerable to Armenian missiles. The Sassanian troops (archers and infantry) are shown wearing helmets and armoured suits stretching just below the knees. The elephant-borne archers are also shown firing a volley of missiles against the Armenian knights. While it is not clear to what extent these elephants were in the battle, the Armenian portrayal implies that either (1) they played an important role, or that (2) their portrayal was meant to distinguish the Armenian ‘cavalry only’ naxarar knights versus their savaran counterparts, whose elite units were riding elephants.

Martial feats involving elephants cite the legendary Iranian king Bahram Gur (420–438 CE), who is known for several of his daring exploits. One of Bahram’s feats involves the slaying of a dangerous rampaging elephant in India. Tabari describes Bahram as having first shot an arrow between the eyes of the beast, then, after forcing it down by pulling its trunk, finished off the animal by severing its head with a sword.

A major military encounter involving elephants in Central Asia against the Hephthalites in 484 CE ended in disaster and the death of Sassanian King Pirouz (r. 459–484 CE). The number of elephants in that debacle is variously estimated at 50 to 500 beasts. The Hephthalite leader, Kushnavaz, led the Sassanian army into a huge camouflaged ditch set with deadly traps, resulting in the destruction of the bulk of the savaran, infantry and battle elephants

On rare occasions, elephants are sometimes seen among the Sassanian’s non-Roman enemies. One example is the case of the Sassanian expeditionary force in Yemen, which had been dispatched there by Khosrow I Anushirvan (531–579). The leader of the Sassanian force, Vahriz, confronted the Abbysinian occupier of Yemen, Masrooq bin Abraha, who is described as having sat on an elephant. Khosrow I deployed battle elephants during his battles against the Byzantines, especially during the siege of Edessa in 543 CE. He also dispatched battle elephants into the Caucasus during his battles with the Byzantines for control of Lazica in 551 CE.145

The late Sassanian armies of Khosrow II (r. 591–628) also utilized battle elephants as he thrust towards Dara in late 603, which fell to him after a nine-month siege in 604. In the second of three battles for Dara after the siege, Byzantine sources report of Khosrow having ‘put together a fort with his elephants’. Perhaps this was in reference to Sassanian elephants moving very closely together (as at Avaryr in 451), these then resembling a moving fort of armoured elephants featuring turrets with archers. When the tide of war turned in Byzantium’s favour by 627 CE with the forces of Emperor Heraclius thrusting into Sassanian Mesopotamia, elephants were deployed as part of the Sassanian defence.

Elephants during the Arabo-Islamic invasions (637–651 CE). Arabo-Islamic sources provide extensive reference to Sassanian battle elephants, especially in the context of the Arabo-Islamic invasion of Iran in 637–651 CE. One of the first major battles fought between the Arabs and the spah was the Battle of the Bridges. The Arabs led by Abu Ubeidah Taghti had crossed the Euphrates. Facing the Arabs was General Bahram, who deployed a force of armoured savaran knights and battle elephants. According to Masoudi, ‘the Arabs witnessed weaponized elephants and had never seen any phenomenon such as this . . . they all fled and most of them died by the sword and even more by drowning in the Euphrates’.

Bahram’s elephants appear to have acted as ‘super-panzers’ that also doubled as missile platforms for Sassanian archers. Taghti’s Arabs soon gave way to the combined savaran-elephant thrusts. It would appear that Bahram had reacted quickly against Abu Ubeidah by not allowing his Arabs time to properly organize after landing on the eastern (Sassanian-held) side of the Euphrates. Rapid charges by the lance-armed savaran accompanied by war elephants (whose archers discharged volleys of missiles) had undermined the cohesion of Taghti’s forces. Taghti himself was killed fighting a Sassanian battle elephant. According to the Futuh ol Boldan, Taghti had gotten close to the elephant and struck with his sword at its trunk and foot; the elephant then crushed Taghti by trampling him under its feet. The death of Taghti proved too much for the Arabs. Proving unable to resist the savaran-elephant assaults, they were now forced to flee back to the western side of the Euphrates River. Arab losses are described as 1,000 killed, 3,000 drowned (during the retreat across the Euphrates), and 2,000 deserters, leaving just 3,000 men to retreat.

The four-day battle of Qadissiyah, which essentially sealed the fate of Sassanian and pre-Islamic Persia, witnessed a significant deployment of battle elephants by the spah. Tabari reports that the Sassanian general Rustam Farrokhzad deployed a total of thirty battle elephants during the battle. Masoudi’s descriptions of Rustam’s elephants state that ‘these were placed at the front . . . upon each elephant was seated 20 of their warriors with armour and horned helmets . . . around each elephant stood infantry, cavalry, and warriors’. This description conveys the impression of a ‘strike group’ not unlike the US Navy’s Second World War carrier-based strike groups in the Pacific theatre, in which aircraft carriers would be escorted by battleships, cruisers, etc. Rustam’s battle elephants were now protected by infantry and savaran. Interestingly, the infantry (most likely Dailamites) were entrusted with close-quarter combat duties, in case Arab troops attempted to close in on the elephants. Warriors aboard the elephants would be tasked with discharging their missiles at the Arabs from their elevated platform. Perhaps most significant is how (as per Massoudi’s description), the elephants were ‘placed at the front’, indicating a major doctrinal shift from the Sassanian spah’s doctrine of elephant warfare from the time of Shapur II. As noted previously, elephants would be placed to the rear of the main army, with these being used in combination with the savaran in rapid hit-and-withdraw strike packages. Rustam was now wielding his battle elephants as part of his primary strike forces against the Muslim Arabs. Nevertheless, not all thirty elephants were part of the strike package, as Masoudi cites only seventeen of the animals being employed in this fashion.

The Arabs led by Saad Bin Ebi Waqqas, however, had absorbed the lessons of their defeat at the battle of the bridges. At first, the presence of the elephants did cause consternation among the Arab cavalry. Ibn Khaldun writes that ‘the sight of the mountain-sized elephants caused the Arab horses to flee, forcing the Arabs to dismount their horses to fight.’ Numbers of these Arab troops closed in to engage and overcome the escorting infantry of the elephants. This then allowed them to get close to the elephants and tear their girths. As the elephants collapsed, the Arabs quickly killed the archers and warriors who sat atop the creatures. The Arabs devised other ingenious ways to disable Rustam’s elephants. One of Waqqas’ commanders, Ghagha bin Amr, who had arrived from Syria by the third day of the battle, thrust his spear into the eye of a white elephant, a tactic which was quickly adopted by the other Arab warriors on the battlefield. In practice, bin Amr was most likely accompanied by ex-Byzantine spearmen who knew of this tactic due to Byzantium’s past wars with the Sassanians. Yet another tactic against the elephants was offered by anti-Zoroastrian deserters of Rustam’s spah. These informed Waqqas’ Arabs of tactics for striking at the elephants’ trunks. These tactics proved immensely effective as numbers of the stricken elephants panicked and ran amuck within the Sassanian ranks. In response to this disaster, Ibn Khaldun further records that ‘the Iranians were now determined to withdraw their elephants from the battlefield.’ According to one legend, Rustam was killed by an elephant which fell over him in the fourth and final day of the battle. There are in fact several varying accounts of Rustam’s death at Qadissiyah. Another account claims that an elephant (or mule) laden with sacks of treasure fell on the unfortunate Rustam, severely injuring his arm, which allowed an Arab warrior to kill him.

Elephants as symbols of regal splendour: the case of Khosrow II. Khosrow II is well known for his love of elephants. Masoudi writes that 1,000 elephants were housed in the royal stables, while the author of the Zein ol Akhbar claims that the king kept 1,200 of the animals. So fond was Khosrow II of his elephants that he is reputed to have lamented that ‘if only the elephant were not Indian but Iranian instead’. The regal aspect of the Sassanian elephant is perhaps best immortalized at Tagh-e Bostan in western Iran where a panel depicts the royal hunt. Clearly visible in the panel are elephants that accompany the royal hunt retinue, with the beasts carrying boars recently killed during the hunt. Interestingly, the elephants also seem to combine with the trumpeters and knights in driving the herd of boars ahead of them.

The splendour of late Sassanian battle elephants was evidently appreciated by Khosrow II’s opponent and ultimate nemesis, Emperor Heraclius (r. 610– 641 CE). According to the Chronicle of Seert, Heraclius may have dreamt of Khosrow II as a warrior riding an elephant!

Strengths and weaknesses. The most potent asset of the battle elephant is perhaps psychological: its size, strength and appearance could certainly inspire dread among troops and cavalry unaccustomed to elephant warfare. The elephant’s thick hide provides a great amount of protection against most types of conventional archery and blade weapons. The elephant’s height certainly afforded Sassanian archers an excellent platform to shoot missiles onto their battlefield adversaries. But the raised position could also be an Achilles heel, as the archers and soldiers atop the elephant were themselves highly visible as targets of opportunity and vulnerable to missiles.

The elephant is also a formidable beast to control in battle. When sensing mortal danger, it has the potential to run amuck against its own armies. Exactly such a scenario is reported at the third siege of Nisibis in 350 CE. During this operation the Sassanians mounted a determined attack with their elephants against the walls of the city. The elephants then ran into soft, muddy earth as a result of the siege operations. Many of the beasts then sank into the soft terrain, which spread panic among the other surviving beasts. Instead of pressing on with the attack, these Sassanian elephants turned around to run amuck within the Sassanian ranks, crushing large numbers of troops in the process. Interestingly, nearly fourteen centuries later, Indian battle elephants of Moghul Mohammad Shah were to about-face and crush their own troops in response to the stratagems of the Iranian warlord, Nader Shah (r. 1735–1747) during the battle of Karnal.

The Sassanians certainly learned quickly from their elephant disaster at Nisibis. They later (especially during Julian’s 363 CE invasion) took the precautionary measure of placing a mahout armed with a handle fastened to his right hand. The knife would be deployed to slay the elephant by severing its vertebrae in case the beast went out of control.

Another weakness of Sassanian battle elephants was the spah’s lack of effective tactics for countering determined and experienced enemy infantry that managed to get close to the beasts. While escorting Dailamite infantry and savaran were certainly formidable, elephants were highly vulnerable if the protecting troops were overcome. As noted previously, the Arabs devised three stratagems to eliminate the Sassanian elephant threat on the battlefield: (1) launching spears into the exposed eyes of the beasts; (2) attacking their vulnerable underbellies; and (3) severing the straps of the cabs ferrying Sassanian troops, resulting in the latter spilling to the ground.

A final note of trivia in this discussion is the use of the Persian term fil (from Middle Persian: pil, elephant) for the position of bishop in shatranj, the Persian term for chess. Interestingly, the same is true in Indian chess where the term fil is also used for Bishop.

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