in the Desert
Ancient Persia at War
Dr. Kaveh Farrokh
extracts from Shadows in the Desert: Ancient Persia at War
Darius the Great
(Old Persian: Darayavahush) (521-486 BC) was originally an arshti-bara
(lit. spear-bearer) in Kambujiya's army in Egypt. It is likely that
Darius held a position of high office, as he was a member of the Achaemenid
royal family. Darius' family, however, was of the Ariaramnes branch
of the Achaemenid line.
Darius and six other conspirators had plotted to seize the throne of
Persia; however, there remained the question of who would be king. According
to Herodotus, the seven conspirators agreed to meet at a designated
spot with their horses at the break of dawn. He whose horse neighed
first would become emperor of the Persian Empire. Darius' horse was
reputedly the first to neigh, settling the issue. This ascension
was, of course, a formality at best, as Darius now faced a truly daunting
task. The Empire was being ripped asunder by royal pretenders, rebels,
and breakaway movements that Darius had to confront before assuming
the mantle of imperial government.
defeats the rebels
that the late Kambujiya had been informed of just before his death was
allegedly being led by his brother Bardiya. Bardiya had announced his
claim to the throne on March 11, 522 BC to the Persians and the Medes
who generally supported him. Babylon officially accepted him on April
14, and by July 1 Bardiya was the recognized leader of the Empire. He
was immensely popular especially after his suspension of state taxes
and military service for three years. While such policies endeared Bardiya
to the common population, he was not on entirely good terms with the
magi or the Aryan feudal lords. The magi were apparently unhappy with
Bardiya's policies with respect to the Aryan cults, while the ruling
oligarchy may have seen the new taxation and war-levy policies as a
direct challenge to their absolute authority, wealth and power.
There are serious questions as to the identity of the rebel Bardiya.
One version of events states that the real Bardiya had already been
killed before the Bardiya rebellion. Herodotus, who identifies
the real Bardiya as Smerdis, notes that he had been killed
by Prexaspes, Kambujiya's chief advisor, and that the murder had been
kept secret from the Empire's populace. If true, then who was the rebel
claiming to be Bardiya? Darius is certainly clear that the real Bardiya
had already been slain by his brother Kambujiya before the Egyptian
campaign in 525 BC. The rebel claiming his name was the imposter Gaumâta,
a member of the magi, who managed to convince the Medes and Persians
that he was the real Bardiya. Olmstead, however, disagrees with this
version of events and suggests that Darius simply usurped the throne
from the real Bardiya and falsified the truth to legitimize his own
rule.5 Whatever the actual truth, historians unanimously agree that
Darius defeated and killed Bardiya/Gaumâta on September 29, 522
BC at the Sikayauvatish fortress in Media.
Darius' termination of the eight-month reign of Bardiya/Gaumâta
was only the first step to power. The Bardiya/Gaumâta coup d'etat
had acted as a catalyst for major rebellions throughout the Empire.
Sources report on the appearance of a king in Elam as well
as a Nebuchadnezzar III in Babylon by early October 522
BC. Darius' army was reportedly small, yet, it was a well trained and
professional force composed of those Mede and Persian warriors who had
served in the Egyptian campaigns.
Darius first moved into Elam in 522 BC where the weak rebellion quickly
collapsed and order was temporarily restored. By December 522 BC, Darius
and his forces crossed the Tigris into Babylon. After fighting two battles,
the rebels of Babylon were subdued and Nebuchadnezzar III was executed.
Meanwhile, yet more rebellions in Elam had to be suppressed by 519 BC,
and Assyria also remained to be subdued. However, the most serious challenges
came from Darius' Iranian opponents. The Behistun inscription is clear
that there were anti-Darius revolts in Persis and Media. Persis had
produced a certain Vahyazdata making claims to the Achaemenid throne.
The Medes, who were led by Fravartish, endeavored to reestablish the
authority of the House of Cyaxares. Meanwhile, serious anti-Achaemenid
rebellions had broken out in Armenia.
Eastern Iran also broke into open revolt. In Margiana a certain Frada
led a rebel movement of his own. To defeat these threats, Darius dispatched
his army to fight in Persis, Parthia, Margiana, and Armenia. The leaders
of Darius' armies were from his closely trusted inner circle as evidenced
by his father leading the battles in Parthia, and Vidarna, one of the
original conspirators, leading the campaign in the Zagros Mountains.
Darius spearheaded the drive into northern Media where he crossed into
Rhagae (Rayy), near modern-day Tehran. From there he wheeled northwest
across Media Atropatene (Iranian Azerbaijan). It was probably sometime
during this operation that the battle of Kundurush was fought. The securing
of Media Atropatene allowed for the pro-Darius forces to swing northwards
into Armenia in the Caucasus. The subjugation of Media, Persis, and
Armenia allowed Darius to concentrate his entire might against the Parthian
rebellion, finally bringing their stubborn resistance to an end. These
battles were especially fierce, partly attested to in the Behistun inscription.
The Parthian, Armenian, and Persian campaigns resulted in around 36,000
rebels being taken prisoner or killed, while in Media alone casualties
were at least 20,000.
Interestingly, the satrapies of Asia Minor had remained neutral in the
fighting, perhaps waiting to see who would seize the throne in Persia.
The only act of retribution in Anatolia after the rebellions was the
killing of a certain satrap of Lydia, Oriontes, who had taken advantage
of the fighting in Persia to seize control of much of Achaemenid Asia
Minor. A rebellion had broken out in Egypt, however this was most likely
a local Egyptian revolt, which was suppressed by Darius
by 518 BC.
By August 521 BC, Darius had completed the Herculean task of stabilizing
the Empire, and was firmly in control. In the northeast, Bactria and
Margiania had also been bought under Darius' authority, but the Saka
Tigrakhauda and Massagetae had yet to be subdued. The Saka, who were
outside the Empire at the time, had militarily intervened on the side
of the rebels. The potential danger of future attacks by these Sakas
ensured that Darius would have to fight them in the near future.
reestablishes the oligarchy
at Behistun in western Iran state that Darius restored to the
people what Bardiya/Gaumâta had confiscated, namely land,
pastures, slaves, and herds. The sanctuaries which Bardiya/Gaumâta
had destroyed were also restored. The people that the Behistun
inscription describes can only be the ruling oligarchy who had lost
property. The rebellion was certainly as much about political leadership
as it was between the prosperous few and the large have-not
segment of the population. This would explain why Persian peasants as
well as Medes joined Bardiya/Gaumâta. Darius' victories certainly
benefited the social status and power of the Aryan feudal lords who
were now more strongly bound to the Achaemenid royal house. There may
have been a theological aspect to the rebellion suggesting that certain
Aryan cults were siding with Bardiya/Gaumâta while others were
with Darius and his supporters. There may be merit to suggestions that
Bardiya/Gaumâta may have offended the followers of the cult of
Mithra. Bardiya/Gaumâta also destroyed the non-Aryan temples of
the Elamites, a process which Darius reversed.
Darius owed his success to his well-organized entourage, the disgruntled
nobility, and the loyalty of the Medo-Persian professional core of the
army. Another factor in Darius' success was the inability of his enemies
to unite against him, resulting in all of them being isolated and crushed
separately. Darius had demonstrated his genius at leadership and war:
in the course of one year Darius had defeated numerous enemies, restored
the authority of the Empire, and installed himself as emperor. He would
also prove to be one of history's greatest statesmen.
Darius' reinstitution of ancien regime elements was to contribute to
the later corruption and nepotism of the court, which in turn adversely
affected imperial administration and military performance. This was
accompanied by a steady rise in the fossilization and rigidity of Aryan
codes of conduct, especially in the court. In contrast to Cyrus, the
Achaemenid kings were to become increasingly aloof and distant from
the people. Even the king's closest advisors were constrained in the
way they could communicate with him. All of these factors resulted in
many negative outcomes such as treachery and the pursuit of short-term
interests. Another outcome was sycophancy as shown by court counselors
providing inaccurate updates of military affairs to Xerxes during his
invasions of Greece in 490 BC.
Shapur II: a new revival of Sassanian Persia
II was perhaps one of the most enigmatic rulers of ancient Persia. Ruling
literally from the cradle to the grave, Shapur's 70-year reign (r. 309-379
AD) spanned the passage of ten Roman emperors and witnessed desperate
battles with the Arabs, Chionites, and Romans. The latter, under the
leadership of Julian the Apostate, came very close to destroying the
Sassanian Empire. Shapur steered Persia through these crises, and also
laid the foundations of a powerful learning tradition. That legacy was
to profoundly influence the later Islamic, and European, traditions
of learning and medicine.
serious attacks by the Arabs occurred when Shapur II was an infant.
The Arabs successfully launched deep raids into Persia from islands
in the Persian Gulf. Their primary targets were the southern territories
of the Sassanian Empire. The Bundahishn notes that in the reign
of Shapur son of Hormuz, the Arabs came and seized the banks of the
River Karun (Ulay) and remained there for many years pillaging and attacking
Geographical factors may have also encouraged the Arab assault, notably
the lowering of the water levels to the east of Arabia.2 Many of Iran's
border towns and villages were looted and destroyed, and their inhabitants
killed or taken as slaves. Emboldened by these raids, the Arabs even
began making thrusts into the interior of Mesopotamia, with hopes of
reaching Ctesiphon. The Arab successes were mainly due to the absence
of any meaningful Sassanian military response. The boy-emperor Shapur
II was surrounded by a large number of indecisive and mediocre andarzbad
(lit. advisors), who proved incompetent at stopping the Arabs. The Sassanian
military machine was certainly capable of at least containing the Arab
raids. It is a mystery as to why the advisors of the boy-king failed
to mobilize the armed forces to confront the threats.
The Arabs, however, may have erroneously concluded that their successes
had been due to military prowess. Rather than vacate the Sassanian territories
they had recently raided, the Arabs decided to forcefully settle in
southwestern Iran and the Sassanian Persian Gulf coastline. It was in
these circumstances that the young Shapur formally ascended the throne
in Ctesiphon. The advisors were pushed aside and Shapur immediately
ordered the Savaran to crush the Arab invaders and expel them back across
the border. The Bundahishn notes that
Shapur became of age and drove away those Arabs and took the land
from them. He killed many rulers of the Arabs and scattered many of
Mounted Arab troops on camel and horse lacked the ability to stand up
to the armored knights, especially in close-quarter fighting. Horse
and foot archery must have taken a terrible toll on the Arabs, and the
Sassanians also fielded a regular force of armored infantry that was
trained for close-quarter combat. The Savaran had little difficulty
when they entered the Arab-occupied southwest in the vicinity of modern
Persis and Khuzistan. Shapur's Savaran were overwhelmingly successful:
all occupied lands were liberated, including the entire Persian Gulf
coastline. Shortly after the liberation of the southern territories,
the Savaran boarded ships and sailed across the Persian Gulf. Shapur
was determined to greet the Arab raiders on their own soil: the Savaran
landed in Bahrain, Ghateef, and Yamama, and once again the Arabs were
overpowered and defeated, as corroborated by Islamic sources.
Judging from historical accounts, Shapur was especially ruthless in
the treatment of his defeated Arab foes. One clearly embellished account
incredibly states that Shapur had his Arab prisoners led to captivity
across the desert on a rope threaded through their pierced shoulders.
The Arabs of Arabia's interior, Bahrain, and Yamama, were to remember
their humiliating defeats and nurse a multi-generational grievance against
the Sassanians, brutally expressed in the Arab invasions of the 7th
The seriousness of the Arab raids prompted the Sassanian high command
to take military measures to protect the southern regions against future
assaults. Defensive walls began to be constructed along the western
regions of modern-day southern Iraq in an attempt to contain future
Bedouin raids. The model for these walls was at least partly derived
from the Roman system along the Romano-Syrian borders further west.
Shapur's defenses facing Arabia became known as the Khandaq-e-Shapur
(Shapur's ditch). The Sassanians also cultivated friendly relations
with those Arab tribes who had earlier entered the Mesopotamian plains
near Syria. Of these, the Bani Lakhm or Lakhmids proved to be excellent
warriors who maintained the peace along the southern frontiers. The
Sassanians soon trained and equipped the Lakhmids to fight like the
Savaran. The settling of warrior peoples along the Empire's borders
may have been inspired by the Roman limitanei system.
II prepares for war
Soon after the conclusion of hostilities in the south, the Sassanians
were faced with challenging developments in Armenia. In 312, Emperor
Constantine (r. AD 306-337) recognized Christianity as one of the religions
of Rome. Constantine rebuilt the ancient city of Byzantium on the Bosphorus,
which became Constantinople, the capital of the eastern Roman Empire,
or Byzantium. The Byzantines, however, were referred to as Romans or
Rum by their contemporaries and chief rivals, the Sassanians.
Tirdad (Tiridates), the King of Armenia, followed Constantine in accepting
Christianity. This development was viewed with trepidation by the magi
and Sassanian nobility. The fear was that the Romans could potentially
use religion to drive a wedge between the Armenians and the Iranians.
The magi, acting in concert with the nobles, pressured Shapur to force
the removal of Tirdad from the Armenian throne in favor of Arshak, who
maintained his ties to the Aryan cults and Zoroastrianism. Having achieved
this coup in the Caucasus, the magi now initiated a vigorous anti-Christian
campaign in Persia and Armenia. The stage was set for a bitter confrontation
between Rome and Persia, resulting in the division of Armenia and the
Caucasus between the two powers. Nevertheless, Armenia's adoption of
a Roman religion never severed her profound cultural and
historical ties to Persia. Armenian knights were in fact welcomed into
the highest ranks of the elite Savaran cavalry up to the last days of
the Sassanian dynasty.
The three sons of Constantine shared the throne on his death in 337.
The Christian Constantius (r. AD 337-361), who initially ruled just
the east of the empire, was hostile to Persia from the outset. From
the perspective of war planners in Ctesiphon, a major Roman assault
was inevitable. Rome would immensely benefit from the restoration of
a Christian monarch in Armenia, as this could diminish Sassanian influence.
Fear of a Roman invasion led Shapur to plan for a preemptive strike.
He commissioned his military commanders to make thorough military preparations,
especially in the introduction of military innovations.
of Shapur's army
with the super-heavy cavalry concept could have evolved
as a countermeasure against constantly improving Roman military performance.
The Sassanian army may have concluded that a heavily armored force of
Savaran could succeed in breaking through the Roman lines. The notion
of having these troops specializing in archery warfare appears to have
been abandoned in favor of a more powerful lance charge and close-quarter
fighting. The new heavily armored Savaran were armed with a plethora
of hand-to-hand weapons, such as swords, daggers, darts, maces, etc.
These troops were trained and armed to break through Roman lines, and
maintain close-quarter combat against Roman troops. Missile support
was provided by the armored horse archers.
Sassanian doctrine placed the super-heavy Savaran knights
in the van, followed closely behind and in the flanks by the regularly
armored Savaran and armored horse archers. While the new armored
fist certainly came as a surprise to the Romans at first, by the
time of Julian's invasion of Persia they had learnt to exploit their
weaknesses. These were limited battlefield vision due to helmet design,
and heavy armor, which drastically limited endurance and combat time
on the battlefield. In practice, the battlefield merits of the new super-heavy
cavalry proved at best mixed against Julian. It also proved to be a
total failure against the Hephthalite Huns.
The Sassanians appear to have adopted the war elephant from their Kushan
contacts. Shapur II's battle elephants are reported by the Romans:
With them, 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.
were also used to combat Emperor Julian during his invasion of Persia
in 363. These operated closely with regular and experimental super-heavy
Savaran in strike packages against Roman troops. The elephant's key
advantage in those battles would have been its high platform, allowing
for accurate and devastating archery. Later reports by Arabs describe
Sassanian elephants entering battle in elaborate regalia and decorations.
Western historians have often derided the quality of Persia's infantry,
basing their conclusions on Greek experience against the Achaemenids.
The Roman impression of Sassanian infantry is also negative. Nevertheless,
Ammianus Marcellianus does provide descriptions of a heavy professional
Sassanian infantry force. While these certainly stood and fought at
Ctesiphon, they were defeated by the forces of Julian and were forced
to retreat. The Sassanians were cognizant of the merits of a heavy infantry
force and made efforts to raise such units to the last days of their
dynasty. These, however, could never match their Byzantine counterparts,
obliging the Sassanians to rely on their Savaran cavalry as their primary
strike force. The most effective infantry to come from Sassanian Persia
were the Dailamites, who began to noticeably appear in the armies of
By the time of Shapur II, the Sassanians were successfully applying
their engineering skills towards the use of water in siege warfare.
This was vividly demonstrated by the forces of Shapur II in the siege
of Nisibis and the Antioch campaign of 540. The Sassanians were not
only highly capable hydrodynamic engineers, but were equally adept at
bridge building. In addition to military techniques, the Sassanians
employed a variety of other methods to facilitate the capture of an
enemy fortress. One technique was to attach false and alarmist messages
to arrows and then shoot these into the enemy fortress. Spies and sympathizers
were also used to collect information, sow confusion and discord, and
to undermine the morale of the defenders. After the defeat of Julian
the Apostate in 363, Sassanian engineers were able to closely examine
the excellently constructed Roman defenses. Shapur ordered his engineers
to develop similar defenses along the Romano-Sassanian borders. The
Sassanians soon developed an impressive array of forts, walls, ditches,
and observations posts all along the Roman frontier, stretching to southern
Mesopotamia and Arabia.