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Sassanid Persian - DBA 73a&b

By Kevan Barwise

In AD 226 Ardashir I, a Persian vassal-king, rebelled against the Parthians, defeated them in the Battle of Hormuz, and founded a new Persian dynasty, that of the Sassanids. He then conquered several minor neighboring kingdoms, invaded India, levying heavy tribute from the rulers of the Punjab, and conquered Armenia. Within twenty years, Ardeshir I (224-241) created a vast empire that stretched as far as the Indus.

The Sassanids believed that they were the natural descendents to the Achaemenid. They revived the Persian culture and aggressively took what they saw as their natural place in dominating their neighbors. Ardeshir's son Shapur I (241-272) continued this expansion, conquering Bactria, and Kushan, while leading several campaigns against Rome. In 259, the Persian army defeated the Roman emperor Valerian at the battle of Edessa where more than 70,000 Roman soldiers were captured or slain.

The Roman Emperor Valerian tried to negotiate a peace with the Persian king, Shapur, but was captured by treachery and taken into captivity. Shapur used Valerian as a human stepping-stool to assist the Persian king in mounting his horse, thus subjecting a Roman emperor to the ultimate humiliation by a foreign leader. Valerian's body was later skinned to produce a lasting trophy of Roman submission!

Near the end of the 5th century a new enemy, the barbaric Ephthalites, or "White Huns," attacked Persia; they defeated the Persian king Firuz II in 483 and for some years thereafter exacted heavy tribute. It was not until the reign of Khosroe I (531-579), one of the greatest Sassanian rulers, that the Huns were beaten. Khosroe introduced many reforms he reorganized the army, reorganized the state religion and even redistributed nobles' wives! Khosroe I was renowned for his military and diplomatic skills and was reputed as the "Just". During his time the game of chess had been brought to his court from India and his chief minister, Buzarjomehr is reputed to have invented backgammon.

Khosroe II came close to achieving the Sassanid dream of restoring the Achaemenid boundaries when Jerusalem fell to him and Constantinople was under his siege in AD 626. However, Khosroe II had over extended his army and over taxed the people. When the Byzantine Emperor Heraclius in a tactical move abandoned his besieged capital and sailed up the Black Sea to attack Persia from the rear, there was no resistance. Heraclius then marched through Mesopotamia and western Persia sacking Takht-i Sulayman and the Palace of Dastgerd. After the death of Khosroe II, and over a period of 14 years and twelve successive kings, the Sassanid Empire weakened considerably, and the power of the central authority passed into the hands of the generals. The Sassanid never recovered. Internal dissension and a long brutal conflict with the Byzantine, left Sassanid Persia pray for the Arabs.

In 636 AD the Arabs swept into the Euphrates basin, in a three day battle at Al-Qadissiyeh in present day Iraq, they defeated Yazdgerd III's army and captured the capital Ctesiphon.

Army Composition

(73a only)
Early Sassanid armies utilized cataphract cavalry. These heavily armored lancers are likely successors of the Parthian cataphracts and so would have been fully armored riders on fully armored horses. After contact with the Huns greater importance was placed on mobility and the bow and hence the cataphract fell out of use. The cataphract does not appear in the Later Sassanid List.
(73a & b)
The bulk of the Sassanid army is composed of noble cavalry. As with European armies of the time the best equipment was only available to the upper classes of Sassanid culture. Noble cavalry was required by Khosroe I to bring both a lance as well as the normal bow to battle. Obviously not all obeyed. Early horse armour was felt (if any), while later cavalry was partially armoured consisting of metal lamillae.
1x3Cv or El
(73a & b)
The Sassanids made extensive use of elephants they obtained from their Kushan and Indian vassals. Elephants were used to attack the enemy line and to guard the rear and baggage.
(73a & b)
Some of the light cavalry used by the Sassanids would be based on the Parthian horse archer armed with the bow, while others would be Arab or Hun allies who would have included javelins and a shield.
2x4Sp (73a)
4x4Sp (73b)
These spearmen represent the peasant levy who were brought along for siege and fortification work. They were armed with a long spear and a large wicker shield.
1x2Ps Skirmishers would have been shieldless and armed with bow (73a & 73b) or sling.


The enemies of the Early Sassanid include Kushan (#21b), Early Armenian (#44), Parthian (#51), Middle Imperial Roman (#69), Palmyran (#76), Late Roman (East) (#77b), Hunnic (#79).

The enemies of the Later Sassanid armies include Later Sassanid (#73b), Medieval Hindu (#83a), Early Byzantine (#86), Maurikian Byzantine (#91), Khazar (#93), Arab Conquest (#96).


The greatest strength of the Sassanid army lays in the mobility of its cavalry. The cavalry can be deployed in two mobile wings with anti-infantry center. Against mainly infantry armies the cavalry should be threatening the flanks and exposing the camp. Any enemy elements sent to rescue the camp can be quickly isolated and overlapped.

Care must be taken not to over commit the Early Sassanid infantry against stronger infantry armies. In these situations, it may be best to refuse the spearmen while the cavalry win or lose the battle, especially if facing blades.

I favour the option of taking the elephant, especially when opposed by warband or cavalry opponents. Although the elephant can consume PIPs and will require support against enemy light troops it is the strongest element in DBA and is extremely effective against warband - it is one of the classic "mis"-matches of DBA. Also, do not forget the psychological advantage that the elephant offers as your opponent tries to counter it.

The Sassanid army is weakest in bad going. It is best to stay away from it. The sole Psiloi can guard an important area of terrain.


A suggestion for a camp would be to use an embankment in which was placed the national battle standard, the drafsh i Kavyan (or Kaviani). This was a huge flag perhaps 15 by 22 feet, embroidered in gold, silver, and gems and was placed on crossed timbers. It apparently was present at major battles from the dynasty's inception, it indicated the presence of the King of Kings and was guarded by a circle of spearmen surrounded by a ring of archers.


"Sassanian Armies - The Iranian Empire" by David Nicolle from Montvert. This is an excellent resource containing a general examination of the Sassanian military.

"Rome's Enemies, Parthians and Sassanid Persians" from Osprey Books. (Available in De Bellis Bookstore)

"Rome's Eastern Frontier 400 AD-635 AD", Dodgson & Lieu. This is a good reference containing many eyewitness battle accounts.

About the Author

Kevan Barwise has been gaming Sassanids in WRG and DBx for the past 20 years. He welcomes your comments and questions. Contact him at kbarwise@acay.com.au.

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Comments, questions and suggestions welcome. Send them to Chris Brantley, IamFanaticus@gmail.com.

Last Updated: Nov. 7, 2000