Sasanid Empire

Studies on Mounted Warfare in Asia

A cat at the tomb of the poet Hafiz in Shiraz.

I am not writing new posts for this blog right now due to some personal emergencies, a summer I want to enjoy, and the death of my father. I have a post scheduled every two weeks until the end of September. But I seem to be getting some new visitors from Bret Devereaux’s blog.

So if you like big ideas about warfare before gunpowder, this week I would like to recommend a book by Eduard Alofs published as four articles in volumes 21 and 22 of the journal War in History in 2014 and 2015 (parts i, part ii, part iii and part iiii). Alofs did something which not many historians do which was write a general model of warfare from the Syr Darya to the Nile in the period 550 to 1350 CE. He sees two main military traditions in this region: the Iranian (the kind which the Strategikon of emperor Maurice describes, armies centred around armoured horsemen with bows and lances which come to the battlefield on foot, mule, or camel) and the Turanian (the kind which Frankish writers complain about Turks practicing, based on unarmoured horsemen with a string of spare horses and a few better-armed men with their own spare horses). To put this together, he read primary sources in Arabic, Greek, Persian, and Latin. Here is what he has to say about shields:

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A Sasanid Rock Relief

A relief of an enthroned king carved into a cliff over a natural spring
An overview of the relief at the spring, with some Franks admiring it. Photo by Sean Manning, May 2016.

On Friday morning a week ago, thick snow was falling on the green leaves in Innsbruck, and someone posted to the agade mailing list that Yale proposes to dissolve the Yale Babylonian Collection as an institution, reassign its curator to other work, and transfer it from the Sterling Library to closed storage where it will not be immediately accessible to scholarly visitors. I suppose that an institution with investments worth 25 billion dollars finds it difficult to afford such luxuries, gathered as they were in a softer time when workers could earn several dollars for a 12-hour shift in a steel factory. If you want to learn more you can find the petition Save the Yale Babylonian Collection on change.org. This week I want to tell a story about another community with heritage to protect and make accessible.

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An Armoured Horseman on a Sasanid Bulla

Clay bulla of a rider on an armoured horse in style of 6th or 7th century CE (late Sasanid period).  "Returned from the USA" to the National Archaeological Museum, Tehran.
Clay bulla of a rider on an armoured horse in style of 6th or 7th century CE (late Sasanid period). “Returned from the USA” to the National Archaeological Museum, Tehran.

In the national archaeological musuem in Tehran were a cluster of a dozen or so clay bullae: hanging attachments to a skin or papyrus document which could take a seal. The name is medieval, but the technique is much older. These ones come from the Sasanid period (6th or 7th century CE), and I suspect that they turned up on the art market or in a private collection and the Iranian government was able to show that they had left the country without permission. Several of them show armed men riding armoured horses.

Unfortunately, I had very limited time to take photos of the whole museum, and I do not have a polarizing filter for my camera to reduce glare from the case. The photo above is my best, but I have include several other legible photos below the fold. All are of the same bulla, but there were one or two others with armed men on them which I was not successful in photographing.

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The Elamite Relief at Naqš-e Rostam

A relief set deep into a mountainside of seven men standing on either side of a tall, crowned figure holding a sword

Naqš-e Rostam is famous because Darius and three of his successors were buried there in a new style of tomb cut deep into the rock, and for the mysterious stone cube (Kaˁba) which probably also dates to his reign. The reliefs by the Sasanid kings, and the long inscription of Shahpur boasting of his victories over the Romans, are also renowned.

If you climb up from the parking lot past the souvenir shops and toilets through the remains of the Sasanid ring wall, and follow the cliffs beneath the tombs of the kings of old and past the Kaˁba, you will find something else.
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Sasanid Archery on Silver in the Hermitage

Wrought and gilt silver plate with relief of a crowned archer on horseback shooting panthers
Plate with the king hunting predators. Chased and gilt silver. Iran, 7th century CE. Found as part of a treasure in the Perm Region, 1878. Acquired by the Hermitage in 1925 from the Counts Stroganov Collection. Photo by Sean Manning, September 2015.

In the comments section of an earlier post I have been talking with ryddragyn about archery on the border between the Roman and Sasanid empires around the sixth and seventh centuries CE. Often we do not have sources to answer all the questions which people have today about how soldiers used their weapons, because ancient people preferred to pass that kind of knowledge on in person. But it happens that we have many kinds of evidence for archery in this period, including slightly later archery manuals, books on generalship, a wide variety of works of art, the remains of archery equipment, and odd references in histories and other kinds of literature. I would say that we have at least as good evidence for how Romans and Persians shot at each other in the age of Khosrow and Heraclius as for how Greek hoplites fought one another in Xenophon’s day.

One of the most important pieces of evidence for how the Sasanid Persians drew their bows is a group of gilt silver plates and vases hammered with images of the king hunting with the bow on horseback. It happens that I was recently in St. Petersburg, and I was able to photograph many of these bowls and vases in the State Hermitage Museum. This week I thought I would post some of my photos. Because I have not shot a bow for too many years, nor read up on this period of history, I won’t try to provide a commentary. The captions for each photo are based on the English labels in the Hermitage.
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