Ancient Warfare Volume V, 3

Theme: The Last Great Enemy: Rome and the Sassanid Empire

Introduction: Paul McDonnell-Staff, 'Introduction to the theme'.

The Sassanid Empire would prove to be the last of the Persian middle-eastern empires, and would also be the last great ‘civilised’ rival of Rome. The Great Achaemenid Persian Empire, founded by Cyrus the Great, had displaced the Babylonians in the Middle-East. Ultimately, it sprawled from the Mediterranean to northern India. This empire, the largest in the world, had been overthrown by the meteoric career of a western ‘barbarian’ named Alexander of Macedon, but he did not survive to consolidate his conquest and it quickly split up with various parts being ruled by Alexander’s successors, who warred among one another with none succeeding in re-uniting the former Achaemenid Empire.

The source: Christian Koepfer, 'The Dura Europos finds in a wider context - Puzzling equipment'

In 1974, the German archaeologist and historian Jürgen Oldenstein handed in his PhD thesis titled Zur Ausrüstung römischer Auxiliareinheiten (On the equipment of Roman auxiliary units), which was eventually published in 1976. Since then, this catalogue has become one of the most important references for third-century Roman ‘military objects’ (mostly small metal objects and weapon parts), if not the most important.

Theme: Patryk Skupniewicz, 'Sassanid Society and the army it spawned - King, knights and pawns'. Illustrated by Dariusz Bufnal.

Chess is believed to have made its way to Persia from India during the Sassanid era, where it was quickly embraced by the courtiers, joining backgammon as their games of choice. In fact, the generalities of chess seem to reflect the battles of the era. The chess board seems to offer everything the Sassanid commander had at their disposal: cheap and slow infantry acting as a kind of field fortification, elephants, two types of cavalry, an elite formation of the high commanders, and a royal guard moving with steadfast dignity.

The Soldier: Ardeshir Radpour, 'Sassanid medium cavalry'

Undoubtedly the most famous part of the Sassanid armed forces was the armored cavalry. They were the Persian mainstay on the battlefield. They were referred to by both enemy Roman authors such as Ammianus Marcellinus and Procopius as well as Persian sources. They figure very prominently in the detailed, but stylized reliefs at Taq-e Bostan, Naqsh-e Rostam and Firuzabad. Armored cavalry can also be seen on decorated metalwork (plates and dishes). Finally, at least some parts of their equipment have been found in warrior graves, including helmets, armored gloves and decorated swords and scabbards.

Theme: Sheda Vasseghi, 'A Persian perspective of Shapur II - Epitome of a king'.

He was called Zol-aktaf or “he who pierces shoulders” by the Arabs whom he forcefully subdued at the age of sixteen, securing the Persian Gulf region from their repeated plundering and pillaging. The longest reigning Sassanid king, Shapur II (309-379 AD), epitomizes the Iranian king, especially as a result of his handling of the Arab threats. His memory remains in the depths of an Iranian consciousness still coping with the devastating invasion of the Muslims in the seventh century.

Theme: Ian Hughes, 'The Battle of Callinicum, April 19 531 - Belisarius undone'. Illustrated by Igor Dzis

In 527 war began between the Persians under Kavadh I and the Eastern Roman Empire under Justin. Shortly afterwards, Justin died and his nephew, the famous Justinian I, was acclaimed emperor. The war continued, with the Persians winning several battles. Early in the campaign Belisarius was appointed to lead troops, but suffered reverses at Tanurin and at Mindouos. Then he did the impossible.

Theme: Ross Cowan, 'Adapting to the enemy in the Sassanid wars - Cataphracts and siegecraft'

The Romans were proud of their adaptability in war and willingness to adopt the arms and tactics of their enemies. The classic articulation of this willingness is attributed to Julius Caesar: “Our ancestors were never lacking in wisdom or courage, and yet pride did not keep them from adopting foreign institutions, provided they were honourable. They took their javelins and shields from the Samnites, the insignia of their magistrates from the Etruscans. In short, whatever they found suitable among allies or foes, they put in practice at home with the greatest enthusiasm, preferring to imitate rather than envy the successful.” (Sallust, The War With Catiline 51.37-38)

The Tactic: Robert Vermaat, 'Maurice's Fulcum - The late Roman shield-wall'.

The Fulcum first appears in the Strategikon (see also AW III.4), a late 6th-century military treatise written in Greek by (almost certainly) the Emperor Maurice (582-602). In this treatise, Maurice is mainly concerned with the organisation, training, tactics, and everyday routines of the Roman cavalry, and to a lesser extend the infantry. One of the great advantages of this is the addition of Latin commands for the benefit of his readers, information not used in earlier Roman tactica.

Special: David Karunanithy, 'Demetrius the Besieger at Rhodes, 305 BC - Like an actor on stage'. Illustrated by Sebastian Schulz

“No painter or sculptor ever achieved a likeness of him. His features had at once grace and strength, dignity and beauty and there was blended with their youthful eagerness a certain heroic look and a kingly majesty that were hard to imitate” (Plutarch, Demetrius 2.2). Drawing on the lost eyewitness account of Hieronymus of Cardia, both Plutarch and Diodorus as well as others describe Demetrius the Besieger as blessed with a distinguished appearance and striking good looks (Diodorus 19.81.4, 20.92.2-4; Polybius 11.3.9; Aelian, Varia Historia 9.9, 12.14; Suda s.v. Demetrios).

The debate: Duncan Campbell, 'Archimedes' secret weapons - Smoke and mirrors'. Illustrated by Andrew Brozyna

When Rome declared war on Syracuse in 214 BC, the engineer and mathematician Archimedes, a native of the city, was asked to prepare the defences. His solution was to construct a sophisticated system of artillery batteries, incorporating long-range, mediumrange, and short-range machines, alongside other devices. The most famous of these devices was the ‘Iron Hand’, designed to grab the attacking Roman ships and lift them out of the sea. But a far more futuristic device is often attributed to Archimedes. This was the ‘Heat Ray’, which utilised mirrors in order to focus the power of the sun into a destructive beam. But was Archimedes really the architect of such a weapon?

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