Dr. Ilkka Syvanne’s Book Review of Kaveh Farrokh, Armies of Ancient Persia: the Sassanians

Dr. Ilkka Syvanne (Helsinki University & University of Haifa) has published a book review of Kaveh Farrokh’s 2017 text, Armies of Ancient Persia: the Sassanians in the Persian Heritage journal. This can be downloaded from Academia.edu (pdf):

Syvanne, I. (2019). Review of Kaveh Farrokh, Armies of Ancient Persia: the Sassanians. Persian Heritage, 93, p.15.

The text of that review in the Persian Heritage journal has been reprinted below.


The Armies of Ancient Persia: The Sassanians (Pen & Sword, Barnsley  2017) by Kaveh Farrokh is a very welcome addition to the books dealing with Sasanian Persia.  Dr. Farrokh has divided his monograph into thematically organized chapters which deal with all of the issues relating to the Sasanian armed forces so that he analyses for example the organization, equipment, culture, training, personal combat skills, combat tactics, siege tactics, naval matters,  and military history to provide a complete overview of the Sasanian armed forces throughout its history.

  • Publisher: Pen and Sword (Oct. 17 2017) – Available at Pen & Sword or Amazon.com
  • ISBN-10: 1848848455
  • ISBN-13: 978-1848848450
  • Hardcover: 256 pages

In addition to this, it includes useful illustrative examples of battles, sieges, equipment (e.g. in the Plates which also includes re-enactor photos) and maps.

Savārān officer engaged in archery. Recreations by Ardashir Radpour (courtesy A. Radpour & H. Martin).

Farrokh’s monograph is particularly valuable for its analysis of the military terms, changes is tactics and organization and because it corrects many earlier misunderstandings.  The book relates all of the changes in organization, equipment and tactics throughout the existence of the Empire and provides an overview of the influence of Persian military and its military culture on other peoples and on the posterity.  The actual narrative contents are as follows:

1)     Martial Ardour, Origins and Missions of the Spah.

2)     Organization: Military Titles and Recruitment

3)     Military Reforms of the Sixth Century CE

4)     Military Training, Polo, the Hun, and Military Music

5)     Archery

6)     The Savaran

7)     Infantry, Auxiliary Contingents and Naval Forces

8)     Preparations for War

9)     Tactics and Strategies along the Roman and Caucasian Frontiers

10)  Logistics and Support

11)  Post-Battle Scenarios and Diplomacy

12)  The Spah in Central Asia: Warfare, Military Developments and Tactics

13)  Military Architecture

14)  Siege Operations

15)  Sassanian Military Culture

16)  Military Weaknesses of the Spah

17)  The Fall of the Spah and the Empire

18)  Post-Sassanian Resistance and Rebellion against the Caliphate

19)  Legacy

As a military historian (I am Dr. Ilkka Syvanne) whose areas of specialization include Greek, Roman, late-Roman, East Roman (Byzantine) and Iranian military history, I do obviously have disagreements with some of the interpretations and conclusions adopted by Kaveh Farrokh (obviously we do still agree on most issues).  For example I date the four-fold strategic division of the Iranian Empire to an earlier period on the basis of Ammianus (e.g.  Syvanne, Military History of Late Rome vol.1, p.113), interpret the developments in tactics, equipment and archery differently (e.g.  MHLR Vol.1 p.113ff.; The Age of Hippotoxotai esp. chapter 10.1, Bahram V Gur in Historia i Swiat, two forthcoming books dealing with Iran) and many of the battles and sieges too (e.g. Farrokh p.155ff. vs. Syvanne, MHLR vol. 1 p.211ff., Desperta Ferro/Julian, forthcoming Gallienus, together with the forthcoming vols. of MHLR), but this should only to be expected.  There are no two historians who would agree on everything especially when the evidence is such as we have for this period.  There are many different ways to interpret the evidence and this should always be kept in mind.  It is also for this reason that Kaveh Farrokh’s book is so valuable.  He provides a different perspective and interpretation of many events that give the readers the possibility and also the reason to ponder which of the different interpretations might be the correct one or if there even exist such a possibility.  Despite our best efforts to be impartial and to seek honestly the truth, we historians are still humans with our subjective views and therefore we are all liable to make mistakes and/or interpret the evidence differently.

Rock-cut statue of a late Sasanian ruler, possibly of Khosrow “Parveez” II (6th century CE), In situ Ṭāq-e Bostān, (photo by Prof. David Nicolle).

In sum, Dr. Kaveh Farrokh is an acknowledged expert of Iranian history and for a good reason.  This book proves this once again.  He has been among those historians who have done the most to increase our understanding of Iranian history and culture.  Indeed, the previous two to three decades has witnessed ever increasing interest in all things related to Middle East and this fortunately includes also the ancient pre-Islamic Iran, the study of which is absolutely necessary if we want to understand today’s phenomena in the Middle East, but a lot of work still needs to be done and I am not saying this because I am among those who have contributed to this discussion and have also written a number of books for the Pen &Sword Publishing.  I am saying this because there really is still a lot to be researched and analysed in ancient Iranian history that is absolutely necessary for the understanding of how this great Empire has affected our history and our very existence today.  Kaveh Farrokh’s book is not only a very good addition to this literature and discussion, but it is also a book which demonstrates also to the doubting Thomas’s that it is worthwhile to study Iranian history.  His conclusions demonstrate the importance of understanding the Iranian history.   I wholeheartedly recommend the buying of this book.

Two more textbooks on Sassanian military history published in 2018: The Library of Social Sciences Book Exhibit displayed the following textbooks during the Eleventh Annual ASMEA Conference in November 2018: (Left) A Synopsis of Sassanian Military Organization and Combat Units (Kaveh Farrokh, Katarzyna Maksymiuk & Gholamreza Karamian, 2018) – click here to download in pdf from Academia.edu...  and (Right) The Siege of Amida (Kaveh Farrokh, Katarzyna Maksymiuk & Javier Sánchez-Gracia, 2018) – click here to download in pdf from Academia.edu…

Persian Influence on Greek Thought

The article “Persian Influence on Greek Thought” by Jacques Duchesne-Guillemin was originally posted on the Encyclopedia Iranica on December 15, 2002 and last updated on February 23, 2012. This article is also available in print (Vol. XI, Fasc. 3, pp. 319-321). Kindly note that the images and accompanying captions inserted below do not appear in the original version by the Encyclopedia Iranica.

As this posting has arrived prior to Nowruz March 21, 2019, the article “Happy Nowruz! نوروز خجسته باد” by Dr Mohammad Ala is being shared as well. Dr Mohammad Ala is the winner of Cinema Vérité Award on December 16, 2018, The Panda Award in October 19, 2018, and The Grand Prix Film Italia Award in June 19-23, 2013.


The idea of oriental, and especially Iranian, origins of Greek philosophy was endowed by antiquity with a legendary aura, either by declaring that Pythagoras had been Zoroaster’s pupil in Babylon (a city where neither of them had probably ever been), or by writing, as did Clement of Alexandria (Clement of Alexandria, 5.9.4), that Heraclitus had drawn on “the barbarian philosophy,” an expression by which, in view of the proximity of Ephesus to the Persian empire, he must have meant primarily the Iranian doctrines.

A drawing of Zoroaster that was made by a Manichean initiate at Dura Europus (Source: Clioamuse); for more on the creed of Mani, see here…

The problem, studied seriously since the beginning of the 19th century, has often been negatively solved by the great historians of Greek philosophy; but it seems, nevertheless, repeatedly to rise anew like the Phoenix from its ashes, as though the temptation to compare the two traditions and discover a bond of interdependence between them periodically became irresistible.

Map of the Achaemenid Empire drafted by Kaveh Farrokh on page 87 (2007) for the booShadows in the Desert: Ancient Persia at War-Персы: Армия великих царей-سایه‌های صحرا-. The empire’s vast network of roads and communications facilitated economic contacts between different geographical regions. These same networks appear to have also facilitated the exchange of ideas between the Hellenic and Iranian worlds.

Pherecydes of Syros was one of the first Greek prose writers and may be considered, as the author of a theogony-cosmogony, to have been a precursor of the Ionian philosophers. He told of the marriage of Zās and Chthoniē. Zās, genitive Zantos, is a conflation of Zeus with the Luvian god Šanta, which points to a region in western Asia Minor from which Pherecydes’ father Babys or Babis originated (West, p. 243). A third god in Pherecydes’s narrative was said to have produced from his own seed, fire, wind, and water; he is called in some sources Kronos, in others Chronos. Both gods were later identified, but we do not know which of the two Pherecydes meant. If he meant Chronos, the question arises of a borrowing from Iran. Zurvan, mentioned as a minor deity in the Avesta (see Zaehner, p. 57; Gray, Foundations, p. 124), was ignored by Zarathushtra, perhaps on purpose, as Mithra was also omitted. Anyhow, Zurvan is attested in Elamite tablets (509-494 B.C.E.) in the name Izrutukma (i.e., *Zru[va]taukma “descended from Zurvan”; see Schwartz, p. 687). The myth of his giving birth to Ohrmazd and Ahriman as recounted by Eznik Kołb in the 5th century (q.v.; see Zaehner, pp. 60-61) and not attested, indirectly before Eudemus of Rhodes (4th century) may, however, have had Indo-Iranian roots, for in India Prajāpati, connected with time, offered sacrifice, like Zurvan in Iran, in order to get a progeny and, just like him, doubted once about the efficacy of his ritual. Pherecydes may therefore, if he wrote about Chronos, have borrowed him from the Magi who, perhaps under the threat of Cyrus, had emigrated to Asia Minor.

The celebration of “Surva” in modern-day Bulgaria. Local lore traces this festival to the Iranian God Zurvan. This folklore system appears to be linked to the Bogomil movement. Interestingly, much of the Surva theology bears parallels with elements of Zurvanism and Zoroastrianism (Picture Source: Surva.org).

Anaximander, according to Hippolytus’ evidence (Refutatio omnium haeresium1.6), taught that the spheres of the heavenly bodies followed one another in this order, starting from the earth: the stars, the moon, and the sun. The Avesta (Hādoxt nask 2.15; Yt. 12.9 ff.) teaches that the souls of the dead reach paradise through three intermediate stages: humata (good thoughts), huxta (good words), and huuaršta (good deeds). Now, according to the Pahlavi books (e.g., Mēnōg ī xrad57.13), each of these stages is respectively identified with the place of the stars, the moon, and the sun.

Anaximander (c.610-c.546 BCE) wielding a sundial, as represented by a 3rd century CE Roman mosaic in Germany, city of Trier at Johannisstraße (Johannis street) (Source: Public Domain & NYU Exhibitions).

It is obvious that the stars, the moon, and the sun follow each other in the order of increasing light, and this progression is completed in a fourth and final stage, which is the destination point of the soul’s journey; one of the Pahlavi names of Paradise is, in fact, anaγrān “beginningless (lights)” (Frahang ī pahlavīk 28). To each stage there corresponds a category of living beings: to the stars, the plants; to the moon, the animals; to the sun, man; to the beginningless lights, the gods or God. The hierarchy between these beings is obvious. So we can explain, through Iran and by means of an organic body of beliefs, Anaximander’s doctrine on the spheres of the stars, the moon, and the sun (see also Panaino, pp. 205-26).

A detail of the painting “School of Athens” by Raphael 1509 CE (Source: Zoroastrian Astrology Blogspot). Raphael has provided his artistic impression of Zoroaster (with beard-holding a celestial sphere) conversing with Ptolemy (c. 90-168 CE) (with his back to viewer) and holding a sphere of the earth. Note that contrary to Samuel Huntington’s “Clash of Civilizations” paradigm, the “East” represented by Zoroaster, is in dialogue with the “West”, represented by Ptolemy.  Prior to the rise of Eurocentricism in the 19th century (especially after the 1850s), ancient Persia was viewed positively by the Europeans.

Everything that exists comes, according to Anaxi-menes (Diels, I, p. 22) from a single substance, aēr, which notably means wind. In Iran it is said in the Dēnkart (278.14) that “He who quickens the world and is the life of living things is Wāy, etc.” The existence of a great god Vayu, already Indo-Iranian, is warranted by similar testimonies in the Rig Veda (4.46 etc.).

Anaximenes’ explanation of eclipses as being caused by dark bodies has its counterpart in Dāmād nask, in Šāyest nē šāyest (12.5). These dark sun and dark moon are not mentioned in the Avesta, but, as writes West (p. 108), “One would not expect to find a theory of eclipses in the Avesta,” at least not in the extant, liturgical part of it.

The Vendidad Sadeh manuscript copied in 1647 CE from Yazd Iran housed in the British Library (Source: Religiondocbox.com).

The question of an Iranian origin of Heraclitus’s doctrines was raised by Friedrich Daniel Schleiermacher, whose work as well as that of his successors Friedrich Creuzer, August Gladisch, etc., have been reviewed by Martin Lutchfield West (pp. 166 ff.). There are several fragments which expound Heraclitus’s reflections on fire. “This cosmic order, which is the same for all, was not made by any of the gods or of mankind, but was ever and is and shall be ever-living fire, kindled in measure and quenched in measure” (Fr. 29); “the transformations of fire: first sea, and of sea, half is earth, half fiery water spout” (Fr. 32); “all things are counterparts of fire, and fire of all things, as goods of gold and gold of goods” (Fr. 28). According to Heraclitus, “fire lives the death of the earth, and air lives the death of fire, water lives the death of air, and earth that of water” (Fr. 76). Another fragment names lightning: “The thunder-bolt steers all things” (Fr. 64). And another one says that fire is to judge all things at the end of the world (Fr. 72).

Depiction by Dutch baroque painter Johannes Moreelse (c. 1603–1634) made in 1630 of Heraclitus (c.535-c.475 CE) (Source: Public Domain).

In the Gāθās the role of fire is fundamental. Twice Zarathushtra calls upon “the fire of Ahura Mazdā,” either to make offerings to it (Y. 43.9) or to acknowledge its protection (Y. 46.7). In all the other passages, fire is an instrument of ordeal. Ordeal is found only once in the Gāθās (Y. 32.7) as an actual practice, but several times there is reference to a future ordeal which is to be made by means of fire to separate the good from the wicked. Here fire is the instrument of truth or justice (aṧa, q.v.), from which it derives its power (hence the epithet aṧa-aojah). This connection of fire with aṧa is constant, e.g, “I wish to think, insofar as I am able, of making unto thy fire (O Ahura Mazdā!) the offering of veneration for Aṧa” (Y. 43). And when each of the elements are placed under the protection of the Aməṧa Spəntas, who surround Ahura Mazdā (qq.v.), Aṧa is the patron of fire.

The main fire altar at the Atash-kade (Zoroastrian Fire-Temple) of Baku in the Republic of Azerbaijan (known as Arran and the Khanates until 1918) (Picture Source: Panoramio). This site is now registered with UNESCO as a world heritage site. For more on Zoroastrian and Mithraic temples in the Caucasus, see here…

There was also a doctrine of cosmic fire. Fire penetrated all the six stages of creation. Although this is not attested before Zādspram’s Wīzīdagīhā (1.25), its antiquity is proven by the appearance, both in Iran and in India, of two equivalent classifications, one in three fires, one in five.

Zoroastrian magi from Kerman during the Jashne Sadeh ceremonies (Source: Heritage Institute).

Parallel to the relationship of fire with Aṧa is Heraclitus’s doctrine that fire is ruled by Dikē “Justice” (not by the Logos as is the case in the Stoic interpretation of Heraclitus). As West writes (p. 137), “the sun’s measures are maintained, through the Erinyes, by Dikē, and since the sun’s measures cannot be isolated from the measures of the world at large, it must be possible to say that Dikē governs the whole process.” Heraclitus’s god watches men the whole time, not only by day. Ahura Mazdā sees all that men do (Y. 31.13) and is not to be deceived (Y. 45.4). He is never asleep and never dulled by narcotics (Vd 19.20). “Heraclitus’ conception of the soul’s history is, from a Greek point of view, novel. It has a deep ‘account’ that increases it-self . . . According to the Pahlavi books [e.g., Mēnōg ī xrad 2.118 ff.], at death, the soul’s good and bad deeds are counted up, and determine its fate” (West, p. 184).

The investiture of Sassanian monarch Khosrow II (r. 590, interregnum, 591 – 628 CE) at Tagh-e-Bostan (Photo: Shahyar Mahabadi, 2004).  Note the broadsword held by Khosrow II at center, flanked by Ahura-Mazda at right and Goddess Anahita to the left. The straight broad sword appears often in Sassanian arts. It is worth noting that the Qajars also carved reliefs  at Tagh-e-Bostan, perhaps in an aendeavor to associate their dynasty with more ancient Iranian icons.  

The fravašis (q.v.) are parallel to Heraclitus’s hero-spirits and to the immortals “that live the death of mortals.” “Heraclitus’ novel emphasis on the function of Eris or Polemos in determining the apportionment of the natural world, his conviction that opposition is the essence of the universe has long seemed to comparativists a counterpart of the Zoroastrian doctrine of agelong war between Ahura Mazdā and Aŋra Mainiiu. Heraclitus strikes a prophetic note that has reminded more than one reader of Zoroaster” (West, p. 186).

A marble representation of Greek philosopher Plato (428/427 or 424/423-348/347 BCE) housed at the Musei Capitolini (Accession number: MC1377) in Rome, Italy (Source: Marie-Lan Nguyen in Public Domain). Plato is known as one of the primary founders of Western philosophy.

Pausanias attributed to the Chaldaeans and the Magi an influence on Plato’s teachings. And Aristotle at one time considered Plato the founder of a religion of the Good and therefore a continuator of the work of the ancient prophet (Jaeger, pp. 13 ff.). In the myth of Er, the souls must choose between two paths: on the left is the way to descend from heaven to hell, on the right is the ascent of the souls who rise from the Tartarus up to the stars (Replica 614 CD). The very idea of this ascension was quite new in Greece and must have come from the Zoro-astrian belief in the primeval choice and in the Činuuatō Pərətu (see ČINWAD PUHL) separating the good from the wicked. Plato may have heard of it through Eudo-xus of Cnidus, who was well aware of the doctrines of the Magi. In the myth of the Politic, Plato envisaged the idea of an alternate predominance of a good god and an evil god, an idea he may have learned from the Magi. But he decidedly refused it. In the Timaeus time is given as the mobile image of immobile eternity, maybe a Platonic transposition of the Iranian distinction between “time long autonomous” and “time infinite” (Av. zurvan darəγō.xᵛaδāta– and zurvan akarana-; see Air Wb., cols. 46 696). The Timaeus owed much to Democritus, whose relationship with the teachings of the Magi is well attested. In the Phaedrus, Plato, with reference to Hippocrates, views man as an image of the world, a microcosm, an idea propounded in the Dāmdāt nask, a lost part of the Avesta summarized in the Bundahišn and whose antiquity is proved by the Indo-Iranian myth of a primeval man sacrificed and dismembered to form the different parts of the world (Duchesne Guillemin, 1958, pp. 72 ff.).

Léon-Alexandre Delhomme’s 1868 statue at the Lyon Museum of Fine Arts in France depicting Democritus (Source: Jean-Louis Lascoux in Public Domain).

Empedocles already shared the microcosm idea, which governed the conception of medicine he had inherited from the Cnidian school, influenced by Iran. He also declared that “the general law is widely extended through the ether of the vast dominion and the immense brightness of the sky,” (Fr. 38), which harks back to Heraclitus and, through him, to Zarathushtra proclaiming the coincidence of Aṧa with the light (Y. 31.7).

An engraving of Empedocles (c.490-c.430 BCE) as featured in the 1655 book “The History of Philosophy” (Source: Public Domain). Like the Hindu philosophers, Empedocles believed in the concept of reincarnation.

The Chaldaic Oracles, despite their fire-cult, probably owe nothing to Iran (contra: des Places, p. 13). Greek mágosmagikósmagía come from Old Persian maguš, but how to trace Iranian elements in Greek magic? The Zoroastrian pseudepigrapha were not written by Hellenized Magi, who may never have existed (R. Beck apud Boyce and Grenet, Zoroastrianism, pp. 491-565). Three kinds of medicine were distinguished, through spells, the knife, or herbs, both in Iran (Vd. 7.44) and in Greece (Pindar, 3.47-55), not elsewhere; borrowing seems, therefore, plausible, either way (Dumézil, pp. 20 ff.).

The Three Magi as depicted in Ravenna (Sant’Apollinare Nuovo), Italy (Source: Public Domain). Note the European depiction of Partho-Sassanian Iranian dress, caps and cloaks.


Ruhi Muhsen Afnan, Zoroaster’s Influence on Greek Thought, New York, 1965. Joseph Bidez, Eos ou Platon et l’Orient, Brussels, 1945. Joseph Bidez and Franz Cumont, Les mages hellénisés, 2 vols., Paris, 1938; repr. 1973. M. Burkert, Iranisches bei Anaximander, Rheinisches Museum 106, 1963, pp. 97-134. Clement of Alexandria, Stromata 5.9.4. Hermann Diels, ed. and tr., Die fragmente der Vorsokratiker, 3 vols., 1922. Jacques Duchesne Guillemin, The Western Response to Zoroaster, Ratanbai Katrak Lectures for 1956, Oxford, 1958. Idem, “Persische Weisheit in griechischem Gewande?” Harvard Theological Review, April 1956, pp. 115-22. Idem, “Notes on Zervanism in the Light of Zaehner’s Zurvan, with Additional References,” Journal of Near Eastern Studies 15, April 1956, pp. 108 ff. Idem, “D’Anaximandre à Empédocle: Contacts gréco-romano,” La Per-sia e il Mondo greco-romano, Accademia Nazionale dei Lincei, Rome, 1966, pp. 423-31. George Dumézil, Le Roman des Jumeaux, Paris, 1994. Gherardo Gnoli, “Zoroastro nelle fenti classiche,” Studi UrbinetiB Sciense umani e sociali 67, 1995-96, pp. 281-95. Idem, “Zoroastro nelle nestra cultura,” ibid., 68, 1997-98, pp. 205-19. Louis Gray, Foundations of Iranian Religion, Bombay, 1929. Werner Wilhelm Jaeger, “Aristotle’s Praise of Plato,” Classical Quarterly 21, 1927, pp. 13 ff. Wilhelm J. Wolff Koster, Le mythe de Platon, de Zarathoustra et des Chaldéens, Leiden, 1951. Antonio Panaino, “Uranographia Iranica: The Three Heavens in the Zoroastrian Tradition and the Mesopotamian Background,” in Rika Gyselen, ed., Au carrefour des religions: Mélanges offerts à Philippe Gignoux, Res Orientales 7, 1995, pp. 205-26. Pindar, Pythionikai, 3.47-53. Edouard des Places, ed. and tr., Oracles chaldaïques, Paris, 1971. Martin Schwarz, “The Religion of Achaemenian Iran,” in Camb. Hist. Iran II, pp. 664-97. Henrik Willem J. Surig, De betekeris van Logosbij Herakleitos volgens de traditie en de fragmenten, Nijmegen, 1951. Martin Litchfield West, Early Greek Philosophy and the Orient, Oxford, 1971 (to which the present article owes a great deal). Robert Charles Zaehner, Zurvan. A Zoroastian Dilemma, Oxford, 1955.

Cataphract Camels

The article “Cataphract camels” was originally published by the Weapons and Warfare: History and Hardware of Warfare outlet. The version printed below has been edited. Kindly note that two of the images and all accompanying captions do not appear in the original version of the article by Weapons and Warfare.

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The Parthians and early Sassanian Persians also made use of camel units; even experimented with cataphract camels. The early Sassanids have these armoured camels. That may mean they fought, it may only be an experiment to put off Roman javelin Light Cavalry who were deadly to cataphracts whose rear fighting factor was very poor. Contra Armati where cataphracts fight well to the rear, in reality surround them and they are dead meat because the armour blinds them. The Parthian and early Sassanid army was at times additionally supported by camel-borne troops. The animal could bear the weight of the warrior and his armour better and endure harshness longer than the horse; also, the archer could discharge his arrows from an elevated position. These would have made the division very desirable had it not been greatly hampered by Roman caltrop (tribulus) which, scattered on the battlefield, injured the spongy feet of the animal.

A curious creature in appearance, the Cataphract Camel is nevertheless an extremely formidable opponent. They are extremely heavy, and well-armed; in addition, the smell of camel tends to frighten horses. Carrying spears and maces like ordinary horse cataphracts, these units are equally unstoppable against both infantry and cavalry. Their enemies would be wise to treat them with respect.

A Chinese Northern Wei Dynasty (386-534 CE) terracotta sculpture housed at the Musée Cernuschi in Paris, France (Photo: Guillaume Jacquet in Public Domain). This sculpture is depicting a “Western foreigner” camel driver, possibly a Soghdian.

Nations in the Middle East occasionally fielded cataphracts mounted on camels rather than on horses, with obvious benefits for use in arid regions, as well as the fact that the smell of the camels, if up wind, was a guaranteed way of panicking enemy cavalry units that they came into contact with. Balanced against this is the relatively greater vulnerability of camel mounted units to caltrops, due to their having soft padded soles to their feet rather than hooves.

Cataphract camels are well armoured – camel and rider both – shock cavalry. Their primary purpose is to charge into the enemy, using weight and speed to cause additional disruption. The riders carry lances for the initial charge and long maces to continue fighting once in hand-to-hand combat. Recruited from among desert dwelling peoples these soldiers rely on their heavy armour for protection, and their camels are equally well protected. This heavy armour also means that, while they are slow to get moving, they are almost unstoppable in a full charge. They can be used against infantry like any other cataphracts, but their chief virtue is that the smell of the camels upsets horses, giving them an edge when fighting against cavalry.

A diagram by Dr. Ilkka Syvanne of a Parthian camel cataphract (Source: Syvanne, I. (2017). Parthian Cataphract vs. the Roman Army 53 BC-AD 224. HISTORIA I ŚWIAT, no. 6, pp.33-54).

Our source is a little early history written by the Roman senator Herodian. He wrote a history that starts with the death of Marcus Aurelius, covers the reign of the demented, tyrannical Commodus, his assassination, the subsequent civil wars, the rise and rule of Septimius Severus and the brief and blood-thirsty reigns of his various relatives, culminating in the rise and brutal fall of the demented teenage trans-sexual god-emperor Elagabalus. Something for everyone here, and a brief stage appearance by Parthian cataphract camels can only have added to this unedifying if colorful pageant. Anyway, Herodian IV.14.3 – the battle of Nisibis, AD 217:

“Meanwhile Artabanus was upon them with his vast and powerful army composed of many cavalry and an enormous number of archers and cataphracts who fought on camels, jabbing with long spears.” (Loeb translation)

To reinforce the point, the Loeb translation of Herodian, IV.14.3 has:

Meanwhile Artabanus was upon them with his vast and powerful army composed of many cavalry and an enormous number of archers and armoured riders (kataphraktous), who fought from the backs of camels with long spears, avoiding close combat.

There is no direct evidence for the Parthians using armoured camels. However, Herodian’s use of the word kataphraktous creates a problem. I have argued elsewhere that the word cataphracti and its Greek equivalent denotes heavily armoured men on armoured horses, the type that later became known in the Roman army as clibanarii. If this is correct, Herodian’s use of kataphraktous implies, by analogy, that the camels might be similarly armoured. In a later passage, he speaks of horses and camels in the same terms (Herod. IV.15.2 – again in the Loeb translation):

The barbarians caused heavy casualties with their rain of arrows and with the long spears of the heavily-armed knights (kataphractōn) on horses and camels, as they wounded the Romans with downward thrusts.

Further, it is well known that cataphracti were particularly vulnerable when unhorsed and I have suggested that, consequently, their horses would also have been heavily armoured. Herodian comments that the Parthian horse and camel riders were disadvantaged when on foot (Herod. IV.15.3). It is true that the reasons that he gives are different from that usually advanced, that unhorsed cataphracti were encumbered by the weight and unwieldiness of their armour. Nevertheless, the point remains the same: the Parthian armoured riders should, so far as possible, be protected from becoming dismounted in battle.

A Parthian camel cataphract closing in on the Roman lines with his long lance (Source: Weapons and Warfare).

All this suggests that the contention that the Parthians fielded armoured camels at the battle of Nisibis may not be as far-fetched as might appear at first sight. That said, the experiment (if such it was) seems to have been short-lived. There is nothing after Herodian to indicate the later use of such forces by either the Parthians or the Sassanids.

There is, however, a further complication. A document on papyrus dated January 300, refers to two cataphractarii serving in ala II Herculia Dromedariorum (P. Beatty Panop. 2, 28. See Skeat 1964). It also mentions, however, at least two common soldiers (mouniphikas) in the same ala. Where then do the cataphractarii fit in? It has been suggested that cataphractarius is a rank, replacing the earlier duplicarius and sesquiplicarius (Zuckermann 1994), but it is possible that cataphractarii constituted an elite body within the ala, providing a shock force and adding to its versatility. Another document could support both views (CPR V 13 + P. Rainer Cent. 165. See Rea 1984). It comprises three letters recording stages in the career of one Sarapion. The first, dated 17th April 395, authorises his admission to the schola catafractariorum in an unnamed unit based at Psoftis in Egypt; the second, dated 396, records his promotion to decurio; the third, dated 401, records his discharge on medical grounds. The second of these also mentions the advancement of one Apion from eques to cataphractarius. The same word is used for both Sarapion’s promotion and Apion’s advancement, prov(ectus). In the third letter, Sarapion and others discharged at the same time are placed in three categories: dec(uriones), catafrac(tarii), eq(uites). Nevertheless, the presence in the Notitia Dignitatum of entire units of cataphractarii leads me to favour the second view.

If I am right, what was the model for the cataphractarii in ala II Herculia Dromedariorum? I have argued that normal cataphractarii were well-armoured, though less heavily than clibanarii, and rode unarmoured horses. These men could, therefore, have been equipped in a similar manner but riding unarmoured camels. Alternatively, despite the apparent lack of continuity, they could have been based upon the Parthian camel riders encountered at Nisibis, which would imply that the Parthian camels were also unarmoured. This raises the question of nomenclature – Herodian refers to cataphracti, not cataphractarii – but this is explicable. As I have mentioned elsewhere, the evidence suggests that cataphractarius is a technical term applicable only to troops in the Roman army. If so, it would have been inappropriate for Herodian to have applied it to non-Roman troops. It is also quite possible that the term had not even been coined at the time that he was writing. Either way, he was obliged to use an available expression nearest to what he was seeking to describe, well-armoured cavalrymen, albeit riding camels, and that expression was the Greek equivalent of cataphracti. Of these alternatives, I favour the first.

Where then does that leave the question of whether the camels fielded by the Parthians at Nisibis were armoured or not? The evidence, in my opinion, is equivocal. As is so often the case, certainty is elusive and there is, therefore, room for alternative interpretations.


Rea 1984 – J.R. Rea, ‘A Cavalryman’s Career, A.D.384(?)-401’, ZPE 56 (1984), 79-88

Skeat 1964 – T.C. Skeat (ed.), Papyri from Panopolis in the Chester Beatty Library, Dublin, Dublin 1964

Zuckerman 1994 – C. Zuckerman, ‘Le Camp Sosteos et les Catafractarii’, ZPE 100 (1994), 199-202

Historia de la Guerra: Anglo-Soviet Invasion of Iran in 1941

The prestigious Spanish military journal “Historia de la Guerra” has published an article on the 1941 Anglo-Soviet Invasion of Iran by Kaveh Farrokh and Javier Sánchez-Gracia (click the link below in Academia.edu for downloading the entire article):

Farrokh, K., & Sánchez-Gracia, J. (2019). La invasion Anglo-Sovietica de Iran 25 de Agostico-17 de Septiembre de 1941 [The Anglo-Soviet invasion of Iran 25 August-17 December 1941]. Historia de la Guerra, 10, pp. 45-53.

Cover page of the 10th edition of the Spanish military history journal “Historia de la Guerra” published in the early 2019.

The article provides an examination of the Iranian army (see 1900-1921 and 1921-1941, artillery: 1900s-1941 and armored vehicles in 1921-1941), Air Force and Navy.

Iranian Hawker Fury no. 482 before the war (Photo Source: Matofi, A., 1999, Tarikh-e-Chahar Hezar Sal-e Artesh-e Iran: Az Tamadon-e Elam ta 1320 Khorsheedi, Jang-e- Iran va Araqh [The 4000 Year History of the Army of Iran: From the Elamite Civilization to 1941, the Iran-Iraq War]. Tehran:Entesharat-e Iman, p.1055). Just weeks after the ceasefire (August 28, 1941), two of these from the Qalemorqhi 1st Air Regiment took on five Soviet Polikarpov I-16 fighters on September 17, 1941 over the Caspian Sea. One plane flew by Captain Vassiq was shot down and crashed into the Caspian Sea. The other flown by Wing Operator Shushtari ran out fuel and crashed into the forests of northern Iran (Cooper & Bishop, 2000, pp.12-13).

The article also provides an examination of the Iranian military with respect to equipment, organization and development since the early 20th century.

The TNH light tank of the Iranian army first delivered in 1937. Note the Sherman tank (delivered to Iran after World War Two) behind the TNH (Photo Source: (Picture Source: Matofi, A., 1999, Tarikh-e-Chahar Hezar Sal-e Artesh-e Iran: Az Tamadon-e Elam ta 1320 Khorsheedi, Jang-e- Iran va Araqh [The 4000 Year History of the Army of Iran: From the Elamite Civilization to 1941, the Iran-Iraq War]. Tehran: Entesharat-e Iman, pp.1134).

Thanks to inept organization and logistics, the bulk of Iranian armored vehicles were idly sitting in Tehran, instead of the critical north, west and south. This was one of the factors that greatly facilitated the 1941 Anglo-Soviet of Iran.

Iranian cavalry in the 1930s (Source: lead-adventure.de). Despite the procurement of armored vehicles and their integration into the Iranian army, cavalry remained Iran’s prime asset for rapid strikes, shock and maneuver on the battlefield (Ward, 2009, p.142). One of the few successes scored by the Iranian army against the Anglo-Soviet invasion of late August 1941, was when an Iranian cavalry patrol forced back an advancing British force near the Paltak pass (in the Kermanshah area, western Iran) on August 27, and took numbers of them prisoner.

A detailed analysis is outlined of the factors leading to the rapid Anglo-Soviet advance into Iran due to Iranian army’s shortcomings at the time, notably logistics, nepotism, etc. Resistance against the Anglo-Soviet occupation is also discussed.

“To Russia with Love”: British Supermarine Spitfires in Abadan in 1943 being prepared for delivery to the Soviet Union (Source: Lend-Lease Air Force – photo originally submitted by C-F. Geust for Lend-Lease Air Force). While often ignored by both Russian and Anglo-American historians, a major reason why the allies invaded Iran (despite her declaration of neutrality – as she had also in World War One) is that the Western allies wanted to rush as much equipment to the Russo-Soviets as possible to prevent its collapse in the face of Germany’s Operation Barbarossa against the Soviet Union. By December 1941, German forces could see the spires of the Kremlin, but this would be the limit of their advance in Russia.

The “Middle East”: A 20th Century Neologism that has Run its Time?

The article The Middle East”: A 20th Century Neologism that has Run its Time?” on the OpEd News outlet was originally written by Dr Mohammad Ala (winner of The Grand Prix Film Italia Award in 2013, The Panda Award in 2018, and The Cinema Vérité Award in 2018) on January 21, 2018. Kindly note that the images and accompanying captions inserted below do not appear in the original article on Op Ed News.


Neologisms, according to Merriam-Webster, are new words or terms that are coined to express concepts that appear to lack a word or name. ‘Scuba’, “programming,” “subprime” and even “Nazi” are all examples of neologisms that were coined to refer to new activities, jobs and concepts that arose in the last century. In contrast, malapropisms are also new coinings of words but they are misuses of terms because they are not true representation of the concepts to which they refer. They are not really innovative or even correct, although they may sound right. Trumps use of ‘unpresidented” when he meant “unprecedented” ( see Brenden Berry, 2016 ) is an example, as is George W. Bush’s use of “misunderestimated” when he really meant either misestimated” or “underestimated”. (See reference # 5 below)

The term “Middle East” might seem to be just another creative neologism from the last century, but in my view it is also a malapropism. Rather than reflecting a true geographic region of the West Asia this term falsely groups countries and oversteps history, misleading people as to the true history, culture and languages of many countries with diverse population. The world does better without the use of “Middle East”, in my opinion.

In practice, the expression “Middle East” has created many misconceptions about regional people, arts, and customs that disadvantage the many different peoples living in what is not necessarily a uniform part of the world. The history of the expression was recently documented in the Persian Heritage journal (2017, pp. 12-14) by Kaveh Farrokh and Sheda Vasseghi, who cited when and by whom the term Middle East was invented in the 20thcentury. They attribute its creation to Alfred Thayer Mahan (1840-1914) who invented the expression in the September 1902 issue of London’s monthly National Review, in an article entitled “The Persian Gulf and International Relations.” In that article Mahan wrote “the term Middle East, if I may adopt which I have not seen”. He may not have seen it in his day, but we have seen it far too often, in my opinion, and it is a disservice to continue using it.

The term “Middle East” was first invented by Alfred Thayer Mahan (1840-1914). Mahan’s invention first appeared in the September 1902 issue of London’s monthly “National review” in an article entitled “The Persian Gulf and International Relations”. Specifically, Mahan wrote: “The Middle East, if I may adopt the term which I have not seen…”.  The term – “Middle East” – when examined in cultural, anthropological and cultural terms makes very little sense. Iran and Turkey for example are not Arab countries and in fact share a long-standing Turco-Iranian or Persianate civilization distinct from the Arabo-Islamic dynamic. Instead, the Turks and Iranians have strong ties to the Caucasus and Central Asia (Image: Encyclopedia Brittanica).

Closer examination of this invented ‘term’ reveals that it has no linguistic, cultural, anthropological or historical substance. For example, Iran and most part of Turkey are not Arab countries but since they are included in the ‘Middle East’ they are often inferred to be “Arab'”. These regions share a long heritage of Turco-Iranian or Persianate civilization. A Persian influence in the region is evident in words which many languages use and in the region. Iranians and Turks have strong connection to the Caucasus. But what connections do these countries share with other ‘Arab’ states? Not culture, art, tradition and perspective so much as a geopolitical purpose for the “West”.

The power of the invented term “Middle East” and the argument that it is a malapropism both lie in the fact that it provided a new geopolitical terminology to a rather ad hoc portion of the world, just like the governor of Massachusetts, Gerry, reconfigured the districts in Massachusetts to benefit the Democratic Party in 1812. Governor Gerry was caught and hence the name “gerrymandering” to describe the practice intended to establish a political advantage for a particular group by manipulating boundaries. The “Middle East” is a form of gerrymandering: By calling attention to itself as an entity it dictates that there exists a defined region of the world which just happens to coincide with portions of West Asia where Western political, military, and economic interests are at stake. The term reconfigures “West Asia”, especially in the Persian Gulf region. It is gerrymandering, but like a malapropism, sounds convincing at least at first glance.

Propagation of “Middle East” was rapid in the first half of the 20th century. The term invented by Mahan was almost immediately popularized by Sir Ignatius Valentine Chirol (1852 — 1929), a journalist designed as a special correspondent from Tehran, Iran by the Times newspaper. Chirol’s article entitled, “the Middle Eastern Question,” expanded Mahan’s version of the “Middle East,” to new territories including Afghanistan and even Tibet. The situation gets funnier when the same or similar authors discuss the Islamic arts and architecture.

Mahan’s invented term “Middle East” was popularized by Sir Ignatius Valentine Chirol (1852-1929), a journalist designated as “a special correspondent from Tehran” by The Times newspaper. Chirol’s seminal article “The Middle Eastern Question” expanded Mahan’s version of the “Middle East” to now include “Persia, Iraq, the east coast of Arabia, Afghanistan, and Tibet”. Surprised? Yes, you read correctly -Tibet! The term Middle East was (and is) a colonial construct used to delineate British (and now West European and US) geopolitical and economic interests. These same interests help promote the usage of terminology such as “Islamic arts and architecture”  (Image: Ria Press).

And of course a newly recognized region needs a new political status, thus it should come as no surprise that after WWI, Winston Churchill was chosen to be the head of a newly established “Middle East Department.” This department redefined Mahan’s original idea of the Middle East to include even more territories: Palestine and the Suez Canal as well as the newly created states of Iraq, and Trans-Jordan. Interestingly, Tibet and Afghanistan were eliminated from London’s Middle East Department. Boundaries were re-drawn based on oil and gas interests in the Persian Gulf region. Mal-appropriation indeed, to coin!

As the 20th century concluded and the 21st century began, Western media outlets, political platforms and entertainment venues all used the “Middle East” when referring to the geopolitically useful countries in what is geographically West Asia. The invention of the new term has led many people, including scholars and the media to refer to Iran as an “Arab” people or country. Hence it is a malapropism.

Mahan and Chirol’s invention (Middle East) provided the geopolitical terminology required to rationally organize the expansion of British political, military and economic interests into the Persian Gulf region. After the First World War, Winston Churchill (1874-1965) became the head of the newly established “Middle East Department”.  Churchill’s department redefined Mahan’s original “The Middle East” invention to now include the Suez Canal, the Sinai, the Arabian Peninsula, as well as the newly created states of Iraq, Palestine, and Trans-Jordan. Tibet and Afghanistan were now excluded from London’s Middle East grouping. The decision to include non-Arab Iran as a member of the “Middle East” in 1942 was to rationalize the role of British political and Petroleum interests in the country (Image: Public Domain).

Much of the confusion may be attributed to the religion of Islam. The notion that many countries are Islamic (even different denominations) may have led people to group the “Middle East” countries. Then why omit Indonesia, Pakistan or even Bosnia and Chechnia for example, from the “Middle East”? The tendency to see Islam as a single homogeneous religion and culture is also responsible for the tendency to see all followers as Arabs and speakers of the same language, practitioners of the same culture. This misconception is wrong and misleading and does a particular disservice to Iran. The neologism “Middle East” confuses people who are not from the region and has the potential to make mockery of international norms. For example, Jack Shaheen, discovered that in the 1980s, almost 80% of North Americans believed Iranians to be Arabs or Arabic speaking people. However, the majority of Iranians speak Persian, a language in its own right and not a dialect of Arabic.

In the landmark textbook “Orientalism” (1979) by the late Edward Said (1935-2003) makes a similar point through his concept of “Orientalism.” In Said’s words

“Orientalism is a style of thought based upon ontological and epistemological distinction made between “the Orient” and (most of the time): “the Occident.” Thus a very large mass of writers, among who are poet, novelists, philosophers, political theorists, economists, and imperial administrators, have accepted the basic distinction between East and West as the starting point for elaborate accounts concerning the Orient, its people, customs, “mind,” destiny, and so on. . . . The phenomenon of Orientalism as I study it here deals principally, not with a correspondence between Orientalism and Orient, but with the internal consistency of Orientalism and its ideas about the Orient”despite or beyond any correspondence, or lack thereof, with a “real” Orient. (1-3,5) “

The cover of the Edward Said’s book “Orientalism”  published in 1978 (Public Domain). The image is a section of Jean-Léon Gérôme’s (1824–1904) 19th-century Orientalist painting known as “The Snake Charmer”.

The use of “Middle East,” I would argue, is also case of ‘Orientalism,’ and a dangerous one. As noted in the Amazon.com summary of the impact of Said’s book:

“This entrenched view continues to dominate western ideas and, because it does not allow West Asia to represent itself, prevents true understanding.”

To paraphrase, the “Middle East” does not allow the countries in that region to express themselves as they are. It instead projects a regional stereotype.

The main point of this article is that there is a danger in replacing historical facts and names with gerrymandered politically based terminologies. Because of Western control over media and Internet, a neologism can enter the scholarship domains. However, when it becomes a malapropism, people are misled and authors lose credibility and factual accuracy to regional stereotypes that are not based in reality.

The wrong term can inappropriately group people who have very separate views of the world and their place in it. It is my view that the historical names like “West Asia” must not change, especially terms like “Persian Gulf” which have been used for thousands of years. We should not be consumed by our quest for war and thirst for oil, like Governor Gerry was consumed by his zeal for the Democratic Party. (See: The Priceless Heritage in a Name).

Neologisms can have their purpose, they show our creativity, our progress. But some neologisms, like “Middle East” should be discontinued when they cause confusion, mistrust, and dishonesty among people.


1. Arab-Iranian Rivalry in the Persian Gulf: Territorial Disputes and the Balance of Power in the Middle East

2. Impact of Iranian Culture on East Asia

3. Kaveh Farrokh Interviews: Historia Rei Militaris, Persian Heritage Magazine and Voice of America.