Jens Kröger: Ctesiphon

The article below is by Jens Kröger and originally appeared in the Encyclopedia Iranica. Kröger’s article was originally published in print on December 15, 1993 and last updated on November 2, 2011. This article is also accessible in print (Vol. VI, Fasc. 4, pp. 446-448). The version published below has embedded photographs, paintings and accompanying captions that did not appear in the original Encyclopedia Iranica publication/posting.

Readers are also encouraged to support the fundraising campaign for making of the first-ever documentary on the monument of Taq Kasra situated in the Sassanian capital, Ctesiphon – Click Here … and see below video:

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CTESIPHON (Ṭīsfūn), ancient city on the Tigris adjacent to the Hellenistic city of Seleucia, ca. 35 km south of the later site of Baghdad. The origin and meaning of the name is unknown (for the forms, see Honigmann, cols. 1102-03; Markwart, Provincial Capitals, pp. 60-61). In the Greek sources it appears as Ktēsiphôn, in Latin Ctesiphon/Ctesifon from the Greek and T(h)esifon or Et(h)esifon, reproducing lo­cal forms. In the Aramaic Talmud (ʾ)qṭyspwn (in Syriac qṭyspwn) occurs. From Iranian texts of the Sasanian period Manichean Parthian tyspwn (or *tysfwn; Henning, pp. 943-44), Pahlavi tyspwn, and Christian Sogdian tyspwn (Sims-Williams, pp. 144, 147-49; Yoshida) are attested. In Arabic texts the name is usually Ṭaysafūn. According to Yāqūt (III, p. 570, IV, p. 446), quoting Ḥamza, the original form was Ṭūsfūn or Tūsfūn, which was arabicized as Ṭaysafūn.

Rare 1864 photograph of the Gateway of Ctesiphon before the right-hand facade of the structure collapsed (Source: Public Domain).

The history of the city has been reported and its ruins extensively described by scholars and travelers through the ages. M. Streck (1900-01, I, pp. 246ff.; 1917, pp. 26ff.) was the first to collect and comment on these writings. Systematic topographical research in the region of Seleucia/Ctesiphon began with Ernst Herzfeld, who worked there from 1903 to 1911 (Sarre and Herzfeld, pp. 46ff.). In 1927 an American expe­dition led by Leroy Waterman located and excavated Seleucia, on the west bank of the river, near modern Tell ʿOmar. German (1928-29) and German-Ameri­can (1931-32) teams under Oscar Reuther and Ernst Kühnel respectively excavated sites on both banks and conducted surveys of the area. Since 1964 an Italian expedition under the direction of Giorgio Gullini and Antonio Invernizzi has carried on this work on the west bank. Its findings have helped to clarify the general topography of the site and to provide an initial stratig­raphy. Because of the sprawling nature of the city and the complexity of the questions that it poses, however, many points still await further research, and some of the conclusions reached cannot be accepted without doubt (for a differing view, cf. von Gall).

Parthian period

Parthian Ctesiphon has been tenta­tively located on the east bank of the Tigris opposite Seleucia at a site now bisected by a loop in the Tigris several kilometers north of the Ayvān-e Kesrā, an area that has not yet been systematically explored by archeologists. In the early Parthian period the metropolis of Seleucia/Ctesiphon was the administra­tive center of Babylonia and also a center for the long-­distance trade through the Persian Gulf (cf. Strabo, 16.1.16). When the Arsacids conquered the Mesopotamian lowlands, the capital was transferred to Ctesiphon from Hecatompylos, identified with Šahr-e Qūmes near Dāmḡān (see capital cities i); it thus also became the main terminus for the luxury trade along the Silk Route, as well as through the Persian Gulf. From the time of Mithradates I (ca. 171-38 b.c.e.) until the fall of the Arsacid dynasty in 224 c.e. it was the winter residence of the Arsacid kings (Strabo, 16.1.16; cf. Tacitus, Annals 6.42), though there was a functioning mint in Seleucia throughout the Parthian period (see arsacids iii, p. 540).

The rock relief of Khong-e Azhdar (خونگ اژدر) in Izeh, Khuzestan (in SW Iran) of Mithradates I (r. 165-132 BCE) (Source: Hamshahrionline).

Modern knowledge about Parthian Ctesiphon is lim­ited and drawn mainly from the accounts of Greek and Roman historians. According to Strabo (16.1.16), the city was founded as a camp for the Parthian armies because the Arsacids did not think it appropriate to admit their troops into the Greek city of Seleucia; Pliny (Natural History 6.122), on the other hand, reported that Ctesiphon was founded to draw the population away from Seleucia. Artabanus II (q.v.; d. 38 c.e.) was said to have been crowned in Ctesiphon in 10 or 11 c.e. (Josephus, Jewish Antiquities 18.48-50). According to Ammianus Marcellinus (23.6.23), the city was enlarged by immigration under Pacorus I around 39 b.c.e. and the same ruler built the city walls. In other sources, however, it is reported that the walls were built somewhat later (Pauly-Wissowa, Suppl., IV, col. 1110). Under Vologeses I (ca. 51-76 or 80 c.e.; for further references, see balāš i) an important new commercial center called Vologesocerta was founded in the region of Seleucia-Ctesiphon, but its identification and precise location are still uncertain.

Coin of Vologeses I (Source: Classical Numismatic Group available in Public Domain).

In the following centuries Ctesiphon was repeatedly conquered by the Romans. Trajan captured the city in the spring or summer of 116, receiving the title Parthicus in consequence (Din Cassius, 68.30.3; Arrian, Parthica, frag. 1 in Müller, Fragmenta III, pp. 587, 590); his booty included a daughter of the king Osroes and the golden Parthian throne (Dion Cassius, 68.80.3). In 117 he invested Parthamaspates with the royal Parthian diadem in Ctesiphon. The city was again invaded in December 165, during the reign of Vologeses IV (148­92/3; see balāš iv), by the Roman general Avidius Cassius, who demolished the royal palace (Dio Cassius, 71.2.3). In 198, in the reign of Vologeses V (ca. 190 or 193-208), Ctesiphon was conquered for a third time, by Septimius Severus, after hard fighting. The city was sacked, and part of its population was forcibly transported. Following the example of Trajan, Septimius took the title Parthicus Maximus (Dio Cassius, 75.9.2-5; “Severus,” in Historia Augusta 16.1­2).

After the Romans had withdrawn the city walls were rebuilt. The history of Parthian Ctesiphon ended with the defeat of Artabanus IV in 224 c.e. and the corona­tion of the Sasanian king Ardašīr I at Ctesiphon in 226.

Sassanian period

Ctesiphon remained the capital and coronation city of the Sasanian empire from the accession of Ardašīr until the conquest by Muslim armies in 16/637. It was at once royal residence, imperial administrative center, and one of the most important cities of the rich agricultural province of Babylonia/Āsōristān, which, with its network of waterways and fertile soils, supported a dense popula­tion, especially along the lower Dīāla basin on the east bank of the Tigris, and many large towns (Adams, pp. 69-70). Following ancient custom (see courts and courtiers i), the Sasanian kings used the palace at Ctesiphon only as a winter residence, spending the summers on the cooler highlands of the Persian pla­teau.

Sassanian stucco from Ctesiphon housed at the British Museum (Photo: Pejman Akbarzadeh).

Although situated in the heartland of the Sasa­nian empire (del-e Ērānšahr), Ctesiphon and the sur­rounding area were inhabited mainly by Arameans, Syrians, and Arabs, who spoke Aramaic and were predominantly Christian or Jewish. Both the Jewish exilarch and the Nestorian catholicus resided in the city, and in 410 a Nestorian synod was held there (see Eilers, p. 499; Neusner pp. 917-18, 931). The Zoroastrian Persian ruling class, on the other hand, was in the minority. Curiously, none of the major fire temples was located in Sasanian Mesopotamia, though there were a few smaller ones, apparently including one at Ctesiphon; its exact site has not been identified (Morony, p. 238). In the later Sasanian period it became customary for each king to make a pilgrimage to the venerated fire sanctuary of Ādur Gušnasp at Šīz (Taḵt-e Solaymān) after the coronation ceremo­nies. The capital was connected by a network of roads with all parts of the empire, and one of the most important routes led to Media, where the summer residence (Hamadān) and the great fire temple were located.

A reconstruction of Ctesiphon as it may have appeared in the 6th and early 7th centuries CE (Source: Sunrisefilmco.com in Pinterest).

From the sources it seems that Parthian Ctesiphon continued to flourish throughout the Sasanian period. A royal palace, the “white palace” (al-qaṣr al-abyaż, abyaż al-Kesrā), as yet unidentified, was still standing there when Mesopotamia was conquered by the Arabs (Ṭabarī, p. 2440; Balāḏorī, Fotūḥ, p. 262). During the Sasanian period Ctesiphon developed into a me­tropolis, consisting of a series of cities and suburbs along both banks of the Tigris (for a topographical plan, see ayvān-e kesrā). It thus became known as “the cities” (Aram. Māḥōzē, Ar. al-Madāʾen). The process began around 230, when Ardašīr I founded a new city at Ctesiphon; it was called Weh-Ardašīr (see beh-ardašīr) by the Persians, New Seleucia by the Greeks, and Kōḵē by the Syrians. A cathedral church is known to have been located there (Streck, 1917, pp. 42-46). A circular walled city west of the Ayvān-e Kesrā has been identified by the Italians as Weh­-Ardašīr (von Gall, pp. 81-84). Excavations have revealed part of the fortifications, artisans’ quarters, and residential areas. A late Sasanian church with a long prayer hall lined by two rows of piers and a tripartite choir was excavated by the German expedi­tion in 1928-29; a fragmentary painted stucco figure found there may represent a saint (Kröger, pp. 47-48, pl. 12/3). Around the middle of the 5th century the course of the Tigris shifted and divided Weh-Ardašīr in two (Venco Ricciardi and Negro Ponzi Mancini, pp. 100-10). The ensuing severe flooding and other haz­ards must have severely disrupted city life and led to a general decline of this town in the 6th century, when only patches of high ground (e.g., modern Tell Barūda) continued to be inhabited (Venco Ricciardi, 1977, pp. 11-14).

German archeological Map of Seleucia-Ctesiphon during the Sassanian era (Map redrawn by user “Lencer” in Public Domain from original Mesopotamia XL, 2005, 169).

Perhaps owing to these changes or perhaps even earlier Asbānbar, or New Ctesiphon, developed, also on the east bank of the river, south of Parthian Ctesiphon. There stood the Sasanian royal palace, Ayvān-e Kesrā, with its enormous audience hall, still standing today. The German excavations revealed that this structure had been part of a larger complex, probably including a corresponding building on the east side of a large courtyard (Kröger, pp. 13-16). A palace or religious building may have stood on a terrace now called Ḥaram Kesrā or Tell al-Ḏabāʾī about 100 m to the south (Kröger, pp. 40-45). Only the remains of the terrace foundations and stucco fragments of hunting scenes, possibly from a continuous frieze with large busts of kings, were found (Kröger, p. 26). The main decorative features of the palace area were stucco disks decorated on each side with a rosette design. A square terrace known as Tell Ḏahab farther to the southeast yielded similar disks and must thus have had some connection with the palace city. The floors and walls of the palace were decorated with marble, opus sectile, mosaics, and stucco sculptures. It has been suggested that the complex was built by Ḵosrow I Anōšīravān (r. 531-79) to commemorate his conquest of Antioch in Syria in 540 and that it was decorated with mosaics depicting the victory; it is also possible that Byzantine craftsmen sent by the emperor Justinian were employed, which would indicate a probable date before his death in 565. To the north and east of the Ayvān-e Kesrā private houses, probably of the 6th century, have been excavated at the sites of Maʿāreḏ and Omm al-Saʿāter in New Ctesiphon (Kröger, pp. 30-136). Their elaborate ground plans suggest that they belonged to members of the upper classes. Vaulted ayvāns set somewhat apart from the other living quarters contained elaborate ornamental or figural stucco reliefs with religious connotations. Mosaics were not used in these private houses, most of which seem to have been abandoned after the fall of Ctesiphon to the Arabs (Kröger, pp. 50ff.).

A soldier gazes upon the remains of the archway of Ctesiphon (Source: Sgt. Rebecca Schwab, 2nd Brigade Combat Team, 10th Mountain Division, USD-C in Public Domain).

Another city, still unlocated, was founded at Ctesiphon by Ḵosrow I for the population forcibly transported from Antioch in 540. It was called Weh-­Antīōk Ḵosrow/Rūmagān (Ar. Rūmīya) and was mod­eled on the original plan of Antioch, with its own hippodrome and bath; marble taken by Ḵosrow on his Syrian campaigns is reported to have been used as a building material (Ṭabarī, I, pp. 898, 959; Nöldeke, Geschichte der Perser, pp. 165, 239-40; Dīnavarī, ed. Guirgass, p. 70; Ṯaʿālebī, Ḡorar, pp. 612-13; Masʿūdī, Morūj, ed. Pellat, I, p. 307). In the late 6th century Weh-Antīōk had a population of about 30,000. In the opinion of the German excavators this city may have stood southeast of the Ayvān-e Kesrā in an area now known as Bostān Kesrā, where a rectangular section of an apparent city wall has survived (Kröger, p. 45). It is possible, however, that this section was part of some other wall, perhaps that of a garden. Ḵosrow II Parvēz (r. 590, 591-628) also departed from the established pattern of summering in the Persian highlands and built his royal summer residence at Dastgerd, north­east of Ctesiphon (Same and Herzfeld, pp. 76ff.).

Sassanian court of Khosrow II and his queen Shirin at Ctesiphon (Source: Farrokh, Plate F, p.62, -اسواران ساسانی- Elite Sassanian cavalry, 2005); note the monarch who sits with his ceremonial broadsword. The Sarmatians shared the culture and martial traditions of their Iranian kin, the Parthians and the Sassanians.

In contrast to its history under Parthian rule, Sasa­nian Ctesiphon was successfully invaded only once before the Muslim conquest, by the Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius Carus in 283. In 363 the emperor Julian passed close to the city on his disastrous retreat after the burning of his fleet on the Euphrates but did not enter it.

Emperor Julian, who failed to capture Ctesiphon, is killed during his failed invasion of Sassanian Persia in June 26, 363 CE. Above is a recreation of Sassanian Persia’s elite cavalry, the Savaran, as they would have appeared during Julian’s failed invasion. Note the heavily armored Sassanian elite guardsman (Pushtighban) whose lance has pierced a Roman infantryman. Further right is a Savaran officer whose sword is drawn in what is now known as the “Italian grip” but Sassanian in origin. To the far right can be seen a Zoroastrian or Mithraist Magus brandishing a Sassanian era symbol. Also of interest are the armored elephants in the background. Armored elephants were especially prized as their cabs afforded very high elevation over the battlefield, which was ideal for Sassanian archery (Source: Farrokh, Plate D, Elite Sassanian cavalry, 2005).

In 628 the Byzantine emperor Heraclius advanced toward the capital on his campaign against Ḵosrow II. After having destroyed the sanctuary of Šīz/Taḵt-e Solaymān in Azerbaijan and looted Dastgerd he followed the fleeing Ḵosrow II as far as the west bank opposite Ctesiphon. There, in a last effort, Ḵosrow assembled his army and forced Heraclius to retreat (Nöldeke, Geschichte der Perser, pp. 295-96). Only a few years later, however, in March 637 the city was conquered by Muslim troops under Saʿd b. Abī Waqqāṣ (Balāḏorī, Fotūḥ, pp. 262ff.; Dīnavarī, ed. Guirgass, p. 133; Ṭabarī, I, pp. 2431ff.; Yaʿqūbī, Taʾrīḵ II, p. 165; Baḷʿamī, ed. Rowšan, I, pp. 464-67). The Sasanian royal family, the nobles, and the army fled, and the invading army seized fabulous amounts of booty from the royal treasury, including the cel­ebrated garden carpet called bahār-e Kesrā.

Bibliography

R. M. Adams, Land behind Baghdad, Chicago, 1965.

S. A. al-ʿAli, “Al-Madaʾin and Its Surrounding Area in Arabic Literary Sources,” Mesopotamia 3-4, 1968-69, pp. 417-39.

N. C. Debevoise, A Political History of Parthia, Chicago, 1938.

W. Eilers, “Iran and Mesopotamia,” in Camb. Hist. Iran III/1, pp. 481-504.

J. M. Fiey, “Topography of al-Madaʾin,” Sumer 23, 1967, pp. 3-36.

H. von Gall, review of Mesopotamia 1, 1966, in Kunst des Orients 6, 1969, pp. 80-85.

G. Gullini, “Prob­lems of an Excavation in Northern Babylonia,” Mesopotamia 1, 1966, pp. 7-38.

W. B. Henning, “Mani’s Last Journey,” BSOAS 10/4, 1942, pp. 911-­53; repr. in Selected Papers II, Acta Iranica 15, Tehran and Liège, 1977, pp. 81-93.

A. Invernizzi, “Ten Years’ Research in the al-Madaʾin Area, Seleucia and Ctesiphon,” Sumer 32, 1976, pp. 167­-75.

J. Kröger, Sasanidischer Stuckdekor, Mainz, 1982.

E. Kühnel, Die Ausgrabungen der zweiten Ktesiphon-Expedition (Winter 1931/2), Berlin, 1933.

O. Kurz, “The Date of the Taq i Kisra,” JRAS, 1941, pp. 37-41.

A. Maricq, “Vologésias, l’emporium de Ctésiphon,” Syria 36, 1959, pp. 264-76; repr. in Classica et Orientalia, Paris, 1965, pp. 113-25.

M. G. Morony, Iraq after the Muslim Conquest, Princeton, N.J., 1984.

M. M. Negro Ponzi and M. C. Cavallero, “The Excavations at Choche,” Mesopotamia 2, 1967, pp. 41-56.

J. Neusner, “Jews in Iran,” in Camb. Hist. Iran III/2, pp. 109-23.

O. Reuther, Die Ausgrabungen der Deutschen

Ktesiphon-Expedition im Winter 1928/29, Witten­berg, 1930.

F. Sarre and E. Herzfeld, Archäologische Reise im Euphrat- und Tigrisgebiet II, Berlin, 1920.

K. Schippmann, Grundzüge der parthischen Geschichte, Darmstadt, 1980.

N. Sims-Williams, The Christian Sogdian Manuscripts C2, Berliner Turfantexte 12, Berlin, 1985.

M. Streck, Die alte Landschaft Babylonien nach den arabischen Geographen, 2 vols., Leiden, 1900-01.

Idem, “Seleucia und Ktesiphon,” Der Alte Orient 16, 1917, pp. 1-64.

R. Venco Ricciardi, “The Excavations at Choche,” Mesopotamia 3-4, 1968-69, pp. 57-68.

Idem, “Trial Trench at Tell Baruda,” Mesopotamia 12, 1977, pp. 11-14.

Idem and M. M. Negro Ponzi Mancini, La terra tra i due fiumi, Turin, 1985.

L. Waterman, Preliminary Report upon the Excava­tions at Tel Umar, Iraq, Ann Arbor, Mich., 1931-33.

Y. Yoshida, review of The Christian Sogdian Manu­scripts C2, BSOAS 51/1, 1988, pp. 146-48.

The Sarmatian Connection: Stories of the Arthurian Cycle and Legends and Miracles of Ladislas, King and Saint

The article “The Sarmatian Connection: Stories of the Arthurian Cycle and Legends and Miracles of Ladislas, King and Saint” reproduced below is by János Makkay of the [Department of Archaeology, University of Pecs, in Hungary] (1996). This originally appeared in:

The New Hungarian Quarterly, Volume 37, no. 144, Winter 1996, pp. 113-125.

Note that the article below has printed the major portions of the article and not its entirity. Interested readers are referred to the New Hungarian Quarterly for more information.

Kindly note that none of the images and accompanying descriptions have appeared in the original article and/or any other previous postings of this article.

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Under the Emperor Marcus Aurelius (161-180) the Roman Army campaigned for eight years in Pannonia Barbarica (i.e., in the central and northern parts of the Carpathian Basin, north and east of the Roman limes along the Danube) against the Quadi, a German tribe, and Sarmatians and Alans, Iranian speaking barbarians who came from east of the Carpathians, from the south Russian steppe and from the Lower Danube Plains near the Black Sea. After hard but victorious battles, 5,500 Sarmatian/Alanian heavy cavalry (called cataphractarii, i.e. clothed fully in scale armour) consisting of prisoners taken in war were posted to Britain in 175. Marcus Aurelius sent these warriors to Britannia not only to keep them out of trouble in Pannonia Barbarica but also to deploy them beyond Hadrian’s Wall.2 These Sarmatians are known to have been stationed in permanent camps outside the Roman forts at Ribchester in Lancashire, Chester, and elsewhere. The Sarmatian enclaves – especially the one at Ribchester, a Lancashire site known in ancient times as Bremetennacum veteranorum – survived until the end of the Roman era in the late 4th century A.D.

Fig. 1. Roman tombstone from Chester (housed at Grosvenor Museum, item #: 8394907246), UK depicting Sarmatian horseman attired like other kindred Iranian  peoples such as the Parthians and Sassanians  (Source: Carole Raddato, uploaded by Marcus Cyron in Public Domain).

The tombstone fragments of a Sarmatian/Alanian standard bearer were found at Chester (Deva) in 1890. This is unique evidence of the presence of heavily armoured Sarmatian cavalry from the earliest third century A.D. The two fragments of the tombstone (now in the Grosvenor Museum in Chester) show a horseman wearing a cloak and turning to the right. He holds aloft, with both hands, a dragon standard of the Sarmatian/Alanian type, and his conical helmet, with a vertical metal frame, is of the same pattern. A sword hangs at his right. Both man and horse are shown clad in tightly fitting scale armour. This attire for man and mount was characteristic of Sarmatian/Alanian heavy cavalry.

Fig. 2. Russian reconstruction of King Arthur and his Sarmatian cavalry (Source: Our Russia); note Iranian dragon standards of the cavalrymen also seen in the armies of the parthians and Sassanians.

he original dragon standard shown on the tombstone had a metal head and a cloth body designed like a windsock so that the animal appeared to come alive in the wind. It has been suggested that these standards may have indicated the position of the given Iranian troops and their command posts during the battle and also the wind direction for the Sarmatian/Alanian archers. The best description of this characteristic Iranian tactic and symbolism is in the Tactica of Arrian of Bithynia (2nd century A.D.) who defeated the Alanian invasion of 134. He must have had exact knowledge of how the Iranian peoples conducted themselves in war.3 We know that the military symbol of the kings of the Parthians (as for instance of Mithridates I. in 139 B.C.) was a dragon standard made of textile or leather.4 There is no indication, however of the use of similar standards in Achaemenid times.

The closed society of Sarmatian cataphractarii in Britain was able to maintain its ethnic features during the Late Roman period and afterwards. One reason is that their troops, called cuneus Sarmatorum, equitum Sarmatorum Bremetennacensium Gordianorum were not part of any military organization in active service. Consequently, after the withdrawal of the Roman army, they continued to live on their accustomed sites (Chester, Ribchester, etc.). They were still called Sarmatians after 250 years. A semihistoric Arthur lived about A.D. 500. He was very probably a descendant of those Alan horsemen, a battle leader of the Romanized Celts and Britons against the Anglo-Saxons, who invaded Britain after the Roman army had withdrawn. Arthur and his military leaders could therefore manage to train the natives as armoured horseman after Iranian patterns against the attacks of Angles and Saxons fighting on feet until their victory at Badon Hill.

Fig. 3. Parthian standard bearer with Draco standard (Source: Farrokh, page 130, Shadows in the Desert: Ancient Persia at War-Персы: Армия великих царей-سایه‌های صحرا– this drawing originally appeared by Zoka in the 2,500 Year Celebrations of the Persian Empire in 1971).

Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Historia Regum Britanniae contains detailed accounts of the traditional Roman military tactics used by the army of Arthur in his legendary wars against the Romans.5 He also mentions the dragon standard of the Arthurian army which was set up at a suitable and easily defensible place to show exhausted and wounded warriors where they could find drinking water and have their wounds dressed.6 His own golden helmet was decorated with a dragon, probably the same dragon which appeared to him in a dream while crossing the Channel. Sir Thomas Malory recounted the story as follows:

And as the kyng laye in his caban in the shyp, he fyll in a slomerynge and dremed a merueyllous dreme. Hym semed that a dredeful dragon dyd drowne moche of his peple, and he cam fleynge oute of the West, and his hede was enameled with asure, and his sholders shone as gold, his bely lyke maylles of a merueyllous hewe, his taylle ful of tatters, his feet ful of fyne sable, and his clawes lyke fine gold, and an hydous flamme of fyre flewe oute of his mouthe, lyke as the londe and water had flammed all of fyre.7
What Geoffrey of Monmouth and Malory describe is the peculiar features and use of the military dragon standard by the Iranian peoples and, later, by the Roman army. According to Ammianus Marcellinus, on the triumphal procession of Constantius II in Rome in 357 the Emperor sat alone upon a golden chariot “… and was surrounded by dragons, woven out of purple thread and bound to the golden and jewelled tops of spears, with wide mouths open to the breeze and hence hissing as if roused by anger, and leaving their tails winding in the wind.”8

The dragon standard on the Chester tombstone (a metal head and a cloth body) closely corresponds to two unique archaeological finds, both made of metal and representing the heads of dragon standards. One of them is of bronze and was found in the canabae area of the Roman castellum at Niederbieber, Nordrhein-Westfalen. It dates from the first part of the 3rd century A.D. It has a length of 30 cm, is gilded on its upper part while the lower part is silvered (see the description in Malory). It shows an open-mouthed dragon head with sharp teeth and has a widening rim at its back end with perforations for fastening textile stripes, while a wide vertical perforation across the body served to fit the head to the top of a spear, lance or simple pole.

A depiction of Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Historia Regum Britanniae and Sir Thomas Mallory’s Le Morte d”Arthur. Note the windsock carried by the horseman (Farrokh, page 171, Shadows in the Desert: Ancient Persia at War-Персы: Армия великих царей-سایه‌های صحرا) – this item was bought from the wider Iranian realm (Persia, Sarmatians, etc.) into Europe by the Iranian-speaking Alans. The inset depicts a reconstruction of a 3rd century AD Partho-Sassanian banner by Peter Wilcox (1986).

The other piece is in the Hermitage in St Petersburg. It is made of silver and comes from the Government of Perm in Russia. This Sassanian piece of the 7th century A.D. shows a dragon-like head of hybrid (dog- or wolf-shaped) character with an open mouth and chased embossé decoration. It also has a vertical perforation for a pole.9

These two pieces in fact have a third parallel. It is a gold dragon standard head found in the Sargetia valley, Transylvania, around 1543, which once belonged to the royal treasures of the Dacian king Decebalus and was hidden in the early autumn of 106 A.D., at the end of Trajan’s second Dacian war.10 Descriptions of the circumstances under which the discovery was made by Trajan in A.D. 106 and then in 1543 of these large treasure troves reveal many details of a belief in a dragon-guardian – as the Beowulf calls it: hordweard.

Recently, in a series of publications, Helmut Nickel and C. Scott Littleton argued that the roots of the legends of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table, as well as those concerned with the Holy Grail, are not to be found in the indigenous Celtic traditions of the British Isles, as most Arthurian scholars hold, but rather in a “Scythian tradition”12 that seems to have originated from the religious beliefs of Iranian Sarmatians/Alans of the Hungarian Plain of the 2nd century A.D.

Fig. 5. Sarmatian armour discovered near Hadrian’s Wall in England (Source: Periklisdeligiannis); this most likely belonged to an Iranian-speaking Alan or related Ia-zyges cavalrymen serving as mercenaries in the Roman army in Britain. 

These beliefs centre around the divine sword, the sacred cup of heavenly splendour, the dragon standard as military symbol, and early literary traditions connected with them. The resemblances are not limited to mythology. In some cases artefacts (as for example scale armour and standards) or representations, strongly related to mythological-religious matters were also similar. Now, our whole story starts with such one material connection, with the golden serpentine dragon symbol of the Dacians.

The most intriguing parallel of the triple combination of dragon standards, heavy Iranian cavalry and scale armour appears in recently excavated finds in Uzbekistan. In the cemetery of Orlat two bone plates were discovered in kurgan grave 2, measuring 13,5 x 10,5 cms.13 They are decorated with finely engraved motifs, and one of them represents eight heavily armed men in individual combat. Five are horsemen while three are fighting on foot. Their weapons are swords, long spears, bows and in one case, a battle axe. All of them wear scale armour. One of the horsemen with a very long spear holds a dragon standard which closely resembles the lower (textile) part of the above discussed standards in every detail (see Fig. 6). The plate dates from between the 2nd century B.C. and the end of the 1st century A.D., and the warriors can be identified as Central Asian Alans.

Fig. 6. Sassanian court of Khosrow II and his queen Shirin (Source: Farrokh, Plate F, p.62, -اسواران ساسانی- Elite Sassanian cavalry, 2005); note the monarch who sits with his ceremonial broadsword. The Sarmatians shared the culture and martial traditions of their Iranian kin, the Parthians and the Sassanians.

A gold plaque of Iranian character from the Siberian collection of Peter the Great dated around 300 B.C. (See Fig. 8.)27 shows a woman seated under a tree, holding a

sleeping man’s head in her lap, and a pair of horses, held by a groom, standing by. The weapons of the warrior, bow and quiver, hang in the branches of a tree. It is not difficult to recognize the scene of Walther’s sleep before the fight in the representation on the plaque.

Fig. 7. Scythians on the steppes of the ancient Ukraine. Scholars are virtually unanimous that the Scythians were an Iranian people related to the Medes and Persians of ancient Iran or Persia (Painting by Angus McBride).

The same scene of repose, however, is well-known from early medieval Hungarian wall paintings centering around Ladislas, King and Saint of the House of Árpád (1077-1095). As Gyula László has shown in a masterful book, the story goes back to eastern, Iranian (or Iranized Turkic) elements, before the Hungarians were christianized after 1000 A.D. onward.28 His research, and that of others, also showed that this motif from the 13=14th century is central in the still extant Hungarian folk ballads Molnár Anna and Kerekes Izsák from Transylvania. In the Saint Ladislas legend a Hungarian princess is abducted by a warrior of the Turkish Kumans. As represented on the wall paintings of the Bántornya medieval church, while they are resting under a shady tree, the warrior asks the princess to take his head in her lap. When he falls asleep, the pursuing knightly saint catches up with them and after a heavy fight will the abductor he liberates the princess.

Another and more common variant of the story is when the king kills the Cumanian raider with the help of the girl after a heavy duel and becomes himself wounded .29

We have an interesting complex of additional elements connecting these and further details of the Arthurian story, the Nibelungen cycle, the Saint Ladislas Legend and Hungarian folk ballads: the nine branches of the tree, the escape of the lady into a cleft (or in a cavity of a tree), murder (usually beheading) of the girl with a sword, hanging of the head in the tree, hanging of the weapons and helmet of the warrior in the branches of a tree, the gentle fondling of the warrior’s hair by the girl, and finally, when Hildegund dresses the wounds of Walther and Hagen, and offers them a drink in a golden bowl.

Fig. 8. Gold plaque housed in the Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg depicting a panther, most likely used to decorate breast-plate or shield, dated to the late 7th-century BCE (Source: Sailko in Public Domain).

The original story of the sleeping maiden-abductor (or occasionally of the escorting knight) under a tree seems to have originated in Central Asia and has ancient Middle Iranian sources. The scene was probably a central part of a myth from a by now forgotten Central Asian heroic epic. Nobody has tried to show so far that this Hungarian legend may be a result of Iranian influence on early Hungarian folklore and related somehow to a local “Sarmatian tradition” surviving in the Carpathian Basin. The surviving Sarmatian/Alan population of the Great Hungarian Plain (from the fifth century A.D. to the coming of the Magyars) would be the medium. These Iranian (Sarmatian/Alan) tribes of the great Hungarian Plain were to be linguistically absorbed by the Magyars. The above motifs in Hungarian legends and folklore have their parallels in the Arthurian legends and the Nibelungen cycle and – in this view – go back to the same source, namely the influence of Iranian Alans. First to those 5,500 warriors who were sent to Britain by Marcus Aurelius, and later, in the second half of the fourth century A.D. when Alan tribes fled from the invading Huns and established themselves in Italy, in Gallia Transalpina and in the Rhine valley. A great many Sarmatian and Alan warriors also served in the Roman army in the fourth century A.D. The Sarmatian/Alan connection as traced in Hungarian medieval legends appears further to confirm what was suggested about the Eastern, Iranian, connections and origin of the Arthurian legends and its related details including the motiv of the Holy Grail.

Footnotes

2 * I. A. Richmond: “The Sarmatae, Bremetennacum Veteranorum, and the Regio Bremetennacensis”. Journal of Roman Studies 35, 1945, pp. 16=29. I express my thanks for help and advice to Tom Strickland, Chester.

3 * Arriani Nicomediensis: Tacticá, 35, 1=5. For other ancient sources see Vegetius: Epitoma rei militaris, ii, 13.; Sidonius Apollinaris: Panegyricus Maioriani, Carmina v, 402.; Nemesianus: Cynegetica, 82. – Trebellius Pollio in Historia Augusta, Gallienus, 8.; Codex Iustinianus, 1, 27.; Lucianus Sophista: Quomodo historia conscribenda sit, 29. – [Flavius Vopiscus Syracusius]: Historia Augusta, Divus Aurelianus, xxxi.; Ammianus Marcellinus, xvi, 12, 38=39 and also xv. 5, 16.

4 * János Harmatta in Antik Tanulmányok (Studies in Antiquity) 28, 1981, pp. 111 and 129=131.

5 * Book IX, 1, 3, 4, 11, X, 3, 6, 9, 11, esp. Book X, l, and also XI, 2.

6 * Book X, 6. The dead body of Sir Bedivere was also brought to the same place: Book X, 9.

7 * Caxton’s Malory. A new Edition of Sir Thomas Malory’s Le Morte Darthur, ed. by James W. Spisak, (referred as Morte Darthur). Berkeley and Los Angeles, 1983, p. 124, i2recto, 4, Book v. 4. – Historia Regum Britanniae, Book X, 2.

8 * Ammianus Marcellinus xvi, 10, 6=7. Loeb Classical Library.

9 * K.V. Trever: Un étendard Sassanide. Musée de l’Ermitage, Travaux du Département Oriental, tome III, Léningrad, 1940, pp. 167=78, Pls. I-II.

10 * For a detailed account see János Makkay: “Decebál kincsei – The Treasures of Decebalus”. Századok, 129, 1995, pp. 967=1032, and by the same author: “The Treasures of Decebalus.” Oxford Journal of Archaeology 14:3, 1995, pp. 333=43, with further literature.

[…]

12 * C.Scott Littleton – A.C. Thomas: “The Sarmatian Connection: New Light on the Origin of the Arthurian and Holy Grail Legends.” Journal of American Folklore 91, 1978, pp. 512=27.; C.Scott Littleton: “The Holy Grail, the Cauldron of Annwn, and the Nartyamonga. A Further Note on the Sarmatian Connection”. Journal of American Folklore 92: 365, 1979, pp. 326=33. C. Scott Littleton: The New Comparative Mythology. Berkeley, Los Angeles, 1982.; C. Scott Littleton: “From Swords in the Earth to the Sword in the Stone: A Possible Reflection of an Alano-Sarmatian Rite of Passage in the Arthurian Tradition” In Homage to G. Dumézil. Washington, 1983, pp. 53=67.; C. Scott Littleton – Linda A. Malcor: From Scythia to Camelot. A Radical Reassesment of the Legends of King Arthur, the Knights of the Round Table and the Holy Grail. New York-London, 1994; Helmut Nickel: “Wer waren König Artus’ Ritter? Über die geschichtliche Grundlage der Artussagen.” Waffen- und Kostümkunde 17: 1, 1975, pp. 1=28.; Also by the same author: “About the Sword of the Huns and the Urepos of the Steppes.” Metropolitan Museum Journal 7, 1963, pp. 131-42.

13 * G.A. Pugatsenkova: Iz khudozestvennoi sokrovishnitsy Srednevo Vostoka. (Ancient art treasures of Central Asia).

[…]

27 * Nickel, op. cit. 1975. pp. 4=5, and Fig. 3.

28 * Gyula László: A Szent László-legenda középkori falképei (The Legend of Saint Ladislas and its Representations on Mediaeval Wall Paintings). Budapest, 1993, pp. 24=56 with many figures, pictures and earlier literature.

29 * The well-known story told by our medieval chronicles is connected with the victory of the king – then a royal prince – against the Cumans at Kerlés, Transylvania, in 1068.

[…]

Military History Journal article on Mongolian Armies

The British Military History Monthly Journal of July 2017 features an article by Kaveh Farrokh on the armies of the Mongols:

Farrokh, K. (2017). The armies of the Mongols. Military History Monthly, July Issue 82, pp.36-41.

[Right] Cover of the July edition of the British Military History Monthly journal [left] Sample page of the article on Mongolian armies in the British Military History Monthly article. 

As noted in the article: “From the highest khans to the lowliest tribesmen, Mongol warriors would be capable of the most elaborate and coordinated combined-arms operations on the battlefield – partly due to relentless peacetime training, partly to the practice of the hunt, a regular form of military or ‘live fire’ exercise, with bows and other weapons as well as equestrian skills in use against dangerous prey”.

 

A contemporary image of a Mongol or Turkic archer with a recurved composite bow; long-range skirmishing and archery were fundamental to the steppelands way of war (Source: Military History Monthly, July 2017).

The article also provides an overview of the tactics, armaments and key characteristics of the armies of the Mongols. It is further averred in the article that: “…scholars attribute Mongol successes to a combination of exemplary tactics, tight discipline, and exceptional command and control“.

A contemporary image of a Persian horse archer; the warfare of Mongols, Turks and Persians alike was based on horsemanship and archery (Source: Military History Monthly, July 2017).

The Mongol armies of Genghis Khan perfected the stratagem “march divided, attack united”.

Uniform and helmet of a Mongol-Yuan warrior during the failed Mongolian invasion of Japan (Source: Public Domain).

Giusto Traina: Carrhes-Anatomie d’une Défaite (Carrhae-Anatomy of a Defeat)

Italian historian and professor Dr. Giusto Traina has written a seminal academic textbook entitled:

Carrhes-Anatomie d’une Défaite: Quand L’Orient humilia Rome (Carrhae-Anatomy of a Defeat: When the Orient humiliates Rome)

This book was published September 15th 2011 by Les Belles Lettres (first published 2010); the Preface of the book by Giovanni Brizzi.

For more regarding the textbook and means of obtaining this, consult the Les Belles lettres website here …

Dr. Giusto Traina is a professor of Roman history at Sorbonne University in Paris. Dr. Traina is also a senior member of the Institut Universitaire de France. His academic profile also includes authorship of  numerous books and articles.

Dr. Giusto Traina brings to life one of the most important battles in the military history of antiquity, one which marks the beginning of incessant warfare between Rome and Iran. In an alert and exciting narrative, Dr. Traina describes how Rome was blocked by the Parthian army whose competence, power and above all its ability in resisting the formidable military machine of Rome had been greatly underestimated.

In was in the Plains of Carrhae (modern Harran) on June 9, 53 BC, where an all-cavalry Parthian force barred the fifty thousand Roman army led by General Marcus Licinius Crassus to conquer the rival empire of the Parthians. Overwhelmed by the arrows of the Parthians, the Romans were reduced to military impotence: more than half of the legionaries were killed, with many others  captured and deported. The Romans were also subjected to the dishonor of having the Parthians seize their military insignia and place these in their Mithraic temples. It would take many years for Rome to erase the consequences of this defeat.

Parthian Horse archers engage the Roman legions of Marcus Lucinius Crassus at Carrhae in 53 BCE. Unlike the Achamenid-Greek wars where Achaemenid arrows were unable to penetrate Hellenic shields and armor, Parthian archery was now able to penetrate the armor and shields of their Roman opponents (Picture Source: Antony Karasulas & Angus McBride).

General Marcus Licinius Crassus, the same man who eighteen years earlier had defeated Spartacus and his six thousand rebellious slaves and gladiators, was to make his final mark with his death at Parthian hands at Carrhae.

Reconstruction by Peter Wilcox and the late historical artist, Angus McBride of Parthian armored knights as they would have appeared in 54 BCE (Picture Source: Osprey Publishing).

Carrhae halted Rome’s seemingly unstoppable conquest of the Classical world. Rome had learned that the Parthian Spada (army) of Persia was more than capable of blocking the Romans from expanding eastwards to India and China.

Javier Sánchez Gracia: Roma y Persia Frente a Frente (Rome and Persia Face to Face)

Dr. Javier Sánchez Gracia has written the first ever book in Spanish on the conflicts between Rome and Persia:

Imperios de las Arenas: Roma y Persia Frente a Frente (Empires at the sand: Rome and Persia Face to Face). Readers can obtain a copy by visiting this link here …

Dr. Gracia has a degree in Classical Philology from the University of Zaragoza (Spain) and is a doctor of Sciences of Antiquity from the same university. He has participated in several congresses of Classical Philology in Spain and published scientific papers and articles. His research topics are the Roman historian Ammianus Marcellinus; the history of pre-Islamic Persia, and the image of Persia among classical Greco-Roman authors. In this endeavor, Dr. Gracia has also recently co-authored an article with Kaveh Farrokh in the Persian Heritage Journal entitled:

Farrokh, K., & Gracia, J.S. (2017). The “Clash of Civilizations” paradigm and the portrayal of the “Other”. Persian Heritage, 85, pp.12-14.

Dr. Javier Sánchez Gracia of the University of Zaragoza (seated) during the book signing of his recent text “Imperios de las Arenas: Roma y Persia Frente a Frente” (Empires at the sand: Rome and Persia Face to Face). The book signing above occurred during the “Feria del Libro de Zaragoza” book fair in Zaragoza, Spain on April 23, 2017. Standing next to Dr. Gracia is his friend and colleague Dr. Manuel Ferrando, also an accomplished historian from the University of Zaragoza, Spain.

Dr. Gracia’s book consists of the following chapters:

  • The Seleucid Empire
  • The Roman Republican Army
  • The Parthian Empire
  • Mithridates
  • The Battle of Carrhae
  • Marcus Antonius
  • The Parthians: from Carrhae to the Sassanian uprising
  • The Sassanian Empire: Rome vs Ctesiphon

Although Gracia’s textbook has a military focus, the rest of the subjects in his work also provide detailed analyses on the political and religious life of both empires. We are provided with exhaustive notes on the religion and the politics of the Parthians and Sassanians, even as the book focuses on an academic military analysis of the Romano-Persian conflicts, with particular attention paid to the structure of the armies of the ancient superpower rivals.

The book has done an excellent work in avoiding the pitfalls of (all too familiar) stereotyping and value judgements. This has resulted in Dr. Gracia’s objective analysis of each empire. Interestingly, Dr. Gracia also works to point out the contradictions, errors and falsehoods created by Greco-Roman authors. For this reason, Gracia has not just relied on classic scholarship (e.g. Polybius, Plutarchus, Tacitus, Ammianus…) but also on archaeology and modern historians.

Gracia’s central chapter is the battle of Carrhae, because it is a turning point for Roman expansionism and, with the defeat of Crassus, the political “propaganda” against Persia takes strength.

Parthian Horse archers engage the Roman legions of Marcus Lucinius Crassus at Carrhae in 53 BCE. Unlike the Achamenid-Greek wars where Achaemenid arrows were unable to penetrate Hellenic shields and armor, Parthian archery was now able to penetrate the armor and shields of their Roman opponents (Picture Source: Antony Karasulas & Angus McBride).

After examining the fall of the Parthians and the rise of the Sassanians, the book dedicates its last two chapters to Sassanian Persia. In one of these chapters, the history, politics and economy of Sassanian Persia, the primary “enemy” of Rome, is examined in academic detail. Gracia’s final chapter focuses on the struggles between the Romans and Sassanians, until the death of Julian “The apostate” in his failed invasion of Persia in 363 CE.

Emperor Julian is killed during his failed invasion of Sassanian Persia in June 26, 363 CE. Above is a recreation of Sassanian Persia’s elite cavalry, the Savaran, as they would have appeared during Julian’s failed invasion. Note the heavily armored Sassanian elite guardsman (Pushtighban) whose lance has pierced a Roman infantryman. Further right is a Savaran officer whose sword is drawn in what is now known as the “Italian grip” but Sassanian in origin. To the far right can be seen a Zoroastrian or Mithraist Magus brandishing a Sassanian era symbol. Also of interest are the armored elephants in the background. Armored elephants were especially prized as their cabs afforded very high elevation over the battlefield, which was ideal for Sassanian archery (Picture source: Farrokh, Plate D, Elite Sassanian cavalry, 2005).

In summary, Gracia’s book is the first Spanish language academic textbook on the military history of the Romans and Partho-Sassanians. As with a new generation of Western historians, Gracia avoids classical prejudices and clichés to arrive at a balanced and objective standard of scholarship. This sets a new approach in the study of the history of the ancient world beyond Rome: the realm of pre-Islamic Persia.