Christopher Jones: The Battle of Carrhae, 53 BCE

The article below “The Battle of Carrhae, 53 B.C.” was originally written by Christopher Jones on the Gates of Nineveh website.

Kindly note that a number of images and accompanying captions inserted in the article version below do not appear in the original posting by Christopher Jones.


Scarcely had Alexander the Great destroyed the Persian Empire than it began to rise from the ashes. While most former Persian territory was under the control of the Seleucid Empire, in 247 BC, Shah Arsaces I founded the Arsacid Dynasty in Parthia. Parthia had been a minor outlying province in what is now northeastern Iran, but after much hard fighting they seized Iran from the Seleucids, and finally allied with the Roman general Pompey the Great to finish off the Seleucid Empire in 63 BC, leaving Parthia and Rome as the major powers in the Near East. Between them lay minor buffer states and client kingdoms.

1-Map of Parthian Empire 44 BC to 138 AD

[Click to Enlarge] Map of the Parthian Empire in 44 BCE to 138 CE (Picture source: Farrokh, page 155, Shadows in the Desert: Ancient Persia at War-Персы: Армия великих царей-سایه‌های صحرا).  

At this point, the two sides were at peace. The Parthian king Mithridates III wanted no further territorial expansion, and Rome had its hands full consolidating its newly acquired territory in the East and did not want trouble with another great power.

Coin of Mithridates iii

Coin (front and reverse) of Parthian king Mithridates III (reign in c. 57-54 BCE) (Source: Classical Numismatic Group in Public Domain).

Yet by the 50’s B.C., Rome’s internal political machinations spilled over into Parthia. In 59 BC, Julius Caesar, Pompey Magnus and Marcus Licinius Crassus formed a powerful but informal political alliance known as the First Triumvirate. Crassus and Pompey were both elected consuls in 55 BC after instigating mob violence against their opponents on election day. Their first acts were to extend Caesar’s term as governor of Gaul (which he was still in the process of conquering), and make themselves the governors of Spain and Syria once their term in office expired. They cast lots to see who would govern which territory. Pompey won Spain, and Crassus won Syria.[1]


Marcus Licinius Crassus (c. 115-53 BCE) (Source: Gates of Nineveh).

Crassus was fabulously wealthy, with a net worth in 54 B.C. of an estimated 7,100 talents or about $142 million. He made much of his fortune through seizing the property of those murdered in Sulla’s purges of 88 BC. Other sources of income included his ownership of silver mines as well as a profitable business in real estate development.[2] Crassus was fond of saying that no man was truly wealthy unless he could buy his own army.[3]

Crassus was also brazenly ambitious. Plutarch would later condemn this as:

“…foolish ambition, which would not let him rest satisfied to be first and greatest among many myriads of men, but made him think, because he was judged inferior to two men only, that he lacked everything.”

After he was assigned the governorship of Syria, he immediately began laying plans for the conquest not only of Parthia, but of Bactria and India as well until Rome’s borders stretched all the way to the “Outer Sea.” Crassus was exceeding his authority here, as the law making him governor of Syria carried with it no authorization for war with Parthia. What’s more, his plans were highly unpopular with the Roman public. Many people viewed Crassus’ plan to launch an unprovoked surprise attack on a Roman ally who presented no immediate threat to Rome’s interests as both dishonorable and unwise. The anti-war faction was led by the tribune Ateius Capito, who tried to have Crassus arrested to prevent him from leaving Rome for Syria. He was dissuaded by the other nine tribunes, and had to content himself with placing a ritual curse on Crassus as he passed through the city gates.[4]

In Parthia, on the other hand, in 54 BC Mithridates III was overthrown in a coup d’etat and fled from the capital of Ctesiphon across the river to Seleucia. His brother Orodes seized the throne and besieged Mithridates III in Seleucia with the aid of his brilliant general Surena, finally forcing the city’s surrender and seizing full control of the throne of Parthia. He was still in a shaky position, which led Crassus to think that victory would be easy and that many Parthian cities needed only a little prodding to revolt and side with Rome.[5]

Lead-up to Battle – The Syrian Campaign of 54-53 BC

Crassus arrived in Syria in 54 B.C. with seven legions. He immediately crossed the Euphrates River. The Parthians were taken completely by surprise, and Crassus easily defeated the Parthian forces under the command of the local satrap Silaces at Ichnae. Silaces himself barely escaped to Ctesiphon while dodging Roman cavalry patrols to warn Orodes of the invasion.[6]


Parthian king Orodes II (reign 57-37 BCE) (Source: Gates of Nineveh).

Most of the formerly Seleucid, Greek-inhabited cities in Parthian Syria were weary of oppressive Parthian feudal rule and were quick to switch sides and ally themselves with Crassus. The city of Zenodotium was an exception. The inhabitants asked for aid in revolting and received a detachment of 100 Roman troops. They then ambushed and killed these troops. As a result, Crassus sacked Zenodotium and sold its inhabitants as slaves. The other rebel cities received Roman garrisons for the winter to protect them from Parthian attempts to re-take their lost cities. In addition, the Arab king Abgar II of Osroene (whose capital was at Edessa) declared allegiance to Crassus.[7]

Carrhae Map 1

Map of the general campaign geography (Source: Gates of Nineveh).

Crassus spent the winter in Roman Syria preparing his forces for the coming spring. However, training and discipline began to slip as his forces remained in static garrison duty. He spent most of his energy trying to raise local levies, but was only able to raise 4,000 men before the spring campaign began. Sometimes, a bribe was enough to get him to let a city off the hook for providing troops.[8]

Orodes responded to the invasion slowly. Parthia did not have a large standing army, so it took time for nobles to gather their forces for a major campaign. Orodes’ major concern was the possibility of Crassus making an alliance with Artabazes of Armenia and launching a two-front attack on Parthian territory. As a result, Orodes dispatched his chief subordinate and general Surenas to delay Crassus’ army in Syria, while he personally gathered an army to invade Armenia and keep Armenia from aiding Crassus.[9]

Orodes’ fear was well founded, for that winter Artabazes arrived at Crassus’ headquarters with 6,000 cavalry. He promised that he could provide Crassus with 30,000 infantry and 16,000 cavalry for the upcoming campaign, effectively doubling Crassus’ force. Artabazes advised Crassus to advance through the mountains of southeastern Anatolia in order to avoid fighting the Parthian cavalry on a flat plain. Crassus declined, saying that he intended to march directly into Mesopotamia. Artabazes then decided to withdraw his forces from what was becoming apparent to him as a suicide mission, and returned to Armenia.[10]

30-Parthian Cavalry officers and banners

Parthian cavalry and banners (Picture source: Farrokh, page 130, Shadows in the Desert: Ancient Persia at War-Персы: Армия великих царей-سایه‌های صحرا– these drawings originally appeared by Zoka in the 2,500 Year Celebrations of the Persian Empire in 1971).  

Orodes then sent a peace delegation to Crassus. The delegates asked if he was invading Parthia with the full backing of the Roman people or on his own initiative. If he was invading on his own initiative, they would show mercy, but if it was with the backing of the Roman people they pledged total war “without truce and without treaty.” The very idea of asking such an odd question seems to indicate that Orodes was aware of Roman domestic opposition to the war and sought to give Crassus a way to make a face-saving exit from the conflict. Crassus replied that he would dictate his answer to the question after he captured Seleucia. Vagises, one of the Parthian envoys, pointed to his palm and replied “Crassus, hair will grow there before you see Seleucia.”[11]

Parthian-1-Parthian Nobleman

A reconstruction of the face on the statue of a Parthian nobleman housed at Tehran’s Iran Bastan Museum (Picture Source: Parthian Empire).

In the meantime, Surena had been leading a winter campaign against those cities which had revolted and cast their lots in with Crassus. Some members of these garrisons fled to Crassus’ headquarters, bringing dreadful reports of the endurance and speed of the Parthian horse archers, the heavy armor of their cavalry and the armor-piercing capabilities of their arrows. Crassus does not seem to have significantly modified his plans based on this intelligence.[12]

In June 53 BC, Crassus’ army set out towards the Euphrates. He crossed the Euphrates at Zeugma, in a violent thunderstorm which spooked some of the horses and caused them to run into the river. Wind blew some of the legion’s flags off a bridge and into the river. One of the bridges collapsed, dumping more men into the water. Many of his men viewed this as a bad omen of what was to come, and Crassus did not help matters by telling his troops not to worry, “for none of us shall come back this way.”[13]

Opposing Forces

Crassus left Rome with seven legions, which at full strength would have been about 33,040 combat troops and 37,240 men in total. However, he lost a number of men to shipwrecks in a storm while sailing from Italy. He also distributed 7,000 of his infantry on garrison duty in various Mesopotamian cities.[14] Therefore, it seems Crassus’ legions were not full strength. Assuming that he assigned non-combat support troops to garrison duty, he was departing Syria with at most 30,000 legionnaires.

These men were almost all heavy infantry of one type, clothed with chain mail, a helmet and a large shield for protection and armed with a short sword called a gladius and several throwing javelins or pilum. The javelins had a long soft iron head designed to pierce armor, bend after impact and prevent them from being pulled out. What Roman troops lacked was any significant long range weapon for desert fighting. In addition, Crassus’ men were new recruits, who had not seen combat before. They were unfamiliar with eastern ways of fighting.[15]


A modern re-enactor in the gear of a legionnaire of the late Roman Republic. The majority of Crassus’ troops would have looked like this (Source: Christopher Jones & Gates of Nineveh).

In support of the legions, Crassus had 4,000 local infantry levies, including 500 archers. He also had 4,000 cavalry. 3,000 of these were local levies, and 1,000 were Gallic mercenaries. These Gauls were veterans of Julius Caesar’s campaigns and were the most battle-tested and experienced of Crassus’ troops. They were under the command of Crassus’ son Publius, himself a Gallic War veteran. The Gauls wore little armor and carried only short spears, putting them at a disadvantage against Parthian cavalry.[16]

Publius was but one of numerous staff officers in Crassus’ army. Others included Gaius Cassius Longinus and Octavius. These officers provided Crassus with sound tactical advice, most of which he ignored.

Crassus himself was sixty years old at the time of the Parthian campaign. He was fabulously wealthy and very powerful due to his wealth, but had never received a major military command. He had fought in Sulla’s army outside Rome and performed well, but his only campaign and only victory which he had been in supreme command was the suppression of Spartacus’ slave rebellion in 71 BC.  It was partly a yearning for a military victory that sent him to the east.[17]

Olivier as Crassus

The late exemplary actor Sir Laurence Olivier’s (1907-1989) portrayal of Marcus Lucinius Crassus (115-53 BCE) in the epic movie “Spartacus (1960)” (Picture Source: Murph Place). Crassus’ dreams of conquering Parthian Persia and emulating Alexander ended in disaster at Carrhae in 53 BCE. Several decades after its release of “Spartacus”, Hollywood has yet to produce a “Crassus sequel” epic of the Roman statesman’s failure in Persia.

Crassus expected the war with Parthia to be similar to Pompey and Lucullus’ wars in the east against Pontus and Armenia. There, Roman heavy infantry had carried the day against numerically superior but lightly armed and armored forces. But this time Rome was heading to battle with an army of inexperienced soldiers led by an inexperienced commander, and would face new weapons and tactics against which they were unprepared.[18]

Yet, despite all this, Crassus led his 38,000 men into battle against a Parthian force one quarter of his size. Parthia was a feudal-type monarchy, with the king at the top and satraps below him who ruled their own lands and were responsible for raising forces from their own territory for campaigns. Surena’s family estates were in the eastern part of the Parthian Empire. His army consisted entirely of cavalry, with no infantry at all. It is not known if this was all Surena had, or more likely, as Gareth Sampson has suggested, he modified his army based on what tactics he thought would best defeat the Romans.[19]

1-Parthian-Dura Europus

Horse armor (Bargostvan) constructed of metal scales discovered at Dura Europus mounted on leather for a horse (Source:

The core of Surena’s army was made of horse archers. These men were serfs of the lands of their lord who were liable to be called up for military service. Despite this, they were highly trained archers who could attain a high rate of fire. Their bows were small, powerful and their arrows could pierce Roman chain mail. The dry air of summer made their bows even more effective. The men wore little to no armor, so in order to be effective they had to stay on flat ground and avoid fighting at close quarters. Parthian archers were infamous for the “Parthian Shot,” a maneuver in which they would charge an enemy force, then quickly turn and retreat. While galloping away, they would turn in the saddle and shoot their bows backwards over the horses’ hindquarters.

The elite of Surena’s force were 1,000 chosen men called cataphracts. These were the noblemen and aristocrats of Parthian society, mounted warriors similar to a medieval European knight. Cataphracts wore heavy armor, including suit of chain mail and a helmet. Their horses also wore full suits of armor that hung down past their knees. The cataphracts carried long lances as their primary weapon.[20]

The Parthian army traveled light. Each horseman rode with a number of spare horses. In addition, Surena brought up a baggage train of 1,000 camels carrying arrows to resupply his archers. Parthian armies’ lack of a robust supply chain limited their ability to wage offensive war for extended periods or to engage in siege warfare.[21]


Relief showing a Parthian horse archer, Palazzo Madama museum, Turin, Italy (Source: Christopher Jones & Gates of Nineveh).

In total, Surena had 10,000 men at his disposal, including support troops. Given the Parthian army’s light supply chain, it seems that his total number of combatants cannot have been much less than this number.[22]

However, unlike Crassus, Surena was an experienced general. He served as Orodes’ main commander in the Parthian civil war of 54 BC, and brought victory with his successful siege of Seleucia.[23] His orders were simply to delay Crassus with his cavalry force until Orodes was finished with his Armenian campaign, but Surena set his sights on something bigger. Fighting on familiar territory, with a crack force of battle-hardened and highly trained troops at his command, he made plans for the annihilation of Crassus’ army.


Surena’s scouts kept a close eye on Crassus’ force after it crossed the Euphrates. Crassus’ cavalry scouts picked up on the tracks of the Parthian scouts soon after crossing the river. Realizing that the enemy was close, Cassius suggested moving the army within the walls of a friendly city until the scouts could gather more information about the location and numbers of the enemy. Crassus refused, arguing that they needed to press on.[24]


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

At this time, Abgar II of Osroene arrived with much needed information about Surena’s forces. Abgar II reported that a small Parthian force under Surena was nearby. This force, according to Abgar, was merely a delaying force designed to block Crassus’ advance long enough for Orodes to gather his main force. If Crassus moved quickly, he could scatter Surena’s force and seize a large section of Parthian territory before Orodes could bring his main army to bear.

Strictly speaking, all of this information was true. But Abgar II was in fact acting as a Parthian agent, who was working for Surena to lure Crassus into a trap. Crassus’ previous plan had been to advance down the eastern bank of the Euphrates, capture Seleucia, and then cross the Tigris and attack the Parthian capital of Ctesiphon. This was not a bad plan, as the Tigris would protect Crassus’ left flank, the marshy ground between the two rivers would prevent Parthian cavalry from having easy room to maneuver, and the river would supply fresh water to the army during its long march. Abgar II instead pressed Crassus to make a quick strike at Surena’s army by marching away from the Euphrates directly into the desert. Eager to get into combat, Crassus changed his plans and ordered a march into the desert. Abgar II then left the camp and went to Surena’s headquarters. He told Crassus he was leaving to feed Surena false information, but the information that he gave Surena was that Crassus was walking directly into his trap.[25]

Crassus’ troops soon hit heavy sand. There were no trees or water anywhere. While on the march, Crassus received a message from Artabazes that Armenia was being invaded by a large Parthian force and that he could send no aid, but requested that Crassus come to his aid. Crassus exploded into rage, accusing the Armenians of treason and promising vengeance once the campaign was over.[26]


Crassus’ advance in June 53 BCE (Source: Christopher Jones & Gates of Nineveh). 

Surena prepared for his attack by setting an ambush for the Roman scouts. Parthian cavalry ambushed the scouts while they were ahead of the Roman force and killed most of them. The survivors who escaped rode back to report that the enemy was near. In response, Cassius recommended extending the lines as far as possible and positioning cavalry along the flanks to avoid being surrounded. Crassus took this advice, then changed the formation into a hollow square with 12 cohorts on each side and a cavalry detachment next to each cohort. As the Romans were facing a force that was entirely cavalry and could attack from any direction, forming a hollow square was again not the worst possible idea. Unlike a long line, it would prevent his men from being overrun by Parthian cavalry charges.[27]

Shortly before midday, Crassus’ advancing square came to a stream called the Balissus, a tributary of the Euphrates. Here, his men could drink water. They ate a meal in the ranks, while Crassus’ officers advised building a camp for the night until they could gather more information about the enemy, while Publius argued that the enemy was close and they should move on. Crassus was swayed by Publius and ordered the men to cross the Balissus and move forward at an increased pace.

Past the Balissus, Surena had arrayed his troops in an ambush formation. His horse archers formed a wide line to screen the Roman cavalry. Behind the horse archers were the cataphracts, who were wearing camouflage made from rags and animal skins to keep the sun from reflecting off their armor and giving away their position. As the Roman force advanced, the Parthians began to beat drums to signify the advance and terrify the inexperienced Roman troops.[28]

As the drumroll grew to a din, the Parthian cataphracts threw off their camouflage and charged the Roman line. The Roman legionnaires responded by locking their shields together and standing their ground. Seeing that they could not break through the Roman’s square formation, the cataphracts pulled back at the last minute.


The Battle of Carrhae by around noon (Source: Christopher Jones & Gates of Nineveh).

The horse archers moved in to surround the square on all sides. The poured arrows into the mass of Roman troops who were so tightly packed that they “would not suffer an archer to miss even if he wished it.” Crassus ordered his cavalry and lightly armed auxiliaries to charge the horse archers, but the archers turned and galloped away, firing over the backs of their horses. The light troops were vulnerable to the cataphracts on open ground, so they could not move far away from the main force and had to return to the ranks.[29]

At this point, Crassus thought that his men could wait out the arrow shower until the Parthian archers ran out of arrows and were forced to fight hand to hand. However, in the distance they could see the archers replenishing their supply of arrows from their camel train. At this point, Crassus gathered 1,300 cavalry, 8 cohorts of infantry and 500 auxiliary archers in one formation under the command of Publius Crassus and ordered them to charge the Parthian archers in attempt to close the distance between them and bring them to hand to hand combat.

6-Horse Arhers at Carrhae

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).

The Parthians predictably fell back, drawing Publius’ force away from the main Roman force. Once they were a sufficient distance away, the main Parthian force fell on Publius’ men and surrounded them. Parthian cavalry galloped in a circle around the Roman force to purposely kick dust into the air so they could not see. They then began firing arrows into the mass of men. Many men had their shields pierced by arrows which wounded their arms and hands. Others were pinned to the ground by arrows through their feet. Parthian arrows were barbed, so they could not be removed without tearing backwards through the flesh and causing further injury.


Publius’ charge during the Battle of Carrhae in 53 BCE (Christopher Jones & Gates of Nineveh).

Publius led his Gallic cavalry in a desperate charge against the Parthian cataphracts and finally succeeded in closing in on them and forcing hand to hand combat. Even here, the Parthians held the advantage. The Gauls were used to fighting in the forests of Europe where long spears would have been unwieldy, so they carried short spears which were inferior to the long lances of Parthian cataphracts. As a result, they were outreached by the Parthians and many had their horses taken out from under them on the first charge. What’s more, their short spears had difficulty penetrating the cataphract’s heavy armor while the Gauls wore almost no armor themselves. The Gauls had to resort to grabbing the spears Parthian horsemen and then wrestling them off their horses. Others dismounted, dove to the ground and reached under the armored skirts of the Parthian horses to stab them in the belly.

Publius fell wounded. The injury of their commander forced the Gauls to dismount and fall back to a small nearby hill, where they formed a shield wall. Here they were surrounded again by the ever-present Parthian horse archers. Heat and thirst took their toll on the Romans, especially the Gauls who were unused to desert conditions. Publius saw the situation was hopeless. He had been shot through the hand with an arrow and was unable to hold a sword, so he ordered his shield-bearer to kill him in order to avoid being captured. The other Roman officers also committed suicide. The remaining troops fought on until a Parthian cataphract charge broke their lines. The five hundred survivors surrendered.[30]


Parthian Shiva-tir (Horse Archers) engaged in discharging their missiles (Source: 

While the main body of the Parthian force had been fighting Publius’ men, Crassus had moved his troops to sloping ground. The first messenger Publius sent to Crassus had been killed, the second told him Publius was doomed without relief. This news was confirmed when a Parthian cataphract rode into view with Publius’ severed head tied to the end of his spear. The ominous drum roll resume, and the Parthian archers returned.


Battle of Carrhae in the afternoon (Source: Christopher Jones & Gates of Nineveh). 


With the Roman cavalry almost eliminated, the Parthian cataphracts edged closer to the Roman infantry, forcing them into a tighter and tighter circle. The Romans locked their sheilds into a testudo formation to protect against the arrows, but this left them vulnerable to the cataphracts, who charged and drove their lances into spaces between the shields, sometimes impaling multiple men at once. Some Romans broke ranks and ran to escape, but they were quickly cut down. The massive amount of dust kicked up by the Parthian horses limited visibility. Thirst and heat started to take their toll on some men, with some Romans dying of heatstroke in the ranks. The corpses began to pile up, preventing the Romans from getting sure footing, [31] Cassius Dio describes the final stages of the battle thus:

“For if they decided to lock shields for the purpose of avoiding the arrows by the closeness of their array, the pikemen were upon them with a rush, striking down some, and at least scattering the others; and if they extended their ranks to avoid this, they would be struck with the arrows. Hereupon many died from fright at the very charge of the pikemen, and many perished hemmed in by the horsemen. Others were knocked over by the pikes or were carried off transfixed. The missiles falling thick upon them from all sides at once struck down many by a mortal blow, rendered many useless for battle, and caused distress to all. They flew into their eyes and pierced their hands and all the other parts of their body and, penetrating their armour, deprived them of their protection and compelled them to expose themselves to each new missile. Thus, while a man was guarding against arrows or pulling out one that had stuck fast he received more wounds, one after another. Consequently it was impracticable for them to move, and impracticable to remain at rest. Neither course afforded them safety but each was fraught with destruction, the one because it was out of their power, and the other because they were then more easily wounded”.[32]

The coming of night saved the remaining Romans. The Parthians could not fight effectively in the dark as they could not precisely coordinate the movements that their fighting style demanded. They were almost out of arrows and many archers’ bows had snapped from excessive use. They fell back for the night and planned to resume the battle in the morning.


The final stages of the Battle of Carrhae (Source: Gates of Nineveh).

The Romans were left to wait in formation in the uncertain darkness. At this point Crassus seems to have suffered a complete mental breakdown and simply lay on the ground motionless. His surviving deputies Cassius and Octavius called the remaining officers together for a council, and took command. They decided to withdraw under cover of darkness before the Parthians could return.

The men withdrew silently, leaving their wounded who could not walk behind so as not to slow down their flight. The first to reach safety were 300 cavalry under Ignatius, who reached Carrhae at around midnight, alerted the garrison commander to the disaster, and then proceeded to Zeugma. Coponius, the officer in command of the Carrhae garrison, ordered a relief force to be sent out to find the survivors.[33]

The retreat was a disaster. Units became separated in the dark. Crassus reached the city after linking up with Coponius’ relief force, but daybreak found many men and walking wounded still straggling towards Carrhae. Some of the wounded left behind killed themselves to avoid captured. When the Parthians returned to the battlefield, they killed 4,000 of the Roman wounded who had been left behind, and then set off in pursuit of the stragglers. Four cohorts were surrounded on one hill and cut down, with only 20 men escaping to Carrhae. Many others were captured or killed on the plains.[34]


The survivors regrouped in Carrhae. Surena learned from local Arab scouts who had been with Crassus’ army (presumably Abgar’s men) that Crassus and Cassius were in Carrhae. Surena didn’t want them to escape nor did he want to besiege Carrhae, so he sent a messenger seeking a truce. Crassus wished to hold up in Carrhae on the forlorn hope that he would receive aid from the Armenians. Cassius and Octavius ignored him and began plotting to break during the next moonless night and return to Roman Syria.

Crassus hired a local guide named Andromachus, who was in fact a Parthian double agent. He led Crassus’ men into a swamp near the Balissus. As a result, Crassus and four cohorts wandered in circles, losing precious hours. Daybreak found him straggling along a road towards the hills. Octavius had already reached the hills with 5,000 men. Ocatvius saw Crassus’ men struggling toward the hills at daybreak and led his men down to link up with Crassus.[35]

A standoff ensued. Surena did not want to fight the Romans in the hills where his cavalry would be at a disadvantage. He knew the Romans could escape at night. He had some of his men stage a conversation near some Roman prisoners, saying that the Parthians did not wish a war with Rome and were ready to negotiate. The prisoners were then released, and returned to the Roman camp with their stories. Emissaries were then sent to the Romans offering a truce if Crassus withdrew all troops to the west side of the Euphrates. Crassus dithered indecisively for a while, but facing mutiny from his own men, he agreed to meet with Surena between the armies.[36]

Surena and his staff rode out towards the Roman lines, but Crassus had no horse and walked. Surena called for a horse, and sent a number of his men to send the horse to Crassus. When Crassus was reluctant to get on the horse, the Parthian envoys picked him up and threw him on the horse’s back, and began to slap the horse to get it to run faster. Thinking that Crassus was being abducted, Crassus’ staff began fighting with the Parthian envoys. Octavius drew his sword and stabbed a Parthian envoy, and was then cut down from behind. Crassus was killed in the scuffle, and the rest of the Roman delegation fled back to the army. The identity of the person who killed Crassus was in dispute even in ancient times, so we can safely say that we don’t know who it was.

It is not known if Surena’s offer of negotiations was genuine or a trick to capture Crassus. After Crassus’ death, the remaining men of the army scattered. Some surrendered to the Parthians, others fled to the hills. Some escaped to Syria or Armenia. Many of those that fled were hunted down by Surena’s Arab allies and captured or killed.[37]

The Parthians poured molten gold down Crassus’ throat as a symbol of his greed that had caused them to invade his country. They then beheaded his corpse, and messengers brought his head to Orodes, who had just finished concluding peace with the Armenians. Surena had a prisoner dress up as a Crassus look-alike and held a triumphal procession in Seleucia with the prisoner on display.[38]

Roman casualties for the entire campaign, according to Plutarch, ran to 20,000 dead and 10,000 captured, with only small groups of men escaping to Roman territory. Parthian casualties are unknown, but had to have been significantly less.[39]


Cassius successfully escaped to Syria with some of the troops and took command of all Roman forces in the province. In the aftermath of the battle, a small Parthian force invaded Roman Syria and besieged Antioch. Cassius defeated the Parthians at Antioch, and then defeated them again at Antigonea. Learning the lessons of Carrhae, Cassius used small detachments of troops hidden in wooded areas to ambush Parthian forces. The Parthian commander was killed in this battle, ending the Parthian invasion.

Cassius’ interim governorship came to an end quickly and he was replaced by Bibulus. A skilled politician, Bibulus sponsored an attempt by Orodes’ son Pacorus to depose his father, thereby igniting a Parthian civil war. Thus, the Roman-Parthian war triggered by Crassus ended in 50 BC. Conflict would continue sporadically over the next few decades. Julius Caesar’s planned invasion of Parthia was cut short by his assassination. Parthia invaded Syria again in 40 BC, hoping to take advantage of the Roman civil wars to seize Roman territory. They were defeated. Mark Antony’s invasion of Parthia in an attempt to avenge Crassus’ death in 37 BC met with a similar disaster. A formal peace treaty was finally signed in 20 BC. At this time, surviving Roman prisoners taken at Carrhae 33 years earlier were finally released and the captured standards of Crassus’ and Antony’s legions were returned.[40]

In Rome, the death of Crassus had far reaching political effects. Crassus and his supporters had served as a politically moderate buffer between Pompey’s optimates and Julius Caesar’s populares. With Crassus out of the picture, the two were set on a collision course which within a few years would lead to civil war and the collapse of the Roman Republic. Cassius would be caught up in this as well, taking a lead role in the assassination plot against Julius Caesar.

Surena did not live long. After celebrating his triumph in Seleucia, Surena had become too powerful. His reputation for military genius was eclipsing that of the king. Orodes began to view Surena as a potential threat to the throne, and had him murdered.[41]

Crassus’ war of aggression against Parthia was a disaster. Seven Roman legions were lost, annihilated by a force a third of their size. How did such a defeat happen? The defeat was primarily a failure of leadership. Crassus was guilty of a long series of blunders as a commander, failing at politics, intelligence and tactics.

Crassus’ campaign in the fall of 54 successfully exploited anti-Parthian sentiment amongst the Greek population. However, Crassus failed to consolidate these gains and did not get strong commitment from the local Greek population to supply troops for the coming campaign. He also failed to understand that the local Arab kingdoms, like Osroene and Commagene, did not share the Greek’s disdain for Parthian rule. This failure to distinguish the two proved fatal, and led to Crassus misplacing his trust in local leaders such as Abgar who were actually Parthian double agents. His reliance on local guides were were often double agents was compounded by his unfamiliarity with the terrain.

In addition to his failure to understand the local culture and politics, Crassus suffered from a severe case of preparing to fight the last war. He expected fighting the Parthians to be similar to previous wars against Pontus and Armenia. He was prepared to fight large numbers of light infantry, not heavily armored cavalry and thousands of horse archers. His tactics, such as forming a square formation and locking shields, were standard for fighting cavalry in Europe but useless in the desert, where the cavalry had endless room to maneuver and surround the formation.

In addition, the Romans were outclassed technologically. There is no cover to hide behind when fighting in the desert, hence slight technical differences such as the range of weapons and the strength of armor become very important. This has been true from Surena and Crassus’ day all the way to World War II and the Persian Gulf War. The desert magnifies technological advantages. Parthian archers outranged Roman weapons. Parthian armor was sturdier than Roman armor. Parthian lances could outreach Roman spears. Fighting in forests or hills might allow these deficiencies to be overcome using good tactics, but the desert allowed for no such strategies.

In contrast, Surena received regular intelligence about Roman movements from a network of local Arab spies. His small force was well-trained, experienced and highly motivated. His intelligence service not only provided accurate information but planted false or misleading information in Crassus’ headquarters about his strength and movements.

In summation, Crassus was marching blind, into unfamiliar territory, with inexperienced troops, against an enemy whose numbers and capabilities he knew nothing about. His enemy knew his numbers, his movements and was equipped with better weapons and armor. When the battle began, Surena showed much greater tactical imagination that Crassus. While Crassus made decisions strictly “by the book,” Surena was not afraid to throw out the rule book and come up with new tactics such as battlefield resupply of arrows.

Once the big picture is seen, Surena’s victory in spite of being outnumbered should not be that surprising. In the history of desert warfare, time and time again smaller, mobile armies with better equipment and training have defeated larger armies made up primarily of infantry. This has been true from Carrhae, to Edessa in 259, to Sidi Barrani in 1940, to Medina Ridge in 1991. Desert warfare requires mobility, and mobility requires information and technology. Without these three things, an army in the desert is likely to be subject to annihilation.


[1] Plutarch, Life of Crassus, LacusCurtius, trans. by Bernadotte Perrin. 1916,*.html(accessed July 15, 2011), 15.1-5.

[2] Plutarch puts his net worth at 7,100 talents, or according to Thayer at LacusCurtius about $142,000,000.*.html note #1. Crassus made a lot of money by buying fire-damaged properties at discount prices, repairing them using slave labor and then selling them at a profit. Plutarch, Life of Crassus, 2.3-6.

[3] Plutarch, Life of Crassus, 2.7-8.

[4] Ibid., 16.1-5, 27.4.

[5] Justin, Epitome of the Philippic History of Pompeius Trogus, Corpus Scriptorum Latinorum, trans. by John Selby Watson. 1853, (accessed July 15, 2011), 42.4; Cassius Dio, Roman History, LacusCurtius, trans. by Earnest Cary. 1914, July 15, 2011), 40.12; Plutarch, Life of Crassus, 21.7.

[6] Cassius Dio, Roman History, 40.12.

[7] Plutarch, Life of Crassus, 17.2-4; Cassius Dio, Roman History, 40.13, 20.

[8] Plutarch, Life of Crassus, 17.4-5.

[9] Cassius Dio, Roman History, 40.16; Plutarch, Life of Crassus, 21.5; Gareth Simpson, Defeat of Rome in the East: Crassus, the Parthians and the Disastrous Battle of Carrhae, 53 BC (Havertown, PA: Casemate, 2008), 120.

[10] Plutarch, Life of Crassus, 19.1-3.

[11] Cassius Dio, Roman History, 40.16; Plutarch, Life of Crassus, 18.1-2; Rose Mary Shelton,Intelligence Activities in Ancient Rome: Trust the Gods, but Verify (London: Routledge, 2007), 95.

[12] Plutarch, Life of Crassus, 18.2-4; Shelton, Intelligence Activities in Ancient Rome, 97.

[13] Plutarch, Life of Crassus, 19.3-6; Cassius Dio, Roman History, 40.17-19.

[14] Legions had 9 cohorts of 480 men each, plus a “first cohort” of 400 combat troops plus 600 non-combat support staff, for a total of 4,720 combat troops and 5,320 total men. John Wilkes, The Roman Army (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1972), 33; Plutarch, Life of Crassus, 17.1, 4.

[15] Simpson, Defeat of Rome in the East, 114-115.

[16] Ibid., 115.

[17] Plutarch, Life of Crassus, 17.2.

[19] Simpson, Defeat of Rome in the East, 119.

[20] Simpson, Defeat of Rome in the East, 118-119; Cassius Dio, Roman History, 40.15; Plutarch, Life of Crassus, 21.6.

[21] Simpson, Defeat of Rome in the East, 118-119; Cassius Dio, Roman History, 40.15.

[22] Plutarch, Life of Crassus, 21.6.

[23] Ibid., 21.7.

[24] Ibid., 20.1-2.

[25] Plutarch, Life of Crassus, 21.1-22.6; Cassius Dio, Roman History, 40.19-21.

[26] Plutarch, Life of Crassus, 22.1-3.

[27] Ibid., 23.1-4.

[28] Ibid., 23.4-7.

[29] Ibid., 24.3-6.

[30] Plutarch, Life of Crassus, 25.1-12; Cassius Dio, Roman History, 40.21.

[31] Plutarch, Life of Crassus, 26.1-27.1; Cassius Dio, Roman History, 40.22-23.

[32] Cassius Dio, Roman History, 40.22.

[33] Plutarch, Life of Crassus, 27.2-8; Cassius Dio, Roman History, 40.24.

[34] Plutarch, Life of Crassus, 28.1-2; Cassius Dio, Roman History, 40.25.

[35] Plutarch, Life of Crassus, 29.1-7; Cassius Dio, Roman History, 40.25.

[36] Plutarch, Life of Crassus, 30.1-6; Cassius Dio, Roman History, 40.26.

[37] Plutarch, Life of Crassus, 30.1-31.1-7; Cassius Dio, Roman History, 40.27.

[38] Cassius Dio, Roman History, 40.27-28; Plutarch, Life of Crassus, 32.1-33.5.

[39] Plutarch, Life of Crassus, 32.7.

[40] Cassius Dio, Roman History, 40.25, 28-30; Justin, Epitome of the Philippic History of Pompeius Trogus, 40.5.

[41] Plutarch, Life of Crassus, 33.5.

Image Source: (Header) (body),, all maps based on free educational maps from the Maps for Students Page at the Ancient World Mapping Center,,,,,

Master Archers of the Achaemenid Empire

The article Master Archers” below written by Ḏḥwty was originally posted on the Ancient Origins website on September 18, 2015.


In the ancient Near East, archery became the predominant means of launching sharp projectiles, replacing spear-throwing. The history of archery, however, may have originated further down south during the Upper Paleolithic period. In South Africa, stone points thought to be arrow heads were discovered by archaeologists dating back 64,000 years old, and are believed to be the earliest evidence of the use of the bow and arrow. Apart from hunting animals for survival, human beings came to use the bow and arrow for a more destructive purpose – warfare. In the history of warfare, warriors of various cultures were renowned for their skill in using the bow and arrow. Of particular note were the soldiers of the Achaemenid Empire. Also known as the first Persian Empire (550 BC – 330 BC), the Achaemenid dynasty was known for its elite force of warriors named by Herodotus – ‘The Immortals’.

 تندیس آرش کمانگیر در مجموعه سعدآباد تهران – Statue of Arash Kamangir (Arash the Archer/Arash who grasps the bow) at Saadabad Palace in Tehran (Source: Drafsh Kaviani [درفش کاویانی] in Public Domain).

The Powerful Achaemenid Composite Bow

The bow used by the archers of the Achaemenid Empire is known as the composite bow. It is said that this weapon was developed by Central Asian nomads during the 2nd millennium BC. The body of this bow was constructed using horn and wood laminated together using animal resin. When the resin dried, a bond would have been formed between the horn and the wood, thus giving the body of the bow enough strength to withstand the immense pressures placed on it when the bow was drawn. To provide the bow with explosive power, sinews from animal tendons were then laminated to the outside face of the bow. It has been speculated that the construction of the composite bow might have taken up to 18 months to complete, and the end product was an immensely powerful weapon.

Early Training Makes a Strong Archer

In addition to such a deadly weapon, the Achaemenids were said to have been trained in archery from a very young age. Regarding the education of Persian boys, the Greek historian, Herodotus, has this to say:

“Their sons are educated from the time they are five years old until they are twenty, but they study only three things: horsemanship, archery, and honesty.”

From this statement, it may be said that archery was one of the skills most highly valued by the Persians of the Achaemenid Empire.

Exhibit of Achaemenid archers (Image Source: Ancient Origins).

Master archers  archers were used extensively by the Achaemenid armies. During battles fought by the Achaemenids, the archers were one of their first lines of attack. They would line up, take cover behind the shield bearers, and release volley upon volley of arrows against their enemies. An anecdote provided by Herodotus about the Battle of Thermopylae serves to illustrate this point:

“Before battle was joined, they say that someone from Trachis warned him [Dianeces] how many Persians there were by saying that when they fired their bows, they hid the sun with the mass of arrows. Dianeces, so the story goes, was so dismissive of the Persian numbers that he calmly replied, ‘All to the good, my friend from Trachis. If the Persians hide the sun, the battle will be in shade rather than sunlight.’”

Painting made in 1814 by French painter Jacques-Louis David (1748-1825) of Leonidas at the Battle of Thermopylae (480 BCE) currently housed at the Musée du Louvre in Paris (Image Source: Ancient Origins).

This description suggests that the Achaemenid archers were firing from a long range with a high trajectory. Despite the volume of their projectiles, these archers seemed to have had little effect on the defending Spartans. This may be due to the fact that the Spartans were heavily armored. Although modern tests have shown that arrows released from a composite bow could pierce several layers of chain-mail at ranges up to 180 m (590.6 feet), the Achaemenids were using lightweight arrows. These may not have had the force required to penetrate the shields or cuirasses of the Spartans.

Additionally, the Spartans, who were highly trained and disciplined, were able to maintain a tight stationary formation, thus allowing them to withstand the volleys of Achaemenid arrows at the Battle of Thermopylae. Furthermore, by firing their arrows from a long distance, the Achaemenids were reducing the effectiveness of their weapon. Nevertheless, the battle ended in defeat for the Greeks, who were vastly outnumbered by the invading Persians under King Xerxes.

It has been pointed out that when the Achaemenids formed up closer to the Spartan lines, their archers seemed to have been more effective. One such battle was the Battle of Plataea. According to Herodotus’ account,

“They [the Lacedaemonians (Spartans) and Tegeans] proceeded to perform sacrifices, since they were about to join battle with Mardonius and as much of his army as was there, but the omens were unfavorable, and many of their men fell, with many more wounded, while the sacrifices were taking place, because the Persians formed their wickerwork shields into a barricade and continuously rained arrows down on the Greeks.”   


An illustration from the 1854 text “History of Greece and Rome, including Judea, Egypt, and Carthage” (John Russell, page 82) depicting the Battle of Platea (479 BCE) (Image Source: Ancient Origins).

Despite their Talented Archers the Achaemenids Lost…

Despite the effectiveness of their archers, the Battle of Plataea was eventually won by the Greeks. Additionally, history has shown that in the end, the Achaemenids were unable to add the Greek mainland into their empire. Thus, the Greek playwright, Aeschylus, could have written in The Persians:

Wo, wo is me! Then has the iron storm,
That darken’d from the realms of Asia, pour’d
In vain its arrowy shower on sacred Greece.


Potter, R., & Landes, W.A (trans.), 1998. Aeschylus’ The Persians. Players Press.

Potter, R., (trans.), 1833. Aeschylus’ The Persians.

Gill, V., 2010. Oldest evidence of arrows found, BBC News.

Waterfield, R. (trans.), 1998. Herodotus’ The Histories. Oxford University Press.

Legends and Chronicles, 2015. Persian Warriors.

The Circle of Ancient Iranian Studies, 2015. An Introduction to the Achaemenid Military Equipments., 2015. Iranian Archer – Soldier Profile.

Dr. Manouchehr M. Khorasani: Persian Archery and Swordsmanship: Historical Martial Arts of Iran

Dr. Manouchehr Moshtagh Khorasani has published a book in 2013 entitled:

Persian Archery and Swordsmanship: Historical Martial Arts of Iran


  • Title: Persian Archery and Swordsmanship: Historical Martial Arts of Iran
  • Author: Dr. Manouchehr Moshtagh Khorasani
  • Publisher: Niloufar Books, Frankfurt am Main, Germany
  • Number of pages: 392
  • Date of Publication: 2013
  • ISBN-13 978-3-00-039054-8

The book Persian Archery and Swordsmanship: Historical Martial Arts of Iran is  a reference manual on the historical Iranian martial arts in application. The martial arts have influenced all aspects of the ten thousand year history, language and culture of the Iranian people, and remain to this day integral to the Iranian national identity as clearly demonstrated in the Persian epic the Book of Kings.

A unique martial culture has permeated all of the most important artifacts of ancient (bronze- and iron age Luristan and Marlik sites), classical (Achemenid, Parthian and Sassanids), medieval (Samanids) and early modern and modern Iran (Safavid, Afsharid, Zand and Qajar periods), in its art and archaeology, literature, physical culture and national outlook.


Helmets and shields (Courtesy of M. Khorasani Consulting).

It is, without doubt, a martial tradition whose lineage extends back in time to the ancient period, as evidenced by production of large numbers of copper, bronze and iron swords and other weapons made of same materials, and which subsisted in Iran through the classical period (iron and steel weapons), and culminated in the production of the magnificent crucible steel during medieval and modern periods despite all of the historical changes that Iran underwent at a political level. Accordingly, research into the martial arts of Iran has, until now, demanded an intimate familiarity with a vast range of diverse materials that deal with the subject either directly or indirectly, including direct access to rare manuscripts, manuals, arms and armor that can only be found in Iranian museums itself. With this book, that situation has now changed. The present book deals with the revival of Persian swordsmanship and the traditional martial arts of Iran. Within these pages there are no unprovenanced claims to knowledge. Everything is meticulously referenced.


Close-quarter blade combat techniques (Courtesy of M. Khorasani Consulting).

The Iranian martial arts do not depend solely on an “oral tradition” for their lineage as well as their transmission from teacher to student, although the actual instruction is imparted from teacher to student. Rather, with regard to the lineage, every technique, every tactical advice and every method of training and application presented herein is properly provenanced with reference to at least one historical documentary source. Documentary evidence of specific techniques and training methods, taken from primary sources, fully supports every photographic and textual presentation of such techniques and methods shown in a vast number of miniatures and paintings and presented in this book. Didactic literary descriptions of martial arts, which might be likened to combat manuals, have a long history in Iran, and this book continues that tradition and showcases a number of complete and annotated manuascripts on archery, spear and lance fighting, war wrestling, etc. The Iranian martial arts presented in this book therefore hold up to a standard of academic scrutiny that will serve as a basis both for their introduction to the enthusiast or novice as well as a highly credible reference source to researchers.


Miniature Persian arts and poetry depicting close-quarter cavalry combat (Courtesy of M. Khorasani Consulting).

The book Persian Archery and Swordsmanship: Historical Martial Arts of Iran presents in clearly tabulated descriptions, accompanied by photographic depictions as well as depictions in antique miniature illustrations, combat techniques both on horseback and on foot, and both armed with traditional Iranian weapons and unarmed. The first chapter of this book, “code of chivalry and warrior codex” deals with the warrior codex and the principles of Persian chivalry. This chapter also analyzes the training methods of the varzeš-e pahlavāni (champion sport). This traditional martial art still harbors many legacies from the training of ancient Iranian champions by, for example, using many tools that resemble historical battlefield weapons. The function of these weapons was certainly to train and prepare warriors for the upcoming battles.


Close-quarter blade combat techniques (Courtesy of M. Khorasani Consulting).

The next chapter deals with the history, principles and techniques of archery in Iran based on different Persian manuscripts. The next part of the chapter deals with principles of archery as described in different Persian manuscripts such as the archery part in the book Nŏruznāme [The Book of Nŏruz] attributed to Omar ben Ebrāhim Xayyām-e Neyšāburi, a complete, translated and annotated translation of a Safavid period manuscript written by Šarif Mohammad the son of Ahmad Mehdi Hosseyni on archery, lance fighting, wrestling, spear fighting and sword sharpening and etching. The next archery manual presented in this book is Jāme al-Hadāyat fi Elm al-Romāyat [Complete Guide about the Science of Archery] by Nezāmeldin Ahmad ben Mohammad ben Ahmad Šojāeldin Dorudbāši Beyhaqi from the Safavid period. Another archery manuscript offered in the book is titled Resāle-ye Kamāndāri [Archery Manuscript]. The third chapter of the book discusses “mounted combat and horse classification in Persian manuscripts”.The chapter deals with the these topics presenting a number of Persian manuscripts in this respect. The next chapter deals with combat with spears and lances in Iranian history. The chapter describes spears and lances and their typologies and then expands on different attack techniques with a lance/spear such as attacking different parts of the body with a spear/lance such as the eye, the neck, the throat, the mouth, the face, the arm/forearm, the chest, the abdomen, the navel, the shoulder, the side of the body, the back, the groin, the legs, the lower part of the spear/lance and cutting the armor straps of the opponent and many other techniques.


Axe-heads for close-quarter combat (Courtesy of M. Khorasani Consulting).

The next chapter discusses the techniques of swordsmanship based on a number of Persian manuscripts. Analyzing different Persian manuscripts such as epic tales and battle accounts, one notes a certain consistency in the recurrent allusion to certain techniques through the centuries. The next chapter analyzes the history of maces and axes in Iranian martial tradition.Similar to swords, the techniques of using axes and maces from various sources are analyzed and presented starting from epics from the tenth century C.E. up until relevant sources dating back to the end of the Qājār period. Another chapter provides information on combat with short edged weapons in Iran such as kārd (knife), xanjar (dagger) and pišqabz (S-shaped dagger).


Close-quarter combat blades (Courtesy of M. Khorasani Consulting).

The following chapter informs about combat with Persian short swords named qame and qaddāre in Iranian history. Those who are interested in wrestling will find this book indispensable as a reference source, as wrestling, of various types, has an extremely long history in Iran and is perhaps the most important foundation in the training of the Persian warrior archetype. Wrestling is highly systematized and there are prescribed criteria for graduation through various ranks of a wrestling school as well as detailed descriptions of wrestling techniques and sets of counters to every wrestling technique. Wrestling itself is also the basis of many techniques that are to be executed when armed with traditional weapons both long and short, as one of the most important objectives in Iranian martial arts is to take the opponent to the ground to finish him off (often with a dagger), and another is to use wrestling techniques in conjunction with a sword, or with a sword and shield in preparation to administer a finishing stroke.


Swords and blades of the straight type (Courtesy of M. Khorasani Consulting).

The wrestling chapter deals with wrestling which was an integral part of combat in Iran and includes the following sections: wrestling in Iranian history, techniques of wrestling on the battlefield (dealing with grabbing the sword hand or weapon hand of the opponent and throwing the opponent and using wrestling techniques on the battlefield).The chapter also offers the complete translated and annotated wrestling manuscripts. One of them is a wrestling manuscript written by Šarif Mohammad the son of Ahmad Mehdi Hosseyni from the period of Šāh Esmā’il Safavid. The chapter also offers a complete translated and annotated manuscript of the Tumār-e Puryā-ye Vali (Scroll of Puryā-ye Vali). The Safavid-period manuscript offers the names of many wrestling techniques. The chapter also presents a complete translated and annotated version of the Qājār-period poem Masnavi-ye Golkošti-ye Mirnejāt that deals with the topic of wrestling. The poem mentions a wide array of wrestling techniques.

The book Persian Archery and Swordsmanship: Historical Martial Arts of Iran also offers a fully colored catalog of a number of historical Persian arms and armor at the end of the book with detailed descriptions and measurements.  Additionally the book has many miniatures depicting different war scenes from a number of Persian manuscripts.



            1.1 Warrior behavior, ceremony and respect

            1.2 The principles of javānmardi and ayyārān

            1.3 Preparation and training of warriors

            1.4 Physical exercises and training tools in the zurxāne                       

            1.5 Conclusion


            2.1 Archery in Iranian history

            2.2 Composite bow

            2.3 Bow and its typologies

            2.4 Arrow

            2.5 Thumb protector

            2.6 Bowstring

            2.7 The quiver and the bow case

            2.8 Arrow guide

            2.9 Principles of archery

            2.10 Target areas for archery                     

            2.11 Persian manuscripts on archery                       

            2.12 Conclusion


            3.1 Fighting with the lance on horseback

            3.2 Fighting with the mace and axe on horseback

            3.3 Sword drawing and swordfighting on horseback

            3.4 Grabbing, grappling and wrestling techniques on horseback

            3.5 Techniques and weapons for attacking a horse or an elephant

            3.6 A manuscript on lance combat by Šarif Mohammad the son of Ahmad

            Mehdi Hosseyni from the period of Šāh Esmā’il Safavid.

            3.7 Using lasso on horseback

            3.8 Horse classification in Persian manuscripts


            4.1 Spears and lances in Iranian history

            4.2 Spear/lance and its typologies

            4.3 Attack techniques with a lance/spear                       

            4.4 Feinting techniques with a lance/spear                     

            4.5 Defense techniques with a spear/lance                  

            4.6 Combinations of lance/spear techniques

4.7 A manuscript on spear combat by Šarif Mohammad the son of Ahmad

            Mehdi Hosseyni from the period of Šāh Esmā’il Safavid                       

            4.8 Spear in combination with the shield

            4.9 Conclusion


            5.1 Carrying, sheathing, and unsheathing the sword

            5.2 Carrying the shield

            5.3  Attacking techniques

            5.4 Feinting Techniques

            5.5  Combinations

            5.6 Defensive techniques

            5.7 Possible combinations of the attack and defense techniques with a šamšir

(sword) and a separ (shield) in Persian swordsmanship                       

            5.8 A manuscript on swords by Šarif Mohammad the son of Ahmad Mehdi

            Hosseyni from the period of Šāh Esmā’il Safavid (1502-1524 C.E.)

            5.9  Conclusion


            6.1 Maces in Iranian history

            6.2  Mace and its typologies

            6.3 Weight and impact  force of the mace

            6.4 Carrying the mace

            6.5 Techniques of mace attacks           

            6.6 Defensive techniques with a mace

            6.7 Combinations of fighting techniques with the mace

6.8 General aspects about the axe

6.9 Techniques of attack with an axe

6.10 Combinations with an axe

6.11 Conclusion


            7.1 Definition of kārd (knife)

            7.2 Kārd in  Persian manuscripts

            7.3 Carrying and unsheathing a knife

            7.4 Techniques of attack using a knife

            7.5 Combination of techniques in fighting with a knife

            7.6 Definition of xanjar

            7.7 Xanjar in Persian manuscripts

            7.8 Carrying and unsheathing the dagger

            7.9 Techniques of attack with a dagger

            7.10 Combinations of fighting techniques with the dagger

            7.11 Definition of pišqabz

            7.12 Conclusion


            8.1 Attack techniques with a qaddāre

            8.2 Possible combinations with a qaddāre

            8.3 Attack techniques with a qame


            9.1 Wrestling in Iranian history

            9.2 Techniques of wrestling on the battlefield

             9.3 Wrestling manuscript by Šarif Mohammad the son of Ahmad Mehdi Hosseyni from the period of Šāh Esmā’il Safavid

             9.4 A comparative analysis of the techniques mentioned in the Safavid period wrestling manuscript

             9.5 The manuscript of the Tumār-e Puryā-ye Vali (Scroll of Puryā-ye Vali)

             9.6 A comparative analysis of the techniques mentioned in the manuscript Tumār-e Puryā-ye Vali

            9.7 The manuscript Masnavi-ye Golkošti-ye Mirnejāt

            9.8 A comparative analysis of the techniques mentioned in the Mirnejāt manuscript

            9.9 Conclusion

10. References

12. Catalog

Some facts and statistics on the book Persian Archery and Swordsmanship: Historical Martial Arts of Iran

Number of pages: 392 pages

Endnotes: 2189

Weight of the book: 2400 grams

Size: 30,5 cm x 22,5 cm

Total number of pictures: 2095

1) Pictures of techniques: 1564 total

64 pictures of dagger techniques

64 pictures of knife techniques

145 pictures of qame and qaddare techniques

232 pictures of spear techniques

322 pictures of sword and shield, two swords, two handed sword techniques

149 pctures mace and axe techniques

460 pictures of wrestling techniques

128 pictures of varzesh- pahlavani techniques

2) Miniatures: 313 total

303 miniatures within the text

Full-page colored miniatures in th catalog: 10

3) Artifacts 218 total

Number of artifacts in the catalog: 40

Full-colored pictures of artifacts in the catalog: 178

Organization of the Iranian Army in 1921-1941

When Reza Shah engaged in his Tehran coup in early 1921, there was no unitary Iranian army. Instead, there are a number of independent “official” forces composed of the following:

This left Iran with a minuscule force of 22,800 men. These were not a unitary force with the gendarmerie being the best trained and organized of all the above forces. The Qajar units (3800 troops in total) were wholly ineffective with the Persian Cossack brigade being first a Russian instrument and after the Bolshevik takeover, under the British influence. There were also the pro-British South Persia Rifles (S.P.R.) that had been formed during the First World War as noted again below.

Iranian Gendarmes-75 mm guns[Click to Enlarge] The most effective force of the Iranian military prior to and during World war One: the Gendarmerie – above are Iranian Gendarmerie posing with two 75mm (Shneider-Cruesot?) in Tehran prior to World War One (Source: Morgan Shuster, The Strangling of Persia, T. Fisher Unwin, London, 1913, pp. 144, 152). Despite being a para-military force, the Iranian Gendarmes fought very well against opponents who enjoyed superiority in numbers and military equipment. For more on the Iranian Gendarmerie, consult Professor Stephanie Cronin’s article originally posted in the Encylopedia Iranica.

In the first serious step towards restoring a unified army for Iran, Reza Shah ordered on December 6, 1921 for the Gendarmerie and the Persian Cossacks to be unified into a single military force. The South Persia Rifles (S.P.R.) created by the British during World War One had already been disbanded two months previous in October 1921. Numbers of the former S.P.R.’s Iranian officers and troops entered service into the new Iranian army. The formation of a single unified Iranian army beholden to the state (not foreign interests) had fulfilled one of the primary objectives of the early twentieth century Constitutionalist movement. Despite this achievement and others cited in this article, the new Iranian army had several challenges to face when the Anglo-Soviet invasion struck Iran on August 25, 1941.

2-Farrokh-Family-Photo-Reza-Shah-Coronation-1926[CLICK TO ENLARGE] A photo taken in 1926 of a military assembly in Tehran (book cover for Iran at War: 1500-1988). This was the Iranian Army headquarters at the time and is today the Iranian University of the Arts (محوطه ساختمانی که قبلا ستاد ارتش بوده و الان دانشکده هنر است ). Note the diverse nature of the Iranian troops – reminiscent of the armies of Iran since antiquity: one can see Kurds, Azaris, Lurs, Baluchis, Qashqais, Persians, etc. partaking in the assembly.  Note that Colonel Haji Khan (far left – hand on sword hilt) and the officer to the right are members of the Gendarmerie para-military forces. Haji Khan died just a year later when fighting as a colonel with the Iranian army against Bolshevik/Communist and Russian troops attempting to overrun northern Iran after World War One.

Organization of the Unitary Iranian Army

As soon as he had seized power, Reza Shah proceeded to modernize and expand Iran’s newly formed unitary forces, known at this time as the Imperial Iranian Armed Services (IIAS). Reza Shah ordered the formation of five Lashgars on January 5, 1922, each to be composed of 10,000 men. These were as follows:

  • First (Central) Division: based in Tehran
  • Second (Northwest) Division: based in Tabriz
  • Third (Western) Division: based in Hamedan
  • Fourth (Southern) Division: based in Isfahan
  • Fifth (Khorasan) Division: based in Mashad

This five-division system was then used organize the defense of the country into five military regions:

  • North (Gilan, Mazandaran, Semnan, Tehran)
  • Northwest (Azerbaijan)
  • West (Kurdistan, Kermanshah, Luristan)
  • South-southwest (Fars, Khuzestan, the Persian Gulf coast, Seistan-Baluchistan)
  • Northeast (mainly Khorasan and environs to its south and west)

Iranian army troops 1930s or early 1940sMarch-past of Iranian army troops in the 1930s or early 1940s (Source:

By 1930 the Iranian government had allocated up to 50 percent of Iran’s GNP (gross national product) for the Iranian military for the following tasks:

  • Creation and expansion of a Ministry of War
  • Acquisition of modern combat vehicles, aircraft, and naval vessels
  • Creation of an indigenous armaments industry the building of armaments factories
  • Formation of effective security forces for the country
  • Allocation of scholarships for military cadets to be send abroad for study in European military academies

Below is a comparison of the numbers of rifles, machine guns and artillery in 1922 and 1941:

  • 1922: rifles [37,325], machine guns [66], artillery [86]
  • 1941: rifles [507,587], machine guns [8158 ], artillery [874]

Berno-13-Kootah-FullThe Berno e Kootah (the short Berno) (Picture Source: The required machinery and training for producing the Berno (Brno) rifles was provided by the Czech powerhouse firm, Škoda, which has had long-standing ties with the Iranian industrial sector. For more on the Berno (Brno) in Iranian army service see here

In less than two decades Iran’s inventory of rifles and cannon had increased ten-fold with its machine gun stocks having expanded 120-fold. During that period Iran had ordered approximately 300,000 rifles, 350 cannon (mainly light and medium calibers – some of these motorized) along with 6000 heavy and light machine guns. This meant that by the Second World War most units of the Iranian army were equipped with modern rifles and machine guns.

It is notable that while Iran did order much of its equipment from abroad, the military sector’s buildup of rifles, machine guns and artillery had been significantly assisted by the newly established Iranian armaments industries during 1922-1941.

Iranian Army-75mm AAA-Bofors[Click to Enlarge] Iranian artillery unit of 75mm Bofors anti-aircraft artillery (Picture Source:Network54). At least another twenty of these which had been on order were never delivered to Iran.

All of this was a remarkable achievement for a country that had been on the brink of chaos in the early 20th century. Under the Qajar administration, Iran had lacked a true national army capable of defending its borders against invasions and political interference.

Despite their achievements, the Iranian army was beset with one big liability: the artillery corps still deployed obsolete equipment such as the 75mm Bofors mountain guns and the Shneider-Cruezot 75-mm cannon. These types of equipment had been in use during the Constitutional revolution in the early 20th century. This was a serious liability, a fact demonstrated when the Anglo-Soviet invasion struck Iran in August 1941.

Bofors-75 mmAn old undated photo of an Iranian Swedish made Bofors 75mm mountain gun. These had seen service with the Iranian army since the early 20th century. Four of these have survived to this day, now on display at the gates of the Gilan barracks in northern Iran (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. 1043).

Iran in the 1922-1941 period succeeded in building up armored forces composed of  tanks and combat vehicles. The first tanks to arrive into Iran were the French FT-17 light tanks in 1925. These were armed with the 7.92 mm machine gun. After the FT-17 light tanks came the US-made Marmon Herrington which was also armed with machine guns. Interestingly, the Marmon Herrington company was to also deliver numbers of trucks for the Iranian army prior to 1941.

1-Citroen-half TrackIranian army personnel on maneuvers with what appear to be French made Citroen half-tracks. According to Matofi, these were the first half-tracks to enter service with the Iranian army in 1925 (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, p.1045).

By the onset of the Anglo-Soviet invasion in August 25, 1941, Iran had a modest force of just 200 tanks. The most modern tanks in the Iranian inventory at the time were the Czech built AH–IV and TNH light tanks armed with the 37mm gun. The TNH rapidly gained popularity in Iran’s military and public circles. Iran had 300 more of these but none of these were to be delivered due to the Anglo-Soviet invasion in August 1941.

6-TNH light tankThe 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, p.1134).

By the onset of the Second World War Iran also fielded 102 non-tank armored vehicles, including the British Rolls Royce India (1921) Pattern armored cars armed with Vickers machine guns alongside more powerful vehicles such as the American made LaFrance TK-6 armored car which was armed with a 37cm main gun and two machine guns.

7-AH-IV-TanketteAn AH-IV tankette engaged in practice drills in a Tehran barracks in the 1930s. Note the TNH light tank in the background (Photo Source:

Despite the creation of the armored corps, the Iranian army still relied upon its cavalry for rapid attack and maneuver. The primary reason for this was because the Iranian armored corps had yet to master such operations at the battlefield level. To implement an armored force capable of rapid and coordinated battle maneuvers, the Iranian army had to create and organize a professional officer cadre trained in the latest methods of European armored warfare. In practice, Iran did have numbers of highly trained officers schooled in the European tradition of armored warfare, but these often were barred from advancing to  higher ranks due to endemic corruption within higher levels of command.

A serious problem that had not been addressed was the Iranian army’s conscription system. Despite advancements in several areas, conscription continued to rely upon the antiquated Qajar-era Bunichah system. Put simply, in this system:

  1. Each district was called upon for providing recruits for the regular army.
  2. Numbers summoned was based on calculations of that particular region’s amount of cultivated land.

Iranian Cavalry 1930sIranian cavalry in the 1930s (Source: 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.

The inefficient Bunichah system of recruitment helps explain why each of the army’s five divisions failed to reach its target strength of 10,000 men. Even by 1926, the army still had a small force of just 40,000 troops. Realizing the problem, the Iranian army implemented a more modern mass conscription system. This finally allowed the Iranian army to expand the size of its personnel. By 1930 the army had a complement of 85,000 men. These were supported by the newly established (or re-established) Gendarmerie service, known as the Amnieh: these stood at-12,000 men. By 1937 the army had expanded its forces to 105,000 troops by 1937. By the onset of World War Two, the Iranian army fielded a total of 16 divisions composed of 126,000 men.

Stephanie Cronin: A short History of the Iranian Gendarmerie

The article below by Stephanie Cronin on the Iranian Gendarmerie first appeared in the Encyclopedia Iranica in December 15, 2000 and was last updated on February 7, 2012. The article is also available in print (Vol. X, Fasc. 4, pp. 398-405).

Kindly note that the pictures and captions featured below do not appear in the original article in the Encyclopedia Iranica.


Gendarmerie, the first modern highway patrol and rural police force in Persia. It was established in 1910 by the Persian government with the help of Swedish officers and continued its services into the Pahlavi era. This article discusses the history of the Gendarmerie during two periods: (1) the Swedish period, 1910-1921, and (2) the Pahlavi period, 1921-79.

The Swedish Period

The Government Gendarmerie (Žāndārmerī-e dawlatī) was established in 1910 by the second Majles and proved the most enduring in a series of official projects for the modernization of the armed forces under the leadership of foreign officers. Military modernization had been a central objective of Persian reformers for most of the 19th century. By the early 20th century the Persian government was also coming under pressure from Britain, which demanded, more insistently as disorder in the provinces increased, the establishment of some sort of force which could guarantee security for trade, particularly in the south of the country (Cronin, 1997a, p. 18). Although little was accomplished by the first Majles, the increased prominence of state-building as a constitutionalist objective during the second phase of the revolution, 1909-1911, produced effective legislation. In July 1910 the Democrats came to power and, as part of their ambitious program of modernization, took steps towards the organization of the Government Gendarmerie. Although with the suppression of the Majles in 1911 efforts at reform and state-building were abandoned, the Gendarmerie had acquired sufficient vitality to survive and continue as a focus for radical modernizers.

Gendarmerie-Swedish periodHjalmar O. Hjalmarson (center) and officers of the Gendarmerie (Source: Encyclopedia Iranica; After M. Sepehr, Īrān dar jang-e bozorg, Tehran, 1336 Š./1957, p. 106).

In August 1911 a Swedish military mission led by Major Hjalmar O. Hjalmarson arrived in Tehran, the Persian government’s original choice of an Italian mission having been vetoed by Russia and Britain as Italy ranked among the major powers. The Swedish mission’s task was to provide officers to instruct a gendarmerie, with the primary duty of maintaining security on the highways and roads, under the Persian Ministry of the Interior (Cronin, 1997a, p. 19).

The Persian officer corps and the rank and file of the Government Gendarmerie were initially composed of the officers and men of Morgan Shuster’s Treasury Gendarmerie. Morgan Shuster had been appointed to the post of treasurer-general as part of the same program of reform. During 1911 he had begun to organize a gendarmerie to be under his own direct orders which was to assist the civilian officers of the Treasury in the collection of revenue throughout the country (Shuster, pp. 69-70). When, on Shuster’s dismissal, the Treasury Gendarmerie was dissolved, its officers and men were transferred to the Government Gendarmerie, giving the latter force much impetus and stamping it indelibly with a pro-Democrat, nationalist and anti-Russian character.

morganshusterWilliam Morgan Shuster (1877-1962) whose writings about the exploits of Iranian women and their importance in ensuring that the ideals of the Constitutional Movement remained alive in Iran; for more, see here…

With the transfer to his fledgling force of more than 1,000 Treasury gendarmes, including 35 officers, Hjalmarson, now with the rank of colonel, acquired the raw material he needed and was able to begin work in earnest. Over the next two years his force made steady progress, gradually consolidating its position and extending its influence over an ever widening radius from Tehran. Numerical and organizational growth were consistent. At the end of 1912 the Government Gendarmerie numbered 21 Swedes and nearly 3,000 Persian officers and men while by the end of the following year the number of Swedish officers had risen to 36 and the Persian component had doubled to nearly 6,000 (Public Records Office, Kew, U.K., F.O. 371, General Correspondence Political Persia, 1728/15876, Annual Report, 1912, Townley to Gray, 18 March 1913; F.O. 371/2073/10393, Annual Report, 1913, Townley to Gray, 18 February 1914). By 1914 seven regiments had been established, two with headquarters at Tehran, the remainder at Shiraz, Kermān, Qazvīn, Isfahan, and Borūjerd, and the men had gained a good deal of practical experience in operations. The Gendarmerie’s budget requirements grew accordingly and were met, in this period, largely out of loans from Britain and Russia.

Berno-15-M<ashrooteh-MausersPrelude to the Iranian Gendarmes: An excellent photo of Iranian Constitutional Fighters armed with the Mauser (Picture Source: This weapon was to be later introduced on a much larger scale as the Iranian army manufactured this under license from the from the Czechoslovak Zbrojovka Brno Company; for more on this topic, see here…

British financial and political support was initially vital to the Gendarmerie and the major provincial effort of the force in its early years was directed, under British pressure, towards the south, to the towns and roads of Fārs and Kermān. As the Gendarmerie developed, however, it attempted to expand into areas considered part of the Russian zone under the terms of the Anglo-Russian Convention of 1907 (q.v.), provoking increasing Russian hostility and opposition, and it was not in fact until after the October Revolution that the Gendarmerie was able to implant itself in places such as Tabrīz, Rašt, and Mašhad.

Nonetheless by 1914 the Gendarmerie already constituted a wholly new development in Persian military and political experience. It was particularly successful in assembling and consolidating a Persian officer corps, drawing personnel not only from the Treasury Gendarmerie, but also attracting a section of officers who transferred from the Ministry of War and a number of individuals who had obtained training in European and Ottoman military schools on their own initiative. The Gendarmerie’s own schools were particularly successful in producing officers who were later to reach high rank in the Pahlavi army (Afsar, pp. 74-76). The Persian gendarme officers were drawn from relatively high social strata (Nyström, pp. 27-28) and were, on the whole, well-educated. Many spoke a foreign language, usually French. Such an officer corps had considerable prestige within the wider society, morale was high, and an esprit de corps well established (Arfa, pp. 51-52).

20 Mark-5 TomanThe overprinted regular German 20 Mark banknote is dated from 19 February 1914 (Source [description and figure]: Note the Persian overprint (in red): ۵ پنج تومان (Five Tomans).

The outbreak of the First World War, with its radical political realignments and polarization, marked a watershed in the development of the Gendarmerie. The Government Gendarmerie made a highly significant contribution to the advancement of nationalist activity in Persia which took place during the years of the Great War. Furthermore its experiences during these years transformed the Gendarmerie. By their participation in the Mohājarat (during the Constitutional Revolution) the gendarme officers were propelled to a position of national leadership, spearheading the struggle against foreign intervention, and, from 1917, the force was able to claim a central role in the various strategies, imperial and domestic, put forward to reverse Persia’s accelerating political chaos and disintegration.

Although Persia declared its neutrality, the circumstances of the early years of the war had a profound effect on the force, both organizationally and politically. Firstly, the Swedish government recalled all its officers who were still on the active list of the Swedish army. This produced a serious weakening of the Swedish command structure of the force but allowed the senior Persian officers to assume greater responsibility and authority. A second important effect of the war was financial. With the cessation of foreign loans, the almost bankrupt Persian government was quite unable to fund the force and the Gendarmerie turned to German sources for money (Cronin, 1997a, p. 30).

However perhaps the most significant effect of the war may be found in the growing politicization of the Persian officer corps of the force and in its new activism in cooperation with the Democrats and nationalists in the arena of national politics. Notwithstanding its patronage by Britain and the suspicion which this engendered in certain nationalist circles, the Gendarmerie had, from its birth, always been clearly identified with Persian constitutionalism and the struggle for national unity and independence. During the early months of the war the Gendarmerie decisively shook off its association with Britain and, as a result of the new international situation, became drawn, with its Democrat partners, into an alliance with Germany, the reservations of nationalist elements regarding the force quickly evaporating. Persian nationalism had been trying for some time to enlist the intervention of a third power in Persian affairs as a counter-balance to Britain and Russia. America had been tried without success, but now the war presented the possibility that Germany might play that role (Olson, p. 29). Persian nationalists became interested in a German victory in so far as it would restrain Russia and Britain and promote the cause of Persia’s independence. Democrat and nationalist sympathies and a tactical alliance with Germany explain the political orientation of the Persian gendarmes. For the Swedish officers however, who shared this orientation, it seems that genuine admiration and respect for Germany was an important factor in determining their allegiance.

Dagobert von Mikusch-Wassmuss Deustsche LawrenceGerman language textbook by Dagobert von Mikusch on the exploits of Wilhelm Wassmuss (Source: Wiedler). The title reads “Wassmuss: Der Deutsche Lawrence” Wassmuss: [The German Lawrence] (Berlin: Büchergilde Gutenberg, 1938), in reference to the latter’s exploits in mobilizing the Arabs against the Ottoman Empire.

The nationalist and pro-German tendencies of the Gendarmerie had become more overt as the first year of the war had progressed. By early 1915 various units were accepting money from the Germans and were giving aid and encouragement to the small parties of Germans, such as those led by Erich Zugmayer and Oskar Niedermayer, who were traveling through Persia towards Afghanistan with the object of gathering support for the Central Powers, and to Wilhelm Wassmuss in his attempts to rouse the tribes of the Persian Gulf littoral against the British (see, inter alia, India Office Library, London, Departmental Papers: Political and Secret Separate Files, 1902-31, P&S/10/484, p. 1389, Sir P. Cox, Basra, to Govt. of India, 11 April 1915; P&S/10/484, p. 1434, O’Connor to Marling, 12 April 1915).

As 1915 progressed the struggle between the Allies and the Central Powers for control of the Persian government and the capital intensified. In November, in response to a Russian advance on Tehran, the nationalists fled the capital, intending to establish a new government beyond the reach of Russian military control. On the night of 11-12 November, the Mohājarat (emigration) began and large numbers of Majles deputies, government officials, nationalists and their armed supporters, together with officers and men of the Gendarmerie, and members of the German, Austrian, and Ottoman legations left Tehran. The Gendarmerie played an important role in organizing this emigration. As the Russians advanced, both Swedish and Persian gendarmes collected transport, assisted the Germans to send away their arms and ammunition, and facilitated the departure of some two hundred escapee Austrian prisoners of war. The Gendarmerie assumed control of the entire telephone system, commandeered all carriages, fodder and baggage animals, and caused all the toll stations on the road to Qom to be occupied and the tolls to be collected by gendarmes.

In Qom the nationalists set up a body known as the Komīta-ye defāʿ-e mellī (Committee of National Defense), a kind of provisional government, the core of its armed support consisting of the gendarmes and some nationalist volunteers. Meanwhile, the nationalists had also seized control of Shiraz in a coup organized by the Gendarmerie, under the command of Major ʿAlīqolī Khan Pesyān (Afsar, p. 98). He and his men took over the British Consulate, the Bank, the telegraph office, and other government offices and arrested the British residents of Shiraz. All the available notes and silver coin in the local branch of the Imperial Bank of Persia were seized. The British colony were taken south where the men were imprisoned by a Tangestānī khan. The Shiraz coup was quickly followed by similar action in other towns in southern and western Persia. The gendarmes came out in open revolt and took possession of Hamadān, Kermānšāh, Solṭānābād, Isfahan, Yazd, and Kermān, forcing Allied nationals to evacuate these places. In Hamadān, for example, the Gendarmerie, under the command of Major Moḥammad-Taqī Khan Pesyān, a cousin of Major ʿAlīqolī Khan Pesyān, took control after forcibly disarming the local Cossack detachment (Afsar, pp. 130-31).

Colonel Pesyan-Frpm Mehdi Farrokh memoirsColonel Taghi-Khan Pesyan (1891-1921) in Imperial Germany (note German officer to the left) during World War One (Picture from page 143, Mehdi Farrokh, “Khaterate Siyasiye Farrokh” [Political memoirs of Farrokh], Tehran: Amir Kabir Publications, 1968). Mehdi Farrokh noted that Pesyan was”Motehaver” [ultra-courageous]. Pesyan had in fact flown several combat missions for the German air force during World War One, reputedly shooting down up to 25 British aircraft. It is believed that Pesyan was decorated with the “Eisernes Kreuz” [Iron Cross] by the Germans for his daring exploits in air to air combat.

The Russian military advance continued and the nationalists were driven westwards; the gendarmes, although on the defensive, engaged the Russians in a number of battles. The Gendarmerie constituted the backbone of the national army set up under the auspices of Reżāqolī Khan Neẓām-al-Salṭana’s national government in Kermānšāh but could not prevent the nationalists finally being driven into Ottoman territory. By early 1917 the national government, having taken sanctuary deep in Iraq, was clearly a spent force and many of the Persian gendarme officers went into exile, some, such as Moḥammad-Taqī Khan Pesyān and Ḥabīb-Allāh Khan Šaybānī, to Germany but the majority to Istanbul where they joined the Ottoman army. Some gendarme officers with their men, however, began to filter back into Persia immediately. Initially dispersing to their homes, they soon found their way back into the newly-reorganized Government Gendarmerie.

In Fārs, the gendarmes had not moved westwards after the Mohājarat from Tehran, as had large sections of other regiments, but had remained at their posts in order to support the authority of the Committee of National Defense in Shiraz and to hold the province for the nationalists. However by the spring of 1916 financial difficulties, a general decline in popular support, and the demoralization among the nationalists caused by the reverses suffered in the west combined to produce a climate ripe for a pro-Allied counter-coup in Shiraz. The pro-British Ebrāhīm Khan Qawām-al-Molk, chief of the Ḵamsa tribe, with the help of the British Resident in the Persian Gulf, Sir Percy Cox (q.v.), assembled a tribal army and his son recaptured Shiraz for the Allies. Towards the end of 1916 Sir Percy Sykes arrived in Shiraz and incorporated the Fārs Gendarmerie into the new British-officered force, the South Persia Rifles, he was responsible for raising. Within this force, however, the elements from the former Gendarmerie continued to constitute a politically turbulent element (see FĀRS v).

Although the bulk of the Gendarmerie had come out in open support of the Committee of National Defense, a small percentage of the first and second regiments, with headquarters at Tehran, a few hundred men and a handful of Swedish officers, had preferred neutrality, remaining loyal in the capital to their pro-Allied Commandants. It was on this component of the Gendarmerie that attention was now focused again. All Persian governments throughout this period had remained committed to the principle of a Gendarmerie, and they possessed, in the Swedish and Persian gendarmes who had remained at Tehran, the core around which the force could be rebuilt. In August 1918, when Mīrzā Ḥasan Khan Woṯūq-al-Dawla formed a government, one of his projects was to re-form and re-arm the Government Gendarmerie and, by the late autumn, he was making plans for the restoration of order in the more accessible parts of the country using the force (Cronin, 1997a, pp. 42-43).

Iranian Gendarmes-75 mm gunsThe most effective force of the Iranian military prior to and during World war One: the Gendarmerie – above are Iranian Gendarmerie posing with two 75mm (Shneider-Cruesot?) in Tehran prior to World War One (Picture Source: Morgan Shuster, The Strangling of Persia, T. Fisher Unwin, London, 1913, pp. 144, 152). Despite being a para-military force, the Iranian Gendarmes fought very well against opponents who enjoyed superiority in numbers and military equipment.

The Gendarmerie’s growth during the next two years was rapid and extensive. By 1920 it numbered 3 Swedish officers, including the Commandant, 242 Persian officers and 8,158 men, and by the time of the 1921 coup its strength had reached nearly 10,000 (Cronin, 1997a, p. 43). In the newly-reorganized force the Persian officer corps had much greater responsibilities and they now had command of the regiments since only three Swedes remained.

In the years from its reorganization in 1917 to the coup d’état the Gendarmerie was undoubtedly the most significant military force at the service of the Persian government and spearheaded its attempt to arrest the centrifugal tendencies so dangerously aggravated by the Great War and to reestablish its authority throughout the country. The Gendarmerie participated, sometimes in cooperation with the Cossack Brigade (q.v.), in the campaigns of these years against the Jangalīs and the Bolsheviks in the Caspian provinces, against the Kurdish rebellion led by Esmāʿīl Āqā Semītqū (Sīmko) in Azerbaijan, as well as engaging in its traditional duties of guarding the roads and suppressing banditry.

However the Gendarmerie’s political significance was undoubtedly greater than its military role and it occupied a central place in the two most significant strategies adopted to halt the country’s political and territorial disintegration and to restructure and modernize the Persian state. These were, firstly, the proposals to rebuild the Persian state with British hegemony embodied in the Anglo-Persian Agreement of 1919 (q.v.), and, secondly, the movement which culminated in the coup d’état of February 1921 (q.v.).


2-Bofors-75 mmAn old undated photo of an Iranian Swedish made Bofors 75mm mountain gun. These had seen service with the Gendarmes (and later with the Iranian army) since the early 20th century. Four of these have survived to this day, now on display at the gates of the Gilan barracks in northern Iran (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, p. 1043).

Despite the force’s nationalist identity, gendarme officers were centrally involved in the work of the Anglo-Persian Military Commission, which was set up under the terms of the intensely unpopular Anglo-Persian Agreement of 1919, although their political outlook inevitably affected their contribution to that body. The Commission was to report on Persia’s military needs and to make recommendations as to how best these needs might be met. The British component of the Commission was headed by Major-General W. E. R. Dickson and four of its nine Persian members were gendarme officers: Colonel Azīz-Allāh Khan Zarḡāmī, Lieutenant-Colonel Fażl-Allāh Khan Āqevlī, Captain ʿAlī Khan Rīāżī, and Doctor Amīr Aʿlam, doctor-in-chief of the Gendarmerie. The Commission assembled in January 1920 and at the beginning of April presented a report containing a comprehensive survey of the existing military forces and institutions and recommending the merging of these forces and the construction of a uniform national force under British officers (Cronin, 1997a, p. 50).

The involvement of the gendarme officers was necessary both because of their individual military expertise and because of the prestige of their corps, but they were unhappy with the work of the Commission and the nature of British proposals for building a new army, feeling that they damaged Persian independence and national dignity. When the Commission eventually produced its report only two of the four gendarme members, Żarḡāmī and Rīāżī, actually signed it. Āqevlī had, shortly before, committed suicide, an act which was widely interpreted in Persia as a protest against the agreement and the military subjection of the country.

The Gendarmerie now constituted a factor of considerable political importance in Persia and certain circles within the force were drawn into the coup preparations being made in late 1920-early 1921 by Sayyed Żīāʾ-al-Dīn Ṭabāṭabāʾī and Reżā Khan, the civilian and military heads of the movement respectively.

 Qajar Iranian Gendarmerie OfficerLate Qajar era Iranian Gendarmerie officer (circa 1920s) (Source: Booklet of 2,500 Year Celebrations in 1971 by the Iranian Army).

Sayyed Żīāʾ-al-Dīn had apparently been cultivating a relationship with individual gendarme officers for some time. He had defended the Gendarmerie in the pages of his newspaper, Raʿd, and was particularly close to the two officers, Captain Kāẓem Khan Sayyāḥ and Major Masʿūd Khan Kayhān, who were assisting the British officer, Colonel Smyth, in his reorganization of the Cossack division at Qazvīn, the Russian Cossack officers having been dismissed.

During 1919-20 the traditional hostility and rivalry between the Gendarmes and the Cossacks had been modified and even partially superseded by a recognition of common interest. It was their common opposition to British control, implied in the proposals of the Anglo-Persian Military Commission, which first forged political links. This was the first step on the road which led to successful collaboration in the execution of the coup and by the spring of 1920 active liaison between the cossacks and the gendarmes had been established.

Captain Sayyāḥ and Major Kayhān accompanied the Cossacks on their march from Qazvīn to Tehran and the presence of these officers helped ensure that the coup would take place without any dissent from the Gendarmerie in the capital. In fact there is some evidence which suggests that elements within the Gendarmerie, conscious of the seriousness of the impending political collapse in Tehran and the urgency of formulating a response to it, may have been planning a coup of their own which was only just pre-empted by the march from Qazvīn (Afsar, p. 272).


Qajar Iranian Gendarmerie Officer-2Late Qajar era Iranian Gendarmerie trooper (circa 1920s) (Source: Booklet of 2,500 Year Celebrations in 1971 by the Iranian Army).

 For the support which they had given to Sayyed Żīāʾ and the coup d’état, the Gendarmerie was rewarded with important posts in the new government and with considerable power in the provinces. The two gendarme officers who had played such an important role at Qazvīn and on the march to Tehran, Captain Sayyāḥ and Major Kayhān, were appointed military governor of Tehran and minister of war respectively. In the period following the coup d’état the Gendarmerie attained the zenith of its influence, occupying the commanding heights of political power in both the capital and the provinces, the gendarme officers’ perception of themselves, both collectively and individually, as capable of offering national leadership was particularly apparent in the regime headed by Colonel Moḥammed-Taqī Khan Pesyān and firmly entrenched in Mašhad (Cronin, 1997b). However by the end of 1921 the Gendarmerie had largely succumbed to the ascendancy of the Cossack Division within the structures of the new army, as a result of Reżā Khan’s twin tactics of cooption and repression.

The Pahlavi Period (1921-1979)

In December 1921 the Government Gendarmerie was amalgamated with the Iranian Cossack Division to form the new army. In the following March the Majles approved the establishment of a new force, to be entitled amnīya-ye koll-e mamlakatī (The State Gendarmerie) to take over the duties which had formerly been carried out by the Government Gendarmerie, particularly the protection of the main roads.

The first commander of the new amnīya was an ex-Cossack officer, General Sardār Refʿat Naqdī. His successor, appointed in 1925, was another ex-Cossack, General Aḥmad Āqā Khan Amīraḥmadī. However, many of the senior officers of the amnīyya in the Reżā Shah period, and also occasionally its commander, were ex-officers of the Government Gendarmerie. In 1930, for example, General ʿAzīz-Allāh Żarḡāmī was appointed commander (Afsar, p. 238).

2-Farrokh-Family-Photo-Reza-Shah-Coronation-1926Cover jacket of Iran at War: 1500-1988. A photo taken in 1926 of a military assembly in Tehran. The troops are about to pose for a military review. Standing at far left with hand resting on sword is Colonel Haji Khan Pirbastami (of Northern Iranian origin). Note the diverse nature of Iranian troops, reminiscent of the armies of Iran since antiquity. Kurds, Azaris, Lurs, Baluchis, Qashqais, Persians, all partake as one in the assembly.  Colonel Haji Khan and the officer to the right are members of the Gendarmerie para-military forces. Haji Khan died just a year later when fighting as a colonel with the Iranian army against Bolshevik/Communist and Russian troops attempting to overrun northern Iran after World War One.  

Throughout the 1920s and 1930s the amnīyya remained a small and relatively weak force, scattered in small posts of three or four men at considerable intervals along the roads. Its main duty was to give warning of the existence of robbers and to identify the perpetrators of any robbery, generally leaving their pursuit and capture to the army. Amnīyya recruits usually served locally and this served to fix the responsibility for the safety of the road on to local villages, actually a continuation in new dress of the old system of village and tribal road guards. Yet this system meant that the local knowledge of the men of the force made them useful intelligence agents and guides for the regular army (Cronin, p. 137-38). In fact the broad responsibility for tribal pacification and rural control down to 1941 remained with the army.

Following the collapse of Iranian military forces after the Anglo-Russian invasion of 1941, discussions took place between the Persian government and the Allies about meeting Persia’s defense and internal security needs. Between May and November 1942 the Persian government and the United States Department of State reached a series of agreements for the provision of American advisers. Three U.S. missions arrived in Persia, that of Major-General Clarence S. Ridley as adviser to the Persian army; of Colonel H. Norman Schwarzkopf, with Lieutenant-Colonel Philip T. Boone and Captain William Preston, to the Imperial Iranian Gendarmerie, and of Arthur C. Millspaugh to the administration of finance.

On 27 November 1943 a formal agreement between Persia and the United States was signed, effective retrospectively as of 2 October 1942, under the terms of which the United States Army Military Mission with the Imperial Iranian Gendarmerie was established. The purpose of the mission, commonly known as GENMISH, was to advise and assist the Persian ministry of the interior in the reorganization and training of the Gendarmerie, with the American officers maintaining precedence over all Persian Gendarmerie officers of the same rank. According to the agreement, the interior minister was to appoint the chief of the mission as head of the Gendarmerie and, according to Article 20, the American chief of the mission was also granted the right to recommend to the interior minister the appointment, promotion, demotion, or dismissal of any employee of the Gendarmerie with no other authority having any right to interfere. Persia also agreed that no officers of other countries would serve in the Gendarmerie while members of the U.S. military mission were engaged (Ricks, p.168).

Parade of Qazvin Gendarmerie June Parade 1941A parade of the Iranian Gendarmerie in Qazvin, June 1941 (Source: Fouman).

GENMISH, and particularly its first chief, Colonel H. Norman Schwarzkopf, became the target of considerable nationalist opposition, both popular and organized. Furthermore, both the shah and the Persian army were unhappy with the arrangement. The shah was incensed at the very broad powers exercised by Schwarzkopf while many senior army officers, including General Faraj-Allāh Āqevlī, the Persian commander of the Gendarmerie, disliked the interior ministry’s control of the Gendarmerie and tried to have it placed under the authority of the military (Ricks, pp. 169-70).

GENMISH’s U.S. personnel comprised a total of eight officers (one of whom was from the Coast Guard), four warrant officers, and twelve enlisted men. From 1942 onwards GENMISH reorganized, trained, armed and commanded a twenty thousand strong rural police/paramilitary force. By 1944-45, GENMISH had achieved considerable success with its reorganization, recruitment and training programs and had gone some way towards re-establishing the central government’s authority in the countryside. By December 1944 the U.S. military attaché in Tehran believed that the army and the Gendarmerie had improved to the point where Allied troop withdrawals would not jeopardize the security of the central government (Ricks, p. 172). In 1946, the Gendarmerie supported the army in its military reconquest of the self-declared autonomous provinces of Kurdistan and Azerbaijan.

In May 1950, U.S. military assistance to Persia embarked on a massive expansion with the establishment of the Mutual Defense Assistance Program and it was decided to extend the maximum possible aid to the Gendarmerie (Iran Almanac, 1964, p. 174).

GENMISH became responsible for the planning, preparation, administration, and supervision of the U. S. Military Assistance Program for the Imperial Gendarmerie. The broad purpose of the Military Assistance Program was to increase the effectiveness of the Gendarmerie by improving its mobility, firepower, and communications. Major items provided from the beginning of the program included small arms, vehicles, medical equipment, radio equipment, and light aircraft. An important part of the program was the training of specialists in the United States. By 1964, over four hundred officers and men had received training in the U.S. services under this program (Iran Almanac, 1964, p. 157). Funds were also allocated to literacy programs for the gendarmes as this was essential if they were to use modern weapons. In 1953, illiteracy within the Gendarmerie was 75 per cent, but by 1957 this had fallen to 10 per cent (Iran Almanac, 1964, p. 174).

 Insignia-gendarmerieHat insignia of Gendarmerie officers in the 197os (Source: Polinsignia).

From the 1950s to the late 1970s the Gendarmerie was able to take over the task of maintaining law and order throughout the countryside, allowing the army to focus on its main task of national defense. During those decades only on rare occasions of major tribal unrest was the army called in to assist in re-establishing law and order. The Gendarmerie, together with the police, functioned under the interior ministry, although it was clearly a paramilitary force. Its officers were provided by the army and, as in the army, the shah personally approved all senior promotions. The other ranks were all volunteers. There was, however, great disparity between the Gendarmerie and more prestigious services such as the air force and navy in terms of pay and living conditions (General Maḥmūd Kay, 1985, quoted by Zabih, 1988, p. 89). While the police were responsible for law and order in the cities, the Gendarmerie remained the main instrument of rural control, responsible for half the population and over 80 per cent of Persia’s territory (Halliday, p. 77). Gendarmerie stations were located in villages, at the crossings of rural roads and at key points of the border areas. In 1963 the Gendarmerie took over border control, with the transfer to it from the Ministry of War of the Frontier Guards. The Gendarmerie was responsible for the administration of conscription and, in 1972, also assumed responsibility for the National Resistance Forces, a militia mobilized in time of war.

By 1957, the Gendarmerie consisted of about 24,000 gendarmes, 1,000 commissioned officers and 23,000 of all other ranks, spread throughout the country in over 2,000 outposts, most of which were small posts consisting of 8 to 35 men each. By this time they had at their disposal about two thousand jeeps, trucks, armored cars, motorcycles and bicycles. (Prior to the Military Assistance Program the gendarmes’ sole means of transport had been horses.) The Gendarmerie had also acquired thousands of miles of telephone lines for their communications (Iran Almanac, 1964, p. 174).

During the 1960s one of the major tasks of the Gendarmerie was still the suppression of tribal disorder. The first targets of the 1963 Fārs tribal rebellion were Gendarmerie outposts. It was after several of these had been overrun and disarmed that the army was called in. At one outpost, the entire garrison, including its commander, was massacred (Iran Almanac, 1964, p. 174). The rebellion was easily quelled by the army but the Gendarmerie casualty figures were never released. In 1967-68 the Gendarmerie was mostly occupied in attempting to pacify the Kurdistan area.

 Gendarmerie Music Band GendarmeA member of the Iranian Gendarmerie Music Band in 1971 (Source: Booklet of 2,500 Year Celebrations in 1917 by Iranian Army).

Another increasingly important function of the Gendarmerie was the suppression of smuggling, particularly the traffic in narcotics and opium smuggling from Turkey and Afghanistan.

With the launch of the guerrilla struggle in 1971, however, the Gendarmerie became primarily a counter-insurgency force (Halliday, p. 77). Just as the Gendarmerie, as the physical manifestation of the state in rural Persia, had been the first target of tribal rebellion, so the guerrilla struggle also began with an attack on the Gendarmerie post at Sīāhkal in Gīlān. In order to fulfill its new role the Gendarmerie was greatly expanded and further modernized. In the mid-sixties the Gendarmerie’s authorized strength had reached about 35,000 officers and men (Iran Almanac, 1964, p. 157); ten years later it had doubled to 70,000 (Halliday, p. 77). It had also become highly mechanized, with its own aircraft, helicopters, jeeps, and marine patrol craft (Halliday, p. 77). In 1976 alone the Gendarmerie established 130 new stations in remote parts of the country. In 1965 General Moẓaffar Malek had been replaced as commander by General Ḡolām-ʿAlī Oveyssī. In 1974 Oveyssī was in turn replaced by General ʿAbbās Qarabāḡī.

HH43F-Iran Gendarmerie-1969-IranianAviationReviewOne of three Iranian Gendarmerie HH-43 Huskie helicopters in 1969 (Source: H43-Huskie & Iranian Aviation Review); the above photo was taken in Kermanshah.

Although in general U.S. military assistance to Persia continued to increase, on 3 March 1976, on the shah’s orders, the U.S. military mission to the Gendarmerie came to an end, and Colonel John O. Batiste, the last head of GENMISH, and his men left the country.

After the Revolution of 1979 and the establishment of the Islamic Republic of Iran, the Gendarmerie, along with other military institutions of the previous regime, was purged of its commanding officers and lost much of its power and influence. In 1990, the Gendarmerie, the police force (Šahrbānī), and the revolutionary committees (Komītahā-ye enqelāb-e eslāmī-e Īrān) were incorporated into the Security Forces of the Islamic Republic of Iran (Nīrūhā-ye enteẓāmī-e jomhūrī-e eslāmī-e Īrān).


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