Journal Article: Caucasian Albanian warriors in the armies of pre-Islamic Iran

The HISTORIA I ŚWIAT academic journal has published the following article by Kaveh Farrokh, Javier Sánchez-Gracia (HRM Ediciones, Zaragoza, Spain), and Katarzyna Maksymiuk (Siedlce University, Poland):

Farrokh, K., Sánchez-Gracia, J., & Maksymiuk, K. (2019). Caucasian Albanian warriors in the armies of pre-Islamic Iran. HISTORIA I ŚWIAT, 8, pp.21-46.

The article discusses the important role of ancient Albania, an ancient country in the Caucasus (in the modern-day Republic of Azerbaijan, first labelled with this appellation in May 1918) in the history of Iran. Albanian cavalry was serving with the later Achaemenid armies of Darius III (r. 336–330 BCE) at the Battle of Gaugamela (331 BCE).

An Albanian-Scythian cavalry commander from the late Achaemenid era (Source: Pinterest). Cavalry of this type from Albania fought for Darius III against Alexander at the Battle of Gaugamela (331 BCE).

Albania was transformed into a Sassanian province by Šāpūr I (c. 253) with the Albanians (notably their cavalry) becoming increasingly integrated into the battle order of the Sassanian Spah (army).

Book cover of “The Siege of Amida” authored by Kaveh Farrokh, Katarzyna Maksymiuk & Javier Sánchez-Gracia (2018) DC – click here to download in pdf from … The above image is a recreation by Ardashir Radpour of a Sassanian Savaran knight of the Hamharzan who were often supplied with the highest quality weaponry. Elite Albanian knights fighting alongside the Savaran would have resembled their comrade in arms with respect to attire, equipment and battle tactics. The above book was displayed at the 2018 ASMEA (Association for the Study of the Middle East and Africa) Conference’s LSS (Library of Social Sciences) display in Washington DC.

All along the Caspian coast the Sassanians built powerful defense works, designed to bar the way to invaders from the north. The most celebrated of these fortifications are those of Darband in Caucasian Albania.

A view of the Darband Wall (known commonly as Derbent; cited as Krevar in local dialects) in Daghestan, Northern Caucasus (Courtesy of Associates of Eduard Enfiajyan).  The origins of the wall of Darband are generally attributed to Kavad I (r. 488-496, 498-530 CE) who after a two-year war (489-490 CE) ejected Khazar invaders rampaging Armenia and Caucasian Albania (modern Republic of Azerbaijan). Construction of the wall was continued by Khosrow I (r. 530-579 CE) and by the late 6th century CE, this had become a system of walls connecting a series of fortresses. Total length of the Darband wall is nearly 70 km, spanning the territory from the Caucasus Mountains to the Caspian Sea. The Wall of Darband or Derbent became a major military fortress shielding Iranian territories in the Caucasus and the historical Azarbaijan below the Araxes River from nomadic attackers along the northern Caucasus, most notably the Khazars.

Albania remained an integral part of the Sasanian army well into the empire’s final days as evidenced by the military exploits of Albanian regal prince Javanshir (Persian: Young Lion) and his cavalry who fought against the Arabo-Islamic invaders at the Battle of Qadissiya (637 CE) and after. Javanshir was a member of the Iranian Mehranid family related to the Parthian clans.

A copy of the 7th century CE statue of the Caucasian Albanian Prince Javanshir (Persian: Young Lion) discovered in Nakhchevan, southern Caucasus (the original statue is housed in the Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg – the above copy of the original is in the Republic of Azerbaijan History Museum) (Source: Urek Meniashvili in Public Domain).

Which Gulf Do They Mean?

The article “Which Gulf do they mean?” by Kourosh Ziaberi originally appeared in the LobeLog on August 7, 2019. Kindly note that excepting one image, all other images and accompanying descriptions do not appear in the original release posted on LobeLog. The version printed below has been edited from the original version.


If you’ve ever wondered how historical realities can be sacrificed and manipulated in the service of myopic political goals, there is a great example for you to follow in your daily roundup of international news offered by the mainstream media.

While reading through coverage of current Middle Eastern affairs in international newspapers, magazines, and news websites, it’s very common for readers to come across the words “the Gulf.” Many people recognize what “the Gulf” signifies, but many others don’t know and get perplexed and still others ignore the vague reference while reading. Basically, the phrase is meant to denote the body of water separating Iran from the Arabian Peninsula. By accident, the sea has got a name of its own and is called the “Persian Gulf.” But there are many reasons why it is becoming customary for the mass media to identify it simply as “the Gulf,” leaving critical audiences astounded why the expanse of water is not called by its full name, unlike multiple other geographic entities that are allowed the use of their full names.

WIPO Registration certificate attesting to the correct historical body of water known as the Persian Gulf (Source: Mohammad Ala) … for more see Here This is the first official registration at WIPO (which is a UN body). There have been two other previous declarations (UNAD 311 of 5 March 1971 and UNLA 45.8.2(c) of 10 August 1984) affirming the correct name for the Persian Gulf. WIPO has re-affirmed the legality of this term as (unfortunately) politically motivated outlets have continued using fabricated terminology. You may refer to the following articles for more information:

A Vital Waterway

The Persian Gulf is a vital waterway that is an extension of the Indian Ocean through the Strait of Hormuz, which is considered by the U.S. Energy Information Administration “the world’s most important strategic chokepoint for oil transport.” The earliest evidence of human life on islands in the Persian Gulf dates back to the Middle Paleolithic Period, spanning from 300,000 to 30,000 years ago. Inhabitants around the Persian Gulf in ancient times are believed to be the first people to use fish as food.

University of Birmingham researchers believe the land that now lies beneath the Persian Gulf might have been host to humans over 100,000 years, before it was swamped by the Indian Ocean around 8,000 years ago.

Oil was found in the Persian Gulf in 1908. However, it was not until the 1903s when major discoveries were made. It’s reported that more than 50% of the world’s oil reserves lie in and around the Persian Gulf. Moreover, about a third of the world’s liquefied natural gas passes through the Strait of Hormuz, the narrow water lane connecting the Persian Gulf and the Sea of Oman.

Map of the Persian Gulf by 18th century French cartographer Jacques-Nicolas Bellin (Source: LobeLog).

Sir Arnold Talbot Wilson, the British civil commissioner in Baghdad from 1918-20, wrote in a book published in 1928, “No water channel has been so significant as Persian Gulf to the geologists, archaeologists, geographers, merchants, politicians, excursionists, and scholars whether in past or in present. This water channel which separates the Iran Plateau from the Arabia Plate, has enjoyed an Iranian Identity since at least 2,200 years ago.”

The Persian Gulf has been a hotbed of economic development in recent years. The 2005-2015 expansion of the economies of Persian Gulf states—mostly Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, and Bahrain—persuaded millions of migrants to move to the region in search of economic opportunities. According to a Pew Research Center study, the number of non-displaced, international migrants living in the Middle East rose from 19 to 31 million in that ten-year period.

Florence 16th Century Map of Persia which cites ” G o l f o  d i  P e r s i a”. For more see … “Iran and the Persian Gulf

Due to its enormous gas and oil resources and its strategically important position, the Persian Gulf has been an arena of rivalry between the world’s major powers since the mid-19th century, when British India, Tsarist Russia, and the Ottoman Empire faced off there.

Shaikh Salman Bin Hamad Al-Khalifa (at left) and Sir Charles Belgrave (right) (Picture Source: Flicker) who was England’s Government Advisor to Bahrain. It was Belgrave who first pioneered the concept of changing the name of the Persian Gulf. The motives for such revisionist schemes remain unclear, but it is possible that Belgrave and the British policymakers may have calculated that such actions would create frictions between the Iranians and the Arabs. For more on this topic see … “Pan-Arabism and it’s Legacy of Confrontation with Iran

What’s in a Name?

For a number of reasons, the Persian Gulf epitomizes Iranian national identity and is highly significant to the Iranian people. The most important reason is Iran’s historical sovereignty over the body of water and that the majority of countries that surround the Gulf today were once parts of the Persian Empire, when the Achaemenid Dynasty was in power. Therefore, it’s not difficult to decipher the strong passion Iranians feel about the Persian Gulf. Today, Among the Persian Gulf’s eight littoral states, Iran has the longest coastline and the largest population. The largest island in the Persian Gulf is Iran’s Qeshm Island.

Countless historical documents identify the body of water as the Persian Gulf, and there is unanimity over the historicity and validity of the name. Greek geographers Strabo, who lived in the Augustan era, and Ptolemy, who lived in the 2nd century CE, used the name “Persian Gulf” in their maps.


Close-up of a Rotated Map by Pomponius Mela (originally drafted in 43 CE) reproduced in Mappa Mundi by Konrad Miller in 1898 (Bild Vi. “Rekonstruierte Karten”, Tafel 7 [Picture Vi, Reconstructed Maps, Plate 7]) (Photo of image: Public Domain). The designation “Persicum Mare” (Persian Sea) is clearly and historically attested upon the map. 

Today, the United Nations only recognizes the name Persian Gulf and issued two editorial directives in 1994 and 1999, clarifying its position on the naming of the waterway.

United Nations Editorial Directive issued on August 18, 1994 which clearly notes of the legality and correct use of the name “Persian Gulf”. For more see … “Jamal Abdul Nasser’s Reference to the Persian Gulf on August 30, 1951

The declining influence of Iran following the 1979 revolution, and the growth of pan-Arab sentiments and Arab nationalism since the early 1960s precipitated the coinage of the term “Arabian Gulf” as a replacement for a name that has been in use commonly for hundreds of years. The Eighth United Nations Conference on the Standardization of Geographical Names in 2002 concluded that the name Arabian Gulf is “faulty.”

Saudi Arabian ARAMCO map printed in 1952. This map identifies the historical name of the body of water separating Iran from the Arabian Peninsula as the Persian Gulf (Source: posted in Persian Gulf On-line). For more see … “1952 Saudi Arabian map of the Persian Gulf

These days, certain governments and media organizations see the distortion of the name “Persian Gulf” as a safe and inexpensive shortcut to chip away at Iran while the Islamic Republic is in conflict with the West over the nuclear crisis and a number of other sticking points. For some media outlets, identifying the Persian Gulf as “the Gulf” or “Arabian Gulf” is a matter of pandering to their well-off benefactors in the Arab world, and for some of them, it’s all about demoralizing Iran by deliberately shrugging off a historical reality.

The street plaque “Sharraa Khalij al-Faris” (Persian Gulf Street) in Cairo, Egypt (Source: posted in Persian Gulf On-line). For more see …Jamal Abdul Nasser’s Reference to the Persian Gulf on August 30, 1951

Indisputably, when a country is diplomatically and politically fragile, its assets and resources will be accordingly at stake, and its rivals will race to take its belongings away. The tendency of international media and certain world governments and politicians to call the Persian Gulf as “the Gulf” or even go the extra mile to call it the “Arabian Gulf” is one of the offshoots of Iran’s growing isolation in recent years over its much-debated nuclear program and its controversial regional policies.

Different name – same management: Anglo-Iranian Oil Company or AIOC (Anglo-Persian Oil Company until 1935) changes its title to British Petroleum (BP) in 1954 (at left).  One year before its name change (1953) the petroleum company had been instrumental in cooperating with the CIA to topple Iranian Prime Minister Mossadegh (1882-1967) (at right) – for more information consult Iran at War: 1500-1988, 2011, pp. 297-303. At present, BP has major oil interests in the Caucasus to the north of Iran.

However, it’s safe to argue that those in the media who tamper with a geographical name rooted in history don’t simply kowtow to a political agenda. They betray the conscience of their audience and promote fake information. Altering the name of the Persian Gulf does not simply translate to debilitating Iran. It’s equivalent to undermining a shared heritage of mankind and trampling its identity underfoot.

A historical map with the name “Persian” literally erased from the designation “Persian Gulf”, to leave only the invented term “Gulf”. This falsified map is housed in Dubai’s Saeed Al Maktoum House in the United Arab Emirates (UAE). Interestingly the UAE along with several modern day states in West Asia, excluding the historical states of Turkey and Iran, were created in the 20th century. States such as the UAE and Saudi Arabia for example, were literally created in large part due to the Anglo-European economic and geopolitical engineering policies. Buttressing such policies are additional Anglo-European 20th century inventions such as “The Middle East” … for more see:

There are numerous geographical regions whose names are taken from the nearby countries—for example, the Indian Ocean, the Gulf of Mexico and the South China Sea. The world would be a terrible place if the political nemeses of these countries attempted every day to concoct a new name for those entities in order to fulfill short-term political goals.

King Abdulaziz ibn Abdul Rahman Al Saud (reigned 1932-1953) meeting with US President Franklin D. Roosevelt (1882-1945) (at right) aboard the US warship, USS Quincy, after the Yalta Conference (Feb. 4-11, 1945) (Source: Public Domain). The interpreter is Colonel Bill Eddy with Fleet Admiral William D. Leahy located to the left. Ibn Saud is on record for his racist statement “…we hate the Persians…” (Allen, 2006, p.245; God’s Terrorists: The Wahhabi Cult and the Hidden Roots of Modern Jihad, Abacus: London). Western statesmen and business lobbyists to the present day continue to ignore these types of attitudes among non-European leaders in favor of lucrative commercial and geopolitical interests. For more on this topic see … “Pan-Arabism and it’s Legacy of Confrontation with Iran

Fall 2019 Iranian Studies Initiative Lectures at the University of British Columbia

The University of British Columbia’s Persian and Iranian Studies Initiative of the Department of Asian Studies at the University of British Columbia will be providing a series of lectures by prominent Iranian Studies scholars in the Fall of 2019. All of these lectures will be Free and open to the general public. As seen further below, the lecturers shall be Mahsa Rad, Dominic P. Brookshaw, Shahzad Bashir, Farzan Kermani, Morteza Asadi and Kaveh Farrokh.

The planned lectures and specific dates for these are as follows:

Mahsa Rad, Ph.D. Candidate in Psychology, Tarbiat Modares University, Tehran; Visiting International Research Student at UBC: Loneliness and  Struggle: Self-Narratives of Iranian Trans People’s Livesروایت  زندگی ترنس های ایرانی (in Persian)[13 Sept. 2019, 6:00 – 8:00 p.m., lecture hall to be announced]

Dominic P. Brookshaw, Ph.D., Associate Professor of Persian Literature at The Oriental Institute, Oxford Semi-Annual Lecture in Persian/Iranian Studies: One Poet Among Many: Hafez and the Transregional Literary Networks of 14th-Century Iran (in English) – [Sept. 27, 2019, lecture hall to be announced]

Shahzad Bashir, Ph.D., Aga Khan Professor of Islamic Humanities, Professor of Religious Studies, Brown University: Imagining Time in India: Persian Chroniclers and their Interpreters (in English) – [11 Oct. 2019, 6-7:30 p.m., lecture hall to be announced]

Farzan Kermani, Ph.D. in Design, IIT Bombay: Iranian Art After Islam: With a Look at Some Renowned Iranian Calligraphersهنر ایران پس از اسلام: با نگاهی به سرگذشت چند خوشنویس بلندآوازه – (in Persian) – [25 Oct. 2019, 6:00 – 8:00 p.m., lecture hall to be announced]

Morteza Asadi, Ph.D., Visiting Scholar at the School of International Studies, Simon Fraser University, Vancouver, BC; former Assistant Professor of Economy at Kharazmi University, Tehran: Political Economy of Oil Curse: The Case of Post-Revolutionary Iran (in English) – [8 Nov. 2019, 6:00 – 8:00 p.m., lecture hall to be announced]

Kaveh Farrokh, Ph.D., Professor of History & Academic Advisor for Analytica Iranica, Methodolgica Governance University, Paris, France: Civilizational Contacts between Ancient Iran and Europa during the Classical Era (in English) – [29 Nov. 2019, 6:00 – 8:00 p.m., lecture hall to be announced]

Readers further interested in Kaveh Farrokh’s upcoming lecture are encouraged to download two of his peer-reviewed articles as well as the Dissertation of Sheda Vasseqhi below:

Farrokh, K. (2016). An Overview of the Artistic, Architectural, Engineering and Culinary exchanges between Ancient Iran and the Greco-Roman World. AGON: Rivista Internazionale di Studi Culturali, Linguistici e Letterari, No.7, pp.64-124.

Farrokh, K. (2009). The Winged Lion of Meskheti: a pre- or post-Islamic Iranian Legacy in Georgia? Scientific Paradigms. Studies in Honour of Professor Natela Vachnadze. St. Andrew the First-Called Georgian University of the Patriarchy of Georgia. Tbilisi, pp. 455-492.

PhD Dissertation by Sheda Vasseqhi (University of New England; academic supervision team Academic advising Team: Marylin Newell, Laura Bertonazzi, Kaveh Farrokh): Positioning Of Iran And Iranians In  the Origins Of Western Civilization.

See also:

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

Arsacid Chronology in Traditional History

The article below on the origins of the Parthians is authored by the late Shapur Shahbazi and was originally posted in the Encyclopedia Iranica. This article is also available in print: Encyclopedia Iranica, Vol. II, Fasc. 5, pp. 542-543.

Readers are also referred to the History of the Parthian army – click here …


The Parthian rule lasted 474 years, longer than any dynastic period in Iranian history. Throughout this period, the Arsacid era and the Seleucid era which preceded it by 64 years, were both in use, and so it would have been easy to recall that the Ctesiphon accession of Ardašīr I occurred in the 538th year of the Seleucid era and in the 474th year of the Arsacid era. Yet post-Sasanian sources give various figures for the duration of the Arsacid rule, which may be divided into the following categories. 1: 200 ud and (200 odd) years (Great Iranian Bundahišn, Codex DH, p. 109 lines, 10-11 [Tehran, 1971], TD1, p. 207, lines 1-2 [Tehran, 1971], TD2 p. 240, lines 4-5; Ferdowsī: “sāl-i dovīst (some two hundred years)” (Šāh-nāma VII, p. 116); both may be for 203 years, see A. Sh. Shahbazi, “The “Traditional Date of Zoroaster” Explained,” BSOAS 40, 1977, p. 27 n. 19. 2: 266 years, with variants (Šāh-nāma-ye Abū Manṣūrī apud Bīrunī, The Chronology, p. 117; Ṭabarī, I, pp. 706 and 813; Masʿūdī, Tanbīh, p. 97; Baḷʿamī, Tārīḵ, p. 874; Moqaddasī, III, p. 155); this frequently recorded tradition was the official Sasanian reckoning, as Masʿūdī says (see below), and is found also in Agathias (270 years: History 4.24) who used Sasanian royal chroniclers (ibid., 4.30.2-5). 3: 284 years, with slight variants (Masʿūdī, Tanbīh, p. 96; Indian Bundahišn 34.9). 4: 400 years, with variants (Baḷʿamī, Tārīḵ, p. 874; Nāma-ye Tansar, ed. M. Mīnovī, Tehran, 1311 Š./1932, p. 43; Moǰmal al-tawārīḵ, p. 59 [411 years]; Moqaddasī, loc. cit.). 5: 523 years, with variants (Ṭabarī, I, 813, hence Baḷʿamī, Tārīḵ, p. 874; Abu’l-Faraǰ Zanǰānī apud Bīrūnī, The Chronology, p. 119).

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).

The last category is of non-Iranian origin, as Ṭabarī specifies, being clearly based on Syrian sources using the Seleucid era: Alexander was usually claimed as the initiator of the Seleucid era (hence the era of Alexander), and was assigned a reign of 14 years (Shahbazi, op. cit., pp. 27ff.); since Ardašīr’s Ctesiphon coronation occurred “538 years after Alexander” (Agathias 4.24), one subtracted his reign from this number and obtained (537-14 = ) 523 years for his successors, the Petty Kings (Pahl.kadag-xwadāy, Ar.-NPers. molūk al-ṭawāʾef). The fourth category is a rough estimate by historians unconvinced of the authenticity of the official reckoning. The third group is a re-adjustment of the figure 266 in a scholastic version (Shahbazi, op. cit., p. 30). The first two categories are, however, based on sound historical—albeit unauthentic—traditions. Masʿūdī (Tanbīh, pp. 97f.) and Bīrūnī (cited by S. H. Taqizadeh, BSOS 9, 1937, p. 125) have noted the great difference of opinion between the Iranians and other nations concerning the post-Alexander chronology, and they have accused Ardašīr of having distorted the facts. “One of the state and religious secrets of the Iranians,” says Masʿūdī, is that Zoroaster foretold that his religion would be disturbed 300 years after him but the religion and empire would be stricken by a calamity at the end of his millennium. Now Ardašīr appeared when only two centuries of the millennium were left, and fearing the approach of the calamity, he “reduced almost by half the 500-year period separating him from Alexander, counting from the petty kings only some rulers with a total reign of 260 years and ignoring the rest. . . And so the chronology was thus officially fixed, and published” (Tanbīh, p. 98). H. Lewy (“The Genesis of the Faulty Persian Chronology,” JAOS 64, 1944, pp. 1977ff.), S. H. Taqizadeh (“The “Era of Zoroaster”,”JRAS, 1947, pp. 33ff.) and W. B. Henning (Zoroaster: Politician or Witch-doctor?, Oxford, 1951, pp. 37ff.) have explained this “secret” more convincingly: under the Sasanians the Seleucid era had come to be identified as the era of Zoroaster, and Alexander had been placed 258 years after Zoroaster; the appearance of Ardašīr in the 538th year of the Seleucid era was then re-interpreted as his rise in the 538th year of the millennium of Zoroaster; of these 538 years, 258 separated Zoroaster from Alexander and 14 belonged to the latter; so (538âŠδ258 + 14 = ) 266 years were left for the Parthian period. The Sasanian measure was taken, then, not because the Parthian period was to be reduced, but because the widely used Seleucid era had to be Zoroastrianized.

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

The first category—the importance of which is evidenced by its attestation in two major Iranian sources—has so far remained unexplained. But it is clearly based on the re-interpretation of the Arsacid era (q.v.) as the epochal year of the millennium of Zoroaster: Ardašīr’s Ctesiphon coronation was in the (247 + 227 = ) 474th year of the Arsacid era; allowing 258 years for the interval between Zoroaster and Alexander, and assigning 14 years to the latter, one obtained (474âŠδ258 + 14 =) 202 years for the Parthian period. This Zoroastrianization of the Arsacid era must have been the work of the Parthian families who resented the Sasanian re-interpretation of the Seleucid era as the “era of Zoroaster,” so they countered claiming that their era had been initiated by Zoroaster. In this way they sanctified their dynastic symbol at the expense of sharply reducing the period of their rule.

Readers are also directed to the three tables below provided in the Encyclopedia Iranica regarding the chronology of the Parthians:

Cataphract Camels

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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