Persian Arms and Armor

Bronze axe-head, Luristan, ca. 1000 BC.png

Bronze axe-head, Lorestan, ca. 1000 BC

Weapons and armor have survived from all phases of Ancient Iran. Access to ample metal supplies and sophisticated developments in metallurgy enabled Iranians to create diverse and innovative forms of weaponry, including swords, axes, arrowheads, and armor. Images of weapons appear frequently on coins, seals, and reliefs, complementing Greek, Roman, and Near Eastern descriptions of Persian armies.

The bronze axehead on the left is one of many similar pieces to survive from Lorestan, a region in the central Zagros Mountains in western Iran. Bronze weapons, including spears, maces, and short swords, constitute some of the earliest surviving artifacts of Iranian warfare, but Lorestan's elaborately decorated axeheads have drawn special attention because of their figural depictions of animals, people, and warriors.

The Achaemenid empire (ca. 550-330 BC) deployed a wide range of fighters and weapons, including infantry, horsemen, and occasionally chariots. According to Herodotus,  the Achaemenid army incorporated diverse troops from the lands it had conquered, including Medes, Assyrians, Egyptians, Indians, and Nubians, each armed with the traditional weapons of their culture (Histories, 7:62-97). Persian and Median foot soldiers frequently carried a double-edged short sword, or akinakes, like the one depicted in the carousel above, recently re-discovered in an Italian museum collection. The cumulative resources of the Achaemenid armies ensured victory on many fronts,  although they had limited capacity for naval conflicts. Ultimately, improvements in Greek and Macedonian military technology, coupled with an increased use of cavalry, meant that Achaemenid forces would consistently lose against Alexander of Macedon's invasion in the 330's.

After the fall of the Achaemenids, much of the Middle East fell under Seleucid and later Parthian control. While Seleucid armies were feared for their use of elephants, the Parthians invested much more heavily in horses. Rather than rely on a combination of foot archers and spearmen, the Parthians shot from their horses, similar to the tactics of other Central Asian tribes. Parthian arrows could even penetrate Roman armor, as more than one Roman expedition discovered. As Greco-Roman historians like Plutarch report, Parthian horsemen with spears supplemented horse-borne archers by cutting off stragglers and mopping up broken enemy formations. 

The Sasanian Empire (224-651 CE) developed from a rebellion led by a Parthian vassal, Ardashir I, and continued the Parthian use of armored horsemen. While Sasanian tacticians continued to deploy archers, they also increased the use of infantry. Cavalry carried not only bows, but also long double-edged swords and lances, and Indian elephants were used on some campaigns. The Sasanians also improved their siege techniques, particularly the use of sappers, and captured many heavily fortified cities from their Roman rivals.

Persian Arms and Armor