In June of year 363 AD, near the city of Samarra in modern day Iraq,a large professional Roman army was in a state of total chaos. The Romans were led by Princeps Julian, a cultured and competent leader who had led the army to victory near the Persian capital of Ctesiphon a month earlier. Julian however failed tocapitalize on this important tactical victory, and did not siege the city as an incoming force led by the King of Kings Shapur II was closing in from the east. Near Samarra, Julian’s army of 35,000 was intercepted by skirmishing cavalry sent by Shapur. The Persians attacked the roman cohorts who were advancing in square formations to avoid encirclement. Julian, seeing his troops panicking in front of the suddenSassanid attack, rushed forward without his armor in order to encourage his men to fight on. He was however spotted by Sassanid officers who sent an arab regiment of auxiliary cavalry to assassinate him. Julian was hit on his back by a javelin and was immediately rushed to the rearguard. His doctor Oribasius couldn’t do anything, as the Emperor died a few hours later in his tent. The roman army, now without a leader, chose Jovian (Julian’s Comes Domesticorum) as the new emperor. Facing continuous raids from the Sassanids, the Romans were forced to sign a humiliating peace treaty with Shapur II. Shortly after the peace negotiations, emperor Jovian died in his tent in Anatolia (Dadastana) under mysterious circumstances.
In the spring of 327 BC, Alexander the Great, King of Macedon, had conquered most of the persian Achaemenid empire and defeated the King of Kings Darius III in numerous battles. Alexander had arrived in Central Asia, in a region known then as Sogdiana (modern day Uzbekistan and Tajikistan) and had encountered stiff resistance from the Iranic peoples that lived in the hereto unexplored region. One of the leaders of the resistance was Oxyartes, a persian nobleman who had a beautiful daughter named Roxanne. Roxanne was sent by her father to a fortified castle near the city of Maracanda (Samarkand). The castle was considered impregnable, as it was located on the top of a steep mountain and therefore nicknamed “The Sogdian Rock”. While Alexander was preparing the troops for the siege, the confident defenders told him that to take their castle he would need “men with wings”. Alexander took 300 volunteers experienced in rock climbing (Macedonia being a mountainous region, his men were skilled climbers)and sent them up the slopes of the mountain. When the men arrived on the top, Alexander sent messangers to tell the Persians that if they looked up on the walls, they would have seen their winged men. The Persians, astonished, surrendered to Alexander. After the siege Alexander married Oxyartes’s daughter Roxanne, who gave him a son, Alexander IV.
On the western bank of the Euphrates, near the border of modern day Iraq and Syria, once stood the ancient walled town of Dura-Europos. Founded as a military colony by Selecus I Nicator, one of Alexander the Great’s successors, Dura-Europos became a sprawling city, serving as a crossroads of cultures and empires. Under Roman rule, the city became one of the most strongly fortified points on the eastern border with the Sassanid Persians. In the year 256 AD, the Sassanid King of Kings, Shapur I, laid siege to the city. The siege was extremely violent, with the Sassanids trying multiple times to undermine Roman defenses. The Persians may have also used poisoned gas, stemming from ignited sulphur crystals, in order to kill the roman defenders, in what is an ancient example of chemical warfare. The skeleton of the Sassanid soldier who was most likely responsible for the release of the gas was found by archaeologists. Even a siege ramp was erected by the Sassanid troops in order to breach the defenses of the city. Eventually the Sassanids did manage to take the city, deporting the survivors to Ctesiphon and selling them as slaves. The city then became a ghost town, as emperor Valerian was defeated and captured by Shapur’s forces near Edessa in 260 AD and therefore could not intervene in time. Desert sands would gradually cover the city’s buildings, miraculously preserving them for future archaeology. Evidence of Dura’s cultural diversity throughout the centuries can be found in the retrievedworks written in Greek, Latin, Palmyrean, Hebrew and Middle Persian. The city contained a Christian chapel, a Synagogue, a Mithraeum and an Agorà, proof of the greek/macedonian origin of the town. Dura also housed a Roman military camp, the base from which the Roman garrison operated the defense of the walls in 256 AD. The extensive archaelogical evidence (which included also many pagan temples, the Praetorium and the city walls) present in the town led to the city being called: “the Pompei of the Desert”. Contemporary satellite images show that 70% of the site has been destroyedby looters and by ISIS operations in the region. One of the guards of the archaeological site has beenbeheaded. Dura-Europos is now lost to the the desert winds of Eastern Syria.
By the time teenage emperor Romulus Augustulus was deposed by Germanic general Odoacer in 476 AD, the western Roman world was fragmented and governed by mostly “barbarian” rulers who led the so called “romano-barbarian” kingdoms. There was however a land in northern Gaul, near the city of Noviodunum (modern day Soissons), which still claimed to be part of the Roman Empire. The leader of the domain of Soissons was Afranius Syagrius, the son of the able Magister Militum per Gallias, Aegidius. He was referred to as “King of the Romans” by the Frankish nobles, and tried to maintain a successful Gaullic-Roman state in the middle of a mostly germanic ruled western Europe. Syagrius succeeded in pursuing his objective for about 25 years, but, in 486 AD, he was challenged by the ambitious king of the Franks, Clovis I. Syagrius confronted the armies of Clovis near Soissons, in the modern French department of Aisne. The Franks managed to crush the Roman forces, as Syagrius was forced to flee to the Visigothic court of Alaric II. Alaric, intimidated by the powerful Franks, handed Syagrius over to Clovis, who summarily executed him. Gregory of Tours wrote about the event, claiming that Syagrius was stabbed in secret. With the death of Syagrius, Roman rule in the West came to an end. This is not to say that Roman culture disappeared entirely, as the Eastern Roman Empire was still strong and the new germanic kingdoms viewed Rome as a model, which they copied extensively, from administrative posts to military tactics and ranks.
After the gradual disintegration of the Western Roman empire and the Eastern Roman reconquest of the Italian peninsula in the 6th century AD, a small castle called Castrum Cajetanum, situated on the southern Tyrrhenian coastline of Italy, began to flourish under Byzantine rule. The fortified castle, on the slopes of Monte Orlando (a place full of greco-roman legends) slowly started to gain autonomy from the central authority of Costantinople, becoming de facto independent by the 9th century AD. During this time, the rulers of Gaeta and its surroundings were called Hypati, a Byzantine title equivalent to the Latin Consul. During the high Middle Ages, the rulers of Gaeta allied themselves with the pope and fought against saracen pirates, defeating them at the battle of Ostia in 849 AD and at the battle of Garigliano in 915 AD. From this time onwards, Gaeta gradually turned into a sprawling trading centre, with its ships reaching as far as Constantinople, Syria and North Africa. Gaeta became so powerful and rich, that it was commonly referred to as the “fifth” Maritime Republic along with Amalfi, Venice, Pisa and Genoa. Gaeta’s golden age ended in 1140 AD, when the city was absorbed by the Norman Kingdom of Sicily, led by King Roger II. One of the main primary sources on the history of Gaeta is the Codex Diplomaticus Cajetanus, a collection of historical documents, written in the nearby Abbey of Montecassino. The famous Caetani family, of which pope Boniface VIII is part, is said to descend from the powerful Hypati of Gaeta.
The Persian army under the Sassanid dynasty of Late antiquity was an extremely efficient force, more loyal and reliable than its Parthian predecessor. The heavy cavalry or cataphracts, taken from the Azadan or minor Persian nobility (feudal nobles) were its core divisions. The 10.000 knights guarding the King of Kings, the Zhayedan or Immortals, were cataphracts as well.
The 1.000 elite Pushtigban were the same type of heavy cavalry and were based at the capital Ctesiphon. The charge of a shock unit like the cataphracts in battle produced massive damage to enemy divisions and also had great psychological impact on the enemy. In fact, these knights were completely encased in armor, including their faces. According to roman officer and author Amianus Marcellinus, cataphracts looked like “moving iron statues”. The military officers of the Sassanid army were drawn from the Wuzurgan nobility. Light cavalry such as skirmishers and horse archers was mostly supplied by the bellicose tribes of Central Asia like the Hepthalites and the Massagetae. Regiments of light Arab cavalry, mostly provided by the Lakhmids, were always present in Persian armies. The Sassanids also had infantry, though most of their footmen were not trained or professional soldiers but levied and seasonal troops, mostly being armed with spears and large wicker shields. However, an elite body of infantry troops also existed: the Daylamite warriors, Daylamig in Middle Persian.
These warriors were drawn from the mountainous regions of Northern Iran, the Southern shores of the Caspian Sea. They reached such a high status that 4.000 of them were chosen as private bodyguards by Shah Khosrow II, thereby forming the Gond-i Shahanshah or Army of the King of Kings. The Sassanid army was a very efficient sieging force, using mining techniques, siege towers, catapults and battering rams to siege walled and well fortified cities like the roman fortress of Dura Europos. War elephants from India carried little fortified towers with archer support on top. The elephant corps was under a special chief, known as the Zend-hapet, or “Commander of the Indians”.
High Ranking Officers:
Erahn Spahbed – Commander in chief of the army, the equivalent of a Roman Magister Militum.
Spahbed – Army commander and field general, Middle Persian Spahpat.
Pushtigban Salar – Commander of the Pushtigban bodyguards based in Ctesiphon, Mesopotamia.
Eran Anbaraghdad – Officer responsible for the army supplies, of crucial importance while campaigning.
Stor-Bizeshk – Senior officer responsible for the health of the steeds, essential for the cataphracts and very knoledgiable about herbs.
Arghbed – Commander of a fort or castle.
Payghan Salar – Chief of an infantry division, guarded by elite Daylamites, Northern Iranian warriors.
Savaran Sardar – Head of a cavalry division.
Varhranighan Khvadhay – Commander of the 10.000 Zhayedan bodyguards (the Immortals).
The Ioviani were created by soldier Emperor Diocletian (284-305 AD) as an elite guard unit. The name Ioviani derives from Iuppiter, the patron god of the legion. Later on, they became part of the Palatina Legions of the new Constantinian army as elite regiments led personally by the emperor. They served under emperor Valentinian the Great as Ioviani Seniores in his aggressive campaigns on the Rhine Frontier, taking part in the Battle of Solicinium in 368 AD.
They also served in the province of Britannia under Comes Theodosius against the Picts, the Franks and the Saxons. In the year 388 AD, the Ioviani fought again in Germany, losing their commander Heraclius in battle. They took part in the Battle of the Frigidus in 395 AD. They served under the Magister Militum Flavius Stilicho and in this period they were headquartered in Pisa, Tuscany. They fought against the rebellion of the Comes Gildo in North Africa alongside the Herculiani Seniores. At the beginning of the 5th century, the Ioviani Seniores were probably still based in Pisa and were one of the last units to dissolve in the west, remaining loyal to the emperor till the very end. The Ioviani were one of the most senior Palatina Legions in the west. They were proficient in the throwing of plumbata, a form of lead-weighted dart carried by heavy infantry. Their shield crest was a red eagle on a blue field. Before engaging in battle, the Ioviani would perform the barritus, a roman war chant of germanic origin that consisted in a crescendo of low pitched noises enhanced by putting the mouth close to the shield. They fought as heavy infantry, armed with a long spatha and an oval shield. They probably also carried short spears.
In Roman times, intelligence activities were performed by various units whose functions often overlapped. Originally, the Frumentarii, Beneficiarii, Speculatores and Exploratores were specialized body of troops who provided supplies to the Roman legions and gave them detailed reports about enemy forces. In Imperial times, particularly during the reign of emperor Hadrian, these units gradually became part of a secret service body who loyally served the Princeps. These elite troops were headquartered in the Castra Peregrina on the Mons Caelius in Rome and operated under the command of the Princeps Peregrinorum, a powerful officer responsible for the security of the roman State who answered directly to the emperor.
As displayed on the low reliefs of the Trajan’s Column in Rome, the Frumentarii were, in origin, concerned with the supply of frumentum or corn to the Roman legions. They acted as internal secret police, couriers and security enforcers, carrying out undercover activities both in Rome and in the provinces. We have evidence of collaboration between the Frumentarii and the Cohors Praetoriae or Praetorians in police and security operations in Rome. Most probably, during the 3rd century AD crisis, the Frumentarii played a crucial role in breaching the personal security of emperors, as they had a privileged connection to the Praetorian Guard.
The Speculatores gathered information on Rome’s external enemies and functioned as elite reconnaissance units, messengers and collectors of intellingence. At times, they also acted as assassins and torturers on behalf of the emperor. However, the use of Speculatores was not limited to the Princeps. Provincial guards also employed them for similar purposes. Evidence shows that Speculatores often operated alone, in pairs or small groups and were executed if captured. The Speculatores operated alongside of the Cohors Praetoriae in Rome, in particular of the Equites Singulares Augusti, the cavalry arm of the Praetorian Guard, and were led by a Centurio Speculatorum Augustorum, a powerful Praetorian officer. The Praetorian Guard or Cohors Praetoriae, were used by emperors as means of terror tactics, assassination and gathering of intelligence, similarly to the Frumentarii. The Speculatores continued to be employed throughout the empire.
The Exploratores were a trained scouting unit to be found in every roman legio. They were sent forward in screening operations and reconnaissance missions, providing excellent situational awareness to roman legions. As evidence from the panels of the Trajan’s Column in Rome shows, they were given first-class horses and equipment in order to increase their mobility when carrying out combat intelligence missions behind enemy lines such as raids, attacks on enemy outposts and foraging operations.
To conclude, the Beneficiarii were specialized soldiers who served under military commanders and governors and had administrative and logistical tasks. At times, even diplomats and courtiers were sent off to foreign courts to spy on enemy kings or rival emperors.
The Frumentarii, Beneficiarii, Speculatores and Exploratores were heavily involved in the violent persecutions of Christians and were most probably the ones who carried out assassinations and tortures.
Shapur II was born in 309 AD in the city of Gor, modern day Firuzabad (meaning “The glory of Ardashir” in Middle Persian). He was crowned King of Iran and Aniran by the powerful Aassanian court. At the age of 16, having learnt the arts of horseriding and archery, Shapur embarked on a series of military campaigns against the Arabs, particularly in the Persian Gulf. Shapur commanded a powerful army, made primarily of heavily armed cataphracts, skilled legions of archers on horseback, war elephants and a massive number of hevy infantry. The army included Cataphracts, who were drawn from the Persian Azadan nobility and heavily trained, as well as cavalry archers who were recruited from the bellicose tribes of Central Asia like the Hephtalites and the Massagetae.
Having achieved stunning victories against the Arabs, Shapur was called “Dhu I-Aktaf” or “He who pierces shoulders” for his harsh character. He famously ordered the construction of a fortified wall near the city of Al-Hirah, in Mesopotamia, in order to prevent Arab incursions, the wall was called “War-i tazigan” or “The wall of the Arabs”. After the death of emperor Costantine in 337 AD , the Roman empire was divided among his three ambitious sons. Shapur, sensing an opening, immediately invaded Armenia, capturing it quickly. Nine major and bloody battles ensued, mostly won by Shapur, but, near the city of Singara, in modern day Iraq, Shapur’s offensive was blocked by emperor Costantius II.
Not deterred by this setback, Shapur invaded again, besieging the fortress of Nisibis, in modern day Syria, on three different occasions, but was repulsed every time by the skillful Roman general Lucilianus. While Shapur was fighting against the Romans, nomadic tribes like the Kidarites attacked the eastern frontiers of Shapur’s empire. In order to defend his other flank, the Persian monarch signed a hasty truce with the romans and immediately mobilized his armies to face the savage tribes in the east. After a bloddy stuggle that lasted 5 years, Shapur was able to defeat the tribes and forced their king Grumbates to enlist his men into the persian army as light cavalrymen. Emboldened by this success in the east, Shapur invaded Armenia once again in 359 AD and defeated every roman force sent against him. He conquered the cities of Amida (in Turkey), Singara and Bezabde, defeating emperor Costantius’s relief forces near the latter. In the year 361, emperor Costantius died and was succeeded by the brilliant Julian, who wanted to bring back paganism to the now Christianized empire.
In 363 AD, Julian led a powerful army against the persian capital of Cthesiphon, in Mesopotamia, where Julian ultimately defeated Shapur’s armies outside the city walls. The persian army, which was commanded by Spahbod Merena, was surrounded by the Roman army and massacred. Julian however lacked the siege equipment necessary to capture the city and, with Shapur’s remaining forces closing in, reluctantly decided to retreat. The roman army was consistently harassed by Shapur’s cavalry during its retreat, and in a skirmish near the city of Samarra, the emperor himself was struck by a javelin thrown by a saracen auxiliary. Emperor Julian later died from the wound and in his last moments he said: “Galilean (Jesus), you have won…”. This was yet another stunning victory for Shapur, who continued to attack the roman frontier. Meanwhile, the confused Romans elected a man named Jovian emperor, as he was the commander of the imperial bodyguard and an expert in military matters. Shapur moved to block the Roman crossing of the Tigris river with massive cavalry regiments and therefore forced Jovian to sign a humiliating peace treaty.
The romans gave Shapur Armenia, Georgia, Eastern Mesopotamia and fifteen fortresses along the borders. As this was what Shapur had always wanted, he proceeded to occupy the regions and went on to defeat and conquer the Kushan Empire which included Afghanistan and Pakistan. Shapur died in 379 and was succeeded by his brother Ardashir 2. Shapur II is responsible for one of the Sassanian Empire’s golden ages. During his reign, the eastern, western and internal frontiers had been pacified and the army reformed by introducing more heavily equipped cataphracts. Above all though, he confronted the superpower that was Rome and defeated it, thereby opening up an ancient ‘arms race’ between the Persian and Roman empires.