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Ancient Sasanid Cataphract Uther Oxford 2003 06 2(1).jpg
Historical re-enactment of an asbaran cataphract
Country Sassanian Empire
Allegiance Shahanshah, Eran-spahbed
Type Heavy cavalry
Sasanian silverware, showing a combat between two noble horsemen wearing scale armor, cuirass, chaps, and equipped with kontos, swords, quivers and arrows.

The Aswārān (singular aswār), also spelled Asbārān, was a military force that formed the backbone of the army of the Sasanian Empire. They were provided by the aristocracy, wore armor, and ranged from archers to cataphracts.


The word comes from the Old Persian word asabāra (from asa- and bar, a frequently used Achaemenid military technical term). The various other renderings of the word are following; Parthian asbār, Middle Persian aspabārak, Classical Persian suwār (سوار), uswār/iswār (اسوار), Modern Persian savār (سوار). The Arabic word asāwira (أساورة), used to refer to a certain faction of the Sasanian cavalry after the Muslim conquest, is a broken plural form of the Middle Persian aswār.[1] However, the word aswār only means "horseman" in Middle Persian literature, and it is only the late Arabic term which has a more specialized meaning. In the Sassanian inscriptions, the formula asp ud mard (Middle Persian: SWSYA W GBRA; Parthian: SWSYN W GBRYN; literally "horse and man") was commonly used to collectively refer to the cavalry and the infantry of the military.[2]


A system which disperses soldiers to estates outside the main fighting season does slow down mobilization and limit opportunities for unit drill, but it also provides on-the-spot capability to respond to local uprisings, brigandage or raids. Moreover, it uses resources more efficiently, since it is much cheaper to move a horseman to 3,000 kg of grain and hay than to do the reverse.[3]

The aswaran were primarily composed of Iranian aristocrats from the wuzurgan and the azadan.[4] After the reforms of Khosraw I, warriors from the dehqan class would also be enlisted.

The asbaran have often been demonstrated as an example of existence of feudalism in Iran by modern scholars, who simply refer them as either chevalier, knight, or ritter. According to historians such as Christensen and Widengren, the asbar had the same status as the knight. However, although the asbaran and knight resemble each other in many parts, the economic role and historical role of the knight is very different compared to the role of the asbaran in the Sasanian Empire, which thus makes it incorrect to refer the asbaran as knights.[5]

Weaponry, armor, and tactics[edit]

The aswaran wore mail armor, and ranged from archers to cataphracts. They assumed a description with the bravery, tactics, and ethics of the Sasanians. They mastered in single combat in battles (mard o-mard), rode on elephants and horses, and their valor was recognized with ornamental emblems. Titles such as hazārmard ("whose strength is equal to one thousand men"), zih asbār ("superior rider"), and pahlawān-i gēhān ("hero/champion of the world"), were their epithets. They wrote the name of the Sasanian emperor and their valuable family members on their arrows as a good omen. They outperformed others in archery to the extent that later writers thought that they had introduced the profession. They were superior and unmatched in the profession, which was even acknowledged by their enemies.[6]


"...all the companies were clad in iron, and all parts of their bodies were covered with thick plates, so fitted that the stiff joints conformed with those of their limbs; and the forms of human faces were so skillfully fitted to their heads, that since their entire body was covered with metal, arrows that fell upon them could lodge only where they could see a little through tiny openings opposite the pupil of the eye, or where through the tip of their nose they were able to get a little breath. Of these some who were armed with pikes, stood so motionless that you would have thought them held fast by clamps of bronze."

Ammianus Marcellinus's description of the asbaran[7]

The asbaran during this early period had much in common with their Parthian (Arsacid) predecessors, most of whom would have worn a scale armor cuirass with long sleeves and chaps covered in scale armor or, less often, plated mail. Their helmets, of the Spangenhelm type, would have been adapted throughout the Sasanian period. Also horses would probably have had armored chests and heads, consisting of an apron and headpiece, or total body protection consisting of five separate pieces, made from either boiled leather or scale armor. Some asbaran units such as mercenaries may have worn little to no armor at all, allowing them to be rather more swift, silent, and mobile.


Illustration of an asbaran cavalryman holding a banner showing a Homa, a mythical bird of Iranian legends and fables.

The Spangenhelm helmets worn by members of the asbaran units in battle would have evolved through the centuries. During the 3rd-to-6th-century era of the Sassanian empire, the Spangenhelm would have probably been made of felt and hardened leather. However, by the late 6th/early 7th century they would have been decorated with flowers and purple ball with mail and small areas through which to breathe and see.


The asbaran cavalry were armed with a variety of weapons. The traditional heavy cavalry weapons, such as maces, lances, and swords would have been used, as well as a variety of other weapons, such as axes. Asbaran cavalry were not, however restricted to short-range weapons, as they often carried weapons such as darts and bows.


Each asbaran unit would have a Drafsh, or heraldric standard. These would have often included mythological creatures and animals. These animals would have included elephants, horses, bears, lions, deer (ahu); these would also include Zoroastrian mythological creatures such as Bashkuch and the army of asbaran would have the Derafsh Kaviani as their banner.

Elite Aswaran[edit]

Equestrian statue of Khosrow II (r. 590–628) wearing the same armor used by the asbaran.

The aswaran sardar were high-ranking officers who were in charge of the aswaran, their position was so high up in Sasanian society that they were only answerable to the Eran-Spahbad (Commander in Chief) and the Shahanshah himself. They would be guarded heavily by cataphract style cavalry. The post of aswaran sardar was held by a member of the Mihran-Pahlav family. Parts of the aswaran division were high-ranking including the Pushtigban Body Guards, a super heavy shock cavalry, who were the royal guards of the Shah himself. The influential aswaran cavalry were mostly made up of heavily armoured cavalry, generally composed of aristocracy or even from the imperial family themselves. There were also commanders who were elite as well. These parts of the aswaran regiments were kept as reserves.

After the fall of the Sasanians[edit]

Most of the asbaran was disbanded after suffering defeat and conquest during the Muslim conquest of Persia. However, several factions of the asbaran, each faction led by a different leader, defected to the Arabs in order to preserve their status and wealth. These asbaran factions settled in various places in the newly established Muslim territories, where they each become known by several names, the most known and prominent faction being the asawira, who under their leader Siyah settled in the newly established settlement of Basra.

See also[edit]



External links[edit]