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Wednesday, November 16, 2011

The Battle of Solachon - Romans vs. Persians

Heavy Armored Persian Sassanian Cavalry.  The Battle of Solachon appears to
have been mostly a cavalry fight.

Battle of Solachon 586 AD

Roman – Persian War of 572–591

The wars between the Roman Empire and Sassanid Persia had gone on and on for centuries.  Each side looking to gain territory or military advantage over the other.  The latest war was triggered by pro-Roman revolts in areas of the Caucasus under Persian hegemony, although other events contributed to its outbreak.

The fighting was largely confined to the southern Caucasus and Mesopotamia, although it also extended into eastern Anatolia, Syria and northern Iran.

This was also the last of the many wars between the Romans and Persians to follow a pattern in which fighting was largely confined to frontier provinces where neither side achieved any lasting occupation of enemy territory beyond this border zone.  It preceded the much more wide-ranging and dramatic final Persian-Roman War in the early 7th century.

Video  -  Sassanian Persian Cavalry

The Opposing Forces

The backbone of the Persian spah was its heavy cavalry "in which all the nobles and men of rank" underwent "hard service" and became professional soldiers "through military training and discipline, through constant exercise in warfare and military maneuvers".  From the third century the Romans also formed units of heavy cavalry of the Oriental type; they called such horsemen clibanarii "mailclad [riders]", a term thought to have derived from an Iranian *griwbanar < *griwbanwar < *griva-pana-bara "neck-guard wearer". The heavy cavalry of Shapur II is described by an eye-witness historian as follows:

"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".

According to the Iranian sources, the martial equipments of a heavily-armed Sassanian horseman were as follows: helmet, hauberk (Pahlavi griwban), breastplate, mail, gauntlet (Pahlavi abdast), girdle, thigh-guards (Pahlavi ran-ban), lance, sword, battle-axe, mace, bowcase with two bows and two bowstrings, quiver with 30 arrows, two extra bowstrings, spear, and horse armor (zen-abzar); to these some have added a lasso (kamand), or a sling with slingstones.

The most important Byzantine treatise on the art of war, the Strategicon, also written at this period, requires the same equipments from a heavily-armed horseman. This was due to the gradual orientalisation of the Roman army to the extent that in the sixth century "the military usages of the Romans and the Persians become more and more assimilated, so that the armies of Justinian and Khosrow are already very much like each other;" and, indeed, the military literatures of the two sides show strong affinities and interrelations.

The Byzantine cavalrymen and their horses were superbly trained and capable of performing complex maneuvers. While a proportion of the Cataphracts (Kataphractos or Clibanophori) appear to have been lancers or archers only, most had bows and lances. Their main tactical units were the Numerus (Also called at times Arithmos or Banda) of 300-400 men. The equivalent to the old Roman Cohort or the modern Battalion, the Numeri were usually formed in lines 8 to 10 ranks deep, making them almost a mounted Phalanx. The Byzantines recognized that this formation was less flexible for cavalry than infantry but found the trade off to be acceptable in exchange for the greater physical and psychological advantages offered by depth.

Eastern Roman Armored Cavalry.

The Battle

The Roman-Persian War had already been going on for some fourteen years by the time of this battle.

The Roman forces were commanded by Philippicus the  comes excubitorum (Commander of the Excubitors, the imperial bodyguard).  In 584, he replaced John Mystacon as magister militum for the East, becoming  responsible for the conduct of the ongoing war against the Persians

He was also the son-in-law of Paul, the head of the Byzantine Senate who in turn was father of the Emperor Maurice.

To intercept the anticipated Persian invasion Philippicus positioned the Roman Army in Byzantine Mesopotamia south of the city of Dara in what is now Northern Syria and Turkey.

Philippicus placed his forces at Solachon, a central point that controlled different roads on the plains of Mesopotamia.  But even more important in desert fighting, the Romans controlled the available water supply of the Arzamon River.

The Persian general Kardarigan brought his troops over the desert and away from his supply lines.  Because the Romans controled the water supply he was forced to pack in water on a caravan of camels.

Kardarigan tried to sneak up on the Romans and attack them on their Sunday day of rest.  But Byzantine Arab foederati detected the movements of the Persians and captured a few of Kardarigan's men.  With this advance warning Philippicus had his troops in battle order waiting for the Persians.

The Roman troops were on elevated ground facing the Persians with their left flank anchored on the foothills of  Mount Izalas.  The Romans were in three divisions.

LEFT  -  Commanded by Eiliphredas, the dux of Phoenice Libanensis, and included a Hunnic contingent of horse-archers under Apsich.

CENTER  -  Commanded by the general Heraclius the Elder, later Exarch of Africa and father of Emperor Heraclius.

RIGHT  -  Commanded by the taxiarchos Vitalius.

The Persian right division was under Mebodes, the center under Kardarigan himself, and the left wing under Kardarigan's nephew, Aphraates. Unlike the Persian general, Philippicus remained with a small force at some distance behind the main battle line, from where he could direct the battle.

Both armies appear to have been composed exclusively of cavalry, composed of a mix of lancers and horse-archers.  Though considered a major battle troop numbers are not available.

Persian Cavalry.

To encourage their forces the Romans raised a holy flag with a picture of Christ while the Persian commander destroyed his water supplies to create a "win or die" attitude.

Both armies advanced toward each other shooting arrows as they came.  On the right flank the Roman cavalry under Vitalius smashed through the line forcing the Persians to the left and behind their own troops in the center.  At this point many of the Romans broke formation and headed towards the Persian camp in the rear area intending on looting the baggage.

Philippicus reacted quickly to this potential for disorganization and disaster.  He gave his distinctive helmet to Theodore Ilibinus, his spear-bearer, ordering him to ride among the troops and threaten punishment if they did not come to order.  It worked.  The men thought their commander was at their side and formed back up into the units.  They had reformed not a moment too soon.  The Persian center had regrouped and was pushing back at the Roman right.

Philippicus was facing a very large mass of Persians from their center and left wing.  He ordered his Roman cavalry in the center to dismount and form a shield-wall with their lances projecting from it (the fulcum tactic).  It is not clear what happened next, but apparently the Roman archers shot at the Persians' horses, breaking their momentum.

At this point the Roman left wing cavalry charged and broke the Persians forcing them to the rear in disarray.  Soon the Persian right broke completely and fled the battlefield toward the city of Dara.

The wings of the Persian army had by now disintegrated. The Roman right and center concentrated their efforts on the still standing Persian center.  The battle in the center raged hotly for a long time.  But outnumbered and attacked from several sides the Persians finally broke and fled.

The Persians suffered horribly.  First from the Byzantine pursuit and then from thirst.  Before the battle Kardarigan had destroyed the Persian water supply.  Now his men were trying to escape over the deserts of Mesopotamia with no water.  Persian survivors from the desert were refused entry into Dara.  Many died of thirst while others died from drinking too much water once they found it.

General Kardarigan with some of his troops found refuge on a nearby hilltop.  Cut off from food and water Kardarigan stood off Byzantine attacks for three or four days.  Finally the Byzantines abandoned the attacks not knowing it was the enemy commander.  He escaped but the 7th century historian Theophylact Simocatta says he suffered another one thousand casualties from the attacks on the hill and Byzantine patrols.


Solachon was an important victory for the Romans and strengthened and stabilized the front.  But it was not a decisive victory.  Both empires were too vast in size and their military power too great for one battle to end the war.

The war continued on for another five years.  It would only end in 591 after a long Persian civil war and a Roman invasion into what is now modern Iran.

Final phase of the Battle of Solachon.  The Roman cavalry in the center (B) dismounts and forms a shield-wall to break the charge of the Persian cavalry.  The Roman left then charges and breaks the Persian right which flees the battlefield.
Click link for enlarged map.

The Roman - Persian Frontier about 565 AD with Byzantine military themes.
Click link for enlarged map.

Source - History of the Later Roman Empire. J.B. Bury (1889)

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