Imagine that you are a miles of the Ioviani legion, stranded with your comrades in the arid Syrian desert, with little food. Suddenly, you hear drums rumbling, then you feel the earth trembling beneath your feet and you see clouds of dust rising. The tribune orders the legion to brace for impact and form a shieldwall as trumpets signal that the “Iron Statues” are coming on horseback. This is how Late Roman officer and historian Ammianus Marcellinus viewed the armored Persian Sassanid nobility, the Aswaran, when he confronted them during the retreat of Emperor Julian’s army towards the city of Antioch.
While defending the walls of Amida in Syria in 359 AD, Ammianus keenly observed the companies of armored Persian cavalry. In his “Res Gestae”, Ammianus describes them as armored statues, wearing face shaped masks which left only small openings for the eyes. This must have been a terrifying sight for the Roman soldiers, as they could not decipher the emotions of the masked Sassanid cavalrymen who seemed like iron demons charging towards them.
We have iconographical evidence of these Sassanid aristocrats who fought as cataphracts. In both the city of Dura Europos (Syria) and the stone relief of Shanshah Khusraw II, we see cavalrymen in chain mail, wearing conical helmets and a mail aventail that completely covered the face, leaving only space for the eyes. Persian cavalrymen were well trained and could cope with the poor visibility and hearing caused by their mask.
In Late Antiquity, we find two types of facial protection used by Sassanid cataphract cavalry: a mask that reproduced the features of a human face or a mail veil that covered the face.
Ammianus Marcellinus seems to refer to the first type when he campaigned against the Sassanids of Shapur II in Syria.
This type of mask was not unknown to the Romans however, as aristocrats often wore anatomical masks which were painted in bright colors, especially during the Hyppyca Gymnasia but also in battle. The Roman anatomical mask found at Kalkriese in Germany confirms their use in battle. This type of Roman mask often represented a clean shaven face modeled on Hellenistic standards of beauty and iconography. Generally, those masks used in battle or campaign were of simpler fashion. Those worn during tournaments were elaborately decorated and, differently from those worn in battle, were part of a complete helmet that also covered the back of the head and the neck.
Is it possible that Romans and Iranians shared the use of this type of facial protection due to cultural transfers which were common in the Near East? We will probably never know the answer, but we do know that societies in Late Antiquity were heavily interconnected through trade and diplomacy.
The second type of mask, a mail veil, was a screen of interlocked metal rings which protected the wearer’s face from arrows and projectiles.
The veil was attached to Sassanid conical or spherical helmets through metal hooks. In the rock relief of Tagh e Bostan, Shanshah Khusraw II is shown on horseback wearing a mail veil and an arrow quiver while holding a Kontos (pike). King Khusraw II seems to also be wearing a soft tissue ball on top of his helmet, an indicator of his leadership role and noble status.
The psychological impact of this type of armored cavalry was devastating, as demonstrated by the harsh retreat of the Roman army through Syria in 363 AD while they they were harassed by groups of Persian cavalrymen and driven to a desperate resistance.
Sassanid nobles and landowners were not only trained in charging the enemy with the Kontos (Pike) but also to strike the enemy from afar with their bows, a skill inherited from the nomadic tribes who settled the Iranian plateau before the Achamenids and even the Medes.
The chain mail veil used by these Cataphract nobles would have been widely used throughout the Middle Ages by the Eastern Roman empire, as shown in manuscripts, as well as by the heavily armored guards of the chieftains and leaders of the Slavic states to the north of Thrace.
Archaeological evidence suggests that the painted face mask continued to be used by Eastern Roman and Slavic medieval aristocrats, who brought it to the nobles of nomadic Turkic tribes like the Pechenegs and the Cumans. As a matter of fact, in the frescoes of pre-Mongol Samarkand, we see Turkic nobles depicted wearing metal war masks attached to their hilt.