Sasanians and Early Byzantium: Raids, Tributes, and the Loss of Dara

In most works of modern scholarship concerned with the Sasanian-Byzantine relations in the 6th & 7th centuries, the issue of “tributes” is treated as hyperbole. Basically, claims by the Sasanians, reflected in later narratives like al-Tabari or Shahnama, that the Byzantines paid tributes to the Sasanians are dismissed as exaggerations and “about face” statements, almost the way the Chinese empires claimed to have extracted tribute from everyone! The actual instances of payment, available in abundance in Byzantine sources (Pseudo-Joshua the Stylite, Procopius, Malalas, John of Epiphania, and Menander Protector) are usually considered to be payments either for the mutual defense of both empires on the Caucasus front (the so-called Alan Gate or the Caspian Gate), or as temporary pay offs to keep Sasanians at bay. This second mode contributes to the image of the Sasanians as a predatory entity on the periphery of the Roman world, barely any more sophisticated than pirates and brigands, that needed to be “appeased” and controlled. The persistence of this attitude, often taking Byzantine sources and their use of “Barbarians” for the Sasanians at face value, also signals a certain Eurocentrism/Roman-centrism prevalent in many studies of the ancient world.

The basic assumption behind this is that the sophistication of the Roman/Byzantine administration, including their war-machine, is indisputable and beyond doubt. It is taken for granted that the Roman state undertook all its actions with an eye toward proper strategic approach. In contrast, Roman opponents, be it Germanic tribes beyond the Danube or the Sasanian Empire, were but disorganised polities only few stages removed from raiding parties, with essentially a predatory style of warfare aimed at extracting resources from the Roman state. In this way, the continued references to Roman payments, even on regular, annual basis as mentioned in accounts of Procopius, Menander, or Evagrius, are treated as temporary payments to appease the Sasanians, not regular tributes that created a particular type of relationship between the two empires. This contributes to our lack of attention to the structure of the Sasanian state and the persistent assumption of its simplicity, extending from its administration and military to its economic and social policies – the latter being treated as essentially non-existent, or at most, haphazard in nature and practice.

This is why one sometimes finds references to Roman raiding, in a demonstrably predatory manner, so fascinating. Byzantine sources naturally attempt to present these as part of a larger strategy, something that modern scholars (I don’t want to name names, but just any modern edition of a Primary source) are happy to follow and oblige. But quite often, the fact that these actions are not directed by a greater strategy and are simply actions of greedy regional actors becomes too obvious to ignore. What would then happen if we view these actions through not the view point of imperial decisions makers in Constantinople or Ctesiphon, but from the vantage point of local actors in the frontier zone?

Consider the account of the Byzantine campaign of 573. The event is labelled by many Byzantine scholars as the “failure of the Byzantines to take Nisbis,” betraying an assumption that the events were centrally planned and directed and part of a larger strategy. But the event, given by all sources (Evagrius, Theophylact Simocatta, etc) is very clearly a haphazard, and ill conceived, raid! The story goes that Marcian, appointed by Justin as commander to Dara, basically attacks Nisbis willy nilly, without even having surveyed the field. Initially, his troops go out to take captives and pillage and return to Dara (Chr. 1234, 65). The attack then alarms the Marzban of Nisbis (26 km from Dara) who manages to drive the Byzantine troops back to Dara, presumably through negotiation but without any payments, which shows the former’s position vis-a-vis Marcian and Dara. The subsequent Byzantine raid against Nisibis is so badly done that “the Persians did not think it necessary to close the gates and mocked the Roman army quite disgracefully” for having worked themselves into an embarrassing situation. The result is so humiliating that Marcian is relieved of his post by Justin who sends Acacius Archelaus with an order to replace Marcian while the former is still in the enemy territory!

Of course, the entire thing ends up in a disaster. The unprovoked raid and invasion attempt seems to have annoyed Khosrow I so much that he launches a counterattack. Initially he seems to have crossed the Euphrates at Circesium and threatened Apamean (John Epiph. 4), but quickly turned his attention to Dara itself. He seems to have quite easily captured the fortress, a bone of contention between the two empires since 502, and removed it as a threat to his territories, while extracting 200 centenaria of gold. Khosrow then wonders “God will seek from you all the blood which has been shed; when you possessed all this gold, why did you not give one hundredth of it to me, and I would have left you?”! The loss of Dara of course famously drove Justin to madness and in fact ended his rule.

So, an ill advised raid, undertaken by an inexperienced general, results in the loss of an important frontier fortress for the Byzantines in 573. This loss strengthens the Sasanian position on the NW frontier and probably serves as an indication of the weakness of the Byzantine forces in the region. This is what is eventually exploited by the Sasanians in a large scale invasion of the Byzantine east in the seventh century and the loss of Anatolia, Syria, Palestine, and Egypt to the combined forces of Khosrow II.

Modern remains of Dara

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