The Sasanian Empire


The Sasanian Empire was the last great pre-Islamic empire of Iran whose rule spread through the length of late antiquity. In this capacity, the Sasanian Empire was also the major foe and political rival of the Roman and Byzantine Empires in the west, as well as that of the Kushans in its early history. Throughout the more than 400 years of Sasanian rule, its King of Kings (the official title of the Sasanian emperor) often had to deal with many other external threats who, like the Hephthalites, did not take the shape of traditional enemies such as the Romans. External pressures were, however, only part of the Sasanian problems, as internal challenges in form of religious movements, natural disasters, and military rebellions plagued the Sasanians much like they did the Romans.

Despite all these problems, the Sasanian period can be credited as one of the most fundamental periods of Iranian history, one in which most of what is recognizable as Mediaeval/Islamic Iran came to existence. It was a period of intensive cultural activity, including the foundation of Iranian historiography, establishment of a state religion, and indeed the prominence of Persian as the literary language of the realm, all major features of Mediaeval and even modern Iran. It was also the period in which the ancient, partly mythical idea of “Iran” came to be applied to the physical reality of the Sasanian Empire (called in Middle Persian Ērānšahr, “the Realm of Iranians”). This geo-political naming subsequently became so prominent that it continued to influence the understanding of the political realities of the “Eastern Caliphate” (to borrow from le Strange) and “Mediaeval Iran” for generations to come, and it obviously was fundamental in the naming of the modern nation-state.

Similarly, Sasanian administration, or more accurately the administration of the late Sasanian Empire (after 500 CE) proved to be too prominent for the later political systems to ignore. This was particularly true for those systems which established themselves in the former territories of the Sasanians, as the Abbasid Caliphate did, with the consequnce that such political systems are commonly considered to be basic continuations of the Sasanian administration. Indeed, both in its structure and through its actors, the Abbasid Caliphate displayed itself as an empire, one with close ties and connections to the Sasanians, possibly the same way that the Umayyad Caliphate largely adopted the Roman provincial administration of the region where it established its central administration, that of Syria.

One should, however, notice that the Sasanian Empire was not a static, unchanging political system, as is often the view, particularly from a modern, European, and often Marxist outlook. The picture of a centralized, imperial system controlled by a strong emperor and his military commanders and tax agents, often in opposition to the supposed Arsacid lack of centrality and coherence, is now largely believed to be false. Indeed, one can blame the Sasanians themselves for such an image, as the late Sasanian historiography, reflected in Islamic accounts of al-Tabari or Mas‘udi, appear to have deliberately created such an illusion in order to legitimize the reforms of late Sasanian rulers. But a deeper investigation of the sources can show us that quite naturally, the Sasanian administrative system, like any other aspect of the imperial identity, was an evolving concept. While the later periods are best characterized by a centralizing effort as well as imperial military and financial control, the earlier periods suggest a less central system that often relied on a relationship between the imperial system and the local administration for its functioning. This earlier system itself was a development of the late Arsacid administrative system and the rising autonomy of local rulers, one of whom seems to have been Ardashir-ī Pābagān, the founder of the Sasanian dynasty (see here for a detailed genealogy of the Sasanian Emperors).

Sasanian “Pre-History”

Our knowledge of the history of the family of Sasan is quite meager and subject to constant discussion and revision. Islamic historians tell us that a certain Sāsān, the “priest” of the temple of Anahita in Istaxr (the tradition capital of the province of Persis/Fārs) was the founder of the family. His son, Pābag, then proceeded to remove the local ruler of Istaxr (and probably the overlord of all Persis) in an act of rebellion and to place himself on the throne. This Person might have been named Gocihr/Gozihr, a member of the Bazrangid house who had ruled Persis for over a century and whose coins are now available to us. The numismatic evidence gives the name of this king as Mancihr and he is named Mancihr II by the numismatists.

Coin of Mancihr II, king of Persis

The coinage of Pabag and his son Shapur (Šābuhr) shows a strong break from the established form of Persis coins, in use and prominence at least since the time of Nāmbed. This departure is particularly observable in the inscriptions, which is clearly a more advanced form of Aramaic and quite close to what will eventually emerge as the Middle Persian Pahlavi script. Apart from the coins, we also have a few graffiti on the walls of the Persepolis Treasury building (a few kilometers from Istaxr) which shows Pābag and Shapur in various poses, on foot or mounted on horses.

Coin of Pabag and his son Shapur as kings of Persis

Of the fate of these two, we are largely unaware, save the account of the Islamic historians which tell us that Shapur was killed in an accident while leaving to meet his younger brother, Ardashir, who had also started his own rebellion from his stronghold of Gūr (Modern Fīrūzābād). The accident involved the collapse of the ceiling of the palace, evidently part of the Persepolis complex, which was the residence of Shapur. This event, sometimes around 211-212 CE, left Ardashir as the only heir to Pābag and his gains in Persis.

The testimony of a much later, sixth century, romance about Ardashir (Kārnāmag-ī Ardashīr ī Pābagān) tells us that Ardashir was the adopted son of Pābag and that his real father was Pābag’s shepherd, Sāsān, a descendant of the legendary Kayanid king Dārāy ī Dārāyān. He is supposed to have been raised in the court of Ardawan (Artabanus IV, the last Arsacid emperor) and have mounted a rebellion against him following a case of royal jealousy. The story can almost be wholly dismissed as a fiction, concocted in order to connect the Sasanians to the legendary Kayanids, the patrons of Zoroaster, and thus establish them as protectors of Zoroastrianism. It is also totally barren of any mention of the rebellion of Pābag or the rule of Ardashir’s older brother, Shapur. However, it is significant in its mention of the course of Ardashir’s progress in his foundation of the empire and the establishment of his power along the coast of the Persian Gulf. Indeed, Ardashir’s capital in Gūr (re-founded and named Ardashir Khwarrah, “the Glory of Ardashir”) is significantly closer to the Persian Gulf than to the internal regions, and its relation to the coastal ports is important to the economic and political position of Persis as a whole.

Whatever the exact course of events, we know that by 216, Ardashir was in control of Persis and probably some of its neighbors to the east, likely Kerman but possibly even as far as Sakistan/Sistan. This brought him to the attention of the ruling Arsacid king, Artabanus IV who was at the same time competing with his brother, Vologases VI, over the throne of their father. The course of events, particularly as it concerns the internal Arsacid politics, is quite confusing, but the numismatic evidence, mostly the minting of tetradrachms, seems to suggest that Artabanus was in control of Mesopotamia, while Vologases wielded influence in Media, to the north of Persis. Ardashir’s activities must have made Artabanus quite uneasy, as he apparently ordered the ruler of Khuzistan (possibly an Elymaid ruler) to suppress Ardashir’s rebellion. The battle was turned in favor of Ardashir and thus made it necessary for Artabanus himself to be involved. He had probably solved the problem of his brother at this point since in 222, he seems to have freely entered the plateau in order to face Ardashir. In the decisive battle of Hormizdigan, Artabanus himself was defeated and killed by the rising star of Persis and so, the Arsacid rule was effectively closed, although claims by Vologases or another pretender, judging by the continued Arsacid coinage, seems to have prevailed until 226 CE.

Ardashir I, the Founder of the Sasanian Dynasty

Ardashir was thus made the effective ruler of the Arsacid heartland in Mesopotamia and was crowned “the King of Kings of Erān” (MP šāhanšāh ī Ērān) in 224 at Ctesiphon. His early coinage as the king of Persis shows him in full frontal bust, largely new on the coinage of Persis. His imperial coinage also shows his bust looking to the right, in a clear departure from the Arsacid coinage where the bust looks to the left. The right direction has at least one precedence in the coinage of Persis, where Autophradates I (Vādfradād) also has a bust looking to the right. Typological, study of his coinage from Marv and Sistan has led some scholars to believe that his next act was to secure the loyalty of the northeast and the southeast, although the sequence of events is a matter of disagreement. Ardashir’s early coinage, while employing new iconography and typological elements, still seem to make clear allusions to the coinage of the earlier Parthian kings such as Mithridates II. In his later issues, however, Ardashir introduces elements such as the crown globus which become largely canonical in Sasanian coinage for centuries to come.

Investiture scene of Ardashir I at Naqsh-e Rostam, Fars (Persis). Artabanus IV is depicted face down under the hoof of Ardashir’s horse, paralleling the Ahriman under the horse of the god Ahura Mazda

Ardashir’s establishment of the empire did not necessarily mean a period of peace. His successes in the central and western regions of the Iranian plateau was followed by a series of conquests in the east, essentially establishing his control over Sistan/Sakistan, Makran (southeastern Iran and southwestern Pakistan) and northeast to Marv. In the west, he made some initial attempts at capturing Armenia which was successfully repelled by the Arsacid kings there, who for a while acted as the last remnants of Arsacid power in the region and must have offered asylum to various Arsacid princes and pretenders. Back in Mesopotamia and Syria, Ardashir undertook a series of campaigns between 230-233 CE which temporarily gained him control of parts of northern Mesopotamia (Nisibis) and the Roman possessions in the region. The result of this was the response of the Roman forces under the command of Alexander Severus who managed to re-establish Roman control, but was unsuccessful in convincing Ardashir to agree to a treaty. Ardashir’s policy of expansion is probably the cause of the allegation, exclusively in Roman sources, that he saw himself as a successor of the Achaemenids and sought to restore their empire. This is, however, a purely Roman observation and might have itself been influenced by the name of Alexander Severus which alludes to Alexander the Great and thus revokes memories of the Achaemenids. We have no reason to believe that Ardashir in fact had such ideological approach to the conquests and he might have been simply motivated by an attempt to limit Roman imperialism in the region.

Ardashir proceeded to found an imperial city near Ctesiphon, one of the towns that later made-up the metropolitan area called Mahōze by the Syriac sources and al-Mada’in by the Arabic historical sources. The foundation of Weh-Ardashir was itself a sign that the nascent Sasanian state already saw itself as an empire and had outgrown the confines of Persis, its original homeland. It also seems to have provided a basis for future campaigns concerned with Rome, a theme which came to play an important role in the Sasanian history in general. Indeed, Ardashir seems to have embarked upon another campaign against Rome in 237 CE, again attacking Nisibis and taking it over successfully and even advancing as far as Carrhae (Harran). In this campaign, Ardashir was accompanied by his son, Shapur, who in 240 CE came to succeed his father after the former’s abdication and retirement. Ardashir probably died in 242 -243 CE.

Shapur I the Great

Shapur I was most likely already a co-regent of his father since about 239 CE, if one is to believe the evidence from the Manichaean sources and the reference in the Roman senate to the Persian Kings in 240 CE. His succession in the middle of a war with Rome meant that his early reign was dominated by his father’s expansionist policies. He, himself, was also an energetic conqueror whose testimony in the inscription of Ka’aba ī Zardušt (hereafter ŠKZ) shows the extent of his westward and eastward conquests. This inscription is indeed our most significant “native” and contemporary source for early Sasanian history, as well as the administrative and social conditions of the empire.
In the ŠKZ, Shapur names his mother who is called Mīrōd and at the time of Shapur, was one of the important members of the imperial court. The later Sasanian romance, Kārnāmag-e Ardašīr ī Pābagān tells us that Shapur’s mother was an Arsacid princess, indeed the daughter of Artabanus IV himself, although this might have been a purely epic/political topos in order to connect the early Sasanians to their predecessors. In any case, we know that Shapur was already a grown man during his father’s campaigns and often accompanied him as a senior officer. His capabilities as a commander were soon proven in his early campaigns against Rome.

Based on the ŠKZ, Shapur defeated Gordian III in the battle of Misikhe and killed the Roman Emperor. Alternative Roman sources claim that Gordian III was indeed murdered by his own troops, probably led by Philip the Arab, after the defeat at Misikhe in 243 CE. Whatever the truth, we know that Shapur successfully controlled Nisibis and parts of Syria and soon forced Philip to a treaty which highly favored the Sasanian side. This allowed Shapur to keep the pressure on Rome and advance in many other fronts, including Armenia, and firmly establishing his rule in Mesopotamia, Syria, and Armenia.

Sometimes around the same dates, based again on the testimony of ŠKZ, Shapur also undertook a series of successful campaigns in the east, this time against the remnants of the Kushan Empire. In his inscription, Shapur claims to have controlled the realm of the Kushans (MP Kušānšahr) as far as Purušapura (Peshawar). The accuracy of this statement has been doubted by many scholars, particularly as this dramatic rise in Sasanian fortunes sometimes is in conflict with a certain interpretation of Kushan chronology and rise to power. Whatever the case, it seems certain that Sasanians by this time controlled Bactria and issued coins in Bactres (Balkh, MP Baxl) the seat of the region and a capital of the Kushans north of the Hindu-Kush. This might also be the beginning of the rule of the Kushanshahs or the Kushano-Sasanians, a cadet branch of the Sasanian imperial house who for about 100 years ruled Bactria and the adjoining regions and minted coins in Balkh and Kandahar.

In the west, the conflict between the Sasanians and the Romans continued through the 250’s CE. The new Roman emperor, Valerian, launched a massive campaign to recover the lost Roman territories in Syria and Mesopotamia. His efforts were partially successful in western Syria where he managed to recapture Antioch, but further penetration to Mesopotamia was hindered by a strong Sasanian defense whose main military might was busy at the time in eastern Iran. In 260 CE, Valerian’s army suffered a great loss due to an outbreak of the plague in Syria and at the same time, fell prey to another offensive by Shapur. Valerian himself and many of his officers were captured by Shapur and carried off to Iran, probably to Khuzistan. This was indeed the greatest victory for Shapur’s western front, probably to equal his achievements against the mighty Kushans in the east.

He celebrated this event by carving several copies of a well-known relief, alternatively showing Gordianus III, Philip the Arab, and Valerian, sometimes all three together, as his defeated enemies, with Gordianus lying dead under his horse’s hoof and Valerian’s wrist held in Shapur’s hand in sign of capture and submission. Shapur also have commemorated his eastern victories by carving reliefs in Bactria, at the Kushan sanctuaty in Surkh Kotal and on a rock face near Rag ī Bibi, showing him victoriously hunting atop his horse, and being attended by Kushan attendants. All these events are retold in some detail by Shapur in his ŠKZ inscription whose testimony is often the only extant version of the events we currently possess. It is certain that by the middle of Shapur’s reign, his rule over the Iranian plateau, Mesopotamia, and most of the Central Pamir, as well as parts of Transoxiana, was well established.
Shapur’s internal activities also set much of the tone for the next century, both in the administrative and in the cultural milieus. He was known as a founder of cities and at least two cities of Weh-Shapur (Bishapur in Persis/Fārs) and Weh-Andiok-Shapur (Gundishapur, Khuzistan) are said to be his foundations. The former appears to have been a regional “capital” or seat of the imperial government, probably as a personal residence of the King of Kings himself, while the latter is traditionally said to have been the exile home of Valerian and his commanders.

Shapur’s coinage basically follows the later types of his father, with the exception that Ardashir’s obverse side title of “the King of Kings of Iran” (Šāhanšāh ī Ērān) is expanded by Shapur to included the newly conquered territories of non-Iran: Šāhanšāh ī Ērān ud Anērān. He also appears to have minted some gold coins, but these are mostly commemorative pieces and do not seem to have had any financial value in the empire. Most significant in Shapur’s coinage is the canonization of the crown types, which from this point on becomes the major identifying means of the mint authority on Sasanian coins, each King of Kings having their own unique crown types. This is almost constant for Shapur, except special issues with an eagle crown.

Culturally, Shapur is most influential in his apparent support of the Prophet Mani. A native of southern Mesopotamia and descendent of a Parthian family, Mani was raised in a Gnostic environment and sometimes in the 240’s, brought a religion which seems to have had an equal dosage of Gnostic Christianity and Zoroastrianism, the religion most associate with the Sasanian state. As we can judge now, the Zoroastrian church was most likely not well established by this time, allowing the King of Kings to show his support for the new prophet. Mani also showed his appreciation by writing and illustrating a book called Šābuhragān in honor of Shapur, although how deep the king’s interest in the new religion ran is a matter of debate. Shapur indeed never seized inscribing the formula mazdēsn bag Šābuhr, “Mazda Worshipping Lord Shapur”, a clear Zoroastrian formula, on his coins, nor did he interrupt using ādur ī Šābuhr, “Shapur’s Fire”, on their reverse side. Mani certainly appears to have had the freedom to preach and convert under the rule of Shapur, but later accounts of Shapur’s conversion to Manichaeism might have been a simple indication of his religious tolerance or the still weak institutions of Zoroastrian administration in his empire.

From Hormizd I to Shapur II

Shapur’s glorious reign came to an end in 272 CE when he was succeeded by his son Hormizd-Ardashir, known as Hormizd I. Almost all accounts agree that Hormizd was not the eldest son of Shapur, although he is named the Wuzurg Armen Šah, “the Great King of Armenia”, in the ŠKZ, a title which often designated the heirs apparent. In later legends, he is the son of Shapur from the daughter of a powerful family and he has enjoyed precedence on the throne due to a prophecy. In reality, he appears to have been an effective military commander who participated in Shapur’s campaigns. There also is the possibility to identify him as the same Hormizd who ruled as the first Kushan Shah over the newly conquered territories in eastern Iran. Coins of this initial Kushan Shah Hormizd are found and can help us in identifying the sequence of the eastern rulers of the Sasanian cadet branch in Bactria. Hormizd’s coins as the King of Kings follow the same type as his father, although the reverse shows two attendants looking towards the fire-altar in the middle, as opposed to Shapur’s coins where the attendants had their back to the fire-altar.

Hormizd ruled for about one year and died, in unknown circumstances, in 273, being succeeded by his older brother, Wahram I. The new king immediately was involved with the revolt of the Palmyran queen, Zenobia, who had risen in rebellion against Rome and had managed to carve herself a large kingdom in Syria. Facing the distrust of the Roman emperor Aurelianus, Zenobia asked for Wahram’s help. The new King of Kings, seeing the opportunity, provided Zenobia with modest assistance, at the same time watching the Roman advancement. When it became apparent that Aurelianus was not to tolerate Palmyra’s rise and Zenobia’s rule, Wahram immediately withdrew his forces and signed a treaty with Aurelian, thus saving a major conflict with Rome.

The later inscriptions of the Mobed Kerdir in Naqsh-e Rajab and on Ka’aba ī Zardušt claim that he was elevated to the position of Mōwbedān Mōwbed (Grand Priest of Zoroastrianism) under Wahram’s rule. We do not know of the truth of the matter, since Kerdir’s power was probably at its height under the reign of Wahram’s son, Wahram II. It seems that at the time, as was the policy of Shapur I and Hormizd I, other religions such as Manichaeism were allowed to thrive, despite the wishes of the growing Zoroastrian establishment.

Wahram, like his brother, ruled for a short time and died in 276 CE. His coins are significant because of the unusual style of his crown, often called a Sun crown, which shows protruding sun-ray like murals around his crown. Otherwise, like his brother and father, he uses the same type of coin with the standard inscriptions, adjusted for each king.

Wahram was succeeded by his son Wahram II in 276 CE. He is one of the most prolific early Sasanian kings, second only to his grandfather Shapur I, in the number and variety of reliefs that he has left behind. A major relief, showing him with his family in Naqsh-e Rostam, also includes a picture of several courtiers. Wahram II is said to have been particularly successful in a campaign in the east, probably to quash rebellions in Sakistan and Bactria. His dominance of the former territory might also be observed through the inscription in Persepolis of a certain Shapur Sakānshah, a Sasanian prince, who tells of his departure towards his realm in eastern Iran after a presence in the court.

His occupation in the east most likely left Wahram II negligent of the events in the western part of his empire, resulting in the temporary gains of the Romans under the command of Carus around 283 CE. Romans managed to cross the Euphrates and temporarily threatened Seleucia-on-the-Tigris. But the sudden death of Carus necessitated a withdrawal, allowing Wahram to take control of the situation. However, the renewed Roman activities prompted the new king of Armenia, Tiridates, himself educated in Rome, to rise in rebellion and ask for help from the Roman emperor Dioclectian. The famed Roman emperor then stepped up his activities against the Sasanians in Armenia. Soon, the Roman protectorate of Armenia managed to declare independence from Iran. Internal conflict in Armenia between the pro-Sasanian and pro-Roman nobles (Arm. Naxarar) resulted in a religious conflict which saw the conversion of the king of Armenia, Tiridates III (Trdat) to Christianity, supposedly at the hands of St. Gregory the Illuminator. This was met with hostility from a number of Zoroastrian naxarars who did not appreciate the sudden Roman turn in the Armenian politics and apparently managed to kill Tiridates soon after, thus starting several decades of religious and political conflict in Armenia.

In Iran proper, Wahram II had to deal with a religious conflict of his own. Based on the inscription of Kerdir, the Mōwbedan Mōwbed, on Ka’aba ī Zardusht just above the ŠKZ and on a rock face in Naqsh-e Rajab, Wahram was a devout Zoroastrian and did not appreciate the activities of Mani, allowing Kerdir to curb Mani’s activities. Manichaean writings tell of Wahram’s personal debate with Mani and the prosecution and execution of the prophet. Manichaeans, as well as Christians, Jews, Buddhists, and Gnostics were partially persecuted, at least as Kerdir claims, and the “True Religion” was established. More than being an actual account of persecution and banning of other religions, Kerdir’s inscriptions, in line with his boasting, is best interpreted as a declaration of the establishment of Zoroastrianism as the official religion of the Sasanian state, and more importantly, the rule of Kerdir and his successors as the highest religious, moral, and legal authorities in the Sasanian realm.

Wahram II’s influence in the Sasanian dynastic art is significant, as he is distinguished  for picturing his family on his reliefs, particularly his wife who appears on his group irelief in Naqsh-e Rostam, as well as the relief in Barm-e Delak, Shiraz. He also includes his wife on his coins, often wearing an animal crown, with a smaller character, possibly a son but likely a priest, looking at them from the opposite direction.

Wahram died in 293 CE and was succeeded by Wahram III. The new king, most likely a minor, is often called the son of Wahram II, although this is not certain and he might well be a son of Hormizd I. He was elevated to the throne by some nobles, probably in Persis, but the uncertain state of affairs regarding the Roman incursions in the west and the situation in Armenia drove others towards Narseh, the third son of Shapur I. Previously a Great King of Armenia, Narseh led a large contingent through Media and deposed Wahram III, ascending the throne later in 293, making 293 CE the year of the three kings. This is often the cause of confusion in coinage, as no coins have been confidently attributed to Wahram III, and it seems that all the new types not following the coins of Wahram II belong to Narseh instead, rendering Wahram III a king who minted no coins.

Narseh was a strong military leader and a shrewd politician, probably quite familiar also with the Armenian politics. His first act was then to attack and remove the Armenian king and to install a pro-Sasanian, Zoroastrian ruler on the Armenian throne. This also allowed him access to Iberia, a small kingdom to northeast of Armenia which had also asked for Roman help in its struggle for independence from the Sasanians. Narseh’s success then resulted in a series of Roman attacks on Mesopotamia in 296, led by Galerius, the son-in-law of Emperor Diocletian. Galerius was badly defeated by Narseh in the battle of Callinicum in 296. This is probably the event that prompted Narseh’s carving of the famous inscription of Paikuli, near Sulaimania in modern Iraq. Similar in formulation to the ŠKZ, but also including certain elements of Iranian epic, the inscription tells of the rise of Narseh, his defeat of Wahram III, and his control of the empire.

Galerius, however, was angrily reprimanded by Diocletian who dispatched him to Armenia, trying to dislodge Narseh and recover the lost Roman territories. This time, Galerius was quite successful and even managed to temporarily capture Narseh’s personal retinue and wife. A treaty was concluded, giving Nisibis to the Romans and allowing a degree of autonomy to Armenia and Iberia. The terms of treaty were indeed hard for the Sasanians and must have caused the King of Kings some degree of embarrassment.

Narseh abdicated the throne in 302 in favor of his son, Hormizd II. He might be the same as a Kushanshah of the same name, although the connection is not at all established. We know very little about Hormizd II and his reign seems not to have included many military conflicts, probably in the aftershock of the treaty between Narseh and Galerius. His coinage displays the bust of a god (king?) in the flames of the fire-altar on the reverse, an image that becomes recurrent on the coins of subsequent kings from here on. Hormizd might have been replaced by a son, Adhur Narseh, in 309, although no coins of the latter have been found. It seems that Adhur Narseh and a brother called Hormizd were rebels against their father and were either killed (in the case of Adhur Narse) or took refuge with the Roman emperors (as is the case of Hormizd). Whatever the case might have been, the most important successor of Hormizd II, and one of the most important Sasanian kings, was to be Shapur II.

Shapur II “Dhul-Aktaf”

The circumstances around the birth of Shapur II have become a matter of legends. Apparently, following the death and escape of the other sons of Hormizd II, the only remaining option for his succession was his unborn child. The nobles of the empire thus put the crown of the empire on the belly of Hormizd’s wife and declared the unborn child the new King of Kings. Thus Shapur II was king since the moment of his birth in 309 CE. However legendary, the story might be trusted in reflecting the very young age of Shapur upon his succession, and indeed, we do not hear of him or his activities before the beginning of 330’s CE. At this time, a group of Arab tribes who had crossed the Persian Gulf and raided Persis and Khuzistan became subjects of Shapur’s first acts of military conquest. Thus captured and punished, these Arabs became subjects of the Sasanians and their lands, to the south and west of the Persian Gulf, became part of the Sasanian Empire for the next 300 years as the province of Bahrayn.

Shapur’s real test, however, came in 337 when he broke the treaty between Narseh and Diocletian and attacked Amida and Singara while Constantine the Great was still alive. Although unsuccessful at the time, Shapur’s actions were the start of a long period of war between Rome and Iran which included an attempt at resolving the issue of Armenia. However, more important matters eventually came to press upon Shapur, namely invasions by the Hunic (Chionite) tribes of eastern Iran and Bactria.

At the time, Bactria and Kandahar, as well as Marv and other parts of southern Transoxiana were being ruled either directly by the Sasanians or their cadet branch of the Kushano-Sasanians (the Kushanshahs). However, sometimes around 352, a group of nomadic warriors from the steppe invaded Transoxiana and eventually Bactria, displacing the Kushan-Shahs. They naturally took refuge with the great king, Shapur, although at least one Kushanshah, probably Wahram II, continued to mint coins in Kandahar. Shapur marched against these “Huns” and managed to defeat at least one group of them, led by a certain Grumbates, who later is present at the head of a Chionite contingent in Shapur’s siege of Amida. This was most likely not a definitive defeat of the nomadic Huns, since at least another group of them, led by a king who had previously minted coins in Sogdiana under the name Kidara, were soon in control of Bactria. The Kidarite Huns themselves minted coins imitating those of Shapur II, attesting Shapur’s control of the region prior to their invasion and thus his successful attempt at securing the eastern front of the empire.

Turning his attention towards Mesopotamia again, in 359 and 360, Shapur captured Amida and Singara and controlled much of what was lost by Narseh’s treaty to the Romans. This caused a great rage in Rome and prompted Emperor Julian the Apostate, whose popularity was dwindling in Rome, to attack and invade Mesopotamia from a base in Antioch. At a battle near Ctesiphon, Julian was badly defeated by Shapur and had to flee back towards Antioch. He was however killed by his own troops before reaching Antioch (363 CE), although his dead body is visible under the hoof of Shapur’s horse in a relief in Bishapur.

The treaty that Shapur concluded with Julian’s successor, the soldier-emperor Jovian, restored all of the lost territories to the Sasanians and conclusively put Nisibis under the Iranian control and as a major border town. Armenia and Iberia were also returned to the Sasanian control, a fact which Shapur tried to take advantage of by removing Arshak II from the Armenian throne and installing his own puppet king. Shapur also tried to restore Zoroastrianism to Armenia, an attempt that was mostly unsuccessful and made him quite unpopular in Armenia. Pap, the son of Arshak who was taking refuge with Emperor Valens, tried several times to regain the throne, but the faction of Armenian nobility supporting Shapur prevented him from effectively controlling the kingdom. From this point on, various Roman and Sasanian claimants to the Armenian throne, including Pap’s nephew and Pap’s sons, were in competition for the control of small kingdom. This period of Roman and Sasanian protectorate eventually resulted in the partition of Armenia and the creation of two client kingdoms in the fifth century.

Shapur’s conquests and widespread control of his territories made the Sasanian Empire a true world-empire of late antiquity. Its power extended from the border of China and Central Asia to the Euphrates, and the success of Shapur in the Armenian politics put the Sasanian in effective control of the Caucasus. He also managed to appease the Hunic tribes who eventually came to control Bactria, Kandahar, and the Punjab, and made his empire secure, prosperous, and expansive. The reign of Shapur was thus effectively the height of the Sasanian power, and arguably its Golden Age.

Ardashir II to Wahram V

Shapur’s immediate successor was a “half-brother” of his called Ardashir II who ascended the throne in 379. The reign of this king, as well as his exact relationship to his predecessor is a matter of controversy. Roman sources close to the date of his reign (e.g. Agathias) call him a brother of Shapur, although later Islamic sources also mention that he was only a half-brother. The problem is largely the question of who his father was, since if he was a son of Hormizd II, and if we are to believe the story of Shapur’s birth after the death of his father, then Ardashir should necessarily have been older than Shapur, and probably over 70 years old at the time of his succession to the throne. This is highly unlikely, and the possibility that he shared the same mother, but not the same father, with Shapur II has also been suggested. His Sasanian ancestry seems to be certain, since no sources hint at any illegitimacy of his succession. He might have been son of another Sasanian prince (possibly a Kushan-Shah?), something that has also been suggested by a few scholars.

Shapur II and Ardashir II, concluding an agreement under the watchful eye of Mithra, the god of contracts.

Shapur II and Ardashir II, concluding an agreement under the watchful eye of Mithra, the god of contracts.

In any case, we know that Shapur II appointed him as his successor, on the condition that he was to chose Shapur’s own son, another Shapur, as his own successor in turn. Ardashir’s ascent in 379 was simultaneous with events in Armenia that happened after the death of Pap and during the reign of Varazdat, the Roman supported puppet king. The sparapat (military high commander) Manuel was in fact in charge of Armenia at the time and apparently asked for help from Ardashir in order to oust Varazdat. Ardashir seemingly gave a positive answer and in return, got the permission to station a permanent Sasanian military contingent in Armenia, a fact that came in useful in the future Sasanian dealings in the region.

Relations with Rome seems to have been quite passive at the time, as no wars are reported to have taken place under his rule, probably as an outcome of the overwhelming Sasanian successes in the previous decade. Ardashir’s involvement in the wars of Shapur, however, seems certain and might have had something to do with his succession to Shapur’s throne. In a rock relief in Behistun, in western Iran and ancient Media, Ardashir and Shapur are depicted together, standing over the corpse of Julian the Apostate. They are holding an amulet signifying kingship and behind them is a depiction of the god Mithra. This seems to show Ardashir’s significance in the war against Julian, probably in his capacity as the king of Adiabene in northern Mesopotamia. Ardashir’s strong character and obvious importance also are apparent from the accounts of his reign which talk about his hard dealings with the nobility, despite the general reputation for being generous and virtuous (Pers. Nikūkār), a title emerging from his cancelling of taxes for the duration of his reign.

Ardashir was probably removed from the throne by his nephew Shapur III in 383, and possibly killed. This might have been also aided by Armenian and Roman agents who were unhappy about his intervention in Armenia and had previously changed the relationship between him and Manuel. Shapur III, a son of Shapur II, presided over a peace treaty with the Roman Empire which effectively divided Armenia into two unequal parts, the larger being assigned to the Sasanians and eventually known as Persarmenia. Both parts were put under the rule of various princes of the Arshakuni (Arsacid) dynasty and through this, a longer lasting period of peace was guaranteed between the two empires. We have no indication of any further hostilities, either in the west or the east under the reign of Shapur III. He continued the coinage of his predecessors, although in opposition to Ardashir II’s adoption of a crown similar to that of Ardashir I, Shapur chose an unusual, semi-rectangular crown which is quite obvious on his coins.

Shapur was replaced in 388 CE by Wahram IV, in an apparently peaceful manner. Like Ardashir II, his ancestry is a matter of uncertainty, although he is conventionally said to have been the son of Shapur III. However, Shapur II has also been suggested as a father and might make sense, particularly in consideration of the short reign of Shapur III. In any case, Wahram’s reign coincided with another round of troubles in Armenia, resulting from the actions of Khosrov III, the ruler of Persarmenia who asked for the support of Theodosios I in his attempt to break free of Sasanian suzerainty. Theodosios initially helped Khosrov and appointed him the king of a re-united Armenia, but was later unresponsive when Wahram captured and imprisoned Khosrov, probably fearing the start of another round of hostilities. Wahram thus appointed Vram-Shapuh, a descendent of Pap, as the new king of Armenia and returned the situation to normal.

While no written source talks about troubles between the Sasanians and the Chionite tribes that had come to control eastern Iran at this time, other evidence show the successes of the Chionite rulers at the expense of the Sasanians in Bactria and Transoxiana. Descendants of Kidara had by this time completely driven the Sasanians out of Bactria and Kandahar and were advancing towards Punjab. A certain contingent of the Chionites, known as the Alkhons, seem to have established themselves in Gandhara and were minting coins, initially reminiscent of the Sasanian coins, particularly those of Shapur II, but later with dramatic stylistic changes. In general, one could argue that by the end of the fourth century, the Sasanian emperors had lost any direct control in Bactria and might have at the very most been respected as overlords by some Chionite leaders.

Wahram’s successor was his son, Yazdgerd I (399-421), known on his coins as rāmšahr, “the one who brings peace to the domain”. He seems to have really deserved this title, even if just judging from the fact that he did not attempt to take advantage of the extremely weakened state of the Roman Empire during his reign. While the Romans were dealing with the Ostrogothic attacks and various rebellions in their empire, Yazdgerd appears to have spend much of his time attending to internal politics and have offered protection to religious minorities such as the Christians. He was known for supporting some of the bishops, particularly Mar Abda’as of Ctesiphon. This tolerance towards the Christians might be the reason why he is sometimes called Yazdgerd the Sinner in the later Islamic accounts which were based on the Zoroastrian narrative of Sasanian history.

Yazdgerd’s peaceful policies most famously resulted in the request of Emperor Arcadius for the adoption of his son, the future Theodosios II. Yazdgerd, sending along a eunuch to represent him as the guardian of the young emperor, made it very clear to the Roman senate that he will not tolerate any attempts to endanger the life or reign of the infant emperor, but himself refused to take advantage of the situation and invade the Roman territories. He is much praised for his actions by later historians, although some, reflecting back from the sixth century, also have tried to undermine this magnanimity.

In Armenia, Yazdgerd was dragged into internal politics when the Armenian metropolitan asked him to release Khsorov III, the Armenian king deposed by Wahram IV, and install him on the throne. Yazdgerd granted the request, but his efforts were folded when Khosrov died quite suddenly. The Armenian opposition which despised the involvement of the Sasanians in the kingdom then rose in rebellion against Yazdgerd. The King of Kings responded by appointing his son, Shapur, as the Great King of Armenia. The latter tried to reconcile the Armenian nobles, but at the same time followed strict policies of reconverting the Armenians to Zoroastrianism, a highly unpopular act. The potentially catastrophic episode was put to a halt when Shapur departed Armenia for Ctesiphon in order to contest the throne of his father against his brother, Wahram.

Yazdgerd I ruled for over 20 years and died in 421, apparently as the result of an illness, although a popular tale tells of him being kicked by a horse. He might have had another, elder, son called Ardashir whose name sometimes appears on the coins of Yazdgerd. However, his throne was left open to his two remaining sons, Shapur the King of Armenia and Wahram, who according to the legends was raised by the Arab king of Hira in southern Mesopotamia. This connection to the kings of the famous Arab client kingdom of the Sasanians might be in reference to the important role that this kingdom played in the conflicts with the Roman Empire for the next two centuries of Sasanian rule.

Wahram V to Hormizd III

Wahram V Gōr is one of the best known, and most romanticized, Sasanian rulers. His nickname of Gōr, “onager”, is a reference to his love of hunting, and tales of his romantic adventures are immortalized by Persian poets such as Nezāmi. He is also the symbol of epicurean pleasure in Persian literature and culture and his reign probably marks one of the most prosperous periods of Iranian history, indicating a high degree of internal and external security and rising economic success of the empire.

Wahram started his reign in 422, however, by becoming involved in the persecution of certain Christian cults which had started under the reign of his father Yazdgerd I. The death of a prominent Christian then gave the Romans a reason for invading the Sasanian territories via Armenia. Wahram in turn repelled the Roman advances and installed an Arshakuni prince on the throne of Armenia. The dissatisfaction of the Armenian nobles with the new king, and the desire to solve the Armenian problem, however, led Wahram to annex Armenia to the Sasanian Empire (428 CE) and to put it under the direct rule of a Sasanian governor, marzbān (margrave, Ar. marzpān) and thus starting the period known as the Marzpanate in Armenian history which was to last until the seventh century fall of the Sasanians themselves.

In the east, Wahrām had to face the first groups of Hephthalites who descended upon Transoxiana and Bactria around 430 CE. While initially successful, the Hephthalites were eventually defeated and turned back to their steppe homeland by Wahram V, although in the long run, this proved to be temporary. Wahram’s success in defense of his empire, as well as the romantic stories of his reign, is probably the best indications of the prosperity of the period of his rule. His coinage, generally following the pattern of his predecessor, is remarkable for the use of mint marks which are to become canonical in Sasanian numismatics after this point.

Yazdgerd II (438-457) was the son and successor of Wahram V. His reign, like that of his father, was a largely peaceful one, although he had to deal with the growing pressure of the Hephthalites from the east. Continued efforts to control the Christian advances in Iran and Armenia at the same time drove him to confrontations with Theodosios II who was trying to strengthen the Roman defenses in Syria. Minor battles resulted in a treaty in 441 which barred both empires from fortifying their common borders, a clause that eventually formed the basis of major conflicts between the two powers a century later. In the east, Yazdgerd’s activities contained the advancing Hephthalites, although it did not manage to defeat them in full. Yazdgerd II died in 457 leaving a largely secure empire to his eldest son, Hormizd III. Yazdgerd is significant for using the title “kay” (MP Pahlavi kdy), an allusion to ancient Kayanid kingdom, on his coins. This is a clear indication of the prominence of the Zoroastrian historiography in the Sasanian Empire of the time and marks the beginning of a period which reflects much on the later Persian epic literature.
Hormizd III had one of the shortest reigns in Sasanian history, ruling 457-459 CE and was constantly at war with the advancing Hephthalite tribes. He was also highly opposed by his brother Pērōz who finally defeated and killed him in 459 and replaced him on the throne. The growing threat of the Hephthalites and the disappearance of the peace and security of the period of Yazdgerd I and Wahram V was an indication of the troubled times that was to come for the Sasanians.

Pērōz and the Hephthalites

Pērōz’s name has a clear eastern Iranian tone, having been borne by several earlier Kushano-Sasanian kings of Bactria. Incidentally, his reign of over 25 years was also dominated by the affairs of eastern Iran, namely that of the Hephthalites. Initially, the nomadic Hephthalites aided Pērōz in his quest against his brother Hormizd III. But upon his ascent to the throne in 459, Pērōz himself had to deal with the by now quite strong Hephthalite kings.
An uncertain treaty gave Pērōz a few years to secure his rule, although this was seriously interrupted by the occurrence of several droughts which helped weaken the economy of the empire. A renewed battle with the Hephthalites in 465 ended up in a disastrous defeat of Pērōz. Much reparation in cash was to be made to the victors and Kavad, Pērōz’s son, was forced to stay in Bactria as a Hephthalite hostage. In the meantime, the Armenian and Iberian rebels took advantage of the weakened state of the Sasanians and rose in rebellion. This was put down by Pērōz’s commanders, allowing him to embark upon another campaign against the Hephthalites. The second campaign again ended up in a catastrophe, this time costing Pērōz his life (484 CE). The empire was thus left in a state of chaos. Many coins of Pērōz were issued and found, most likely to be used for payment to the Hephthalites, a fact that left the Sasanian treasury empty and the realm on the brink of collapse.

The Sasanian nobility, alerted to the danger, rose to take over the state of the affairs. Representatives of the Mehran and Karen families, most significantly Zarmihr Sukhra of the Karen, ruler of Sakistan, and Shapur Mihran of Ray, led the nobility in choosing Walāš (Walkhash), a brother of Pērōz, as the new king. The end of the reign of Pērōz and the initial stages of Walāš’ rule were also marked by a general synod of the Christian Church of Iran, during which Nestorianism was chosen as the creed of the Iranian Christian Church, centered on the bishopric of Ctesiphon. This was a major development which put the Iranian church in an independent, indeed opposing, position from that of Rome and aided the Sasanian foreign policy to a great extent.

The rule of Walāš was short (484-488) and it was spent in dealing with the Hephthalites, including the payment of the reparations to them. It was also the period during which the Sasanain nobility, largely remnants of the same noble houses that dominated the Arsacid Empire, gained unprecedented power in the Sasanian realm and some of its members became known king makers. Walāš himself seems to have been a pious and virtuous man, if only judging from his title on his coins which reads hukay Walaxsh, “the Good Kay (prince) Walāš.”

Walāš’ crown was already contested by a son of Pērōz named Zarēr, but he had managed to defeat Zarēr with the help of the Armenian nobles who appreciated his light-handed, direct control of their country. However, in 488, Kavād, the other son of Pērōz, arrived in Ctesiphon at the helm of a Hephthalite army sent to support his claim to the Sasanian throne. Walāš was removed and probably killed, allowing Kavād to ascend the throne. Nonetheless, the power of the nobility was still too strong for the new king who seemed to have wanted to play the noble houses against each other. Kavād is also accused of either inciting a religiously influenced rebellion against the nobility or supporting a religious leader called Mazdak. In any case, egalitarian ideas aimed at curbing the power of the nobility appear to have been at work, resulting in the removal of Kavād from the throne in 496 by a conspiracy of the noble houses. Kavād fled to Hephthalites to ask for support while his younger brother, Zāmāsp was elected to kingship by the aristocrats.

In 499, however, Kavād again returned with a contingent of the Hephthalites to reclaim his throne. Zāmāsp peacefully abdicated the throne, allowing Kavād to return. The second part of Kavād’s reign was an eventful one, although his relationship with the nobility seems to have greatly improved. Zāmāsp is not heard from anymore, although no sources indicate any violence to have been directed towards him. Early in his second reign, Kavad continued the minting of the same coins as his first reign, but soon switched to a new type, best exemplified by one of the earliest uses of a star-and-crescent design on the borders of the obverse side.

Kavād I and Khosrow I

Having paid off the Hephthalites, Kavād seems to have concentrated most of his efforts on the western regions of his realm. In 501 CE, border skirmishes starting with Anastasius’ rebuilding of the border city of Dara, less than 50 kilometers from Nisibis, into a fortress and the seat of the dux of Mesopotmia, caused a strong reaction from Kavad. The Sasanian offensive was also fueled by the refusal of Anastasius to pay the standard annual payment which was agreed upon in the treaty of 441, considered as the share of the Byzantines in strengthening the defenses of the Caucasus against the Alans. The refusal of the payment as well as the building of fortresses in Dara and Sergiopolis both provided Kavad with enough reason to invade the Byzantine territories. Between 502 and 505, Kavad took Theodosiopolis and Amida and was well into the Byzantine territories when a sudden invasion, through the Caucasus, by the Alans forced a hasty truce on both powers. Having successfully rebuffed the Alan invasion, Kavad headed back to Ctesiphon and tried to reinforce his army to continue the assault on the Byzantine territory.

The defeats and the payment of tribute to the Hephthalites, as well as the cost of fresh wars had probably drained the Sasanian treasury. A series of reforms, often attributed to Kavad’s successor Khosrow I, probably started in this period. The most important aspect of these reforms were taxation reforms, essentially consisting of the measurement of cultivated land and a switching of tax collection from kind to cash. The latter might also have been reflected in the coinage of Kavad which seem to proliferate, minting in at least 39 locations. The “good and valid silver dirham of King Kavad” is also commonly mentioned in documents found in Bactria, outside the immediate control of the Sasanians, showing the high number of available coins. High output of the Bactrian mint might also indicate an early control of the region by the Sasanians, something that is often attributed to the later decades of the sixth century. When Justin I ascended the Byzantine throne in 518, a new set of wars broke out between the two powers, this time initiated by the Byzantine side. Many years of war, at least until Kavad’s death in 531, were largely inconclusive, periodically putting Syrian and Armenian border towns under the control of the Sasanians or the Byzantines. At the same time, the later years of Kavad’s reign seem to have been overshadowed by the rebellion of Mazdak.

Mazdak, based on the testimony of the contemporary sources and later Islamic ones, was a Zoroastrian priest who brought a “new reading” of the scriptures and spreading a doctrine of equal sharing of wealth and possession, commonly alleged to have included wives. His rebellion is often seen as an attempt to break the exclusive control of the nobility over wealth and privilege in the country. How exactly this might have connected with Kavad’s earlier attempts at curbing the power of the elite is unknown, but he is accused of supporting Mazdak and his “heresy”. The end result seems to have been a strong reaction from the Zoroastrian priestly establishment and an attempt at the annihilation of the Mazdakites. This opposition apparently supported Kavad’s second son, Khosrow, as the heir apparent, while his elder son, Kāwus/Kyūs, a supporter of the Mazdakites, was sent away from the court as the governor of Padishkhwargar (the Caspian provinces). Khoswro, as the victor of the dispute, ascended the throne in 531 and immediately proceeded to execute Mazdak and many of his supporters. This violent put down of the sect probably only helped to drive it underground, as we see many “Mazdakite” rebellions and sects in the early Islamic period, sometimes gaining much prominence under the early caliphate.

Khosrow I to Khosrow II

Khosrow I Anusherwān (“Eternal Soul”) is one of the most well-known Sasanian emperors, and the one best associated with the image of a Just King in the Iranian psyche and Persian literature. Often called Dādgar, “the Just”, he is credited with having reformed the taxation of the country, an act initiated during the reign of Kavad. In epic stories, he is also the founder of a new system of justice and execution of the laws, a literary standard which might indicate the collection and codification of civil and religious law under his rule, remains of which can be seen in surviving Middle Persian works. He also is credited in textual sources with dividing the (military) administration of his empire into four quarters (MP Kust) and entrusting each region to a local Commander (MP Ispāhbed), in an attempt to make responding to foreign threats such as the Hephthalites quicker. This testimony of the narrative sources has recently found archaeological confirmation in form of administrative seals, adorned with the name and title of the Ispāhbeds of each kust. All his administrative, financial, and judicial reforms can be seen in the context of a late antique attempt at centralizing the imperial administration. This indeed might be the image presented by the Sasanian monarchy itself, and even reflected to the earlier periods, in the popular and epic tales which originate during the same period and come to dominate the later, mostly Persian, literature of the mediaeval era.

The initial act of Khosrow in foreign policy was to conclude a peace with the Byzantine emperor Justinian. After a crushing defeat of the Byzantine commander Belisarius against the forces of Kavad, Justinian was ready to refocus his attention elsewhere, particularly in North Africa, and thus both empires had good motivation for a new treaty. The misnamed “Eternal Peace” of 532 set the boundaries of the empires at the Euphrates and returned the situation to what it was before 502, seemingly ending the conflict between the two powers.

New problems in the Caucasus, this time in form of the entry of the Lazics into the Roman sphere of influence, initiated a new stage of war in 540. Khosrow attacked Syria and continued to Antioch, where he deported the population to a new city called Weh-Andiok-Khosrow, “Better than Antioch of Khosrow”, and seemed to have attempted to empty Syria out of its population. In the southern parts of Syria, activities of Mundhir, the Lakhmid king of Hira, against the Byzantine Arab clients also heightened the intensity of the conflict. Khosrow defeated the Lazics in the Caucasus and quashed a rebellion of the Armenians and the Iberians. The peace that was concluded in 562 was surely desired by both powers. It included clauses addressing the issue of the religious freedom of the Zoroastrians and Christians in both territories, itself quite a significant commentary on the changing socio-political situation in the region.

At the same time, the advances of the Western Turks in Transoxiana were putting the Hephthalites, the old foes of the Sasanians, under tremendous pressure. The Hephthalites by this time had become a well established kingdom in Bactria and parts of Transoxiana to the south of Sogdiana. In turn, the incoming Western Turks were advancing southwards toward Sogdiana and by this time must have threatened the Chach area. An alliance between the Sasanians and the Western Turks at this time caused the demise of the Hephthalite kingdom in 567. Bactria was passed on firmly to the Sasanian control, while Transoxiana became the territory of the Western Turks, although Sogdians themselves seem to have controlled a great part of the region. The Hephthalites seized to be the most important players in the regional politics, although small enclaves of Hephthalite power remained in Bactria until the arrival of the Muslims.

Renewed rebellions in Armenia and Iberia started a new round of fighting with Rome in 572 and Khosrow’s advancement in Anatolia was quickly checked by the Byzantines in the Battle of Militene. At the same time, the internal politics of Yemen and the its struggle to throw off the Ethiopian yoke allowed for Khosrow’s intervention in the form of a conquest by his commander Vahriz in 570. Yemen became a Sasanian province and remained so until the rise of Islam several decades later. This, along with the direct annexation of eastern Arabia marked the greatest penetration of the Sasanians into the Arabian Peninsula.

Khosrow was in the process of negotiating peace with the Byzantines when he died in 579 CE and was replaced by his son, apparently with a Turkic princess, Hormizd IV. He is reputed to have had a quick temper, although most accounts consider him a good king who continued the works of his father. He ardently refused to abandon his father’s achievements and insisted on keeping the territories conquered by Khosrow I. This meant a continuation of war with Rome throughout his reign, often without much success. Activities of the Roman general Maurice, later the emperor, and that of various Sasanian generals meant that border towns were periodically captured and returned, without any real gains. In the meantime, the Arab clients of both empires were also keen on fighting each other, often adding to the hostilities.

In the east, Hormizd had to deal with the advancements of the Western Turks, his father’s former allies against the Hephthalites. Threatening Bactria, the Turks were met by Wahrām Cōbin, a nobleman of the Mihran family whose members had for long played an important role in the administrative and imperial life of Iran. Wahrām’s crushing defeat of the Turks made him quite popular in the empire, reportedly to the anger of Hormizd himself who planned to remove Wahrām as the commander of the army. Later Islamic sources, as well as Persian epic tales, are quite vague about this period, but it seems that Hormizd was blinded during a conspiracy of his courtiers and removed from the throne in favor of his son Khosrow II. Wahrām, now posing as the avenger of Hormizd, advanced toward Ctesiphon in 590 and threatened the young Khosrow whom he considered part of the conspiracy against Hormizd. Khosrow in turn escaped to the Byzantine territory, specifically to Cilicia, and asked for help from Emperor Maurice.

In the meantime, Wahrām crowned himself Wahrām VI and minted coins in Ctesiphon and Rayy. He is the first king not to have been a member of the Sasanian family and his actions were a clear example of usurpation. He was soon driven away from Ctesiphon by the combined Sasanian-Byzantine forces of Khosrow and Maurice and fled to northwestern Iran were he was shortly killed in 591. Khosrow, having successfully regained his crown, gave up Armenia and Lazica to Maurice and cancelled the annual payments by the Byzantines to the Sasanians in place since 579 CE.

Sasanian Iran at the accession of Khosrow II

Khosrow II Aparwez

This was not, however, the end of the troubles for the new king, as his maternal uncle, Wistahm, also rose in rebellion against him and minted coins in Ray. Again, not being a member of the Sasanian dynasty, this was an unusual act that shows the changing attitude of the time. The rebellion of Wistahm was also quickly crushed and he, along with his brother Bindoē, was executed, allowing Khosrow to focus his attention elsewhere.

Khosrow II was commonly known as Aparwez, “the Victorious”. His reign, 591-628 CE, is the last period of glory in the Sasanian history. Having been the ruling Sasanian King of Kings during the early periods of Islam, he is also one of the most prominent characters in the Islamic narrative of its history and in the conscious of Iranian Muslim historians and literary figures. Much like Wahrām V, he is also the subject of many literary romances, often linking him with various beauties, most importantly his wife Shirin. A relief of him in full armor and mounted on a horse in Tāq-e Bostan in Western Iran is seen as an indication of the king’s interest in military activities, but also in jousting, a form of theatrical militarism prominent in Iran at least since the time of Ardashir I. This relief is surrounded by smaller reliefs depicting scenes of hunt and feasting, further fueling his reputation for excess and revelry.
However, by 602 CE, Khosrow seems to have proven himself as quite a serious military commander. Acting on the promise of revenge against Phocas, who had murdered Maurice, Khosrow quickly invaded and conquered the Byzantine territories in Syria. By 608, Sasanian troops were in western Anatolia. Other contingents proceeded south and conquered Tyre in 612, Damascus fell in 613 and Jerusalem in 614, where Khosrow carried the original cross away and deposited it in a monastery in Khuzistan. By 618, the Sasanians were in control of Egypt, where a number of papyri provide details of their activities. Facing the overwhelming Sasanian offensive, the new Byzantine emperor, Heraclius, decided to flee Constantinople and establish a capital in North Africa, but changed his mind after his advisors discouraged him. In 620, Khosrow II was in control of all of west Asia and eastern Mediterranean and seemed invincible. His generals were threatening the Byzantines on all sides and his power in Central Asia and Arabia seemed similarly infinite. He had removed the Lakhmids from the throne of Hira and killed Nu’mān III, their last king, and thus had all of Arabia under his direct rule.

Heraclius, having regrouped, and probably aided by some dissatisfied Sasanian generals, launched a counter attack in 622. His northern route led him to Azerbaijan in northwestern Iran where he burnt the sanctuary of Ganzak in revenge for Khosrow’s taking of the True Cross. By 624, he was advancing toward Ctesiphon. In the meantime, the Sasanian generals were trying to re-conquer Cilicia and Anatolia, but Heraclius’ support from Lazica meant that he could put much pressure on them in Mesopotamia and Media. In 626, the Sasanians had to abandon Anatolia and by 628, Egypt and Syria were lost. Khosrow himself was threatened in his residence in Dastgird, to the east of Ctesiphon.
The quick reversal of the fortunes had by this time led the Sasanians elite to blame Khosrow for his excess in military action and for public relation mistakes such as the relocation of the True Cross. A conspiracy removed Khosrow from the throne in 628 and put him on a trial whose proceedings are recorded in Islamic sources. Khosrow was accused of plundering the treasury, for mismanaging the war, mistreating the nobility, and excess in carnal pleasures. His defense, offered in the written form, was not accepted by the nobles and he was duly executed. The whole affair, despite its judicially astonishing uniqueness, seemed sudden and rash, putting an end to the glory days of the Sasanians.

Kavad II to the Fall of the Sasanians

Shoroē, the eldest son of Khosrow and a member of the conspiracy that removed him, ascended the throne as Kavād II in 628 CE. He quickly executed most of his male relatives in order to reduce the possibility of a conspiracy against himself. He also presided over the peace negotiations which saw the restoration of Sasanian-Byzantine borders to their original, pre-602 limits. The peace treaty was celebrated as a triumph by Heraclius who received a hero’s welcome in Constantinople.

However, Kavād soon passed away, apparently of natural causes, and was replaced by his young son, Ardashir III (628-630). The coins of Ardashir show a young, beardless man, but in general follow the types of Khosrow II which had by this time become established as standard. Ardashir himself was a mere puppet in the hands of the majordomo Māh-Adurgushnasp who controlled the administration, and Shahrbarāz, the general of Khosrow II, who controlled the army. He was duly removed from the throne in 630 by Sharbarāz who declared himself king, but ruled for only two months.

The throne was then passed to Bōrān, a daughter of Khosrow II, who was a strong character and carved her own face on her coins. She made an attempt to restore the empire and unify it, but opposition from a relative (Khosrow III?) who had declared himself king in Khorāsān, plus infighting among the generals and the courtiers, rendered her efforts useless. She finally restored the True Cross to the Byzantines which appeased the latter and gave her extra time to reorganize her rule. Despite having three years of coinage, Bōrān is said, by the literary sources, to have ruled for a year and a half before being murdered by one of her generals. This time, another daughter of Khosrow II, Azarmigduxt, was raised to the throne. She, unlike Bōrān, minted coins in the style of her father, complete with a male bust, although her name is present in the usual place on the right side of the obverse.

Her rule was contested by several other pretenders, including a Hormizd V and a certain Khosrow V to whom a few later coins are attributed. It is obvious that by this time, no one was in true control of the empire and pretenders minted coins and crowned themselves in each corner of the Sasanians realm. The situation was partly remedied in 631 when Yazdgerd III, a descendant of Khosrow II (or Khosrow I?) was elected by the nobles as the new emperor. Yazdgerd was partially successful in restoring order and we do not see any more pretenders around the realm. However, he very soon had to deal with the advancing Muslim armies. Early in 633-634, an advance contingent of the Muslims had gained foothold in southern Mesopotamia after conquering the Sasanian territories in eastern Arabia. By 636, the Muslims had defeated the Sasanians in the Battle of Qadisiyah and soon were marching towards Ctesiphon. It is fair to say that by this time, the failing Sasanian system was leaving very few people willing to defend it and reports of various cavalry divisions and mercenaries joining the Muslims are available from this period.
In face of the conquering Muslims, Yazdgerd took refuge in Persis, the home of the Sasanians, and tried to oppose them, with various degrees of success. By 640, the Muslims had taken over all of Mesopotamia, and in 642, inflicted a catastrophic defeat on the Sasanian army of Perōzān in the Battle of Nahāvand. However, Yazdgerd and his commanders seem to have put up some resistance in Persis and along with the less hospitable environment of the plateau, the speed of the Muslim advancements seems to have slowed down. It indeed took them several more years to take over even the districts next to Mesopotamia, including major cities of Khuzistan, and several areas required re-conquests and drawing of new capitulation treaties. Nevertheless, the advancement of the Arabs had forced Yazderd to flee to Khorāsān in eastern Iran by 650, in a reported attempt to reach China and ask for help from its emperor. He was, however, killed in 651, by a miller, but most likely as result of a conspiracy by the local ruler of Khorāsān, a man named Māhūyeh.

Yazdgerd’s two sons, Pērōz and Wahrām did indeed reach China and might have even re-conquered some parts of eastern Iran, namely Sakistan, from the Arabs sometimes in the 660’s, establishing a temporary kingdom in the region. The coins bearing the regnal date of 20 and the name and bust of Yazdgerd might indeed be coins of Pērōz or Wahrām who were ruling in Sakistan. A successful re-conquest of Sakistan, however, ended this resistance, driving Pērōz back to China, where he was honored as a general and died in 672 CE. His descendants, including his son Narseh, continued to live at the Chinese court of the T’ang dynasty and seem to have assimilated into the Chinese administration, although keeping their Iranian character alive through several generations.

All in all, the Sasanians ruled Iran for over 400 years, the longest reigning dynasty after the Arsacids. Under their rule, much of what is understood as the Iranian culture, including the emergence of Persian as a literary language, the Iranian style of literature, architecture, and education, was developed. Their administrative system survived for centuries and formed the basis for the early Islamic and even Abbasid administration, while their coinage was adopted by the early Islamic system and was minted for half a century after their demise. More importantly, it is under their rule that the ancient idea of Ērānšahr, a realm of the Iranians, gained a real physical and geographical meaning and thus formed the territorial basis for the largely socio-cultural idea of Iran which proved to be quite successful and pervasive in the medieval and early modern history of West and Central Asia.

Further Readings

Alram, Michael and Rika Gyselen. Sylloge Nummorum Sasanidarum: Paris, Berlin, Wien, 7 vols. [anticipated]. Vienna: Verlag der Österreichischen Akademie der Wissenschaften, 2003.

Altheim, Franz and Ruth Stiehl, Finanzgeschichte der Spätantike, Frankfurt am Main: V. Klostermann, 1957.

Bartholomae, Ch. Zum Sasanidischen Recht, Heidelberg: C. Winter, 1918.

Bosworth, C. E. The Medieval History of Iran, Afghanistan, and Central Asia, London: Variorum Reprints, 1977.

______. The Arabs, Byzantium, and Iran: Studies in Early Islamic History and Culture, Brookfield, Vt. : Variorum, 1996.

Brown, Peter. The Making of Late Antiquity, Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1978.

Cameron, Averil. The Mediterranean World in Late Antiquity, AD 395-600, London; New York: Routledge, 1993.

Christensen, Arthur, Le règne du roi Kawādh I et le communism, Copenhagen: A. F. Høst, 1925.

_________, L’Iran sous les Sassanides, Copenhagen: Levin & Munksgaard; Paris: P. Geuthner, 1936.

Daryaee, Touraj, Soqūṭ-e Sāsāniān, Tehrān: Nāshr-e Tārikh-e Iran, 2005.

Foss, Clive. “Syria in Transition, A. D. 550-750: An Archaeological Approach.” Dumbarton Oaks Papers, Vol. 51. (1997): 189-269.

Fowden, Garth. Empire to Commonwealth: Consequences of Monotheism in Late Antiquity, Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1993.

Frye, R. N. The Heritage of Persia. Cleveland: World Pub. Co., 1963.

______. Sasanian remains from Qasr-i Abu Nasr; Seals, Sealings, and Coins. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1973.

Gagé, J. La monée des Sassanides. Paris: A. Michel, 1964.

Garsoïan, Nina G., Thomas F. Mathews and Robert W. Thomson, eds. East of Byzantium: Syria and Armenia in the Formative Period. Washington, DC: Dumbarton Oaks, 1982.

Gignoux, Phillipe. “Le Spāhbed des Sassanides à l’Islam.” Jerusalem Studies in Arabic and
Islam 13 (1990): 1–14.

Gignoux, Philippe and Rika Gyselen. Bulles et sceaux sassanides de diverses collections. Paris : Association pour l’Avancement des Études Iraniennes, 1987.

Gnoli, Gherardo. . The Idea of Iran: An Essay on its Origin. Rome: Istituto italiano per il Medio ed Estremo Oriente, 1989.

Göbl, Robert. Sasanidische Numismatik. Braunschweig: Klinkhardt & Biermann, 1968.

Grabar, Oleg. Sasanian Silver: Late Antique and Early Medieval Arts of Luxury from Iran. Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Press, 1967.

Greatrex, Geoffrey and Sam N. C. Lieu. The Roman Eastern Frontier and the Persian Wars. Pt. 2, AD 363-630: a Narrative Sourcebook. London; New York: Routledge, 2002.

Greatrex, Geoffrey. Rome and Persia at War, 502-532, Leeds: Francis Cairns, 1998.

Grenet, Frantz. “Regional interaction in Central Asia and Northwest India in the Kidarite and Hephtalite periods.” Indo-Iranian Languages and Peoples, ed. N. Sims-Williams (Proceedings of the British Academy, 116). Oxford, 2002, pp. 203-224.

Gyselen, Rika. La Geographie administrative de l’Empire Sasanide, Res Orientalis, Paris, 1989

______. Four Generals of the Sasanian Empire. Rome, 2001.

Hodges, Richard and David Whitehouse. Mohammed, Charlemagne & the Origins of Europe: Archaeology and the Pirenne Thesis, Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1983.

Honigmann, E. Recherches sur les Res Gestae Divi Saporis. Brussels: Académie royale de Belgique, 1953.

Howard-Johnston, James. “The Two Great Powers in Late Antiquity: A Comparison.” In The Byzantine and Early Islamic Near East III. States, Resources and Armies, edited by Averil Cameron, 157–226. Princeton, NJ: Darwin Press, 1995.

Hoyland, Robert G. Seeing Islam as Others Saw it: A Survey and Evaluation of Christian, Jewish, and Zoroastrian Writings on Early Islam. Princeton, NJ: Darwin Press, 1997.

_______________, Arabia and the Arabs: from the Bronze Age to the Coming of Islam, London; New York: Routledge, 2001.

Huyse, Philip. “Kerdīr and the First Sasanians.” In Proceedings of the Third European Conference of Iranian Studies: Held in Cambridge 11th to 15th, 1995. Part 1, edited by Nicholas Sims-Williams, Wiesbaden: Dr. Ludwig Reichert Verlag, 1998. p. 109–20.

Kettenhofen, Erich. Die römisch-persischen Kriege des 3. Jahrhunderts n. Chr.: nach der Inschrift Šāhpuhrs 1. an der Ka’be-ye zartošt (ŠKZ). Wiesbaden: Dr. Ludwig Reichert Verlag, 1982.

Kolesnikov, A. I. Iran nakanune arabskogo nashestvija, Moscow: University Press, 1969 (Pers. Trans: Ērān dar Āstāne-ye Yoreše Tāziyān, Persian translation by M. R. Yahyaii, Tehran: Agah Publications, 1357 HS/1978).

de la Vaissière, Étienne. Sogdian Traders: a History, Leiden, Netherlands; Boston, Mass.: Brill, 2005.

Le Strange, Guy. The Lands of the Eastern Caliphate: Mesopotamia, Persia, and Central Asia from the Moslem Conquest to the Time of Timur. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1905.

Lukonin, Vladimir G. “Political, Social and Administrative Institutions: Taxes and Trade.” In Cambridge History of Iran. Volume 3, 681–746.

Lukonin, Vladimir G. and Anatoli Ivanov. Lost Treasures of Persia. Persian Art in the Hermitage Museum. Bournemouth: Parkstone Press/Aurora Publishers, 1996.

Millar, Fergus. A Greek Roman Empire: Power and Belief under Theodosius II (408-450). Berkeley: University of California Press, 2006.

Mochiri, Malek I. Etude de numismatique iranienne sous de Sassanides. Tehran: Bibliotheque Nationale a Teheran, 1972.

Mohammadi Malayeri, Mohammad. Tārikh o Farhang-e Ērān dar Dōrāne Enteghāl az Asr-e Sāsāni be Asr-e Eslāmi, Yazdan, Tehran, 1372/1993.

Morony, Michael. “Landholding in Seventh-Century Iraq: Late Sasanian and Early Islamic Patterns.” in The Islamic Middle East, 700–1900: studies in Economic and Social History, edited by A. L. Udovitch, 135–75. Princeton, NJ: Darwin Press, 1981.

_______. “Continuity and Change in the Administrative Geography of Late Sasanian and Early Islamic al-Irāq.” Iran 20 (1982): 1–49.

________. Iraq after the Muslim Conquest, Princeton, NJ: Princeton UP, 1984

________. “Sāsānids,” The Encyclopaedia of Islam, 1998.

———. “Population Transfers Between Sasanian Iran and the Byzantine Empire.” in La Persia e Bisanzio. Atti del Convegno internazionale (Roma, 14-18 ottobre 2002). Atti dei convegni lincei 201, 161–179. Rome: Accademia Naz. dei Lincei, 2004.

Noeldeke, T. Geschichte der Perser und Araber zur Zeit der Sasaniden. Leiden: E. J. Brill, 1879

__________, Die Ghassanischen Fursten aus dem Hause Gafna’s, Berlin, 1887.

Piacentini, V. F. Merchants-Merchandise and Military Power in the Persian Gulf. Rome: Atti della Accademia Nazionale dei Lincei, 1992.

Pigulevskaia, Nina. Gorova Irana Vrannem Crednevekov’ye, Persian transl. by E. Reza, Tehran: Elmi Farhangi Press, 1372 (1993).

Robinson, Chase F. Empires and Elites After the Muslim Conquest: The Transformation of Northern Mesopotamia. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000.

_______. “The Conquest of Khūzistān: a Historiographical Reassessment,” Bulletin of the School of Oriental and African Studies 67.1 (2004), 14-39.

Rubin, Zeev. “Diplomacy and War in the Relations between Byzantium and the Sassanids in the Fifth Century AD.” In The Defence of the Roman and Byzantine East. Part 2. British Institute of Archaeology at Ankara Monograph No. 8. BAR International Series 297(ii), edited by Philip Freeman and David Kennedy, 677–95. Oxford: B.A.R., 1986.

_______. “The Reforms of Khusro Anushirwan.” In The Byzantine and Early Islamic Near East III. States, Resources and Armies, edited by Averil Cameron, 227–98. Princeton, NJ: Darwin Press, 1995.

_______. “Res Gestae Divi Saporis: Greek and Middle Iranian in a Document of Sasanian Anti-Roman Propaganda.” In Bilingualism in Ancient Society, edited by J.N. Adams, Mark Janse and Simon Swain, 267-97. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002.

______. “Nobility, Monarchy and Legitimating under the Later Sasanians.” In The Byzantine and Early Islamic Near East VI. Elites Old and New, edited by John Haldon and Lawrence I. Conrad, 235–273. Princeton, NJ: Darwin Press, 2004.

Schippmann, Klaus, Grundzüge der Geschichte des Sasanidischen Reiches, Darmstadt: Wissenschaftliche Buchgesellschaft, 1990.

Shahbazi, A. Shapur. “Studies in Sasanian Prosopography II. The Relief of Ardaser II at Taq-ī Bustan”, Archaeologische Mitteilungeng aus Iran, n. f. 18 (1985): 181-185.

———. “The Horse that Killed Yazdagerd ‘The Sinner’.” In Patimāna: Essays in Iranian, Indo-European, and Indian Studies in Honor of Hans-Peter Schmidt 2, edited by Siamak Adhami, 355–62. Costa Mesa, CA: Mazda Publishers, 2003.

Shahid, Irfan, Byzantium and the Arabs in the Sixth Century, Vol. I, Part. I, Washington, D.C.: Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection, 1995.

Simpson, St John. “Mesopotamia in the Sasanian Period: Settlement Patterns, Arts and Crafts.” In Mesopotamia and Iran in the Parthian and Sasanian Periods: Rejection and Revival c. 238 B.C.–A.D. 642, edited by John Curtis, 57–79. London: BMP, 2000.

_______. “From Tekrit to Jaghjagh: Sasanian Sites, Settlement Patterns and Material Culture in Mesopotamia.” in Continuity and Change in Northern Mesopotamia from the Hellenistic to the Early Islamic Period, eds. Karin Bartl and Stefan R. Hauser, 87-123, Berlin: Dietrich Reimer Verlag, 1996.

________. “From Mesopotamia to Merv: Reconstructing Patterns of Consumption in Sasanian Households.” in Culture Through Objects: Ancient Near Eastern Studies in Honour of P. R. S. Moorey, eds. Timothy Potts, Michael Roaf and Diana Stein, 347-375, Oxford, 2003.

Sims-Williams, Nicholas. Bactrian Documents from Northern Afghanistan, I. Legal and Economic Documents. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001.

________. Bactrian Documents from Northern Afghanistan II: Letters and Buddhist Texts. London, 2007.

Sprengling, Martin. Third Century Iran: Sapor and Kartir. Chicago, IL: Oriental Institute, 1953.

Tafazzoli, Ahmad. “A List of Trades and Crafts in the Sasanian Period.” Archaeologische Mitteilungen aus Iran, n. f. 7 (1974): 191–96.

Vanden Berghe, Louis. Archéologie de l’Irān ancien. Leiden: E. J. Brill, 1959.

Wenke, Robert J. Imperial Investments and Agricultural Developments in Parthian and Sassanian Khūzestān, 150 B.C. to A.D. 640, University of Michigan PhD Thesis, 1975.

Whitby, Michael. The Emperor Maurice and His Historian, Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1988.

Whitcomb, Donald S. Before the Roses and Nightingales: Excavations at Qasr-i Abu Nasr, Old Shiraz. New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1985.

Whitehouse, David and Andrew Williamson. “Sasanian Maritime Trade.” Iran 11 (1973): 29–50.

Widengren, Geo. “Iran, der große Gegner Roms. Königsgewalt, Feudalismus, Militärwesen.” Aufsteig und Neidergang das Römischen Welt II 9.1 (1976): 219-306.

Wiesehofer, Josef. Ancient Persia: from 550 BC to 650 AD. Translated by Azizeh Azodi. London and New York: I. B. Tauris, 1996.

Winter, Engelbert and Beate Digna, Rom und das Perserreich : zwei Weltmächte zwischen Konfrontation und Koexistenz, Berlin : Akademie Verlag, 2001.

Yarshater, Ehsan. ed. The Cambridge History of Iran. Volume 3. The Seleucid, Parthian and Sasanian Periods. 2 vols. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1983.



  1. Hi, the map of Sasanian Iran at the accession of Khosrow II seems to be invalid now and can not be displayed. Would you be kind to fix this bug? Thank you.

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