Kushano-Sasanians is the general term used to denote the members of a cadet branch of the Sasanian imperial house who ruled over the region of Bactria, the northern parts of the Kushan Empire, starting sometimes around the middle of the third century CE. On their coins, the Kushano-Sasanians call themselves Kushanshahs (Bact. košano šao, MP kwš’n MLK’) which suggests that they thought of their territory to be part of a geo-political unit related to the Kushans. In his famous inscription on Ka’aba i Zardosht (ŠKZ), Shapur I claims that he controlled the “Realm of the Kushans” (MP Kušān-šahr) up to Purushapura (modern Peshawar), again suggesting the conceptualization of the territory as a geo-political unit defined by the Kushan Empire.

Much like that of the imperial Kushans, the chronology of the Kushano-Sasanians is also little known and often quite confusing, mainly due to the fact that no local era, besides that of the Era of Kanishka, is available for the Kushano-Sasanians. It is only based on parallels with Sasanian and Kushan history, that parts of their history can be reconstructed. Early Kushan style gold staters issued by Ardashir (not the Sasanian emperor Ardashir I himself, but perhaps a descendant) seem to have been the start of the Kushano-Sasanian issues. However, proper Kushano-Sasanian coinage, as well as the rule of autonomous Kuhano-Sasanian rulers, started with a certain Pērōz 1 whose relationship with the Sasanian king of kings is not well understood. He is known to have issued bronze and gold coins, continuing on the Kushan style as well as those imitating the Sasanian “imperial style”. Isolated silver drachms from the reign of Pērōz I Kushanshah are also among the few silver issues of the entire Kushano-Sasanian period.

Textual references to the Kushano-Sasanians might include the mention of Hormizd, an apparent successor of Peroz I. Roman sources mention the rebellion of a certain Ormisdas (Hormizd) against his brother, the Sasanian Shahahanshah, Wahram II (276-293 CE),  in the context of Emperor Carus’ war with the latter. It seems that Hormizd, a son of Wahram I, had claimed the independent rule of the eastern territories for himself, probably even having designs on the position of the king of kings, if it is to be judged from the occasional use of the Bactrian title of Košano šauano šao (MP. kwš’n MLK’n MLK’, “the Kushan King of Kings”) on his coins. These coins include bronze issues, as well as a few silver issues. If this is the same as Hormizd 1, the Kushanshah, the interesting features of his gold coins are, at least as far as numismatics is concerned, are his golden cup-shaped issues, which follow the established Kushan imperial iconography.

Hormizd 1 was the loser in the power struggle with the King of Kings Wahram II, as the latter obviously survived until 293 CE. Wahram’s choice for governing the Kušānšahr at this point might have been a governor, although issues of another Hormizd, wearing a bull crown, seem to suggest that Hormizd II might have been appointed to the position of the Kushanshah. This second Hormizd was followed by yet another Pērōz (II) who has left ample evidence of his rule through the issue of coins from Balkh, Heart, and Marv. By this time, the Kushanshahs seem to have issued three major types of coins. The first one, mostly in gold and bronze, followed the types of Kushan Vasudeva I, the Great Kushan, with the obverse of a standing king and the reverse often showing Shiva/oēšo standing in front of his bull, Nandi. These issues, mostly bearing the mint signature of Balkh, have been found in Central Asia, Afghanistan, and northern Pakistan. The second type, again in gold or bronze, follows the Sasanian “imperial” style, showing the monarch with individual crown types on the obverse, as well as attendants and a fire altar on the reverse. The legend on these coins is in Pahlavi, as opposed to Bactrian which seems to be more common on the first type. The third type, mostly in bronze, does not bear mint marks, but has been mostly found south of the Hindu-Kush and they follow the Sasanian style, with Pahlavi and occasionally Bactrian legends.

Pērōz 2 was followed, sometimes in the early fourth century, by another Hormizd (2 or 3) whose coins have been found from Balkh. It is probably during his reign that the first waves of the “Hunnic” (Xiongnu?) tribes started advancing on the northeastern borders of the Sasanian Empire and the Kushanshahr. The Sasanians, consequently, appear to have gotten involved more directly in the affairs of Bactria. Locally, another Kushanshah, Wahram I, issued coins in Balkh and Herat. At the same time, the Sasanian emperor Shapur II seems to have started issuing coins in Marv, Herat, and Gandhara, probably either to limit the Kushanshah power, or most likely since he was directly involved in the affairs of the region and its defense against the Huns. Wahram 1 continued to mint coins in Balkh and seems to have had real, autonomous power in that region.

However, in the middle of the fourth century and with the attacks of the Huns, the kingdom of the Kushanshahs was properly divided and became a scene of conflicts. Shapur’s wars in the northern parts allowed him to mint coins in Bactria, while we have coins of another Wahram Kushanshah from Gandhara. At the same time, a horde found near Kabul, containing several species commonly attributed to Kidara, the rising Hunnish king, has recently been suggested to belong to Kay Wahram, apparently the same Wahram 2 Kushanshah or another Kushan ruler. A few coins, again minted in Gandhara and bearing the name of Pērōz (3) have also been discovered, probably showing the continuation of the Kushano-Sasanian rule in Gandhara for a few more years. These last vestiges of the Kushanshah power was soon wiped away by the advances of the Kidarite Huns into Gandhara, effectively ending the direct Sasanian rule in Bactria and northwest India.


Further Reading

Alram, Michael. Nomina Propria Iranica in Nummis, Materialgrundlagen zu den iranischen personennamen auf Antiken Münze. Vienna: Verlag der Österreichischen Akademie, 1986.

Bivar, A. D. H. “the History of Eastern Iran.” In Cambridge History of Iran, , edited by E. Yarshater, 181-231. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1983.

Cribb, J. “Gandharan Hoards of Kushano-Sasanian and Late Kushan Coppers.” Coin Hoards 6 (1981): 93-108.

———. “Shiva Images on Kushan and Kushano-Sasanian Coins.” Silk Road Art and Archaeology Special Issue (1996): 11-66.

Errington, E., and Vesta Sarkhosh Curtis. From Persepolis to the Punjab, Exploring Ancient Iran, Afghanistan and Pakistan. London, 2007.

Frye, Richard N. “Napki Malka and the Kushano-Sasanians.” In Near Eastern Numismatics, Iconography, Epigraphy, and History: Studies in Honor of George C. Miles, edited by Dikran K, Kouymjian. Beirut, 1974.

Grenet, Frantz, et al. “The Sasanian Relief at Rag-i Bibi.” In After Alexander: Central Asia Before Islam, edited by J. Cribb and Georgina Hermann, 243-267. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007.

Hermann, Georgina. “Shapur I in the East: Reflections from His Victory Reliefs.” In The Art and Archaeology of Ancient Persia: New Light on the Parthian and Sasanian Empires, edited by Vesta Sarkhosh Curtis, Robert Hillenbrand, and J. M. Rogers, 38-51. London: I. B. Tauris, 1998.

Sarkhosh Curtis, Vesta, Robert Hillenbrand, and J. M. Rogers, eds. The Art and Archaeology of Ancient Persia: New Light on the Parthian and Sasanian Empires. London: I. B. Tauris, 1998.

Shahbazi, A. Shapur. “HORMOZD KUŠĀNŠĀH.” Encyclopaedia Iranica, 15 December 2004, http://www.iranica.com.

Zeimal, E. V. “The Kidarite Kingdom and Central Asia.” In History of Civilisations of Central Asia, edited by B. A. Litvinsky, 119-133. Paris: UNESCO, 1996.









  1. I just had to comment to say that I found this post absolutely fascinating, lucid, and informative. I can’t seem to find much resources dealing with the Kushano-Sasanians. I recently purchased and have read your recent book “Reorienting the Sasanians” with gusto. Imagine my surprise when I found out you have a strong presence in social media and online so getting some rather esoteric knowledge has gotten a bit easier. You’re making my studies and college experience much easier. Sorry for my way too long comment so let me finish with saying please keep up the good work.

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