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Richard Frye:

The History of Ancient Iran

Richard Frye. The History of Ancient Iran.

beginning with pg. 325.


Chosroes was the most illustrious of the Sasanian rulers and he gave his name to the common designation of Sasanian rulers by the Arabs, Kisra, much as Caesar gave his name to Roman rulers. His reforms set a stamp on the later Sasanian state and society and much of what we know about the organization of Sasanian Iran dates from his reign and afterwards. Under him the national epic was gathered together; probably at that time the Avesta was reduced to the form of the Avestan alphabet and writing we know at the present time, and his economic reforms also have come down to us in Islamic writings, while stories about the splendor, the justice and flourishing of Iran under him abound in later Islamic writings, where he occupies a place similar to the great Shah 'Abbas in Safavid times. The tax reform, begun under Kavad, was carried to completion under Chosroes, and the royal court was much strengthened by this and other measures, which changed the face of the empire, making it stronger when a strong ruler ruled but open to disintegration under a weak king. At the outset he had to put down an attempt by a group of nobles to raise his brother to the throne, but he overcame the plotters and dispatched them.

One of his first tasks on ascending the throne was to make peace with the Byzantines, which he did in 532 evacuating several forts in Lazica, and to restore order in society, for as several sources state, children did not know who their fathers were, and questions of inheritance and ownership were unresolved. The aftermath of the Mazdakite troubles not only provided an opportunity to reduce the power of the great feudal lords, who after the time of Chosroes are little mentioned except as officials of the central government, but also to reorganize the clergy, the higher offices of which had been occupied by members of noble families. The basis of wealth and power of the upper classes had to be reorganized first, and this was the tax reform of Chosroes, the results of which lasted into Islamic times.

F. Altheim has studied the tax reforms of Chosroes in detail and is convincing in his conclusions that the great landed nobility previously enjoyed great privileges in exemption from taxation, but as a result of the seizure of lands by common folk during the Mazdakite movement, there was great confusion in claims of land ownership. All land was to be surveyed and taxed in the same way everywhere, while revenues which formerly frequently went to the nobles were to come into the central government treasury. It is possible, as Altheim asserts, that the indictio or tax reform of Diocletian, the joining of the Roman iugatio and capitatio into one tax system collected three times a year, provided the prototype for Chosroes' reforms, but this is inference. It is related in a number of sources that taxes were levied on the produce of land, fruits and grains, but frequently the produce was spoiled before it could be assessed for tax purposes. Under the new system the land was measured, the water rights determined and yearly average rates were set for the land which produced grain, other rates for land which had date palm and olive trees according to the number of the producing trees, and other reforms of which we only have hints.

The tax reform was followed by a reform of the army which was changed from the previous practice of the great feudal lords providing their own equipment and bringing their followers and retainers into the field, to another system with a new force of dehkans or 'knights,' paid and equipped by the central government. It is interesting to note that both the number, as well as the die quality, of coins of Chosroes I increases and improves greatly compared to earlier issues, and the iconography of the coins becomes more stereotyped. Also, it should be remarked that the army reorganization under Chosroes was concentrated on organization and on training, rather than any new weapons or technical advances, and as previously the heavily-armed cavalry remained the dominant force with archers less important. The masses, as usual, were still camp followers and little more than a rabble looking for booty, but a new nobility of service was created which became more influential than the landed nobility. Since payment in specie or even in kind did not suffice to recompense the 'knights,' villages were granted to them in fief, and a large class of small landowners came into existence. The ruler also divided the kingdom into four military districts with a spahbad or general in charge of forces in each part with the primary task of defending Iran from external foes. Walls and forts were also built on the frontiers, but in this policy Chosroes was only continuing the policy of his predecessors, while new roads, bridges and many buildings have been attributed to Chosroes, whether true or not.

The army was tested in the resumption of hostilities with Byzantium, and fortunately we have a detailed account of the war from Procopius. The reasons for a new war were many, not the least of which were embassies from the Ostrogoths in Italy, who were conquered by Justinian, and pressure from some Armenians and Arabs, both eager for war. So Chosroes broke the peace and invaded Syria in 540 moving south of the usual path of armies. He took several towns and received tribute from others and soon was before the walls of Antioch, which had suffered greatly from several earthquakes in 525-526, and it was poorly defended making conquest easy for the Persians. Chosroes pillaged and burned the city taking many captives, after which peace was made with Justinian who paid the Persians a large indemnity. On his return, however, Chosroes obtained ransom from a number of Byzantine cities on his way. Because of these activities Justinian renounced the truce just concluded and prepared to send Belisarius, who had been successful in Italy and North Africa, against the Sasanians.

After returning, Chosroes built a new city, strictly following the model of Antioch, near Ctesiphon, and he settled his captives from Antioch in it calling it the presumptious title Weh Antiok Khusrau (Better than Antioch [has] Chosroes [built this]), but it was called Rumagan, 'town of the Greeks' by the local inhabitants, and al- Rumiyya by the Arabs. He is said to have founded several other towns and erected walls at Derbend. The following year the Sasanians took advantage of the request of emissaries from the king of Lazica to send an army to support him against Byzantine encroachments, and at first they were successful capturing a Byzantine fortress on the Black Sea coast called Petra and establishing a protectorate where Sasanian rule had never before penetrated. Belisarius in Mesopotamia ravaged the country around Nisibis, but no decisive battle was fought, and the Byzantine general was recalled by Justinian and sent to the west. In 543 a Byzantine army suffered defeat in Armenia, and Chosroes was encouraged to again invade Syria, and he besieged Edessa, now more important than Antioch, but he was repulsed and retreated with the payment of a ransom. A five-year truce was then concluded between the two empires and Chosroes received two thousand pounds of gold. In Lazica the inhabitants revolted against Persian control, and a Byzantine force was sent in the fourth year of the truce to aid the local populace to oust the Persians, and as a result the Lazic war continued for a number of years.

Both Procopius and Agathias stress the strategic importance of Lazica, and if we view the Lazic war as a prelude to the ambitious dreams of Chosroes to control the trade of the silk route to China and the sea way to India, as indicated by his interventions later with the Turks and in Yemen, then the Byzantine authors may have correctly discerned the far-reaching plans of the Persians. In the Lazic war Chosroes finally lost, and negotiations were begun with Byzantium in 556 which led to a fifty-year peace treaty signed in 561, by which the Persians evacuated Lazica for an annual payment of gold. The treaty and a description of the sealing of the documents can be found in Menander Protector, giving an insight into contemporary diplomatic protocol.

In the east a new force had appeared in Central Asia, the Turks, who attacked the Hephthalites defeating them. Chosroes, taking advantage of the disunity of Hephthalite princes and apparently the absence of a central authority among them, about 557-558 annexed some Hephthalite principalities south of the Oxus River, while the Turks extended their hegemony north of the river. The main Hephthalite domains, however, were not annexed by the Sasanians, for under the son and successor of Chosroes they caused much trouble. The initial cordiality between the Turks and Chosroes soon changed, possibly because of the hope of Chosroes to dominate trade between Central Asia, China and India and the West. Later relations between the Turks and Persians deteriorated, and in 568 a Turkish embassy, recorded by Menander, arrived in Byzantium to make an alliance against the Persians, but nothing came of the proposed two front attack on Sasanian Iran.

The hostilities in the north between the two empires were matched by competition in the Arabian peninsula especially Yemen, where the Ethiopians, who had been converted to Monophysite Christianity, sent an army in 522 against the Himyarites, the dominant power in south Arabia at that time.lS A local leader Dhu Nuwas defeated the Ethiopians and sought aid from Iran, while the Ethiopians turned to the Byzantines who responded with ships and supplies. The king of Ethiopia led his troops across the ed Sea in 525, defeated and killed Dhu Nuwas and installed an Ethiopian protege as king of the Himyarites. The success of the Ethiopians led to an embassy to them from Justinian in 531, reported by Procopius, who says the Byzantines suggested that the Ethiopians could force the Persians out of the India trade. Nothing came of this, since an Ethiopian general, Abraha, seized power in the Himyarite kingdom sometime between 532 and 535 and established an independent state which he ruled until his death in 569 or 570, the 'year of the elephant' or the year of the birth of the prophet Muhammad. Several years afterwards Ma 'd-Karib, one of the sons of Abraha, fled from his half-brother who had succeeded to the throne, and he secured the support of Chosroes. The latter sent a fleet and a small army under a commander called Vahriz to the area near present Aden and they marched against the capital San'a'l which was occupied. Saif, son of Mard-Karib, who had accompanied the expedition became king sometime between 575 and 577. Thus the Sasanians were able to establish a base in south Arabia to control the sea trade with the east. Later the south Arabian kingdom renounced Sasanian overlordship and another Persian expedition was sent in 598 which was successful in annexing southern Arabia as a Sasanian province which lasted until the time of troubles after Chosroes II.

In 565 the emperor Justinian died and was succeeded by Justin II, who resolved to stop subsidies to Arab chieftains to restrain them from raiding Byzantine territory in Syria. A year earlier the Sasanian governor of Armenia, of the Suren family, built a fire temple at Dvin near modern Erevan, and he put to death an influential member of the Mamikonian family, which touched off a revolt which led to the massacre of the Persian governor and his guard in 571. Justin II took advantage of the Armenian revolt to stop his yearly payments to Chosroes for the defense of the Caucasus passes. The Armenians were welcomed as allies, and an army was sent into Sasanian territory which besieged Nisibis in 572, but dissension among the Byzantine generals not only led to an abandonment of the siege, but they in turn were besieged in the city of Dara, which was taken by the Persians, who then ravaged Syria and caused Justin to sue for peace. Justin was succeeded by Tiberius, a high Byzantine officer, in 574 who made a truce with Chosroes, but it was not concluded, and in the following year the Persians invaded Armenia where they were at first successful. Then, as so frequently in the wars between the two empires, fortune changed, and the Byzantines gained many local successes. Attempts to negotiate a peace in 576 failed after a great Sasanian victory over the Byzantines in Armenia. In 578 a new Byzantine commander Maurice captured several Sasanian strongholds, but the Armenian revolt came to an end with a general amnesty from Chosroes, which brought Armenia back into the Sasanian Empire, and peace negotiations between the two great powers were under way when Chosroes died in 579.

It is impossible to do more than summarize the achievements of Chosroes and to list the various developments in political, social and cultural matters during his reign. So much is ascribed to Chosroes in later Islamic writings that it is diflficult to determine how much is fact or fable. Certainly much that we find in state organization, taxes and the like, in Islamic times had their origins in the state reforms under Chosroes, or in changes which occurred during his reign, and the tendency of peasants in Iran today to assign any obviously pre-lslamic bridge, caravanserai or other structure to Chosroes 'of the immortal soul' is testimony of the impression he made on his contemporaries. Even foreign writers inimical to Chosroes were somewhat awed by the imposing figure of the Sasanian ruler, cruel and hard but worthy of respect.

Although history, especially in Iran, has been limited to urban, elite groups, the basis of support of an Iranian government or culture was the rural peasantry, and during the Mazdakite upheaval, even the peasantry influenced events. It may be exaggerated to say that Iran was changed from a feudal land into an empire after Chosroes, for castes continued, with the scribes or bureaucracy added to the traditional Indo-lranian three-caste system of priests, warriors and common folk. In a sense the landowning elite gave way in influence to a bureaucratic elite tied to the crown. The direct taxes levied on the land and on the peasants greatly reduced the 'middle-man' role of the landed nobility between common folk and the court. Although we have no statistics and only fragments of data, one may speculate that in the long run the reforms of Chosroes caused problems for the peasants, because a substantial shift in peasant settlement patterns from old irrigated lands to new dry-farming lands seems to have occurred. The massive irrigation systems of Chosroes on the plains, aided by dams and canals, may have at first aided an expansion of agriculture, but the centralization perhaps robbed the local people of initiative with the result of a decline in population on the plains with a consequent growth of towns. On the plateau we have no information but urban development was certainly much smaller than in Mesopotamia. Also Mesopotamia and Khuzistan were easier to administer by the central government.

The urban development in Khuzistan can be linked to the great expansion of trade under Chosroes I. The state now tended toward monopolistic control of the trade with luxury goods assuming a far greater role in the trade than heretofore, and the great activity in building of ports, caravanserais, bridges, and the like was linked to trade and to urbanization. The Persians dominated international trade, both in the Indian Ocean and in Central Asia and South Russia in the time of Chosroes, although competition with the Byzantines was at times intense. Sasanian settlements in Oman and Yemen testify to the importance of the trade with India, but the silk trade with China, as we shall see, was mainly in the hands of the Sogdians.

For trade or defense reasons Chosroes practiced the ancient transfer of populations from one part of the empire to another as one can see by the addition of bishoprics to the realm of eastern Christianity, as well as by many notices of such shifts in the sources. He also welcomed refugees from the Byzantine Empire such as the philosophers from the school at Athens which had been closed by Justinian in 529. They became homesick, however, and Chosroes negotiated their return in a peace treaty according to Agathias, but he still had many medical doctors and sages at his court. On the intellectual side of his court, translations were made into Middle Persian from Greek, Syriac and Sanskrit, and many stories have been preserved in later Arabic and Persian works on the chief minister and sage Buzurjmihr, to give him the Arabic form of his name. The introduction of the game of chess to Iran from India is tied with his name, and although many scholars have considered him to be a fiction, Christensen not only argues his real existence but identifies him with a medical doctor called Burzoe, also at the court of Chosroes. Connected with the name of Chosroes I are many wise sayings in Islamic works and collections of such andarz are many, such that it is highly probable that this Sasanian monarch became the origin of many apocryphal stories in later works. In the realm of religion many Middle Persian books are said to have been written in the time of Chosroes, although it should be remembered thatjust as Shapur I and II are confused in later works, so are Chosroes I and II. The Pahlavi books, as well as Islamic sources, imply that Chosroes I was tolerant of religions other than Zoroastrianism, which he ordered cleared of heresy, and most scholars agree that the final and fixed form of later, dualistic Zoroastrianism traces its origins back to the reign of Chosroes I.

If we turn to the visual arts, again the pomp and glory of the reign of Chosroes strike the observer. Many Sasanian silver objects date from the time of Chosroes, although dating is frequently exceedingly difficult. One reason for problems in identifying or dating Sasanian art is the lack of a 'Zoroastrian' art and an artistic symbolism matching Christian and Buddhist art, although decoration perhaps predominated in late Sasanian art over representation, and much of the geometric or floral nature of Islamic art seems to have had its origins in Sasanian Iran. Even though one can hard!y speak of a 'Zoroastrian' art, all specialists agree that Sasanian art, like its predecessor the art of the Achaemenids, is a royal art with plenty of royal symbollsm. Much more than trade and commerce, art was bound to the court and the wlshes of the ruler, and it seems that, just like the coinage, the silver plates, textiles, even glassware and pottery, not to mention architecture, all came from royal workshops or related establishments. Whether Sasanian art is primarily derived from Hellenistic art or is more dependent on ancient Iranian and Near Eastern traditions is a matter for art historians and need not concern us here, but whatever the origins, Sasanian motifs, such as the mythical bird, the senmurv, are found on art objects from India, China and the western world, evidence of the importance of Sasanian culture in the realm of the arts.

It is not possible here to even mention the many aspects and problems of Sasanian art, except to note several features which exemplify the nature of political power and pomp of the Sasanian rulers. The monumental architecture, such as the Qala-ye Dukhtar and palace of Ardashir at Firuzabad, the Taq-e Kisra in Ctesiphon, if not built by Chosroes at least enlarged or completed by him, and others, all express the pride and wealth of the Sasanians. The symbolic quality of the representational art of the Sasanians too strikes one, for representation of kingly glory may be seen in many forms, such as the mountain goat with a ribbon around its neck, the head of a wild boar, tulips, winged creatures, or even leaves, all from nature yet not represented in their natural forms but heraldic in nature. In other words, the art objects may not have been made for the royal court but they appear as though they were. This 'centralization' of only a few art motifs repeated many times expresses the ideals of the imperial state and society after Chosroes I. It is interesting that much more has been written about the arts of the Sasanians, and they have been far more studied, than has been the political, social or economic history of Sasanian Iran.

One branch of Sasanian art which was widespread among the populace but which also displayed the royal motifs mentioned above, and has repercussions in other areas, is that of sphragistics, for in antiquity people used seals instead of signatures. On many thousands of Sasanian seals or seal impressions on clay, we find a large repertolre of motifs including figures or busts, as well as official seals only with writings. For Sasanian onomastica the seals are invaluable, and we find personal names such as Mihr Bokht or Zurvandad, which, however, do not mean that those who held these names were followers of a separate religion of Mithraism or Zervanism but they were simply Zoroastrians. Others were named after a fire temple, a day of the month, or for rnany other reasons. Perhaps more important than private seals, which usually give us only a symbol or design but sometirnes the name and title of the owner and rarely other information, were the 'official' seals with writing alone which tell us about administrative divisions of provinces as well as titles, and no personal names, since they were seals of offices not of persons. The vast majority of these seals date from the time of Chosroes I or later, and we have an interesting passage from the Matigan which substantiates the evidence of the seals and sealings themselves It goes as follows: "Furthermore, thus, the seal of usage (official seal) of the mobads and of the hamarkar (official of finances) was first (introduced) by order of Kavad son of Peroz and that of the judge (datavar) first by order of Chosroes son of Kavad. When the seals of the mobads of Fars were carved, it was written not the mobad in the name of his mobad quality, but in the name of the 'advocate of the poor,' and for this reason it was carved on the seal of the mobad of Fars in this manner. Seals, of course, were ancient in the Near East and seem to have been the predecessors of writing. In Babylonia the vast majority of clay sealings were economic in nature, and persons responsible for commercial transactions put their seal mark on goods and records of dellveries of goods. Priests participated in transactions and in control over trade and both sealings and cuneiform tablets relating to trade and legal matters have been found in temples in ancient Mesopotamia. Since the Sasanians were part of a tradition of conservatism it should cause no surprise to find priests acting as witnesses and as udges and custodians of records in various transactions of a village, city or a province in Sasanian Iran. The two storehouses where Sasanian clay sealings have been found in a room of the fire temple at Takht-e Sulaiman in Azerbaijan and at Qasr-e Abu Nasr or old Shiraz, held records of various transactions in the form of clay sealings, covering a time span of several generations at the end of the Sasanian period One controversy still unresolved is to what were the clay sealings originally attached before they were placed m their archives? One view is that they were attached to rolled documents, while another is that they were attached to oods before being removed to the archives. In the archives these sealings may have had tags or even documents attached to them for identification, but it is difficult to believe that only documents were originally attached to these sometimes large and heavy pieces of clay of so many different forms.

From sealings, as well as from later Arabic sources, one may reconstruct the provincial subdivisions of Sasanian Iran after Chosroes, under the four military divisions. The province was subdivided into kura (from Greek xvpa?) also called osan, which in turn were divided into rostak (Ardbic rustaq) or tasug. This division, as well as the nomenclature, was not at all uniform throughout the empire and over time designations changed, just as the dehkan, once a noble, became a peasant today. Likewise, the administration, loyal to the court and central government, was imposed on the landowning caste system, and sometimes the two clashed in the exercise of power and authority. The difficulty of determining provincial subdivisions in Sasanian times, especially in the lowlands of Khuzistan and Mesopotamia, is compounded by changes in boundaries and in names made by various Sasanian rulers at the end of the dynasty. We may assume that the information provided by Arabic sources relates mainly to the situation after Chosroes II Parviz. The division of the empire into four parts, after the points of the compass, by Chosroes I was more for military or defense purposes than for civil administration, although it must be admitted that we are not informed about the civil organization which was formed beside the military governor (spahbad) and his assistant (?) (padgospan). To go into details on administrative geography would far exceed the limits of this book, and we must restrict ourselves in brief to Iran proper.

Fars province, the Sasanian homeland, was probably a model for the rest of the empire, and we know there were five kuras, designated by the major cities in them, Istakhr, Arrajan, Bishapur, Ardashir Khwarreh and Darabgird. The first, where the governor resided, and the largest, extended east to Yazd. Arrajan was called Weh az Amid Kavad 'better than Amida has Kavad (built this)' or Wamqubad in Arabic or Bizamqubad on coins. Ardashir Khwarreh was also called Gur, present Firuzabad. The divisions of Khuzistan province are unclear, for different Arabic sources give various provincial subdivisions, but there were at least seven, since Khuzistan, although much smaller than Fars, was richer agriculturally and was more heavily populated. The largest kura was Hormizd-Ardashir (called Hormizshahr or Suq al- Ahwaz by the Arabs), present Ahwaz. Other kuras were Rustaqubad (in Arabic the area of 'Askar Mukram), Shustar, Susa, Jundeshapur, Ramuz and Dauraq, but over time changes were many in this province. For other provinces, especially on the plateau, we have much less information which is also confusing. Changing of provincial and local boundaries was made for many reasons, but such changes were mountains and rivers, kept divisions fairly constant, and the administrative subdivisions of Fars province, for example, have remained much the same throughout history although towns in them rose and declined.

Enough has been said to indicate the great significance of the reign of Chosroes I, and even though much has accumulated around his name and reign which should not be attributed to him, nonetheless the achievements of Chosroes were outstanding. Yet in the long run they did not insure lasting loyalty to the dynasty, and they did not rectify the grave defects of the caste system of society. On the contrary, the centralization of power and authority left local officials with little initiative and much resentment, at least in regard to the central power, such that the Islamic invaders, after the defeat of the imperial armies in three great battles in the west, had only local opposition, with little thought of unity to defend the empire. But the weakness of Sasanian Iran at that time was in no small measure the result of both internal and external fighting in the empire and the lack of rulers with the personal influence and power of a Shapur or Chosroes.


Hormizd IV, son of Chosroes and a Turkish princess given in marriage to the Sasanian monarch to promote good relations between the two states, inherited the war with Byzantium. Attempts by Tiberius to end the war between the two empires failed, mainly because the Persians refused to surrender the city of Dara and also demanded a large annual subsidy. The Byzantine general Maurice was successful against the Persians in Mesopotamia, but in 582 the death of Tiberius caused Maurice to go to the capital to mount the throne, and he was replaced by incompetent generals who were defeated, and the war continued with attacks and counter-attacks. More threatening, however, was an invasion of the Turks into the northeastern part of the Sasanian Empire. Fortunately Iran had a brilliant general of the Mihran family called Bahram Chobin who decisively defeated the Turks at a great battle near Herat in 589, reported in a number of sources. The chronology and events in this period have been studied in detail with few large problems remaining, except the usual details of chronology and verifiability, so unlike most of ancient Iranian history. After his defeat of the Turks Bahram Chobin is reported to have crossed the Oxus and secured much booty, but so much fable is intertwined with the deeds of Bahram that it is difficult to tell fact from fiction, and furthermore stories about Bahram Chobin and Bahram Gor are exchanged in the tales about both Bahrams. It is unlikely that the ruler killed by Bahram in the east was the king of the Western Turks, but more likely a subordinate ruler. Whether the Turkish attack on Iran was a well-coordinated plan together with Byzantine and Arab diversions in the west with the aim of ending a Sasanian monopoly on east-west trade is possible but mere surmise. The popular general was then sent to the Caucasus area, and although Theopylactus says that the Persians were the aggressors, the hostilities between the two empires had not been resolved, and Bahram's initial success was a continuation of the struggle. But in a minor engagement Bahram was defeated by the Byzantines, and this led to his revolt in Iran.

Hormizd suppressed the great nobility and protected the weak, which indicates a continued opposition to the policies of Chosroes, and it seems clear that internal affairs in Iran were most unsettled. Bahram's demotion and revolt, attributed to the jealousy of Hormizd in the sources, surely had deeper roots in the unhappiness of the nobility with their ruler, for Bahram was supported by the nobility on all sides. Troops sent to attack Bahram deserted to him, and Bahram marched on Ctesiphon late in the year 589. The aristocracy did not support Hormizd, and the religious leaders also were not happy with the tolerance and even friendship of Hormizd towards Christians and other non-Zoroastrians, so the ruler was abandoned. A palace revolt freed the nobles Hormizd had imprisoned, and the rebels were led by two brothers-in-law of the monarch, called Bindoe and Bistam; Hormizd was seized and blinded. In February 590 Chosroes Abarvez or Parviz 'the victorious' was raised to the throne, and shortly thereafter Hormizd was put to death. Bahram, however, was not reconciled to the son of Hormizd, and hostilities broke out at Hulwan, but Chosroes, seeing that he could not defeat the experienced general, fled to Ctesiphon and then to the Byzantine frontier, and at Circesium in March 590 he was received by the governor who communicated the request of Chosroes for asylum and aid to regain his throne to Emperor Maurice in Constantinople. Chosroes was granted asylum in Hierapolis until a decision about aid to him could be reached. Both Bahram and Chosroes promised the ceding of a number of frontier towns to the Byzantines, if they would support one or the other.

The course of events leading to the restoration of Chosroes II are known from Theophylactus and Theophanes as well as from Arabic sources, and the rule of Bahram lasted only a year. Legitimacy of the house of Sasan played a role in the erosion of support for the usurper Bahram, and Nisibis was the first important city to defect to Chosroes and his Byzantine allies. Bindoe the uncle of Chosroes, who had accompanied him into exile, was sent with an army to Armenia to outflank Bahram, who was defeated in the lowlands and lost Ctesiphon. He retreated to Azerbaijan but was finally defeated and fled to the Turks in Central Asia where he received asylum, until he was assassinated after a year. Thus ended the reign of Bahram who, more than his soverign, captured the emotions of Persian bards and story tellers, but peace did not return to the land.

Chosroes had to cede territory to Byzantium, reward hls supporters and punish his uncles, who had been instigators of the d:ath of his father. He put to death Bindoe, but Bistam escaped and became a rebel in the Elburz mountains. Gathering former partisans of Bahram Chobin around him, Bistam was able to maintain independence and even expand his authority, striking coins and ruling the northeastern part of Iran. It was not until 601 that the rule of Chosroes was restored over all of the empire which had been greatly weakened by the civil wars.

Peace and good relations were maintained with the Byzantines tnoughout the rule of Maurice in spite of raids of the Ghassanid Arab clients of the Byzantines into Sasanian territory in 600, but the murder of the Byzantine emperor and the seizure of the throne in Constantinople by Phokas, an officer, in 602 changed the situation. Chosroes used this as a pretext for opening hostilities and, when an emissary from the new Byzantine emperor arrived, he was imprisoned. Phokas was faced with revolts all over the empire, and Edessa, which had replaced Antioch as the most important city in the general area of northern Syria, was besieged by an army sent by Phokas. Chosroes in 604 sent an army against the forces besieging Edessa who were defeated, and the Persians briefly occupied the city. Dara also fell after a siege in 605, and Chosroes resolved to carry the war into the heart of enemy territory. One army sent into Armenia was completely successful and continued westward invading Cappadocia, while in 607 a renewed Sasanian invasion of the west captured more towns. In 610 Phokas was overthrown and killed, and Heraclius became emperor with the resolve to make peace at once with Chosroes. The latter refused, however, and war continued with more Persian successes. In 613 Damascus was captured and in the following year Jerusalem, where among other booty the true cross was taken to Ctesiphon. In 615 a Persian general marched to Chalcedon opposite Constantinople, while in 617 the king of the Avars appeared before the land walls of the Byzantine capital. Emperor Heraclius almost left the city in despair for north Africa, especially after Egypt, the main source of grain for the empire, was occupied by the Persians in 619.

Although Chosroes had succeeded in extending the frontiers of the Sasanian Empire almost to the limits of the Achaemenid Empire, Heraclius had not been crushed, and indeed he made a number of radical changes in his empire, dividing it into large military zones, the theme system, each under a military officer, and local people rather than mercenaries were enrolled in the armies. A crusade began, supported by the populace as well as by contributions of the church. Since the Byzantines controlled the seas, Heraclius resolved on a bold stroke, and in 622 he sailed into the Black Sea with an expeditionary force which penetrated into Armenia where Sasanian forces were defeated. The Avars were constrained to a peace by payment of a large tribute, but Chosroes still refused to make peace. In the following year Heraclius repeated his previous feat and defeated Sasanian detachments led by Shahin who formerly had reached Chalcedon, and Shahrbaraz, anther top general of Chosroes. Heraclius penetrated into Azerbaijan and captured and plundered the Sasanian fire temple and sanctuary Adur Gushnasp at Ganzak or Shiz. Heraclius did not leave Azerbaijan in the winter as expected but retired northwards into winter quarters_ Chosroes decided to copy the bold stroke of Heraclius, and outdo the audacity of the Byzantines, by capturing Constantinople with the aid of the Avars. But Byzantine sea power prevented any success of the allies; Heraclius did not return, and the gamble failed. Heraclius, still on Iran's territory, was not idle but had made an alliance with the Turkish Khazars, who had established a state north of the Caucasus, and in late 627 the Khazars and Byzantines moved south through Azerbaijan reaping booty with little opposition. Heraclius moved farther south to the plains of Mesopotamia, and in desperation Chosroes recalled all of his forces from Anatolia. Before any opposition to Heraclius could be organized, the latter captured Dastagird in 628, east of Ctesiphon, where Chosroes had a large palace complex and much riches. Then Heraclius again withdrew north in Mesopotamia to winter quarters.

Chosroes had failed but whether he sought a scapegoat in Shahrbaraz,who revolted, or whether a large conspiracy dethroned the ruler, the king was imprisoned and killed with the connivance of his son Shiroe at the end of February 628. Shiroe took the name Kavad and ascended the throne as Kavad II. He at once began peace negotiations with Heraclius and the stalus quo before the war was restored with prisoners exchanged, relics and booty restored, and Sasanian troops evacuated from all Byzantine possessions. Kavad's reign had lasted less than a year when he died, probably in an epidemic, to be succeeded by his infant son Ardashir III. Shahrbaraz, head of a large army, decided to seize the throne himself, and he marched on Ctesiphon, defeated forces sent against him and killed the young king. Shahrbaraz himself was murdered after less than two months' rule. Since no son of Chosroes was alive, the nobles raised his daughter Boran to the throne, but she died after ruling little more than a year. A succession of rulers followed, each ruling only a few months, including Azarmedukht, sister of Boran, Peroz II, Hormizd V and Chosroes IV (since a Chosroes III had ruled for a short time in the eastern part of the empire). At the end, the nobles found a grandson of Chosroes alive, a certain Yazdagird son of Shahriyar, in Istakhr in a fire temple. He was to be the last of the Sasanian kings and, ascending the throne in 632, he had little time to rule.

The long reign of Chosroes II was not only known for the internal as well as external strife but also for the luxury, or even decadence, of the court. For example, the throne of Chosroes II was famous in legend for its luxury and the rock carving of a hunting scene of the king at Taq-e Bustan indicates the sumptuousness of even such a mundane affair. His palaces at Dastagird and at Qasr-e Shirin, supposedly named after his queen, are noted in legends for their opulence. The famous musician Barbad lived at his court, and a certain degeneracy appears from accounts of life at the court, and that more than patronage of the arts or philosophers seem to have been the hallmark of Chosroes II.

The revolts of Bahram Chobin and Bistam reveal weaknesses in the system of Chosroes I, since the nobility was basically unwilling to support the throne, although they were still conservative enough to demand a Sasanian prince as ruler rather than a usurper to the throne. One mistake of Chosroes II, which was to have future consequences, was the imprisonment and execution of Nu'man III, king of the Lakhmids of al-Hira about 600, presumably because of the failure of the Arab king to support Chosroes on his flight to the Byzantines. Afterwards the central government took over the defense of the western frontiers to the desert and the buffer state of the Lakhmids vanished. Soon the Arabs of the peninsula invaded lower Iraq and it was only four years after the accession of Yazdagird that his chief general Rustam was declsively defeated and killed at the battle of Qadisiyya near al-Hira. The following year Ctesiphon was taken by the Arabs. Attempts to rally forces on the plateau failed and in 642 the rest of the imperial Sasanian army was destroyed at the battle of Nihavend. Just as with the last of the Achaemenidsl so Yazdagird fled to the east and took refuge with the marban of Merv; the latter, however, resolved to be rid of an unwelcome guest, but Yazdagird fled and hid in a mill where he was murdered in 651. Thus the Sasanian Empire went on the same road as the Achaemenid, and to the outside observer, removed from both by many centuries, the similarities in their final years strike one more than the differences. Details of the fall of the Sasanian Empire however, belong to the history of Islam and the Arab conquests, of which we have a veritable plethora of sources in comparison with Sasanian history.

The last century of the empire saw an increase in converts to Christianity, and the expansion of bishoprics to the east can be found in the acts of the Nestorian synods. Not only did the richest part of the empire, the lowlands of the Tigris-Euphrates become predominantly Christian, with Monophysites gaining ground against the Nestorians at the end of the empire, but the plateau too saw an increase in churches. Thls does not mean, however, that the Sasanian state was becoming Christian just before the Islamic era, as some have suggested. The state religion was still upheld by all of the rulers, even though it had become a faith primarily of rituals and taboos. It had a great disadvantage in comparison to Christianity and Islam in that it was not an oecumenical religion actively seeking converts, and it was bound too closely to the Sasanian state and its fortunes. One might say that in the later years of the Sasanian Empire the state dominated the church, whereas in the west the reverse seems more true, or perhaps one could say 'used' rather than 'dominated' in both cases. The organization of minority religions in the Sasanian Empire served to protect Zoroastrianism after the Arab conquest, when the change from dominant, state religion to one of minority status was made, and this enabled Zoroastrianism to survive to the present. The status of Jews and Christians changed little under Islam, except that the model of an imperial state and religion, which influenced their organizations and outlooks, changed to a 'democratic' model, which the Islamic state under the early caliphs was in comparison. In Judaism the end of the Sasanian Empire meant the decline and fall of the exilarchate and the triumph of the rabbinate, much like the 'ulama of Islam. For Manichaeans the end of the Sasanians gave them a chance to come into the open in Iraq and Iran, until later in the 'Abbasid Caliphate they fell vlctims of a persecution. The Nestorian church, on the other hand, experienced a revival with missionaries penetrating to China. Only Zoroastrians soon withdrew into ghettoes, to be followed later bx other minority religions in the Islamic world. It was mainly the Zoroastrian clergy which preserved the Middle Persian writings which explains the loss of so much secular literature. The latter, however, was translated, or paraphrased, into Arabic and later New Persian, but with an Islamic reworking of texts, which makes reconstruction of originals difficult. But in these later, secular writings the heritage of the Sasanians was preserved, and it was a powerful force in the making of Islamic culture.

The last holdout of Sasanian Iran was in the east, and it is to this little studied part of the world that scholars need next to approach--for it seems certain to me that the small states of Central Asia, too, were part of the ancient Iranian world, and their role in bringing Iranian influences to China and to Russia should not be forgotten.


This text is part of the Internet Medieval Sourcebook. The Sourcebook is a collection of public domain and copy-permitted texts related to medieval and Byzantine history. Unless otherwise indicated the specific electronic form of the document is copyright. Permission is granted for electronic copying, distribution in print form for educational purposes and personal use. If you do reduplicate the document, indicate the source. No permission is granted for commercial use.

Paul Halsall, May 2023

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