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Pre Islamic Sources

Byzantine and Persia

Irfan Shahid. Byzantium and the Arabs in the Fifth Century.
Dumbarton Oaks Research Library, Washington, D.C. 1989. Beginning with pg. 528.
Of the three constituents of Byzantinism -- the Roman, the Greek, and the
Christian --it was the last that affected, influenced, and sometimes even
controlled the lives of those Arabs who moved in the Byzantine orbit. Some- thing
has been said on this influence in the fourth century, and these conclu- sions may
be refined and enlarged with new data for the fifth.
1. Christianity presented the Arabs with new human types unknown to them from
their pagan and Peninsular life -- the priest, the bishop, the martyr, the saint,
and the monk -- and the Arab community in Oriens, both Rhomaic and federate,
counted all of them among its members. In the fourth century, it contributed one
saint to the universal Church -- Moses, whose feast falls on the seventh of
February -- and in the Roman period it had contributed Cosmas and Damian. In the
fifth century the Arab episcopate grew in number, both Rhomaic and federate, as is
clear from conciliar lists and from the number of Arab bishops compared to those
of the fourth century. As a result, the Arab ecclesiastical voice was audible in
church councils, and was at its most articulate at Ephesus in defense of Cyrillian
2. The priesthood and the episcopate subjected the Arabs to a new form of
authority and discipline to which they had not been accustomed. It was a spiritual
form of authority, to which even the powerful federate phylarchs and kings were
subject, and it thus induced in the Christian Arabs a new sense of loyalty which
was supra-tribal, related not to tribal chauvinism but to the Christian ecclesia.
This new loyalty was to find expression on the battlefield. The federate troops
under their believing phylarchs fought the fire-worshiping Persians and the pagan
Lakhmids with a crusading zeal, and they probably considered those who fell in
such battles martyrs of the Christian faith.
3. Christianity influenced the literary life of the Arabs in the fifth century as
it had done in the fourth. The conclusions on this are mainly inferential, but
less so for poetry than for prose. If there was an Arabic liturgy and a biblical
lectionary in the fifth century, the chances are that this would have influenced
the development of Arabic literary life, as it invariably influenced that of the
other peoples of the Christian Orient. It is possible to detect such influences in
the scanty fragments of Arabic poetry and trace the refining influence of the new
faith on sentiments. Loanwords from Christianity in Arabic are easier to document,
and they are eloquent testimony to the permanence of that influence in much the
same way that other loanwords testify to the influence of the Roman imperim.
4. By far the most potent influence of Christianity on the Arabs was that of
monasticism. The new type of Christian hero after the saint and the martyr, the
monk who renounced the world and came to live in what the Arabs considered their
natural homeland, the desert, especially appealed to the Arabs and was the object
of much veneration. The monasteries penetrated deep in the heart of Arabia, into
regions to which the church could not penetrate. Thus the monastery turned out to
be more influential than the church in the spiritual life of the Arabs, especially
in the sphere of indirect Byzantine influence in the Peninsula. The monastery was
also the meeting place of two ideals -- Christian philanthropia and Arab
hospitality. According to Muslim tradition, the Prophet Muhammad met the

mysterious monk Bahlra in one of these Byzantine monasteries.

5. The Christian mission to the Arabs, especially if it entailed the trans- lation
of some books of the Bible such as the Pentateuch, must have acquainted the Arabs
with the biblical concept of their descent from Ishmael. This marked them as a
biblical people, gave them a new identity, and, what is more, affiliated them with
the first patriarch himself, Abraham. This was not an unmixed blessing to the
Christian Arabs, since it carried with it the implication that they were "outside
the promise." However, their allegiance to Christianity rid them of this
opprobrium, since it affiliated them spiritually with the new people of God. There
was, however, a pocket in Arabia where the seed of Ishmaelism was sown, and where
it had a different meaning to its Arabs, who apparently harbored no regrets
whatsoever that they were descended from Hagar. In the following century the
Prophet Muhammad appeared in their midst, and forty years after his birth
proclaimed Islam as the true religion of the straight path. In the Koran the first
patriarch appears as the founder of pure monotheism, and his son Ishmael appears
not as a biblical outcast but as a prophet.
6. One of the most fruitful encounters of Christianity with Arabism took place in
northwestern Arabia, in Hijaz, the sphere of indirect Byzantine influence. The
federate tribe of 'Udra lived in this region and adopted Christianity quite early
in the Byzantine period. Among its many achievements was a special type of poetry,
known as 'Udrl or 'Udrite, which was inspired by a special type of love, also
called 'Udrn It is practically certain that this type of love and poetry appeared
under the influence of Christianity in pre-Islamic times, although it may later
have had an Islamic component. It represents the fruitful encounter of the
chivalrous attitude toward women in pre-Islamic Arabia and the spiritualization of
this attitude through the refining influence of Christianity. Through the Arab
Conquests it appeared as amour courtois in western Christendom, whose religion had
inspired it in the first instance.
The sources on the Arabs who were important for the Arab-Byzantine relationship in
this pre-lslamic period are neither abundant nor detailed enough to make it
possible to draw sketches of the more outstanding among them. For the fourth
century, it was not possible to recover the features of more than three figures:
Imru' al-Qays, the federate king of the Namara inscription; Mavia, the warrior
queen of the reign of Valens; and Moses, the eremite who became the bishop of the
federates. For the fifth century it is possible to discuss only four of the
figures who served both the Byzantine imperium and ecclesi.
1. Aspebetos/Petrus. The career of this Arab chief was truly remarkable, as he
moved through one phase to another. He started as a military commander in the
service of the Great King, then became the Byzantine phylarch of the Provincia
Arabia, then that of Palaestina Prima, then the bishop of the Palestinian
Parembole. The climax of his career was his participation at the Council of
Ephesus, where he appears not merely as a subscription in the conciliar list but
as an active participant in the debates and a delegate of the Council to
2. Amorkesos. His is an equally remarkable career, and reminiscent of Aspebetos in
that he too had been in the service of the Great King before he defected to
Byzantium. But unlike Aspebetos he remained a servant of the imperium, not the
ecclesia, although he used the latter in his diplomatic offensive. The former
chief in the service of Persia entered a second phase of his life when he became a
military power in North Arabia, and a third when he mounted an offensive against
the Roman frontier which culminated in his occupation of the island of Iotabe in

the Gulf of Eilat. Ecclesiastical diplomacy followed his military achievements and
resulted in a visit to Constantinople and royal treatment by Leo. He returned,
having concluded a foedus with the emperor, which endowed him with the phylarchate
of Palaestina Tertia. What is striking in the success story of this Arab chief is
his desire to become a phylarch of the Romans in spite of the power base he had
established for himself in the Arabian Peninsula. The lure of the Byzantine
connection is nowhere better illustrated than in the career of this chief, who
preferred to serve in the Byzantine army than to be an independent king or chief
in the Arabian Peninsula. This conclusion, which may be safely drawn from an
examination of his career, is relevant to the discussion of the prodosia charge
trumped up against the Ghassanid phylarchs of the sixth century. All these Arab
chiefs gloried in the Byzantine connection and preferred it to their former
Arabian existence.
3. Dawud/David. The Salihids were fanatic Christians, and they owe this to the
fact that their very existence as federates and dominant federates was related to
Christianity -- when a monk cured the wife of their eponym, Zokomos, of her
sterility and effected the conversion of the chief. His descendants remained loyal
to the faith which their ancestor fully embraced, but of all these Dawud is unique
in that toward the end of his life his religiosity increased to the point which
possibly made him a monk or an ascetic. He built the monastery which carried his
name, Dayr Dawud, and he had a court poet from Iyad and a daughter who also was a
poetess. The gentleness induced in him by Christianity,apparently was taken
advantage of by a coalition of two of the federate tribes, who finally brought
about his downfall. His career presents the spectacle of an Arab federate king who
loyally served both the imperium and the ecclesia and payed for this service with
his life.
4. Elias. Entirely different in background from all the preceding figures is
Elias, the Arab Patriarch of Jerusalem towards the end of the century. While the
other three were federate Arabs, Elias was Rhomaic, born in Arabia, either the
Provincia in Oriens or the Ptolemaic nome in the limes Aegypti, one of the many
Rhomaic Arabs in the service of the imperium or the elesia whose Arab identity has
been masked by their assumption of either biblical or Graeco-Roman names. His,
too, was a remarkable career in the ecclesiastical rss. He started as a monk in
the desert of Juda, associated with St. Euthymius, then drew the attention of
Patriarch Anastasius, who ordained him priest of the Church of Anastasia in
Jerusalem; finally he became the Patriarch of the Holy City, and engaged in a
vigorous administration of his patriarchate. He paid attention to both churches
and monasteries and laid the foundation of the Church of the Theotokos in
Jerusalem, the splendid church completed in the reign of Justinian and dedicated
in 543. He was a strong and stern ecclesiastic who was unwavering in his
Orthodoxy, to the point of taking on the emperor Anastasius himself. He paid for
this by being exiled to Ayla in 516, where he died. It is possible that he was
associated with the translation of a simple liturgy and biblical lectionary into
Arabic for the benefit of the various Christian Arab communities scattered in the
three Palestines which constituted his ecclesiastical jurisdiction.
These are the four large historical figures in the history of Arab-Byzantine
relations in the fifth century. Their careers call for two observations.
(1) They were very different from one another: bishop, phylarch, federate king,
and patriarch, but all four were involved in both the imperium and the elesia, a
reflection of the intimate and inseparable relationship that obtained between the
two in the Christian Roman Empire. Three of them were federate Arabs and one was
Rhomaic. The four different careers are also a reflection of the wide range of
Arab involvement in the life of the empire and of the new opportunities open to

(2) Their careers reflect the profound metamorphosis that each of them experienced
as a result of the Byzantine connection. Perhaps that of Aspebetos is the most
remarkable: from a pagan chief to a Byzantine phylarch, to a baptized one, to a
bishop of the Parembole, to a participant at the Council of Ephesus and a delegate
to Nestorius expressing the strong voice of Arab Orthodoxy. Thus his career
represents the highest degree of assimilation that a federate Arab could
Both streams of Byzantine historiography, secular and ecclesiastical, continue to
transmit images of the Arabs in the fifth century. Although the negative image of
the fourth century is not dead, there is a marked improvement in that image in
both streams of fifth-century historiography.
A new generation of ecclesiastical historians appear in the fifth century,
emancipated from the bondage of the Eusebian image of the Arabs as uncovenanted
Ishmaelites, outside the promise. These ecclesiastical historians expressed the
true spirit of the Christian ecclesia in their vision of the peoples of the
limitrophe, including the Arabs. Socrates, Sozomen, and Theodoret remembered the
exploits of Queen Mavia on behalf of Orthodoxy and described the progress of
Christianity among the Arabs. It is, however, Theodoret who has the most
informative passages on the Arabs.
1. Historia Religiosa. The passage on the Arab Abbas, who became the he-goumenos
of the monastery of Teleda, occurs in this work. The importance of this passage is
that it enables Theodoret to reflect theologically on the Arabs as a biblical
people, the descendants of Ishmael and ultimately of Abraham, and provides him
with occasion to describe the spiritual metamorphosis of Abbas from an unredeemed
Ishmaelite outside the promise, to participation in the patrimony of Abraham, to
membership in the New Israel, the gateway to the Kingdom of Heaven. The spiritual
path of Abbas is that traversed by all the Christianized Ishmaelites.
2. Curatio. In this work, "The Cure of Pagan Maladies," Theodoret projects an
image of the Arabs in the context of a pagan world peopled by Greeks and
barbarians, and tries to argue for the unity of the human species affirmed by
Scripture. He reviews the various peoples and tries to discover their respective
virtues. When he comes to the Arabs, he grants them "an intelligence, lively and
penetrating . . . and a judgment capable of discerning truth and refuting
The strong affirmative note sounded by Theodoret is supported and fortified by the
ecclesiastical documents of the century, especially those of the two ecumenical
councils of Ephesus and Chalcedon, in 431 and 451 respectively. The number of Arab
bishops, both Rhomaic and federate who participated is remarkable, and they
expressed the strong voice of Arab Orthodoxy, first Cyrillian Orthodoxy at Ephesus
and then Leonine at Chalcedon. Especially prominent in this expression was Petrus
I, the bishop of the Palestinian Parembole, who participated actively at Ephesus
and was one of the delegates whom the Council sent to negotiate with Nestorius.
The two evaluations of the Arabs in Theodoret are striking, coming as they do from
a distinguished theologian and church historian, and so is the evidence from the
Acta of the two ecumenical councils. But even as the image of the Arabs was being
improved by the Greek ecclesiastical writers, it continued to suffer at the hands
of a Latin church father.

1. Jerome, who inherited his image of the Arabs from Eusebius, continued to write
about them as unredeemed Ishamelites, a concept from which, as a biblical scholar
and exegete, he could not liberate himself. There was another reason behind
Jerome's fulminations against the Arabs. He had lived in the monastic community of
the desert of Chalcis and later at Bethlehem. Both were subject to Saracen raids
that spelt ruin to monasteries, especially at Bethlehem which was actually
occupied by the Saracens. Consequently, he fell back on biblical texts which
enabled him to refer to these Saracens as servorm et ancillarm nmerus. His older
contemporary, St. Augustine, followed in the steps of those who had written on
heresies in the East, and naturally the Arabs appear in his De Haeresibs (sec.
2. On the other hand, another Latin author, Rufinus, spoke in complimentary terms
of the Arabs in his Ecclesiastical History, as upholders of Orthodoxy. Indeed, he
heralded the new generation of ecclesiastical historians in the East -- Socrates,
Sozomen and Theodoret -- who were sympathetic to the world of the barbarians,
including the Arabs. But the voice of Rufinus was drowned out by those of the two
immensely influential ecclesiastics of the West, Jerome and Augustine, and
consequently the image of the Arabs remained dim in the West even before they
reached it in the seventh century as conquerors of North Africa and Spain.
As Rufinus opened a new chapter in the history of the image of the Arabs in
ecclesiastical historiography, so did Synesius in secular historiography:
1. In one of his letters, written in 404, Synesius praises the courage of the
Arabs, soldiers who had been withdrawn most probably from the Ala Tertia Arabum in
the limes Aegypti to fight in Pentapolis. In another passage in the same letter he
describes the despair of the passengers on the stormtossed ship that was sailing
to Pentapolis and lauds the attitude of the Arab soldiers who were prepared to
fall on their swords rather than die by drowning. He even grows lyrical and refers
to them as "by nature true descendants of Homer."
That a Greek who was nursed in a tradition that viewed mankind in terms of Greek
and barbarian should be so emancipated and, what is more, refer to the Arabs as
descendants in spirit of the Homeric heroes is surely extraordinary and calls for
an explanation. His city, Cyrene, had no Arabs in it and so there was no friction
between his community and the Arabs; as a Neo-Platonist he may have remembered
that some important Neo-Platonic figures, such as Iamblichus, were Arab; his antiGerman sentiments, which he expressed while he was at Constantinople around 400,
may have inclined him toward the Arabs, who had saved Constantinople from the
German Goths in 378 after Adrianople; and finally, his literary models on the
Arabs, most probably, were authors such as Diodorus iculus, who spoke well ot the
Arabs, rather than Ammianus, of whom he was probably unaware.
2. Not only in the works of a Neo-Platonist but also in official imperial
documents, the image of the Arabs appears reasonably bright and no longer that of
raiders of the frontier or traitors to the Roman cause, undesirable as allies or
as enemies. In one of the novellae of 443, Theodosius and Valentinian instruct
that the limital dues should not abstract anything from the annona of the
foederati, especially the Saracen ones. This could only imply that the central
government was happy with their performance and loyalty to the state. The date of
the novella, coming so close after the end of the Second Persian War of the reign
of Theodosius 11, suggests that the Arab foederati had performed creditably in
that conflict. Their performance was consistently satisfactory on the battlefield.
The prodosia theme elaborated by Procopius in the sixth century was without any
foundation and the satisfaction of the imperium was to find expression in the
seventh, in the victory bulletin which Heraclius addressed to the Senate after his

victory at Nineveh.
3. This bright image in the secular sources was somewhat dimmed later in the
century when Malchus of Philadelphia, himself most probably a Rhomaic Arab, wrote
and almost neutralized what Synesius had said about the Arabs. In a long and
detailed fragment on the emperor Leo in the penultimate year of his reign, Malchus
relentlessly criticized the emperor for his relations with the Arab chief
Amorkesos, and by implication gave an uncomplimentary picture of the Arabs even
though they became foederati of the empire.
The background of this attack on the Arabs, especially as it was voiced by one of
them, is as complex as that which inspired Synesius to draw his picture of the
Arabs in bright colors. Four main reasons may be detected behind Malchus' hostile
attitude. First and foremost comes Kaiserkritik. The historian was not an admirer
of the emperor, and expressed his disapproval of Leo's administration by
criticizing his Arab policy. Malchus also wrote as a concerned Rho-naios and an
analyst of Roman decline. For him, the barbarians had brought about the downfall
of the empire in the West in 476. Leo had depended on another group of barbarians,
the Isaurians, and now he was also employing the services of the Arabs,
represented by Amorkesos. Malchus wrote not in his native Provincia Arabia, but in
Constantinople and under Anastasius. He was an assimilated Rho-maios, like others
who came from the Provincia and are hardly recognizable as Arabs. Hence he
acquired the ethnocentricity of those who belonged by birth to the Graeco-Roman
establishment and voiced their racism with a vengeance. Finally, it is possible,
judging from his phraseology, that he was w.iting with a literary model in mind -Ammianus, whose anti-Arab outbursts, expressed in vivid and graphic phrases, have
riveted the attention of posterity, endured throughout the ages, and with
staggering tenacity retained their hold on those who have dealt with the image.
In spite of the negative image that secular and ecclesiastical historiography,
represented by Malchus and ]erome projected, the image of the Arabs experienced a
marked improvement. Toward the end of the century, in the reign of Anastasius,
there arose another group of foederati, who possibly became involved from the
beginning in Monophysitism. This completely blackened the image of the' Arabs in
the sixth century during which both secular and ecclesiastical historiography
combined to project a most uncomplimentary image which damned them as traitors to
the imperim and heretics to the eclesia. Thus the fifth century is the golden
period in the history of the Arab image, unlike the fourth and the sixth, during
which it was tarnished mainly by sharp friction with the central government on
doctrinal grounds. The coin of Arab identity looked good on both of its sides. To
the imperim the Arabs appeared as faithful guardians of the Roman frontier; to the
elesia they appeared as conforming Orthodox believers.
The Arab Self-lmage
The significance of two ecclesiastical historians, Sozomen and Theodoret, is
immense for the Byantine perception of the Arabs in the fifth century. In addition
to the improved image that their works provide, they also, especially Theodoret,
have preserved data on the Arabs which strongly suggest that the Arabs of this
period perceived themselves as descendants of Ishmael. Whether this perception was
indigenous among the Arabs or adventitious, having reached them from the
Pentateuch either directly through the spread of Judaism in Arabia or mediated
through the Christian mission, is not entirely clear. Its reality, however, is
clear and certain, and the idiom of Theodoret even suggests that their perception
was mixed with pride in the fact of their descent from Ishmael.
This is the important new element that appears in the fifth century and adds a
second mirror to the one that reflects the Byantine perception of the Arabs. In
this new mirror, Ishmael is rehabilitated. He is no longer a figure that

embarrasses the Arabs through certain biblical associations but a revered ancestor
of whom they are proud. This image became a most important element in Arab
religious life in the seventh century, which witnessed an even more complete
rehabilitaion of Ishmael. In the Koran, Ishmael appears not as the pater eponymous
of the Arabs but as the son of the First Patriacrh; Ahraham, and a prophet. The
precious passage in the Historia Religiosa of Theodoret proves beyond doubt that
the eponymate of Ishmael is rooted in the pre-lslamic Arab past and that it goes
back to at least the fifth century.
The Sallhids endured for almost a century in the service of Byzantium. They
represent the golden period in the history of federate-imperial relations. Unlike
the Tanukhids and the Ghassanids, the Sallhid doctrinal persuasion was that of the
imperial government in Constantinople. Consequently federate-imperial relations
were not marred by violent and repeated friction such as vitiated these relations
in the fourth and sixth centuries.
The Salihids fought for Byzantium on the Persian front and distinguished
themselves in the two Persian Wars of the reign of Theodosius II. It is also
practically certain that they participated in Leo's Vandal Expedition, taking part
in the battle of Cape Bon, during which their numbers must have been thinned. This
is the most plausible explanation for their ineffectiveness in the defense of the
limes Arabic around A.D. 470. Finally, the law of generation and decay which
governed the rise and fall of Arab polities before the rise of Islam caught up
with them. Powerful Peninsular groups such as the Ghassanids and the Kindites had
hewn their way through the Arabian Peninsula and had reached the Roman frontier.
The Sallhids, already weakened considerably by their participation in the Vandal
War, could not withstand the impact of the combined force of the two new powerful
tribal groups. They succumbed in the contest for power and the Ghassanids emerged
as the dominant federate group in the sixth century.
Although no longer supreme in federate history in Oriens, the Sallhids remained an
important political and military fact in the structure of the federate shield.
Their history is divisible into the following phases:
(1) 502 to 529, when they constitute one of the federate groups in Oriens, who
obeyed their own phylarchs and the dx of the province to whom they were ultimately
(2) 529-580, when they were most probably subordinate to the Ghassanid supreme
phylarch, who was installed in that position by Emperor Justinian around 529, and
must have continued in that subordinate relation- ship until ca. 580, when
Ghassanid-Byzantine relations soured considerably and the Arab phylarchate of
Oriens was decentralized;
(3) 580 to 610, during the period of much eclipse for the Ghassanids, when the
power of the Sallhids may have been revived or at least made independent of the
former, since one of their phylarchs appears fighting with the Byzantines in 586
during the siege of Mardm. Not much is known about them after this period until
they appear fighting together with the other federates against the Muslim Arabs.
The last mention of them during the Muslim Conquest of Oriens occurs in connection
with the capitulation of Chalcis. The Muslim commander asks them to accept Islam,
but they refuse.
Unlike other federate groups such as the Iyadis, the Salihids remained staunch
Christians throughout the Muslim period. This explains why they attained no
prominence in Islamic times. Usama ibn Zayd was the exception: he served four
Umayyad caliphs in important administrative roles, his durabil- ity in their

service being testimony to his talent. After him the sources are silent on the
Sallhids, who dispersed in various parts of the Fertile Gescent and possibly
affiliated themselves with other tribes. They appear in one of the verses of
Islamic times as an example of dispersion and evanescence worthy of the classical
lament of the Arab poet: "ubi snt qi ante nos in mundo fere?"
The other tribes of the federate shield took part in the defense of the limes
orientalis and in the Persian Wars. They also protected the caravans that moved
along the arteries of international trade in north and northwestern Arabia. The
Sallhids did not control these tribes as the Ghassanids were to do in the sixth
century. The Arabic sources record feuds among these federate tribes. Two of them,
Kalb and Namir, united against the dominant group Sallh, brought about the
downfall of the Sallhid king Dawud, and must have weakened the power of Sallh,
thus contributing ultimately to the victory of the Ghassanids over them and the
emergence of a new federate supremacy, the Ghassanid, which controlled most or all
of the other tribes of the federate shield in Oriens for almost half a century.
In addition to their military role, these federate tribes made some impor- tant
contributions to Arabic culture in pre-lslamic times. The names of Iyad, Kalb, and
'Udra stand out in connection with the rise of the Arabic script in Oriens in the
fifth century and of a new type of love and love poetry, called 'Udrite in Arabic,
which represented the confluence of the pre-lslamic chivalrous attitude with
Christian ideals of chastity and continence.
All these federate tribes fought on the side of Byzantium in the period of the
Arab Conquests. After the crushing defeat at Yarmuk in 636, they dispersed and
their history as foederati came to an end. Some of them emigrated to Anatolia,
some stayed on in Oriens, now Arab Bilad al-Sham, and formed part of the Umayyad
ajnad system. While the Sallhids remained staunchly Christian, some of the other
federate tribes accepted Islam, which enabled them to participate actively in the
shaping of Islamic history.
Before they made their Byzantine connection, these tribes had moved in the
restricted and closed orbit of the Arabian Peninsula. In all probability they
would have continued to move in that orbit, and history would not have taken
notice of them and their achievements. It was the Byzantine connection that drew
them into the world of the Mediterranean and gave an international dimension to
their history. One of the three constituents of Byantium, Christianity, termmated
their isolation and peninsulailsm by making them members of the large world of
Christendom and its universal ecclesia.
Islam was to do what Byzantium had done but in a more substantial way. It made the
tribes assume a more active role in shaping the history of the Mediterranean world
in both East and West. In the East they formed part of the ajnad, participated in
the annual expeditions against the Byzantine heartland, Anatolia, and took part in
many sieges of Constantinople. In the West some of them settled on European soil,
but their more important role in Spain was cultural. One of these tribes, Iyad,
produced the talented family of the Zuhrids, known to medieval Europe as
physicians and to Arabic scholars as composers of strophic odes. The influence of
another, 'Udra, crossed the Pyrenees, and either gave rise to, or formed one
ingredient in, the rise of that attractive type of love known to medievalists as
amour courtois. Few readers of the medieval literary works that this type of love
inspired realize that they are owed to an Arabian tribe which in the fifth century
defended the southern approaches to the limes orientalis of Byzantium as a tribe
of the outer shield. And it is mainly to the well-known Iyric of the German-Jewish
poet with its haunting couplet that modern Europe owes its vague recollection of
that Arab tribe of the fifth century which inspired the rise of this love and
gifted it with its own name:

Und mein Stamm sind jene Asra,

Welche sterben, wenn sie lieben.

Richard Frye. The Heritage of Persia.

starting with pg. 198.
Ardashir and the Cycle of History
FOR THE PERSIANS solid history begins with the Sasanians. What transpired before
Ardashir is vague and legendary, a heroic age; but this does not mean that after
Ardashir we escape myth and uncertainty, for what happened and whal people believe
should have happened are frequently confused even in that portion of Iran's
history which is related by many different sources. The story of the founding of
the Sasanian dynasty is not unlike the story of Cyrus or even Arsaces, both of
which generally conform to epic norms.
In one Pahlavi source, the Kar Namak of Ardashir, or his 'book of deeds', it is
related that Sasan was a shepherd of King Papak who ruled in the city of Istakhr
near Persepolis. Sasan was a descendant of the Achaemenids, but he kept this a
secret until Papak had a dream which was inerpreted that the son of Sasan would
one day rule the world. So Papak gave his daughter to Sasan and from this union
Ardashir was born. This story is repeated by Firdosi in the national epic and it
was evidently widely believed since Agathias, living in the sixth century, gave a
somewhat garbled version of the story, stating that Papak was an astrologer and
Sasan a soldier who was a guest in his house. Recognising signs of greatness in
Sasan Papak gave him his wife and Ardashir was born. Much later when Ardashir was
king a quarrel between the two old men broke out, which was settled by calling
Ardashir the son of Papak though descended from Sasan.
Another tradition found in Ibn al-Athir (ed. Tornberg I.272), in Eutychius (ed.
Cheikho, foll. 65v) and others, has Sasan a princelet in Fars, Papak his son and
Ardashir his grandson. This is the position adopted by most scholars today,
especially after the discovery -of the famous trilingual inscription of Shapur I
on the Ka'bah of Zoroaster which is the Sasanian counterpart of the OP Behistun
inscription. This inscription, however, merely names Sasan with a title 'the lord'
presumably as an ancestor, while Papak is here and elsewhere specifi- cally called
the grandfather of Shapur. The mother of Papak is given as Denak, but it is not
stated whether she was married to Sasan who is never named as Ardashir's
grandfather, although this is a probable assumption. Therefore an obscurity does
exist, even in the inscriptions, about the exact relationship between Sasan and
In the Syriaic chronicle of Arbela, we read that in the time of Vologeses IV
(circa AD 191-207) the Parthians fought against the Persians, and later the same
chronicle says: 'In earlier times the Persians tried to unseat the Parthians; many
times they exerted them- selves in war but were defeated.' The chronicle further
says that later the Persians and Medes made an alliance with the kings of Adiabene
and Kirkuk and that together they overthrew the Parthians. The date and
circumstances of the defeat and death of Artabanus V, the oppo- nent of Ardashir,
are not clear; the usual dates have been given as either AD 224 or 226. The coins

of the last Arsacids, however, confuse the matter, so much that a long joint rule
of Vologeses V (207-227?) and Artabanus V (213-224?) has been proposed with the
son of Artabanus, Artavasdes, ruling one year 226-227. Inasmuch, however, as
Arsacid resistance did not end with the death of Artabanus one might suppose that
coins of the last Arsacids were minted in his name even after the victory of
Ardashir which may be dated from various sources probably as April 224.
In the titulary of the royal Sasanian inscriptions one may see the expansion of
the state. Sasan, as noted, is referred to merely as 'lord' while Papak is 'king'.
Ardashir is 'king or kings of Iran' and Shapur is 'king of kings of Iran and nonIran'. An indication of how one might be misled in interpreting an inscription, is
the appellation 'god' (bgy) for Papak in KZ, but 'Mazda worshipping god' for
Ardashir and Shapur. This might induce one to assume that Papak held a different
position or faith in religion than his son and grandson. Yet the same formula
appears on later inscriptions in Taq-i Bustan, and one cannot conclude anything
from the practice of omitting 'mazda-yasnian' from the name of a grandfather. The
phrase 'whose seed (or origin) is from the gods', however, is a continuation of a
Seleucid if not Achaemenid formula while the term 'god' applied to the ruler had
probably by this time assumed the significance of 'your majesty' in protocol.
For the dating we fortunately have an inscription written in the Parthian and
Sasanian Middle Persian languages on a pillar in Bishapur. The text says: 'in the
month of Fravardin of the year 58, forty years of the fire of Ardashir, twentyfour years of the fire of Shapur, (which is) the king of fires'. On the reverses
of Sasanian coins we have Aramaic NWR' ZY 'fire of-' until Shapur II; then we have
the Iranian 'twr y until Yazdagird II (439-457) after whom it disappears. Each
king apparently had his own fire, lighted at the beginning of his reign, and this
fire was on a portable fire altar similar to those on the coins, as one would
gather from Sebeos the Armenian writer, from Ammianus Marcellinus and from others.
Shapur's fire was caled the king of fires possibly because it was identified with
the Gushnasp fire of the warriors, which was later designated 'the victorious king
of fires', but the text is not clear), or maybe the king's fire was called the
king of fires simply as a manner of speaking. The date of accession and the date
of the crowning of a king have usually differed in the ancient Orient, and these
dates are not precisely known in regard to Ardashir and Shapur. From the
inscription of Bishapur we would have three dates, the beginning of the Sasanian
era, the accession of Ardashir and the accession of Shapur. Great controversy has
raged over the date of Shapur's accession and crowning, but his first year must
begin either at the end of 239 or 241. The coins of Artabanus V and Vologeses,
mentioned above, would tend to favour the year 241 but they are not decisive.
If Papak had been the director of the Anahita shrine at Istakhr before he became
king, afterwards he and especially his son were busy with other affairs, even
though both may have retained the dignity as head of the temple. Papak had a small
court, the most prominent members of which are named in Shapur's great trilingual
inscription. There is only one title, the major domo (dnyk), mentioned and no
religious designations, so one should assume that Papak's court was that of a
small principality with no bureaucratic tradition. After Ardashir became the king
of kings of Iran, the successor of the Parthians, the situation changed. Ardashir
inherited the feudal organisation of the Arsacids which is clearly seen in the
inscription. At the new court we find an order of protocol beginning with four
powerful eastern kings, three of whom oddly have the same name as Ardashir. The
first on the list is the king of Khurasan, the upper country and homeland of the
defeated Parthians, while the second is the king of Merv who is called Ardashir.
It would be natural to suppose that relatives or close friends of Ardashir were
appointed to offices in the new empire, especially in the important posts in
eastern Iran, but we do not know the relationship of these rulers to the king of
kings. The next two kings of Seistan and Kirman are also both called Ardashir, the

latter, according to Tabari, being a son of the king of kings. One may further
assume that these 'kingdoms' were won by force of arms, and hence were free to be
assigned to favourites, while rulers who submitted to the Sasanian monarch
probably retained their principalities in a feudal relationship.
The inscription continues with three queens, probably the king's mother,
grandmother and sister, the 'queen of queens'. Then follows an Ardashir the bitaxs
and a Papak the chiliarch (hazarpat). From their names and high rank both were
presumably members of the Sasanian family. The former was probably almost like an
assistant to the king since the title as used earlier in Georgia implies that
there the pitiaxsi was second to the king in rank and importance. At the Sasanian
court this rank may have declined somewhat, so that the bitaxs and the chiliarch
divided the civil and military direction of the affairs of the empire between
The heads of the great Parthian feudal families are next in the list, first the
Varaz family which is new. The Varaz may have been essentially a northern Iranian
family since the name appears frequently in connection with Armenia or Azerbaijan.
Second in rank of the feudal families is a representative of the famous Suren
family, while third comes the lord of Andegan, also called Indegan, presumably
another feudal appanage. Two members of the well-known Karen family are followed
by a name known elsewhere, Apursam, who bears the honorific 'glory of Ardashir',
followed by the lord of the area around Mt. Demavend and a member of the Saphpat
family which ends the list of families.
The chief of the scribes, chief of the armoury and other officials, as well as
prominent persons with no offices named, complete the list of people in Ardashir's
court who were honoured by having sacrifices performed in their names at the fires
established by Shapur I at Naqsh-i Rustam. The court of Ardashir shows the same
features of an unfixed central state and bureaucracy which also would have been
characteristic of the Parthian court, and everything points to a continuity from
the past. The early coins of Ardashir too are copies of those of Mithradates II,
but the traditions of iconography of the various crowns worn by the early Sasanian
kings are by no means clear. One must resist the temptation to see cultic or
religious significance in every feature of ancient art and archaeology even though
such ideas must have been frequently present.
Later Sasanian tradition, reported mainly in Arabic sources, traces the beginnings
of all institutions of church and state back to Ardashir. He is the ruler who
reinstated or resurrected the old Persian empire with its various institutions as
well as the religion of Zoroaster which had been in eclipse under the Hellenistic
kings and the Parthians. Apursam, the confidant of Ardashir, was credited with
holding the office of prime minister (vuzurg framadar) while Tansar was the first
chief mobad according to Arabic sources. The purpose of the later Sasanians in
attributing an early origin for many offices was probably that they wished to seek
authority for new developments by clauning that these were in fact not new, but
dated from the beginning of the empire although they had fallen into decay. The
antiquarian renaissance of the time of Chosroes I is well known and will be
discussed below, and this was probably the period when the reference of
institutions back to Ardashir was made. A writer in Arabic Mas'udl, for example,
not only attributed the founding of certain offices to Ardashir but also the
ordering of society into classes which, however, could not be the work of one
king, Ardashir I.
From Shapur's inscription we can also infer the extent of Ardashir's empire. From
Islamic and other sources scholars have proposed that Ardashir re-established the
Achaemenid empire in the east including the Punja and did well in advancing the
frontier against the Romans in the west. The same sources, however, tell us that

Ardashir had much fighting to do to consolidate his rule, especially in Armenia

where resistance was strong. The fact that in inscriptions Ardashir is called the
king of kings of Iran, but not of non-Iran, would imply that he did not
appreciably advance his boundaries outside of Eranshahr which, of course, included
Mesopotamia but not Armenia (according to the Paikuli inscription, line 8) and
probably not the Kushan empire in the east. On the other hand Tabari says that the
kings of the Kushans, of Turan and Makran came to Ardashir, after his victories in
the east, and offered their submission. It is possible that under Ardashir they
stood only in a vassal relationship to him while under Shapur the Kushan kingdom
and other areas were really included in the empire. This further implies wars by
Shapur of which we have no evidence. The hegemony of Ardashir may have been light,
based on a few victories over the allies of the Arsacids rather than actual
conquest afterwards.
The Imperialism of Shapur
The Sasanian kings greatly favoured urbanism, a trait not in such evidence among
their predecessors. The first two sovereigns of the house of Sasan were the
greatest city founders of the line and most of the cities with royal names in them
were founded or renamed by Ardashir or Shapur. The confusion of ancient native,
Hellenistic, and Sasanian names given to cities frequently makes identifications
of the cities difficult.
While their neighbours must have realised that the change of dynasties in Iran was
not particularly to their interest, the Sasanians were soon to show the Romans and
Kushans that a new Iranian nationalism and imperialism was a distinct peril to the
peace. The Romans had won many victories in the last century of Parthian rule, so
Ardashir was somewhat of a change while Shapur's conquests turned the balance of
power in favour of Iran. We know much about his wars with the Romans because they
were spectacular as well as victorious campaigns. His inscription of the Ka'bah of
Zoroaster is both an important record and a paean of victory regarding his wars
with Rome. Some scholars have accepted every word of his record of the struggle
with the Romans as true, but have denied any other conquests of Shapur since they
are not mentioned. Another inscription on the same structure, written by the order
of an important religious figure Kartir, however, does tell of campaigns in
Transcaucasia. We may also assume that victories in eastern Iran extended the
empire to India, although we cannot exclude the possibility that some of these
campaigns occurred towards the end of Ardashir's reign.
Shapur's inscription of KZ tells of three campaigns against the Romans, first at
the beginning of his reign when Gordian marched against Shapur but was defeated
and killed, whereupon Philip the Arab succeeded him as Roman emperor and made
peace with Shapur. The second campaign resulted in the destruction of a Roman army
of 60,000 men, after which the Persians ravaged Syria and Cappadocia, capturing
Antioch on the Orontes as well as many other cities. In the third campaign the
Emperor Valerian was defeated and captured after which Shapur again raided Syria
and eastern Anatolia. Other sources tell us that in the third campaign King
Odenath of Palmyra attacked and defeated the Persians, seizing much of their booty
while they were on the homeward march. The first and third campaigns of Shapur can
be dated in 243-244 and 259-260 and can be followed in literary sources. The
second campaign presents problems in dating and identification because of the
excavations at Dura-Europos. The evidence from Dura suggests that this Roman
outpost on the Euphrates was captured by the Persians in 253 who held it for a few
months and then again in 256 when the city was stormed and destroyed by Shapur.
The question arises, which of the dates belong to Shapur's second campaign.
Generallv speaking a 'campaign' in the Near East from ancient times has meant an
expedition of one year. It is possible that the second expedition of Shapur lasted
a number of years, including 253 and 256, as I have suggested elsewhere. More
study has convinced me that this is unlikely and that 256 is the date of the

second campaign while 253 was a minor raiding expedition not mentioned in KZ.
The capture of Valerian was an unparalleled event in history and Shapur made
certain that the world knew about it through his inscription and rock reliefs at
Bishapur and Naqsh-i Rustam. Although the interpretation of these reliefs is
varied and disputed it may be true that they are a kind of counterpart in pictures
of the inscription and the three Romans at Bishapur represent the three Roman
emperors mentioned in the inscription, Gordian, Philip and Valerian. The prisoners
captured by Shapur in his wars with the Romans included many technicians and from
Antioch the bishop of the city who, with many of his flock, was settled in
Khuzistan. The city of Gundeshapur ('the better Antioch of Shapur') was settled
with Roman prisoners and the Caesar's dam at Shustar was one of their
constructions. Prisoners were set led in Fars, Parthia, Khuzistan and elsewhere
and they probably provided the basis of the later Christian communities in Iran.
The fortress town of Hatra which had repulsed the Romans on various occasions fell
to Shapur, probably on his second campaign. One may also tentatively assign the
ruin and abandonment of the towns of Hatra, Assur, Dura and other sites to the
conquests of Shapur which thus must have changed the face of the Roman-Iranian
frontier lands with the consequent end of certain trade routes and roads. The
Romans contributed to this too when Aurelian conquered and destroyed Palmyra under
Queen Zenobia in 272. Thereafter the Romans, and later the Byzantines, and the
Sasanians maintained a system of border buffer states and limes between their two
empires which were as often at war with each other as not.
Shapur was not only victorious against the Romans but also in the north in
Transcaucasia and presumably in the east. According to KZ the Sasanian empire
included 'Turan, Makuran, Paradan, India and the Kushanshahr right up to Pashkibur
and up to Kash, Sogd and Shsh'. This passage has been discussed by several
scholars, and I would interpret it to mean that first the land of Turan, probably
in- cluding most of the province of Kalat in present-day Pakistan, was included in
the empire. This Turan may well have some relation to the opposition of Iran and
Turan in the national epic, especially when we know that many of the stories come
from neighbouring Seistan. A further possibility, that the kingdom of Turan was
created by invaders from Central Asia, cannot be dismissed. Next comes Makuan
which is easily identified and then Paradan which presents a problem since we have
no definite literary references to it and cannot locate it. I suggest that it may
be located either in Arachosia or at the mouth of the Indus river rather than a
small locality in Gedrosia. India or Hindustan is generally recognised as the
Indus valley, but I suspect it is only the upper Indus here, north of present
Sukkur into the Punjab. Exactly when this area submitted to the Sasanians is
The Kushan empire at this time had already passed its prime and according to some
numismatists may have split into two kingdoms, a Bactrian and an Indian kingdom,
or even into more parts. It is tempting to think that the limits given in Shapur
KZ refer only to the extent or boundaries of a northern Kushan kingdom, which
submitted to Shapur after a defeat, since there is no evidence that the Sasanian
armies actually reached the confines of the Peshawar region, Kashgar, Sogdiana,
and Tashkent. It is not certain that Pashkibur is in fact modern Peshawar, but in
any case a district or principality rather than the city is meant. The district
either was possibly restricted to the Peshawar plain east of the present Khyber
pass, or more likely comprised all of the lowlands which were the ancient
Gandhara, including present Jalalabad. Kashgar surely means the kingdom which may
have extended into Russian Turkestan north of the Oxus river, or we may have in
the inscription the actual or the pretended extent of the Kushan empire up to the
borders of the state of Kashgar which was more or less restricted to eastern
Turkestan. I am inclined to favour this latter view since Sogdiana and Shash were

probably states with their centres primarily and respectively in the Zarafshan and
Ferghana valleys. In other words the boundaries of the Kushanshahr in theory, if
not in practice, included the mountainous area of part of the Pamirs and presentday Tajikistan. The scanty archaeological and Chinese literary evidence would not
contradict this view.
Thus in the north-east Ardashir and/or Shapur secured the sub- mission of the
Kushan state. A good guess would put the first defeat and submission of the
Kushans under Ardashir while the incorporation of the Kushanshahr in the Sasanian
empire would date from Shapur's reign. In all probability the oasis state of Merv
marked the military outpost of direct Sasanian rule under Shapur as it did later.
In the eyes of the Persians what was beyond was no longer Iran but non-Iran. The
archaeological evidence for the destruction of the city of Kapisa (hodie Begram)
north of Kabul can be neither attributed nor denied to Shapur, but is probably
The extent of Shapur's hegemony in the east, on the whole, is now known from his
inscription. From Shapur's inscription KZ we see that most of Transcaucasia was
included in his empire, and from the inscription of Kartir at the same site we
learn 'the land of Armenia, Georgia, Albania and Balasagan, up to the Gate of the
Albanians, Shapur the king of kings with his horse(s) and men pillaged, bumed and
devastated'. This indicates that Shapur did not inherit these lands from his
father but had to conquer them, and for Kartir these are lands of non-Ian (Aniran)
. Shapur re-created the Achaemenid empire and the Persians again ruled over nonIranians. Yet Shapur was not the great innovator` or organiser that Darius was,
since he continued for the most part in the path he had inherited, the legacy of
the Parthians. A new feature, however, was the state church which will be
discussed below.
The list of notables at the court of Shapur in KZ is both longer and more
variegated than that of his father. From this and other inscriptions, the protocol
and the social stratification of the Sasanian court are revealed. In the bilingual
(Parthian and Middle Persian) inscription of Hajjiabad Shapur tells of an arrow he
shot in the presence of the rulers (shahrdar, i.e. the kings of various countries
in the Sasanian empire), the royal princes (BR BYT' or vispuhr), the great nobles
(vazurkan) and the small nobles (azatan). In the Paikuli inscription of Narseh we
find the expression, 'the Persian and Parthian royal princes, great and small
nobles', which reveals the fusion of the Parthian and Persian nobility, perhaps
similar to the Medes and Persians in the time of the Achaemenids. The court of
Shapur, like that of Ardashir, does not show the developed forms of imperial
bureaucracy characteristic of the later empire, for example the offices of the
prime minister or chief of priests are not present. The functions of many of the
listed posts are not known, but a number of considerations lead one to believe
that the court differs little from the Arsacid court. A surprise is the presence
of seven satraps, the latest appearance of this title, referring to the districts
or provinces as well as the chief city which gave its name to the province. The
satrapies depended directly on the king and the central government hence were
located in western Iran and not on the frontiers. Subdivisions of provinces
existed but apparently neither in a uniform system nor throughout the empire.
Although the Sasanians have been characterised as representing an `Iranian
reaction to Hellenism, under Shapur we hhe Iast Greek used in inscriptions in
Iran, and his patronage of Gr-e-esophers and savants has come down in Persian
tradition. Likewise the mosaics of his new city Bishapur in Fars reveal a strong
Western influence not to be attributed solely to artisans among the prisoners from
Roman armies.2l One may suggest that under Shapur there is really a revival of
Greek cultural influences in Iran which, however, hardly survives his death.

As the empire expanded so the bureaucracy also must have grown, but again the old
traditions continued. We know from several sources that the royal seals were not
personal seals, but were used by various officials of the king as had been true
earlier. Just as in Seleucid times Sasanian official seals carried only legends or
monograms but no figures. Representations of deities, personal portraits or
animals were pictured on private seals. The official seals seem to have been
important prerogatives of office, and later we find many seal impressions of
mobads and other religious dignitaries as well as civil officials. Seals were used
for all kinds of business and for religious affairs seals should be mentioned the
insignia, coats-of-arms or emblems which were used by noble families as their
signs of identification. Many of them were really stylised monograms or
abbreviations, but Sasanian heraldry is a complicated subject which has been
little studied. Insignia already existed in Parthian times and there is an
interesting parallel between the signs or coats-of-arms on the headgear of Kushan
notables on sculptures from Mathura, India and the signs on the helmets of the
notables of Shapur's retinue pictured on the rocks of Naqsh-i Rajab near
Persepolis. The proliferation of titles and honorifics in the course of Sasanian
history was a tendency which lasted down to the twentieth century and the
confusion of personal names, offices or titles, and honorifics was a problem for
Byzantine writers in their day as it was for more contemporary foreign authors
writing about Iran.
Social structure under the early Sasanians again most probably was an inheritance
from Arsacid times. Divisions in society were normal in the Near East and by no
means restricted to the caste-conscious Indians or the Zoroastrian Iranians. For
example, Strabo speaks of four 'castes' among the Georgians: the rulers, priests,
soldiers and the common people, and the importance of families where possessions
were held in common. When the Zoroastrian church became firmly established in Iran
it contributed to the fixing of social classes in accordance with religious
tradition. As is well known society was later divided into four classes, the
priests, warriors, scribes and common folk. The extended family has remained the
basic unit of allegiance, trust and authority in Iran down to the present day, and
while the centralisation of government in Sasanian Iran was a feature which
distinguished it from Arsacid times, none the less the family remained paramount.
Shapur was known for his liberal spirit and in religion, if nowhere else, his
liberalism apparently was in contrast to the policy of his successors. It is
significant, I think, that the successor of Shapur, Hormizd Ardashir and another
son, the future king of kings Narseh, are both mentioned prominently among those
members of the royal family for whom special fires were instituted by Shapur;
while another son Varahran, king of Gilan, does not have a fire instituted in his
honor. The succession of Hormizd Ardashir seems to have been unopposed and under
him the policy of Shapur was still in effect, but Hormizd did not rule long and he
was succeeded by Varahran, known as Bahram in Islamic sources. A change in
religious policy occurred which we shall discuss below and quite probably there
were other changes too. Unfortunately our sources tell us little of this period of
Sasanian history and Islamic authors give no hint of difficulties or important
changes. Varahran was succeeded by his son of the same name, who after a reign of
seventeen years was followed by his son, a third Varahran.
Then came a reaction and Narseh, son of Shapur and now surely advanced in years,
revolted and seized the throne. Among other actions he had the name of a
predecessor, Varahran I, chipped away from an inscription in Bishapur and his own
name substituted for it. This, and his toleration of Manichaeism, in which he
followed his father, indicate a change in the policy which had been followed by
the Bahrams. Under his rule the Romans recouped their lost prestige and also some
territory so that future relations were based on a kind of balance of power. The
Sasanian empire was now more occupied with internal affairs than with external,

and presumably a modus vivendi between the great feudal lords and the king of
kings had been forged in such a way that a new allegiance to the house of Sasan
was accepted by all.
Heresies and the Church
The development of the church during the early Sasanian empire is tied to the name
of Kartir who was unknown to history before the discovery of his monolingual
inscriptions in the Middle Persian language. One was carved below the Middle
Persian verison of Shapur on the Ka'bah of Zoroaster, another on the cliff at
Naqsh-i Rustam behind the horse of Shapur showing his triumph over the Roman
emperor, a third at Nazsh-i Rajab and a fourth on a mountainside at Sar Mashhad
south of Kazerun. At Naqsh-i Rajab accompanying the inscription is presumably the
representation of Kartir himself with finger raised in a gesture of respect. At
Sar Mashhad Bahram II is shown killing a lion while protecting his queen, and
behind her is probably Kartir. The contents of these inscriptions are very much
the same, except that Sar Mashhad and Naqsh-i Rustam are longer than the other
two, while Naqsh-i Rajab is a kind of testament of personal belief. Unfortunately
both the Naqsh-i Rustam and the Sar Mashhad inscriptions are badly weathered and
large portions illegible. None the less, the story they tell of Kartir reveals a
fascinating page of early Sasanian history, the establishment of orthodoxy and a
state church.
Before turning to Kartir, an examination of Islamic and Pahlavi sources reveals
that chief religious leader or mobadan mobad of Ardashir was a certain Tansar,
whose name probably should be read Tosar. He is also called a herbad or "teaching
priest" in some sources. There is no indication that Tosar is to be identified
with Kartir, but his activities, including making a new recension of the Avesta
according to the Denkart would make a veritable Kartir of him. The inscriptions,
however, are more reliable than literary sources and they tell only of Kartir,
although a person called Tosar may have been active under Ardashir before Kartir
came to the fore. Kartir must be the real founder of Zoroastrian orthodoxy under
the early Sasanian kings.
The longest inscriptions of Kartir are the eighty-one lines of Naqsh-i Rustam and
the almost identical fifty-nine lines of Sar Mashhad, the first twenty-five lines
of which latter inscription are the same as the inscription of Kartir Ka'bah of
Zoroaster, while lines 52 to the end are almost a verbatim copy of his inscription
at Naqsh-i Rajab. In the central part of Sar Mashhad Kartir *Han- girpe (hnglpy),
as he calls himself, gives what almost seems to be an apologia pro vita sua. The
early fragmentary passages contain interesting theological points, the
interpretation of which is very difficult because of lacunae. Afterwards Kartir
becomes more personal, but in the third person, telling of a trip of many nobles
to Khurasan about a woman together with the man Kartir *Hangirpe, a place (?)
called pwlsy and many other enigmatic details. Kartir goes to great pains to tell
posterity that he first came to power under Shapur-when he was a herbad and a
mobad, which implies at least the existence of different kinds of priests already
in the Zoroastrian religion. Under King Hormizd he was given the title 'mobad of
Ahura Mazda', probably the first to hold this later well-attested title. In the
reign of Varahran II he received the rank of nobility, the headship of the
religion, and was made chief judge of the empire, and chief of the royal fire at
Istakhr at the imperial shrine of Anahita. The reason for these great honours is
implied in the honorific given by the same king to Kartir, 'soul-saviour of
Varahran'. Undoubtedly Kartir played the role of father confessor to the king and
was th,ereby rewarded. The fact that he is called 'the lord' at the very end of
Naqsh-i Rajab and that he notes his elevation to the nobility further suggests
that the nobility were all powerful in this period. Kartir probably played an
important political as well as re- ligious role in the empire.

Of great importance was the activity of Kartir outside of Iran in trying to

establish both fire temples and orthodoxy among the Hellen- ised Magians and to
convert those pagans who followed rites and beliefs similar to those of the
Zoroastrians; in other words Kartir was a missionary.
At the same time he reacted strongly against both foreign religions and heresies
within Iran, and this may well be one reason why Mithraism as we know it in the
Roman Empire is not also found in Iran. Kartir (KZ 9-IO) specifically attacked
Jews, Buddhists, Hindus Nazoraeans (Mandaeans?), Christians, Mktk (a Mesopotamian
religion?), and Manichaeans, destroying their centres and proscribing them. The
work of Kartir apparently was not an innovation, smce Armenian and Syriac sources
tell of the zeal of Ardashir in establishing fire temples and destroying pagan
temples, especially in Armenia. Kartir's action was militant Zoroastrian orthodoxy
in Zoroastrianism, for he Magi were organised, hel esy was forbidden, and many
Varah nres were insituted. These fires represented the backbone of the Sasanian
fire cult for they were centres of teaching as well as rites in the various
geographical areas of the land. The work of Kartir was impressive (KZ, line I4)
for we see in effect the ordering of the state church in Iran, including the
practice of consanguineous marriages, a feature of Zoroastrianism which adversely
struck outside observers. He also laid the basis for the power of the clergy which
was to rival, if not later surpass, that of the nobility.
The fanaticism of the period of Varahran II was tempered in the reign of Narseh
(293-302) who revolted against the young King Varahran III, who is called the Saka
king in Paikuli, and seized power in northern Iran. He marched on Ctesiphon and
was met by a party at Paikuli, a site north of present Khaniqin, and there he was
proclaimed king of kings, and a bilingual inscription was erected to commemorate
this event. In line 16 of Paikuli the name 'Kartir, the mobad of Ahura Mazda'
appears, but because of lacunae in the in- scription one cannot say whether he is
a foe or friend of Narseh. He was surely quite elderly and must have died or
retired shortly after- wards. Since Narseh did not mutilate Kartir's inscriptions,
and there is no evidence of a clash between the two, we may assume that Narseh,
who mentions in his inscription (Paikuli, line g) 'Ahura Mazda and all the gods
and Anahita called the lady', did not overthrow the work of Kartir. The policy of
toleration of Narseh towards the Manichaeans is generally known, but it is
possible that a change began at the very end of the reign of Varahran II. The
evidence of a complete about-face in religious policy under Narseh and a victory
of herbads over mobads or Anahita over Ahura Mazda, is lacking; rather the change
seems to be one of relaxation yet continuity.
The question of heresies within the Zoroastrian religion is complicated because
our Pahlavi sources are all post-Islamic in date, when the minority religious
comrnunities of the Zoroastrians were more concerned with correct beliefs than in
Sasanian times when the religion was upheld by the state. I believe that
orthopraxy was more important than orthodoxy under the Sasanians and Zurvanism, or
time speculation, was not a heresy in the same manner as Mazdakism, which was a
threat to the practices and the organisation of society as well as the church. But
in the early days of the empire the Zandiks, as the Manichaeans were called, were
the chief heretics. The exact dates of Mani's life are uncertain since they are
tied to the chronology of Shapur's accession which itself is not certain; but he
was killed either in the last year of the reign of Varahran I (274) or in the
early years of his successor ( 277 ) . Manichaeism has been called an expression
of universalism or syncretism in religion and it has been compared with Bahaism of
the present day. It is perhaps not as representative of Iranian religious
tendencies in its dualism as was the Zoroastrian state religion, but certainly the
syncretic and 'international' features of Manichaeism found many ready supporters
in Iran. We are not here concerned with the teachings of Manichaeism which are at

present better known than before the discovery of original Manichaean writings in
Coptic, Parthian, Sogdian and other languages. The Manichaeans suffered the same
fate in Iran as in the Christian world; in both the arch-heretics were alwas
Manichaeans and they were accordingly persecuted severely. After Narseh, however,
Manichaean cornmunities continued to exist in Iran, especially in eastern Iran,
and later, as is well known, Manichaean missionaries reached as far as China.
Perhaps the most striking development of Manichaeism was the social and economic
movement led by Mazdak at the very end of the fifth century, about whom much has
been written of late. It would seem that royal opposition to the nobility and
their power was an important reason for the support of Mazdak by King Kavad. The
Mazdakites preached a form of communism, the division of wealth including wives
and concubines, which found support among the poor, but our sources are not clear
and are contradictory about the course of events of this revolution. The
Mazdakites, however, met the same fate the Manichaeans had suffered at the hands
of Kartir and King Varahran. It happened at the end of Kavad's (second) reign, and
the Crown Prince Chosroes Anosharvan was the chief instigator of the massacre of
the Mazdakites circa 528. The death of their leaders, of course, did not end the
Mazdakites as a sect but sent them underground. But a new pejorative had been
coined and henceforth any social or religious reformer was usually branded as a
Mazdakite by his opponents, and this lasted long into Islamic times when many
Iranian revolts against the caliphate or the rule of the Arabs were designated as
Mazdakite movements. The Mazdakite movement was known to such Islamic authors as
Nizam al-Mulk in his Siyasatname.
Already, from the beginning of the Sasanian period, we are in a new religious
world. The cults of the old Mesopotamian gods were long since dead and in their
places new gnostic and ritualistic sects had arisen side by side with
Christianity, Judaism and Zoroastrianism. Cabalistic beliefs and practices seem to
have been widespread, and in the views of most Greek and Roman authors the
Persians were the chief believers in magic and unusual religious practices.
Zoroastrianism for the classical writers was the epitome of the mysterious,
Oriental cult. Yet Kartir and his followers laid the basis for Zoroastrian orthodoxy which probably opposed magic, demon worship, and the like as much as did
Christian orthodoxy in the empire of the Caesars.
Belief in divine revelation and the recording of that revelation in books was in
the air, and the Christians, of course, were the most widespread propagators of
the idea of 'Holy Writ'. It may have been because of the example of the Christians
that the Zoroastrian church assembled and canonised its writings. Zoroastrian
tradition claims that fragments of the Avesta were assembled and presumably
written down in Arsacid times and again under Shapur I. The written Avesta of the
early Sasanians must have been really a mnemonic device to aid the memory of the
priests who usually recited the Avesta in a traditional Oriental manner. In the
beginning of the fifth century the present Armenian alphabet was devised mainly to
propagate the Christiar religion in that land. Some have conjectured that the
present Avestan alphabet was invented about the same time possibly as a forerunner
or even as an imitation of the Armenian alphabet although the Avestan alphabet in
phonetic completeness is more like the Devanagari alphabet of Sanskrit. It is not
impossible to assume a religious motivation for the creation of this rather late
alphabet which, as far as we know, was only used for texts of the Zoroastrian
religion. It is a pity that this alphabet did not replace the incomplete Pahlavi
alphabet, with its great deficiency of letters to represent sounds, for the Middle
Persian language. It must be emphasized that we have no old manuscripts of the
Avesta, none earlier than thirteenth or fourteenth century, but the existence of a
written Avesta in Sasanian times much as we know it today seems assured in spite
of the overwhelming importance of the oral tradition.

From Christian authors writing in Syriac and Armenian it would seem that the
Sasanians primarily followed Zurvanism, a Zoroastrian heresy which, after the
Islamic conquest, vanished in favour of ortho- doxy. I believe, as shown
elsewhere, that Zurvanism was not a full- fledged heresy with doctrines, rites and
a 'church' organisation separate from the Zoroastrian fold, but rather a movement
to be compared perhaps with the Mu'tazilites of Islamic times. There were
basically two features of Zurvanism which have been preserved for us, time
speculation (eternity, etc.) and the myth of the birth of both Ohrmizd (Ahura
Mazda) and Ahriman from their father Zurvan. The first was widespread and
certainly by itself would not form the basis for a separate sect. The Zurvan birth
story can be paralleled by the story of Chronos in Greek mythology and again, in
my opinion, would not lead to the formation of a sect. Undoubtedly the Zurvan
birth story was widespread among 'orthodo' Zoroastrians in Sasanian times, but
after the Islamic conquest when Zoroastrians withdrew into tightly knit
communities, Zurvanite elements were eliminated from the new orthodoxy which was
concrned with 'orthodoxy' as well as 'orthopraxy'. In Sasanian times a Zoroastrian
heretic was more one who broke away from orthopraxy and even became a Christian or
Manichaean, while in Islamic times a Zoroastrian heretic was primarily a person
who also broke with orthodoxy as, for example, Abalish (or 'Abdallah?) a
Zoroastrian who became a heretic in the time of the caliph al -Ma'mun in the ninth
century, and may have adopted Mani- chaean beliefs. Any kind of social heresy, of
course, would be the concern of the ruling caliph.
From the acts of the Christian martyrs we learn much especially about the
Nestorian communities in the Sasanian empire. In effect the consolidation and
growth of the Zoroastrian church in Iran was paralleled by the growth of the
Christian church and of the Manichaean communities. Undoubtedly the influx of
Christian prisoners in Iran in the wake of both Shapurs' conquests gave a strong
impetus to the spread of Christianity, but the religion naturally spread in
Mesopotamia among the Semitic peoples. The first great persecution of Christians
occurred under Shapur II, beginning about 339, and seems to have had political
motivation since it began after Constantine had made Christianity the religion of
the Roman Empire. Later there were periods of tolerance followed by more
persecution, but after the break away of the Nestorians from other Christians at
the end of the fifth century, the condition of Christians in Iran improved. The
Nestorians elected a catholicos who had his seat in Ctesiphon and synods usually
met there in deciding church problems. The ecclesiastical geography of the
Nestorian bishoprics is also of importance for the civil geography of the Sasanian
empire since the Church usually followed civil boundaries; thus we gain some
knowledge of civil administrative divisions from the acts of the martyrs.
The Christianisation of Armenia and Transcaucasia in the fourth century provided a
source of conflict betwen Armenia and the Sasanians even more than the struggle
for influence in those areas between Romans and Persians. In the east, too,
Christian missionaries made converts among the Hephthalites and Sogdians, so one
may infer everywhere a growing Christian influence at the end of the Sasanian
empire. The whole religious picture of Iran, however, was more complicated than we
can know from the sparse records, and the interplay of various religions is
matched by internal divisions within the Zoroastrian church which we perceive but
The Glory that was Iran
If one asks an ordinary Persian who had built an unknown, ancient, ruined mosque
or other structure in some locality, the chances are great that he would reply it
was Shah 'Abbas, the Safavid ruler who embellished with edifices the city of
Isfahan. If the ruins were clearly pre-Islamic the reply might be Khusro or
Chosroes Anosharvan 'of the immortal soul', the Sasanian counterpart of Shah

'Abbas. His very name became, like that of Caesar, the designation of the Sasanian
kings for the Arabs (Kisra in Arabic) and almost a synonym for splendour and
glory. But Chosroes ruled Iran less than a century before the Arab conquest and,
as is not uncommon in history, the seeds of decay already existed in the period of
greatest splendour in the Sasanian Empire.
Iran had not fared well in her external relations under the successors of Shapur
I; under Varahran II the Romans regained lost territory in northern Mesopotamia as
well as hegemony over Armenia. Narseh fared no better and further concessions had
to be made to the Emperor Galerius. After him it seemed as though the Romans had
regained the dominant position which they had held in Parthian times. Under Shapur
II, who had an unusually long rule of seventy years, the Sasanians passed to the
offensive both in the west and in the east where the Kushan state and other
territories probably had proclaimed their independence during the minority of
Shapur. On the whole Shapur II was successful in regaining both territory and lost
prestige for the Persians. He followed the practice of Shapur I in settling Roman
prisoners in various provinces of his empire, according to Ammianus who is a
valuable source for the history of Shapur II and his wars with the Romans.
After Shapur his weak successors lost much of their imperial authority to the
nobility which grew in strength and influence. Although there may be no causal
connection it is interesting to note that as royal power declined in favour of the
feudal lords, the heroic, or epic tales regarding the reigns of such kings as
Varahran V or Bahram Gor (42I-439) the hunter of wild asses, increased or came to
the fore. One may suspect that titles and offices increased in number and
importance during the long period of weak monarchs. Concomitant with the new power
of the nobility were struggles over the succession by opposing parties of the
feudal lords. Such was the case with the crowning of Varahran V (in 421) and of
Peroz (459).
In the fifth century a forrnidable new enemy appeared in the north-east as
successor to the Kushans, a new wave of invaders from Central Asia called the
Hephthalites. They are connected with the new order on the steppes of Central Asia
which can be characterised best as the rise of the Altaic-speaking peoples or the
Hunnic movement. Just as the first millennium BC in Central Asia was considered by
classical authors as the period of Scythian dominance in the steppes, so the first
half of the first millennium AD is the time of the Huns, while the second half and
later is the period of the Turks and the Mongols. Of course the term 'Scythian'
continued to be used by classical authors for various steppe peoples well into the
Christian era just as the Ottomans were designated 'Huns' by several Byzantine
authors. None the less the various terms 'Scythian, Hun and Turk' were general
designations of the steppe peoples in Western sources including the Near East,
though the Chinese had other names. Obviously not all peoples who lived in, or
came from Central Asia into the Near East or eastern Europe in the first half of
the first millennium AD were Huns, and the fact that Western and Near Eastern
sources call a tribe Hunnic really only means that they came from the steppes of
Central Asia, a vast area. The word 'Hun' has caused scholars great trouble as
have other problems of Hunnic history, but this is not the place to discuss such
questions as, for example, the iclentity of the Hsiung-nu of Chinese sources with
various 'Huns' of Western, Near Eastern or Indian sources.
Although presumably the name of the Huns appears as early as the geography of
Ptolemy, applied to a tribe in South Russia, we cannot find any other evidence for
'Huns' in the Near East or South Russia before the fourth century AD. The joining
of the word 'Hun' to the Kidarites by Priskos is probably an example of the use of
the general fifth-century term for an earlier history and no proof that the
Kidarites were Altaic-speaking people. Presumably Kidara was the name of a ruler
since the name appears on coins, but there is no evidence that he led a new

Central Asian horde to conquer the Kushan realm. Several attempts to date a ruler
Kidara have not been convincing and we may only hazard a guess that such a reign
was in the fourth century.
Another name from eastern Iran or Central Asia seems to indicate a migration or
invasion from the North. The newcomers are called Chionites in classical sources.
In 359 the king of the Chionites, Grumbates, is mentioned by Ammianus as an ally
with Shapur II and his army before the walls of Amida. It is generally believed
that the Chionites, with the form OIONO=Hyon=Hun on their coins, were Central
Asian invaders of eastern Iran connected with the Hunas of Indian sources and with
their successors the Hephthalites. Unfortunately we have no sources for the
history of eastern Iran in this period and the many and varied coins have not been
properly classified, an extremely difficult task.
From the coins of certain Sasanian Kushan rulers one would conclude that the
Persians were at least liege lords of part of the Kushan domains throughout most
of Shapur II's rule. Some time, probably at the end of the fourth or early fifth
century, a new ruler Kidara appears as an independent southern Kushan ruler. The
Chionites probably moved into the northern Kushan domains (north of the Oxus
river) some years before Kidara whose power seems to have been based mainly in
lands south of the Hindu Kush since he has coins with Brahmi legends. This
division between lands north and south of the mountains is important. The
Chionites probably expanded over Kushan domains and independent rulers of them
appeared in Bamiyan, Zabul and elsewhere, the coins of which are very difficult to
classify. The confusion in our sources between Kidarites, Chionites and
Hephthalites may well reflect a real mixture of peoples and rulers. One may say,
however, that the name of the Chionites is followed by that of the Hephthalites in
It is difficult to determine the ethnic composition of Chionites or Hephthalites,
but there is no evidence that the Chionites were different from the Hephthalites;
rather the meagre evidence indicates that the Hephthalites may have stood in the
same relation to the Chionites as the older Kushans did to the Yueh-chih. In other
words, the Hep thalites may have been a prominent tribe or clan of the Chionites.
One may well expect Altaic, i.e. Hunnic, elements among the Hephthalites, to use
the later name, but again the evidence points primarily to Iranians. It is
possible that some of the early rulers were Huns, but there were still many
Iranians in Central Asia, and the people of eastern Iran among whom the
Hephthalites settled were also Iranian, so we may consider the Hephthalite empire
in eastern Iran and north-west India as basically an Iranian one. Zoroastrian as
well as Manichaean missions in Central Asia must have increased the West Iranian
cultural elements among the people. Undoubtedly by the time of the Arab conquests,
however, the Turkic elements among the Hephthalites had increased, but that was
after the Turks themselves had appeared in the Near East. It is, of course,
possible to construct theories of history and of ethnic relationship on the basis
of suggested etymologies of one or two words, but the lack not only of sources but
of reliable traditions in the fragmentary information about Central Asia and
eastern Iran in classical sources makes any theory highly speculative.
The Persians in the last half of the fifth century suffered a series of defeats at
the hands of the Hephthalites and King Peroz lost his life in 484 in battle with
them. After him the nobles waxed even stronger, placing several rulers on the
throne in succession and finally Kavad I, who then maintained his throne only with
Hephthalite aid. This was a period of low ebb for the Sasanians when their eastern
neighbours exercised influence even in internal affairs. The Mazdakite revolution
already has been mentioned, but the great change or revolution in Iran came with
Chosroes I who, as we have said, was the greatest pre-Islamic ruler in the minds
of the Persians.

The far reaching reform of taxation under Chosroes has been discussed by several
scholars, notably F. Altheim, whose merit was to show repeatedly that the model
for the new system of taxation was the system in force in the eastern Roman Empire
which in turn had been built on the reforms of Diocletian. The unrest and social
changes of the Mazdakite period made a new assessment of property and of taxes
necessary, but we cannot say with certainty what the situation was before
Chosroes. What is reported by later authors of Sasanian times refers to the postChosroes period. We may assume that Chosroes wanted stability, and in terms of
taxation, of course principally on the land, a fixed sum rather than a yearly
variation according to the yield, which seems to have been the old system. A
survey of the land was made including a census and a counting of date palms and
olive trees. The land tax of the later Roman empire was based on the land unit the
iugum, but the amount of taxation was already determined by the indictio and
divided among the various plots of land. This became the system of Sasanian Iran,
of course with many different details into which we cannot go. The Sasanian head
tax, like the Roman capitatio, was under Chosroes assessed in a number of fixed
categories according to the productive capacity of a man. In both empires state
employees were exempt from paying the head tax, and in Iran the Magi, soldiers and
the high nobility were exempt as well. Certain details of the taxation are
disputed but the main lines are clear; Chosroes sought stability and a fixed
income for government coffers.
From the Talmud we learn that ancient practices in regard to the payment of taxes
still continued under Chosroes. If one could not pay his land tax and another paid
it, the latter received the land. By paying the land tax of someone who could not
pay, one could obtain the debtor as a bondsman or slave. According to one source,
if a Jew declared he was a Zoroastrian he could escape the head tax. This was
rather a special tax, or a heavier head tax, placed on Jews, Christians and other
minorities. The bishop for the Christians and the head of the Jews for the Jewish
communities collected taxes from their followers. This continuity of tax practices
in Iran continued into Islamic times. The Sasanian system provided the background
of the well-known but also in part different and complicated system of the Islamic
kharaj and jizya.
In addition to a tax and financial reform, there was a social and bureaucratic
revolution, but again many details escape us or are subject to various
interpretations. Certain innovations may be the work of Chosroes' predecessors,
but one may say that after him they appear as a characteristic feature of Sasanian
Iran. The most important was perhaps the growth of the lower nobility or the
dihqans (literally village lord) as the Arab conquerors called that backbone of
Persian provincial and local administration. This lower nobility really possessed
and ruled the land at the end of the Sasanian empire and it would seem that they
owed their positions to the ruler and were an effective counter-weight to the few
great families who became progressively less important. In line with his policy of
stability Chosroes may have sought religious support for a social stratification
of four classes or castes, which, however, may have developed throughout earlier
Iranian history so that by the time of Chosroes it was full-fledged.
There is considerable material in Islamic works, such as the Kitab al-Taj of
Jahiz, and countless anecdotes and stories which refer to the activities of
Chosroes I. The sources agree in their assessment of the empire of the Sasanians
after Chosroes as a tightly organised structure with the king supreme at the top
of the hierarchy. The 'mystique' of the king of kings was reinforced, and books of
protocol, mirrors of princes and other writings, laid down the duties of monarchs
to their subjects and subjects to their ruler. It would seem that there was a
considerable activity in fixing rules of behaviour, prerogatives and obliga- tions
for various classes of society in this period. The ofices of mobadan-mobad or

chief of the clergy, dabiran-debir, or chief of the scribes, and similar titles,
in imitation of the king of kings, indicate the ordering of society by imperial
and religious sanction. The fascinating picture of society under the later
Sasanians is one of a people who have seemingly reached a social and religious
stability in religion, class structure and general culture but continuing with the
seeds of decay in the resultant stagnation.
The age of Chosroes was one of conquest too. Antioch was briefly captured in 540
and in the east the Hephthalite power was crushed by a joint Persian and Turkish
attack circa 558 when the Western Turkish khanate and the Sasanians ended a united
Hephthalite rule replacing it with at least nominal Turkish hegemony north of the
Oxus river and Sasanian overlordship over many of the Hephthalite principalities
south of the Oxus. Chosroes, as Shapur I and II, was known also for his systematic
transport and settlement of prisoners of war in various parts of Iran, an age old
custom followed in Iran by Shah 'Abbas and Reza Shah in more recent times. It was
under Chosroes that the unusual but not really important Sasanian conquest of
Yemen took place which had echoes in the Quran. Under Chosroes we find the
frontiers of the empire secured by a system of limes in the Syrian desert, in the
Caucasus by Derbend and east of the Caspian Sea in the steppes of Gurgan. The
institution of a system of four spahbads or generals of the realm in north, south,
east and west is also attributed to Chosroes, and one hears more of the importance
of marzbans or 'wardens of the marches' in this later period of Sasanian history.
The city building activity of Chosroes already has been mentioned. One town he
built with the aid of Byzantine prisoners was the better Antioch of Chosroes near
Ctesiphon, with a name similar to the better Antioch of Shapur I of Gundeshapur.
The seal of Chosroes was a wild boar which symbol was very widespread in Sasanian
art. The reorganisation of the bureaucracy by means of a system of divans or
ministries by Chosroes is generally regarded as the prototype of the 'Abbasid
divans by many Islamic authors and while proof of direct continuity is sometimes
difficult to establish beyond doubt, there were many influences.
There is so much written about Chosroes that one may omit a discussion here and
refer to various writings about him. The internal reforms of the king of kings
were more important than external changes in the frontiers, and their overall
result was a decline in the power of the great nobility and the subkings in favour
of the bureaucracy. The army too was reorganised and tied to the central authority
more than to the local officers and lords. While one could continue with a long
list of reforms attributed to Chosroes, some of the lesser known developments in
that period of Sasanian history might be of interest.
It is well known that names which we find in the national epic appear at the end
of the fifth and the beginning of the sixth century arnong the royal family and
presumably also among the nobility although we hear little about the latter. The
old title of kavi in its Middle Persian form kay, written kdy, appears on coins of
Peroz and Kavad, another indication of an antiquarian revival. It is highly
probable that the lays and legends of ancient Iran were gathered together in the
days of Chosroes I and that the national epic as we know it in Firdosi was much
the same then as now. Whether there was any great remaking of the epic, such as
weaving events of Chosroes' life into those of Kai Khusro, cannot be proved but it
is not impossible. Some scholars would even attribute the introduction of the
highest offices of the empire, such as mobadan-mobad, first to the reign of
Chosroes, but the wholesale assignment of innovations to him is probably an
exaggeration. Likewise the contention that Chosroes founded a new hierarchy of
fire temples with the introduction of a Gushnasp fire, tied with the crowning of
the king in Shiz or Ganzak, is possible but unproved.43
Chosroes' name is also connected with a revival of learning with both Greek and
Indian influences coming into Persian intellectual activities. Agathias has a

well-known passage about the Greek philosophers (presumably neo-Platonists) who

came to the Persian court after the closing of their academy in Athens in 529 and
who were well received. The question of the extent of Sasanian learning is
unsettled in its details, some scholars attributing a Persian origin to much of
later Islamic science and learning, others denying the existence of a large
Pahlavi scientific literature. We know of Burzoe, the famous physician of
Chosroes, who reputedly was sent to India by the king and brought back the game of
chess plus many Sanskrit books such as the fables of Bidpay and works on medicine
which he translated into Pahlavi. Other Persian authors are known only by later
references. Many Arabic and New Persian works on astronomy such as star tables
(especially the Zt-j-i Shahriya-r) betray Sasanian prototypes, and one may suspect
that much Pahlavi profane literature was lost because the mobads were not concemed
to preserve it, while men of learning were content to use Arabic rather than the
difficult Pahlavi form of writing for their works of science and literature.
On the other hand it is virtually certain that various Greek scientific works were
translated into Pahlavi and then later from Pahlavi to Arabic, an indication of
the existence of scholarly activity in Pahlavi. This learning, however, would seem
to be more compilation than original, and the literary renaissance in the time of
Chosroes also was primarily concerned with writing down and fixing various stories
and legends including the national epic. The letter of Tosar, which has been
mentioned, the Kar Namak of Ardashir and other tracts of Pahlavi literature have
been attributed to this period. Some scholars have maintained also that the
Avestan alphabet was created under Chosroes rather than earlier. The changes and
additions which must have occurred in both epic and religious literature make
datings difficult, but the great activity under the rule of Chosroes cannot be
Sasanian art can be characterised as the culmination of a millennium of
development. For one may discern Greek and Roman elements, ancient Oriental
archaising motifs and purely Iranian subjects, such as the investiture of the king
on horseback, in later Sasanian art. The brief Greek revival under Shapur I hardly
interrupts the development of Iranian art from the Parthian period and Ardashir
down to Chosroes. Just as in late Gandharan art so in Sasanian art stucco and
plaster are supreme as the medium of expression. The widespread use of monograms,
symbols and complicated designs is typical of late Sasanian art and as such is a
forerunner of Islamic art . The more naturalistic emphasis in earlier Sasanian art
seems to give ground before more stylised and even geometric art at the end of the
period. The anthropomorphic representation of the god Ahura Mazda, perhaps a
residue from the 'messianic period' of the religions of the Near East, is not
attested at the end of the empire. Although ancient motifs of the hunt,
investiture of the king or battles on horseback, appear on rock carvings or on the
wonderful silver platters, they are all distinctive and could not be mistaken for
anything other than Sasanian. The Sasanian hallmark or 'stamp' may be considered
another evidence of the freezing of culture and society. What has remained of the
architecture, sculpture, metalwork, ceramics and silks of the Sasanian period,
however, is enough to testify to the grandeur and richness of Iranian culture.
The Sasanian empire seemed stronger than ever after Chosroes but in spite of his
changes and reforms the age was not one of innovation. Rather the period in a
truer perspective might be characterised as a summation of the past, of gatheringin and recording, when history becomes important as a justification for the state
and the religion. The past which was revived in epic, in traditions and in
customs, however, was a heroic past of great and noble families and of feudal
mores, not of a centralised, bureaucratic state which Chosroes wanted to
establish. Were the successors of Chosroes somewhat like Don Quixote while the
people were ready for the new message of the followers of Muhammad? The noble
families kept alive the heroic traditions of Iran and they survived the Islamic

onslaught while the empire went down in ashes. Local self-interest and fierce
individualism have been both the bane and the glory of Iran throughout its
history, but through triumph and defeat the culture and the way of life of the
Persians have unified the population of the country more than political or even
religious forms unless they too were integrated into the heritage of Persia.
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 fiveyear 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 'dKarib, 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
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 alAhwaz 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 Qasre 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 TigrisEuphrates 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.