Iranian History/The Middle Sassanian Period 379 - 488 AD

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The death of Shapur II in 379 marked the end of an era. He was followed by his successors whose reigns were extremely short when compared to his. Of these "Middle Sassanids", Bahram V or Bahramgur has to be the most famous one.

Ardeshir II 379 - 383

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Shapur II died in around 379 and was succeeded b y his son who ascended the throne as Ardeshir II. He was accorded the title of Nihoukar or Benificient.

The Armenian Unrest

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Immediately after his accession the events in Armenia occupied Ardeshir's attention. Arsaces' son Para had been murdered during the reign of Shapur II and the Romans tried to replace him with a certain Varaztad a distant member of the Arsacid family. However, the real power was in the hands of an Armenian nobleman named Moushegh. No sooner had this arrangement been made that Varaztad grew suspicious of Moushegh and executed him at a banquet. This roused the indignation of Moushegh's brother Manuel who rebelled against Varaztad and with the support of Persia deposed him and placed on the Armenian throne, Zermandeuht the widow of the late king Para. In return for his support Persia recognized Manuel as Sparapet or Commander-in-chief soon got too heavy. Armenia did not know what to do. A nobleman named Meroujan spread the rumor that the commandant of the Persian garrison desired to capture Manuel. As a result, Manuel killed ten thousand Persian soldiers stationed in Armenia. But Manuel too died soon afterwards and confusion followed.

Shapur III 383 - 388

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Ardeshir II died in 383 and was succeeded by his brother Shapur III. During his reign peace was concluded between Rome and Persia -- the warring factions in Armenia. According to the terms of the peace, it was decided that there was to b e no war between Rome and Persia for the next thirty-six years. Shapur III died in 388. His death is believed to have been caused by a fatal blow from the fall of a tent-pole.

Bahram IV (Kirmanshah) 388–399

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When Shapur III died in 388 he was succeeded by Bahram IV. Some sources regard him as the son while others regard him as the brother of Shapur III. He had served as the Governor of Carmania or Kirman during the reign of Shapur III and hence was given the title Kirmanshah.

Armenia was a province which had hitherto remained divided between the Roman stooge Arsaces and the Persian sympathizer Khusro. This arrangement lasted six years. But in 390, Khusro switched sides and went over to the Romans, Bahram, alarmed at this development, invaded Armenia and captured Khusro. Rome distanced herself due to the fear of provoking a war with Persia. Khusro was confined to the "Castle of Oblivion" and Varahran-Shapur made king in his place.

The character of Bahram is represented variously by various historians. But most seem to agree that he was a cruel tyrant who neglected his duties. This neglection of duties irritated his own troops to such an extent that they mutinied and killed him.

Yazdegerd I 399 - 419

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He is perceived to be a man of contrasts. Basically his reign was the most peaceful Persia had ever had. This earned him the epithet "Ramasthras" or "the most quiet".

In the early part of his reign, he was entrusted by the Roman Emperor Arcadius with the custody of his son Theodosius. Yazdegerd accepted his new role and performed it with grace and kindness.

Yazdegerd is also remembered for his religious fanaticism. He was a devout Zoroastrian and a sworn enemy of Christianity.

In 413, Varahran-Shapur the king of Armenia passed away and was succeeded by a boy of ten. Khusro, who was a prisoner at the "Castle of Oblivion" was reinstated but barely survived a year on the death. Following the former's death, Yazdegerd placed his own son Shapur on the Armenian throne and he reigned from 414 to 418. In 418, Yazdegerd fell sick and Shapur returned to Persia to put forth his claims to the Persian throne. Yazdegerd did not survive long and died in 419.

Bahram V (Bahramgur) 419 - 440

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As soon as Yazdegerd died, disputes arose regarding succession to the Persian throne. Shapur, the king of Armenia, had traveled all the way to the Persian capital to put forth his claims but in the interim that followed Shapur was killed which made Bahramgur the only contender for the throne. Bahramgur ascended the throne as Bahram V in 420.

During the reign of Bahram V, there were constant wars between Rome and Persia.

In 420, Bahram seems to have asked Rome to hand over the Christian fugitives who had fled Persia fearing persecution. But Rome refused resulting in a declaration of war by Persia. To begin with, Rome sent their general Ardaburius with an impressive contingent into Armenia. Ardaburius defeated the Persian commander Narseh and proceeded to plun der the province of Arzanne but on receiving the news that Bahram was meditating upon an invasion of Mesapotamia he quit Arzanne and threw himself upon the fortress of Nisibis. But Ardaburius didnt have enough men to take Nisibis. So, he waited before commencing his siege.

The siege of Nisibis alarmed Bahram. He took the field in person and aided by an Arab contingent led by Al Amundarus (Moundsir) Bahram advanced upon the town with a strong body of elephants and forced Ardaburius to retreat.

In 421, Bahramgur invaded the city of Theodosiopolis. He besieged the city for over thirty days but stiff resistance offered by the Armenians forced him to retreat. Finally, by late 421, Bahramgur was forced to conclude peace with the Romans.

The peace with Rome facilitated Bahram to turn his attention to Armenia. Armenia had been without a king since Shapur had left the country in 418. Bahramgur desired that a descendant of the hereditary line of Armenian kings should be placed on the throne. With this intention in mind, he selected an Arsacid named Artases, a son of Varahran-Shapur and made him king giving him the royal title Artaxerxes.

But the newly appointed monarch did not have a favorable personal character. The frustrated nobles petitioned Bahramgur to take over the administration of Armenia. Bahramgur obliged and Armenia was made a satrap of the Persian Empire.

During the last years of Bahram's reign, the Huns or Hephthalites known to the Persians as the Haithal or Haiathleh invaded North-eastern Persia. They crossed the Elburz into Khorasan and proceeded as far as Rhagai. Bahramgr hesitated and initially offered peace, but later he changed his mind and inflicted a crushing defeat on the Huns killing them in large numbers. The Huns were pursued beyond the river Oxus back into their own territory and massacred in large numbers.

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Bahram V or Bahramgur was the most favorite Persian ruler for later Persian writers and romanticists. A number of legends have grown up around him. According to one legend, he obtained Makran and Sindh from the Emperor of India for the aid he had provided against China. It also says that Persia had no musicians during his time and hence, musicians were sent for from India who became the ancestors of the modern-day Lurs.

His name has also become immensely popular in lands within the Persian sphere of influence. A fair number of Punjabi legends have Bahramgur as the central character. Byramgore island in the Arabian Sea which forms a part of the Indian Union is actually named after him.

Yazdegerd II 440 - 457

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Bahram V was succeeded by his son Yazdegerd II in 440 whose first act on assuming power was to declare war on Rome. Leading a strong army of Persian Arabs and Huns, Yazdegerd penetrated deeply into Roman territory but the expedition was cut short by hailstorms. He retreated into Persian territory and this gave the Roman Emperor Theodosius enough time to construct a fortified position at Theodosiopolis.

Shortly afterwards, Yazdegerd directed his attention at the Huns who were making repeated incursions into Persian territory. He seemed to have personally directed the operations at the battlefront from 443 to 451, crossing the Huns in the last mentioned year and defeating the Huns in their own territory.

Suppression of Armenia

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Yazdegerd is mentioned as a zealous Zoroastrian and his fanaticism manifested itself in the forceful conversion of Armenia to Zoroastrianism. Initially, he sent his vizier Mihr-Narses to convert the Armenians through coercion but when this failed utterly he reacted by carrying away Christian chiefs and posting them on the eastern border to fight the Huns. In 450, the patriarch Joseph held a congregation in which he declared that Armenians were Christians and will continue to be Christians no matter what may befall them. Yazdegerd reacted by summoning the three kings of Iberia, Armenia and Albania and forced them to accept Zoroastrianism. Vartan, the Sparapet or Commander-in-chief of Armenia converted back to Christianity and with the full support of the patriarch Joseph attacked the Persians with an army in excess of 100,000 men. The revolutionaries even made an attempt to convince the Roman Emperor Marcian to espouse their cause which was unsuccessful. However, the Armenians were divided among themselves and in the battle that was fought they were completely defeated and their leader Vartan killed. The Persian troops carried off the patriarch Joseph and other bishops to Persia where they were executed.

The Invasion of the Huns

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Soon after the Armenian War came to an end, there was unrest in the East with the Huns once more indulging in aggression and making incursions across the eastern frontier. The Huns attacked Khorasan once more and the Sassanian Emperor had to rush hastily to the defense of the Persian frontier. The Persian monarch was so successful in his operations that he was able to check their advance and drive them back across the frontier but when he ventured to attack them in their own territory he faced defeat and was forced to retreat to the Persian capital.

Yazdegerd died sometime after the ignominious retreat and was succeeded by his son Ormazd.

Ormazd 457- 459

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On the death of Yazdegerd, the younger son of Yazdegerd seized the throne as the heir-apparent Piruz was stationed in distant Sistan. Piruz was forced to flee the country and seek the protection of the Huns as Ormazd tried to consolidate his hold on the nation. The king of the Huns Khushnawaz received him favorably and gave him protection. With the help of one Ram, or Raham, a powerful Persian nobleman, Piruz defeated Ormazd and imprisoned him and ascended the throne.

Piruz 459 - 483

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During the period of civil war in Persia, Vatche, the king of Aghouank, taking advantage of the situation, had proclaimed himself independent. As soon as Piruz ascended the throne, he invaded Aghouank (Albania) and quelled the rebellion.

The Seven Year Famine

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Historians attribute a seven year period of drought to the reign of Piruz. Sources say that the drought was so severe that there was not a single drop of water in the Tigris or the Euphrates and that wells had dried up. Eventually, the crops failed and hundreds of thousands of human beings perished along with their livestock.

Sources also tell us that Piruz should extreme rigidness and wisdom in dealing with the catastrophe. Gradually, the nation began to recover.

Campaign against the Huns

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Piruz had humiliated an envoy from Khushnawaz, the Khan of the Huns and this provoked the Huns to invade Persia.

Piruz collected a large army and retaliated by invading the country of the Huns and forcing them to retreat. But the Persian army got entangled in the mountain fastnesses of the northern country and was completely surrounded by the enemy on all sides. The Huns imposed humiliating terms on the Persians and demanded that Piruz their king prostrate before the Khan of the Huns Khushnawaz. The Persians were also compelled to pay tribute to the Huns.

Rebellion in Armenia

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In 481, Firuz was defeated by the Kushans which encouraged Iberia to revolt. The Persian Governor of Armenia was tranferred to Iberia to quell the rebellion but when he left Armenia rose and declared its independence under Sahag. Sahag was made king and Vahan the Commander-in-chief. The Persian Governor Adar-Vishnasp after defeating the Iberian rebels rushed to Armenia but was defeated. In 482, the Persians sent two armies one under Adar-Narseh into Armenia and the other under Mihran into Iberia. Vahan net Adar-Narseh and defeated him. But Vakthang, the King of Iberia perceiving his vulnerability switched sides over to the Persians against the Armenians. Sahag the king of Armenian was slain and Vahan fled the country.

But while Mihran was on the brink of victory he was recalled by Firuz. The rebellion was never quelled completely.

The Second Campaign Against the Huns and Firuz's Death

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A few years later, Firuz launched a second campaign against the Huns in order to avenge his humiliation. He placed his brother Balas upon the throne as regent and embarked for the northern frontier at the head of 50-100,000 men and 500 war elephants.

He established a position at Balkh and waited for the Huns to make their first move. Khushnawaz responded by sending a small advance guard to provoke the Persian army to attack. His plan was to draw the Persians into the high mountaineous cliffs of Hun territory where a larger Hephthalite army would be waiting for an ambush. The plan proved to be successful and the Persians were trapped in the mountains of Turkestan and cut down to pieces by an army of Huns hiding behind the tall cliffs waiting for them. The Sassanian Emperor Firuz was amongst the casualties. Khushnawaz dispatched the body of the slain prince with due respectability into Persian territory where it was buried with all honors.


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Firuz was succeeded by his brother Balash who ruled from 483 to 488. His actual name seems to have been Valkhash which had been Arabized to Palash. Immediately on ascending the throne, He sent an officer named Sufrai against the Huns to the north. Sufrai inflicted a crushing defeat on the Huns and forced them to come to terms.

After his war against the Huns, he signed a peace treaty with Armenia. As per the provision of this treaty

  1. All existing fire-altars in Armenia should be destroyed and no new ones should be constructed.
  2. Christians in Armenia should have freedom of worship and conversions to Zoroastrianism should be stopped.
  3. Land should not be allotted to people who convert to Zoroastrianism
  4. The Persian King should, in person, administer Armenia and though the aid of Governors or deputies.

Religious Beliefs under the Middle Sassanids

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Mithraism or the worship of Mithra is a cult which emerged as an offshoot of Magism. Mithra (The Middle Iranian Mehr or Mihr) was an old Aryan deity of the proto-Iranian period whose worship diminished during the first millennium B.C. due to the rise of orthodox Zoroastrianism and experienced a revival during the Parthian period. In the early years of the Christian era, the faith reached Greece and Rome through the Cilician pirates who had been captured by Pompey and transported to Rome.

It was not until the end of the first century that Mithraism reached Rome partly through Roman auxilaries fighting Persian troops in the East and partly through European travelers to the East. However, the origin and growth of Mithraism is mainly attributed to the recruitment of inhabitants of Cappadocia and Commagene to serve in the Roman army. These recruits worshiped Mithra thereby encouraging their Roman compatriots to do the same. These Roman soldiers introduced the worship of Mithra in a large scale throughout Europe. The faith had reached Rome in a few years where Mithra was worshiped as the Sol Invictus of the Invincible Sun. Its worship was promoted by the Roman Emperors who projected the idea that the Emperor of Rome was the personification of Sol Invictus or the Royal Sun around whom the subjects revolved. The worshipers of Mithra established Mithraeums and the faith was the dominant faith in the Roman Empire till the rise of Christianity. Germany had the largest number of these so-called Mithraeums. However, the rise of Christianity put an end to the Persian faith once and for all. Meanwhile, in the country of its birth, the worship of Mithra was rapidly superseded by the worship of Ahura Mazda.

Christianity, when it became the dominant faith in the Roman Empire in the 3rd and 4th centuries AD adopted Mithraic symbols and representations. The most common portrayal of the young Mithra with a halo over his head was adopted to represent the baby Jesus Christ. December 25, the feast day of Mithra, was introduced into Christianity as Christmas.


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Zurvan was a post-Avestan Iranian God who was regarded as the father of both Ahura Mazda and Angra Mainyus. He is the personification of Infinite Time and Space; the Iranian conterpart of the Greek Chronos who fathered Zeus and was the ancestor of all Greek Gods. His worship might have been introduced during Alexander's Invasion of Persia or after as the concept of Zurvan itself seems to be of Greek origin. However, the worship of Zurvan became a dominant factor only in the early years of the Sassanid era. The Sassanian kings, themselves, are believed to be Zurvanites than Zoroastrians. Nevetheless, Kertir's edict at Behistun includes Zurvanites in its list of heretics. Zurvanism reached the pinnacle of glory during the post-Sassanid period when it spread to Balk and Sogdia. Nevertheless, Zurvanism declined during the 10th century AD and died away in a short while.


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