The Sassanid Empire

226–651 A.D.



Shapur I 241 - 272


Shapur succeeded his father in 240 or 241 A.D. Upon hearing of the death of Ardashir, both Armenia and Hatra revolted . The revolt in Armenia was easily crushed and the Armenians made no further effort to free themselves till several years after his death. . Hatra, however, with its great walls could withstand a siege, an art of war Sassanids were poor at .According to legend the king of Hatra ( Manizen ) had a daughter who wished to marry Shapur, and was willing to betray the city, which she did. Hatra was captured, but Shapur broke his promise and handed the daughter to the executioner .



 The Colossal Statue of Shapur I

  the Cave of Shapur and also the colossal sculpture of the Sasanian king Shapur I.


First Campaign against Rome 241 - 244


Gordian III


Shapur resolved (apparently in A.D. 241) to resume the bold projects of his father, and engage in a great war with Rome. The confusion and troubles which afflicted the Roman Empire at this time were such as might well give him hopes of obtaining a decided advantage. Alexander, his father's adversary, had been murdered in A.D. 235 by Maximin, who from the condition of a Thracian peasant had risen into the higher ranks of the army. The upstart had ruled like the savage that he was; and, after three years of misery, the whole Roman world had risen against him and Maximin was assassinated. Two emperors had been proclaimed in Africa; on their fall, two others had been elected by the Senate; a third, a mere boy, had been added at the demand of the Roman populace. All the pretenders except the last had met with violent deaths; and, after the shocks of a year unparalleled since A.D. 69, the administration of the greatest kingdom in the world was in the hands of a youth of fifteen, Gordian III. Sapor, no doubt, thought he saw in this condition of things an opportunity that he ought not to miss, and rapidly matured his plans lest the favorable moment should pass away.


Founded around 226 AD, in Persia, the Sassanian Empire lasted over 400 years as a grand imperial rival to Rome. In modern day Iran, just down the road from the ancient Persian capital of Persepolis, there is a picture carved into a rock. It depicts a king, triumphant on horseback, facing two defeated enemies. This is no pair of petty princes, they are Roman Emperors - Philip and Valerian - and the king towering above them is Shapur I of the Sassanian Empire.

Crossing the middle Tigris into Mesopotamia, the bands of Shapur first attacked the important city of Nisibis. Nisibis ( south-eastern Turkey ) , at this time a Roman colony, was strongly situated on the outskirts of the mountain range which traverses Northern Mesopotamia between the 37th and 38th parallels. The place was well fortified and well defended; it offered a prolonged resistance; but at last the Avails were breached, and it was forced to yield itself. The advance was then made along the southern flank of the mountains, by Carrhae (Harran) and Edessa to the Euphrates, which was probably reached in the neighborhood of Birehjik, The hordes then poured into Syria, and, spreading themselves over that fertile region, surprised and took the metropolis of the Roman East, the rich and luxurious city of Antioch.


Gordian III victory and death


But meantime the Romans had shown a spirit which had not been expected from them. When the young emperor, Gordian, the young emperor opened the doors of the Temple of Janus for the last time in Roman history, and sent a huge army to the East, lead by good general. Timesitheus, whose daughter Gordian had recently married, though his life had hitherto been that of a civilian, exhibited, on his elevation to the dignity of Praetorian prefect, considerable military ability. The army, nominally commanded by Gordian, really acted under his orders. With it Timesitheus attacked and beat the bands of Sapor in a number of engagements, recovered Antioch, crossed the Euphrates, retook Carrhae, defeated the Persian monarch in a pitched battle near Resaina in 243 (Ras-el-Ain), recovered Nisibis, and once more planted the Roman standards on the banks of the Tigris. Shapur hastily evacuated most of his conquests, and retired first across the Euphrates and then across the more eastern river; while the Romans advanced as he retreated, placed garrisons in the various Mesopotamian towns, and even threatened the great city of Ctesiphon. Gordian was confident that his general would gain further triumphs, and wrote to the Senate to that effect; but either disease or the assassination cut short the career of the Timesitheus, and from the time of his death the Romans ceased to be successful.  


Phillip the Arab





Phillip the Arab now took command and the Sassanids counter attacked near modern Fallujah  and won a victory .At this point the young emperor died, either from sickess or murdered by Phillip, depending on the source .The death of the young emperor caused the withdrawl of the legions and Phillip the Arab made peace with Shapur by which Armenia seems to have been left to the Persians, while Mesopotamia returned to its old condition of a Roman province and quit the east in 244 .



 Phillip the Arab




The peace made between Philip and Sapor was followed by an interval of fourteen years, during which scarcely anything is known of the condition of Persia. We may suspect that troubles in the north-east of his empire occupied Sapor during this period, for at the end of it we find Bactria, which was certainly subject to Persia during the earlier years of the monarchy, occupying an independent position, and even assuming an attitude of hostility towards the Persian monarch. Bactria had, from a remote antiquity, claims to pre-eminence among the Aryan nations. She was more than once inclined to revolt from the Achaemenids; and during the later Parthian period she had enjoyed a sort of semi-independence. It would seem that she now succeeded in detaching herself altogether from her southern neighbor, and becoming a distinct and separate power. To strengthen her position she entered into relations with Rome, which gladly welcomed any adhesions to her cause in this remote region .


Second war with Rome 258 - 260 Capture of Valerian 260


Phillip the Arba kneels before Shapor,

Valerian seized by the sleeve



Sapor's second war with Rome was, like his first, provoked by himself. After concluding his peace with Philip, he had seen the Roman world governed successively by six weak emperors, of whom four had died violent deaths, while at the same time there had been a continued series of attacks upon the northern frontiers of the empire by Alemanni, Goths, and Franks, who had ravaged at their will a number of the finest provinces, and threatened the absolute destruction of the great monarchy of the West. It was natural that the chief kingdom of Western Asia should note these events, and should seek to promote its own interests by taking advantage of the circumstances of the time. Shapur, in A.D. 258, determined on a fresh invasion of the Roman provinces, and, once more entering Mesopotamia, carried all before him, became master of Nisibis, Carrhae, and Edessa, and, crossing the Euphrates, surprised Antioch, which was wrapped in the enjoyment of theatrical and other representations, and only knew its fate on the exclamation of a couple of actors "that the Persians were in possession of the town."


Antioch was sacked and the bishop was captured and taken to Iran. 60,000 Roman prisoners were claimed to have been taken at the battle of Barbalissus. The aged emperor, Valerian, hastened to the protection of his more eastern territories, and at first gained some successes, retaking Antioch, and making that city his headquarters during his stay in the East. But, after this, the tide turned. Valerian entrusted the whole conduct of the war to Macrianus, his Praetorian prefect, whose talents he admired, and of whose fidelity he did not entertain a suspicion.


Macrianus, however, aspired to the empire, and intentionally brought Valerian into difficulties, in the hope of disgracing or removing him. His tactics were successful. The Roman army in Mesopotamia was betrayed into a situation whence escape was impossible, and where its capitulation was only a question of time. A bold attempt' made to force a way through the enemy's lines failed utterly, after which famine and pestilence began to do their work.


In vain did the aged emperor send envoys to propose a peace, and offer to purchase escape by the payment of an immense sum in gold. Sapor, confident of victory, refused the overture, and, waiting patiently till his adversary was at the last gasp, invited him to a conference, and then treacherously seized his person close to Edessa. The army surrendered or dispersed. Shapur's victory inscription claims 70,000 prisoners were taken and 36 cities plundered .


Despite these dramatic successes, the Sassanids failed to impose any formal control over the region and looked on it as a source of plunder.


Macrianus, the traitorous Praetorian prefect, shortly assumed the title of emperor, and marched against Gallienus, the son and colleague of Valerian, who had been left to direct affairs in the West. But another rival started up in the East. Sapor conceived the idea of complicating the Roman affairs by himself putting forward a pretender; and an obscure citizen of Antioch, a certain Miriades or Cyriades, a refugee in his camp, was invested with the purple, and assumed the title of Caesar.


 Shapur putting forward a pretender, Miriades


Miriades installed in power, Shapur retakes Asia Minor


The blow struck at Edessa laid the whole of Roman Asia open to attack, and the Persian monarch was not slow to seize the occasion. His troops crossed the Euphrates in force, and, marching on Antioch, once more captured that unfortunate town, from which the more prudent citizens had withdrawn, but where the bulk of the people, not displeased at the turn of affairs, remained and welcomed the conqueror. Miriades was installed in power, while Sapor himself, at the head of his irresistible squadrons, pressed forward, bursting "like a mountain torrent" into Cilicia and thence into Cappadocia. Tarsus, the birthplace of St. Paul, at once a famous seat of learning and a great emporium of commerce, fell; Cilicia Campestris was overrun; and the passes of Taurus, deserted or weakly defended by the Romans, came into Sapor's hands.


Penetrating through them and entering the champaign country beyond, his bands soon formed the siege of Caesarea Mazaca, the greatest city of these parts, estimated, at this time to have contained a population of four hundred thousand souls. Demosthenes, the governor of Caesarea, defended it bravely, and, had force only been used against him, might have prevailed; but Sapor found friends within the walls, and by their help made himself master of the place, while its bold defender was obliged to content himself with escaping by cutting his way through the victorious host.

All Asia Minor now seemed open to the conqueror; and it is difficult to understand why he did not at any rate attempt a permanent occupation of the territory which he had so easily overrun. But it seems certain that he entertained no such idea. Devastation and plunder, revenge and gain, not permanent conquest, were his objects; and hence his course was everywhere marked by ruin and carnage, by smoking towns, ravaged fields, and heaps of slain. His cruelties have no doubt been exaggerated; but when we hear that he filled the ravines and valleys of Cappadocia with dead bodies, and so led his cavalry across them; that he depopulated Antioch, killing or carrying off into slavery almost the whole population; that he suffered his prisoners in many cases to perish of hunger, and that he drove them to water once a day like beasts, we may be sure that the guise in which he showed himself to the Romans was that of a merciless scourge—an avenger bent on spreading the terror of his name—not of one who really sought to enlarge the limits of his empire.


Emesa fights off Shapur


During the whole course of this plundering expedition, until the retreat began, we hear but of one check that the bands of Sapor received. It had been determined to attack Emesa (now Hems), one of the most important of the Syrian towns, where the temple of Venus was known to contain a vast treasure. The invaders approached, scarcely expecting to be resisted; but the high priest of the temple, having collected a large body of peasants, appeared, in his sacerdotal robes, at the head of a fanatic multitude armed with slings, and succeeded in beating off the assailants. Emesa, its temple, and its treasure, escaped the rapacity of the Persians; and an example of resistance was set, which was not perhaps without important consequences.


A letter angers Shapur


For it seems certain that the return of Sapor across the Euphrates was not effected without considerable loss and difficulty. On his advance into Syria he had received an embassy from a certain Odenathus, a Syrian or Arab chief, who occupied a position of semi-independence at Palmyra, which, through the advantages of its situation, had lately become a flourishing commercial town. Odenathus sent a long train of camels laden with gifts, consisting in part of rare and precious merchandise, to the Persian monarch, begging him to accept them, and claiming his favorable regard on the ground that he had hitherto refrained from all acts of hostility against the Persians. It appears that Sapor took offence at the tone of the communication, which was not sufficiently humble to please him. Tearing the letter to fragments and trampling it beneath his feet, he exclaimed—"Who is this Odenathus, and of what country, that he ventures thus to address his lord? Let him now, if he would lighten his punishment, come here and fall prostrate before me with his hands tied behind his back. Should he refuse, let him be well assured that I will destroy himself, his race, and his land." At the same time he ordered his servants to cast the costly presents of the Palmyrene prince into the Euphrates.


Odenathus' revenge


This arrogant and offensive behavior naturally turned the willing friend into an enemy. Odenathus, finding himself forced into a hostile position, took arms and watched his opportunity. So long as Sapor continued to advance, he kept aloof. As soon, however, as the retreat commenced, and the Persian army, encumbered with its spoil and captives, proceeded to make its way back slowly and painfully to the Euphrates, Odenathus, who had collected a large force, in part from the Syrian villages, in part from the wild tribes of Arabia, made his appearance in the field. His light and agile horsemen hovered about the Persian host, cut off their stragglers, made prize of much of their spoil, and even captured a portion of the seraglio of the Great King. The harassed troops were glad when they had placed the Euphrates between themselves and their pursuer, and congratulated each other on their escape. So much had they suffered, and so little did they feel equal to further conflicts, that on their march through Mesopotamia they consented to purchase the neutrality of the people of Edessa by making over to them all the coined money that they had carried off in their Syrian raid. After this it would seem that the retreat was unmolested, and Sapor succeeded in conveying the greater part of his army, together with his illustrious prisoner, to his own country.


Odenathus restores Roman rule in the East




The hostile feeling of Odenathus against Sapor did not cease with the retreat of the latter across the Euphrates. The Palmyrene prince was bent on taking advantage of the general confusion of the times to carve out for himself a considerable kingdom, of which Palmyra should be the capital. Syria and Palestine on the one hand, Mesopotamia on the other, were the provinces that lay most conveniently near to him, and that he especially coveted. But Mesopotamia had remained in the possession of the Persians as the prize of their victory over Valerian, and could only be obtained by wresting it from the hands into which it had fallen. Odenathus did not shrink from this contest. It had been with some reason conjectured that Shapur must have been at this time occupied with troubles which had broken out on the eastern side of his empire.


At any rate, it appears that Odenathus, after a short contest with Macriarius and his son, Quietus, turned his arms once more, about A.D. 263, against the Persians, crossed the Euphrates into Mesopotamia, took Oarrhee and Nisibis, defeated Sapor and some of his sons in a battle, and drove the entire Persian host in confusion to the gates of Ctesiphon. He even ventured to form the siege of that city; but it was not long before effectual relief arrived; from all the provinces flocked in contingents for the defence of the Western capital; several engagements were fought, in some of which Odenathus was defeated; and at last he found himself involved in difficulties through his ignorance of the localities, and so thought it best to retire. Apparently his retreat was undisturbed; he succeeded in carrying off his booty and his prisoners, among whom were several satraps, and he retained possession of Mesopotamia, which continued to form a part of the Palmyrene kingdom until the capture of Zenobia by Aurelian (A.D. 273).


The successes of Odenathus in A.D. 263 were followed by a period of comparative tranquillity. That ambitious prince seems to have been content with ruling from the Tigris to the Mediterranean, and with the titles of "Augustus," which he received from the Roman emperor, Gallienus, and "king of kings," which he assumed upon his coins. He did not press further upon Sapor; nor did the Roman emperor make any serious attempt to recover his father's person or revenge his defeat upon the Persians. An expedition which he sent out to the East, professedly with this object, in the year A.D. 267, failed utterly, its commander, Heraclianus, being completely defeated by Zenobia, the widow and successor of Odenathus. Odenathus himself was murdered by a kinsman three or four years after his great successes; and, though Zenobia ruled his kingdom almost with a man's vigor, the removal of his powerful adversary must have been felt as a relief by the Persian monarch. It is evident, too, that from the time of the accession of Zenobia, the relations between Rome and Palmyra had become unfriendly; the old empire grew jealous of the new kingdom which had sprung up upon its borders; and the effect of this jealousy, while it lasted, was to secure Persia from any attack on the part of either.


The fate of Valerian and his soldiers


Valerian in happier days


With regard to the treatment that Valerian received at the hands of his conqueror, it is difficult to form a decided opinion. The writers nearest to the time speak vaguely and moderately, merely telling us that he grew old in his captivity, and was kept in the condition of a slave. It is reserved for authors of the next generation to inform us that he was exposed to the constant gaze of the multitude, fettered, but clad in the imperial purple; and that Sapor, whenever he mounted on horseback, placed his foot upon his prisoner's neck. Some add that, when the unhappy captive died, about the year A.D. 265 or 266, his body was flayed, and the skin inflated and hung up to view in one of the most frequented temples of Persia, where it was seen by Roman envoys on their visits to the Great King's court.

It is impossible to deny that Oriental barbarism may conceivably have gone to these lengths; and it is in favor of the truth of the details that Roman vanity would naturally have been opposed to their invention. But, on the other hand, we have to remember that in the East the person of a king is generally regarded as sacred, and that self-interest restrains the conquering monarch from dishonoring one of his own class. We have also to give due weight to the fact that the earlier authorities are silent with respect to any such atrocities and that they are first related half a century after the time when they are said to have occurred. According to other historians, Valerian and some of his army lived in relatively good conditions in the city of Bishapur, the new capital of Shapur, which they helped to build .In all the stone reliefs in Naghshe-Rostam, in Iran, Valerian is show holding hands with Shapur I, in sign of submission and respect, as is seen in the tributes at Persepolis in the Achaemenid dynasty .



 Valerian was an aristrocratic Roman with a great reputation. This didn't stop him from being one of the most disastrous emperors in Roman history.


The public works of Shapur


Remains of Bishapur


It appears that Sapor, relieved from any further necessity of defending his empire in arms, employed the remaining years of his life in the construction of great works, and especially in the erection and ornamentation of a new capital , Bishapur. The ruins of Bishapur ( Shapur's City. ), which still exist near Kazerun, in the province of Fars, commemorate the name, and afford some indication of the grandeur, of the second Persian monarch.



 Video of Bishapur


The remains of Shapur's bridge dam, built in part

by captured Roman soldiers


Another important work, assigned by tradition to Shapur I., is the great dyke at Shuster. This is a dam across the river Karun, formed of cut stones, cemented by lime, and fastened together by clamps of iron; it is twenty feet broad, and no less than twelve hundred feet in length. The whole is a solid mass excepting in the centre, where two small arches have been constructed for the purpose of allowing a part of the stream to flow in its natural bed. The greater portion of the water is directed eastward into a canal cut for it; and the town of Shuster is thus defended on both sides by a water barrier, whereby the position becomes one of great strength. Tradition says that Sapor used his power over Valerian to obtain Roman engineers for this work; and the great dam is still known as the Bund-i-Kaisar, or "dam of Caesar," to the inhabitants of the neighboring country.


Nishapur, once a chief city in khorasan, was also founded

by Shapur .


The Manichaens


It was in Persia, and in the reign of Sapor, that one of the most remarkable of these well-meaning attempts at fusion and reconciliation that the whole of history can show was made, and with results which ought to be a lasting warning to the apostles of comprehension. A certain Mani (or Manes, as the ecclesiastical writers call him), born in Persia about A.D. 240, grew to manhood under Sapor, exposed to the various religious influences of which we have spoken. With a mind free from prejudice and open to conviction, he studied the various systems of belief which he found established in Western Asia—the Cabalism of the Babylonian Jews, the Dualism of the Magi, the mysterious doctrines of the Christians, and even the Buddhism of India. At first he inclined to Christianity, and is said to have been admitted to priest's orders and to have ministered to a congregation; but after a time he thought that he saw his way to the formation of a new creed, which should combine all that was best in the religious systems which he was acquainted with, and omit what was superfluous or objectionable. He adopted the Dualism of the Zoroastrians, the metempsychosis of India, the angelism and demonism of the Talmud, and the Trinitarianism of the Gospel of Christ. Christ himself he identified with Mithra, and gave Him his dwelling in the sun. He assumed to be the Paraclete promised by Christ, who should guide men into all truth, and claimed that his "Ertang," a sacred book illustrated by pictures of his own painting, should supersede the New Testament. Such pretensions were not likely to be tolerated by the Christian community; and Manes had not put them forward very long when he was expelled from the church and forced to carry his teaching elsewhere. Under these circumstances he is said to have addressed himself to Sapor, who was at first inclined to show him some favor; but when he found out what the doctrines of the new teacher actually were, his feelings underwent a change, and Manes, proscribed, or at any rate threatened with penalties, had to retire into a foreign country.


The extent of Shapur domains


 Shapur made a inscription on the Ka'ba-ye Zartosht or the ' Cube of Zoroaster ' at the tombs of the Achaemenid kings at Naqsh-e Rustam in which he claims thesassanid  conquests of : Fars, Media, Azerbaijan, Albania, Georgia, Armenia, Patishwager,Gorgan,Abarshar, Parthia, Hindu Kush, Aria, Merv,Kushanshahr, Turan, Seistan, Markan, India, Oman across Oman in Arabia 9 to contral the trade ) Khuzistan,Maishan,Asuristan, Arabistan.


 Death of Shapur , 271 A.D.


Sapor died, having reigned thirty-one years, from A.D. 240 to A.D. 271. He was undoubtedly one of the most remarkable princes of the Sassanian series. In military talent, indeed, he may not have equalled his father; for though he defeated Valerian, he had to confess himself inferior to Odenathus. But in general governmental ability he is among the foremost of the Neo-Persian monarch.






 Ardashir I


 Hormizd I