Sassanid Empire (224 – 651 A.D.) [Part 2]
After Bahram I successor, he chose his son Bahram II, rather than his brother Narseh (Narses), who had for a long time cherished dreams of inheriting the Sassanid throne. Because this succession was to Kaftir’s advantage, one cannot but suspect him of machinations: Narses seems to have been liberal toward religious minorities in the empire, whereas Bahram was more compliant with the wishes of the Zoroastrian priesthood and Kartir himself. At the outset of Bahram II’s reign, his brother revolted against him and was widely supported by the eastern provinces of the Sassanid Empire.
With great difficulty, the monarch put down the revolt, but almost simultaneously had to face a Roman invasion under Emperor Carus. Roman troops captured Ctesiphon, and Bahram was obliged to accept an unpalatable peace treaty, under which most of Mesopotamia was ceded to the Romans. Bahram II is commemorated in several rock reliefs. After Bahram II’s death, he was succeeded by his son Bahram III, who ruled for only a few months before he was deposed by his uncle Narses, the youngest son of Shapur I.
Once on the throne, Narses determined to regain the territory lost to the Romans by Bahram II, particularly Armenia and Mesopotamia. After some initial success, however, he was defeated and had to make peace with Rome. This peace lasted for forty years. By its terms, Armenia remained under Roman suzerainty, and the Sasanians withdrew from the disputed districts in Mesopotamia. Little information is available about the kingdom’s internal affairs, but ﬂag it is known that the religious persecutions of the previous years ceased, and toleration was again the order of the day. Towards the end of Narses’s reign, Armenia, which had been Zoroastrian for centuries, made Christianity its official state religion. Narses was succeeded by his son Hormoz II, who ruled for eight years.
Other than that he seems to have been a just and popular king, nothing is known about his reign. Hormoz’s son Azar-Narses assumed the throne but was deposed only three months afterward. The nobility, which may have rejected his tyrannous rule, gave the crown to Hormoz II’s infant son Shapur. Shapur II is credited with the longest reign in Iranian history seventy years. During his infancy and childhood, he was under the sway of the nobility, but on gaining his majority he took the control of his kingdom into his own hands. During Shapur’s rule, strong fortiﬁcations were built for defense against nomadic enemies’ north of the Caucasus, and the Romans in Mesopotamia. Shapur settled Arabs in Iraq as a permanent defense force against other Arabs of the desert, especially those allied with Rome.
The army was reorganized. This allowed the success of new military campaigns against Rome in the west, and the nomadic Hephthalites in the east. In 364, Roman Emperor Jovian was forced to accept an ignominious peace, yielding Armenia and most Roman holdings in Mesopotamia to Shapur II. The rule of Shapur II is marred by his severe persecution of the Christians. Particularly after Christianity became the ofﬁcial religion of the Roman Empire. The three centers of Christianity in the Sassanid Empire Ctesiphon, Arbela (modern Irbil in northern Iran), and Khuzestan suffered the most.
Reacting to Rome’s adoption of the Christian religion, Shapur felt the need to consolidate Zoroastrianism, and efforts were made to perfect and enforce state orthodoxy. Competition between Iran and Rome Byzantium thus took on a religious dimension. Shapur II was succeeded by Ardashir II, whom the nobility deposed after a reign of fewer than four years because of his tyranny over them. After Ardashir II, the throne passed to Shapur III, son of Shapur II. During his reign, the country experienced much external pressure. Once again Armenia became a bone of contention between the Roman and Sassanid empires. To make matters worse, nomad tribes threatened the country, and once, bands of Huns from north of the Caucasus even overran the Sassanid defenses to invade the northwestern part of the Sassanid Empire and the Roman territories as far as Syria and Cappadocia.
Shapur III died under mysterious circumstances and was succeeded by his son Bahram IV, of whose reign nothing is known. After his death, the throne passed to Bahram’s son Yazdgerd. Yazdgerd I is viewed differently by Christian and Zoroastrian sources. The former praise his clemency, while the latter refers to him as “Yazdgerd the Sinful”. This ambiguous reputation has been attributed to the king because of his pro-Christian sentiments, and his lack of sympathy for the Zoroastrian priests. Yazdgerd’s reported friendship with Bishop Marutha, sent by the Byzantine Emperor as an ambassador to Iran, may have been vitally signiﬁcant in changing the king’s policy towards religious minorities.
Under Yazdgerd’s patronage, the Christians of the Sassanid Empire held a council in Seleucia. This council created an organized Christian hierarchy and worked out rules for the local community. As a result, relations with the Byzantine Empire improved, and Emperor Arcadius went so far as to ask Yazdgerd to act as a guardian for his son which the Persian ruler did after Arcadius’s death. Yazdgerd is also known to have had a Jewish wife, which fact was certainly inﬂuential in improving the position of the Jews in the land. Toward the end of his rule, Yazdgerd, however, was forced to repress the Christians who in their growing fanaticism began to destroy fire temples and attack Zoroastrian priests. At Yazdgerd’s death, the nobles refused to allow any of his sons to ascend the throne. One of the sons, however, successfully challenged the nobility and was crowned as Bahram V. Perhaps he was able to persuade the nobles that he possessed, which
was an essential attribute of kingship. Surnamed Gur (“Wild Ass”). reputedly because of his skill in hunting onagers. Bahram became a favorite of Persian popular tradition, which exuberantly celebrates his prowess in hunting and love. He came to symbolize the very concept of the king at the height of the golden age and was the embodiment of royal prosperity. It was during his time that the greatest pieces of Sassanid literature and music were composed, and sports such as polo, which to this day endure as the “sport of kings”, became royal pastimes. Shortly after his accession, the persecution of Christians in the Sassanid Empire was resumed, probably at the instigation of Zoroastrian priests.
Many Christians ﬂed to Byzantium. Bahram sought their extradition, but Byzantine Emperor Theodosius II refused. War broke out, and the Byzantines were successful in a series of skirmishes. Bahram sought peace and granted freedom of worship to the Christians. Shortly after the end of the war, the Christians of the Sassanid Empire in a synod proclaimed the autonomy of the Persian church. This took place before the rise of Nestorianism.
During the ﬁnal years of Bahram’s reign, the eastern provinces of the Sassanid Empire were again threatened by the Hephthalites. Bahram managed to force them back, but the nomads continued to harass and weaken the Sasanians. In his internal policies, Bahram was assisted by the famous prime minister Mehr-Narses, who came to ofﬁce in Yazdgerd I’s last years and continued his activities under Bahram’s successor, Yazdgerd II. Yazdgerd II began his career by resuming the war with Byzantium.
The Byzantine Emperor, however, persuaded him to make peace. Yazdgerd then turned to his eastern borders, and for a time established his capital in Nishapur in Khorasan to be better able to pursue the war against his eastern enemies. For a while, the Sassanid army managed to maintain peace along the eastern, frontier. This being the case, Yazdgerd, urged by Mehr-Narses, was able to turn his attention to Armenia, which he had decided to convert to Zoroastrianism. The civil war broke out in Armenia, and Sasanians easily won the Battle of Avarayr, remembered with strong feelings by Armenians to this day. The Sasanians, however, had to give up their plans for the Armenians conversion.