SSS6. Shahpur II, The Great (Part 1)

Bust of King Shahpur II

King Shahpur II ruled from 309 to 379 CE, a very long period, almost from his cradle to his grave. In fact, he was crowned even before he was born, by placing the crown on his mother’s belly when she was pregnant.

In his long reign, Shahpur II dealt with ten Roman emperors and fought several battles with the Arabs and the Romans. He established a learning tradition in Iran, which became the foundation for later Islamic and European traditions of learning and medicine. It was on account of his achievements on and off the field, that he achieved the title “Great”. Forty days after Shahpur was born, the child was made to lie on the throne and a crown was suspended over its head. Shahrui, a wise and elderly priest, was appointed his caretaker. He looked after the interests of the child as well as the state in a just manner.

Infant Shahpur with a crown on his head

It is stated that even as a five year old, the young Shahpur started taking interest in the affairs of the state. One evening, in the capital city of Ctesiphon, located to the south of the present city of Baghdad in Iraq, the child heard great commotion and inquired about it. He was told that the people returning home from work had a single bridge to cross the river, and hence the commotion, since everyone was in a hurry to reach home before dark. The child pondered for a moment and then suggested that a second bridge be immediately built from the royal treasury to ease the problem. The priests and noblemen were highly impressed by the child’s wisdom.

Soon the young king was seven and his education in warfare, statesmanship and sports commenced. It took him just a year to complete his training. He ordered that Istakhra be made his capital, so that he could stay in the palace of his glorious ancestors.

The Arabs

The Arabs first started serious inroads into Iran when the boy-emperor Shahpur was very young. They frequently attacked from the south, raided, looted and occupied a considerable part of south-western Iran including Pars and Khuzistan. They, came upto Mesopotamia and had intentions of reaching Ctesiphon. The advisors and ministers of the young emperor were not able to stop them.

Then, in 325, a young sixteen year old Shahpur took things in his hands. He commanded the army and ordered it to crush the Arabs and expel them. He secured a brilliant victory. As he grew up, he successfully continued his onslaught on the Arabs, and soon all Arab occupied territories were liberated.

Later on, once again, Tāyar, the Yemeni king, gathered a huge army and approached Ctesiphon. Shahpur too prepared his army, went to war and forced Tāyar to retreat, who returned to Yemen and shut himself up in a fort. Shahpur and his army followed Tāyar to Yemen, and laid a seize to the fort for a month. It was difficult for Shahpur and his army to get entry into the fort. Just then, the Yemeni princess Mallekah, who happened to be the grand-daughter of Iranian king Narseh, saw Shahpur from the fort and fell in love with him. She asked her attendant to invite him on her behalf, and inform him that one part of her ancestry was Iranian. She promised him help to win the fort.

Princess Mallekah watching king Shahpur II

That night the attendant went to Shahpur and narrated the proposal. He immediately accepted her offer, pledged his commitment to her and sent back a diadem, bracelets and a rich silk chador (head dress).

The next day the young princess went into the fort. She took the store room keys and sent a lot of food and wine to the rooms of all the senior courtiers and army commanders. Then she went to the wine-pourer and asked him to give the stiffest, undiluted wine to king Tāyar in the evening and keep pouring it till he was fast asleep.

At night, as per the plan, all senior noblemen wined and dined and so did the king. Then, under the influence of the wine, all of them fell fast asleep. Mallekah ordered the guards to open the gates of the fort. Shahpur and his army entered without much difficulty. They mercilessly attacked and massacred the Arabs. Tāyar too was killed.

Shahpur was ruthless in his treatment to the defeated. He had his Arab prisoners led in captivity across the desert on a rope threaded through their pierced shoulders. Hence he came to be known among the Arabs by the dreaded name Zu-al-aktāf “One who pierces shoulders”. The jubilant Shahpur returned back to Pars with Mallekah.

In order to keep the Arabs from mounting further attacks, Shahpur II constructed a defensive wall close to the city of Hira, which came to be known as Var-i-Tāzigān “wall of the Arabs” and Khandak-i-Shahpur “the defense of Shahpur”.

Many months passed peacefully and uneventfully. One evening, when Shahpur summoned the astronomers and asked about his future, they told him that as time goes by, many problems would afflict him, but he would be overcome them all.

To Rome in disguise

Shahpur II had to continuously contend with Romans during his long reign. He ruled during the reigns of ten Roman emperors, and fought wars against five of them – Constantine II (337-340), Constantius II (340-361),  Julian (361-363), Jovian (363-364) and Valens (364-378). During the course of his reign, Shahpur had to contend with the Roman emperors almost continuously and he fought ten battles against them.

Though Constantine the Great (306-337) had made preparations for war with Shahpur, he died before he could launch the attack. Constantius II attacked Armenia, Nisibis, Mesopotamia and Singara and there were long drawn battles, most of which ended in stalemates.

It must be towards the end of the reign of Constantine II or the early years of Constantius II that the episode of the Shahnameh, in which Shahpur decides to go to Rome in disguise, must have taken place. We are told that Shahpur visited Rome as a trader, taking into confidence his senior ministers, to see how the Caesar administered his army and treasury and whether he was satisfied with his strength and might.

When Shahpur, in disguise, visited the Roman court, there an expelled Iranian cleric recognised his king and told the Caesar that the Iranian trader looked and talked like the Iranian emperor. Shahpur was immediately taken prisoner, sewed up in a thick leather bag made from donkey hide, and kept in a deep dungeon.

The key of the dungeon was handed over to the Queen who entrusted it to her attendant. Luckily, the attendant was of Iranian descent and hence sympathetic towards the Iranian prisoner. She was assigned the task to give him food and water, just enough to keep him alive.

In the meanwhile, the Caesar took opportunity of the absence of the Iranian emperor and attacked Iran. Without a leader, the Iranians were in a very pitiable condition. People fled their houses and went into hiding. Many of them converted to Christianity and sought refuge in the church.

The attendant with the Iranian descent developed a soft corner for the imprisoned Shahpur. She used to cry everyday seeing his pitiable condition and his emaciated body. Shahpur too realized that she was in great pain seeing his condition, as she had developed an attachment to him. One day, when the attendant asked him about his identity, he trusted her and revealed his whole story. The attendant showed readiness to help him in any which way he wanted. Shahpur asked her to get hot milk every night and pour it on the leather sack in which he was sown. This would gradually make the leather soft and he would be able to tear it and break free. The attendant did as she was told and soon enough Shahpur was able to break free from the tight leather casing in which he was bound.

King Shahpur tied up in a bag in a dungeon

Shahpur thereafter asked the attendant to devise a plan whereby they could flee to Iran. The attendant revealed that the following day was a Roman holiday and the Queen and courtiers would go for a feast. She could make arrangements for two horses, some weapons and precious stones and then they can flee at night.

True to her words, she made arrangements as planned, and at night both of them fled Rome. They rode tirelessly for hours without food or rest. Then they took shelter in the house of a sympathetic gardener, introducing themselves as Iranians fleeing the Roman Caesar. The gardener told Shahpur that Iran was in a bad condition, many Iranians had converted to Christianity and everyone was wondering where the emperor had gone. He then started crying for his emperor.

Seeing the gardener’s love for his emperor, Shahpur revealed his identity. The gardener could not believe his good fortune of having the emperor as his house-guest. The next morning the emperor called for the gardener. He requested him to get a barsom (a ritual implement) and a prayer book. With these in hands he swore the gardener to utmost secrecy.

Then Shahpur asked the gardener whether he knew the whereabouts of his senior minister. When the gardener answered in the affirmative, he was asked to get some wax. The emperor imprinted his royal seal on the wax and asked the gardener to cautiously take it to the minister.

The gardener did as he was told. The minister was thrilled to see his emperor’s seal. He inquired with the gardener about the looks and build of the person who gave him the seal. When convinced of the identity, the minister was overjoyed that his emperor was back, and asked him for further instructions. The emperor sent a message to the minister to inform the Commander and ask him to re-gather his army. Soon the news spread that the emperor was returning, and so people started returning to their houses.

The Commander met the emperor in his house, where a makeshift court was held. Shahpur narrated his travails in Rome and his fortunate escape, for which he expressed his gratitude to the Iranian attendant. He further informed them to keep his identity a secret as the Roman Caesar should not know their plans till the minister gets the army ready and they are prepared to launch an attack.

Soon the Minister came with an army of six thousand soldiers. It seemed a small army, but Shahpur was confident of victory as his spies had informed him that the Caesar’s army was scattered all over. Moreover the Roman king was over-confident since he did not perceive threat from any side as he thought that the Iranian emperor was in his custody.

Still Shahpur played it safe. He took three thousand of his best soldiers and marched towards Ctesiphon. He moved only during the night through remote jungles and mountains. One night he attacked the Roman camp and took the Caesar and his men by surprise. More than twelve thousand soldiers were killed. The next day Shahpur sent messages to all the allies of Rome asking them to send tributes to him, as he was their new lord. He then ordered the imprisoned Caesar to be brought to him. The Caesar pleaded for his life. Shahpur reprimanded him for not following the protocol and imprisoning him when he had come as a trader.

The Roman Caeser pleading for his life before King Shahpur II

He still forgave the Caesar on the condition that he return the looted treasures, rebuild whatever he had destroyed in Iran at his own cost and plant all the trees he had cut. He then enchained the Caesar and sent him to prison. The Romans blamed the Caesar for their pitiable conditions. The Iranians on the other hand felt that their emperor’s actions had been vindicated.

SSS5. Shahpur I

King Shahpur I (240-271)

Shahpur I was the king from 240 to 271 CE. He was the son and successor of Ardeshir was crowned emperor at Ctesiphon on 20th March, 240 CE. For the first two years, he co-ruled with his father. At the time of coronation, as per the tradition, he gave an admonition in presence of his council of ministers comprising of wise men, elders and priests. He assured the council that he will follow the policies of his father in all matters, including collecting only three percent tax from his people. He continued the conquests and expansion of the empire.

Shahpur and Roman Emperor Gordianus

Soon after becoming the king, Shahpur stormed the defenses of the city of Hatra, which had proved to be a bugbear not only to his father but also to Romans. Then he captured the fortress city of Nisibis, followed by Antioch and Carrhae.

In 243 CE, the Roman emperor Gordianus III came with an army of Goth and German soldiers, successfully defeated Shahpur and took control of the cities of Mesopotamia, Nisibis, Antioch and Carrhae.

However, in a later war in 244, Shahpur defeated and killed Gordianus, at Misikhe near Ctesiphon close to the Euphrates river. There he established a city called Firoz-Shahpur “Victorious Shahpur”.

Shahpur and Roman Emperor Philip the Arab

The next Roman Caesar was Philip the Arab (244-253), who was a soldier-emperor. He instigated the provinces upto Kaydafah in North Africa against the Iranians. Then the Caesar and Roman army under the leadership of General Belisarius (Bazanush), set off to attack the Iranians. The Iranian army under commander Kersasp went to defend, and met the Romans at Paluniyah.

Shahpur I and Philip’s armies at Paluniyah

In 252, a bloody battle was fought in which thousands of Romans were killed and seventy thousand were taken prisoners. The Romans were badly defeated. The Caesar of Rome asked for truce by ceding the territories of Armenia and Mesopotamia and paying him five lakh denarii as tax. Shahpur waited at the battle camp till the taxes arrived with several other gifts. However, Philip reneged on the peace treaty and attacked again. Shahpur was prepared for the attack and conclusively defeated him in 253. To celebrate this victory, he established the city of Nishāpur.

Shahpur and Roman Emperor Valerian

Valerian (253-260), the next Roman Caesar, was keen to destroy Shahpur. However he miscalculated the massive might of the Sasanians. After some preliminary victories, Valerian was crushed by Shahpur in 260 in the battle of Edessa. Valerian was captured along with seventy thousand Roman soldiers. Never in the history of Rome, had a Roman emperor been captured alive. It was one of the most humiliating military losses in Roman history. To celebrate this conclusive victory Shahpur built a city called Shahpur-gard close to the site of victory. He also established a city to house the Roman prisoners of wars. The Roman Caesar Valerian was also detained along with the other prisoners.

Roman emperors pleading before Shahpur I’s in a bas-relief at Naksh-i-Rustam

While returning, the Sasanian and Roman armies passed the city of Shustar in the province of Khuzistan, where they had great difficulty in crossing the river Karun. Shahpur in his wisdom asked Valerian to make use of the Roman ingenuity in engineering and wealth from Iranian treasures. He entrusted him the task of building a dam-bridge on the river Karun with the help of the captured soldiers. Shahpur assured him that he will be released once he completed this task. It is said that Valerian took three years and made a beautiful bridge which stands even today and is known as Band-e-Kaisar.

Valerian was kept a prisoner for some time. Even today, in the ruins of the city of Bishāpur lies a place marked Zindān-e-Valerian “Valerian’s prison”. What happened to Valerian in the end is not conclusively known. Some believe, he met with his end in Iran. Others maintain that Valerian was honourably allowed to return to Rome.

Thus Shahpur became the one and only emperor in world history who defeated three successive Roman Caesars, killing one, making another a tributary, and the unprecedented achievement of capturing and taking the third as a prisoner.

Emergence of High priest Kartir

High priest Kartir with his inscription on a bas-relief at Nakhsh-i-Rajab

Religion was always given a lot of importance by Ardeshir, and his son Shahpur was no different. The chief Zoroastrian priest during his time was Kartir, who tried to establish standard and uniform Zoroastrian religious laws which were quite strict and stringent. He made an attempt to put in writing the scattered Avesta Nasks. He also tried to establish the superiority of the priests over the rulers. Kartir remained a very influential figure in Sasanian history and remained the religious head for several successive Sasanian kings.


Mithraism was prevalent is Shahpur’s time and was popular among Sasanian and Roman troops. In fact, the movement started in 100 CE and lasted till 400 CE. It was at its zenith during this period and was spread all over Europe into the Balkans, Italy and England.


We come to know from sources other than Firdausi, that in the reign of Shahpur emerged a heretic by the name Māni. He was born in 216 to Iranian parents and believed to have visions since the age of four. He was a good orator, and he claimed to be a prophet. When Māni was about twenty, he had a spiritual vision, and he came forward as a new prophet.

His philosophy was a synthesis of various existing religions like Zoroastrianism, Hinduism, Buddhism and Christianity, and hence not confined by national borders. Initially his teachings were well received. Māni claimed that Hormazd and Ahreman were equals. He identified evil with matter and good with spirit. His dietary laws forbid the eating of animal products. There was an antipathy towards sexual activity. Zoroastrian and Christian priests vehemently opposed his stand.  He could not substantiate his arguments in the debates that ensued.

Mani preaching to the masses

Mani was introduced to the king Shapur I by prince Peroz. The king was duly impressed by him and made him an honorary member of the court, where he started to preach his doctrine.

Opposition to Mani’s views grew stronger and at last Shahpur had to advise Mani to leave the country. Mani left Iran for many years, and wandered all over Central Asia, including Syria, Palestine and Egypt. He even went as far east as China. Manichaeism spread towards the east into Spain, Greece, Illyria, Italy and Gaul. So vast was his influence that his works were found extensively in Sogdian, Old Turkish and Chinese. A Turkish king officially endorsed Manichaeism as the state religion.

After the death of Shahpur I in May 272 CE, Mani returned to Iran and was well-received by Shahpur’s successor Hormazd I, but when Hormazd died after a very short reign, his successor, Bahram I, showed strong dislike for Mani. His head priest Kartir tortured Mani and put him to death in 276. Mani’s followers were banned throughout the Iranian Empire, and hence they migrated to the west and south. Mani’s faith continued in the East till about the 17th century CE. Shahpur I has commemorated his victories over the three Roman emperors in one single consolidated rock relief at Nakhsh-i-Rustom, in one of the most majestic and well-preserved reliefs. In fact, this place got its name from this relief where the majestic looking king Shahpur I was mistaken for the great warrior Rustom.  Nearby, at Kābā-i-Zardusht, Shahpur I has also left a long description of his conquests which is the first long testament by a Sasanian king.