Kings of the Sasanian Dynasty
King Papak of Pars ruled under the last Parthian Emperor Ardavan. Sasan, a descendant of an ancient royal family, was in his service. When Papak came to know the royal antecedents of Sasan, he raised him to a high position in the court and married him to his daughter.
To them was born Artakhshir (Ardashir), who grew up to became an accomplished young prince. When emperor Ardavan heard of his fame, he invited him to his court at Rae, assuring him royal treatment. Artakhshir was sent there, where he excelled in royal arts, sports and military skills.
Once, when Artakhshir had gone hunting with emperor Ardavan and his princes, a quarrel arose over a hunting exploit. Artakhshir uttered harsh and challenging words to the princes in presence of Ardavan. Enraged, Ardavan deposed Artakhshir, appointed him the chief of the royal stables, and ordered him to stay there. Artakhshir obeyed the order, but felt that the emperor had treated him unjustly. This wounded his pride, and he nursed a grudge against him.
After some time Artakhshir escaped and fled to Pars, accompanied by princess Artadukht, whom he later married. Ardavan’s attempts to capture them proved futile. After he arrived in Pars, the nobles rallied round him, and helped him raise an army.
A battle ensued in which Ardavan and his sons were defeated. Artakhshir established his sovereignty, ascended the throne and assumed the title Shahan Shah-i-Eran “king of kings of Iran” in 226 AC.
Artakhshir captured Kurdistan, Kerman, Rome and Armenia. He proved to be a benevolent king, a valiant warrior, a skilful organizer, and an efficient administrator. He made Zoroastrianism the state religion and had many Atash Behrams built as a mark of thanksgiving. Great high priests like Dastur Tansar and Arda Viraf flourished under him.
Sons of Ardavan, who were imprisoned, instigated their sister, the queen, to take the life of her husband. The king found out this plot and exiled his pregnant queen for treachery. Later, in exile, she gave birth to a son, Shapur. She was later re-united with the king. Artakshir ruled till 241 AC.
Shahpur I, the son of Artakhshir, ascended the throne at 14. He was engaged in wars with the Romans throughout his reign. At that time internal dissentions and civil wars shook the Roman Empire. Shahpur took advantage of the internal conflict. He crossed the Tigris, marched into Mesopotemia, conquered Nisibis, invaded Syria and seized Antioch. But, later, the Iranian armies had to retreat and retire to the Tigris. In 244 AC, Philip was proclaimed Emperor, and he concluded a peace treaty with Iran.
In 254 AC, after four Roman emperors were murdered, Valerian became the Emperor. Shahpur marched into Rome and captured Valerian alive at Edessa. During his captivity, Valerian was ordered to make the Roman soldiers build a bridge over the river Karun at Shushtar, which was called Band-i-Kaisar. Its ruins exist even today. Shahpur reigned for 30 years, and passed away in 271 AC.
After Shahpur I, Hormazd I (271-272) Bahram I (272-275), Bahram II (275–292), Bahram III (292-293) Narsi (293-300) and Hormazd II (300-309) ruled. They were mostly occupied in wars with the Romans. A peace-treaty was concluded in 297 AC, as a result of which it was agreed to accept river Tigris as the boundary between the two Empires.
After Hormazd II, his son Azar-Narsi ascended the throne in 309, but was soon deposed. At that time, the Queen of Hormazd II was expecting a child, and it was decided that the throne should be given to the child when it was born. The Queen gave birth to a boy, who became famous as Shahpur II, the Great.
Shahpur II was proclaimed King when he was not even born. The coronation ceremony was performed when the child-king was 40 days old. The state affairs were carried on by a wise counsel named Shahroy. Shahpur took the reins when he was 16. He inflicted deterrent punishment on the Arab countries and also challenged the Roman power in Asia.
Shahpur pushed back the Romans from Tigris to Euphrates, which resulted in a long-drawn out war for 27 years in which nine battles were fought and won by Shahpur against emperor Constantine. In 348, Shahpur crossed the Tigris and surrounded the Roman army, but his son fell into the hands of the Romans, and was killed.
In 360 AC, Shahpur achieved success in war after many years. Roman emperor Constantius retreated, and died soon after. The new Emperor Julian marched into the Iranian territory, but had to retreat before the Iranian armies. In one encounter, Julian was wounded and he died later in 363 AC. The next Roman Emperor Jovian sued for peace, with the result that Shahpur achieved his objective.
Shahpur II was a great champion of Zoroastrian religion. The heretic Manichean movement started during the reign of Shapur I was put down by him. He checked the growth of Christian missionaries. The 21 Avesta Nasks were re-compiled by Dastur Adarbad Mahraspand during his reign. After an unusually long reign of about 70 years, Shahpur II passed away in 379 AC.
- ArtakhshirII (379-383), brother of Shahpur II, was deposed; 2. Shahpur III (383-388), son of Shahpur II, was killed. 3. Bahram IV (388-399), son of Shahpur III, was murdered by assassins.
Yazdgard I, son of Shahpur III, tried to be friendly to all. This made him controversial. In the Iranian and Arabic writings he is condemned as a, harsh, wrathful and wicked person. Roman Emperor Arcadius was so friendly with Yazdgard that he appointed him as the guardian of his son Theodosius and bequeathed a thousand pounds weight of pure gold as a token of good will. Yazdgard faithfully performed his duty as a guardian of the Roman prince. Yazdgard I passed away in 420 AC.
Yazdgard was so unpopular in Iran that nobody was willing to appoint any of his sons as his successor. At that time, Shahpur, one of Yazdgard’s son, was the king in Armenia. He rushed to Iran to claim the throne, but was killed. The royal council met to decide the issue, and they selected Khusro, an aged member of the royal family, to be the Emperor.
Bahram, another son of Yazdgard, who was brought up and trained in the court of king Munzir of Yemen, marched towards Iran with an army, but wisely avoided bloodshed by a sporting offer. He asked the imperial throne to be brought forth with the royal crown over it. Then he asked two savage lions to be chained on each side of the throne. The claimant to the throne would have to take the crown, place it upon his head and sit between the lions. Khusro and the Iranians accepted the offer. Bahram successfully accomplished this amazing feat of strength and courage, and was recognized as the monarch.
Bahram was a patron of arts, music and poetry. His prowess in riding, hunting, and swordsmanship was legendary. Since he was very fond of hunting gur “onager”, he was popularly known as Bahramgur.
Bahram was just, kind, and amiable. On Munzir’s request, he graciously pardoned many. He took practical and effective measures to redress the wrongs done by his father Yazdgard. He introduced land reforms and reduced taxes. He generously gave gifts to the soldiers, the learned, the poor and the needy and thus gladdened the hearts of the people.
At times, Bahram moved about in disguise to personally ascertain the state of affairs in his kingdom. He once visited India to the court of King Vasudeva of Kanouj, disguised as an Iranian ambassador. He impressed the hosts by his manners, learning, and prowess.
Bahram campaigned against Roman Emperor Theodosius. A treaty was concluded in 422 AC in which religious freedom was guaranteed to Zoroastrians in the Roman Empire and to the Christians in the Iranian Empire. Bahram passed away in 439 AC.
After Bahram, four Emperors followed in quick succession: Yazdgard II (439-457), Hormazd III (457-459), Piroj I (459-483) and Palash (483-487).
Kobad I ascended the throne in 487 AC, but was soon deposed and imprisoned on account of his cruelty. The throne was entrusted to his younger brother Jamasp. Kobad managed to escape, marched into Iran with the help of the Ephtalites and reclaimed the throne. In order to avoid bloodshed and civil war Jamasp abdicated the throne in favour of Kobad.
The emergence of Mazdak was an important event during the reign of Kobad. Mazdak claimed to be a prophet, and preached communist doctrines like equality, austerity, abstinence and community ownership of property and women as the only solution to ills of mankind.
At that time famine had struck Iran, and Mazdak exploited the poverty and misery of the people to instigate them. Having won the sympathy of the king, he preached his doctrines of sharing wealth and women. Since Mazdak’s activities were in conformity with his preachings, Kobad was convinced of his authenticity, and thus Mazdakism flourished.
Kobad’s son, prince Khusro was not in favour of Mazdak, and so Mazdak complained to the King. Khusro undertook to prove that Mazdak’s teachings were false and deceitful. He asked for a period of five months during which he convened a council of sages, discussed the matter with them and at the appointed time went to the court. A debate took place between Khusro and Mazdak in which Mazdak was utterly humiliated as he had no answers to Khusro’s arguments. Kobad realised the evil nature of Mazdak’s teachings, became ashamed of himself for following him, and handed over Mazdak and his disciples to Khusro who made them pay with their lives for their heresy. Before passing away in 531 AC, Kobad nominated Khusro as his successor.
Khusro, famous as Cosroes in Roman history and popularly known as Noshirwan, “one having immortal soul.” He was one of the greatest Sasanian Emperors, was celebrated for administering proper justice. Hence he was known as Adel “the just.”
Immediately after he ascended the throne, he divided the Empire into four zones, and over each zone appointed a viceroy who was directly responsible to the Emperor. He introduced agricultural reforms so that waste lands were brought under cultivation.
A Peace-treaty called “the endless peace” was concluded with Rome in 532 AC, but it was soon violated. Khusro received complaints and appeals for help. He declared war on the Romans, crossed the Euphrates, invaded Syria, marched up to the Mediterranean and captured Antiochia in 540 AC. Roman Emperor Justinian sent envoys to Khusro, requested for a truce and peace was concluded once again.
Khusro defeated the Ephtalites and the Huns in the North. To protect the population of the northern provinces from nomadic tribes of Central Asia, he built a strong wall of stone in the North from Darband on the Caspian Sea up to the Black Sea.
Khusro was a learned man. He established a medical school at Junde-Shahpur. Greek philosophers, expelled by Roman Emperor Justinian, received refuge and hospitality in his court. There were close cultural relations between Iran and India. The game of chess was introduced in Iran from India, and the Iranian game of Nard was sent to India.
Khusro’s son Anoshzad, who was born of his Christian wife, had adopted Christianity. Instigated by his mother, Anoshzad rose in rebellion against his father. Banking on help from the Christians and the Romans, he proclaimed himself king. Khusro sent an army under Ram-burzin, and in the battle that followed Anoshzad was wounded and taken prisoner. Khusro passed away in 579 AC.
Khusro’s son Hormazd IV ascended the throne after him. Trouble arose once again with the Romans on the western front, and the Turks on the north-eastern front. Hormazd sent an army under Bahram Chobin, who defeated the Turks, but when the Arabs attacked Mesopotamia, Hormazd concluded a peace-treaty with the Arabs. Bahram Chobin was defeated by the Romans, due to which Hormazd heaped insults on Bahram, who, rose in rebellion against the king. An army was sent to crush the rebellion, but the army too revolted against the king and went over to Bahram.
Now Hormazd could not trust anybody. He decided to punish his son Khusro as he suspected him of plotting against his life, but the prince managed to escape from the clutches of his father. The members of the royal family rose in revolt, and threw Hormazd into prison, where he was murdered in 590 AC. The internecine struggle that started during the reign of Hormazd IV, may be regarded as the beginning of the end of the Empire.
Cosroes II or Khusro Parvez was proclaimed Emperor in 590 AC. Bahram Chobin, who had rebelled against Hormazd IV, marched against him. The army of the king was defeated, but he managed to escape, and asked the Romans for help. Roman Emperor Maurice immediately sent military and financial help, and also gave his daughter Mariam in marriage. In return Khusro handed back Egypt and Syria to Maurice. With Roman help, Khusro fought against Bahram Chobin and defeated him. Bahram fled to the eastern provinces and died soon thereafter.
Khusro’s general Shahrbaraz seized Damascus and then captured Palestine. As a booty of the war, the True Cross was taken to Ctesiphon and given to Khusro’s Christian wife. The True Cross was returned by Khusro’s son and successor Kobad II as per one of the provisions of the treaty concluded by him with the Romans. The Cross was carried back in a triumphant procession.
Khusro’s generals captured Egypt and Calcedon. When the Iranian army was in sight of Constantinopole, Emperor Heraclius petitioned for peace. Khusro claimed the Eastern Roman Empire and asked Heraclius to hand over the Asiatic provinces. Thus Khusro Parvez cleared Asia of its European conquerors, and restored the Parsi Empire to almost the whole extent to which it had risen under the Achaemenian Emperor Darius the Great.
Muhammad, the Prophet of Islam, was born at Mecca in 570 AC, during the reign of Khusro I. He began to preach his religion in Mecca in 610 AC, and later headed to Medina in 622. Muhammad had addressed letters to Khusro II, and had also called upon him to embrace Islam, assuring him safety if he did so. But the Iranian king had emphatically declined the offer. A wise and learned Iranian named Behzad had become unpopular among the warring factions and had to flee. Later he was associated with Prophet Muhammad at Medina. The Arabs called him Salman Fars ‘the Parsi Solomon.’
The campaign against Romans proved disastrous for Khusro. He penalized his generals for that and even ordered the execution of his brave and faithful commanders. The Iranian people were enraged when Khusro set aside the right of his eldest son Kobad (also called Shiroy) and appointed Mardas as his successor. Some nobles rose in favour of Kobad. Khusro was imprisoned and murdered in 628 AC.
There was chaos in the royal family. From 628-632 AC, ten monarchs ruled over Iran and most of them were deposed or murdered in quick succession. They were: Kobad II/Shiroy – son of Khushro II (628); Artakhshir III (628-629) who was killed by Shahrbaraz; Shahrbaraz (629-680) – an usurper who assumed the name Khusro III, but was assassinated in forty days by his own body guards; Queen Purandokht (630-631) – daughter of Khusro II , a good queen who died after a reign of sixteen months; Piroj/Zurvanshah Gushnaband (631) – a distant cousin of Khushro II who assumed the name Piroj; Queen Azarmidokht (681) – another daughter of Khusro II who was slain after a brief reign of six months; Farrokhzad / Khusro IV,( 631); Piroj II (631); Khurzad Khusro (631–632) and Hormazd V (632).
In a brief period of four years, ten monarchs fell victim to internecine strife. It was in such deplorable conditions, that the last Sasanian Emperor Yazdgard III, the son of Shahryar and grandson of Khusro II, ascended the throne on 16th June, 632 AC, the day Ashishvangh of the month Aspandad. As with other kings in ancient Iran, a new era began with the day on which the emperor ascended the throne, and the era was known after him. Hence the Yazdgardi era, used by the Parsis today, commenced on the day Yazdgard ascended the throne
The Arab tribes were organized under religious leadership and rose unitedly, while the Iranians and the Romans were continually waging wars. The Arabs conquered the Semitic countries in Asia, and ruled over Syria, Mesopotamia and Egypt. When the Persian Empire, rent by fratricidal strife was disintegrating, the Arabs were united by religious zeal. Such were the circumstances in which Yazdgard III, the last Parsi Sasanian Emperor, ascended the throne, at the age of 21 years.
Since the reign of Khusro Parvez, the Arabs were thundering at the gates of the Iranian Empire. In the battle of Dhu Qar, fought between 604 and 610 AC, the Arabs had an upper hand, and they registered their first victory over the Iranians. This battle, though insignificant in itself, taught the Arabs, that for all their higher civilization, wealth, and renown, the Persians were not invincible.
A strong Arab army was sent under Saad bin Waqqas against Iran. Rustam Farrokhzad led the Iranian army. A fierce battle took place at Qadisiya, which lasted for four days. Rustam fought very bravely, but was killed in the battle. On the fourth day, the Iranians were caught in a heavy sand-storm and were utterly defeated. The Iranian capital was plundered, and Arabs became the owners of fabulous wealth.
Caliph Umar relieved Saad bin Waqqas as the commander of the Arab forces and appointed Ammar bin Yaser in his place. Yazdgard raised another army and made desperate attempts to check the Arab advance. Pirojan was appointed the commander of the Iranian army. A fierce battle was fought at Nihavand, which sealed the fate of the Sasanian Empire. The sovereignty of the Iranians passed into the hands of Caliphs. The Arabs called this victory fateh-ul-fateh “Victory of Victories.”
Yazdgard was still hopeful of receiving military assistance from the Turks and the Chinese, and of recovering his lost kingdom. For ten years he wandered from place to place, pursued and harassed by enemies and traitors.
At last, he went to Marv, where, in danger of being recognized by the enemy, he hid himself in a flour-mill. When Khusro, the mill-owner found him, he offered him some food. Though hungry and thirsty, Yazdgard requested the miller to procure the Barsom (twigs used as ritual implement) to say grace before taking his meal. The demand for the Barsom aroused suspicion, and the detailed description confirmed that the warrior hiding in Khusro’s mill must be Yazdgard himself. Mahu-i-Suri, the governor of Marv, instigated Khusro to kill Yazdgard, and the miller did likewise.
Yazdgard’s dead body was stripped of valuables, and thrown into a river. At daybreak, people saw with dismay the body of the King. Monks of the Christian monastery took it out of water, and disposed it off reverently. Thus ended the glorious Sasanian Empire in 641 AC.