KHUSRAU II (591 - 628)

Map icon: click for a map

A reign of two halves

The problem of Bahram Chobin 590 - 591

Khusrau II was easily intimidated by Bahram Chobin (Wahram VI), who had full support of the army (and its élite Savaran units), the nobles and the priests. Perhaps, because of his Parthian family background, they hoped for a Parthian restoration? In any case they preferred Bahram to Khusrau, who fled across the Euphrates into Syria and appealed for help to the emperor Maurice. Both Khusrau and Bahram made offers to Maurice - but, after some debate, he chose Khusrau, who had to concede territory in Armenia and Iraq to Byzantium as the price for his support.

In spring 591, Khusrau II returned with Byzantine troops, defeated Bahram and reclaimed his throne. Bahram fled to the Turks, where, a year later, Khusrau saw to it that he was assassinated by them.

Khusrau had won, but Bahram Chobin lived on in Persian memories. In Firdowsi's Shahnameh he is a hero, an example of an ideal Persian knight:

As the door opened, Bahram saw a feeble old man standing there. "If you've got a letter for me, bring it here," said Bahram. "It's a private message from the emperor's daughter," said the old man. "I don't want to say it in front of everyone." "Quick then," replied Bahram, "whisper it in my ear". The old man came forward, with a knife hidden in his sleeve: as he bent over as if to whisper in Bahram's ear he plunged the knife into him. His sister cried out:

"You were a knight whose presence caused such fear
That lions slunk away when you drew near.
Who felled this pillar of the world? Who planned
This crime and put the dagger in his hand? "

Translated by Dick Davis in Penguin Classics

Khusrau II still had problems: two of his uncles, of noble Parthian descent, Bindoe and Bistam had been involved in the overthrow of his father Hurmazd IV - but had also supported him against Bahram. What to do? He needed to appear strong - so it was more important to be seen to avenge his father. Bindoe was soon killed, but Bistan inherited Bahram Chobin's support, and held out for ten years. Like Bahram, he demonstrated his claim to the crown by minting coins, from his base at Rayy (Tehran). In 601 he too was assassinated. Though Khusrau II won, the conflict had weakened him.

Peace with Byzantium 591 - 603

Khusrau and Shirin

Khusrau sees Shirin taking her bath and falls in love. 18th century Indian painting. An illustration of the popular story, as told in the Shahnameh and by other Persian poets.

Khusrau II had promised concessions to Maurice in exchange for his support - this was enough to keep the peace between Persia and Byzantium for over a decade. Maurice even apologised when his allies the Ghassanid Arabs dared to raid Persian territory. It was widely believed that Khusrau became a Christian: certainly his wife Shirin did (and he was even, improbably, supposed to have also married Maria, Maurice's daughter). He stayed a Zoroastrian, and built fire temples, but was certainly sympathetic to Christianity.

The Arabs

Not only was there trouble from the Ghassanids (see above), but also with Persia's old allies, the Lakhmids. In 602 Khusrau II ended Lakhmid independence, had their Christian king Nu'man put in prison (where he died), and imposed direct Sasanian rule on their former territory. We don't really know why. It was a costly mistake. Without an effective Lakhmid buffer, desert Arabs could raid Iraq with impunity - and did so. A force made up of different Bedouin tribes faced the Persians in the battle of Dhu Qar (between 604 and 611, exact date unknown), and thrashed them. The Arab tribes began to realise how strong they could be if they stuck together. The historian al-Tabari quotes the Prophet   Muhammad:

It is related from the Prophet that when the Prophet heard the news of Rabi'ah's rout of Kisra's [Khusrau's] army he exclaimed, "This has been the first military encounter in which the Arabs have secured their just due from the Persians , and it was through me that they were given the victory." The History of al-Tabari I. 1016

War with Byzantium (604)

In 602, the emperor Maurice, unpopular in parts of his empire because of his persecution of Miaphysite (non-Chalcedon) Christians, faced a revolt, led by Phocas, an army officer. Maurice fled from Constantinople, but Phocas captured him and murdered him along with his sons. The city of Edessa refused to accept Phocas as emperor. Phocas sent an army to bring it into line, and Khusrau had a perfect excuse to send a force to avenge the murder of his old friend Maurice. Khusrau II defeated the Byzantine siege force, and proclaimed one Theodosius (supposedly one of Maurice's sons who'd escaped the massacre) as emperor. After success at Edessa, he moved on to Dara - and soon realised that the Byzantine empire was at his mercy. He re-took the part of Armenia he'd had to concede to the Byzantines, then pushed on into Cappadocia and down into Syria. Meanwhile anti-Phocas rebels, led by Heraclius, seized North Africa and Egypt, and in 610 took Constantinople and executed Phocas. Heraclius became the new emperor.

Khusrau recovered Armenia, which he'd ceded to the Romans, in 604. Between 613 and 619, thanks to Byzantine weakness, Khusrau swept through the eastern part of the Byzantine empire, conquering territory on a scale and at a speed not seen since the Achaemenids. Antioch, Damascus, Jerusalem (in 614), Egypt (619) and Cyprus soon fell to the Sasanian general Shahrbaraz, while from Armenia general Shahin advanced through Anatolia right up to Chalcedon, bang opposite Heraclius' capital at Constantinople. Meanwhile Heraclius had more problems: bands of Slavs and Avars were moving south, and now threatened Constantinople from the north. Heraclius was trapped - his situation seemed desperate.

Success on the eastern frontier

While in the west, in 619, the Sasanians were conquering Egypt, in the northeast the Turks and their Hephthalite vassals invaded in search of plunder. A small Savaran force checked their advance, for the time being. Soon they returned in much greater numbers, and surged across Iran as far as Rayy (Tehran) and Isfahan. When they withdrew with their loot, general Bagratuni pursued them and routed them completely. They would not try again before the Arab conquest.

The Tide turns against Khusrau II

Greek fire

Greek fire in use: illustration from a 12th century MS in Madrid

But in the west, Heraclius was not finished, although he had made plans to evacuate his court to the safety of Carthage, in North Africa. He had backing, and money, from the church. Thanks to the walls built by Theodosius, and the city's 200 and more cisterns, Constaninople itself was virtually impregnable.. The Byzantines still controlled the sea. They had more ships, better sailors - and the latest WMD: Greek fire. Having bribed the Avars to stay out of it, in 622 Heraclius sailed into the Black Sea, to attack the Sasanians through Armenia. After a crushing defeat, Khusrau II had to abandon Anatolia (Asia Minor).

In 623 and 624 Heraclius invaded Armenia again, penetrating as far as Atropatene. Khusrau decided to stake everything on a strike on Constantinople. For this he negotiated a deal with the Avars and their allies: they would hit from the north, while Shahrbaraz and Shahin struck from the south. It was a total failure: the Byzantines thwarted both attacks.

Heraclius was still on the attack, in 627 moving deeper into Persian territory with help from more nomad allies, this time the Khazars. When Heraclius reached Mesopotamia, Khusrau II, in a panic, recalled his army from Chalcedon. He abandoned his new palace at Dastagird in Khuzestan for Heraclius to plunder, and retreated to Ctesiphon. Heraclius could afford to wait to deliver the knockout.

Heraclius defeats Khusrau II

Part of the "Story of the True Cross" fresco cycle painted by Piero della Francesca in S Francisco, Arezzo. Heraclius' victory led to its recovery.

Hero to zero (and to hero again?)

Now it was Khusrau II who was desperate. Looking for someone to pin the blame on for the failures, he decided to sack general Shahrbaraz. But at home, opposition from the nobles and priests was growing. Soon there was open insurrection. The rebels imprisoned Khusrau and executed him in the early spring of 628.

Khusrau with Anahita and Mithra

Khusrau II flanked by Anahid (Anahita) and Ahura Mazda. Rock relief from Taq-i Bustan, Kermanshah

Under Khusrau II,the Persian empire reached its greatest ever extent - for a few years at least. He's remembered, though, not just as a conqueror, but as a divisive and extravagant ruler, who accelerated the demise of the Sasanians. His name lived on as the unlikely hero of Persian romance, where Khusrau and Shirin become a sort of Persian Romeo and Juliet (see picture above).

Khusrau II's lifestyle:

Nevertheless, the reign of Khusrau II was remembered for its style and splendour. He built palaces (including the one at Dastagird, plundered by Heraclius), and entertained poets and musicians. Courtiers beautifully dressed in Chinese silks trod on fine silk and wool carpets. The grand deer hunt shown on the rock reliefs at Taq-i Bustan gives some impression of his extravagant aristocratic life-style. But too much of the wealth was in the hands of the royal family and the noble élite: and the Zoroastrian priesthood had forgotten its duty to the ordinary people, among whom the Christian Church of the East was winning popularity.

his rock reliefs at Taq-i Bustam (slide show)

Kavad II (628 - 630)

The new king, Kavad II, was Khusrau's son - but had joined the rebellion against his father. He tried to obliterate his father's memory - and murdered all of his brothers (16 or 17?) for good measure. He immediately made peace with Heraclius, surrendering all claim to his father's conquests, and agreeing on the Euphrates as the common frontier. The piece of the "true cross" was given back. Then he too died - perhaps assassinated. Kavad II's right to rule, according to numismatic evidence, was questioned by many provincial rulers - already the Sasanian grip on the empire was looosening. The fratricide had elimated any male heir to the throne. An outbreak of plague in his capital made things worse.

By eliminating Sasanian power west of the Euphrates, Heraclius greatly assisted the Arabs in their conquest of Persia - which was not far off.