The Sasanians in the Fifth Century AD

Three short reigns

Ardashir the second

The investiture of Ardashir II: the king in the centre, with Mithra on the right and Ahura Mazda on the left. Rock relief from Taq-i Bustan, Kermanshah (AMW)

After the 70-year rule of Shapur II, the rest of the 4th century saw intermittent chaos during the brief reigns of:

Ardashir II (379 - 383)

Shapur III (382 -388)

Barhram IV (388 - 399)

During these reigns the nobles, allied with the priests, seem to have been challenging the Sasanian kings: they deposed Ardashir II for trying to control them, they killed Shapur III and probably Bahram IV too. A Hephthalite invasion took place during Bahram IV's reign - despite the joint defence with the Romans of the Caucasus, supposedly agreed by Shapur II with emperor Jovian. Around AD 395, the Huns overran Armenia and Cappadocia, and penetrated Syria as far as Antioch, looting and slaughtering.

Yazdegird I (399 - 420): a rare interval of peace.

Seeing the fate of his predecessors, Yazdegird I had to face up to the nobles and do something about their power. There are two signs that he succeeded: later Sasanian sources call him "the sinner" - because he wasn't afraid to eliminate some of the Mazdaean priests who were undermining his authority. Christian sources, on the contrary celebrate him as a friend. The Church of the East got official recognition, now that it had separated from the Orthodox Christians of the Roman empire, and freedom of worship was proclaimed. At a synod in 410, Yazdegird I confirmed the election of their first archbishop, who was to be based at Ctesiphon. All bishops in the Church of the East had to be elected by a democratic process. Yazdegird (possibly!) married a Jewish lady, and for a time religious tolerance seemed to be flourishing once again, with Christians, Jews and Zoroastrians all living in harmony. His coins were inscribed with the word "Ramshahr": peace keeper.

But this desirable state of affairs did not last. A quarrel between a Christian bishop and a Mazdaean counterpart led to the burning down of a fire-temple. Yazdegird I authorised the destruction of Christian churches in revenge, and there followed several years of renewed persecution.

But Yazdegird was certainly a man of peace when it came to the Romans. The Roman emperor in the east, Arcadius, even (perhaps!) made him the guardian of his son, later emperor Theodosius II. He also maintained friendly relations with Arcadius' brother Honorius, emperor of the west: there were no confrontations with the Roman empire during Yazdegird's reign.

Bahram V Gur (421 - 438) "The Wild Ass"

The conservative alliance of nobles and Zoroastrian priests had not given up. On Yazdegird's death, his son Shapur, who'd been ruling Armenia, returned and was murdered, and replaced by their choice, Khusrau. Fortunately, Yazdegird had another son, Bahram, who he'd sent to be brought up by the Lakhmid Arabs in al-Hira - allies of the Sasanians since Shapur II's reign. Bahram came home with an Arab army and made himself king as Bahram V, and presumably made his peace with the nobles.


The palace at Sarvistan, 100 km southeast of Shiraz. It is usually thought to have been built in the reign of Bahram V. (Photo Juliet Schubart)

Bahram V was successful on several fronts. After a brief and indecisive war with the Byzantines, he signed a 100 year agreement with Theodosius II: the Byzantines would stop persecuting Zoroastrians, if Persia would would stop persecuting Christians. The Sasanian-ruled part of Armenia at last became fully part of the Sasanian empire, although the religious question (Christian or Zoroastrian?) was unsolved. The Byzantines perhaps agreed to carry on sharing the defence of the Caucasus passes.

The first appearance of the Hephthalites in the east was repulsed, and their king was killed in a battle at Merv, a signal for much celebration. But they would be back.

Bahram Gur on a Sasanian plate, 5th century AD.

Strangely, Bahram V became a character in later legends and folk tales: he was much given to hunting, drinking and women, and he loved polo and music. He even gets a mention the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam (just after the lines about Jamshid, quoted here): the lion and the lizard don't wander just over the scene of Jamshid's revelry, but also over Bahram's tomb:

And Bahram, that great Hunter - the Wild Ass
Stamps o'er his Head, and he lies fast asleep.

Bahram V was apparently known as the wild ass (Gur or Gor) because of his success in hunting them - now wild asses are capering over his grave. But something about him appealed - no other king is as popular a subject in art and literature.

He's not buried at Persepolis of course - legend has it that he fell into a quicksand out hunting his favorite asses, although recent archaeological evidence suggests he may have been assassinated. His popularity and Arab friends would not have endeared him to the conservative element among the nobles.

Yazdegird II (438 - 457)

The treaty with the Byzantines was renewed after an outbreak of fighting caused by Byzantine military activity in Mesopotamia. Both empires faced deadly threats from beyond their frontiers.

Renewed invasions by the Huns (Hephthalites) demanded urgent action. Yazdegird II spent much of his reign in the east, securing this frontier - and then as the Huns moved on west to threaten the Caucasus, he moved with them. It was important to strengthen Armenia, and ensure its loyalty by re-converting the Armenians from Christianity to Zoroastrianism. This was met with stiff resistance which Yazdegird crushed brutally at the Battle of Avarayr in AD 451. It's often seen as a battle for the soul of Armenia, conflicted bewteen the Christian nobles, and its pagan Iranian past.

Coin of Yazdegird the second

Coin of Yazdegird II showing priests at a fire temple.

Yazdegird II was the first Sasanian king who officially linked himself to the Kayanians, perhaps because he spent so long in the Zoroastrian homelands of Chorasmia. The Kayanians were a legendary dynasty of Iranian kings, whose stories are told in the Avesta, and later find their way into the Shahnameh - one of the reasons why the Achaemenids were forgotten. Yazdegird's coins call him "Mazdaean majesty Kay" - but the phrase "whose lineage is from the gods" no longer appears. The king is both linking himself more strongly to a Zoroastrian past, and revealing his diminished authority if he's no longer descended from the gods. One senses the growing power once more of the Zoroastrian priests and their noble supporters.

Peroz (Firuz) (459 - 484) - a reign of disasters

On Yazdegird II's death there was another struggle for power. The son chosen to succeed him (Hurmazd II: 457 - 459) was murdered by his brother Peroz, who seized the throne with support from the Hephthalites. Things went badly wrong from then on. Plague, drought and famine and religious persecutions were problems at home, while on the frontiers ... the Huns were back.


The official seal of Peroz - Procopius tells how he threw away his pearl earring so the Hephthalites wouldn't get it. The earring is very prominent on his seal!

Once may be unfortunate, twice looks like carelessness, three times ...

In AD 469, Peroz was soundly beaten by the Hephthalites, and forced to agree to a peace. He had to hand over territory to the south of the Caspian to them. He was also made to marry his daughter to the Hun leader, Khushnavaz (the name in the Shahnameh; Akhshunwar in al-Tabari: believed to be an Iranian name). He tried to send a lookalike, but was found out - Khushnavaz was not happy. Peroz was humiliated, but determined not to let it lie.

This was a terrible mistake. The Hephthalites had learned a lot in terms of tactics and weaponry from their defeat by Bahram V. They lured Peroz and his vast army into a trap, and Peroz himself was surrounded and captured. To get himself released he had to suffer more humiliation: to kneel in front of Khushnavaz and apologise to him; to give him hostages (including a son, Kavad); to pay a ransom for his release followed by annual tribute; to swear he'd never challenge them again.

Challenge them is exactly what he did, of course, in AD 484. But the Hephthalites were ready. Peroz and his army were again tricked: thinking the enemy were retreating they charged off in pursuit - only to fall into the massive trench (18 metres deep by 9 metres wide) which Khushnavaz had dug and camouflaged. It was carnage - the Persian army was annihilated - cavalry, elephants, archers. Peroz, seven of his sons (30 according to Procopius 1.4.2), and many of his generals were killed. Peroz's daughter (the real one), and family together with much treasure were captured by the Hephthalites. It was the most humiliating defeat suffered by a Persian army since the time of Alexander - and almost as big a catastrophe for the Persian empire. Luckily the Byzantine emperor Zeno had his own problems, and was in no position to take advantage.

The Gorgan Wall

The longest and most impressive wall ever built in ancient times (excluding walls such as the "Great Wall of China" which were largely earthworks) stretches for 195 km, between the Caspian Sea and the mountains to the east. Its built of bricks locally made (numerous kilns have been found along its length - and this accounts for one of its names: the "Red Snake"); there's a canal alongside to transport men and equipment, and forts (33 of them)at regular intervals. Thousands of men would have been needed to garrison it.

Gorgan Wall

Part of the Gorgan Wall, Iran

But it's not mentioned in any written sources - and its origin has been a matter of speculation for over a millennium: was it built by Alexander (a wall is mentioned in the Shahnameh), or the Parthians, or Khusrau I? Most recent research suggests the likeliest date is during the 5th or early 6th centuries AD - and possibly during the reign of Peroz.

Detailed map

The constuction of walls was an obvious reaction to the continued invasions of nomadic peoples from the north-east. They also must have provided some psychological comfort to the Sasanians and their kings!

There were two other walls built during the same period:

The Wall of Tammishe

Is in the same region, and runs from the southeast corner of the Caspian Sea into the foothills of the Alborz mountains.

The Darband Wall

The third wall is located on the western side of the Caspian Sea, built by the Sasanians during the reign of Kavad I and later Khusrau I. The Darband Wall was a joint project with the Romans, who helped (or were supposed to help) with finance - nomadic raids in the Caucasus endangered both empires. The Darband Wall was at least 40 km long passing through forested areas and over mountains. It had seven gates and some twenty-seven towers. The Arabs considered it as one of the wonders of the world.