The New Persian Empire

The Roman Empire > Ancient Civilizations > New Persian Empire


Short Reigns of Artaxerxes II. and Sapor III. Obscurity of their History. Their Relations with Armenia. Monument of Sapor III. at Tdkht-i-Bostan. Coins of Artaxerxes II. and Sapor III. Reign of Varahran IV. His Signets. His Dealings with Armenia. His Death.

The glorious reign of Sapor II., which carried the New Persian Empire to the highest point whereto it had yet attained, is followed by a time which offers to that remarkable reign a most complete contrast. Sapor had occupied the Persian throne for a space approaching nearly to three-quarters of a century; the reigns of his next three successors amounted to no more than twenty years in the aggregate. Sapor had been engaged in perpetual wars, had spread the terror of the Persian arms on all sides, and ruled more gloriously than any of his predecessors. The kings who followed him were pacific and unenterprising; they were almost unknown to their neighbors, and are among the least distinguished of the Sassanian monarchs. More especially does this character attach to the two immediate successors of Sapor II., viz. Artaxerxes II. and Sapor III. They reigned respectively four and five years; and their annals during this period are almost a blank. Artaxerxes II., who is called by some the brother of Sapor II., was more probably his son. He succeeded his father in A.D. 379, and died at Ctesiphon in A.D. 383. He left a character for kindness and amiability behind him, and is known to the Persians as Nihoukar, or "the Beneficent," and to the Arabs as Al Djemil, "the Virtuous." According to the "Modjmel-al-Tewarikh," he took no taxes from his subjects during the four years of his reign, and thereby secured to himself their affection and gratitude. He seems to have received overtures from the Armenians soon after his accession, and for a time to have been acknowledged by the turbulent mountaineers as their sovereign. After the murder of Bab, or Para, the Romans had set up, as king over Armenia, a certain Varaztad (Pharasdates), a member of the Arsacid family, but no near relation of the recent monarchs, assigning at the same time the real direction of affairs to an Armenian noble named Moushegh, who belonged to the illustrious family of the Mamigonians. Moushegh ruled Armenia with vigor, but was suspected of maintaining over-friendly relations with the Roman emperor, Valens, and of designing to undermine and supplant his master. Varaztad, after a while, having been worked on by his counsellors, grew suspicious of him, and caused him to be executed at a banquet. This treachery roused the indignation of Moushegh's brother Manuel, who raised a rebellion against Varaztad, defeated him in open fight, and drove him from his kingdom. Manuel then brought forward the princess Zermandueht, widow of the late king Para, together with her two young sons, Arsaces and Valarsaces, and, surrounding all three with royal pomp, gave to the two princes the name of king, while he took care to retain in his own hands the real government of the country. Under these circumstances he naturally dreaded the hostility of the Roman emperor, who was not likely to see with patience a monarch, whom he had set upon the throne, deprived of his kingdom by a subject. To maintain the position which he had assumed, it was necessary that he should contract some important alliance; and the alliance always open to Armenia when she had quarrelled with Rome was with the Persians. It seems to have been soon after Artaxerxes II. succeeded his father, that Manuel sent an embassy to him, with letters and rich gifts, offering, in return for his protection, to acknowledge him as lord-paramount of Armenia, and promising him unshakable fidelity. The offer was, of course, received with extreme satisfaction; and terms were speedily arranged. Armenia was to pay a fixed tribute, to receive a garrison of ten thousand Persians and to provide adequately for their support, to allow a Persian satrap to divide with Manuel the actual government of the country, and to furnish him with all that was necessary for his court and table. On the other hand, Arsacos and Valarsaces, together (apparently) with their mother, Zermandueht, were to be allowed the royal title and,honors; Armenia was to be protected in case of invasion; and Manuel was to be maintained in his office of Sparapet or generalissimo of the Armenian forces. We cannot say with certainty how long this arrangement remained undisturbed; most probably, however, it did not continue in force more than a few years. It was most likely while Artaxerxes still ruled Persia, that the rupture described by Faustus occurred. A certain Meroujan, an Armenian, noble, jealous of the power and prosperity of Manuel, persuaded him that the Persian commandant in Armenia was about to seize his person, and either to send him a prisoner to Artaxerxes, or else to put him to death. Manuel, who was so credulous as to believe the information, thought it necessary for his own safety to anticipate the designs of his enemies, and, falling upon the ten thousand Persians with the whole of the Armenian army, succeeded in putting them all to the sword, except their commander, whom he allowed to escape. War followed between Persia and Armenia with varied success, but on the whole Manuel had the advantage; he repulsed several Persian invasions, and maintained the independence and integrity of Armenia till his death, without calling in the aid of Rome. When, however, Manuel died, about A.D. 383, Armenian affairs fell into confusion; the Romans were summoned to give help to one party, the Persians to render assistance to the other; Armenia became once more the battle-ground between the two great powers, and it seemed as if the old contest, fraught with so many calamities, was to be at once renewed. But the circumstances of the time were such that neither Rome nor Persia now desired to reopen the contest. Persia was in the hands of weak and unwarlike sovereigns, and was perhaps already threatened by Scythic hordes upon the east. Rome was in the agonies of a struggle with the ever-increasing power of the Goths; and though, in the course of the years A.D. 379-382, the Great Theodosius had established peace in the tract under his rule, and delivered the central provinces of Macedonia and Thrace from the intolerable ravages of the barbaric invaders, yet the deliverance had been effected at the cost of introducing large bodies of Goths into the heart of the empire, while still along the northern frontier lay a threatening cloud, from which devastation and ruin might at any time burst forth and overspread the provinces upon the Lower Danube. Thus both the Roman emperor and the Persian king were well disposed towards peace. An arrangement was consequently made, and in A.D. 384, five years after he had ascended the throne, Theodosius gave audience in Constantinople to envoys from the court of Persepolis, and concluded with them a treaty whereby matters in Armenia were placed on a footing which fairly satisfied both sides, and the tranquillity of the East was assured. The high contracting powers agreed that Armenia should be partitioned between them. After detaching from the kingdom various outlying districts, which could be conveniently absorbed into their own territories, they divided the rest of the country into two unequal portions. The smaller of these, which comprised the more western districts, was placed under the protection of Rome, and was committed by Theodosius to the Arsaces who had been made king by Manuel, the son of the unfortunate Bab, or Para, and the grandson of the Arsaces contemporary with Julian. The larger portion, which consisted of the regions lying towards the east, passed under the suzerainty of Persia, and was confided by Sapor III., who had succeeded Artaxerxes II., to an Arsacid, named Chosroes, a Christian, who was given the title of king, and received in marriage at the same time one of Sapor's sisters. Such were the terms on which Rome and Persia brought their contention respecting Armenia to a conclusion. Friendly relations were in this way established between the two crowns, which continued undisturbed for the long space of thirty-six years (A.D. 384-420).

Sapor III. appears to have succeeded his brother Artaxerxes in A.D. 383, the year before the conclusion of the treaty. It is uncertain whether Artaxerxes vacated the throne by death, or was deposed in consequence of cruelties whereof he was guilty towards the priests and nobles. Tabari and Macoudi, who relate his deposition, are authors on whom much reliance cannot be placed; and the cruelties reported accord but ill with the epithets of "the Beneficent" and "the Virtuous," assigned to this monarch by others. Perhaps it is most probable that he held the throne till his death, according to the statements of Agathias and Eutychius. Of Sapor III., his brother and successor, two facts only are recorded—his conclusion of the treaty with the Romans in A.D. 384, and his war with the Arabs of the tribe of Yad, which must have followed shortly afterwards. It must have been in consequence of his contest with the latter, whom he attacked in their own country, that he received from his countrymen the appellation of "the Warlike," an appellation better deserved by either of the other monarchs who had borne the same name.

Sapor III. left behind him a sculptured memorial, which is still to be seen in the vicinity of Kermanshah. [PLATE XX.] It consists of two very similar figures, looking towards each other, and standing in an arched frame. On either side of the figures are inscriptions in the Old Pehlevi character, whereby we are enabled to identify the individuals represented with the second and the third Sapor. The inscriptions run thus:—"Pathkell zani mazdisn shahia Shahpuhri, malkan malJca Allan ve Anilan, minuchitli min yazdan, bari mazdisn shahia Auhr-mazdi, malkan malka Allan ve Anilan, minuchitli min yazdan, napi shahia Narshehi malkan malka;" and "Pathkeli mazdisn shahia Shahpuhri, malkan mallca Allan ve Anilan, minuchitli min yazdan, bari mazdisn shahia Shahpuhri, malkan malka Allan ve Anilan, minuchitli min yazdan, napi shahia Auhrmazdi, malkan malka." They are, it will be seen, identical in form, with the exception that the names in the right-hand inscription are "Sapor, Hormisdas, Narses," while those in the left-hand one are "Sapor, Sapor, Hormisdas." It has been supposed that the right-hand figure was erected by Sapor II., and the other afterwards added by Sapor III.; but the unity of the whole sculpture, and its inclusion under a single arch, seem to indicate that it was set up by a single sovereign, and was the fruit of a single conception. If this be so, we must necessarily ascribe it to the later of the two monarchs commemorated, i.e. to Sapor III., who must be supposed to have possessed more than usual filial piety, since the commemoration of their predecessors upon the throne is very rare among the Sassanians.

Plate 20

The taste of the monument is questionable. An elaborate finish of all the details of the costume compensates but ill for a clumsiness of contour and a want of contrast and variety, which indicate a low condition of art, and compare unfavorably with the earlier performances of the Neo-Persian sculptors. It may be doubted whether, among all the reliefs of the Sassanians, there is one which is so entirely devoid of artistic merit as this coarse and dull production.

The coins of Sapor III. and his predecessor, Artaxerxes II., have little about them that is remarkable. Those of Artaxerxes bear a head which is surmounted with the usual inflated ball, and has the diadem, but is without a crown—a deficiency in which some see an indication that the prince thus represented was regent rather than monarch of Persia. [PLATE XIX. Fig. 2.] The legends upon the coins are, however, in the usual style of royal epigraphs, running commonly—"Mazdisn bag Artah-shetri malkan malka Air an ve Aniran," or "the Ormazd-worshipping divine Artaxerxes, king of the kings of Iran and Turan." They are easily distinguishable from those of Artaxerxes I., both by the profile, which is far less marked, and by the fire-altar on the reverse, which has always two supporters, looking towards the altar. The coins of Sapor III. present some unusual types. [PLATE XIX. Fig. 6.] On some of them the king has his hair bound with a simple diadem, without crown or cap of any kind. On others he wears a cap of a very peculiar character, which has been compared to a biretta, but is really altogether sui generis. The cap is surmounted by the ordinary inflated ball, is ornamented with jewels, and is bound round at bottom with the usual diadem. The legend upon the obverse of Sapor's coins is of the customary character; but the reverse bears usually, besides the name of the king, the word atur, which has been supposed to stand for Aturia or Assyria; this explanation, however, is very doubtful.

The coins of both kings exhibit marks of decline, especially on the reverse, where the drawing of the figures that support the altar is very inferior to that which we observe on the coins of the kings from Sapor I. to Sapor II. The characters on both obverse and reverse are also carelessly rendered, and can only with much difficulty be deciphered.

Sapor III. died A.D. 388, after reigning a little more than five years. He was a man of simple tastes, and is said to have been fond of exchanging the magnificence and dreary etiquette of the court for the freedom and ease of a life under tents. On an occasion when he was thus enjoying himself, it happened that one of those violent hurricanes, to which Persia is subject, arose, and, falling in full force on the royal encampment, blew down the tent wherein he was sitting. It happened unfortunately that the main tent-pole struck him, as it fell, in a vital part, and Sapor died from the blow. Such at least was the account given by those who had accompanied him, and generally believed by his subjects. There were not, however, wanting persons to whisper that the story was untrue—that the real cause of the catastrophe which had overtaken the unhappy monarch was a conspiracy of his nobles, or his guards, who had overthrown his tent purposely, and murdered him ere he could escape from them.

The successor of Sapor III. was Varahran IV., whom some authorities call his brother and others his son. This prince is known to the oriental writers as "Varahran Kerm-an-sh-ah," or "Varahran, king of Carmania." Agathias tells us that during the lifetime of his father he was established as governor over Kerman or Carmania, and thus obtained the appellation which pertinaciously adhered to him. A curious relic of antiquity, fortunately preserved to modern times amid so much that has been lost, confirms this statement. It is the seal of Varahran before he ascended the Persian throne, and contains, besides his portrait, beautifully cut, an inscription, which is read as follows:—"Varahran Kerman malka, bari mazdisn bag Shahpuh-rimalkan malka Axran ve Aniran, minuchitri min yazclan," or "Varahran, king of Kerman, son of the Ormazd-worshipping divine Sapor, king of the kings of Iran and Turan, heaven-descended of the race of the gods." [PLATE XIX. Fig. 5.] Another seal, belonging to him probably after he had become monarch of Persia, contains his full-length portrait, and exhibits him as trampling under foot a prostrate figure, supposed to represent a Roman, by which it would appear that he claimed to have gained victories or advantages over Rome. [PLATE XIX. Figs. 3 and 4.] It is not altogether easy to understand how this could have been. Not only do the Roman writers mention no war between the Romans and Persians at this time, but they expressly declare that the East remained in profound repose during the entire reign of Varahran, and that Rome and Persia continued to be friends. The difficulty may, however, be perhaps explained by a consideration of the condition of affairs in Armenia at this time; for in Armenia Rome and Persia had still conflicting interests, and, without having recourse to arms, triumphs might be obtained in this quarter by the one over the other.

On the division of Armenia between Arsaces and Chosroes, a really good understanding had been established, which had lasted for about six years. Arsaces had died two years after he became a Roman feudatory; and, at his death, Rome had absorbed his territories into her empire, and placed the new province under the government of a count. No objection to the arrangement had been made by Persia, and the whole of Armenia had remained for four years tranquil and without disturbance. But, about A.D. 390, Chosroes became dissatisfied with his position, and entered into relations with Rome which greatly displeased the Armenian monarch. Chosroes obtained from Theodosius his own appointment to the Armenian countship, and thus succeeded in uniting both Roman and Persian Armenia under his government. Elated with this success, he proceeded further to venture on administrative acts which trenched, according to Persian views, on the rights of the lord paramount. Finally, when Varahran addressed to him a remonstrance, he replied in insulting terms, and, renouncing his authority, placed the whole Armenian kingdom under the suzerainty and protection of Rome. War between the two great powers must now have seemed imminent, and could indeed only have been avoided by great moderation and self-restraint on the one side or the other. Under these circumstances it was Rome that drew back. Theodosius declined to receive the submission which Chosroes tendered, and refused to lift a finger in his defence. The unfortunate prince was forced to give himself up to Varahan, who consigned him to the Castle of Oblivion, and placed his brother, Varabran-Sapor, upon the Armenian throne. These events seem to have fallen into the year A.D. 391, the third year of Varahran, who may well have felt proud of them, and have thought that they formed a triumph over Rome which deserved to be commemorated.

The character of Varahran IV. is represented variously by the native authorities. According to some of them, his temper was mild, and his conduct irreproachable. Others say that he was a hard man, and so neglected the duties of his station that he would not even read the petitions or complaints which were addressed to him. It would seem that there must have been some ground for these latter representations, since it is generally agreed that the cause of his death was a revolt of his troops, who surrounded him and shot at him with arrows. One shaft, better directed than the rest, struck him in a vital part, and he fell and instantly expired. Thus perished, in A.D. 399, the third son of the Great Sapor, after a reign of eleven years.


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