The New Persian Empire

The Roman Empire > Ancient Civilizations > New Persian Empire


First reign of Kobad. His Favorites, Sufral and Sapor. His Khazar War. Rise, Teaching, and influence of Mazdak. His Claim to Miraculous Powers. Kobad adopts the new Religion, and attempts to impose it on the Armenians. Revolt of Armenia under Vahan, successful. Kobad yields. General Rebellion in Persia, and Deposition of Kobad. Escape of Mazdak. Short Reign of Zamasp. His Coins.

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When Kobad fled to the Ephthalites on the failure of his attempt to seize the crown, he was received, we are told, with open arms; but no material aid was given to him for the space of three years. However, in the fourth year of his exile, a change came over the Ephthalite policy, and he returned to his capital at the head of an army, with which Khush-newaz had furnished him. The change is reasonably connected with the withholding of his tribute by Balas; and it is difficult to suppose that Kobad, when he accepted Ephthalite aid, did not pledge himself to resume the subordinate position which his uncle had been content to hold for two years. It seems certain that he was accompanied to his capital by an Ephthalite contingent, which he richly rewarded before dismissing it. Owing his throne to the aid thus afforded him, he can scarcely have refused to make the expected acknowledgment. Distinct evidence on the point is wanting; but there can be little doubt that for some years Kobad held the Persian throne on the condition of paying tribute to Khush-newaz, and recognizing him as his lord paramount.

During the early portion of his first reign, which extended from A.D. 487 to 498, we are told that he entrusted the entire administration of affairs to Suklira, or Sufrai, who had been the chief minister of his uncle. Sufrai's son, Zer-Mihr, had faithfully adhered to him throughout the whole period of his exile, and Kobad did not regard it as a crime that the father had opposed his ambition, and thrown the weight of his authority into the scale against him. He recognized fidelity as a quality that deserved reward, and was sufficiently magnanimous to forgive an opposition that had sprung from a virtuous motive, and, moreover, had not succeeded. Sufrai accordingly governed Persia for some years; the army obeyed him, and the civil administration was completely in his hands. Under these circumstances it is not surprising that Kobad after a while grew jealous of his subordinate, and was anxious to strip him of the quasi-regal authority which he exercised and assert his own right to direct affairs. But, alone, he felt unequal to such a task. He therefore called in the assistance of an officer who bore the name of Sapor, and had a command in the district of Rhages. Sapor undertook to rid his sovereign of the incubus whereof he complained, and, with the tacit sanction of the monarch, he contrived to fasten a quarrel on Sufrai which he pushed to such an extremity that, at the end of it, he dragged the minister from the royal apartment to a prison, had him heavily ironed, and in a few days caused him to be put to death. Sapor, upon this, took the place previously occupied by Sufrai; he was recognized at once as Prime Minister, and Sipehbed, or commander-in-chief of the troops. Kobad, content to have vindicated his royal power by the removal of Sufrai, conceded to the second favorite as much as he had allowed to the first, and once more suffered the management of affairs to pass wholly into the hands of a subject.

The only war in which Persia seems to have been engaged during the first reign of Kobad was one with the Khazars. This important people, now heard of for the first time in Persian history, appears to have occupied, in the reign of Kobad, the steppe country between the Wolga and the Don, whence they made raids through the passes of the Caucasus into the fertile provinces of Iberia, Albania, and Armenia. Whether they were Turks, as is generally believed, or Circassians, as has been ingeniously argued by a living writer, is doubtful; but we cannot be mistaken in regarding them as at this time a race of fierce and terrible barbarians, nomadic in their habits, ruthless in their wars, cruel and uncivilized in their customs, a fearful curse to the regions which they overrun and desolated. We shall meet with them again, more than once, in the later history, and shall have to trace to their hostility some of the worst disasters that befel the Persian arms. On this occasion it is remarkable that they were repulsed with apparent ease. Kobad marched against their Khan in person, at the head of a hundred thousand men, defeated him in a battle, destroyed the greater portion of his army, and returned to his capital with an enormous booty. To check their incursions, he is said to have built on the Armenian frontier a town called Amid, by which we are probably to understand, not the ancient Amida (or Diarbekr), but a second city of the name, further to the east and also further to the north, on the border line which separated Armenia from Iberia.

The triumphant return of Kobad from his Khazar war might have seemed likely to secure him a long and prosperous reign; but at the moment when fortune appeared most to smile upon him, an insidious evil, which had been gradually but secretly sapping the vitals of his empire, made itself apparent, and, drawing the monarch within the sphere of its influence, involved him speedily in difficulties which led to the loss of his crown. Mazdak, a native of Persepolis, or, according to others, of Nishapur, in Khorassan, and an Archimagus, or High Priest of the Zoroastrian religion, announced himself, early in the reign of Kobad, as a reformer of Zoroastrianism, and began to make proselytes to the new doctrines which he declared himself commissioned to unfold. All men, he said, were, by God's providence, born equal—none brought into the world any property, or any natural right to possess more than another. Property and marriage were mere human inventions, contrary to the will of God, which required an equal division of the good things of this world among all, and forbade the appropriation of particular women by individual men. In communities based upon property and marriage, men might lawfully vindicate their natural rights by taking their fair share of the good things wrongfully appropriated by their fellows Adultery, incest, theft, were not really crimes, but necessary steps towards re-establishing the laws of nature in such societies. To these communistic views, which seem to have been the original speculations of his own mind, the Magian reformer added tenets borrowed from the Brahmins or from some other Oriental ascetics, such as the sacredness of animal life, the necessity of abstaining from animal food, other than milk, cheese, or eggs, the propriety of simplicity in apparel, and the need of abstemiousness and devotion. He thus presented the spectacle of an enthusiast who preached a doctrine of laxity and self-indulgence, not from any base or selfish motive, but simply from a conviction of its truth. We learn without surprise that the doctrines of the new teacher were embraced with ardor by large classes among the Persians, by the young of all ranks, by the lovers of pleasure, by the great bulk of the lower orders. But it naturally moves our wonder that among the proselytes to the new religion was the king. Kobad, who had nothing to gain from embracing a creed which levelled him with his subjects, and was scarcely compatible with the continuance of monarchical rule, must have been sincere in his profession; and we inquire with interest, what were the circumstances which enabled Mazdak to attach to his cause so important and so unlikely a convert.

The explanation wherewith we are furnished by our authorities is, that Mazdak claimed to authenticate his mission by the possession and exhibition of miraculous powers. In order to impose on the weak mind of Kobad he arranged and carried into act an elaborate and clever imposture. He excavated a cave below the fire-altar, on which he was in the habit of offering, and contrived to pass a tube from the cavern to the upper surface of the altar, where the sacred flame was maintained perpetually. Having then placed a confederate in the cavern, he invited the attendance of Kobad, and in his presence appeared to hold converse with the fire itself, which the Persians viewed as the symbol and embodiment of divinity. The king accepted the miracle as an absolute proof of the divine authority of the new teacher, and became thenceforth his zealous adherent and follower.

It may be readily imagined that the conversion of the monarch to such a creed was, under a despotic government, the prelude to disorders, which soon became intolerable. Not content with establishing community of property and of women among themselves, the sectaries claimed the right to plunder the rich at their pleasure, and to carry off for the gratification of their own passions the inmates of the most illustrious harems. In vain did the Mobeds declare that the new religion was false, was monstrous, ought not to be tolerated for an hour. The followers of Mazdak had the support of the monarch, and this protection secured them complete impunity. Each day they grew bolder and more numerous. Persia became too narrow a field for their ambition, and they insisted on spreading their doctrines into the neighboring countries. We find traces of the acceptance of their views in the distant West; and the historians of Armenia relate that in that unhappy country they so pressed their religion upon the people that an insurrection broke out, and Persia was in danger of losing, by intolerance, one of her most valued dependencies.

Vatian, the Mamigonian, who had been superseded in his office by a fresh Marzpan, bent on forcing the Armenians to adopt the new creed, once more put himself forward as his country's champion, took arms in defence of the Christian faith, and endeavored to induce the Greek emperor, Anastasius, to accept the sovereignty of Persarmenia, together with the duty of protecting it against its late masters. Fear of the consequences, if he provoked the hostility of Persia, caused Anastasius to hesitate; and things might have gone hardly with the unfortunate Armenians, had not affairs in Persia itself come about this time to a crisis.

The Mobeds and the principal nobles had in vain protested against the spread of the new religion and the patronage lent it by the Court. At length appeal was made to the chief Mobed, and he was requested to devise a remedy for the existing evils, which were generally felt to have passed the limits of endurance. The chief Mobed decided that, under the circumstances of the time, no remedy could be effectual but the deposition of the head of the State, through whose culpable connivance the disorders had attained their height. His decision was received with general acquiescence. The Persian nobles agreed with absolute unanimity to depose Kobad, and to place upon the throne another member of the royal house. Their choice fell upon Zamasp, a brother of Kobad, who was noted for his love of justice and for the mildness of his disposition. The necessary arrangements having been made, they broke out into universal insurrection, arrested Kobad, and committed him to safe custody in the "Castle of Oblivion," proclaimed Zamasp, and crowned him king with all the usual formalities. An attempt was then made to deal the new religion a fatal blow by the seizure and execution of the heresiarch, Mazdak. But here the counter-revolution failed. Mazdak was seized indeed and imprisoned; but his followers rose at once, broke open his prison doors, and set him at liberty. The government felt itself too weak to insist on its intended policy of coercion. Mazdak was allowed to live in retirement unmolested, and to increase the number of his disciples.

The reign of Zamasp appears to have lasted from A.D. 498 to A.D. 501, or between two and three years. He was urged by the army to put Kobad to death, but hesitated to adopt so extreme a course, and preferred retaining his rival as a prisoner. The "Castle of Oblivion" was regarded as a place of safe custody; but the ex-king contrived in a short time to put a cheat on his guards and effect his escape from confinement. Like other claimants of the Persian throne, he at once took refuge with the Ephthalites, and sought to persuade the Great Khan to embrace his cause and place an army at his disposal. The Khan showed himself more than ordinarily complaisant. He can scarcely have sympathized with the religious leanings of his suppliant; but he remembered that he had placed him upon the throne, and had found him a faithful feudatory and a quiet neighbor. He therefore received him with every mark of honor, betrothed him to one of his own daughters, and lent him an army of 30,000 men. With this force Kobad returned to Persia, and offered battle to Zamasp. Zamasp declined the conflict. He had not succeeded in making himself popular with his subjects, and knew that a large party desired the return of his brother. It is probable that he did not greatly desire a throne. At any rate, when his brother reached the neighborhood of the capital, at the head of the 30,000 Ephthalites and of a strong body of Persian adherents, Zamasp determined upon submission. He vacated the throne in favor of Kobad, without risking the chance of a battle, and descended voluntarily into a private station. Different stories are told of his treatment by the restored monarch. According to Procopius, he was blinded after a cruel method long established among the Persians; but Mirkhond declares that he was pardoned, and even received from his brother marked signs of affection and favor.

The coins of Zamasp have the usual inflated ball and mural crown, but with a crescent in place of the front limb of the crown. The ends of the diadem appear over the two shoulders. On either side of the head there is a star, and over either shoulder a crescent. Outside the encircling ring, or "pearl border," we see, almost for the first time, three stars with crescents. The reverse bears the usual fire-altar, with a star and crescent on either side of the flame. The legend is extremely brief, being either Zamasp or Bag Zamasp, i.e. "Zamaspes," or "the divine Zamaspes." [PLATE XXII., Fig. 1.]

Plate Xxii.


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