The New Persian Empire

The Roman Empire > Ancient Civilizations > New Persian Empire


Administration of Persia under Chosroes I. Fourfold Division of the Empire. Careful Surveillance of those entrusted with Poiver. Severe Punishment of Abuse of Trust. New System of Taxation introduced. Correction of Abuse connected with the Military Service. Encouragement of Agriculture and Marriage. Belief of Poverty. Care for Travellers. Encouragement of Learning. Practice of Toleration within certain Limits. Domestic Life of Chosroes. His Wives. Revolt and Death of his Son, Nushizad. Coins of Chosroes. Estimate of his Character.

A general consensus of the Oriental writers marks the reign of the first Chosroes as a period not only of great military activity, but also of improved domestic administration. Chosroes found the empire in a disordered and ill-regulated condition, taxation arranged on a bad system, the people oppressed by unjust and tyrannical governors, the military service a prey to the most scandalous abuses, religious fanaticism rampant, class at variance with class, extortion and wrong winked at, crime unpunished, agriculture languishing, and the masses throughout almost the whole of the country sullen and discontented. It was his resolve from the first to carry out a series of reforms—to secure the administration of even-handed justice, to put the finances on a better footing, to encourage agriculture, to relieve the poor and the distressed, to root out the abuses that destroyed the efficiency of the army, and to excise the gangrene of fanaticism which was eating into the heart of the nation. How he effected the last named object by his wholesale destruction of the followers of Mazdak has been already related; but it appeared unadvisable to interrupt, the military history of the reign by combining with it any account of the numerous other reforms which he accomplished. It remains therefore to consider them in this place, since they are certainly not the least remarkable among the many achievements of this great monarch.

Persia, until the time of Anushirwan, had been divided into a multitude of provinces, the satraps or governors of which held their office directly under the crown. It was difficult for the monarch to exercise a sufficient superintendence over so large a number of rulers, many of them remote from the court, and all united by a common interest. Chosroes conceived the plan of forming four great governments, and entrusting them to four persons in whom he had confidence, whose duty it should be to watch the conduct of the provincial satraps to control them, direct them, or report their misconduct to the crown. The four great governments were those of the east, the north, the south, and the west. The east comprised Khorassan, Seistan, and Kirman; the north, Armenia, Azer-bijan, Ghilan, Koum, and Isfahan; the south, Fars and Ahwaz; the west, Irak, or Babylonia, Assyria, and Mesopotamia.

It was not the intention of the monarch, however, to put a blind trust in his instruments. He made personal progresses through his empire from, time to time, visiting each province in turn and inquiring into the condition of the inhabitants. He employed continually an army of inspectors and spies, who reported to him from all quarters the sufferings or complaints of the oppressed, and the neglects or misdoings of those in authority. On the occurrence of any specially suspicious circumstance, he appointed extraordinary commissions of inquiry, which, armed with all the power of the crown, proceeded to the suspected quarter, took evidence, and made a careful report of whatever wrongs or malpractices they discovered.

When guilt was brought home to incriminated persons or parties, the punishment with which they were visited was swift and signal. We have seen how harsh were the sentences passed by Chosroes upon those whose offences attacked his own person or dignity. An equal severity appears in his judgments, where there was no question of his own wrongs, but only of the interests of his subjects. On one occasion he is said to have executed no fewer than eighty collectors of taxes on the report of a commission charging them with extortion. Among the principal reforms which Chosroes is said to have introduced was his fresh arrangement of the taxation. Hitherto all lands had paid to the State a certain proportion of their produce, a proportion which varied, according to the estimated richness of the soil, from a tenth to one-half. The effect was to discourage all improved cultivation, since it was quite possible that the whole profit of any increased outlay might be absorbed by the State, and also to cramp and check the liberty of the cultivators in various ways, since the produce could not be touched until the revenue official made his appearance and carried off the share of the crop which he had a right to take. Chosroes resolved to substitute a land-tax for the proportionate payments in kind, and thus at once to set the cultivator at liberty with respect to harvesting his crops and to allow him the entire advantage of any augumented production which might be secured by better methods of farming his land. His tax consisted in part of a money payment, in part of a payment in kind; but both payments were fixed and invariable, each measure of ground being rated in the king's books at one dirhem and one measure of the produce. Uncultivated land, and land lying fallow at the time, were exempt; and thus the scheme involved, not one survey alone, but a recurring (annual) survey, and an annual registration of all cultivators, with the quantity of land under cultivation held by each, and the nature of the crop or crops to be grown by them. The system was one of much complication, and may have pressed somewhat hardly upon the poorer and less productive soils; but it was an immense improvement upon the previously existing practice, which had all the disadvantages of the modern tithe system, aggravated by the high rates exacted and by the certainty that, in any disputed case, the subject would have had a poor chance of establishing his right against the crown. It is not surprising that the caliphs, when they conquered Persia, maintained unaltered the land system of Chosroes which they found established, regarding it as, if not perfect, at any rate not readily admitting of much improvement.

Besides the tax upon arable lands, of which we have hitherto spoken, Chosroes introduced into into Persia various other imposts. The fruit trees were everywhere counted, and a small payment required for each. The personality of the citizens was valued, and a graduated property-tax established, which, however, in the case of the most opulent, did not exceed the moderate sum of forty-eight dirhems (about twenty-seven shillings). A poll-tax was required of Jews and Christians, whereof we do not know the amount. From all these burdens liberal exemptions were made on account of age and sex; no female paid anything; and males above fifty years of age or under twenty were also free of charge. Due notice was given to each individual of the sum for which he was liable, by the publication in each province, town, and village, of a tax table, in which each citizen or alien could see against his name the amount about to be claimed of him, with the ground upon which it was regarded as due. Payment had to made by instalments, three times each year, at the end of every four months.

In order to prevent the unfair extortion, which in the ancient world was always, with reason or without, charged upon collectors of revenue, Chosroes, by the advice of the Grand Mobed, authorized the Magian priests everywhere to exercise a supervision over the receivers of taxes, and to hinder them from exacting more than their due. The priests were only too happy to discharge this popular function; and extortion must have become rare under a system which comprised so efficient a safeguard.

Another change ascribed to Chosroes is a reform of the administration of the army. Under the system previously existing, Chosroes found that the resources of the state were lavishly wasted, and the result was a military force inefficient and badly accoutred. No security was taken that the soldiers possessed their proper equipments or could discharge the duties appropriate to their several grades. Persons came before the paymaster, claiming the wages of a cavalry soldier, who possessed no horse, and had never learned to ride. Some, who called themselves soldiers, had no knowledge of the use of any weapon at all; others claimed for higher grades of the service than those whereto they really belonged; those who drew the pay of cuirassiers were destitute of a coat of mail; those who professed themselves archers were utterly incompetent to draw the bow. The established rates of pay varied between a hundred dirhems a year and four thousand, and persons entitled to the lowest rate often received an amount not much short of the highest. The evil was not only that the treasury was robbed by unfair claims and unfounded pretences, but that artifice and false seeming were encouraged, while at the same time the army was brought into such a condition that no dependence could be placed upon it. If the number who actually served corresponded to that upon the rolls, which is uncertain, at any rate all the superior arms of the service fell below their nominal strength, and the lower grades were crowded with men who were only soldiers in name.

As a remedy against these evils, Chosroes appointed a single paymaster-general, and insisted on his carefully inspecting and reviewing each body of troops before he allowed it to draw its pay. Each man was to appear before him fully equipped and to show his proficiency with his weapon or weapons; horse soldiers were to bring their horses, and to exhibit their mastery over the animals by putting them through their paces, mounting and dismounting, and performing the other usual exercises. If any clumsiness were noted, or any deficiency in the equipment, the pay was to be withheld until the defect observed had been made good. Special care was to be taken that no one drew the pay of a class superior to that whereto he really belonged—of an archer, for instance, when he was in truth a common soldier, or of a trooper when he served not in the horse, but in the foot.

A curious anecdote is related in connection with these military reforms. When Babek, the new paymaster, was about to hold his first review, he issued an order that all persons belonging to the army then present in the capital should appear before him on a certain day. The troops came; but Babek dismissed them on the ground that a certain person whose presence was indispensable had not made his appearance. Another day was appointed, with the same result, except that Babek on this occasion plainly intimated that it was the king whom he expected to attend. Upon this Chosroes, when a third summons was issued, took care to be present, and came fully equipped, as he thought, for battle. But the critical eye of the reviewing officer detected an omission, which he refused to overlook—the king had neglected to bring with him two extra bow-strings. Chosroes was required to go back to his palace and remedy the defect, after which he was allowed to pass muster, and then summoned to receive his pay. Babek affected to consider seriously what the pay of the commander-in-chief ought to be, and decided that it ought to exceed that of any other person in the army. He then, in the sight of all, presented the king with four thousand and one dirhems, which Chosroes received and carried home. Thus two important principles were thought to be established—that no defect of equipment whatsoever should be overlooked in any officer, however high his rank, and that none should draw from the treasury a larger amount of pay than 4,000 dirhems (L112. of our money).

The encouragement of agriculture was an essential element in the system of Zoroaster; and Chosroes, in devoting his attention to it, was at once performing a religious duty and increasing the resources of the state. It was his earnest desire to bring into cultivation all the soil which was capable of it; and with this object he not only issued edicts commanding the reclamation of waste lands, but advanced from the treasury the price of the necessary seed-corn, implements, and beasts to all poor persons willing to carry out his orders. Other poor persons, especially the infirm and those disabled by bodily defect, were relieved from his privy purse; mendicancy was forbidden, and idleness made an offence. The lands forfeited by the followers of Mazdak were distributed to necessitous cultivators. The water system was carefully attended to; river and torrent courses were cleared of obstructions and straightened; the superfluous water of the rainy season was stored, and meted out with a wise economy to those who tilled the soil, in the spring and summer.

The prosperity of a country depends in part upon the laborious industry of the inhabitants, in part upon their numbers. Chosroes regarded Persia as insufficiently peopled, and made efforts to increase the population by encouraging and indeed compelling marriage. All marriageable females were required to provide themselves with husbands; if they neglected this duty, the government interfered, and united them to unmarried men of their own class. The pill was gilt to these latter by the advance of a sufficient dowry from the public treasury, and by the prospect that, if children resulted from the union, their education and establishment in life would be undertaken by the state. Another method of increasing the population, adopted by Chosroes to a certain extent, was the settlement within his own territories of the captives whom he carried off from foreign countries in the course of his military expeditions. The most notorious instance of this policy was the Greek settlement, known as Rumia (Rome), established by Chosroes after his capture of Antioch (A.D. 540), in the near vicinity of Ctesiphon.

Oriental monarchs, in many respects civilized and enlightened, have often shown a narrow and unworthy jealousy of foreigners. Chosroes had a mind which soared above this petty prejudice. He encouraged the visits of all foreigners, excepting only the barbarous Turks, readily received them at his court, and carefully provided for their safety. Not only were the roads and bridges kept in the most perfect order throughout his territories, so as to facilitate locomotion, but on the frontiers and along the chief lines of route guard-houses were built and garrisons maintained for the express purpose of securing the safety of travellers. The result was that the court of Chosroes was visited by numbers of Europeans, who were hospitably treated, and invited, or even pressed, to prolong their visits.

To the proofs of wisdom and enlightenment here enumerated Chosroes added another, which is more surprising than any of them. He studied philosophy, and was a patron of science and learning. Very early in his reign he gave a refuge at his court to a body of seven Greek sages whom a persecuting edict, issued by Justinian, had induced to quit their country and take up their abode on Persian soil. Among the refugees was the erudite Damascius, whose work De Principiis is well known, and has recently been found to exhibit an intimate acquaintance with some of the most obscure of the Oriental religions. Another of the exiles was the eclectic philosopher Simplicius, "the most acute and judicious of the interpreters of Aristotle." Chosroes gave the band of philosophers a hospitable reception, entertained them at his table, and was unwilling that they should leave his court. They found him acquainted with the writings of Aristotle and Plato, whose works he had caused to be translated into the Persian tongue. If he was not able to enter very deeply into the dialectical and metaphysical subtleties which characterize alike the Platonic Dialogues and the Aristotelian treatises, at any rate he was ready to discuss with them such questions as the origin of the world, its destructibility or indestructibility, and the derivation of all things from one First Cause or from more. Later in his reign, another Greek, a sophist named Uranius, acquired his especial favor, became his instructor in the learning of his country, and was presented by him with a large sum of money. Further, Chosroes maintained at his court, for the space of a year, the Greek physician, Tribunus, and offered him any reward that he pleased at his departure. He also instituted at Gondi-Sapor, in the vicinity of Susa, a sort of medical school, which became by degrees a university, wherein philosophy, rhetoric, and poetry were also studied. Nor was it Greek learning alone which attracted his notice and his patronage. Under his fostering care the history and jurisprudence of his native Persia were made special objects of study; the laws and maxims of the first Artaxerxes, the founder of the monarchy, were called forth from the obscurity which had rested on them for ages, were republished and declared to be authoritative; while at the same time the annals of the monarchy were collected and arranged, and a "Shah-nameh," or "Book of the Kings," composed, which it is probable formed the basis of the great work of Firdausi. Even the distant land of Hindustan was explored in the search after varied knowledge, and contributed to the learning and civilization of the time the fables of Bidpai and the game of chess.

Though a fierce persecutor of the deluded followers of Mazdak, Chosroes admitted and practised, to some extent, the principles of toleration. On becoming king, he laid it down as a rule of his government that the actions of men alone, and not their thoughts, were subject to his authority. He was therefore bound not to persecute opinion; and we may suppose that in his proceedings against the Mazdakites he intended to punish their crimes rather than their tenets. Towards the Christians, who abounded in his empire, he certainly showed himself, upon the whole, mild and moderate. He married a Christian wife, and allowed her to retain her religion. When one of his sons became a Christian, the only punishment which he inflicted on him was to confine him to the palace. He augumented the number of the Christians in his dominions by the colonies which he brought in from abroad. He allowed to his Christian subjects the free exercise of their religion, permitted them to build churches, elect bishops, and conduct services at their pleasure, and even suffered them to bury their dead, though such pollution of the earth was accounted sacrilegious by the Zoroastrians. No unworthy compliances with the established cult were required of them. Proselytism, however, was not allowed; and all Christian sects were perhaps not viewed with equal favor. Chosroes, at any rate, is accused of persecuting the Catholics and the Monophysites, and compelling them to join the Nestorians, who formed the predominant sect in his dominions. Conformity, however, in things outward, is compatible with a wide diversity of opinion; and Chosroes, while he disliked differences of practice, seems certainly to have encouraged, at least in his earlier years, a freedom of discussion in religious matters which must have tended to shake the hereditary faith of his subjects. He also gave on one occasion a very remarkable indication of liberal and tolerant views. When he made his first peace with Rome, the article on which he insisted the most was one whereby the free profession of their known opinions and tenets in their own country was secured to the seven Grecian sages who had found at his court, in their hour of need, a refuge from persecution.

In his domestic relations Chosroes was unfortunate. With his chief wife, indeed, the daughter of the great Khan of the Turks, he seems to have lived always on excellent terms; and it was his love for her which induced him to select the son whom she had borne him for his successor on the throne. But the wife who stood next in his favor displeased him by her persistent refusal to renounce the religion of Christ and adopt that of her husband in its stead; and the quarrel between them must have been aggravated by the conduct of their child, Nushizad, who, when he came to years of discretion, deliberately preferred the faith of his mother to that of his father and of the nation. With this choice Chosroes was naturally offended; but he restrained his anger within moderate limits, and was content to punish the young prince by forbidding him to quit the precincts of the palace. Unhappy results followed. Nushizad in his confinement heard a rumor that his father, who had started for the Syrian war, was struck with sickness, was not likely to recover, was dead. It seemed to him a golden opportunity, of which he would be foolish not to make the most. He accordingly quitted his prison, spread the report of his father's death, seized the state treasure, and scattered it with a liberal hand among the troops left in the capital, summoned the Christians throughout the empire to his aid, assumed the title and state of king, was acknowledged by the whole of the southern province, and thought himself strong enough to take the offensive and attempt the subjugation of Irak. Here, however, he was met by Phabrizus (Firuz?), one of his father's generals, who completely defeated his army in a pitched battle. According to one account, Nushizad fell in the thick of the fight, mortally wounded by a chance arrow. According to another, he was made prisoner, and carried to Chosroes, who, instead of punishing him with death, destroyed his hopes of reigning by inflicting on him a cruel disfigurement.

The coins of Chosroes are very numerous, and offer one or two novel and curious types. The most remarkable have on the obverse the head of the king, presenting the full face, and surmounted by a mural crown with a low cap. The beard is close, and the hair arranged in masses on either side. There are two stars above the crown, and two crescents, one over either shoulder, with a star and crescent on the dress in front of each shoulder. The kings wears a necklace, from which hang three pendants. On the reverse these coins have a full-length figure of the king, standing to the front, with his two hands resting on the hilt of his straight sword, and its point placed between his feet. The crown worn resembles that on the obverse; and there is a star and crescent on either side of the head. The legend on the obverse is Khusludi afzum, "May Chosroes increase;" the reverse has, on the left Khusludi, with the regnal year; on the right, a longer legend which has not yet been satisfactorily interpreted. [PLATE XXII., Fig. 3.]

The more ordinary type on the coins of Chosroes I. is one differing but little from those of his father, Kobad, and his son, Hormazd IV. The obverse has the king's head in profile, and the reverse the usual fire-altar and supporters. The distinguishing mark of these coins is, in addition to the legend, that they have three simple crescents in the margin of the obverse, instead of three crescents with stars. [PLATE XXII., Fig. 4.]

A relic of Chosroes has come down to us, which is of great beauty. This is a cup composed of a number of small disks of colored glass, united by a gold setting, and having at the bottom a crystal, engraved with a figure of the monarch. As late as 1638 it was believed that the disks of glass were jacynths, garnets, and emeralds, while the stone which forms the base was thought to be a white sapphire. The original owner of so rare a drinking-vessel could (it was supposed) only be Solomon; and the figure at the bottom was accordingly supposed to represent the Jewish king. Archaeologists are now agreed that the engraving on the gem, which exactly resembles the figure upon the peculiar coins above described, represents Chosroes Anushirwan, and is of his age. There is no sufficient reason to doubt but that the cup itself is one out of which he was accustomed to drink.

It is the great glory of Anushirwan that the title which his subjects gave him was "the Just." According to European, and especially to modern ideas, this praise would seem to have undeserved; and thus the great historian of the Byzantine period has not scrupled to declare that in his external policy Chosroes was actuated by mere ambition, and that "in his domestic administration he deserved the appellation of a tyrant." Undoubtedly the punishments which he inflicted were for the most part severe; but they were not capricious, nor uniform, nor without reference to the character of the offence. Plotting against his crown or his person, when the conspirators were of full age, treasonable correspondence with the enemy, violation of the sanctity of the harem, and the proselytism which was strictly forbidden by the laws, he punished with death. But, when the rebel was a mere youth, he was content to inflict a disfigurement; whence the offence was less, he could imprison, or confine to a particular spot, or simply banish the culprit from his presence. Instances on record of his clemency to offenders, and others which show that, when his own interests were at stake, he steadily refused to make use of his unlimited power for the oppression of individuals. It is unlikely that Anushirwan was distinguished as "the Just" without a reason; and we may safely conclude from his acknowledged title that his subjects found his rule more fair and equitable than that of any previous monarch.

That the administration of Chosroes was wise, and that Persia prospered under his government, is generally admitted. His vigilance, his activity, his care for the poor, his efforts to prevent or check oppression, are notorious, and cannot be gainsaid. Nor can it be doubted that he was brave, hardy, temperate, prudent, and liberal. Whether he possessed the softer virtues, compassion, kindliness, a tender and loving heart, is perhaps open to question. He seems, however, to have been a good husband and a good father, not easily offended, and not over-severe whence offence was given him. His early severities against his brothers and their followers may be regarded as caused by the advice of others, and perhaps as justified by state policy. In his later life, when he was his own master, he was content to chastise rebellion more mildly.

Intellectually, there is no reason to believe that Chosroes rose very high above the ordinary Oriental level. The Persians, and even many Greeks, in his own day, exalted him above measure, as capable of apprehending the most subtle arguments and the deepest problems of philosophy; but the estimate of Agathias is probably more just, and this reduces him to a standard about which there is nothing surprising. It is to his credit that although engaged in almost perpetual wars, and burdened moreover with the administration of a mighty empire, he had a mind large enough to entertain the consideration also of intellectual problems, and to enjoy and take part in their discussion; but it could scarcely be expected that, with his numerous other employments, he should really sound to their utmost depths the profundities of Greek thought, or understand the speculative difficulties which separated the various schools one from another. No doubt his knowledge was superficial, and there may have been ostentation in the parade which he made of it; but we must not deny him the praise of a quick, active intellect, and a width of view rarely found in an Oriental.

It was not, however, in the field of speculative thought, but in that of practical effort, that Chosroes chiefly distinguished himself and gained his choicest laurels. The excellence of his domestic administration has been already noticed. But, great as he was in peace, he was greater in war. Engaged for nearly fifty years in almost uninterrupted contests, he triumphed in every quarter, and scarcely experienced a reverse. Victorious over the Romans, the Abyssinians, the Ephthalites, and the Turks, he extended the limits of his empire on all sides, pacified the discontented Armenia, crushed internal revolt, frustrated the most threatening combinations, and established Persia in a position which she had scarcely occupied since the days of Darius Hystaspis. Personally engaged in above a score of fights, by the admission of his enemies he was never defeated but once; and there are circumstances which make it probable that this single check was of slight importance. The one real failure that can be laid to his charge was in another quarter, and involved no military, but only a political blunder. In recoiling from the difficulties of the Lazic war, Chosroes had not to deplore any disgrace to his arms, but simply to acknowledge that he had misunderstood the temper of the Lazic people. In depreciation of his military talents it may be said that he was never opposed to any great general. With Belisarius it would certainly seem that he never actually crossed swords; but Justinian and Maurice (afterwards emperor), to whom he was opposed in his later years, were no contemptible antagonists. It may further be remarked that the collapse of Persia in her struggle with Rome as soon as Chosroes was in his grave is a tolerably decisive indication that she owed her long career of victory under his guidance to his possession of uncommon military ability.


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