The New Persian Empire

The Roman Empire > Ancient Civilizations > New Persian Empire


Accession of Chosroes II. (Eberwiz). Bahram rejects his Terms. Contest between Chosroes and Bahram. Flight of Chosroes. Short Reign of Bahram (Varahran VI). Campaign of A.D. 591. Recovery of the Throne by Chosroes. Coins of Bahram.

The position of Chosroes II. on his accession was one of great difficulty. Whether actually guilty of parricide or not, he was at any rate suspected by the greater part of his subjects of complicity in his father's murder. A rebel, who was the greatest Persian general of the time, at the head of a veteran army, stood arrayed against his authority. He had no established character to fall back upon, no merits to plead, nothing in fact to urge on his behalf but that he was the eldest son of his father, the legitimate representative of the ancient line of the Sassanidae. A revolution had placed him on the throne in a hasty and irregular manner; nor is it clear that he had ventured on the usual formality of asking the consent of the general assembly of the nobles to his coronation. Thus perils surrounded him on every side; but the most pressing danger of all, that which required to be immediately met and confronted, was the threatening attitude of Bahram, who had advanced from Adiabene to Holwan, and occupied a strong position not a hundred and fifty miles from the capital. Unless Bahram could be conciliated or defeated, the young king could not hope to maintain himself in power, or feel that he had any firm grasp of the sceptre.

Under these circumstances he took the resolution to try first the method of conciliation. There seemed to be a fair opening for such a course. It was not he, but his father, who had given the offence which drove Bahram into rebellion, and almost forced him to vindicate his manhood by challenging his detractor to a trial of strength. Bahram could have no personal ground of quarrel with him. Indeed that general had at the first, if we may believe the Oriental writers, proclaimed Chosroes as king, and given out that he took up arms in order to place him upon the throne. It was thought, moreover, that the rebel might feel himself sufficiently avenged by the death of his enemy, and might be favorably disposed towards those who had first blinded Hormisdas and then despatched him by the bowstring. Chosroes therefore composed a letter in which he invited Bahram to his court, and offered him the second place in the kingdom, if he would come in and make his submission. The message was accompanied by rich presents, and by an offer that if the terms proposed wera accepted they should be confirmed by oath.

The reply of Bahram was as follows: "Bahram, friend of the gods, conqueror, illustrious, enemy of tyrants, satrap of satraps, general of the Persian host, wise, apt for command, god-fearing, without reproach, noble, fortunate, successful, venerable, thrifty, provident, gentle, humane, to Chosroes the son of Hormisdas (sends greeting). I have received the letter which you wrote with such little wisdom, but have rejected the presents which you sent with such excessive boldness. It had been better that you should have abstained from sending either, more especially considering the irregularity of your appointment, and the fact that the noble and respectable took no part in the vote, which was carried by the disorderly and low-born. If then it is your wish to escape your father's fate, strip off the diadem which you have assumed and deposit it in some holy place, quit the palace, and restore to their prisons the criminals whom you have set at liberty, and whom you had no right to release until they had undergone trial for their crimes. When you have done all this, come hither, and I will give you the government of a province. Be well advised, and so farewell. Else, be sure you will perish like your father." So insolent a missive might well have provoked the young prince to some hasty act or some unworthy show of temper. It is to the credit of Chosroes that he restrained himself, and even made another attempt to terminate the quarrel by a reconciliation. While striving to outdo Bahram in the grandeur of his titles, he still addressed him as his friend. He complimented him on his courage, and felicitated him on his excellent health. "There were certain expressions," he said, "in the letter that he had received, which he was sure did not speak his friend's real feelings. The amanuensis had evidently drunk more wine than he ought, and, being half asleep when he wrote, had put down things that were foolish and indeed monstrous. But he was not disturbed by them. He must decline, however, to send back to their prisons those whom he had released, since favors granted by royalty could not with propriety be withdrawn; and he must protest that in the ceremony of his coronation all due formalities had been observed. As for stripping himself of his diadem, he was so far from contemplating it that he looked forward rather to extending his dominion over new worlds. As Bahram had invited him, he would certainly pay him a visit; but he would be obliged to come as a king, and if his persuasions did not produce submission he would have to compel it by force of arms. He hoped that Bahram would be wise in time, and would consent to be his friend and helper."

This second overture produced no reply; and it became tolerably evident that the quarrel could only be decided by the arbitrament of battle. Chosroes accordingly put himself at the head of such troops as he could collect, and marched against his antagonist, whom he found encamped on the Holwan River. The place was favorable for an engagement; but Chosroes had no confidence in his soldiers. He sought a personal interview with Bahram, and renewed his offers of pardon and favor; but the conference only led to mutual recriminations, and at its close both sides appealed to arms. During six days the two armies merely skirmished, since Chosroes bent all his efforts towards avoiding a general engagement; but on the seventh day Bahram surprised him by an attack after night had fallen,a threw his troops into confusion, and then, by a skilful appeal to their feelings, induced them to desert their leader and come over to his side. Chosroes was forced to fly. He fell back on Ctesiphon; but despairing of making a successful defence, with the few troops that remained faithful to him, against the overwhelming force which Bahram had at his disposal, he resolved to evacuate the capital, to quit Persia, and to throw himself on the generosity of some one of his neighbors. It is said that his choice was long undetermined between the Turks, the Arabs, the Khazars of the Caucasian region, and the Romans. According to some writers, after leaving Ctesiphon, with his wives and children, his two uncles, and an escort of thirty men, he laid his reins on his horse's neck, and left it to the instinct of the animal to determine in what direction he should flee. The sagacious beast took the way to the Euphrates; and Chosroes, finding himself on its banks, crossed the river, and, following up its course, reached with much difficulty the well-known Roman station of Circesium. He was not unmolested in his retreat. Bahram no sooner heard of his flight than he sent off a body of 4000 horse, with orders to pursue and capture the fugitive. They would have succeeded, had not Bindoes devoted himself on behalf of his nephew, and, by tricking the officer in command, enabled Chosroes to place such a distance between himself and his pursuers that the chase had to be given up, and the detachment to return, with no more valuable capture than Bindoes, to Ctesiphon.

Chosroes was received with all honor by Probus, the governor of Circesium, who the next day communicated intelligence of what had happened to Comentiolus, Prefect of the East, then resident at Hierapolis. At the same time he sent to Comentiolus a letter which Chosroes had addressed to Maurice, imploring his aid against his enemies. Comentiolus approved what had been done, despatched a courier to bear the royal missive to Constantinople, and shortly afterwards, by the direction of the court, invited the illustrious refugee to remove to Hierapolis, and there take up his abode, till his cause should be determined by the emperor. Meanwhile, at Constantinople, after the letter of Chosroes had been read, a serious debate arose as to what was fittest to be done. While some urged with much show of reason that it was for the interest of the empire that the civil war should be prolonged, that Persia should be allowed to waste her strength and exhaust her resources in the contest, at the end of which it would be easy to conquer her, there were others whose views were less selfish or more far-sighted. The prospect of uniting the East and West into a single monarchy, which had been brought to the test of experiment by Alexander and had failed, did not present itself in a very tempting light to these minds. They doubted the ability of the declining empire to sway at once the sceptre of Europe and of Asia. They feared that if the appeal of Chosroes were rejected, the East would simply fall into anarchy, and the way would perhaps be prepared for some new power to rise up, more formidable than the kingdom of the Sassanidae. The inclination of Maurice, who liked to think himself magnanimous, coincided with the views of these persons: their counsels were accepted; and the reply was made to Chosroes that the Roman emperor accepted him as his guest and son, undertook his quarrel, and would aid him with all the forces of the empire to recover his throne. At the same time Maurice sent him some magnificent presents, and releasing the Persian prisoners in confinement at Constantinople, bade them accompany the envoys of Chosroes and resume the service of their master. Soon afterwards more substantial tokens of the Imperial friendship made their appearance. An army of 70,000 men arrived under Narses; and a subsidy was advanced by the Imperial treasury, amounting (according to one writer) to about two millions sterling.

But this valuable support to his cause was no free gift of a generous friend; on the contrary, it had to be purchased by great sacrifices. Chosroes had perhaps at first hoped that aid would be given him gratuitously, and had even regarded the cession of a single city as one that he might avoid making. But he learnt by degrees that nothing was to be got from Rome without paying for it; and it was only by ceding Persarmenia and Eastern Mesopotamia, with its strong towns of Martyropolis and Daras, that he obtained the men and money that were requisite.

Meanwhile Bahram, having occupied Ctesiphon, had proclaimed himself king, and sent out messengers on all sides to acquaint the provinces with the change of rulers. The news was received without enthusiasm, but with a general acquiescence; and, had Maurice rejected the application of Chosroes, it is probable that the usurper might have enjoyed a long and quiet reign. As soon, however, as it came to be known that the Greek emperor had espoused, the cause of his rival, Bahram found himself in difficulties: conspiracy arose in his own court, and had to be suppressed by executions; murmurs were heard in some of the more distant provinces; Armenia openly revolted and declared for Chosroes; and it soon appeared that in places the fidelity of the Persian troops was doubtful. This was especially the case in Mesopotamia, which would have to bear the brunt of the attack when the Romans advanced. Bahram therefore thought it necessary, though it was now the depth of winter, to strengthen his hold on the wavering province, and sent out two detachments, under commanders upon whom he could rely, to occupy respectively Anatho and Nisibis, the two strongholds of greatest importance in the suspected region. Miraduris succeeded in entering and occupying Anatho. Zadesprates was less fortunate; before he reached the neighborhood of Nisibis, the garrison which held that place had deserted the cause of the usurper and given in its adhesion to Chosroes; and, when he approached to reconnoitre, he was made the victim of a stratagem and killed by an officer named Rosas. Miraduris did not long survive him; the troops which he had introduced into Anatho caught the contagion of revolt, rose up against him, slew him, and sent his head to Chosroes.

The spring was now approaching, and the time for military operations on a grand scale drew near. Chosroes, besides his supporters in Mesopotamia, Roman and Persian, had a second army in Azerbijan, raised by his uncles Bindoes and Bostam, which was strengthened by an Armenian contingent. The plan of campaign involved the co-operation of these two forces. With this object Chosroes proceeded early in the spring, from Hierapolis to Constantina, from Constantina to Daras, and thence by way of Ammodion to the Tigris, across which he sent a detachment, probably in the neighborhood of Mosul. This force fell in with Bryzacius, who commanded in these parts for Bahram, and surprising him in the first watch of the night, defeated his army and took Bryzacius himself prisoner. The sequel, which Theophylact appears to relate from the information of an eye-witness, furnishes a remarkable evidence of the barbarity of the times. Those who captured Bryzacius cut off his nose and his ears, and in this condition sent him to Chosroes. The Persian prince was overjoyed at the success, which no doubt he accepted as a good omen; he at once led his whole army across the river, and having encamped for the night at a place called Dinabadon, entertained the chief Persian and Roman nobles at a banquet. When the festivity was at its height, the unfortunate prisoner was brought in loaded with fetters, and was made sport of by the guests for a time, after which, at a signal from the king, the guards plunged their swords into his body, and despatched him in the sight of the feasters. Having amused his guests with this delectable interlude, the amiable monarch concluded the whole by anointing them with perfumed ointment, crowning them with flowers, and bidding them drink to the success of the war. "The guests," says Theophylact, "returned, to their tents, delighted with the completeness of their entertainment, and told their friends how handsomely they had been treated, but the crown of all (they said) was the episode of Bryzacius."

Chosroes next day advanced across the Greater Zab, and, after marching four days, reached Alexandrian a position probably not far from Arbela, after which, in two days more, he arrived at Chnaethas, which was a district upon the Zab Asfal, or Lesser Zab River. Here he found himself in the immediate vicinity of Bahram, who had taken up his position on the Lesser Zab, with the intention probably of blocking the route up its valley, by which he expected that the Armenian army would endeavor to effect a junction with the army of Chosroes. Here the two forces watched each other for some days, and various manoeuvres were executed, which it is impossible to follow, since Theophylact, our only authority, is not a good military historian. The result, however, is certain. Bahram was out-manoeuvred by Chosroes and his Roman allies; the fords of the Zab were seized; and after five days of marching and counter-marching, the longed-for junction took place. Chosroes had the satisfaction of embracing his uncles Bindoes and Bostam, and of securing such a reinforcement as gave him a great superiority in numbers over his antagonist.

About the same time he received intelligence of another most important success. Before quitting Daras, he had despatched Mebodes, at the head of a small body of Romans, to create a diversion on the Mesopotomian side of the Tigris by a demonstration from Singara against Seleucia and Ctesiphon. He can hardly have expected to do more than distract his enemy and perhaps make him divide his forces. Bahram, however, was either indifferent as to the fate of the capital, or determined not to weaken the small army, which was all that he could muster, and on which his whole dependence was placed. He left Seleucia and Ctesiphon to their fate. Mebodes and his small force marched southward without meeting an enemy, obtained possession of Seleucia without a blow after the withdrawal of the garrison, received the unconditional surrender of Ctesiphon, made themselves masters of the royal palace and treasures, proclaimed Chosroes king, and sent to him in his camp the most precious emblems of the Persian sovereignty. Thus, before engaging with his antagonist, Chosroes recovered his capital and found his authority once more recognized in the seat of government.

The great contest had, however, to be decided, not by the loss and gain of cities, nor by the fickle mood of a populace, but by trial of arms in the open field. Bahram was not of a temper to surrender his sovereignty unless compelled by defeat. He was one of the greatest generals of the age, and, though compelled to fight under every disadvantage, greatly outnumbered by the enemy, and with troops that were to a large extent disaffected, he was bent on resisting to the utmost, and doing his best to maintain his own rights. He seems to have fought two pitched battles with the combined Romans and Persians, and not to have succumbed until treachery and desertion disheartened him and ruined his cause. The first battle was in the plain country of Adiabene, at the foot of the Zagros range. Here the opposing armies were drawn out in the open field, each divided into a centre and two wings. In the army of Chosroes the Romans were in the middle, on the right the Persians, and the Armenians on the left. Narses, together with Chosroes, held the central position: Bahram was directly opposed to them. When the conflict began the Romans charged with such fierceness that Bahram's centre at once gave way; he was obliged to retreat to the foot of the hills, and take up a position on their slope. Here the Romans refused to attack him; and Chosroes very imprudently ordered the Persians who fought on his side to advance up the ascent. They were repulsed, and thrown into complete confusion; and the battle would infallibly have been lost, had not Narses come to their aid, and with his steady and solid battalions protected their retreat and restored the fight. Yet the day terminated with a feeling on both sides that Bahram had on the whole had the advantage in the engagement; the king de facto congratulated himself; the king de jure had to bear the insulting pity of his allies, and the reproaches of his own countrymen for occasioning them such a disaster.

But though Bahram might feel that the glory of the day was his, he was not elated by his success, nor rendered blind to the difficulties of his position. Fighting with his back to the mountains, he was liable, if he suffered defeat, to be entangled in their defiles and lose his entire force. Moreover, now that Ctesiphon was no longer his, he had neither resources nor point d'appui in the low country, and by falling back he would at once be approaching nearer to the main source of his own supplies, which was the country about Rei, south of the Caspian, and drawing his enemies to a greater distance from the sources of theirs. He may even have thought there was a chance of his being unpursued if he retired, since the Romans might not like to venture into the mountain region, and Chosroes might be impatient to make a triumphal entry into his capital. Accordingly, the use which Bahram made of his victory was quietly to evacuate his camp, to leave the low plain region, rapidly pass the mountains, and take up his quarters in the fertile upland beyond them, the district where the Lesser Zab rises, south of Lake Urumiyeh.

If he had hoped that his enemies would not pursue him, Bahram was disappointed. Chosroes himself, and the whole of the mixed army which supported his cause, soon followed on his footsteps, and pressing forward to Canzaca, or Shiz, near which he had pitched his camp, offered him battle for the second time. Bahram declined the offer, and retreated to a position on the Balarathus, where, however, after a short time, he was forced to come to an engagement. He had received, it would seem, a reinforcement of elephants from the provinces bordering on India, and hoped for some advantage from the employment of this new arm. He had perhaps augmented his forces, though it must be doubted whether he really on this occasion outnumbered his antagonist. At any rate, the time seemed to have come when he must abide the issue of his appeal to arms, and secure or lose his crown by a supreme effort. Once more the armies were drawn up in three distinct bodies; and once more the leaders held the established central position. The engagement began along the whole line, and continued for a while without marked result. Bahram then strengthened his left, and, transferring himself to this part of the field, made an impression on the Roman right. But Narses brought up supports to their aid, and checked the retreat, which had already begun, and which might soon have become general. Hereupon Bahram suddenly fell upon the Roman centre and endeavored to break it and drive it from the field; but Narses was again a match for him, and met his assault without flinching, after which, charging in his turn, he threw the Persian centre into confusion. Seeing this, the wings also broke, and a general flight began, whereupon 6000 of Bahram's troops deserted, and, drawing aside, allowed themselves to be captured. The retreat then became a rout. Bahram himself fled with 4,000 men. His camp, with all its rich furniture, and his wives and children, were taken. The elephant corps still held out and fought valiantly; but it was surrounded and forced to surrender. The battle was utterly lost; and the unfortunate chief, feeling that all hope was gone, gave the reins to his horse and fled for his life. Chosroes sent ten thousand men in pursuit, under Bostam, his uncle; and this detachment overtook the fugitives, but was repulsed and returned. Bahram continued his flight, and passing through Rei and Damaghan, reached the Oxus and placed himself under the protection of the Turks. Chosroes, having dismissed his Roman allies, re-entered Ctesiphon after a year's absence, and for the second time took his place upon the throne of his ancestors.

The coins of Bahram possess a peculiar interest. While there is no numismatic evidence which confirms the statement that he struck money in the name of the younger Chosroes, there are extant three types of his coins, two of which appear to belong to the time before he seated himself upon the throne, while one—the last—belongs to the period of his actual sovereignty. In his preregnal coins, he copied the devices of the last sovereign of his name who had ruled over Persia. He adopted the mural crown in a decided form, omitted the stars and crescents, and placed his own head amid the flames of the fire-altar. His legends were either Varahran Chub, "Bahram of the mace," or Varahran, maljcan malka, mazdisn, bagi, ramashtri, "Bahram, king of kings, Ormazd-worshipping, divine, peaceful." [PLATE XXIII, Fig. 2.]

The later coins follow closely the type of his predecessor, Hormisdas IV., differing only in the legend, which is, on the obverse, Varahran afzun, or "Varahran (may he be) greater;" and on the reverse the regnal year, with a mint-mark. The regnal year is uniformly "one;" the mint-marks are Zadracarta, Iran, and Nihach, an unknown locality. [PLATE XXIII., Fig 3.]


ancient civilizations