The Sassanid Empire

226–651 A.D.



Yazdgard I, Isdigerd I or Yazdegerd I 399 - 421



Bahram IV was succeeded (A.D. 399) by his son, Izdikerti or Isdigerd I,whom the soldiers, though they had murdered his father, permitted to ascend the throne without difficulty. He is said, at his accession, to have borne a good character for prudence and moderation, a character which he sought to confirm by the utterance on various occasions of high-sounding moral sentiments. The general tenor of his reign was peaceful; and we may conclude therefore that he was of an unwarlike temper, since the circumstances of the time were such as would naturally have induced a prince of any military capacity to resume hostilities against the Romans.


After the arrangement made with Rome by Shapur III. in A.D. 384, a terrible series of calamities had befallen the empire. Invasions of Ostrogoths and Franks signalized the years A.D. 386 and 388; in A.D. 387 the revolt of Maximus seriously endangered the western moiety of the Roman state; in the same year occurred an outburst of sedition at Antioch, which was followed shortly by the more dangerous sedition, and the terrible massacre of Thessalonica; Argobastes and Eugenius headed a rebellion in A.D. 393; Gildo the Moor detached Africa from the empire in A.D. 386, and maintained a separate dominion on the southern shores of the Mediterranean for twelve years, from A.D. 386 to 398; in A.D. 395 the Gothic warriors within and without the Roman frontier took arms, and under the redoubtable Alaric threatened at once the East and the West, ravaged Greece, captured Corinth, Argos, and Sparta, and from the coasts of the Adriatic already marked for their prey the smiling fields of Italy. The rulers of the East and West, Arcadius and Honorius, were alike weak and unenterprising; and further, they were not even on good terms, nor was either likely to trouble himself very greatly about attacks upon the territories of the other. Isdigerd might have crossed the Euphrates, and overrun or conquered the Asiatic provinces of the Eastern Empire, without causing Honorious a pang, or inducing him to stir from Milan.

It is true that Western Rome possessed at this time the rare treasure of a capable general; but Stilicho was looked upon with fear and aversion by the emperor of the East, and was moreover fully occupied with the defence of his own master's territories. Had Yazdegerd, on ascending the throne in A.D. 399, unsheathed the sword and resumed the bold designs of his grandfather, Sapor II., he could scarcely have met with any serious or prolonged resistance. He would have found the East governed practically by the eunuch Eutropius, a plunderer and oppressor, universally hated and feared; he would have had opposed to him nothing but distracted counsels and disorganized forces; Asia Minor was in possession of the Ostrogoths, who, under the leadership of Tribigild, were ravaging and destroying far and wide; the armies of the State were commanded by Gainas, the Goth, and Leo, the wool-comber, of whom the one was incompetent, and the other unfaithful; there was nothing, apparently, that could have prevented him from overrunning Roman Armenia, Mesopotamia, and Syria, or even from extending his ravages, or his dominion, to the shores of the Aegean. But the opportunity was either not seen, or was not regarded as having any attractions. Yazdegerd remained tranquil and at rest within the walls of his capital. Assuming as his special title the characteristic epithet of "Ramashtras," "the most quiet," or "the most firm," he justified his assumption of it by a complete abstinence from all military expeditions.


Protection of Arcadius' son


Theodosius II


When Yazdegerd had reigned peaceably for the space of nine years, he is said to have received a compliment of an unusual character. Arcadius, the emperor of the East, finding his end approaching, and anxious to secure a protector for his son Theodosius, a boy of tender age, instead of committing him to the charge of his uncle Honorius, or selecting a guardian for him from among his own subjects, by a formal testamentary act, we are told, placed his child under the protection of the Persian monarch. He accompanied the appointment by a solemn appeal to the magnanimity of Yazdegerd, whom he exhorted at some length to defend with all his force, and guide with his best wisdom, the young king and his kingdom. According to one writer, he further appended to this trust a valuable legacy—no less than a thousand pounds weight of pure gold, which he begged his Persian brother to accept as a token of his goodwill. When Arcadius died, and the testament was opened, information of its contents was sent to Yazdegerd, who at once accepted the charge assigned to him, and addressed a letter to the Senate of Constantinople, in which he declared his determination to punish any attempt against his ward with the extremest severity. Unable to watch over his charge in person, he selected for his guide and instructor a learned eunuch of his court, by name Antiochus, and sent him to Constantinople, where for several years he was the young prince's constant companion. Even after his death or expulsion, which took place in consequence of the intrigues of Pulcheria, Theodosius's elder sister, the Persian monarch continued faithful to his engagements. During the whole of his reign he not only remained at peace with the Romans, but avoided every act that they could have regarded as in the least degree unfriendly.

Such is the narrative which has come down to us on the authority of historians, the earliest of whom wrote a century and a half after Arcadius's death. Modern criticism has, in general, rejected the entire story, on this account, regarding the silence of the earlier writers as outweighing the positive statements of the later ones. It should, however, be borne in mind, first that the earlier writers are few in number, and that their histories are very meagre and scanty; secondly, that the fact, if fact it were, was one not very palatable to Christians; and thirdly, that, as the results, so far as Rome was concerned, were negative, the event might not have seemed to be one of much importance, or that required notice. The character of Procopius, with whom the story originates, should also be taken into consideration, and the special credit allowed him by Agathias for careful and diligent research. It may be added, that one of the main points of the narrative—the position of Antiochus at Constantinople during the early years of Theodosius—is corroborated by the testimony of a contemporary, the bishop Synesius, who speaks of a man of this name, recently in the service of a Persian, as all-powerful with the Eastern emperor.

It has been supposed by one writer that the whole story grew out of this fact; but the basis scarcely seems to be sufficient; and it is perhaps most probable that Arcadius did really by his will commend his son to the kind consideration of the Persian monarch, and that that monarch in consequence sent him an adviser, though the formal character of the testamentary act, and the power and position of Antiochus at the court of Constantinople, may have been overstated. Theodosius no doubt owed his quiet possession of the throne rather to the good disposition towards him of his own subjects than to the protection of a foreigner; and Isdigerd refrained from all attack on the territories of the young prince, rather by reason of his own pacific temper than in consequence of the will of Arcadius.


Yazdegerd and the Christians




The friendly relations established, under whatever circumstances, between Yazdegerd and the Roman empire of the East seemed to have inclined the Persian monarch, during a portion of his reign, to take the Christians into his favor, and even to have induced him to contemplate seeking admission into the Church by the door of baptism. Antiochus, his representative at the Court of Arcadius, openly wrote in favor of the persecuted sect; and the encouragement received from this high quarter rapidly increased the number of professing Christians in the Persian territories. The sectaries, though oppressed, had long been allowed to have their bishops; and Yazdegerd is said to have listened with approval to the teaching of two of them, Marutha, bishop of Mesopotamia, and Abdaas, bishop of Ctesiphon.

Convinced of the truth of Christianity, but unhappily an alien from its spirit, he commenced a persecution of the Magians and their most powerful adherents, which caused him to be held in detestation by his subjects, and has helped to attach to his name the epithets of "Al-Khasha," "the Harsh," and "Al-Athim," "the Wicked." But the' persecution did not continue long. The excessive zeal of Abdaas after a while provoked a reaction; and Yazdegerd, deserting the cause which he had for a time espoused, threw himself (with all the zeal of one who, after nearly embracing truth, relapses into error) into the arms of the opposite party. Abdaas had ventured to burn down the great Fire-Temple of Ctesiphon, and had then refused to rebuild it. Yazdegerd authorized the Magian hierarchy to retaliate by a general destruction of the Christian churches throughout the Persian dominions, and by the arrest and punishment of all those who acknowledged themselves to believe the Gospel. A fearful slaughter of the Christians in Pergia followed during five years; some, eager for the earthly glory and the heavenly rewards of martyrdom, were forward to proclaim themselves members of the obnoxious sect; others, less courageous or less inclined to self-assertion, sought rather to conceal their creed; but these latter were carefully sought out, both in the towns and in the country districts, and when convicted were relentlessly put to death. Nor was mere death regarded as enough. The victims were subjected, besides, to cruel sufferings of various kinds, and the greater number of them expired under torture. Thus Isdigerd alternately oppressed the two religious professions, to one or other of which belonged the great mass of his subjects; and, having in this way given both parties reason to hate him, earned and acquired a unanimity of execration which has but seldom been the lot of persecuting monarchs.




At the same time that Isdigerd allowed this violent persecution of the Christians in his own kingdom of Persia, he also sanctioned an attempt to extirpate Christianity in the dependent country of Armenia. Varahran-Sapor, the successor of Chosroes, had ruled the territory quietly and peaceably for twenty-one years. He died A.D. 413, leaving behind him a single son, Artases, who was at his father's death aged no more than ten years. Under these circumstances, Isaac, the Metropolitan of Armenia, proceeded to the court of Ctesiphon, and petitioned Isdigerd to replace on the Armenian throne the prince who had been deposed twenty-one years earlier, and who was still a prisoner on parole in the "Castle of Oblivion"—viz. Chosroes. Yazdegerd acceded to the request; and Chosroes was released from confinement and restored to the throne from which he had been expelled by Varahran IV. in A.D. 391. He, however, survived his elevation only a year.

Upon his decease, A.D. 413, Yazdegerd selected for the viceroyship, not an Arsacid, not even an Armenian, but his own son, Sapor, whom he forced upon the reluctant provincials, compelling them to acknowledge him as monarch (A.D. 413-414). Sapor was instructed to ingratiate himself with the Armenian nobles, by inviting them to visit him, by feasting them, making them presents, holding friendly converse with them, hunting with them; and was bidden to use such influence as he might obtain to convert the chiefs from Christianity to Zoroastrianism. The young prince appears to have done his best; but the Armenians were obstinate, resisted his blandishments, and remained Christians in spite of all his efforts. He reigned from A.D. 414 to 418, at the end of which time, learning that his father had fallen into ill health, he quitted Armenia and returned to the Persian court, in order to press his claims to the succession. Isdigerd died soon afterwards (A.D. 419 or 420); and Sapor made an attempt to seize the throne; but there was another pretender whose partisans had more strength, and the viceroy of Armenia was treacherously assassinated in the palace of his father. Armenia remained for three years in a state of anarchy; and it was not till Varahran V. had been for some time established upon the Persian throne that Artases was made viceroy, under the name of Artasiris or Artaxerxes.

The coins of Yazdegerd I. are not remarkable as works of art; but they possess some features of interest.

They are numerous, and appear to have been issued from various mints, but all bear a head of the same type. It is that of a middle-aged man, with a short beard and hair gathered behind the head in a cluster of curls. The distinguishing mark is the headdress, which has the usual inflated ball above a fragment of the old mural crown, and further bears a crescent in front. The reverse has the usual fire-altar with supporters, and is for the most part very rudely executed. The ordinary legend is, on the obverse, "Mazdisn bag ramashtras Izdikerti, malkan malka Airan," or "the Ormazd-worshipping divine most peaceful Isdigerd, king of the kings of Iran;" and on the reverse, Ramashtras Izdikerti, "the most peaceful Yazdegerd." In some cases, there is a second name, associated with that of the monarch, on the reverse, a name which reads either "Ardashatri" (Artaxerxes) or, "Varahran." It has been conjectured that, where the name of "Artaxerxes" occurs, the reference is to the founder of the empire; while it is admitted that the "Varahran" intended is almost certainly Isdigerd's son and successor, Varahran V., the "Bahram-Grur" of the modern Persians. Perhaps a more reasonable account of the matter would be that Isdigerd had originally a son Artaxerxes, whom he intended to make his successor, but that this son died or offended him, and that then he gave his place to Varahran.


The character of Yazdegerd is variously represented. According to the Oriental writers, he had by nature an excellent disposition, and at the time of his accession was generally regarded as eminently sage, prudent, and virtuous; but his conduct after he became king disappointed all the hopes that had been entertained of him. He was violent, cruel, and pleasure-seeking; he broke all laws human and divine; he plundered the rich, ill-used the poor, despised learning, left those who did him a service unrewarded, suspected everybody. He wandered continually about his vast empire, not to benefit his subjects, but to make them all suffer equally. In curious contrast with these accounts is the picture drawn of him by the Western authors, who celebrate his magnanimity and his virtue, his peaceful temper, his faithful guardianship of Theodosius, and even his exemplary piety.

A modern writer has suggested that he was in fact a wise and tolerant prince, whose very mildness and indulgence offended the bigots of his own country, and caused them to represent his character in the most odious light, and do their utmost to blacken his memory. But this can scarcely be accepted as the true explanation of the discrepancy. It appears from the ecclesiastical historians that, whatever other good qualities Isdigerd may have possessed, tolerance at any rate was not among his virtues. Induced at one time by Christian bishops almost to embrace Christianity, he violently persecuted the professors of the old Persian religion. Alarmed at a later period by the excessive zeal of his Christian preceptors, and probably fearful of provoking rebellion among his Zoroastrian subjects, he turned around upon his late friends, and treated them with a cruelty even exceeding that previously exhibited towards their adversaries. It was probably this twofold persecution that, offending both professions, attached to Isdigerd in his own country the character of a harsh and bad monarch. Foreigners, who did not suffer from his caprices or his violence, might deem him magnanimous and a model of virtue. His own subjects with reason detested his rule, and branded his memory with the well-deserved epithet of Al-Athim, "the Wicked."




Yazdegerd is credited with the founding of Yezd.


Death of Yazdegerd


A curious tale is told as to the death of Yazdegerd. He was still in the full vigor of manhood when one day a horse of rare beauty, without bridle or caparison, came of its own accord and stopped before the gate of his palace. The news was told to the king, who gave orders that the strange steed should be saddled and bridled, and prepared to mount it. But the animal reared and kicked, and would not allow any one to come near, till the king himself approached, when the creature totally changed its mood, appeared gentle and docile, stood perfectly still, and allowed both saddle and bridle to be put on. The crupper, however, needed some arrangement, and Isdigerd in full confidence proceeded to complete his task, when suddenly the horse lashed out with one of his hind legs, and dealt the unfortunate prince a blow which killed him on the spot. The animal then set off at speed, disembarrassed itself of its accoutrements, and galloping away was never seen any more. The modern historian of Persia compresses the tale into a single phrase, and tells us that "Isdigerd died from the kick of a horse:" but the Persians of the time regarded the occurrence as an answer to their prayers, and saw in the wild steed an angel sent by God. According to other sources, he died of sickness.



 Bahram IV


Bahram V