The Sassanid Empire

226–651 A.D.


Varahran or Bahram V also called  

Bahram gur 421 - 438



Succession trouble

It would seem that at the death of Yazdegerd there was some difficulty as to the succession. Bahram, whom he had designated as his heir, appears to have been absent from the capital at the time; while another son, Sapor, who had held the Armenian throne from A.D. 414 to 418, was present at the seat of government, and bent on pushing his claims. Varahran, if we may believe the Oriental writers, who are here unanimous, had been educated among the Arab tribes dependent on Persia, who now occupied the greater portion of Mesopotamia. His training had made him an Arab rather than a Persian; and he was believed to have inherited the violence, the pride, and the cruelty of his father. His countrymen were therefore resolved that they would not allow him to be king. Neither were they inclined to admit the claims of Sapor, whose government of Armenia had not been particularly successful, and whose recent desertion of his proper post for the advancement of his own private interests was a crime against his country which deserved punishment rather than reward.

Armenia had actually revolted as soon as he quitted it, had driven out the Persian garrison, and was a prey to rapine and disorder. We cannot be surprised that, under these circumstances, Sapor's machinations and hopes were abruptly terminated, soon after his father's demise, by his own murder. The nobles and chief Magi took affairs into their own hands. Instead of sending for Bahram, or awaiting his arrival, they selected for king a descendant of Artaxerxes I. only remotely related to Yazdegerd—a prince of the name of Chosroes—and formally placed him upon the throne. But Varahran was not willing to cede his rights. Having persuaded the Arabs to embrace his cause, he marched upon Ctesiphon at the head of a large force, and by some means or other, most probably by the terror of his arms, prevailed upon Chosroes, the nobles, and the Magi, to submit to him. The people readily acquiesced in the change of masters; Chosroes descended into a private station, and Bahram, son of Yazdegerd, became king.

Persecution of Christians

Bahram seems to have ascended the throne in A.D. 420. He at once threw himself into the hands of the priestly party, and, resuming the persecution of the Christians which his father had carried on during his later years, showed himself, to one moiety of his subjects at any rate, as bloody and cruel as the late monarch. Tortures of various descriptions were employed; and so grievous was the pressure put upon the followers of Christ that in a short time large numbers of the persecuted sect quitted the country, and placed themselves under the protection of the Romans. Bahram had to consider whether he would quietly allow the escape of these criminals, or would seek to enforce his will upon them at the risk of a rupture with Rome. He preferred the bolder line of conduct. His ambassadors were instructed to require the surrender of the refugees at the court of Constantinople; and when Theodosius, to his honor, indignantly rejected the demand, they had orders to protest against the emperor's decision, and to threaten him with their master's vengeance.

War with Byzantium

It happened that at the time there were some other outstanding disputes, which caused the relations of the two empires to be less amicable than was to be desired. The Persians had recently begun to work their gold mines, and had hired experienced persons from the Romans, whose services they found so valuable that when the period of the hiring was expired they would not suffer the miners to quit Persia and return to their homes. They are also said to have ill-used the Roman merchants who traded in the Persian territories, and to have actually robbed them of their merchandise.

These causes of complaint were not, however, it would seem, brought forward by the Romans, who contented themselves with simply refusing the demand for the extradition of the Christian fugitives, and refrained from making any counter-claims. But their moderation was not appreciated; and the Persian monarch, on learning that Rome would not restore the refugees, declared the peace to be at an end, and immediately made preparations for war. The Romans had, however, anticipated his decision, and took the field in force before the Persians were ready. The command was entrusted to a general bearing the strange name of Ardaburius, who marched his troops through Armenia into the fertile province of Arzanene, and there defeated Narses, the leader whom Bahram had sent against him. Proceeding to plunder Arzanene, Ardaburius suddenly heard that his adversary was about to enter the Roman province of Mesopotamia, which was denuded of troops, and seemed to invite attack.

Hastily concluding his raid, he passed from Arzanene into the threatened district, and was in time to prevent the invasion intended by Narses, who, when he found his designs forestalled, threw himself into the fortress of Nisibis, and there stood on the defensive. Ardaburius did not feel himself strong enough to invest the town; and for some time the two adversaries remained inactive, each watching the other. It was during this interval that (if we may credit Socrates) the Persian general sent a challenge to the Roman, inviting him to fix time and place for a trial of strength between the two armies. Ardaburius prudently declined the overture, remarking that the Romans were not accustomed to fight battles when their enemies wished, but when it suited themselves. Soon afterwards he found himself able to illustrate his meaning by his actions. Having carefully abstained from attacking Nisibis while his strength seemed to him insufficient, he suddenly, upon receiving large reinforcements from Theodosius, changed his tactics, and, invading Persian Mesopotamia, marched upon the stronghold held by Narses, and formally commenced its siege.

Bahram takes army to Nisibis

Hitherto Bahram, confident in his troops or his good fortune, had left the entire conduct of the military operations to his general; but the danger of Nisibis—that dearly won and highly prized possession—seriously alarmed him, and made him resolve to take the field in person with all his forces. Enlisting on his side the services of his friends the Arabs, under their great sheikh, Al-Amundarus (Moundsir), and collecting together a strong body of elephants, he advanced to the relief of the beleaguered town. Ardaburius drew off on his approach, burned his siege artillery, and retired from before the place. Nisibis was preserved; but soon afterwards a disaster is said to have befallen the Arabs, who, believing themselves about to be attacked by the Roman force, were seized with a sudden panic, and, rushing in headlong flight to the Euphrates (!) threw themselves into its waters, encumbered with their clothes and arms, and there perished to the number of a hundred thousand.

The remaining circumstances of the war are not related by our authorities in chronological sequence. But as it is certain that the war lasted only two years, and as the events above narrated certainly belong to the earlier portion of it, and seem sufficient for one campaign, we may perhaps be justified in assigning to the second year, A.D. 421, the other details recorded—viz., the siege of Theodosiopolis, the combat between Areobindus and Ardazanes, the second victory of Ardaburius, and the destruction of the remnant of the Arabs by Vitianus.

Theodosiopolis attacked

location of Theodosiopolis

Theodosiopolis was a city built by the reigning emperor, Theodosius II., in the Roman portion of Armenia, near the sources of the Euphrates. It was defended by strong walls, lofty towers, and a deep ditch. Hidden channels conducted an unfailing supply of water into the heart of the place, and the public granaries were large and generally well stocked with provisions. This town, recently built for the defence of the Roman Armenia, was (it would seem) attacked in A.D. 421 by Bahram in person. He besieged it for above thirty days, and employed against it all the means of capture which were known to the military art of the period. But the defence was ably conducted by the bishop of the city, a certain Eunomius, who was resolved that, if he could prevent it, an infidel and persecuting monarch should never lord it over his see. Eunomius not merely animated the defenders, but took part personally in the defence, and even on one occasion discharged a stone from a balista with his own hand, and killed a prince who had not confined himself to his military duties, but had insulted the faith of the besieged. The death of this officer is said to have induced Bahram to retire, and not further molest Theodosiopolis.

Single combat to decide war

While the fortified towns on either side thus maintained themselves against the attacks made on them, Theodosius, we are told, gave an independent command to the patrician Procopius, and sent him at the head of a body of troops to oppose Varahran. The armies met, and were on the point of engaging when the Persian monarch made a proposition to decide the war, not by a general battle, but by a single combat. Procopius assented; and a warrior was selected on either side, the Persians choosing for their champion a certain Ardazanes, and the Romans "Areobindus the Goth," count of the "Foederati." In the conflict which followed the Persian charged his adversary with his spear, but the nimble Goth avoided the thrust by leaning to one side, after which he entangled Ardazanes in a net, and then despatched him with his sword. The result was accepted by Bahram as decisive of the war, and he desisted, from any further hostilities. Areobindus received the thanks of the emperor for his victory, and twelve years later was rewarded with the consulship.

But meanwhile, in other portions of the wide field over which the war was raging, Rome had obtained additional successes. Ardaburius, who probably still commanded in Mesopotamia, had drawn the Persian force opposed to him into an ambuscade, and had destroyed it, together with its seven generals. Vitianus, an officer of whom nothing more is known, had exterminated the remnant of the Arabs not drowned in the Euphrates. The war had gone everywhere against the Persians; and it is not improbable that Bahram, before the close of A.D. 421, proposed terms of peace.


Peace, however, was not exactly made till the next year. Early in A.D. 422, a Roman envoy, by name Maximus, appeared in the camp of Bahram, and, when taken into the presence of the great king, stated that he was empowered by the Roman generals to enter into negotiations, but had had no communication with the Roman emperor, who dwelt so far off that he had not heard of the war, and was so powerful that, if he knew of it, he would regard it as a matter of small account. It is not likely that Bahram was much impressed by these falsehoods; but he was tired of the war; he had found that Rome could hold her own, and that he was not likely to gain anything by prolonging it; and he was in difficulties as to provisions, whereof his supply had run short. He was therefore well inclined to entertain Maximus's proposals favorably. The corps of the "Immortals," however, which was in his camp, took a different view, and entreated to be allowed an opportunity of attacking the Romans unawares, while they believed negotiations to be going on, considering that under such circumstances they would be certain of victory. Bahram, according to the Roman writer who is here our sole authority, consented. The Immortals made their attack, and the Romans were at first in some danger; but the unexpected arrival of a reinforcement saved them, and the Immortals were defeated and cut off to a man. After this, Bahram made peace with Rome through the instrumentality of Maximus, consenting, it would seem, not merely that Rome should harbor the Persian Christians, if she pleased, but also that all persecution of Christians should henceforth cease throughout his own empire.

Acacius, bishop of Amida

The formal conclusion of peace was accompanied, and perhaps helped forward, by the well-judging charity of an admirable prelate. Acacius, bishop of Amida, pitying the condition of the Persian prisoners whom the Romans had captured during their raid into Arzanene, and were dragging off into slavery, interposed to save them; and, employing for the purpose all the gold and silver plate that he could find in the churches of his diocese, ransomed as many as seven thousand captives, supplied their immediate wants with the utmost tenderness, and sent them to Bahram, who can scarcely have failed to be impressed by an act so unusual in ancient times. Our sceptical historian remarks, with more apparent sincerity than usual, that this act was calculated "to inform, the Persian king of the true spirit of the religion which he persecuted," and that the name of the doer might well "have dignified the saintly calendar." These remarks are just; and it is certainly to be regretted that, among the many unknown or doubtful names of canonized Christians to which the Church has given her sanction, there is no mention made of Acacius of Amida.


Bahram was perhaps the more disposed to conclude his war with Rome from the troubled condition of his own portion of Armenia, which imperatively required his attention. Since the withdrawal from that region of his brother Sapor in A.D. 418 or 419, the country had had no king. It had fallen into a state of complete anarchy and wretchedness; no taxes were collected; the roads were not safe; the strong robbed and oppressed the weak at their pleasure. Isaac, the Armenian patriarch, and the other bishops, had quitted their sees and taken refuge in Roman Armenia, where they were received favorably by the prefect of the East, Anatolius, who no doubt hoped by their aid to win over to his master the Persian division of the country. Bahram's attack on Theodosiopolis had been a counter movement, and had been designed to make the Romans tremble for their own possessions, and throw them back on the defensive. But the attack had failed; and on its failure the complete loss of Armenia probably seemed imminent. Bahram therefore hastened to make peace with Rome, and, having so done, proceeded to give his attention to Armenia, with the view of placing matters there on a satisfactory footing. Convinced that he could not retain Armenia unless with the good-will of the nobles, and believing them to be deeply attached to the royal stock of the Arsacids, he brought forward a prince of that noble house, named Artases, a son of Varahran-Sapor, and, investing him with the ensigns of royalty, made him take the illustrious name of Artaxerxes, and delivered into his hands the entire government of the country. These proceedings are assigned to the year A.D. 422, the year of the peace with Rome, and must have followed very shortly after the signature of the treaty.

It might have been expected that this arrangement would have satisfied the nobles of Armenia, and have given that unhappy country a prolonged period of repose. But the personal character of Artaxerxes was, unfortunately, bad; the Armenian nobles were, perhaps, capricious; and after a trial of six years it was resolved that the rule of the Arsacid monarch could not be endured, and that Varahran should be requested to make Armenia a province of his empire, and to place it under the government of a Persian satrap. The movement was resisted with all his force by Isaac, the patriarch, who admitted the profligacy of Artaxerxes and deplored it, but held that the role of a Christian, however lax he might be, was to be preferred to that of a heathen, however virtuous. The nobles, however, were determined; and the opposition of Isaac had no other result than to involve him in the fall of his sovereign. Appeal was made to the Persian king and Bahram, in solemn state, heard the charges made against Artaxerxes by his subjects, and listened to his reply to them. At the end he gave his decision. Artaxerxes was pronounced to have forfeited his crown, and was deposed; his property was confiscated, and his person committed to safe custody. The monarchy was declared to be at an end; and Persarmenia was delivered into the hands of a Persian governor. The patriarch Isaac was at the same time degraded from his office and detained in Persia as a prisoner. It was not till some years later that he was released, allowed to return into Armenia, and to resume, under certain restrictions, his episcopal functions.

Invasion of the Hephthalite or white Huns



Hephthalite coin

The remaining circumstances of the reign of Bahram V. come to us wholly through the Oriental writers, amid whose exaggerations and fables it is very difficult to discern the truth. There can, however, be little doubt that it was during the reign of this prince that those terrible struggles commenced between the Persians and their neighbors upon the north-east which continued, from the early part of the fifth till the middle of the sixth century, to endanger the very existence of the empire. Various names are given to the people with whom Persia waged her wars during this period. They are called Turks, Huns, sometimes even Chinese, but these terms seem, to be used in a vague way, as "Scythian" was by the ancients; and the special ethnic designation of the people appears to be quite a different name from any of them.

It is a name the Persian form of which is Haithal or Haiathleh, the Armenian Hephthagh, and the Greek "Ephthalites," or sometimes "Hephthalites." Different conjectures have been formed as to its origin: but none of them can be regarded as more than an ingenious theory. All that we know of the Ephthalites is, that they were established in force, during the fifth and sixth centuries of our era, in the regions east of the Caspian, especially in those beyond the Oxus river, and that they were generally regarded as belonging to the Scythic or Finno-Turkic population, which, at any rate from B.C. 200, had become powerful in that region.

They were called "White Huns" by some of the Greeks; but it is admitted that they were quite distinct from the Huns who invaded Europe under Attila; and it may be doubted whether the term "Hun" is more appropriate to them than that of Turk or even of Chinese. The description of their physical character and habits left us by Procopius, who wrote when they were at the height of their power, is decidedly adverse to the view that they were really Huns. They were a light-complexioned race, whereas the Huns were decidedly swart; they were not ill-looking, whereas the Huns were hideous; they were an agricultural people, while the Huns were nomads; they had good laws, and were tolerably well civilized, but the Huns were savages. It is probable that they belonged to the Thibetic or Turkish stock, which has always been in advance of the Finnic, and has shown a greater aptitude for political organization and social progress.


 The Rise And Fall Of The Hephthalite Empire

Bahram's subterfuge

We are told that the war of Bahram V. with this people commenced with an invasion of his kingdom by their Khacan, or Kahn, who crossed the Oxus with an army of 35,000 (or, according to others, of 250,000) men, and carried fire and sword into some of the most fertile provinces of Persia. The rich oasis, known as Meru or Merv, the ancient Margiana, is especially mentioned as overrun by his troops, which are said by some to have crossed the Elburz range into Khorassan and to have proceeded westward as far as Kei, or Rhages. When news of the invasion reached the Persian court, the alarm felt was great; Varahran was pressed to assemble his forces at once and encounter the unknown enemy; he, however, professed complete indifference, said that the Almighty would preserve the empire, and that, for his own part, he was going to hunt in Azerbijan, or Media Atropatene. During his absence the government could be conducted by Narses, his brother. All Persia was now thrown into consternation; Varahran was believed to have lost his senses; and it was thought that the only prudent course was to despatch an embassy to the Khacan, and make an arrangement with him by which Persia should acknowledge his suzerainty and consent to pay him a tribute. Ambassadors accordingly were sent; and the invaders, satisfied with the offer of submission, remained in the position which they had taken up, waiting for the tribute, and keeping slack guard, since they considered that they had nothing to fear.

Bahram, however, was all the while preparing to fall upon them unawares. He had started for Azerbijan with a small body of picked warriors; he had drawn some further strength from Armenia; he proceeded along the mountain line through Taberistan, Hyrcania, and Nissa (Nishapur), marching only by night, and carefully masking his movements. In this way he reached the neighborhood of Merv unobserved. He then planned and executed a night attack on the invading army which was completely successful. Attacking his adversaries suddenly and in the dark—alarming them, moreover, with strange noises, and at the same time assaulting them with the utmost vigor—he put to flight the entire Tatar army. The Khan himself was killed; and the flying host was pursued to the banks of the Oxus. The whole of the camp equipage fell into the hands of the victors; and Khatoun, the wife of the great Khan, was taken. The plunder was of enormous value, and comprised the royal crown with its rich setting of pearls. After this success, Bahram, to complete his victory, sent one of his generals across the Oxus at the head of a large force, and falling upon the Tatars in their own country defeated them a second time with great slaughter. The enemy then prayed for peace, which was granted them by the victorious Bahram, who at the same time erected a column to mark the boundary of his empire in this quarter, and, appointing his brother Narses governor of Khorassan, ordered him to fix his residence at Balkh, and to prevent the Tatars from making incursions across the Oxus. It appears that these precautions were successful, for we hear nothing of any further hostilities in this quarter during the remainder of Bahram's reign.

Bahram in India

The adventures of Bahram in India, and the enlargement of his dominions in that direction by the act of the Indian king, who is said so have voluntarily ceded to him Mekran and Scinde in return for his services against the Emperor of China, cannot be regarded as historical. Scarcely more so is the story that Persia had no musicians in his day, for which reason he applied to the Indian monarch, and obtained from him twelve thousand performers, who became the ancestors of the Lurs.

Death of Bahram

After a reign which is variously estimated at nineteen, twenty, twenty-one, and twenty-three years, Bahram died by a death which would have been thought incredible, had not a repetition of the disaster, on the traditional site, been witnessed by an English traveller in comparatively recent times. The Persian writers state that Bahram was engaged in the hunt of the wild ass, when his horse came suddenly upon a deep pool, or spring of water, and either plunged into it or threw his rider into it, with the result that Bahram sank and never reappeared. The supposed scene of the incident is a valley between Ispahan and Shiraz. Here, in 1810, an English soldier lost his life through bathing in the spring traditionally declared to be that which proved fatal to Bahram. The coincidence has caused the general acceptance of a tale which would probably have been otherwise regarded as altogether romantic and mythical.

The coins of Varahran V. are chiefly remarkable for their rude and coarse workmanship and for the number of the mints from which they were issued. The mint-marks include Ctesiphon, Ecbatana, Isaphan, Arbela, Ledan, Nehavend, Assyria, Chuzistan, Media, and Kerman, or Carmania. The ordinary legend is, upon the obverse, Mazdisn bag Varahran malha, or Mazdisn bag Varahran rasti malha, and on the reverse, "Yavahran," together with a mint-mark. The head-dress has the mural crown in front and behind, but interposes between these two detached fragments a crescent and a circle, emblems, no doubt, of the sun and moon gods. The reverse shows the usual fire-altar, with guards, or attendants, watching it. The king's head appears in the flame upon the altar.

According to the Oriental writers, Bahram V. was one of the best of the Sassanian princes. He carefully administered justice among his numerous subjects, remitted arrears of taxation, gave pensions to men of science and letters, encouraged agriculture, and was extremely liberal in the relief of poverty and distress. His faults were, that he was over-generous and over-fond of amusements, especially of the chase. The nickname of "Bahram-Gur," by which he is known to the Orientals, marks this last-named predilection, transferring to him, as it does, the name of the animal which was the especial object of his pursuit. But he was almost equally fond of dancing and of games. Still it does not appear that his inclination for amusements rendered him neglectful of public affairs, or at all interfered with his administration of the State. Persia is said to have been in a most flourishing condition during his reign.

He may not have gained all the successes that are ascribed to him; but he was undoubtedly an active prince, brave, energetic, and clear-sighted. He judiciously brought the Roman war to a close when a new and formidable enemy appeared on his north-eastern frontier; he wisely got rid of the Armenian difficulty, which had been a stumbling block in the way of his predecessors for two hundred years; he inflicted a check on the aggressive Tatars, which indisposed them to renew hostilities with Persia for a quarter of a century. It would seem that he did not much appreciate art but he encouraged learning, and did his best to advance science.



 Yazdegerd I


Yazdegerd II