The Sassanid Empire

226–651 A.D.


Hormisdas or Hormizd III  457 - 459


Civil War


On the death of Yazdegerd. (A.D. 457) the throne was seized by his younger son  Hormizd, who appears to have owed his elevation, in a great measure, to the partiality of his father. That monarch, preferring his younger son above his elder, had made the latter governor of the distant Seistan, and had thus removed him far from the court, while he retained Hormizd about his own person. The advantage thus secured to Hormizd enabled him when his father died to make himself king; and Peroz was forced, we are told, to fly the country, and place himself under the protection of the Hephthalite monarch, who ruled in the valley of the Oxus, over Bactria, Tokaristan, Badakshan, and other neighboring districts. This king, who bore the name of Khush-newaz, received him favorably, and though at first, out of fear for the power of Persia, he declined to lend him troops, was induced after a while to adopt a bolder policy. Hormizd, despite his epithet of Ferzan, "the Wise," was soon at variance with his subjects, many of whom gathered about Peroz at the court which he was allowed to maintain in Taleqan, one of the Hephthalite cities. Supported by this body of refugees, and by an Ephthalite contingent, Peroz ventured to advance against his brother. His army, which was commanded by a certain Raham, or Ram, a noble of the Mihran family, attacked the forces of Hormizd, defeated them, and made Hormizd himself a prisoner. The troops of the defeated monarch, convinced by the logic of success, deserted their late leader's cause, and went over in a body to the conqueror. Peroz, after somewhat more than two years of exile, was acknowledged as king by the whole Persian people, and, quitting Taleqan, established himself at Ctesiphon, or Al Modain, which had now become the main seat of government. It is uncertain what became of Hormizd. According to the Armenian writers, Raham, after defeating him, caused him to be put to death; but the native historian, Mirkhond, declares that, on the contrary, Peroz forgave him for having disputed the succession, and amiably spared his life.

Peroz I   457 - 484

The civil war between the two brothers, short as it was, had lasted long enough to cost Persia a province. Vatche, king of Aghouank (Albania) took advantage of the time of disturbance to throw off his allegiance, and succeeded in making himself independent. It was the first object of Peroz, after establishing himself upon the throne, to recover this valuable territory. He therefore made war upon Vatche, thought that prince was the son of his sister, and with the help of his Hephthalite allies, and of a body of Alans whom he took into his service, defeated the rebellious Albanians and completely subjugated the revolted country.


The great famine


A time of prosperity now ensued. Perozes ruled with moderation and justice. He dismissed his Hephthalite allies with presents that amply contented them, and lived for five years in great peace and honor. But in the seventh year, from the death of his father, the prosperity of Persia was suddenly and grievously interrupted by a terrible drought, a calamity whereto Asia has in all ages been subject, and which often produces the most frightful consequences. The crops fail; the earth becomes parched and burnt up; smiling districts are change into wildernesses; fountains and brooks cease to flow; then the wells have no water; finally even the great rivers are reduced to threads, and contain only the scantiest supply of the life-giving fluid in their channels. Famine under these circumstances of necessity sets in; the poor die by hundreds; even the rich have a difficulty in sustaining life by means of food imported from a distance. We are told that the drought in the reign of Perozes was such that at last there was not a drop of water either in the Tigris or the Oxus; all the sources and fountains, all the streams and brooks failed; vegetation altogether ceased; the beasts of the field and the fowls of the air perished; nowhere through the whole empire was a bird to be seen; the wild animals, even the reptiles, disappeared altogether. The dreadful calamity lasted for seven years, and under ordinary circumstances the bulk of the population would have been swept off; but such were the "wisdom and the beneficence of the Persian monarch," that during the entire duration of the scourge not a single person, or, according to another account, but one person, perished of hunger. Perozes began by issuing general orders that the rich should come to the relief of their poorer brethren; he required the governors of towns, and the head-men of villages, to see that food was supplied to those in need, and threatened that for each poor man in a town or village who died of want he would put a rich man to death. At the end of two years, finding that the drought continued, he declined to take any revenue from his subjects, remitting taxes of all kinds, whether they were money imposts or contributions in kind. In the fourth year, not content with these measures, he went further: opened the treasury doors and made distributions of money from his own stores to those in need. At the same time he imported corn from Greece, from India, from the valley of the Oxus, and from Abyssinia, obtaining by these means such ample supplies that he was able to furnish an adequate sustenance to all his subjects. The result was that not only did the famine cause no mortality among the poorer classes, but no one was even driven to quit the country in order to escape the pressure of the calamity.


War with the Hephthalites




Such is the account which is given by the Oriental authors of the terrible famine which they ascribe to the early part of the reign of Perozes. It is difficult, however, to suppose that the matter has not been very much exaggerated, since we find that, as early as A.D. 464-5, when the famine should have been at its height, Perozes had entered upon a great war and was hotly engaged in it, his ambassadors at the same time being sent to the Greek court, not to ask supplies of food, but to request a subsidy on account of his military operations. The enemy which had provoked his hostility was the powerful nation of the Hephthalites, by whose aid he had so recently obtained the Persian crown. According to a contemporary Greek authority, more worthy of trust than most writers of his age and nation, the origin of the war was a refusal on the part of the Hephthalites to make certain customary payments which the Persians viewed in the light of a tribute. Perozes determined to enforce his just rights, and marched his troops against the defaulters with this object. But in his first operations he was unsuccessful, and after a time he thought it best to conclude the war, and content himself with taking a secret revenge upon his enemy, by means of an occult insult. He proposed to Khush-newaz to conclude a treaty of peace, and to strengthen the compact by adding to it a matrimonial alliance. Khush-newaz should take to wife one of his daughters, and thus unite the interests of the two reigning families. The proposal was accepted by the Hephthalite monarch; and he readily espoused the young lady who was sent to his court apparelled as became a daughter of Persia. In a little time, however, he found that he had been tricked: Peroz had not sent him his daughter, but one of his female slaves; and the royal race of the Hephthalite kings had been disgraced by a matrimonial union with a person of servile condition. Khush-newaz was justly indignant; but dissembled his feelings, and resolved to repay guile with guile. He wrote to Peroz that it was his intention to make war upon a neighboring tribe, and that he wanted officers of experience to conduct the military operations. The Persian monarch, suspecting nothing, complied with the request, and sent three hundred of his chief officers to Khush-newaz, who immediately seized them, put some to death, and, mutilating the remainder, commanded them to return to their sovereign, and inform him that the king of the Hephthalites now felt that he had sufficiently avenged the trick of which he had been the victim. On receiving this message Perozes renewed the war, advanced towards the Hephthalite country, and fixed his head-quarters in Hyrcania, at the city of Gurgan, He was accompanied by a Greek of the name of Eusebius, an ambassador from the Emperor Zeno, who took back to Constantinople the following account of the campaign.

Peroz's army trapped



 Peroz I's costly expeditions against the Hephthalite who had invaded

 Persia. The wars prove costly for the Sasanians

When Peroz, having invaded the Hephthalite territory, fell in with the army of the enemy, the latter pretended to be seized with a panic, and at once took to flight. The retreat was directed upon a portion of the mountain region, where a broad and good road led into a spacious plain, surrounded on all sides by wooded hills, steep and in places precipitous. Here the mass of the Hephthalite troops was cunningly concealed amid the foliage of the woods, while a small number, remaining visible, led the Persians into the cul-de-sac, the whole army unsuspectingly entering, and only learning their danger when they saw the road whereby they had entered blocked up by the troops from the hills. The officers then apprehended the true state of the case, and perceived that they had been cleverly entrapped; but none of them, it would seem, dared to inform the monarch that he had been deceived by a stratagem. Application was made to Eusebius, whose ambassadorial character would protect him from an outbreak, and he was requested to let Peroz know how he was situated, and exhort him to endeavor to extricate himself by counsel rather than by a desperate act. Eusebius upon this employed the Oriental method of apologue, relating to Perozes how a lion in pursuit of a goat got himself into difficulties, from which all his strength could not enable him to make his escape. Peroz apprehended his meaning, understood the situation, and, desisting from the pursuit, prepared to give battle where he stood. But the Hephthalite monarch had no wish to push matters to extremities. Instead of falling on the Persians from every side, he sent an embassy to Peroz and offered to release him from his perilous situation, and allow him to return with all his troops to Persia, if he would swear a perpetual peace with the Hephthalites and do homage to himself as his lord and master, by prostration. Peroz felt that he had no choice but to accept these terms, hard as he might think them. Instructed by the Magi, he made the required prostration at the moment of sunrise, with his face turned to the east, and thought thus to escape the humiliation of abasing himself before a mortal by the mental reservation that the intention of his act was to adore the great Persian divinity. He then swore to the peace, and was allowed to return with his army intact into Persia.




It seems to have been soon after the conclusion of his disgraceful treaty that serious troubles once more broke out in Armenia. Peroz, following out the policy of his father, Yazdegerd, incessantly persecuted the Christians of his northern provinces, especially those of Armenia, Georgia, and Albania. So severe were his measures that vast numbers of the Armenians quitted their country, and, placing themselves under the protection of the Greek Emperor, became his subjects, and entered into his service. Armenia was governed by Persian officials, and by apostate natives who treated their Christian fellow-countrymen with extreme rudeness, insolence, and injustice. Their efforts were especially directed against the few noble families who still clung to the faith of Christ, and had not chosen to expatriate themselves. Among these the most important was that of the Mamigonians, long celebrated in Armenian history, and at this time reckoned chief among the nobility. The renegades sought to discredit this family with the Persians; and Vahan, son of Hemaiiag, its head, found himself compelled to visit, once and again, the court of Persia, in order to meet the charges of his enemies and counteract the effect of their calumnies. Successful in vindicating himself, and received into high favor by Perozes, he allowed the sunshine of prosperity to extort from him what he had guarded firmly against all the blasts of persecution—to please his sovereign, he formally abjured the Christian faith, and professed himself a disciple of Zoroaster. The triumph of the anti-Christian party seemed now secured; but exactly at this point a reaction set in. Vahan became a prey to remorse, returned secretly to his old creed and longed for an opportunity of wiping out the shame of his apostasy by perilling his life for the Christian cause. The opportunity was not long in presenting itself. In A.D. 481 Perozes suffered a defeat at the hand of the barbarous Koushans, who held at this time the low Caspian tract extending from Asterabad to Derbend. Iberia at once revolted, slew its Zoroastrian king, Vazken, and placed a Christian, Vakhtang, upon the throne. The Persian governor of Armenia, having received orders to quell the Iberian rebellion, marched with all the troops that he could muster into the northern province, and left the Armenians free to follow their own devices. A rising immediately took place. Vahan at first endeavored to check the movement, being doubtful of the power of Armenia to cope with Persia, and feeling sure that the aid of the Greek emperor could not be counted on. But the the popular enthusiasm overleaped all resistance; everywhere the Christian party rushed to arms, and swore to free itself; the Persians with their adherents fled the country; Artaxata, the capital, was besieged and taken; the Christians were completely victorious, and, having made themselves masters of all Persarmenia, proceeded to establish a national government, placing at their head as king, Sahag, the Bagratide, and appointing Vahan, the Mamigonian, to be Sparapet, or "Commander-in-Chief."


Intelligence of these events recalled the Persian governor, Ader-Veshnasp, from Iberia. Returning into his province at the head of an army of no great size, composed of Atropatenians, Medes, and Cadusians, he was encountered by Vasag, a brother of Vahan, on the river Araxes, with a small force, and was completely defeated and slain.


Thus ended the campaign of A.D. 481. In A.D. 482 the Persians made a vigorous attempt to recover their lost ground by sending two armies, one under Ader-Nerseh against Armenia, and the other under Mihran into Iberia. Vahan met the army of Ader-Nerseh in the plain of Ardaz, engaged it, and defeated it after a sharp struggle, in which the king, Sahag, particularly distinguished himself. Mihran was opposed by Vakhtang, the Iberian king, who, however, soon found himself overmatched, and was forced to apply to Armenia for assistance. The Armenians came to his aid in full force; but their generosity was ill rewarded. Vakhtang plotted to make his peace with Persia by treacherously betraying his allies into their enemies' hands; and the Armenians, forced to fight at tremendous disadvantage, suffered a severe defeat. Sahag, the king, and Vasag, one of the brothers of Vahan, were slain; Vahan himself escaped, but at the head of only a few followers, with whom he fled to the highland district of Daik, on the borders of Home and Iberia. Here he was "hunted upon the mountains" by Mihran, and would probably have been forced to succumb before the year was out, had not the Persian general suddenly received a summons from his sovereign, who needed his aid against the Roushans of the low Caspian region. Mihran, compelled to obey this call, had to evacuate Armenia, and Vahan in a few weeks recovered possession of the whole country.

The year A.D. 483 now arrived, and another desperate attempt was made to crush the Armenian revolt. Early in the spring a Persian army invaded Armenia, under a general called Hazaravougd. Vahan allowed himself to be surprised, to be shut up in the city of Dovin, and to be there besieged. After a while he made his escape, and renewed the guerilla warfare in which he was an adept; but the Persians recovered most of the country, and he was himself, on more than one occasion, driven across the border and obliged to seek refuge in Roman Armenia, whither his adversary had no right to follow him. Even here, however, he was not safe. Hazaravougd, at the risk of a rupture with Rome, pursued his flying foe across the frontier; and Vahan was for some time in the greatest danger. But the Persian system of constantly changing the commands of their chief officers saved him. Hazaravougd received orders from the court to deliver up Armenia to a newly appointed governor, named Sapor, and to direct his own efforts to the recovery of Iberia, which was still in insurrection. In this latter enterprise he was successful; Iberia submitted to him; and Vakhtang fled to Colchis. But in Armenia the substitution of Sapor for Hazaravougd led to disaster. After a vain attempt to procure the assassination of Vahan by two of his officers, whose wives were Roman prisoners, Sapor moved against him with a strong body of troops; but the brave Mamigonian, falling upon his assailant unawares, defeated him with great loss, and dispersed his army. A second battle was fought with a similar result; and the Persian force, being demoralized, had to retreat; while Vajian, taking the offensive, established himself in Dovin, and once more rallied to his side the great mass of the nation. Affairs were in this state, when suddenly there arrived from the east intelligence of the most supreme importance, which produced a pause in the Armenian conflict and led to the placing of Armenian affairs on a new footing.


War with the Hephthalite again, the pillar


Peroz had, from the conclusion of his treaty with the Hephthalite monarch (ab. A.D. 470), been tormented with the feeling that he had suffered degradation and disgrace. He had, perhaps, plunged into the Armenian and other wars in the hope of drowning the recollection of his shame, in his own mind as well as in the minds of others. But fortune had not greatly smiled on him in these struggles; and any credit that he obtained from them was quite insufficient to produce forgetfulness of his great disaster. Hence, as time went on, he became more and more anxious to wipe out the memory of the past by a great and signal victory over his conquerors. He therefore after some years determined to renew the war. It was in vain that the chief Mobed opposed himself to this intention; it was in vain that his other counsellors sought to dissuade him, that his general, Bahram, declared against the infraction of the treaty, and that the soldiers showed themselves reluctant to fight. Perozes had resolved, and was not to be turned from his resolution. He collected from all parts of the empire a veteran force, amounting, it is said, 50 to 100,000 men, and 500 elephants, placed the direction of affairs at the court in the hands of Balas (Palash), his son or brother, and then marched upon the north-eastern frontier, with the determination to attack and defeat the Hephthalites or perish in the attempt.


According to some Oriental writers he endeavored to escape the charge of having falsified his engagements by a curious subterfuge. The exact terms of his oath to Khush-newaz, the Hephthalite king, had been that he would never march his forces past a certain pillar which that monarch had erected to mark the boundary line between the Persian and Hephthalite dominions. Peroz persuaded himself that he would sufficiently observe his engagement if he kept its letter; and accordingly he lowered the pillar, and placed it upon a number of cars, which were attached together and drawn by a train of fifty elephants, in front of his army. Thus, however deeply he invaded the Ephthalite country, he never "passed beyond" the pillar which he had sworn not to pass. In his own judgment he kept his vow, but not in that of his natural advisers. It is satisfactory to find that the Zoroastrian priesthood, speaking by the mouth of the chief Mobed, disclaimed and exposed the fallacy of this wretched casuistry.


Disaster of the Ditch, death of Peroz


The Hwphthalite monarch, on learning the intention of Peroz, prepared to meet his attack by stratagem. He had taken up his position in the plain near Balkh, and had there established his camp, resolved to await the coming of the enemy. During the interval he proceeded to dig a deep and broad trench in front of his whole position, leaving only a space of some twenty or thirty yards, midway in the work, untouched. Having excavated the trench, he caused it to be filled with water, and covered carefully with boughs of trees, reeds, and earth, so as to be undistinguishable from the general surface of the plain on which he was encamped. On the arrival of the Persians in his front, he first of all held a parley with Perozes, in which, after reproaching him with his ingratitude and breach of faith, he concluded by offering to renew the peace. Perozes scornfully refused; whereupon the Ephthalite prince hung on the point of a lance the broken treaty, and, parading it in front of the Persian troops, exhorted them to avoid the vengeance which was sure to fall on the perjured by deserting their doomed monarch. Upon this, half the army, we are told, retired; and Khush-newaz proceeded to effect the destruction of the remainder by means of the plan which he had so carefully prepared beforehand. He sent a portion of his troops across the ditch, with orders to challenge the Persians to an engagement, and, when the fight began, to fly hastily, and, returning within the ditch by the sound passage, unite themselves with the main army. The entire Persian host, as he expected, pursued the fugitives, and coming unawares upon the concealed trench plunged into it, was inextricably entangled, and easily destroyed. Peroz himself, several of his sons, and most of his army perished. Mruz-docht, his daughter, the chief Mobed, and great numbers of the rank and file were made prisoners. A vast booty was taken. Khush-newaz did not tarnish the glory of his victory by any cruelties; he treated the captives tenderly, and caused search to be made for the body of Peroz, which was found and honorably interred.


Thus perished Peroz, after a reign of (probably) twenty-six years. He was undoubtedly a brave prince, and entitled to the epithet of Al Merdaneh, "the Courageous," which he received from his subjects. But his bravery, unfortunately, verged upon rashness, and was unaccompanied (so far as appears) by any other military quality. Peroz had neither the sagacity to form a good plan of campaign, nor the ability to conduct a battle. In all the wars wherein he was personally engaged he was unsuccessful, and the only triumphs which gilded his arms wore gained by his generals. In his civil administration, on the contrary, he obtained a character for humanity and justice; and, if the Oriental accounts of his proceedings during the great famine are to be regarded as trustworthy, we must admit that his wisdom and benevolence were such as are not commonly found in those who bear rule in the East. His conduct towards Khush-newaz has generally been regarded as the great blot upon his good fame; and it is certainly impossible to justify the paltry casuistry by which he endeavored to reconcile his actions with his words at the time of his second invasion. But his persistent hostility towards the Hephthalites is far from inexcusable, and its motive may have been patriotic rather than personal. He probably felt that the Hephthalite power was among those from which Persia had most to fear, and that it would have been weak in him to allow gratitude for a favor conferred upon himself to tie his hands in a matter where the interests of his country were vitally concerned. The Hephthalites continued for nearly a century more to be among the most dangerous of her neighbors to Persia; and it was only by frequent attacks upon them in their own homes that Persia could reasonably hope to ward off their ravages from her territory.



 Yazdegerd I