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Shapur II the Great (309 – 379)

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Early Life and War With the Arabs

Shapur II was born after the death of his father, and his accession to the throne took place in a difficult situation. In 309 one of his brothers was killed by nobles of the Empire while the other was blinded, this left Shapur as the sole successor to the Empire.

Sources say that when Shapur II reached the age of sixteen in 325 AD, he launched a campaign to tame the Arab tribes and ensure security on the borders of the empire. Shapur II was at first attacked by Ayad, who was at the time in Iraq. Then he crossed the Persian Gulf, reaching Al Ḵaṭṭ, which is the coastal region of Bahrain and Qatar. He attacked the Hajjar, inhabited by the Arabic tribes. After killing the majority of the population, he ordered the destruction of the wells, forcing the Arabs to suffer from thirst. The Arabs nicknamed him “Zu-l actaf,” “the owner of the shoulder blades”, “the one who punches the shoulders”. In memory of the fact that he ordered to punch the prisoners with blades and, suspended them in trees. As a result of these conquests, the Arab tribes were pushed into the depths of the Arabian Peninsula while the Persian Gulf remained in the hands of the Sassanids.

Some Arab tribes were forcibly deported to the territory of the Sassanid Empire. To keep the Arabs from planning further raids, Shapur II built a defensive system, which was called the “wall of the Arabs.” This wall, apparently, was not far from the city of Hira. A campaign of Shapur II against the Arabs also mentions the Zoroastrian encyclopedic text of the Bundahishn:

“During the reign of Shapur, the son of Ormizd, the Arabs came; they took Xorig Rūdbār; and despised for many years until Shapur entered the age. He defeated the Arabs, and seized their land, and destroyed many Arab rulers, and pulled out a huge number of shoulders.”

War With the Romans

The exclusively bloody wars of Shapur II with Rome for Armenia and Mesopotamia were perhaps the central event for Middle Eastern history of the IV century AD. During the seventy years of Shapur’s rule, he had to cross arms with almost all the significant Roman emperors of Constantine’s house. Immediately upon the accession of Constantius, a war began. The Persians first invaded northern Mesopotamia. According to classical sources, Shapur II launched this campaign against the Romans in order to conquer territories belonging to his ancestors.

Shapur II’s trips to the West were described by one of the most brilliant historians of antiquity, an eyewitness and participant of those events – Ammianus Marcellinus. According to the stories of Marcellinus, Shapur often personally participated in the campaigns.

Despite such activity of Shapur II, the war did not bring any particular results to either side. The Romans, relying on their powerful defensive system of fortresses, prevented the development of the Persian offensive in this region. Thus, by the year 350 the war had reached a dead end.

Nomadic Invasion and Second Roman War

The invasion of the nomadic tribes of Central Asia forced Shapur II to turn his attention to the East. Approximately by this time, the Huns are mentioned for the first time and their attack of the Sassanid Empire. However, Constantius was not able to take advantage of Shapur’s departure, as he himself was distracted from the external war by troubles within the Roman Empire itself.

Shapur II defeated his eastern enemies and established the domination of the Sassanids over the Kushans. This is confirmed by Persian inscriptions that mention the stability of the eastern border in the time of Shapur II. In addition, Muhammad al-Tabari mentions that Shapur II, among his construction projects, speaks of the founding of the cities of Sind and Sistan, which also confirms his dominance in this region. Finally, most of the gold coins minted by Shapur II originate from eastern mints. This may mean that Shapur II managed to capture a large amount of gold and other precious metals during his eastern campaign. Shapur II succeeded not only in repelling the eastern enemies, but also in attracting to the union against the Romans, the king of Grumbat khionites.

In 359, the war between the Persians and the Romans continued. Shapur II, with the support of King Grumbat, attacked the Roman lands in Northern Mesopotamia. The Persians besieged Amida and 73 days later took her. The city was plundered, most of the population was cut out, and the remaining residents were deported to the Kushan lands. During these military operations, the son of King Grumbath died. A counter attack from the Romans occurred, but after a while, the Emperor Constantius II died on November 3, 361.

In 363, the new Roman emperor Julian launched a counter-offensive against the Persians. This vast military enterprise was conceived and furnished with all the means that the empire could provide. Coming from Syria, crossing the Euphrates and moving along the river, the Romans entered Assyria and occupied several fortresses. Julian approached the Persian capital Ctesiphon and placed a large army near its walls. The indiscipline of his own soldiers engaged in robbing the corpses of the fallen Persian soldiers prevented him from immediately seizing the Persian capital. Meanwhile, the Roman army was faced with a number of unforeseen difficulties, that increased over time. The further the Roman army withdrew from the Roman border into Mesopotamia they were able to receive less resources and the Romans began to suffer from hunger. Then the Roman emperor gave the order to lift the siege of Ctesiphon and leave. During the retreat, almost at the very border, Julian, rushing into the thick of the battle was mortally wounded.

The new emperor was Jovian. Seeking to reach Constantinople as quickly as possible, Jovian immediately agreed to Shapur’s demands and concluded peace with him for thirty years. Under the terms of this treaty, five controversial areas on the border, fifteen fortresses and three strategically important cities departed for Iran. The terms of the contract were unusually heavy for the Romans, it’s no wonder Marcellinus calls it “a shameful contract”.

War with Armenia

During the years 338-345 the Persian troops made several trips to Armenia. Shapur had placed his son two times as king of Armenia, but the Armenians rebelled and drove him out. The Armenian king – Tyrant, trying to conduct an independent policy, maneuvering between the Persians and the Romans, was treacherously captured by Shapur II and blinded. His son Arshak II tried to maintain neutrality, but eventually joined Julian’s campaign deep into the Persian state. In 364, Shapur once again threw his army into Armenia. The Romans, who were bound by the conditions of a difficult world for them, stopped helping their yesterday’s allies. The Armenians were unable to repel the invasion.

The conquest was accompanied by cruelty towards the captives and even the peaceful population, as well as by attempts to forcibly convert to Zoroastrianism. During the war, virtually all significant cities were seriously affected, and the ancient Armenian civilization was dealt a death blow, from which it was never able to recover. The rise of the Sassanids and their struggle with Rome had an impact on Iberia.

Another attack of Shapur’s troops on Armenia occurred in 371, but the new great king of Armenia and the Pope, managed to repel it with the help of the Romans and Georgians. In 374, the Roman Emperor Valent ordered the murder of the Pope, who pursued an independent policy, and began to gather a Persian campaign, which, however did not take place. The reason for this was because Shapur lightly brought his hordes to the border, and the Emperor, having learned about this, preferred to observe peace.


Dashkov SB The kings of kings are Sasanids. History of Iran III – VII centuries
Ammianus Marcellinus. History
Favst Buzand. History of Armenia Favstos Buzand
Barthold V. V. Iran. Historical review
Dmitriev VA
History of the East. T. 2. East in the Middle Ages
Perikhanyan AG The Iranian society and law in the Parthian and Sassanian periods.
Blockly RC Ammianus Marcellinus on the Persian invasion of AD 359
Cambridge history of Iran. Vol.3


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