The Seven Great Monarchies: The Sassanian or New Persian Empire
George Rawlinson author
Accession of Siroe's, or Kobad II. His Letter to Heraclius. Peace made with Rome. Terms of the Peace. General Popularity of the new Reign. Dissatisfaction of Shahr-Barz. Kobad, by the advice of the Persian Lords, murders his Brothers. His Sisters reproach him with their Death. He falls into low spirits and dies. Pestilence in his Reign. His coins. Accession of Artaxerxes III. Revolt of Shahr-Barz. Reign of Shahr-Barz. His Murder. Reign of Purandocht. Rapid Succession of Pretenders. Accession of Isdigerd III.
"Kobades, regno prefectus, justitiam prae se tulit, et injuriam qua oppressa fuerat amovit."—Eutychius, Annales, vol, ii. p. 253.
Siroes, or Kobad the Second, as he is more properly termed, was proclaimed king on the 25th of February, 2 A.D. 628, four days before the murder of his father. According to the Oriental writers, he was very unwilling to put his father to death, and only gave a reluctant consent to his execution on the representations of his nobles that it was a state of necessity. His first care, after this urgent matter had been settled, was to make overtures of peace to Heraclius, who, having safely crossed the Zagros mountains, was wintering at Canzaca. The letter which he addressed to the Roman Emperor on the occasion is partially extant; but the formal and official tone which it breathes renders it a somewhat disappointing document. Kobad begins by addressing Heraclius as his brother, and giving him the epithet of "most clement," thus assuming his pacific disposition. He then declares, that, having been elevated to the throne by the especial favor of God, he has resolved to do his utmost to benefit and serve the entire human race. He has therefore commenced his reign by throwing open the prison doors, and restoring liberty to all who were detained in custody. With the same object in view, he is desirous of living in peace and friendship with the Roman emperor and state as well as with all other neighboring nations and kings. Assuming that his accession will be pleasing to the emperor, he has sent Phaeak, one of his privy councillors, to express the love and friendship that he feels towards his brother, and learn the terms upon which peace will be granted him. The reply of Heraclius is lost; but we are able to gather from a short summary which has been preserved, as well as from the subsequent course of events, that it was complimentary and favorable; that it expressed the willingness of the emperor to bring the war to a close, and suggested terms of accommodation that were moderate and equitable. The exact formulation of the treaty seems to have been left to Eustathius, who, after Heraclius had entertained Phaeak royally for nearly a week, accompanied the ambassador on his return to the Persian court.
The general principle upon which peace was concluded was evidently the status quo ante bellum. Persia was to surrender Egypt, Palestine, Syria, Asia Minor, Western Mesopotamia, and any other conquests that she might have made from Rome, to recall her troops from them, and to give them back into the possession of the Romans. She was also to surrender all the captives whom she had carried off from the conquered countries; and, above all, she was to give back to the Romans the precious relic which had been taken from Jerusalem, and which was believed on all hands to be the veritable cross whereon Jesus Christ suffered death. As Rome had merely made inroads, but not conquests, she did not possess any territory to surrender; but she doubtless set her Persian prisoners free, and she made arrangements for the safe conduct and honorable treatment of the Persians, who evacuated Syria, Egypt, and Asia Minor, on their way to the frontier. The evacuation was at once commenced; and the wood of the cross, which had been carefully preserved by the Persian queen, Shirin, was restored. In the next year, Heraclius made a grand pilgrimage to Jerusalem, and replaced the holy relic in the shrine from which it had been taken.
It is said that princes are always popular on their coronation day. Kobad was certainly no exception to the general rule. His subjects rejoiced at the termination of a war which had always been a serious drain on the population, and which latterly had brought ruin and desolation upon the hearths and homes of thousands. The general emptying of the prisons was an act that cannot be called statesman-like; but it had a specious appearance of liberality, and was probably viewed with favor by the mass of the people. A still more popular measure must have been the complete remission of taxes with which Kobad inaugurated his reign—a remission which, according to one authority, was to have continued for three years, had the generous prince lived so long. In addition to these somewhat questionable proceedings, Kobad adopted also a more legitimate mode of securing the regard of his subjects by a careful administration of justice, and a mild treatment of those who had been the victims of his father's severities. He restored to their former rank the persons whom Chosroes had degraded or imprisoned, and compensated them for their injuries by a liberal donation of money.
Thus far all seemed to promise well for the new reign, which, though it had commenced under unfavorable auspices, bid fair to be tranquil and prosperous. In one quarter only was there any indication of coming troubles. Shahr-Barz, the great general, whose life Chosroes had attempted shortly before his own death, appears to have been dissatisfied with the terms on which Kobad had concluded peace with Rome; and there is even reason to believe that he contrived to impede and delay the full execution of the treaty. He held under Kobad the government of the western provinces and was at the head of an army which numbered sixty thousand men. Kobad treated him with marked favor; but still he occupied a position almost beyond that of a subject, and one which could not fail to render him an object of fear and suspicion. For the present, however, though he may have nurtured ambitious thoughts, he made no movement, but bided his time, remaining quietly in his province, and cultivating friendly relations with the Roman emperor.
Kobad had not been seated on the throne many months when he consented to a deed by which his character for justice and clemency was seriously compromised, if not wholly lost. This was the general massacre of all the other sons of Chosroes II., his own brothers or half-brothers—a numerous body, amounting to forty according to the highest estimate, and to fifteen according to the lowest. We are not told of any circumstances of peril to justify the deed, or even account for it. There have been Oriental dynasties, where such a wholesale murder upon the accession of a sovereign has been a portion of the established system of government, and others where the milder but little less revolting expedient has obtained of blinding all the brothers of the reigning prince; but neither practice was in vogue among the Sassanians; and we look vainly for the reason which caused an act of the kind to be resorted to at this conjuncture. Mirkhond says that Piruz, the chief minister of Kobad, advised the deed; but even he assigns no motive for the massacre, unless a motive is implied in the statement that the brothers of Kobad were "all of them distinguished by their talents and their merit." Politically speaking, the measure might have been harmless, had Kobad enjoyed a long reign, and left behind him a number of sons. But as it was, the rash act, by almost extinguishing the race of Sassan, produced troubles which greatly helped to bring the empire into a condition of hopeless exhaustion and weakness.
While thus destroying all his brothers, Kobad allowed his sisters to live. Of these there were two, still unmarried, who resided in the palace, and had free access to the monarch. Their names were Purandocht and Azermidocht, Purandocht being the elder. Bitterly grieved at the loss of their kindred, these two princesses rushed into the royal presence, and reproached the king with words that cut him to the soul. "Thy ambition of ruling," they said, "has induced thee to kill thy father and thy brothers. Thou hast accomplished thy purpose within the space of three or four months. Thou hast hoped thereby to preserve thy power forever. Even, however, if thou shouldst live long, thou must die at last. May God deprive thee of the enjoyment of this royalty!" His sisters' words sank deep into the king's mind. He acknowledged their justice, burst into tears, and flung his crown on the ground. After this he fell into a profound melancholy, ceased to care for the exercise of power, and in a short time died. His death is ascribed by the Orientals to his mental sufferings; but the statement of a Christian bishop throws some doubt on this romantic story. Eutychius, Patriarch of Alexandria, tells us that, before Kobad had reigned many months, the plague broke out in his country. Vast numbers of his subjects died of it; and among the victims was the king himself, who perished after a reign which is variously estimated at six, seven, eight, and eighteen months.
There seems to be no doubt that a terrible pestilence did afflict Persia at this period. The Arabian writers are here in agreement with Eutychius of Alexandria, and declare that the malady was of the most aggravated character, carrying off one half, or at any rate one third, of the inhabitants of the provinces which were affected, and diminishing the population of Persia by several hundreds of thousands. Scourges of this kind are of no rare occurrence in the East; and the return of a mixed multitude to Persia, under circumstances involving privation, from the cities of Asia Minor, Syria, and Palestine, was well calculated to engender such a calamity.
The reign of Kobad II. appears from his coins to have lasted above a year. He ascended the throne in February, A.D. 628; he probably died about July, A.D. 629. The coins which are attributed to him resemble in their principal features those of Ohosroes II. and Artaxerxes III., but are without wings, and have the legend Kavat-Firuz. The bordering of pearls is single on both obverse and reverse, but the king wears a double pearl necklace. The eye is large, and the hair more carefully marked than had been usual since the time of Sapor II. [PLATE XXIV., Figs. 2 and 3].
At the death of Kobad the crown fell to his son, Artaxerxes III., a child of seven, or (according to others) of one year only. The nobles who proclaimed him took care to place him under the direction of a governor or regent, and appointed to the office a certain Mihr-Hasis, who had been the chief purveyor of Kobad. Mihr-Hasis is said to have ruled with justice and discretion; but he was not able to prevent the occurrence of those troubles and disorders which in the East almost invariably accompany the sovereignty of a minor, and render the task of a regent a hard one. Shahr-Barz, who had scarcely condescended to comport himself as a subject under Kobad, saw in the accession of a boy, and in the near extinction of the race of Sassan, an opportunity of gratifying his ambition, and at the same time of avenging the wrong which had been done him by Chosroes. Before committing himself, however, to the perils of rebellion, he negotiated with Heraclius, and secured his alliance and support by the promise of certain advantages. The friends met at Heraclea on the Propontis. Shahr-Barz undertook to complete the evacuation of Egypt, Syria, and Asia Minor, which he had delayed hitherto, and promised, if he were successful in his enterprise, to pay Heraclius a large sum of money as compensation for the injuries inflicted on Rome during the recent war. Heraclius conferred on Nicetas, the son of Shahr-Barz, the title of "Patrican," consented to a marriage between Shahr-Barz's daughter, Nike, and his own son, Theodosius, and accepted Gregoria, the daughter of Nicetas, and grand-daughter of Shahr-Barz, as a wife for Constantine, the heir to the empire. He also, it is probable, supplied Shahr-Barz with a body of troops, to assist him in his struggle with Artaxerxes and Mihr-Hasis.
Of the details of Sharhr-Barz's expedition we know nothing. He is said to have marched on Ctesiphon with an army of sixty thousand men; to have taken the city, put to death Artaxerxes, Mihr-Hasis, and a number of the nobles, and then seized the throne. We are not told what resistance was made by the monarch in possession, or how it was overcome, or even whether there was a battle. It would seem certain, however, that the contest was brief. The young king was of course powerless; Mihr-Hasis, though well-meaning, must have been weak; Shahr-Barz had all the rude strength of the animal whose name he bore, and had no scruples about using his strength to the utmost. The murder of a child of two, or at the most of eight, who could have done no ill, and was legitimately in possession of the throne, must be pronounced a brutal act, and one which sadly tarnishes the fair fame, previously unsullied, of one of Persia's greatest generals.
It was easy to obtain the crown, under the circumstances of the time; but it was not so easy to keep what had been wrongfully gained. Shahr-Barz enjoyed the royal authority less than two months. During this period he completed the evacuation of the Roman provinces occupied by Chosroes II., restored perhaps some portions of the true cross which had been kept back by Kobad, and sent an expeditionary force against the Khazars who had invaded Armenia, which was completely destroyed by the fierce barbarians. He is said by the Armenians to have married Purandocht, the eldest daughter of Chosroes, for the purpose of strengthening his hold on the crown; but this attempt to conciliate his subjects, if it was really made, proved unsuccessful. Ere he had been king for two months, his troops mutinied, drew their swords upon him, and killed him in the open court before the palace. Having so done, they tied a cord to his feet and dragged his corpse through the streets of Ctesiphon, making proclamation everywhere as follows: "Whoever, not being of the blood-royal, seats himself upon the Persian throne, shall share the fate of Shahr-Barz." They then elevated to the royal dignity the princess Purandocht, the first female who had ever sat in the seat of Cyrus.
The rule of a woman was ill calculated to restrain the turbulent Persian nobles. Two instances had now proved that a mere noble might ascend the throne of the son of Babek; and a fatal fascination was exercised on the grandees of the kingdom by the examples of Bahram-Chobin and Shahr-Barz.
Pretenders sprang up in all quarters, generally asserting some connection, nearer or more remote, with the royal house, but relying on the arms of their partisans, and still more on the weakness of the government. It is uncertain whether Purandocht died a natural death; her sister, Azermidocht, who reigned soon after her, was certainly murdered. The crown passed rapidly from one noble to another, and in the course of the four or five years which immediately succeeded the death of Chosroes II. it was worn by nine or ten different persons. Of these the greater number reigned but a few days or a few months; no actions are ascribed to them; and it seems unnecessary to weary the reader with their obscure names, or with the still more obscure question concerning the order of their succession. It may be suspected that, in some cases two or more were contemporary, exercising royal functions in different portions of the empire at the same time. Of none does the history or the fate possess any interest; and the modern historical student may well be content with the general knowledge that for four years and a half after the death of Chosroes II. the government was in the highest degree unsettled; anarchy everywhere prevailed; the distracted kingdom was torn in pieces by the struggles of pretenders; and "every province, and almost each city of Persia, was the scene of independence, of discord, and of bloodshed."
At length, in June, A.D. 632, an end was put to the internal commotions by the election of a young prince, believed to be of the true blood of Sassan, in whose rule the whole nation acquiesced without much difficulty. Yezdigerd (or Isdigerd) the Third was the son of Shahriar and the grandson of Chosroes II. He had been early banished from the Court, and had been brought up in obscurity, his royal birth being perhaps concealed, since if known it might have caused his destruction. The place of his residence was Istakr, the ancient capital of Persia, but at this time a city of no great importance. Here he had lived unnoticed to the age of fifteen, when his royal rank having somehow been discovered, and no other scion of the stock of Chosroes being known to exist, he was drawn forth from his retirement and invested with the sovereignty.
But the appointment of a sovereign in whose rule all could acquiesce came too late. While Rome and Persia, engaged in deadly struggle, had no thought for anything but how most to injure each other, a power began to grow up in an adjacent country, which had for long ages been despised and thought incapable of doing any harm to its neighbors. Mohammed, half impostor, half enthusiast, enunciated a doctrine, and by degrees worked out a religion, which proved capable of uniting in one the scattered tribes of the Arabian desert, while at the same time it inspired them with a confidence, a contempt for death, and a fanatic valor, that rendered them irresistible by the surrounding nations. Mohammed's career as prophet began while Heraclius and Chosroes II. were flying at each other's throats; by the year of the death of Chosroes (A.D. 628) he had acquired a strength greater than that of any other Arab chief; two years later he challenged Rome to the combat by sending a hostile expedition into Syria; and before his death (A.D. 632) he was able to take the field at the head of 30,000 men. During the time of internal trouble in Persia he procured the submission of the Persian governor of the Yemen; as well as that of Al Mondar, or Alamundarus, King of Bahrein, on the west coast of the Persian Gulf. Isdigerd, upon his accession, found himself menaced by a power which had already stretched out one arm towards the lower Euphrates, while with the other it was seeking to grasp Syria and Palestine. The danger was imminent; the means of meeting it insufficient, for Persia was exhausted by foreign war and internal contention; the monarch himself was but ill able to cope with the Arab chiefs, being youthful and inexperienced; we shall find, however, that he made a strenuous resistance. Though continually defeated, he prolonged the fight for nearly a score of years, and only succumbed finally when, to the hostility of open foes, was added the treachery of pretended friends and allies.