This series has four easy 5 minute installments. This first installment: Sapor Takes Charge.
The Parthians established the last of the great empires of the ancient Middle East. By 150 AD it included Persia, Assyria proper, Babylonia and other areas in the vicinity. Unlike those earlier empires, the Parthians now faced the Roman Empire to their west. The Romans’ Empire occupied the lands of the Levant (east of the Mediterranean Sea) including Asia Minor (modern Turkey), Judea, and Egypt. These had once belonged to the Persian Empire.
This selection is from The Seventh Great Oriental Monarchy by George Rawlinson published in 1875. For works benefiting from the latest research see the “More information” section at the bottom of these pages.
George Rawlinson was Professor of Ancient History at Oxford.
Time: 240-270 AD
Place: Persia and the Levant
Artaxerxes appears to have died in A.D. 240. He was succeeded by his son Shahpuhri, or Sapor, the first Sassanian prince of that name. According to the Persian historians, the mother of Sapor was a daughter of the last Parthian king, Artabanus, whom Artaxerxes had taken to wife after his conquest of her father. But the facts known of Sapor throw doubt on this story, which has too many parallels in oriental romance to claim implicit credence. Nothing authentic has come down to us respecting Sapor during his father’s lifetime, but from the moment that he mounted the throne we find him engaged in a series of wars, which show him to have been of a most active and energetic character.
Armenia, which Artaxerxes had subjected, attempted, it would seem, to regain its independence at the commencement of the reign; but Sapor easily crushed the nascent insurrection, and the Armenians made no further effort to free themselves till several years after his death. Contemporaneously with this revolt in the mountain region of the North a danger showed itself in the plains country of the South, where Manizen, king of Hatra, or El Hadhr, not only declared himself independent, but assumed dominion over the entire tract between the Euphrates and the Tigris, the Jezireh of the Arabian geographers.
The strength of Hatra was great, as had been proved by Trajan and Severus; its thick walls and valiant inhabitants would probably have defied every attempt of the Persian prince to make himself master of it by force. He, therefore, resorted to stratagem. Manizen had a daughter who cherished ambitious views. On obtaining a promise from Sapor that if she gave Hatra into his power he would make her his queen, this unnatural child turned against her father, betrayed him into Sapor’s hands, and thus brought the war to an end. Sapor recovered his lost territory; but he did not fulfil his bargain. Instead of marrying the traitoress, he handed her over to an executioner, to receive the death that she had deserved, though scarcely at his hands.
Encouraged by his success in these two lesser contests, Sapor resolved (apparently in A.D. 241) to resume the bold projects of his father, and engage in a great war with Rome. The confusion and troubles which afflicted the Roman Empire at this time were such as might well give him hopes of obtaining a decided advantage. Alexander, his father’s adversary, had been murdered in A.D. 235 by Maximin, who from the condition of a Thracian peasant had risen into the higher ranks of the army. The upstart had ruled like the savage that he was, and after three years of misery the whole Roman world had risen against him. Two emperors had been proclaimed in Africa. On their fall two others had been elected by the senate; a third, a mere boy, had been added at the demand of the Roman populace. All the pretenders except the last had met with violent deaths; and after the shocks of a year, unparalleled since A.D. 69, the administration of the greatest kingdom in the world was in the hands of a youth of fifteen. Sapor, no doubt, thought he saw in this condition of things an opportunity that he ought not to miss, and rapidly matured his plans lest the favorable moment should pass away.
Crossing the middle Tigris into Mesopotamia, the bands of Sapor first attacked the important city of Nisibis. Nisibis, at the time a Roman colony, was strongly situated on the outskirts of the mountain range which traverses Northern Mesopotamia between the thirty-seventh and thirty-eighth parallels. The place was well fortified and well defended; it offered a prolonged resistance; but the walls were breached and it was forced to yield itself. The advance was then made along the southern flank of the mountains by Carrhæ (Harran) and Edessa to the Euphrates, which was probably reached in the neighborhood of Birehjik. The hordes then poured into Syria, and, spreading themselves over that fertile region, surprised and took the metropolis of the Roman East, the rich and luxurious city of Antioch. But meantime the Romans had shown a spirit which had not been expected from them.
Gordian, young as he was, had quitted Rome and marched through Moesia and Thrace into Asia, accompanied by a formidable army and by at least one good general. Timesitheus, whose daughter Gordian had recently married, though his life had hitherto been that of a civilian, exhibited on his elevation to the dignity of praetorian prefect considerable military ability. The army, nominally commanded by Gordian, really acted under his orders. With it Timesitheus attacked and beat the bands of Sapor in a number of engagements, recovered Antioch, crossed the Euphrates, retook Carrhæ, defeated the Persian monarch in a pitched battle near Resaina (Ras-el-Ain), recovered Nisibis, and once more planted the Roman standards on the banks of the Tigris. Sapor hastily evacuated most of his conquests, and retired first across the Euphrates, and then across the more eastern river, while the Romans advanced as he retreated, placed garrisons in the various Mesopotamian towns, and even threatened the great city of Ctesiphon.
Gordian was confident that his general would gain further triumphs, and wrote to the senate to that effect; but either disease or the arts of a rival cut short the career of the victor, and from the time of his death the Romans ceased to be successful. The legions had, it would seem, invaded Southern Mesopotamia when the praetorian prefect who had succeeded Timesitheus brought them intentionally into difficulties by his mismanagement of the commissariat, and at last retreat was determined on.
The young Emperor had almost reached his own frontier, when the discontent of the army, fomented by the prefect, Philip, came to a head. Gordian was murdered at a place called Zaitha, about twenty miles south of Circesium, and was buried where he fell, the soldiers raising a tumulus in his honor. His successor, Philip, was glad to make peace on any tolerable terms with the Persians; he felt himself insecure upon his throne, and was anxious to obtain the senate’s sanction of his usurpation. He therefore quitted the East in A.D. 244, having concluded a treaty with Sapor by which Armenia seems to have been left to the Persians, while Mesopotamia returned to its old condition of a Roman province.