Sapor, in A.D. 258, determined on a fresh invasion of the Roman provinces, and once more entering Mesopotamia carried all before him.
Continuing Reign of Persia’s King Sapor I,
our selection 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. The selection is presented in four easy 5 minute installments.
Previously in Reign of Persia’s King Sapor I.
Time: 240-270 AD
Place: Persia and the Levant
The peace made between Philip and Sapor was followed by an interval of fourteen years, during which scarcely anything is known of the condition of Persia. We may suspect that troubles in the northeast of his empire occupied Sapor during this period, for at the end of it we find Bactria, which was certainly subject to Persia during the earlier years of the monarchy, occupying an independent position, and even assuming an attitude of hostility toward the Persian monarch. Bactria had, from a remote antiquity, claims to preëminence among the Aryan nations. She was more than once inclined to revolt from the Achæmenidæ, and during the later Parthian period she had enjoyed a sort of semi-independence. It would seem that she now succeeded in detaching herself altogether from her southern neighbor and becoming a distinct and separate power. To strengthen her position she entered into relations with Rome, which gladly welcomed any adhesions to her cause in this remote region.
Sapor’s second war with Rome was, like his first, provoked by himself. After concluding his peace with Philip he had seen the Roman world governed successively by six weak emperors, of whom four had died violent deaths, while at the same time there had been a continued series of attacks upon the northern frontiers of the empire by Alamanni, Goths, and Franks, who had ravaged at will a number of the finest provinces, and threatened the absolute destruction of the great monarchy of the West. It was natural that the chief kingdom of Western Asia should note these events, and should seek to promote its own interests by taking advantage of the circumstances of the time. Sapor, in A.D. 258, determined on a fresh invasion of the Roman provinces, and once more entering Mesopotamia carried all before him, became master of Nisibis, Carrhae, and Edessa, and, crossing the Euphrates, surprised Antioch, which was wrapped in the enjoyment of theatrical and other representations, and only knew its fate on the exclamation of a couple of actors that “the Persians were in possession of the town!” The aged Emperor, Valerian, hastened to the protection of his more eastern territories, and at first gained some successes, retaking Antioch, and making that city his head-quarters during his stay in the East.
But after this the tide turned. Valerian entrusted the whole conduct of the war to Macrianus, his praetorian prefect, whose talents he admired, and of whose fidelity he did not entertain a suspicion. Macrianus, however, aspired to the empire, and intentionally brought Valerian into difficulties in the hope of disgracing or removing him. His tactics were successful. The Roman army in Mesopotamia was betrayed into a situation whence escape was impossible and where its capitulation was only a question of time. A bold attempt made to force a way through the enemy’s lines failed utterly, after which famine and pestilence began to do their work. In vain did the aged Emperor send envoys to propose a peace and offer to purchase escape by the payment of an immense sum in gold. Sapor, confident of victory, refused the overture, and, waiting patiently till his adversary was at the last gasp, invited him to a conference, and then treacherously seized his person. The army surrendered or dispersed. Macrianus, the prætorian prefect, shortly assumed the title of emperor and marched against Gallienus, the son and colleague of Valerian, who had been left to direct affairs in the West. But another rival started up in the East. Sapor conceived the idea of complicating the Roman affairs by himself putting forward a pretender; and an obscure citizen of Antioch, a certain Miriades, or Cyriades, a refugee in his camp, was invested with the purple and assumed the title of Caesar.
The blow struck at Edessa laid the whole of Roman Asia open to attack, and the Persian monarch was not slow to seize the occasion. His troops crossed the Euphrates in force, and, marching on Antioch, once more captured that unfortunate town, from which the more prudent citizens had withdrawn, but where the bulk of the people, not displeased at the turn of affairs, remained and welcomed the conqueror. Miriades was installed in power, while Sapor himself, at the head of his irresistible squadrons, pressed forward, bursting “like a mountain torrent” into Cilicia, and thence into Cappadocia. Tarsus, the birthplace of St. Paul, at once a famous seat of learning and a great emporium of commerce, fell; Cilicia Campestris was overrun, and the passes of Taurus, deserted or weakly defended by the Romans, came into Sapor’s hand.
Penetrating through them and entering the campaign country beyond, his bands soon began the siege of Caesarea Mazaca, the greatest city of these parts, estimated at this time to have contained a population of four hundred thousand souls. Demosthenes, the governor of Caesarea, defended it bravely, and, had force only been used against him, might have prevailed; but Sapor found friends within the walls, and by their help made himself master of the place, while its bold defender was obliged to content himself with escaping by cutting his way through the victorious host. All Asia Minor now seemed open to the conqueror; and it is difficult to understand why he did not at any rate attempt a permanent occupation of the territory which he had so easily overrun. But it seems certain that he entertained no such idea.
Devastation and plunder, revenge and gain, not permanent conquest, were his objects; and hence his course was everywhere marked by ruin and carnage, by smoking towns, ravaged fields, and heaps of slain. His cruelties have no doubt been exaggerated; but when we hear that he filled the ravines and valleys of Cappadocia with dead bodies, and so led his cavalry across them; that he depopulated Antioch, killing or carrying off into slavery almost the whole population; that he suffered his prisoners in many cases to perish of hunger, and that he drove them to water once a day like beasts, we may be sure that the guise in which he showed himself to the Romans was that of a merciless scourge — an avenger bent on spreading the terror of his name, not of one who really sought to enlarge the limits of his empire. During the whole course of this plundering expedition, until the retreat began, we hear but of one check that the bands of Sapor received. It had been determined to attack Emesa, one of the most important of the Syrian towns, where the temple of Venus was known to contain a vast treasure. The invaders approached, scarcely expecting to be resisted; but the high-priest of the temple, having collected a large body of peasants, appeared in his sacerdotal robes at the head of a fanatic multitude armed with slings, and succeeded in beating off the assailants. Emesa, its temple, and its treasure escaped the rapacity of the Persians; and an example of resistance was set, which was not perhaps without important consequences.