In 531, four years after Justinian had come to power at Constantinople, Khosru I, of the Sassanid dynasty, took power in Persia – at the close of decades of unrest and a Communist revolution in Persia. It was Khosru and his father Khavad I who crushed the communistic Mazdakite movement. Its leader, Mazdak, met a gruesome death. Mazdakite leaders were massacred, and Khosru drove surviving supporters of Mazdak’s movement underground.
Khosru reestablished the rigid, caste like social boundaries that had been disturbed by the Mazdakites, and he wedded his rule with what had previously been the official state church – that branch of Zoroastrianism that saw the world divided between the force of evil and the force of good. Khosru increased the trappings of the throne beyond the grandeur that had occurred even under the Achemaedes kings. He increased his power by curbing the powers of Persia’s great aristocrats.
Under Khosru the empire’s economy recovered. Khosru helped agriculture by reforming taxes – putting an end to waiting for tax assessors while harvests rotted on the ground. He made taxes more equitable and brought stability among landowners and farm laborers that produced revenues needed to sustain a great army. Khosru borrowed laws from Constantinople and India that he thought praiseworthy, and he consolidated Persia’s laws. He brought to his kingdom the bath houses that had been a part of Roman society. He improved the water supply to cities and farms by building dams and canals. To increase the number of people for working in the fields and manning the frontiers, he made marriage mandatory and provided women with dowries. He spent money on assistance to orphans, including school for them and for other poor children. And into modern times some Iranians were to consider him the greatest of Sassanid kings.
Apparently Khosru believed that Zoroastrianism was the one true faith, but he was confident enough in Zoroastrianism to allow rival religious faiths to contend. He tried to balance faith and reason. He has been described as having read history and the works of Plato and Aristotle and as having helped preserve these works by having them translated into Persian (Pahlavi). He had Plato and Aristotle taught as subjects at the university of Jund-i-Shapur, in the city of Susiana. This university became the greatest intellectual center of the age. It was a university that had teachers and students from abroad, literature and science were studied, and medical knowledge of the Persians, Greeks, Syrians and Indians was compared.
When Justinian closed the schools of Athens in his crackdown against paganism, Neo-Platonists from Plato’s old academy looked with hope to Khosru. And Khosru gave seven professors from the Athens academy refuge at his court – a court often crowded with distinguished visitors from abroad.
With all of the sophistication that had come to Persia, some Persians in the capital began thinking of Zoroastrianism as passé. Khosru was popular enough that he was able to remove the Zoroastrian priesthood from its position of running the internal affairs of government according to Zoroastrian theology, and he created a bureaucracy whose members were selected by merit, these civil servants accepting his reforms more readily than the Zoroastrian priesthood. The Zoroastrian pope was replaced by a “Grand Vizier” – a bureaucrat. But to the east of the capital, Ctesiphon, Zoroastrian conservatives remained entrenched.
Khosru began his rule with a pact of peace with the Roman emperor Justinian of Constantinople, Justinian wanting peace to his east in order to send his armies to gain control over North Africa and Italy. Then, after Constantinople had gained power in Italy, Khosru worried about a strengthened Roman Empire, and as his reward for making Justinian’s conquests possible he asked for an outlet to the Black Sea and for the gold mines of Trebizond, at the southeastern edge of the Black Sea, which he believed should belong to Persia. When Justinian refused, Khosru broke his treaty with Constantinople and declared war. Meanwhile he had reorganized the army, turning it from an ill-trained feudal institution into a competent force able to fight prolonged campaigns.
For three years Khosru sent raids into Constantinople’s empire – against Syria – gaining ransoms for leaving some cities alone and massacring much of the population of Antioch in response to their defiance and sarcasm. After 545, he received tributes in gold from Constantinople as a bribe to stay on his side of the border, and he turned his attention to the Hephthalites to his east, whom he saw as Persia’s greatest threat. He sent his army against them, and between 558 and 560, with the help of Turkish peoples in the east, he destroyed them.
Justinian’s successor, Justin II, became involved in an expensive and wasteful war against Persia that increased hatred and engendered atrocities on both sides. Justin’s war against Persia began while he was losing Italy to the Lombards. That portion of Armenia governed by Persia revolted and requested help from Constantinople. This and other events led Justin II to invade the Persian empire. Then in 570, at the request of Arabs seeking assistance against conquerors from Ethiopia, Khosru led his army into Arabia. War between Persia and Constantinople was renewed as Constantinople sided with the Abyssinians and allied themselves with the Turks on Persia’s eastern frontier, whom they persuaded to attack Persia. The Persians repelled Justin’s forces and invaded Constantinople’s empire, capturing numerous cities, including Dara in November 573, the fall of which is said to have caused Justin to lose his sanity. He had been suffering from temporary fits of insanity, and during a period of sanity he removed himself from office and went into retirement, by-passing his relatives and naming as his successor a general – Tiberius.
In 582, a dying emperor in Constantinople, Tiberius II, declared as his successor an army commander who had displayed valor in warfare. This was Maurice – a man of Roman descent from Cappadocia. As emperor, Maurice continued with the war against the Sassanids of Persia, and he waged war against advancing Avars – a herding Turkic people on horseback who had entered Europe in the middle of the century. The Avars had settled in the basin that extended north of the Danube River, from which they had been raiding, to the empire’s second largest commercial port, Thessaloniki, and they began to settle south of the Danube. Maurice was in desperate need of soldiers, but he received little support from his Christian subjects, thousands of whom entered monasteries to escape from the danger posed by the Avars. Maurice forbade the monasteries to receive new members until the danger from the Avars was over, and monks reacted by clamoring for Maurice’s fall. In Rome, Pope Gregory I sided with the monks and those wishing to avoid military service. And more dislike for Maurice emerged from his persecuting Monophysite Christians, including exiling Monophysite bishops, some of whom had been popular in their diocese. [note]
Maurice became involved in Persia’s succession troubles. Khosru I died in 579 and was succeeded by his son, Hormizd IV. Hormizd came into conflict with Persia’s nobles, and a general named Vahram overthrew him, imprisoned and blinded him and later had him executed. Vahram put Hormizd’s son on the throne, Khosru II, but aristocrats were opposed to Khosru II, and Zoroastrian religious leaders were opposed to Khosru’s tolerance towards Christians. A conflict erupted between Khosru II and Vahram, and Khosru was forced to flee into Constantinople’s empire and put himself at the mercy of Maurice. In exchange for land, Maurice helped Khosru II destroy Vahram and return to power.
Both Maurice and Khosru saw the war between their two countries as troublesome. The Persians, moreover, were being invaded from the east by Turks. And Maurice’s help to Khosru II brought peace between Constantinople and Persia, with Khosru II marrying a Christian princess from Constantinople and maintaining good relations with Maurice.
Maurice had defeated the advance by the Avars, but his government was short of money, and he angered his soldiers by reducing their pay and obliging them to pay for their own arms and clothing. Maurice’s frugality also angered his civilian subjects. They had no use for the asceticism in Maurice that they admired in Jesus Christ. That the government was short of money concerned them less than their having been denied benefits from government spending, and they made Maurice the target of their frustration. In 602, Maurice’s army mutinied in response to his order to winter beyond the Danube River – a mutiny led by Phocas, a non-commissioned army officer who (like corporal Hitler) was to make a mark in history.
Phocas’ army marched on Constantinople and seized the city. Common folk joined the revolt, aiming their hostilities not only against Maurice but also against anyone who was wealthy. Phocas sided with the civilians against the wealthy, and wealthy Christians had their homes looted and were killed by their poorer fellow Christians. The rebels offered the throne to Maurice’s son, Theodosius, who refused. With others vying for the throne, the army chose Phocas, and Constantinople’s senate obediently elected Phocas as emperor. Phocas then sought the destruction of Maurice and his family. Maurice’s five sons were butchered, one at a time in front of him, while Maurice prayed. Then Maurice was beheaded. Their six heads were hung up as a spectacle for the people of Constantinople, and the bodies of Maurice and his sons were cast into the sea. The empress Constantina and her three daughters, and many of the aristocracy, were also slain, some of them after being tortured. Pope Gregory joyfully applauded Maurice’s demise, and he described the coming to power of Phocas as the work of Providence. He called on Catholics to pray that Phocas might be strengthened against all his enemies.
Phocas was a disaster for Constantinople. He is described as having responded to all problems with little more than brutality and of alienating many. The murders of Maurice and his family were also a disaster for relations with Persia. Khosru II, disturbed by the death of his friend Maurice and his family, moved to avenge those deaths – or at least used the murders as a pretext. With Khosru’s eastern borders secure, in 603 he confidently declared war against Phocas and began invading Constantinople’s empire and defeating Phocas’ forces. It was the beginning of twenty-six years of renewed warfare between Constantinople and Persia. Khosru rallied his nation claiming his right to reconstitute the great empire of the Achaemenian kings – Cyrus and Darius. The Zoroastrian priesthood was pleased. As they saw it, their king was responsible for conquering the world in order to spread peace, the Zoroastrian faith, individual salvation and to prepare all humankind for the great, worldwide battle against Satan at Armageddon.
Khosru’s armies occupied Syria, Palestine and Cappadocia. With Constantinople weakened by renewed war against Persia, the Avars joined in the advance against Constantinople and overran Thrace and Illyricum, seizing agricultural lands without resistance. They were joined by the Slavs. And Phocas agreed to an attempt to buy off the Avars with an increase in tribute payments.
North Africawas the part of Constantinople’s empire left untouched, and, after seven years of rule by Phocas at Constantinople, a force from Egypt led by the military-governor to Egypt, Heraclius, sailed to Constantinople intending on overthrowing him. Heraclius and his group arrived at Constantinople in 610, and, with Phocas having lost much of his support, Heraclius easily defeated him. That same year Phocas was executed on the scaffold, and Heraclius became emperor.
Perhaps the war turned Khosru against Christianity – the faith of what had become an enemy nation. Whatever sympathies Khosru had had toward Christianity and the many Christians within his empire early in his reign, in his later years he showered favor upon those who opposed Christianity and supported his imperialism: the Zoroastrians. He built fire temples for them and he sanctioned their persecution of Christians.
In 614, Khosru’s forces sacked Jerusalem, massacring 90,000 Christians, burning to the ground many Christian churches and carrying Christian relics back to Persia. Also in 614, the Avars sacked cities in Greece. In 616, Khosru’s forces invaded and occupied Egypt, meeting little resistance. Then in 617 the Avars neared Constantinople, while the Slavs continued spreading southward, large numbers of them settling in Greece. In 623, Slavs ravaged the island of Crete. In 626, Avars, supported by Slavs, attacked the walls of Constantinople. The Persians also assaulted the city. The Patriarch of Constantinople, Sergius, led a courageous defense of Constantinople and defeated the Avars. The Avars withdrew to Pannonia and never again threatened Constantinople. Unable to penetrate Constantinople’s walls and facing Constantinople’s superior navy, Khosru withdrew his forces from around the city.
The Persians had overextended their forces. Their victorious move into Egypt, Palestine and Asia Minor proved hollow as they had too few people to occupy these areas while holding off a counterattack by Constantinople. With his superior navy, emperor Heraclius of Constantinople sailed into the Black Sea, his troops disembarking behind Persia’s armies. Heraclius’ troops began marching toward the Sassanid capital, Ctesiphon, destroying what they could along the way, while the Persians fled before them. They broke dikes to create floods in order to slow Heraclius’ progress. They destroyed the great canal works in Mesopotamia, which were to fill with silt and remain neglected.
Khosru fled Ctesiphon. His armies remained undefeated and angry in their humiliation. Khosru found a scapegoat for his defeat in the commander of his armies, Shahrbaraz. He planned to execute Shahrbaraz, but Khosru’s generals, who had often smarted from his insults, joined with the old rivals of the monarchy, the nobles, and imprisoned Khosru. They fed Khosru bread and water and killed eighteen of his sons before his eyes. Then the generals, encouraged by his remaining son, Sheroye, executed Khosru.
Sheroye was crowned king, and he took the name Khavad II. In 630, Khavad signed a peace treaty with Constantinople that returned Egypt, Palestine, Asia Minor and western Mesopotamia to Constantinople. Khavad returned to Jerusalem relics that had been taken from there, including what were believed to be the remains of the cross of Jesus. The Persians and Romans both rejoiced at the end of a long war that had bled both empires for so many years. Khavad agreed to withdraw his troops from Egypt. Prisoners of war were to be exchanged, and the two sides recognized the boundaries that had existed before the war. The war had gained nothing for either side.
Heraclius personally replaced the “True Cross” on its shrine in Jerusalem. He did not notice that on that very day some Arabs attacked a Greek garrison near the river Jordan. The Arabs were beginning their assault on territory nominally part of Constantinople’s empire.
After less than a year as emperor, Khavad died, and his seven-year-old son, Ardashir III succeeded him, Ardashir ruling in name only until general Shahrbaraz killed the boy and usurped the throne. In turn, Shahrbaraz’ own soldiers killed him and dragged his body through the streets of Ctesiphon. Anarchy swept through the Persian Empire, already exhausted by twenty-six years of war. In the coming four years, nine men tried to gain the throne, and all disappeared through flight, assassination or death by disease. Cities and provinces declared their independence.
During the Sassanid dynasty Zoroastrianism had enjoyed its high point in power and influence. Closely associated with the state and rule of the Sassanids, the breakdown of Sassanid rule weakened it. Zoroastrianism was vulnerable against the coming of Islam, and it would not rebound centuries later when Persian nationalism reasserted itself.