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name of six Sasanian kings and of several notables of the Sasanian and later periods. The name derives from Old Iranian VṛΘragna, Avestan VərəΘraγna, the god of victory.

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Volume III, Fascicle 5, pp. 514-522

BAHRĀM , the name of six Sasanian kings and of several notables of the Sasanian and later periods. The name derives from Old Iranian VṛΘragna, Avestan VərəΘraγna, the god of victory (see above), Middle Persian Warahrān, Wahrām (most often spelled wlhlʾn), Parthian *WarΘagn, borrowed into Armenian as Vahagn, and Wa(r)hrām (spelled wryhrm), borrowed into Armenian as Vrām. See also Justi, Namenbuch, pp. 361-65; H. Humbach and P. O. Skjærvø, The Sassanian Inscription of Paikuli III/1, Wiesbaden, 1983, pp. 130-31; Iranisches Personennamenbuch II/2, p. 171.

Figure 1. The order of succession of the early Sasanian kings.

Figure 1. The order of succession of the early Sasanian kings.Figure 1. The order of succession of the early Sasanian kings.

BAHRĀM i. Bahrām I

Bahrām I, the fourth Sasanian king and son of Šāpūr I (FIGURE 1), succeeded Hormozd (Ohrmezd) I and ruled from June, 271 until September, 274 (for the chronology of the early Sasanians, the findings of W. B. Henning, Asia Major, 1957, p. 116, are followed here). Four of Šāpūr’s sons are named in his Kaʿba-ye Zardošt inscription (A. Maricq, Classica et Orientalia, Paris, 1965, pp. 61-62): Bahrām Gēlān Šāh, Šāpūr Mēšān Šāh (King of Mesene), Hormozd (Ohrmezd) Ardašīr, Wuzurg Šāh ī Arminān (Great King of Armenia), and Narseh Sakān Šāh (King of the Sakas, exceptionally honored later in the inscription, Maricq, ibid., p. 58, as “the noble Mazdā-worshipping Narseh, King of Sind, Sakastān, and Tūrān to the edge of the sea”). The order shows that Bahrām was the eldest son (Henning, “Notes on the Great Inscription of Šāpūr I,” in Professor Jackson Memorial Volume, Bombay, 1954, p. 419 n. 6), and indeed, the prince is shown on the Naqš-e Rajab investiture relief of Ardašīr I, facing his name-deity Bahrām, who is figured in the Hellenistic guise of Herakles, nude and club in hand (W. Hinz, Altiranische Funde und Forschungen, Berlin, 1969, p. 124 with pl. 59). However, despite Bahrām’s age and Narseh’s exalted position, the succession of Šāpūr had been decided in favor of Hormozd Ardašīr, who, however, reigned for only just over a year. Then Bahrām ascended the throne, probably with the help of the influential priest, Kardēr. Narseh probably looked upon Bahrām as a usurper (see bahrām, iii), but had to settle for the second rank in the empire, becoming “Great King of Armenia” (V. Lukonin, “Varakhran i Narse,” in VDI 1, 1964, pp. 48ff.; H. Humbach and P. O. Skjærvø, The Sassanian Inscription of Paikuli III/1, Wiesbaden, 1983. pp. 66ff.).

Bahrām was fond of fighting, hunting, and feasting, which he regarded as virtues (Henning, “Mani’s Last Journey,” BSOS 10, 1942, p. 951), and Sasanian-based sources praised him as a benevolent and worthy king. This was no doubt partly due to his reversal of Šāpūr’s policy of religious tolerance, which enabled the clergy led by Kardēr to proceed with the establishment of a Zoroastrian state church. In 274, he ordered the imprisonment and subsequent execution of Mani, and the persecution of his followers (Henning, ibid., pp. 949ff.). Otherwise Bahrām’s short reign was uneventful. His coins show him wearing the characteristic crown of Mithra: a headgear adorned with ray-shaped spikes (K. Erdmann, “Die Entwicklung der sasanidischen Krone,” Ars Islamica 15-16, 1951, p. 96; R. Göbl, Sasanian Numismatics, Brunswick, 1971, p. 43, pl. 3 nos. 40-47). The lost Book of the Portraits of Sasanian Kings (Ḥamza, p. 50) depicted Bahrām I as standing, holding a lance in the right hand and leaning upon a sword held in the left, and wearing red gown and trousers and a gold crown topped with a sky-blue globe (Erdmann, op. cit., p. 96 n. 3). Following Ardašīr and Šāpūr, Bahrām I symbolized his accession in a rock-relief (Bīšāpūr IV) showing him on horseback, receiving the diadem of royalty from Ohrmezd, also shown mounted. The relief is accompanied by a Mid. Pers. inscription. The dignified spirituality of the king, the sweeping gesture of the god, the finely balanced composition, and the proportionate, majestic figures of the horses make this monument “artistically the most appealing example of Sasanian rock sculpture” (E. F. Schmidt, Persepolis III: The Royal Tombs and Other Monuments, Chicago, 1970, p. 129. See further F. Sarre and E. Herzfeld, Iranische Felsreliefs, Berlin, 1910, pp. 215ff.; G. Herrmann and R. Howell, The Sasanian Rock Reliefs at Bishapur, pt. 2, Iranische Denkmäler, Lief. 10, Berlin, 1981). Later, Narseh tampered with this sculpture and substituted his own name for that of Bahrām (see Schmidt, op. cit., p. 129 n. 71 for reference).


See also Ṭabarī, tr. Nöldeke, Geschichte der Perser, pp. 47-48.

Other Oriental, Greek, and Syriac sources are listed by Justi, Namenbuch, p. 361 no. 7.

The identification of Bahrām I with Bahrām Kūšān Šāh, who on his coins wears a crown adorned with a pair of ram’s horns and who is known also from a Sasanian silver plate now in the Hermitage (K. Erdmann, “Die sasanidischen Jagdschalen,” inJahrb. d. preuss. Kunstsammlung LIX, 1930, p. 190 with references) must be rejected on the evidence of the Kaʿba-ye Zardošt inscription which specifies that Bahrām was King of Gēlān. On Bahrām’s religious policy see further W. Hinz, “Mani and Kardēr,” in La Persia nel medioevo, Rome, 1971, pp. 485ff.

BAHRĀM ii. Bahrām II

Bahrām II, the fifth Sasanian king, succeeded his father Bahrām I in September, 274 (cf. W. B. Henning, Asia Major, 1957, p. 116) and reigned for 17 1/4 years (Nöldeke,Geschichte der Perser, p. 415), i.e., till the end of 291. He regarded the high priest Kardēr as his mentor and bestowed on him many honors and the new title “savior of Bahrām’s soul,” promoted him to the rank of noble (wuzurg), appointed him the custodian of the dynastic shrine of Ādur Anāhīd at Eṣṭaḵr, and the supreme judge of the empire. Under the influence and leadership of Kardēr, the consolidation of the state religion continued and non-Zoroastrians, such as the Manicheans and Christians, were persecuted (J. Duchesne-Guillemin, in CHI III/2, 1983, pp. 881ff., with literature). Bahrām himself showed a special devotion to his name-deity by naming his son Bahrām and choosing the wings of the god’s bird, Av. vārəγna, as the main element of his crown (E. Herzfeld, AMI 9, 1938, pp. 110ff.; K. Erdmann, “Die Entwicklung der sasanidischen Krone,” Ars Islamica 15-16, 1951, pp. 97ff.). In the political arena, Bahrām II faced substantial difficulties. Vopiscus (Vita Cari 8, inScriptores Historiae Augustae) reports that the Romans under Emperor Carus invaded Mesopotamia while the Persians were engaged in civil war. Claudius Mamertinus adds that Bahrām’s brother Ormies (Hormazd) rebelled and was supported by the Saccis (Sakastanians), Gellis (Gēlān/Gēls), and Ruffis. The last name was amended by Markwart (Ērānšahr, p. 36) into Cussis “Kūšāns,” and on this emended form Herzfeld based a case for the identification of the rebel Hormozd with an eastern king who styled himself on his coins Ohromoz Kūšān Šāhān Šāh (Paikuli I, Berlin, 1924, pp. 42ff., and more fully in Kushano-Sasanian Coins, Calcutta, 1930, pp. 7ff.). However, the Latin form for the Kūšāns being Cusenis, the emendation is unsatisfactory, and Hormozd Kūšān Šāhān Šāh may well have been a vassal of Šāpūr II (J. M. Rosenfield, The Dynastic Arts of the Kushans, Berkeley and Los Angeles, 1967, pp. 117ff., with literature). The rebellion of Hormozd was, in any event, centered on Sakastān, and lasted for several years. It was finally crushed, and, as Agathias reports (4.24), Bahrām II conquered the people of Sakastān and made his son, Bahrām, governor of that region with the title Sakān Šāh (Sagestanōn basileus). The Romans meanwhile took advantage of Bahrām’s preoccupation in the east, and advanced on Ctesiphon without meeting much resistance, but suddenly withdrew upon the death in mysterious circumstances of Emperor Carus. Bahrām then regained Mesopotamia and arranged a peace treaty with Emperor Diocletian (Vopiscus, Vita Probus 17, explained by Nöldeke, Geschichte der Perser, p. 94 n. 1; Zonaras 12.30; W. Ensslin, “Zur Ostpolitik des Kaisers Diokletian,” Sb. der bayer. Ak. der Wiss., 1942, p. 9).

Under Bahrām II Sasanian art achieved a high degree of excellence especially in the representations of the king and his courtiers. The lost Book of Portraits of Sasanian Kings (Ḥamza, p. 50) depicted Bahrām II as enthroned, holding a bow with an arrow by its string in the right hand (cf. the seated archer on Arsacid coins), and wearing a red gown, green trousers, and a crown adorned with a sky-blue globe (Erdmann, art. cit. p. 96 n. 35). He is better known from his coin portraits and rock reliefs. The coins are of four types (V. Lukonin, Iran v III veke/Iran in the Third Century, Moscow, 1979, pp. 155ff.; R. Göbl, Sasanian Numismatics, Brunswick, 1971, pp. 43ff.). One type shows Bahrām alone; another with his wife (Šāpūrduxtak, a daughter of Šāpūr Mēšān Šāh, hence the king’s cousin: V. Lukonin, Kul’tura sasanidskogo Irana, Moscow, 1969, p. 112; W. Hinz, Altiranische Funde und Forschungen, Berlin, 1969, p. 194); a third one with his heir, Bahrām Sakān Šāh (depicted as a youth facing the king); and a fourth—and more usual—type figures the king and the queen facing the crown prince (FIGURE 1). The reverse of the coins often shows Bahrām and his queen flanking a fire altar, and in one series the latter personage is identified as “Šāpūrduxtak, Queen of Queens” (Lukonin, op. cit., p. 116). The detailed coin imagery is reflected in the ornamentation of a silver cup discovered at Sargveshi, Georgia, and now in the Hermitage (P. O. Harper, “Sasanian Medallion Bowls with Human Busts,” in D. K. Kouymjian, ed., Near Eastern Numismatics, Iconography, Epigraphy and History. Studies in Honor of George C. Miles, Beirut, 1975, pp. 63ff., with literature). It bears four circular medallions: two enclose the bust of Bahrām, the third that of Šāpūrduxtak, and the fourth that of Bahrām Sakān Šāh.

Figure 1. Drachm of Bahrām II (Slg. Deutsche Bundesbank, Inv.-Nr. 54/04); obverse: busts of Bahrām II, queen and crown prince; reverse: king and queen beneath fire altar. (Courtesy of Deutsche Bundesbank, Frankfurt)Figure 1. Drachm of Bahrām II (Slg. Deutsche Bundesbank, Inv.-Nr. 54/04); obverse: busts of Bahrām II, queen and crown prince; reverse: king and queen beneath fire altar. (Courtesy of Deutsche Bundesbank, Frankfurt)

Of the rock reliefs, one at Gūyom, 27 km northwest of Shiraz, shows Bahrām II standing alone (E. F. Schmidt, Persepolis III: The Royal Tombs and other Monuments, Chicago, 1969, p. 134). Another at Sar Mašhad south of Kāzerūn, is carved directly above an inscription by Kardēr, and depicts Bahrām as a hunter who has killed a lion and is dispatching a second one with his sword; he holds the right hand of his queen in a gesture of protection while Kardēr and a fourth figure, probably a prince, look on (E. Herzfeld, “Reisebericht,” ZDMG 80, 1928, pp. 256ff.; Hinz, op. cit., pp. 215-16; L. Trümpelmann, Das sasanidische Felsrelief von Sarmashad, Iranische Denkmäler, Lief. 9, Berlin, 1975). The scene has been given various symbolic and allegorical interpretations, but it best affords the simple explanation as a royal show of courage in a real-life hunt (cf. more recently P. Calmeyer and H. Gaube in Papers in Honour of Mary Boyce, Acta Iranica 24, Leiden, 1985, pp. 43-49; P. O. Skjærvø, AMI 16, 1983, pp. 269ff.). A third rock relief, at Naqš-e Bahrām, near Nūrābād, 40 km north of Bīšāpūr, represents Bahrām II seated in full front view, flanked by Kardēr and Pāpak, satrap of Georgia, on his left and two other dignitaries on his right. A fourth sculptured scene (Bīšāpūr V) illustrates Bahrām, figured as a horseman, facing a Persian dignitary who is leading a delegation of six men resembling Arabs in their attire, who bring—perhaps as tribute—horses and dromedaries (Schmidt, loc. cit., with literature; and G. Herrmann and R. Howell, The Sasanian Rock Reliefs at Bishapur, pt. 2, Iranische Denkmäler, Lief. 10, Berlin, 1981). But the historical context of this monument is uncertain.

A fifth relief, at Naqš-e Rostam (carved over an erased Elamite sculptured scene), illustrates Bahrām II—standing in full regalia—among his family and courtiers: to the left are shown the busts of the queen, a senior prince, the crown prince Bahrām Sakān Šāh, Kardēr, and Prince Narseh; on the right are depicted the busts of Pāpak, satrap of Georgia, and two other dignitaries (description in F. Sarre and E. Herzfeld,Iranische Felsreliefs, Berlin, 1910, pp. 71-73; Schmidt, op. cit., pp. 129-30; interpretation in Hinz, op. cit., pp. 191ff.). A sixth relief, also sculptured at Naqš-e Rostam (below the tomb of Darius the Great), pictures an equestrian combat commemorating Bahrām’s victory over two unidentified foes, one of whom is prostrate under the king’s horse, and the other is being unhorsed by a blow from the king’s lance. Directly above this relief is carved another equestrian combat where a prince, probably Bahrām Sakān Šāh, is depicted as victor over two adversaries, one already fallen and the other being unhorsed. The two reliefs have been interpreted as illustrating, allegorically, Bahrām’s wars with Emperor Carus and Hormozd Kūšān Šāhān Šāh (A. D. H. Bivar, “Cavalry Equipment and Tactics on the Euphrates Frontier,” Dumbarton Oaks Papers 26, 1972, pp. 279ff.). However, while the reference to the Romans may well be accepted, Hormozd Kūšān Šāhān Šāh must be excluded on account of chronology and the fact that Hormozd, the younger brother of Bahrām II, was not king of the Kūšāns (see above). Finally, there are two pairs of figures carved at Barm-e Delak, 10 km southeast of Shiraz, one showing Bahrām II standing and facing Kardēr, the other representing a princess and an unidentified dignitary (Erdmann, “Die sasanidischen Felsreliefs von Barmi Dilak,” ZDMG 99, 1949, pp. 50ff.; Schmidt, op. cit., p. 133; Hinz, op. cit., pp. 217ff.), but the context is not certain.


Oriental sources are listed in Justi, Namenbuch, p. 362 no. 9, but their data are inaccurate and insufficient.

For silver-works attributable to Bahrām II see K. Erdmann, Ars Islamica 15-16, 1951, p. 97.

Bahrām II’s rock reliefs have been stylistically studied by G. Herrmann, “The Sculptures of Bahram II,” JRAS 1970, pp. 165-71.

BAHRĀM iii. Bahrām III

Bahrām III, Sakān Šāh (corrupt orthography: Šāhanšāh), the sixth Sasanian king, son of Bahrām II (less likely of Hormozd I, see Nöldeke, Geschichte der Perser, p. 49 n. 1, p. 436a n. 3), ruled for four months. He was proclaimed king (despite his reluctance, it is claimed, see E. Herzfeld, Paikuli I, Berlin, 1924, p. 171, with reference) in Fārs, by a group of nobles led by Wahnām, son of Tatrus, and supported by Ādurfarrōbay, king of Mēšān. But an assembly of many nobles, including the heads of great families as well as the high priest Kardēr, challenged the succession and swore allegiance to Bahrām’s grand-uncle, Narseh, “Great King of Armenia,” inviting him to come from Armenia to Ctesiphon and ascend the throne. In a swift campaign, Wahnām was captured and executed, but the fate of Bahrām is not recorded. Narseh then tampered with the investiture relief of Bahrām I at Bīšāpūr, substituted his own name for that of the former, and added the prostrate figure of a fallen enemy under the king’s horse (symbolizing Wahnām or, less likely, Bahrām III). Bahrām himself does not seem to have left any monument. A number of coins showing a king with a fluted crown were formerly attributed to him but are now assigned to Narseh (see especially R. Göbl, “Narsē und nicht Bahrām,” Numismatische Zeitschrift 78, 1959, pp. 5-13). Also, a fragmentary silver plate ornamented with a figure wearing the fluted crown and identified in an accompanying Mid. Pers. inscription as “Bahrām, King of Kings of Iran and Non-Iran” (see S. Eilenberg, “A Sasanian Silver Medallion of Bahrām III,” Ars Orientalis2, 1957, pp. 487f.) is considered suspect (Göbl, op. cit., p. 5).


Oriental sources are listed in Justi, Namenbuch, p. 362 no. 10.

The account given here is based on the bilingual (Mid. Pers. and Parthian) inscription of Narseh at Paikuli, now restudied and published with restored text and commentary by H. Humbach and P. O. Skjærvø, The Sassanian Inscription of Paikuli III/1, Wiesbaden, 1983, pp. 28ff.; cf. R. N. Frye, The History of Ancient Iran, Munich, 1983, pp. 375-77.

For Narseh’s addition of the fallen figure to the reclaimed relief of Bahrām I, see A. A. Sarfarāz, Iran, 13, 1975, p. 171 pls. iii, iv; and G. Herrmann, The Sasanian Rock Relief at Bishapur, pt. 2, Iranische Denkmäler, Lief. 10, Berlin, 1981, pp. 19-20.

BAHRĀM iv. Bahrām IV

Bahrām IV succeeded Šāpūr III and ruled 388-99. Ṭabarī (tr. Nöldeke, Geschichte der Perser, p. 71) calls him a son of Šāpūr II, but, according to Agathias (4.26), Ḥamza (p. 20), Šāh-nāma (Moscow, VII, p. 262) and others, he was a son of Šāpūr III, which is more likely (Nöldeke, op. cit., p. 71 n. 2). Prior to his accession, Bahrām was governor of Kermān and bore the title Kermān Šāh (a name which may linger in that of Kermānšāh(ān), a town in western Iran; Nöldeke, ibid., n. 3). An amethyst intaglio in the British Museum displays a masterly engraved bust of this prince as wearing a pearl-rimmed diademed cap and identified by a Pahlavi inscription: Wahrān Kermān Šāh, son of the Mazdā-worshipping Lord Šāpūr, king of kings of Iran and non-Iran, who is a scion of lords (see E. Herzfeld, Paikuli I, Berlin, 1924, p.78).

Bahrām negotiated with emperor Theodosius I over Armenia in 389, and they divided that land between their empires. But when Bahrām’s appointee over the larger Persian section (called Persarmenia) went over to his co-religionist Romans in 394, he was replaced by Bahrām’s brother Wahrānšāpūr (Bahrāmšāpūr, Arm. Vrāmšapuh). A year later a horde of Huns swept from North Caucasus into the south and were defeated and repulsed only on Mesopotamian soil (Nöldeke, op. cit., p. 72, with references). A weak ruler, Bahrām fell victim to a conspiracy by powerful nobles and lost his life. A magnificently cut chalcedony intaglio in the British Museum represents this king, recognizable from his falcon-shaped crown (on which see R. Göbl, Sasanian Numismatics, Brunswick, 1971, p. 48), javelin in hand and trampling the body of an unidentified fallen enemy (see A. D. H. Bivar, Catalogue of the Western Asiatic Seals in the British Museum: Stamp Seals II: The Sassanian Dynasty, London, 1969, p. 56, pl. 4: BCl).


Sources are listed in Justi, Namenbuch, p. 362, no. 12.

See further K. E. Güterbock, Byzanz und Persien, Berlin, 1906, p. 128; J. H. Schmidt, Syria, 1934, p. 22; Christensen, Iran Sass., pp. 253f.

BAHRĀM v. Bahrām V Gōr

Bahrām V Gōr, son and successor of Yazdegerd I, reigned from 420 to 438. His mother was said to have been Šōšanduxt, a daughter of the Jewish exilarch (Markwart, Provincial Capitals, par. 74). As a youth he was brought up at the court of the Lakhmid kings of Ḥīra, Noʿmān and his son Monḏer (he had probably been banished thither upon some disagreement with his father, see Nöldeke, Geschichte der Perser, p. 90 n. 2). Since the death of Šāpūr II in 379, nobles and priests had increased their prestige and power at the expense of central authority, electing, deposing and killing kings (among them Yazdegerd I) at will; and they now intended to exclude Yazdegerd’s sons from the succession (Christensen, Iran Sass., pp. 253ff.). The eldest son, Šāpūr, governor of Persarmenia, hurried to Ctesiphon to seize the throne but was murdered by the nobles, who elected a prince of Sasanian descent, Ḵosrow by name, as king (Nöldeke, op. cit., p. 91, n. 4).

Bahrām asked and received military assistance from Monḏer, and marched on the capital. Alarmed, the nobles negotiated with him and accepted his claim after exacting from him the promise that he would right his father’s misrule. According to the Persian tradition celebrated in the Šāh-nāma (Moscow, VII, pp. 296-303) and other Sasanian-based sources, Bahrām opted for an ordeal, suggesting that the royal crown and garb be placed between two lions, and whoever could retrieve them by killing the beasts should be acknowledged as the divinely favored king; and while Ḵosrow withdrew, Bahrām underwent the ordeal and won the throne. He left the task of administration to his father’s officials, especially to Mihr Narseh, grand minister (wuzurg framadār) of the empire. He also remitted taxes and public debts at festive occasions, promoted musicians to higher rank and brought thousands of Indian minstrels (lūrīs) into Iran to amuse his subjects, and he himself indulged in pleasure-loving activities, particularly hunting (his memorable shooting of a wonderful onager, gōr, is said to have given origin to his nickname Gōr “Onager [hunter]”). These measures made Bahrām one of the most popular kings in Iranian history. Right after his accession, he proved himself in battle against the White Huns (the Hephthalites) who had invaded eastern Iran. Leaving his brother Narseh as regent, Bahrām took the road from Nisa via Marv to Kušmēhan, where he fell upon the enemy, won a resounding victory, and obtained precious booty from which he made rich offerings to the fire temple of Ādur Gušnasp. On his return, he appointed Narseh governor of Khorasan. However, on the western front, Bahrām was less successful. Many Armenian Christians had appealed or defected to the Romans, and the refusal to surrender them resulted in open hostility in 421. Mihr Narseh led the Persian forces but engagements were indecisive, and finally a treaty was signed giving freedom of religion to the Christians in Iran and Zoroastrians in the Byzantine empire, and obliging the Romans to contribute financially to the defense of the Caucasus passes against the Huns. Bahrām then deposed the Armenian king, Artašeš (Ardašīr), son of Bahrāmšāpūr (Vrāmšapuh), and replaced him with a margrave (marzbān).

Bahrām V is exceedingly popular in Iranian literature and art (see below). His coins show him as wearing a crown with three-step crenellations and a large crescent of the moon; they also introduce certain novelties such as the appearance of the crowned king’s bust within the flames of the fire altar on the reverse (R. Göbl,Sasanian Numismatics, Brunswick, 1971, p. 49, pl. 9 nos. 153-58). No monument has survived of Bahrām V. His death is said in one tradition to have occurred during a hunt; according to another version, he died a natural death (summer of 438).


The main Sasanian-based account is given by Ṭabarī, tr. Nöldeke, pp. 85-112.

See also Dīnavarī, pp. 53ff.; Šāh-nāma, Moscow, VII, pp. 266ff.; Nehāyat al-erabapud E.G. Browne, JRAS, 1900, pp. 222ff.; Masʿūdī, Morūj II, pp. 157ff., 191; Ṯaʿālebī, Ḡorar, pp. 553ff.

For chronology see Nöldeke, op. cit., pp. 419ff. Concerning Bahrām’s love for music and the role of the minstrels see M. Boyce, “The Parthian gōsān and Iranian Minstrel Tradition,” JRAS, 1957, pp. 11, 30f.

Armenian, Syriac, and Byzantine references to Bahrām are listed in Justi,Namenbuch, p. 362 no. 14, and used by Nöldeke in his notes on Ṭabarī. Bahrām’s relations with the Christians are discussed by J. Labourt, Le christianisme dans l’empire perse, Paris, 1904, pp. 117ff.

BAHRĀM vi. Bahrām Gōr in Persian Legend and Literature

The growth of legends around prominent figures is familiar in Persian literature, and the case of Bahrām V is an excellent example of this. The relatively colorless and straightforward accounts by the early historians (Ṭabarī, Dīnavarī, Balʿamī, Ebn Balḵī), which emphasize Bahrām’s military prowess and his efforts to rule well, contain small hints of the way the legends will develop. Ferdowsī’s and Ṯaʿālebī’s accounts contain many of the characteristics of popular romances: a childless king (Yazdegerd I) who eventually fathers a son, the boy’s auspicious horoscope, his precocious physical and intellectual development, his education in the three areas of letters, manly arts, and kingship, and a life devoted to military and amorous adventures and the chase. His sobriquet gōr (wild ass) is said to have been inspired by a spectacular hunting feat where he killed a lion and an onager with one arrow, or in later accounts, by his love of hunting wild asses.

The major versions of the romance of Bahrām Gōr are in Ferdowsī’s Šāh-nāma, Neẓāmī’s Haft peykar, and Amīr(-e) Ḵosrow’s Hašt behešt. In each case the framework of the story is the same, but the emphasis and details differ considerably. Ferdowsī’s is the most balanced, and presents the life of Bahrām in an exemplary fashion, many of his adventures giving him the opportunity to display qualities admired in Persian kings. Neẓāmī’s and Amīr Ḵosrow’s are psychologically more subtle, but also more erotic and symbolic. In the latter two the account is dominated by an elaborate framed story, focused on seven princesses whom Bahrām marries and the stories that each one tells him as he visits them on successive days of the week. The symbolism of planets, colors, and the number seven pervades the romance.

One of the most remarkable differences among the various versions of the story is the manner of Bahrām’s death. Ferdowsī’s version has Bahrām die in his sleep, while in Haft peykar and Hašt behešt he chases an onager into a cave and disappears. Versions of the legend by early historians have him sink into a swamp, fall into a deep pit, or drown. Most of these variants appear to be local legends. For a discussion of this question, see M.-J. Maḥjūb, “Gūr-e Bahrām Gōr,” Īrān-nāma 1, 1361 Š./1983, pp. 147-63.

Bahrām Gōr is mentioned in early literary sources as the first person to write poetry in Persian. ʿAwfī, Lobāb I, pp. 19-20, quotes Arabic and Persian verses attributed to him, but the Persian ones are obviously of a later date.

The homonyms gūr “onager,” and gūr “grave” have led to many puns in classical Persian poetry, such as in this line from Ḥāfeẓ: Kamand e ṣayd-e bahrāmī be-afkan jām-e Jam bar dār/ke man peymūdam īn ṣaḥrā na Bahrām ast o na gūraš (Throw down Bahrām’s hunting lasso and take up Jamshid’s cup/I have crossed this plain and there is neither Bahrām nor his onager, or: his grave; Dīvān, ed. Qazvīnī and Ḡanī, Tehran, 1320 Š./1941-42, p. 188).

The adventures of Bahrām Gōr are a favorite subject for manuscript illustrations. J. Norgren and E. Davis in their Preliminary Index of Shah-Nameh Illustrations (Ann Arbor, 1969) list thirty-two scenes showing Bahrām Gōr, the most popular of which are “Bahrām Gōr hunting in the company of Āzāda,” “Bahrām snatching the crown from between two lions,” and “Bahrām kills a dragon.” Manuscripts of the Haft Peykar and Hašt behešt are also frequently illustrated.


P. J. Chelkowski, Mirror of the Invisible World, New York, 1975 (includes a prose translation of Haft peykar).

L. N. Dodkhudoeva, Poemy Nezami v srednovekovoĭ miniatyurnoĭ zhivopisi, Moscow, 1985.

R. Ettinghausen, “Bahram Gur’s Hunting Feats or the Problem of Identification,”Iran 17, 1979, pp. 25-31.

M.-J. Maḥjūb, “Hašt behešt wa Haft peykar,” Īrān-Nāma 1, 1362 Š./1983, pp. 346-87.

M. Moʿīn, Taḥlīl-e Haft peykar-e Neẓāmī, Tehran, 1338 Š./1959-60.

M. S. Simpson, “Narrative Allusion and Metaphor in the Decoration of Medieval Islamic Objects,” in H. L. Kessler and M. S. Simpson, eds., The Pictorial Narrative in Antiquity and the Middle Ages, Studies in Art History 16, Washington, D.C., 1985, pp. 131-50.

BAHRĀM vii. Bahrām VI Čōbīn

Bahrām VI Čōbīn, chief commander under the Sasanian Hormozd IV and king of Iran in 590-91, was a son of Bahrāmgošnasp (FIGURE 1), of the family of Mehrān, one of the seven great houses of the Sasanian period (Justi, Namenbuch, p. 363 no. 23). First mentioned in Šāpūr’s Kaʿba-ye Zardošt inscription (“Arštāt, the Mehrān, from Ray,” see W. B. Henning, BSOAS 14, 1952, p. 510), the family remained the hereditary margraves of Ray and produced notable generals (Nöldeke, Geschichte der Perser, p. 139 n. 3). Bahrām was called Mehrbandak (Arm. Mehrevandak; Justi, loc. cit.), but his tall and slender physique earned him the nickname Čōbīn(a), var. Šōpēn “Javelin-like” (Šāh-nāma, Moscow, VIII, p. 377; cf. V. Minorsky, JRAS, 1939, p. 108). Bahrām started as margrave of Ray (Masʿūdī, Morūj II, p. 213), commanded a cavalry force which captured Dārā in 572 (Theophylactos Simocatta, 3.18.10f.), became Spahbaḏ of the North (i.e., satrap of Azerbaijan and Greater Media) under Hormozd IV, and fought a long but indecisive campaign against the Byzantines in northern Mesopotamia (Dīnavarī, p. 94; cf. Šāh-nāma, Moscow, VIII, p. 388. For the campaign see M. J. Higgins, The Persian War of Emperor Maurice, Washington, 1939, pp. 35ff.). Late in 588, a horde of the Hephthalites, subjects of the Western Turks since 558, invaded eastern provinces of the Persian empire; and with the sanction and support of their overlords, reached Bādgīs and Herat. In a council of war, Bahrām was elected commander-in-chief of the Iranian army and satrap of Khorasan, furnished with a trained force, reportedly of 12,000 picked horsemen, and sent against the invaders whom Sasanian-based sources (as well as Theophylactos, 3.6) call Turks. Marching with remarkable speed, Bahrām first engaged and defeated the Western Turks and took the city of Balḵ. He then occupied the land of the Hephthalites, and crossing the Oxus won a resounding victory over the Eastern Turks, personally slaying their Great Ḵāqān (Ču-lo-hóu in Chinese records; J. Marquart, “Historische Glossen zu den alttürkischen Inschriften,” WZKM 12, 1898, pp. 189-90, and E. Chavannes, Documents sur les Toukiue [Turcs] occidentaux, St. Petersburg, 1903, pp. 242ff.; falsely called Šāwa/Sāva/Sāba in Sasanian-based sources, see under Bendōy and Bestām) with an arrowshot which became as proverbial as that of Āraš. Finally, he advanced to the famous Dež-e Rōyēn “Brazen Hold,” at Baykand near Bukhara (Dīnavarī, pp. 81ff.; Balʿamī, Tārīḵ, pp. 1074ff.; Šāh-nāma, Moscow, VIII, pp. 331ff.; Ṯaʿālebī, Ḡorar, pp. 642ff.; Ṭabarī, tr. Nöldeke, pp. 268ff.; Nehāyat al-erab fī aḵbār al-Fors wa’l-ʿArab, apud E. G. Browne, JRAS, 1900, pp. 233ff. These Sasanian-based sources must be corrected by the account by [Pseudo-]Sebeos, tr. in Markwart, Ērānšahr, p. 83, and elucidated by him in Wehrōt und Ārang, Leiden, 1938, pp. 137ff., and K. Czeglédy, “Bahrām Čōbīn and the Persian Apocalyptic Literature,” Acta Orientalia Hungarica 8, 1958, pp. 21ff.).

Figure 1. Descent of the Samanids from Bahrām Čōbīn. (For the Samanids, see Bīrūnī, Chronology; for Šāpūr, see Syrische Kronik, p. 9; see also Justi, Namenbuch, s.vv.)Figure 1. Descent of the Samanids from Bahrām Čōbīn. (For the Samanids, see Bīrūnī, Chronology; for Šāpūr, see Syrische Kronik, p. 9; see also Justi, Namenbuch, s.vv.)

Meanwhile Hormozd had alienated the magnates by imprisoning and executing many renowned men, reducing the size of the cavalry force, and decreasing the army’s pay by 10 percent (Theophylactos, 3.13.16; Ṭabarī, tr. Nöldeke, pp. 264-68). Distrustful of Bahrām even before the eastern expedition (Yaʿqūbī, I, p. 188), Hormozd could not tolerate the popularity of his own general, and giving out that Bahrām’s reserving of a few choice items of the booty for himself was an indication of rebellion, he removed the victor from his posts, and sent him a chain and a spindle to show that he regarded him as a low slave “as ungrateful as a woman” (Dīnavarī, pp. 84ff.; see also Šāh-nāma, Moscow, VIII, pp. 397-98; Theophylactos, 3.6-8, says that Bahrām was again sent to the Roman front and was defeated in Albania, whereupon Hormozd disgraced him; Nöldeke, op. cit., p. 272 n. 3, favored this version in 1879, but one of the best non-Iranian sources, discovered ten years later, Die von Guidi herausgegebene syrische Chronik, tr. Th. Nöldeke, Vienna, 1893, p. 5, confirms that Bahrām rose in arms while still in the east). Bahrām’s noble descent, his cultured manners and generosity, his military accomplishments and leadership skills, and his daring and shrewdness had earned him so elevated a position among his devoted troops and the public (A. Christensen, Romanen om Bahram Tschobin, et Rekonstruktionsforsøg, Copenhagen, 1907) that their rebellion against the ungrateful king followed naturally. Having settled his quarrel with the Turks, Bahrām appointed a satrap for Khorasan (Ṯaʿālebī, op. cit., p. 658; Šāh-nāma, Moscow, VIII, pp. 418f.), then marched on Ctesiphon via Ray, and was joined by many veterans from the western front (Theophylactos, 4.1). To forestall his supremacy, the nobles in the capital seized power, and led by Bendōy and Bestām and supported by Prince Ḵosrow, they slew Hormozd and put his son on the throne. On Bahrām’s approach, however, they fled toward Azerbaijan but were intercepted and defeated, many of their troops deserting to Bahrām. Ḵosrow succeeded, through the heroic self-sacrifice of Bendōy, in escaping into Byzantine territory (Syrische Chronik, pp. 5ff.; Theophylactos, 4.9; Nöldeke, Geschichte der Perser, pp. 272ff., 418-19, 434; Dīnavarī, pp. 89ff.; Balʿamī, op. cit., pp. 1079ff.;Nehāya, apud Browne, JRAS, 1900, pp. 237f.; Ṯaʿālebī, op. cit., pp. 657ff.; Yaʿqūbī, I, pp. 190f.; Ebn Balḵī, p. 100; [Ps.-]Sebeos, tr. M. K. Patkanian, Essai d’une histoire de la dynastie des Sasanides, Paris, 1866, pp. 87ff. [= JA, 1866, pp. 187ff.]).

Bahrām entered Ctesiphon and proclaimed himself king of kings (summer, 590), claiming that Ardašīr, the upstart son of Sāsān the shepherd, had usurped the throne of the Arsacids, and now he was reestablishing their right (Šāh-nāma, Moscow, IX, pp. 29-32; Yaʿqūbī, I, p. 192; the humble origin of Ardašīr was already noted by Agathias, 2.27). He tried to support his cause with the following apocalyptic belief then current: The Sasanians had identified the Seleucid era (312 b.c.) with the era of Zoroaster (H. Lewy, JAOS 64, 1944, pp. 197ff.; S. H. Taqizadeh,JRAS, 1947, pp. 33ff.), thereby placing Ardašīr some 500 years after the prophet and leaving 500 years for the duration of their own dynasty (Šāh-nāma, Moscow, VII, pp. 90-91). The close of Zoroaster’s millennium was to witness chaos and destructive wars with the Xyōns (Hephthalites/Huns) and Romans, followed by the appearance of a savior (details and references in Czeglédy, op. cit., pp. 35ff.). And Bahrām had risen some 500 years after Ardašīr (so Šāh-nāma, Moscow, IX, p. 30), and had saved Iran from chaos, the Xyōns and the Romans; he therefore claimed to be and was hailed by many as the promised savior, Kay Bahrām Varjāvand (Czeglédy, op. cit., pp. 36-39). He was to restore the Arsacid empire and commence a millennium of dynastic rule (Šāh-nāma, Moscow, IX, pp. 60-62). He issued coins in his own name. They represent him as a majestic figure, bearded and wearing a crenellated crown adorned with two crescents of the moon; and they are dated to year 1 and 2 (R. Göbl, Sasanian Numismatics, Brunswick, 1971, p. 52).

Bahrām’s hopes were unfulfilled. Many nobles and priests preferred to side with the inexperienced and less imposing Ḵosrow, who, in return for territorial concessions, had obtained a Byzantine force of 40,000 (Chronicle of Seʿert, in Patrologia Orientalis XIII/4, p. 466), and was now marching toward Azerbaijan, where an army of over 12,000 Armenians under Mūšel (cf. Dīnavarī, p. 94) and 8,000 Iranians gathered and led by Bendōy and Bestām ([Ps.-]Sebeos, tr. Patkanian, op. cit., p. 93) awaited him. Hoping to prevent a union of those forces, Bahrām left Ctesiphon with a much smaller army, but arrived too late. The two sides fought for three days in a plain near Lake Urmia, and on the eve of the fourth, Bendōy won over Bahrām’s men by pledging, in the name of Ḵosrow, their pardon and safety. In spite of his bravery and superb generalship, Bahrām was defeated, and his camp, children, and wives were captured. He himself left the battlefield, accompanied by 4,000 men, and since Ḵosrow had in the meantime sent a force to Ctesiphon and had secured it, the only road open was eastward. Bahrām marched to Nīšāpūr, defeating a pursuing royalist force and an army of a local noble of the Kārēn family at Qūmeš. Ceaselessly troubled, Bahrām finally crossed the Oxus, and was received honorably by the Ḵāqān of the Turks, entered his service and achieved heroic feats against his adversaries. Ḵosrow could not feel secure as long as Bahrām lived, and he succeeded in having him assassinated. The remainder of his troops returned to northern Iran and joined the rebellion of Bestām (Syrische Chronik, pp. 5-7; Theophylactos, 4ff.; [Ps.-] Sebeos apud Patkanian, op. cit., pp. 92ff.; Yaʿqūbī, I, pp. 192ff.; Dīnavarī, pp. 90-105; Ṭabarī, tr. Nöldeke, pp. 275-89; Nehāya, pp. 238-42; Balʿamī, op. cit., pp. 1083ff.; Higgins, op. cit., chaps. II and III; L. N. Gumilev, “Bakhram Chubin,” in Problemy vostokovedeniya III, 1960, pp. 228-41).

Given time and opportunity to deal with internal problems, Bahrām would have probably achieved no less than Ardašīr I had done, but he was faced with too many odds. It was not Ḵosrow but his superior Byzantine mercenaries who defeated Bahrām (Theophylactos, loc. cit.). The betrayal by his own brother, Gordōy, and the capture of his family severely limited his maneuvering ability. He was handicapped by the lack of cooperation from the bureaucrats, and the animosity of nobles unwilling to serve one of their own equals (Dīnavarī, p. 99; Theophylactos, 4.12; Ṯaʿālebī, op. cit., pp. 660f.). His own chivalry in letting Ḵosrow’s supporters leave the realm unmolested (Dīnavarī, p. 94), and in ignoring the escape of the resolute Bendōy, turned against him by giving his enemies the possibility to unite. His religious tolerance (see G. Widengren, Iranica Antiqua 1, 1961, pp. 146-47) alienated the powerful clergy (Theophylactos, 4.12f.; Ṭabarī, tr. Nöldeke, p. 282). Even the apocalyptic belief he put to use was masterfully turned against him when Ḵosrow employed the following propaganda devices. He initially remitted one half of the annual poll-tax (Dīnavarī, p. 102), and bestowed riches on great fire temples (cf. Šāh-nāma, Moscow, IX, pp. 104f., 136). He then ordered his secretaries to publish an account of the events from the rise of Bahrām to the restoration of Ḵosrow (Bayhaqī, al-Maḥāsen wa’l-masāwī, ed. F. Schwally, Giessen, 1902, p. 481) wherein Bahrām was pictured as a soldier of fortune and an evil usurper. Finally, Ḵosrow circulated a modified version of the apocalyptic prophecy according to which the end of Zoroaster’s millennium was to witness the arrival with a vast army of a lowly false pretender from Khorasan, his usurpation of the throne, and his swift disappearance, followed by a short period of foreign rule over Iran and the restoration of peace and prosperity by a “victorious king” (aparvḕ xvatāy) who would even take many cities from the Romans; and since Ḵosrow had restored the kingdom and destroyed the lowly usurper Bahrām, he now claimed to be the true savior of Iran, and assumed the title Aparvēž, Parvēz (Czeglédy, op. cit., pp. 32ff.).

However, Bahrām’s memory was immortalized in a masterfully composed Pahlavi romance, the Bahrām Čōbīn-nāma (Masʿūdī, Morūj II, p. 223; Fehrest, p. 305; Balʿamī, op. cit., p. 1081), which was translated by Jabala b. Sālem (Fehrest, loc. cit.), and found its way—intermingled with another account, favorable to Ḵosrow Parvēz—into the works of Dīnavarī (pp. 81-104), Ferdowsī (Šāh-nāma, Moscow, VIII, pp. 331-430 and IX, pp. 10-178), Balʿamī (op. cit., pp. 1073ff.), and the Nehāya(pp. 233ff.). The picture of Bahrām in the romance is that of an illustrious knight of kingly origins and noble disposition, a superb, highly educated and disciplinarian general, and a witty, just, and wise king. He is the best archer, and comes from the family of Mēlād (Mithridates/Mehrdād) the Arsacid, himself of the line of Kay Āraš, son of Kay Qobād (who is here confused with the famous archer: J. Marquart,ZDMG 69, 1895, pp. 633-35). When Iran is simultaneously attacked by the Romans, the Ḵazars, the Arabs, and the Turks, he saves the empire by crushing the most dangerous enemy, the Turks; and he takes action against Hormazd who had unjustly disgraced him, only after his troops and an assembly of nobles urge him to do so. His accession to the throne is sanctioned by the nobles, and he fights for his right with gallantry and pluck. Above all, he is a man of his word, devoted to his men and his fatherland. The novel describes details of his life, thoughts and deeds with such vividness and moving affection that its reflection in the Šāh-nāma counts as one of the masterpieces of Persian literature (Nöldeke, Geschichte der Perser, pp. 474-78). It clearly was published while Bahrām’s memory was still very much alive, and its form and main features have been restored by Arthur Christensen (op. cit.).

Bahrām is credited with the writing of a manual on archery (Fehrest, p. 304). He was survived by three sons: Šāpūr, who supported Bestām’s rebellion and was executed (Syrische Chronik, p. 9); Mehrān, whose own son, Sīāvoš, King of Ray, fell fighting the Arabs in 643 (Justi, Namenbuch, p. 300 no. 9); and Nōšrad, the ancestor of the Samanids (Bīrūnī, Chronology, p. 48). The popularity of Bahrām persisted in Iranian nationalist circles long after his death. Thus, Senbād could claim that Abū Moslem (q.v.) had not died but was staying with the Savior (Mahdī) in a “Brazen Hold” (i.e., Bahrām’s residence in Turkistan), and will soon return (Czeglédy, op. cit., pp. 40-41 citing Neẓām al-molk, Sīar al-molūk [Sīāsat-nāma], ed. H. Darke, 1347 Š./ 1968, p. 280).

Cite this page
A. Shapur Shahbazi, O. Klíma and William L. Hanaway, “BAHRĀM”, in: Encyclopaedia Iranica Online, © Trustees of Columbia University in the City of New York. Consulted online on 31 May 2023 <http://dx.doi.org/10.1163/2330-4804_EIRO_COM_6433>
First published online: 2020
First print edition: 19881215

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