Encyclopaedia Iranica Online

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a title from the Arsacid and Sasanian periods.

MARZPĀN, MARZ(O)BĀN, “guardian of the borders; margrave; military commander”, a title from the Arsacid and Sasanian periods (<OIr. *marza-pāna-; Parth. mrzwpn; MPers. mlcpʾn' ; Aram. mrzbnʾ; Arm. marzpan; Syr. marzbanā; Ar. marzawān; Pers. marzbān, marzvān, marzabān).  Although the title marzpān is well known from non-Iranian (Armenian, Arabic, Syriac) sources, it is not attested in official Sasanian epigraphy until the late Sasanian period. 

Figure 1. Obverse of bulla with seal impression of Ādurnarseh, marzbān of Āsōrestān.  Mr. and Mrs. Jonathan P. Rosen Collection, New York.Figure 1. Obverse of bulla with seal impression of Ādurnarseh, marzbān of Āsōrestān.  Mr. and Mrs. Jonathan P. Rosen Collection, New York.

The title is first attested on ostracon no. 1899 (1624) from Nisa (q.v.) documents, dated in the year 176=72 BCE (Diakonoff and Livshits, 1960, p. 114; idem, 1977, p. 144), where there is a mtrssnk mrzwpn “Mihr-sasank marzupān” without any further indication of his rank. In two ostraca, the title is associated with a special category of land, denoted by the Aramaic ideogram of MRDYTʾ ‘land fit or used for the growing of crops’ (nos. 1624 [1899], 2301 [1635]). In one fragment (no. 2303 [1621]) of the ostracon, the marzpān is mentioned in connection with the delivery of wine from some estate; and in four cases (nos. 2301 [1635], 2301 [1635], 2303 [1621], 1787 [2200a]), marzpāns, unlike many other officials, are named as proper names. Two other titles are mentioned in the ostracon of Nisa: dizpat (Parth. dyzpty; MPers. dzpty) ‘the head of the fortress’ and satrap (Parth. sʾtrp; MPers. stʾlpy) ‘governor of a province’.  All three titles are usually accompanied with the Aramaic ideogram LYD (or ZY LYD) ‘in possession of; in disposal; by means of’. Depending on the concept, this ideogram can be understood as an indication of the responsibility of the official for sending of wine (see Diakonoff and Livshits, pp. 22-23, 44-45).

The earliest direct evidence for this title in Sasanian times is a seal of an official from the province of Asōrestān (see ĀSŌRISTĀN): ʾtwlnlshy ZY pylwc pyrwc ʾswrstʾn mlcpʾn: ādurnarseh ī pēroz pēroz asōrestān marzbān ‘Ādurnarseh (son) of Victorious-Pērōz, margrave of Asōrestān’ (Lerner and Skjaervø, p. 72; Figure 1). The latest direct attestation is in the inscription of Eqlid (q.v.) from the 6th year of a Yazdegerd where we have Wehšābuhr marzbān (Gropp, p. 241; Lerner and Skjaervø, p. 72). 

Judging from the Manichean texts, the meaning of Parthian marz in Sasanian times must have been both “border” and “territory”. The word has been restored in the 3rd-century inscription of Šāpur I (q.v.; r. 239-70) on the Kaʿba-ye Zardošt (q.v.) at Naqš-e Rostam (q.v.), line 3 of the Parthian text: pty ʾswrstn m[rz] = pad Asōrestān marz ‘on the border (*marz) of Asōrestān’ (Back, p. 291; Lerner and Skjaervø, p. 72). The border of Asōrestān is also referred to in the inscription of Narseh (q.v.; r. 293-302) at Paikuli (q.v.), line 23: [pr]ʾc [O]L ʾswrst[n] w[y]mndy = frāz ō Asōrestān wimand “up to the border of Asōrestān” (Humbach and Skjaervø, 3.1, pp. 49-50). In the inscription of Narseh, we also find the expression pā̆hrag ī Asōrestan ‘the border watch-post of Asōrestān’ (Humbach and Skjaervø, 11.22, pp. 36-37). 

In Manichean texts, marz was used as both “border” and “territory.” A piece of evidence from a Manichean text may indicate that the marzbān was the official in charge of the pā̆hrag, the border watch-post: the Middle Persian text M2 from the Manichean mission history (Andreas, Mir. Man. ii), states that Mar Ammō (q.v.), one of Mani’s (q.v.) companions who knew Parthian, was sent to the eastern provinces to preach Mani’s teaching.  When he arrived at the border (pāhrag) of Kūšān, the spirit of the border (wimand) of Hwarāsān appeared before him in the shape of a young woman (Mir. Man. ii, p. 12 [303]) and after a while informed Mar Ammō that she was the border guard (wimandbān) of Hwarāsān and that she was unwilling to let him in because if she did then the gate (dar) of all of Hwarāsān would be open to him (Andreas, Mir. Man. ii, p. 14 [305]). 

In Syriac sources, marzbāns are mainly mentioned in connection with their activities as warlords in the territories occupied by the Sasanians, where the Christian population predominantly lived. An unnamed marzbān of the province of Bēṯ Āramayē (q.v.), the region and Sasanian province of Asōrestān, is attested under Šāpur II (q.v.; r. 309-79) in the Acts of the Persian Martyrs (q.v.), which shows that the institution of Sasanian marzbān existed at least from the 4th century CE (Bedjan, IV, p. 190).

Mĕšīḥā-Zĕḵā, the author of the Chronicle of Arbela (q.v.), which treats early church history in Adiabene (q.v.), speaking of the origin of the Sasanian state, notes that the Persians subjugated all the kings of the Eastern countries and replaced them by māuhpaṭē (magupatān) and marzḇānē (marzpānān) (Minganap. 31). According to this text, a marzbān had his own army and lived in a fortified castle. When a marzbān rebelled against king Bahrām III (q.v.), the latter sent an army, dismissed the rebellious marzbān, and appointed a new one (Mingana, pp. 31, 36-38; Kolesnikov, p. 53).

John of Ephesus (ca. 507-88) in his Historia Ecclesiastica  (VI 6, 13, 17) describes an Adormahun as a powerful marzbān (marzbānā rabbā), commander of king Ḵosrow I (q.v.; r. 531-79 CE).  Under Šāpur II and Yazdegerd I (q.v.; r. 399-420 CE) marzbāns took an active part in persecuting Christians (Christensen, p. 311; Mingana, p. 128).

Judging from the Syriac sources, the marzbāns exercised control over local administrative authorities. In the regions of Upper Mesopotamia, where the Christian population was numerically predominant, administrative functions were partly performed by Nestorian and Monophysite bishops, and partly by marzbāns. In the region of Transcaucasia, for example, in Georgia, the powers of the king were performed by the marzbān, and local authority was exercised by one elected from among the nobility (erismtavar). Marzbāns collected impost and taxes and organized punitive operations. According to Auszüge aus syrischen Akten persischer Märtyrer (Hoffmann, p. 64), Atropatene (see AZERBAIJAN iii. PRE-ISLAMIC HISTORY) was governed on behalf of the Sasanian monarchs by a marzbān, Tohm-Hormizd; Šahrēn, from the Mihrān family, was marzbān of Bēṯ Darayē (q.v.; Hoffmann, p. 68); Pirān-Gušhnasp (Christian name Grigor), also from the Mihrān family, was marzbān of Georgia and Armenia and was tortured in 542 (Hoffmann, pp. 78-79); and there were anonymous marzbāns of Ganzak (q.v.; Bedjan, II, p. 620) and Nisibis (q.v.; Chronicle of Seert, p. 194). Marzbāns were often descendants from ancient, noble families, already known in the Parthian period. About a dozen marzbāns referred to in Syriac sources have the personal or generic name Mihrān (Justi, pp. 214-15); some of them came from the house of Kārin (q.v.; Kolesnikov, p. 55; on Mār Qardag, Bidaxš [q.v.] of Asōrestān and marzbān of the region see Khurshudyan, 2015, p. 59).

The term marzpan is commonly found in early Armenian sources: Agathangelos, Faustus, and Łazar Pʿarpecʿi (qq.v.), all from the final quarter of the 5th century, provide some information about the role of the mazpāns.  The Patmutʿiwn Hayocʿ or Buzandaran by Faustus have references to a Varaz-Šapuh, marzpān of Atrpatakan (Ādurbādagān) during the reign of King Narseh (Faustus, 3.20 [61], tr. Garsoïan, p. 94) and a member of the Surēn family named marzpān of Armenia in the 370s (Faustus, 5.38 [248-51], tr. Garsoïan, p. 221; McDonough, p. 157).

According to Łazar (pp. 25-26; tr. Thomson, pp. 65-74) Vṙam (Bahrām V Gōr, q.v.) “sent for the first time a Persian marzpān to Armenia,” deposing the last of the Aršakuni (Arsacid) family in the sixth year of the Armenian king Artašēs.  Łazar describes the administrations of several individuals with the title marzpān of Armenia, who generally appear to have been representatives of the Iranian high nobility (see Łazar, 47, 59-60, 73, 84-86), while their Armenian counterparts entrusted with the protection of the Armenian borders are identified with the hereditary bdeašxs or as sahmanapahs (Garsoïan, p. 544).

The title is attested in some late Zoroastrian Middle Persian texts (see Gignoux, 1984, pp. 12-15). According to the Kār-nāmag ī Ardaxšīr ī Pābagān (q.v.), Pābag marzbān ud šahryār ī Pārs būd ud az gumārdag [ī] Ardawān būd ‘Pābag was marzbān and governor of Pārs, he was among those whom Ardawān had appointed’ (Kār-nāmag 1.3; Grenet, pp. 26, 116-17, 125). The Šahrestānīhā ī Ērānšahr (q.v.), a Middle Persian treatise on geography, dated to the late 8th or early 9th centuries provides us with information about marzbāns (secs. 25, 52) appointed under the first Sasanians to the vassal kingdom of Ḥira (q.v.), known in pre-Islamic times as the capital of the Lakhmid (q.v.) Arab dynasty, clients of the Sasanians. In the concluding section of the Ḵusrow ī Kawādān ud Rēdag-ēw (q.v.), it is said that after the page fulfilled his tasks, the king rewarded him by appointing him marzbān over a large country (sec. 120; Monchi-Zadeh, tr., p. 86).  

According to Arthur Christensen (q.v.) the absence of the title marzbān in the early Sasanian inscriptions is due to the fact that Sasanians inherited the title from the Arsacids. In the early Sasanian period, marzbāns were part of the šahryārs (štr’dʾl ‘lords of the land’), the aggregate designation of the nobility appearing in the royal inscriptions. The Sasanians maintained the old division of the empire, and from the beginning of the 5th century the petty kings bore the title of marzbān. These marzbāns were of the same rank as the royal families and had the title of shah (Christensen, pp. 102, 131-39; Widengren, 1976, p. 271; cf. the definition of the term marzbān in Yaʿqubi [p. 202], where balad corresponds to Iranian šahr; the terms šahryār may seem equivalent, Kolesnikov, p. 50). However, the fundamental difference in the nature of these two terms is significant: the estate (“social”) šahryār, which in certain contexts received a specific official functional meaning, “regional governor,” and on the other hand, the position of marzbān

In the history and chronicle Taʾriḵ al-rosul wa’l-moluk of Ṭabari (q.v.)eight marzbāns of Yemen (6th-7th centuries) are mentioned (Ṭabari, I, pp. 2897-2900; tr. XV, pp. 102-4).

Ṯaʿālebi states (Ḡorar, p. 573) that Yazdegerd II (q.v.; r. 439-57 CE) passed the decision of the question on the heir to the throne of the king of kings to the court of “great states” and “main marzbāns”.  According to the same author, under Šāpur I, the marzbān in the hierarchy of the nobility stood directly after the kings (i.e., the vassal kings; p. 4). Under Yazdegerd III the marzbān was also responsible for collecting taxes in the provinces of Marv, Marvrud, Tāleqān and Gorgān (Ḡōrar, p. 744).

Masʿudi (q.v.) classified marzbāns as courtiers of the second rank. Besides the marzbāns, Masʿudi includes also the governors of the provinces in this group that were staying at the court of Ardašir and the spāhbeds (q.v.), “generals, commanders,” who could be entrusted with the administration of regions. For example, he designates a certain Šahrwarāz as marzbān of the western quarter (sec. 647, 654; Khurshudyan, 2015, pp. 195-219).

Dinavari (q.v.) notes that the poll tax (see JEZYA) was levied under Ḵosrow I on four classes, and the nobility, marzbāns, knights, scribes, and anyone in the service of the king were exempted (p. 73, lines 2-5). At the same time Dinavari distinguishes “ordinary marzbāns” from “great marzbāns” (pp. 121-24, 140; Kolesnikov, p. 52). Judging by the reports of Dinavari (pp. 94-96) and other sources (Grignaschi), Armenian Mušel Mamikonean (see MAMIKONEAN FAMILY) can be regarded as one of the “great marzbāns.”

In the period before the Arab Islamic conquest of Iran in some areas of the Sasanian state, the marzbāns led military squads acting independently or as part of a large army, collected taxes in several provinces, and were in charge of administrative affairs (for a list see Justi, pp. 197-98). 

According to Ḥamza Iṣfahāni (fl. 350/961), sixteen marzbāns ruled Arab territories at different times (pp. 136-39; for instance, Dād-Pēroz, whom the Arabs called Mukabir, was a marzbān in Bahrain and Oman, and also collected tax from the nomads). Balāḏori (q.v.) mentions the marzbān of Ādurbādagān, who was engaged in the levy of ḵarāj (= jezya) and his residence was located in Ardabil, the capital of Ādurbādagān (Balāḏori, p. 811).  Thus, the marzbāns’ activity, at least in some provinces, included the execution of fiscal functions.  

Based on Arabo-Persian sources, it seems that marzbāns in the late Sasanian period formed a closed group of nobility, mainly belonging to the military class (Gignoux, 1984, p. 26). They played a decisive role in the removal of Ḵosrow II (q.v.; r. 590-628 CE) from the throne and his imprisonment (Widengren, 1969, p. 131). They participated also in the events connected with the overthrow of Hormozd IV (q.v.; r. 579-590 CE; Dinavari, p. 87), son of Ḵosrow I, as well as in the attempt by the usurper Šahrwarāz (Ṯaʿālebi, p. 734). According to Kolesnikov (p. 54), in the social hierarchy of the Sasanian court, the marzbāns occupied a place between the bozorgān (q.v.), ‘chiefs of the most important aristocratic families’, and āzādāns ‘nobles’ (see ĀZĀD).

On the use of the title marzbān in Armenia, see also ARMENIA AND IRAN ii. THE PRE-ISLAMIC PERIOD.


Agathangelos, Agatʿangełay Patmutʿiwn Hayocʿ, tr. and comm. R. W. Thomson, as Agathangelos: History of the Armenians, Albany, N.Y., 1976.

F. C. Andreas, Mitteliranische Manichaica aus Chinesisch-Turkestan, ed. W.B. Henning, 3 vols., Berlin, 1932-34 (= Mir. Man. i-iii; also individual paginations: I, SPAW, 1932, no. 10, pp. 173-222; II, SPAW, 1933, no. 7, pp. 292-363; III, SPAW, 1934, no. 27, pp. 846-912). 

M. Back, Die sassanidischen Staatsinschriften: Studien zur Orthographie und Phonologie des Mittelpersischen der Inschriften zusammen mit einem etymolgischen Index des mittelpersischen Wortgutes und einem Textcorpus der behandelten Inschriften, Acta Iranica 18, Leiden, Tehran, and Liège, 1978.

Abu’l-ʿAbbās Aḥmad b. Yaḥyā b. Jāber Balāḏori, Ketāb fotuḥ al-boldān, ed. M. J. de Goeje, Leiden, 1866 (Ar. text with Latin commentary).

P. Bedjan, ed. Acta martyrum et sanctorum, 7 vols., Leipzig and Paris, 1890-97.

Idem, ed. Acta Sanctorum Martyrum Orientalium et Occidentalium, ed. and tr. S. E. Assemani, 2 vols., Rome, 1748; Leipzig, 1891.

A. Christensen, L‘Iran sous les Sassanides, Copenhagen, 1944.

[Chronicle of SeertHistoire nestorienne inédite (Chronique de Séert), ed. A. Scher, Patrologia Orientalis 4, Paris, 1908, pp. 213-312; 5, Paris, 1910, pp. 217-344; 7, Paris, 1911, pp. 95-203; 13, Paris, 1919, pp. 435-639.

T. Daryaee, Šahrestānīhā ī Ērānšahr, A Middle Persian Text on Late Antique Geography, Epic, and History, Costa Mesa, Calif., 2002.

F. De Blois, “Middle-Persian Funerary Inscriptions from South-Western Iran,” in W. Skalmowski and A. Van Tongerloo, eds., Medioiranica: Proceedings of the International Colloquium organized by the Katholieke Universiteit Leuven from the 21st to the 23rd of May 1990, Leuven, 1993, pp. 29-43.

I. M. Diakonoff and Vladimir A. Livshits, Dokumenty iz Nisy I v. do n.è. Predvaritel’nya itogi raboti (Parthian economic documents from Nisa: Preliminary results of the work), Moscow, 1960 (available at https://core.ac.uk/download/pdf/162463937.pdf).

Idem, Parthian Economic Documents from NisaPlates I, London, 1976; 

Parthian Economic Documents from NisaTexts, ed. D. N. MacKenzie, Corpus Inscriptionum Iranicarum, London, 1977, pp. 81-160.

Abu Ḥanifa Dinavari, al-Aḵbār al-ṭewāl, ed. Vladimir Guirgass, Leiden, 1888.

John of Ephesus, Historia Ecclesiastica (available at http://www.tertullian.org/fathers/ephesus_7_book6.htm).

Faustus (ps.-Pʿawstos), Buzandaran Patmutʿiwnkʿ, ed. Kʿ. Patkanean, St. Petersburg, 1883; tr. N. G. Garsoïan, as The Epic Histories Attributed to Pʿawstos Buzand (Buzandaran Patmutʿiwnkʿ), Harvard Armenian Texts and Studies 8, Cambridge, Mass., 1989.

Ph. Gignoux, Glossaire des inscriptions pehlevies et parthes, London, 1972.

Idem, “L’organisation administrative sasanide: le cas du marzbān,” Jerusalem Studies in Arabic and Islam 4/1, 1984, pp. 1-29.

F. Grenet, La geste d’Ardashir fils de Pâbag (Kārnāmag ī Ardaxšēr ī Pābagān), Die, France, 2003.

M. Grignaschi, “La Nihāyatu-l-ʿArab fī Aẖbāri-l-Furs wa-l-ʿArab,” Bulletin d’études orientales 22, 1969, pp. 15-67.

G. Gropp, “Einige neuentdeckte Inschriften aus sasanidischer Zeit,” in Walther Hinz, ed., Altiranische Funde und Forschungen, Berlin, 1969, pp. 229-62.

R. Gyselen, La Géographie administrative de l’Empire sassanide: Les témoignages sigillographiques, Paris, 1989. 

Idem, Nouveaux Matériaux pour la géographie historique de l’ empire Sassanide: Sceaux administratifs de la collection Ahmad Saeedi, Paris, 2002.

Idem, Sasanian Seals and Sealings in the A. Saeedi Collection, Acta Iranica 44, Leuven, 2007.

Abu’l-Ḥasan Ḥamza Eṣfahāni, Ketāb taʾriḵ seni moluk al-arż wa’l-anbiāʾ, ed. and tr. J. M. E. Gottwaldt, 2 vols., St. Petersburg, 1844-48 (Ar. text with Latin translation).

G. Hoffmann, Auszüge aus syrischen Akten persischer Märtyrer, übers. und durch Untersuchungen zur historischen Topographie, Abhandlungen für die Kunde des Morgenlandes Bd.7, no. 3, Leipzig, 1880.

H. Hübschmann, Armenische Grammatik I: Armenische Etymologie, Leipzig, 1897; 3rd ed., Hildesheim and New York, 1972.

H. Humbach and P.O. Skjærvø, The Sassanian Inscription of Paikuli. Part 3.1. Restored Text and TranslationPart 3.2. Commentary, Wiesbaden, 1983.

F. Justi, Iranisches Namenbuch, Hildesheim, 1963.

E. Khurshudyan (Khurshudian), Gosudarstvennye instituty parfyanskogo i sasanidskogo Irana III v. do n.ė. - VII v.n.ė. (State institutions of Parthian and Sasanian Iran in the IIIrd century BC - VIIth AD), Almaty, Kazakhstan, 2015.

Idem, “O termine tačik v armyanskih istochnikah” (About the term tačik in Armenian sources), Iran-name 3-4 (39-40), 2016, pp. 279-88.

A. I. Kolesnikov, “O termine ‘marzban’ v sasanidskom Irane,” (On the term “marzbān” in Sasanian Iran), Pravoslavnyĭ Palestinskiĭ sbornik 27 (90) L, 1981, pp. 49-56.

J. H. Kramers, “Marzpān,” EI2 VI, pp. 633-34.

Łazar Pʿarpecʿi, Patmutʿiwn Hayocʿ, ed. G. Tēr Mkrtčʿean and S. Malxaseanac, Tiflis, 1904; tr. R. W. Thompson, as The History of Łazar Pʿarpecʿi, Atlanta, Ga., 1991.

J.A. Lehrner and P. O. Skjærvø, “Some Uses of Clay Bullae in Sasanian Iran: Bullae in the Rosen and Museum of Fine Arts Collections,” in R. Gyselen, ed., Sceaux d’Orient et leur emploi, Res Orientale 10, Bures-sur-Yvette, 1977, pp. 67-87. 

Abu’l-Ḥasan ʿAli Masʿudi, Les prairies d’or, eds. and trs. Charles Barbier de Meynard and Abel Pavet de Courteille, 9 vols., Paris, 1861-1917 (Ar. text with French tr.).

Scott John McDonough, “Power by Negotiation: Institutional Reform in the Fifth Century Sasanian Empire,” Ph.D. diss., University of California at Los Angeles, 2005.

A. Mingana, ed. and tr., Sources syriaques I: Mšiḥa-Zkha (Catalogue d’Ebēdjesu): Histoire de l’église d’Adiabene sous les Parthes et les Sassanides, Leipzig, 1907-8.

D. Monchi-Zadeh, “Xusrōv ī Kavātān ut Rētak,” in Monumentum Georg Morgenstierne II, Acta Iranica 22, Leiden, 1982, pp. 47-91.

E. Sachau, Die Chronik von Arbela, ein beitrag zur kenntnis des ältesten christentums im Orient, Berlin, 1915.

Abu Manṣur ʿAbd-al-Malek Ṯaʿālebi, Ḡorar aḵbār moluk al-fors, ed. and tr. H. Zotenberg, as Histoire des rois des Perses, Paris, 1900.

Moḥammad b. Jarir Ṭabari, Ketāb taʾriḵ al-rosol wa’l-moluk, eds. M. J. de Goeje et al., 3 vols. in 15, Leiden, 1879-1901; tr. R. S. Humphreys, The History of al-Ṭabarī XV: The Crisis of the Early Caliphate. The Reign of ʿUthmān A.D. 644-656/ A.H. 24-35, Albany, N.Y., 1990.

G. Widengren, “Recherches sur le féodalisme iranien,” Orientalia Suecana 5, 1956, pp. 79-182.

Idem, Der Feudalismus im alten Iran: Männerbund-Gefolgswesen-Feudalismus in der iranischen Gesselschaft im Hinblick auf die indogermanischen Verhältnisse, Cologne and Opladen, 1969.

Idem, “Iran der grosse Gegner Roms: Kӧnigsgewalt, Feudalismus, Militärwesen,” in H. Temporini and W. Hassse, Aufstieg und Niedergang der rӧmischen Welt, II, Berlin, 1976, pp. 219-307.

Aḥmad b. Abi Yaʿqub Yaʿqubi, Taʾriḵ, ed. M. T. Houtsma, 2 vols., Leiden, 1883.

Šehāb-al-Din Abu ʿAbd-Allāh Yāqut b. ʿAbd-Allāh Ḥamawi, Moʿjam al-boldān, ed. F. Wüstenfeld, 6 vols., Leipzig, 1866-73.

Cite this page
Khurshudian, Eduard, “MARZPĀN, MARZ(O)BĀN”, in: Encyclopaedia Iranica Online, © Trustees of Columbia University in the City of New York. Consulted online on 01 April 2023 <http://dx.doi.org/10.1163/2330-4804_EIRO_COM_366425>
First published online: 2023

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