Encyclopaedia Iranica Online

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Three Sasanian king of kings and a number of notables of the Sasanian and later periods were called “Shapur.”

ŠĀPUR I: History

ŠĀPUR I, second Sasanian king of kings (r. 239-70) and author of several rock-reliefs and the trilingual inscription on the walls of the so-called Kaʿba-ye Zardošt [ŠKZ].

The name. Three Sasanian king of kings and a number of notables of the Sasanian and later periods were called “Šāpur.” The name is derived from Old Iranian *xšayaΘiya.puΘra “son of king” and originally must have been a title, which came to be used, at least from the last decades of the 2nd century CE, as a personal name, although its appearance in Parthian king-lists of Arabic-Persian histories (e.g., Biruni, Chronology, pp. 117-19) is anachronistic. The attested forms include: Parth. šhypwhr, Sasanian šhpwr-y, Manichean Pahlavi š’bwhr, Book Pahlavi šhpwhl, Arm. šapowh, Syriac šbwhr, Sogdian š’p(‘)wr, Gk. Sapur, Sabour and Sapuris, Lat. Sapores and Sapor, Ar. Sābur and Šābur, Pers. Šāpur, Šāhpur, Šahfur, etc. (see Nöldeke, Kārnāmak, pp. 60-61; Justi, Namenbuch, p. 284; Fluss, col. 2326; Sundermann, 1981, p. 171; Back, pp. 260-61; Garsoïan, pp. 406-407; Gignoux, 1986, pp. 161-2; Huyse II, pp. 5-6).

Šāpur I’s co-rulership and accession. Šāpur I was the son of Ardašir I and “Lady Myrōd” (ŠKZ, Gk. l. 49). He participated in his father’s campaign against the Arsacids (Ṭabari I, p. 819, confirmed by the victory relief of Ardašir I at Firuzābād, see EIr II, pp. 377-9). Ardašir “judged him the gentlest, wisest, bravest and ablest of all his children” (Masʿudi, Moruj II, p. 159), and nominated him as his successor in an assembly of the magnates (Skjærvø, 1983, 3/1, pp. 58-60). He appears in Ardašir’s investiture reliefs at Naqš-e Rajab and Firuzābād as the heir apparent (Hinz, 1969, pp. 56ff and passim), and our data indicate that he later shared rulership with his father (Ghirshman, 1975; Calmeyer, pp. 46-7, 63-7). Balʿami (ed. Bahār, p. 884) states that “Ardašir placed with his own hand his own crown upon Šāpur’s head,” and Masʿudi (Moruj II, p. 160) confirming this, adds that Ardašir then retired to serve God and lived for a year or longer. The testimony of the Cologne Mani Codex that in Mani’s twenty-fourth year, i.e., in (24+ 216=) 240, Ardašir “subjugated the city of Hatra and King Šāpur, his son, placed on his head the great (royal) diadem” (Henrichs–Koenen, 1975, pp. 18, 21), also indicates a period of synarchy. In late 242, the Emperor Gordianus III sent a letter from Antioch in Syria to the senate claiming that he had removed the threat “of Persian kings” (reges persarum) from the city (SHA: Gordiani Tres 27. 5), which means that in 242 Persia had two kings. Indeed, Ardašir’s late coins continues his usual reverse type of an elaborate fire altar and the legend: NWR[’] [Z]Y [’r]t[x]štr “Fire of Ardaxštar” but it portrays him facing a youthful prince – symbolically representing Šāpur and a new legend: mzdysn bgy shpwhry MLK’ ‘ yr’n MNW štry MN yzd’n “Divine Šāpur King of Iran whose seed is from gods” (Lukonin, 1969, pp. 55, 164, 166, Pl. II no 283; Ghirshman 1975, p. 258; Mossig-Walburg, 1980, pp. 117, 119-20; idem, 1990, pp. 112-13). Šāpur’s own coins show him wearing his famous mural crown and a fire altar flanked by two attendants. Clearly, Ardašir issued that series when he appointed Šāpur co-regent. A rock-relief at Salmās in Azerbaijan (Hinz, 1965; 1969, pp. 135-39) depicting two horsemen both wearing Ardašir’s lower-type crown, must also date from the period of synarchy. Another, at Dārābgerd (Hinz, 1969, pp. 145-152; see also EIr., VII, p. 7), represents a victory of Šāpur I over the Romans but the king wears Ardasir’s crown, thereby symbolizing the shared victory of the father and the son (Ghirshman, 1971, pp. 94-103; Shahbazi, 1972).

The date of Šāpur’s coronation has been much debated. The testimony of his courtier Ābnun (see below) that the Romans marched against Persia “in the 3rd year of Šāpur, king of kings,” proves that Šāpur’s accession was in 240, as Henning (1957, pp. 117-8 [= 1977, II, pp. 516-7]) calculated from the evidence of Bišāpur’s inscription that separates Ardašir’s royal fire from that of his son by 16 years. He further correctly interpreted (ibid., pp. 118-9 [= 1977, II, pp. 717-8]) the Manichean report (in Ebn Nadim, Fehrest, p. 328) that the day of Šāpur’s coronation “was Sunday, the first of Nisan, when the sun was in Aries” with reference to Sunday 12 April, 240. A magnificently executed rock-relief at Naqš-e Rajab symbolically commemorates Šāpur’s investiture: Ohrmazd, on horseback, offers the diademed ring of royalty to Šāpur, who is likewise mounted, but his figure is mutilated by subsequent vandalism.

Wars with Rome. Eastern writers have vague ideas of Šāpur’s wars with Rome, making a single campaign out of them with the capture of Valerian as its conclusion (Nöldeke, Geschicter der Perser, p. 31 n. 3). The ŠKZ inscription and rock-reliefs agree with Roman sources (collected and discussed by Fluss, Ensslin, Maricq and Honigmann, Mazzarino, Winter, Kettenhofen, Dodgeon and Lieu) that there were three campaigns. The first (242-4) came upon Hatra’s capture. The Roman account (given in the official biography of Gordian [Gordiani Tres 23.4; 26.3 to 24.3] and supplemented by brief references in later Roman historians), is briefly as follows. In 242, Gordian set out against the Persians with “a huge army and great quantity of gold,” and wintered in Antioch. There he fought and won repeated battles, and drove out Šāpur from the Antioch, Carrhae and Nisibis, routed him at Resaina (modern Ra’s al-’Ain, near Nisibis) and forced him to restore all occupied cities unharmed to their citizens. “We have penetrated as far as Nisibis, and shall even get to Ctesiphon,” he wrote to the senate. But that was not to be. Philip the Arab, prefect of the guard, hatched plots, convinced the soldiers to proclaim him joint emperor, and undermining the authority of Gordian, hastily retreated towards the Roman frontier. During the retreat Gordian perished. Most said that he was murdered by Philip’s agents, but Eusebius of Caesarea heard that “Gordianus was killed in Parthia”; Zosimus (who follows the official account) relates that Gordianus was killed deep in enemy’s land, and a garbled version in Zonaras (12.17) reports that “the young emperor” was overthrown from his horse in a battle, broke his thigh, and died of his wound. All say that Philip then swore friendship or made “a most shameful treaty” with Šāpur and ended the war. He even ceded Armenia and Mesopotamia but later broke the treaty and seized them.

Since 1940, it has been possible to contrast this version with the Persian view, given by Šāpur himself in the KZ trilingual inscription (Back, pp. 290-94; Huyse, 1999, I, pp. 26-8). “Just as we were established on the throne, the emperor Gordianus gathered in all of the Roman Empire an army of Goths and Germans and marched on Āsōristān (Assyria), against Ērānšahr and against us. On the edges of Assyria, at Misiḵē [on the Euphrates as it flows close to the Tigris], there was a great frontal battle. And Gordianus Caesar perished, and we destroyed the Roman army. And the Romans proclaimed Philip emperor. And Philip Caesar came to us for terms, and paid us 500,000 dinars as ransom for his life and became tributary to us.” A courtier of Šāpur called Ābnun set up a fire as an oblation when “it was heard that the Romans had come and Šāpur the King of kings had smitten them and had worsted them [so that they fell into our captivity] (Tavoosi and Frye, pp. 25-38; Gignoux, 1991, pp. 9-17; Livshits and Nikitin, pp. 41-44; MacKenzie, 1993, pp. 105-109; Skjærvø, 1992, pp. 153-60; Sundermann, 1993).

Scholarly analyses have shown that Sāpur’s account while defective is superior to the Roman version, which fails to explain why the Romans having routed Šāpur near Nisibis and marched to the gates of Ctesiphon would want to buy a “most shameful peace"? As Kettenhofen puts it (pp. 35-6): “It is understandable that Roman national pride transferred the responsibility of the defeat, in which Gordian III became the first Roman emperor to lose his life on enemy battlefield, to Philip. On the other hand, the feeling of the Sasanian triumph was immortalized in several rock-reliefs of Šāpur I, and the victory at Misiḵē was mentioned by a boastful Šāpur as the single military event within this first campaign.”

Having removed the Roman threat and enriched his treasury by exacting heavy ransom, Šāpur brought the Roman protectorate of western Armenia under Persian control (Kettenhofen, pp. 87-97, 100-107, 114-23). He also commemorated his victory on several rock reliefs in Fārs (see below), the most relevant of which is at Dārābgerd which shows the youthful emperor Gordian prostrate under the horse of Šāpur who wears Ardašir’s crown and receives another Roman (Philip) with benediction. Curiously, Philip also celebrated and called himself victor over the Persians (Persicus/Parthicus Maximus, see Winter, pp. 107-10) once he was in a safe distance from them.

While Western sources on Šāpur’s second campaign (252-6) are meager, contradictory and hostile, his is full and fairly coherent (Maricq, 1958; Back, pp. 294-306; Huyse, 1999, I, pp. 28-33). “The Caesar lied and did harm to Armenia,” he begins, with reference to Roman interference in Armenia and possibly refusal of “tribute” payment. Šāpur invaded Mesopotamia in about 250, but a serious trouble in a district of Khorasan “necessitated his presence there.” He marched thither and settled its affair (Ṭabari I, p. 826 with Markwart, Capitals, p. 52). Then he resumed the invasion of Roman territories. “And we annihilated a Roman force of 60,000 at Barbalissus [modern Qalʿat al-Bālis, on the left bank of the Euphrates in Syria] and we burned and ravaged the province of Syria and all its dependencies; and in that one campaign we conquered from the Roman empire the following forts and cities [some thirty-six of them are named].”

The available data indicate that there were several campaigns conducted in the course of the years 253-6, with Antioch, the prestigious and rich capital of the Roman East, as the ultimate goal (Kettenhofen, 1982, pp. 50-78, 83-89, summarizing the researches of Sprengling, Henning, Ensslin, Maricq, Honigmann, Rostortzeff, Baldus). During the first phase of the war, Šāpur must have retaken Armenia and appointed his son Hormozd-Ardašir as the “Great King of Armenians,” a prestigious title created evidently to placate the proud Armenians. Georgia submitted or was taken and made into a specially honored province placed under a very high-ranking Sasanian official, the bidaxš (EIr IV, pp. 242-44). The Sasanian borders on the north were thus secured, allowing direct guarding of the Caucasian passes (see DARBAND). After defeating the main Roman army at Barbalissos, Šāpur divided his forces, leading one army himself he penetrated deep into Syria all the way to the coast and plundered what he found, while Hormazd-Ardašir took the other and invaded Lesser Armenia and Cappadocia. The burning and looting show that Šāpur had no intention of keeping the conquered lands, but he did deport a large number of the populations and settled them in his own cities (see below).

Repeated skirmishes led to a new large-scale war in 260. “And in the third campaign, we set upon Carrhae and Edessa, and as we were besieging Carrhae and Edessa, Valerian Caesar came against us, and with him was a force [later specified as totaling 70,000] from the province (hštr) of the Goths and Germans [most Roman provinces are named]. And on the far side [= west] of Carrhae and Edessa a great battle took place for us with Valerianus Caesar. And we with our own hands took Valerian Caesar prisoner and the rest who were the commanders of this army, the Praetorian Prefect, and the senators, and the officers all of these we took prisoners and we led them away into Persis (Pārs). And we burned with fire, and we ravaged, and we took captive and we conquered the province of Syria, and the province of Cilicia, and the province of Cappadocia. And in that campaign we conquered from the Roman Empire [thirty-six cities are named with their dependent districts]. And we led the men from the Roman Empire, namely, from the Anērān [un-Iranian lands], away with the booty; and we settled them in our own Iranian empire-- in Persis, Parthia and in Ḵuzestān and in Āsōristān [=Babylonia], and in the other provinces, province by province, whenever we, or our father, or our forefathers or our ancestors had royal estates” (Maricq, 1965, pp. 52-6; Back, pp. 306-29: Huyse I, pp. 33-43; detailed commentary in Kettenhofen, pp. 97-126).

As the British military officer and historian Sir Percy Sykes has remarked (I, p. 401): “Few if any events in history have produced a greater morale effect than the capture of a Roman Emperor by the monarch of a young dynasty. The impression of the time must have been overwhelming, and the news must have resounded like a thunderclap throughout Europe and Asia.” Understandably, western historians (both ancient and modern, see e.g. Frye 1983, p. 297) have attributed “the greatest humiliation of the Romans” (Nöldeke, p.32 n.4) to the spread of disease and treachery of allies, and claimed that “the aged emperor” was tricked by Šāpur during armistice negotiation and was not taken in the thick of the battle.

When the Persian army spread itself too widely over the Roman East and lost its cohesion, Šāpur evacuated the devastated areas and set out for home, laden with booty and a large number of deportees. He marched through eastern Cilicia and northern Mesopotamia arriving at his capital Ctesiphon, probably in late 260. Part of his baggage train was lost during a raid by Palmyrene Arabs under their sheikh Odenathus. This “minor incident of uncertain date” (Sprengling, pp. 108-109), has been turned by Roman historians and their modern successors (Felix, pp. 809 with literature) into repeated routings of Šāpur by an ally of Rome who “if not restoring Rome’s honor did profoundly damage and disgrace” the Persian king (Nöldeke, p. 32 n. 4). But, as Henning (1939, p. 843 [= 1977, p. 621]) has explained: “The transport through the desert of a very great number of prisoners besides the Persian army was a difficult enterprise; the fact that Šāpur succeeded in this (as proven by the presence of the provincials in Susiana) shows sufficiently how much the usual accounts of the exploits of Odenathus against the Persians on their desert march are exaggerated.”

Šāpur commemorated his victories in his KZ inscriptions and in several rock-reliefs (MacDermot, 1959, pp. 76-80; Hinz, 1969; Girshman, 1971; Herrmann, 1980, 1983, Herrmann-MacKenzie-Howell, 1989; see also SASANIAN ROCK-RELIEFS). That at Dārābgerd was mentioned before. A very badly damaged scene at Bišāpur (I) shows the investiture and triumph of Šāpur combined: the king on horseback receives the diadem of sovereignty from Ohrmazd while under his horse lies Gordianus and kneeling before him is Philip. Nearby a great rock-relief (Bišāpur II) represents in the center Šāpur on horseback, Gordianus prostrate, and Valerian standing at the side of the king who holds him by wrist. Another carved at Naqš-e Rostam lacks Gordianus but shows Philip (kneeling) and Valerian (standing), and the largest (Bišāpur III) depicts Šāpur and the three Roman emperors in the center, four rows of mounted Iranian dignitaries behind the king, and in front of him four rows of tribute-bearers on foot or with chariots. Finally, a sardonyx cameo of Roman-Persian workmanship pictures Šāpur and Valerian on horseback in hand-to-hand fighting (Ghirshman, 1962, p. 152, fig. 195). All representations of the captive Caesar show him unfettered and in regalia, disproving the rumors (survey in Felix, pp. 66-73) that he was mistreated.

Account of the rest of Šāpur’s reign. Šāpur’s triumph increased the prestige of the Sasanian empire, confirming her position as the rival of the Roman state, and one of “the two guardians of order and progress in the world” (Petrus Patricius in Müller, Fragmenta IV, p. 188 no. 13). His campaigns deprived the enemy from resources while restoring and substantially enriching his own treasury, and the Roman deportees, mainly artisans and skilled workers, helped to revitalize Persia’s urban centers, industries and agriculture (Pigulevskaya, pp. 127-31; see also EIr IV, pp. 287-88). The incorporation of so many non-Iranians into Šāpur’s empire necessitated the coining of a new royal title: “King of Kings of Ērān [‘Iranians’] and Anērān [‘un-Iranians’],” which appeared regularly in his inscriptions and became the customary title of later Sasanian sovereigns. Many of the deportees were Christians, and no longer persecuted, they prospered and multiplied in Ḵuzestān, Persis and eastern Iran, built churches and monasteries and even set up bishoprics (Chronicle of Se’ert II, p. 221). Greek and Syriac came into wider use (Brock, chap. IV, pp. 91-5), and various books on sciences (particularly astronomical works, including Ptolemy’s) were translated into Pahlavi (Taqizadeh, 1939, p. 133, citing Ebn Nowbaḵt apud Ebn Nadim, pp. 238-9; Henning, 1942, p. 245 (= 1977, I, p. 111; Pingree, EIr II, p. 859). Also, an unprecedented period of “town building” (i.e., fortifying an existing one or renovating and enlarging it and then re-naming it) followed (Pigulevskaya, pp. 127-31). Thus, Misiḵē was re-named Pērōz-Šāpūr and served as the main military magazine (anbār, hence its other name Anbār) on the western front (Maricq, 1958, pp.352-56; Honingmann-Maricq, pp. 112-30). Abaršahr was re-founded as Nēv-Šāpūr>Nišāpur (‘Excellent (is) Šāpur’: Markwart, Provincial Capitals, p. 52; Ḥamza, p. 48.) and part of Susa was re-named Hormazd-Ardašir (Le Strange, Lands, p. 219). Šād-Šāpūr “Happiness of Šāpur” was the official name given to Rimā (Markwart, Ērānšahr, p. 41), a district in Kaškar. Gondēšāpur was “founded” on the site of an old town called Bēṯ Lapaṭ, some 10 km south of the city of Dezful, to house the deported Antiocheans. The city of Bišāpur seems to have been the king’s foundation and he built many monuments there, and carved rock-reliefs in a nearby gorge, the Tang-e Čowgān. In a cave above the gorge his colossal statue, originally over twenty feet high (Moqaddasi, pp. 444-45; Ghirshman, 1971, I, pp. 179-85; Pls. XXVIII-XXXII; Rice), still exists.

Šāpur tells us that he had other achievements “which we have not inscribed here, besides all this” (Back, pp. 327-29; Huyse I, p. 44). Even at old age he remained fully active, as his feat of archery witnessed by kings, princes, magnates and nobles and recorded in a bilingual inscription at Hājiābād shows (Najmābādi; MacKenzie, 1978, pp. 499-501; Back, p. 546 n. 245).

Religious Policy. In all of his documents Šāpur refers to himself as mzdysn (‘Mazda-worshipping’). His KZ inscription covers his religious foundations and wars in equal length. He felt he had a mission in history: “For the reason, therefore, that the gods have so made us their instrument (dstkrt), and that by the help of the gods we have sought out for ourselves, and hold, all these nations (štry) for that reason we have also founded, province by province, many Varahrān fires (ʾtwry wlhlʾn), and we have dealt piously with many Magi (mowmard), and we have made great worship of the gods” (Huyse I, p. 45). Šāpur founded pad nām ādur (‘named fires’) for himself and his immediate family, and established “endowments” for them (Back, pp. 330-67; Huyse I, pp. 45-52). Šāpur ends his inscription by re-emphasizing that “we are zealous of the service and worship of the gods, and are the instruments of the gods,” and that “with the assistance of the gods” he had achieved all his works (Back, pp. 368-70; Huyse I, pp. 63-4).

The Magus Kartir tells us that Šāpur showed favor towards Zoroastrians and allowed their priests to accompany his army on his Roman campaigns. But his devotion did not induce him to elevate Zoroastrianism as the only religion of the empire, and there is no evidence that an organized state church existed during his time. According to the Dēnkard (ed. Madan, pp. 412-13, ed. and tr., Shaki, 1981, pp. 116, 119): Šāpur “collected the non-religious writings on medicine, astronomy, movement, time, space, substance, accident, becoming, decay, transformation, logic and other crafts and skills which were dispersed throughout India, Roman and other lands, and collated them with the Avesta, and commanded that a copy be made of all those (writings) which were flawless and be deposited in the Royal Treasury. And he put forward for deliberation the annexation of all those pure (teachings) to the Mazdaean religion.” The surviving Zoroastrian books contain elements of Hellenistic and Indian scientific thoughts (see EIr II, pp. 859, 861), proving that Šāpur’s effort in making the Avesta an “authorized” encyclopedia of his time was fairly successful. On the other hand, his religious tolerance benefited all his subjects: Christians (see above), Jews (Neusner II, pp. 44 ff., 48ff.), and Manicheans. But though Mani tried hard and even wrote a book in the name of Šāpur (see ŠĀBUHRAGĀN), he failed to convert him. The two were ideologically irreconcilable. Besides, Šāpur held that he himself was the instrument of God and would not have tolerated a rival for that position.

Šāpur died of illness in the city of Bišāpur (Polotsky, p. 42) probably in May 270, in his thirty-first year of reign (Henning, 1957, p. 116 [= 1977 II, p. 515]; on the figures given for his regnal years see Taqizadeh, 1943-46, pp. 281-7) and was succeeded by his heir to the throne, Hormazd-Ardašir. He was survived by two other sons: Bahrām Gēlān Šāh and Narseh, king of “India,” Sakastān and Turān all the way to the Sea of Oman; both were destined to ascend the throne. Another son, Šāpur Mēšān Šāh, died before his father but left six sons and one daughter who held exalted positions.

Šāpur I in national tradition. Ṭabari (I, p. 836) remarked: “the Persians had well-tried Šāpur already before his accession and while his father still lived on account of his intelligence, understanding and learning as well as his outstanding boldness, oratory, logic, affection for the subject people and kindheartedness.” Then when he came to the throne, Ṭabari continues, he showed such generosity towards the nobility and commoners and took such care in running the state benevolently but efficiently that “he became renowned everywhere and gained superiority over all kings.” Ṯaʿālebi (Ḡorar, p. 487) echoes a similar report and adds: “Šāpur even surpassed Ardašir in generosity and oratory.”

With that fame, and with a legacy so richly documented by easily accessible inscriptions and rock-reliefs, it is most surprising that the national history knows so little about Šāpur and introduces him as the subject of several tales (best recounted in the Kār-Nāmag ī Ardaxšīr ī Pābagān and the Šāh-nāma) intended to legitimize Sasanian claim to royalty by linking Ardašir, his son and grandson to the Parthian families of Ardavān and Mehrān (symbolized as Mehrak). One concerns his birth. When Ardašir slaughtered the family of the Arsacid king Ardavān, a daughter escaped in disguise, was taken by the victor as a concubine. She became with child and disclosed her lineage, whereupon the king ordered an old advisor to put her to death. Since Ardašir was childless, the old man disobeyed the order and when a son was born to the girl, he called him Šāh-pur ‘son of the king’ and raised him in secret. Years later, when Ardašir grew old and regretted leaving this world childless, the old man revealed the truth. Elated, Ardašir had the lad placed in a crowd of boys of the same age and similar physic and dress, and ordered them to play polo in front of the palace. Ardašir recognized Šāpur at the first glance, and the lad proved his worth when he alone dared to enter the royal portico and approach the king fearlessly to retrieve a ball, which had gone astray. The meeting ended joyfully, and Šāpur was proclaimed heir to the throne.

A similar story is told about Šāpur’s wife and son. Ardašir faced grave danger in fighting rebels, the most tenacious of whom was the Persian magnate Mehrak. Finally, an Indian sage informed him that his kingdom would see peace only when two families, those of Ardašir and Mehrak, rule it. Ardašir so feared the House of Mehrak that he ordered its annihilation, only a single daughter of extraordinary beauty and physical strength escaped and lived in obscurity among the shepherds. Šāpur met her on a hunting excursion and married her. Their son Hormozd was raised secretly until Ardašir recognized him by chance. In this way the two houses were united and, as had been prophesized, Hormozd brought peace and unity to Ērānšahr.

Apart from such legends, the national tradition also knows of a testament that Šāpur supposedly left to his son Hormozd (Ṭabari, I, p. 831; Mas’udi, Moruj II, pp. 165-66; partially quoted by Ṯaʿālebi, Ḡorar, pp. 495-98 and ʿĀmeri, pp. 286, 296-303, 314-18, 331, 421, 427, 429-33, 435-6, 444). It concerned regulations intended to strengthen the imperial policy, and may have been a later composition mirroring Sasanian political ideology in general.


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ŠĀPUR I: The Great Statue

The great statue of Šāpūr I stands in the so-called cave of Šāpur, a huge limestone cave in southern Iran (Figure 1), about 6 km from the ancient city of Bišāpur. The cave of Šāpūr contains two different sectors. Sector A encompasses the entrance area of the cave and has five wide man-made terraces. The statue of Šāpūr I, situated circa 35 meters from the cave’s entrance, stands on the fourth terrace of the sector A. Sector B is a huge hall with several corridors (Figure 2).

Figure 1. The Cave of Šāpur, Terrace IV. The Great Statue of Šāpur I (Photo, G. Reza Garosi)Figure 1. The Cave of Šāpur, Terrace IV. The Great Statue of Šāpur I (Photo, G. Reza Garosi)

Figure 2. Map of the Cave of Šāpur, cross section: (1) terrace I; (2) terrace II; (3) terrace III; (4) terrace IV; (5) terrace V; (6) beginning of smoothed walls; (7) the colossal statue; (8) water basin I; (9) water basin II; (10) water basin III; (11) modern staircases; (12) stalagmite (altar?). After Garosi, 2009, pp. 84-85.Figure 2. Map of the Cave of Šāpur, cross section: (1) terrace I; (2) terrace II; (3) terrace III; (4) terrace IV; (5) terrace V; (6) beginning of smoothed walls; (7) the colossal statue; (8) water basin I; (9) water basin II; (10) water basin III; (11) modern staircases; (12) stalagmite (altar?). After Garosi, 2009, pp. 84-85.

With a height of about 6.70 meters and a width across the shoulders of more than 2 meters, the monumental statue of Šāpūr I can be considered the most impressive extant sculpture dating from the Sasanian period (224-652). It is carved out of a huge stalagmite formed in situ. It is rich in details and sculptured on each side with extraordinary care and attention.

The head, topped by a crenellated crown, and the body of the sculpture, are in good condition. The constitutive parts of the arms and almost both legs are missing (Figure 3). The sculptor chiseled the statue in accordance with the same measurement and aesthetic canon that was used for other rock reliefs of Šāpūr I (240-272), such as Bišāpur II and III (Garosi, p. 12). After its fall, most probably the result of a strong earthquake in the period between the fifteenth and nineteenth centuries, the sculpture was raised again in the 1950s on two concrete pillars standing near its original feet. It is quite conceivable that the well-known proportions of the human body with division into nine head lengths were used for the chiseling of this sculpture. Accordingly, it is feasible that the concrete pillars are about half a head length too short.

Figure 3. The Cave of Shapur. Head, Hair, and Body of the Great Statue of Shapur I (Photo, G. Reza Garosi)Figure 3. The Cave of Shapur. Head, Hair, and Body of the Great Statue of Shapur I (Photo, G. Reza Garosi)

The colossal statue has an athletic physique and muscular biceps, voluminous chest, and a flat stomach. The neck of the imposing figure is extraordinarily broad and strong. The right hand of the statue is akimbo, and the left hand is lying on the heavily weathered sword hilt.

The head and the hair of the statue have been carved out in all their particulars symmetrically. Under the diadem, the hair of the monumental statue flows out and lies on the shoulders. The king has a moustache, a short beard, and a long chin beard (Figure 4). He is also wearing three pieces of jewelry: a necklace, earrings made of large pearls, and a bracelet on the right wrist.

Figure 4. The Cave of Šāpur. Crown, Head, and Hair of the Great Statue of Šāpur I (Photo, G. Reza Garosi)Figure 4. The Cave of Šāpur. Crown, Head, and Hair of the Great Statue of Šāpur I (Photo, G. Reza Garosi)

The garment of the statue consists of three pieces: an undershirt, an upper garment, and wide trousers. The upper garment of the sculpture fits tightly to the body and consists of a sheer fabric. Its skin-tight fashion emphasizes the contours of the shoulders, the upper arms, and the chest of the king. At the waist, the upper garment is held together tightly by a belt, while a second belt, which is hanging loosely around the hips, fastens the sword scabbard. The bossed ornaments on the upper garment are remarkable in the way they resemble flames flickering downward. They vary in length and are molded differently and irregularly arranged. Both belts are tied with a broad ribbon.

Only a small part of the legs of the colossal statue of Šāpur I has survived. The small remains of the left thigh indicates that the ruler was wearing wide, fluted trousers. The same model of trousers can also be seen on all rock reliefs of Šāpur I.

The feet of the statue are somewhat spread; the left foot is situated a little ahead of the right one. The original shoes of the statue are in different conservation status. The right shoe is largely destroyed, while the left one is virtually intact and has a round toecap. Today, the traces of the shoelaces are to be seen on the cave’s floor and near the original shoes of the statue.

It is well known that in the Sasanian period the shape of the crown changed from king to king. Because of the crenellated crown and on the basis of art historical considerations, the statue can almost definitely be identified as that of Šāpur I, the second Sasanian king (Garosi, p. 8).

Šāpur I is not always shown wearing a crenellated crown, but he is never represented with a crenellated crown without a corymb. This brings up the question whether there was originally a corymb on the crown of the colossal statue. On the vertex of the statue and within the crenellations of the crown, there can be seen a hole. This hole clearly evinces the existence of a corymb, made certainly not of stone but of metal, atop the crown.

The historian Moqaddasi, who visited the cave of Šāpur in the 10th century, noticed green color on the crown of the statue and reported: “A parsang from al Nawbandijān is a likeness of Shapur, at the mouth of a cave; he is wearing a crown, at the base are three leaves of green …” (Collins, p. 392). This suggests that the corymb of the statue was most probably made of bronze, which in the 10th century, when Moqaddasi saw the statue, had already been oxidized. The fact that no fragments of corymb have remained can be explained by the possibility that, after the fall of the statue, some valuable items were looted.

The great statue of Šāpur I had been carved out most probably during his own reign (240-72) and can be dated back to the years between 265 and 270. The fact that the hairstyle of the statue, fashioned in curly strands of hair lying on top of each other, similar to what can be seen only on the rock reliefs of Šāpur I, sculpted after 260, strongly supports this dating (Garosi, p. 27).

The question of the raison d’être of this statue in the cave is fraught with difficulties. There are no references to the Šāpur cave in the many inscriptions dating from his reign. Furthermore, neither sector A nor sector B of the cave has been so far systematically explored. Unfortunately, the majority of the excavation findings and almost all excavation reports by Roman Ghirshman, who excavated in Bišāpur (1935-1941), were irretrievably lost (Ghirshman, 1971, p. 6; Garosi, p. 5).

Despite of all these uncertainties, there are some speculations in archeological literature about the cave and its sculpture. For example, Ernst Herzfeld and Ghirshman hold that the cave was the gravesite of Šāpur I (Herzfeld, p. 320; Ghirshman, 1962, p. 165), although there are no traces of a grave, or an astodān or a cenotaph in the cave.

In the Sasanian Period, there was apparently a cult in which water played an important role. A building in Bišāpur, constructed most likely under the reign of Šāpur I, is the only ascertained archeological site dated from the Sasanian period that can be connected with a water cult (Garosi, p. 34).

With regard to the Šāpur cave, it is not precluded that it once provided a site of the ruler cult. The fact that there are three water basins in the cave—two at the end of section A and the third at the end of section B—may well justify this claim. Furthermore, the original feet of the statue stand neither on a pedestal nor directly on the flattened cave floor. Instead, they stand in a rectangular deepening carved in the cave floor, which is now badly eroded. This shallow deepening with a depth of 30 cm could once have functioned as a water container. Thus, it is conceivable that the feet of the statue were standing always or at least on specific occasions in water. If this is the case, most probably the cave of Šāpur had once functioned as a site for a ruler cult, with some correlation to a water cult (Garosi, p. 35).


B. A. Collins, ed. and tr., The Best Divisions for Knowledge of the Regions: A Translation of “Ahsan al-taqasim fi marifat al-aqalim”/al-Muqadassi, Reading, 1994.

G. R. Garosi, Die Kolossal-Statue Šāpūrs I. im Kontext der sasanidischen Plastik, Mainz, 2009.

R. Ghirshman, Iran, Parther und Sasaniden, tr. and ed. A. Malraux and G. Salles, Munich, 1962.

Idem, Bichapour I, Fouilles de Chapour I, Paris, 1971.

E. Herzfeld, Iran in the Ancient East, New York, 1988.


ŠĀPUR II (r. 309-79 CE), the longest reigning monarch of the Sasanian dynasty (224-651 CE). Legend has it that the courtiers and the clergy placed the crown on the womb of his mother when she was pregnant (Ḥamza Eṣfahāni, p. 50; Mojmal, p. 34), thus rendering him king literally from birth. Ṭabari states that the same courtiers, priests and officials that were in charge during his father’s reign continued to run Šāpur’s empire (Ṭabari, p. 51), which implies that the empire was secure enough and stable enough to survive without a strong monarch. It was fortunate for the Persians that during the childhood of Šāpur II the Roman Empire had been involved in its own domestic affairs, as Constantine and other Caesars were battling each other for power. This was not the case with the Arab Bedouins, who crossed the Persian Gulf from Bahrain and the neighboring region, and pillaged the province of Fārs, specifically the district of Ardaxšir-xwarrah (see FIRUZĀBĀD) and the coastland of the Persian Gulf (ibid., p. 51). These Arabs came from Bahrain, Ḥajar, and the Kāẓemiya region (Ṯaʿālebi, p. 33), and these locations would later pay dearly for their incursion.

The Arab wars. Sasanian-based sources state that, when Šāpur II had reached the age of sixteen (325 CE), he began a campaign to pacify the Arab tribes and secure the borders of the empire (Ṭabari, p. 54; Meskawayh, p. 134). Šāpur II first attacked the Ayad, who were in Iraq (the historians’ Sawād, the Sasanian province of Āsōristān). He then crossed the Persian Gulf, reaching al-Ḵaṭṭ, which is the coastal region of Bahrain and Qaṭar. He attacked Hajar, which was inhabited by the tribes of Tamim, Bakr b. Waʾil, and ʿAbd al-Qays (Ṭabari, p. 54). While killing much of the tribal population, he is also said to have destroyed the wells to cut off the water supply as a further punishment to the Arabs. This was followed by a campaign in eastern Arabia and Syria against the Arabs and the cities of Yamāma, Bakr, and Taḡlib (Ṯaʿālebi, pp. 332-33; Meskawayh, pp. 134-35). Šāpur II, having dealt harshly with the Arabs, consequently came to be known as (Ar.) Ḏu’l-Aktāf “he who pierces shoulders” rendering (Pers.) Huya sonbā, (Ḥamza Eṣfahānī, p. 50; Mojmal, p. 34) which renders Middle Persian *Šānag āhanj (Daryaee, 2002, pp. 146-47). As a result of these conquests, some of the Arabs were pushed into the heartland of Arabia (Bosworth, apud Ṭabari, p. 55), and the Persian Gulf region remained in the hands of the Sasanian Empire. This was part of the overall strategy of the Sasanians to secure the Persian Gulf.

Some Arab tribes were forcibly displaced and relocated into the Sasanian Empire. The Taḡlib tribe was settled in Darayn (a port in Bahrain) and al-Ḵaṭṭ; the ʿAbd al-Qays and Tamim were settled in Hajar, and the tribe of Bakr b. Waʾil was settled in Kerman and the Ḥanaẓila in Ramila (vicinity of Ahvāz; Meskawayh, p. 135). To keep the Arabs from mounting further attacks, Šāpur II constructed a defensive system which was called war i tāzigān “wall of the Arabs” (Daryaee, 2002, p. 43). This wall appears to have been close to the city of Hira which came to be known as Ḵandaq i Šāpur (Frye, 1977, pp. 8-11; Mahamedi, pp. 156-58). The campaign of Šāpur II is also mentioned in the Zoroastrian encyclopedic text, the Bundahišn (33.15): “During the rulership of Šāpur, the son of Hormizd, the Arabs came; they took Xorig [Ulē] Rūdbār; for many years with contempt (they) rushed until Šāpur came to rulership; he destroyed the Arabs and took the land and destroyed many Arab rulers and pulled out many number of shoulders” (andar xwadāyīh ī šābuhr ī ohrmazdān tāzīgān mad hēnd u-šān xōrīg[ulē] rudbār grift was sāl pad xwār [āwār] tāzišn dāšt tā šābuhr ō xwadāyīh mad oyšān tāzīgān spōxt ud šahr aziš stad ud was šāh tāzīgān ābaxšēnēd [ābesīhēnīd] ud was maragīhā šānag [*nih]axt; Anklesaria, 33.16; Bahār, 18.215; Pakzad, 33.21).

The Roman and Hunnic wars. Until the death of Constantine in 337, there was relative peace with the Romans, but the conversion of Armenia to Christianity and the Roman rulers’ backing of Armenia caused Šāpur II to begin a campaign against them. When Constantius came to the throne (337-38), war began; Šāpur II laid siege to Nisibis three times, and there was constant warfare, which did not go in favor of either side. The Roman defensive system of fortresses and limes hindered Šāpur’s campaign in the region (Frye, 1983, p. 137), but some forts, such as the town of Bezabde near Nisibis, fell to him (Amm. Marc., 20.7.9-15). The encroachment of the nomadic tribes in Central Asia forced Šāpur II to turn his attention to the East (Chronicle of Arbela, p. 85), and the war with Rome ended in stalemate by 350. Around this time we first hear of the Hunnic tribes, who were probably the (Chinese Jiduolo; see also HUNS), who were encroaching onto the Sasanian Empire and also menacing the Gupta empire (320-500 CE) in India. Šāpur II, who had just returned from the Syrian front, was able to contain his eastern foes by making an alliance with their king, Grumbates (see CHIONITES), against the Romans (Compareti, 2002, p. 375; Amm. Marc., 17.5.1).

It is quite possible that Šāpur II defeated his eastern foes and established Sasanian domination over the Kūšāns (Azarnoush, 1994, p. 14). This theory can be substantiated from the two Middle Persian inscriptions that mention that the eastern boundary of the Sasanian Empire under Šāpur II included Sind, Sistān, and Turān (Frye, 1966, pp. 84-85, 85-87; Back, 1978, pp. 490-97). Also Ammianus Marcellinus (23.6.14) lists the provinces of the Sasanian Empire in that period as Assyria, Susiana, Media, Persis, Parthia, Greater Carmania, Hyrcania, Margiana, the Bactriani, the Sogdiani, the Sacae, and Scythia at the foot of Imaus (Himalayas), and beyond the same mountain, Serica, Aria, the Paropanisadae, Drangiana, Arachosia, and Gedrosia. Ṭabari additionally mentions that Šāpur II, among his city building projects, established cities in Sind and Sijistān (p. 65), which confirms his rule over that region. Finally, most of the gold coins minted by Šāpur II are from eastern mints, such as Marv, where the Kušāns also minted gold coins. Also, a large quantity of copper coins from the mints of Sakastān and Kabul exist (Schindel, 2004, p. 26). This may mean that Šāpur II was able to extract a large amount of gold and other precious metals from his defeated eastern enemies.

In 359, Šāpur II, with the backing of King Grumbates, attacked Syria, laid siege to Amida, entered it after seventy-three days (Amm. Marc., 19.9), and deported its population to Ḵuzestān (see DEPORTATIONS ii. IN THE PARTHIAN AND SASANIAN PERIODS). The city of Amida was pillaged and its population deported, because the son of King Grumbates was killed. In 361, the new Roman emperor, Julian, counter-attacked and won victories against Šāpur II in 363, and even laid siege to Ctesiphon. The capital, however, was not taken, because of disorder and pillaging among the Roman forces (Libanius, 28.254-55). In anticipation of Julian’s victory against the Persians, an inscription was placed in the upper Jordan valley, with the premature title of BARBARORVM EXTINCTORI, probably because of his initial success in Antioch in March 363 (Bowersock, 1978, pp. 123-24). We are told that among the Roman generals there was a Persian renegade by the name of Hormizd who commanded the cavalry. Julian had destroyed his own naval ships, so that his forces would not retreat (Libanius, 18.263) and Šāpur II responded by adopting a scorched-earth policy in Mesopotamia which resulted in hunger among the Roman forces. In June 363 Persian forces equipped with elephants defeated the Romans, and Julian was badly wounded in battle, probably by one of the kontophoroi “cavalry spearmen,” and died in his tent (Amm. Marc., 25.3.6; Libanius, 18.269-70). Eutropius, who was an eyewitness to this campaign, affirms that Julian was killed at the hand of the enemy (Breviarium 10.16).

Jovian was elected emperor and had to make peace with Šāpur II with what the Romans called an ignobili decreto “shameful treaty” (Amm. Marc., 25.7.13), ceding eastern Mesopotamia, Armenia, and the adjoining regions, including fifteen fortresses as well as Nisibis (Amm. Marc., 25.7.9). Persian terms and conditions were conveyed by Surenas (Suren), who agreed to have the mainly Christian population of Nisibis moved to Roman territory while the Persian standard was raised over the city (Chronicon Paschale 554). Jovian left Mesopotamia, and the Romans would not engage the Sasanians further, as Emperor Valens had to deal with Germanic tribes in the Balkans.

The Armenian and Georgian wars. It was during the early years of Šāpur II’s life that Armenia under King Trdat (Tiridates) IV (r. 298-330) adopted Christianity (in 314). Consequently some of the Armenian feudal clans (naxarars) converted as well and supported Trdat IV against those naxarars who were loyal to the Sasanians, and more specifically, those who honored the ancient Zoroastrian tradition of Armenia, still worshiping Ormizd, Anāhit, and Vahagn (Agathangelos, pp. 51-53). The precarious internal struggle and the wavering loyalties of the naxarars, the king, and the clergy ushered in a turbulent period in Armenian history, and the sources for this period are confused. Šāpur II early on had fortified the region bordering Armenia, as is apparent from the Middle Persian inscription at Meškinšahr (Frye and Skjærvø, 1996, p. 54), to check the power of the naxarars.

King Tiran (r. 340-50) attempted to keep Armenia independent by playing both the Romans and the Persians, but lost his life to Šāpur II. He was replaced by his son, Aršak II (r. 350-67), who initially also tried to appease both the Romans and the Persians, but who finally joined Julian’s expedition against the Sasanians (Amm. Marc., 23.3.5, 24.7.8). As part of the peace treaty between Šāpur II and Jovian, Armenia and Georgia were to come under Sasanian control and the Romans were not to get involved in Armenian affairs (Amm. Marc., 25.7.12). The Armenian king was captured by the Persians and imprisoned in the Castle of Oblivion (in Armenian sources known as Fortress of Andməš or Castle of Anyuš in Ḵuzestān), where he is said to have committed suicide while being visited by his eunuch Drastamat (Epic Histories 5.7). The cities of Artašat, Vałaršapat, Eruandašat, Zarehawan, Zarišat, Van, and Naḵčwan were taken and their populations deported, among whom there were many Jewish families (ibid., 4.55). The pro-Persian naxarars, Vahan Mamikonean and Meružan Arcruni, accompanied Šāpur II and were rewarded for their help; and two Persians, Zik and Karen, with a large army were placed over Armenian affairs (ibid., 4.58). Georgia was also placed under Persian control, where Šāpur II installed Aspacures in eastern Georgia, but eventually the Roman emperor Valens succeeded in installing Sauromaces in western Georgia (Amm. Marc., 27.12.15).

Pap (r. 367-374), who was the son of the Armenian ruler Aršak who had fled to the Romans, was placed on the throne in 367 with Roman backing. The Armenians were able to withstand Šāpur II’s attack near Bagawan in 371 (Garsoïan, 1997, pp. 90-91). Pap, however, was not popular with many of the naxarars or the Armenian church because of his pro-Arian policy, which caused him to be slandered by the Armenian sources as devoted to the dews “demons” due to the religious beliefs of his mother, Queen P‘aranjem of Siwnik‘ (Epic Histories 4.44). Pap became a victim of internal divisions and fighting among naxarars and the general (sparapet) Mušeł Mamikonean and was eventually killed at the instigation of Emperor Valens (Garsoïan, 1997, p. 91).

Religious policies. In 337, during the reign of Šāpur II, there was a rise in the persecution of Christians, partly due to the Christianization of the Roman Empire and the identification of Christians as collaborators with the enemy (Barnes, 1985, pp. 131-32). The campaign of Šāpur II into Syria against the Romans had consequences for the Christianization of the Sasanian Empire, since some Christians were deported there (Chaumont, 1988, pp. 57-60). The problem with Christian loyalty toward the king of kings is also clear in that Šāpur II had asked a double tax from the Christians during his war campaign against the Romans. According to the Acts of Simeon, once the Christian leader had refused to abide by this request, Šāpur II said: “Simeon wants to make his followers and his people rebel against my kingdom and convert them into servants Caesar, their coreligionist” (Brock, 1982, p. 8). From the time of Šāpur II, Christian martyrologies become numerous, even though persecution is usually blamed on the Zoroastrian priests. Even Armenian sources record the persecution of the Christians within the Sasanian empire during the rule of Šāpur II (Ełishe, pp. 110-11). The names of famous martyrs include Šāpur II’s master craftsman Posi (Pusai), who had been settled in Karkā də-Lādān, also his daughter Martha, Ba‘utha from Karkā Bēṯ Seloḵ, Thekla, and Danaq, all of whom were martyred under the direction of Mobed Ādurgušnasp. Other martyrs, many women, include Ṭaṭon, Mama, Mezakhya, and Anna from Karkā Bēṯ Seloḵ; and Abyat, Ḥathay, and Mezakhya from Bēṯ Garmē (Brock and Harvey, 1998, pp. 68-77). Not all Zoroastrian priests promoted the persecution of Christians; and, according to Syriac sources, in one case a mowbed named Pagrasp refused to order persecution—or else the king canceled orders of persecution (Chronicle of Arbela, pp. 73-74). We also hear of persecution of the Jews in 486 at the city of Gay (Spāhān; see ISFAHAN), to which the Armenian Jews had been deported. This was in reprisal for the killing of Zoroastrian priests and the attack on fire temples in the city by the Jewish population (Widengren, 1961, pp. 134-38; Panaino, 2004, p. 214).

With regard to Zoroastrianism, the towering figure of the fourth century CE was Ādurbād i Mahrspandān, who was credited with the codification of the Avesta and the weeding out of heresy. According to Denkard IV, once the Zoroastrian priest had proven the truthful doctrine: Šāpur, the king of kings, son of Hormizd, induced all countrymen to orient themselves to god by disputation, and put forth all oral traditions for consideration and examination. After the triumph of Ādurbād, through his declaration put to trial by ordeal (in disputation) with all those sectaries and heretics who recognized (studied) the Nasks, he made the following statement: ‘Now that we have gained an insight into the Religion in the worldly existence, we shall not tolerate anyone of false religion, and we shall be more zealous.’
Šābuhr šāhān šāh ī hormizdān hamāg kišwarīgān pad paykārišn yazdān āhang kard ud hamāg gōwišn ō uskār ud wizōyišn āwurd pas az bōxtan ī ādūrbād pad gōwišn ī passāxt abāg hamāg ōyšān jud-sardagān ud nask-ōšmurdān-iz ī jud-ristagān ēn-iz guft kū nūn ka-mān dēn pad stī dēn dīd kas-iz ag-dēnīh bē nē hilēm wēš abar tuxšāg tuxšēm ud ham gōnag kard (Shaki, 1981, pp. 117-19).

Thus, it appears that there was a great synod or council, in which all people (kišwarīgān), probably meaning Zoroastrian theologians, discussed the Zoroastrian material available. It is clear that there were differences of opinion still, because we are supplied with a host of terms for “different [Zoroastrian] sects” (jud-ristagān), such as those of “different groups” (jud-sardagān), and those who “study the Nask” (nask-ōšmurdān) of the Avesta. In the apocalyptic literature Šāpur II is fondly remembered as the one who regulated the world (dād ārāyēd) and made salvation current among the creatures (boxtagīh pad dāmān) of the world, and Ādurbād is remembered as the restorer of the religion (dēn-rāst-wirāstār) against the heretics (jud-ristagān; Zand ī Wahman Yasn 3.25; Cereti, 1995, pp. 86, 152). Šāpur II, with the aid of Ādurbād, attempted to bring about order and doctrinal unity in the Zoroastrian religion. No doubt the threat of Christianity induced the king to not only persecute the Christians, but also create a strong Zoroastrian church for his co-religionists. In this context all other Zoroastrian sects were called false religion (ag-dēnīh). Foreign sources usually portray the Persian kings, and specifically Šāpur II, as worshipping the sun and the moon, and state that Šāpur II claimed to be “brother of the Sun and the Moon” (frater Solis et Lunae; Amm. Marc., 17.5.3), a title which does not appear in the Sasanian sources. It is, however, confirmed by Armenian sources, in which Šāpur II is said to have sworn by the sun (Ełishe, p. 96) referring to Mithra the Persian god of oath and contract (Schmidt, 1978, pp. 345-93).

Imperial ideology and numismatics. According to Classical sources (Amm. Marc., 17.5.5), Šāpur II went on a campaign in the West against the Romans to re-conquer what had belonged to his ancestor. It is not clear who Šāpur II believed his ancestor to be, but the source may be referring to the Achaemenids or the Kayanids (Shahbazi, 2001, p. 61; Daryaee, 2001-2, pp. 1-14). During the reign of Šāpur II, the title of mazdysn bgy MLKʾn MLKʾʾylʾn MNW ctry MN yzdʾn “the divine Mazda-worshipping, king of kings of the Iranians, whose image/seed is from the gods [yazdān]” begins to disappear from Sasanian coinage (Daryaee, 2002, p. 41). From this period forward there was a reorientation toward the Kayanids that paralleled the rise of Zoroastrianism as the state religion, and so the past was grafted with the Avestan dynasties (Shahbazi, 2001, p. 62). It is also at this juncture in Sasanian history that the Zoroastrian priesthood gained even more power, and so Šāpur II was the last ruler to claim to be in the image of the Gods.

Šāpur II minted copper, silver, and gold coins, including an unusual amount of copper coinage struck on Roman flan (Schindel, 2004, p. 17), which may suggest Persian extraction of booty. The gold coins also changed in weight from 7.20 g to 4.20 g, closer to the Roman solidus of 4.5, but N. Schindel believes that the new weight may be based on a Syrian siliqua (ibid., p. 25). The obverse of Šāpur II’s silver coinage shows the bust of the king in motion, as is apparent from the diadem ribbons as well as the secondary ribbons shown floating upwards, which suggests an outdoor portrait rather than an interior one (ibid., p. 18). Šāpur’s crown does not contain the astral symbols that appear under the succeeding kings until Bahrām IV (r. 388-99). On the reverse the usual fire altar is present, but it is shown to be cylindrical and smaller than on previous issues, with ribbons tied on the shaft. From the time of Šāpur II a new series of designs appears for the fire flames (ibid., p. 22). Also of importance is that the two attendants before the fire are portrayed differently (type 1a1): on the right the person who is probably the king is shown with the korymbos (globe element of the crown) present; the person on the left, without it, may be Ohrmazd. In the next series of his coinage (1a2), the attendants become identical, suggesting that both are the image of the king. Sometimes the king’s bust is also shown in the fire (type 2; ibid., p. 23).

City building and artistic remains. Šāpur II created several cities and paid special attention to Ḵuzestān, where Roman prisoners of war were settled in the royal city called Erānšahr-šābuhr, Ar. Erānšahr-sābur. He is also credited with the building of New-šābuhr, Pers. and Ar. Nayšāpur/Naysābur (Ṭabari, p. 65). When Nisibis was taken by the Persians in 363 as war reparation, Šāpur II populated the city with people from the cities of Staxr and Sepāhān (Ṭabari, p. 62). Other cities attributed to him are Ar. Buzurj-šāpur, close to Baghdad on the west side of Tigris river; Ar. Ḵorah-šāpur, Mid. Pers. Ērān-xwarrah-šābuhr, i.e., Susā (Karḵa), and a fire-temple called Sroš-āzarān, Mid. Pers. Sroš-ādurān (Ḥamza Eṣfahāni, pp. 50-51). Other cities associated with him are Pērōz-šāpur (Anbār); Šādrawān-šuštar in Ḵuzestān; Bawān, a fire-temple at Jorwān in Spahān; and Frašāpur or Farršāpur in Sind (Ebn al-Balḵi, pp. 72-73).

Exactly at this point in history, Sasanian monuments disappear from Persis and appear in the northwest. It is possible that with the new titles and image for the monarch a new royal place was reserved, a place closer to Ctesiphon and Ḵuzestān (Herrmann, 2000, p. 37), where Šāpur II is said (Ṭabari, p. 57) to have spent most of his time. The artistic style is essentially different from those in Persis. Mithra’s image becomes prominent, along with that of Ohrmazd. Some scholars have suggested that the rock relief at Tāq-e Bustān really portrays Šāpur II, commemorating his victory over Julian, flanked by Mithra and Ohrmazd, while the second relief on the left certainly portrays Šāpur II and Šāpur III, as is evident from the inscriptions (see SASANIAN ROCK RELIEFS).

It has been surmised that it was in Šāpur’s time that silver bowls became mobile royal propaganda pieces, replacing the rock reliefs. A 7th-century Georgian source states that Šāpur II gave as presents silver bowls and cups (ref. in Harper, 1978, p. 24). Under Šāpur II, Sasanian imperial art also became codified and controlled (ibid., p. 16). Stucco found in Palace II at Kish shows the bust of a king which some have identified with Šāpur II (ibid., p. 108), and the spectacular finds at Hajjiābād by Azarnoush provide a number of busts of Šāpur II (Azarnoush, 1994, pp. 103-9). Thus, besides the silver objects, stucco too may have become the replacement for monumental rock reliefs from the fourth century on (Herrmann, p. 43).

Šāpur II’s Image in Persian and Arabic Tradition. Beside the legendary story of the crown placed on his mother’s womb, there are other stories that have been included in Šāpur II’s vitae in the Perso-Arabic sources. It is reported that he displayed intelligence in his youth, which gave comfort to the grandees and the priests. He woke up one night in Ctesiphon hearing the clamor of people; asking the reason for it, he was told that there are too many people on the bridge crossing over the Tigris river, and so he ordered that another be built, so that one would be used for going from east to west and the second for west to east (Tabari, p. 52; Dināvari, pp. 74-75; Ṯaʿālebi, p. 331; Ferdowsi, Šāh-nāma VII, pp. 219-20). The Šāh-nāma’s account of Šāpur II is in part confused with the career of Šāpur I and for the most part deals with his campaigns against the Arabs and love story with Māleka, as well as his journey to the Roman Empire. The Arab attack on the Sasanian Empire is associated with Ṭāʾir, who has the epithet of šir-del “lion-heart” (ibid., VII, p. 220), who was the leader of the Ghassanid Arabs of Syria. Šāpur II ultimately chases him to a fortress in Yemen and punishes him and many other Arabs by piercing their shoulders. Šāpur II is able to enter the fortress because of Ṭāʾir’s daughter Māleka, whose mother was Šāpur’s aunt, Nušah. The beautiful Māleka, who has fallen in love with the king, sends a message to Šāpur, reminding him of their blood tie and saying that she will allow him to take the fortress if he asks her in marriage. Šāpur II agrees and enters the fortress but ends up killing the maiden for her treachery (ibid., VII, p. 223; Dināvari, p. 75).

Another legendary story has to do with Šāpur’s journey in disguise to the Roman empire to gauge the power of the enemy. He is recognized and then imprisoned in the skin of an ass in a dungeon, and the key is kept by Caesar’s wife (Šāh-nāma VII, pp. 228-29). The queen’s maid, who is of Persian descent, softens the skin with milk and escapes with the king to Persia. While Caesar is laying siege to Ctesiphon, Šāpur and 6,000 men attack the drunken Roman ruler and his troops at night (ibid., VII, pp. 238-40). Caesar is imprisoned, his ear and nose are cut off, and he dies in prison (ibid., VII, pp. 244-45). The two stories have similarities: (1) Šāpur is handsome, and beautiful maidens residing with the enemy facilitate his escape; (2) the maidens are of Persian origin, hence their loyalty lies with their homeland; (3) In the jaws of defeat the king is able to turn things around and defeat his enemies with intelligence and bravery.
Ḥamza Eṣfahāni saw a book that existed among the Zoroastrian priests about the history and kings of ancient Persia. He reports that Šāpur II was drawn wearing a red shirt and pants, holding a club, sitting on a throne, with a blue crown with golden edges and a golden crescent in the middle on his head (Ḥamza Eṣfahāni, p. 50).


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Cite this page
Shapur Shahbazi, G. R. Garosi and Touraj Daryaee, “ŠĀPUR”, 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_11179>
First published online: 2020
First print edition: 20121012

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