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The Roman Empire stands as western civilization's most iconic state.

Its majesty and grandeur

exemplified by Hollywood, literature, and the video game industry. When people think to ancient times
they often imagine the world dominated by Rome without much knowledge for other civilizations. This
western point-of-view could not be further from the truth. It is true that Rome ruled the Mediterranean
as well as other territories, but they were never able to conquer the lands of the worlds first empire,
Persia. It is a strange circumstance that the Persians must live in Rome's shadow considering that the
Persians controlled an empire of comparable size and strength for much of its existence. As little
known as the Persians are, the late antiquity versions of both empires are even less understood, never
mind how they interacted with each other. In this paper, I will examine the hostile relationship between
the Romans and Persians that lasted for a majority of their histories.
By the fifth century CE, the Roman Empire was divided into east and west. The western half
had been under the threat of barbarian incursions for some time and in 476 CE, Rome finally fell.
However, the Eastern half now know as the Byzantine Empire endured for close to another 1000 years.
The Persians likewise underwent a variety of changes since the founding of the Achaemenid Empire
(1st Persian Empire). From Cyrus the Great to Alexander of Macedon and his successors to the
Parthians and eventually the Sassanians. They were certainly no strangers to change. They were also
very different from their modern depictions in Hollywood (as well as other entertainment mediums)
and in fact were quite similar (concerning religious freedom and other social/cultural practices) to other
contemporary states.
An important aspect of Byzantine identity to keep in mind is that the term 'Byzantine' is a term
applied by historians. The Byzantines thought as themselves as Romans from the foundation of
Constantinople in the fourth century to the city's fall in 1453. Their allies and enemies thought of them
in the same way for much of the empire's history.1 It was not until the enlightenment when scholars
looked back at classical Greece and Rome that this distinction ended. 2 They felt that the Eastern Roman
Empire (Byzantines) were nothing but imposters and that the 'real' Roman Empire fell in 476. 3 They

believed the Byzantine Empire was nothing but a thousand year decline into barbarism, decay and
corruption.4 This could not be further from the truth. The Byzantine Empire at this point in time was
still a major power in both Europe and the east, perhaps even THE most powerful state until the fourth
crusade in 1204 marking the collapse of Roman power. That said there was one enemy the Byzantines
could never conquer completely.
After Ardashir I victorious rebellion over the Parthians and ascension as King of Kings in 324,
he immediately went to work reforming the government and expanding his influence. 5 According to the
Shahnameh, the Sassanian name comes from a Zoroastrian priest names Sasan who was Ardashir's
father.6 He rid the empire of the Parthian system of loosely federated states and instead implemented a
more centralized government.7 He also expanded his empire's borders. Ardashir's new empire continued
to spread its borders including east to the Indus River. This expansion greatly increased economic,
artistic, and scientific relations between Persia and India.8
The Romans started to get concerned and this concern was further vindicated by Ardashir's
claim that all territories of the ancient Achaemenid empire as far westward as the Aegean Sea belonged
to the Persians.9 At this point in time the Romans controlled much of the land west of the Tigris river in
modern day Baghdad. Considering that the Achaemenid historically controlled all this land, the
Romans knew that conflict with the Sassanians was inevitable and in 224 CE the Sassanians attacked
and removed the Romans from Mesopotamia.10
The Roman response was wary but firm. Instead of raising the legions and immediately
declaring war, Emperor Alexander Severus sent a letter to Ardashir demanding his withdrawal lest he
suffer the same defeats the Parthians had.11 Ardashir was not intimidated and promptly invaded
Cappadocia. Severus began raising his forces while at the same time making one last attempt at peace. 12
Supposedly, Ardashir responded by sending 400 men (who were all very tall) to reiterate his original
demands that Rome vacate its eastern territories all the way to the Aegean. 13 Severus responded by
ordering their arrests and exiled to work in the farmlands.14 Rome was now left with no choice.

The Romans were ready to attack in 231 CE. The assault was to take place over three axes. One
army was to push through Armenia, the second across the Tigris and Euphrates rivers into
Mesopotamia, and the last, commanded by Severus himself, would try to take Ctesiphon. 15 The
Romans had initial successes but Ardashir was quickly organizing a defense. The central axis was
already facing difficulties but Severus was not about to turn back yet. He ordered a strike against
Ctesiphon where the Persians inflicted their first crushing defeat against the Romans not unlike the
battle at Carrhae. Herodian describes the battle quite vividly:
The king attacked it unexpectedly with his entire force and trapped the Romans like fish in a
net; firing their arrows from all sides at the encircled soldiers, the Persians massacred the whole army.
The outnumbered Romans were unable to stem the attack of the Persian horde; they used their shields
to protect those parts of their bodies exposed to the Persian arrows. Content merely to protect
themselves, they offered no resistance. As a result, all the Romans were driven into one spot, where
they made a wall of their shields and fought like an army under siege. Hit and wounded from every
side, they held out bravely as long as they could, but in the end all were killed. The Romans suffered a
staggering disaster; it is not easy to recall another like it, one in which a great army was destroyed, an
army inferior in strength and determination to none of the armies of old.16
Despite this resounding victory, the Persians did not advance further into Roman territories
leading some to believe that they may have sustained heavy casualties of their own. 17 Another theory is
that Ardashir had become more cautious and did not want to put his new empire in unnecessary risk.
Whatever the case, Ardashir was clearly weary of battle and in 240 CE granted his son Shapur I the
Shapur immediately went to work on expanding Sassanian influence. Following the capture of
Hatra and Nisibis, the Romans set out to restore their position in the East. 19 Emperor Gordian III had
initial successes thanks to his military savvy father-in-law Timesitheus. Unfortunately for the Romans,
the situation took a turn for the worse when Timesitheus succumbed to illness.20 A year or so later in
243-244 CE, Gordian III was dead. The circumstances of his death are unclear some sources believe his
own men may have mutinied against him while others claim he was killed in battle at Misiche (an
ancient site not far from Ctesiphon).2122 However he died, Philip the Arab became emperor and
promptly made a peace with the Sassanians. This would mark the first of a series of major Roman

The Romans, being a proud people were unable to withstand the shame of this peace. Somewhat
understandable considering Philip paid a considerable sum of money as well as ceding Mesopotamia
and Armenia.23 The shame became too much and Rome attacked the Sassanians in 253. This army of
60,000 was completely destroyed and allowed the Sassanians to push further into Roman territory
(taking Antioch).24 The next Roman Emperor Valerian organized another assault and retook Antioch in
256. This victory was short lived however as Valerian deployed his army again at the same site of
Crassus' disastrous defeat centuries earlier.25 The result was a complete disaster both militarily and
psychologically. The loss of so many (around 70,000) troops was bad enough but Valerian himself was
captured as well.26 Many engineers were captured as well that contributed to the Sassanian
infrastructure.27 Some sources claim that Valerian was humiliated, forced to act as a footstool and his
dead body displayed in a Zoroastrian temple. This was one of Rome's greatest disasters as never before
had a Roman Emperor been captured alive before.28
Major hostilities would cease for a while though there were some notable engagements. For
example, Emperor Carus' capture of Ctesiphon was seen as vengeance for Valerian's capture though
Carus would die before the Romans could capitalize on this victory. 29 This uneasy period with no
formal treaty would continue until the time of Diocletian. Diocletian consolidated his empire's eastern
borders establishing numerous fortifications. Naturally this concerned the Sassanians who, in 287, sent
ambassadors to negotiate a formal peace. The negotiations were successful and a formal peace was
established with no territory being exchanged. 30 Shortly afterward, Diocletian supported an Armenian
rebellion (286-288) which caused the region to break off from Sassanian rule and into the Roman
The Sassanians faced a short period of political instability that was calmed by the ascension of
Narses. Narses mobilized his armies and attacked (and captured) Armenia and Syria in 296. 32
Diocletian sent his son-in-law Maximianus Galerius to deal with the threat. After making the same

mistake Crassus and Valerian had before him (Cavalry massacre in open plains), he regrouped in the
forested regions in the Caucasus. Galerius won a decisive victory capturing many nobles (some of
which belonged to Narses family) and in so doing forced Narses to make peace. 33 This treaty also
established the city of Nisibis, a vital trading hub between the two empires.34
The Rise of Christianity facilitated by Constantine the Great caused relations to sour further as
many Christians in Persia felt a connection to the so called champion of their beliefs (Constantine).
Both sides knew that conflict was inevitable. 35 Hostilities resumed in 337 when a massive Sassanian
invasion occurred. Unfortunately for the Sassanians they faced an invasion on their eastern border.
After a 13-14 year interlude the Sassanians returned west to continue their offensive. 36 It was during
this time that the Eastern Byzantine Empire was born in earnest. After a major successful siege at
Amida in 359, the Roman Emperor Julian organized a counter attack. Despite initial successes
including a battle outside the walls of Ctesiphon, Julian was killed and the Romans were forced to sue
for peace. This was a significant moment in religious history because Julian was a pagan who wished to
do away with Christianity.37 Had the Romans been more successful, history may have played out very
differently. Aside from the occasional quarrel over Armenia, large scale hostilities ceased through the
end of the 4th century.
While the 4th century was wrought with war and bloodshed, the 5th century (for the most part)
saw a much needed easing of tensions. Eventually tensions rose and hostilities resumed in 421 under
the Sassanians ruler Bahrain V. Though neither side achieved any noteworthy successes and the war
was ended the following year.38 After this, engagements would be few and short for the remainder of
the century. This is in large part due to Roman preoccupation with the Huns and other nomadic peoples
as well as the Sassanians dealing with attacks on their eastern border.39
In 503, a short war broke out when Anastasius I demanded the Sassanians to return Nisibis. The
Sassanians had the upper hand for most of the war and offered peace terms that entailed the turnover of
several territories in exchange for a large payment. Following this war, Anastasius built new fortresses

on the eastern borders. He also founded a new city near the Persian fort at Nisibis, which further
angered the Sassanians who believed the location violated their treaty.40
War erupted once more as a result of border tensions in the regions of Lazika and Iberia. Early
engagements favored the Sassanians but from 530 on, the Byzantines would offer stiffer resistance. 41
Emperor Justinian's favorite General would win several victories such as at Dara but would eventually
be recalled to reclaim North Africa. 42 Eventually, the two sides negotiated a peace in 532. All occupied
land would be returned and the Byzantines would make a single payment.43
Following this peace the Byzantines engaged in an aggressive policy of trying to reclaim the
western lands of the former Roman Empire. The massive successes alarmed Sassanian authority and in
540, a border dispute was used as an excuse to wage war once again. 44 In 540, Sassanian ruler Khosrow
captured Antioch.45 While most of the Byzantine forces were preoccupied in the west, Justinian was
able to place his most trusted General, Belisarius, in the eastern theater.46 Belisarius mounted an
effective counter-attack that pushed the Sassanians back into Persia. Despite the successful counter
attack the Byzantines secured a truce by paying an annual tribute. It is probable that Justinian agreed to
such terms because he wished to secure his western conquests where most of his forces were
In 541 hostilities again flared when the Sassanians made a push to take control of Lazica (a
region in the Caucasus). Lazica would allow the Sassanians to project their influence into the Black sea
and the region also was situated along a trade route so economic incentives existed as well. The Lazi
complained of Byzantine excursions in the region and Khosrow used this as his cause for war.48 In
order to hold the region, Khosrow captured the fortress of Petra on the east coast of the Black Sea. At
this point, Belisarius was once again recalled from Justinian's western conquests and mounted a
counter-attack that once again forced Khosrow into retreat.49 In 542, a truce was attempted but while
the Sassanians awaited a Byzantine delegation they were instead met with a force of 30,000 troops in
Atropatene, Armenia.50 The following engagements had no lasting impact and in 545 an armistice was

signed. According to historians Dignas and Winter, both the Byzantines and the Sassanians were
becoming acutely aware that these annual wars amounted to nothing more than raids with little
significance. They also claim that while Khosrow only wished for an armistice, Justinian wanted a full
peace in the region.51
Four years after the Armistice (one year before its end) hostilities resumed with the Sassanians
suffering several major defeats. They were nearly pushed out of the entire region until 557 when
another armistice was signed.52 Four years later in 561 a peace treaty was signed. Khosrow agreed to
evacuate from Lazica in return for annual payments of gold. Both states promised to cease inciting
nomadic tribes against each other.53 Seeing as how both states were faced with nomadic tribes
infringing on their borders, it may seem odd that a peace was not constructed earlier. This is likely
because neither side wished to appear weak and thus ripe for conquest.
In the ensuing peace the Byzantines (now ruled by Justin II) allied themselves with the Western
Turks who became an enemy of the Sassanians. This alliance along with the Sassanian push into Yemen
created renewed tensions and eventually in 572, war.54 Following a violent rebellion in Armenia, Justin
II ceased all annual contributions for the continued maintenance of the Caucasus defenses. The
Sassanians saw this as an act of war.55 After a failed siege of Nisbis, the Byzantines had lost the
initiative. The Sassanians responded by taking the Byzantine fortress of Dara and raided large areas of
Syria.56 This precarious position forced Justin II to sue for peace where he agreed to pay a sum of
40,000 gold aurei. This was accepted though Dara stayed in Sassanian hands. 57 In 578, Persian forces
thrust into Byzantine positions in Armenia with great early successes. However, Byzantine counterattacks halted absolute victory. At this point there was a brief peace negotiation that was ended by a
major Persian victory. However, renewed counter-attacks forced the Sassanians into a real peace
agreement on the same year that Khosrow died in 579.58
In 589, Sassanian General Bahram Chobin rebelled after having been humiliated by Hormizd
IV.59 In 590, Hormizd was overthrown and his son Khosrow II succeeded him. This did not stop

Bahram who eventually defeated Khosrow and forced him to flee. Khosrow went to the last place one
might expect: The Byzantines.60 Both sides had reached out for support and most of the Byzantine
senate wished to let the Sassanians fall into anarchy. However, Emperor Maurice decided to support the
legitimate claim.61 In 591, with Byzantine support, Khosrow defeated Bahram and reclaimed his
rulership. This was the first time Romans and Persians had fought side by side. In return for their help,
Khosrow returned several territories including western Iberia and more than half of the Persian
controlled Armenia.62 This ushered in a brief period of good will between these two empires.
This era of good will ended in 602 when Maurice was assassinated in 602 by Phocas. After
Phocas sent envoys to the Persians announcing his ascension to the Byzantine throne, Khosrow used
this as a pretext to avenge his slain friend.63 The Sassanians began an unstoppable push into
Byzantine territory. In addition to their efficiency the Byzantines were also in the middle of a civil war
not unlike when the Parthians fought against Ardashir.64 This meant that while troops could have been
engaged with the Persians they were instead fighting each other. In 610, the precarious position of the
Byzantines led to the new ruler Heraclius sending a letter to Khosow seeking peace. 65 Unfortunately for
the Byzantines, Khosrow II seemed bent on pushing as far west as he could and in 619 took control of
Egypt. The Sassanians were now at the height of their power.66
The Byzantines were not ready to go down just yet. Heraclius instituted several economic and
military reforms and following the loss of Jerusalem, the church also agreed to monetary aid. This in
addition to his peace with the Avar peoples allowed him to mount an effective counter-attack. 67 On the
day after Easter in 622 Heraclius and his army set out to reconquer their lost lands. Heraclius met a
Sassanian army in Armenia and crushed them. This victory boosted morale but further advance was
impossible as the Avars broke their peace.68 After dealing with the Avars, Heraclius returned to his
campaign and pushed further into Armenia. In 625 Heraclius consolidated his position in the Caucasus
by recruiting the aid of local kingdoms. Meanwhile, three separate Sassanian armies were on the way to
destroy him. After some minor skirmishes Heraclius eventually destroyed the combined forces of two

of thee armies (they did not wait for the third to arrive). 69 However, Heraclius eventually retreated to
southern Turkey.
The situation took a turn for the worse when Khosrow sent armies against Heraclius and
Constantinople. This was especially concerning considering Constantinople was under siege from the
Avars. However, the wall of Constantinople would hold and the Avars would suffer a major defeat. Part
of the reason for this defeat was due to the defection of one of Khosrow's generals. According to
Theophanes, a letter was sent to Shahrbaraz's (a successful Persian general) second in command
ordering him to kill his superior and return to Ctesiphon. 70 Heraclius allegedly intercepted the letter and
shared the contents with Shahrbaraz who then entered into an alliance with the Byzantines. 71 In a single
stroke, Heraclius had erased a threat to his capital and secured a powerful new ally. It is thought that
Khosrow sent this letter because he was concerned with the increasing influence of Shahrbaraz. 72 This
failed siege ended any plans of a united front against the Byzantines and ended the Sassanian
offensive.73 The last major Byzantine offensive was about to occur. In 627 the Byzantines forced the
Persians out of the southern Caucasus. Following this Heraclius invaded Sassanian territory. 74 The
Byzantines continued to advance winning a major battle at Nineveh in December of 627 that would
ensure favorable terms in the future.75 Following this victory, Heraclius sent a message to Khosrow II
stating: I hasten now towards peace...for I do not willingly raze Persia, but after being forced by
you...let us embrace peace...let us extinguish the fires before it consumes everything. 76 Khosrow II
rejected this peace much to the dismay of his nobles. Heraclius continued on when he found Khosrow
at his favored residence at Dastagird later fleeing to Ctesiphon. Heraclius chose not to besiege
Ctesiphon due to its strong walls. The lack of a siege did not matter.77 Due to the defeat at Nineveh
Khosrow II chastised his generals who in turn revolted (further animosity was caused by Khosrow's
flight to Ctesiphon) and instilled his son Kavahd II to the throne.78
Kavahd II and Heraclius would conclude a peace in 628 returning much territory to the
Byzantines including Armenia, western Mesopotamia, Syria, Palestine, and Egypt. Kavahd also

returned the Holy Cross which was looted from Jerusalem. 79 This marked the end of Roman-Persian
hostilities, for a new threat was on the horizon.
This final war weakened both empires to a state where they could offer little resistance to the
Muslim invaders. The Sassanians were the first to fall in 651. The Byzantines would endure for another
800 years until finally succumbing to the Ottoman Turks in 1453. Throughout their entire histories the
Romans and Sassanians were essentially at each other throats. Most of their conflicts were relatively
minor and had little significance. However, their last war would prove to have monumental effects on
history by expediting the spread of Islam. Who can say what the wold would be like if the war of 602628 never happened? In the end, all of their conflicts only served to hasten their own destruction.

1 Lars Brownworth, Lost to the West: The Forgotten Byzantine Empire that Rescued Western Civilization, (New York:
Three Rivers Press, 2009), xvi.
2 Ibid.
3 Ibid.
4 Ibid.
5 Kaveh Farrokh, Shadows in the Desert: Ancient Persia at War, (Osprey Publishing, 2004), 180.
6 Abolqasem Ferdowsi, Shahnameh, (Penguin Books, 2007) ,530-531.
7 Kaveh Farrokh, Shadows in the Desert: Ancient Persia at War, 183.
8 Ibid.
9 Ibid, 184.
10 Ibid.
11 Ibid.
12 Ibid.
13 Herodian, History of an Empire Vol. II, Book VI, (Harvard University Press, 1970), 158.
14 Ibid, 159-160.
15 Ibid, 161.
16 Ibid, 163.
17 Farrokh, Shadows in the Desert: Ancient Persia at War, 185.
18 Ibid.
19 Ibid, 186.
20 Ibid.
21 Ibid.
22 Touraj Daryaee, Sassanian Persia: The Rise and Fall of an Empire, (I.B. Taurus, 2009), 7.
23 Ibid.
24 Farrokh, Shadows in the Desert: Ancient Persia at War, 186.
25 Ibid.
26 Ibid.
27 Beate Dignas and Engelbert Winter, Rome and Persia in Late Antiquity: Neighbors and Rivals, (Cambridge University
Press, 2007), 23.
28 Farrokh, Shadows in the Desert: Ancient Persia at War, 186.

29 Dignas and Winter, Rome and Persia in Late Antiquity: Neighbors and Rivals, 26.
30 Ibid, 27.
31 Ibid.
32 Ibid, 28.
33 Ibid, 28-29.
34 Ibid, 32.
35 Ibid, 33.
36 Farrokh, Shadows in the Desert: Ancient Persia at War, 202.
37 Ibid, 205-207.
38 Dignas and Winter, Rome and Persia in Late Antiquity: Neighbors and Rivals, 35.
39 Ibid, 36.
40 Ibid, 38.
41 Ibid.
42 Adrian Goldsworthy, In the Name of Rome: The Men who won the Roman Empire, (London: Phoenix, 2004), 418.
43 Dignas and Winter, Rome and Persia in Late Antiquity: Neighbors and Rivals, 35.
44 Ibid, 39.
45 Procopius, History of the Wars, II, 5.7, 28-33.
46 Farrokh, Shadows in the Desert: Ancient Persia at War, 234.
47 Beate Dignas and Engelbert Winter, Rome and Persia in Late Antiquity: Neighbors and Rivals, 39.
48 Farrokh, Shadows in the Desert: Ancient Persia at War, 234.
49 Ibid, 234-235.
50 Ibid.
51 Beate Dignas and Engelbert Winter, Rome and Persia in Late Antiquity: Neighbors and Rivals, 40.
52 Ibid, 40-41.
53 Farrokh, Shadows in the Desert: Ancient Persia at War, 236.
54 Dignas and Winter, Rome and Persia in Late Antiquity: Neighbors and Rivals, 40.
55 Farrokh, Shadows in the Desert: Ancient Persia at War, 239.
56 Dignas and Winter, Rome and Persia in Late Antiquity: Neighbors and Rivals, 41.
57 Farrokh, Shadows in the Desert: Ancient Persia at War, 240.

58 Ibid, 240-241.
59 Dignas and Winter, Rome and Persia in Late Antiquity: Neighbors and Rivals, 42-43.
60 Ibid.
61 Ibid.
62 Ibid.
63 Ibid, 44.
64 Farrokh, Shadows in the Desert: Ancient Persia at War, 252.
65 Ibid.
66 Dignas and Winter, Rome and Persia in Late Antiquity: Neighbors and Rivals,45.
67 Ibid.
68 Ibid.
69 Farrokh, Shadows in the Desert: Ancient Persia at War, 257.
70 Theophanes, The Chronicles, AM 6118, 323.22-324.16.
71 Farrokh, Shadows in the Desert: Ancient Persia at War, 258.
72 Ibid.
73 Dignas and Winter, Rome and Persia in Late Antiquity: Neighbors and Rivals, 46.
74 Ibid.
75 Ibid.
76 Theophanes, The Chronicles, AM 6118, 317.32-323.22, 324.16-325.10.
77 Ibid.
78 Ibid, 47.
79 Ibid.