The Reign of Shapur II: The Culmination of Sassanian Power

  September 23, 2021   Read time 3 min
The Reign of Shapur II: The Culmination of Sassanian Power
Likewise, it would seem that many later institutions were organized, if not founded, in the early Sasanian period. It is true that many scholars have discounted the later Sasanian practice of attributing all changes in the state or society, especially in the time of Khusrau I, to mere revivals of conditions obtaining under the founder Ardashir.

None the less, under the early Sasanians much of the groundwork for the future was established. For example, the authority over political and economic affairs of the heads of various religious minorities, famous as the millet system of the much later Ottoman empire, seems to have been organized by the early Sasanians, as well as the tax system applied to minorities. Both the organization of the state church and the fixing of the political and tax structure of the Sasanian state were the results of great endeavours under the early Sasanian rulers.

The events following the death of Hormizd II are obscure, but one of the sons of Hormizd, probably called Adhurnarseh, came to the throne. The nobility, however, took matters into their own hands, deposed the king and seized some of his brothers, although one, Hormizd, escaped and fled to the Romans. The crown was then given to an infant Shapur II. The fact that another son of Hormizd II, also called Shapur, the king of the Sakas, is attested in two inscriptions from Persepolis, as well as the mention of an Ardashlr, king of Adiabene and brother of Shapur, in the Syriac acts of Christian martyrs, suggests that there may have been two factions in the family of Hormizd II, and the nobles supported the one which brought to power Shapur II. Shapur II was to rule from 309 to 379, the longest time-period of any Sasanian king, and under his reign Iran developed greatly and expanded.

Although the nobility from time to time during the Sasanian empire showed its power, on the whole the importance of the ruler and the centralization of authority continued. The ultimate dependence of the bureaucracy, of the legal system, and indeed of all institutions of the state on the person of the ruler is revealed in the acts of the Christian martyrs, as well as in later Arabic and Persian texts. The reign of Shapur II can be considered the culmination of the process of centralization under the early Sasanian kings. At first, as a child, he was under the sway of the nobility, but soon Shapur was able to bring power into his own hands with the acquiescence of the same nobility. For the supreme rights of the ruler were recognized as having precedence over all. It is interesting to compare the same tendencies in the late Roman empire, for in Byzantium the bureaucracy and centralization, as well as autocracy, could be compared easily with the Sasanian empire. We do not know whether the administrative reforms of Diocletian and Constantine had any echoes in Iran, but most likely their spirit did have some repercussions even though they cannot be pin-pointed.

The mechanism of succession to the throne, and the part played by the nobility and priesthood, may be examined briefly. Down to the end of the dynasty a member of the family of Sasan was the ruler, and the allegiance of the nobles and priests could rareJy be won by a rebel who was not a Sasanian prince. The case of Bahram Chobln (see below) was unique, and he ultimately failed to secure the support of the nobility against Khusrau II. Although a strong ruler in reality would designate his own successor, and secure the support of the priesthood and nobility for the succession before his own death, none the less, the support of these two classes was always necessary for accession, for the crown prince had to satisfy them by his qualities of mind and body that he was fit to rule. Almost invariably a prior demonstration of ability to rule a province was a prerequisite for mounting the throne of the king of kings. Bahram Gor had not governed a province, but by his personal qualities he was able to convince the aristocracy that he was that son of Yazdgard I fit to rule. The belief that the farr or "mystical majesty" of kingship had descended on a prince would cause nobles to rally to one member of the royal family rather than another. The signs and symbols of the farr were many and varied, and politics undoubtedly also played an important role in securing support for the succession.