Book Review: James Howard-Johnston, ‘The Last Great War of Antiquity’ (Oxford, 2021).

Book Review: Howard-Johnston, J, ‘The Last Great War of Antiquity’ (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2021). £35.00 (480 Pages)

James Howard-Johnston provides a long-awaited narration of the last war fought between the Roman and Sasanian Empires, in what he terms, ‘The Last Great War of Antiquity’ (AD 603-630). This book allows the reader to disseminate why the war began, how it unfolded, and lastly, how it was concluded.

The narrative starts with the events pertaining to Phokas’ insurrection and the eventual overthrow of Emperor Maurice in 602. Nominally, Khosrow II owed his life and royal title to the fallen Maurice, who in 590/591 helped the usurped king regain his throne from the rebellious general Bahram Chobin. It is for this reason, why Howard-Johnston suggests that Khosrow might have been genuinely saddened at Maurice’s murder and launched a war of revenge against Maurice’s killer. There were also other factors to consider in why the Sasanians called for a resumption of war, and again these are discussed in the first chapter of the book.  

The author proceeds to ​trace the conflict between the Roman and the Sasanian Empires, in what is divided into key stages of the war, under the leadership of Emperor Phokas (602-610), Emperor Heraclius (610-641), and Shahanshah Khosrow II (591-628). Here, we see conflict consuming regions such as Syria, Palestine, Egypt, and Mesopotamia, and at vital times making their way to the hearts of both empires at Constantinople and Ctesiphon. For a large proportion of the war, the Romans were on the backfoot, but due to several factors and important decisions that both Roman and Sasanian rulers had taken, the war started to change its course in the mid-620s.

As well as providing a vivid and highly detailed narrative of the war, Howard-Johnston delivers upon discussing various topics and themes throughout the book. Some of these include imperial motives for the war’s initiation, historiographical problems for reconstructing the war, alongside thoughts on grand strategy, resources, foreign relations, and warfare during the early seventh century.

James Howard-Johnston undoubtedly succeeds in his goal of providing a lucid, engaging, and detailed account of the last Roman-Sasanian war. This devastating conflict was perhaps the most significant contest to take place during Late Antiquity, and quite possibly even the Ancient World. I’m glad that, what once was a relatively unknown topic, can now be brought into the foreground by this accessible volume.

To supplement this text, I would also recommend James Howard-Johnston’s important study on seventh century historiography – ‘Witness to a World Crisis: Historians and Histories of the Middle East in the Seventh Century.’ For those wanting an introduction to the Roman and Sasanian Empires, it might be worth looking at Howard-Johnston’s article ‘The Two Great Powers in Late Antiquity: A Comparison’, and the wonderful volume by Beate Dignas and Engelbert Winter titled ‘Rome and Persia in Late Antiquity: Neighbours and Rivals.’

Please note that a full ‘academic’ review will be released on this blog soon.

Book Review: Ilkka Syvanne, ‘Military History of Rome, 518-565’ (2021)

Book Review: Syvanne, Ilkka, ‘Military History of Late Rome 518–565’ (Pen and Sword Military, 2021). £30.00

First, I would like to thank Pen and Sword for sending me a review copy of this book. In my fault, I was not able to review it at the time of arrival because I was in England visiting my family, rather than Cardiff where the book was waiting for me. I wish to rectify the delay with an approachable and short review. One thing I noticed when picking the book up was how heavy it was. This was going to be one mighty tome!

I should note a few things before we proceed. The nature of receiving this book as a review copy from the publishers will not impact this review. I aim to review the book in a broad and general context, elaborating on some areas whilst glancing over others. The book’s strengths and weaknesses will be mentioned and last, this review will provide my thoughts on whether this book is worth purchasing.

The Review

Dr Ilkka Syvanne has just released the sixth volume in his book series with Pen and Sword, which focusses on narrating and analysing Late Roman military history. The book title is: ‘Military History of Late Rome 518-565.’ This volume focuses on the reigns of Emperor Justin I (AD 518-527) and Emperor Justinian I (AD 527-565). For that reason, it covers a large portion of warfare in the sixth century, alongside the famous and monumental reconquest of the lost western Roman territories.

The book takes the form of a chronological narrative of military events, focussing on analysing battles, tactics, and their generals. When events run simultaneously in different geographical regions, they are split into separate chapters for the reader’s ease. This is clear when looking at chapter sixteen, which focuses on the Lazic War (AD 549-57) and seventeen, which focuses on Italy (AD 548-51). The chronological approach allows the reader to have an overall understanding of how things were playing out within the empire, and therefore provide an apprehension of how events impacted one-another.

What impressed me about this book was its scope, and the ease I could look up a theatre of war and learn about it. I could read the book as a complete narrative of military history or use it as a steppingstone for learning more about a particular geographical region, such as the Sasanian conflict or the troubles along the African frontier. I cannot go into any real detail in this review about the book’s arguments and analysis (otherwise it would be a thesis), but I would like to confirm that it achieved its designated goal of providing ‘an overview of all the principal aspects of Roman military history during the years 518-565’ [p. x].

The first two chapters of this volume focus on setting the scene of the sixth century. Chapter one narrates the political and military situation of the Roman Empire after the reign of Emperor Anastasius I (AD 491-518). Dr Syvanne notes that Anastasius left the coffers of the empire well endowed, however, it was the inefficiency of the military and relative religious division which made the empire fragile. This section is followed by ten pages detailing the Roman military organisation of the early sixth century. Syvanne provides a welcome introduction to the topic for casual readers but comes to the very traditional conclusion of the Roman infantry’s lack of efficiency. This has generally been accepted by many scholars who believe the infantry’s fall in efficiency gave way to the prominence of cavalry deployment, however, it should be noted that it was merely that the infantry’s role had changed. There were several examples of infantry pulling their weight notably at the Battle of Callinicum (AD 532) and Taginae (AD 552). It should be stated that Dr Syvanne does preface that these are his arguments for the early sixth century. Therefore, one might assume that his opinion could change throughout the book. What we find is that even when some credit is given to the infantry’s efficiency, it is doubted in the proceeding moment (p.70 & p.342). There is still an on-going debate about this issue and Dr Syvanne simply adds to one side of the argument, and therefore this does not detract from the book. It merely caught my attention after working with the debate in the past.

The second chapter provides an outline of Rome’s allies and enemies during this period. Dr Syvanne notably discusses the Slavs, Antae, Huns, Bulgars, Turks, Avars, Goths, Vandals, Franks, Lombards, Gepids, Heruls, Moors, Berbers, and Sasanians. Quite a few peoples and societies! Some of these peoples are grouped together for ease as a result of their close-linked ethnicity/heritage or equally their type of warfare. For example, the Huns, Bulgars, Turks, and Avars. Likewise, some of these groups are provided substantially more space than others. While it should not be expected of the author to provide an extensive breakdown of all these peoples in one chapter, a little more on the Sasanians would have been nice, especially as they are one of the principal enemies of the Roman Empire during this period. In comparison, Dr Syvanne provides a sizable amount of detail to the Slavs and Antae, combining background information with evidence from the Strategikon on how they operated and how the Romans needed to combat them. The same treatment for the Sasanians would have been warmly welcomed. With that said, this chapter provides a nice introduction to these important groups, and I enjoyed reading through it and refreshing my memory.

Dr Syvanne dedicates one chapter to Justin I and this can largely be down to the type of foreign relations conducted during this period. During the reign of Justin I, the Romans did not conduct any military campaigns until the last few years when conflict with the Sasanians re-emerged (AD 526-527). Instead, Justin I decided to take the route of strengthening his foreign borders through the means of establishing, and reinforcing, client states. Therefore, Justin I preferred to use foreign diplomacy as a method to provoke his enemies without any direct involvement. Dr Syvanne provides a notable example with Justin I delegating all martial conduct to the Ethiopian power Aksum after the Himyar revolt emerged in AD 522. The chapter also touches on Justin’s western relations with the Ostrogothic and Vandal powers, which resulted in a distancing of the two Christian churches. Lastly, the ‘Cold War’ relationship between the Roman Empire and the Sasanians is also discussed, as well as the reasons why ‘proper’ conflict resumed in the latter years.

The remaining seventeen chapter focus on the Emperor Justinian and his numerous military conflicts between AD 527-565. To provide an overview of each chapter would be too long for this review and therefore, I shall only provide a short content summary.

An introductory chapter on Justinian and Theodora is provided and includes information about their personal relationship, but also some of their aims and achievements during this early period. This was a nice addition because it sets up the political situation and how and why things were put into motion in the proceeding decades. From this point onwards, the book focuses on Justinian and his wars which spanned the, then, current, and lost territory of the Roman Empire. The book focuses on the various well-known conflicts of the period, but also those that go relatively under the radar. To that end, I am thankful to the author. I particularly enjoyed the chapters on the conflict in North Africa (Ch.7 and 10), and especially learning about John Troglita and his military leadership and exploits in chapter fourteen.

The intermittent conflict between the Romans and Sasanians is covered in chapters five, eleven, and sixteen. I particularly enjoyed reading more about the Lazic War and the political and military turmoil that surrounded Phasis in AD 555/6, alongside the events preluding the end of the war. The eastern theatre of war is extended in chapter fifteen which focuses on the conflict between the Arab federates (Ghassanids and Lakhmids) and their ongoing struggle for dominance and survival. The various western reconquests are covered in great detail in chapters six, seven, nine, twelve, thirteen, seventeen, and eighteen. These discuss the initial operations to take back control of the lost western territory, but also the troubles that Justinian and his generals faced on how to maintain them and indeed, stop them from being retaken. Although the battles and overall narrative is evidently present, the sense of battling styles of generalship is also prevalent. I will admit, I am a team Narses guy… The Balkan theatre of war is introduced in chapter eight, but a large deal of information on the ongoing conflict between the Romans and the various peoples in that region are actually more present in other chapters. For example, there is an excursus on the Slavic invasions of the Balkans in chapter seventeen. Supplementary information on conflict with the Slavs, Antea, and others can also be found in various other chapters connected to the general western theatre of war. The penultimate chapter provides an overview of the last years of Justinian’s reign. It narrates the military situation of the empire in terms of its manpower and finances, but also sets up the stage for the next phase of conflict under his successor, Justin (II), who comes to the forefront in this chapter. The book is rounded off by a brief concluding remark on Justinian’s character.

The material of the book is vast and dense, but well written, and it is clear that a great deal of research and analysis has gone into the author’s work. Whether an individual chooses to agree with Dr Syvanne is entirely up to them as some of his conclusions can be (as I quote the back of the book) a result of his ‘often revisionist’ approach to the topic.

The book does provide the reader with footnotes; however, these are not plentiful and are limited.  This is not necessarily a problem for the general reader, but for those wanting to find the specific reference for an event or individual discussed in the book, it can be hit and miss. Dr Syvanne does mention in his introduction that references will only be provided if his contribution is new or controversial, however, it would be nice to know where some of these interesting events can be found in their contemporary origins. It should be noted this may be, and likely is, the result of the publishing guidelines rather than the author’s direct intention. With that said, it is an important thing to consider for those wanting to use the publication in an academic manner.

The last thing to consider is the limited presence of historiography or source analysis. Again, Dr Syvanne does provide a preface in his introduction explaining that this aspect had been taken out because there is a vast amount of scholarly literature available elsewhere on the contemporary sources. While this is true, the author does not provide enough of these ‘other works’ in his bibliography (which is only five page long – two for contemporary and three for secondary). If the author wishes not to include historiography in his publication, then he perhaps needs to provide people with adequate direction to find it. Retrospectively, I feel the author could have included a precursory/introductory remark on the sources for this period, much like his second chapter on Rome’s allies and enemies. This again does not overtly detract from the book, but those wanting to know more about the contemporary sources will need to find it elsewhere.

The addition of numerous maps, pictures, and battle diagrams are very welcome and make certain sections of the book easier to understand alongside being visually pleasant and interesting. These visual additions are certainly a key strength of the book and bring it to life.

In conclusion, this is well-worth picking up and will be a useful addition to anyone interested in Late Roman military history. It offers a unique and dedicated focus on battles and their tactics during this period. For that reason, I will be sinking my teeth into it for some time to come.

Becoming Šāhanšāh in Ērānshahr: Visual and Literary Evidence for Sasanian Investiture Rituals in the Late Sixth Century AD

During the last two days, I’ve attended this years iteration of the AMPAH (Annual Meeting of Postgraduates in Ancient History), which was hosted by the University of Exeter.

There were many great papers delivered throughout the course of the two-day conference and I was fortunate to also present my research on Sasanian investiture rituals. My paper was still a very much ‘work-in-progress’, but I thought it would be nice to spread some #Sasanian knowledge and love on Persian New Year – Nowruz.

You can find my paper and the corresponding presentation slides on my research profile. Link for convenience: Sean Strong | Cardiff University –

The Romans and Sasanians March to the IMC in July 2021

For centuries the Roman and the Sasanian Empires battled it out in the Near East for ideological and physical dominance. Frontiers expanded and retracted, with the two powers continuously interacting with one another throughout the third to seventh century.

But what were the political, and by extension diplomatic, military, geographic, and gendered climates that these two superpowers were living under? And how did they impact the Near East and the events that unfolded?

In this blog, I wish to share the panels that will be coming to the IMC under the umbrella CfP: ‘Byzantium and Sasanian Persia: The Climate of the Near East in Late Antiquity.’ This set of four panels has been co-organised between Domiziana Rossi and myself. The findings of the panels will be collated in an edited supplement volume of the Journal of Late Antique Religion and Culture (JLARC). These panels have also been kindly financially supported by the British Institute of Persian Studies (BIPS). Please find the panel outline below!!

We are looking forward to the exciting research which will be delivered at this event and we hope to see many of you there!

For those who wish to register for the event, please find the registration information at the link below:

Getting to Know my PhD Research

Statue of Khosrow I (Anushiruwan) at the Tehran courthouse – photo by انفی 

I’ve recently been on a break from writing blog posts because my PhD research has taken off and therefore, I needed to give it my ultimate priority. Nevertheless, I hope to come back to this blog for sporadic posts about a variety of topics from PhD advice and insights into Late Antique and Medieval Roman history, and that starts today!

In this blog post, I will be sharing some insight into my PhD research and I will do this through two ways. First, I shall provide a summary of what my thesis aims to examine and the perimeters for it’s research. Second, I will share a recent interview I participated in with the YouTube initiative entitled: The Iranian Studies Collective.

Generals and Rulers in Theophylact Simocatta’s History: Case Studies into Roman and Sasanian Leadership Depictions, AD 565-602

This thesis is a study of Roman, Sasanian and Avar leadership portrayals depicted in Theophylact Simocatta’s History. Theophylact’s History is most noted for its narration of the Emperor Maurice’s wars (AD 582-602); however, the text has greater relevance to historians and a wider examination of it, within the context of royal and military leadership, will open up new avenues in order to better understand leadership during the late sixth and early seventh century. The research will focus on examining the Roman autokrator and Sasanian Šāhanšāh, alongside aspects of Avar leadership, and how the Khagan compares to his counterparts within Theophylact’s History. Key aspects of Late Antique leadership will be addressed such as legitimacy and dynasty, alongside offering an analysis into the transforming military role of the Late Roman autokrator and Sasanian Šāhanšāh

(13) Therefore one should regard the common history of all mankind as a teacher, which advises what should be undertaken and what should be ignored as disadvantageous…(14)… (15) For the aged she is a guide and staff, for the young a most excellent and sagacious tutor, by wide experience lending grey hairs, as it were, to youth and anticipating the gradual lessons of time.”

Theoph. Sim. History. I. Proem 13-15, trans. M. Whitby and M. Whitby

For the second part, I hope to direct you to my recent interview with Rowena Abdul Razak, from the University of Oxford, who has established the incredible initiative titled, The Iranian Studies Collective. The initiative was created to provide better accessibility to the world of Iran through current academic work. For those who wish to learn more about Iranian research, from Antiquity to modern day, then I highly recommend subscribing to the channel.

Researcher Profile: Sean Strong, Cardiff University (March 2021)

I hope this blog has allowed people to know a bit more about my research. If you have any questions about my thesis or are interested in Roman history from Antiquity to AD 1453, then please feel free to get in contact with me.

Upgraded to PhD Candidate at Cardiff University!

This blog will not be a full post as I am currently tied down with a lot of extra-work at the moment. Nonetheless, I did want to let everyone know that I have officially been upgraded in status from a PhD student to a PhD Candidate.

Furthermore, next week’s blog post will cover what my research entails. This will not be extensive, but I will try and give you a relatively good idea of what I am aiming to find and what exactly I am looking for and at concerning my PhD research.

Until then – have a good week and stay safe!

East Rome and Sasanian Persia: Were they Natural Rivals?

A few years ago, I was a guest speaker on a podcast titled Antiquity in Question. We spoke on whether East Rome and the Sasanian Persians were natural rivals. This episode was based on an extended essay I undertook during my masters at the University of Oxford.

The episode is there to provide an insight into Sasanian and Roman relations during the sixth century, in particular, on the growing military developments amounting to the idea of an ‘arms race’ between both empires.

Please forgive the spelling error in the thumbnail!

Retrospectively, I felt the episode needed some maps for people to comprehend the geographical location the episode is discussing, so I have added some maps to this blog to aid the episode.

The Byzantine and Sasanian Empire in Late Antiquity – After the Emperor Justinian’s Reconquest – Late Sixth Century AD
Roman-Persian Frontier Zone in Late Antiquity (Fourth-Seventh Century AD)
Roman and Sasanian Military Campaigns during the Sixth and Early Seventh Century AD

For those wanting to know more after listening to the podcast episode, I recommend the following:

  • Bonner, M, The Last Empire of Iran (New Jersey, 2020).
  • Dignas, B and Winter, E, Rome and Persia in Late Antiquity: Neighbours and Rivals (Cambridge, 2007).
  • Farrokh, K, Armies of Ancient Persia: The Sassanians (Barnsley, 2017).
  • Greatrex, G and Lieu, S. N. C (eds.), The Roman Eastern Frontier and the Persian Wars: Part II AD 363-630 (Abingdon, 2002).
  • Haldon, J, Warfare, State, and Society in the Byzantine World, 565-1204 (Abingdon, 1999).
  • Heather, P, Rome Resurgent: War and Empire in the Age of Justinian (Oxford, 2018).
  • Rezakhani, K. Reorientating the Sasanians: East Iran in Late Antiquity (Edinburgh, 2017).
  • Sauer, E (ed.), Sasanian Persia: Between Rome and the Steppes of Eurasia (Edinburgh, 2017).

Note: These are not the only publications on the matter. In fact there are hundreds of important books and articles on the subject. If anyone wants to know more and would like me to suggest a few publications on other areas, ancient authors etc then please get in contact!

Bahram Chobin’s Revolt (AD 590-1): Depictions of Death by Elephant

Being killed by an elephant might seem to be a horrible death and, indeed, it was!

Throughout Southeast Asia and India, it was a common method of capital punishment, however, its use was also extended to the Roman and Sasanian geographical sphere.

During my research, I have come across a couple of instances in which my main contemporary source – Theophylact Simocatta – has depicted death by elephant. Theophylact Simocatta was a Roman classicising historian writing in the early seventh century AD about the political and military events of Emperor Maurice’s reign (AD 582-602). Within Theophylact’s text we are offered three depictions of the Sasanian use of elephants to kill their enemies.

Bahram Chobin, an eminent general within the Sasanian military, had suffered a defeat at the hands of a Roman general Romanus in AD 589. The current Šāhanšāh (King of Kings) Hormizd IV, sent an individual named Sarames to dismiss and scold the failed general. Nevertheless, Bahram overpowered Sarames and fuelled by retribution called for one of his largest elephants to “terminate his life.” This event ushered in the start of Bahram’s revolt. (Theoph. Sim. History. III. 8. 10-11).

Khosrow I fighting on-top an elephant against during the Mazdakite revolt.

The second instance of death by elephant was when a failed plot to assassinate the rebellious Bahram Chobin was thwarted (AD 590). The plot was developed within Bahram’s own military camp due to communication with Khosrow II and his exertion to Bahram’s troops to stop tyranny from prevailing. The most eminent satraps (Zamerdes and Zoanambes the Persian), alongside Bindoes agreed to undertake such a task. The conspirators alongside their troops burst into the royal palace, but alas, after a fierce night battle, Bahram and his loyalist troops defeated the to-be assassinators. In the morning they were all killed, except Bindoes and a handful of men who managed to escape.

“…and captured the originators of the enterprise; once day had grown bright, he chopped off the functional parts of their limbs and then, after spreading out the remainder of their bodies, he allowed them to be trampled by the elephants and to obtain this all-consuming death.”

Theoph. Sim. History. IV. 14. 14.
Sasanian relief of boar hunting on top of domestic elephants – Taq-e Boston Iran

The third instance also occurred during Bahram Chobin’s revolt in AD 590/1 against the now Šāhanšāh Khosrow II (Hormizd IV son). Bahram had brought war elephants to the Battle of Blarathon (AD 591) in the hope that he could use their strength and terrifying nature to secure victory, however, quite the opposite happened. Khosrow II was victorious and consequently used the remnants of Bahram’s elephant corps, which had been captured during the battle, to kill Bahram’s captured men. Bahram’s own weapon had been turned against his own men.  

“And so the Persian king handed over some to the jaws of the sword, while others he presented as toys for the feet of the beast.”

Theoph. Sim. History. V. 10. 13.
An Ottoman miniature depicting the execution of prisoners of war in Nandorfehervar.

Brief Bibliography

  • Allsen, T, The Royal Hunt in Eurasian History (Pennsylvania, 2006).
  • Farrokh, K, The Armies of Ancient Persia: The Sassanians (Barnsley, 2017).
  • Simocatta, Theophylact. The History of Theophylact Simocatta: an English Translation with Introduction and Notes. Translated by Michael Whitby and Mary Whitby (Oxford, 1986).

Getting Started with the Sasanian Empire

The Sasanian Empire in the Sixth Century. Image by Keeby101.

“In this world my treasure is justice, and the world prospers through my efforts and good fortune…From end to end the world is in my keeping, and my way is the path of justice. No one, whether he be a slave or a free man, must sleep uneasily because of my subordinates, or captains, or cavalry: my court is open to everyone, whether they wish me good or ill.”

Shahnameh, p. 662. [Ardashir I addresses his court upon ascension]

The Sasanian Empire (AD 224-651) was the last pre-Islamic Persian empire and was ruled by the Šāhanšāh (King of Kings). The empire goes by different names, nominally different iterations of Sasanian, such as Sassanian and Sassanid. Another important name for the Sasanian Empire was Ērānshahr, meaning land of Iran or of the Iranians.

The empire was established in AD 224 by Ardashir I, who defeated the previous ruling Arsacid dynasty, also known as the Parthian dynasty (247BC – 224AD). Upon ascending the throne, Ardashir installed his own dynasty, replacing the Arsacid family name with his family’s name, Sasan. The empire endured and thrived for 400 years under the Sasanian dynasty until it was overthrown by the Arab Caliphate in AD 651.

Although the Sasanian Empire fell in the mid-seventh century, their legacy, culture, and language has endured until present times; even shaping politics and culture upon its journey. This is most notably visible through the important text titled: the Shahnameh (The Book of Kings). The Shahnameh is a poem written in the Persian language during the late 10th and early 11th century AD. It narrates the Persian mythical and historical past from the creation of the world until the Arab Conquests in the 7th century AD.

The Assassination of Khosrow II in a manuscript of the Shahnameh of Shah Tahmasp made by Abd al-Samad in 1535 – Scan by John Seyller.

It is important to note that a large proportion of our sources on the Sasanian Empire do come from Roman authors, of whom were a great adversary of the Sasanian Empire, however, the Sasanians also interacted with a large number of other nations, kingdoms, and empires. We have sources in Arabic, Syriac, Persian, and Armenian, and more, which adds to our knowledge of Sasanian interactions with their neighbours. To the east, they had interactions with several Indian kingdoms, alongside Tang China. To the north, they had relations with the Hephthalites (White Huns), the Sogdians, and the Turks in the northern steppes.

Religion was an integral aspect of Sasanian society. The main religion was Zoroastrianism, a faith that found new life under the Sasanian dynasty. Their most sacred symbol was fire, and its depiction is found on many Sasanian coins and a number of the Sasanian fire temples can still be explored today. Nonetheless, religious minorities such as Jews, Manicheans, and Christians were still present within the empire and had an important role to play in shaping its history and policies.

For 400 years, the Sasanian Empire was a major power in the Near East, rivalling and neighbouring various peoples and cultures. Nonetheless, the Sasanians, and indeed more generally the Persians, are often overlooked, and viewed as intruders or outsiders delving into other people’s history. This mindset needs to change. The Sasanians have a rich and diverse history of their own. By exploring the Sasanian world, it will allow many people to gain a new and different perspective of events during Late Antiquity.

Some Notable Rulers:

Shapur I (240-70 AD)

Shapur I was the second Šāhanšāh of the Sasanian Empire. He consolidated and expanded Ardashir’s empire and waged a number of successful campaigns against the Roman Empire, even capturing the Emperor Valerian in AD 260. Shapur was also known for his ability to reaffirm Sasanian power in Iran and for his military prowess against the Romans and his subjects in the northern and eastern sectors of the empire. Shapur was the earliest model of Sasanian kingship and he commissioned a number of monuments for everyone to not forget it! A number of these can still be seen today.

Rock-face relief at Naqsh-e Rustam of Shapur (on horseback) with Philip the Arab and the Emperor Valerian.

Khosrow I (531-79 AD)

Khosrow I is probably the most famous of all Sasanian Šāhanšāh and undoubtedly deserves the title. He was a monumental figure in Sasanian history and because of his success, character, and performance he became the new idealised personification of Sasanian kingship. Sorry Shapur! Khosrow was successful in numerous aspects of society. From the re-organisation of the military through his reforms, which also impacted the integral workings of Sasanian society, to his administrative policies and devotion to knowledge and learning. It can be no coincidence that Šāhanšāh Khosrow I and Emperor Justinian (AD 527-565), are two of the most known individuals of Late Antiquity, and ruled simultaneously atop the two largest empires of the period.

Statue of Khosrow I (Anushiruwan) at the Tehran courthouse – photo by انفی 

Yazdegerd III (632-51 AD)

Yazdegerd III was the last Šāhanšāh of the Sasanian Empire and ruled during the turbulent time of the Arab Conquest (634). He ascended the throne at eight years old and thus lacked any authority or real power. Given the Arab Conquests erupted in 634, the Sasanians were in a precarious situation. They had just concluded a long war with the Roman Empire only four years previous to Yazdegerd’s arrival upon the throne, and this left the empire war-weary and drained of resources. Despite the empire’s best efforts, vital blows were dealt throughout, and the Sasanians were left with limited avenues to recuperate which ultimately led to their downfall.

Further Reading:

  • For a beginner on the Sasanians, I recommend: Daryaee, T and Rezakhani, K, From Oxus to Euphrates: The World of Late Antique Iran (2016).
  • Those wanting a complete overview of the Persian world (Achaemenid, Parthian, and Sasanian dynasties), see Wiesehofer, J, Ancient Persia (London and New York, 2006).
  • For an expansion on the themes of ‘Oxus to Euphrates’, see Daryaee, T, Sasanian Persia: The Rise and Fall of an Empire (London and New York, 2009).
  • To engage with a complete chronology of the political and military history of the Sasanian Empire, see Bonner, M, The Last Empire of Iran (New Jersey, 2020).
  • The Sasanians did not only interact with the Romans, in fact much of their rich history revolved around their northern and eastern frontier, see Rezakhani, K, Reorienting the Sasanians: East Iran in Late Antiquity (Edinburgh, 2017). 

For podcasts – check out History of Persia ( and King of Kings ( Both podcasts cover Persian history, however, neither have currently caught up to the Sasanian period. Nonetheless, both are worth listening to and they will soon reach the Sasanian dynasty.

For an interview with Dr Michael Bonner (whose book is on the suggested reading), see the History of Persia’s episode at the link here –

For a podcast that delves directly into the Sasanian period, see ‘The History of the Sasanian Empire.’

For the Sasanika: Late Antique Near East Project (a site dedicated to the Sasanians and whose main aim is to increase accessibility into the field) –

For those wishing to jump into the Shahnameh – please check out the wonderful three-part BBC documentary series titled: Art of Persia. It should still be on iPlayer! This is a great documentary and narrates how Persian culture is retained and envisaged from the Achaemenids up until the modern day.

Article Published! Reconstructing the Narrative: The Usurpation of Nikephoros Bryennios the Elder

This is a short update to let readers know that I have recently published an academic article. The best news is… it is open access! So everyone is welcome to read it and it can be accessed at the link below.


This paper traces the usurpation of Nikephoros Bryennios the elder, 1077/8 AD, by examining narratives from three Byzantine historians: Michael Attaleiates, John Skylitzes, and Nikephoros Bryennios the younger. For the most part, modern scholars have focussed on investigating successful usurpation candidates who managed to rise to imperial power. For this period, this included Nikephoros Botaneiates and Alexios Komnenos. Key questions are often asked, such as how usurpers managed to succeed and why did they choose to undertake a course of usurpation, often resulting in a narrative of justification and legitimacy. For this period, albeit from Neville (2012) on Nikephoros Bryennios, appreciation has not been given to usurpers who failed. This paper will provide a chronology of Nikephoros Bryennios’ usurpation, and how these three authors depict the incident, the correlations and differences between them, and lastly, preliminary thoughts why Bryennios’ usurpation failed compared to his successful contemporaries.

Keywords: Byzantium, Usurpation, Bryennios, Eleventh Century, Literature,

If anyone wants any clarifications on the article content or has any general questions on the topic then feel free to submit a comment below and I will do my best to answer them.