Book Review: Jonathan Eaton, ‘Leading the Roman Army’ (2020)

This review will be the start of a new format, in which I will review books within a limit of 500 words. This is a new approach, and the aim is to allow people to get a grasp of the book within a smaller amount of time and without overbearing them with information. Although some reviews may need more words to summarise/review the book, this is something I wish to trial. If I receive feedback that longer reviews are wanted, then please let me know and I will revert back to the usual format. Now, onto the review itself….

Eaton, Jonathan, Leading the Roman Army: Soldiers and Emperors, 31 BC – 235 AD (Pen & Sword, 2020). £19.99

In this book, Dr Jonathan Eaton presents his PhD thesis on Roman military command structures in an in-depth and suitably referenced analysis. The core focus of the thesis is a thematic study of the relationship between the Roman command structure, the imperial court, and the emperor between 31 BC and AD 235. For this reason, it is not a beginner’s book, but rather an academic book published by an accessible publisher, in an accessible medium. This does not mean, however, that a non-academic would not gain from reading this book, but rather they might find it an intensive reading, despite its well written style and structure.  

The book starts during the wanning years of the Roman Republic, where its legions-maintained loyalty to individual generals, such as Caesar, Pompey, Anthony, and Octavian, and not necessarily the Senate/state. The author points towards Augustus’ elevation to sole ruler, and first emperor, as a time of change in the military command structure. A process that was undeniably needed in order for the army to remain loyal solely to him and to remove the chance for further civil wars. As noted by the author and other reviewers, this new system proved to be relatively reliable and therefore it was sustainable for numerous emperors in the proceeding centuries. This system revolved around a deeper and interconnected communication and bond (relationship) between the emperor and the various layers of the military’s hierarchy, notably from senior ranking officers to the ordinary troops. The author successfully supports his thesis with a variety of contemporary evidence, ranging from numismatics, inscriptions, archaeology, and various literary accounts. With that said, a very minor shortfall of the book is the limited numbers of images provided, notably whilst discussing the numismatic iconography denoting the associated military imagery.

I shall briefly mention the suitability of the author’s decision to formulate his study in a thematic approach. Firstly, it works. Dr Jonathan Eaton decides to abandon the chronological approach, in favour of a thematic one, in order to avoid turning his study into a series of notable case studies on when the relationship between emperor and army reverted to the previous system (such as AD 69). Rather, the author provides a sweeping (and yet focussed) and engaging analysis of the generality and ever-day relationship between the army, its officers, and the emperor, instead of zoning in on when these systems were broken or compromised. The thematic approach also allowed the author to investigate how each group interacted with one-another, from soldier to officer, officer to officer, and from soldier and officer to either the court or the emperor himself. This allows the reader to gain a better comprehension of how each ‘sector’ of the Roman military (including the garrison of Rome) interacted within and outside of the command structure. I particularly enjoyed the chapter that discussed the political awareness of the army, which investigated the channels of communication and the consequent impact of the various information dissemination on the army’s ideological and practical/physical display of loyalty towards the emperor.

Overall, Dr Jonathan Eaton provides a worthy addition to the existing scholarship on the Roman military. The decision to take a thematic approach makes his study stand out, and from reading through the text, it elevates the study and its positioning within the current field. Paraphrased from another reviewer because of the clearness of their expression, Eaton states that “no emperor could survive without the support of the army”, and this was certainly the case throughout history too, and his book assuredly provides clear support towards that notion.

Book Review: Glenn Barnett, ‘Emulating Alexander’ (2017).

Barnett, G, Emulating Alexander: How Alexander the Great’s Legacy Fuelled Rome’s Wars with Persia (Pen & Sword, 2017). £19.99

Glenn Barnett provides readers with an interesting book that focuses on how Alexander the Great, the Macedonian king who conquered the Achaemenid Empire and ventured to Asia, fuelled Rome’s eastern ambitions. The book traces events from Sulla all the way down to Emperor Heraclius. The Romans faced numerous eastern foes during this long period, ranging from the Seleucids, the Pontic Empire, as well as, the Iranian dynasties, Parthia and the Sasanians. The latter two being the principal rivals of the Roman Empire and pushing them to their limit.

The extent to which each Roman emperor or general were impacted by Alexander’s legacy is measured by the scope of their proposed or physical campaigns and diplomacy in the Near East. It is the book’s focus to assess how and why these individuals attempted and perhaps felt obliged to emulate – with varied levels of success – Alexander’s eastern conquests. It is in the analysis that the reader will find the strengths and weaknesses of this book.

The author successfully provides an overview of Rome’s eastern policy, alongside the wars and on-going power struggles that ensued throughout the period. Some suitable comparisons are made with modern affairs, whilst others are relatively misplaced and founded upon superficial assessments. Comparisons, highlighted by another reviewer, such as those between the modern Ayatollahs and Sasanian mages are not suitable. With that said, the book certainly has a strength in its use as an introductory and overview of Rome’s eastern wars.

Moving to the main aim of the book, how Alexander fuelled Rome’s ambitions, and the extent to which they emulated his actions, is where the author’s work is slightly more hit and miss. Throughout the book, the author makes several sensible assessments of Roman motivations and actions that were suitably impacted by Alexander the Great. Generals operating during the Roman Republic were certainly more often the recipients of Alexander the Great’s influence, with some notable examples also found during the early principate. On the other hand, there are plenty of assessments that unfortunately come across as hollow.

This comes from the author’s tendency to overdo the attribution of Alexander to nearly every Roman action that could remotely be classed as similar or in the same vein/geographical region to which Alexander operated. Whilst this is fine during the research phase of the project, it needs to be refined when making his overall assessments. This is a problem that occurs throughout the book and therefore when reading it cover to cover it does become slightly tedious and repetitive towards the end. This accumulates in a book that comes across as a work-in-progress, and one that needed a little bit more research and honest judgments towards what actually could have been emulations of Alexander compared to events or actions that were merely similar, but at the same time not connected.

As an aside, the book could also have benefited from a series of maps which focused on the geography of the Near East. In several passages, the author makes statements to certain generals following Alexander’s movements and campaign route, and this could have been better portrayed to the reader through a visual medium/assistance. The provision of a couple of maps would have bolstered the strength of this book, and its usefulness to those interested in Alexander’s influence on Roman campaign movements, but also a better understanding the power struggle that took place in this region.

In conclusion, this book certainly has strengths and perhaps its greatest strength is that it outlines Rome’s eastern wars and conflicts. For that alone, the book is well worth investing in for those wanting an overview of events before deep diving into a specific region or time period. The book still has positive connotations to it regarding finding information about Alexander’s influence on Roman eastern policy, but the reader needs to be ready to assess for themselves what merely was a loose connection and what events/actions actually took imitation from Alexander the Great. Generally, I enjoyed reading this book and I found out about some interesting connections between Alexander and Roman policy. I would recommend this book to others, but at the discretion that they should not accept everything the author believes to be attributed between Alexander the Great and Rome’s interactions with her eastern rivals.

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 Academia.edu research profile. Link for convenience: Sean Strong | Cardiff University – Academia.edu

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: https://www.imc.leeds.ac.uk/register-2021/

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).