Shapur II

Shapur II
Shapur II
"King of kings of Iran and Aniran"[1]
Reign 309–379
Born 309[2]
Birthplace possibly Firuzabad
Died 379
Place of death Bishapur
Predecessor Hormizd II
Successor Ardashir II
Royal House Sasan
Father Hormizd II
Religious beliefs Zoroastrian

Shapur II the Great was the ninth King of the Persian Sassanid Empire from 309 to 379 and son of Hormizd II.[3] During his long reign, the Sassanid Empire saw its first golden era since the reign of Shapur I (241–272). His name is sometimes given in English as "Shahpour" or "Sapor".[4]


Early childhood

When King Hormizd II (302–309) died, Persian nobles killed his eldest son, blinded the second, and imprisoned the third (Hormizd, who afterwards escaped to the Roman Empire).[5] The throne was reserved for the unborn child of one of the wives of Hormizd II. It is said that Shapur II may have been the only king in history to be crowned in utero: the crown was placed upon his mother's belly. This child, named Shapur, was therefore born king; the government was conducted by his mother and the magnates.


Dark green: the Sassanid empire; Medium green: contested territory; Light green: temporarily occupied in the seventh century during war with the Byzantine Empire, three hundred years after Shapur's reign.

During the early years of the reign of Shapur, Arabs crossed the Persian Gulf from Bahrain to "Ardashir-Khora" of Pars and raided the interior. In retaliation, Shapur led an expedition through Bahrain, defeated the combined forces of the Arab tribes of "Taghlib", "Bakr bin Wael", and "Abd Al-Qays" and advanced temporarily into Yamama in central Najd. He resettled these tribes in Kerman and Hormizd-Ardashir. Arabs named him, as "Shabur Dhul-aktāf" or "Zol 'Aktāf" that means "The owner of the shoulders" after this battle.[6]

In 337, just before the death of Constantine I (324–337), Shapur II, probably provoked by religious differences, broke the peace concluded in 297 between Narseh (293–302) and Emperor Diocletian (284–305), which had been observed for forty years. This was the beginning of two long drawn-out wars (337–350 and 358-363) which were inadequately recorded. After crushing a rebellion in the south, Shapur II invaded Roman Mesopotamia and recaptured Armenia. Apparently 9 major battles were fought. The most renowned was the inconclusive Battle of Singara (Sinjar, in Iraq) in which the Roman emperor Constantius II was at first successful, capturing the Persian camp, only to be driven out by a surprise night attack after Shapur had rallied his troops (344-or 348?). Gibbon asserts that Shapur II invariably defeated Constantius, but there is reason to believe that the honours were fairly evenly shared between the two capable commanders. (Since Singara was on the Persian side of the Mesopotamian frontier, this alone may suggest that the Romans had not seriously lost ground in the war up to that time.) The most notable feature of this war was the consistently successful defence of the Roman fortress of Nisibis in Mesopotamia. Shapur besieged the fortress three times (337, 344? and 349) and was repulsed each time by Roman general Lucilianus.

Silver plate showing Shapur II hunting a deer whilst riding a stag

Although often victorious in battles, Shapur II had made scarcely any progress. At the same time he was attacked in the east by Scythian Massagetae and other Central Asian tribes. He had to break off the war with the Romans and arrange a hasty truce in order to pay attention to the east (350). Most able and persistent of Shapur's opponents in the north east was Grumbates, ruler of the Xionites. After a prolonged struggle (353–358) they were forced to conclude a peace, and Grumbates agreed to enlist his light cavalrymen into the Persian army and accompany Shapur II in renewed war against the Romans.

In 358 Shapur II was ready for his second series of wars against Rome, which met with much more success. In 359, Shapur II invaded southern Armenia, but was held up by the valiant Roman defence of the fortress of Amida (Diyarbekir, in Turkey) which finally surrendered in 359 after a seventy-three day siege in which the Persian army suffered great losses. The delay forced Shapur to halt operations for the winter. Early the following spring he continued his operations against the Roman fortresses, capturing Singara and Bezabde (Cirze?). Constantius arrived from the west at this time, and unsuccessfully tried to recapture Bezabde. In 363 the Emperor Julian (361–363), at the head of a strong army, advanced to Shapur's capital at Ctesiphon and defeated a superior Sassanid army at the Battle of Ctesiphon; however, he was killed during his retreat back to Roman territory. His successor Jovian (363–364) made an ignominious peace, by which the districts beyond the Tigris which had been acquired in 298 were given to the Persians along with Nisibis and Singara, and the Romans promised to interfere no more in Armenia. The great success is represented in the rock-sculptures near the town Bishapur in Persis (Stolze, Persepolis, p. 141); under the hooves of the king's horse lies the body of an enemy, probably Julian, and a supplicant Roman, the Emperor Jovian, asks for peace.

Shapur II then invaded Armenia, where he took King Arshak II, the faithful ally of the Romans, prisoner by treachery and forced him to commit suicide. He then attempted to introduce Zoroastrian orthodoxy into Armenia. However, the Armenian nobles resisted him successfully, secretly supported by the Romans, who sent King Pap, the son of Arshak II, into Armenia. The war with Rome threatened to break out again, but Valens sacrificed Pap, arranging for his assassination in Tarsus, where he had taken refuge (374). Shapur II subdued the Kushans and took control of the entire area now known as Afghanistan and Pakistan. Shapur II had conducted great hosts of captives from the Roman territory into his dominions, most of whom were settled in Susiana. Here he rebuilt Susa, after having killed the city's rebellious inhabitants.

By his death in 379 the Persian Empire was stronger than ever before, considerably larger than when he came to the throne, the eastern and western enemies were pacified and Persia had gained control over Armenia.


Under Shapur II's reign the collection of the Avesta was completed, heresy and apostasy punished, and the Christians persecuted (see Abdecalas, Acepsimas of Hnaita). This was a reaction against the Christianization of the Roman Empire by Constantine I. He was successful in the east, and the great town Nishapur in Khorasan (eastern Parthia) was founded by him. He founded some other towns as well.

See also


  1. ^ MacKenzie, David Niel (1998), "Ērān, Ērānšahr", Encyclopedia Iranica, 8, Costa Mesa: Mazda, [dead link]
  2. ^ Touraj Daryaee, "Sasanian Persia", (I.B.Tauris Ltd, 2010), 16.
  3. ^ Touraj Daryaee, 16.
  4. ^ Gibbon, Edward. The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire.
  5. ^ [1]
  6. ^ Encyclopaedia Iranica: p.202. Link: [2]
Shapur II
Preceded by
Hormizd II
Great King (Shah) of Persia
Succeeded by
Ardashir II

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