Roman–Iranian relations

Relations between the Rome and Iranian states were established c. 96 BC. It was in 69 BC that the two states clashed for the first time; the political rivalry between the two empires would dominate all of Western Asia and Europe until 628. Initially commencing as rivalry between the Parthians and Rome, from the 3rd to mid-7th centuries, the Byzantine Empire and its rival Sassanid Persia were recognized as the leading powers in the world.[1][2]

Parthian Empire at it's greatest extent
Parthia's greatest extent.
Roman Empire Trajan 117AD
The Roman Empire's greatest extent.
Sassanian Empire 621 A.D
Sassanid Persia's territorial extent (and maximum extent).
The Byzantine Empire's greatest extent under Justinian.

Relations during the Republic

The first direct contact between the Roman Republic and the Parthians was c. 96 BCE, when Lucius Cornelius Sulla, while proconsul in Cilicia, met the Parthian ambassador Orobazus. Plutarch reports that he managed to take the central seat between the Parthian Ambassador and an ambassador from Pontus, and concluded a treaty that set the Euphrates as the boundary between the two powers. Orobazus was executed on his return to Parthia for allowing Sulla to outmaneuver him, and Sulla himself later came under criticism for being too high-handed in his treatment of such a powerful nation.

The first time the Romans came into direct military contact with Parthia came when Lucullus invaded Armenia in 69 BCE, leading to diplomatic friction and clashes on the frontier between Armenia and Parthia. Over the following decades both empires became entangled in each other's civil wars, perhaps beginning with Crassus’s disastrous invasion of Parthia. Parthia was later involved in the civil war after the assassination of Julius Caesar. In 42 BCE, when Antony placed a legion in Syria, Cassius’ envoy Labienus joined forces with king Orodes of Parthia and, led by Pacorus, attacked the Levant and the Asia Minor. However, this was not to last as Antony successfully sent his general Publius Ventidius Bassus to recover the lost territory. After some difficulty dealing with local Parthian appointee kings, the Romans finally subdued the regained province and installed Herod the Great as king. Antony’s forces attempted a crossing of the Euphrates at the city of Zeugma but were held back by Parthian defences and had to settle for annexing the Armenian kingdom after deposing its king.

Relations during the Julio-Claudian dynasty

A Parthian warrior as depicted on Trajan's column

Augustus was loath to seek further conflict with Parthia. However, the coveted standards were still held by the Parthians and this was of great concern to Augustus, forcing him to regain them through a less conventional method. In 30 BCE, Phraates IV usurped the throne of Tiridates who fled to Syria under the protection of the Romans, whence he launched an attack on his native land. Although this failed, an agreement was made whereby he could live under the Romans as a king in exile if he brokered the return of the Roman standards. The standards were returned to the future emperor Tiberius, who received them on an island in the Euphrates.

The next half century saw relations between the two nations antagonistic but not overtly hostile, with the Romans unsuccessfully supporting a series of pretender kings, including Claudius in 49 CE, indicating the extent to which Rome was attempting to influence Parthian politics for its own ends. However, during the reign of Nero, Vologases I invaded Armenia and installed his own brother on the throne, disrupting the balance of influence which had hitherto existed there. The ensuing war was ended by a compromise which allowed the Parthian prince Tiridates and his descendants to reign in Armenia on condition that he and his successors received their crown from the Roman emperor and ruled as his clients.

Strabo described the Parthian Empire as the only rival existing to Rome.[3]

Relations during the Flavian dynasty

During Vespasian’s rule Parthia seemed to make some attempts to strengthening the ties between the two powers, such as asking to form an alliance at the Caucasus against belligerent Sarmatian tribes and offering assistance to Vespasian against the short lived emperor Vitellius once it became clear that Vespasian would rule. However, both of these Vespasian refused.

Parthian belt bucket by Nickmard Khoey
Parthian belt bucket featuring Roman cultural influences.

Relations in Late Antiquity

Sasanides in Byzantine palace
Sasanian embassy to Byzantine Empire, stone relief in Istanbul Archaeological Museums, Turkey

In the 2nd century CE, the balance of power shifted emphatically in favour of the Romans. A series of invasions repeatedly overran Mesopotamia and sacked the Parthian capital of Ctesiphon, made substantial territorial gains in northern Mesopotamia and benefited from the manipulation of frequent Parthian dynastic civil wars, which eventually undermined the Parthian state. Under Caracalla, an interesting twist in Parthian relations occurred. After submitting a request to marry the daughter of Persian king Artabanus V (potentially allowing an heir to assume control of both empires) Caracalla massacred the diplomatic party sent to arrange the marriage and attempted an invasion of Persia in 216. This was eventually unsuccessful and the Persians soon retaliated, inflicting heavy losses upon the Romans.

The replacement of the Parthian Empire by that of the Sassanids in 226 CE, which was more stable and effectively organised, shifted the balance of power against the Romans. The neighboring rivaling Sasanian Empire and the Roman-Byzantine Empire were recognized as the two leading world powers, for a period of more than 400 years.[4][5][6]

Frequent Persian aggression during the 3rd century placed Roman defences under severe strain, but the Romans were eventually successful in warding these off and avoiding any territorial losses. Indeed, they eventually made significant gains towards the end of the century, although these were reversed in the mid-4th century. By that time conflicts attained an added religious dimension. It is in this context that the future of Roman–Persian relations would be played out over the remaining centuries, continuing into the Byzantine era. Neither side was able to inflict a decisive and convincing military victory against the other, and the movement between hostilities and diplomacy would continue to play out between each power.

According to some sources, two years before his death, Shapur I married a daughter of Aurelian, and attempted to further Romanize the city of Gundeshapur, which was mainly populated by the Roman prisoners-of-war back then.[7]

In the 5th century, Romans provided a subsidy as the Sassanians requested, to construct defenses in Derbent, through which incursions from tribes of the northern steppes endangered both empires.[8]

In 395 AD, 18,000 Roman populations of Sophene, Armenia, Mesopotamia, Syria, and Cappadocia were captured and deported by the "Huns". the prisoners were freed by the Persians as they reached Persia, and were settled in Slōk (Wēh Ardashīr) and Kōkbā (Kōkhē). The author of the text Liber Calipharum has praised the king Yazdegerd I (399–420) for his treatment of the deportees, who also allowed some to return.[9]

See also


  1. ^ Norman A. Stillman The Jews of Arab Lands pp 22 Jewish Publication Society, 1979 ISBN 0827611552
  2. ^ International Congress of Byzantine Studies Proceedings of the 21st International Congress of Byzantine Studies, London, 21–26 August 2006, Volumes 1-3 pp 29. Ashgate Pub Co, 30 sep. 2006 ISBN 075465740X
  3. ^ Anthony Pagden. Worlds at War: The 2,500-Year Struggle Between East and West Random House Publishing Group, 25 mrt. 2008 ISBN 1588366782 p 84
  4. ^ (Shapur Shahbazi 2005)
  5. ^ Norman A. Stillman The Jews of Arab Lands pp 22 Jewish Publication Society, 1979 ISBN 0827611552
  6. ^ International Congress of Byzantine Studies Proceedings of the 21st International Congress of Byzantine Studies, London, 21–26 August 2006, Volumes 1-3 pp 29. Ashgate Pub Co, 30 sep. 2006 ISBN 075465740X
  7. ^ Elgood, Cyril (1951). A Medical History of Persia and the Eastern Caliphate from the Earliest Times Until the Year A.D. 1932. University Press. p. 47.
  8. ^
  9. ^ "DEPORTATIONS – Encyclopaedia Iranica".


  • K. Butcher, Roman Syria and the Near East, Getty Publications, Los Angeles, 2003 ISBN 0-89236-715-6
  • R. C. Brockley, East Roman Foreign Policy, Francis Cairns Publications, Leeds, 1992 ISBN 0-905205-83-9

Further reading


Arrajan (Arjan) was a medieval Persian city located between Fars and Khuzestan, which was settled from the Sasanian period until the 11th century. It was the capital of a medieval province of the same name, which corresponds to the modern-day Behbahan County of Khuzestan Province, Iran.The city was (re)founded by Sasanian king Kavad I and continued to develop in the Islamic period. Having a fertile soil and supplies of water and integrated in a major road system, the small province flourished and reached its peak in the 10th century. It declined by the 11th century as a result of an earthquake and military conflicts.The archaeological site of Arrajan covers an area of about 3.75 km2 (1.45 sq mi), with only scattered traces of buildings, walls, a castle, a qanat, a dam, and a bridge across the nearby Kordestan river.

Byzantine commonwealth

The term Byzantine commonwealth was coined by 20th-century historians to refer to the area where Byzantine general influence (Byzantine liturgical and cultural tradition) was spread during the Middle Ages by Byzantine statehood and missionaries. This area covers approximately the modern-day countries of Greece, Cyprus, North Macedonia, Bulgaria, Serbia, Montenegro, Romania, Moldova, Ukraine, Belarus, southwestern Russia, and Georgia (known as the region of Eastern Orthodoxy in Europe).

Byzantine cuisine

Byzantine cuisine was marked by a merger of Greek and Roman gastronomy. The development of the Byzantine Empire and trade brought in spices, sugar and new vegetables to Greece.

Cooks experimented with new combinations of food, creating two styles in the process. These were the Eastern (Asia Minor and the Eastern Aegean), consisting of Byzantine cuisine supplemented by trade items, and a leaner style primarily based on local Greek culture.

Byzantine novel

Byzantine romance represents a revival of the ancient Greek romance of Roman times. Works in this category were written by Byzantine Greeks of the Eastern Roman Empire during the 12th century.


Droungos (Greek: δροῦγγος, sometimes δρόγγος, drongos) or drungus is a late Roman and Byzantine term for a battalion-sized military unit, and later for a local command guarding mountain districts. Its commander was a "droungarios" or "drungarius" (δρουγγάριος), anglicized as "Drungary".

Forum (Roman)

A forum (Latin forum "public place outdoors", plural fora; English plural either fora or forums) was a public square in a Roman municipium, or any civitas, reserved primarily for the vending of goods; i.e., a marketplace, along with the buildings used for shops and the stoas used for open stalls. Many fora were constructed at remote locations along a road by the magistrate responsible for the road, in which case the forum was the only settlement at the site and had its own name, such as Forum Popili or Forum Livi.

Hephthalite–Persian Wars

The Hephthalite–Persian Wars, refers to a series of conflicts between the Hephthalites and the Sasanian Empire.


The katepánō (Greek: κατεπάνω, lit. "[the one] placed at the top", or " the topmost") was a senior Byzantine military rank and office. The word was Latinized as capetanus/catepan, and its meaning seems to have merged with that of the Italian "capitaneus" (which derives from the Latin word "caput", meaning head). This hybridized term gave rise to the English language term captain and its equivalents in other languages (Capitan, Kapitan, Kapitän, El Capitán, Il Capitano, Kapudan Pasha etc.)

Kephale (Byzantine Empire)

In the late Byzantine Empire, the term kephale (Greek: κεφαλή, kephalē, "head") was used to denote local and provincial governors.

It entered use in the second half of the 13th century, and was derived from the colloquial language. Consequently, it never became an established title or rank of the Byzantine imperial hierarchy, but remained a descriptive term. In essence, the kephalē replaced the Komnenian-era doux as the civil and military governor of a territorial administrative unit, known as a katepanikion (κατεπανίκιον, katepaníkion), but also termed a kephalatikion (κεφαλατίκιον, kephalatíkion). In size, these provinces were small compared to the earlier themata, and could range from a few villages surrounding the kephale's seat (a kastron, "fortress"), to an entire island. This arrangement was also adopted by the Second Bulgarian Empire (as Bulgarian: кефалия, kefaliya) and Serbian Empire (as Serbian: кефалиja, kefalija).

In the 14th century, superior kephalai were appointed (katholikai kephalai, "universal heads") overseeing a group of provinces under their respective [merikai] kephalai ("[partial] heads"). The former were usually kin of the emperor or members of the senior aristocratic clans. By the late 14th century, with the increasing decentralization of the Empire and the creation of appanages in the form of semi-independent despotates, these senior posts vanished.

Kleisoura (Byzantine district)

In the Byzantine Empire, a kleisoura (Greek: κλεισούρα, "enclosure, defile") was a term traditionally applied to a fortified mountain pass and the military district protecting it. By the late 7th century, it came to be applied to more extensive frontier districts, distinct from the larger themata, chiefly along the Empire's eastern border with the Caliphate along the line of the Taurus-Anti-Taurus mountains (in the West, only Strymon was in its early days termed a kleisoura). A kleisoura or kleisourarchia was an autonomous command, under a kleisourarches (Greek: κλεισουράρχης). Eventually, most kleisourai were raised to full themata, and the term fell out of use after the 10th century (in late Byzantine times, droungos had a similar meaning). Its Islamic counterpart in Cilicia and Mesopotamia was the al-thughūr.


The lictor (possibly from Latin: ligare, "to bind") was a Roman civil servant who was a bodyguard to magistrates who held imperium. Lictors were used since the Roman Kingdom, and according to Roman historian Livy, the custom may have originated earlier, in the Etruscan civilization.

Magister militum

Magister militum (Latin for "Master of the Soldiers", plural magistri militum) was a top-level military command used in the later Roman Empire, dating from the reign of Constantine the Great. Used alone, the term referred to the senior military officer (equivalent to a war theatre commander, the emperor remaining the supreme commander) of the Empire. In Greek sources, the term is translated either as strategos or as stratelates.

Maruthas of Martyropolis

Saint Maruthas or Marutha of Martyropolis was a Syrian monk who became bishop of Maypherkat in Mesopotamia (Meiafarakin) for a period beginning before 399 through 410. He's believed to have died before 420. He is venerated as a Saint by Catholics, Greek Orthodox believers and Copts, his feast being kept on 4 December.

He brought into his episcopal city the relics of so many martyrs that it received the surname Martyropolis.

He was a friend of Saint John Chrysostom.

He acted as an ambassador between the East Roman Emperor and the Persian Emperor.In the interests of the Church of Persia, which had suffered much in the persecution of Shapur II, he came to Constantinople, but found Emperor Arcadius too busily engaged in the affairs about the exile of St. John Chrysostom. Later Maruthas was sent by Emperor Theodosius II to the court of Persia, where, notwithstanding the Magi, he won the esteem of King Yazdegerd I of Persia by his affability, saintly life, and, as is claimed, by his knowledge of medicine.

So Marutha managed to negotiate a peace between the two empires.

He was present at the general First Council of Constantinople in 381 and at a Council of Antioch in 383 (or 390), at which the Messalians were condemned. For the benefit of the Persian Church he is said to have held two synods at Ctesiphon. A great organizer, he was one of the first to give a regular structure to the church, helped in his mission by the catholicos Isaac.

His writings include:

Acts of the Persian Martyrs (these acts remember the victims of the persecution of Shapur II and Yazdegerd I)

History of the Council of Nicaea

A translation in Syriac of the canons of the Council of Nicaea

A Syrian liturgy, or anaphora

Commentaries on the Gospels

Acts of the Council of Seleucia-Ctesiphon (26 spurious canons of a synod held in 410)He also wrote hymns on the Holy Eucharist, on the Cross, and on saints killed in Shapur's persecution.

Military history of ancient Rome

The military history of ancient Rome is inseparable from its political system, based from an early date upon competition within the ruling elite. Two consuls were elected each year to head the government of the state, and in the early to mid-Republic were assigned a consular army and an area in which to campaign.


The Paramonai (Greek: Παραμοναί) were an obscure Byzantine guard regiment of the Palaiologan period.

The name derives from the Greek verb παραμένω, meaning "to stand near something". Unlike other major guard units in the Palaiologan army like the Varangian Guard, the regiment of the Paramonai was a native Byzantine formation, although little else is known about it. Its existence is safely attested in the literary sources only for the period from 1272 until 1315.They are still mentioned by the mid-14th century writer Pseudo-Kodinos, however, who records that the regiment had two divisions, one on foot and the other on horse, each commanded by an allagator, and that all the soldiers were armed with swords. The veracity of Kodinos's account is impossible to ascertain.

Princeps senatus

The princeps senatus (plural principes senatus) was the first member by precedence of the Roman Senate. Although officially out of the cursus honorum and owning no imperium, this office brought conferred prestige on the senator holding it.


A sakellarios (Greek: σακελλάριος) is an official entrusted with administrative and financial duties (cf. sakellē or sakellion, "purse, treasury"). The title was used in the Byzantine Empire with varying functions, and remains in use in the Eastern Orthodox Church.


The tzykanisterion (Greek: τζυκανιστήριον) was a stadium for playing the tzykanion (τζυκάνιον, from Middle Persian čaukān, čōkān), a kind of polo adopted by the Byzantines from Sassanid Persia.

Yazdegerd I

Yazdegerd I (Middle Persian: 𐭩𐭦𐭣𐭪𐭥𐭲𐭩‎ Yazdekert, meaning "made by God"; New Persian: یزدگرد Yazdegerd) was the twelfth king (shah) of the Sasanian Empire, ruling from 399 to 420. He was the son of Shapur III (383–388). He succeeded to the Sasanian throne on the assassination of his brother Bahram IV in 399 and ruled for twenty-one years till his death in 420.

Yazdegerd I's reign was largely uneventful. The shah is described as being of a peaceful disposition. There were cordial relations between Persia and the Eastern Roman Empire as well as between Persia and the Western Roman Empire. Early during his reign, Yazdegerd was entrusted the care of the Roman prince Theodosius by his father Arcadius on the latter's death in 408, and Yazdegerd faithfully defended the life, power and possessions of the Roman prince.Yazdegerd promoted Christianity in the early years of his reign and later opposed it. He is known in Sasanian sources (and also in Islamic Persian sources who use Sasanian sources as their references) as "the Sinner". However, this was propaganda made by the Zoroastrian aristocrats and priests due to his persecution of them due to their opposition towards him, and his tolerance towards his non-Zoroastrian subjects, such as the Christians and the Jews. Yazdegerd also used the title of "Ramshahr" ("who maintains peace in his dominion"), which fitted to him, due to his peace with the Romans and tolerance towards his subjects. The title of "Ramshahr" was used by the legendary Kayanid kings, and thus starts the Sasanian interest in Kayanid history, where they later would adopt the title of "Kay" and use the slogan "xwarrah". However, due to the Christians' use of his tolerance to attack the Zoroastrians, the appointment of the intolerant vizier Mihr Narseh, resulted in persecutions of the Christians, and also the struggle to convert Armenia to Zoroastrianism.

Since the death of the powerful Sasanian shah Shapur II (r. 309–379), the aristocrats and priests had expanded their influence and authority at the cost of the Sasanian government, nominating, dethroning, and murdering shahs, which included Yazdegerd, who was murdered in 21 January 420. They then sought to stop the sons of Yazdegerd from the ascending the throne—Shapur IV, who was the eldest son of Yazdegerd and governor of Armenia, quickly rushed to the Sasanian capital of Ctesiphon, and ascended the throne. He was, however, shortly murdered by the nobles and priests, who elected a son of Bahram IV, Khosrow, as shah. Another son of Yazdegerd, Bahram V hurried to the Sasanian capital of Ctesiphon with an Lakhmid army, and won the favour of the nobles and priests, according to a long-existing popular legend, after withstanding a trial against two lions.

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