SKZ | Introduction

Note: Introduction still under construction.

Bas relief from Naqsh-e Rostam, Iran, depicting the triumph of Shapur I over the Roman emperors Philip and Valerian
Bas relief from Naqsh-e Rustam, Iran, depicting the triumph of Shapur I over the Roman emperors Philip and Valerian (Wikimedia Commons)

Shapur I was the second king of the Sassanian empire; he took the throne in 242 CE upon the death of his father Ardashir, although it is possible that father and son had been ruling jointly since 240.

Both the SKZ and Roman literary histories assert that Shapur fought the Romans in three separate campaigns, though there is disagreement about the details. The first was against the Roman emperor Gordian III and dates to 242–4 CE. Gordian seems to have enjoyed some initial success against Shapur, driving his armies from Syria and Mesopotamia and retaking several important cities there. The author of the Gordiani Tres in the Historia Augusta claims to record an oration from Gordian that was read before the Roman Senate. “We have penetrated as far as Nisibis,” Gordian supposedly proclaimed, “and, if the gods be well disposed, we will get as far as Ctesiphon.”

But Gordian’s campaign ended in failure. Shapur (SKZ 6–7) says that he defeated and killed the emperor in a battle at Mishik in Babylonia. Various accounts of Gordian’s death are given in the Greco-Roman literary histories, though the end of his campaign against the Persians is generally blamed on the treachery of his successor, M. Julius Philippus (Arabs), better known as Philip the Arab. Scholars debate whether and how these traditions can be reconciled.

In the wake of Gordion’s death, Shapur and Philip came to an agreement that ended the war. According to Shapur (SKZ 8), Philip became a tributary of the Sasanians and paid a considerable sum as “blood money.” If true, this concession did not prevent Philip from claiming the titles “Persicus Maximus” and “Parthicus Maximus,” as several inscriptions attest. Some of Philip’s coins bear the legend “peace established with the Persians.”

In 260 CE, Shapur clashed with a third Roman emperor, Valerian. After a Sassanian victory near the city of Edessa, Valerian became the only emperor ever to fall into the hands of an enemy army. Shapur sent his prisoner to Persia and proceeded to thoroughly ravage Rome’s eastern territories. The Sassanian advance was eventually checked by Palmyrene armies, but not without significant cost to the internal cohesion of the Roman empire.