Late Antiquity in Eastern Persia

  January 23, 2024   Read time 5 min
Late Antiquity in Eastern Persia
After the fall of the Kushan dynasty in A.D. 225, the provinces of Gandhara, Bactria and Sogdiana passed under the rule of Sasanian governors who bore the title of Kushanshah "King of the Kushans". This Persian administration continued until about A.D. 360.

The Kushanshahs are known chiefly from their coinage, which resembles that of the Sasanian empire of Iran in distinguishing the individual rulers each by his characteristic crown. Unlike the Sasanian coinage in Iran, however, the coinage of the Kushanshahs comprised little silver (only two isolated silver issues, of Peroz I Kushanshah, and Hormizd I Kushanshah, are known) and was practically limited to issues in gold and bronze. The sequence of the Kushanshahs whose coins are known is given in the following list [cf. pp. 334, 339]: Ardashir I Kushanshah Ardashir II Kushanshah Peroz I Kushanshah Hormizd I Kushanshah (c. A.D. 277-86; rebel against Bahram II of Iran) Peroz II Kushanshah Hormizd II Kushanshah (? subsequently Hormizd II of Iran, A.D. 302-9) Varahran I Kushanshah Varahran II Kushanshah (reigning A.D. 360).

References to the Kushanshahs in the historical sources are rare, but the Scriptores Historiae Augustae (Carus 8) mention that during the advance of the Roman emperor Carus against the Persian capital of Ctesiphon in A.D. 283, the Persians were "occupied with domestic sedition", and therefore offered no opposition to the advancing Romans. Moreover, a Roman panegyric of the reign of Maximian (A.D. 285-305) describes how the Persian king, presumably Bahram II (A.D. 276-93) was attacked by his brother "Ormies", a name which could well designate the Kushanshah Hormizd I. The issue by Hormizd I Kushanshah at Marv of Sasanian-type gold coins with the title Kushanshahanshah "Kushan king of kings" was thus in all probability an act of open rebellion.

It is none the less clear that Bahram II of Iran was successful in defeating the rebellion of the Kushanshah. This is evidenced not only by his continued reign until A.D. 293, a full ten years after the earliest mention of the insurrection; but also by a passing notice of the historian Agathias1 who states that Bahram reduced the people of Segistan (Sistan) to subjection, and therefore conferred on his infant son the title of Sakanshah. Though the rebellion of the Kushanshah is not specifically mentioned in this connection, it is natural to suppose that the reduction of the people of Segistan was accompanied by the overthrow of their neighbour the Kushanshah, with whom, according to the panegyric already quoted, they were in fact acting in concert.

The last possible reference in a western historian to the affairs of the Kushan governorate occurs in the description by Ammianus Marcellinus (xix. i. 1-2) of the siege by the Sasanian emperor Shapur II of the Roman city of Amida. According to Ammianus, the Persian king hpd his army on horseback, "wearing in the place of a diadem a golden replica of a ram's head set with gems". It has already been observed that each of the Sasanian kings was distinguished, on coins and in art, by a characteristic crown, which he no doubt also wore in real life. The headdress of Shapur II was a mural crown, and not one of the type described by Ammianus. It is true, however, that the characteristic headdress of Varahran II Kushanshah, quite probably a contemporary of Shapur II, was in the form of a ram's head. It seems likely, therefore, that the Persian prince seen by Ammianus was not in fact Shapur, but the Kushanshah Varahran II, who is thus shown to have been active in A.D. 360.

It is now time to turn to a new factor which began about A.D. 350 to impinge upon the history of the eastern Iranian lands. This was the coming of the Huns or Hsiung-nu (whose earlier history has already been noticed)1 to the west from the borders of China. In A.D. 311 the southern section of the Hsiung-nu had captured and burnt the capital of the Chinese Tsin dynasty at Lo-yang, the terminus of the Silk Route famous to the Romans as Sera Metropolis. The disturbances which took place further to the west along the Silk Route as a consequence of this event are reflected in the Sogdian "Ancient Letters ", found by Sir Aurel Stein in the Chinese Wall to the west of Tun-huang, and now in the British Museum.2 In China the Hsiung-nu set up a dynasty which survived until A.D. 350. Meanwhile the northern section of the same people had been driven westwards from the vicinity of Lake Baikal by their rivals the Sien-pi. The Hsiung-nu apparently passed to the north of the Tien-shan range, where their movements were unknown to the historians of either half of the civilized world. It was only in A.D. 350 that their impact fell on the course of western history.

In that year Shapur II of Iran was besieging the Roman fortress of Nisibis in Mesopotamia when news reached him that the eastern frontiers of Iran were being attacked by nomadic invaders. He immediately abandoned the siege, and set out for the threatened spot. The historian Zonaras (11. 15) calls the invaders "Massagetae", and Ammianus Marcellinus (xiv. iii. 1) does not name them at this point in his narrative; but subsequently (xvi. ix. 4) it emerges that they were, in fact, the Chionites, a name formed from the Middle Persian word xiyon "Hun", perhaps with the addition of a Greek tribal suffix. It is clear, therefore, that the invaders were a section of the Huns, who had lately arrived in Transoxiana in the course of their journey from the east. The struggle with these opponents kept the Sasanian king occupied until A.D. 358, when he was able to contract a treaty of peace with them, under which they were to join him as allies in a further campaign against Rome.

So it was that at the siege of Amida in A.D. 360 the Chionites under their king Grumbates were ranged amongst the allies of the Persians. A vivid detail which occurs in the narrative of Ammianus is that of the cremation of Grumbates' son, who was killed in the fighting with the Romans. Since the Zoroastrian Persians of Shapur's army would have regarded cremation as anathema, it seems clear that this ritual was characteristic of the Chionites. Confirmation of Ammianus* statement comes in archaeological reports of cremation deposits found amongst the European Huns,1 who will naturally have had affinities with the Chionites. At the same time there is evidence that some of the later Hunnish tribes in eastern Iran practised instead the rite of inhumation.

Write your comment