Shapur I

Shapur I
Shapur I
"King of kings of Iran and Aniran"[1]
(Middle Persian: šāhān šāh ērān ud anērān)
Reign 240/42 - 270/72 CE
Born c. 215 CE
Birthplace possibly Firuzabad
Died 270 or 272
Place of death Bishapur
Buried Unknown
Predecessor Ardashir I
Successor Hormizd I
Royal House Sasan
Father Ardashir I
Mother Lady Myrōd
Religious beliefs Zoroastrianism

Shapur I or also known as Shapur I the Great was the second Sassanid King of the Second Persian Empire. The dates of his reign are commonly given as 240/42 - 270/72, but it is likely that he also reigned as co-regent (together with his father) prior to his father's death in 242 (more probably than 240).[2]


Early years

Shapur was the son of Ardashir I (r. 226–240 [died 242]), the founder of the Sassanid dynasty and whom Shapur succeeded. His mother was Lady Myrōd,[3] who—according to legend[4]—was an Arsacid princess. The Talmud cites a nickname for her, "Ifra Hurmiz", after her bewitching beauty.[5]

Coin of Shapur I the Great, showing the ruler, and a fire altar with two stylized attendants.

Shapur accompanied his father's campaigns against the Parthians, who - at the time - still controlled much of the Iranian plateau through a system of vassal states that the Persian kingdom had itself previously been a part of. Before an assembly of magnates, Ardashir "judged him the gentlest, wisest, bravest and ablest of all his children"[3] and nominated him as his successor. Shapur also appears as heir apparent in Ardashir's investiture inscriptions at Naqsh-e Rajab and Firuzabad. The Cologne Mani-Codex indicates that, by 240, Ardashir and Shapur were already reigning together.[3] In a letter from Gordian III to his senate, dated to 242, the "Persian Kings" are referred to in the plural. Synarchy is also evident in the coins of this period that portray Ardashir facing his youthful son, and which are accompanied by a legend that indicates that Shapur was already referred to as king.

The date of Shapur's coronation remains debated. 240 is frequently noted,[3] but Ardashir lived very probably until 242.[6] 240 also marks the year of the seizure and subsequent destruction of Hatra, about 100 km southwest of Nineveh and Mosul in present-day Iraq. According to legend, al-Nadirah, the daughter of the king of Hatra, betrayed her city to the Sassanids, who then killed the king and had the city razed. (Legends also have Shapur either marrying al-Nadirah, or having her killed, or both.)[7]

War against the Roman Empire

Rock-face relief at Naqsh-e Rustam of Shapur (on horseback) with Philip the Arab and Emperor Valerian.

Ardashir I had, towards the end of his reign, renewed the war against the Roman Empire. Shapur I conquered the Mesopotamian fortresses Nisibis and Carrhae and advanced into Syria. Timesitheus, father-in-law of the young emperor, Gordian III, drove him back and defeated him at the Battle of Resaena in 243, regaining Nisibis and Carrhae. Timesitheus died shortly afterward, and Philip the Arab (244–249) murdered Gordian III after his defeat at the Battle of Misiche. Philip then concluded a peace with the Persians in 244. With the Roman Empire debilitated by Germanic invasions and the continuous elevation of new emperors after the death of Trajan Decius (251), Shapur I resumed his attacks.

A fine cameo showing an equestrian combat of Shapur I and Valerian in which the Roman emperor is seized, according to Shapur’s own statement, “with our own hand”, in year 256.

Shapur conquered Armenia, invaded Syria, and plundered Antioch. Eventually, the Emperor Valerian (253–260) marched against him and by 257, Valerian had recovered Antioch and returned the province of Syria to Roman control. In 259, Valerian moved to Edessa, but an outbreak of plague killed many and weakened the Roman troops defending the city which was then besieged by the Persians. In 260, Valerian arranged a meeting with Shapur to negotiate a peace settlement but was betrayed by Shapur who seized him and held him prisoner for the remainder of his life.[8] Shapur advanced into Asia Minor, but was driven back by defeats at the hands of Balista, who captured the royal harem. Septimius Odenathus, prince of Palmyra, rose in his rear, defeated the Persian army and regained all the territories Shapur had occupied. Shapur was unable to resume the offensive and lost Armenia again.[9]

The Humiliation of Valerian by Shapur I. Pen and ink, Hans Holbein the Younger, c. 1521

One of the great achievements of Shapur's reign was the defeat of the Roman Emperor Valerian. This is presented in a mural at Naqsh-e Rustam, where Shapur is represented on horseback wearing royal armour and crown. Before him kneels Philip the Arab, in Roman dress, asking for grace. In his right hand the king grasps the uplifted arms of what may be Valerian; one of his hands is hidden in his sleeve as the sign of submission. The same scene is repeated in other rock-face inscriptions. Shapur is said to have publicly shamed Valerian by using the Roman Emperor as a footstool when mounting his horse.[10] Other sources contradict and note that in other stone carvings, Valerian is respected and never on his knees. This is supported by reports that Valerian and some of his army lived in relatively good conditions in the city of Bishapur and that Shapur enrolled the assistance of Roman engineers in his engineering and development plans.

The colossal statue of Shapur I standing in the Shapur cave, is one of the most impressive sculptures of the Sassanid dynasty.

Builder of cities

Shapur I left other reliefs and rock inscriptions. A relief at Naqsh-e Rajab near Istakhr, is accompanied by a Greek translation. Here Shapur I calls himself "the Mazdayasnian (worshipper of Ahuramazda), the divine Sapores, King of Kings of the Aryans, Iranians, and non-Aryans, of divine descent, son of the Mazdayasnian, the divine Artaxerxes, King of Kings of the Aryans, grandson of the divine king Papak." Another long inscription at Istakhr mentions the King's exploits in archery in the presence of his nobles. From his titles we learn that Shapur I claimed the sovereignty over the whole earth, although in reality his domain extended little farther than that of Ardashir I. Shapur I built the great town Gundishapur near the old Achaemenid capital Susa, and increased the fertility of the district by a dam and irrigation system - built by the Roman prisoners - that redirected part of the Karun River. The barrier is still called Band-e Kaisar, "the mole of the Caesar." He is also responsible for building the city of Bishapur, also built by Roman soldiers captured after the defeat of Valerian in 260.After being captured Valerian was continually tortured. According to Mitchiner, Shapur also used Valerian as a stepping stool to get onto his horse.[11]

Interactions with minorities

Shapur is mentioned many times in the Talmud, as King Shabur. He had good relations with the Jewish community and was a friend of Shmuel, one of the most famous of the Babylonian Amoraim.

Under Shapur's reign, the prophet Mani, the founder of Manichaeism, began his preaching in Western Iran, and the King himself seems to have favoured his ideas. The Shapurgan, Mani's only treatise in the Middle Persian language, is dedicated to Shapur.

Shapur I
Sassanid dynasty
Preceded by
Ardashir I
"King of kings of Iran and Aniran"
240/42 –272
Succeeded by
Hormizd I


  1. ^ MacKenzie, David Niel (1998). "Ērān, Ērānšahr". Encyclopedia Iranica. 8. Costa Mesa: Mazda. [dead link]
  2. ^ For the date of Ardashir's death (242) see J. Wiesehöfer, Ardasir, in: Encyclopedia Iranica.
  3. ^ a b c d Shahbazi, Shapur (2003). "Shapur I". Encyclopedia Iranica. Costa Mesa: Mazda. 
  4. ^ Herzfeld, E. E. (1988). Iran in the Ancient East. New York: Hacker Art Books. ISBN 0-87817-308-0.  p. 287.
  5. ^ Talmud Bavli, Tractate Baba Basra 8a. See there note 56 in Artscroll edition(2004)
  6. ^ J. Wiesehöfer, Ardasir, in: Encyclopedia Iranica.
  7. ^ "Hatra". Encyclopædia Britannica. Encyclopædia Britannica Inc.. 2008. Retrieved 8 December 2007 
  8. ^ Valerian
  9. ^ The Encyclopædia Britannica, Vol.21, Ed. by Hugh Chisholm, (1911), 219.
  10. ^ Weigel, Richard D. (1998). "Valerian and Gallienus". De Imperatoribus Romanis. 
  11. ^ Gangler, Anne, Heinz Gaube and Attilio Petruccioli, Bukhara, the eastern dome of Islam, (Edition Axel Menges, 2004), 33.

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