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Persia and Byzantium

  1. Geoffrey Greatrex

Published Online: 26 OCT 2012

DOI: 10.1002/9781444338386.wbeah03188

The Encyclopedia of Ancient History

How to Cite

Greatrex, G. 2012. Persia and Byzantium. The Encyclopedia of Ancient History. .

Publication History

  1. Published Online: 26 OCT 2012

From the 320s to the 630s ce, the two greatest powers of the Near East comprised the Eastern Roman Empire, otherwise known as Byzantium, and Sasanian Iran. Each side recognized the other's power and, until the seventh century, neither attempted to destroy the other. Although these three centuries were marked by repeated bouts of warfare, increasingly so in the sixth century, the two powers were able to conduct high-level negotiations, conclude peace treaties, and even on occasion to collaborate.

Byzantine emperors in the fourth century still harbored ambitions of conquering Persia. Constantine I (Flavius Valerius Constantinus Augustus), however, died before setting off on campaign; his son's successor, Julian (361–363), undertook a large expedition to Lower Mesopotamia but died in the course of a costly retreat. His successor, Jovian (363–364), was forced to agree to terms dictated by Shapur II (309–379). The Byzantines were obliged to withdraw from Nisibis and Upper Mesopotamia and to grant the Persians a free hand in Armenia. A boundary was established between the two powers in Upper Mesopotamia, the most frequent field of conflict, and this frontier remained more or less fixed until the seventh century. Persian attempts to gain a decisive advantage in Armenia and Iberia (modern Georgia) were thwarted by the emperor Valens (364–378), leading ultimately to the definitive partition of the former between Byzantine- and Persian-backed kings in 387. The resolution of this source of discord ushered in a lengthy period of peace, broken only by a brief war in 421–422 and a minor Persian incursion in 440. Both powers had huge problems of their own to contend with in the fifth century and were thus content to maintain peaceful relations. The Persians, hit by invaders from the central Asian steppes, frequently turned to the Byzantines for financial assistance; in some cases, they received it, although there is no reason to suppose that the Byzantines were obliged to furnish it.

Prolonged hostilities resumed at the start of the sixth century. The Persian king Kavad, just restored to his throne by the Hephthalites, desperately needed funds to reward his allies. When the emperor Anastasios I (491–518) refused his repeated demands for subsidies, Kavad seized several Roman cities and plundered Byzantine territories. In response, the Byzantines mobilized an army and soon regained the initiative. Kavad was forced to agree to terms and proved unable to prevent the Byzantines from building a significant new fortress on the frontier, Dara. Despite this conflict, enough trust remained to induce Kavad to ask Justin I (518–527) to adopt his son Chosroes I (531–579), in order to guarantee his succession to the Persian throne. The request was denied, sparking a further round of inconclusive hostilities, culminating in the Eternal Peace of 532, by which Justinian I (527–565) agreed to make one lump-sum payment to the Persians to secure the permanent security of the eastern frontier. In 540, however, Chosroes took advantage of the weakening of Byzantine defenses, caused by troops being transferred to Italy and north Africa, and captured numerous Roman cities, including Antioch itself. Notwithstanding a series of truces, fighting continued until 561, confined mostly to the Caucasus. A further peace was then concluded, this time securing the tranquility of Byzantium's eastern frontier through annual payments to the Persians.

This arrangement held good for only ten years. Justin II (565–578) found it shameful, since it could be portrayed as a sort of tribute payment to the Persians. Encouraged by diplomatic overtures from the Turks, then arriving in central Asia, he launched a new war in 572. The Persians swiftly gained the upper hand in the struggle, capturing Dara, but internal instability precipitated the fall of Hormisdas IV (579–590). When the emperor Maurice (581–602) gave decisive backing to Hormisdas’ son, Chosroes II (590–628), allowing him to seize power in Iran, the war was brought to an end on favorable terms to the Byzantines in 591. But the overthrow of Maurice in 602 gave Chosroes the pretext to intervene in Roman territory, posing as the emperor's avenger. Persian armies gradually took over all Byzantium's eastern provinces, penetrating as far as Constantinople in 626, and annexing Egypt. Only in the 620s was Herakleios (610–641) able to muster a force capable of outmaneuvering the Persians in the Caucasus and striking to the heart of the Persian kingdom. He thus caused Chosroes’ downfall in 628 and the withdrawal of Persian forces from the Roman Empire. The Byzantine victory in this final, paroxysmic conflict was overshadowed by the Islamic conquest of the whole Near East in the following decades.

References and Suggested Readings

  1. Top of page
  2. References and Suggested Readings
  • Dignas, B. and Winter, E. (2007) Rome and Persia in Late Antiquity. Cambridge.
  • Dodgeon, M. and Lieu, S. N. C. (1991) The Roman eastern frontier and the Persian Wars, AD 226–363. London.
  • Greatrex, G. and Lieu, S. N. C. (2002) The Roman eastern frontier and the Persian Wars, ad 363–630. London.
  • Howard-Johnston, J. D. (2006) East Rome, Sasanian Persia and the end of Antiquity: historiographical and historical studies. Aldershot.