War Yet Again - How the Byzantine/Sassanid Conflict Restarted

For the casual reader it might seem that the Greeks/Romans were always at war with the Persians, starting with the Histories of Herodotus. Ancient writers filled volumes with the campaigns, battles and sieges that would be fought between various empires, usually along the frontiers of what is now Turkey, Syria and Iraq. It is not surprising that these wars would continue into the Middle Ages, with the adversaries being the Byzantine and Sassanid Empires. 

This map could even be more confusing with all the fighting between Persians and Byzantines - created by Michael Josef / Wikimedia Commons

Of course, there were many years without warfare, as both sides kept the peace and sent their armies to fight on other frontiers. How, then, did their wars resume? This post takes a look at the return to conflict in the year 572, according to the Byzantine historian Theophylact Simocatta. He was writing in his History in the early seventh-century, and is our most important chronicler for the later years of the sixth-century. 

Going into the year 572, Byzantium and the Sassanids had been at peace for ten years, the result of a fifty-year treaty that ended the last war. According to Theophylact, the blame for the new outbreak of violence between the Byzantines (who he calls Romans) and the Persians (referred to as Medes) goes to Emperor Justin II (565 – 574):

 Accordingly in the seventh years of the reign of the younger Justin, the Romans broke the treaty through the levity of the king; the blessings of peace were shattered and rent asunder; there came upon the Romans and Medes war, the receptacle of evils, the inn, so to speak, for all ill misfortunes, the archetypal destroyer of life, which it would not be unfitting to call a putrefaction of human affairs. The fifty-year agreement which had been concluded between Romans and Persians was destroyed and cut short by the great folly of the king, and hence came the evil procession of Roman misfortunes. 

Theophylact does give reasons for the war - the Persians had incited the peoples living in southwest portions of the Arabian peninsula to revolt against Ethiopian rule. Moreover, they were accused of trying to bribe the Alans - a warrior peoples living on the Steppes of present-day Russia and Ukraine - into murdering some Byzantine ambassadors. The historian, however, was not impressed with these apparent causes, and comments:

The Romans, eager for a pretext, embraced warfare and from minor ephemeral beginnings they devised for themselves great processions of troubles: for bellicosity procured for them no profit.

He also reports that the Persians believed that Justin II decided to break the treaty to assist the Armenians, who were in revolt against the Sassanid Empire, and that he just did not want to continue the annual tribute of 500 pounds of gold that was being sent to the Persian kings. Theophylact disputes this second reason - the payments were gladly being made so the Persians could build and defend fortifications in the Caucasus region, “so as to prevent the influx of irresistible might of the innumerable neighbouring nations and the destruction of each kingdom.”

How accurate was Theophylact in his reasons is hard to know - perhaps Emperor Justin II believed the Sassanid Empire was weak under its current ruler King Khosrow I (531-579) and decided to strike while he had the advantage? The Emperor dispatched a general named Marcian to lead the attack. Theophylact reports:

Marcian crossed the Euphrates and came to Orshoene when summer had already passed its youth and prime. Since the barbarians had no thought of conflict, Marcian equipped there three thousand of the soldiery and dispatched them against the district whose name was Arzanene. Then the force invaded and, since the attacks came as a surprise to the Medes, the Persian empire suffered gravely during this time: for it was ravaged and plundered and a not inconsiderable booty was carried off.

However, this early success would not be repeated. In 573 the Byzantine general launched an invasion aimed at capturing the city of Nisibis, but they soon found that the old Persian monarch still knew how to wage war. The Byzantines fled in panic when the Sassanid army surprised them, and the Persians would soon take the offensive. By the end of the year, Theophylact would relate how the important city of Daras had been captured:

The Persian king came to Daras like a hurricane and assailed the township for six months, circumscribing the city with mounds and ramparts. After diverting the town’s water supply, constructing towers to oppose its towers, and bringing up siege engines, he subdued the city, although it was exceedingly strong. 

When the emperor Justin heard of this, he was stricken by the impact of the disaster; shortly afterwards he was also afflicted by a sickness of derangement and, fearing the additional generation of subsequent troubles, he arranged with the Persians an armistice for the present year.

Of course, the war was only paused, and would soon resume. The rest of the story you can read in our newest issue of Medieval Warfare magazine: Legacy of Ancient Rome: The Byzantine-Sassanid Wars.

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