Roman–Persian War of 572–591

Roman–Persian War of 572–591

This was a war fought between the Sassanid Empire of Persia and the Roman Empire, at this date sometimes termed the Byzantine Empire. It was triggered by pro-Roman revolts in areas of the Caucasus under Persian hegemony, although other events contributed to its outbreak. The fighting was largely confined to the southern Caucasus and Mesopotamia, although it also extended into eastern Anatolia, Syria and northern Iran. It was part of an intense sequence of wars between these two empires which occupied the majority of the 6th and early 7th centuries. It was also the last of the many wars between them to follow a pattern in which fighting was largely confined to frontier provinces and neither side achieved any lasting occupation of enemy territory beyond this border zone. It preceded a much more wide-ranging and dramatic final conflict in the early 7th century. (See Roman-Persian Wars.)

The outbreak of war

Less than a decade after the fifty-year peace treaty of 562, tensions mounted at all points of intersection between the two empires' spheres of influence, as had happened before when war broke out in the 520s. In 568-9 the Romans were engaged in ultimately abortive negotiations with the Gokturks for an alliance against Persia; in 570 the Sassanids invaded Yemen, expelling the Romans' Aksumite allies and restoring the Himyarite Kingdom as a client state; in 570 and 571 the Sassanids' Arab clients the Lakhmids launched raids on Roman territory, although on both occasions they were defeated by the Ghassanids, clients of the Romans; and in 570 the Romans made a secret agreement to support an Armenian rebellion against the Sassanids, which began in 571, accompanied by another revolt in Iberia. Early in 572 the Armenians under Vardan Mamikonian defeated the Persian governor of Armenia and captured his headquarters at Dvin; the Persians soon retook the city but shortly afterwards it was captured again by combined Armenian and Roman forces and direct hostilities between Romans and Persians began. Despite frequent revolts in the 5th century, during the earlier wars of the 6th century the Armenians had largely remained loyal to their Sassanid overlords, unlike their neighbours and fellow Christians in Iberia and Lazica. By joining the Iberians, Lazi and Romans in a coalition of the region's Christian peoples, the Armenians dramatically shifted the balance of power in the Caucasus, helping Roman forces to carry the war deeper into Persian territory than had previously been possible on this front.

The fall of Dara

However, in Mesopotamia the war began disastrously for the Romans. After a victory at Sargathon in 573 they laid siege to Nisibis and were apparently on the point of capturing this, the chief bulwark of the Persian frontier defences, when the abrupt dismissal of their general led to a disorderly retreat. Taking advantage of Roman confusion, Sassanid forces under Khosrau I (531-579) swiftly counter-attacked and encircled Dara, capturing the city after a six-month siege. At the same time, a smaller Persian army under Adarmahan ravaged Syria, sacking Apamea and a number of other cities. To make matters worse, in 572 the emperor Justin II (565–578) had ordered the assassination of the Ghassanid king al-Mundhir III; as a result of the unsuccessful attempt on his life, al-Mundhir severed his alliance with the Romans, leaving their desert frontier exposed. In desperation (Justin is reported to have been driven insane by the loss of Dara), in 574 the Romans agreed to pay 45,000 "nomismata" for a one-year truce, and later in the year extended this to five years, secured by an annual payment of 30,000 "nomismata". However, these truces applied only to the Mesopotamian front and elsewhere the war went on.

Khosrau I's last campaign

In 575 the Romans managed to settle their differences with the Ghassanids; this renewal of their alliance at once bore dramatic fruit as the Ghassanids sacked the Lakhmid capital at Hira. In the same year Roman forces took advantage of the favourable situation in the Caucasus to campaign in Caucasian Albania. In 576 Khosrau set out on what was to be his last campaign and one of his most ambitious, staging a long-range strike through the Caucasus into Anatolia, where Persian armies had not been since the time of Shapur I (241-272). His attempts to attack Theodosiopolis and Caesarea were thwarted, but he managed to sack Sebasteia before withdrawing. On the way home, he was intercepted and severely defeated near Melitene by Justinian, the Magister Militum of the East; pillaging the undefended city of Melitene as they fled, his army suffered further heavy losses as they crossed the Euphrates under Roman attack. Khosrau was reportedly so shaken by this fiasco and his own narrow escape that he established a law forbidding any of his successors from leading an army in person, unless to face another monarch also campaigning in person. The Romans exploited Persian disarray by raiding deep into Albania and Azerbaijan, launching amphibious raids across the Caspian Sea against northern Iran, wintering in Persian territory and continuing their attacks into the summer of 577. Khosrau now sued for peace, but a victory in Armenia by his general Tamkhosrau over his recent nemesis Justinian stiffened his resolve and the war continued.

War returns to Mesopotamia

In 578 the truce in Mesopotamia came to an end and the main focus of the war shifted to that front. After Persian raids in Mesopotamia, the new Magister Militum of the East Maurice mounted raids on both sides of the Tigris, captured Aphumon and sacked Singara. Khosrau again sought peace in 579, but died before an agreement could be reached and his successor Hormizd IV (579-590) broke off the negotiations. In 580 the Ghassanids scored yet another victory over the Lakhmids, while Roman raids again penetrated east of the Tigris. However, around this time the future Khosrau II was put in charge of the situation in Armenia, where he succeeded in convincing most of the rebel leaders to return to the Sassanid allegiance, although Iberia remained loyal to the Romans. The following year, an ambitious campaign along the Euphrates by Roman forces under Maurice and Ghassanids under al-Mundhir III failed to make progress, while the Persians under Adarmahan mounted a devastating campaign in Mesopotamia. Maurice and al-Mundhir blamed each other for these difficulties, and their mutual recriminations led to al-Mundhir's arrest in the following year on suspicion of treachery, triggering war between Romans and Ghassanids and marking the beginning of the end of the Ghassanid kingdom.


In 582, after a victory at Constantia over Adarmahan and Tamkhosrau in which Tamkhosrau was killed, Maurice was acclaimed emperor following the death of Tiberius II Constantine (565–578). The advantage gained at Constantia was lost later in the year when his successor as Magister Militum of the East, John Mystacon, was defeated on the river Nymphios by Kardarigan. During the mid-580s the war continued in inconclusive fashion through raids and counter-raids, punctuated by abortive peace talks; the one significant clash was a Roman victory at Solachon in 586. The arrest by the Romans of al-Mundhir's successor al-Nu'man VI in 584 led to the fragmentation of the Ghassanid kingdom, which reverted to a loose tribal coalition and never regained its former power. In 588 a mutiny by unpaid Roman troops seemed to offer the Sassanids a chance for a breakthrough, but the mutineers themselves repulsed the ensuing Persian offensive; after a subsequent defeat at Tsalkajur, the Romans won another victory at Martyropolis. During this year, a group of prisoners taken at the fall of Dara 15 years earlier reportedly escaped from their prison in Khuzestan and fought their way back to Roman territory.

Civil War in Persia

In 589 the course of the war was abruptly transformed. In spring the Roman pay dispute was settled, bringing an end to the mutiny, but Martyropolis fell to the Persians through the treachery of an officer named Sittas and Roman attempts to retake it failed, although the Romans won a battle at Sisauranon later in the year. Meanwhile in the Caucasus, Roman and Iberian offensives were repulsed by the Persian general Bahram Chobin, who had recently been transferred from the Central Asian front where he had brought a war with the Gokturks to a successful conclusion. However, after he was defeated by the Romans under Romanus on the river Araxes, Bahram was contemptuously dismissed by Hormizd IV. The general, enraged at this humiliation, raised a revolt which soon gained the support of much of the Sassanid army. Alarmed by his advance, in 590 members of the Persian court overthrew and killed Hormizd, raising his son to the throne as Khosrau II (590–628). Bahram pressed on with his revolt regardless and the defeated Khosrau was soon forced to flee for safety to Roman territory, while Bahram took the throne as Bahram VI, marking the first interruption of the Sassanid dynasty's rule since their empire's foundation. With support from Maurice, Khosrau set out to regain the throne, winning the support of the main Persian army at Nisibis and returning Martyropolis to his Roman allies. Early in 591 an army sent by Bahram was defeated by Khosrau's supporters near Nisibis, and Ctesiphon was subsequently taken for Khosrau by Mahbodh. Having restored Dara to Roman control, Khosrau and the Magister Militum of the East Narses led a combined army of Roman and Persian troops from Mesopotamia into Azerbaijan to confront Bahram, while a second Roman army under the Magister Militum of Armenia John Mystacon staged a pincer movement from the north. At Ganzak they decisively defeated Bahram, restoring Khosrau II to power and bringing the war to an end.


Having played a vital role in restoring Khosrau II to the throne, the Romans were left in a stronger position in their relations with Persia than at any previous time in the 6th century. Khosrau not only returned Dara and Martyropolis in exchange for their help, but also agreed to a new partition of the Caucasus by which the Sassanids handed over to the Romans the western half of Iberia and more than half of what had been Persian Armenia since the partition of the 4th century. Thus the extent of effective Roman control in the Caucasus reached its zenith. Also, unlike previous 6th-century truces and peace treaties, which had usually involved the Romans making monetary payments either for peace, for the return of occupied territories or as a contribution towards the defence of the Caucasus passes, no such payments were included on this occasion, marking a major shift in the balance of power. The emperor Maurice was even in a position to overcome his predecessor's omissions in the Balkans by extensive campaigns. However, this situation was soon dramatically overturned, as the alliance between Maurice and Khosrau helped trigger a new war only eleven years later, with catastrophic results for both empires.


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