Shāpūr II Reigns over Sāsānian Empire

Shāpūr II, a warrior king of Persia, expanded the confines and influence of Persia from Syria to Afghanistan and ushered in a lengthy period of cultural and religious growth.

Summary of Event

Shāpūr II was born in 309 c.e., the third son of King Hormizd II and a Jewish mother. According to legend, his father died before he was born and he was pronounced king while still in the womb. Persian matters of state reverted to a regency in the form of the Council of Nobles headed by Shahroy, an elder councilor, until 325 c.e. Shāpūr assumed his throne at the age of sixteen, becoming the tenth monarch of the vigorous Sāsānian Empire; he would later be counted among its most successful. Shāpūr II
Constantine the Great
Constantius II
Julian the Apostate

From the onset, Shāpūr II proved adept at military affairs and led successful forays against Arab marauders advancing from the south. He subsequently seized the initiative by collecting forces and a fleet near the Gulf of Hormuz and driving deeply into the Arabian peninsula. The Persians proved completely victorious, and the king paraded his captives in an impressive triumph held at Ctesiphon. However, relations with the neighboring Roman Empire remained tense and deteriorated over religious issues. Constantine the Great reached an accord with Christians at the Council of Nicaea in 325 c.e. and granted that creed both official recognition and tolerance. Christianity had long flourished in Persia, but Shāpūr, mindful of a potential fifth column in his kingdom, began systematically converting its adherents to Zoroastrianism. Tensions increased further in 337 c.e., when Shāpūr’s half brother, Hormazd, fled to Constantinople seeking Roman protection. Sensing the inevitability of conflict, the king suddenly renounced the forty-one-year-old peace treaty between Persia and Rome and invaded Mesopotamia that same year. He intended to recapture all the land lost to Rome during the previous century.

In 338 c.e., Shāpūr commenced his long conflict with Rome by attacking numerous fortifications across the Tigris River. The Persians stormed several smaller positions but failed to take the commercial metropolis of Nisibis (now Nusaybin, Turkey) after three costly sieges. Shāpūr was nonetheless aided by the fact that Constantine the Great had died the previous year and his successor, Constantius II, was preoccupied with civil wars and Germanic invaders. The king accordingly wheeled his forces north into Armenia in 341 c.e., conquered the province, and appointed his ally, Arsaces, as king. The Romans could not mount an effective response until 348 c.e., when Constantius II arrived and personally directed an invasion of Persia. This offensive came to grief that year amid the hills of Singara when Shāpūr, feigning defeat, attacked the unsuspecting Roman camp at night and drove off the confused enemy. This victory temporarily secured his left flank, and the king hurried off to the northeast to confront an invading horde of Scythians. The Persians were hard-pressed to cope with their hit-and-run guerrilla tactics, and seven years lapsed before the nomads were subdued and incorporated into the expanding Sāsānian Empire.

In 359 c.e., Shāpūr returned to the west, eager to retry conclusions with Rome. Between 359 and 360 c.e., he successfully besieged and took the fortified cities of Amida (now Diyarbakir, Turkey), Singara, and Edessa (now Urfa, Turkey). Constantius II, aged and infirm, dispatched envoys seeking peace, but Shāpūr’s intention was no less than to reconstitute the ancient Persian empire. It fell on Constantius II’s successor, the energetic emperor Julian the Apostate, to renew the struggle on Rome’s behalf. Through the winter of 362 c.e., he amassed a huge army of ninety-five thousand men, including a fleet of warships and supply ships, and began systematically advancing down the Euphrates River. The Romans expertly brushed aside Persian resistance and defeated Shāpūr’s army beneath the walls of Ctesiphon in June, 363. The king then hastily withdrew, but Julian decided he lacked the manpower for a formal siege and likewise retreated before the onset of winter. Shāpūr then suddenly turned on his antagonists and doggedly harassed his fleeing columns. When Julian was killed in a minor skirmish on June 26, 363 c.e., command passed to his senior general Jovian, who sought peace talks. Shāpūr imposed a humiliating treaty on Jovian, which secured five additional provinces east of the Tigris River and a thirty-year truce. The episode was thoroughly humiliating to Rome’s military prestige and confirmed Shāpūr’s reputation as a skilled commander and negotiator.

For the remainder of his long reign, Shāpūr was occupied with securing his northern flank in Armenia. Arsaces, whom he had placed on the throne, changed sides and joined the Romans until a successful Persian invasion deposed him in 370 c.e. However, Shāpūr’s policy of forced conversions incited resistance and allowed Roman influence to reassert itself. A five-year impasse ensued before the disputed province was divided between Rome and Persia.

Domestically, Shāpūr’s reign coincided with a great cultural and religious flowering throughout the kingdom. Persian art, coinage, and sculpture had become particularly ornate and imparted influence throughout the Middle East as far as India. Zoroastrianism also flourished as a state religion and was accompanied by the persecution of Christians as official policy. However, Shāpūr proved more hospitable to the Jewish community residing in Babylon, from which his mother probably originated. He also rebuilt the ancient city of Susa, founded a new commercial center at Nishapur (now Neyshābūr, Iran), and left the Sāsānian Empire on a much sounder footing than when he had assumed the throne. The empire endured for another three centuries.


Shāpūr II ruled the Sāsānian Empire for seventy years and outlasted the eight Roman emperors with whom he dealt. By the time he died in 379 c.e., the Sāsānian Empire was at its height and stretched more than two thousand miles (thirty-two hundred kilometers) from Syria to India. Persia also reaped the profits of controlling the fabled Silk Road between China and the West.

The Sāsānian Empire was the last great Persian monarchy before the advent of Islam. It arose following the overthrow of the Parthian Empire, to which Persia was a vassal state, by Ardashīr I in 226 c.e. His son Shāpūr I initiated a long and costly war against the Roman Empire that culminated in the capture of Emperor Valerian in 260 c.e. and recognition of Sāsānian conquests. The process was further abetted by his grandson, Shāpūr II, who also reduced Roman influence in Armenia and the Middle East. His relentless wars with Rome, and the numerous battles this incurred, drained the Roman Empire of valuable men and resources. His reign can be considered a significant factor in the Roman Empire’s weakening and eventual overthrow.

The Eastern Roman Empire’s successor, Byzantium, fought the Sāsānians to a standstill for three centuries. The triumph of Emperor Heraclius over Khosrow II (r. 590-628 c.e.) ultimately and fatally weakened the Persian Empire after 628 c.e. Within two decades, the onslaught of Islam from the south proved irresistible, and in 651, the last Sāsānian king, Yazdgard III (r. 633-651 c.e.), died a fugitive in Ctesiphon. Nonetheless, the Sāsānian Dynasty made Persia a leading power in the Middle East and exerted great influence from Syria to Afghanistan and from the Persian Gulf to the Black Sea.

Further Reading

  • The Cambridge History of Iran. 7 vols. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1968-1991. Volume 3, edited by Ehsan Yarshater, is an extremely erudite account of Shāpūr II’s time with great emphasis on primary evidence. Numerous maps, bibliography, and index.
  • Dodgeon, Michael H., Samuel N. C. Lieu, and Geoffrey Greatrex, eds. The Roman Eastern Frontier and the Persian Wars. 2 vols. London: Routledge, 1991-2000. Indispensable collection of period documents and early narrative historical accounts covering Shāpūr II’s entire reign.
  • Neusner, Jacob. Judaism, Christianity, and Zoroastrianism in Talmudic Babylonia. Lanham, Md.: University Press of America, 1986. An important narrative of the interaction between three prevalent creeds in ancient times and their political ramifications.
  • Nicolle, David. Sassanian Armies: The Iran Empire Early Third to Mid-Seventh Centuries a.d.
    Stockport, England: Montvert, 1996. A useful overview of military considerations, replete with excellent color illustrations.
  • Stark, Freya. Rome on the Euphrates: The Story of a Frontier. New York: Harcourt, Brace, and World, 1967. Somewhat dated but still a useful introduction to problems faced by Rome while containing Persia by force.
  • Tafazzoli, Ahmad. Sāsānian Society. New York: Bibliotheca Persica Press, 2000. A brief but very scholarly account of societal classes, including the warrior-aristocrats that formed the bulk of Shāpūr II’s army.
  • Wilcox, Peter. Parthians and Sassanid Persians. London: Osprey, 1986. A useful introductory survey of military considerations accompanied by color uniform plates.

Related Articles in <i>Great Lives from History: Ancient World</i><br />

Constantine the Great; Shāpūr II; Zoroaster. Sāsānian Empire[Sasanian Empire];under Shāpūr II[Shapur 2]
Shāpūr II[Shapur 2]