05 November 2009

The Persian No Spin Zone

Early in 244 CE, the hapless Emperor Gordian III led the Roman army into Mesopotamia to wage war against the second Sassanian-Persian King of Kings, Shapur. Their armies met in battle near the city of Misikhe (modern Fallujah in Iraq).

In the ensuing battle, the Roman army was obliterated -- or was it?

Gordian died in the battle -- or did he?

It depends whose propaganda you believe.

The Case for the Persians

The Persian version of events, carved in stone with a trilingual inscription (at Naqsh-e Rustam near Persepolis in Iran) , claims that Gordian III was killed in the battle:
When at first we [Shapur] had become established in the Empire, Gordian Caesar raised in all of the Roman Empire a force from the Goth and German realms and marched on Babylonia against the Empire of [Persia] and against us. On the border of Babylonia at Misikhe, a great frontal battle occurred. Gordian Caesar was killed and the Roman force was destroyed.
An elaborate rock carving of Shapur's triumph at Bishapur in the Shiraz region of Iran, pictured left, makes the same point: it shows Gordian III trampled under the hooves of Shapur's horse (that's his head you see beneath its forelegs).
Then Philip Caesar came to us for terms, and to ransom their lives, gave us 500,000 denarii, and became tributary to us.
Whether or not Shapur is truthful in reporting that Philip acknowledged his suzerainty (he's the one kneeling before the Persian king's horse), a peace of sorts was concluded. What is certain at least is that the Romans built a cenotaph for Gordian at a place on the Persian side of the Euphrates river, some 50 miles (70 km) north of Dura Europos, and then Philip departed for Rome (see our report on his 'Short, Sad Dynasty').

The Roman Spin on Events

Roman sources do not mention the battle of Misikhe at all. Instead, Philip, while still Praetorian Prefect, is universally blamed for causing Gordian III's death, either having him murdered or stirring up mutiny by deliberately cutting off the troops' food supplies. In these truncated editions, it was only after the Roman army withdrew to the Euphrates that Gordian was assassinated and Philip took his place.

To make matters murkier, some late sources actually add the claim that Gordian was victorious in the Mesopotamian campaign:
While returning in triumph, [Gordian] was killed by the treachery of Philip ... when he was not far from Roman territory (Jordanes, Hist. Rom. 282)

[Gordian] engaged the barbarians and through conducting the war in a most brilliant manner, he defeated the [Persians] in a series of fierce battles. Then ... as he was returning to the frontiers of his own empire, he was murdered by Philip.... (John of Antioch, frag. 147)

Gordian ... routed Shapur, the king of the Persians in battle. But as he was approaching Ctesiphon [the Persian capital], he was murdered by his own troops at the instigation of the Prefect Philip.... (Syncellus 443).
Were the Romans defeated, or not? Historians ever since have been divided on the issue.

No more. A lucky find in Fars settles the matter.

If it is possible for me, then I shall establish a fire here.

So begins the inscription of a man called Abnun, who was master of ceremonies of Shapur's harem.* It is written on a stone fire altar (left), found near Barm-e Dilak in Fars province, a short distance south of Old Shiraz. The stone has a round depression on the top to hold the sacred fire. Human busts in niches and texts are carved on all four sides. Winged 'angels' flutter between the four human figures. The faces of the figures and 'angels' have been erased, presumably at the hands of iconoclastic Muslims, and its lower part broken off and lost.

This type of fire altar is unique but it is, in fact, the very earliest altar known from the Sassanian Empire so, perhaps, we just didn't know what they looked like at this date.

Happily, we do know for certain its date. The year was 244 CE:

When in the year 3 of Shapur, King of kings―when the Romans were coming against Persia and Parthia, then I [Abnun] was here in all-happy Frayosh.

The place name 'Frayosh' is a bit of a guess as some of the letters are missing. But what follows is entirely clear:

When it was heard that the Romans were coming, then I entreated the gods, saying, ‘If Shapur the King of kings [is victorious, and] the Romans are smitten and worsted, so that they fall into our captivity, then I shall allow myself to establish a fire here.’

So, when Abnun heard that the Romans had invaded the empire, he prayed to the gods for Shapur's victory. As an incentive to get the gods on his side, he vowed to dedicate a sacred fire at Frayosh if his king won

That did the trick.
Then, when it was heard that the Romans had come and Shapur the King of kings had smitten them and had worsted them [so that they fell into our captivity, then I began to] establish [a fire], and its name was made ‘Remain (i.e., live long) Shapur and Abnun’.
You don't get better historical evidence that that! Gordian III was defeated at Misikhe and Abnun dedicated this fire altar to his sovereign.

The Romans were economical with the truth.


* Translation of “The Fire Altar of Happy *Frayosh” by D.N.Mackenzie, via the Sasanika website.


Upper left: Photograph credit to Livius Picture Archive.

Lower left: M. Tavoosi, 'An inscribed capital dating from the time of Shapur I', Bulletin of the Asia Institute 3, 1989, Figs ii, iii. Originally described as a capital of a building, it has since been recognized and accepted as a fire altar, albeit of a new type; see R.N. Frye, 'Historical Interpretations in Middle Iranian', in (W. Skalmowski & A. Van Tongerloo, eds.) Medioiranica, 1993, 65-69.


  1. Well, I would still be cautious with claims like 'the no-spin zone', or even 'you don't get better historical evidence that that', because these were ancient times, and things like 'historical truth' etc. were not very important back than. What was important was the claim, and that the claim stuck.

    I mean - what if the Persians, defeated and all, unable to stop the Romans either advancing on Ctesiphon, or retreating with their loot, suddenly noticed their enemy in disarray? A sudden opportunity to hide their ignominious defeat and cover their shame - any wise ruler would not squander it! So when the Romans, with one emperor dead and a new one badly in need to cover his back while he went for the throne, offered a peace, of course the Persians took it. And to explain the new situation back home, they 're-arranged' the facts (one dead Roman emperor, and a stash of gold paid to the Persians) into a defeat of the Roman army and a victorious Shapur.

    The happy Abnun, when he heard of this 'victory, erected his altar to the gods. he was not there when Gordian died, and possibly, neither was Shapur. But who cared, as long as both parties could claim their own truth?

    Putting it like this, both stories could be true - an altar plus inscription is just that, and no reason exists to believe the Romans over the Persians, or the Persians over the Romans. We have to make our own choice on the basis of this meagre evidence. Good luck all.

  2. Thank you, Robert, for that thoughtful comment.

    Of course, you are right that we shall never get to the whole 'historical truth' behind the Roman and Persian accounts. That is why archaeological data is so important and we look to it to back up (or undermine) controversial written reports.

    True, we can devise alternative scenarios to explain Happy Abnun's altar, but a Persian victory now seems to me the favoured hypothesis. At least, it does explain why the Roman army killed Gordian (and backed Philip); why murder a victorious emperor on the way home?


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