Bahram Chobin’s Revolt (AD 590-1): Depictions of Death by Elephant

Being killed by an elephant might seem to be a horrible death and, indeed, it was!

Throughout Southeast Asia and India, it was a common method of capital punishment, however, its use was also extended to the Roman and Sasanian geographical sphere.

During my research, I have come across a couple of instances in which my main contemporary source – Theophylact Simocatta – has depicted death by elephant. Theophylact Simocatta was a Roman classicising historian writing in the early seventh century AD about the political and military events of Emperor Maurice’s reign (AD 582-602). Within Theophylact’s text we are offered three depictions of the Sasanian use of elephants to kill their enemies.

Bahram Chobin, an eminent general within the Sasanian military, had suffered a defeat at the hands of a Roman general Romanus in AD 589. The current Šāhanšāh (King of Kings) Hormizd IV, sent an individual named Sarames to dismiss and scold the failed general. Nevertheless, Bahram overpowered Sarames and fuelled by retribution called for one of his largest elephants to “terminate his life.” This event ushered in the start of Bahram’s revolt. (Theoph. Sim. History. III. 8. 10-11).

Khosrow I fighting on-top an elephant against during the Mazdakite revolt.

The second instance of death by elephant was when a failed plot to assassinate the rebellious Bahram Chobin was thwarted (AD 590). The plot was developed within Bahram’s own military camp due to communication with Khosrow II and his exertion to Bahram’s troops to stop tyranny from prevailing. The most eminent satraps (Zamerdes and Zoanambes the Persian), alongside Bindoes agreed to undertake such a task. The conspirators alongside their troops burst into the royal palace, but alas, after a fierce night battle, Bahram and his loyalist troops defeated the to-be assassinators. In the morning they were all killed, except Bindoes and a handful of men who managed to escape.

“…and captured the originators of the enterprise; once day had grown bright, he chopped off the functional parts of their limbs and then, after spreading out the remainder of their bodies, he allowed them to be trampled by the elephants and to obtain this all-consuming death.”

Theoph. Sim. History. IV. 14. 14.
Sasanian relief of boar hunting on top of domestic elephants – Taq-e Boston Iran

The third instance also occurred during Bahram Chobin’s revolt in AD 590/1 against the now Šāhanšāh Khosrow II (Hormizd IV son). Bahram had brought war elephants to the Battle of Blarathon (AD 591) in the hope that he could use their strength and terrifying nature to secure victory, however, quite the opposite happened. Khosrow II was victorious and consequently used the remnants of Bahram’s elephant corps, which had been captured during the battle, to kill Bahram’s captured men. Bahram’s own weapon had been turned against his own men.  

“And so the Persian king handed over some to the jaws of the sword, while others he presented as toys for the feet of the beast.”

Theoph. Sim. History. V. 10. 13.
An Ottoman miniature depicting the execution of prisoners of war in Nandorfehervar.

Brief Bibliography

  • Allsen, T, The Royal Hunt in Eurasian History (Pennsylvania, 2006).
  • Farrokh, K, The Armies of Ancient Persia: The Sassanians (Barnsley, 2017).
  • Simocatta, Theophylact. The History of Theophylact Simocatta: an English Translation with Introduction and Notes. Translated by Michael Whitby and Mary Whitby (Oxford, 1986).

Published by Sean Strong

Sean is a doctoral researcher working on the reign of Maurice (582-602). He holds a further interest in understanding the ideology behind identity and the perception of rulership in Eastern Europe and the Near East. Sean's research interests vary throughout the Late Antique and Byzantine world, and span across the fields of military, political, and social history.

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