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).
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.
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.
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).
“In this world my treasure is justice, and the world prospers through my efforts and good fortune…From end to end the world is in my keeping, and my way is the path of justice. No one, whether he be a slave or a free man, must sleep uneasily because of my subordinates, or captains, or cavalry: my court is open to everyone, whether they wish me good or ill.”
Shahnameh, p. 662. [Ardashir I addresses his court upon ascension]
The Sasanian Empire (AD 224-651) was the last pre-Islamic Persian empire and was ruled by the Šāhanšāh (King of Kings). The empire goes by different names, nominally different iterations of Sasanian, such as Sassanian and Sassanid. Another important name for the Sasanian Empire was Ērānshahr, meaning land of Iran or of the Iranians.
The empire was established in AD 224 by Ardashir I, who defeated the previous ruling Arsacid dynasty, also known as the Parthian dynasty (247BC – 224AD). Upon ascending the throne, Ardashir installed his own dynasty, replacing the Arsacid family name with his family’s name, Sasan. The empire endured and thrived for 400 years under the Sasanian dynasty until it was overthrown by the Arab Caliphate in AD 651.
Although the Sasanian Empire fell in the mid-seventh century, their legacy, culture, and language has endured until present times; even shaping politics and culture upon its journey. This is most notably visible through the important text titled: the Shahnameh (The Book of Kings). The Shahnameh is a poem written in the Persian language during the late 10th and early 11th century AD. It narrates the Persian mythical and historical past from the creation of the world until the Arab Conquests in the 7th century AD.
It is important to note that a large proportion of our sources on the Sasanian Empire do come from Roman authors, of whom were a great adversary of the Sasanian Empire, however, the Sasanians also interacted with a large number of other nations, kingdoms, and empires. We have sources in Arabic, Syriac, Persian, and Armenian, and more, which adds to our knowledge of Sasanian interactions with their neighbours. To the east, they had interactions with several Indian kingdoms, alongside Tang China. To the north, they had relations with the Hephthalites (White Huns), the Sogdians, and the Turks in the northern steppes.
Religion was an integral aspect of Sasanian society. The main religion was Zoroastrianism, a faith that found new life under the Sasanian dynasty. Their most sacred symbol was fire, and its depiction is found on many Sasanian coins and a number of the Sasanian fire temples can still be explored today. Nonetheless, religious minorities such as Jews, Manicheans, and Christians were still present within the empire and had an important role to play in shaping its history and policies.
For 400 years, the Sasanian Empire was a major power in the Near East, rivalling and neighbouring various peoples and cultures. Nonetheless, the Sasanians, and indeed more generally the Persians, are often overlooked, and viewed as intruders or outsiders delving into other people’s history. This mindset needs to change. The Sasanians have a rich and diverse history of their own. By exploring the Sasanian world, it will allow many people to gain a new and different perspective of events during Late Antiquity.
Some Notable Rulers:
Shapur I (240-70 AD)
Shapur I was the second Šāhanšāh of the Sasanian Empire. He consolidated and expanded Ardashir’s empire and waged a number of successful campaigns against the Roman Empire, even capturing the Emperor Valerian in AD 260. Shapur was also known for his ability to reaffirm Sasanian power in Iran and for his military prowess against the Romans and his subjects in the northern and eastern sectors of the empire. Shapur was the earliest model of Sasanian kingship and he commissioned a number of monuments for everyone to not forget it! A number of these can still be seen today.
Khosrow I (531-79 AD)
Khosrow I is probably the most famous of all Sasanian Šāhanšāh and undoubtedly deserves the title. He was a monumental figure in Sasanian history and because of his success, character, and performance he became the new idealised personification of Sasanian kingship. Sorry Shapur! Khosrow was successful in numerous aspects of society. From the re-organisation of the military through his reforms, which also impacted the integral workings of Sasanian society, to his administrative policies and devotion to knowledge and learning. It can be no coincidence that Šāhanšāh Khosrow I and Emperor Justinian (AD 527-565), are two of the most known individuals of Late Antiquity, and ruled simultaneously atop the two largest empires of the period.
Yazdegerd III (632-51 AD)
Yazdegerd III was the last Šāhanšāh of the Sasanian Empire and ruled during the turbulent time of the Arab Conquest (634). He ascended the throne at eight years old and thus lacked any authority or real power. Given the Arab Conquests erupted in 634, the Sasanians were in a precarious situation. They had just concluded a long war with the Roman Empire only four years previous to Yazdegerd’s arrival upon the throne, and this left the empire war-weary and drained of resources. Despite the empire’s best efforts, vital blows were dealt throughout, and the Sasanians were left with limited avenues to recuperate which ultimately led to their downfall.
For a beginner on the Sasanians, I recommend: Daryaee, T and Rezakhani, K, From Oxus to Euphrates: The World of Late Antique Iran (2016).
Those wanting a complete overview of the Persian world (Achaemenid, Parthian, and Sasanian dynasties), see Wiesehofer, J, Ancient Persia (London and New York, 2006).
For an expansion on the themes of ‘Oxus to Euphrates’, see Daryaee, T, Sasanian Persia: The Rise and Fall of an Empire (London and New York, 2009).
To engage with a complete chronology of the political and military history of the Sasanian Empire, see Bonner, M, The Last Empire of Iran (New Jersey, 2020).
The Sasanians did not only interact with the Romans, in fact much of their rich history revolved around their northern and eastern frontier, see Rezakhani, K, Reorienting the Sasanians: East Iran in Late Antiquity (Edinburgh, 2017).
For the Sasanika: Late Antique Near East Project (a site dedicated to the Sasanians and whose main aim is to increase accessibility into the field) – https://sites.uci.edu/sasanika/
For those wishing to jump into the Shahnameh – please check out the wonderful three-part BBC documentary series titled: Art of Persia. It should still be on iPlayer! This is a great documentary and narrates how Persian culture is retained and envisaged from the Achaemenids up until the modern day.
This is a short update to let readers know that I have recently published an academic article. The best news is… it is open access! So everyone is welcome to read it and it can be accessed at the link below.
This paper traces the usurpation of Nikephoros Bryennios the elder, 1077/8 AD, by examining narratives from three Byzantine historians: Michael Attaleiates, John Skylitzes, and Nikephoros Bryennios the younger. For the most part, modern scholars have focussed on investigating successful usurpation candidates who managed to rise to imperial power. For this period, this included Nikephoros Botaneiates and Alexios Komnenos. Key questions are often asked, such as how usurpers managed to succeed and why did they choose to undertake a course of usurpation, often resulting in a narrative of justification and legitimacy. For this period, albeit from Neville (2012) on Nikephoros Bryennios, appreciation has not been given to usurpers who failed. This paper will provide a chronology of Nikephoros Bryennios’ usurpation, and how these three authors depict the incident, the correlations and differences between them, and lastly, preliminary thoughts why Bryennios’ usurpation failed compared to his successful contemporaries.
Keywords: Byzantium, Usurpation, Bryennios, Eleventh Century, Literature,
If anyone wants any clarifications on the article content or has any general questions on the topic then feel free to submit a comment below and I will do my best to answer them.
‘Byzantium is often absent – Either, it is completely absent or half there – half not.’
Paraphrased from Averil Cameron’s ‘Byzantine Matters’ (2014).
The blog’s main purpose is to increase accessibility to the Late Antique and ‘Byzantine’ World.
The world of ‘Byzantium’ is often overshadowed by its western European counterparts. Within the media and entertainment industry, western popular individuals and events are continuously depicted. From Robin Hood, Netflix’s Templar series, Kingdom of Heaven, Vikings, to The Last Kingdom, and many more. As a result, the general audience gets a feel and enthusiasm for western medieval cultures, and yet at the same time learns very little about its eastern counterparts.
This can also be extended to local bookshops, where a large proportion of shelf space is dedicated to classical studies and western medieval history. Upon looking, it is often a struggle to find more than one book on Byzantium.
The main reason why Byzantium is absent is because of accessibility. Within the discipline of classics, there has been a monumental movement to engage those wishing to study and interact with the classical world through dedicated work of outreach staff. This process has been largely successful. Nonetheless, books on classical Rome and Greece can be found in their plentiful numbers, alongside the majority of key texts for interacting with the period having accessible English translations. Byzantium in this regard is still left absent.
Question: How many people know what Byzantium is or who the ‘Byzantines’ were? If we compare that to the number of people who know who the classical Greeks and Romans were, we can identify the problem. The same can be said for asking the same people to name medieval civilizations. The majority of people would identify their own native medieval equivalent (for me, the English, Scottish, Welsh, and Irish), and then go on to name western powers. These might include France, the Holy Roman Empire, the Papacy, Denmark, Norway, Sweden etc. it is important to note, this might not the same within the eastern European community whose own history interacted and encompassed Byzantium. But, within western culture, Byzantium at a fundamentally general level – not academic – is not present.
Within western culture, Byzantium is abstract, distant, and somewhat of an outsider. For many decades, our own history books (especially those in the UK), have focused on Europe and the Mediterranean world. During the classical period this included the Mediterranean basin and the Near East. However, as soon as Rome falls, and the ‘medieval’ period starts, our idea of medieval Europe shrinks and is relocated to encompass only western Europe. Italy is the boundary between the ‘normal’ and anything east is ‘other.’
Since the age of five, I had been reading history books. My favourite topic was the Romans. Going into university, I had never hear of Byzantium. I learnt about Byzantium in a single lecture during a Crusades module. When I found out the Roman Empire had actually endured into the medieval period, I was shocked and in disbelief. How could I not know this! Even for a big history buff, like me, Byzantium was absent and still remains allusive to many.
Within the UK academic scene, Byzantium is still marginalized. Byzantium is either given to a single specialist (Byzantinist), or is covered by a western medieval academic, or simply ignored and not covered in the curriculum. Byzantium’s problem is not being able to identify with the classical Roman world, alongside clashing with the new periodization known as Late Antiquity, and finally, being classed as ‘other’ by western medieval scholars.
One example, of modern historiography failing Byzantium is the study of the Crusades at a rudimentary level. For the most part, if not taught by a Byzantine scholar, Byzantium is only included within the narrative at the start. Byzantium calls for help in AD 1095 and the crusaders make their way into Constantinople, and from there they go on to capture the ‘Holy Land.’ After the crusaders have passed through Constantinople, Byzantium is forgotten and not interacted with again. Which is quite the contrary!
It is only through engaging with Byzantine scholars, who are trying to re-write Byzantium into the narrative, that a fuller and more developed picture can be formed. Peter Frankopan’s Call from the East (2013) and Jonathan Harris’ Byzantium and the Crusades (2014) have started to re-orientate the Crusades to an eastern and Byzantine perspective. Thus, bringing Byzantium back into the discussion and narrative.
A final problem concerning Byzantium’s accessibility is its own name – ‘Byzantium’ or the ‘Byzantines.’
‘Part of the reason for Byzantium’s absence from the wider historical discourse is that it has been relegated to the sphere of negativity. The very name that we use today – “Byzantium”- was a derogatory coinage of the early modern period, and Byzantium has traditionally been the subject of adverse comparisons with Rome and with everything classical.’
Averil Cameron ‘Byzantine Matters’ (2014), p. 10.
Byzantium’s identity is still a contentious issue today. The term given to the civilization was done so by a German scholar named Hieronymus Wolf in order to make, albeit discriminant, historiographical boundary between the classical Romans and their medieval continuation. From then on, the term has been used negatively – notably by Edward Gibbon in his Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, which impacted much of the scholarship on Byzantium for a remarkably long time. Only in the last couple of decades, has it started to be overturned.
However, the debate does not end there. If ‘Byzantium’ and ‘Byzantine’ were terms created in the early modern period, who actually were they?
A simple answer is to provide you the name they gave themselves – Ῥωμαῖοι – Romaioi – which translates into English as Romans. Although the ‘Byzantines’ spoke Greek and had a largely Hellenic culture, their self-identification cannot be ignored. For all intent and purposes, the ‘Byzantines’ believed themselves not the heirs, nor the successors, but the continuation of the united Roman Empire. Those wanting to know more on the identity of the ‘Byzantines’ should see the identity section on the bibliography page alongside, reading Averil Cameron’s book titled The Byzantines (2010).
Byzantium is often lost and only found when unlocked at university or by those who actively seek it out. So, after all which has been said, if Byzantium is often left out, why are they important?
There are many answers to this question and some people would prioritize various reasons over others. Nonetheless, I hope to give a selection of my personal beliefs as to why people should interact with Byzantium.
In the field of law, Justinian I’s reforms to the legal code served as the basis of not only Roman law, but law in many medieval European entities, and continues to have a significant impact on several aspects of law today.
The Byzantine Empire influenced many cultures during its lifespan. Obolensky termed Byzantium as the mother to an eastern ‘commonwealth.’ Obolensky’s premise came as a result of her role in shaping Christian Orthodoxy. The Eastern Orthodox Church is the second largest Christian church in the world, after the Catholic, and is a fundamental aspect of the cultural history, heritage, and current societies of Greece, Bulgaria, and Russia and others.
Whilst western Europe was finding its feet in the aftermath of the collapse of the western Roman Empire, the Byzantine Empire shielded them from various threats, most notably the armies of Islam in the seventh century. Thus, giving western Europe time to develop in their respective cultural, economic, and military fields. This allowed them to gradually find their feet and ultimately fend for themselves.
In the period following the sacking of Constantinople in AD 1204 and the fall of Constantinople in AD 1453, people migrated out of Constantinople. Among them were Byzantine scholars and artists, including grammarians, poets, writers, musicians, astronomers, architects, artists, scribes, philosophers, scientists, politicians, and theologians. The emigration of these people contributed to the revival of Greek and Roman studies in the west, which led to the development of the Renaissance.
To conclude, I hope this blog post has been interesting and helps give some reasoning as to why I started the blog, and why its focus is on Byzantium. I look forward to making Byzantium more accessible to a wider audience and I hope to get more people interacting with such a great and interesting civilization.
Note: The reason this blog includes Late Antiquity and Byzantium is because I wanted to engage in all of Byzantium’s history, regardless of those who believe in the periodization of Late Antiquity, and who feel Byzantinist’s do not have a claim to the early period, notably between AD 300-750. My personal view is ‘Byzantine’ history lasted from AD 330-1453. Alternatively, for my true, but problematic view, ‘Byzantine’ or, better yet, Roman history runs from BC 753 – AD 1453.
Here is a short bibliography of introductory books for you to explore at your own leisure. For a first read, I highly recommend Judith Herrin’s – Byzantium: The Surprising Life of a Medieval Empire.
Cameron, A, The Byzantines (Oxford, 2010).
Herrin, J, Byzantium: The Surprising Life of a Medieval Empire (London, 2007).
Mango, C, The Oxford History of Byzantium (Oxford, 2002).
Norwich, J. J. A Short History of Byzantium (London, 2013).
Sarris, P, Byzantium: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford, 2015).
From this moment onward, I will not be using the word ‘Byzantine’ or ‘Byzantium.’ I strongly feel that we (academics, students, and the general populace) need to start calling these remarkable people the name they actually identified – Romans!
The key to success is making the most of the opportunities that arise and remembering YOU are important – not your grades!
Sean Strong 18.03.20.
Between 2012 and 2014, I did my A-Levels and I wanted to drop out. Fast-forward to the summer of 2014 and I had got through them.
At school, I wanted to do well in all my subjects, but never really excelled in obtaining the consistent high grades. At GCSE, I achieved one A, six Bs, and three Cs. Once I achieved those grades, I knew I wanted to undertake A-Levels, however, understood the jump would be hard, but ultimately obtainable.
A-Levels were a tough experience. By that time, I had enough of studying and was exhausted, however, I was sure university was the right place for me. Throughout sixth form, I did not study the periods of history I found interesting. Rather than studying Tudor England and the World Wars, I wanted to go further back in time and study the Ancient Mediterranean. Applying to university was finally the time I was able to choose MY period of history.
I applied to Winchester, Manchester, Cardiff, for two courses, and Lampeter. However, it ultimately came down to two universities: Cardiff and Lampeter. I put Cardiff down as my number one choice and Lampeter as my second. Both courses were equally amazing and the thing which made Cardiff my top pick was the opportunity to continue my tennis. I received a formal offer from Cardiff in which I needed three Bs. For Lampeter, I was called for an interview and, three days before Christmas, I received an unconditional offer to study Ancient and Medieval history. I was very fortunate to be in a position where regardless of what grades I achieved, I was going to university.
Results day came… and I was disappointed. I achieved three Cs. Although I loved Lampeter, I was gutted I would not be playing tennis for three years. At that moment, it felt like the end of the world. Thinking back, achieving three Cs at A-Level is not something to sniff at. Regardless, I felt disheartened because, despite my hard work, I did not achieve my expected grades, nor my offer for Cardiff. However, it was time to go to university.
Going to Lampeter was the best thing to happen to me!
My time at Lampeter allowed extensive personal and academic development. The 16-year-old boy turned into an aspiring academic. Looking back at my time at Lampeter, I could not be more indebted to them for making such a positive change in my life.
In my first term at Lampeter, they established I was on the autistic spectrum. This diagnosis was an enlightenment. I was diagnosed with Asperger’s, ADHD, and Dyspraxia, and for the first time in my life, I was finally able to understand who I was.
My goal at university was to achieve a 2:1. Going into university with my A- Level grades, I thought this might have been a stretch. At the start of my grades I was averaging grades around the mid 2:2 range. I thought at this stage, I would barely make a final degree mark of a 2:1, regardless of my work ethic.
However, through hard work and dedication, and the support of my lecturers, support staff, and friends, I finished my second year with a mid-high 2:1. During my third year, I continued working hard, and ended up graduating with a first class honours in Ancient and Medieval history. I could not believe it!
During my last year, I considered doing a postgraduate course. The topic I wanted to study was Byzantium. I first interacted with the empire in a first-year module on the Crusades. Since that moment, every essay I could fit Byzantium into, I did! After I submitted my masters applications, I meet the late Dr Mark Whittow at a SPBS lecture on usurpation (my proposed masters topic) in London. Mark and I spoke and he dubbed me: ‘The Byzantinist of Lampeter.’ I was truly honoured.
When applying for postgraduate courses, I went in with the same mind-set as when I applied for undergraduate – I had no expectation of gaining entrance, but the main criteria was, above all else, the course and its structure and content. I applied to Cambridge (Medieval History), Oxford (Late Antique and Byzantine Studies), UCL (Late Antique and Byzantine Studies), and Cardiff (Ancient and Medieval Warfare). I was thrilled to receive offers from Oxford, UCL, and Cardiff, but I was declined from Cambridge.
In Autumn 2017, I started my Mst in Late Antique and Byzantine Studies at the University of Oxford and in the summer of 2018, I was notified I had passed my postgraduate degree! After Oxford, I needed a break. I was exhausted and mentally drained, but after some time off this put me in the best place possible for entering the next stage of my academic journey. Fast forward to when I am writing this, and I am a PhD student at Cardiff University reading in Ancient History!
Looking back at A-Levels results day, I never would have thought I would be starting to move towards a possible career in academia. A-Level results day is nominally a crucial day in every 18-year-old’s life. However, one key thing to remember is, if you do not get your desired grades it is not the end of the world. It has been the judgment of fate that has steered you into your new direction and it will work out. Just as long as you are motivated and passionate about what you want to achieve – you will be on the road to success.
A-Levels are not everything. Your road to success will incur many obstacles, but itis how you overcome them that makes you the person you are today.
Keep positive and you will always see the best in all situations.