Bahrām II


Bahrām II

Bahrām II, the fifth Sasanian king, succeeded his father Bahrām I in September, 274 (cf. W. B. Henning, Asia Major, 1957, p. 116) and reigned for 17 1/4 years (Nöldeke,Geschichte der Perser, p. 415), i.e., till the end of 291. He regarded the high priest Kardēr as his mentor and bestowed on him many honors and the new title “savior of Bahrām’s soul,” promoted him to the rank of noble (wuzurg), appointed him the custodian of the dynastic shrine of Ādur Anāhīd at Eṣṭaḵr, and the supreme judge of the empire. Under the influence and leadership of Kardēr, the consolidation of the state religion continued and non-Zoroastrians, such as the Manicheans and Christians, were persecuted (J. Duchesne-Guillemin, in CHI III/2, 1983, pp. 881ff., with literature). Bahrām himself showed a special devotion to his name-deity by naming his son Bahrām and choosing the wings of the god’s bird, Av. vārəγna, as the main element of his crown (E. Herzfeld, AMI 9, 1938, pp. 110ff.; K. Erdmann, “Die Entwicklung der sasanidischen Krone,” Ars Islamica 15-16, 1951, pp. 97ff.). In the political arena, Bahrām II faced substantial difficulties. Vopiscus (Vita Cari 8, inScriptores Historiae Augustae) reports that the Romans under Emperor Carus invaded Mesopotamia while the Persians were engaged in civil war. Claudius Mamertinus adds that Bahrām’s brother Ormies (Hormazd) rebelled and was supported by the Saccis (Sakastanians), Gellis (Gēlān/Gēls), and Ruffis. The last name was amended by Markwart (Ērānšahr, p. 36) into Cussis “Kūšāns,” and on this emended form Herzfeld based a case for the identification of the rebel Hormozd with an eastern king who styled himself on his coins Ohromoz Kūšān Šāhān Šāh (Paikuli I, Berlin, 1924, pp. 42ff., and more fully in Kushano-Sasanian Coins, Calcutta, 1930, pp. 7ff.). However, the Latin form for the Kūšāns being Cusenis, the emendation is unsatisfactory, and Hormozd Kūšān Šāhān Šāh may well have been a vassal of Šāpūr II (J. M. Rosenfield, The Dynastic Arts of the Kushans, Berkeley and Los Angeles, 1967, pp. 117ff., with literature). The rebellion of Hormozd was, in any event, centered on Sakastān, and lasted for several years. It was finally crushed, and, as Agathias reports (4.24), Bahrām II conquered the people of Sakastān and made his son, Bahrām, governor of that region with the title Sakān Šāh (Sagestanōn basileus). The Romans meanwhile took advantage of Bahrām’s preoccupation in the east, and advanced on Ctesiphon without meeting much resistance, but suddenly withdrew upon the death in mysterious circumstances of Emperor Carus. Bahrām then regained Mesopotamia and arranged a peace treaty with Emperor Diocletian (Vopiscus, Vita Probus 17, explained by Nöldeke, Geschichte der Perser, p. 94 n. 1; Zonaras 12.30; W. Ensslin, “Zur Ostpolitik des Kaisers Diokletian,” Sb. der bayer. Ak. der Wiss., 1942, p. 9).

Under Bahrām II Sasanian art achieved a high degree of excellence especially in the representations of the king and his courtiers. The lost Book of Portraits of Sasanian Kings (Ḥamza, p. 50) depicted Bahrām II as enthroned, holding a bow with an arrow by its string in the right hand (cf. the seated archer on Arsacid coins), and wearing a red gown, green trousers, and a crown adorned with a sky-blue globe (Erdmann, art. cit. p. 96 n. 35). He is better known from his coin portraits and rock reliefs. The coins are of four types (V. Lukonin, Iran v III veke/Iran in the Third Century, Moscow, 1979, pp. 155ff.; R. Göbl, Sasanian Numismatics, Brunswick, 1971, pp. 43ff.). One type shows Bahrām alone; another with his wife (Šāpūrduxtak, a daughter of Šāpūr Mēšān Šāh, hence the king’s cousin: V. Lukonin, Kul’tura sasanidskogo Irana, Moscow, 1969, p. 112; W. Hinz, Altiranische Funde und Forschungen, Berlin, 1969, p. 194); a third one with his heir, Bahrām Sakān Šāh (depicted as a youth facing the king); and a fourth—and more usual—type figures the king and the queen facing the crown prince (FIGURE 1). The reverse of the coins often shows Bahrām and his queen flanking a fire altar, and in one series the latter personage is identified as “Šāpūrduxtak, Queen of Queens” (Lukonin, op. cit., p. 116). The detailed coin imagery is reflected in the ornamentation of a silver cup discovered at Sargveshi, Georgia, and now in the Hermitage (P. O. Harper, “Sasanian Medallion Bowls with Human Busts,” in D. K. Kouymjian, ed., Near Eastern Numismatics, Iconography, Epigraphy and History. Studies in Honor of George C. Miles, Beirut, 1975, pp. 63ff., with literature). It bears four circular medallions: two enclose the bust of Bahrām, the third that of Šāpūrduxtak, and the fourth that of Bahrām Sakān Šāh.

Of the rock reliefs, one at Gūyom, 27 km northwest of Shiraz, shows Bahrām II standing alone (E. F. Schmidt, Persepolis III: The Royal Tombs and other Monuments, Chicago, 1969, p. 134). Another at Sar Mašhad south of Kāzerūn, is carved directly above an inscription by Kardēr, and depicts Bahrām as a hunter who has killed a lion and is dispatching a second one with his sword; he holds the right hand of his queen in a gesture of protection while Kardēr and a fourth figure, probably a prince, look on (E. Herzfeld, “Reisebericht,” ZDMG 80, 1928, pp. 256ff.; Hinz, op. cit., pp. 215-16; L. Trümpelmann, Das sasanidische Felsrelief von Sarmashad, Iranische Denkmäler, Lief. 9, Berlin, 1975). The scene has been given various symbolic and allegorical interpretations, but it best affords the simple explanation as a royal show of courage in a real-life hunt (cf. more recently P. Calmeyer and H. Gaube in Papers in Honour of Mary Boyce, Acta Iranica 24, Leiden, 1985, pp. 43-49; P. O. Skjærvø, AMI 16, 1983, pp. 269ff.). A third rock relief, at Naqš-e Bahrām, near Nūrābād, 40 km north of Bīšāpūr, represents Bahrām II seated in full front view, flanked by Kardēr and Pāpak, satrap of Georgia, on his left and two other dignitaries on his right. A fourth sculptured scene (Bīšāpūr V) illustrates Bahrām, figured as a horseman, facing a Persian dignitary who is leading a delegation of six men resembling Arabs in their attire, who bring—perhaps as tribute—horses and dromedaries (Schmidt, loc. cit., with literature; and G. Herrmann and R. Howell, The Sasanian Rock Reliefs at Bishapur, pt. 2, Iranische Denkmäler, Lief. 10, Berlin, 1981). But the historical context of this monument is uncertain.

A fifth relief, at Naqš-e Rostam (carved over an erased Elamite sculptured scene), illustrates Bahrām II—standing in full regalia—among his family and courtiers: to the left are shown the busts of the queen, a senior prince, the crown prince Bahrām Sakān Šāh, Kardēr, and Prince Narseh; on the right are depicted the busts of Pāpak, satrap of Georgia, and two other dignitaries (description in F. Sarre and E. Herzfeld,Iranische Felsreliefs, Berlin, 1910, pp. 71-73; Schmidt, op. cit., pp. 129-30; interpretation in Hinz, op. cit., pp. 191ff.). A sixth relief, also sculptured at Naqš-e Rostam (below the tomb of Darius the Great), pictures an equestrian combat commemorating Bahrām’s victory over two unidentified foes, one of whom is prostrate under the king’s horse, and the other is being unhorsed by a blow from the king’s lance. Directly above this relief is carved another equestrian combat where a prince, probably Bahrām Sakān Šāh, is depicted as victor over two adversaries, one already fallen and the other being unhorsed. The two reliefs have been interpreted as illustrating, allegorically, Bahrām’s wars with Emperor Carus and Hormozd Kūšān Šāhān Šāh (A. D. H. Bivar, “Cavalry Equipment and Tactics on the Euphrates Frontier,” Dumbarton Oaks Papers 26, 1972, pp. 279ff.). However, while the reference to the Romans may well be accepted, Hormozd Kūšān Šāhān Šāh must be excluded on account of chronology and the fact that Hormozd, the younger brother of Bahrām II, was not king of the Kūšāns (see above). Finally, there are two pairs of figures carved at Barm-e Delak, 10 km southeast of Shiraz, one showing Bahrām II standing and facing Kardēr, the other representing a princess and an unidentified dignitary (Erdmann, “Die sasanidischen Felsreliefs von Barmi Dilak,” ZDMG 99, 1949, pp. 50ff.; Schmidt, op. cit., p. 133; Hinz, op. cit., pp. 217ff.), but the context is not certain.



Oriental sources are listed in Justi, Namenbuch, p. 362 no. 9, but their data are inaccurate and insufficient.

For silver-works attributable to Bahrām II see K. Erdmann, Ars Islamica 15-16, 1951, p. 97.

Bahrām II’s rock reliefs have been stylistically studied by G. Herrmann, “The Sculptures of Bahram II,” JRAS 1970, pp. 165-71.

(A. Sh. Shahbazi)

Originally Published: December 15, 1988

Last Updated: July 26, 2016

This article is available in print.
Vol. III, Fasc. 5, pp. 514-522

Cite this entry:

A. Sh. Shahbazi, “Bahrām II,” Encyclopaedia Iranica, III/5, pp. 514-522, available online at (accessed on 30 December 2012).