YAZDEGERD I, Sasanian king of kings (r. 399-420) called “the Sinner.”

The name “Yazdegerd” was borne by three Sasanian kings of kings and a number of notables of the Sasanian and later periods. It is a compound of Yazad Yazata- ‘divine being’ and -karta ‘made’, and signifies ‘God-made’, similar to Iranian Bagkart and Greek Theokistos. The attested forms include: Pahlavi Yazdekert, Syriac Yazdegerd, Izdegerd, and Yazdeger, Greek Isdigerdes (with variants), Persian Yazd(e)gerd and Yazdk(/g)ard, Talmudic Izdeger and Azger, Arabic Yazdeijerd (in a verse in (i>Aḡāni, Azdkerd), Armenian Yazkert, see Nöldeke, Geschichte der Perser, p. 72 n.3; Hübschmann 1876; idem 1895, p. 55; Justi, Namenbuch, pp. 184-89, 498; Gignoux, 1986, pp. 189-90.

Yazdegerd I is referred to in the Acts of the Council of Seleucia as “son of Shapur” (cited by Nöldeke, p. 73 n. 3). It is not clear whether Shapur II was meant, as some have reported (see Ṭabari I, p. 847), or Shapur III (Agathias 4.26, Łazar, tr. p. 52, Šahristānhā ī Īrān 47, 53; tr. Markwart, Capitals, pp. 19, 21; Yaʿqubi I, p. 183, Masʿudi, Moruj II, p. 190, Biruni, Āṯār, pp. 33, 45, Šāh-nāma, Moscow, VII, pp. 262-63). A few sources (Nöldeke, p. 73 n. 1) erroneously called him a son of Bahram IV. His coins show him wearing a crown combining the dome-shaped headgear of Ardašir II (q.v) with a pair of merlons and a crescent of the moon on the forehead, a feature which is much imitated in the coinage of the eastern rulers from then on (Erdmann, pp. 102-103; Göbl, p. 48, Pl. 9, nos. 145-52). A silver-gilt plate in the Metropolitan Museum of Art depicting a king spearing a stag is attributed to Yazdegerd (Harper 1981, pp. 63-64, Pl. 16).

Sasanian-based sources judge Yazdegerd as a tyrant who committed many sins (the fullest account is in Ṭabari, I, pp. 847-50; see also Balʿami, ed. Bahār, pp. 920-1; Yaʿqubi, I, p. 183). He misused “his sharp intelligence, his fine education and his multifaceted knowledge,” showed extreme suspicion and selfishness, treated others with contempt, and harshly punished the slightest failure but expected much gratitude for the pettiest favor he bestowed. He warned that he would not tolerate any opposition to his word or will, never listened to any advice “except when it came from foreign envoys,” and prevented those in his surroundings from forming close friendships with each other. When he consolidated his power, he so greatly belittled the nobility oppressed the weak and shed so much blood that his subjects prayed to God to end his tyranny. He earned the epithet “the Sinner” (Arabic al-aṯim [Ṭabari, I, p. 847], Persian bazahgar [Šāh-nāma VII, p. 264],) or “the Outcast, Outlawed” (dfr/dabhr [Ḥamza, p, 54; Ḵᵛārazmi, p. 103; Biruni, Āṯār, pp. 123ff.; Šahristānhā ī Īrān 26, tr. Markwart, Capitals, p. 67], from Middle Persian dīpahr ‘prison’ (Minovi, 1954, p. 77, citing H. W. Bailey).

This judgment reflects the feelings of the priests and the nobility (Nöldeke, p. 74 n. 3). They hated Yazdegerd for his peaceful policy, religious tolerance and his attempt to curb their power. Always eager to erode royal authority, the nobility had either deposed or killed his three predecessors when they demanded obedience and loyalty. Yazdegerd was determined to rule with sovereign authority. Even the native tradition cannot hide the report that he started his reign with mildness and justice but was driven to harshness by the ingratitude he experienced (Ṭabari I, p. 865; Šāh-nāma VII, p. 264). Procopius reports: “From the start, Yazdegerd was a sovereign whose nobility of character had won for him the greatest renown” (1.2, 8). He gave his Christian subjects such freedom, even support that they prayed daily for the safety of “the victorious and glorious king” (Asmussen, 1983, p. 940). According to a Christian account (Nöldeke, p. 75 n.; Greatrex-Lieu, p. 32), “The good and clement King Yazdegerd” every day “did well to the poor and wretched.” To his Jewish subjects he was so kind and respectful (Widengren, 1961, pp. 140-42; cf. Neusner, pp. 8-13), that their exiliarch hailed him a new Cyrus (b. Zev 19a). Some even said that his wife was “Shushandokht, daughter of the Resh-Galutak,” and mother of Bahram and Narse, and that Yazdegerd settled the Jews in Gay [= Isfahan] at her request (Šahristānhā ī Īrān 10, 47, 53; tr. Markwart, Capitals, pp. 19, 21, 43, cf. 96-8).

During Yazdegerd’s reign, the Romans faced perilous dangers: the Ostrogoths were plundering the Balkans, the Franks were in rebellion, a civil war was raging, and eastern provinces were in revolt: Blockley1998, pp. 118-25) Far from taking advantage of this situation, Yazdegerd returned Roman Christian captives whom the Persians had rescued after routing an invading Hunnic army (Greatrex-Lieu, pp. 31-2). His good will was so well known that Emperor Arcadius, seeing that enemies were at the gate and his only son, Theodosius, was merely an infant, appointed Yazdegerd in his will as the child’s guardian, “enjoining upon him earnestly to preserve the empire for Theodosius by all his power and foresight.” The Persian king wrote to the senate, accepting the charge and threatening war against any who should attempt to enter into conspiracy against the child, and “loyally observing the behests of Arcadius, he adopted and continued without interruption a policy of profound peace with the Romans, and thus preserved the empire for Theodosius” (Procopius 1.2, 1-10; also Agathias 4.25; Cameron, p. 149). He sent as his ward’s tutor “Antiochus, a most remarkable and highly educated advisor and instructor” (Theophanes in Greatrex-Lieu, p. 33; on the long and illustrious career of Antiochus at Constantinople, see Bradill and Greatrex, pp. 171-80; his story became the basis for a popular romance mentioned in eastern sources, which call him Šavin of Daštpay (Ḥamza, pp. 18-20; Mojmal, ed. Bahār, pp. 86, 95; Minovi, pp.75-76). Bishop Marutha, the Eastern Roman Emperor’s special representative at Ctesiphon (Asmussen, 1983, p. 940 with references), gained Yazdegerd’s confidence, and on his advice the king issued a decree which has been termed “the Edict of Milan for the Assyrian Church” (Wigram, p. 89). It permitted Christians to worship openly, and to rebuild ruined churches, and allowed bishops to travel freely in their dioceses. Marutha further convinced the king to convene a religious council in Seleucia in 410 to organize church affairs (Nöldeke, p. 75 n.; Labourt, pp. 78-99; Christensen, Iran Sasan, pp. 270-71; Macomber, pp. 179-200; Asmussen, loc. cit).

This patronage of Christianity naturally antagonized the Magians (Socrates 7.8). Yazdegerd sent the Catholicos of Seleucia-Ctesiphon to mediate between the king and his brother who governed Pars (Nöldeke, loc. cit.). Another Catholicos was Yazdegerd’s envoy to Theodosius (Labourt, pp. 100-101). However, in his very last year Yazdegerd changed his attitude towards the Christians and ordered a persecution because they, through boldness and missionary zeal, committed offensive acts, such as the destruction of fire temples, theft of property deeds, slandering of the Mazdaean faith and disobedience of royal orders (Labourt, op. cit., pp. 105ff.; Hoffmann, pp. 34-36-8; Christensen, L’Iran, pp. 272-73, 280; van Rompay sees the conversion of high-ranking Persians unwilling to apostasize as the reason). The appointment of Mehr Narse as the grand minister (Ṭabari, I, pp. 848-49) probably dates from this period (not from the accession of Yazdegerd, as the source claims, see Nöldeke, p. 76 n. 1), and must be related to the king’s reversal of policy. An extraordinary calendrical reform of effecting (in about 401) a two-month intercalation “for no other motive than that of precaution” (Biruni, Chronology, pp. 52-56) is attributed to Yazdegerd, but it seems unfounded.

According to Moses Khorenats’i (3. 56 = tr. p. 326), Yazdegerd died of illness, but the widely reported native tradition claims that while staying in Hyrcania, he was killed by a fabulous horse which had emerged from a spring into which it then disappeared, whereupon people said: “the horse was an angel sent by God” to end the king’s tyranny. As Nöldeke pointed out (p. 77 n. 1 cont. at p. 78), this is a myth (for its symbolism, see Shahbazi, 2003) created by the nobility, who probably murdered the hated king in remote Hyrcania. “The troubles and quarrels over the throne which immediately followed Yazdegerd’s death confirm the above conclusions.” For the magnates decided to deprive Yazdegerd’s sons from the throne. There were of them: Shapur, Bahrām and Narse. Shapur, king of Armenia since 416, hurried to Ctesiphon to claim kingship but was treacherously killed by courtiers (Lazar, tr. p. 53; Moses Khonenatsʿi 3. 56 = tr. p. 326); Bahrām, who was raised by the king of Haira, brought an Arab army to the gate of Cetisephon and forced the nobility to accept his rule, and he appointed Narse governor of Khorasan (Ṭabari I, pp. 865, 866).



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A. Shapur Shahbazi, “The Horse that killed Yazdegerd,” in K. Eslami and D. Daryaee eds., Festschrift Hans Peter Schmidt, 2003.

G. Widengren, “The Status of the Jews in the Sassanian Empire,” Iranica Antiqua I, 1961, pp. 140-42.

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(A. Shapur Shahbazi)

Originally Published: July 20, 2003

Last Updated: July 20, 2003