On this date (or very close to it) in 628, the Persian emperor Khosrau* II was put to death by the order of his son and usurper.
Chip off the old block, that boy, since he was taking power the same way as Khosrau himself had done way back in 590. But with the old man’s fall, the Sassanid Empire entered its death spiral: by 651, it would be overwhelmed by the armies of Islam.
Little could the younger Khosrau have conceived of his glorious Persian state laid low by these desert zealots! Persia’s last great pre-Muslim empire flourished in Khosrau’s heyday.
Briefly deposed in his youth, Khosrau reinstated himself with the aid of the Byzantines — ironic aid, in retrospect. After his Constantinople angel Emperor Maurice was deposed and slain in 602, Khosrau availed the pretext of vengeance to make war on Byzantium.
The season of this war would span the entire quarter-century to Khosrau’s own death — and would initially redound to Khosrau’s glory. Byzantium foundered in civil war, bringing that longtime rival of Persia to the brink of outright destruction. Khosrau’s top general Shahrbaraz won a crushing victory in 614, capturing Jerusalem where they carried off thousands of prisoners, the city’s patriarch, and the True Cross. In the years to follow, Persia conquered Egypt and pressed so deep into Anatolia that the Byzantines are said to have considered evacuating the capital to Carthage. Khosrau aspired, wrote Theophanes the Confessor more than a century later, “to seize the Roman Empire completely.”
The fall of the Sassanids, and Khosrau, from this apex was precipitous and entire.
The Byzantines under Heraclius rallied dramatically and in the winter of 627-628 carried Roman arms to the city of Dastagerd, just a short march from the Sassanid capital Ctesiphon. The intrepidity of the counterattack threw the Sassanids into a commotion; Khosrau disgracefully fled Ctesiphon, and in the power vacuum that followed, his heir Kavadh seized power. A usurper cannot afford to found his authority on sentiment; Kavadh not only had his father executed — allegedly by being shot slowly with arrows — but he ordered the deaths of all his half-brothers to extinguish as many future rivals as possible.
The precautions did not grant Kavadh a long reign: he died of the plague later that same year, beginning a dismal progression of feeble claimants overthrowing one another. The Arabs overran Ctesiphon by 636, leaving the rump of the Sassanid state shrinking towards nothingness, and its last emperor to be ignominiously slain by a miller.
Dig into the seventh century Byzantine-Persian frontier during gym time with an ample selection of audio product:
The History of Byzantium podcast has treated this period in some detail: for Byzantium, it was a dramatic phoenix-from-the-ashes story, and the running war with Persia is one of its principal themes. Try episodes 44, 45, and 46
The (defuunct, but still available) Twelve Byzantine Rulers podcast has a snappy episode on Khosrau’s Byzantine opposite number, Heraclius
The BBC In Our Time podcast has an enjoyable 2011 episode on the Sassanids available here.
* Also rendered Chosrou or Chosroes, among many others.
After Roxelana engineered the execution of heir apparent Mustafa on spurious grounds, Beyazit and his brother Selim were the last princes standing.
The natural rivalry between the two for eventual power was surely colored by the clear portent Mustafa’s execution had sent that the succession game was rigged for Selim. After several years of growing estrangement, Beyazit finally revolted outright only to be defeated in battle by Selim in 1559.
The loser found refuge in Persia, but only long enough for the Safavids to negotiate the price of his surrender to the hands of Suleiman … whose executioner went on the road to the Persian city of Qazvin to strangle not only Sehzade Beyazit but his four sons, too.
Extirpating the treasonable branch of the family tree cleared the succession for Selim, whose eight-year turn in power would be remembered as moment the hitherto-all-vanquishing Ottomans began their long, slow slide to Sick Man of Europe status. Particularly given that coda, Suleiman’s own
When the Austrian ambassador took leave of Suleyman in his old age, it was scarcely a living being he described, but a sort of metaphor of empire, rotting and majestic, fat, made up, and suffering from an ulcerous leg.
There’s more about this misfortunate lesser son in Turkish here, and a Turkish poem he wrote beseeching his father’s forgiveness here.
Philotas was one of Alexander’s “companions”, the elite cavalry who joined Alexander personally in battle. He had fought by Alexander’s side in the epic Battle of Gaugamela, which brought down the Achaemenid Empire and opened Persia to the legendary conqueror.
A year later, Alexander, and therefore also those companions, were winding down campaign season all the way on the other side of the late empire they had so stunningly dismantled. It’s the region of Drangiana on the present-day Iran-Afghanistan frontier. The Macedonians would name the city Prophthasia, Anticipation, in recognition of their chief’s narrow escape; we know it today as Farah, Afghanistan.
Unlike many of the “companions” who joined the young Macedonian king, Philotas wasn’t a bosom buddy of Alexander.
He was, instead, a bit of a political appointee who owed his position to the fact that his father Parmenion, a great Macedonian general, had backed the disputed succession of Alexander. Parmenion continued as one of Alexander’s generals; his kid — not particularly popular of himself but nevertheless a loyal and competent officer — got a plum gig in Alexander’s vanguard.
In this capacity so close to the royal person, Philotas was warned by a conscientious slave of an assassination plot going against Alexander. And rather incredibly, he didn’t bother to pass it on.
When the slave realized, a couple of days on, that the conspiracy hadn’t been busted, he proceeded to tell somebody else … and Philotas had some explaining to do.
For posterity, it’s as open a question as it was then: Philotas initially convinced Alexander that he had merely considered the whole thing so insubstantial as not to merit the king’s attention — but by the next day, Alexander had better inclined himself to the more damning reading, that Philotas was perfectly amenable to seeing Alexander eliminated.** If that were the truth, it would herald a conflict that would soon come to define the Macedonian’s coruscating and paradoxical career: the army’s rising discontent with its march so far from home, and its leader’s ever more visible habit of arraying himself in the alien habits of oriental despotism.
Philotas got a “proper” if farcically rigged trial before fellow-generals who were all too happy to be rid of him, and was tortured into confessing. He was executed either by stoning (actually the traditional Macedonian execution method, even for the likes of generals) or spearing.
(The scene is dramatized in the 2004 Oliver Stone film Alexander; the relevant bit can be viewed here.)
Parmenion, a greater character than his son, would also pay the forfeit of his son’s alleged misprision.
At the time of Philotas’s execution, Parmenion was commanding a large army several days’ ride from Alexander. Fearing that the torture and execution of his last remaining son (the other two had also died on campaign) might inspire the august general to do something rash, Alexander dispatched a few trusted officers to outrace the news: they murdered an uncomprehending Parmenion as soon as they reached him. Whatever one makes of the child, the father’s loyalty both to Alexander and his predecessor Philip II had never previously been impeached in a long and brilliant career. Alexander ought to have counted himself fortunate to have avoided any wider disturbance in the army from the rough handling of this beloved general.
The whole affair was sufficiently distasteful that it remained a sensitive matter of state security hundreds of years and hundreds of miles distant: An Elizabethan play about Philotas by Samuel Daniel earned its author some uncomfortable official scrutiny for its perceived commentary on the contemporaneous execution of the Earl of Essex … the fallen courtier whose prosecution of a Jewish doctor arguably informed Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice.
* The other — later and greater — crime was Alexander’s drunken murder of his friend and loyal commander Cleitus. (He’s the guy shown stabbing Parmenion to death in the clip from Alexander, a circumstance that plays better as drama than history.)
** It doesn’t help anyone’s fact-finding that the main alleged plotter committed suicide when they came to arrest him.
Most particularly, saying “ana al-Haqq” — “I am God” — and poems directly identifying himself with divinity were thought by the state theologians to have mystical wisdom for initiates, but to be exceedingly dangerous sentiments to set loose among the hoi polloi, especially given popular devotion to the Abassid government that was less than ironclad.
In truth, al-Hallaj’s condemnation seems to have been rooted in contemporary imperial politics, his demise representing the (momentary) upper hand of the more autocratic elements against potentially more sympathetic parties.
He spent eleven years in a Baghdad jail, reportedly enduring torture with placidity. Accounts of his execution speak of him greeting a horrific death with joy.
Mansur al-Hallaj remains revered today among mystically inclined followers of many faiths and admired by many westerners, factors which do not quite resolve the dispute over his place within Islam. Ultimately, the rightness of his choices remains very much in the eye of the beholder.
Captured at last — he had spurned a guarantee of safety with that timeless insurrectionary sentiment, “Better to live for just a single day as a ruler than to live for forty years as an abject slave” — he had his hands and legs struck off in the presence of the caliph. It is said that Babak washed his face in the blood of these wounds to deprive his royal observer the pleasure of seeing his face fall pallid.
Babak remains an iconic figure in his homeland for his resistance to Arab domination, as evidenced by this Farsi-language vignette …
… and this performance of the Persian Ballet.
But he is not an unproblematic character for contemporary Iran, and not so much because of the anti-Islamic character of his revolt. Babak, whose personal ethnic composition seems to be a bone of historical contention, is also hailed an Azeri nationalist hero vis-a-vis Iran. His fortress is mountainous northern Iran still stands … and has latterly become a meeting-ground for advocates of “greater Azerbaijan” on the occasion of Babak’s birthday in July, much to the displeasure of Iranian authorities.
Around this time in the late autumn or early winter some weeks following the Battle of Cunaxa, the general of a Greek mercenary army — along with most of its other commanders — was treacherously seized by a Persian satrap and summarily beheaded.
The prince marched the Hellenes deep into Persia before falling in battle at Cunaxa in Mesopotamia, a discomfiting scenario alike for the stranded but still-potent invading army and the somewhat outclassed Persians.
The seizure around this day of the veteran soldier and former tyrant of Byzantium Clearchus — lured under color of friendship — aimed to crush the Greeks’ morale, but instead feathered the laurels of “the Ten Thousand”. This “marching Republic” hastily self-organized and proceeded upon an astonishing escape, intrepidly fighting its way north over the ensuing year to the Black Sea, and thence to hearth and home.
The Greeks’ perseverance offers one of classical antiquity’s stock testimonies to the resilient polis — and at this stage, practically the last breath of that dying spirit. More to the immediate point, it illustrated strikingly the Persian army’s vulnerability to the phalanx, exploited to decisive effect in the century to come by Alexander the Great.
One of the replacement generals, Xenophon, immortalized the Greeks’ march in the Anabasis.
After the generals had been seized, and the captains and soldiers who formed their escort had been killed, the Hellenes lay in deep perplexity — a prey to painful reflections. Here were they at the king’s gates, and on every side environing them were many hostile cities and tribes of men. Who was there now to furnish them with a market? Separated from Hellas by more than a thousand miles, they had not even a guide to point the way. Impassable rivers lay athwart their homeward route, and hemmed them in. Betrayed even by the Asiatics, at whose side they had marched with Cyrus to the attack, they were left in isolation. Without a single mounted trooper to aid them in pursuit: was it not perfectly plain that if they won a battle, their enemies would escape to a man, but if they were beaten themselves, not one soul of them would survive?
Haunted by such thoughts, and with hearts full of despair, but few of them tasted food that evening; but few of them kindled even a fire, and many never came into camp at all that night, but took their rest where each chanced to be. They could not close their eyes for very pain and yearning after their fatherlands or their parents, the wife or child whom they never expected to look upon again. Such was the plight in which each and all tried to seek repose.
The tale’s motif was borrowed for a 1965 novel of a New York gang struck leaderless making its way out of hostile territory, later adapted for a cult 1970’s film: