Bahram V

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Bahram V
"King of kings of Iran and Aniran"
(Middle Persian: Sāhānšāh Ērān ud Anērān)
Plate hunting Met 1994.402.jpg
5th-century plate with a hunting scene from the tale of Bahram V and Azadeh.
Shahanshah of the Sasanian Empire
Reign 420–438
Predecessor Khosrow the Usurper
Successor Yazdegerd II
Born 400
Died 438 (aged 38)
Consort Sapinud
Issue Yazdegerd II
House House of Sasan
Father Yazdegerd I
Mother Shushandukht
Religion Zoroastrianism

Bahram V (Middle Persian: 𐭥𐭫𐭧𐭫𐭠𐭭 Wahrām, New Persian: بهرام پنجم Bahrām), also known as Bahram Gor (بهرام گور, "onager [hunter]") was the fifteenth king (shah) of the Sasanian Empire, ruling from 420 to 438.

The son of Yazdegerd I, Bahram was exiled at an early age to the Lahkmid court in al-Hira, where he was raised under the tutolage of the Lakhmid kings. After the assassination of Yazdegerd I, Bahram hurried to the Sasanian capital of Ctesiphon with an Lakhmid army, and won the favour of the nobles and priests, according to a long-existing popular legend, after withstanding a trial against two lions.

Bahram V's reign was generally peaceful, with two briefs wars—first against his eastern neighbours, the Hephthalites, who were disturbing the Sasanian eastern provinces, and against the Byzantine Empire. It was also during his reign that the Arsacid line of Armenia was replaced by a marzban (governor of a frontier province, "margrave"), which was the start of a new era in Armenia, known in Armenian historiography as the "Marzpanate period".

Bahram V is remembered as one of the most famous kings in Iranian history, due to his cancel of taxes and public debt at celebratory events, his encouragement of musicians, and his enjoyment of hunting. However, albeit he is revered in many historical tales as a bold, vivid, and suited ruler, his reign is considered as the start of the decline of the Sasanian Empire, which lasted until the reign of Kavadh I (r. 488–496 & 498–531), when the empire experienced a resurgence.

Early life and rise to power[edit]

Bahram V seizes the crown after having killed two lions.

Bahram V was born in ca. 400,[1] he was the son of shah Yazdegerd I (r. 399–420) and Shushandukht, a daughter of the Jewish exilarch. Bahram, during his youth, fell out with his father due to a disagreement, which made the latter sent him to exile in the Lakhmid court in al-Hira, where he was raised under the tutolage of the Lakhmid king al-Nu'man I ibn Imru' al-Qays (r. 390–418).[2] There al-Nu'man Bahram provided with teachers from the Sasanian court, where Bahram was taught law, archery, and equestrian arts.[3]

Since the death of the powerful Sasanian shah Shapur II (r. 309–379), the aristocrats and priests had expanded their influence and authority at the cost of the Sasanian government, nominating, dethroning, and murdering shahs, which included Yazdegerd I, who was murdered in 21 January 420. They now sought to stop the sons of Yazdegerd I from the ascending the throne—Shapur IV, who was the eldest son of Yazdegerd I and governor of Armenia, quickly rushed to the Sasanian capital of Ctesiphon, and ascended the throne. He was, however, shortly murdered by the nobles and priests, who elected a son of Bahram IV, Khosrow, as shah.[2]

Bahram was informed about the news of Yazdegerd I's death when he was in the Arabian Desert—he opposed the decision of the nobles, and asked al-Mundhir I ibn al-Nu'man (who had succeeded his father al-Nu'man I) for military assistance, who agreed to help him.[4] Bahram and al-Mundhir I, at the head of an army of numerous soldiers, marched towards Ctesiphon, where Bahram promised that he would not reign like his father Yazdegerd I did. According to the Shahnameh, Bahram suggested that the royal crown and attire should be placed between two lions, and the person that retrieved them by killing the wild animals should be recognized as the shah of Iran.

Khosrow chose to pull out, whilst Bahram withstood the trial and won the throne.[2] Bahram distrusted the nobles, who had been unreliable to the earlier Sasanian shahs, and thus chose instead to seek support from the Zoroastrian priesthood. He was the first Sasanian shah to not be crowned by a noble, but by a chief priest (mowbed).[5]


War with Rome[edit]

The Roman-Sasanian frontier.

At the urging of the Zoroastrian priests, Bahram V began his reign with a systematic persecution of the Christians as reprisal for attacks against Zoroastrian temples by Christians during his reign; Bahram continued this persecution, during which many died. Among them there was James Intercisus, a political counsellor of Yazdegerd I's, who had converted to Zoroastrianism but then converted back to Christianity.[6]

The persecuted Christians fled to Roman territory, and were welcomed by the bishop of Constantinople, Atticus, who informed the Emperor of the persecution. The Eastern Roman Emperor Theodosius II was at the time deeply influenced by his religious sister Pulcheria, and had become more and more interested in Christianity.[6] The Roman-Sasanian relationship already had some friction. The Sasanians had hired some Roman gold-diggers, but now refused to send them back; furthermore, the Sasanians seized the properties of Roman merchants. So, when Sasanian ambassadors reached the Roman court to ask for the fugitives, Theodosius choose to break the peace and declare war, rather than giving them back.[6]

In the year 421, the Romans sent their general Ardaburius with an extensive contingent into Armenia. Ardaburius defeated the Sasanian commander Narseh and proceeded to plunder the province of Arzanene and lay siege to Nisibis. Ardaburius abandoned the siege in the face of an advancing army under Bahram, who in turn besieged Theodosiopolis (probably Theodosiopolis in Osroene).[6]

The peace treaty that ended the war (422) was negotiated by the magister officiorum Helio. It returned everything to the situation before the war (status quo ante bellum). Both parts agreed to reject Arab defectors of the other part,[7] as well as to guarantee liberty of religion in their territories.[8]

War with the Hephthalites[edit]

Map of the Silk Road.

While Bahram was occupied with the war with the Romans, the rich city of Marv was captured by the Hephthalites. Bahram was thus forced to pay tribute to the Hephthalites, in order to stop their incursions into his empire. When Bahram had made peace with the Romans, he started preparing to deal with the Hephthalites. Not only was Marv a rich city, but also an important trading spot in the Silk Road, which passed through Central Asia and continued through Iran to Europe.

Bahram shortly invaded the domains of the Hephthalites, and recaptured Marv, killing the Hephthalite ruler, and seizing many riches. He then erected a pillar at the Amu Darya, which marked that the river constituted his empire's eastern frontier. By 427, he had fully secured his eastern section of the empire, and the inhabitants of Bukhara had started minted coins which imitated the coins of Bahram V, which implies that he had either conquered the city, or had left a strong influence there.[9]

To further strengthen Sasanian supremacy in Central Asia, Bahram appointed his brother, Narseh, as the governor of the eastern provinces, with his capital at Balkh.[10] Furthermore, in order to demonstrate his appreciation to Ahura Mazda, Bahram bestowed most of his booty to the Adur Gushnasp, one of the three holy temples of Iran.[10]

Relations with Armenia[edit]

The situation in Armenia occupied Bahram immediately after the conclusion of peace with Rome. Armenia had been without a king since Bahram's brother Shapur IV had vacated the country in 418. Bahram now desired that a descendant of the royal line of kings, a scion of the Arsacids, should be on the throne of Armenia. With this intention in mind, he selected an Arsacid named Artaxias IV (Artashir IV), a son of Vramshapuh, and made him king of Armenia.[11]

But the newly appointed king did not have a good character. The frustrated nobles petitioned Bahram to remove Artaxias IV and admit Armenia into the Sasanian Empire so that the province would be under the direct control of the Sassanian Empire.[12] However, the annexation of Armenia by Iran was strongly opposed by the Armenian patriarch Isaac of Armenia, who felt the rule of a Christian better than that of a non-Christian regardless of his character or ability. Despite his strong protests, however, Armenia was annexed by Bahram, who placed it under the charge of a Sasanian governor in 428.[13]


20th-century illustration of Bahram V hunting.

Bahram V has left behind a rich and colorful legacy, with numerous legends and fantastical tales. His fame has survived the downplay of Zoroastrianism and the anti-Iranian measures of the Umayyads and the Mongols, and many of the stories have been incorporated in contemporary Islamic lore.

His legacy even survives outside Iran. He is the king who receives the Three Princes of Serendip in the tale that gave rise to the word Serendipity. He is believed to be the inspiration for the legend of Bahramgur prevalent in the Punjab.

He is a great favourite in Persian tradition, which relates many stories of his valour and beauty; of his victories over the Romans, Hephthalites, Indians, and Africans; and of his adventures in hunting and in love. He is called Bahram Gur, "Onager," on account of his love for hunting, and in particular, hunting onagers.[14]

For example, the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam, by Edward Fitzgerald, quatrain 17:

"They say the Lion and the Lizard keep
The Courts where Jamshyd gloried and drank deep:
And Bahram, that great Hunter - the Wild Ass
Stamps o'er his Head, and he lies fast asleep."

To which Fitzgerald adds the following footnote (1st edition, 1859): "Bahram Gur - Bahram of the Wild Ass from his fame in hunting it - a Sassanian sovereign, had also his seven palaces, each of a different colour; each with a Royal mistress within; each of whom recounts to Bahram a romance. The ruins of three of these towers are yet shown by the peasantry; as also the swamp in which Bahram sunk while pursuing his Gur.

The New Persian homonyms gūr "onager," and gūr "grave" have led to many wordplays in classical Persian poetry, such as in this sentence from the 14th-century Persian poet Hafez: "Kamand e ṣayd-e bahrāmī be-afkan jām-e Jam bar dār/ke man peymūdam īn ṣaḥrā na Bahrām ast o na gūraš" ("Throw down Bahram's hunting lasso and take up Jamshid's cup/I have crossed this plain and there is neither Bahram nor his onager, or: his grave."[15]

Some have judged Bahram V to have been rather a weak monarch, after the heart of the grandees and the priests. He is said to have built many great fire-temples, with large gardens and villages (Tabari).[14]


The coins of Bahram V are chiefly remarkable for their crude and coarse workmanship and for the number of the mints from which they were issued. The mint-marks include Ctesiphon, Ecbatana, Ispahan, Arbela, Ledan, Nehavend, Assyria, Chuzistan, Media, and Kerman or Carmania. The headdress has the mural crown in front and behind, but interposes between these two detached fragments a crescent and a circle, emblems, no doubt, of the sun and moon gods. The reverse shows the usual fire-altar, with guards, or attendants, watching it. The king's head appears in the flame upon the altar.


Numerous legends have been associated with Bahram. One account says that he aided an Indian king in his war against China and that, in return for his help, the Indian king made over the provinces of Makran and Sindh to Persia. Other accounts suggest that he married an Indian princess. However, the conclusion of such a marriage alliance is regarded as highly dubious once again due to lack of evidence.

Another legend, found in the Shahnameh, is about Bahram slaying two lions and gaining the crown between them.


  1. ^ Bosworth 1999, p. 93.
  2. ^ a b c Klíma 1999, pp. 514-522.
  3. ^ Bosworth 1999, p. 84.
  4. ^ Bosworth 1999, p. 87.
  5. ^ Traina 2009, p. 121.
  6. ^ a b c d Dodgeon, Greatrex & Lieu 2002b, pp. 36-43.
  7. ^ Malchus, fragment 1.4-7.
  8. ^ Chr. Arb., 16.
  9. ^ Frye 1984, p. 352.
  10. ^ a b Kia 2016, p. 238.
  11. ^ A Fifth Century Hoard of Sasanian Drachms (A.D. 399-460), Hodge Mehdi Malek, Iran, Vol. 33, (1995), British Institute of Persian Studies, 68.
  12. ^ Introduction to Christian Caucasian History:II: States and Dynasties of the Formative Period, Cyril Toumanoff, Traditio, Vol. 17, 1961, Fordham University, 6.
  13. ^ Simon Payaslian, The History of Armenia:From the Origins to the Present, (Palgrave Macmillan, 2007), 40.
  14. ^ a b  One or more of the preceding sentences incorporates text from a publication now in the public domainChisholm, Hugh, ed. (1911). "Bahrām". Encyclopædia Britannica. 3 (11th ed.). Cambridge University Press. p. 211. 
  15. ^ Hanaway 1988, pp. 514-522.


External links[edit]

Bahram V
Preceded by
Khosrow the Usurper
Great King (Shah) of Persia
Succeeded by
Yazdegerd II