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The Chronicle of SeertChristian Historical Imagination in Late Antique Iraq$

Philip Wood

Print publication date: 2013

Print ISBN-13: 9780199670673

Published to Oxford Scholarship Online: September 2013

DOI: 10.1093/acprof:oso/9780199670673.001.0001

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The Last Great War of Antiquity: The Reaction of Christian Iraq

The Last Great War of Antiquity: The Reaction of Christian Iraq

(p.176) 7 The Last Great War of Antiquity: The Reaction of Christian Iraq
The Chronicle of Seert

Philip Wood

Oxford University Press

Abstract and Keywords

This chapter discusses the culmination of several social trends seen in previous chapters: the growing importance of monastic leadership within the Church of the East, the prominence of a Christian aristocracy, and the engagement with the Roman church and its theology. The early seventh century saw a cataclysmic war between Rome and Iran, in which the shah claimed the universal mandate of the Roman emperor. Hagiographies embedded in the Chronicle of Seert present the shah Khusrau II and his wife Shirin as the special sponsors of the catholicos Sabrisho. Later texts, also embedded in the Chronicle, allow us to trace the breakdown of this relationship: of Khusrau’s suppression of the catholicosate, of the assassination of the shah at the hands of Christian aristocrats, and of the attempts of his successors to appeal to his subjects and the Romans in Christian terms.

Keywords:   great power warfare, patronage, exile, hagiography, khusrau aparvez, shirin, school of nisibis, yazdin, jerusalem, true cross

The ecclesiastical historians whose works were used for the medieval compilations were responsible for incorporating new material into a historical tradition based around the lives of the catholicoi. This new material, which we have examined in the past two chapters, dealt with the ecclesiastical history of the Roman Empire, monastic and scholastic histories within the Church of the East, and royal and aristocratic histories in an Iranian tradition. The prominence of these new kinds of history from the 580s onwards was the product of greater international awareness by Iraqi authors and increased sponsorship from lay patrons. But it was also a reaction to the rapidly changing political and cultural environment of the period 580–660, which saw cordial relations between Rome and Persia turn to bitter war, followed by a brief period of Roman domination of Iraq and then the defeat of both empires by the Arab invasions.

This period of crisis prompted the development of greater historical interest in the Church under Ishoʿyahb I and his successors, as different churchmen defined its theology and ecclesiology against the West. At the same time, this era was itself regarded as a time of prime importance for the church, because it saw the genesis of Abrahamic monasticism and the conversion of Iranian elites to Christianity, who brought with them their own familial and regional histories. The crises of politics, theology, and ecclesiology that caused historians to introduce new kinds of history into the Iraqi tradition also represented opportunities for the same men and their patrons to determine the future direction of the Church of the East.

In particular, the period 607–30 saw an interregnum in the catholicosate, during years when the shah Khusrau II would turn against the Christians, and other lay figures would present themselves as patrons of the church. These men, such as the aristocrat and tax collector Yazdin, the general Shahrbaraz and Khusrau’s son, Kavad II Shiroë, were themselves competing for political influence and their activities generated different strands in the dense and confused historiography of the period. Simultaneously, as the patronage of (p.177) the shah turned to persecution, various figures, such as Gregory of Nisibis and Babai the Great, asserted their credentials to lead the church. These claims are reflected in contradictory narrative strands embedded in the medieval compilations. Though the catholicosate would be re-established after the Arab invasions in the 650s, with regular succession and a clear theological policy, Ishoʿyahb III (649–59) and his successors had no clear lineage from their predecessors. The different ways that later historians tried to trace the ‘settlement’ of the Church of the East through the twisted politics of the last war between Rome and Persia and end of the Sasanian Empire show us how complex and rapidly changing the political positions of Christians in Iraq must have been.

The Great War between Rome and Persia

The events of the last war between Rome and Persia forms a frame against which we can understand both the actions of Christians within the Sasanian world and the recording transmission of material by historians of the Church of the East. These events are widely recorded in Greek, Armenian, Syriac, and Arabic sources, and the complexities of the accounts reflect both the importance of the events and the absence of any dominating or authoritative view.1

In 590, Khusrau’s father Hormizd IV alienated the powerful general Vahram Chobin and was blinded by his own palace troops as Vahram marched on Ctesiphon. Vahram had initially proclaimed his rebellion in the name of Khusrau, minting coins in the young man’s name at his home town of Rayy. However, following the palace coup, Vahram opposed Khusrau and, after defeating him in battle, established himself as shah, the first non-Sasanian to do so since the establishment of the dynasty. Khusrau escaped to the Roman emperor Maurice and, in return for military support, undertook to protect the Christians and rebuild churches. After patronizing the Christian shrine of Rusafa, Khusrau returned to Iran in the following year and defeated Vahram and re-established himself as shah.2 Following this victory, Khusrau ceded (p.178) large parts of Armenia to Maurice and abolished the payments the Romans had previously made to the Sasanians.3

The 590s witnessed unprecedented cooperation between the Persian and Roman Empires. Maurice was left unhindered in his attempts to enforce Chalcedonianism and Roman authority across his eastern border, especially against the Ghassanid Arabs and in his newly annexed Caucasian territories. Similarly, peace with Iran also gave the emperor a free hand to fight the Slavs and Avars in the Balkans.4 This cooperation is seen more directly in the diplomatic interchange between Khusrau II (591–628) and Maurice, where Khusrau’s Christian patronage during his exile was continued through the exchange of Christian relics between Maurice and the court of Ctesiphon, most notably fragments of the True Cross and an image of the reigning catholicos Sabrishoʿ (596–604).5 During this period Khusrau also fought and won a second civil war against his uncle Vistahm (d.602), in which he claimed his victory had been foretold by the future catholicos Sabrishoʿ in a vision.

The shah and the emperor had periodically enjoyed close diplomatic relations throughout the fifth and sixth centuries. Matthew Canepa has emphasized the evolution of ‘a familial language of international royal legitimacy’ as increased diplomatic contact produced a rhetoric of accommodation, which coexisted with assertions of universal dominance by both empires. Indeed the relationship between Maurice and Khusrau revitalized the traditional rhetoric of Roman–Persian cooperation. Much of the language of fifth- and sixth- century diplomacy had represented emperor and shah as unchangeable cosmic forces, ‘the lights of the world’, as part of an extra-religious, cross-cultural discourse.6 But the diplomatic relationship between Khusrau and Maurice also had a new dimension. Diplomacy was increasingly conducted through a Christian medium, through the use of bishops, the gift of relics, and the sponsorship of cult sites like Rusafa, a display that was aimed as much at Christians under Sasanian rule as at the Romans.

It is ironic that it was this closely intertwined royal legitimacy, with its increasingly Christian character, that underlay the most bitter of the wars between Rome and Persia. In 602, Maurice and his family were assassinated in a palace coup by the Balkan general Phocas, precipitating a long civil war between Phocas and his rivals. This generated a martyr literature in honour of the murdered emperor, which was disseminated even among Syriac-speaking (p.179) Miaphysites and in the Church of the East (in spite of his persecution of the former).7 It also granted a sense of legitimacy to Khusrau’s subsequent intervention and his invasion of Dara in 604. This invasion was justified by the presence of Maurice’s supposed son Theodosius, who was widely welcomed as emperor across Mesopotamia and Armenia.8 In addition, Khusrau affirmed this image of himself as Maurice’s avenger among the Christians of both empires through the support of the catholicos Sabrishoʿ, who had been closely involved in the exchange of relics with the dead emperor and who accompanied the opening stages of Khusrau’s campaign.9

The second phase of Khusrau’s war saw Persian forces break through the heavily fortified border regions into Egypt, the Levant and Anatolia in c.610. Jerusalem fell in 614, probably seized by Khusrau’s general Shahrbaraz,10 and the True Cross was transferred to Ctesiphon.11 This event was followed by the production of hyperbolic accounts of the sack of the city in Palestinian monastic circles and of Persian alliance with the Jews, but neither should be taken at face value. Instead, such accounts should be understood alongside attempts by the Roman regime to assert its claims to Christian universal rule and the condemnation of the Persians as pagan invaders, to counter Khusrau’s own claims to Christian and Roman sources of legitimacy.

Phocas was replaced in a coup by the new emperor Heraclius (610–28), son of the exarch of Africa, in 610, and it was under Heraclius that Roman efforts to stall the Persians, first in Anatolia and then before Constantinople, were accompanied by a propaganda campaign that proclaimed the religious mandate of the new emperor. James Howard-Johnston has emphasized the importance of prayer and ideas of military martyrdom in Heraclius’ campaign, supplemented by the prominent use of Christian imagery on his silver hexagrams and his deliberate targeting of Zoroastrian religious sites during his counter-attack into Azerbaijan.12

The third phase of the war saw Khusrau refuse a desperate bid for peace by Heraclius, in which he pleaded to remain the ruler of a rump state under (p.180) Persian vassalage. Instead, Persian and Avar forces laid siege to Constantinople. Leaving the city, Heraclius made a successful counter-attack through the Caucasus, using this as a base to launch a series of increasingly victorious campaigns that culminated in the 627 battle of Nineveh. In response to the Sasanian defeat that ensued, and the accumulation of grievances against the shah and the many years of war and taxation, nobles in Ctesiphon deposed and killed Khusrau and raised his son Kavad II Shiroë, who in turn purged Khusrau’s other children.

The aftermath of the war saw a series of counter-coups within Ctesiphon, following Shiroë’s death from plague in 629. Most significantly, for our purposes, one of these involved the general Shahrbaraz. He may have already conspired with the Romans in 626 to leave Khusrau unsupported and one of his sons was involved in the shah’s murder.13 He received Heraclius’ sponsorship in return for the baptism of his son Nicetas, the return of the True Cross, and the evacuation of the Persian troops that continued to occupy Egypt and the Levant.14 So, as it is important to observe, it was not only Khusrau who employed Christian political display to legitimize his behaviour to certain groups. His successors might also adopt this behaviour, though it would vary considerably in its context and intention. Moreover, we should not imagine that all lay patrons of Christianity were in any sense allied. One of Khusrau’s murderers, Shamta, was the son of the Christian magnate Yazdin, but fell out with Shiroë and was then crucified by Shahrbaraz. Shahrbaraz went on to kill Shiroë’s son Ardashir in order to acquire the throne, even though Shiroë had intervened to restore the catholicosate and Ardashir had supposedly been born thanks to saintly intervention.15

Thus Christians at the court of Ctesiphon did not represent a single faction, nor does piety seem a strong motive for their actions. Indeed, the absence of any single group with a monopoly on the discourse of legitimate Christian behaviour is shown in the contradictory emphases of the medieval compilations for this period. Instead, the use of Christian self-representations by these different elites illustrates both the potential for experimentation with styles of rulership after the precedent of Khusrau’s reign and the absence of any established patterns for this behaviour. Furthermore, this self-representation also implies the existence of increasingly numerous, or at least influential, Christian supporters.

(p.181) Pourshariati has observed the significance of Shahrbaraz as a member of a powerful aristocratic house and that he, like Vahram Chobin, was associated with the ‘Parthian’ aristocracy at a time of the renewed ethnic self-awareness of these magnates.16 This understanding of Khusrau’s fall and the strife that followed it, drawn from al-Tabari, Ferdowsi and the evidence of the seals, is persuasive and important. But it also ignores the role several of the same sources ascribe to Shamta bar Yazdin or to the Christian self-representation and behaviour reported in Greek, Armenian, Syriac, and Arabic for both Sasanian shahs and Shahrbaraz, which coexist with the use of more traditional Zoroastrian images of pious rule and righteous rebellion that we see in Ferdowsi. Just as the Shahname preserves accounts of Khusrau II as a pious Zoroastrian, preparing for death with ritual silence before praying with barsom sticks, so too Christian sources also presented a legitimizing discourse for competing lay factions in the political confusion that followed the death of Khusrau, in a period without a clear political succession.17

Historiography of the Great War

This era of political crises had an equally marked effect on the institutions and leadership of the Church of the East. The catholicos Ishoʿyahb I was replaced by the more malleable holy man Sabrishoʿ after Khusrau’s return from exile. Controversies over the election and behaviour of Sabrishoʿ’s successor Gabriel of Pherat led to the suspension of the catholicosate and a long interregnum until the election of Ishoʿyahb II in 630 after the fall of Shahrbaraz.18

We have seen how the histories of the Church of the East were based around the succession of catholicoi, and that this structure is clearly visible at least up to the reign of Ishoʿyahb I. Sections on catholicoi preserved in the Chronicle of Seert focus on their education and election, and sometimes on their theological statements or writings, and this material is mirrored fairly closely in the other medieval compilations.

But this focus seems to have generated a structural problem in the period following Ishoʿyahb’s death. After this point, the Chronicle relies on individual hagiographies, rather than a continuous tradition of ecclesiastical history focused on the succession of catholicoi. The long text that the medieval compilations use for Sabrishoʿ is clearly drawn from the Syriac life of the (p.182) holy man, written soon after his death by one Peter of Beth ʿAbe (the Arabic version has several additional passages, though these seem to have been added soon after the text’s original composition).19 Similarly, the record of Babai in the Chronicle of Seert is also a hagiography, which is stylistically close to the lives of his followers Henanishoʿ and Giwargis, and has elements of the monastic lives used by Thomas of Marga and elsewhere in the Chronicle.20 And though some sources that Thomas used did present him as catholicos, Babai is not given a section to himself in Mari or ‘Amr’s compilation and merely receives a one-line notice alongside Aba, archdeacon of Ctesiphon, whom ʿAmr also credits with governing the church.21 Indeed, ʿAmr and Mari’s accounts, which are structured around reign-by-reign accounts of the catholicoi, are unusually sparse compared to the Chronicle of Seert over this period, which seems to indicate the difficulties these compilers had in maintaining a history based around the reigns of catholicoi. This seems in turn to reflect a change in the nature of the available sources: Sabrishoʿ’s controversial posthumous reputation led to several different continuations, many of which were composed as hagiography rather than history per se, and there was little clear consensus on his successors.

But over the same period that the traditional patterns of historical recording were stretched by changing events, the Chronicle of Seert produces several, better-integrated sections of narrative with much more rounded protagonists, above all in the case of Khusrau II. Khusrau’s reign was an important dating marker (in a way that his predecessors’ had not been) for the historians Mikha of beth Garmai and Allahazkha, both of whom may have written during this period.22 His reign also saw the introduction of material from the Persian royal histories into Christian histories: the Sasanian king list preserved in Solomon of Basra is dated to the fifteenth year of Khusrau23 and the account of the fall of Hormizd in the Chronicle of Seert proclaims itself drawn from the royal annals, which suggests that it was inserted during Khusrau’s reign as well.24 So Khusrau’s reign saw the importation of a Sasanian royal tradition into Christian historical writing and may have seen some attempts to rebuild history writing around the shah, rather than the catholicoi.

These patterns in the historical writing of the period allow us to make some general observations about the motivations of the historians. Royal patronage, coupled with the patronage of lesser elite figures, lies at the background of the more integrated narratives of this period, which set the shah and his activities more clearly in the centre stage. The absence of a catholicos during this same (p.183) period must also have stimulated the shift towards more secular history and attempts to integrate this into the tradition of ecclesiastical history. In addition, the political chaos of Khusrau’s reign was felt keenly by the Church of the East. This situation may have encouraged historians’ attempts to combine new strands of narrative, and to understand Khusrau’s reign in terms of earlier events.

We can gain further insight into how this union of traditions was attempted through an extant chronicle composed in Syriac, the so-called Khuzistan Chronicle.25 The coverage of this text spans the period from Vahram’s revolt to the death of Maremmeh (646–9), and the detail of its information for the deeds of this short-lived catholicos suggest a final composition date of c.652.26 The chronicler does not provide a flowing narrative, but a series of short notes on a varied set of sources that he had collected. His focus is on how individuals change the course of history, through their own grievances and biases (such as Khusrau’s grudges against Ishoʿyahb I or the Lakhmid phylarch Nuʿman, or Gabriel of Sinjar’s hatred for the Church of the East).27

The Khuzistan Chronicle’s information is chiefly domestic, and, more than any other source, confirms our impression of the importance of Yazdin, ‘a defender of the church like Constantine or Theodosius’, and of the oscillating attitude of Christians to Khusrau as his policy changed course.28 In addition, the Chronicle also provides information for specific phases in Khusrau’s war with the Romans that left an impression on Christians in Iraq: the invasion of Dara and the borderlands of Mesopotamia; the fall of Jerusalem and Alexandria (where it credits the involvement of Shahrbaraz and Yazdin) and the final invasion of Heraclius.29

The Khuzistan Chronicle is especially significant for its testimony to how history was composed in this era. If we ignore the last quarter of the text, which is a later continuation by another hand, it appears that the author, probably one Elias of Merv,30 scoured a number of available histories (and possibly even documentary evidence) and combined this with his own recollection of events to produce a history of the past two generations. The (p.184) proximity of these events to his own days may account for the accuracy of its chronology and the gossipy nature of some of the entries (such as the account of Khusrau’s flight), and it may suggest that he frequently used oral sources to supplement these written accounts. In particular, this Chronicle confirms our impression from the medieval compilations that several accounts of this period were produced, often with personalized portraits of well-known court figures and with considerable disagreement in their attitude to these figures.31 Given the date of the Khuzistan Chronicle, it also appears that attempts were made relatively quickly following the restoration of the catholicosate to produce a collection of these accounts. Still, the polyphonic texture of the narratives for this period in the Chronicle of Seert suggest that, while there were early attempts to epitomize and correlate the accounts of this period, these did not render the diverse contemporary accounts obsolete. Multiple versions of the events of 580–660 continued to circulate and could be consulted in following centuries and embedded in the Chronicle of Seert.

The beginning of the seventh century saw historians gather information from previous generations in reaction to the changing situation of the Church of the East and its ability to attract a much wider range of patrons. But this expanded patronage base also meant that the multiple continuators of the older historical tradition had to reconcile a much wider variety of interest groups, as bishops and aristocrats competed for influence after the dissolution of the catholicosate. The rapidly changing political and religious environment produced a profusion of different sources, and this in turn explains the sheer density and complexity of the account of the period in the Chronicle of Seert. Yet, at the same time, the absence of straightforward narratives based around the succession of catholicoi for the same period may explain the paucity of seventh-century material in Mari and ʿAmr and the disjointed structure of the Khuzistan Chronicle.

Narrative Families in the History of the Great War

The Chronicle of Seert for the period 590–660 devotes sections to a range of figures, secular leaders, catholicoi, and pseudo-catholicoi who occupy a central position in each given narrative. By tracing the treatment of these dramatis personae, I suggest that we can break the Chronicle of Seert’s accounts for this (p.185) era into ‘families’ of narratives, each of which concentrated on different chains of individuals, and which were adapted in the light of later events. By and large, the compiler of the Chronicle has placed these narratives one after another, without attempting to reconcile the material.

Each narrative family probably originated in a single author, and most have only been subjected to limited adaptation. Many of these adaptations also make sense as early reactions to constantly changing circumstances: especially where the controversial protagonists they discuss were representatives of Sasanian factional politics, there would have been much less incentive to alter these narratives after the fall of the empire. Additionally, the restoration of the catholicosate seems to have been accompanied by a recentralisation of the historical tradition.32 If this is true, then we should see adaptations as pre-dating this mid-seventh-century recentralization, or as immediate consequences of it, rather than products of a much later period.33

These narrative families are as follows:

  • Section XLII: Ishoʿyahb I. Drawn from a patriarchal history common to all the compilations: blames the Romans and Khusrau for Ishoʿyahb’s fall.

  • Section XLIII and LVIII: Hormizd and Khusrau. An account of Hormizd’s death drawn from a Sasanian royal history, followed by several different continuations written at different points during and after Khusrau’s reign (but all from a Christian perspective).

  • Section LX: The conversion of the Lakhmid Nuʿman by Sabrishoʿ. Emphasizes the good relations between the Arabs of Hira and Khusrau, therefore predating Khusrau’s assassination of Nuʿman after c.602.

  • Sections LXV–LXXI: The Life of Sabrishoʿ. Modelled on an extant Syriac saint’s life that describes the close relationship of Sabrishoʿ, Khusrau, and Shirin and their protection of Christians. Codas have been added that emphasize Sabrishoʿ’s wish to avoid accompanying Khusrau’s invasion and Sabrishoʿ’s antipathy for the Miaphysite Gabriel of Sinjar, which may reflect the need to preserve the catholicos’ posthumous reputation as Khusrau’s war began to be perceived in a bad light and the shah began to support the Jacobites.

  • Following this, there is a long lacuna in political history until the accounts of the end of the war (no information is given on the fall of Jerusalem in 614, instead the focus is on ecclesiastical controversies within the empire).

  • Section LXXIV: Gregory of Nisibis. An extended hagiography of the great opponent of Henana and his party at the School of Nisibis. The scene (p.186) strongly connects him to Ishoʿyahb I, in the previous generation, and to Ishoʿyahb II and Ishoʿyahb III in the following generation, but also presents him as suffering under Khusrau and Sabrishoʿ, who continues to defend Henana. Section LXXII provides a generalized summary of the conflict with the Henanians, in which all personal names have been removed. Section LXXV represents a sequel to his Life, in which the nobles of Nisibis are killed following a revolt, which is seen as divine punishment for their support of Henana. Section LXXX represents a different sequel to Gregory’s Life, which focuses instead on his failure to be elected catholicos, Shirin’s deceitful machinations in the election of Gregory of Pherat, and Khusrau’s subsequent persecutions.

  • Section LXXXIII: The excommunication of heretics. The scene focuses on the conflict with Gabriel of Sinjar and the Henanians on one hand and the Dyophysites on the other in the assembly of 612 (which is preserved in the Synodicon). Though short, this is the most inclusive narrative of the whole period, since it sympathetically explains away Babai’s absence and gives Yazdin an important role in uniting the Dyophysites. The text also (dubiously) asserts the unity of Paul of Nisibis, Gregory of Nisibis, Ishoʿyahb I, and Sabrishoʿ in condemning the Henanians. Its broad overview, and its conciliatory outlook, may suggest a date of composition some time after the events it describes, by an author trying to combine earlier traditions.

  • Sections LXXXIV–VI: Babai and his followers. These hagiographies describe their opposition to the Henanians and their establishment/maintenance of a Dyophysite orthodoxy against figures like Gabriel of Sinjar.

Political events are considered once more from the Heraclian invasion, where new secular rulers compete, all giving some form of patronage to Christians. Sections XCII and XCIII also represent two different attempts to correlate political events to the reign of the new catholicos Ishoʿyahb II.

  • Section XCII: The death of Khusrau. Describes Shamta’s assassination and Shiroë’s opposition to him after his accession. The section praises Shiroë for his secret Christianity and discusses the miraculous birth of his son Ardashir following a miracle by Babai of Nisibis.

  • Section XCIII: Ishoʿyahb [II] of Gdala. Includes an account of Shahrbaraz’s arrival in Ctesiphon as a client of Heraclius in 629, where he kills Shamta and Ardashir and returns the True Cross before his own assassination. The background to this event is given in section LXXXVII, which describes Heraclius’ 626 agreement with Shahrbaraz, which may be true, or an invention in the light of Shahrbaraz’s 629 compact.

  • The account of Shahrbaraz is followed in the same section by a description of Ishoʿyahb’s role as Boran’s ambassador and a brief account of the fall of the last shah Yazdegard III to the Arabs. The inclusion of so much material in a single section named after the catholicos indicates the attempts (p.187) to re-create a history based around politically active catholicoi. The narrative spills over into Section CV, which deals with this catholicos’ theological controversies. The use of Hijri dates suggests a date of composition in the tenth century.34

  • In addition, though the Chronicle of Seert preserves no narrative family devoted to Yazdin, I suggest that one historian at least took him as a particular focus and described his role in the government of Jerusalem and as a patron of the church. A contiguous section of the Khuzistan Chronicle (23–4) focuses on him, and this may be a précis of a longer piece written in the generation before this text’s compilation. Yazdin was also particularly prominent in hagiographies and monastic literature composed at this time, so it seems likely that some writers of history also emphasized his political role.

The modern understanding of the domestic politics of Christianity in Iraq has been hampered by a willingness to accept the absolute categories of the partisan narratives, e.g. to see Shirin, Khusrau’s chief wife, as ‘a Jacobite’ (as opposed to a ‘Nestorian’) or to view the Henanians as a fifth column within the Church of the East.35 Sources have been used to confirm or deny the factional membership of different protagonists, rather than to examine the construction of these political and religious factional categories as idealized patterns of loyalties and behaviour. Crucial to such an examination is knowledge of when political events were recorded and adapted and how they manipulate and explain publicly known events to assert certain kinds of ideal behaviour for different communities and groups.

In what follows, I intend to examine the different narrative families that have been embedded in the Chronicle of Seert to see how historians participated in contemporary debate through successive reconstructions of the past, which established different hero figures for Iraqi Christians during a political vacuum, and connected this to assertions of the religious and political behaviour of their readership. I shall begin by examining the contradictory focus of sources on the churchmen Sabrishoʿ, Gregory of Nisibis, and Babai, before turning to lay sponsors of Christianity, to the family of Yazdin, to Shiroë, and to Shahrbaraz.

(p.188) Khusrau and the Christians

Political and military events form the context for an equally rapidly changing situation within the Church of the East.36 Ishoʿyahb I, whose reign saw coherent attempts to assert the importance of Ctesiphon as a patriarchate, fell foul of the new shah Khusrau after his victory in the civil war. The Khuzistan Chronicle reports how Ishoʿyahb was unable to join Khusrau in his flight because he was afraid of what Vahram might do to the Christians in his absence. In consequence, the Chronicle reports, ‘the leader of the Christians’ was hated by Khusrau and fled to Hira where he died in exile.37 The Chronicle of Seert and the other medieval compilations echo this account in a developed scene that records Ishoʿyahb’s interview with Khusrau. Here the shah accuses him of ignoring his cause in the civil war, showing him disrespect and praying for Vahram. Ishoʿyahb’s reply seems an attempt to put a positive gloss on the catholicos’ inaction during the political ambiguity of the civil war: ‘I only prayed for the king’s life and his safety and for the security of his kingdom’.38

The reasons given in the Chronicle of Seert for Khusrau’s animosity are also tied to his new alliance with Maurice. Khusrau’s ‘Greek’ soldiers are said to be opposed to Ishoʿyahb, because he had provided knowledge of Roman troop movements to Hormizd IV while bishop of Nisibis. It may be that Ishoʿyahb had been a personal selection of Hormizd’s, in which case the interests of the Roman kingmakers and Khusrau might well have intersected in ensuring Ishoʿyahb’s removal. But though Ishoʿyahb was condemned for being a false friend to Khusrau and for his earlier actions against the Romans, Ishoʿyahb’s actions and position are signs of how integrated the catholicosate and the royal court had become. As an informant against the Romans and probable appointee of Hormizd, Ishoʿyahb fell victim to a ‘reshuffle’ of personnel, but without the civil war he would have seemed an insider and a loyalist.

Khusrau searched for many similar qualities to those Hormizd had sought in Ishoʿyahb in his successor. But while Ishoʿyahb was noted for his ‘beauty and erudition’, his successor Sabrishoʿ was an aged ascetic and son of a shepherd. In spite of Sabrishoʿ’s reputation, he was far-removed from the educational background of other catholicoi and may have seemed very much an outsider to the politics of the catholicosate and the scholastic system, and certainly produced none of the theological works that are recorded for other catholicoi.

The main sources for Sabrishoʿ’s reign are hagiographic. There is an extant Syriac Life composed by a contemporary, Peter of Beth ʿAbe, but this is (p.189) primarily interested in the miracles of Sabrishoʿ’s early life and his missionary endeavours. Peter’s Life passes over Sabrishoʿ’s time as catholicos and the controversial stage management of his election. The account in the Chronicle of Seert may have used Peter’s Life, since he describes several of the same miracles.39 But the core account of Sabrishoʿ’s Life (sections LXV–LXVIII) has been chiefly drawn from another hagiographic account, which was also written by a contemporary, but one who had a much keener interest in affairs at court.40 In what follows, I will refer to this core account in the Chronicle of Seert as the Life of Sabrishoʿ, but we should bear in mind that it was made up of at least two different Syriac hagiographies and that the Chronicle also includes several ‘codas’ to the core account, each of which was also written by different hands.

The Life of Sabrishoʿ embedded in the Chronicle of Seert refers to a number of public appearances by the shah and catholicos, and describes and comments on the stage management of these appearances in considerable detail. The text also bears a message of the shah’s close relationship with Maurice and his love for the Christians within his own empire, mediated through Shirin. Sabrishoʿ himself is present as a passive symbol of the Church of the East, to whom the shah can show honour but who never takes the political initiative. Seen together, the precise discussion of the reception of Sabrishoʿ at court and the strongly loyalist perspective the Life takes on the shah and his invasion of the Roman empire all suggest that it was composed very soon after Sabrishoʿ’s death, before Khusrau’s dissolution of the catholicosate. Moreover, given Sabrishoʿ’s fame as a prophet of Khusrau’s victory in his second civil war and the esteem in which he was held in the Roman world, oral stories about Sabrishoʿ probably circulated in the holy man’s lifetime. In sum, the Life reflects the court’s management and dissemination of the shah’s image as a Christian sponsor, and is markedly different in style and form to earlier records of catholicoi produced within the historical tradition of the Church itself.

The Life of Sabrishoʿ

The Life closely models the pattern of its hero’s life on that of Christ. Sabrishoʿ’s parents receive an angelic visitation foretelling the birth of their son and the young Sabrishoʿ is recognized as the future patriarch by an aged (p.190) monk, who prevents his father from scolding him. Later he studies with Abraham at Nisibis, before retreating to a monastic cell on the mountain of Sha‘aran, living on wild herbs and berries. After exorcizing a local man whose house is plagued by demons, he receives a visit from two ‘monks’ in a vision who ordain him and give him the pastoral rod of office carried by a bishop. Immediately after this, the people of Lashom take him before Ishoʿyahb who ordains him bishop of the city.41

As bishop, Sabrishoʿ is responsible for a series of miracles: he prevents a downpour on Palm Sunday, he quells a flood on the river Zab, and cures an infertile Zoroastrian woman. These miracles culminate in his conversion of the Lakhmid phylarch Nuʿman, a major ally of Khusrau based in the city of Hira on the desert frontier, and in his prophecy of Khusrau’s victory in his civil war against Vistahm in 602. The text does not dwell on the causes of Vistahm’s rebellion; its focus instead is on Khusrau’s vision of the saint and his distinctive appearance (‘a small old man with a cap on his head and a rod in his right hand’). Sabrishoʿ’s appearance allows him to be recognized by Shirin following the battle at Rayy as a famous miracle-worker and holy man, contradicting those of his supporters who believed that it had been his grandfather, Khusrau I, who had foretold the victory.42

The next long scene concentrates on Sabrishoʿ’s election as catholicos. Ishoʿyahb dies following Khusrau’s battle at Rayy. In this account the shah mourns the death of the catholicos: ‘We thank God for saving the blood of this old man who died a natural death. Despite the crime (dhanbihi) he committed against me, this man was holy.’ Khusrau’s statement in the Life seems to reflect the awkwardness felt by a hagiographer who wished to praise the shah’s special friendship for the Christians, despite Ishoʿyahb’s fall from grace. Khusrau here is made to deny the antagonistic reputation he has in stories dedicated to Ishoʿyahb and to highlight the fact that he is not a persecutor: Isohyahb’s death is natural and his exile is left unmentioned.

On hearing of the death of Ishoʿyahb, Khusrau summons his Christian courtier Takhrid, who informs him that the Christians will delay electing a new catholicos until they have his permission. Khusrau orders the Christian notables, laymen, and clergy, to gather at his door to praise him and ask for a new leader, and Khusrau informs them, through Takhrid, that they should make an election and present the candidate before the shah. Khusrau reminds them that no one should be motivated by personal interest and that the candidate should be able to govern to the satisfaction of all and uphold the (p.191) empire through his prayers. Finally, he warns them that if they choose a candidate who cannot do this, then the choice will return to him. The Christians meet on the third Thursday of Lent to make an election but they are divided and cannot make a decision. Takhrid presses them and asks where Sabrishoʿ is, and they reply that he is too old to govern. After the meeting Takhrid reports this news to Khusrau. The shah furiously tells the bishops that ‘Each of you only wants to be elected himself. It is I who will choose and I will make him leader over you’ and the Christians acclaim his announcement.43

Sabrishoʿ arrives at Ctesiphon on Palm Sunday and is summoned to Shirin’s palace, accompanied only by Timothy of Beth Bagash. On Maundy Thursday, Khusrau orders the clergy to gather outside the palace where Takhrid addresses them: ‘This is the chief whom God has sent you from the heavens, whom the shah has approved and placed at your head. Celebrate his election according to your canons…and receive his blessing’. Then the bishops fall to the floor to kiss Sabrishoʿ’s feet and praise Khusrau.

Sabrishoʿ is then ordained patriarch and celebrates the Eucharist, before setting out for Khusrau’s palace. However, his way is blocked by a large crowd and he is unable to continue, so Takhrid goes to him with a horse. Sabrishoʿ initially refuses to mount the horse, claiming that he is a poor horseman, and he is eventually placed on the horse by the soldiers at the urging of the bishops. The horse, then, refuses to move after the saint commands it to remain still in the name of Christ, and all Jews, Zoroastrians, and Marcionites in the crowd are struck with wonder, saying, ‘Your leader is indeed great.’ Eventually, a solution is found that does not compromise the patriarch’s humility: the soldiers create a path in the crowd, allowing Sabrishoʿ to reach Khusrau at three in the morning.

Khusrau greets Sabrishoʿ and recognizes him as the miraculous messenger who announced his victory at Rayy. He declares, ‘You indeed are the stone whom the masons have rejected, who has become the head of the corner’ (Psalm 118 and Matthew 21:24), embarrassing the bishops present for their failure to elect him. The next day, Khusrau visits him again in Shirin’s palace and tells him, ‘Your predecessors were the slaves of my fathers and ancestors, but now I have become your son and my wife your daughter.’ He concludes this second audience by requesting that he give Shirin communion ‘whenever she so desires’ and to pray for ‘my Empire and my life’. Finally, the bishops thank Takhrid and return home, after Sabrishoʿ has designated a new bishop, Miles of Senna.44

Following Sabrishoʿ’s election, Maurice enters a correspondence with the new catholicos and requests Sabrishoʿ’s image, as well as his cap. In return, Sabrishoʿ requests a fragment of the True Cross and the freedom of the Christian captives seized by the Romans in northern Iraq. However, Khusrau (p.192) takes this fragment of the Cross, ‘because of his love for Shirin’, and Sabrishoʿ asks Maurice for a second piece. Later, Sabrishoʿ receives Maurice’s ambassador, Marutha, who is amazed and embarrassed to realize the full extent of Sabrishoʿ’s ascetic life at court. In a continuation of the core text of the Life, this Marutha then witnesses Sabrishoʿ heal a boy who has been struck dumb by a Marcionite sorcerer (who curses ‘the children of the Jewish Mary’) and goes to visit Khusrau’s palaces and the school of Ctesiphon, before celebrating the Eucharist. When Marutha leaves, Sabrishoʿ presents him with perfumes from India and China, and dispatches the newly elected Miles of Senna as an envoy to Maurice.45

This election narrative dominates the Seert Chronicle’s Life of Sabrishoʿ: it may have been an official account of Sabrishoʿ’s election, whose interest in Maurice’s ambassador dates from before the breakdown in relations with Rome. In particular, this narrative has a dramatic unity that follows the Gospels, where the early portents of Sabrishoʿ’s future are followed by his ascetic withdrawal, public miracles, and his entry into the royal city. It is also bound together by the person of Takhrid, the Christian courtier who manages Sabrishoʿ’s election, and the arrival and reception of the Roman ambassador. The sections in the Chronicle of Seert that describe Sabrishoʿ’s death replace Takhrid with Yazdin as ‘chief layman’, which further suggests that this later section is a continuation of the core text of the Life.

The text’s chief protagonists, Khusrau and Sabrishoʿ, are presented in connection with a series of other figures: with Nuʿman the phylarch, with Shirin, with the Christian bishops, and with the Roman ambassador. Each set of relationships can be read as an aspect of the shah’s policy towards Christianity, but it is important to emphasize that the peripheral figures have no mutual interaction: the only way in which they can participate in ‘political Christianity’ in this text is through their relations with the shah and his catholicos. The following sections focus on specific scenes in the Life of Sabrishoʿ and its continuations to examine these relationships in detail.

Nuʿman and Sabrishoʿ

The conversion of Hira and the Lakhmids is attested from a number of different sources embedded in the Chronicle of Seert and did not always focus on Sabrishoʿ’s involvement.46 In particular, Section LX focuses on the person of Nuʿman and makes him the hero of the conversion story: ‘Just as (p.193) Paul loved Judaism and Aba Magianism, so Nuʿman loved paganism’. Here his conversion is brought about by Symeon Jabara, the bishop of Hira, together with Sabrishoʿ and Ishoʿzkha, which reduces the primacy of the catholicos. This account is still ‘loyalist’, since Nuʿman’s son Hassan is praised for aiding Khusrau against Vistahm, so it must have been composed before Nuʿman’s assassination after 602, but the emphasis in the text is primarily on Nuʿman (rather than Khusrau) as an orthodox ruler, chasing away the Jacobites and in a close relationship with his bishop Symeon, and only secondarily on the role of the Lakhmids within the Sasanian Empire.47

The account of the conversion in the Life gives us many more details about the mechanics and chronology of the event, but also presents it from the perspective of Khusrau’s court, as one of the miracles of the future catholicos. In it, Symeon of Hira is initially unsuccessful in converting Nuʿman and the phylarch then receives a vision of a beautiful young man promising wealth and power if he converts. Nuʿman is initially reluctant to renounce his goddess al-ʿUzza, but he changes his mind after seeing a demon, and he declares his decision to convert on waking. Nuʿman informs Symeon that he must first request Khusrau’s permission, which he does before allowing Symeon to baptize the members of his household.

However, Jacobites in league with a demon later come to Nuʿman and he falls under their influence, eventually relapsing into paganism. Then Symeon writes to Ishoʿyahb, asking him to send the miracle-working Sabrishoʿ to Hira, which he arranges together with the shah. Then Sabrishoʿ, accompanied by the holy man Ishoʿzkha, comes to Nuʿman and exorcizes the demon that had possessed him and he is cured.48 In the Syriac version of the Life by Peter (though not in the Arabic text in the Chronicle of Seert), the converted king then drives the Jacobites out of Hira.49

This account probably predates Khusrau’s volte-face against Nuʿman, and it gives a clear idea of the chain of command between Nuʿman and Khusrau: the shah has to authorize the conversion of the former and has a role in dispatching Sabrishoʿ to sort out an internal dispute. The account contradicts any idea that Nuʿman’s conversion somehow went against Khusrau’s policy.50 Given that Hira had held a large and important Christian population since the fifth century, conversion must have long been advantageous from an internal perspective, especially since the Arabs of Hira might have been attracted to cult sites in the Roman Empire such as Qalaʿat Semʿān, the shrine of Symeon (p.194) the stylite.51 The timing of Nuʿman’s late conversion indicates a change in the shah’s policy towards Christians and the shah’s confidence that he could control the behaviour of churchmen within Iraq, and through them this newly Christian vassal state.

Still, the second account does not seem to have been simplified to fit this pro-Khusrau agenda. Like the rest of the Life, it preserves the complexities of political situations while still asserting the primary roles of Khusrau and Sabrishoʿ. Thus Symeon’s role and Nuʿman’s vision are included, before being overlaid by a second conversion in which Sabrishoʿ is made the hero in the final instance. The contemporary story is historically accurate, making Ishoʿyahb the reigning catholicos, and preserves widely known elements of a narrative that might have originally been generated for a Hiran audience, but it concludes by giving the final agency to Khusrau and Sabrishoʿ. The intricacy of this account could well imply that it is a true reflection of the course of events and their contemporary reporting. But equally it is also sympathetic to Khusrau’s usurpation of the roles of Symeon and Ishoʿyahb and written with foreknowledge of Sabrishoʿ’s significance, which causes it to suppress the politically unimportant Ishoʿzkha from the story.52 Notably, both stories of Nuʿman’s conversion in the Chronicle suppress the fact that Nuʿman gave exile to the disgraced Ishoʿyahb, which suggests both that Ishoʿyahb had a greater role in Sabrishoʿ’s mission than is admitted here and that Nuʿman’s Christianity also allowed him greater political leverage within the Sasanian Empire than is visible in these idealized accounts.53

The Election of Sabrishoʿ

The account of Nu‘man’s conversion in the Life seems to be based on reports generated at the time, before Sabrishoʿ’s election, which have not removed the activities of other churchmen. However, the shah and his court, already an important ‘off-stage’ source of authority in this account, become the focus of the narrative for the rest of the Life. The story of Sabrishoʿ’s election is written from the perspective of the court, disseminating a narrative of this highly managed encounter between shah and catholicos for the benefit of a domestic Christian audience.

(p.195) Sabrishoʿ’s importance is set out through his appearance at Rayy. The hagiographer is keen to assert that Khusrau himself denies those who say the vision is of his grandfather. Sabrishoʿ’s distinctive appearance and Shirin’s advice are part of an explanation for Khusrau’s shift in his public religious support towards the Christians and away from a more neutral, non-religious interpretation of the vision that some at court may have advocated. During his first civil war, Khusrau had sought legitimacy in the Roman world through his patronage of the cult of Sergius and spreading rumours of imminent conversion. This second civil war seems to have prompted a further move towards additional, alternative bases for his legitimacy in this miraculous relationship with an Iraqi holy man, which had the further advantage of independence from cult sites under Roman control.

The controversy over the election of Ishoʿyahb’s successor suggests that the bishops assembled by Takhrid failed to take this hint, or to realize the importance the shah wished to place on his relationship with Sabrishoʿ. The other contenders in the election are left unmentioned, and Khusrau is forced to renounce the illusion of choice that he had given to the bishops. Instead, Khusrau emphasizes his own authority and the significance of his miraculous encounter. Takhrid reminds them that the shah’s choice is for the man ‘whom God has sent down from the heavens’, eliding the shah’s authority with that of God in a manner that was long familiar to Sasanian kings but had never been employed so explicitly by the shah with regard to Christians or in an episcopal election.54 At the same time, the Khusrau of the Life is also able to justify his decision in Psalmic language, where Sabrishoʿ is ‘the stone that the masons rejected’. Here Khusrau sets himself up as the instrument of God in elevating the Christ-like Sabrishoʿ to his rightful role as catholicos over the feuding bishops.

Sabrishoʿ’s ceremonial passage from the palaces of Shirin and Khusrau represents an opportunity to show off Khusrau’s new catholicos and to highlight the new prominence of Christians through Shirin’s patronage, while still distancing the shah from any accusations of full conversion.55 However, Sabrishoʿ’s inability to make his way through the crowd potentially represented an embarrassment to the shah, even a vindication of those who had said he was too old to be elected catholicos. Takhrid’s failed attempt to remedy the situation by bringing Sabrishoʿ a horse has been developed into a miracle by the hagiographer, representing a theatrical failure as another indication of Sabrishoʿ’s holiness. The Life represents an official version of events where a public mishap on the streets of Ctesiphon has been retold to confirm the catholicos’ right to rule.

(p.196) The concluding part of this scene establishes Sabrishoʿ as the catalyst for Khusrau’s articulation of a new policy towards Christians inside and outside his empire. He explicitly renounces the persecuting legacy of his predecessors and ties this to an expectation of Christian loyalty, whereby prayers are directed for him and the empire. Moreover, he emphasizes Shirin’s role in this arrangement, receiving Sabrishoʿ’s assurance that Shirin will always be able to receive the Eucharist. Shirin’s public Christianity allows Khusrau a means of participating in the religion by proxy. By presenting Shirin as the defender of the Christians, Khusrau could resist Zoroastrian calls for persecution as well as reducing the influence of ‘traditional’ channels of Christian influence on the shah, such as a catholicos with greater independent agency than Sabrishoʿ or the other bishops, who remain anonymous in this account. It may also be significant that only royal palaces are used during Sabrishoʿ’s arrival: the importance of the royal receptions also reduces the emphasis within the ceremonial sequence on Sabrishoʿ’s actual ordination at the church in Seleucia. Sabrishoʿ’s passive presence at the centre of the Church of the East allowed Khusrau a much greater degree of control over its internal structures, and the story of this ideal loyalist relationship was disseminated through this court-focused Life.

Finally, Sabrishoʿ is also made a vehicle for a much closer diplomatic correspondence between shah and emperor. Here too, Khusrau could distance himself from the actual exchange of relics, only intervening after Maurice has sent a piece of the Cross, by giving it to Shirin. Similarly, Sabrishoʿ’s reception of Marutha reflects on both the scholarly and ascetic prestige of the Church of the East, on public affirmation of its orthodoxy in the eyes of the Romans, and on Khusrau’s own role as beneficent sponsor of Christianity. Sabrishoʿ’s gift of Indian and Chinese perfumes also articulates the position of the Sasanian world vis-à-vis Rome, and the value of peaceful relations with a trading partner who can control access to these foreign luxuries. In this respect, Sabrishoʿ magnifies Khusrau’s standing in Roman eyes, and the visit is both a vehicle for traditional diplomacy and an opportunity to show Khusrau’s new special relationship with the Christians, in a manner that simultaneously fulfils Roman hopes for toleration and emphasizes Khusrau’s independence from his Roman sponsors. If Khusrau had appealed to Roman Christian sources of legitimacy before his first civil war, at his second he turned to an Iraqi Christian sponsor, a living holy man.

Christians in a Time of War: The Invasion of Dara

This symbiosis between the shah and the catholicosate did not long survive Sabrishoʿ. The Life of Sabrishoʿ had been written as part of a peaceful (p.197) relationship between Rome and Persia. But the murder of Maurice made the catholicos himself a symbol of the legitimacy of Khusrau’s vengeance for the martyred emperor because of Maurice’s (alleged) personal devotion to Sabrishoʿ. Khusrau summoned Sabrishoʿ to his side during his 604 invasion of Dara. However, following Sabrishoʿ’s death, the new catholicos Gregory of Pherat de Maishan was accused of corruption and his property expropriated by the shah. The interregnum that followed Gregory’s rule saw increased power accorded to the Miaphysites through the court physician, Gabriel of Sinjar. Gabriel had converted to the Church of the East but had been rejected for bigamy with two Persian wives, after divorcing a Christian noblewoman. The Khuzistan Chronicle makes Gabriel responsible for the replacement of Eastern monks by Jacobites in a number of sites in northern Iraq and for the denunciation of the theologian Giwargis, an important ally of Babai, as a Magian apostate in 612.56

Both events, the war with Rome and the rise of Gabriel, are discussed in codas to the Life that are preserved in the Chronicle, though they are absent from the Syriac text. In a section dedicated to the death of Maurice, the text echoes the representation of Maurice as a martyr, and the praise of the emperor in the Life becomes the basis for Khusrau’s claim to a just war to put his son Theodosius on the throne. In this respect the continuation of the Life follows the older story’s ‘loyalist’ emphasis and turns it to a new context with a war legitimated as a re-enactment of Maurice’s own restoration of Khusrau. However, Sabrishoʿ’s death during the opening phases of the war meant that Khusrau had lost an element of his Christian legitimacy. The author explains his death away as Sabrishoʿ’s wish to avoid the sight of blood during the invasion. Khusrau must content himself with a promise of Sabrishoʿ’s prayer, after which Sabrishoʿ reminds him ‘to rule with kindness (rifq) and with mercy (raḥ ma)’.57 Khusrau’s management of the invasion did not proceed smoothly, and this death scene represents a hagiographer’s attempt to preserve the image of a symbiosis between shah and catholicos during the opening stages of the war.

A second ‘coda’ to the Life concerns the relationship between Gabriel and Sabrishoʿ. Gabriel’s rise to power is dated by ʿAmr to the ‘reign’ of Gregory, and the full significance of his support for the Miaphysites may have only been apparent after Sabrishoʿ’s death.58 At any rate, though the story of his condemnation by Sabrishoʿ for bigamy may be true, it had not seemed important enough for inclusion in the original text of the Life. Two different versions of these events are recorded in the Chronicle: in both Gabriel pleads with (p.198) Sabrishoʿ to allow him to remain in the Church, but Sabrishoʿ refuses.59 The overwhelming agenda of the Life’s author had been to play down strife between Miaphysites and the Church of the East: Sabrishoʿ’s miracles in Ctesiphon are all directed against Jews, Zoroastrians, and (most especially) Marcionites. It may be that the objective of the hagiographer was to present Sabrishoʿ (and through him Khusrau) as the governor of all Christians in the empire, defined against the Marcionites as an obvious ‘out-group’ that was rejected by all. Though it is not mentioned in the Life, Sabrishoʿ was also notorious for his refusal to condemn the Henanians, whose opponents would represent them as crypto-Miaphysites.60 These accounts of the confrontation between Gabriel and Sabrishoʿ then insert an anti-Miaphysite agenda into the story of a holy man who had originally been rendered famous through his miracles and his relationship with the shah. They associate him more closely with the theological position that the Church of the East adopted in the following decades, which are a terminus a quo for the addition of these scenes.

A third coda, which follows on from the denunciation of Gabriel, is the description of Sabrishoʿ’s death and burial. Here a large crowd comes to see Sabrishoʿ on his deathbed before he is embalmed, and the Nisibenes and the Hirans compete over who will have the honour of receiving his body for burial, the former because he died there and the latter because it had been the traditional burial place of the catholicos. However, the camel that takes his body away ‘miraculously’ transports him to his monastery of Karka de Guedan, the monastery that he had founded. En route, the Christian magnate Yazdin attempts to take the piece of the Cross given to Sabrishoʿ by the emperor, but he is prevented by Sabrishoʿ’s disciples, who guard the body and burn incense over it before burial.61

This third coda shares the Life’s concern for the orchestration of public ceremony and the justification of acts of Realpolitik as miraculous intervention. And, though this has been partially suppressed, it also shares the Life’s focus on Khusrau’s importance as a patron of Christianity, over and above the influence of any other leadership figures. The account of the same events in the Khuzistan Chronicle makes explicit that Sabrishoʿ’s burial in his new monastery was Khusrau’s decision,62 and, with this in mind, we can see the description of the ceremony of Sabrishoʿ’s burial as an illustration of the circumvention of older centres of power. In particular Nisibis’ Christian aristocrats had recently risen in revolt against Khusrau, and Nuʿman in Hira may have been increasingly perceived as an over-mighty vassal. Thus, this account can be read as a snub to these older centres in the shah’s favour. (p.199) Similarly, by preventing Yazdin from claiming a piece of the Cross, Khusrau maintained his own monopoly on the relic, which recalled his personal relationship with Maurice. This focus on Khusrau’s patronage may date this passage to the period immediately following Sabrishoʿ’s death, but the removal of any mention of the shah in the Arabic account also suggests later alterations, in the immediate wake of Khusrau’s subsequent persecution of the Christians.

The continuations of the Life of Sabrishoʿ were written in the aftermath of his death (c.604–12), and follow a similar emphasis on Khusrau’s role as supreme patron of the Christians and Sabrishoʿ’s relationship with him. All three coda passages seem to have been conceived independently, since they are inserted one after the other at the end text of the Life in the Chronicle of Seert and appear in a different order, and in epitome, in the Khuzistan Chronicle. The independent existence of these scenes may suggest they were all episodes in different ecclesiastical histories that were excerpted by later compilers. The fact that they appear in the Khuzistan Chronicle in c.652 without the text of the Life may indicate that the symbiosis that the Life proposed between shah and catholicos was now obviously obsolete, after Khusrau’s persecution and the fall of the Sasanians, and that the continuations set at the end of Sabrishoʿ’s Life represented the least ‘politically contaminated’ material, that could be edited to present him as peace-loving (praying to be spared the sight of the fall of Dara) and as an opponent of Gabriel and the Miaphysites.

Christians in a Time of War: Khusrau and the Miaphysites

Khusrau’s policy during Sabrishoʿ’s burial suggests that he had wished to maintain his relationship with the Church of the East. And during his occupation of Roman Mesopotamia he initially attempted to impose a ‘Nestorian’ bishop on his conquered province.63 However, the period of 607–30 saw the shah give increased patronage to Miaphysites in the Empire. Under the patronage of Gabriel, ‘a protector of the church in this land like the victorious emperor Constantine’, Marutha of Takrit established himself as the leader of the Miaphysite church in the East and found favour at Khusrau’s court.64 The same era saw the establishment of twelve new Miaphysite sees among the Arabs of Jazira and in northern Iraq, as well as a Miaphysite presence in Ctesiphon itself.65 This pro-Miaphysite policy was even more marked in Khusrau’s newly (p.200) conquered territories in the Roman Empire, where he convened an anti-Chalcedonian council in Dvin in Armenia in 608, which reversed Maurice’s pro-Chalcedonian policies in the same territory.66 A state that was favourable to the Miaphysites provided greater incentives to unity and cooperation. Above all, Khusrau used Miaphysite bishops from Iraq’s newly organized episcopal structures to staff the sees of Roman Mesopotamia, areas with large Miaphysite populations whose bishops had been removed under Maurice (in spite of some resistance from earlier Miaphysite incumbents).

As the centre of Khusrau’s expanding empire shifted, the shah was prepared to make a parallel shift in his ecclesiastical patronage, playing the role of a central arbitrator to long-divided Miaphysite groups and reversing many of Maurice’s pro-Chalcedonian policies in the frontier zone. The account embedded in Bar Hebraeus reports that ‘all the churches seized by Maurice were returned’ and ‘the memory of Chalcedon was expunged from the Euphrates to the east’.67 For the West Syrian Life of Cyriacus of Amida, written in the early seventh century, Khusrau’s conquest is a divine decision, and his removal of the Chalcedonians ‘inspired by God and counselled by Shirin’.68 If Maurice had sought to suppress the religious and political independence of Ghassanids and Armenians in this frontier zone,69 Khusrau proved capable of claiming the mantel of Christian rulership for himself, as patron and judge of the Miaphysites of the Roman East.70

At the same time as Khusrau sponsored different Christian groups, he never ceased to claim legitimacy from more traditional Zoroastrian patterns of royal behaviour. The typologies of his coins were twice updated after his victories in civil wars and refer to his xwarrah, his divinely ordained right to rule, the Avestan power that allows good to defeat evil.71 Moreover, Khusrau was also prepared to make selective examples of Christian troublemakers, (p.201) most of whom were from the Church of the East, especially those who publicly renounced Zoroastrianism. Beginning with Nathaniel of Shahrzur in 611, he killed a series of apostates to Christianity: Giwargis in 615, Isho‘sabran in 621, and Anastasius in 628.72

The timing and selection of these martyrs fits with the general impression of Khusrau turning his patronage away from the Church of the East in the 610s. Sabrishoʿ’s death was followed by the short and unsuccessful reign of Gregory of Pherat, who died in 607. Following this, Khusrau allowed Gabriel of Sinjar to convene the highly polemical assembly of 612, which represented the Miaphysites as ‘the monks’ against their ‘Nestorian’ opponents.73 Here, it seems, the Miaphysites were able to seize the initiative and present themselves before the shah as true representatives of ascetic, orthodox Christianity. Gabriel’s opponents, led by the northern bishops Yonadab and Shubhalmaran, continued to praise the shah as one who ‘lights up the whole earth like the sun’ and to present the ‘Severans’ as a foreign intrusion, akin to the Marcionites and Manichees. By asserting their own position as members of an indigenous, orthodox Christianity and exaggerating their praise for the shah, the bishops may have hoped for a last-ditch defeat of Gabriel. They end their statement by hoping that ‘When you have subjected the whole of the Roman world, you will confirm the apostolic faith in a single true God, master of all, who preserves your rule over the whole universe for all time’.74

If the Life of Sabrishoʿ had avoided any mention of conflict between Miaphysites and the Church of the East, the 612 assembly saw direct competition for the shah’s patronage and the claim to represent the Christianity of the East. This squabble had massive significance as the shah came to control an ever-growing portion of Christian world.75 This assembly may have also been the last time that bishops of the Church of the East used the language of loyalism to the shah to present Khusrau as a friend of the Christians or as a universal ruler: the kind of symbiosis imagined in the Life of Sabrishoʿ evaporated after the assembly, when the martyrdom of Giwargis (an opponent of Gabriel’s) made clear the shah’s preference for the Miaphysites in his newly expanded empire.76

(p.202) Gregory of Nisibis

The collapse of the relationship between Eastern bishops and the shah coincided with a twenty year period in which there was no reigning catholicos. Historians attempted to present different figures as the links in an orthodox chain of succession during this period of anarchy, sometimes differentiating them from potential rivals within the Church. We have already seen one example of this in the stories that clustered around Babai the Great, which present him as an opponent of heretics, a theologian, and monastic leader. The presentation of Babai as a preserver of orthodoxy and head of the Church must be weighed against the reticence of other accounts, where he is not presented as catholicos or where his conflicts with other significant figures have to be explained away, such as his conflicts with the monastic leader Jacob of Beth ʿAbe.77 In such cases, hagiographers in alternative traditions might also accentuate the connections of their heroes with other prestigious leaders of the church (such as the connection between Jacob and Sabrishoʿ)78 or attempt to posthumously reconcile enemies who were both seen as orthodox in a later tradition. As the Chronicle of Seert puts it, apologizing for this conflict, ‘no one can reach perfection, and, because of human nature, everyone must have some faults of character’. In spite of Babai the Great’s later reputation, it is clear that his role as a monastic inspector was limited to the north of Iraq79 and that he was absent from the assembly of 612,80 and further that his strong personality alienated several of his potential allies. Together, these characteristics made him a problematic subject for historians.

The hagiographies written in support of Babai occur primarily within monastic circles: his authority as a monastic leader seems to have underlain his political activity and represented a support base that would later emphasize his memory. A second, parallel attempt to trace the succession of orthodoxy in this period of anarchy comes in the stories surrounding Gregory of Nisibis, a figure more closely connected to factions within the School of Nisibis. If the school system, the catholicosate, and monasticism had all existed in symbiosis in the previous generation, the removal of the shah’s sponsorship of a catholicos prompted institutions to produce histories presenting different candidates as crucial links in the chain of the succession of orthodox authority.81

(p.203) The Chronicle of Seert includes a Life of Gregory, which, like the Life of Sabrishoʿ, has probably been epitomized and translated from a Syriac hagiography.82 The Life relates how Gregory, a native of Kashkar, was trained at the schools of Ctesiphon and Nisibis before going on to found new schools at Adiabene and in a village near Kashkar. Here he led his pupils and was an active missionary in Maishan, as well as protecting Kashkar from the plague through his prayers.

Gregory’s reputation led to his promotion to bishop of Kashkar by Ishoʿyahb I, after which he was promoted again to metropolitan of Nisibis. Here he came into conflict with the head of the School, Henana of Adiabene, ‘who investigated heterodox ideas and performed exegesis contrary to the ideas of Theodore’. Gregory condemned Henana’s writings, but, the Life reports, Henana’s contrition was only temporary, until he had the opportunity of an alliance with Gabriel of Sinjar (who had been condemned by Gregory and not Sabrishoʿ, according to this version of events). After Henana continued his ‘false’ exegesis, Gregory wrote to Sabrishoʿ asking for his support against him. This request was accepted by ‘the company of the [orthodox] fathers’, but was rejected by the catholicos, who received Henana’s defence favourably. In response, Gregory and his supporters left the city of Nisibis.

The Life represents Gregory’s exile as an ascetic act. Gregory gives away all the material wealth of the exiles, save their liturgical garments, books, and censers, which they displayed in their procession out of the city. The hagiographer asserts that while Gregory’s party numbered three hundred, only twenty, ‘together with some women and children’, remained in Nisibis with Henana. There follows a brief list of the famous men who were part of this exile, among them Ishoʿyahb of Gdala and Ishoʿyahb of Adiabene (both later catholicoi) and Barhadbeshaba ‘Arbaya, the later metropolitan of Hulwan, as well as other theologians of note. At Khusrau’s order, Gregory departed to the desert of Niffar, near Kashkar, where he lived out his life converting local pagans.83

By noting the future careers of the exiles, the author presents the event as a defining moment in the church’s orthodoxy. Henana is seen as an ally of the Miaphysite Gabriel, and both men are represented as opponents of Gregory, above anyone else. Gregory is represented in turn as the vehicle for the succession of orthodox interpretation in the School of Nisibis, and for the other schools he was associated with in the south of Iraq, and Henana is reduced to the leader of a rump party, unrepresentative of the School and its Theodoran traditions.

(p.204) Reading between the lines of the account, it is clear that Gregory and his party experienced a dramatic loss of face in this incident. Henana’s radicalism probably did not represent a drift towards Miaphysitism, but rather a wish to use more innovative exegesis than was allowed by a sole focus on Theodore of Mopsuestia.84 Gregory, a man already trained in the methods of the School and who was accustomed to directing schools elsewhere in Iraq, may have been unwilling to accept Henana’s independence when he (Gregory) returned to Nisibis as metropolitan, that is, as an important man, but one who now belonged to a different institutional hierarchy and who had no direct control over the School. Sabrishoʿ himself was unwilling to support Gregory’s bid for control, perhaps because Henana’s exegetical innovation promised to reconcile more moderate Dyophysites and Miaphysites (a sentiment that coheres with the irenic tendencies of the Life of Sabrishoʿ) or merely through a wish to prevent discord between important but distinct institutions within the Church. Gregory and his exiled party were subsequently represented as the wronged party, supported by ‘the fathers’, who were crucial links in the chain of orthodoxy. This portrayal of events probably began under Babai, who wrote a Life of Gregory soon after his death in c.611,85 but the emphasis on the role of Gregory as the leader of future catholicoi probably dates the version of the Life of Gregory in the Chronicle of Seert to at least the 660s.

Gregory and the Sack of Nisibis

The full political significance of the Life of Gregory is only made apparent through two narratives that continue it, expanding the hagiography by adding material that describes the fallout from Gregory’s exile in terms of secular and ecclesiastical politics, in which the shah was closely involved. Both of these were probably generated by contemporary historians who integrated the hagiography into their histories and sought to link it into broader political narratives.

The first of these stories describes events in Nisibis following Gregory’s exile. The narrator relates how, on the anniversary of Gregory’s departure, those who had supported Henana and ‘gone in league with those who defended bigamy and concubinage’, revolted against Khusrau and killed the marzban of the city. Furious at this, Khusrau dispatched an army to Nisibis, (p.205) and Sabrishoʿ, together with metropolitans from northern Iraq,86 offered to spare the city if it surrendered. However, once the city surrendered, the army put it to the sword ‘and killed all they encountered’. The author takes this opportunity to condemn both the Nisibenes and Khusrau: the former deserve punishment for their treatment of Gregory, while Khusrau is compared to Antiochos, the villain of the books of Maccabees, in his destruction of Jerusalem and, more pointedly, to his predecessor Yazdegard, who had also shown favour to the Christians before turning against them. These events also allow the author to provide a suitable ending to the problematic stance taken by Sabrishoʿ against Gregory in the Life. At the conclusion of this narrative, Sabrishoʿ condemns the general of the army and laments: ‘I have sinned (at imtou) against them [the Nisibenes], for I made them a promise that I did not keep’. Finally, the author spells out the results of Sabrishoʿ’s compromise with secular power and Gregory’s ultimate vindication: ‘They say that after Sabrishoʿ’s disagreement with Gregory he lost all his powers of prophecy. After the death of Gregory the metropolitan, the citizens of Nisibis wrote his [i.e. Gregory’s] name once more amongst those of the fathers’.87

The Life of Gregory had focused on Gregory’s opposition to the Henanians: Sabrishoʿ and Khusrau had remained further behind the scenes, with the hagiographer’s disapproval implied, but never explicit. Yet other historians were much more forthright in their analysis: the Khuzistan Chronicle opened its discussion of the exile by observing that ‘Satan excited a squabble between Gregory and Sabrishoʿ’ and remarked that it had been Sabrishoʿ who had insisted that Gregory be deprived of the bishopric.88 The narrative of the chastisement of Nisibis in the Chronicle of Seert seems to belong to this tradition of more explicit criticism, possibly written longer after the deaths of Sabrishoʿ and Gregory than Babai’s account of Gregory of Nisibis.

This continuation presents Khusrau as a betrayer of the Christians and represents a reaction to the volte-face of his policy towards the Church of the East. This attitude also has consequences for the text’s view of Sabrishoʿ. The author is not prepared to reject Sabrishoʿ’s reputation as a miracle-worker: this may reflect the success of the image provided in the Life of Sabrishoʿ during the catholicos’ own lifetime, as well as the holy man’s close relationship with other prestigious figures of the Church. But he does criticize the idea of the close relationship between Christians and the state: Khusrau is a new Yazdegard and Sabrishoʿ is taken in by the promises of the shah’s general. This relationship is perceived here as a source of corruption: it retrospectively undermines Sabrishoʿ’s reputation as prophet of Khusrau’s victory and his importance vis-à-vis Gregory.

(p.206) In addition to its treatment of Sabrishoʿ and Gregory, the continuation also brings together the Nisibenes with the Henanians and the ‘supporters of bigamy’. This connection echoes the Life by asserting that Gregory was an orthodox leader and that all his opponents might be tarred with the same brush. We have already seen how some hagiographers emphasized Sabrishoʿ’s role as an enemy of the bigamist Gabriel, and this may well have been a defence against attacks on Sabrishoʿ’s character such as the one seen here. The author presents the Henanians as allies of Gabriel, and by extension Miaphysites and heteropract bigamists, when their actual theological differences were likely much smaller and their connection to Gabriel is elsewhere unattested. However, the idea that the Nisibenes who planned the revolt were justly punished does add a further layer to our perception of events on the ground, since it suggests that the citizens were themselves pro-Henanian, and that Gregory’s support base was a slender one, limited to a group of scholars within the School, while Henana could command local lay support. This support in turn makes the refusal of Sabrishoʿ and Khusrau to support Gregory much more comprehensible: before the revolt at Nisibis, Henana was the stronger of the two rivals. It was only after Khusrau’s change in behaviour towards the Church of the East in the 610s, coupled with the rising influence of Gabriel of Sinjar, that partisans of Gregory of Nisibis could retrospectively undermine the reputation of Sabrishoʿ by claiming he was a creature of the shah and present the Henanians as a Miaphysite fifth column in a bid to rehabilitate Gregory in the eyes of the Nisibenes and the wider Church.

The Election of Gregory of Pherat (605–9)

The second of the two continuations of the Life of Gregory concentrates on the abortive election of Sabrishoʿ’s successor, Gregory of Pherat, and attempts to preserve the structure of the ecclesiastical histories around the reigns of catholicoi. Like some other sections on the catholicoi it opens with the physical description and background of the protagonist: ‘he was from Maishan, with a beautiful face, a doctor of theology who had been taught by Isai at the school of [Ctesiphon]’. The opening description seems to have been inserted into a continuous narrative that focuses on political events in the Church: the author goes on to describe how Khusrau convened an election on his return from Dara and how ‘the fathers’ selected Gregory of Nisibis. Through the offices of Shirin, the fathers receive the royal order to convene at Ctesiphon to ordain Gregory.

However, certain doctors at Ctesiphon, led by one Abraham of Nisibis, believe that Gregory will oppose them once he became catholicos, since they had fought against him in Nisibis. This party secures the support of Aba of (p.207) Kashkar, the royal astronomer, and Shirin tells the fathers to elect Gregory of Pherat instead. After the election of Gregory of Pherat, the doctors of Nisibis introduce Gregory before the shah to pray for him, but Khusrau is surprised, saying ‘it was not you I selected to be ordained, but Gregory of Nisibis.’ Aba replies ‘It was the queen Shirin who selected him because he is her countryman: surely the shah will accept him because of her, for he is a wise and intelligent man’.

In a passage that seems to have been heavily abbreviated from a longer source, Khusrau examines the catholicos and is initially overawed by his beauty, but soon discovers that ‘his inner being was the opposite of his appearance’. Khusrau then reproaches Shirin. Gregory is said to turn against equality, justice and love to acquire wealth, whereupon ‘the joy of the Christians turned to sadness’ and Gabriel of Sinjar, ‘whom Sabrishoʿ had condemned’ defamed them. At this time, pictures of Gregory circulated that showed him squeezing a hen to judge its fatness, testing the weight of a gold coin, and balancing a girl on his knee, all of which came into Khusrau’s possession.

The text goes on to suggest that it was due to Gregory that Khusrau changed his attitude towards the Christians. It relates that Khusrau forced Gregory to buy the books that his troops had looted from Dara at a huge price and that he confiscated all his wealth after his death. Following this, he continued his exactions against ordinary Christians and levied new taxes against them and confiscated their goods. After this, ‘the church remained widowed for seventeen years, and was directed by Aba the archdeacon and Babai until the accession of Shiroë’.89

Unlike the account of the fall of Nisibis, this narrative is highly uneven in its depiction of protagonists and in its style, which seems to indicate the use of numerous oral sources and abbreviated accounts that may have been contemporary to events. That said, the organizer of this material also perceives events to proceed from the failure to elect Gregory of Nisibis, and represents the calamities of the 611–28 period as the result of the machinations of other Christian leaders against Gregory and against the will of ‘the fathers’, whose authority the Life of Gregory had already invoked against Henana and Sabrishoʿ. Therefore this narrative is little focused on Sabrishoʿ or on Nisibis, and is concentrated instead on factions within Ctesiphon and on Gregory’s position as a potential catholicos.

Where the Nisibis account had opposed the propaganda of the Life of Sabrishoʿ in an attempt to undermine the catholicos’ refusal to support Gregory of Nisibis, this account defends Gregory’s position through an attack on Shirin, who is represented as an ally of the doctors at court who wished to promote a fellow southerner. There is no suggestion that religious motives are at work here, (p.208) instead the accusation is one of straightforward corrupt patronage, but it does also illustrate another level of the factional politics that surrounded Gregory. We are told in this account that Gregory of Nisibis was opposed by a faction of doctors and that this prompted their actions at court through Aba of Kashkar. The author (or his informant) has emphasized the role of these men as the villains of a chain of events that link the exile of Gregory of Nisibis, the election of Gregory of Pherat and Khusrau’s persecutions.

The gossip about Aba’s arrangement of the election may be a fanciful reconstruction of how Khusrau was persuaded to accept the new catholicos, circulating before Khusrau’s decisive move against the Church and when criticism was still directed against the shah’s advisors (in this case, a faction of court Christians and the queen), rather than against the shah himself. This displacement of blame away from the shah is a recurrent theme of much of the rest of this staccato narrative. The remark that Khusrau was in awe of Gregory is another attempt to explain the shah’s willingness to accept the new catholicos, a scenario in which the shah only gradually learns that Shirin has deceived him. And the story in which Khusrau is made aware of Gregory of Pherat’s reputation as a greedy philanderer can similarly be read in a way that was positive to the shah, who is imagined to be responding to corruption within the Church. The last paragraph, where Khusrau’s extortions against all Christians are represented as a continuation of his attack on Gregory, reflects the final evolution of this gossip, in which older stories directed against the catholicos were bent to make Gregory responsible for the persecutions that occured after his death. Such stories, which probably circulated orally, were then integrated into a text that sought an explanation for events that reached back to the exile of the other Gregory from Nisibis and which built on the more subtle criticism of the catholicosate in the reign of Sabrishoʿ.

Thus, the Life of Gregory of Nisibis provided a vehicle for a number of different reactions against the close alliance between the court and elements of the Church of the East. The Life of Sabrishoʿ had asserted the legitimacy of the shah’s right to rule in Christian terms, stressing at the same time the importance of his queen Shirin as patron of all the empire’s Christians. This image of symbiosis was increasingly challenged by those who were suspicious of Sabrishoʿ’s alliance or who stood outside the patronage circles of court Christians. The metropolitan Gregory of Nisibis, a powerful theologian who had fallen foul of lay and scholastic interests during his attempts to expel Henana from Nisibis, proved a suitable vehicle for those who opposed the court. Babai’s Life of Gregory, written around the time of the coerced assembly of 612, was an early example of this criticism, issued at a time when Khusrau was moving towards the Miaphysites. Continuations of this Life would represent Gregory as a crucial link in the transmission of orthodoxy, especially because of the prominence of his disciples Ishoʿyahb II and Ishoʿyahb III. The Life itself criticized Sabrishoʿ for his opposition to Gregory, and this idea was extended (p.209) by historians who redeployed its material, with attacks on the lay elites of Nisibis, court doctors, and the queen Shirin, and which escalated into criticism of the shah (though the latter may in fact be posthumous, after his defeat by the Christian Romans had sealed his fate and his reputation). Their choice of targets suggest that many of these continuations predate the Arab conquests.

However, we should remember that the testimony of these sources, when read together, illustrates the weakness of Gregory’s position, and that, to many other Christian groups, he had been a troublemaker, sensibly excluded from power and exiled. It was only the dependence of these other groups of Christians on the influence of Khusrau, and the completeness of his fall, that meant that they did not produce their own alternative versions of events, or that such accounts were not preserved. Instead, figures like Gregory and Babai, who were highly divisive and controversial in their own day, were appealed to as ‘bridges’ of respectable, orthodox behaviour between the reigns of Ishoʿyahb I and Ishoʿyahb II.

Finally, it worth noting that the extreme positions that survive in the source may give a skewed impression of the attitudes of most Christians at the time. One record of ‘Christians in the service of Khusrau’, written in the light of Arab Islamic exclusion of Christians from influence, would look back fondly on Khusrau’s reign and give great prominence to court figures such as Aba of Kashkar, who features as a villain in the section on Gregory of Pherat.90 To this later commentator, the confessional and factional divisions of the period would seem irrelevant. Similarly, we should understand Gabriel of Sinjar’s support for the Miaphysites as an indication of how far individual laymen, even those at a high level, could switch confessions.

Much modern scholarship has understood Shirin in terms of her ‘conversion’ from ‘Nestorianism’ to ‘Miaphysitism’, partially on the grounds of the ascription of the birth of her son Mardanshah to the help of Gabriel and the survival of accounts in praise of her as a friend of the Christians in Miaphysite sources such as the Armenian account of pseudo-Sebeos.91 Above all, the account of the Life of Marutha of Takrit, future maphrian (chief bishop) of the Miaphysites of the East, praises Shirin for her gift of the church of Sergius in Ctesiphon to the Miaphysites. However, we should also remember that the hagiographer’s complaint that ‘Nestorians’ continued to come to worship in the church, that is, that the laity did not observe differences between confessions and that, apparently, these were not enforced by the state.92 Church canons, such as the ban on social intercourse with heretics, (p.210) were only imposed gradually, after Marutha had ‘instructed’ the laity.93 These canons probably opposed not only ‘Nestorian’ liturgical practices and beliefs, but also ‘pagan’ practices of court, such as bigamy, which receives particular criticism. This dissatisfaction with the initial situation at Ctesiphon gives us an important insight into how the different confessions interacted. The Miaphysites that surrounded Marutha, a man linked to the monastery of Mar Mattai in Iraq, were trying to impose their own canonical rules on a lay population that did not respect confessional divisions and which might conclude Persian-style bigamous marriages, possibly for political gain. In this sense, these Miaphysite newcomers to Ctesiphon were trying to build boundaries in similar ways to authors of the Gregory tradition, who lumped together their opponents within the Church of the East with external heretics and ‘defenders of bigamy’. Furthermore, both Shirin and Gabriel, though they originally came from opposite corners of Iraq, may have been much closer to the norms of Christian behaviour in Ctesiphon and other major cities than Marutha of Takrit or Gregory of Nisibis. Shirin and Gabriel were willing to engage with multiple Christian patronage networks and therefore drew criticism from our clerical sources. They were even willing to employ ‘un-Christian’ devotional and marriage practices, such as Shirin’s donation of a fire temple in Khusrau’s memory.94 Both Gabriel and Shirin seem prepared to use church connections to expand their influence, but do not seem heavily motivated by ideas of ‘theology’ or by confessional boundaries.

Rivals and Successors: Christian Political Ideas after 612

The careers of Shirin and Gabriel remind us that lay elites were not necessarily bound by the divisions between Christian confessions that are emphasized in our sources. The competition between other lay elites, this time with the backing of the armed forces of Rome and Persia, confirms this idea that the allegiances of Christians, and the political ideas they employed, were much more divided and complex than a mere difference between Dyophysites and Miaphysites.

As we have seen, Khusrau’s prosecution of the war with Rome was accompanied by a concerted effort to legitimize his invasion in terms of appealing to Christian institutions (such as the catholicosate) and to win the loyalty of (p.211) Miaphysites in ‘Roman’ Mesopotamia. By acting as a sponsor and adjudicator of Christians, Khusrau was usurping the role traditionally ascribed to the Roman Emperor, whose mandate for rule was stripped away by an illegitimate succession.

Yet, at the same time, it is apparent that other elites within the Sasanian world also sought to assert their own roles as Christian protectors within the empire and beyond it. At a time when the legitimacy of the Roman emperor and the survival of the empire were in jeopardy, Gabriel of Sinjar was praised in the Life of Marutha as ‘a new Constantine’, and Yazdin was acclaimed as ‘a new Constantine’ in the Khuzistan Chronicle.95 While Takhrid in the Life of Sabrishoʿ had played a role as the voice of the shah, organizing the Christians for the shah’s benefit, other elites developed a more independent reputation in the historical tradition.

The Fall of Jerusalem in the Khuzistan Chronicle

Yazdin is celebrated in the monastic hagiographies and the Khuzistan Chronicle as a founder of churches. The scion of a Christian family that could trace its ancestry back to fifth-century martyrs in Karka de Beth Slouq, he rose to a powerful position as tax collector and governor of Adiabene and Beth Garmai, the whole of northern Iraq.96 Yazdin is said to have been ‘famous in both Roman and Persian lands’, and his influence beyond Iraq, in the pattern of a Roman emperor, is chiefly seen in the stories connecting him to the fall of Jerusalem in the Khuzistan Chronicle. The Chronicle reports that the general Shahrbaraz was responsible for the initial capture of Jerusalem in 614, and that he tortured monks to find the location of the True Cross which he dispatched back to Ctesiphon. Here, most of the relic was received by Khusrau, but some was also received by Yazdin. This is followed by an account of the fall of city for a second time, which seems to have been a reaction to fighting between Jews and Christians in the city where Sasanian troops were used to restore order.97 Though this may have been a ‘police action’ from the point of view of the shah, it is represented in the Chronicle as a deliberate attack on the Jews in defence of the Christians. The Jews seek to destroy Constantine’s church of the (p.212) resurrection and the burial place of Jesus, but Yazdin oversees the defeat and crucifixion of the Jews and the rebuilding of the churches and monasteries of the city.98

Yazdin’s actions in Jerusalem took place during the lacuna in clerical authority within Iraq, so that his image as a protector of Christians was independent of any catholicos. His reputation as ‘prince of believers’, which Thomas of Marga reports, may have even been a quasi-official title.99 Yazdin’s persecution of Jews and his acquisition of a piece of the True Cross represents a bid to share in the special relationship with Christianity enjoyed by the shah.100 The Life of Sabrishoʿ had described Maurice’s gift of the Cross to Sabrishoʿ and Shirin. The importance of this gift as a symbol of Khusrau’s relationship with the Christians and his right to intervene in the Roman world is further indicated by the continuation of the Life, where Yazdin’s earlier failure to acquire a piece of the Cross is specifically noted. Yazdin’s success here may be a true story, whereby Yazdin was able to acquire a piece of the prestigious relic in an era when there was no reigning catholicos, or a fiction, in which the capture of Jerusalem was used as an opportunity to emphasize Yazdin’s importance. At any rate, either analysis has important consequences from the perspective of Khusrau’s court. It indicates both that Yazdin and groups of court Christians remained significant (even if some authors contested the power of Yazdin as an individual) and that Khusrau was still keen to show his power to the Christians of Ctesiphon after the dissolution of the catholicosate. Khusrau’s martyrdom of individual troublemakers, his dissatisfaction with Gregory of Pherat and his taxation of Church property need not represent systematic and wholesale persecution, but rather an attempt to remove traditional clerical privilege and hierarchies, and the application of a heavy tax regime in time of war. And Yazdin in particular seems to have benefited from this policy, at least in the short term. In sum, the seizure of the True Cross can be seen as an effort to redefine the centre of the Christian world as Ctesiphon, and to assert the Roman emperor’s loss of a religious mandate to rule, rather than a Zoroastrian-inspired attack on an opposing religion.

(p.213) The Fall of Jerusalem in Antiochos Strategos

However, this representation of events should be read against very different accounts that came out of Roman Chalcedonian sources. Even in the Khuzistan Chronicle, Shahrbaraz’s actions in torturing the monks seem to stem from Roman black propaganda that found a receptive audience in Eastern authors opposed to Khusrau’s general and sometime opponent and successor.101 The lamentations of the Palestinian monk Antiochos Strategos, preserved in Georgian and Arabic from a Greek original written in the aftermath of Heraclius’ victory, record how the Persians,

who had no pity in their hearts, raced to every place in the city and with one accord destroyed all the people…Lamentation and terror were seen in Jerusalem. Holy churches were burned with fire, others demolished…sacred crosses trampled underfoot, life-giving icons spat upon by the unclean. Then their wrath fell upon priests and deacons: they slew them in their churches like dumb animals’.102

Furthermore, the conflict between Jews and Christians in the city is represented as a Jewish alliance with the Persians, whereby the Persians hold the Jews in high regard as betrayers of the Christians and sell Christian prisoners to the Jews to be killed, ‘just as they had bought the Lord with silver’.103

A group of priests, led by the patriarch Zachariah, are taken to Ctesiphon, and made to kneel, ‘not before a Roman emperor, but before the shah Khusrau’. Here Zachariah outwits Khusrau’s chief mobad in a public debate and the shah has the mobad executed. After this display, the author’s informant, one Abba Symeon, reports that the courtiers began to show much reverence for Zachariah and that he and other exiles were taken as guests by one of the wives of Khusrau, ‘a Christian in name, but a follower of the heresy of Nestorius, the impious and despised of God’. This queen receives the exiles in her palace alongside the True Cross, which Khusrau had bestowed on her as a gift. As an exile in Ctesiphon, Symeon also reports that Zachariah defeated a plot by the Jews to accuse him of fornication and successfully cured the queen’s infertility, allowing her to have a child.104

The core of the text clearly focuses on the image of the Persians as pagans, and this image is preserved by the account of Zachariah’s exile. But this account, which Antiochus ascribes to Symeon, show us that Zachariah’s (p.214) prestige also played the role of the Christian holy man at court, one that had long been established in the Syriac hagiographies of the Church of the East and popularized in Greek translation. Zachariah has developed several of the characteristics of Eastern saints, as a debater against the mobads and the Jews and as the healer of the queen, although her orthodoxy is denied. Though the text presents Zachariah as an exile in Ctesiphon, with Khusrau as a new Nebuchadnezzar, his visit might in fact have been an attempt to negotiate with Jerusalem’s Chalcedonian hierarchy (or at least to remove local leaders during a politically sensitive period). Reading between the lines, Symeon’s stories show Zachiariah behaving according to an Iraqi model, asserting the importance of Jerusalem’s Chalcedonians in Khusrau’s new empire.105 It may be that, in reality, Shirin played an important role in arranging the visit of the Jerusalem clergy, which might account for the shrill denunciation of the queen as a heretic and a collaborator in a pagan plan to remove the True Cross. Read against the grain, the text confirms our impression that, by acquiring the Cross, Khusrau was attempting to enhance the status of Ctesiphon and that, working through Shirin, he was also willing to reach out to all Christian groups that were willing to cooperate.

The stories of Zachariah as the healer of Shirin suggest that the Jerusalem Chalcedonians may have become willing participants in this symbiosis. Zachariah’s miracles challenge the claims of other confessions, in particular the association between Gabriel of Sinjar and the birth of Shirin’s son Mardanshah, but they also show that this competition in the court was centripetal, uniting all three major Christian confessions in a discourse that emphasized debates judged at court and miracles and prayers for the shah’s benefit.

However, these accounts of court miracles are embedded within a text that focuses on the Persians as agents of persecution and presents them as allies of the Jews and despoilers of the holy sites.106 The Khuzistan Chronicle reworked Khusrau’s capture of Jerusalem to present his servant Yazdin as the protector of Christians and enemy of the Jews, but for Antiochos this history has been inverted and almost all the Persians are straightforwardly presented as pagans. (p.215) Essentially, the complexity of a religiously and politically divided Christian world has been forgotten for the purposes of polemic.

The Palestinian accounts of bloodshed fit into a broader pattern of Heraclian propaganda that would restore the cultural initiative to the emperor and present him as a ruler of all Christians, helped by God in his war against God’s enemy. By specifically targeting fire temples during his invasion of Iraq, and circulating accounts of Christian martyrs under Khusrau (most notably the converted soldier Anastasius), Heraclius and his allies presented a black-and-white view of the war as a war between religions. However, we should remember that this view was a construction of the late 620s; that it was an instrument for Heraclius’ success and that its preservation a result of this same military success.107

The Murder of Khusrau

Heraclius’ invasion of Iraq in 628 was the occasion for a palace coup against the shah, in which a group of nobles replaced Khusrau with Kavad Shiroë, his son by his Greek wife Maria.108 Several different versions of Khusrau’s death circulated in the Eastern sources, suggesting both confusion about the actual events and the different representations of the shah that were spread by his competing successors. These accounts reflect the protean political situation, in which the legacies of Heraclius and Khusrau were unclear throughout the death-throes of the Sasanian Empire.

For the Muslim Arabic compilations, Khusrau’s fall was chiefly the product of internal dissension within the court rather than of the actions of Heraclius, a perspective that may have flattered Shiroë and the noble conspirators. For them, it was Khusrau’s long war that led to his fall, and al-Thaʿalibi makes this the crux of Shiroë’s accusation, of keeping soldiers away from their wives and children. This report makes Shiroë merciful, but he is forced to kill Khusrau by (p.216) the marzban and the generals: ‘There cannot be two swords in a scabbard or two shahs in Eranshahr.’ Al-Thaʿalibi reports that Khusrau was killed by ‘a wretched man’ who is later killed by Shiroë, and he does not identify the anonymous nobles who orchestrate the shah’s death and then those of his other sons.109 For al-Thaʿalibi, there was no prestige to be gained from being remembered as Khusrau’s killer, and Shiroë’s behaviour is explained as a constraint of fate.

Al-Tabari’s account is more extensive and provides prosopographical details. Here Shiroë is forced to act by men of power, Fayruz and Shamta, son of the great Christian aristocrat Yazdin, but his accusations against Khusrau are much more extensive.110 The accusation scene presents an opportunity for the author to gather together the various allegations he knew to have been made against Khusrau and rebut them. Several of these mirror the criticisms in al-Thaʿalibi, of excessive taxation, hoarding wealth and the long service of soldiers, which are credible charges after two decades of fighting. But other allegations are likely to be products of authors reflecting on the (often mythical) tales of Khusrau in the historical tradition: his murder of Hormizd, his imprisonment of his sons, his treatment of women and his theft of the True Cross.111 In particular, the accusations relating to the Cross are anachronisms and are connected to the importance that the Cross assumed in the reigns of Shiroë’s son, Ardashir III (d.629), and Shahrbaraz (d.630), for whom the return of the Cross was a leitmotif of their Roman policy.

A slightly different version of the same events is preserved in the Eastern Christian sources. The Khuzistan Chronicle shares several basic features with the narrative of al-Tabari, such as Khusrau’s capture in a garden, but, despite its brevity, the earlier Syriac text also provides incidental details that the other texts lack (e.g. the name of Mihraspand, the garden’s owner). It names Shamta and Nehormizd as the chief conspirators—the difference with al-Tabari may simply be a matter of one individual known by two names. Interestingly, it reports that Shamta was unable to kill the shah and that Nehormizd had to do the deed, an account that may reflect publicly witnessed events, or a later wish to distance Shamta from the event after his later falling out with Shiroë. The Khuzistan Chronicle reports this dispute in the next scene, when Shamta is forced to flee to Hira, where he remains in hiding until he is captured and executed in the reign of Shahrbaraz.112

The later account of Thomas of Marga gives Shamta a much larger role, as the sole conspirator against Khusrau, and Shiroë’s kingmaker. Thomas (p.217) ignores any strife between Shiroë and Shamta, and focuses instead on Shiroë’s restoration of the catholicos and Khusrau’s role as an enemy of Christianity: ‘Shamta went into Khusrau’s quarters with his servants and killed him, and there was peace for the churches’.113 Both of the Christian accounts play up the role of Shamta (as does al-Tabari, possibly drawing on Christian sources) but Thomas’s account may reflect rumours early in Shiroë’s reign when Shamta’s supporters were proud of his role in defeating the tyrant Khusrau. The later collapse in relations between Shiroë and Shamta may have led to these same supporters emphasizing instead the role of Nehormizd, in an effort to defend the reputation of Shamta and his family.

The account of the Chronicle of Seert represents yet another source in the same tradition, where events in Ctesiphon, seen from an Iraqi perspective, have been combined with a simple account of the war and Heraclius’ advance. The Chronicle makes Shamta’s coup a reaction against Khusrau’s appropriation of Yazdin’s wealth, and presents him as a ringleader, along with other unnamed ‘marzbans’. But, unlike the other accounts, this author focuses on Shiroë’s reign, on how he reduced taxes and ruled wisely. This account of Shiroë as a just king accords with other impressions of Shiroë’s reputation: the Book of the Crown, an Abbasid-era etiquette collection, praises Shiroë for his low taxes and improving the access of the people to the shah.114 But the Chronicle’s account goes one step further by making the just king a secret Christian, who kept a piece of the Cross round his neck, established peace, and restored the catholicos.115

Unlike the account in Thomas, the Chronicle is clearly in favour of Shiroë rather than Shamta: it emphasizes Shamta’s role in killing Mardanshah, the son of Shirin, and implies that Shamta’s subsequent flight and imprisonment are suitable rewards for his actions. Where Shamta’s deeds are explained by Realpolitik, the author finds piety and justice much more significant character traits in accounting for Shiroë’s actions. Like Khusrau and Shirin, Shiroë seems to have deliberately cultivated a public relationship with Christian holy men, and the same section also celebrates the birth of Ardashir III through the intervention of Babai of Nisibis. The presence of such hagiographical notices in a Christian account of Shiroë’s coup suggests the effectiveness of his public display of support for Christians, as well as of the hints of complete conversion that the shah may have also given.116 Moreover, this is also clearly a contemporary report: since Shiroë and Ardashir would be dead within sixteen months, the account of Babai’s miracle and Shamta’s fall were probably composed in Shiroë’s own reign.

(p.218) The Reign of Shahrbaraz

The Chronicle’s account of Khusrau’s fall and Shiroë’s accession seems to have been based around stories that circulated in Shiroë’s reign itself. But the section that follows it (XCIII) has been much more heavily overwritten, uniting a narrative of political history with an account of the controversial reign of the new catholicos Ishoʿyahb II. Its Hijri dates suggest a point of composition in the tenth century. At any rate, the author of this section has sought to unite and unify different histories into the structure based around the reign of the catholicos, in a way that is not apparent in the previous section.

The account opens by describing Shiroë’s role in the election of the new catholicos and lamenting his death from the plague at Hulwan. The alternative story it reports, of his poisoning by Shirin in revenge for the death of Mardanshah, has the mark of the later development of Shirin as a heroine in the later Muslim tradition. The compiler has included this story as another plausible explanation of Shiroë’s death. In a slightly confused sequel, the section continues by recounting how Shahrbaraz was summoned from the Levant, where he was in the service of Heraclius, and how he returned to Iraq with Roman troops, led by one David, to defeat and kill Ardashir. After defeating a revolt by one of his generals, Shahrbaraz honours the ‘Greeks’ who had helped him and returns the True Cross to Heraclius. Finally, he executes Shamta, before he in turn is killed by one of the relatives of Khusrau.117

Shahrbaraz is not portrayed favourably in al-Tabari either: he kills the high nobility and rapes their wives before being hacked down on the parade-ground by his cavalry officers.118 Similarly, the Greek historian Theophanes numbers the sons of Shahrbaraz amongst Khusrau’s assassins, and the Shahnameh makes Shahrbaraz (‘Goraz’) one of the three men of state responsible for Khusrau’s fall.119

In addition to this direct role in the assassination, Shahrbaraz was also seen as responsible for Khusrau’s fall by remaining in the Levant and refusing to move his army to help the shah. Several sources explain this through the motif of an intercepted letter, by which the general learns of a plot against him by the shah, sometimes thanks to the Roman emperor, and defects to the Romans or begins to oppose the shah.120 If we accept the idea of a secret arrangement between Shahrbaraz and Heraclius in 626, then this may underlie his later opportunism in 629–30, when he acquired Roman support for a second putsch (p.219) in Ctesiphon, which Mango suggests was connected to the conversion of the new shah to Christianity and greater territorial concessions.121

The prominence of the Roman general David in the account of the Chronicle of Seert is the lynchpin of Mango’s analysis here, around which the Greek and Syriac sources fall into place. The Chronicle’s account highlights Shahrbaraz’s transfer of the Cross to Heraclius: it presents Shahrbaraz as a Roman client, accepting Roman claims to Christian universal rule. Shahrbaraz’s relationship with Christianity seems to have been pragmatic: though he had his sons baptized he was unrestrained in killing other Iranian elites who had courted Christian legitimacy. Where Shirin had provided an instrument for Khusrau to interact with and control Christians in Iraq at one remove, the nature of the relationship had changed by Shiroë’s reign, when the shah gave direct patronage and support to Christians much more openly and personally. Under Shahrbaraz this relationship changed again, as the shah’s Christianity became closely associated with his rule as a non-Sasanian Roman client.

However, for the family of Yazdin, the emergence of shahs who were engaged in more direct displays to Iraqi and Roman Christians removed the need for Shamta as an interlocutor in the style of Takhrid or Yazdin. Shamta’s involvement in the regicide made him an easy scapegoat for first Shiroë and then Shahrbaraz, as well as adding to suspicion of him as a potential candidate for shah himself. For one author employed in the Chronicle of Seert, this dispute between Shamta and Shahrbaraz was a defining narrative of the era, and their personal animosity was imagined to be the root of Shahrbaraz’s defection from Khusrau.122


The final part of Scher’s edition of the Chronicle of Seert shows, by its very density, the importance of the events of Khusrau’s reign and its aftermath for the Christians of the Sasanian world. On one hand, this profusion of material is a sign of Christians’ increased political prominence, and the wish of contemporaries to integrate secular and religious historical narratives, as well as to understand an ever-shifting relationship with the Romans. But on the other, the density of the accounts is also a product of a diversity of perspectives, both on what constituted religious orthodoxy and on where authority lay for Sasanian Christians, especially in the era when the catholicos was suppressed.

The potential rewards of political involvement and the uncertain relationship between different Christian leaders, the shah, and the Romans produced (p.220) numerous different claims to leadership, both ecclesiastical and secular. Many of these claimants left their imprint in the histories of the period, which were then messily stitched together in later generations. The reign of Sabrishoʿ saw the involvement of the court in producing an image of Khusrau and Shirin as the sponsors and protectors of an obedient catholicos. But this image became increasingly damaged as Khusrau turned his patronage towards the Miaphysites, a volte-face that benefited the opponents of doctrinal or political compromise, such as Gregory of Nisibis.

In a similar vein, we find that lay Christian figures each have their own partisans. Historians’ judgement of these men varies greatly depending on their assessment of Khusrau. Even after his death, debate over his reputation dominated the interpretation of the deeds of other political actors, such as Shiroë, Shamta, and Shahrbaraz. For a Christian historical tradition that had focused hitherto on the deeds of catholicoi and monks, the reign of Khusrau II was a period that demanded new ways of thinking about the (recent) past and its ramifications in the present.


(1) A recent narrative account, supported by detailed source criticism, is J. Howard-Johnston, Witnesses to a World Crisis: Historians and Histories of the Middle East in the Seventh Century (Oxford, 2010), 436–45. Also see G. Greatrex and S. Lieu, Rome and Persia at War: A Narrative Sourcebook (London, 2002), 167–228; P. Sarris, Empires of Faith: The Fall of Rome to the Rise of Islam, 500700 (Oxford, 2011), 235–58, and B. Dignas and E. Winter, Rome and Persia in Late Antiquity: Neighbours and Rivals (Cambridge, 2007), 115–19, 148–51, and 225–40. Howard-Johnston’s important collection of essays, East Rome, Sasanian Persia and the End of Antiquity: Historiographical and Historical Studies (Aldershot, 2006) relate to these events as well.

(2) For Khusrau’s patronage at Rusafa, E. K. Fowden, The Barbarian Plain: Saint Sergius between Rome and Iran (Berkeley, 1999), 133–5. See Evagrius, HE, VI, 21 for rumours of Khusrau’s near conversion.

(3) For narrative see M. Whitby, The Emperor Maurice and his Historian (Oxford, 1988), 292–303 and D. Frendo, ‘Theophylact Simocatta on the revolt of Vahram Chobin and the early career of Khusrau II’, BAI 3 (1989), 77–87.

(4) See M. Whittow, The Making of Orthodox Byzantium, 6001025 (London, 1996), 50–2; Wood, We Have No King but Christ, ch. 7. On Armenia, note the account of pseudo-Sebeos, ch. 19 (91).

(5) Chronicle of Seert, II/ii, LXVII–LXVIII (492–7) and pseudo–Sebeos, ch. 14 (86).

(6) Canepa, The Two Eyes of the Earth, ch. 7.

(7) E.g. the Syriac Acts of Maurice. Chronicle of Seert, II/ii, LXX (499–500) echoes these martyrologies. See further comments by Whittow, Orthodox Byzantium, 44.

(8) Chronicle of Seert, II/ii, LXX (500) and LXXIX (519–20) and pseudo-Sebeos, ch. 31–3 (106–10).

(9) Chronicle of Seert, II/ii, LXX (500).

(10) The name ‘Shahrbaraz’ was in fact an nickname: the general’s actual name was Farrukhan. He was known to Armenian sources as ‘Khoream’. See the entry in PLRE III, ‘Shahrbaraz’.

(11) For the testimony of different sources on the return of the True Cross see Y. Stoyanov, Defenders and Enemies of the True Cross: The Sasanian Conquest of Jerusalem in 614 and Byzantine Ideology of Anti-Persian Warfare (Vienna, 2011), 67–9; A. Stratos, Byzantium in the Seventh Century, tr. M. Oglivie-Grant, 6 vols. (Amsterdam, 1968), I, 249.

(12) J. Howard-Johnston, ‘Heraclius’ Persian campaigns and the revival of the eastern Roman Empire’, in J. Howard-Johnston, East Rome, VIII. For reception of Heraclius’ propaganda and local reuse of these ideas in the coins of Georgian princes see M. Tsotselia, ‘Recent Sasanian coin findings on the territory of Georgia’, Histoire et mesure, XVII (〈http://histoiremesure.revues.org/document888.html〉).

(13) Pseudo-Sebeos, ch. 39 (127) on Shahrbaraz remaining in the West.

(14) C. Mango, ‘Deux études sur Byzance et la Perse Sassanide’, T&M 9 (1985), 93–118 and D. Frendo, ‘Byzantine–Iranian relations before and after the death of Khusrau II: a critical examination of the evidence’, BAI 14 (2000) 27–47. Al-Tabari, I, 1046–55 and Chronicle of Seert, II/ii, XCII (551–2) emphasize the leaders of the coup against Khusrau rather than Heraclius’ role, which may reflect contemporary domestic representations of events.

(15) Chronicle of Seert, II/ii, XCII (552) and XCIII (556–7).

(16) Pourshariati, Decline and Fall, 146–54 and 183–90. I suspect, however, that this ethnic self-awareness is a new feature of the wars against Khusrau II, rather than a permanent characteristic of this class of magnates.

(17) Shahnameh, VI, 320. On the rituals involving barsom sticks see M. Boyce and F. Kottwal, ‘Zoroastrian “bāj” and “drōn”—II’, BSOAS 34 (1971), 298–313.

(18) For a narrative, see Baumer, Church of the East, 92–7.

(19) Chronicle of Seert, II/ii, LXV–LXXI.

(20) Chronicle of Seert, II/ii, LXXXIV–LXXXVI.

(21) ʿAmr, 52/30.

(22) Quoted in Elias of Nisibis (ed. Brooks), I, 124–5. See also Assemani, BO, IIIa, 216.

(23) Solomon of Basra, Book of the Bee LII (tr. Wallis-Budge, 123).

(24) Chronicle of Seert, II/ii, XLIII (443–4).

(25) See the useful comments of J. Watt, ‘The Portrayal of Heraclius in Syriac Historical Sources’, in Reinink and Stolte, Reign of Heraclius, 63–79; Hoyland, Seeing Islam, 182–9; and Howard-Johnston, Witnesses, 128–35.

(26) The opening section describes the text as ‘[a collection] from ecclesiastical and secular history from the reign of Hormizd to the end of the Persians’ (i.e. to the death of Yazdegard III).

(27) Khuzistan Chronicle, 15–17; 19–20.

(28) Khuzistan Chronicle, 23–4 on Yazdin.

(29) Khuzistan Chronicle, 25–8. J. Howard-Johnston, ‘Al-Tabari on the last great war of antiquity’, in J. Howard-Johnston, East Rome, VI, points to the shared ‘Eastern’ material on this warfare in the Chronicles of Seert and Khuzistan and al-Tabari, which may suggest a shared (Christian?) source.

(30) P. Nautin, ‘L’auteur de la « Chronique anonyme de Guidi »: Élie de Merw’, RHR 199 (1982), 303–13.

(31) On the presence of the Khuzistan Chronicle in the Great Synodicon see chapter 8 under ‘Writing Christian history under Arab rule’.

(32) Note the date for the compilation of the Khuzistan Chronicle, which can be seen as an attempt to stabilize the diverse traditions of the previous generation.

(33) Mari, HE, 62/55 observes that Ishoʿyahb III’s reign saw the composition of ‘the first ecclesiastical histories’, which may reflect this seventh-century consolidation. See chapter 8.

(34) S. Brock, ‘Use of Hijri dating in Syriac manuscripts’, in J. van Ginkel, H.-M. van den Berghe, and T. M. van Lint (eds.), Redefining Christian Identity: Cultural Interaction in the Middle East since the Rise of Islam (Leuven, 2005), 275–90, at 279–80 observes that the earliest extant example is 918 (and comes from Mosul).

(35) On Shirin, Pseudo-Sebeos ch. 13 (85) and the comments of J. Howard-Johnston and R. Thomson, The Armenian History Attributed to Sebeos (Liverpool, 1999), II, 174; on the Henanians, see B. Flusin, Saint Anastase le Perse et l’histoire de la Palestine au début du VIIe siècle, 2 vols. (Paris, 1992), II, 108–10. These ideas may go back to Labourt, Le christianisme, 214–16.

(36) Note here the important article by G. Greatrex, ‘Khusro II and the Christians of his empire’, Journal of Canadian Syriac Studies 3 (2003), 78–88.

(37) Khuzistan Chronicle, 15–17.

(38) Chronicle of Seert, II/ii, XLII (440–2).

(39) E.g. Sabrishoʿ’s healing of an infertile woman from Istakhr: Syriac Life of Sabrishoʿ, 318 and Chronicle of Seert LXV (478).

(40) On transmission of texts relating to Sabrishoʿ see M. Tamcke, Der Katholikos-Patriarch Sabrišo I. (596604) und das Mönchtum (Frankfurt, 1988), esp. 13 and the stem diagram in his appendix.

(41) Chronicle of Seert, II/ii, LXV (474–7).

(42) Chronicle of Seert, II/ii, LXV (477–82). The emphasis on the saint’s appearance may also be linked to the popularity of the saint’s image in his own lifetime. An icon of Sabrishoʿ was painted for Maurice, and his cap and rod are frequently mentioned in the Life, which suggests that they were a widely recognized part of his image (e.g. Syriac Life of Sabrishoʿ, 320, when pagans in Shahrzur rip off his cap).

(43) Chronicle of Seert, II/ii, LXV (483–5).

(44) Chronicle of Seert, II/ii, LXVII (487–91). LXVI is a section that has been added later, in which Sabrishoʿ is warned of the events narrated here in a vision.

(45) Chronicle of Seert, II/ii, LXVII (492–5) and LXVIII (495–8).

(46) On Hira and the Lakhmids more generally, as well as their Ghassanid opponents, see G. Fisher, Between Empires: Arabs, Romans and Sasanians in Late Antiquity (Oxford, 2011).

(47) Chronicle of Seert, II/ii, LX (468–9). Cf. Chronicle of Seert, II/ii, XCVI–XCVII for conversion of Arabs near Hira with no reference to the Lakhmids.

(48) Chronicle of Seert, II/ii, LXV (478–81).

(49) Syriac Life of Sabrishoʿ, 322 ff.

(50) E.g. E. Hunter, ‘The Christian Matrix of al-Hira’, in C. Jullien (ed.), Les controverses des chrétiens dans l’Iran sassanide (Paris, 2008), 41–56.

(51) Syriac Life of Symeon 67.

(52) The Book of Chastity, §47 makes Symeon, Sabrishoʿ, and Ishoʿzkha equal participants in the conversion of Nuʿman.

(53) Cf. Khuzistan Chronicle, 16–17. Khuzistan Chronicle, 20 describes Khusrau’s poisoning of Nuʿman.

(54) On the relationship between the shahs’ authority and Ohrmazd see J. Choksy, ‘Sacred kingship in Sasanian Iran’, BAI 2 (1988), 35–53, basing his argument on the Denkard.

(55) An accusation of conversion is recorded in the Nihayat ul-ʿArab (tr. Browne, 240).

(56) Khuzistan Chronicle, 19 and 22–3. On Gabriel see Flusin, Saint Anastase, II, 110–11.

(57) Chronicle of Seert, II/ii, LXX (498–501), with an epitome in Khuzistan Chronicle, 21.

(58) ʿAmr, HE, 51/30: I assume that the reference to the doctor Abraham of Nisibis is a slip, replacing the name of the more famous doctor.

(59) Chronicle of Seert, II/ii, LXIX (498) and LXXI (502–3), mirrored in epitomes in Khuzistan Chronicle, 19 and 22.

(60) See below in this chapter on Gregory of Nisibis.

(61) Chronicle of Seert, II/ii, LXXI (503–4).

(62) Khuzistan Chronicle, 22.

(63) Bar Hebraeus, HE, I, 263.

(64) Life of Marutha of Takrit, 73–7.

(65) Chronicle of Seert, II/ii, LXXXVIII (543).

(66) Also note the sponsorship of church building under Khusrau in Armenia: Pseudo-Sebeos, ch. 24 (100) on a new church in Dvin and the restoration of the exiled bishop Abraham; ch. 37 (121) on new church building in Valarshapat.

(67) Bar Hebraeus, HE, I, 263–5.

(68) Life of Cyriacus of Amida.

(69) See Wood, We Have No King but Christ, chapters 6 and 7; R. W. Thomson, ‘The Armenians in the fifth and sixth centuries’, in Averil Cameron, B. Ward-Perkins, and M. Whitby (eds.), The Cambridge Ancient History XIV, 662–77, at 674–6, and G. Greatrex, ‘Moines, militaires et défense de la frontière orientale au VIe s.’, in A. Lewin and P. Pellegrini (eds.), The Late Roman Army in the Near East from Diocletian to the Arab Conquest (Oxford, 2007), 285–97, at 292–3. Evagrius, HE, VI, 22 (ed. Bidez and Parmentier, 238) describes Maurice’s anti-Miaphysite initiative.

(70) Note, in general, I. Dorfmann-Lazarev, ‘Beyond empire I: Eastern Christianities from the Persian to the Turkish conquest, 604–1071’, in T. Noble and J. Smith (eds.), The Cambridge History of Christianity III (Cambridge, 2008), 65–85, at 70–1.

(71) T. Daryaee, ‘Religio-political propaganda on the coinage of Xusro II’, American Journal of Numismatics 9 (1997), 41–53. Also note J. Howard-Johnston, ‘Kosrow II’, in EIr, for his description of Khusrau’s rock inscription at Taq-e-Bostan, where he is shown together with his fravaši (tutelary spirit).

(72) Flusin, Saint Anastase, II, 118–19.

(73) On this assembly see G. Reinink, ‘Babai the Great’s Life of George and the propagation of doctrine in the late Sasanian Empire, in J.-W. Drijvers and J. Watt (eds.), Portraits of Spiritual Authority: Religious Power in Early Christianity, Byzantium and the Christian Orient (Leiden/Boston/Cologne, 1999), 171–93, esp. 178–80, for Babai’s attempt to hide the role of Gabriel of Sinjar in convening the assembly.

(74) Synodicon, 567. Cf. Chronicle of Seert, II/ii, LXXXIII (529).

(75) E.g. Khuzistan Chronicle, 22.

(76) Greatrex, ‘Khusro II and the Christians’, 82 argues for the shah’s neutrality between the confessions. He underlines Khusrau’s grant of monastic governance in the north of Iraq to Yonadab even after the catholicosate had fallen into abeyance (Khuzistan Chronicle, 22), but this event predates the 612 Assembly, which I would see as a major turning point, where the Dyophysites were clearly on the defensive.

(77) See especially Chronicle of Seert, II/ii, XCII (553) and Book of the Governors, I, vii–x (26–31/46–57).

(78) Book of Chastity, §34.

(79) Book of the Governors, I, xxvii–xxviii (51–3/90–6).

(80) Chronicle of Seert, II/ii, LXXXIII (529).

(81) Babai would make use of Gregory’s posthumous reputation (Life of Giwargis, 428), but their patronage circles do not seem to have intertwined substantially in their own lifetimes.

(82) The Seert Chronicle’s direct sources are named as the historians Theodore bar Koni and Elias of Merv. The latter is probably Khuzistan Chronicle, 17–18.

(83) Chronicle of Seert, II/ii, LXXIV (507–13). See also Khuzistan Chronicle, 18, which describes Khusrau learning of widespread dislike for Gregory.

(84) Reinink, ‘Nestorian identity’, esp. 226 and 244.

(85) Life of Giwargis, 428. Babai presented Gregory as a martyr because he died in exile, and associates him with Giwargis, a Zoroastrian convert who was denounced at the 612 Assembly and who Babai presented as a ‘martyr’ for Dyophysite orthodoxy. The Book of Chastity also places Gregory in the company of Giwargis (§56–7).

(86) The text has ‘Beth Garmai, Mosul, and Nisibis’, but Mosul must be an anachronism.

(87) Chronicle of Seert, II/ii, LXXV (513–15). Also see Khuzistan Chronicle, 19.

(88) Khuzistan Chronicle, 18.

(89) Chronicle of Seert, II/ii, LXXX (521–4).

(90) Chronicle of Seert, II/ii, LXXXI (524–5).

(91) Khuzistan Chronicle, 19 and Pseudo-Sebeos, ch. 13 (85): the latter account explains the outbreak of persecution by dating Shirin’s death to the middle of Khusrau’s reign. This dating is probably false (s.v. ‘Shirin’, PLRE III).

(92) Life of Marutha of Takrit, 74–6. On the spread of the cult of Sergius in Iraq in the last decade of the sixth century, and his popularity among Nestorians as well as Mipahysites, see J.-M. Fiey, ‘Les saints Serge d’Iraq’, AB 79 (1961), 102–14.

(93) Life of Marutha of Takrit, 77. See also M. Hutter, ‘Shirin, Nestorianer und Monophysiten: königliche Kirchenpolitik im späten Sasanidenreich’, in R. Lavenant (ed.), VII Symposium Syriacum (Uppsala, 1998), 373–86 for a clear summary of the material.

(94) Shahnameh, VII, 327.

(95) Khuzistan Chronicle, 23.

(96) T. Nöldeke, Geschichte der Araber und Perser (Leipzig, 1887), 383, note 1; Flusin, Saint Anastase, II, 246–54.

(97) The Sasanian occupation of the Roman East has been recently reassessed as a relatively moderate affair: C. Foss, ‘The Persians in the Roman Near East (602–630 AD)’, Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society series 3, 13 (2003), 149–70.

(98) Khuzistan Chronicle, 25–7.

(99) Book of the Governors, I, xxiii (47/82).

(100) Christian pressure on the Jews of the Levant was a marked feature of Heraclius’ reign. Note especially the discussions of Stoyanov, Defenders and Enemies, 47–57 and 68–70; Sarris, Empires of Faith, 258 and D. Olster, Roman Defeat, Christian Response and the Literary Construction of the Jew (Philadelphia, 1994), 72–98. Yazdin’s behaviour in Jerusalem may be read in the context of growing antipathy to the Jews by Christians in the Roman Empire. On the background to this in the West Syrian world also note Wood, We Have No King but Christ, chapters 4–6.

(101) Khuzistan Chronicle, 26–7.

(102) Antiochos Strategos, 507. Also see the comments of B. Wheeler, ‘Imagining the Sasanian capture of Jerusalem’, OCP 57 (1991), 69–85; Averil Cameron, ‘Blaming the Jews: The seventh-century invasions of Palestine in context,’ T&M 14 (2002), 57–78; Averil Cameron, ‘The Jews in seventh-century Palestine’, Scripta Classica Israelica 13 (1994), 75–93.

(103) Antiochos Strategos, 508.

(104) Antiochos Strategos, 512–14.

(105) We have already seen Christian debates against the Magi as a major theme of sixth-century hagiography (see chapter 4). The healing of royal figures is a major feature of several accounts. Those that occurred during Marutha’s embassy may be the most famous: Socrates, HE, VII.8; Armenian Life of Marutha 7 (62). Opposition to Jews at court is a less prominent theme, but it is found in the accounts of fourth-century martyrs, the Acts of Symeon and the Acts of Tarbo (esp. 254).

(106) Anti-Jewish rhetoric is the common theme for all these Jerusalem accounts. Chronicle of Seert, I/i, XIV (272–3) tells the story of Khusrau seizing the Cross and giving it to Shirin, and Heraclius’ subsequent recapture, in a section dedicated to the fourth-century discovery of the Cross and the anti-Jewish Legend of Judas Kyriakos. See further J.-W. Drijvers and H. J.W. Drijvers, The Finding of the True Cross: The Judas Kyriakos Legend in Syriac: Introduction, Text and Translation (Leiden, 1997).

(107) J.-W. Drijvers, ‘Heraclius and the restitutio crucis: notes on symbolism and ideology’ in Reinink and Stolte, The Reign of Heraclius, 175–91, notes that the focus on the Cross is only seen after Khusrau’s death and is absent from the poems of George of Pisidia, Heraclius’ official poet. A. Frolow, ‘La vraie croix et les expéditions d’Héraclius en Perse’, Revue des études Byzantines 11 (1953), 87–105, at 99, observes that Heraclius distributed fragments of the Cross in Armenia, so perhaps Heraclius expropriated Khusrau’s earlier emphasis on the Cross in an attempt to win over former allies of the shah in the Caucasus. Also note Flusin, Saint Anastase, II, 312–19 and D. Frendo, ‘The religious factor in Byzantine-Iranian relations’, BAI 11 (1997), 105–23.

(108) Chronicle of Seert, II/ii, LVIII (466–7) is confused over whether Maria and Shirin are the same person, but the ascription of different church buildings at the end of the passage to each queen implies that they are indeed distinct. On Maria as Maurice’s daughter see al-Tabari, I, 991, though Dignas and Winter, Rome and Persia, 230 are sceptical of this association, which does not occur in any Roman sources. See the entries in PLRE III on ‘Shirin’ and ‘Maria 6’.

(109) Al-Thaʿalibi, 722–7.

(110) Yazdin had died before this point, possibly executed by the shah. See Flusin, Saint Anastase, II, 252.

(111) Al-Tabari, I, 1046–58.

(112) Khuzistan Chronicle, 28–9.

(113) Book of the Governors, I, xxxv (63/114).

(114) Pseudo al-Jahiz, Kitāb al-tāj (tr. Pellat), 133 for Shiroë’s coronation speech.

(115) Chronicle of Seert, II/ii, XCII (551).

(116) Chronicle of Seert, II/ii, XCII (552).

(117) Chronicle of Seert, II/ii, XCIII (554–6). Cf. Khuzistan Chronicle, 29–30.

(118) Al-Tabari, I, 1062.

(119) Theophanes (tr. Mango and Scott, 454, ed. de Boor, 326); Shahnameh, VII, 269–83.

(120) D. Frendo, ‘Byzantine-Iranian relations before and after the death of Khusrau II: a critical examination of the evidence’, BAI 14 (2000), 27–47.

(121) C. Mango, ‘Deux études sur Byzance et la Perse Sasanide’, T&M 9 (1985), 93–118.

(122) Chronicle of Seert, II/ii, LXXXVII (540–1).