Iranians who fought the ʿAbbasid caliph Moʿtaṣem be’llāh (r. 833-41) and enrolled in the Byzantine army of the iconoclast emperor Theophilos I (r. 829-42).


ḴORRAMIS IN BYZANTIUM. The term Ḵorrrami refers to a member of the geographically extensive religious and political rebellious group which fought against the ʿAbbasid caliphate (Madelung, pp. 63-64). The term was also used specifically for those Iranians who fought the ʿAbbasid caliph Moʿtaṣem be’llāh (r. 833-41) and enrolled in the Byzantine army of the iconoclast emperor Theophilos I (r. 829-42). These Ḵorramis became important fighters on the eastern borders (ṯoḡur) of the Byzantine empire. Various Byzantine sources attest the Ḵorramis, yet the extant Greek evidence is scarce and often contradictory regarding their number, military functions, and political role. The Ḵorramis are an example of how a group of alien fighters was integrated into an ethnically diverse Greco-Orthodox society.

Between 816 and 838 Bābak Ḵorrami (d. 838) organized in Azerbaijan an armed resistance that drew on the Mazdakite tradition and sentiments, and spread in Iranian regions. Ḵorramis participated in the extensive rebellion that an otherwise obscure Naṣr led in western Iran (Jebāl) (Michael the Syrian III, p. 88; Masʿudi VII, p. 136; cf. Rekaya, p. 47). But when the ʿAbbasid army of Esḥāq b. Ebrāhim defeated the Ḵorramis in the Zagros mountains between 20 October and 17 November 833, Naṣr along with some 14,000 soldiers (Symeon Magister, pp. 625-26; Georgios Monachos, p. 793; Theophanes Continuatus, p. 125; cf. Rekaya, p. 4) of Iranian (Persian and Kurdish) origin (Rekaya, pp. 46-47) crossed the Armenian highlands, entered the Byzantine thema (military district) of Armeniakon (Treadgold, 1988, p. 282), and obtained protection and shelter from Theophilos.

According to the Greek sources, the family of Naṣr had belonged to the Iranian aristocracy (Theophanes Continuatus, pp. 111-12; Genesios, p. 58). Naṣr was baptized, and took the name Theophobos (God-fearing; Grabar and Manoussakas, fol. 53 fig. 55, p. 45). The emperor became his protector, appointing him patrician and marrying him to a sister of the empress Theodora. The Byzantine sources vaguely claim that Naṣr’s fighters also converted to Christianity, and an imperial decree allowed the Ḵorramis to marry local women (Theophanes Continuatus, p. 112; cf. Carras, p. 212). Presumably, their conversion was nominal, though their descendants embraced Christianity.

Theophilos enjoyed the loyalty of the Ḵorramis whom he put on regular military pay, probably including access to land tenure. Aside from their alleged hatred for the Arabs, these fighters strengthened numerically the Byzantine army by a sixth. The emperor organized them into a flexible military formation, the Persian turma (Theophanes Continuatus, p. 112), and placed them under the command of Naṣr-Theophobos. In the summer of 837, Theophilos campaigned in northwest Mesopotamia with about 70,000 soldiers, among whom the Persian turma (Rekaya, p. 64; Rosser, p. 268) played a prominent role (Gignoux, 1986a, p. 340; Cereti, p. 160; Daryaee, pp. 71-72). After the sack of Sozopetra (Zabetra), the Byzantine army raided the region of Melitene, taking many prisoners and conquering the city Arsamosata. Theophilos then plundered southern Armenia so that Theodosiopolis and other cities paid tribute to avert further destruction. Having obtained the nominal submission of Melitene, the emperor and his army returned to Byzantium (Treadgold, 1988, p. 440, note 401).

In September 837, a second wave of about 16,000 Ḵorramis from Bābak’s defeated army crossed into Byzantine territory. These fighters also converted to Christianity (Theophanes Continuatus, p. 124) and were incorporated into the Persian turma so that it now comprised around 30,000 experienced soldiers (Genesios, p. 57; Theophanes Continuatus, p. 112). But despite this considerable reinforcement, on 21 July 838, Theophilos’s army was defeated in the battle of Danzimon (Anzen) by a smaller ʿAbbasid army of ca. 30,000 fighters under the command of the Iranian general Afšin Ḵayḏar b. Qāwus (d. 841). The Greek sources report that many Ḵorramis deserted the emperor, fleeing first to Amastris at the Black Sea and then to Sinope in the thema of Armeniakon (Theophanes Continuatus, p. 136; Genesios, pp. 60-61; cf. Rosser, pp. 268-69). Yet these sources are ambiguous as to whether Na ṣr-Theophobos or the Greek officer and alleged double agent Manuel saved Theophilos’s life on the battlefield (Theophanes Continuatus, p. 128; Genesios, p. 68). The Byzantine defeat facilitated Moʿtaṣem’s conquest of Amorium in August 838 (Masʿudi IV, 358-59) and caused chaos in Byzantine Asia Minor.

The Greek sources argue that the Ḵorramis feared the emperor’s retribution and thus proclaimed Naṣr-Theophobos the new Byzantine emperor, though probably crowning him in Sinope according to a pre-Islamic Sasanian tradition (Theophanes Continuatus, p. 124; Genesios, p. 58). Naṣr-Theophobos’s role in the rebellion and his rationale are obscure (Rosser, p. 269; Treadgold, 1988, p. 301). For a year he stayed at Sinope, while the Ḵorramis controlled the thema of Armeniakon. According to the Greek sources, in the summer of 839, Naṣr-Theophobos negotiated in secret with Theophilos and secured full amnesty for the Ḵorramis (Theophanes Continuatus, pp. 124-125; Genesios, pp. 40-41). Although the emperor reorganized the Persian turma dispersing units of 2,000 fighters to several districts (Rosser, p. 271; Treadgold, 1995, pp. 32, 69), he assigned the command of some units again to Naṣr-Theophobos who in turn continued being a leading general of the emperor’s army. While the breakup of the Persian turma brought more flexibility to the Byzantine military, it weakened the Ḵorramis’ unity, and yet employed them successfully in the defense of the eastern Byzantine frontiers against ʿAbbasid incursions. For decades the Ḵorramis were valued for this strategic importance, which in Greek sources was linked to their hatred for the ʿAbbasids.

The Greek and Arabic sources provide conflicting information about the end of N aṣr-Theophobos, though the richer Byzantine tradition seems more convincing. According to Islamic historiography, the Iranian convert died on the battlefield between 839 and 840 (Ṭabari, tr., XXXIII, p.120, note 334). The Greek sources report that the general aligned himself with the Iconophile opposition (Treadgold, 1988, p. 326) so that in 842 the dying emperor mustered nonetheless the energy to execute his general for treason (Symeon Magister, pp. 637, 646-47; Genesios, pp. 42, 43; Georgios Monachos, pp. 803, 810). In an illumination of the Skylitzes manuscript, Theophilos is lying on his deathbed, while receiving the head of Naṣr-Theophobos (Joannes Scylitzes, fol. 62a, p. 276).



Primary sources.

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Georgios Monachos, “Vitae recentiorum imperatorum,” in Theophanes Continuatus, Chronographia, ed. I. Bekker, Corpus Scriptorum Historiae Byzantinae, Bonn, 1838 pp. 761-924.

Joannes Scylitzes, Skylitzes matritensis: Reproducciones y miniaturas, ed. S. Cirac Estopañán, Barcelona and Madrid, 1965.

Masʿudi, Moruj al-ḏahab wa-maʿāden al-jawhar, ed. C. Barbier de Meynard and Abel Pavet de Courteille, rev. Charles Pellat, 7 vols., Beirut, 1966-79.

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June 28, 2005

(Evangelos Venetis)

Originally Published: July 20, 2005

Last Updated: July 20, 2005