SPĀHBED

 Sasanian title that denoted a high military rank and meant  ‘chief of an army, general.’

 

SPĀHBED, Sasanian title that denoted a high military rank and meant ‘chief of an army, general’; cf. New Pers. sepāhbad, Arm. loanword (a)sparapet, Chr. Sogd. spʾdpt, Khot. spāta etc., all from Old Iranian *spāda- ‘army’ and *pati- ‘chief’. This entry considers recently discovered sigillographic evidence on the title and its bearers in late Sasanian Iran.

Until recently third-century inscriptions were the only Sasanian primary sources that attested the title of spāhbed. From the trilingual inscription of Shapur I (r. 240-72) on the walls of the “Kaʿba-ye Zardošt,” we learn that a spāhbed by the name of Raxš lived at the court of Ardašir I (224-240). The same name paired with the same title appears twice in the inscription of Narseh (r. 293-303) at Paikuli. The chronological gap between the two individuals indicates homonymy rather than identity. In his reference work on the Sasanian Empire (L’Iran sous les Sassanides), Arthur Christensen essentially used information drawn from secondary sources, which he attempted to harmonize despite their frequently contradictory and often ambiguous character. Later studies of the subject of the Sasanian spāhbed have rarely produced more coherent results because they rely on the same type of sources from which it is impossible to draw an accurate picture. The main emphasis of our literary sources is their attribution to Ḵosrow I (r. 531-79) of a military reform coupled with a change in its supreme command, although it is possible that the reform had already been planned by his father Kawād I during his second reign (499-531).

With the discovery of a dozen seals in the form of clay impressions (bullae), there now exists a primary source that provides first-hand information and makes it possible, at least to some extent, to examine the accuracy of what is transmitted in literary sources about the spāhbed. This improvement pertains only to the sixth century, however, because the spāhbed seals belong to this period and, more specifically, to the reign of Ḵosrow I (531-579) and Hormozd IV (579-590). No new information has come to light regarding the spāhbed between the third century and the beginning of the sixth, and the same holds true for the period after Hormozd IV (579-590). Since the information provided by these spāhbed seals is, at first glance, absent from literary sources, a rereading of the latter is necessary for a reinterpretation of some passages.

Among the most remarkable aspects of the early sixth century military reform, our literary sources mention the abolition of a single command of the army and its replacement by four generals, each in charge of a kust, that is, a region corresponding to a cardinal point, best translated as ‘side’ (see Gyselen 2001, pp. 13-14). This quadripartition of military power is now confirmed by the seal inscriptions, which name the following officials: kust ī xwarāsān spāhbed ’Military chief of the side of the east’, (for other possible readings and interpretations see Gyselen 2001), kust ī nēmrōz spāhbed ’Military chief of the side of the south’, kust ī xwarbārān spāhbed ’Military chief of the side of the west,’ and kust ī Ādurbādagān spāhbed ’Military chief of the side of the north’ (the term abāxtar ‘north’ was generally avoided because of its negative connotation, the north being considered the territory of demons).

The twelve spāhbed seals now known can be dated on the basis of the regular presence of the honorific title hujadag ‘well-omened’ followed by the name of Ḵosrow or Hormozd. That the title of hujadag-Ḵosrow refers to Ḵosrow I and not Ḵosrow II (r. 590-628) is confirmed by the legends on the seals. In two cases we know a single spāhbed by two different seals, one giving him the epithet ‘well-omened (is) Ḵosrow’, the other ‘well-omened (is) Hormozd’. In both cases the spāhbed with the epithet ‘well-omened (is) Hormozd’ bears more titles than the spāhbed with the epithet ‘well omened (is) Ḵosrow. Therefore the Ḵosrow evoked in the latter formula necessarily antedates Hormozd and consequently can only be Ḵosrow I. Thus far the following spāhbed s are known from their seals:

1. For kust ī xwarāsān: Čihr-BurzēnunderḴosrow I, and Dād-Burzēn-Mihr under Hormozd IV.

2. For kust ī nēmrōz: Wēh-Šāhbur and Pīrag under Ḵosrow I. A certain Wahrām held the same title under both Ḵosrow I and Hormozd IV.

3. For kust ī xwarārān: Wistaxm under both kings.

4. For kust ī Ādurbādagān: Gulgōn (?) and Šēd-ōš (?) under Ḵosrow I and a spāhbed whose name is not legible under Hormozd IV.

In addition to the epithets hujadag-Ḵosrow or hujadag-Hormozd, all these spāhbeds also bear the title wuzurg ‘Grandee’, always written in the form of the ideogram LBA. From Narseh’s Paikuli inscription, we know that wuzurg represents the highest rank of nobility, appearing immediately below royal princes. There is a tendency to assume that this rank was acquired ipso facto by birth, but the statement of Kirdīr, the powerful third century religious leader, that the great king conferred on him this same title shows that it could also have been obtained by royal decree. The question arises therefore, whether the spāhbeds were regularly chosen from the great nobility, or received the rank of wuzurg after achieving prominence, as did Kirdīr. Whatever may be the case, several literary sources suggest that certain grand generals were related to the royal family or were members of the magnate houses. Thus, under the Arsacids, several generals came from the Sūrēn and Kāren families, and during the Sasanian period it was mostly the Sūrēn who held the rank of general. In contrast, on the spāhbed seals only the Mihrān family is mentioned: Gulgōn (?) and Šēd-ōš (?), the two spāhbeds of the side of the north and Pirag, the spāhbed of the side of the south are specified as Mihrāns.

Besides the three titles ‘Well-omened (is) Ḵosrow/Hormozd’, ‘Grandee’ and ’spāhbed of a specific side of Ērān,’ all the spāhbed seals carry at least one more title. Some of these titles are attested elsewhere but never in association with the function of the spāhbed. The presence of so many titles is thought provoking. Did these titles correspond to an actual function or were they purely honorific or both? In other words, was the title kept for life after having performed a function? The successive titles on the seals could be seen as reflections of a career, somewhat in the image of what we read in the inscriptions of Kirdīr, who under each new sovereign received increasingly more prestigious titles. At any rate, each spāhbed mentions on his seal at least one additional title, thereby enabling us to trace him in literary sources. However, a comparison of sigillographic and literary sources reveals the frequent inexactitude of the latter in which numerous errors have crept due not only to mistaken interpretations of titles for family names or family names for titles but also to wrong chronological attributions. In any event, among the spāhbeds attested by their seals at least two are mentioned in literary sources: Wistahm the hazārbed spāhbed of the side of the west and Pīrag the šahrwarāz spāhbed of the side of the south from the Mihrān family. The ninth-century Muslim historian Dinavari mentions them in a list of dignitaries who after the death of Yazdgerd I (r. 399-420) opposed the succession of his son. Dinavari (ed. ʿĀmer and Šayyāl, p. 55) explicitly refers to “Besṭām [Wistahm] the spāhbed of Sawād, whose rank was the hazāruft [hazārbed].” Here Sawād is a region that most probably corresponds to the side of the west. While a case of homonymy cannot be ruled out, it seems more likely that the Wistahm of our seal is the same person who, through hazards of literary transmission, reappears at the time of Yazdgerd I. If the institution of the four spāhbeds dates from the sixth century, then Dinavari’s text implies an anachronism.

The title of hazārbed was borne by certain individuals mentioned in third-century inscriptions, but then they are never identified as spāhbeds. Although Dinavari does not specify that Pīrag was the spāhbed of the south, he remarks (ibid.) that “his rank was Mihrān” which is also strongly echoed on Pīrag’s seal. In fact, we have two successive instances of Pīrag’s seal: on one the inscription is analogous to the other spāhbed seals, on the other the name Mihrān has been added at the end of the inscription instead of appearing immediately after the proper name of the spāhbed. That these two spāhbeds known from their seals as those of the west and the south respectively, are also named in Dinavari’s list, admittedly one of them without the title of spāhbed, could suggest that other individuals from the same list, for example Yazd-Gošnasp or Gošnasp-Ādurwēš, were also spāhbeds. Judging by the seals, the spāhbed always had one or more additional titles. This must have contributed to the apparent confusion in the literary sources, which often transmit one title only or confuse the titles. This is particularly the case in the title of šahrwarāz ‘boar of the empire’ borne by Pīrag, spāhbed of the side of the south. This same title appears in literary sources, but there it often becomes a proper name.

The term šahr-, which in this case can only mean ‘country, empire’ and not a ‘provincial district’, also appears in some spāhbed’s titles. Thus, Sēd-ōš (?), spāhbed of the side of Ādurbādagān under Ḵosrow I is šahr-aspbed; and Wahrām, spāhbed of the side of the south, had the title šahr-hazāruft engraved on his seal during the reign of Hormozd IV. Wahrām could have received this additional title from Hormozd IV because he does not carry it under Ḵosrow I. Unless the title is purely honorific, it would be surprising that a general of a part of the empire could also assume a “national” duty. If that is the case, this would constitute yet another reason for the many errors in literary transmissions. Titles composed with šahr- do not appear in third-century inscriptions although they do mention aspbed and hazāruft. As two aspbeds and hazārufts are never mentioned in the same list, we can assume that their function applied to the whole of the empire, and that there was no need to emphasizing it through the addition of šahr. Only Kirdīr insists on the fact that he is hāmšahr mogbed ud dādwar ‘mogbed and judge of the entire empire’. Once the quadripartition of the empire with respect to military authority was in place, it was understandable that an official appointed as the aspbed or a hazāruft for the entire empire should want to make an explicit reference to it by adding the term šahr-.

All the same, certain titles do not refer to a “national” status as šahr-warāz, šahr-asped and šahr-hazāruft. Rather, they have a “regional” character. That is the case in the titles of aspbed ī pārsīg ‘Persian aspbed (chief of the cavalry?)’ carried by Weh-Šāpur spāhbed of the side of the south and aspbed īpahlaw ‘Parthian aspbed’ carried by Dād-Burz-Mihr spāhbed of the side of the east.

Other titles do not refer directly to a military function. For instance, Wahrām spāhbed of the side of the south bears the additional titles of nēwānbed ‘chief of the brave’ and šābestan ‘eunuch’. It seems to me that Wurzurgmihr, the “minister” of Ḵosrow I bore the same title (Ayādgār ī Wuzurgmihr) as did Māhān on his seal (Gignoux 1991, p. 201 who translates ‘maître d’hôtel et eunuque’) and the Bīšāpūr-marzbān attested in theEqlid inscription (different transliteration by Gropp 1969, p. 241; and divergent interpretation of nēwān[bed] by Shaked, 1975, pp. 224-25).

Literary sources often give an unclear image of the relationship between spāhbed and marzbān ’guardian of the borders’. For example, Masʿudi designates Šahrwarāz as marzbān of the western quarter (II, p. 226, 233). As for the marzbān, primary sources demonstrate that it is a provincial function perhaps practiced at the level of a single province (cf. the Bīšāpūr-marzbān of the Eqlid inscription: Gropp 1969) or of a conglomerate of provinces (cf. seal of the Asōristān-marzbān: Lerner and Skjærvø 1997), but there exists no direct evidence of a marzbān of a quarter of the empire. Certain literary sources put the spāhbed, the marzbān, and the pāygōsbān ‘guardian of the district’ on equal footing, or at least they insert the latter two in the same quadripartition of the empire – east, south, west, and north – parallel to the spāhbeds. Until now no primary source has confirmed this supposition, and the secondary sources are so unclear with regard to the exact relationship between the šahrab, the marzbān, and the pāygōsbān that they do not lead to any clear conclusions.

The institution of the four spāhbeds was perpetuated after Hormozd IV, but we rarely find explicit mention of a spāhbeds territory. However, there is the famous case of the general of Ḵosrow II, Šahrwarāz, who could have been the spāhbed of the side of the west, and Nāmdār-Gošnasp, the spāhbed of the south (during the reign of Ardašir III), who helped Šahrwarāz to seize the throne. Sometimes it is possible to deduce from the literary context a spāhbed’s territory. For example, it would seem that Farrox-Hormozd (under Āzarmīgduxt), as well as his son Rostam were spāhbeds of the north. The spāhbed of Tabaristan who gave refuge to Yazdgerd III could well have been the spāhbed of the east. After the fall of the Sasanian Empire the title of spāhbed (or espahbed) of Tabaristan survived in the coinage of the local dynasties.

Many post-Sasanian literary sources refer to the supreme spāhbed as spāhbedān spāhbed ‘general of generals’ or Ērān-spāhbed. The title ‘spāhbed of a side of the empire’ appears only in a few literary sources (Bundahišn, Sūr Saxwan), always in a truncated form, without the term kust, which reveals their post-Sasanian composition and suggests a progressive loss of historical information in such types of texts.

Sigillographic sources do not refer to the role of the spāhbed as diplomat and peace negotiator, as is often suggested by literary sources. On the other hand, they provide a material image of the spāhbed: a horseman, his body and mount fully protected by iron-plated scale-armor and a coat of mail, equipped with a long lance and a sword. The seal of Wahrām son of Ādurmāh provides a good example. Its three-line Pahlavi inscription reads:

1. wlhl’n ZY n’mhw[’]st hwslwdy ‘twlm’h’m ……[W nyw]’npt W š’pstn W hwyt

2. n(sic)hwslwdy LBA ‘yl’n ‘t kwst ZY nymlwc 3.sp’hpt.

This is transliterated as: wahrān ī nāmxw[ā]st xusraw ādurmāhān ud nēwānbed ud šābestan ud huǰada[g]-xusraw wuzurg ērān{āt}kust ī nēmrōz spāhbed. Translation: “Bahrām, who has acquired the name Ḵosrow, son of Ādurmāh, chief of the brave and eunuch and (having the honorary title) ‘well-omened (is) Ḵosrow,’ grandee, Ērān-spāhbed of the side of the south.”

 

Bibliography:

H. von Gall, Das Reiterkampfbild in der iranischen und iranisch beeinflussten Kunst Parthischer und Sasanidischer Zeit, [Teheraner Forschungen VI] Berlin, 1990, pp. 61-88.

Philippe Gignoux, “D’Abnūn à Māhān. Étude de deux inscriptions sassanides,” Studia Iranica 20, 1991, pp. 9-22.

Idem, “L’organisation administrative sasanide: le cas du marzbān,” Jerusalem Studies in Arabic and Islam, 4, 1984, pp. 1-29.

Gherardo Gnoli, “The Quadripartition of the Sassanian Empire,” East and West 35, 1985, pp. 265-70.

G. Gropp, “Einige neuentdeckte Inschriften aus sasanidischer Zeit,” in : W. Hinz, Altiranische Funde und Forschungen, Berlin, 1969, pp. 229-262.

Rika Gyselen, The Four Generals of the Sasanian Empire: Some Sigillographic Evidence, Conferenze 14, Rome, 2001.

Idem, “Lorsque l’archéologie rencontre la tradition littéraire: les titres des chefs d’armée de l’Iran sassanide,” Comptes rendus de l’Académie des Inscriptions et Belles Lettres, Paris, 2001, pp. 447-59.

Idem, “La désignation territoriale des quatre spāhbed de l’empire sassanide d’après les sources primaires sigillographiques,” Stud. Ir. 30, 2001, pp. 137-41.

E. Khurshudian, Die parthischen und sasanidischen Verwaltungsinstitutionen. 3 Jh. v. Chr. - 7. Jh. n. Chr., Yerevan, 1998, esp. pp. 147-58.

J. A. Lerner & P. O. Skjærvø, “Some Uses of Clay Bullae in Sasanian Iran: Bullae in the Rosen and Museum of Fine Arts Collections,” in R. Gyselen, ed., Sceaux d’Orient et leur emploi, Res Orientales X, Bures-sur-Yvette, 1997, pp. 67-87.

P. Huyse, Die dreisprachige Inschrift Šābuhrs I. an der Ka’ba-i Zardušt (ŠKZ) [Corpus Inscr. Iran. pt III. Pahlavi Inscriptions, vol. I, texts 1], 2 vols, London, 1999, esp. I, par. 42, and II, pp. 138-39.

D. N. MacKenzie, “Kerdir’s Inscription (synoptic text in transliteration, transcription, translation and commentary),” Iranische Denkmäler 13, Berlin, 1989, pp. 35-72.

B. Overlaet, “Organisation militaire et armement,” in Splendeur des Sassanides, Bruxelles, 1993, pp. 89-94.

P.O. Skjærvø, The Sassanian Inscription of Paikuli III/1-2, Wiesbaden, 1983, esp. pt 2, pp. 38-9.

S. Shaked, “Some Legal and Administrative Terms of the Sasanian Period,” Monumentum H.S. Nyberg II (Acta Iranica 5), Leiden, Téhéran-Liège, 1975, pp. 213-25.

(Rika Gyselen)

Originally Published: July 20, 2004

Last Updated: July 20, 2004