MEHR-NARSEH, the grand vizier (Mid. Pers. wuzurg framādār) during the reigns of the Sasanian kings Yazdgerd I (r. 399-421 CE), Bahrām V (r. 421-39; see BAHRĀM v), Yazdgerd II (r. 439-57; Frye, p. 146), and Pērōz (r. 459-84; see FĪRŪZ).
Mehr-Narseh was born in the fourth century CE in the village (qarya) of Abrovān in the rural district (rostāq) of Dašt-e Bārin in the administrative division (ḵorra) of Ardašīr-ḵorra, in southwestern Fars (Ṭabari, I, p. 870, tr., p. 105). He appears to have had noble ancestry, similar to that of Ardašir I, the founder of the Sasanian dynasty, going back to the Kayanian (q.v.) king Vīštāspa (see GOŠTASP), with the notable difference that the Arsacid king (Kay Ašak) is also mentioned as part of his lineage (Ṭabari, I, p. 869; tr., p. 104). In the Arabic sources, his father is called Borāza, and he who may well have owned the territory where Mehr-Narseh was born and his descendants lived. Mehr-Narseh was able to achieve the rank of grand vizier (see FRAMADĀR), the highest rank in the administrative hierarchy of the Sasanian empire in the fifth century. In a Middle Persian text on a banquet speech at the royal court (Sūr ī saxwan), the order and placement of the wuzurg framādār is only below the king of kings (šāhān šāh) and the princes of the blood (pūs ī wāspuhr ī šāhān), while generals (spāhbeds), judge of the empire (šahr dādwarān; see DĀDWAR), chief councilor priest (mowān handarzbed), chiliarch (hazārbed), and the performer of the drōn ceremony (drōn-yaz) are all below him (Daryaee, pp. 66-67). While Bahrām V Gōr was at war in the east, Mehr-Narseh was left in charge of the empire as the wuzurg framādār. However, he was not the first person to hold this office. Previous holders of the title, including an Abarsām, mentioned to have been the wuzurg framādār of Ardašīr I (Ṭabari, I, p. 816; tr., p. 9), which appears to be anachronistic (Khurshudian, 1998, p. 89), but more likely a Husraw Yazdgerd, during the reign of Yazdgerd I (r. 399-421) mentioned in the synod of 410 (Syriac hrmdrʾ rbʾ) (Chabot, p. 260; Frye, p. 319), are known to have existed. The office of framādār itself appears as early as the 3rd century in the inscriptions of Šāpur I at Kaʿba-ye Zardošt and Naqš-e Rostam in Fars.
Mehr-Narseh had three sons (Ṭabari, I, p. 870; tr., p. 105), named Zurwāndād, who became the “grand hērbed” (Mid. Pers. hērbedān hērbed) the leader of the clergy; Kārdār, who became the “chief of warriors” (Mid. Pers. artēštārān sālār, the second class of the Sasanian society; and Māhgušnasp, who became the “chief of the cattle breeders” (Mid. Pers. wāstaryōšān sālār), the third class of the Sasanian society. This may suggest that Mehr-Narseh attempted to reorganize and bring order to the Sasanian caste system by appointing each of his sons at the head of each of them (Zaehner, p. 125; Perikhanian, in Madiyān, p. 633).
Mehr-Narseh’s religious life. The name of Mehr Narseh’s first son, Zurwāndād, is important in that it points out the possible prominence of Zurvanite tendencies in Iran of the fifth century CE. Robert Zaehner has suggested that, in the fifth century, Zurvanism was in ascendancy, especially during the rule of Yazdgerd II (Zaehner, p. 47). Mehr-Narseh’s Zurvanite belief is further corroborated by the evidence from the Armenian sources, where he is said to have imposed Zoroastrianism (Armenian awrēnk ʿdeni mazdezn), but instead, in his proclamation to the Armenians, he provides a clear Zurvanite doctrine (Ełišē, p. 78). Furthermore, Ṭabari (I, pp. 870-71; tr., p. 105) informs us that, as part of his beneficent policies, Mehr-Narseh laid out three gardens and planted 12,000 trees in each one of them (see below). It is noteworthy that the number 12,000 is associated with the Zurvanite doctrine, as the allotted time from the creation of the cosmos till its end (Wikander, p. 177). During the reign of Pērōz, when Zurvanism seems to have been shunned, Mehr-Narseh was accused of having committed a sin, but it did not dislodge him from his office (see below). There is also the mention of a Zurwāndād/Zarwāndād as a great sinner along with Mazdak in the Pahlavi Vendidād (IV.49), which may be a reference to Mehr-Narseh’s son. In the Vendidād, Zurwāndād is mentioned as having had authority, but he was sinful and destructive and disputed the creator of the corporeal world, that is, Ohrmazd (ēd-iz kē ō mardōm druwand ī sāstār kamāl zadār pahikārēd [čiyōn zarvāndād uš pahikār abāg astwandād]; Jamasp, p. 134).
In the Sasanian law book, the Mādiyān ī hazār dādestān (MHD), Mehr-Narseh is accused of having committed a sin, but the nature of the offense is not specified. As a result of this sin, he became a servant in fire temples: ōy bay wahrām šāhān šāh yazdgirdān mihr-narseh ī wuzurg-framādār pad bandagīh ō ātaxš ī ardwahišt ud ātaxš ī abzōn-ardaxšīr dād “His Majesty, Bahrām, the king of kings, the son of Yazdgerd, sent Mehr-Narseh, the chief minister, in servitude to the fire of Ardawahišt and the fire of Abzōn-Ardaxšīr.” (MHD A39.11-13). He, along with his wife, stayed there for several years during the reign of King Bahrām V, until the ascension of King Yazdgerd II. Mehr-Narseh was then taken to the ōstān (royal domain) for several more years as a further punishment for his offense (Perikhanian, pp. 641-42). Mansour Shaki, however, suggests that what happened was that, during the rule of Yazdgerd II, Mehr-Narseh was divested of his ecclesiastical benefice, but kept his office (Shaki, p. 99)—a suggestion corroborated by the historical information. But then again, during the reign of King Pērōz and under the direction of Mardbūd, the chief priest (mowbedān mowbed) of the time, and other authorities, he was sent to another fire temple named Ohrmizd-Pērōz (MHD A39.14-17; Perikhanian, pp. 641-42).
According to the Mādiyān ī hazār dādistān (A40.3-4), Mehr-Narseh and his wife then served in the fire temple as the “Servant of Ādurwaxš” (Ādurwaxš bandag), that is, watching over the fire in the fire temple along with his wife, children, and slave (Perikhanian, in MHD, p. 329; idem, 1983, p. 641). Thus, one should take Mehr-Narseh’s service not in the sense of common servitude (bandagīh), but one with full rights and authority (see BARDA AND BARDA-DĀRI). Mehr-Narseh also carried the title of hazārbandag “owner of a thousand slaves,” but his servitude (bandagīh) to these fire temples had a religious tone, serving to cleanse him of the offense for which both he and his family were held accountable (Perikhanian, p. 635).
Aswuzurg framādār. Two matters stand out in Mehr-Narseh’s career as the wuzurg framādār: his domestic policies and negotiations on behalf of the Sasanian empire with the Roman empire; and his policy towards Armenia and the Christians in that kingdom.
Mehr-Narseh is lauded for his sagacity and is credited as a trusted appointee and regent during the reign of Bahrām V (Ṭabari, I, pp. 866-67; tr., p. 100). He is perhaps one of the earliest trusted officials who took over the function of the viceroy when the king was campaigning on the fringes of the Sasanian empire. He was probably appointed by Yazdgerd I after a period of tolerance of the Christians. When the Christians defiled a Zoroastrian fire temple, persecution of Christians broke out in the empire and this event may have coincided with Mehr-Narseh’s appointment (Gyselen, p. 11). His wisdom, perfect manners, and education were at odds with Yazdgerd I’s contempt for the nobles and the great men (al-ašrāf wa’l-ʿoẓamāʾ), shedding of blood, and tyrannical manner (Ṭabari, I, pp. 848-49; tr., pp. 72-73). Additionally, Mehr-Narseh may have been active during the reign of Bahrām V in the negotiations with the Romans which resulted in the peace treaty of 422 that ended the persecution of Christians in the Sasanian empire and of Zoroastrians in the Roman empire (Dignas and Winter, pp. 136-38; Greatrex and Lieu, pp. 42-43). In the Šāh-nāma of Ferdowsi, there appears to be a confusion between Bahrām’s brother and Mehr-Narseh, as their names are the same, but many of the functions attributed to Bahrām’s brother, the eventual ruler of Khorasan, belong in the domain of the grand vizier’s responsibility (Ferdowsi, pp. 524-94).
We do not encounter the name of Mehr-Narseh in the Roman sources, with the exception of Socrates Scholasticus (VII.18), where a “Narses” is mentioned, but he has a more militaristic function beside the informant-counselor of the Persian king (Greatrex and Lieu, p. 39). The function of Mehr-Narseh described here is in line with Ṭabari’s depiction of the wuzurg framādār leading armies and men to face the Romans (Ṭabari, I/2, p. 868; tr., V, p. 103). In the Roman sources, Sasanian plans (Narseh?) against Ardaburius, the supreme military commander (magister militum praesentalis) who had invaded Persian territories, are discussed (Greatrex, p. 2). According to the Sasanian-based sources, during Yazdgerd II’s reign Mehr-Narseh was sent for negotiations after the commencement of the rekindled war, because the Romans had refused to pay their annual subsidy for the protection of the Darband Pass. It appears that because of the new Hephthalite pressures from the east, which preoccupied the Sasanian kings in the fifth century CE, Mehr-Narseh was left in charge of the empire, as Yazdgerd II made his residence in Khorasan for some years (Frye, p. 146).
Roman influence and the issue of Christianity further brought the Sasanians and the Armenians into conflict. Two contemporary Armenian sources, Eliše and Pʿarpetsʿi, are concerned with these events and name Mehr-Narseh as the main agitator of the persecution. They refer to him, beside by his usual title (vzurk hramatar), as a hazarapet in Armenian (see HAZĀRBED), which is commonly equated with his main title of wuzurg framādār (Chaumont, pp. 147-57). For the description of Mehr-Narseh’s policy towards Armenia, we are left mainly with Armenian sources, which present a negative image of him. He is called an “embittered old man” (tsern darnatsʿeal), a “snake” (vishap), and “sinister” (dzakhoł). The reason was the fact that the Armenian ruler (hazarapet) was directly replaced by Mehr-Narseh himself, who took this title and was able to take control of Armenia with the assistance of the chief priest (mowbedān mowbed) and the Suanian prince Varazałan. Secondly, “Zurvanite” Zoroastrianism, which the Armenian texts call “perverse religion” (dzakhołaki), was subsequently imposed upon Armenia in 439 (Russell, p. 136). The Armenians, led by the Sparapet Vardan Mamikonean, rebelled against these measures, leading to the battle of Avarayr on 2 June 451, during which many Armenians lost their lives—an event that has been remembered ever since and is commemorated by the Armenian people (Garsoïan, in MHD, pp. 98-99).
Only Abu ʿAli Balʿami provides a story for the end of Mehr-Narseh’s life. While Ṭabari stops mentioning Mehr-Narseh abruptly with the story of him being sent to negotiate with the Romans on behalf of King Pērōz (Ṭabari, I, p. 872; tr., p. 108), Balʿami mistakenly—quite contrary to Ṭabari—states that during the reign of Bahrām V, Mehr-Narseh had gotten old and wanted to retire, attend to religious matters, and to think about the afterlife. Bahrām ordered that Mehr-Narseh return to his own abode, to Ardašīr-ḵorra, and to live out his life in his homeland (Balʿami, I, p. 654). This story may either have taken place during the reign of Pērōz or is used to provide an exit of Mehr-Narseh from the narrative; it might also reflect his demotion because of the sin attributed to him.
Two bullae from Mehr-Narseh’s seal survive, providing us with an image and title of the wuzurg framādār (Gyselen, p. 12). He is portrayed with the cap (kulāf) with insignia and ribbon (wandag) typical of the Sasanian nobility and the ranking officials of the empire (Figure 1). The legend on his seal reads: mtrnrs[hy] ZY LBʾ plmtʾr “Mehr-Narseh, the Grand Minister.”
Mehr Narseh’s building policy. According to Ṭabari (I, pp. 870-71; tr., p. 105), Mehr-Narseh erected four fire temples close to his birthplace. He also built three large gardens, one holding 12,000 date palms, another 12,000 olive trees, and the third, 12,000 cypress trees, which were in good condition and still controlled by his descendants in the post-Sasanian period. He founded four villages, with a fire temple in each of them for the sake of his own soul and those of his three sons, named Farāz-marā-āwar-ḵodāyā, Zarvāndādān, Kārdādān, and Māgošnasbān. Furthermore, at Dašt-e Barin he had buildings erected and built another fire temple for himself called Mehr Narsiān (Ṭabari, I, p. 870; tr., p. 105; Vanden Berghe, pp. 187-91; Moṣṭafawi, pp. 112-14). This fire temple may be the one mentioned by Eṣṭaḵri, who in the tenth century says that the people call it Bārin and that on its edifice there was an inscription mentioning that 30,000 dirham was spent for it (Eṣṭaḵri, p. 118; tr., p. 105; Ebn Ḥawqal, p. 189).
The bridge and inscription. Mehr-Narseh built a bridge across the Tang(-e) Āb River in Fars. It is located next to the rock relief depicting Ardašir I’s investiture, at five km from Qalʿa-ye Doḵtar on the main road leading north to Gōr, the present-day Firuzābād (see BRIDGES, Plate XXII; Moṣṭafawi, pp. 99-100). Its purpose was to connect the two roads leading to Gōr, and it is the best dated example of Sasanian masonry from the fifth century (Bier, p. 263). Next to the bridge is an important inscription by Mehr-Narseh. Besides the third-century Zoroastrian priest, Kirdēr (see KARTĪR) and the fourth century Šāpur Sagān-šah and Seluk, Mehr-Narseh is the only other dignitary of the Sasanian period to have left an inscription. The inscription is instructive of Mehr Narseh’s religiosity and meritorious activity, which is also corroborated by Ṭabari and other Arab and Persian historians (Ełišē, pp. 77-78; Ṭabari, I/2, p. 870; tr., V, p. 105). The content of the inscription is as follows: “This bridge was built by the order of Mehr Narseh, the wuzurgframādār, for the benefit of his soul, at his own expense. Whoever has come on this road, let him give a blessing to Mehr Narseh and his sons for that he thus bridged this crossing. And while God give help, wrong and deceit there shall be none therein” (Henning, 1954, p. 101; idem, 1977, p. 434; Back, p. 498).
This building and cultivation activity of Mehr-Narseh is instructive of pious work and foundations (see CHARITABLE FOUNDATION) for the sake of one’s own soul (pad ruwān xwēš) and for his family (Boyce, pp. 282-83).
Michael Back, Die sassanidischen Staatsinschriften: Studien zur Orthographie und Phonologie des Mittelpersischen der Inschriften, zusammen mit einem etymologischen Index des mittelpersischen Wortgutes und einem Textcorpus der behandelten Inschriften, Acta Iranica 18, Leiden, 1978.
Abu ʿAli Moḥammad Balʿami (attrib.), Tāriḵ-nāma-ye Ṭabari: Gerdāvarda-ye mansub ba Balʿami, ed. Moḥammad Rowšan, 2 vols., Tehran, 1995.
L. Bier, “Notes on Mihr Narseh’s Bridge Near Firuzabad,” Archäoligische Miteilungen aus Iran 19, 1986, pp. 263-68.
Mary Boyce, “The Pious Foundations of the Zoroastrians,” BSOAS 31, 1968, pp. 270-89.
Jean B. Chabot, ed. and tr., Synodicon Orientale: ou recueil de synodes nestoriens, Paris, 1902.
Marie Louise Chaumont, “Chiliarque et curopalate à la cour des Sassanides,” Iranica Antiqua 10, 1973, pp. 139-65.
Arthur Christensen, L’Iran sous les Sassanides, 2nd ed., Copenhagen, 1944; tr. Ḡolām-Reżā Rašid Yāsami as Irān dar zamān-e Sāsāniān, Tehran, 1963.
Touraj Daryaee, “The Middle Persian Text Sūr ī Saxwan and the Late Sasanian Court,” in Rika Gyselen, ed., Des Indo-Grecs aux Sassanides: données pour l’histoire et la géographie historique, Res Orientales XVII, Leuven, 2006, pp. 65-72.
Jean P. de Menasce, Feux et fondations pieuses dans le droit sassanide, Paris, 1964.
Beate Dignas and Engelbert Winter, Rome and Persia in Late Antiquity: Neighbours and Rivals, Cambridge, 2007.
Ełišē (Elisaeus), Elišē vasan vardanay ew Hayocʿ Paterazmin, tr. Robert W. Thomson as History of Vardan and the Armenian War, London, 1982.
Abu Esḥāq Ebrāhim Eṣtaḵri, Masālek al-mamālek, tr. Moḥammad b. Asʿad Tostari as Masālek wa mamālek, ed. Iraj Afshar, Tehran, 1968.
Abu’l-Qāsem Ferdowsi, Šāh-nāma VI, ed. Djalal Khaleghi-Motlagh and Mahmud Omidsalar, New York, 2005.
Richard N. Frye, “Iran under the Sasanians,” in The Cambridge History of Iran III/1, Cambridge, 1983, pp. 116-80.
Nnina Garasoïan, “The Marzpanate (428-652),” in Richard G. Hovannisian, ed., Armenian People from Ancient to Modern Times, New York, 2004, pp. 95-116.
Geoffrey Greatrex, “The Two Fifth-Century Wars Between Rome and Persia,” Florilegium 12, 1993, pp. 1-14.
Geofrey Greatrex and Samuel N. C. Lieu, The Roman Eastern Frontier and the Persian Wars, Part II, AD 363-630: A Narrative Sourcebook, London and New York, 2002.
Rika Gyselen, Great-Commander (vuzurg-faramadār) and Court Counsellor (dar-andarzbed) in the Sasanian Empire (224-651): The Sigillographic Evidence, Rome, 2008.
Walter B. Henning, “The Inscription of Firuzabad,” Asia Major, 1954, pp. 98-102; repr. in W. B. Henning Selected Papers II, Acta Iranica XV, Leiden, 1977, pp. 431-35.
Hoshang Jamasp, ed., Vendidâd: Avesta Text with Pahlavi Translation and Commentary, and Glossarial Index, Bombay, 1907.
Eduard Khurshudian, Die parthischen und sasanidische Verwaltungsinstitutionen: nach den literarischen und epigraphischen Qullen 3 Jh. V. Chr. – 7 Jh. N. Chr., Yerevan, 1998.
Łazar Pʿarpetsʿi, Patmutʿiwn hayocʿ, Venice, 1891; tr. Robert Thomson as The History of Łazar Pʿarpecʿi, Atlanta, 1991.
Mādiyān ī hazār dādestān, ed. and tr. Anahita G. Perikhanian as The Book of A Thousand Judgments (A Sasanian Law-Book), Introduction, Transcription and Translation of the Pahlavi Text, Notes, Glossary and Indexes, with Eng. version of the Russ. tr. by Nina G. Gardoïan, Costa Mesa, 1997; ed. Maria Macuch, Das Sasanidische Rechtsbuch “Mātakdān I Hazār Dātistān”, Wiesbaden, 1981.
Sayyed Moḥammad-Taqi Moṣṭafawi, Eqlim-e Pārs, Tehran, 1964, pp. 99, 113-14, 119-21, 486-89.
Theodore Nöldeke, Geschichte der Perser und Araber zur Zeit der Sassaniden, Leiden, 1878, tr. ʿAbbās Zaryāb, Tāriḵ-e irāniān wa ʿarabhā dar zamān-e Sāsāniān, Tehran, 1999.
Anahita G. Perikhanian, “Iranian Society and Law,” in The Cambridge History of Iran III/2, Cambridge, 1983, pp. 627-80.
James R. Russell, Zoroastrianism in Armenia, Harvard Iranian Series, Cambridge, MA, 1987.
Mansour Shaki, “A Few Unrecognized Middle Persian Terms and Phrases,” in Wojciech Skalmowski and Alois van Tongerloo, eds., Middle Iranian Studies: Proceedings of the International Symposium Organized by the Katholieke Universiteit Leuven from the 17th to the 20th 0f May 1982, Leuven, 1982.
Ṭabarī, Ketāb taʾriḵ rosol wa’l-moluk, ed. M. J. de Goeje et al., 15 vols., Leiden, 1878-1901; tr. by various scholars as The History of al-Ṭabarī , Albany, N.Y., 1985-2007, V, tr. Clifford E. Bosworth as The Sāsānids, The Byznatines, The Lakmids, and Yemen, Albany, 1999.
Theresa Urbainczyk, Socrates of Constantinople: Historian of Church and State, Ann arbor, Mich., 1997.
Louis Vanden Berghe, “Récentes découvertes de monuments sassanides dans le Fārs,” Iranica Antiqua 1, 1961, pp. 163-98.
Stig Wikander, Feuerpriester in Kleinasien und Iran, Lund, 1946.
Robert C. Zaehner, Zurvan: A Zoroastrian Dilemma, New York, 1972.
Originally Published: January 1, 2000
Last Updated: January 23, 2012