By Dr Peter Heather
Last updated 2011-02-17
In 1936, investigators at Naqs-I Rustam, seven kilometres north of the old Persian capital at Persepolis, uncovered a monumental inscription recording the deeds of the Sasanian king of kings, Shapur I: the Res Gestae Divi Saporis.
He inherited power from his father Ardashir I (224-240 AD), who had turned the Sasanian family from regional magnates into a ruling dynasty. Shapur completed the process, setting loose in Iran and Iraq processes of economic and governmental development, which made the Persian empire more powerful than ever before.
The main object of Shapur's reign, and the achievement celebrated on the inscription, was to throw back the might of the Roman empire. Ardashir had already captured from Rome the city of Hatra and in 244 AD the eastern emperor Gordian III advanced with a huge army to retake it.
Shapur defeated and killed Gordian at the Battle of Misiche. Buoyed up the tribute extracted from Gordian's successor Philip, Shapur then occupied Armenia and devastated Syria, defeating Philip in turn and sacking the great city of Antioch, capital of the Roman east, in 252 AD. In 260 AD, he won the third of his great victories over Rome, defeating and capturing the emperor Valerian. A famous stone relief portrays Valerian kneeling in chains before him. When the Roman emperor died in captivity, Shapur had him skinned and preserved.
Shapur was famous for grandiose building and irrigation schemes, many of them using captured Roman manpower. He was never able to occupy Roman Syria permanently, but his reign turned Persia into a near eastern superpower.
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