I’m afraid that I’m going to have to ask you to look away if you are not in the mood for one of my historical diatribes, prompted by a coin and fuelled by the usual ill-concealed glee at unearthing a previously unknown tale. On the other hand – buckle up and hang on tight for the abridged adventures of Khusro II, one of the last kings of the Sasanian, or Sassanid, empire which held sway over vast tracts of land from Turkey to the Persian Gulf for four hundred years to 651AD.


As ever, there’s a degree of latitude with regard to the naming of these characters, and our hero is also known as Khosrow, Chrosroes, Khosrau Parvis or Khosrow the Victorious. Also, rather than being just a plain king, he was Shahanshah of the Sasanians, King of Kings of Iranians and non-Iranians (though this tended to be somewhat reduced on his coinage, due to lack of space rather than any lack of due deference).


The Sassanid Empire had fluctuating fortunes throughout its history, being at the crossroads of numerous conflicting cultures, none of whom – as a general rule – were content with their lot. There were, essentially, centuries of fallings out with neighbours, invaders, former allies, would-be conquerors, passing hordes, expansive empire-builders, trading partners and pretty much anyone who fancied a go at a land-grab. The forging of nations in one of the crucibles of civilisation was not for the faint-hearted, and Khosrow was one of those who stood up to be counted.


Having succeeded his father, Hormizd IV in 590, Khosrow was almost immediately overthrown by a usurper, Bahram Chobin, but he was able to regain power within a few months having formed an alliance with the ruler of the Byzantine Empire which bordered Sassanid lands immediately to the west. Very splendidly indeed, the name of this emperor, whose intercession restored Khosrow to power, was Maurice.


Khosrow cemented his alliance with Emperor Maurice (we really must find some of his coins) – as was often the case – by marriage, taking the hand of his daughter. Miriam.


As was also common amidst the dynastic struggles of the time, support for a particular person did not automatically extend to their successor. Emperor Maurice (my favourite emperor, by some distance, as you can probably guess) was murdered in 602, and Khosrow promptly invaded Byzantine territory, ostensibly to avenge his father in law, but in reality that was a pretext under which as much land, wealth, resources and power could be annexed as possible. This expansion went really rather well, if slowly, and by the 620’s Khosrow’s dominion extended to the Aegean coastline in the north, down to Egypt in the south and nearly all parts in between. However, the Sassanids and their assorted allies (all and sundry hitched themselves on to Khosrow’s freewheeling, all conquering bandwagon) never managed to capture Constantinople and bring things to a decisive conclusion. Years of futile siege warfare began to take their toll, and the Sassanids began to withdraw to their homelands towards the latter part of the 620’s. 


Enter another power, the allies of the Western Turkic Khaganate under their leaders Bori Shad and tong Yabghu Qaghan (not Maurice level, admittedly, but pretty good names nonetheless). These belligerent sorts assailed Khosrow from the north, between the Black and Caspian seas in present day Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan. The Byzantine armies regrouped under their emperor Heraclius, re-joined the fray from the west, and the Sassanid’s ultimately crumbled under these wide-ranging assaults. Rival factions in the Sassanid ruling houses scrambled for the last vestiges of power as the disintegration of their empire gathered pace, and Khosrow was overthrown, arrested and executed in 628. Although the empire struggled on in name for another two decades, reduced to an impotent vassal state of little consequence, riven with internal insurrection and revolts, it was ultimately overwhelmed in 651 by invading Arab armies, flooding eastward and intent on the establishment of an Islamic state. And so ended 400 years of Sassanid history; as ever I’m staggered by the fact that it is possible to now hold a 1400 year old coin minted in the name of one of the leading belligerents of our tale – and for barely fifty quid; I hope you find these miniature artefacts as captivating as I do (and sincere apologies if that’s not the case, but – whatever – Emperor Maurice – if that’s not cool, I don’t know what is…)

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