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Naval History 224-661AD - Sassanid Empire

Persia, after being subject to the Parthians for four hundred years, recovered its independence in the third century after Christ, and flourished under the Sassanid kings. The Sassanid Dynasty started by Artaxerxes I (Ardeshir) at 224 AD and ended at 651 AD by the last of Sassanids, Yazdgird III. The Sasanians were the last of the ancient Persian dynasties, and the largest empire to espouse Zoroastrianism, before the encounter with the Arabs swept away the pre-Islamic institutions. In the seventh century, when it was subjugated by the followers of Mohammed.

As with the entire history of the Roman Empire, the Sassanid Navy was a distinctly inferior service that came into existence from the time of Ardashir I. The Sassanid Navy protected against pirates, an economic rather than a military mission. Its “professional” sailors functioned more like drug interdictors in the Coast Guard. Touraj Daryaee writes that the Sasanian navy "... was instrumental from the beginning when Ardashir I conquered the Arab side of the Persian Gulf. The control of the Persian Gulf was a necessity militarily as well as economically, making it safe from piracy, Roman encroachment, and controlling the Arab tribes."

The greatest of the Sassanid kings was Chosroes I, contemporary with the Byzantine Emperor Justinian. The reign of Chosroes I Anoushirvan, or Khosru I, king of Persia from AD 531 to 579, was marked by great victories in war and wise conduct in peace. He enlarged his kingdom, and made his subjects love him by ruling justly and kindly. He lived to be eighty years old, and the forty-eight years of his reign have been called the golden age of Persia. Chosroes, a sagacious monarch, discerned the use and importance of Colchos; and meditated a plan of conquest [which was renewed at the end of a thousand years by Shah Abbas, the wisest and most powerful of his successors]. His ambition was fired by the hope of launching a Persian navy from the Phasis, of commanding the trade and navigation of the Euxine sea, of desolating the coast of Pontus and Bithynia, of distressing, perhaps of attacking, Constantinople, and of persuading the barbarians of Europe to second his arms and counsels against the common enemy of mankind. But nothing seems to have come of these amibitions.

Wikipedia teaches that "The Sassanid navy was an important constituent of the Sassanid military from the time that Ardashir I conquered the Arab side of the Persian gulf" but the historical record is barren of supporting evidence of such importance. Touraj Daryaee writes that "based on al-Tabari it appears that the Persian ships (kastig) held 100 men and eight of them were sent to Yemen during the rule of Khusro I in the sixth century. Another early Islamic source corroborates that Khusro I had sent 100 men each on eight ships, which suggests the Persian naval vessels carried up to 100 men. The interesting point of the story is that the men were those who were confined to his prison. Thus it could not have been a very effective naval force." These sentences are about the only mentions of a Sassanid Navy in this book, indicative of the marginal role of the fleet for this great land power.

After the conquest of the Parthian empire by the Sassanids in the Third Century AD, the Silk Road remained an important avenue, not only for the promotion of trade, but also for cultural exchanges between the Persiansand the Chinese, for many centuries. The silk route flourished under the Sasanians. Their government maintained a rigid control of the trade and imposed heavy taxes on all goods passing between their lands and the Byzantine Empire. The Sassanid Empire blocked direct Byzantine access to the East over land.

It is likely that at various times even well before the appearance of European ships in the Indian Ocean at the end of the fifteenth century, the east-west maritime trade was more significant than the overland trade. One of the most important primary sources which tells about the "opening" of the sea routes in the Indian Ocean bringing Asian goods to the Mediterranean is the "Periplus of the Erythrean Sea" an anonymous work from around the middle of the first century AD. Facilitating the trade were the regular monsoon winds, which enabled mariners to quickly traverse the Indian Ocean. This contrasted them to mariners on the Mediterranean who rarely sailed out of sight of land.

The long war with Persia cut off all those routes by which the Syrian and Egyptian population had maintained their ordinary communications with Persia ; and it was from Persia that they had always drawn their silk and great part of their Indian commodities, such as muslins and jewels. This trade now began to seek two different channels, by both of which it avoided the dominions of Chosroes ; the one was to the north of the Caspian Sea, and the other by the Red Sea. The Indian commerce through Arabia and by the Red Sea was the more important. The immense number of trading vessels which habitually frequented the Red Sea shows that it was very great.

Jean Johnson and ?Donald James Johnson wrote [Human Drama: World History: From 500 to 1450 C.E. - Page 123] "The Sassanids, by insisting on high tolls, were strangulating trade with India and China. Justinian tried to bypass the Sassanids via the Crimea and southern routes that used the Red Sea instead of the Persian Gulf, but the Sassanid navy controlled the sea lanes." It is rather difficult to know what to make of this passage, as the Sassanid "navy" appears only to have controlled the sea lanes of the Persian Gulf.

Until the reign of Chosroes the silk used by the Romans came from China through Persia. It is extraordinary that before this period no attempt should have been made to disturb the monopoly of the Persian merchants, who braved the danger of the desert, on account of the immense gains which awaited the appearance of this substance in the Eoman market. It is interesting to remember that the Greeks of Alexander the Great's army were the first to bring silk into Europe. Tiberius forbade men to wear it, and Heliogabalus (AD 218 — 22) was the first man who wore a robe entirely made of it. When imported in a manufactured state, the fabric was frequently picked to pieces and then re-woven, threads of cotton, etc., being introduced, to render it less expensive.

Justinian, in the reign of Chosroes, wished to get for Rome the wealth which accrued to the merchants who carried on the silk trade. He did not revive the old Eed Sea traffic, hut applied to the Ethiopians of Abyssinia to help him. They replied that they could not assist him, when, just in the nick of time, two Persian monks came from China, as there was a Christian mission there, and offered to bring some silk-worms from that country to Constantinople. Justinian cordially embraced their offer, and in 551 they brought a number of the eggs, concealed in a hollow cane.

The reign of Hormuz, the son of Chosroes (579—90), is chiefly noticeable for its disasters. He speedily lost all his father's conquests ; the Eomans, for example, gained a great victory over his forces at Solaion, in 586, and four years after he was put to death by his exasperated subjects in a popular insurrection. His son, Chosroes II (590—628), was a very different man from his father.

The Persian king Chosroes II Parviz [r. 590-628] or Khosrew was not satisfied with the conquests he had made from the Greek empire, which comprehended Egypt and the whole of the Asiatic provinces east and south of a line drawn from the northern frontiers of Syria to the eastern extremity of the province of Pontus. The war between the Greek and the Persian empires, in regard to the animosity and vigour with which it was carried on, the magnitude of its events, and the importance of its consequences, claims a distinguished place in history. In AD 610 Heraclius took over a Byzantine Empire in a state of disorder and confusion.

In 614 the Persian army appeared before the holy city of Jerusalem, took it, and carried off the most precious thing in the world — the wood of the "True Cross." During these transactions another army advanced through Asia Minor, and having completed the conquest of that country as far as the Bosphorus, the Persian empire was once more extended from the banks of the Tigris and the Euphrates to its ancient western limits under the successors of Cyrus. A Persian army remained during the space of ten years encamped at Chalcedon, on the eastern side of the Bosphorus, opposite to Constantinople.

With the invasion of Egypt in 616 and the capture of Alexandria in 617, the Sasanian empire reached its greatest extent. For the Sasanians, having conquered Egypt meant control of the entire Near East, and cut off Byzantine access to the Indian Ocean route of the Silk Road. The fall, however, came rapidly.

Had Chosroes possessed any naval force, the Byzantine empire must now have been brought to its final termination. The Emperor Heraclius vowed that he beat back the fire-worshipping Persians from Palestine, and recover the Holy Places. The Avars kept the Emperor engaged for some time, and it was not till 622 that he was able to take the field against the Persians. Heraclius made no less than six campaigns (AD 622-27) in his gallant and successful attempt to save the half-ruined empire.

The Greeks were masters of the sea, and a fleet of gallies and store-ships was assembled in the harbour. With this naval force, Heraclius resolved to transport himself and his army into those parts where the enemy did not expect an attack. The emperor embarked with his forces on the boldest expedition ever undertaken since the days of Hannibal and Scipio. Descending the Hellespont, he landed on the confines of Syria, and acting in every particular the part of a consummate general, inspired his soldiers with the same courage nnd patriotism by which he was animated.

After a successful and glorious campaign, he placed his troops in winter quarters, and returned to his capital in order to prepare for a second expedition. Having mustered a select band, he again embarked, but pursuing a different route, he sailed from Constantinople by the Black Sea to Trebisoid; and assembling his forces, which had wintered in those regions, he marched against Chosroes, who retreated on his approach.

The campaign of 626 equals the most splendid military operations in ancient or modern time. Early ia 626 Chosroes opened the campaign with two armies against Heraclius, and a third under Sarbar, who was commissioned to attempt a second invasion of Asia Minor. Sarbar was successful, traversed the whole peninsula, and reached tbe walls of Chalcedon, opposite Constantinople; and, at the sama time, a host of more than 100,000 Avars and other barbarians, the allies of Chosroes, invaded Thrace, laid siege to Constantinople, and twelve times assailed its walls. Chosroes hoped to induce Heraclius to hasten to tbe succour of his capital, but the emperor stood firm at the foot of the Caucasus, despatching however, by sea, 12,000 armed horsemen, who arrived safely at Constantinople.

Heraclius knew that however great the danger waa for Constantinople, tbe Persians and Avars had no ships to effect a union, and that tho inhabitants of the capital would fight to the last before they surrendered to an enemy whom it was more dangerous to encounter in the open field than in their assaults upon walls and towers. A Slavonian fleet having entered the Bosporus, destined to convey the Persians over to the European shore, the Greek galleys left the Golden Horn, and, in sight of the besiegers, destroyed the ships of the barbarians or took them aud carried them off into the harbor of Constantinople. Shortly after this event the Avars withdrew and Constantinople was free, although Sarbar continued to amuse himself with the siege of Chalcedon.

Next year King Chosroes put into the field the last levy of Persia, under a general named Rhazates, whom he bid to go out and "conquer or die." Near Nineveh Heraclius fell in with the Persian home army and inflicted on it a decisive defeat. Heraclius granted peace, on the condition that every inch of Roman territory should be evacuated, all Roman captives freed, a war indemnity paid, and the spoils of Jerusalem, including the "True Cross," faithfully restored.

In the 15th year of the Hijra naval victories were achieved by Muslims against the Sassanid navy in the Indian Ocean, particularly in the ports of Debal (Sind), Barus (Bharoach in Gujrat) and Thana. After taking Hira, the Arabs inflicted a heavy defeat on a Sasanian army at the battle of Qadisiyya in 636. The Muslim conquest of Persia in 637 AC led to the introduction of Islam, with the consequent decline of the Zoroastrian religion.

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Page last modified: 21-02-2014 18:47:15 ZULU