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Yazdegerd I (also spelled Yazdgerd I and Yazdgird I; Middle Persian: 𐭩𐭦𐭣𐭪𐭥𐭲𐭩‎; New Persian: یزدگرد) was Sasanian King of Kings of Iran from 399 to 420. A son of Shapur III (r. 383–388), he succeeded to the throne on the assassination of his brother Bahram IV (r. 388–399).

Yazdegerd I
King of kings of Iran and Aniran
Plate, the king Yazdgard I, slaying a stag.jpg
5th-century plate of Yazdegerd I slaying a stag.
Shahanshah of the Sasanian Empire
Reign399 – 420
PredecessorBahram IV
SuccessorShapur IV
Gurgan or Tus
IssueShapur IV
Bahram V
HouseHouse of Sasan
FatherShapur III

Yazdegerd I's largely uneventful reign is seen as a period of renewal in Sasanian history. Although periodically being known as "the Sinner" in native sources, he was in reality more competent than his recent predecessors. He enjoyed cordial relations with the Eastern Roman Empire, and was even entrusted with the guardianship of the Roman prince Theodosius by his father Arcadius. Yazdegerd I is well-known for his friendly management of the Jews and Christians of the Church of the East, which was in 410 acknowledged by Yazdegerd I. Because of this, he was praised by Jews and Christians alike as the new Cyrus the Great (r. 550 – 530 BC), the king of the Iranian Achaemenid Empire, who liberated the Jews from captivity in Babylon.

His religious and peaceful policies were much to the dislike of the both nobility and Zoroastrian clergy, whose power and influence he strived to curb. This eventually backfired, with Yazdegerd I meeting his end at the hands of the nobility in the remote northeast. They then sought to stop the sons of Yazdegerd from the ascending the throne—his eldest son Shapur IV was quickly killed after his accession, and replaced with Khosrow. Another son of Yazdegerd, Bahram V, hurried to the Sasanian capital of Ctesiphon with an Arab army, and pressured the nobility to acknowledge him as shah.


The name of Yazdegerd is a combination of the Old Iranian yazad yazata- "divine being" and -karta "made", and thus stands for "God-made", comparable to Iranian Bagkart and Greek Theoktistos.[1] The name of Yazdegerd is known in other languages as; Pahlavi Yazdekert; New Persian Yazd(e)gerd; Syriac Yazdegerd, Izdegerd, and Yazdeger; Armenian Yazdkert; Talmudic Izdeger and Azger; Arabic Yazdeijerd; Greek Isdigerdes.[1]

Background and state of the empireEdit

Coin of Bahram IV (r. 388–399).

Yazdegerd I was the son of Shapur III (r. 383–388). When Yazdegerd I's brother Bahram IV (r. 388–399) was assassinated in 399, he succeeded him.[2] Yazdegerd I inherited an empire which had been through tumultuous times; his three previous predecessors, Bahram IV, Shapur III and Ardashir II had all been murdered by the nobility.[3][4] The bulk of the nobility included the powerful Parthian noble families (known as the wuzurgan) that were centered on the Iranian plateau.[5] They served as the backbone of the Sasanian feudal army and were largely autonomous.[5]

Indeed, the Sasanian shahs had noticeably little control over the wuzurgan, and attempts to restrict their self-determination usually resulted in the disadvantage of the shah, as was the case of the three previous shahs.[6] Ultimately, the Parthian nobility worked for the Sasanian shah out of personal benefits, personal oath, and, conceivably, a common awareness of the "Aryan" (Iranian) kinship they shared with their Persian overlords.[5] It was during the reign of Yazdegerd I that the powerful Parthian House of Suren would become powerful associates of the shah and play a key-role in the affairs of the empire, even if it happened at the end of his reign.[7] The authority of the Suren family would continue flourish to until the end of the reign of Yazdegerd I's grandson Yazdegerd II (r. 438–457).[7]

Relations with the Eastern Roman EmpireEdit

Coin of Arcadius (r. 383–408).

During Yazdegerd I's rule, his western neighbours−the Eastern Roman Empire, was in turmoil; the Ostrogoths were raiding the Balkans, the Franks had started an uprising, a civil war was thundering, and the eastern provinces were in riot.[1] Instead of exploiting the weakened state of the Romans, Yazdegerd I had Roman Christian prisoners−who had been saved after an Iranian victory over the Huns−sent back to Roman domains.[1] As a result of Yazdegerd I's generosity, the Roman emperor Arcadius (r. 383–408) asked him for aid to guarantee the succession of his young son Theodosius.[1][8]

This account is only mentioned by the 6th-century Roman historian Procopius, and was even questioned in the antiquity by fellow Roman historian Agathias, who although stating that this report was "on the lips" of "Roman commoners and aristocrats alike,"[9] questioned its exclusion from contemporary sources.[8] Regardless, Yazdegerd I agreed to act as Theodosius' protector, and threatened to wage war against whoever that sought to put him in danger.[8][1] According to Procopius, Yazdegerd I, "loyally observing the behests of Arcadius, he adopted and continued without interruption a policy of profound peace with the Romans, and thus preserved the empire for Theodosius."[1] Yazdegerd I sent "a most remarkable and highly educated advisor and instructor" named Antiochus to serve as the tutor of Theodosius.[1]

Relations with the ChristiansEdit


Coin of Shapur II (r. 309–379).
16th-century Shahnameh illustration of Yazdegerd I seated on his throne.

Yazdegerd I, like all other Sasanian rulers, was an adherent of Zoroastrianism.[10] One of his predecessors, the powerful Sasanian shah Shapur II (r. 309–379) was thought to have brutally persecuted the Christians of Iran from 340 to 379, known as the supposed "Great Persecution".[11] Later shahs such as Yazdegerd I himself, Bahram V (r. 420–438), Yazdegerd II (r. 438–457), Peroz I (r. 459–484), Khosrow I (r. 531–579), Khosrow II (r. 591–628) were also each stated to have instigated persecutions against the Church of East, yet its swiftly expanding organization persisted to grow nonstop.[11] According to hagiographical sources, the motivation behind this was due to the "unwavering hostility of Zoroastrian religious authorities toward Christians."[12]

In reality, however, persecutions against the Christians were limited to their religious leaders, who had failed to meet the commitment that the court had demanded of them.[13] Indeed, Shapur II disciplined priestly leaders for insubordination, and neither he nor his court persecuted the Christian population as a community.[13] The "Great Persecution" was thus in reality fiction.[13] According to the modern historian Eberhard Sauer, Sasanian shahs only persecuted other religions when it was in their urgent political interests to do.[14] Shapur II's killing of Christians was due to the refusal of the priestly leaders to take more fully part in the management of the empire.[13] This was finally achieved during the reign of Yazdegerd I, when the priestly leaders had finally reached an agreement with the court to fully cooperate.[15]

The establishment of the Iranian churchEdit

Yazdegerd I's reign thus marks a landmark for the Christians in Iran; with the counsel of Roman bishop Marutha, he acknowledged the Church of the East in 410, which led to the establishment of the Iranian church, which would later declare its independence from the Roman church in 424.[16][1] This decree by Yazdegerd I has been called the Sasanian version of the Edict of Milan made in 313 by the 4th-century Roman emperor Constantine the Great (r. 306–337).[1][17] Soon churches, shrines of martyrs, and ultimately monasteries were established in the bureaucratic environment of Iran.[15] These establishments noticeably took place in the environs of the court at the Sasanian capital of Ctesiphon, which was publicly allowed by Yazdegerd I, who himself financed churches that had East Syrian or Roman diplomats as their main patrons.[15] One of his known gestures of generosity was to permit the Christians to bury their dead, which in Zoroastrian point of view was to taint the land.[18]

The presence of Christian elites in the bureaucracy increased; a flow which would continue until the fall of the empire in 651.[15] While priestly leaders such as Shemon Bar Sabbae and his colleagues had zealously opposed Shapur II's request to take part in the imperial bureaucracy, the bishops, starting from the 5th-century, operated as agents of Iran, even if they dissociated themselves with Zoroastrianism.[15] Yazdegerd I himself made personal use of the priestly leaders, such as sending the Patriarch of the Catholicos of Ctesiphon to act as a mediator between him and his brother, who was the governor of Pars in southern Iran.[1] Another Catholicos served as Yazdegerd I's ambassador to Theodosius.[1] Yazdegerd I does not seem to have had much knowledge of the Christian religion, and was instead like Shapur II more concentrated on improving the political and economic capabilities of the country.[19]


At the end of Yazdegerd I's reign, his tolerance towards the Christians became tested by their own reckless gestures.[20] In c. 419-420, the bishop of Ohrmazd-Ardashir in Khuzestan, Abda, in cooperation with a band of Christian priests and laymen, levelled a Zoroastrian fire temple, which made the court have them summoned to answer for their actions.[21] Yazdegerd I reputedly asked Abda; "Since you are the chief and leader of these men, why do you allow them to despise our kingdom, to transgress against our command, and to act in accordance with their own will? Do you demolish and destroy our houses of worship and the foundations of our fire temples, which we have received from the fathers of our fathers to honor?"[21] While Abda hesitated to answer, a priest in his entourage replied back, saying "I demolished the foundation and extinguished the fire because it is not a house of God, nor is the fire the daughter of God."[21] Demolishing a fire temple was reportedly a way of broadcasting the "victory of Christianity."[21]

Abda ultimately refused to have the fire temple rebuilt, and was as a result, along with his entourage, executed.[21] At another place, a priest had a sacred fire snuffed out and commemorated mass in its location.[18] Yazdegerd I was as a result forced to comply to the pressure of the Zoroastrian priesthood, and alter his policy towards the Christians, ordering a persecution of them.[14] It was probably in relation to Yazdegerd I's change of policy that he appointed Mihr Narseh of the Suren family as his minister (wuzurg framadar).[1] However, this brief persecution did not stain Yazdegerd I's representation in Christian sources.[22] Indeed, his actions were even justified in some of them.[9]

Relations with the JewsEdit

The Tomb of Esther and Mordechai, which may in reality be the tomb of Shushandukht, Yazdegerd I's Jewish wife.

The Jews of Iran were treated so generously and respectfully by Yazdegerd I, that their Exilarch praised him as the new Cyrus the Great (r. 550 – 530 BC), the king of the Iranian Achaemenid Empire, who liberated the Jews from captivity in Babylon.[1][23] Yazdegerd I reportedly greeted the rabbis with generosity, and quoted scriptures to them.[24] This report, however, is possibly a outcome of Jewish historiography and propaganda.[24] He had a Jewish wife named Shushandukht, who was the daughter of the Exilarch.[25] The identity of her father is obscure−he may have been either Mar Kahana I, Mar Yemar, or Mar Zutra.[26] According to the Middle Persian geography text Šahrestānīhā ī Ērānšahr ("The Provincial Capitals of Iran"), Yazdegerd I had Jews settled in Spahan at the request of Shushandukht.[26] The text also states that Shushandukht was mother of Yazdegerd I's son Bahram V.[26] According to the Iranologist Ernst Herzfeld, the Tomb of Esther and Mordechai in Hamadan was not burial site of Esther and Mordechai, but that of Shushandukht.[27]

Personality and relations with the nobility and clergyEdit

Roman sources describe Yazdegerd I as an astute, benelovolent and friendly ruler.[28] Yazdegerd I was said to be greatly well-read, and "from the start" broadly known for "the nobility of character", and a champion of the "the poor and the wretched."[2] In contradiction, Persian and Arabic sources call him a "sinner" (bazehkar or bezehgar) and "outcast" (dabhr).[28][2][a] These sources describe him as a monarch who misused his authority by frightening and surpressing the nobility and Zoroastrian clergy.[28] This hostile view of Yazdegerd I is due to his peaceful attitude with the Romans and his religious tolerance towards the non-Zoroastrians of the country, specifically the Christians and Jews.[28]

The hostility of the priesthood towards him was due to his execution of several Zoroastrians priests who had disapproved of his friendly management of the religious minorities.[28] Being well-aware of the fate of his previous predecessor, it was instinctive that Yazdegerd I could not put his trust in the nobility, and determinedly stopped them from acquiring excessive influence and crumble the royal power.[2][23] Yazdegerd I was thus both at the odds with both the nobility and clergy.[2][29] He was in reality more competent than his recent predecessors, and his reign is seen as a period of renewal in Sasanian history.[30]

Coin mints and imperial ideologyEdit

Coin of Yazdegerd I.

Yazdegerd I's coins portrays him wearing a combination of the dome-shaped crown used by Ardashir II and two merlons and a crescent of the moon on the top.[1] His reign marks a shift in the political perspective of the Sasanian Empire−which, originally disposed towards the West, was now changed to the East.[31] It may have been triggered due to the advent of hostile tribes on the eastern front of Iran.[31] The war against the Hunnic tribes may have awakened the mythical rivalry existing between the mythological Iranian Kayanian rulers and their Turanian enemies, which is demonstrated in the Younger Avesta.[31] It was under Yazdegerd I that besides the traditional title of "King of Kings of the Iranians and the non-Iranians", the title of Ramshahr ("Who maintains peace in [his] dominion") was added on his coins.[32][33][b] In the Middle Persian heroic poem Ayadgar-i Zariran ("The Testament of Zarer"), the title was used by the last Kayanian monarch, Kay Wishtasp, and also occurs in the 10th-century Zoroastrian text, the Denkard.[35] This Sasanian interest in Kayanian ideology and history would continue until the end of the empire.[36]

Death and successionEdit

14th-century Shahnameh illustration of Yazdegerd I kicked to death by a white horse.

Yazdegerd I died in 420. According to 5th-century Armenian historian Movses Khorenatsi, Yazdegerd died of illness.[1] However, according to a long-existing popular legend mentioned by Ferdowsi in the Shahnameh, Yazdegerd I was kicked to death by a white horse that suddenly arose from the Chishmih-i Su or Chishmih-i Sabz ("the green spring"), which adjoined the city of Tus in the eastern province of Abarshahr.[37] The horse was said to suddenly dissappear afterwards.[38] The German orientalist Theodor Nöldeke surmised that "Ferdowsi had fecklessly grafted this tradition onto traditions of his hometown, Tus."[38] He stated that the murder may have in fact taken place in Gurgan.[38] The legend, however, outdated Ferdowsi's work.[38] Regardless of whether it was in Tus or Gurgan, this legend was probably fabricated by the Parthian nobility, who had Yazdegerd I killed in the distant northeast, which was the traditional homeland of the Parthians and was part of the fiefdom of no less than three strong Parthian families, including the Kanarangiyan, who were based in the area of Tus.[38]

The nobility and clergy, who despised Yazdegerd I, now strived to strip his sons of the opportunity of kingship, of whom three are known: Shapur, Bahram and Narseh.[35][1] Shapur, who was the governor-king of Armenia, rushed to Ctesiphon and assumed the crown as Shapur IV, but was betrayed by his courtiers, who had him killed.[1][35] The nobility proceeded to place Bahram IV's son Khosrow on the throne.[35] Bahram, who had grown up in the Lakhmid court of al-Hira, arrived to Ctesiphon with an Arab army, and pressured the nobility to acknowledge him as shah Bahram V.[1] His brother Narseh was appointed as the governor of Abarshahr.[1]


  1. ^ From the Middle Persian word dīpahr ("prison").[2]
  2. ^ The word ram can be translated as "peace", "ease", "pleasure", "joy" or "satisfaction". It is most likely "peace" in Yazdegerd I's case.[34]


  1. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m n o p q r s t Shahbazi 2003.
  2. ^ a b c d e f Shahbazi 2005.
  3. ^ McDonough 2013, p. 604 (note 3).
  4. ^ Wiesehöfer 2018.
  5. ^ a b c McDonough 2013, p. 604.
  6. ^ McDonough 2013, p. 604 (see also note 3).
  7. ^ a b Pourshariati 2008, p. 62.
  8. ^ a b c Edwell 2017, p. 850.
  9. ^ a b McDonough 2008, p. 132.
  10. ^ Payne 2015, p. 2.
  11. ^ a b Payne 2015, p. 25.
  12. ^ Payne 2015, pp. 25-26.
  13. ^ a b c d Payne 2015, p. 43.
  14. ^ a b Sauer 2017, p. 190.
  15. ^ a b c d e Payne 2015, p. 44.
  16. ^ Shayegan 2017, p. 808.
  17. ^ McDonough 2008, p. 128.
  18. ^ a b Boyce 1984, p. 121.
  19. ^ Payne 2015, p. 46.
  20. ^ Boyce 1984, p. 120.
  21. ^ a b c d e Payne 2015, p. 47.
  22. ^ McDonough 2008, p. 131.
  23. ^ a b Kia 2016, p. 280.
  24. ^ a b Daryaee 2014, p. 78.
  25. ^ Daryaee 2002, p. 92.
  26. ^ a b c Netzer 2007, pp. 74-77.
  27. ^ Netzer 1998, pp. 657-658.
  28. ^ a b c d e Kia 2016, p. 279.
  29. ^ Kia 2016, pp. 279-280.
  30. ^ Daryaee & Rezakhani 2017, p. 158.
  31. ^ a b c Shayegan 2017, p. 807.
  32. ^ Schindel 2017, pp. 836-837.
  33. ^ Daryaee 2002, p. 91.
  34. ^ Daryaee 2002, p. 90.
  35. ^ a b c d Daryaee 2014, p. 22.
  36. ^ Daryaee 2002, p. 94.
  37. ^ Pourshariati 2008, p. 66.
  38. ^ a b c d e Pourshariati 2008, p. 67.


Yazdegerd I
Preceded by
Bahram IV
King of kings of Iran and Aniran
Succeeded by
Shapur IV