Province of the Sassanian Empire

Capital Nisibis
Historical era Late Antiquity
  Established 363
  Peace of Acilisene 387
  Annexed by the Rashidun Caliphate 638
Today part of

Arbāyistān (Syriac: Bēṯ ʿArbāyē, Armenian: Arvastan[1]) was a Sassanian province in Late Antiquity, that bordered the Roman Empire, and later the Byzantine Empire, and was a constant area of contention between the Romans and the Sassanians.

The province reached across Upper Mesopotamia toward the Khabur and north to the lower districts of Armenia; it bordered Adiabene in the east, Armenia in the north and Assuristan in the south.


Early History

The province was formed in 363 after the 2nd Peace of Nisibis, composed of the concessions made by Roman Emperor Jovian, which encompassed all Roman territory east of the Tigris that had been ceded by the Sasanians in the 1st Peace of Nisibis in 299.[2] This included the former Armenian provinces of Corduene, Zabdicene, Arzanene and Moxoene as well as Nisibis and Singara. As part of the treaty, the Romans were allowed to evacuate the inhabitants of the cities of Nisibis and Singara,[3] and this led to the mass exodus of the entire populations of both cities to Roman territories to avoid imprisonment and deportation by the Sasanians.[4][5] This also caused the Christian School of Nisibis to move to Edessa. In the 360s, Shapur II divided the office of marzban between his brothers Zamasp and Adurfrazgird and they were granted responsibility for the northern and southern halves of the province respectively.[6]

As a result of the Peace of Acilisene of 387, Armenia was divided between the Eastern Roman and Sassanian Empires and the majority of Arzanene was given to the Romans, aside from the canton of Arzan itself. In the fourth century, 12,000 Persians from Staxr, Spāhān and other regions were settled in Nisibis to act as mainly military garrisons.[7] At the close of the fourth century, in 395, the Huns breached the Caspian Gates and swarmed through the east, plundering Armenia and Eastern Roman Cappadocia, Cilicia and Syria undisturbed until moving to raid Sasanian Arbayistan in 398.[8]

During the Roman–Sasanian War of 421–422, the magister militum per Orientem, Ardaburius, invaded and plundered Arzanene in 421. Ardaburius engaged and defeated the Sassanian grand vizier, Mihr Narseh, and with reinforcements besieged Nisibis. The army of Al-Mundhir I, an ally of the Sasanians, who had been sent to relieve Nisibis, was defeated by Ardaburius beneath the walls and dispersed.[9] Ardaburius' victory over Al-Mundhir I led the new Shah, Bahram V, to end his siege of Theodosiopolis and march to relieve Nisibis, causing the Romans to abandon the siege.[10]

Middle History

From 464 to 471, a famine struck Mesopotamia which devastated the crops and ruined the country. Sources say that the wells became dry and that there was not a trickle of water either in the Tigris or the Euphrates. Eventually the crops failed and thousands perished. In 483, a severe drought affected the region and lasted for two years, during which time tensions between the Romans and Persians heightened as Arab nomads allied to the Persians raided Roman territory, causing the Romans to assemble an army on the frontier to counter such raids. The situation was defused, however, by the marzban of Nisibis and Nestorian metropolitan bishop of Nisibis, Barsauma.[11] Three years into the reign of Kavadh I, in 491, an uprising in Armenia encouraged the Qadishaye tribesmen south of Singara to revolt and besiege Nisibis.[12]

At the time of the Anastasian War, Kavadh I besieged and sacked the city of Amida in 503, and resettled the population in Singara. The loss of Amida spurred the Roman emperor Anastasius I Dicorus to send reinforcements to the Persian border, however, a Roman army that crossed over into Arzanene was defeated. In the spring of 504, the Roman general Celer invaded Arbayistan and conducted raids against fortified settlements, seizing several forts and plundering the province, killing farmers and livestock alike.[13]

In the mid-summer of 527, at the onset of the Iberian War and as overt fighting broke out between the Romans and Sasanians, a Roman army under the command of Libelarius of Thrace, dux Mesopotamiae and magister militum per Orientem,[14] invaded Arbayistan with the intent of capturing Nisibis and the fortress of Thebetha.[15] Libelarius, however, refrained from engaging the Sasanians or looting and despite facing no opposition,[16] withdrew to Dara with heavy losses having achieved nothing, and upon his return was replaced as magister militum per orientum by Belisarius.[17] Towards the end of the war, in 531, Belisarius led an army into Arbayistan and won a battle at the fortress of Sisauranon and managed to capture its commander, Bleschames.[18]

As part of the state implemented persecution of non-Chalcedonians, in late 536, the Patriarch of Antioch, Ephraim of Antioch, bribed the marzban of Nisibis, Mihrdaden, to arrest John of Tella who had been residing on Mount Singara. John was arrested and held in Nisibis for 30 days under the accusation of living in Sassanian territory illegally and was handed over to the Romans at the border fortress of Dara. Upon the invasion of Roman Syria in 540 by Khosrau I, Belisarius was recalled from Italy to respond to the Sassanian threat. He arrived in Mesopotamia in 541 and besieged Nisibis, however Belisarius could not take the city and subsequently plundered the surrounding countryside. The following year, Khosrau returned from Lazica and invaded Roman Syria; during his invasion Khosrau sacked Callinicum and resettled prisoners in Arbayistan.

Late History

At the beginning of the Byzantine–Sasanian War of 572–591, in late 572, a small Byzantine army of 3000 infantrymen were dispatched by Marcian, magister militum per orientum, to Arzanene where they laid waste and plundered the region before returning to Dara. In the spring of 573, a Byzantine army under the command of Marcian departed from Dara and defeated a Persian army led by Baramanes at the town of Sagathon,[19] west of Nisibis, and moved south to besiege the fortress of Thebetha, however, Marcian returned to Dara after spending 10 days besieging the fort without success. Marcian, under orders from the Byzantine Emperor Justin II, besieged the city of Nisibis until he was dismissed by Justin II as he felt he was taking too long to take the city. The majority of Byzantine soldiers returned to Dara, and a body of soldiers that remained at the camp were defeated by a Persian army.[20]

Khosrau I's conquest of the city of Dara later that year reportedly drove Justin II to insanity, and led to a declaration of a truce on the Mesopotamian front which was to last 5 years. The truce came to an end in 578 when Sasanian raids in Byzantine territory was met by Byzantine raids in Arbayistan led by the new magister militum per orientum, Maurice, who also sacked Singara, and according to historian Theophylact Simocatta, liberated 10,090 Armenian prisoners in Arzanene,[21] of whom about 3,350 were relocated to Cyprus.[22] He also captured the fortress of Aphumon. Sasanian attempts to sue for peace after Maurice's campaign in Arbayistan in 579 failed and the following year, the Byzantine armies successfully marched through Arbayistan unopposed into Media and Assuristan before returning in the summer of 581 along the Euphrates in southern Arbayistan, sacking Anathon during their campaign.

Byzantine raids and Sasanian counter-raids continued for the next eight years inconclusively until the Byzantine general, Philippicus, invaded Arzanene and besieged the fortress of Chlomaron in spring of 586. However, the approach of a Persian relief army panicked the Byzantines, who fled in disorder back into Byzantine territory.[23] In autumn of 589, a Byzantine army under Comentiolus won a battle at the fortress of Sisauranon.[24] At the end of the war, Corduene, Aghdzen canton and Zabdicene was annexed by the Byzantine Empire in return for assisting Khosrau II regain the throne from the usurper, Bahram VI. The city of Nisibis was one of the first to support Khosrau and a joint Byzantine-Sassanian campaign defeated an army of Bahram near Nisibis in early 591.

Not long after the end of the Byzantine–Sasanian War of 572–591, a locust plague ravaged the countryside of the province from 591 to 595, in which locusts are said to have destroyed crops and fouled water supplies. The ensuing food shortages and famine caused many to migrate to neighbouring regions, whilst those less able were forced to resort to begging in nearby cities. This led to the abandonment of many villages and hamlets throughout Arbayistan.[25] Some survived the plague by collecting and eating the locusts or by planting "small vegetables" such as summer peas and cucumbers.

Upon the end of the Byzantine–Sasanian War of 602–628, Heraclius travelled through Arbayistan as part of the agreed withdrawal from Sasanian territory. After the Muslim victory at the Battle of Jalula in April 637, Muslim forces marched north and established control over Sasanian Upper Mesopotamia, and annexed Arbayistan in 638.

Commerce and Trade

Arbayistan's position on the Silk Road provided the province with a large income derived from custom-houses along the roads as well as from traffic on the rivers. The goods that came with it:silks and spices from the Indian and Arabian sea-trade assembled at Nisibis before it was sold to Roman merchants. The silk trade, which supplied the weaving industry of Syria, was especially lucrative and continued to thrive despite the threat of Arab raids along the roads.[26]

Also, the Sassanian control of the two major East-West highways and excellent road system made the province easily accessible for trade.


The population of Arbayistan was primarily composed of Arameans, who spoke the Aramaic language, and shared the province with Jews, Arabs, Armenians and Iranians. Many Arabs lived as nomads throughout the province, however they are known to have also thrived in the city of Hatra. Armenians could be found largely in the north of Arbayistan, in the districts of Arzanene, whilst Iranian tribes lived in the north-eastern districts of Corduene.[27]


  1. Richard N. Frye. The History of Ancient Iran. p. 223.
  2. "Peace of Nisibis." Encyclopædia Britannica. 2009. Encyclopædia Britannica Online. 17 April 2009
  3. R.C. Blockley. The Romano-Persian Peace Treaties of A.D. 299 and 363. p. 35.
  4. Beate Dignas. Rome and Persia in Late Antiquity: Neighbours and Rivals. p. 132.
  5. J. B. Bury. A History of the Later Roman Empire From Arcadius to Irene Vol. 1. p. 304.
  6. Encyclopædia Iranica: ĀDURFRĀZGIRD
  8. Geoffrey Greatrex. The Hunnic Invasion of the East of 395 and the Fortress of Ziatha. p. 67.
  9. Katarzyna Maksymiuk. Geography of Roman-Iranian Wars. p. 60.
  10. Geoffrey Greatrex. The Two Fifth-Century Wars between Rome and Persia. p. 2.
  11. Geoffrey Greatrex. Roman Frontiers and Foreign Policy in the East. p. 120.
  12. Joshua the Stylite. A History of the Time of Affliction at Edessa and Amida and throughout all Mesopotamia. p. 22.
  13. Joshua the Stylite. The Chronicle of Pseudo-Joshua the Stylite. p. 34.
  14. Geoffrey Greatrex, Samuel N. C. Lieu. The Roman Eastern Frontier and the Persian Wars AD 363-628.
  15. Kaveh Farrokh. Shadows in the Desert: Ancient Persia at War. p. 226.
  16. James Allan Evans. The Age of Justinian: The Circumstances of Imperial Power. p. 115.
  17. James Allan Evans. The Power Game in Byzantium: Antonina and the Empress Theodora. p. 65.
  18. Martindale, John Robert; Jones, Arnold Hugh Martin; Morris, J., eds. (1992). The Prosopography of the Later Roman Empire, Volume III: A.D. 527–641. Cambridge, United Kingdom: Cambridge University Press. ISBN 978-0-521-20160-5.
  19. E.A. Foord. The Byzantine Empire. p. 87.
  20. Richard N. Frye. The History of Ancient Iran. p. 328.
  21. George Frederick Young,East and West Through Fifteen Centuries: Being a General History from B.C. 44 to A.D. 1453, Vol.II, 674 pp., Longman, Green and Co. Publishers, 1916, p.336
  22. Cohen, Robin (2008). Global diasporas: an introduction. p. 49.
  23. Martindale, Jones & Morris 1992, p. 1023.
  24. Whitby 1988, p. 232.
  25. Joshua the Stylite. The Chronicle of Pseudo-Joshua the Stylite. p. 37.
  26. Ehsan Yarshater. The Cambridge History of Iran, Volume 3: The Seleucid, Parthian and Sasanid Periods. pp. 761–762.
  27. Encyclopædia Iranica: ARBĀYISTĀN


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