Shapur II was born in 309 AD in the city of Gor, modern day Firuzabad (meaning “The glory of Ardashir” in Middle Persian). He was crowned King of Iran and Aniran by the powerful Aassanian court. At the age of 16, having learnt the arts of horseriding and archery, Shapur embarked on a series of military campaigns against the Arabs, particularly in the Persian Gulf. Shapur commanded a powerful army, made primarily of heavily armed cataphracts, skilled legions of archers on horseback, war elephants and a massive number of hevy infantry. The army included Cataphracts, who were drawn from the Persian Azadan nobility and heavily trained, as well as cavalry archers who were recruited from the bellicose tribes of Central Asia like the Hephtalites and the Massagetae. 

Cataphract in front of the walls of Ctesiphon

Having achieved stunning victories against the Arabs, Shapur was called “Dhu I-Aktaf” or “He who pierces shoulders” for his harsh character. He famously ordered the construction of a fortified wall near the city of Al-Hirah, in Mesopotamia, in order to prevent Arab incursions, the wall was called “War-i tazigan” or “The wall of the Arabs”. After the death of emperor Costantine in 337 AD , the Roman empire was divided among his three ambitious sons. Shapur, sensing an opening, immediately invaded Armenia, capturing it quickly. Nine major and bloody battles ensued, mostly won by Shapur, but, near the city of Singara, in modern day Iraq, Shapur’s offensive was blocked by emperor Costantius II. 

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Coin of emperor Constantius II
Ruins of Ctesiphon

Not deterred by this setback, Shapur invaded again, besieging the fortress of Nisibis, in modern day Syria, on three different occasions, but was repulsed every time by the skillful Roman general Lucilianus. While Shapur was fighting against the Romans, nomadic tribes like the Kidarites attacked the eastern frontiers of Shapur’s empire. In order to defend his other flank, the Persian monarch signed a hasty truce with the romans and immediately mobilized his armies to face the savage tribes in the east. After a bloddy stuggle that lasted 5 years, Shapur was able to defeat the tribes and forced their king Grumbates to enlist his men into the persian army as light cavalrymen. Emboldened by this success in the east, Shapur invaded Armenia once again in 359 AD and defeated every roman force sent against him. He conquered the cities of Amida (in Turkey), Singara and Bezabde, defeating emperor Costantius’s relief forces near the latter. In the year 361, emperor Costantius died and was succeeded by the brilliant Julian, who wanted to bring back paganism to the now Christianized empire. 

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Emperor Julian

In 363 AD, Julian led a powerful army against the persian capital of Cthesiphon, in Mesopotamia, where Julian ultimately defeated Shapur’s armies outside the city walls. The persian army, which was commanded by Spahbod Merena, was surrounded by the Roman army and massacred. Julian however lacked the siege equipment necessary to capture the city and, with Shapur’s remaining forces closing in, reluctantly decided to retreat. The roman army was consistently harassed by Shapur’s cavalry during its retreat, and in a skirmish near the city of Samarra, the emperor himself was struck by a javelin thrown by a saracen auxiliary. Emperor Julian later died from the wound and in his last moments he said: “Galilean (Jesus), you have won…”. This was yet another stunning victory for Shapur, who continued to attack the roman frontier. Meanwhile, the confused Romans elected a man named Jovian emperor, as he was the commander of the imperial bodyguard and an expert in military matters. Shapur moved to block the Roman crossing of the Tigris river with massive cavalry regiments and therefore forced Jovian to sign a humiliating peace treaty. 

Tigris river

The romans gave Shapur Armenia, Georgia, Eastern Mesopotamia and fifteen fortresses along the borders. As this was what Shapur had always wanted, he proceeded to occupy the regions and went on to defeat and conquer the Kushan Empire which included Afghanistan and Pakistan. Shapur died in 379 and was succeeded by his brother Ardashir 2. Shapur II is responsible for one of the Sassanian Empire’s golden ages. During his reign, the eastern, western and internal frontiers had been pacified and the army reformed by introducing more heavily equipped cataphracts. Above all though, he confronted the superpower that was Rome and defeated it, thereby opening up an ancient ‘arms race’ between the Persian and Roman empires.