The Annals of Eutychius of Alexandria (10th c. AD) – chapter 16 (part 2)

Eutychius (=Sa`id ibn Bitriq) is still writing the history of the 5th century AD, mainly from Greek/Byzantine chroniclers.  But he also has access to an Arabic translation of a lost Persian chronicle of the Sassanid kings, and material from this is inserted at intervals.  We now return to the Sassanid history.  

The major threat to the Sassanid realm during the 5th century was not the Romans, but rather the Ephthalites, or White Huns, here called the Hayātilah. These were a nomadic East Iranian nation (or so their names suggest) based in the area of modern Afghanistan.  Eutychius, writing five centuries later, describes the two campaigns of King Peroz I (=Firuz) against them, which ended in his complete defeat and death in 483 AD at the battle of Herat.  This left Persia tributary to the White Huns for a generation. 

The common cultural links between the adversaries are apparent in the shared values on each side. 

7. As for Firuz, son of Yazdağard, king of the Persians, he built two cities near Kashkar, namely Duris-Firuz and Rām-Firuz.  Then he went with the army towards Khurasan in order to occupy the territory of Khshunwār.  When Akhshunwār, king of the Hayātilah, in Balkh, heard this, he was afraid, and he called his experts and asked their advice about what to do.  One of them spoke thus: “If you promise me with my peace and quiet that you will give me what will sustain my family and my descendants and that you will ensure them these necessaries, I will show you a way in which God will grant you victory over Firuz”.  Having received a full guarantee from the king, he said: “Tie up my hands and feet”,[1] then abandon me on the road that Firuz will take, and I will save you from his hands.”  The king ordered that it should be done as requested, and they took him and threw him where he had told them, and they left. Curious about him, Firuz asked him the reason for his state, and [the man] replied: “I was one of the magnates of Hayātilah.  As soon as news came that you were marching against us, Khshunwār consulted, among others, myself also, and I told him openly that he could do nothing against Firuz because of the great power of this man, and that it would be better for him if he sent word to be ready to pay tribute and the ransom. Great was his anger against me, and he ordered them to reduce me to the state in which you see me, saying: ‘Let it be with him as with so many.’  He gave instructions to some of his soldiers, telling them: ‘Go and carry him to Firuz’.  O please, I beg you, have mercy and compassion on me, take me with you, so that I do not fall prey to the wild beasts in this deserted land.  I will show you the shortest way, and how to defeat Akhshunwār without suffering damage, and I have my revenge on him through God.  The road I will show you is only two days’ journey, but in the end you will get what you seek.”

On hearing this, the ministers of Firuz smelled the trap that Akhshunwār intended for them, and they said to Firuz: “This man has been asked for advice and he has certainly given according to his vast knowledge and intelligence.  All this dramatic stuff is a trap, pure and simple.  If fact Akhshunwār had reduced him to such, driven by anger, he would not bother to let us meet him in this deserted land.  Put no faith in what he says.  Perhaps Akhshunwār and his men have already visited the place that this man has shown us, and have deployed plenty of soldiers there.”

But Firuz was not of the same opinion, and he continued to walk in the company of this man for the two days but without arriving at the place indicated.  Firuz asked him for an explanation, and [the man] replied: “I calculated the path wrongly, but today will end it.”  When they had also walked all that day, asking all the time how much further they had to go, the man kept saying they were going to get there, and that he was not misleading them.  When they realized that they were out of all the food and water they had, and that they were in a place where they could not go back, he told them the truth.  Then the advisers of Firuz said: “We told the truth, O king, but you would not accept our advice.  Now we must just continue, in the hope of finding water.”  So they carried on, dividing themselves to right and left, in search of water.  Most of them died of thirst.

Firuz and a small number of brave warriors survived, who went with him until they reached their enemies, who met them that night, in the condition that they were in, and parlayed.  Then Firuz asked Akhshunwār to grant him and the men that were left to return to their countries, and to enter into a covenant with him, in which they promised not to make war again for the rest of his life, establishing between him and his kingdom a border that neither would ever pass.  Akhshunwār agreed.  Firuz placed this in writing, making himself guarantor, and swore that it never would be broken, and returned to his own kingdom.

Time passed.  Then Firuz remembered what had passed between him and Akhshunwār, and he felt annoyed and was afraid that there might be less loyalty [towards himself].  This motivated him to attack him again.  But his servants said to him: “You have entered into a covenant with him and we are afraid of the consequences of  the betrayal and injustice that you mean to perpetrate.”  But Firuz said to them: “I simply agreed with him that I would not pass the [border] stone. Well, I will take this stone with me on the cart in front of me, and never go beyond it.”  But they answered: “The deal is not based on your interpretation, but on what was clearly understood.”  Firuz paid no attention to their words and left to invade [the territory] of Akhshunwār.  Hearing of this, Akhshunwār was extremely surprised, and had no doubt about the treachery.  So he wrote to Firuz, reminding him what was assumed under the agreement entered into by him, and asking him to leave him alone.  But Firuz ignored his words and continued on his way, until he came near to the territory of the Hayātilah.  Akhshunwār had dug a ditch between his country and that of Firuz.  Firuz ordered bridges to be built, so he could pass over, and flags to be hoisted on them that serve as signals in case of retreat.  When the soldiers were deployed for combat, Akhshunwār sent word to Firuz to go outside with him, in the middle of the two sides, because he wanted to talk to him.  Akhshunwār met him and told him: ‘For my part, I believe that nothing has pushed to the point where you are but shame at your defeat.  But, on my life, if you had been cheated as you think, we would certainly have demanded more than that.  Yet the violation of the pact should be more shameful for you than that.  Think of this, and distinguish between these two things, pondering which one is good for you because of shame: to say “He ordered them to achieve something but it was not realized and his enemy had the better of him and those who were with him, but he was generous with them and sent them away free, on conditions”, or that they say “He broke the pact and the agreement, returned a favor with an insult”? Your men will know that you have involved them in a unjust business, even although you’re not sure to win, and are trying to do something which others may do to you.  If you win, you will not have a good reputation, nor will what is done will be worthy of praise.  And if you lose, you will cover yourself and your soldiers with infamy. Be careful, then! I warned you!  Telling you the words that you hear is not because of some weakness or fear for myself or my soldiers, but I want to say all these words to persuade, and not to save myself in some way.”

8. Firuz replied: “I am not one of those who, intimidated by menaces, allow themselves to be diverted from exactly the business that the intimidation is intended to counteract.  If I had thought that I was intending to do something as a piece of disloyalty on my part, no one else would feel more shame than me.  But I only signed the pact with you because of what I concealed within me.  Do not be deceived by the inferiority and weakness in which we met the first time. Know that I will not leave you alone until I have got back what you got from me.”

Akhshunwār replied: “Don’t bother with the error with which you try to deceive yourself, carrying the boundary-stone in front of you.  The terms and clauses of an agreement are according to words openly spoken, and not according to what they may be made to mean.  And the worst condition is the violation of the terms and provisions of an agreement.”

But Firuz ignored his words and so passed that day. Firuz said to his men: “Akhshunwār gave proof of a brilliant conversation, and I have never seen a mount like the horse he rode.  In fact, it never moved its feet, nor raised its hooves from their position, or done anything to speak of for the entire time we faced each other.”

And Akhshunwār told his men: “Finding myself at the front, I saw, and you’ve seen too, a Firuz all covered with arms.  He never moved on his horse, never removed his foot from the stirrup, nor did he ever bend, or turn right or left, as I often supported myself on the one or the other hip, I bent over my horse, I have looked back and forward with my eyes, as he stood erect and motionless. “

Both Firuz and Akhshunwār resorted to these descriptions because they spread their words among the soldiers, and thus diverted them from inquiring about what they discussed.

When they awoke, Akhshunwār pulled out the sheet on which Firuz had put [the agreement] in writing, and had it raised on a spear, so that the soldiers could see it.  Akhshunwār proclaimed victory over Firuz.

Firuz was defeated, and while fleeing started down a different path from the one with banners on the bridges to show him the way back; he took refuge in the ditch, in to which his men fell one after another.  Akhshunwār took everything that was with Firuz and his sons, and distributed the property among his soldiers. Then Akhshunwār said the advisors of Firuz: “Why didn’t you advise him and avoid this?”  They answered, “We did, but he would not listen.”

In Sigistān a member of the family of Azdashīr called Sūkhrān was in command. He was a Persian nobleman and had with him a number of generals as his subordinates.  When he heard the news of what had happened to Firuz, he moved at once with his men to the territory of the Hayātilah, where he soon gathered up the soldiers of Firuz. His power became great and strong.  When he was in sight of the army of Akhshunwār, he sent him a message:  “I did not come to fight you, but only so that you can return the property of Firuz, which you have, and release the prisoners that you have with you.  Let this be the basis for peace among ourselves and for our part we will abstain from any belligerent actions towards you.  If you agree, we will do the same, and we will withdraw; if you refuse then I fear that you will regret it.” Akhshunwār agreed to what Sūkhrān asked, freed their captives, returned their possessions, and departed, so that all ended with his and their satisfaction.  Then Sūkhrān retired to Ctesiphon.  The people of Persia remembered what he had done for them and they were grateful.

  1. [1]Pirone: ‘In another text he says, “Amputate my [hands and feet]”, which is undoubtedly more accurate.

2 thoughts on “The Annals of Eutychius of Alexandria (10th c. AD) – chapter 16 (part 2)

  1. Keep up the good work, Roger. I read your episodes of Eutychius with great interest. This one was particularly interesting. The Nestorian patriarch Mar Aba I established a diocese for the Hephthalite Huns around 550, so it’s intriguing to read about how they were seen only a few decades earlier. Incidentally, talking of Mar Aba I, he is one of the few Nestorian patriarchs in the Sasanian period who actually visited most of the Persian provinces where the Church of the East had dioceses. Most of them preferred to stay at court in Seleucia-Ctesiphon, intriguing with the shah’s Christian physicians against potential rivals …

  2. Thank you very much for the encouragement – I do wonder sometimes if anyone is reading, but it does seem like a useful task still.

    I had not known that Mar Aba did that, or I had forgotten. I certainly didn’t know that he was one of the few to venture away from the court. But of course it was dangerous to do so, with so much intrigue going on.

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