History is littered with instances of power being thrust upon children of a young age. Ivan the Terrible became Grand Prince of Moscow aged 3; Puyi, the last emperor of China, ascended at just 2 years and 10 months, while Mary, Queen of Scots came to the throne at just 6 days old.
Such infantile succession was not alien to the ancients either. Gordian III might be considered to be the youngest sole Roman emperor at just 13, but there were numerous co-emperors of much younger ages. Emperors like Caracalla (10), Diadumenian (9), Philip II (7), Constantine II (1), Constantius II (7), Valentinian II (4), Arcadius (6), Honorius (9), Valentinian III (4), Theodosius II (9 months), Leo II (6-7), Constans II (11) and Tiberius (1) were invested with some form of imperial position before entering adolescent.
And it was not just somewhat lesser known Roman emperors who sat upon the imperial throne at a young age. The most famous Egyptian pharaoh, Tutankhamun, was a boy of 8-9 years when he succeeded his father, while Alexander the Great’s son, Alexander IV, was viewed by some of the Macedonian army to have become king immediately upon his birth, because his father had died two months prior and his half-uncle, Philip III Arrhidaeus, was considered by some to be unfit due to learning difficulties.
However, this immediate post-natal ‘coronation’ is reputedly not the earliest in the ancient historical record… But how can you have a coronation before you are born?
The scene of such a peculiar occurrence was the royal court of the Sassanid rulers of Ancient Persia and the backdrop was the increasing dissension caused by short-lived reigns and the jostling for power of the nobility and priesthood in the first years of the fourth century CE.
Romano-Persian conflict in the third century had been punctuated with numerous deep penetrations of enemy territory with major cities like Antioch and the Persian capital Ctesiphon falling to the invader on more than one occasion. The culmination of that back-and-forth warfare had been the battles between the Roman Tetrarch, Galerius, and the Sassanid king Narseh. The latter won a victory at Carrhae in 296/297, gaining a significant foothold in Armenia, only for Galerius to achieve much more decisive victories at Satala and Ctesiphon in 298. The subsequent Peace of Nisibis in 299 was decidedly pro-Roman and the fall out of this defeat may have led in some way to Narseh’s eventual death in 303.
Narseh was succeeded by his son Hormizd II, about whose reign the record is a little sketchy. There are events about which we are informed, a persecution of Manichaeans and diplomatic overtures to Armenia, which seem believable, but then there is the claim that he led an invasion of Roman territory, without suffering any repercussions. The two works to mention the attack, the Chronicle of Arbela and the Chronicle of Seert, are both doubted. Perhaps this ‘attack on Roman territory’ reflects Hormizd’s assault on the Ghassanid Arabs in 309, who lived in and around the Syrian desert.
This attack on the Ghassanids cost not only the Arab leader his life, but also Hormizd his, reputedly when Arab raiders ambushed him while he was out hunting. However, subsequent events might see the death of Hormizd as due to elements within the Persian nobility, with them perhaps wary that his defeat of the Ghassanids made him less easy to exploit. Noble members of his entourage would certainly have known where and when the king would be at his most vulnerable… He could even have been killed by Lakhmid Arabs allied to the Persians.
Whatever the circumstances of Hormizd II’s death, the succession should have been secure as he had at least seven sons: Adhur-Narseh, Adurfrazgird, Zamasp, Shapur Sakanshah, Hormizd, Ardashir and Shapur. Indeed, he seems to have been immediately succeeded by the eldest, Adhur-Narseh (although Schindel in Potts (2013) suggests that due to the lack of coins and information from non-Roman sources it may be that Adhur-Narseh never actually ascended the Sassanid throne).
Within months though, Adhur-Narseh was dead, murdered by an alliance of nobles and priests on a charge of cruelty. That Adhur-Narseh managed to get two traditional opponents – the nobility and the priesthood – to join together could suggest the extent of his cruelty. However, it is just as likely that Adhur-Narseh merely attempted to impose his will on the nobles and priests as any new king might have but was not strong enough to back it up, leading to his elimination. Adhur-Narseh was then painted as a tyrant by the sources the nobility will have been responsible for compiling and editing.
Other sons of Hormizd II were soon targeted. An unnamed brother of Adhur-Narseh was blinded, while another, Hormisdas, was imprisoned, although he would later escape and flee to Constantinople. So firmly had the nobles established their control over the succession that it seems that they were able to exclude other members of the Sassanid dynasty as well – Adurfrazgird, Zamasp, Shapur Sakanshah and Ardashir II (it would seem to be one of this first three that was blinded, but then all are listed as serving as governors under Shapur II, which would seem unlikely for someone who had been blinded, suggesting that there was at least one other son of Hormizd II).
Their eventual choice was proven a good one as Shapur II was to go down as one of the best Sassanid kings, providing a long period of stability and success; however, there was one small problem. When he was reputedly proclaimed ‘King of Kings’ in 309, Shapur II was not yet a man. He was not yet even a boy. He had not even been born yet! In what would have been a bizarre scene, a crown was reputedly placed upon the belly of his mother, Ifra Hormizd, leading to the suggestion that Shapur was the only king in history to be crowned in utero.
Unsurprisingly, such a sensational story has attracted scepticism. First and foremost, would the Persian nobles and priests really have risked the child in Ifra Hormizd’s womb being female? The Sassanid dynasty would resort to a female ‘King of Kings,’ but only in the desperate last decades of its existence (Boran (629-630, 631-632) and Azarmidokht (630-631)). It is unlikely that the nobles would bet the succession on the sex of an unborn child, particularly when there were other Sassanid princes for them to choose.
The existence of those other Sassanid princes also raises questions about this reputed in utero coronation. While it is possible that the Persian nobility intentionally overlooked all the other Sassanid princes and chose to back the unborn or very young Shapur II in the hope of imposing their rule on him, the chances are that some of these Sassanid princes were of a relatively young age as well. For example, Ardashir would eventually succeed Shapur II as ‘King of Kings’ in 379, suggesting that he was of a similar age as the chances are that he would not be approaching his 80s by the time he died in 383.
Could it even be that Ardashir was younger than Shapur? This would seem to be impossible for how could Hormizd II have had another son after Shapur II, who was supposedly born after his murder, particularly when there is no hint that Shapur and Ardashir were twins?
The Persian royal practice of keeping a harem provides one such possible explanation, with Ardashir (and maybe other sons of Hormizd II) being born to a concubine, and therefore being a half-brother of Shapur II. Another solution, aside from Ardashir being slightly older than Shapur, is that the very idea of Shapur being born posthumously and/or the youngest of Hormizd’s sons is incorrect.
If this legend of Shapur II being crowned in utero is just that: a legend and not fact, and the chances are that it is, then why did it appear? There is little doubt that Shapur was very young at the time of his coronation, with the nobility and priesthood indeed choosing an infant so they could impose their control over the Sassanid state. If he had been born after his father’s murder, that would have played into any narrative that Shapur had been born to rule, especially if his coronation had taken place really early in his life. There could even have been some hint that the nobles and priests had reserved the throne for the unborn child of Hormizd II, dependent on it being male, in a similar manner to how the Macedonian army had done for Alexander IV in 323BC.
The likely false legend of Shapur II’s pre-natal coronation could also reflect the actual legend of his life, as he would be remembered as one of the most successful Sassanid Persian ‘King of Kings,’ making it seem as though he had been almost literally ‘born to rule.’
While his exact age cannot be known for certain, Shapur was definitely a minor upon his coronation. The regency of the nobles and priests seems to have been rather secure during his minority (meaning that early fourth century Persia was more stable than the series of short-lived kings and factional in-fighting might otherwise suggest), which perhaps made the young ‘King of Kings’ more eager to make his mark once he came of age.
He did so in 325 with a series of vicious campaigns against various Arab tribes bordering on Sassanid territory. That this Arab campaign took place in 325 and was seemingly right around the time that Shapur’s minority ended at the age of 16 does suggest that Shapur was born in 309, backing the idea that he was a babe in arms when he was crowned.
This Arab campaign marked the beginning of a decades-long reign replete with military successes. In his dealings with the Romans, Shapur’s forces would take on those of Constantine I, Constantius II, Julian the Apostate and Valens, winning several notable victories such at the Siege of Amida in 359 and against Julian’s Persian Expedition in 363. The latter of these successes in particular gave the Persians the upper hand in Armenia, the Caucasus and Mesopotamia through the treaty with Jovian.
In the east, Shapur subdued the Kushans, taking control of large sections of what is now Afghanistan and Pakistan and then defended his north-eastern frontier from a massive invasion by the Chionities, resisting successfully enough to bring them into an alliance.
The last decade of his reign was a little more trying with the forces of Valens overturning sections of the settlement with Jovian, while his Bactrian province came under intense pressure from Kidarites, Hephthalites and Alchon Huns. Ultimately though, the loss of Bactria and limited reversals on his western frontier were offset by the territorial success and security Shapur II brought to the Sassanid state throughout his 70-year life and reign.
In this, he (and his regents) bucked the trend of minority rule and men born into imperial power in the period. Within the timeframe of Shapur II’s reign, the Roman Empire faced a number of instances of young men born into power but ultimately unsuited to ruling – you could list Constantine II, Constans, Gratian, Valentinian II, and virtually the entire male line of the Theodosian dynasty.
That in a way makes Shapur’s success all the more impressive. Whether he emerged from his mother’s womb already the ‘King of Kings’ or not, his breeding and education in the Persian court and his own natural talent saw him square up to skilled Roman emperors and massive tribal forces on the battlefield, while likely facing down the political influence of those who had been his regents and maintaining the internal stability of the Sassanid state. This minor had become a major ‘King of Kings.’
Crawford, P.T. Constantius II: Usurpers, Eunuchs and the Antichrist. Barnsley (2016)
Daryaee, T. Sasanian Persia: The Rise and Fall of an Empire. New York (2009)
Schindel, N. ‘Sasanian Coinage,’ in Potts, D.T. (ed.). The Oxford Handbook of Ancient Iran. Oxford (2013)