According to sigillographic evidence. The Sasanian title sphbed denoted a high military rank and meant 'chief of an army, general', cf. New Pers. sephbad, Arm. loanword (a)sparapet, Chr. Sogd. sp'dpt, Khot. spta etc., all from Old Iranian *spda- 'army' and *pati- 'chief'. This entry considers recently discovered sigillographic evidence on the title and its bearers in late Sasanian Iran.

Until recently third century inscriptions were the only Sasanian primary sources that attested the title of sphbed. From the trilingual inscription of Shapur I (r. 240-72) on the walls of the "Ka'ba-ye Zardot," we learn that a sphbed by the name of Rax lived at the court of Ardair I (224-240). The same name paired with the same title appears twice in the inscription of Narseh (r. 293-303) at Paikuli. The chronological gap between the two individuals indicates homonymy rather than identity. In his reference work on the Sasanian Empire (L'Iran sous les Sassanides), Arthur Christensen essentially used information drawn from secondary sources, which he attempted to harmonize despite their frequently contradictory and often ambiguous character. Later studies of the subject of the Sasanian sphbed have rarely produced more coherent results because they rely on the same type of sources from which it is impossible to draw an accurate picture. The main emphasis of our literary sources is their attribution to Khosrow I (r. 531-79) of a military reform coupled with a change in its supreme command, although it is possible that the reform had already been planned by his father Kawd I during his second reign (499-531).

With the discovery of a dozen seals in the form of clay impressions (bullae), there now exists a primary source that provides first-hand information and makes it possible, at least to some extent, to examine the accuracy of what is transmitted in literary sources about the sphbed. This improvement pertains only to the sixth century, however, because the sphbed seals belong to this period and, more specifically, to the reign of Khosrow I (531-579) and Hormozd IV (579-590). No new information has come to light regarding the sphbed between the third century and the beginning of the sixth, and the same holds true for the period after Hormozd IV (579-590). Since the information provided by these sphbed seals is, at first glance, absent from literary sources, a rereading of the latter is necessary for a reinterpretation of some passages.

Among the most remarkable aspects of the early sixth century military reform, our literary sources mention the abolition of a single command of the army and its replacement by four generals, each in charge of a kust, that is, a region corresponding to a cardinal point, best translated as 'side' (see Gyselen 2001, pp. 13-14). This quadripartition of military power is now confirmed by the seal inscriptions, which name the following officials: kust xwarsn sphbed 'Military chief of the side of the east', (for other possible readings and interpretations see Gyselen 2001), kust nmrz sphbed 'Military chief of the side of the south', kust xwarbrn sphbed 'Military chief of the side of the west,' and kust durbdagn sphbed 'Military chief of the side of the north' (the term abxtar 'north' was generally avoided because of its negative connotation, the north being considered the territory of demons).

The twelve sphbed seals now known can be dated on the basis of the regular presence of the honorific title hujadag 'well-omened' followed by the name of Khosrow or Hormozd. That the title of hujadag-Khosrow refers to Khosrow I and not Khosrow II (r. 590-628) is confirmed by the legends on the seals. In two cases we know a single sphbed by two different seals, one giving him the epithet 'well-omened (is) Khosrow', the other 'well-omened (is) Hormozd'. In both cases the sphbed with the epithet 'well-omened (is) Hormozd' bears more titles than the sphbed with the epithet 'well omened (is) Khosrow. Therefore the Khosrow evoked in the latter formula necessarily antedates Hormozd and consequently can only be Khosrow I. Thus far the following sphbed s are known from their seals:

  1. For kust xwarsn: ihr-Burzn under Khosrow I, and Dd-Burzn-Mihr under Hormozd IV.

  2. For kust nmrz: Wh-hbur and Prag under Khosrow I. A certain Wahrm held the same title under both Khosrow I and Hormozd IV.

  3. For kust xwarrn: Wistaxm under both kings.

  4. For kust durbdagn: Gulgn (?) and d- (?) under Khosrow I and a sphbed whose name is not legible under Hormozd IV.

In addition to the epithets hujadag-Khosrow or hujadag-Hormozd, all these sphbeds also bear the title wuzurg 'Grandee', always written in the form of the ideogram LBA. From Narseh's Paikuli inscription, we know that wuzurg represents the highest rank of nobility, appearing immediately below royal princes. There is a tendency to assume that this rank was acquired ipso facto by birth, but the statement of Kirdr, the powerful third century religious leader, that the great king conferred on him this same title shows that it could also have been obtained by royal decree. The question arises therefore, whether the sphbeds were regularly chosen from the great nobility, or received the rank of wuzurg after achieving prominence, as did Kirdr. Whatever may be the case, several literary sources suggest that certain grand generals were related to the royal family or were members of the magnate houses. Thus, under the Arsacids, several generals came from the Srn[-Pahlav] and Kren [-Pahlav] families, and during the Sasanian period it was mostly the Srn[-Pahlav] who held the rank of general. In contrast, on the sphbed seals only the Mihrn family is mentioned: Gulgn (?) and d- (?), the two sphbeds of the side of the north and Pirag, the sphbed of the side of the south are specified as Mihrns.

Besides the three titles 'Well-omened (is) Khosrow/Hormozd', 'Grandee' and 'sphbed of a specific side of rn,' all the sphbed seals carry at least one more title. Some of these titles are attested elsewhere but never in association with the function of the sphbed. The presence of so many titles is thought provoking. Did these titles correspond to an actual function or were they purely honorific or both? In other words, was the title kept for life after having performed a function? The successive titles on the seals could be seen as reflections of a career, somewhat in the image of what we read in the inscriptions of Kirdr, who under each new sovereign received increasingly more prestigious titles. At any rate, each sphbed mentions on his seal at least one additional title, thereby enabling us to trace him in literary sources. However, a comparison of sigillographic and literary sources reveals the frequent inexactitude of the latter in which numerous errors have crept due not only to mistaken interpretations of titles for family names or family names for titles but also to wrong chronological attributions. In any event, among the sphbeds attested by their seals at least two are mentioned in literary sources: Wistahm the hazrbed sphbed of the side of the west and Prag the of the side of the south from the Mihrn family. The ninth-century Muslim historian Dinavari mentions them in a list of dignitaries who after the death of Yazdgerd I (r. 399-420) opposed the succession of his son. Dinavari (ed. 'mer and ayyl, p. 55) explicitly refers to "Bestm [Wistahm] the sphbed of Sawd, whose rank was the hazruft [hazrbed]". Here Sawd is a region that most probably corresponds to the side of the west. While a case of homonymy cannot be ruled out, it seems more likely that the Wistahm of our seal is the same person who, through hazards of literary transmission, reappears at the time of Yazdgerd I. If the institution of the four sphbeds dates from the sixth century, then Dinavari's text implies an anachronism.

The title of hazrbed was borne by certain individuals mentioned in third-century inscriptions, but then they are never identified as sphbeds. Although Dinavari does not specify that Prag was the sphbed of the south, he remarks (ibid.) that "his rank was Mihrn" which is also strongly echoed on Prag's seal. In fact, we have two successive instances of Prag's seal: on one the inscription is analogous to the other sphbed seals, on the other the name Mihrn has been added at the end of the inscription instead of appearing immediately after the proper name of the sphbed. That these two sphbeds known from their seals as those of the west and the south respectively, are also named in Dinavari's list, admittedly one of them without the title of sphbed, could suggest that other individuals from the same list, for example Yazd-Gonasp or Gonasp-durw, were also sphbeds. Judging by the seals, the sphbed always had one or more additional titles. This must have contributed to the apparent confusion in the literary sources, which often transmit one title only or confuse the titles. This is particularly the case in the title of 'boar of the empire' borne by Prag, sphbed of the side of the south. This same title appears in literary sources, but there it often becomes a proper name.

The term which in this case can only mean 'country, empire' and not a 'provincial district', also appears in some sphbed's titles. Thus, Sd- (?), sphbed of the side of durbdagn under Khosrow I is ; and Wahrm, sphbed of the side of the south, had the title engraved on his seal during the reign of Hormozd IV. Wahrm could have received this additional title from Hormozd IV because he does not carry it under Khosrow I. Unless the title is purely honorific, it would be surprising that a general of a part of the empire could also assume a "national" duty. If that is the case, this would constitute yet another reason for the many errors in literary transmissions. Titles composed with do not appear in third-century inscriptions although they do mention aspbed and hazruft. As two aspbeds and hazrufts are never mentioned in the same list, we can assume that their function applied to the whole of the empire, and that there was no need to emphasizing it through the addition of . Only Kirdr insists on the fact that he is hmahr mogbed ud ddwar 'mogbed and judge of the entire empire'. Once the quadripartition of the empire with respect to military authority was in place, it was understandable that an official appointed as the aspbed or a hazruft for the entire empire should want to make an explicit reference to it by adding the term ahr-.

All the same, certain titles do not refer to a "national" status as and . Rather, they have a "regional" character. That is the case in the titles of aspbed prsg 'Persian aspbed (chief of the cavalry?)' carried by Weh-pur sphbed of the side of the south and aspbed pahlaw 'Parthian aspbed' carried by Dd-Burz-Mihr sphbed of the side of the east.

Other titles do not refer directly to a military function. For instance, Wahrm sphbed of the side of the south bears the additional titles of nwnbed 'chief of the brave' and 'eunuch'. It seems to me that Wurzurgmihr, the "minister" of Khosrow I bore the same title (Aydgr Wuzurgmihr) as did Mhn on his seal (Gignoux 1991, p. 201 who translates 'matre d'htel et eunuque') and the Bpr-marzbn attested in the Eqlid inscription (different transliteration by Gropp 1969, p. 241; and divergent interpretation of nwn[bed] by Shaked, 1975, pp. 224-25).

Literary sources often give an unclear image of the relationship between sphbed and marzbn 'guardian of the borders'. For example, Mas'udi designates ahrwarz as marzbn of the western quarter (II, p. 226, 233). As for the marzbn, primary sources demonstrate that it is a provincial function perhaps practiced at the level of a single province (cf. the Bpr-marzbn of the Eqlid inscription: Gropp 1969) or of a conglomerate of provinces (cf. seal of the Asristn-marzbn: Lerner and Skjrv 1997), but there exists no direct evidence of a marzbn of a quarter of the empire. Certain literary sources put the sphbed, the marzbn, and the pygsbn 'guardian of the district' on equal footing, or at least they insert the latter two in the same quadripartition of the empire east, south, west, and north parallel to the sphbeds. Until now no primary source has confirmed this supposition, and the secondary sources are so unclear with regard to the exact relationship between the ahrab, the marzbn, and the pygsbn that they do not lead to any clear conclusions.

The institution of the four sphbeds was perpetuated after Hormozd IV, but we rarely find explicit mention of a sphbed's territory. However, there is the famous case of the general of Khosrow II, ahrwarz, who could have been the sphbed of the side of the west, and Nmdr-Gonasp, the sphbed of the south (during the reign of Ardair III), who helped ahrwarz to seize the throne. Sometimes it is possible to deduce from the literary context a sphbed's territory. For example, it would seem that Farrox-Hormozd (under zarmgduxt), as well as his son Rostam were sphbeds of the north. The sphbed of Tabaristan who gave refuge to Yazdgerd III could well have been the sphbed of the east. After the fall of the Sasanian Empire the title of sphbed (or espahbed) of Tabaristan survived in the coinage of the local dynasties.

Many post-Sasanian literary sources refer to the supreme sphbed as sphbedn sphbed 'general of generals' or rn-sphbed. The title 'sphbed of a side of the empire' appears only in a few literary sources (Bundahin, Sr Saxwan), always in a truncated form, without the term kust, which reveals their post-Sasanian composition and suggests a progressive loss of historical information in such types of texts.

Sigillographic sources do not refer to the role of the sphbed as diplomat and peace negotiator, as is often suggested by literary sources. On the other hand, they provide a material image of the sphbed: a horseman, his body and mount fully protected by iron-plated scale-armor and a coat of mail, equipped with a long lance and a sword. The seal of Wahrm son of durmh provides a good example. Its three-line Pahlavi inscription reads:

1. wlhl'n ZY n'mhw[']st hwslwdy 'twlm'h'm [W nyw]'npt W 'pstn W hwyt

2. n(sic)hwslwdy LBA 'yl'n 't kwst ZY nymlwc


This is transliterated as: wahrn nmxw[]st xusraw durmhn ud nwnbed ud bestan ud huada[g]-xusraw wuzurg rn{t}kust nmrz sphbed. Translation: "Bahrm, who has acquired the name Khosrow, son of durmh, chief of the brave and eunuch and (having the honorary title) 'well-omened (is) Khosrow,' grandee, rn-sphbed of the side of the south".



  • H. von Gall, Das Reiterkampfbild in der iranischen und iranisch beeinflussten Kunst Parthischer und Sasanidischer Zeit, [Teheraner Forschungen VI] Berlin, 1990, pp. 61-88. 

  • Philippe Gignoux, "D'Abnn a Mhn. tude de deux inscriptions sassanides," Studia Iranica 20, 1991, pp. 9-22. Idem, "L'organisation administrative sasanide: le cas du marzbn," Jerusalem Studies in Arabic and Islam, 4, 1984, pp. 1-29. 

  • Gherardo Gnoli, "The Quadripartition of the Sassanian Empire," East and West 35, 1985, pp. 265-70. 

  • G. Gropp, "Einige neuentdeckte Inschriften aus sasanidischer Zeit," in : W. Hinz, Altiranische Funde und Forschungen, Berlin, 1969, pp. 229-262. 

  • Rika Gyselen, The Four Generals of the Sasanian Empire: Some Sigillographic Evidence, Conferenze 14, Rome, 2001. Idem, "Lorsque l'archeologie rencontre la tradition litteraire: les titres des chefs d'armee de l'Iran sassanide," Comptes rendus de l'Academie des Inscriptions et Belles Lettres, Paris, 2001, pp. 447-59. Idem, "La designation territoriale des quatre sphbed de l'empire sassanide d'apres les sources primaires sigillographiques," Stud. Ir. 30, 2001, pp. 137-41. 

  • E. Khurshudian, Die parthischen und sasanidischen Verwaltungsinstitutionen. 3 Jh. v. Chr. - 7. Jh. n. Chr., Yerevan, 1998, esp. pp. 147-58. 

  • J. A. Lerner & P. O. Skjrv, "Some Uses of Clay Bullae in Sasanian Iran: Bullae in the Rosen and Museum of Fine Arts Collections," in R. Gyselen, ed., Sceaux d'Orient et leur emploi, Res Orientales X, Bures-sur-Yvette, 1997, pp. 67-87. P. Huyse, Die dreisprachige Inschrift buhrs I. an der Ka'ba-i Zardut (KZ) [Corpus Inscr. Iran. pt III. Pahlavi Inscriptions, vol. I, texts 1], 2 vols, London, 1999, esp. I, par. 42, and II, pp. 138-39. 

  • D. N. MacKenzie, "Kerdir's Inscription (synoptic text in transliteration, transcription, translation and commentary)," Iranische Denkmler 13, Berlin, 1989, pp. 35-72. 

  • B. Overlaet, "Organisation militaire et armement," in Splendeur des Sassanides, Bruxelles, 1993, pp. 89-94. 

  • P.O. Skjrv, The Sassanian Inscription of Paikuli III/1-2, Wiesbaden, 1983, esp. pt 2, pp. 38-9. 

  • S. Shaked, "Some Legal and Administrative Terms of the Sasanian Period," Monumentum H.S. Nyberg II (Acta Iranica 5), Leiden, Teheran-Liege, 1975, pp. 213-25.




Source/Extracted From: Encyclopaedia Iranica


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