The Persian flood of a Roman desert city
Some city and region names continually reappear in history. One such place is Nisibis, modern-day Nusaybin, an arid city on the Turkish-Syrian border. In early history, Nisibis repeatedly changed hands from conqueror to conqueror. The Assyrians took Nisibis, followed by the Babylonians. Alexander the Great conquered the region and brought it into his empire in the 4th century BCE. After Alexander’s death, the Seleucid Empire continued the Hellenistic rule of Nisibis. The Seleucids lost Nisibis to Armenia and by the 1st century CE, Parthian Persians took the city. The Roman Empire, however, was also interested in Nisibis. During the 3rd Century, the Romans and the Sasanian Persians lost the city to each other multiple times, but the Romans controlled the region well into the beginning of the 4th century. This brings us to the clash between two emperors, Constantius II and Shapur II, over none other than the city of Nisibis.
When Constantine the Great died in 337, he left the Roman Empire to his three sons: Constantine II, Constans and Constantius II. They were meant to split the empire among themselves as a triumvirate of Augusti (Emperors), aided by their cousins and relatives, who would serve as Caesars (kings serving the emperors). Roman successions, however, never ran that smoothly—the triumvirate did not last.
Constantine II, Constans and Constantius II actually did coexist as Augusti of their respective realms for years. Other relatives and rivals, however, were quickly massacred by order of the brother emperors. Shortly after Constantius and his brothers took power, the Caesars Dalmatius, Hannibalianus and Julius Constantius were assassinated, ridding the brothers of potential threats to their thrones. The sons of Constantine assured that they were the only heirs of the Roman Empire by killing anyone else who could possibly press a claim for the throne.
Constantius II never attacked his brothers, but eventually became the sole Augustus of the Roman Empire. Constantine II was killed in an ambush in 340 and Constans died in 350 while battling a rebel. Without the help of his brothers in matters of imperial delegation, Constantius allowed two of his spared relatives to become Caesars. One of the Caesars was Julian, also known as Julian the Apostate, who will be mentioned again, later.
King of Kings Shapur II (c. 309-379)
While the Roman Empire was undergoing another predictable bout of political maneuverings, power struggles and revolts, an ambitious leader was on the rise in Sasanian Persia, bringing his people into the height of their power. His name was Shapur II and he was titled the King of Kings. He was a child king who emerged from a regency to take his throne at the age of 16, around 325.
Shapur’s dream was to expand the Sasanian Empire into the lands once held by the enormous Achaemenid Empire of ancient Persia. Over his lifetime, he competed with the Roman Empire for dominance in the Middle East. The toughest region Shapur II struggled with, however, was Nisibis.
The Sieges of Nisibis
Shapur II marched against the Roman Empire in either 337 or 338, during the bloody rise to power of Constantius II and his brothers. One of the cities that Shapur wanted to take was Nisibis. The Sasanian army set up camp outside the city and isolated Nisibis from resources and communication—beginning the first siege of Nisibis.
The Persians began the siege through normal means. They used siege engines in hopes to scale or break the wall, and they used tunnels and fire to attempt to weaken or crumble the enemy walls. After around 70 days without success, the army of Shapur II was understandably becoming restless. With their typical siege engines failing them, the Persians decided to use one of the most destructive forces on earth—water.
The Sasanian army used dams to channel the Mygdonius River to flow right up against the walls of Nisibis. The river’s power of erosion proved too much for the city, and a segment of the wall collapsed into the flooding water. The gap left by the demolished portion of wall gave Persia an access point into the city. The river was soon redirected away from the city and Shapur II’s army waited patiently for the water to leak out of the city and clear from the gap in the wall.
Inside the city, while the Persian army waited for the water to drain from the city, Bishop Jacob of Nisibis (later made a saint) was inspiring the defending soldiers and the general population, who were weary from the siege. He was able to rally the people of Nisibis into a frenzy of high morale and spirit, ready to put up a fight. Invigorated by Bishop Jacob’s inspirational coaching, the defenders of Nisibis were prepared when the Persians arrived at the walls.
Finally, with the water replaced by mud, the Persians were ready to attack. They rushed the gap, ready to push their way into the city. When they arrived at the wall, however, the people of Nisibis had created a makeshift fortification out of the debris left by the fallen stone. Nevertheless, the Persian army pressed against the rampart of rubble, but the defenders of Nisibis were able to repel the invaders. Seeing that the walls of the city were still holding, Shapur II withdrew his troops from the city, ending the 1st siege of Nisisbis.
Just short of a decade later, in 346, Shapur launched his 2nd siege of Nisibis. There is hardly any documentation of this siege—the only reliable information is the fact that the Roman Empire, once more, successfully defended the city. The Persians withdrew from the city and Shapur began planning for his most determined siege of Nisibis.
Shapur II initiated his 3rd siege of Nisibis in 350, the same year Constantius II became sole emperor of Rome after the death of his last remaining brother, Constans. This was the largest of Shapur’s siege attempts against the resilient city. For around four months, the Sasanian army sieged the city without any breakthrough. With nothing to lose, they decided to give the Mygdonius River another shot at washing the Romans from the city of Nisibis.
The Sasanian army of Shapur II set up their dams and channeled the power of the river, once more, at the city walls of Nisibis. This time around, the Persians did not wait for the waters to drain before launching their attack. Using boats and rafts, the Sasanian besiegers paddled their siege engines and soldiers to the walls of the city. Despite their determination, the outcome was the same. Just like the other two sieges, the attack failed. Despite being besieged for months and surrounded by water, the city of Nisibis was able to mount a successful defense against the Sasanian army for a third time.
The Fall of Nisibis and the Deaths of Emperors
Constantius II was able to keep Nisibis safe during the entirety of his life. From his birth in 317 to his death in 361, Nisibis remained in Roman hands. After the death of Constantius, however, Nisibis’ luck ran out.
Constantius ruled defensively. He was cautious in both military matters and politics. Though his reign was not as glamorous as some of his predecessors who conquered new territories for the Roman Empire, his defensive posture helped the Roman Empire deflect most of the immense threats posed by Shapur II. Upon Constantius’ death, however, a new emperor took power—Constantius’ Caesar, Julian.
Julian the Apostate hungered for the days of Julius Caesar and Augustus. He abandoned Christianity for the traditional gods of the Roman Empire. He especially embraced the Mysteries of Mithras. Julian abandoned Constantius’ cautious military policy just as he had abandoned Christianity. Julian preferred offense to Constantius’ policy of defense. Seeking glory in war, Julian quickly took the fight to the Sasanian Persians, which led to his own demise. He died battling the Sasanians in 363.
The next emperor, Jovian, made a peace with the Sasanians which relinquished territory, including Nisibis, to Persia. After nearly half a century of successfully defending against Shapur II’s sieges, Nisibis was finally defeated by diplomacy, without a single sword being raised.
Despite Shapur II’s no doubt infuriating ordeal of consistently failing his sieges against Nisibis, Shapur II was an immensely successful ruler of Sasanian Persia. By the time of his death in 379, he had succeeded in conquering large swaths of Armenia and Mesopotamia, bringing his people a step closer to rebuilding the old Achaemenid Empire of Persia. After Nisibis was transferred to the Sasanians following the death of Julian, the resilient city would soon become a hub of Persian activity against Rome.
Written by C. Keith Hansley
- Michael J. Decker. The Byzantine Art of War. Pennsylvania: Westholme Publishing, 2013.
- Robert Louis Wilken. The Christians as the Romans Saw Them (Second Edition). New Haven: Yale University Press, 2003.