King Kavadh I (or Kawād) became the ruler of Sāsānian Persia in 488. He came to power at a time when the Sāsānian ruling family was under threat from both external armies and internal factions—Kavadh’s father, King Fīrūz, had been killed in battle around 484, and Kavadh’s uncle, King Balāsh, was deposed in a coup that took place in 488. The conspirators who overthrew Balāsh put young Kavadh on the throne and dominated him for nearly a decade. Around 496, however, Kavadh I began to assert his own power at the expense of his rivals. Yet, when the enemies of Kavadh within the Sāsānian Empire began to resist his attempts to impose crown authority, the king quickly realized he did not have nearly enough strength to enforce his will. Unfortunately, a coup was launched against Kavadh in 496, and he was deposed, arrested and imprisoned.
Kavadh I was reportedly locked away in the so-called Prison of Oblivion, and his brother Jāmāsp was placed on the throne in his stead. Although deposed and replaced, Kavadh was not forgotten, and he still had some supporters on the outside. Sometime between 496 and 498, Kavadh’s supporters managed to break him out of prison, allowing him to flee to the Hephthalites, a powerful rival of Sāsānian Persia. The 6th-century historian, Procopius, claimed to have come across several differing Persian accounts of this event, and apparently summarized the common elements of the tales in the first book of his History of the Wars. In doing so, Procopius preserved an interesting folkloric account of Kavadh’s escape, which involved an adventure filled with seduction, stealth, and even cross-dressing.
As the story goes, Kavadh was married to a devoted wife at the time that he was sent to prison. Whereas Kavadh, himself, was securely locked away, his wife apparently was left to roam free. As she did not seem to have anyone surveilling her, Kavadh’s dutiful (and unfortunately unnamed) wife formed a network with her husband’s allies to plot Kavadh’s escape.
Step one was to obtain access to Kavadh. In order to achieve this goal, Kavadh’s wife regularly went to the Prison of Oblivion, using all of her charm and seductiveness to earn the confidence of the prison warden. She started slowly, at first simply showing up to drop off food for her imprisoned husband to eat, and, while there, she would engage the warden in friendly conversation. Yet, soon, she became more flirtatious with the official, all the while plying him for more access to the secure sections of the prison. Eventually, after she and the prison warden had become quite close, the devoted wife was given freedom to come and go from Kavadh’s cell whenever she pleased. She made these trips to see her husband with such consistency that it became routine for the prison warden and guards, and they paid very little attention to her as she left from Kavadh’s cell and departed from the prison each visit.
On one particular day, however, the prison warden noticed a break in the routine—the wife of Kavadh abruptly stopped coming to visit. The previous day, she had arrived at the usual time, wearing her usual garb, doing her usual routine. She had been let in to see her husband, and after they had done their thing in privacy, the femininely-clad figure had left the cell and exited the prison; a normal end to a normal day. Now, however, the wife oddly did not come to visit the prison. Eventually, the concerned guards went to see their prized prisoner, perhaps to ask if the deposed king had any news about his absent wife. To the guards’ relief, they found the cell still inhabited, and they could see a figure inside wearing the clothing of a prisoner. Yet, something seemed off about the person in the cell and they decided to take a closer look. To their horror, the person in the cell was not Kavadh, but his wife.
Procopius wrote that he had no further information on the fate of Kavadh’s wife, saying “As to the fate which befell the woman after the stratagem had come to light, and the manner in which they punished her, I am unable to speak with accuracy” (The Wars, book 1, section 6). Procopius did, however, have more information about what Kavadh did after he was visited by his wife for the last time. As the story goes, the deposed king and his wife traded clothing, finally launching an escape plan that had been long in the making. After dressing up like a woman, the king began to sneak out of the prison, while his wife stayed behind to play the part of the prisoner. As usual, the guards of the prison paid little attention to the person leaving from Kavadh’s cell, allowing the fugitive king to successfully walk out of the prison. In addition to clothing, Kavadh’s wife had also given her husband a message from his supporters, which told him where to go to find horses and loyal warriors. As the story goes, Khavad traveled to that spot, and with those horses and troops, he successfully fled to the Hephthalites. Additionally, as his wife had conveniently sacrificed herself, Kavadh arranged for himself to marry a daughter of the Hephthalite king, a political move which gave Kavadh enough military support to reclaim the Sāssānian Empire by force in 498 or 499. He would continue to rule the empire until his death in 531.
Written by C. Keith Hansley
Picture Attribution: (Gold coin issued by Kavadh I, photographed by the Classical Numismatic Group, and published via Creative Commons and OTRS).
- The History of the Wars by Procopius, translated by H. B. Dewing (Harvard University Press, originally published 1914).