Relief Of Shapur I Triumphing Over Roman Emperors, 3rd-Century Carving At Naqsh-e Rostam

This public domain photograph (graciously uploaded by Ali Ganjei) shows a relief that can be found in Naqsh-e Rostam, Iran, where the carving is nestled between the tombs of great Achaemenid Dynasty kings of Persia. Although the scene was cut into the cliff walls of the Achaemenid necropolis, the figure depicted on the horse was actually not a member of that dynasty. Instead, the mounted man was from the much later Sassanian Dynasty, a family that wanted to liken their own line to the popular and powerful ancient Achaemenid kings. Therefore, the ruler depicted above—King Shapur I (r. 241-272)—had an image of himself carved among the tombs at Naqsh-e Rostam to boost his own renown and to encourage the link of his family to that of their ancient predecessors.

In the scene above, Shapur I, is shown receiving the surrender of two Roman military figures (and there might possibly have been an additional third figure that has eroded over time). The identities of these Romans can be discerned from ancient historians and from other monuments that the self-advertising king of Persia left behind for posterity.  In a stone inscription that he commissioned, known as the Res Gestae Divi Saporis, King Shapur I claimed responsibility for the downfalls of three Roman emperors: Gordian III (r. 238-244), Philip the Arabian (r. 244-249) and Valerian (r. 253-260). While Shapur gave himself too much credit for the deaths of Gordian (who died in a mutiny) and Philip (who was killed in a civil war), the Persian king’s victory over Emperor Valerian was indeed quite hands-on. Zosimus, a 6th-century historian from Constantinople, recounted the inglorious end to the reign of Valerian, who, after being summoned to peace negotiations by Shapur, “most imprudently consented, and going without consideration to Shapur with a small retinue, to treat for a peace, was presently laid hold of by the enemy, and so ended his days in the capacity of a slave among the Persians, to the disgrace of the Roman name in all future times” (New History, 1.36.2). This scene of the captured Valerian—possibly accompanied by the other emperors Shapur claimed to have bested—is what was carved into the walls of Naqsh-e Rostam.

Written by C. Keith Hansley



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