When Emperor Heraclius seized control of Constantinople and its empire in 610, he inherited his realm’s war with the Persian ruler, Khosrow II, which had been raging since 602. Up to the ascendance of Heraclius, Khosrow II and his Sāsānian Persian military had been fighting well against the armies of Constantinople. Persian momentum in the war continued for the first decade of Heraclius’ reign, as the fledgling emperor was at that time focused on solidifying his control in Constantinople and also dealing with more immediate threats from Avar incursions near the capital city. Yet, around 622, the emperor decisively shifted to an offensive stance in his war against Persia, and in the following years of warfare he brought the Persian court to its knees. Heraclius inflicted successive defeats on Persian armies and began to force Khosrow II to withdraw further and further into the heartland of the Persian Empire. By 628, Emperor Heraclius had chased Khosrow II all the way to the Persian capital of Ctesiphon and the nearby major royal palace residence at Dastagird.
Emperor Heraclius, as he continued chasing the Persian ruler, made sure to send troops to ransack the palace complex at Dastagird. When the warriors from Constantinople broke into the palace, they were impressed by what they found. As the story goes, hundreds of historic battle standards from ancient and medieval Roman armies were discovered that the Persians had been keeping as trophies. Additionally, they uncovered a hoard of Persian rugs and fine silks, as well as large stores of expensive spices and other luxurious commodities. Yet, not all of the treasures were inanimate—at Dastagird, Khosrow II reportedly has an exotic nature reserve or zoo that held a variety of impressive animals, such as ostriches, peacocks, lions and tigers. These curious finds were mentioned by the chronicler, Theophanes (c. 750s-818), who wrote, “In these palaces they also found countless numbers of ostriches, antelope, wild asses, peacocks, and pheasants; huge lions and tigers lived in Khosroes’ hunting grounds” (Theophanes, Chronographia, entry for Annus Mundi 6118). Unfortunately for the animals, many of them (especially the antelope and pheasants) were likely rounded up and eaten by Heraclius’ army. As for the palace complex at Dastagird, Emperor Heraclius’ troops reportedly destroyed it, along with whatever treasures were too heavy or cumbersome to take.
Written by C. Keith Hansley
Picture Attribution: (Babylonian panel with striding lion, ca. 604–562 BC, [Public Domain – Open Access] via Creative Commons and the MET.jpg).
- Theophanes, The Chronicle of Theophanes, translated by Harry Turtledove. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1982.