Chapter One - The Prophet & The Kings

Chapter One - The Prophet & The Kings


“If those forces arrayed against it – the orthodox Zoroastrians, the rich Mobeds, and the aristocracy – had acted in unison, the one truth could have been suppressed. The Mazdakites might have been no more than a footnote in history…”
- Mobed of Dublin, Imray Farrukh, 2007
Extract taken from the Soundie-Box[1] program The History Of Byzantium, Episode 22, ‘Theodoric & Kavad’.
(January 25th, 2019.)​

Hello, and welcome to the History of Byzantium,

Last week we followed Emperor Anastasius as he attempted to reform the Roman state's finances, following Zeno's unstable emperorship. Though he succeeded in balancing the books, he was unable to heel the growing religious rift between Monophysite and Orthodox Christians. Today, I’d like to take a look at what was going on beyond the empire’s borders, first in Persia, and then in the Balkans. To do that we first need to do a little bit of catch-up on Persian history.

In 484 a man named Kavad became the Shah of Shahs. Son of the admirable King Peroz, Kavad replaced the tottering administration of his uncle Balash. The state he had inherited was in marked decline. The Persians had lost a costly war against the Hepthalite White Huns in the east. As tribute Huns demanded a great deal of treasure annually, which coupled with drought and famine, had led to a social crisis.

Kavad, correctly, judged that his country was on its way to a revolution. Increasingly the rural peasantry had become alienated from the nobles that ruled them. The great houses and clergy controlled the treasury and military, leaving the king as a mere figurehead. Kavad undertook a sweeping series of reforms. To do this, he entered into an alliance with one of the most fascinating men in world history.

We don’t know when or where Mazdak was born. Few Mazdakite documents remain to us from that time, what we do know is that he led a movement in rural Persia calling for the communal ownership of wealth and property. He called for a loosening of marriage laws, to the benefit of the lower classes and impediment of the aristocracy. In time, this movement would grow into one of the largest religions in the world.

Kavad exploited Mazdak shamelessly. Embracing his ideals, he flung open the royal granaries and began parcelling out land to poor peasants. To the great houses and the clergy, it was nothing short of a declaration of war. In 496, there was an attempt to overthrow Kavad which the King suppressed with the help of his ally, the military commander Siyawush[2].

To pay for the reforms he intended to implement, and as a means of rallying his divided nation against a common enemy, Kavad decided that it would be expedient to attack the Byzantines. A quick, decisive war would see his armies cover themselves in glory and secure much-needed plunder. However, Mazdakite teaching precluded any acts of violence, and so a suitable pretence for a defensive war was required.

Kavad requested subsidies from the Byzantines which old hand-at-the-grindstone Anastasius naturally rejected. Arguing that this was an attack on Persia’s honour, the Shah deemed this justification enough for war. The offensive began in 503 with an invasion of Armenia. The undefended city of Theodosiopolis was taken and looted, then Kavad crossed the Taurus mountains, after which time he captured the city of Martyropolis and extracted heavy tribute. Finally, he laid siege to the city of Amida through the winter, which proved a more difficult exercise than he initially hoped, holding out for three months.

On the Byzantine side, Anastasius responded cautiously to this act of aggression, as he did with most things. He ordered troops into Armenia and told them to push the enemy back to the Persian border. Despite Byzantine counter-attacks, Amida would remain in Persian hands for the remainder of the war. Throughout 503 the Byzantines suffered defeat after defeat, their only victory coming in 504 when Kavad’s attack on Edessa was turned back.

In 505, the Huns invaded from across the Caucuses, and Anastasius signed a hasty peace, handing Amida to the Sassanids and agreeing to an annuity. As my Mazdakite listeners will know, this is the moment that, according to the Writings, Kavad’s heart first turned on Mazdak. If I might quote directly, ‘ Kavad went among the Westerners and saw the great hoarded wealth and it darkened his heart with greed.’

Though, if he did indeed turn his heart against Mazdak, he did not begin to show it until the mid 520s…

Extract taken from Great Land Battles by Lord John Summerton.

Over the first two decades of the 500s, Persia underwent a social revolution unmatched in scale. The power of the land-owning dehqan was broken forever. A new religious office was created the advocate and advisor of the poor, a title still proudly born by the leaders of various Mazdakite sects, whose role was to provide aid to the needy.

The army was reformed; four frontier regions were created under local commanders, and an office created to ensure soldiers were properly provisioned. Most importantly an effort was made to encourage promotion from the ranks, and to break the power the upper-class aristocrats held over the top positions in the armed forces.

The Seven Great Parthian clans’ lands were redistributed among the peasants. Royal granaries now became the people’s granaries, and peasant councils were established to allot food for distribution to those in need. A similar system was worked out for the great estates, which were now to be run collectively by the peasants. All these reforms were fine in theory, but they produced institutional chaos throughout the 510s.

From 524 onwards, tensions had been growing between Kavad and his sons. A succession crisis emerged, between the king’s elder son Jamasp and his favourite son Khosrow. Jamasp was a fanatical Mazdakite, a respected warrior, and had secured the backing of the peasantry as well as the Prophet Mazdak himself. On the other hand, Khosrow, an orthodox Zoroastrian, had become a rallying point for aristocratic resistance to the king’s reforms.

Kavad was at a crossroads. On the one hand, he was greatly concerned about the fate of his reforms if Khosrow succeeded him, yet he adored the boy. In the end, the heart won out and Khosrow became his father’s closest advisors during the final years of his life. It was at his urging that Kavad began the forced conversion of the Armenians in the years 525-527 that would do so much to bestir Roman aggression.

Kavad died in 528. It is widely suspected that Khosrow had him killed, though nothing is certain. What is clear is that Khosrow benefited from his death. Supported by the majority of the aristocracy, who saw his ascent as an opportunity to regain their old privileges, Khosrow was crowned in Ctesiphon. Communal farms were broken up, peasant leaders killed, and the Sassanid Army was mobilised in preparation for a war with Byzantium. Khosrow hoped such a war would unite the people behind him, just as they had united behind his father during the Anastasian War.

In the summer of 528, King Tzath of Lazica converted to Christianity and lobbied Constantinople for aid. Khosrow pre-empted a Roman response by invading Armenia and putting every Christian in the province to the sword. The Roman Emperor Justinian I responded by unleashing Belisarius.

The disposition of forces in Armenia would, on paper, appear to favour the Persians. Khosrow had 45,000 men at his back including 1,500 Immortals, the famous armoured horsemen. Belisarius meanwhile commanded only 30,000 men, 5,000 horse archers, and a detachment of Hunnic cavalry.

Yet when these two armies met on the shores of Lake Van, the Persians were broken. Khosrow was a wily commander and he inspired loyalty in his men. Why then did he suffer such a catastrophic defeat? We must consider the disposition of either side’s fighting men.

Khosrow’s force multiplier was, of course, the Immortals. Armoured, with terrible metal faces emblazoned on their helmets, they fought with whips and great swords. They had been since the empire’s foundation the backbone of the army. Belisarius knew and recognised this and gambled that if he were able to dispense with them, the rest of the Persian host would break. And it was the Hunnic mercenaries that came to him with a way to do it.

Belisarius ordered a shallow covered trench dug across the plain, along the axis where the Persian forces were advancing. Along this trench was laid a thick chain. When Khosrow’s vanguard was sighted, the Byzantine cavalry charged the Persian centre and made a mock retreat. The Immortals thundered down after them. Once the Byzantines had withdrawn across the trench, the chain was pulled taut, tripping and breaking the legs of the Immortal's horses, sending their riders flying. At this point, the Byzantine and Hunnic horse archers turned and fired into their prone enemies.

The majority of Khosrow’s infantry were of poor quality. Peasant soldiers armed with substandard weapons, the Roman historian Procopius derides them as ‘the slaves of their overlords.’ Indeed, many among them no doubt wondered at the fate of their communal farms if Khosrow was victorious in Armenia, which can hardly have been a comforting thought. When the Immortals fell, they broke and ran.

The disorganised retreat of the Persian Army was harried by Belisarius’s horsemen. By the time the mountain passes closed up with snow at year’s end, he proudly proclaimed that there was not a single Persian left alive in the whole country. The next year, Belisarius would pursue his broken enemy into Persia Proper, before eventually being turned back in 531 at the Battle of Arbela.

Khosrow fled back to Persia, hoping to raise an army and make for the fortress of Daraa. Jamasp returned from exile with a Hephthalite cavalry army at his back in 529. Khosrow stepped up his persecution of the Mazdakites in an effort to win further orthodox Zoroastrian support, but it was not to be. Jamasp captured and killed his brother at Ctesiphon and claimed the throne for himself. Further Mazdakite reforms continued apace thereafter.

Extract taken from an English translation of the Writing Of Mazdak.

In Ctesiphon, the old seat of oppression, the Usurper King Khosrow had taken one hundred virgin believers, drank of their blood, and buried them upside down. Khosrow summoned Mazdak to Ctesiphon, writing, ‘You will find trees there that no-one has ever seen, and no-one ever heard of even from the mouth of the ancient sages.’ But Mazdak had been forewarned of the Usurper’s treachery and he and his followers decamped to the safety of Zamasp’s [4]camp on the banks of the Tigris.

Informed of his brother’s deceit, Zamasp did make ready for war. His banners upstanding and his men resolute, he sought the Prophet’s advice. He asked if he could uptake swords against Khosrow, for the killing of another is forbidden and hated by Ormazd. Mazdak assured him of the righteousness of his cause. And then the Prophet Mazdak bathed Zamasp in the waters of the Tigris, and with it were all the sins of Zamasp washed away.

Zamasp met his brother by the city of Ctesiphon. There, he promised Khosrow peaceable living, comely women, and a long and private life if he laid down his arms. Khosrow answered that he promised Zamasp death, deprivation, and slavery, that he would cast his body into the sea upon victory.

For five days and five nights did battle rage at Ctesiphon. Such was the deprivation of the common soldier that on the fifth day the sun did not rise at all, and the stars did wander darkling. Till at last Zamasp charged, breaking the Usurper’s host. And Khosrow was slain, and he spat from his mouth his soul which tumbled into the fires of eternal perdition.


[1] ITTL equivalent to a radio.

[2] Our POD. In OTL the rebellion was successful and Kavad expended blood, treasure, and all the goodwill he had towards the Mazdakites getting it back. During his second reign, he and Khosrow ruthlessly suppressed them. ITTL he is a true believer, and their ideas never really fall out of favour whilst he reigns.

[3] Lord Caruvthen’s 1831 translation to be precise. The Writings are a history and theological treatise of the Mazdakite religion published in late 13th century China by an unknown author.

[4] The name by which Jamasp is commonly known in western countries.
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Important dates: 484-530 AD

484 – King Kavad becomes ruler of Persia.

491 – Emperor Zeno dies. Emperor Anastasius I crowned Eastern Roman Emperor.

496 – Attempted anti-Kavad coup crushed.

496-515 – Majority of Mazdakite reforms implemented.

518 – Emperor Anastasius I dies. Emperor Justin I crowned Eastern Roman Emperor.

524-526 – Growth in power of orthodox Zoroastrian faction under Khosrow at Persian court.

527 – Forced conversions to Zoroastrianism begin in Armenia. Emperor Justin I dies, Emperor Justinian I crowned Eastern Roman Emperor.

528 – Kavad dies. Khosrow crowned and Jamasp exiled. Persian invasion of Armenia underway by the end of summer; the Battle of Lake Van sees Persian force routed.

529 – Jamasp takes power in Persia with the help of a Hephthalite Army and pledges to carry out further reforms. Khosrow executed.

530 – Eastern Roman Army expelled from Persia Proper following the Battle of Arbela, peace treaty follows in 531.
Good start, I never saw a TL with this premise. Then again, the Sasanians are usually neglected in favor of other, better known states like you-know-who.

Thank you for all the lovely messages of support guys!
Good start, I never saw a TL with this premise. Then again, the Sasanians are usually neglected in favor of other, better known states like you-know-who.

I know right? I remember learning about Mazdak for the first time and was like, how has this not been made into a TL?
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Chapter Two - Abstain From Shedding Blood
Chapter Two – Abstain From Shedding Blood


“Wily and devious was he, atop his great and terrible steed, he watched and waited for Rome to grow weak.”

– Procopius, on the reign of Jamasp I, 543 AD​

Extract taken from Sasania: Her Rise, Her Fall by Zoreh Kian.

The rule of Jamasp I, styled the Wise and Chosen of God in the Writings, was a period of unprecedented peace in the empire. For over thirty years, he stayed his hand despite constant opportunities to take advantage of Byzantium’s weakened eastern flank. In so doing he demonstrated his dedication to the non-violent principles of Mazdakism. The question of whether this was morally right is, naturally, a question for the faithful, but on a purely political level it ensured that Persia remained poor and that her greatest regional rival remained strong.

He is often, unfairly, depicted by modern biographers as a religious extremist. At the risk of being partisan, this is often done by my fellow Iranian authors trying to draw some inextricable link between his supposedly regressive policies and the suppression of the free media by their own government. Certainly, Jamasp was a zealous Mazdakite and took pains to encourage it among his subjects. Efforts to translate the Buddhist Jakata stories into Persian were curtailed, works of art depicting the great Sassanid kings of the past were removed from the palaces in favour of art which showcased the teachings of Mazdak or the joys of rural living.

But to portray him as some mad hermit king does him, and the advances Persia underwent during his reign, a disservice. Chess was imported from India, and the King himself was an avid player though he’s said to have never really understood the game. Pagans fleeing the despotic restrictions against their religion by Justinian found sanctuary in Ctesiphon, though later they would return sighting Jamasp’s rule as being near as odious. The sacred fires, so dear to orthodox Zoroastrians, were not extinguished, indeed the fire temples were shown the greatest of respect.

Jamasp’s main objective was to complete the reforms his father had embarked upon. In this he was successful. Persia was transformed from a loose collection of squabbling satrapies ruled by great families paying tribute to a single king, to a stronger centralised state of self-governing provinces ruled by a powerful executive in the form of King Jamasp. Gone were the days when the clergy and nobility could play kingmaker.

For all that Persia was a poorer country for Jamasp’s rule his family became fabulously wealthy as they now held a monopoly on the trade routes going east. In 534, he established the Officer for the Trades of India, a minister in his royal entourage who would oversee the taxation of the routes. Merchants were protected by a professional, modern army. Nothing illuminates this better than the great port city in the gulf Jamasp constructed from 545-552. He named it Wēh-Hamadan-Jamasp – Jamasp’s Better Constantinople.

The military underwent extensive reforms from 531 onwards. These reforms dealt chiefly with making army training more rigorous, and building up the armies’ infrastructure, so that they could deploy quicker. Emphasis remained on cavalry, as the Persians faced nomadic horse armies on all but one of their four frontiers. Peasants could become officers and rigorous training regimens were introduced to ensure that Persia’s armies were no longer masses of poorly levies. Radical new tactics were adopted, it was under Jamasp that the formidable Sassanid Elephant Corps began its rise to greatness. Prior to his rule the military had been reliant on feudal lords to raise, arm and deploy troops, by the time of his death the army was a lead by professional soldiers, clothed and armed by the government.

I think the way Jamasp reacted to Mazdak’s death says a lot about his reign. Mazdak is thought to have died in 541. Mazdakite tradition holds that he lived to be a hundred years old. In-keeping with the traditional burial given to peasants, Mazdak asked that his body be left for the birds, and that his bones be collected thereafter. Instead Jamasp had his body sunk in the Persian Gulf, amid great ceremony and pomp, at the mouth of the Tigris River, so that he could continue to wash away man’s sins forever.

Extract taken from the Soundie-Box program The History Of Byzantium, Episode 28, ‘Justinian the Builder’, (February 25th, 2019)​

The Nika Riots erupted in 532 suddenly and terribly, but not without warning. They were driven, primarily, by the young men of the city who swore their loyalty to two demes, – the blues and the greens. The demes had their origins in the teams who competed during chariot races in the Hippodrome, but by the 530s they had evolved into a strange cross between organised sporting associations and street gangs.

For young men in a Christian world the demes provided a substitute for the now abolished gymnasium. For the population at large they acted as an outlet for the people’s anger. During sporting events, they shouted out policies that they hoped the emperor would adopt between races. The demes even employed special teams to come up with chants and slogans. For this reason Constantinople’s aristocratic families threw their support behind the opposing factions, depending on their political position.

In January 532, public anger had been building against Justinian and his ministers over, what were considered to be, extortionate taxes. This was exacerbated by the peace treaty with the Persians, wherein Justinian promised an annuity to the Persian King Jamasp. Several prominent blues and greens were arrested after public demonstrations took place, and they were slated for execution.

In response to this, Justinian declared that grand games were to be held on January 15th. When the day of the event came, the demes were ready. During races at the Hippodrome the demes shouted slogans calling for the release of the imprisoned men, the resumption of war with Persia unto total victory. The Byzantine historian Procopius sends some of their slogans down to us, ‘long live Justinian the Merciful’ and ‘mercy for the arrested men’, but most loudly, ‘No victory until Ctesiphon’. This latter cry eventually drowned out all the others, and itself was eventually shortened to one word – Nika, victory.

By the end of the day the Hippodrome had slipped out of Justinian’s control. As night fell he beat a hasty retreat unto the palace complex. Throughout the night united gangs of blues and greens spilled out into the streets and there was extensive looting. Fires erupted and raged unchecked for the next five days.

In that time the palace was placed under siege. Blue and green alike demanded the heads of John and Tribonian. Multiple senators flocked to the mob’s side, and they crowned Anastasius’s nephew Hypatius as emperor, despite his protestations. Despite the pleading of Theodora, Justinian evacuated the city with his family shortly before the palace was overrun on the sixth day of the riots. On his way out Justinian assured General Mundus in no uncertain terms that he had a free hand to deal with the rioters as he wished.

And deal with the rioters he did. As night fell on that sixth day, Mundus gathered 30,000 troops at the Gate of Adrianople and marched them on the Hippodrome. It took two more days of hard fighting for Mundus to finally reach the blasted ruin of the palace and clear out the remaining pockets of resistance. Due to the cramped streets in-which most of the fighting took place the rioters were broken on the shield of the General’s disciplined legions despite their numerical advantage.

When Justinian finally returned to Constantinople on January 20th he found, what Procopius describes as, ‘a capital for ashes alone.’ Street after street had been burned flat. Half the population of the city had been driven out into the countryside or left homeless during Mundus’s bloody push on the palace. Nearly 45,000 people were dead in all.

Mundus gained a, perhaps unfair, reputation as a butcher. A simple soldier following his orders and believing that the rioters presented a critical threat to public order he would come to regret his part in the massacre. As “punishment” for his actions, and at the Patriarch’s suggestion, Mundus was deployed to fight the Vandals alongside the imperial fleet in 533. The successful recapture of North Africa in the Vandalic War the next year, was largely down to his stratagems.

Perhaps if Belisarius and the many thousands of men he commanded had been in the capital, instead of on the Persian frontier, the riots could have been more effectively contained. But Belisarius was not in Constantinople during those critical days, and the capital was left in ruins and Justinian would be remembered, unto his last day, as the Emperor who fled.

In an effort to repair his reputation a vast rebuilding effort was soon underway in Constantinople. The Forum of Constantine was to be rebuilt at twice its pre-Riot size, with relics from across the Christian world brought to be placed therein. The Mese, the main in Constantinople, was repaired and was, once again, the scene of trade and commerce before the year was out.

The Third Hill, gutted by fire, was to become the sight of numerous fine churches though it was in short order colonised by some of the more unsavoury trades. Not for nothing was it referred to as the Hill of Whores. In-keeping with his austere personal brand of Christianity, the cities four theatres were not rebuilt until after Justinian had died.

The greatest achievement of these years of reconstruction was the Hagia Sophia. Justinian wanted the seat of his nation’s church to stand as a beacon unto the world. He summoned Isidore of Miletus and Anthemius of Tralles, the two finest architects in the empire, to Constantinople and offered them all the gold they desired if, in return, they could build him the finest church in the world. The building they constructed was to remain the world’s largest church for a thousand years. A masterpiece of masonry it towers 150 feet up in the air. Its inner walls are decorated with reliefs and sculptures, paintings of great artistic value.

Extract taken from Tusks & Spears At Daybreak: The Rise of the Sassanid Elephant Corps 530 – 596 by Dom Lawrenz Agrelitz
(Technological University of Munich, 2003)​

Abstract: Since their foundation in 224 AD, the Sassanids had utilised elephants in their armies. However, following the death of King Kavad I and the elevation of his son, and with him the entrenchment of Mazdakism as the official state religion, there came a gradual, but marked, increase in the deployment of elephants in the army. This paper examines the increased role that elephants played in the armies of King Jamasp I and his successor Jamasp II.

I. The Deployment of Elephants Through Persian History

Since the dawn of the first century, the role of elephants in warfare had decreased markedly. The Roman Empire cannot be said to have utilised them as anything but a psychological weapon. Claudius is known to have deployed elephants to frighten the Britons in 43 AD, quite what the poor beasts thought of the infamous inclement weather of the Isles is not recorded.

The use of elephants by the various Persian dynasties of antiquity goes back, at least, as far as Darius III who deployed elephants lent to him by his Indian allies at Gaugamela. It is believed that the Parthian royal family kept a herd of elephants, bred for such purposes however there is no record of them being used. It appears that large, unreliable, and costly to maintain, they had been abandoned as cavalry.

When Ardashir I came to power he is said to have sent a contingent of elephants to Nis-ibis in 230 AD. However, this is doubtful for a number of reasons, as the primary source for this claim is the Historia Augusta (HA), whose authors were writing many years after the battle took place, with no contemporary sources mentioning their use.

Certainly, if it is doubtful that Ardashir used elephants, his descendants readily adopted them. By the time of Julian the Apostate’s invasion of Sasania in 337-361 AD elephants topped with archer towers reigned down ordnance on the invading Romans. At Ctesiphon, King Shapur II deployed elephants behind his main line, perhaps as a primitive form of blocking troops humorous as the idea may be.

The Battle of Ctesiphon illuminates the ways in-which elephant warfare was changing. Throughout the Sassanid period, elephants were typically deployed behind infantry as an intimidation tactic, rather than on the wings as one would usually deploy cavalry. Throughout the fourth and fifth centuries, they were used sparingly, lending credence to the theory that they were only deployed during Julian’s invasion out of desperation.

Only one account of elephants used in frontline combat during the early fifth century is known, and it comes, fittingly, from the Armenian War of 527-530. Khosrow sent a force under Mihr-Mihroe to capture the fortress of Daraa, along with six elephants. According to the Byzantine historian Procopius, who was present at the battle, ‘they appeared as great walking hills’ and ‘each carried a brace of archers.’ Procopius states that they were, ‘of little use against the walls however, ‘for Belisarius in his wisdom had raised the wall thirty hands high.’ Caught behind enemy lines after the Battle of Lake Van, Mihr-Mihroe agreed to surrender in return for the safe conduct of his men and elephants to Constantinople.

We thus come to the reign of Jamasp I. Assuming power as he did, with the backing of an army of foreigners, and overseeing as he did wide-ranging reforms, Jamasp I was conscious of the need to link his rule to the past in order to gain legitimacy. One way in-which he bound himself to this mythological Persian past was elephants.

After defeating the Romans at Arbela and securing a peace treaty with Justinian I in 531 AD, Jamasp I decided that conventional elephantine tactics would have to change. Mihr-Mihroe’s defeat at Daraa showcased that elephant’s were of no use against fixed fortifications of a certain height. Thus, from Jamasp I onward, they would be deployed in order to project Persian power, and in-keeping with the standard military tactics of the time, as weapons of psychological warfare.

Upon his ascension in 531, Indian satraps had gifted him a small herd of elephants which included a young bull. These were to become the core of the Sassanid Elephant Corps. The bull, who he named Besu, was to become his lifelong steed. Having come to power through a particularly bloody usurpation, Jamasp I was particularly conscious of his image. Accordingly, he wished to project power wherever he went, and Besu was a simple, and effective, way to do this. From as early as 535, Jamasp is said to have ridden Besu regularly, where terrain and time constraints were not an issue, and by the 540-550 period he is mentioned by Procopius as having, ‘preferred an elephant to a horse.’

Religious imagery also played a part in the Corps’ deployment. Much as Ahura-Mazda was attended by six demigods in heaven, Besu was always accompanied by six elephants wheresoever he bore the King. Often they were his blood relations, and Jamasp II took pains to cultivate Besu’s descendants as steeds. This single herd of elephants would continue to bare the kings of Persia until, suddenly and tragically, their line was wiped out at the Battle of the Marshes almost a hundred years later.

It was during the rule of Jamasp I that the elephant became inextricably bound with the Persian notion of kingship. Elephants often appear on reliefs at the recovered city of Wēh Hamadan Jamasp, in the royal palace a mural depicts them as steeds during a royal hunt. Coins, dug up in the ancient city, and minted between the years 550 and 560 depict the king atop Besu. Indeed, the elephant is so wrapped up in the iconography of Persian identity that the Nokhor Dynasty half a millennia latter carried battle standards which depicted the Persian elephant trampling the snake of treachery.

When the Corps was deployed in a military capacity, they were almost always a part of the royal baggage train. In 560, during the king’s war against the Hephthalites, the Corps provided protection to the king’s wives and younger children. In a possibly apocryphal story courtesy of the Byzantine General Heraclius, Besu is said to have snatched a Hephthalite captain from his saddle after the man tried to attack the King’s favoured wife and savagely trampled him.

Despite his father’s utilisation of the Corps during peacetime, it was Jamasp II who truly formalised the Sassanid Elephant Corps upon his ascent in 565. It was also he who transformed them, from a largely ceremonial unit to a great fighting force. Under his rule, the position of Zend−Hapet – literally, the commander of the Indians – leader of the corps, became a much sought-after office.

Extract taken from TITAN OF WORLD HISTORY: Vol. II From the Fall of Rome to the War of the Polish Succession by Adelaide de Temps and Farhan Ali.

Italy (530-549)

535. 40,000-man fleet under Belisarius lands north of Reggio. Month-long siege ends when Roman soldiers sneak into the city through the sewers.
Nov. Gothic army under Optaris defeated at Neapolis, road to Rome opened.

536. Intense back-and-forth fighting south of Rome. City besieged by early summer. Low Gothic morale leads to mutiny, Gothic King Theodahad handed over to Belisarius in return for the safe conduct of Gothic armies north.

537. Vitiges crowned King of the Goths. Large Gothic army moves south and besieges Belisarius in Rome. Belisarius abandons plans to march on Ravenna and requests aid from Constantinople.

538. Relief force under Mundus arrives in Neapolis. Vitiges killed during Battle of the Camp Beneath Rome. Totila, military commander of Ravenna, becomes the de facto leader of the Goths.
Pockets of Gothic resistance in southern Italy are suppressed by Mundus and Belisarius through the autumn.

539. Totila is crowned King of the Goths. Siege of Ravenna begins by year’s end.
Burgundians invade and indiscriminately ransack northern Italy.

540. Mar.-Nov. Several Roman attempts to break-through are hampered by the lagoons upon-which Ravena is built, making it easily defensible.

541. Totila offers to lay down his crown if Belisarius is crowned Emperor of the West. Justinian refuses this offer and recalls Belisarius to Constantinople.

542. Mundus finally takes Ravenna. Gothic troops in the city are massacred,
Totila and his entourage escape to the countryside to wage a brutal war of shudoushi[1] resistance.

Extract taken from the Soundie-Box program The History Of Byzantium, Episode 33, ‘Justinian’s Plagues’, (April 25th, 2019)​

In marked contrast to the unprecedented expansion and building projects of the 530s, the 540s would be a period of sharp decline for the Byzantine Empire. How could this be, I hear you ask?

One day, sailors in Alexandria started dying. They were afflicted by fever, vomiting, headaches, and weariness. Worst were the buboes which formed around the lymph nodes, huge pustules revolting to look at. Some became animated by the disease and would run panicked into the streets. Still others, retired to their sick beds, from whence some rose fully recovered and others never awoke. Before long a great dying had begun in the Byzantine Empire, and before the decade was out this great dying would rock the world to its foundations. By its end, it is estimated nearly eighty million people did.

It began in 541 in Egypt and spread across the Empire. Why Egypt? According to recent archaeological findings at the University of Alexandria it was probably the city rats who first bore the plague. Recent analysis of human and animal skeletons have found trace elements of Yersinia Pestis, the disease which causes Bubonic Plague, in the animal skeletons years before they appear in the human population.

Egypt is, and was, the breadbasket of the Mediterranean and it is believed that the disease spread to the Empire’s major ports through grain shipments. First the sailors fell ill, then the men and women they had been in contact with. Before long the pandemic had reached epic proportions.

The streets of major cities emptied, and a climate of fear took hold. Those who were driven mad by the disease often ran about in the streets. Entire communities struck by the disease were wiped of the map, entire regions along the coast emptied of life. Only those areas that were mountainous or deserted can be said to have survived with anything like their pre-Plague population intact. Zahran, a Mazdakite preacher who travelled extensively during this period wrote of the devastation wrought upon the countryside:

“Throughout Antioch I found that the world had returned to some primordial state bereft of man. Sheep wandered in great flocks untended by shepherds, wild dogs and vultures prowled the streets of empty villages and ate of the dead bodies discarded there, and they too died. Most terrible of all the discoveries I made, of a wedding party abandoned on the day of the event itself, with both bride and groom beyond this world now.”

Whilst a devastating blow to the Romans, the plague proved an unexpected boon to the Ostrogoths in Italy. The reconquest of Italy had begun in 535, led by Belisarius. Partly, this was due to the peaceable condition of the eastern frontier, secured by the Persian treaty with Justinian as well as Jamasp’s religious commitment to non-violence. The Gothic nations had been suffering costly defeats against imperial armies. The plague gave them time to recuperate their forces and launch renewed attacks against Roman cities.

Even the imperial family was touched by the disaster. Theodora contracted the disease and died in 545. Justinian is said to have been shaken to his core and retreated, briefly, from public life only re-emerging in 546, a clearly changed man. To the piously Christian subjects of the empire, Theodora’s fate might have seemed like a judgement from God himself.

Naturally, many people blamed the supernatural. Hysterical victims of the plague claimed that they saw a ghostly white spectre haunting the streets, breathing death in the faces of men and women as he passed. Fitful sailors warned of ghostly ships, with crews filled of the restless dead trying to find somewhere, anywhere, unafflicted by the Bubonic Death.


[1] TTL word for guerrilla.
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Nice update! What is the current map of Persia?
Thanks! I'm afraid I'm no good at maps so I'm going to give you the run-down in prose form - currently Byzantium is the unquestioned master of the Caucusus, as it controls most of Armenia (Lazica and Iberia are both client states after the Anastasian War in the early 500s). The Persians control everything from the headwaters of the Gabirry River to Lake Sevan. The frontier between the two nations in the Levant remains roughly as it did OTL. In the Arabian Peninsula, the border is naturally more porous. As in OTL the Byzantines are backing the Ghassanid Arabs and the Persians are backing Lakhmid Arabs (more about this in later chapters).
I'm actually hoping to do a quick tour of the world in a few chapters time, when we get to the end of the 6th century.
A fascinating idea for a TL! Mazdakism is a fascinating ideology/religion, and seeing a TL centered around it is amazing, and it's helped all the more by your writing style, which is excellent. Looking forward to reading more! Will there be a chapter regarding the specifics of Mazdakism? The information we have on it is greatly obscured by biased sources, so I'm curious to see what direction you'll take it in. Keep it up!
A fascinating idea for a TL! Mazdakism is a fascinating ideology/religion, and seeing a TL centered around it is amazing, and it's helped all the more by your writing style, which is excellent. Looking forward to reading more! Will there be a chapter regarding the specifics of Mazdakism? The information we have on it is greatly obscured by biased sources, so I'm curious to see what direction you'll take it in. Keep it up!
Thank you! And yep, I'm hoping to delve deeper into the specifics as time goes on. Maybe once I've finished with the reign of Jamasp I.
Really enjoying this! I worked Mazdak coming into ascendency in my own timeline - but you are developing this is far more detail (and to different ends) than I did in mine. Can't wait to see where this is going next!
Really nice TL so far! Been playing a Sassanid revival campaign on CK3 lately, so, I’ve been on a heavy Persian kick lately-so im very excited to read more of this. Keep up the good work!