The Darling of the World

Part 1: Known Unknown
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    Part 1: Known Unknown

    One of the most frustrating but important battles to study by far is the Battle of Resaena, which took place in what was then Roman Syria in 243. Other than the fact that Roman and Persian arms clashed with great ferocity when the event took place, literally no known contemporary historians, eastern and western alike, despite the latter's tendencies to describe their so-called third century as the end of the world, shine any details on what truly happened on that fateful day.

    The only clear thing is that the army of Shapur I, king of kings of Iran, prevailed over the one led by the able Roman general and praetorian prefect Timesitheus (1).


    Shapur being followed by his sons and nobles.

    But the consequences, oh, those are described by both sides with vivid detail. Shortly after his victory, Shapur led his army and attacked the great city of Antioch, an important center of trade and capital of Roman Syria. The city fell after a short siege and the victorious men from Iran were described as "ravaging the city's riches and deporting all of its inhabitants" after which the bulk of them crossed the Euphrates back into home territory. However, Antioch itself remained under an occupation force, which showed that the son of Ardashir, perhaps emboldened by his victory and his glorious ancestors, intended to keep the city in his control, rather than just pillage it.

    For the historians of the west, Resaena proved to be the beginning of the end of the Roman Empire as they once knew it. For those who hailed from the east, it was the beginning of the rebirth of one of the greatest civilizations to ever exist in the world, after centuries of foreign (Greek) domination and incompetent Arsacid rulers.

    Such is the memory of this cataclysmic event, so famous and mysterious at the same time.

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    (1) This is the POD. IOTL, Shapur was defeated, and though the Persians later defeated the Romans and prevented them from marching on Ctesiphon at the Battle of Misiche, the King of Kings by then was content with favourable border concessions and an indemnity from emperor Philip the Arab.
     
    Part 2: The Fall of Oriens
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    Part 2: The Fall of Oriens

    One year after the capture of Antioch, and seeing no sign that Rome would even attempt to expel his garrisons from his piece of Syria, Shapur crossed the Euphrates once more with a great army that, according to the most reasonable sources, numbered around 50.000 men at most and also had numerous siege engines, an obvious sign that he intended to completely expel the Romans from the Diocese of Oriens and its fortified urban centers, such as Damascus and Jerusalem, for good. After a short stop in Antioch, to replenish its garrison and protect it from any Roman counterattacks from Anatolia, the Iranian army departed to the south to complete its grand mission of conquest, its first target being Emesa, located about halfway between Antioch and Damascus.

    Neither the king nor any of his generals had any idea of what they were up against.

    The cataphracts, by far the most famous soldiers of Ancient Iran's military.

    Which was... nothing. To their shock, Emesa simply surrendered and opened its gates to the invaders.

    Certainly, as a head of state, and therefore connected to a vast network of spies and diplomats, Shapur was aware, to some degree, of the crisis that his adversary was facing, but his astonishment, well remembered by many historians, showed that he didn't know just how severe Rome's internal problems were. Plagued by endless uprisings, invasions and military usurpers, it would take some time until any Roman emperor managed to bring his armies to bear against those led by the King of Kings. The Iranians also hed two powerful allies in the region: the Christians and the Jews, who were generally persecuted and mistreated by the Roman state, eagerly joined of rose up in favour of Shapur, who they saw as, if not a liberator like Cyrus the Great, at least someone who could kick the hated Romans out of their lands.

    Aided by such uprisings, Shapur captured Damascus a month or so after Emesa, and continued his march southwards until he reached the gates of Jerusalem, which, despite its long history, was by now primarily a pagan city thanks to emperor Hadrian's remodeling of it roughly a century before. This meant that there was no Jewish or Christian population to throw the Roman garrison out, which forced the Shah to besiege it for an impressive three weeks before its walls were breached and the city stormed. The treatment received by Jerusalem was even worse than the one endured by Antioch, with many riches looted by the victorious soldiers and most of its civilians deported to distant places in Iran. The city would once again be given a new face, but that would take time to occur.


    An artist's idea of what a street in Jerusalem may have looked like during the Roman period. Sadly, few structures of the time survived the sack of 244.

    By 245, two years after the beginning of the campaign, nearly all of the Levant lay in the hands of Persians, with only the great trading center of Tyre refusing to surrender. The city was located in an island, and since Eranshahr had no navy in the Mediterranean, there was no way that it could even be besieged. Tyre would remain a stubborn, dangerous thorn on Persia's side for many years.

    Finally, on 250 AD, emperor Decius crossed the Cilician Gates at the head of a great army of around 60.000, all ready and eager to expel the Iranians and bring Syria and Palestine back into Roman control (1).


    A map of the Levant before Shapur I's conquests. By 250, all of the provinces displayed on it would be under Iranian control, with the exception of Cyprus, Tyre and Cilicia.

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    (1) This is a full seven years after the POD. Considering that IOTL Valerian only managed to muster a force to stand up to Shapur seven years after the latter's victory at Barbalissos (253 AD), I don't think this seems unreasonable.
     
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    Part 3: The Eagle Strikes Back
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    Part 3: The Eagle Strikes Back

    Ever since the assassination of emperor Severus Alexander by his own soldiers in 235, the Roman Empire found its internal and external situation going from bad to worse, in a period that became known as the Crisis of the Third Century. The causes for this were many indeed: an army that was becoming increasingly political (not that it ever wasn't, but still) and regularly murdered emperors it didn't like, extreme weather events crippled agricultural production and therefore the economy as a whole, barbarian peoples began to cross the Rhine and the Danube, raiding Gaul and Moesia, and, most importantly, the Sasanian dynasty that now ruled Iran proved itself to be infinitely more dangerous than its Parthian/Arsacid predecessors, as displayed by Shapur's great victory over Timesitheus and his near complete conquest of the Levant in the following years.


    The great empire before everything went to hell.

    After the disaster at Resaena, emperor Gordian III, an inexperienced seventeen year old, was murdered and replaced by Timesitheus' successor as Praetorian Prefect, Philip the Arab, who had this nickname because he was born in the province of Arabia Petraea. Naturally, he had no interest in seeing his birthplace be overrun by Iranian armies, but he had much more urgent problems closer to home. As the eighth emperor to seize power in just eight years, Philip faced multiple usurpers and barbarian attacks during his ultimately short time in office, the most urgent issue being a large raid launched by the Carpi, who crossed the Danube in an attempt to plunder the cities and fields of Moesia. This problem was worsened by the fact that the army that was destroyed in Syria was composed of garrisons from the Danube and the Rhine, something that left these long borders nearly defenseless.

    Seeing a desperately needed opportunity to consolidate his power, Philip immediately departed to Moesia at the head of an army that inflicted several crushing defeats on the invaders, who sued for peace and returned to the north of the Danube. Now given the title of Carpicus Maximus by the Senate, the emperor returned to the Eternal City to much fanfare. However, his position was far from secure, for Shapur's conquest of Syria proved to be a lethal blow to Philip's legitimacy, for no emperor ever lost so much territory to Rome's most stubborn adversary. Thus, he was forced to stay put in Italy, defeating at least five usurpers throughout his reign.


    The coins of Silbanacus and Jotapianus, two usurpers who rose up during the reign of Philip the Arab.

    As if that weren't enough, the manner in which the Christians and Jews of the Oriens assisted Shapur's army quickly started a new, spontaneous wave of persecution of the followers of these two already marginalized religions, and riots took place in several western cities such as Carthage and Rome itself. Angry mobs marched through the streets and tore apart anyone who seemed to subscribe to the Tanakh (1) or the teachings of Jesus Christ, calling them traitors and many other ethnic slurs. These riots were what finally brought Philip's rule to an end, for he was known for his lenient treatment of Christians and was even suspected of being a closeted one himself. At last, he was murdered on the orders of Gaius Decius, one of his closest allies, on January 246 (2).

    Shortly after taking power, Decius issued an edict which demanded that every citizen perform a sacrifice to the gods or be punished by death, a clear attack on the Christians and Jews who lived in the empire (3). Thousands of people who belonged to both religions were executed, with many either becoming martyrs and saints or fleeing to the east, into the comparatively welcoming arms of the realm of the Shahanshah.

    After that, and with the Danube frontier temporarily under control thanks to his predecessor, Decius started to plan a counterattack against Persia, one that would be completely unexpected by his adversary. Arriving on Asia Minor sometime on 247, he led a large army into Caesarea, but instead of marching right into Syria as expected, the astute emperor instead ordered his soldiers torward Theodosiopolis. From that city, located right on the border between the two giant empires, Decius launched a massive raid that utterly devastated Armenia, with the Roman soldiers marching as far as Artaxata and Thospia, which were thoroughly sacked in retaliation for what was done to Antioch and Jerusalem. The Iranian armies, which were extremely reliant on their cavalry, were easily brushed aside on the mountainous terrain in which the campaign was enacted, something that greatly favoured the Roman infantry.


    A map of the Roman-Iranian border before the war.

    Taking thousands of prisoners and loot thanks to this daring campaign, Decius was given the name Trajan by the Senate, no easy feat considering that the original one was quite likely Rome's best emperor. And he intended to do no less than to live up to his namesake and sack Ctesiphon, the capital of Iran, just as Trajan did 130 years ago. If he was to have any hope of doing that, however, he would first have to expel Shapur and his soldiers from Syria.

    Thus, he crossed the Cilician Gates on 250, his 60.000 soldiers eager for more battle, booty and glory. These wishes were quickly sated, since Shapur, despite being outnumbered by a sizable amount (he had around 40.000 men under his command) and the constant protests of his generals, who saw a confrontation here as an unnecessary risk and wished to engage Decius' force somewhere else. The two armies met on Seleucia Pieria, right outside Antioch, and engaged each other in battle shortly after.

    An artist's impression of the Battle of Seleucia Pieria.

    This was, without a doubt, the worst thing Shapur could have done. The Iranian army, already demoralized thanks to the events in Armenia, was routed without much effort and suffered severe casualties, the Shahanshah himself suffering an injury on the thigh from a enemy sword which gave him a limp for the rest of his life. Out of the 40.000 men he originally had, around 12.000 were either killed, wounded or captured. The Roman army, already in high spirits, seemed to recover the invincibility it once possessed back in its greatest days, the ghosts of the humiliation at Resaena finally put to rest.

    Decius entered Antioch in triumph shortly after this magnificent victory, but he had little time to celebrate. With the Iranian army by now in full retreat, the emperor hoped to catch Shapur before his troops could return to friendly territory. Thus, he left the Syrian capital as fast as he could, and made a beeline towards the Euphrates, not bothering to send troops to the south.

    If he succeeded in this endeavor, Ctesiphon would be his.

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    Notes:

    (1) The Hebrew Bible.

    (2) IOTL, Philip the Arab ruled from 244 to 249. Here, thanks to the POD, he takes power and is overthrown earlier.

    (3) IOTL, the Jews were exempted from the Decian Persecution. Thanks to their support of Shapur ITTL, they are also targeted by the state as punishment for their insubordination.
     
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    Part 4: Lord of the West
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    Part 4: Lord of the West

    After the Battle of Seleucia, the battered and demoralized Iranian army made a forced beeline towards friendly territory on the other side of the Euphrates, while the Romans, though tired, had high spirits and were in a tight pursuit, hoping to destroy what was left of their foe before they could recover. In the end, Shapur crossed the great river and reached the city of Callinicum, located on its eastern bank, just hours before Decius arrived, much to his relief. However, he wasn't out of the woods just yet, far from it, and although according to some historians he initially wanted to force a battle outside of the city and prevent the Roman force from continuing his pursuit, he was either convinced or forced by his generals to retreat back to the fortress of Nisibis, the gateway to Mesopotamia, lest the Iranians be completely crushed under the weight of the much larger enemy army.

    This proved to be the wisest approach, for Decius had a great number of scouts and spies under his employ, and when they reported that the King of Kings had crossed the Euphrates a few hours ahead of him, he was disappointed but not furious. He had no reason to be, since he knew that his adversary was demoralized and broken, thus being unable to mount an effective counterattack. If the reports that Shapur and his army were fleeing to Nisibis were true, he still had a chance to force the Shah to surrender by trapping him and his soldiers inside the fortress' walls (1). Feeling secure that his army was safe for now, he allowed his soldiers to take a few much needed hours of rest.

    And that was when a new player stepped in the game.

    The ruins of ancient Palmyra. The modern city is located a few miles to the east.

    A ragtag force of mercenaries -- couldn't have been more than 20.000 men -- descended on the Roman camp in the middle of the night like hungry wolves, spreading confusion fear and death on a massive scale, and brought the Roman army to its knees before it even had a chance to fight back (2). The person behind the ambush that became known as the Battle of the Euphrates, even though it really wasn't a battle at all, was a man named Odainat, or Odaenathus if one prefers western sources. Belonging to an aristocratic family that was given Roman citizenship in the 190s, Odainat became the autonomous ruler of the great city of Palmyra, one of Syria's most important urban centers, comparable to places such as Damascus and maybe even Antioch, sometime in the 240s.

    As the giant empires clashed right next to his dominions, Odainat steadily gathered money, power and soldiers while the great powers were busy beating each other into a pulp. Finally, after years of careful planning and consolidating his hold over the region he governed, the ruler of Palmyra made an extremely risky gamble that paid off very handsomely and gave him tens of thousands of prisoners, including emperor Decius. Wasting no time after his great victory, he quickly seized all of the Levant for himself, and contacted the King of Kings, who was reportedly quite shocked when he heard what happened.

    In a grand ceremony that took place in Callinicum, Odainat announced his submission to Shapur as an inferior king, similar to the ones that ruled other parts of the Iranian Empire, and handed him the once mighty Decius in chains.

    The kneeling Odainat presents Decius to his new liege, Shapur I.

    Decius never returned to Roman soil, dying under the Shah's captivity in 260. Before Shapur could muster his armies for a new campaign, Odainat sent his armies first to Anatolia and then into Egypt, finally achieving his aim of becoming a powerful ruler in his own right. His domains, still nominally under the suzerainty of the Shahanshah but de facto independent, streched from the Bosporus and the Hellespont in the north to Syene (3) and Berenice to the south.

    Shapur had unwittingly replaced his old enemy with a far more dangerous threat.

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    Notes:

    (1) Ironically, this is almost exactly how Valerian was defeated at Edessa: surrounded by the Persians, he was forced to surrender.

    (2) Odaenathus was the guy who created the Palmyrene Empire, although he always declared himself to be a subject of the Roman Empire, even though his domains were completely autonomous. IOTL, he forced Shapur's forces back after their great victory at Edessa by ambushing them as they crossed the Euphrates River, and he came close to the gates of Ctesiphon a couple of times. He was assassinated in Heraclea Pontica in 267.

    (3) Modern day Aswan.
     
    Part 5: Peace at Last
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    Part 5: Peace at Last



    After the Battle of the Euphrates, Shapur I never embarked on a western campaign again, content on the fact that the Roman Empire would never again be a threat to Mesopotamia and its great jewel, the Iranian capital of Ctesiphon. The long war begun by Ardashir I shortly after his reunification of Iran (something that made hin be known as "Ardashir the Unifier") in the 230s had been brought to a victorious conclusion, and gave the state treasury some much needed loot and tens upon tens of thousands of prisoners that were settled all over the great realm ruled by the Sasanian dynasty. Many of these prisoners were more than just soldiers, they were artisans, traders, craftsmen, among many other professions, or were just arms to use as hard labour.

    They were quickly put to work in multiple public building projects all over Iran, building canals, palaces, roads, aqueducts, temples and many other infrastructure works from Asoristan (in Mesopotamia, where Ctesiphon is located) all the way to far off Sogdiana and Transoxiana. This greatly increased the trend towards urbanization that had started since the overthrow of the Arsacid dynasty by Ardashir, who had founded as many as ten new cities during his reign. The growth of urban centers also strengthened the Sasanian monarchy, since instead of being largely autonomous of the central government like they were during Parthian rule, they served as the residence of bureaucrats, garrison centers and were seen as direct royal property.


    A fire temple located in a wealthy neighborhood of Istakhr that was built during the reign of Shapur I, over a thousand years ago (1).

    Shapur himself founded three cities as far as we know, Gundishapur, Bishapur and Nishapur (the last one still exists today), but the bulk of the riches acquired from the war were invested in already existing ones, such as Merv, Istakhr and Samarkand, but none of them received as many investments and public works as the crown jewel of the Sasanian Empire, Ctesiphon, which was well in the way to become the largest city in the world outside of China by the end of the 3rd century. Speaking of China, the reunification of said country after decades of division into three kingdoms led to an increase in trade between the east and the west, something that directly benefited Iran thanks to its strategic position in the Silk Road.

    Iran was diverse not only ethnically speaking, but also religiously, with Zoroastrians (the state religion) in Pars and other places, Christians that for now were located mostly in Mesopotamia but were growing in numbers rapidly (the persecutions in Rome caused a large migration of Christians and Jews to the east), Jews, Buddhists (particularly in the eastern regions) and several local religions. Shapur's tolerant attitude contributed greatly towards this diversity, as did his support of Mani, a prophet who founded a new religion (Manichaeism) that was gaining new adherents extremely fast and had a place in the Shahanshah's court since 242. Unsurprisingly, the realm also spoke many languages, the most common of them being Middle Persian, Middle Aramaic, Greek and Parthian (though their usage was decreasing fast) along with several other regional ones.


    A gold coin showing Shapur's face on one side and the Zoroastrian eternal flame on the other, showing who was the state's favoured religion.

    It is important to note that, while Sasanian Iran was more centralized than its Arsacid predecessor, the King of Kings was not an absolute monarch (it would take a few centuries for that to happen) and his power was nowhere near that of a Roman emperor. Any sensible shah, and Shapur was definitely one of them, had to rule with the nobles, clergy and various sub-kings that dotted Iran and regularly sent tributes to Ctesiphon, especially the Seven Great Houses (Ispahbudhan, Varaz, Karen, Mihran, Spandiyadh, Zik and Suren) who had immense power ever since the days of the Arsacids. In fact, the great general Rustahm Suren, the one who crushed a Roman army at the battle of Carrhae centuries ago, belonged to one of these ancient dynasties (2). In order to raise an army, for example, the shah needed their permission, and if they disliked a particular monarch they could depose him very, very quickly.

    Speaking of nobles and lesser kings, thanks to his war with Rome there was now a powerful new one sitting right next to Ctesiphon and Armenia: Odainat. Shapur immediatly began to despise this arrogant upstart, fearing that he would use his immense military power and wealth to interfere on the imperial succession and put a puppet on the throne and become the most powerful man in Iran. Though he sent a regular amount of tribute to the King of Kings, he had infinitely more power than any of the Great Houses combined and ruled his kingdom as an autonomous monarch, whose realm was far more centralized in Iran, thanks to its Roman roots. The king of Palmyra never tried to officialy end the Shahanshah's nominal authority over his territories, and even served as a buffer to the constant Gothic raids in Anatolia, but everyone knew who was the top dog in his domains.

    An alleged bust of Odainat.

    His fears that Odainat could interfere in the imperial succession were proven right when the crown prince Hormizd, who was also king of Armenia, suddenly died on June 265 after a banquet (3). Though the King of King and his allies immediately suspected that Odainat had his son poisoned, there was little he could do: if he tried to assassinate the Palmyrene king, there would probably be a massive civil war, and he didn't think that the Iranian army was ready to face such a conflict after the disaster at Seleucia Pieria just yet. All he could do was appoint a new heir and make sure that he had plenty of personal security.

    Shapur I, King of Kings of Iran, died just one year later at the youngish age of fifty-one, prematurely aged thanks to his long years war against Rome (4). Despite the rather suspicious date, it is likely that it was a natural death, since the Shahanshah was suffering from health issues for a few years before it happened, according to historians, and none of them mentioned foul play as a cause. He was also reportedly broken by his heir's death, so one must account for that.

    He was survived by his two remaining sons: Bahram, the oldest one but ranked below his brothers thanks to his mother's low birth, and the youngest, Narseh, who took Hormizd's place as king of Armenia after his assassination. Neither of them had received the title of crown prince.

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    Notes:

    (1) The temple in the photo is actually located in Yazd, and was built on 470 AD, two centuries after Shapur's death. Still pretty darn old.

    (2) Best known as Surena.

    (3) IOTL, Hormizd succeeded Shapur as King of Kings on 270, but died the following year. His successor, Bahram (the one mentioned above) had Mani executed.

    (4) IOTL, Shapur died on 270.
     
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    Part 6: No Hope
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    Part 6: No Hope

    After the defeat and capture of emperor Decius on the banks of the Euphrates, the Roman Empire went from one catastrophe to the other. Herennius Etruscus, Decius' son, was left in the west as a caretaker while his father reconquered Syria, and proclaimed himself emperor after the news arrived to the Eternal City his father's ignoble fate, only to be quickly murdered on the following day. After him came his brother Hostilian, and then Licinianus, Regalianus, Aemilianus and Gallienus, sometimes ruling at the same time, all in the span of three to four years (1). Odaenati's rapid expansion throughout the east caused tremendous damage in Rome, since it denied any potential emperor or usurper the great riches of Anatolia and especially its coastal cities, such as Ephesus and and Nicaea.

    The worst consequences came from the loss of Egypt, since the grain that came from said province was critical to ensure that Rome's population, which was once close to a million back in the city's glory days, didn't starve. The Cura Annonae, or grain dole, a supply of grain that was subsidized by the state, was abolished, which caused riots and fires that contributed to the idea that the empire, and therefore the world, were about to end, an idea that was often repeated by historians of the time. To make a bad situation even worse, on top of all the backstabbing, coups, riots and famine, a plague broke out, one that became known as the Plague of Cyprian, named after Saint Cyprian, bishop of Carthage, who described the terrible disease and its consequences in great detail. The epidemic, whose pathogen is still unknown, was said to have killed at least 5.000 people per day in Rome alone, nevermind in the rest of the empire.


    An artist's impression of the Plague of Cyprian.

    As the men who could have saved the empire were too busy tearing each other apart to see who could control the biggest piece of the gigantic rotting corpse, more and more barbarians were gathering on the borders of the Danube and the Rhine, especially the former. The most powerful of them were the Goths, a germanic people that originated in Scandza (2) migrated to Scythia and the shores of the Euxine Sea on the course of two centuries, where they subjugated the Sarmatians, and since the 230s mounted raids into Moesia and Thrace that became more and more destructive. On 250 they launched their biggest attack yet, led by their king Cniva, and begun their campaign by capturing the fortress of Novae.

    Thanks to the situation back in Rome, the only opposition that Cniva faced in this raid was from the regional governors on his way, which were nowhere near enough to stop him and his army. After Novae, the next target was Nicopolis, which fell and was sacked after a short siege, and then Beroe, which was further to the south, before turning back northeast and capturing Marcianopolis, all in the span of a few months. The complete lack of any opposition convinced the Gothic king that it would never come, and with new bands of all sorts of tribes, such as the Heruli, all eager for new glory and plunder on the south of the Danube, Cniva decided to stay and carve a new kingdom for himself and his people on the Haemus, rather than return to the north with the loot that he already had (3).


    A relief from the third century showing Roman legionaries massacring a Gothic army. The reality couldn't be more different.

    The following year, the Goths and their allies captured Philippopolis, capital of the province of Thrace, and turned the city into the capital of their new state. From this new conquest, they subjugated the rest of the province as far as Byzantium and the Hellespont, and lauched new attacks on Macedonia, Thessaly, Odainat's domains in Asia Minor, particularly Nicomedia and Cyzicus, and even managed to sack Thessalonica before breaking through Thermopylae and plundering Boeotia and parts of Attica. The imperial response only took place on 253, when emperor Regalianus finally managed to raise an army large enough to face the barbarians, and by then the invaders were far too well entrenched to be easily driven out.

    The armies met each other on Naissus, with 40.000 Romans having to face an equal or larger number of Goths. It was a catastrophe for the empire, since the defenders were tired and demoralized thanks to the situation back home (the very idea of an organized society seeming to fall apart around them) and it is quite likely that at least some among the imperial ranks were sick with the plague. Regalianus never returned to Italy, for he was murdered by an enraged soldier as he was retreating from the battlefield, his body later being found and cut to pieces by the barbarians.

    The defeat at Naissus was when the fall of the Roman Empire became a certainty, and all it was lacking now was for someone to deliver the coup de grace and destroy the Eternal City for good. Cniva wasn't up to the task, for he was too busy consolidating his hold over the kingdom he created and mounting new raids all over Northern Greece, the Aegean and the Eastern Meditarranean to do it. No, the people who would do it were clearly the Alemanni, a Germanic nation that lived in the upper reaches of the Rhine who, under their king named Chrocus, launched an invasion of Northern Italy in 258, crossing the Alps and sacking Mediolanum. After that, Chrocus and his army marched to the south and invaded Etruria, sacking several cities in there before marching into Latium.


    A gold coin of emperor Gallienus, the poor sod who had to defend what was left of the empire against impossible odds.

    The man tasked to stop this invasion was Gallienus, son of Valerian, a respected senator and noble who succumbed to the Plague of Cyprian a few years ago (4). Aware that the once invincible Roman army was by now utterly depleted thanks to the plague, famine and endless infighting, the emperor rallied together all the strong fighting men that the Eternal City still had, many of whom were civilians, farmers and labourers rather than soldiers, and gave them the few weapons and armor that were left in order to prepare for what he knew would certainly be his last battle. These last few Romans were all that was left between the Alemanni and what little was left of the proud, unguarded city that was once the center of the known world.

    The battle that would decide the fate of the Roman Empire took place on the southern shore of Lake Volsinii (5), sometime in 258 or 259. Aware that he and his soldiers were all going to die in the confrontation (they would rather commit suicide than be captured), it is then that, after seeing the large barbarian host marching towards them, Gallienus uttered a phrase that would never be forgotten by history:

    "Men, I am not ordering you to fight, I am ordering you to die." (6)

    After these "encouraging" words that perfectly described their predicament, the Last of the Romans charged with all the strength they had left towards the Alemanni army, Gallienus leading the attack. They were going to dine in hell tonight, and they would take as many of the barbarians with them.

    They didn't.

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    (1) IOTL, Licinianus and Regalianus were unsuccessful usurpers. Here, since the situation is even worse, they actually manage to take power for a few months.

    (2) Scandinavia.

    (3) IOTL, Cniva returned to the north of the Danube even though he managed to kill emperor Decius at the Battle of Abritus. ITTL, since his initial advance is virtually unopposed, he chooses to stay.

    (4) IOTL, Valerian never caught any disease and managed to become emperor. He ended up being defeated and captured by Shahanshah Shapur I at the Battle of Edessa, dying somewhere in Iran a few years later.

    (5) Lake Bolsena.

    (6) Mustafa Kemal, future president of Turkey, was the one who came up with this quote in the middle of the Battle of Gallipoli, in 1915.
     
    Part 8: Reunited
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    Part 8: Reunited

    Ever since the collapse of the Han dynasty, which started in the 190s, China was stuck in a period of warlordism and division, where competing generals carved new dominions for themselves and constantly battled each other, bringing much destruction to what was once without a doubt one of the largest, most advanced and powerful civilizations in the world at its peak, certainly a match and quitle possibly surpassing the Roman Empire. At the height of the upheaval, there were as many as nineteen warlords all controlling a different portion of the country, their endless clashes destroying villages and cities, crops and livestock (which obviously led to famines), and years upon years of knowledge and state building were burned by the flames of civil war. As these fiefdoms defeated their foes and expanded their territories, by the 220s all of China was in the hands of three kingdoms, all of them claiming to be the great nation's legitimate ruler.



    For the following decades, the three states would fight each other to control all of the Middle Kingdom, as China was known, and with Cao Wei and Eastern Wu being the stronger ones while Shu Han, the weakest, kept the balance and prevented one from completely overcoming the other, often allying with Wu against Wei, the most powerful and populous of the Three Kingdoms. However, while the forces involved were quite balanced and definitely looked like such in a map like the one shown above, such a division couldn't be kept forever, and since none of these states were immune to internal turmoil that could be taken advantage of, one state would inevitably rise up, dominate its enemies and unify China once more.

    The big event that finally changed everything took place on February 5, 249 at Luoyang, the capital of Wei. That day, the respected general Sima Yi, who was also regent for the seventeen year old emperor Cao Fang, launched a coup d'état against his fellow regent Cao Shuang, who was visiting the Gaoping Tombs with the emperor, and took control of Luoyang. Han Fan, minister of finance of Wei and an opponent of the Sima clan and its attempt to take power, evaded capture and warned Cao Shuang of what was going on, advising him to flee with the emperor to Xuchang, denounce Sima Yi as a traitor and call upon all troops of Wei to move against the conspirators. To the surprise of the chief plotter, the regent agreed to this plan, and suddenly what was supposed to be a quick takeover instead turned into a brutal and very confusing civil war between the loyalists and the supporters of the Sima clan (1).

    An artist's idea of what Sima Yi might have looked like. This drawing was made well over a thousand years after the Three Kingdoms period.

    Sima Yi's ambition ultimately doomed Wei. Upon hearing news of what was happening in the north, the emperor of Wu, Sun He, who took power shortly before the coup in Luoyang took place (2), immediately ordered general Zhuge Ke, a notorious advocate of war against Cao Wei, to prepare Wu's troops for exactly that. The Wu armies marched to war in 251, and Wei was by then suffering from the damages of two years of infighting and was unable to mount an effective resistance against the southern invaders, and as if that wasn't enough, Shu Han launched an offensive from the west at the same time, forcing the mighty northern kingdom to divide its troops to defend the borders. The two warring parties of Wei even agreed to bury the hatchet (for now) and combine their forces against the external threats, but by then it was too late to do anything other than delay the inevitable.

    The Wu armies captured Shouchun after a short battle, and from there made a beeline towards the banks the Yellow River, the cradle of Chinese civilization, and proceeded from there to lay siege to Luoyang, which resisted their first assault. Meanwhile, Shu Han advanced through the west almost unopposed, its troops capturing the great jewel of Chang'an (the capital of the Han dynasty bak in its glory days) and even managing to occupy the Yumen Pass, the gateway to the Tarim Basin and a critical point of the Silk Road. Little did they know, however, that they were exhausting their meager resources and severely overextending their territory. The once proud empire of Cao Wei finally ceased to exist in 254, when Luoyang was stormed by Wu troops after a brutal three year long siege that would never ever be forgotten by Chinese historians and bureaucrats.

    The same artist's idea of Zhuge Ke, the man who reunified China.

    In 261 came Shu's turn to be conquered. The western kingdom, the weakest of them all, was brought to bankruptcy after the long years of war, and was easily brought to its knees after just a year of campaigning by Zhuge Ke, who captured Chengdu, the Shu capital, after a brief siege. Sun He, by now better known by his regnal name, emperor Wen of Wu, became the first monarch since emperor Ling of Han to control all of China, and he immediately moved to solidify his power and consolidate the foundations of the reunited Chinese state.

    A capable and dedicated ruler (3), emperor Wen was more concerned with administrative matters than military ones, leaving those on the hands of his generals. Accordingly, he began a widespread reform of the imperial bureaucracy, combating corruption and loopholes within the system, something that he intended to do since his days as crown prince under his father Sun Quan. These reforms greatly increased imperial revenues and laid the foundations for what would become China's famous examination system as a method to select and elevate bureaucrats, rather than patronage and inheritance, something that would be put in place by his successors (4).

    The Wu dynasty would ultimately prove itself to be vastly different from its Han predecessor, including but not limited to the location of its core region. The new Chinese capital, Jianye, was much further to the south and east of its older counterparts, Luoyang and especially Chang'an, and was also much closer to the coast, with the Yangtze providing easy access to the outside world. This not only meant that the traditionally underdeveloped southern provinces began to receive special attention and an influx of Han Chinese people from the north, it also ensured that maritime trade was given a special focus by the empire, with ports like Jianye itself, Fuzhou and Guangzhou exporting and importing goods to and from places as far away as Southeast Asia, India, Arabia, Iran, Egypt and East Africa. To protect these vital routes, the Wu dynasty was forced to develop what would soon become the most powerful maritime force in the world, a navy that supposedly counted with thousands of ships of all shapes and sizes (5).


    It is believed that the junk, by far the most famous of China's ships, began to be developed during the Wu dynasty.

    ------------------
    Notes:

    (1) IOTL, Cao Shuang decided to surrender, believing that he would still live a life of luxury. In the end, he was executed for treason and the Sima family assumed complete control, eventually proclaiming the Jin dynasty and reunifying China in 280 AD. This reunion didn't last long, however, and the Jin were expelled from the north in the Uprising of the Five Barbarians just a few decades later.

    (2) IOTL, Sun He was taken off the succession line by Sun Quan in 250 AD thanks to intrigue. Here, the old man dies (he died in 252 at 69 IOTL) before that can happen.

    (3) If his Wikipedia entry is to be trusted, Sun He was an intelligent prince who saw problems within the Wu bureaucracy, such as abusing certain loopholes to screw rivals over, and intended to fix them.

    (4) IOTL, the imperial examination began to be used in this way during the Tang dynasty, which took power during the 7th century.

    (5) IOTL, Eastern Wu traded with places such as India and the Middle East, so this doesn't seem so implausible.
     
    Part 9: The Worst Kind of War
  • ------------------
    Part 9: The Worst Kind of War

    "An empire's worst enemy is itself." -- Darius of Spahan, Iranian historian from the seventh century, on the Crisis of the Third Century and the War of Division (1).

    The knives came out immediately after the death of Shahanshah Shapur I, and Narseh, king of Armenia and youngest son of the deceased monarch, raised an army to deal with his older brother and marched to Ctesiphon to secure his coronation in great splendor. It seems that he was unaware that, despite his high birth, something that improved his legitimacy when compared to Bahram, his sibling and rival too had a great many allies among the nobility and especially the clergy, whose high priest, Kartir, hoped to strengthen Zoroastrianism at the expense of other religions, especially Manichaeism and, to a lesser extent, Christianity. That would explain why he was shocked to find out that the gates of the capital were closed to him and his troops, forcing him to mount a ragtag siege with the supporters that he already had, while Bahram's allies were quickly closing in on his position.

    While Bahram's comparatively low states forced him to spend more time in Ctesiphon (while his brothers were either governors or sub-kings), something that ironically allowed him to court quite a few allies, Narseh wasn't exactly on his own either. The Seven Great Houses of Iran preferred to back him over some (in their eyes) lowborn usurper, and he likely promised some sort of concession to them to secure their support, but they were far away from Mesopotamia at the moment (Shapur's death was quite unexpected) and it would take some time for any troops they mustered to help the young prince. Narseh's most important ally, however, was Mani, who was in the capital while all of these events were unfolding, and also knew that Kartir would likely try to have him killed and persecute his followers (2). The large Manichean community in Ctesiphon proved itself to be a valuable fifth column to Narseh, opening the gates of the great city to his forces and allowing him to capture it by surprise.

    Bahram disappeared in the chaos and was presumed dead. In triumph after this victory, Narseh was crowned King of Kings of Iran and set about purging the nobility and clergy of Bahram's supporters, starting with Kartir. This attitude naturally started all sorts of uprisings and conspiracies both in the capital and several provinces, and the new monarch would have to dedicate quite a bit of his time and energy to consolidate his own rule, preventing him from launching any foreign adventures or ambitious building projects in the next few years.

    A coin of Narseh I, minted in 266.

    Little did the young king know, but his rival was still alive, supposedly disguised as a merchant if the sources are to be believed, and still eager to take his rightful place on the imperial throne. However, although he likely aware that there were revolts sprouting against Narseh all over the place, he thought they weren't anywhere near close to deposing him. No, if he was going to defeat his younger brother and ensure that he didn't get the same kind of luck he did, he was going to need a powerful new army to replace the one that was being purged of his supporters at this very moment. Thus, he did something that would ruin the very name he was given for centuries.

    He sold his soul to the devil.

    Appearing in Palmyra right before Odainat, he revealed his true identity and predicament, stating that the throne of Iran had been illegaly by a man who was clearly illegitimate thanks to the fact that he was much younger than him, and who was nothing more than a puppet of Mani and the Seven Great Houses. Some sources state that he even kneeled before the Palmyrene king and kissed his hand, but these should be obviously dismissed as propaganda. It is, however, clear that Bahram promised great concessions in exchange for Odainat's support, likely in the form of territories such as Armenia and northern Mesopotamia. In 267, right after this deal was made, an enormous army of around 70.000 men captured Nisibis and from there marched towards the capital, which was completely unprepared to face hold such a large force at its gates.

    Upon hearing of this, Narseh was understantably infuriated, and gathered all of his soldiers, valuables and entourage and evacuated Ctesiphon a few days before Odainat and his new puppet arrived and captured it without any resistance whatsoever. The king and his supporters fled south, to the province of Meshan, on the coast of the Persian Gulf, and from there marched to the east, crossing the Zagros Mountains and from there made a beeline to Pars, intending to turn Istakhr, Ardashir's first capital, into his new seat of power. Unfortunately, he was closely pursued by the Palmyrene army, and they finally caught up to his ragtag force at Hormozdgan, the same place where the father of Iran as we know it defeated the last of the Arsacids, Artabanus IV.


    The mighty Zagros Mountains.

    The first battle of what became known as the War of Division wasn't really a battle at all, but rather an oversized skirmish between Odainat's vanguard and the Iranian rearguard, which fought with a kind of courage that was clearly born from desperation. Although the aftermath of this confrontation was surely a draw, it was enough to convince the lord of Palmyra to cease his pursuit of Narseh and return to Mesopotamia and consolidate his new holdings, and although Bahram was outraged and strongly protested this decision, his words were unheeded, something that showed who really held the power in this very unequal relationship. The main reason for this probably wasn't the "battle", but rather the simple fact that the Palmyrene army never marched so far to the east before, and it was entering unknown terrain.

    Narseh set up shop in Istakhr sometime between late 267 and early 268, and immediately began to raise a proper army to defend what was left of his dominions. Although he was deprived of Armenia and most importantly Mesopotamia, the richest region in Iran, his older sibling's decision to call for foreign help alienated almost all of his remaining supporters, and although many still disagreed with the young Sasanian on many things, they weren't going to put themselves under the service of some excessively powerful king who they hated ever since his great conquests after the Battle of the Euphrates. He also had the full support of the Seven Great Houses, who controlled large estates and could equip many thousands of people.

    Narseh would need all of them if he was to resist Odainat's next attempt to take over Iran, which began when he crossed the Zagros in early 269 and marched in a very clear direction towards Istakhr. Both sides were confident enough to give battle at the Persian Gates, the same place where Alexander the Great destroyed the last bits of resistance to his conquest of the Achaemenid Empire centuries ago.


    The Persian Gates in the modern day.

    The ensuing battle, much like its predecessor, was a disaster for the defenders. Narseh was forced to flee even further to the east, towards Khorasan, abandoning Istakhr to Bahram and Odainat, who entered the city in question with great splendor. From now on, it seemed that all further actions in the war would be mop up operations to clear the Iranian Plateau of opponents to the new order.

    But before the lord of Palmyra and his puppet could truly drive their enemy out of Iran, there was one last place they needed to capture.

    The great citadel of Bam.

    ------------------
    Notes:

    (1) This is a fictional character, and since I have no idea how the Persian language works, I probably butchered the name. If you have a better suggestion, please tell me.

    (2) IOTL, Kartir had Mani executed with the approval of Bahram I (TTL's puppet).
     
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    Part 10: Ironic
  • New map!
    ------------------

    Part 10: Ironic

    By 268 Odainat was, according to historians, sure that he was the reincarnation of Alexander The Great. The parallels were just too obvious to ignore: he was born in an obscure kingdom that was eclipsed by its two giant neighbors and turned said kingdom into a world power that mixed several different cultures together. He conquered and ruled Egypt (granted, that was the doing of his wife Zenobia, but still) and even brought an emperor to his knees thanks to his audacity, and with his western front now secured, it was time that he conquered the vast lands to the east and secure an immortal legacy for himself and his son Vaballathus. That effort began with little difficulty, for he had a reliable puppet, Bahram, who gave him a perfect pretext to start a war with his nominal Iranian overlord, and he won a magnificent victory at the Persian Gates just like the Macedonian king of old.

    It seemed that the only thing that stood in the way of his quest for world domination were the walls of Bam. If he took the great fortress, then the path to Khorasan and India would be open and ripe for conquest. The enormous amount of prestige that he would acquire would be enough for him to discard Bahram and his children completely, bringing an end to the young Sasanian dynasty.

    The mighty Citadel of Bam.

    He had no idea just how utterly massive Bam's fortifications were, and his artillery train was far away from the main core of his army thanks to his mad dash straight into the heart of Iran after the Battle of the Persian Gates. There was no way in hell that he was going to take by assault a fortress that had been built and constantly upgraded since the days of the Achaemenids without quite a few siege towers and catapults, so the ambitious Palmyrene king had no choice but to order his men to surround Bam and prevent the garrison from acquiring new supplies. Little did he know that Narseh invested all of his remaining resources into ensuring that the citadel did not fall, meaning that it was stored with many years worth of food, water and weapons.

    Odainat's problems didn't end there. Isolated from any allies and surrounded by a hostile population (the fact that a good bit of Pars was plundered by his soldiers certainly didn't help), he had to dedicate a sizable percentage of his men to protect his long supply train which would otherwise be vulnerable to hit-and-run attacks from local nobles and peasants alike. That didn't mean that Narseh's position was ideal either, for although he probably had a larger army on paper, especially considering that, as previously said, the wannabe Alexander had to guard his own supply lines so he didn't starve, his own men were demoralized thanks to the crushing defeat at the Persian Gates and the sheer aura of invincibility that Odainat gathered around himself thanks to his many victories against several opponents over the length his long reign.

    After three or four weeks that felt like an eternity, the Palmyrene siege train finally arrived, and preparations were made to bombard a part of Bam's walls and climb another one with the towers and ladders they had, and after some tense days and nights, the first assault began. It was a failure: the walls weren't damaged enough to collapse just yet, and the siege towers took longer than expected to be deployed appropriately thanks to the fact that the citadel was located on the top of a hill. This gave the defenders plenty of time to figure out what particular spots would be attacked and protect them appropriately.


    An artist's idea of an onager similar to the ones used during the Siege of Bam.

    Although disappointed, Odainat was not surprised at all. This initial assault was more a probe into the citadel's defenses with the purpose of finding weak points and test the resolve of the Iranian garrison, and both sides knew that. Didn't keep the defenders from having a short lived boost to their morale, though. This little victory was replaced by months and months of relentless bombardment by the Palmyrene onagers that slowly eroded the walls despite the defenders' best efforts to repair all the damage they found. Though he was confident enough of his own position, the Iranian spahbed (general), a certain Cyaxares of House Ispahbudhan (1), knew that unless his men were relieved by an outside force, preferably one led by the true King of Kings, they would eventually be forced to surrender.

    The second assault took place four months after the first one and six after the beginning of the siege. By then, exhaustion and disease had thinned out the Iranians' numbers and lowered their morale, combined with the seemingly endless rain of large rocks right over their heads and their walls. This new attack was also much better planned and coordinated than the one that preceded it, and it showed as it progressed. After days of savage hand to hand fighting, the Palmyrene army took over Bam's outer defenses, despite the fanatical and seemingly suicidal resistance of the Iranian defenders, and from now on it was clear that the siege would be decided by swords and not by arrows and catapults. This didn't mean that Odainat's task got any easier, oh no, it honestly probably got much harder and more brutal, but at least he could foresee a feasible future where he could return to Palmyra as a worthy successor to Alexander.


    The empire of Alexander the Great, the entity that Odainat desired to recreate.

    Those dreams were completely shattered when the worst thing that could possibly happen occurred. A large relief army personally commanded by Narseh appeared on the horizon, and the invaders were forced to retreat from the citadel lest they be surrounded and crushed by the two enemy forces. A fierce battle took place on the outskirts of Bam, and although the Iranians were by this point far more numerous than the army of Odainat, they were unable to completely defeat them and reconquer their lost territories to the west. Although the confrontation led to a stalemate, it gave the Bam garrison some few critical days of rest and, most importantly, new men and supplies, since Odainat didn't have enough men left to completely surround the great citadel.

    Furious after seeing what seemed to be an inevitable victory slip from his grasp, Odainat refused to believe that he had been defeated, and stayed on for an additional month even as more and more angry Iranians gathered in his surroundings, eager to crush what was left of his forces. In the end, he was forced to retreat back to Ctesiphon in humiliation, but not before his soldiers looted all the cities and every possible inch of farmland they could touch during their long journey back. His problems didn't end there: as he entered Mesopotamia, he was greeted with the news that Bahram, his puppet, had suddenly died, and his two sons, Bahram and Hormizd, had disappeared. Thus, Ctesiphon was bereft of a credible figure of authority that could maintain order for a few days.

    The puppet sovereign's fate is something that is still much discussed to this day, since contemporary and posterior sources endlessly contradict each other when describing what really happened. What is clear is that his children not only refused to replace their father as Odainat's puppets, but they actually moved to the east and defected to Narseh, since records that were recently discovered show that they actually submitted themselves to their uncle and were allowed to hold own estates in his greatly reduced kingdom.

    At the same time, word traveled quickly of what had happened in Bam even before the wannabe Alexander had crossed the Zagros Mountains on his way back home, and what were a series of riots and other minor disturbances escalated into a full-blown revolt against the Palmyrene occupation. The returning king put down this rebellion with great brutality, no doubt a sign that he was yet to get over his defeat in the east. The Manichean community of Ctesiphon, which eagerly supported Narseh thanks to their prophet, who by now lived somewhere in the east, was prohibited from practicing its religion, and many of its members were publicly executed for inciting others to rise up against public order.

    In spite of Odainat's humiliating defeat, Narseh couldn't march to the west and expel the invader from the imperial capital. The lands under his control were thoroughly devastated by the war, and he had spent almost all of his resources and men in the defense of the Citadel of Bam. It was a cruel twist of fate: a few years ago, he had a good chance to inherit an empire that was well in its way to replace Rome as a world power, only for this upstart to rise up, steal Roman lands that rightfully belonged to his father Shapur I, and rip Iran in half thanks to his ambition to rule the world.

    The Age of Division had begun. It would outlive all of its instigators.

    mapa persia (1).png


    ------------------
    Notes:

    (1) Another fictional character.
     
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    Part 11: Invictus
  • ------------------
    Part 11: Invictus

    Nobody knows what really happened at the Battle of Lake Volsinii.

    There are many myths.

    One legend in particular says that Sol Invictus, who became one of the most important Roman gods after the Crisis of the Third Century, deeply moved by the courage of Gallienus and his soldiers, blessed and made them as tough and strong as any veteran soldier could ever hope to be several times over. It was with this super strength that they charged straight into the Alemanni host and inflicted so many casualties on the enemy that it seemed that the barbarians would be pushed into the cold waters of the lake and either drown or be cut down by the swords of the valiant last defenders of the Eternal City. It is said that Gallienus himself slew as many as two hundred barbarians on a bloody, frenzied attempt to personally kill Chrocus, king of the invaders, something that would surely shatter Alemanni army if he was successful.

    For a fleeting moment, it seemed that a repeat of the famed Battle of Cannae was taking place: a smaller but better led army surrounding and annihilating a much larger opponent. And with the lake on their backs, Chrocus and his generals knew that a defeat here would lead to exactly that.

    The volcanic Lake Volsinii.

    But that's just a legend. It doesn't matter.

    What is relevant is the final result, and despite whatever fantastical feats of heroism that may have taken place on that cataclysmic day, the Romans were utterly defeated. Gallienus was never seen again, for he supposedly struck by an arrow at the height of his glory not unlike the ancient Greek hero Achilles, and his body was never found, with some speculating that his corpse was taken from the earth by the gods before it could be desecrated by the Alemanni. Another legend says that he survived the battle and fled to a remote location somewhere in the Appenines, where he would lie in a deep slumber until the time was right to lead save the people of Italy, right when all hope seemed to be lost (1). This messianic myth turned him into a national symbol many centuries later, and ensured that the valiant emperor would never be forgotten.

    The atrocities that happened after the battle, along with their consequences, wouldn't ever be forgotten either. After their victory, the Alemanni marched into Rome and descended upon the city like a pack of hungry wolves, looting as many buildings and as many valuables as they could over the course of a week, during which large parts of the Eternal City, once one of the largest urban aglomerations on the planet, were burned to the ground. Chrocus and his people had done something that was once unthinkable: for the first time in almost six hundred years, a foreign army occupied and sacked Rome, the last one accomplishing such a feat being the one led by the Gallic leader Brennus in 387 B.C. (2).

    In doing so, the Alemanni destroyed the Roman Empire and, with it, all sense of political and military unity in Italy, and all of the peninsula would be sacked by repeated incursions organized by them and other peoples, whose armies would reach as far as Bruttium (3) and Apulia. Full of glory and plunder, Chrocus led his people back into their homeland somewhere in southern Germania, content with the fact that they could return and steal even more riches at any time if they felt like it.


    The Eternal City burns.

    Far away beyond the Alps, one man was listening to the news that came from Italy with great horror and surprise. This person had a humble and obscure childhood somewhere in northern Gaul, near the delta of the Rhine, joined the army and rose through the ranks until he became a general sometime in the mid 250s. However, even though he was acutely aware of just how rotten the empire really was, thanks to his high position, he had no idea that something as outrageous as the Eternal City being pillaged and the once almighty colossus that it commanded completely broken was remotely possible. As soon as he heard about the atrocities that were happening in Italy, from Mediolanum to Tarentum, he knew that something drastic had to be done to ensure that his homeland didn't suffer the same fate.

    His soldiers had the same idea, and since they knew him personally, they knew better than anyone who was skilled and worthy enough to lead their effort. On that day, sometime in 259, Marcus Cassianus Latinius Postumus was proclaimed emperor and protector of Gaul by the legionaries in the city of Augusta Treverorum, not far from the Rhine, which became the capital of this Roman remnant state that became known as the Gallic Empire (4). The legions of Hispania and Britannia also swore their allegiance to Postumus, hoping that he could prevent their homes from being invaded and plundered by the seemingly endless waves of barbarians. In what was the historical equivalent of the blink of an eye, Postumus found himself leading a state that stretched from Gadir (5) in the south to Hadrian's Wall that marked the border between Britannia and Caledonia.

    A well preserved coin of emperor Postumus.

    The new emperor's first priority was setting up an independent administration that transformed Augusta Treverorum into its own little Rome, something that despite the growth of localism ever since the start of the Crisis of the Third Century, was no easy feat. The saying "All roads lead to Rome" was very much a real thing, and turning this "little" remnant into a functioning state that could stand on its own proved itself to be a task that stretched all of Postumus' exceptional administrative skills to the limit. New governors were appointed to lead the various provinces, and several administrative and cerimonial bodies that were essentially copies of old Roman institutions were put in place. The Gallic Empire had its own Senate and Praetorian Guard, along with other institutions.

    Postumus' other priority was the one area in which he truly excelled at: fighting barbarians. Ironically, even though defense was the main reason he was proclaimed emperor by his legions, it took a few years until the foreign peoples turned their eyes in the direction of the Gallic Empire and its lands, thanks to the horrible situation Italy was in. The first attack came in 263, four years after the emperor's acclamation, and was made by the Alemanni and their king Chrocus, the same man who led the Sack of Rome. The first city to be attacked was Argentoratum (6), on the left bank of the Rhine, which was quickly sacked with most of its inhabitants fleeing to the nearby countryside.

    After that, the king of the Alemanni ordered his forces to march northwest to Treverorum, no doubt wishing to deliver the same kind of decapitating blow that was delivered against Rome just a few years before. However, Chrocus' great victory over Gallienus had left him arrogant, and he failed to realize that the context was very different, and the army that was ready to oppose him was very different from the brave but feeble militia that he crushed at the battle of Lake Volsinii. As such, he was greatly surprised to see that his army was met by an equal force at the banks of the river Saravus (7), and even more so when his people suffered a stinging defeat at the hands of Gallo-Romans.

    However, Postumus wasn't satisfied with this victory, and pursued the Alemanni back to their homeland of Suebia, beyond the Rhine, andn in the following year, won such a complete, crushing victory over them that they would disappear from historical records for many decades afterwards. More so than that, his soldiers brought along with them many valuable relics that were stolen from Italy and other places that were raided by the barbarians, including the legendary urns that contained the ashes of emperors Augustus and Hadrian, among many other things. Chrocus' severed head was supposedly handed over to the protector of Gaul as a gift, and he ordered it to be put on display in the main square of Augusta Treverorum. Thousands of prisoners of war were either enslaved or crucified and left to rot on important roads, a warning to all who would dare to invade the empire in the future.

    Alemannic belt mountings that were taken by the Gallo-Romans in 264 (7).

    Not all foreign invaders were treated in such a brutal manner. The Franks, who began to cross the Rhine in 265 or slightly later, were incorporated into the imperial army after they were defeated (probably being spread over its units to prevent them from getting any ideas) and were allowed to steadily settle within the borders of Gaul, being assimilated into Gallo-Roman society in the course of the following centuries. Frankish soldiers would play a critical part in repelling the largest invasion of them all, wich was made by none other than the Goths, the same people who ravaged the Haemus Peninsula and killed a Roman emperor in battle. By the time this invasion began, in 272, the Goths were running out of lands to plunder in their traditional regions, and their fragile confederation was threatening to fall apart. The lands that they controlled, their "kingdom", could be best described as the "Gothic Desolation" rather than as the "Kindgom of the Goths".

    Taking advantage of the remarkable quality of the Roman Empire's road network, even after years without proper maintenance, a massive army that may have counted with as many as 70.000 men advanced with great speed through Illyria, crossed the Alps into northern Italy and then crossed the mountains once more. The first major city to fell their wrath was Lugdunum, capital of the province of Gallia Lugdinensis, and after that they crossed the Rhodanus river (8), into the fields of the province of Gallia Aquitania. Postumus was unable to respond to this massive attack appropriately, since he was busy facing the very same enemy that destroyed so many emperors before him: usurpers. Throughout his reign, he had to face three of four of these people, and this one, who was named Marcus Aurelius Marius, happened to rise against him at the same time of a foreign invasion (9).

    A depiction of the usurper Marcus Aurelius Marius.

    By the time Postumus had cleaned house properly to gather all of his forces, the Goths were at the gates of Burdigala (10), capital of Aquitania, and had already pillaged the surrounding fields and villages. The ensuing battle consisted of a very large ambush made by the Gallo-Roman army while the bulk of the Goths were still dedicating most of their attention to the Burdigala garrison, and by the time they were finally ready to fight, their ranks were already being torn apart by seemingly endless waves of angry legionaries. This confrontation, which was given the name of Battle of the Garunna, after the river that flows from the Pyrenees and meets the sea in Burdigala (11), became one of Postumus' most famous victories, second only to the one that vanquished the Alemanni as a threat.

    It was also after this last victory that the Senate gave the emperor his famous title: Invictus (The Undefeated). He certainly deserved it, for he not only managed to carve an entirely new state and make it stand on its own (granted, pretty much all of the existing bureaucratic structure was inherited), and most importantly, managed to keep it together even though he faced multiple foreign invasions and usurpers at home. He obviously didn do it entirely on his own, and had multiple allies that sadly still don't get the credit they deserve even to this day, especially his right hand man and consul Victorinus, who played a critical role in suppressing Marius' revolt and ensuring that the Goths could be dealt with.

    Some day in 285, after ruling his new state for twenty-six years, emperor Postumus Invictus passed away of old age. He was succeeded on the imperial throne by his son Claudius (12), who inherited an empire much stronger and richer than the one that had been created by his father more than two decades ago. In his very long reign, which would be the longest since the days of Augustus, he would take it to incredible new heights.

    mapa galia.png


    ------------------
    Notes:

    (1) This is pretty much TTL's version of the myth of king Sebastian of Portugal, who vanished in the Battle of Alcácer Quibir (1578).

    (2) Rome would only be sacked IOTL in 410 AD by the Visigoths and their king Alaric I.

    (3) Calabria.

    (4) IOTL, the Gallic Empire was proclaimed in 260 and was caused by the capture of Valerian in Edessa.

    (5) Cádiz.

    (6) Strasbourg.

    (7) Somewhere close to modern day Saarbrücken.

    (8) These belt mountings were crafted in the seventh century IOTL. Butterflies, I guess?

    (9) IOTL, Marcus Aurelius Marius replaced Postumus after the latter's murder by his own soldiers, but he ended up being assassinated and replaced by the same Victorinus that is mentioned in this update.

    (10) Bordeaux.

    (11) The Garonne river.

    (12) AFAIK, Postumus IOTL had no offspring other than a certain "Postumus the Younger" who was likely a fictional character. Since this story's POD is in 243, he ends up having a real son sometime before he became emperor because of butterflies, thus creating a dynasty.
     
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    Part 12: Summit of Greatness
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    Part 12: Summit of Greatness

    Odainat, lord of Palmyra, was never the same after his humiliating defeat at the Siege of Bam. For most of his life, he was a talented, astute ruler who administrated his vast dominions fairly and protected them from most outside threats, allowing the cities and fields under his control to grow and prosper while the once magnificent empire in the west collapsed utterly. While he hated the idea of being subordinate to anyone, he knew that bending the knee to Shapur I gave him a once in a lifetime opportunity to manipulate the messy internal politics of Iran and allow him to become even more powerful. Unfortunately, the king's neverending streak of successes proved to be his undoing, for after his capture of Ctesiphon and seizure of Mesopotamia, it he convinced himself that he was the reincarnation of Alexander the Great, and therefore was invincible.

    With this illusion shattered by the unexpected resistance of the Citadel of Bam combined by its relief by Iranian forces right when victory seemed certain, Odainat fell into a deep depression and began to neglect affairs of state, leaving more and more of his work on the hands of his wife, Queen Zenobia, a skilled administrator in her own right. To make matters worse, even though the realm recovered from this great defeat and grew ever more prosperous in the following years, its king fell into a death spiral and, ironically, incorporated one of his role model's worst aspects: alcoholism. By the time he died in 275, Odainat was little more than a shadow of the man that he once was, a broken alcoholic who was nothing like the charismatic, adventurous king whoo turned Palmyra from a tiny autonomous state stuck between two giant empires into the center of one of the great powers of the world.

    The was one crucial difference between Alexander and Odainat: the latter had a clear heir (who was not an infant) at the time of his father's death.

    And that's where Zenobia truly left her mark. The boy, named Wahballat ("Gift of Allat", Allat being an Arabian goddess) spent most of his childhood and adolescence with his mother, since Odainat was either too busy conquering new lands or, after his campaign against Iran, drinking until his liver finally gave out. The queen cut corners to ensure that her son truly grew up to become a divine gift to the world, and Wahballat spent most of his early life in Alexandria, his mother's seat of power, surrounded by tutors, scientists and philosophers like Cassius Longinus (1), the best of the best of the great city's intellectuals that gave it its well deserved reputation as a center of learning, personified in the Great Library or Musaeum, which existed since the days of the Ptolemies (2). After the prince reached the age of ten, he began to take part in state meetings and ceremonies, as preparation for his future days as king.



    An artist's rather anachronistic idea of Zenobia addressing her soldiers. Though no representations or descriptions of her appearance exist, the painting shows her power quite nicely.

    By the time Odainat died, it was clear that Zenobia's efforts were well spent. Her son, though young (he was just 16), was extremely intelligent and not only interested in matters of state, but also in science and philosophy. It is not surprising that contemporary and future historians would call Wahballat a philosopher-king just like the one that Plato saw as the perfect ruler in his most famous work, The Republic. However, even though he was crowned at Palmyra with great splendor, it would take a few years for him to truly rule the vast territories under his jurisdiction, since Zenobia was still queen of Egypt and had enormous influence in the court. Still, even if he had very little power during these early years, he gradually learned more and more about the inner workings of state, such how full the treasury was, how many soldiers could be raised and armed without damaging the economy, among other things, which went hand in hand with his gifted eduaction.

    By 283, Wahballat, then 24 years old, had grown into a very shrewd individual, and was getting tired of being nothing more than his mother's puppet. That year, according to historians, he "convinced" (read: deposed) Zenobia to abdicate as queen of Egypt, handing over the throne to him, uniting this vast, ancient and rich land with the rest of the empire, which was ruled from Palmyra. Though Zenobia wasn't particularly old and could theoretically maintain her privileged position for quite a few more years (she was born around 240), she wasn't stupid, and saw the writing in the wall. In fact, she was actually quite satisfied, since she saw this act as evidence that her son was more than capable of filling her and Odainat's shoes. Thanks to her lack of resistance, she was allowed to retire and live the rest of her days in a comfortable estate somehere in the Nile Delta, where she peacefully passed away in 304 at the age of sixty-four.


    A coin that gives us an idea of what Wahballat may have looked like as an adult (left) and as a teenager (right) (3).

    Now with complete control over an immense realm that stretched from the Aegean to the Zagros and from the Euxine Sea to Aswan, Wahballat was eager to flex his muscles and secure some military glory for himself through the conquest of new territories. Thanks to events that were outside of his control, he had a big opportunity in the west: the once fearsome Gothic Kingdom in Moesia and Thrace was on the verge of falling apart thanks to internal struggles, and their traditional raiding grounds (Greece, Macedonia, Epirus and other adjacent lands) were desperate for someone to save them from the wrath of their northern neighbor, especially since their frequent civil wars led to new migrations and raids all over the Haemus Peninsula.

    Obviously believing that he was this saviour, Wahballat crossed the Hellespont in 284 at the head of an army of 70.000 men, and from there marched northeast along the coast of the Propontis and into Byzantium, the capture of which would provide him with a strong bridgehead into Europe. After a short siege and naval blockade, the city surrendered and threw open its gates to the Palmyrene soldiers, who occupied it without great difficulties. After this, the army marched westward and captured Adrianople, capital of the former Roman province of Thrace, without any resistance whatsoever. It was only after the Palmyrene troops marched to the north, intenting to take Philippopolis, that the Goths scraped together an army to face their vastly superior opponent.

    The battle, which took place in right to the south of the once great city, was a catastrophe for the Goths, whose army, decayed by infighting and the severe defeat imposed on it by the Gallo-Romans in the last decade, was a shadow of the once mighty fighting force that killed a Roman emperor and shattered his troops.

    The rest of the campaign was a cakewalk, much to the relief of the young king, who desired to pose as a liberator but was more of a civil servant rather than a general. After the Goths were kicked out of Moesia and forced to move into Illyria, Wahballat and his soldiers marched into Macedonia and Greece, where they were received with great joy by the citizens and peasants of these lands and their cities, and the Palmyrene annexation of the eastern Haemus was concluded with a massive triumphal parade in Athens, whose inhabitants pledged their allegiance to the eastern king in great fanfare. In less than a year, Wahballat conquered a considerable amount of territory and greatly increased his prestige, earning him the respect of those who were still skeptical of him back home.


    It is believed that Wahballat celebrated his conquest of the Haemus at the top of the Acropolis of Athens. The city definitely looked a lot uglier than in this painting, though.

    After this victory, it was time to incorporate the newly acquired territories into the rest of the empire, something that proved itself to be far more time consuming and exhausting than anticipated, even to a skilled bureaucrat like the young king of Palmyra. Decades of warfare and raiding transformed most of Greece, Moesia and Thrace into a wasteland, with cities like Athens, Thessalonica and Philippopolis being much smaller than they were prior to the Crisis of the Third Century, and the once fertile farmlands that surrounded places such as these were completely devastated. It would take many years and massive amounts of cash to fully reverse this situation and repair the decadent infrastructure, and even more time for the new provinces to actually bring in a profit for Palmyra (4). Still, at least the population wasn't particularly rebellious.

    The second military campaign that happened under Wahballat's reign was the subjugation of the kingdom of Himyar, which took place in the late 290s. An expedition led by a general whose name is unfortunately unknown and Hairan, an older brother of his who for whatever reason was denied a place on the throne, probably because Zenobia prevented him or something else. The main goal of this war was the conquest of the port of Aden, which controlled trade between the Indian Ocean and the Red Sea (and therefore the Mediterranean), something that made the little kingdom of what was known to the Romans as Arabia Felix ("Fortunate Arabia") very rich. However, even though Himyar was a strong regional power in its own right and had a particularly remarkable navy, it was no match to Palmyra's naval and terrestrial forces, and the capital city of Zafar fell in 298.


    mapa base.png


    It was not these comparatively small military victories that made Wahballat famous, but rather what took place during the long times of internal and external peace that dominated pretty much all of his reign. Ever since Odainat began his conquests, Palmyra took control of the multiple trade routes between China and India on one end and Europe on the other, the most famous of them being the Silk Road. As China was reunited under the Eastern Wu and the mighty Gupta Empire began to rise in India, the amount of trade in the Palmyrene ports and cities increased dramatically, and heavy taxes were imposed on this commerce that ensured that the state grew immensely rich. The conquest of places such as Byzantium and especially Aden gave Wahballat a virtual monopoly on all trade between the East and the West.

    This also made the Palmyrene Empire an extremely diverse and cosmopolitan polity, with multiple cultures, languages and religions all living under the same banner. Aware that this scenario generated large amounts of cultural exchange that increased the spread of innovations and new ideas, Wahballat instituted a religious and cultural policy that was largely tolerant and accepting of multiple groups at once, and ordered the construction and upgrading of several libraries and other institutions of learning, chief of them being the Musaeum of Alexandria, something that further cemented his reputation as a philosopher king. As if that weren't enough, some historians even state that he, always interested in science and how things worked, personally ordered and oversaw the construction of an aeolipile (a type of steam engine invented by Heron of Alexandria nearly two centuries before) using blueprints from the Musaeum (5).

    This odd device was probably used to entertain and impress the foreigners that entered his magnificent capital.

    An aeolipile.

    There was, however, a large group of people that was prevented as much as possible from having any sort of protection whatsoever: the Manicheans. With its founder and prophet Mani fleeing to Istakhr during Odainat's attempt to conquer Iran, the large following that he gathered, particularly in Ctesiphon, remained loyal to the King of Kings and was, because of that, subjected to a cruel persecution that was marked by multiple massacres and executions. Seeing this religious community as a bunch of potential rebels as well as a fifth column, Wahballat maintained his father's draconian policies towards the Manicheans and eventually forced most of them out of Mesopotamia and into the Iranian Plateau, still under the control of the Sasanians, with a small but constant trickle of devotees and preachers moving further to the east, into India, Central Asia and China.

    Speaking of Ctesiphon, the former Iranian capital also suffered under Palmyrene occupation thanks to the loss of its status. Although it was still an important center of commerce, most investments were diverted to Palmyra and other major cities of the Middle East, and the gradual loss of its Manichean population and workforce was also a blow to the city's economy and that of Mesopotamia as a whole.

    The end result is that, while Wahballat's death in his sleep at the age of sixty-nine was received with much grief all over the great empire, Mesopotamia was about to explode out of anger.

    Its cries would be answered soon enough.

    ------------------
    Notes:

    (1) Cassius Longinus was a famous Platonian philosopher who was well respected as a literary critic. Thanks to his support of queen Zenobia and the Palmyrene Empire, he was executed in 273.

    (2) IOTL, the quarter where the Musaeum was located was destroyed during Aurelian's reconquest of Alexandria, though the Great Library was in decline for some time before. Well, at least before Zenobia took charge of the place and refurbished it ITTL.

    (3) The adult man on the coin is actually Aurelian.

    (4) Think of Italy right after the Gothic War.

    (5) Considering that this device was developed in the 1st century AD and that papyrus is pretty durable, I wouldn't be surprised if someone managed to build something similar two hundred years later. And no, Palmyra won't undergo an industrial revolution. It's too early for that.
     
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    Part 13: New Beginning
  • ------------------
    Part 13: New Beginning

    It is common for Iranian historians and average people to depict the Age of Division as a "dark era" in their country's traditionally proud, powerful and independent history, and they certainly have some good logic behind their thinking. After all, while Palmyra entered a period of great prosperity after the end of the war and Odainat's passing, which led to the golden age that was the reign of Wahballat the Great, the Sasanian remnant in the Iranian Plateau and beyond was deprived of the rich plains of Mesopotamia after almost collapsing in 269 and, most importantly, the great capital city of Ctesiphon, a painful blow to the Shahanshah's prestige. The powerful armies that once rivaled with Rome were battered after the defeat at the Persian Gates, and only the mighty walls of the Citadel of Bam and the resolve of its garrison prevented the country from falling apart entirely.

    However, this consensus overlooks many developments that took place while the Sasanian dynasty spent its days in Istakhr. The first and most apparent of them was that, centered in Pars rather than Asoristan, the King of Kings could and had to pay much more attention to what was going on in far flung provinces like Bactria and Transoxiana, now the most fertile regions in the empire thanks to the loss of Mesopotamia. This was obviously beneficial to cities like Samarkand, Bukhara and Merv, which were important trading centers thanks to their position along the Silk Road, since they now enjoyed increased protection from bandits and especially nomads from Central Asia, which allowed them to flourish and become a critical source of revenue to Istakhr that had to be defended at all costs.

    Another welcome boost came from the waves of Manichean refugees who fled Palmyrene rule thanks to the brutal persecution to which they were subjected to in the western lands. Many of these people were artisans, traders and craftsmen of all sorts, and even those who were simple farmers provided a welcome boon to the cash-starved Iranian treasury. Over time, this influx of people altered the religious composition of the Iranian Plateau considerably, and its population, which at the beginning of the Age of Division was overwhelmingly Zorastrian with some Christian communities and local religions here and there. By 332, when Iran was reunified, the percentage of Manicheans in the Plateau had risen to at least 30% and was still growing. Naturally, this reduced the clergy's power, and the Magi were quite unhappy with that, but the Shah couldn't afford to persecute or expel these people just because they didn't belong to the state religion (1).


    Although Zoroastrianism experienced a decline during the Age of Division, this coin made during the reign of Hormizd I (298-312) shows that it never lost its status as the state's favoured religion.

    Unfortunately, although the situation wasn't as apocalyptic as it seems, the rump empire ruled by the aging Narseh still had only a fraction of the power that his father, Shapur I, and the wealth that he acquired from trade and farming was only a fraction of what he once had in 266, when he first took power. As if that weren't enough, the field army he had carefully assembled was smashed at the Battle of the Persian Gates: the force that he used to relieve Bam several months later was actually a hastily assembled militia that probably only succeeded in its task because Odainat's troops were utterly exhausted at that point. And as if that weren't enough, after the end of said siege and the rise of Wahballat the Great several years later, the Palmyrene Empire grew ever more wealthy and powerful thanks to the fertile lands under its control and the multiple trade routes that criscrossed its territory.

    The sad reality that Narseh was forced to aknowledge was that, for the moment, his state couldn't defend itself from its mighty western neighbor through conventional tactics, and that it was simply too poor to field a large and strong army, at least for the moment. Thus, the King of Kings took the hard decision to disband most of his forces the moment he returned to Istakhr, with most of the remaining soldiers being horse archers and other light troops whose purpose was to harass an invading army with hit-and-run attacks while attrition did the rest. Naturally, this decision created many enemies and infuriated several nobles, who saw these actions as effectively surrendering two very important regions of Iran (Mesopotamia and Armenia) to a foreign invader who they hated infinitely more than the Sasanian dynasty.

    A relief of an Iranian horse archer from the early 4th century.

    It was this hatred of Palmyra that kept the nobility, especially the Seven Great Houses, loyal to the King of Kings, even though their power grew dramatically thanks to the fact that most of the remaining lands were sub-kingdoms and similar territories that were under their control, something that made the Sasanian Empire devolve from a reasonably centralized (by Iranian standards) entity to a federation almost identical to its Arsacid predecessor. However, even though they all agreed that starting a large rebellion or civil war was a very bad idea that would only worsen Iran's predicament, many of them were increasingly irritated at Narseh's refusal to do so much as launch a single raid against Palmyra as the years passed and turned into decades. He may have been the legitimate monarch in their eyes, but his passive attitude towards the west was seen as a sign of cowardice, even though many campaigns were launched against the countless nomads of Sogdiana and Transoxiana.

    The breaking point finally came in 298. By then Iran and Palmyra had been in peace for almost thirty years, and Narseh, by this point an old man (he was in his late sixties) knew that he was never going to see Ctesiphon again, and was by now commited to ensure that this peace became a permanent one. Thus, he began to negotiate with Wahballat, who had no intention to conquer the east despite his immense power, and after several months of talks the two realms reached an agreement that would become known as the Treaty of Susa, which Iranian historians would later call the "Great Capitulation".

    The terms of the treaty of Susa were simple, and could be summed up in two points:


    • First, the House of Sasan and all territories ruled by it would recognize the Palmyrene Empire as the rightful owner of Mesopotamia and Armenia, with the border betweeen the two empires being the Zagros Mountains.
    • Second, Istakhr would have to send a symbolic amount of tribute to Palmyra every year. Although said tribute wasn't crippling to the Iranian economy (Wahballat was so rich that he didn't care about the size of the indemnity) it showed to the entire world that Iran was effectively a Palmyrene vassal.
    Having had enough of Narseh's cowardice and the humiliating treaty, a group of assassins who were likely under the pay of powerful nobles assassinated the elderly king in his sleep. As soon as news spread about what happened, the Seven Great Houses proclaimed the late monarch's young son, Hormizd, as Hormizd I, with those involved in the regicide hoping that the new Shah was more impressionable and could therefore be convinced to start a war against Palmyra (2).

    The hopes of these warmongers were swiftly crushed. At first, it seemed that their efforts had paid off, since Hormizd increased funding for the army considerably and cut corners on other spheres of government to ensure that the soldiers were given better equipment, with, for example, infantrymen being given shields of better quality, rather than their old wicker ones that were used since the days of the Achaemenids. Speaking of, it was during his reign that the Daylamites began to be recruited in large numbers to serve as elite infantrymen. However, even though he may have had as many as 40.000 soldiers (most of them, as always, horsemen) at his disposal, Hormizd, just like his father, refused to attack Palmyra, likely hoping for an opportunity to strike that would probably only materialize itself after the death of Wahballat. He also initiated a large purge of any nobles that may have been involved in Narseh's murder, and, fearing that he could suffer the same fate, had most suspects executed.

    His paranoia would only worsen as the years passed, since a growing number of bureaucrats and nobles (including more "pacifist" ones) became increasingly distressed with his fiscal policies in favour of the army. Thus, he was stuck between a rock and a hard place, and he would never see the golden opportunity to the west that he so desperately needed to shore up his position in the court. With no glorious victories to speak of, and bereft of allies, Hormizd I was assassinated in 312 AD in some "secluded place" in the east, a death that followed by that of his oldest son and successor, Adur Narseh, just a few months later, in a very sketchy hunting accident that was likely just an official coverup of what really happened.

    After these gruesome events, the throne was now occupied by a younger son of Hormizd, a ten year old boy named Ardashir (3).

    It would take time, but he would eventually leave his mark on the world.

    Summary:

    269-270: Cessation of hostilities with Palmyra after the Siege of Bam.

    298: After nearly three decades of peace, the Treaty of Susa is signed between Iran and the Palmyrene Empire. Thanks to its humiliating terms, Narseh is assassinated shortly after and succeeded by Hormizd I, who has most of the nobles involved in the murder, along with other less culpable ones, executed.

    298-312: Reign of Hormizd I. The army once again receives large investments and is said to have had as many as 40.000 men in its ranks, most of them horsemen. However, this happens at the expense of the bureaucracy and other sectors, something that, along with his paranoia, creates many enemies and alienates potential allies.

    302: Prince Ardashir is born.

    312: Hormizd I is assassinated, and his successor, Adur Narseh, suffers the same fate a few months later. After that, Ardashir II is crowned in Istakhr.

    ------------------
    Notes:

    (1) Not that the Shah would ever want to do that and, with it, strengthen the clergy.

    (2) This Hormizd was crowned Hormizd II IOTL, but since Hormizd I never took the throne here, he is the first Shah with this name. IOTL, he was assassinated in 309 and, after Adur Narseh's death soon after, the crown was passed to Hormizd's unborn son, the mighty Shapur II.


    (3) A fictional character. Think of him as this TL's Shapur II, except he's a crowned as a child rather than as a fetus.
     
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    Part 14: Back from Hell
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    Part 14: Back from Hell


    When Claudius was acclaimed emperor and protector of Gaul, Hispania and Britannia after Postumus' death in 285, it was clear that the empire he inherited from his father was vastly different from the one that was created in 259. Though its administrative structure was largely unchanged, which could create potential problems later, almost all of the domestic and foreign threats that surrounded the state since its birth had been crushed: the Alemanni and theit king, Chrocus, who sacked Rome three decades ago, were annihilated; the Franks were defeated and were in the process of assimilation; the massive Gothic army that threatened to take Burdigala and split the empire in two were driven back to their "kingdom" in the east, where they would soon be swept away by the armies of Wahballat the Great; last but not least, all of the military usurpers that rose up in revolt were defeated, ensuring that the realm remained stable.

    Postumus became known as the man who held back what seemed to be an unstoppable tide. Claudius, young and ambitious, would never settle for that.

    Now that the "Gallic" Empire's position was secure, the new emperor wanted to reverse this trend to his favor, and this could mean only one thing: foreign conquests, preferably with him leading them. It was with this in mind that, soon after his accession, he ordered the construction of a massive fleet that may have had as many as 500 ships, most of them troop transports and supply vessels rather than warships, with the objective of retaking the various islands of the western Mediterranean, especially Sicily, and, of course, the biggest target available, the once Roman provinces of North Africa. This was no easy task, for the empire had no naval experience whatsoever (something that made finding extra crews a really difficult job) and the gigantic amounts of money that had to be raised for such an operation led to considerable tax increases that raised several eyebrows not only among the nobles and senators of Augusta Treverorum, but also among the general populace.

    Claudius certainly knew that, if this project ended in failure, he would never be forgiven. Nevertheless, the fleet was completed in 289, after four years of hard work and the spending of countless hard earned aurei (the standard Roman gold coin of the time), and he soon after began to discuss the possibility of invading Africa with his top generals, most of them hardened veterans who earned their stripes Postumus' reign and had few reasons to respect their young new leader. Thus, it would take a couple of years for this invasion to materialize, a period during which dark clouds threatened to gather around the court, with a growing number of notables of several classes believing that their emperor was a megalomaniac. They had a good reason to believe that, since it would have been much easier (at least on paper) to reconquer Italy and use the devastated peninsula as a stepping stone to seize control of the western Mediterranean.


    A rough map of the provinces of Roman North Africa.

    On the southern end of the pond, it is extremely difficult to know what exactly was going on in the region that was to be invaded after the Sack of Rome, and nearly all available sources of the time are multiple coins. From these sparse records, it is known that a certain Galerius Maximus was governor of Africa Proconsularis between 258 and 259, and monetary evidence shows that he became an autonomous ruler, with his capital likely being Carthage, for a few years afterwards, although it is unknown if he proclaimed himself an emperor or if he died peacefully or was assassinated. Considering that coins with his face were unearthed not only in the provinces that he originally ruled, but also in Sardinia, Corsica, the Baleares and Sicily, it is a reasonable guess that he was a powerful ruler (1). In the years between 266 (when Galerius' face and name disappear from coinage) and the invasion, the region may have had as many as fourteen different leaders or usurpers all over the place, an obvious proof of political instability, and raids from Berber tribes were likely also a problem.

    The much anticipated invasion finally happened in 291, when a Gallo-Roman force of around 40.000 men stationed in Gadir and led by Claudius himself crossed the Pillars of Hercules (2) and landed outside Tingis, which fell without any resistance. Over the next two or three months the conquering army slowly marched along the coast, followed closely by the fleet that kept it well supplied at all times, and all of the cities along its path, including the larger ones such as Hippo Regius, threw their gates open and surrendered, a demonstration that the Afro-Romans either desired return to a semblance of stable government or were so afraid of a Berber takeover that pledging their allegiance to the invaders was seen as a better option for them. Anyway, the only place that showed a semblance of resistance to Claudius and his soldiers was Carthage itself, which too surrendered after its general, a certain Constantine (who is never heard of again) saw that his situation was hopeless.


    The ruins of ancient Leptis Magna, once one of the most important cities of North Africa.

    Although there were no major battles, the reconquest of North Africa was a magnificent victory that greatly increased Claudius' prestige back home, with many who were once skeptical of him now respecting the man's audacity. Not only that, but, after a few years of organizing everything (an administration, tax collection and all that) the vast region proved itself to be a large net gain to the imperial treasury, since, despite the years of instability and the Berber raids, it had not experienced nothing anywhere near as bad as the devastation that places like Italy and the Haemus suffered during the Crisis of the Third Century, and most of its infrastructure was still broadly intact. It was also a large producer of grain, and with the Mediterranean islands subjugated shortly after, trade quickly began to pick up not only with Gaul and Hispania, but also with the Palmyrene Empire to the east and, through it, India and China.

    After returning to Treverorum a hero, the young emperor soon began to plan for what would be the most important military campaign of his career: the reconquest of Italy, once the center of Roman civilization. Ever since the sacking of the Eternal City decades ago, the peninsula had fallen into a period of complete chaos, with local cities and towns being forced to fend for themselves as a growing number of barbarians followed the footsteps of the Alemanni, raiding and sometimes settling all but the most fortified and defensible settlements, like Ravenna (surrounded by marshes and swamps) being spared from the wrath of the invaders. Even these few urban areas suffered from famine and disease, as the Gallo-Romans would later find out.

    The reconquest of Italy began in 298, when a force of 40.000 soldiers crossed the Alps and advanced into the once fertile Po valley. It was there that the only battle of the campaign took place, on the outskirts of Mediolanum, where they encountered a large number of Juthungi (many of them soldiers but mostly civilians) who were retreating back to their homeland somewhere in Germania. Surprised by the Gallo-Romans, who were led by emperor Claudius and a general named Tetricus (3), they suffered a resounding defeat and were forced to surrender a good part of their riches before they were allowed to cross the Alps. After this confrontation, the rest of the campaign was very straightforward, with most cities in Italy (what was left of it) surrendering to the imperial troops, Dalmatia and Illyricum following shortly after.

    Though it was easy enough getting there, it was not a glorious affair, far from it, and governing it would prove itself to be a Herculean effort. Three decades of war, countless raids by several barbarian peoples, combined with widespread social collapse, plagues of all sorts and famine, reduced what was once the center of the Mediterranean and one of the wealthiest regions in the planet into a depopulated, barren wasteland. A certain account says that Claudius broke down crying when he saw the ruined remains of Rome, which by then likely had less than thirty thousand people living in it, with large portions of it being slowly reclaimed by nature as buildings, roads, sewers among other things crumbled apart due to lack of maintenance.

    After seeing the ruins, the emperor supposedly swore an oath that he would never again embark on a foreign adventure, and that he would use all of his energy to rebuild Italy and its once vibrant cities and farmlands. While many question the authenticity of the "Italian Oath" altogether (it does sound suspiciously similar to the tale of the Indian emperor Ashoka Maurya, who converted to Buddhism and became a pacifist after his brutal war against the kingdom of Kalinga), everyone agrees that it would take this resurrected Roman Empire several decades before its armies fought in foreign lands again.




    Shortly before his death in 324, the Roman Senate awarded Claudius the title of "Restitutor Orbis", or Restorer of Rome (4). He had immortalized himself as the man who, through his ambition and audacity, had, by all means, restored the Roman Empire. It would take centuries before said empire could compare itself to the one that was ruled by men such as Augustus, Trajan and Marcus Aurelius.

    Those glorious days would come. They had been earned.

    Summary:

    285 - Postumus, Emperor and Protector of Gaul, Hispania and Britannia, dies. Claudius, his son, succeeds him. Soon he orders the construction of a large fleet for him to invade Africa with.

    289 - After years of hard work and great cost, the fleet is completed.

    291 - Africa is reconquered.

    298 to 300 - Italy and Dalmatia (what's left of them, anyway) are reconquered.

    324 - Claudius II, now known as the Restorer of the World, dies after suddenly collapsing in his bedroom. Judging by contemporary accounts, it seems that he suffered a stroke.
    ------------------
    Notes:

    (1) All that I found about this Galerius Maximus fellow on the internet is that he was the governor of Africa Proconsularis from 258 to 259. And that's it.

    (2) The Strait of Gibraltar.

    (3) IOTL's Tetricus II.

    (4) That title, IOTL, was given to emperor Aurelian, who reunified the Roman Empire and effectively ended the Crisis of the Third Century.
     
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    Part 15: The Lion's Roar
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    Part 15: The Lion's Roar


    Although it was much expected by the time it occurred in 328 AD, the death of Wahballat the Great, one of the most powerful men in the world (second only to the emperor of China) during his long tenure as the ruler of Palmyra, was still a monumental event to many inside and outside the mighty empire's borders. Inheriting what was already a powerful state from his father and mother, the recently deceased king left to his eldest son, Antiochus (evidence of just how Hellenized the empire was despite its Arabic roots) an immense realm that stretched from the Danube and the Euxine Sea in the north to the long coastlines of the Arabian Gulf and the Erythraean Sea (1) to the south. Administrating this large, clunky unit properly was a daunting task, even to the most skilled of bureaucrats, and Antiochus, though not particularly awful in any means, simply wasn't the man his father was.

    The problems didn't end there: while Antiochus was well educated by that era's standards, he wasn't properly prepared by his father (by his later years, Wahballat had become increasingly indolent and arrogant (2)) to rule the empire, being kept out of state ceremonies and similar events, which turned him into a timid and withdrawn individual, exactly the wrong kind of person to lead the Palmyrene Empire and control its politics. It didn't help that Palmyra inherited much of the administrative apparatus of the Roman Empire along with many of its issues, such as a powerful aristocracy that was always willing to stir up trouble, along with powerful generals who were eager for more action and power after decades of inactivity thanks to Wahballat's largely passive foreign policy.

    To top it all off, the king had a younger brother named Zenobius (after his grandmother) who, if not personally ambitious, could always be used as a replacement by some rival court faction in case things really went down the drain or if he for whatever reason happened to die ahead of schedule. Fearing the worst, Antiochus had him placed under what was in effect house arrest in a far away estate somewhere near Petra (3). The fact that he didn't just straight up have him killed shows just how shaky the king's position really was, and something so drastic would stir up too much trouble with too many powerful people.


    A coin depicting Zenobia as a Roman empress, showing just how close the Palmyrene Empire was to the state that once ruled almost all of its lands before the Crisis of the Third Century.

    Far to the east, another young king watched the whole situation unfold with predatory glee. Twenty-six years old at the time of Wahballat's death, Ardashir II had lived most of his life under the suffocating influence of the nobility and the Seven Great Houses, which fully dominated what remained of Iran thanks to the fact that he took over the throne when he was just ten years old. He was eager for any chance to assert his own power, and with the Palmyra's shaky position becoming increasingly clear to him, he readied his army for war, fully aware that this golden opportunity would slip through his fingers unless he acted quickly. The Shahanshah's early accession meant that he was superbly educated, and he wasn't going to bet everything in a single huge pitched battle like his grandfather Narseh did so many years ago. By 330, the entire army of Iran -- some 40.000 men -- was ready to fight.

    However, Ardashir was beaten to the punch by another young king from much further south.


    Although little more than a speck next to the magnificent empires to its north, the kingdom of Axum was a powerful state in its own right, being described by Mani as one of the four great powers of the world (the other three were Iran, Palmyra and China), with its economy being sustained by agriculture, which was facilitated by the fertility of its land, and trade, since it was located on the shores of the Arabian Gulf. The Aksumite king, Ezana, who much like Ardashir took power as a child, would surely become legendary, for he was the first monarch in the world to become a follower of the teachings of Jesus Christ, but he wanted more than that (4). The aristocrats of the lands that once belonged to the kingdom of Himyar, right next to Ezana's dominions, chafed under the Palmyrene domination and were eager to restore their old privileges, which were cast aside by Wahballat the Great and his many local governors.

    Ezana was more than glad to become a liberator. In 330, he landed on the Arabian shore with "an army of remarkable strength" and quickly seized all of Himyar with little resistance, with the only confrontation worthy of note being the siege of Aden, where the Palmyrene governor was imprisoned and later executed. With minimal effort and even fewer losses, the king of Axum had taken over both sides of the Arabian Gulf and established a monopoly over all trade that flowed in and out of it, and became immensely rich in the process, with goods from places as distant as India, China and the city-states of eastern Africa flowing through his dominions.


    The territories under Axum's control after the death of king Ezana in the late 4th century.

    The loss of Himyar, and with it control of the Maritime Silk Road with barely any resistance whatsoever, was a crushing blow to the finances of the Palmyrene Empire and king Antiochus' fortunes. He immediately began preparations to retake said territory and punish Ezana for his audacity in punching so far above his own weight, but he would never have the chance to do so, for he would soon have new problems much closer to home. The Ghassanids and Lakhmids, two Arab confederations/kingdoms that regularly paid tribute to Palmyra, decided to declare their independence from their obviously impotent overlord and began to launch raids against Syria and Mesopotamia, respectively, and although they weren't a large threat, they were an immense nuisance and yet another blow to Antiochus' authority.

    It was after these troubles began that Ardashir finally made his move. Sometime in late 331, he departed for Armenia at the head of a force of approximately 20.000 men, a glorified raiding party at best, in a daring raid that was contested by many of his generals. They had plenty of reasons to worry, for not only Armenia's terrain was full of mountains and was therefore quite problematic to the Iranian cavalry, but by the time the Shahanshah and his soldiers departed winter was in full swing, and many passes were full of snow and almost unpassable.

    Ardashir would never know if this campaign of his would be successful or not.

    As soon as word got out of his intentions, the soldiers under the Shah's command refused to march to what they probably correctly saw as certain death and decided to stay on their starting point, located was on the southern shores of Lake Urmia. However, in an age where the printing press was nowhere near being invented yet, information spread out far and wide throughout many miles and was easily distorted by fearmongers and conmen of all sorts. Contaminated by this so called "Great Fear", many Armenian towns, villages and cities barricaded themselves, their inhabitants ready to fight the invaders with what little they had. In the end, all of this buildup would amount to nothing, and the fearsome Iranian army which was supposed to cross the mountains looking for valuables to steal and women to rape never even came close to their lands.

    In Mesopotamia, however, the populace's reaction was completely different. Instead of barricading themselves, they revolted against their Palmyrene occupiers and sent multiple messages to the Shahanshah to return to his rightful place, Ctesiphon, whose citizens, after a week of brutal street fighting, expelled all foreign troops that were within their city's walls. Antiochus, who was campaigning in Arabia and was on the verge of bringing the Ghassanids to heel, was infuriated by this had to call off what was at this point a guaranteed victory to make sure that the rich farmlands of the Tigris and Euphrates didn't return to the hands of the Sasanian dynasty after sixty-four years of separation. Ardashir, meanwhile, marched straight to Ctesiphon as soon as he heard the news, hoping to reach the former Iranian capital before the much larger Palmyrene army arrived.

    Unfortunately, luck was not on his side. Marching along the banks of the Tigris to ensure that his soldiers had constant access to drinking water, Ardashir saw an enormous enemy force of around 70.000 men -- more than three times the size of his army -- which had arrived just a few days before and was on the verge of besieging Ctesiphon. The once great city was not properly supplied, and without outside support would probably fall to Antiochus' troops in a matter of days at best. The Iranian monarch, who despised the idea of risking everything he had, including his own life, in a single grand confrontation, followed the wise counsel of his generals and refused to give battle, fully aware that a defeat here would be nothing less than catastrophic.

    However, simply leaving Ctesiphon to its fate would also be a massive humiliation.


    A Greek manuscript depicting the siege of Ctesiphon by king Antiochus' soldiers in 332. The painting, made in the tenth century (over 600 years after the actual siege) is, predictably, massively anachronistic.

    Instead of giving battle, Ardashir conducted hit and run attacks and disrupted the besiegers' supply lines with his horse archers, desperately hoping that they would be demoralized enough to withdraw after a few days. The standoff continued for a week, and Ctesiphon seemed to be about to fall until a messenger from the relieving army managed to contact the isolated defenders, and they finally realized that the army that was coming to save them was in fact real, something that greatly improved their morale. As the days went on and on, Ardashir's attacks became more frequent, disrupting any possible siege works, and the defenders also began to take part in them with sorties from the city's walls. Soon, starvation and the plague began to take their toll on the Palmyrene army, which was becoming increasingly harder to supply thanks to its massive size and the constant Iranian attacks from within and without.

    Finally, a Jewish soldier supposedly named Isaac (some sources also call him Zechariah) decided that he had enough of this neverending hell. Sneaking into king Antiochus' tent in the middle of the night of January 26, he repeatedly stabbed him until he died of his wounds next morning. Some say that the assassin was slain immediately after his deed, while others state that he was acclaimed king by his fellow men at arms before being killed in combat, a sign of just how hated the Palmyrene monarch had become. Leaving these discussions aside, now that its leader had been killed in a most ignominous manner, the Palmyrene army was forced to limp back to Syria hungry, sick and empty-handed.


    Ardashir II, King of Kings of Iran, entered the Ctesiphon along with his troops on January 28, and was received as a hero by the city's exhausted yet jubilant citizens.

    The Liberation of Ctesiphon, as this monumental event became known, is still celebrated as a national holiday well over a thousand years after it happened, being the subject of many poems and songs throughout the ages. From that day onward, Ardashir II would forever be known as Ardashir the Liberator, and he became one of the country's most celebrated heroes, standing side by side with figures such as Cyrus the Great, Ariobarzanes of Persis (who led the last stand against Alexander the Great at the Persian Gate) and, of course, Yazdegerd the Magnificent.

    The Age of Division had finally come to an end, and the great city that stood at the banks of the Tigris returned to its rightful status as an imperial capital. As the centuries went on, no other urban center outside China would ever stand a chance to rival its greatness and wealth.

    Summary:

    328: Wahballat the Great, king of Palmyra, dies. He is succeeded by his eldest son, Antiochus, who shortly after has his younger brother Zenobius exiled to Petra.
    330: Ezana, king of Axum, invades and annexes the lands of the former kingdom of Himyar, taking over all of the trade in and out of the Arabian Gulf and depriving Palmyra of an important source of income. Shortly after, the Ghassanids and Lakhmids rebel against Antiochus, who is forced to lead a campaign against them, thus allowing Ezana to consolidate his new dominions.
    Late 331: Ardashir II departs for Armenia, but his soldiers mutiny along the way and he is forced to stay at the southern end of Lake Urmia. However, word of his supposedly imminent attack spreads, and Ctesiphon revolts against the Palmyrene occupation, inviting the King of Kings to return to his rightful place as a member of the House of Sasan.
    January 332: Antiochus besieges Ctesiphon for about two weeks before he is murdered in his sleep by an angry soldier. After that, the Palmyrene army departs for Syria, leaving the city at the hands of the Iranian monarch, who, from now on, would forever be known as Ardashir the Liberator.

    ------------------
    Notes:

    (1) The Red Sea and the Indian Ocean, respectively.

    (2) Think of Wahballat as someone similar to the Qing dynasty's Qianlong Emperor: a great leader who became progressively more decadent and corrupt as he grew older.

    (3) Don't worry, he'll get out of there eventually.

    (4) IOTL, that honor belonged to Tiridates III, king of Armenia, who made Christianity the state religion of his kingdom in 301. Also, the Ezana from this chapter is a fictional one who just happens to have the same name of the one who ruled during the same time period.
     
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    Part 16: New Heights, New Precipices
  • ------------------
    Part 16: New Heights, New Precipices


    Although he had scored an immense victory by liberating Ctesiphon, Ardashir II didn't stay in the capital for more than a few days. He couldn't, since although the bulk of the province of Asoristan had risen up to support him, there were still isolated Palmyrene garrisons scattered all over the provinces of Khuzestan and Meshan, with the most important of them being located in the former Achaemenid capital of Susa, which had been heavily fortified by order of Wahballat the Great many years ago to prevent any Iranian attack in that direction. Thus, the King of Kings departed in early February to mop up these last few hostile pockets before Palmyra could organize a sizable counterattack. This campaign went along swimmingly, and most of the garrisons surrendered peacefully, aware that their position was hopeless, and as expected, only Susa held out for a length of time, and had to be besieged for a week before its soldiers surrendered.

    With his rear secured, Arashir returned to Ctesiphon so his soldiers could rest for a while (he couldn't afford to have a mutiny again) and prepare for the inevitable attack that would come from Syria after Palmyra sorted itself out. He also needed time to properly organize the administration of the recently reconquered territories, assigning tax collectors and other such bureaucrats to multiple locations, as well as orchestrating the transfer of the court from Istakhr back to Iran's rightful capital, preparing both cities for a population transfer that involved thousands of people. He also needed to make preparations for a new, grand coronation, the ultimate sign that he and the Derafsh Kaviani flag were here to stay. Fortunately for the Shahanshah, the Palmyrene Empire's internal situation following the death of Antiochus was more dysfunctional than anticipated, which gave him plenty of time for him to consolidate his hold on Mesopotamia and do everything he wanted.

    His coronation, which took place in May 8, 332 AD (a national holiday, along with January 28) was a magnificent ceremony, worthy of someone as ambitious as he was, and a statement to Iran and the world that the Sasanian dynasty was finally back in its position as one of its most powerful and opulent rulers. Some historians back then and now still criticize the massive sums of money that were diverted to it, saying that it would have been much better for the country and therefore Ardashir himself if they were spent on equipping and improving the army, rather than on fancy dresses and exquisite plates and similar pieces of artwork that still exist to this day. Meanwhile, others say that all the pomp and circumstance were necessary in order to show that the age of Palmyene domination of the Middle East was over.

    A bust of Ardashir II made shortly after his coronation (1).

    Whether the coronation was necessary or not, the euphoria it generated couldn't last forever. By late October, Zenobius, who had taken the throne of Palmyra after his brother's murder, sent an army of 60.000 soldiers to capture Ctesiphon and drive the Iranians back to the east of the Zagros. However, due to his inexperience and fear of sharing his predecessor's fate, he decided to stay in Syria, handing the command of this powerful force to an influential and ambitious general named Zabdas, a descendant of the general of the same name that served king Odainat and queen Zenobia during the early days of the Palmyrene Empire (because of this, he is often called Zabdas the Younger to avoid confusion with his more famous ancestor). With the crucial fortress of Nisibis still under enemy control, Ardashir knew that it would only be a matter of time before the invaders reached the walls of the capital, and he marched north with a force of roughly equal size and strength to that of his foe to prevent that.

    The battle took place on the town of Misiche, not far from Ctesiphon and right next the Euphrates, which guarded the left and right flanks of the Iranian and Palmyrene armies, respectively, and was a brutal, indecisive slogging match that displayed the strengths and weaknesses of both armies, even though Zabdas was forced to withdraw due to the casualties his ranks endured. As for Ardashir, although he was in control of the battlefield, he had very few reasons to celebrate: his heavy cataphract cavalry performed magnificently and easily wiped out their opposition, but his infantrymen, despite no longer being the ragged levies in which his ancestors relied on thanks to the reforms made by his father Hormizd I, was still vastly inferior in quality to that of their Syrian opposition, which resembled Roman legionaries of old. Because of this, the Iranian infantry suffered great casualties, and they were thus unable to properly coordinate with the cataphracts and completely envelop Zabdas' forces.

    Denied a great victory in the battlefield, Ardashir was still determined to prevent the Palmyrene general from returning to the safety of Nisibis, so he had his horsemen harass his retreating enemy while the bulk of his army followed them closely, waiting for the perfect opportunity to strike. That chance finally materialized itself near the ruined trading center of Hatra, and this time the Syrians were nowhere near ready to fight. Worn down by repeated horse archer attacks, the exhausted Zabdas had ordered his soldiers on a forced march, desperate to avoid another battle. Ironically, this only sealed their fate, with Zabdas being pierced in the chest by an Iranian kontos (spear) and later being beheaded, while the soldiers who weren't killed in the carnage were taken prisoner and deported to various provinces of Iran, as was custom.


    This decisive victory was the first one in the long confrontation between Iran and Palmyra, and shattered the myth of Syrian invincibility, born from Odainat's great victories decades ago. With at least half of all of Palmyra's soldiers either dead or captured, along with a member of one of its most important military families, the King of Kings easily occupied Nisibis shortly after and from there subjugated Armenia without great difficulties, finally restoring the empire that had been so carefully built by Shapur I. At last, Mesopotamia was safe from western attacks. Ardashir would spend the rest of 332 AD in Nisibis, gathering as many soldiers as he could for a massive offensive aimed at Syria.


    Ardashir killing Zabdas. It is more likely that the Palmyrene general was killed by an ordinary cataphract.

    Meanwhile, in Palmyra, the news of what happened at Hatra caused great panic and turmoil among the court and ordinary people alike. There were fears that a military coup was about to take place, an eerie spectre of what truly killed the Old Roman Empire in the third century. Although Zenobius almost fled the capital, fearing for his life, he was convinced that such a drastic action would have catastrophic consequences for the morale of the remaining soldiers (2). However, a growing number of people, including the powerful general Lucius Zabbai (a descendant of Zabbai, another one of Odainat and Zenobia's commanders), who was now the empire's foremost military official thanks to Zabdas' death, were questioning whether or not their king was worth defending.

    The Iranian conquest of Syria began in February 333 AD with a march into Edessa, which fell without a siege thanks to the actions of a deserter. With the province of Osroene completely occupied, Ardashir was in striking distance of the Palmyrene capital, by now right to the south of his army, and Lucius scrambled together all of the soldiers that he had left to prevent the Shah from attacking the very heart of Syria. However, instead of doing as expected, Ardashir ignored the Palmyrene army completely and marched west, intending to capture the great city of Antioch and split the enemy empire in two halves, rather than waste his soldiers on a long siege of its capital. Because this move was so unexpected, he crossed the Euphrates with no resistance (an ambush here would have been disastrous) and captured Hierapolis before continuing his westward advance.

    Aware that the loss of Antioch would be a catastophe, Zabbai had no choice but to play right into the Shahanshah's hands and march north, encountering his foe on the open fields near Beroea (3). The result of battle that took place there was guaranteed from its very conception: without any rivers or hills to hinder their movement, the Iranian cataphracts easily smashed through the flanks of the Palmyrene forces and inflicted horrific casualties upon them, trampling the unfortunate men whose heads weren't smashed with their maces or impaled by their spears. The footmen, meanwhile, managed to hold their adversaries in place at great cost, with many losing limbs and eventually their lives to the Syrian swords, while the horse archers expertly shot at their enemies from afar with great accuracy, creating a horrible rain of chaos and death that consumed all who came near it.


    Ardashir II being blessed by Mithra (left) and Ahura Mazda (right) after his victory at Beroea.

    By the time the Battle of Beroea was over, the Iranian army was beaten, tired and bloodied. The Palmyrene one, however, was in ruins. Zabbai had barely escaped with his life, running back to the capital as fast as he and his fellow survivors (12.000 men out of an army that had around 75.000 soldiers) possibly could. Ardashir, meanwhile, celebrated what would become the greatest victory in his career with his soldiers and nobles, and a few days later marched into Antioch, which surrendered to him with no resistance. With the once invincible Palmyrene army destroyed as a fighting force, the Iranians marched south and spread their forces all over Syria, hoping to prevent Zenobius from fleeing to Egypt and therefore decapitate the enemy with a single blow. Little did they know that by the time they finally reached the walls of Palmyra in early April, the king of the city was long dead, having been thrown out of his palace by Zabbai's troops and then lynched by an angry mob, bringing the dynasty created by Odainat to an end.

    Unaware of that, Ardashir reached the walls of Palmyra and quickly surrounded the great city, which to his amazement also surrendered with no resistance. Expecting a fierce battle, he was obviously pleased to be proven wrong, but was not so pleased when he heard of king Zenobius' fate. He had hoped to bring the Syrian king back to Ctesiphon in chains, a grand statement that the Palmyrene Empire was truly over, and show to the people of his capital that Iran had taken back its rightful place as the master of the Middle East. Instead, he would be forced to quash several spots of resistance, and worse than that, he received news that the man behind the regicide, Lucius Zabbai, had run away to Egypt before he could be caught, and was probably in Alexandria by now, something that infuriated him (4).

    Ardashir's conquest of the Levant was vastly different from the one led by Shapur I almost a century ago. He strictly ordered his soldiers not to engage in any looting or other barbarous acts, and few, if any, cities were sacked, while his ancestor eagerly pillaged as much wealth and deported as many people to the east as he could. This approach was taken probably not out of humanity or kindness, but rather to minimize resistance among the conquered peoples, who were certainly much less willing to revolt if their new overlord didn't destroy the places where they lived and killed their loved ones. However, this conquest was not complete, and the important island city of Tyre, right on the coast of Phoenicia, refused to surrender to the Iranians. Since the Shahanshah wasn't going to acquire a decent fleet for his realm so soon, Tyre would remain a dangerous spot of resistance to Iranian rule for many years, as well as a place from which the Palmyrene navy could launch raids against the Levantine coast.

    Unfortunately, Palmyra itself was exempt from Ardashir's magnanimity. In what became one of the most well documented cases of ethnic cleansing of its time, the entire population of over 200.000 people was forcibly deported to places as distant as Khorasan, Khuzestan and Daylam, Nearly all of the buildings were torn apart until only their very foundations were left, the few remaining ones standing eerily like skeletons among the desert sands, and all records and literary works were burned, erasing the very idea that the city had once been a prosperous capital of what was, for a comparatively short time, one of the most powerful empires in the world. Priceless books that were focused on many things, such as nature and philosophy, were torn to pieces, with their covers being used as sandals, and every single valuable sculpture, artwork or jewelry that couldn't be transferred back to Ctesiphon was destroyed (5). The destruction of Palmyra would haunt his legacy, much like the fate of Persepolis haunted that of Alexander the Great.

    The Palmyrene Empire had ceased to exist. Although Ardashir desired to conquer Egypt as fast as possible and bring the great city of Alexandria to heel, he was forced to spend the rest of the year in Antioch, from where he organized the administration of Syria, its division into multiple provinces and appointing nobles and bureaucrats who could properly tax the subjugated territories. Vast estates that belonged to prominent Palmyrene aristocrats were redistributed to Iranian nobles, with the biggest and most profitable bits being given to members of the Seven Great Houses.

    By early 334, the King of Kings could no longer resist the temptarion of conquering the Jewel of the Nile. In February, he departed Ascalon, on the coast of Palestine, at the head of an army of 50.000 men accompanied by several siege engines, dead set on besieging and capturing Alexandria along with any other cities that dared to oppose him. After crossing the harsh desert of the Sinai (losing a fair amount of men to the heat and thirst) the Iranians occupied the strategic fortress of Pelusium, rightfully portrayed as the gateway to the Nile Delta and beyond, which was abandoned by the time the army of the Shahanshah captured it. From there, Ardashir and his remaining soldiers marched towards Heliopolis, and from there prepared to cross the great river.

    As he watched his men build a great pontoon bridge across the Nile, Ardashir was almost literally jumping from joy. He could already see the walls of Alexandria buckling under the power of his army and its weapons, and the massive amount of riches that he would gain from this victory. All he needed to do was cross this single bridge, and, from this simple action, the great empire of the Achaemenids would be restored, the greatest ambition of the members of the House of Sasan.

    Just this one bridge.

    As he walked forward into a future of eternal glory for himself, his country and his descendants, he failed to notice that the mood of the men around him slowly changed from happy to worried, and from there to absolutely terrified. It was only when the people began to run and bump into each other, desperate to get out of the bridge, that he noticed what was happening. When he finally realized what was going on, he was dumbstruck. The wooden bridge on which he was standing on was being consumed by a raging inferno, and was on the verge of falling apart. What kind of idiot would carry a lit torch into such a massive structure made out of wood in broad daylight?

    The King of Kings had very little time to ponder or even run away to safety when the boards over which he was standing on, weakened by the fire, crumbled underneath him, and the monarch fell on the waters of the great river below him. As Ardashir looked to where he was falling, he couldn't believe what was happening before his eyes. It all seemed like a terrible nightmare, a punishment from Ahura Mazda himself for his insatiable ambition, or perhaps a warning. But no, what was happening before his very eyes was absolutely real.

    The Nile was burning. Not the vegetation on its banks, no, the water itself was on fire. Soon, the flames reached and engulfed him in their murderous embrace. As he came into contact with it and every moment of his short life flashed before his eyes, he realized that what he came into contact with wasn't normal fire, but rather a horrible substance that burned its way through the water, some sort of sticky mixture that he couldn't free himself of, despite his best efforts, for as he tried to put it out with the abundant water around him, the flames that were searing through his armor and cooking his skin and flesh only grew in size and intensity (6).

    The last thing Ardashir II saw before he drew his last breath was his precious bridge collapsing entirely.

    He was just 32 years old.

    ------------------
    Notes:

    (1) That's actually Shapur II, one of the Sasanian Empire's greatest rulers.

    (2) That's going to be one of this ATL's AH.com's most discussed potential PODs: WI Zenobius fled to Egypt?

    (3) Modern day Aleppo.

    (4) Ardashir hated usurpers.

    (5) No way someone can challenge the rule of the King of Kings after seeing what happened to Palmyra. Right? Right...

    (6) Ladies and Gentlemen, behold the power of Greek Fire.
     
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    Part 17: Blessed by Heaven
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    Part 17: Blessed by Heaven


    The China that existed by the time emperor Wen died in 285 was completely different from the one that he inherited over thirty years ago. During his reign, the once proud empire that had been shattered into three warring kingdoms was finally reunified into a single political unit after decades of separation, and the nation prospered just like in the days of the Han dynasty thanks to his wise, honest rule (and that of his chancellors, of course). It is, therefore, completely unsurprising that, while lesser countries and "empires" (Ha!) to their west desperately fought for their survival, the Celestial Empire as it stood under the Wu reached levels of opulence and grandeur that were only dreamed of by foreign kings. The arrogance displayed by historians and other intellectuals that were born and wrote their works during this period was certainly justified.

    However, this doesn't mean that the period that immediately followed the reunification was a sea of roses, far from it, for although emperor Wen was a skilled statesman who did much to rebuild his country after the Three Kingdoms period, he was still a man from the south, who held much resentment for the north (controlled by Cao Wei, Eastern Wu's most powerful adversary), and it showed in his policies, deliberately or not. First, the sourthern regions of the country and the Yangtze basin were showered with investments and construction projects, while the cities that were in the Huang He, especially Luoyang, and further north were given much less attention, something that created a growing level of discontent in these war-torn areas. Second, the grand navy that was built during his reign significantly diverted resources that could have gone to the army instead, which meant that the land troops were becoming dangerously underfunded. For a country whose most powerful foreign enemies almost always came from the distant steppes beyond the Great Wall, this was a massive risk to take.

    By the time Sun Hao (better known as emperor Yuanzong) took the throne after his father's death in 285 AD (1), it was clear that were a lot of things that could go horribly wrong all at the same time: the generals were dissatisfied with the lack of attention received by the army, the capital of Jianye was located too far south for the northern nomads, especially the Five Barbarians (Xiongnu, Jie, Qiang, Di and Xianbei (2)) for the emperor to keep them in check, and the population of the Huang He basin felt that it was being neglected by the central government. Aware that a radical change was required to keep these underlying tensions from becoming too severe to be contained, and hoping to buy some time with a grand gesture, the new monarch refused to be crowned in Jianye, and instead moved with his court to Luoyang, the former capital of Cao Wei, and still full of scars from the long siege that preceded its capture by Zhuge Ke's troops decades ago, where he was duly crowned and enthroned.


    Emperor Yuanzong of Wu accompanied by two aides.

    The transfer of the capital from Jianye to Luoyang was the first of many extremely controversial measures (at the time) that were enacted by the new emperor and would earn him much criticism from contemporary historians and other intellectuals, who labeled him a tyrant. Once he felt himself comfortable enough in his new home, he slashed the navy's funding in half, with many warships being straight up set ablaze, with their crews suddenly having to find new jobs for themselves while the funds that were originally given to the fleet were handed over to the army, improving the soldiers' pay and doing much to improve their capabilities whenever they had to face their nomadic adversaries. Large amounts of money were spent on repairing and later improving northern China's infrastructure, and many roads, canals and irrigation systems were erected, along with other buildings such as fortresses, temples and especially schools, which were essential for sustaining an educated bureaucracy (3).

    However, no project of Yuanzong was either bigger or more controversial than the construction of the Grand Canal, a massive (1.776 kilometers long after its completion) waterway that took advantage of smaller existing canals and natural rivers, creating a single transportation network that linked the important port of Hangzhou to Luoyang and Jicheng (4), a city that was located even further to the north.


    A map of the Grand Canal.

    Although these projects did much to restore the economy of the north in the long term and catapult China into its new golden age, with the Grand Canal in particular earning the admiration of foreign travelers and spurring an economic and technological revolution (5), their short term costs were enormous. The construction of these monumental works required the work of millions of people, and at least six million labourers perished due to the awful conditions in which they lived and were forced to work in. This, combined with the considerable tax raises that were required to fund them as well as a surge in the number of unemployed people thanks to the cuts in the navy that were mentioned above, created a great amount of resentment against the emperor, who was becoming increasingly paranoid as his mental faculties gradually declined thanks to his old age, with the crown prince Sun Jin taking over more and more of his father's duties. By the time Yuanzong finally passed away in 302 AD at the age of 59, he was by far the most hated man in the country (6).

    It was the prince, who would be enthroned as emperor Taizong, that reaped the benefits of his father's policies. Inheriting a state that was extracting massive amounts of new revenues thanks to the reconstruction of the north and the recently completed Grand Canal, he was to put the mighty and well funded Chinese army on a series of military campaigns and conquests that would bring China's territory to an extent that surpassed even that of the Han dynasty. In 307, after years of careful preparations, the monarch personally led an invasion against the Korean kingdom of Goguryeo, which was completely destroyed after two years of war by its vastly more powerful adversary, and the Four Commanderies were fully restored, with the northern half of the peninsula right up to the Han river, while the areas to the south of it were administrated by the small, tributary kingdoms of Silla, Baekje and Gaya.

    However, the most famous campaign that took place during his reign was not the destruction of Goguryeo, but the one that became known by official historians as the Pacification of the West, which began almost twenty years later, in 325. The targeted region was too distant from China proper for Taizong to personally conquer, and his age was beginning to catch up to him, so he handed command to a talented, aggressive general named Shi Le, who was experienced in fighting against steppe nomads. This appointment caused a great deal of unease in the court back in Luoyang, thanks to the commander's foreign and humble origins: born in a Jie family, he was captured by Wu soldiers as a child and was sold into slavery, before his buyer freed him after being impressed by his talents, and he used his newfound freedom to pursue a military career, rising through the ranks of the army. Because of this, he was seen by more skeptical and/or xenophobic nobles as a potential traitor, who could cause tremendous damage to the country if he suddenly turned on the emperor (7).


    A mural commemorating the Pacification of the West, led by Shi Le.

    Thankfully, the general did as he was told, and was tremendously successful in his task. In fact, he was so successful that, instead of returning to Luoyang after the complete subjugation of the Tarim Basin sometime around 332 AD (some of the cities proved to be quite difficult to conquer, despite the attackers' overwhelming superiority) he advanced even further to the west than he was supposed to. Taking advantage of the fact that the considerably smaller empire of Iran was busy with its war against Palmyra in far away Mesopotamia and later Syria, Shi Le ordered his troops to cross the Jaxartes and capture the great trading centers of Samarkand and Bukhara with no difficulty at all, and only stopped marching when he reached the eastern bank of the Oxus river. The vast, fertile region of Transoxiana was incorporated into the Wu empire as the Sogdiana Commandery, which was under the jurisdiction of the autonomous Protectorate of the Western Regions.

    Sadly, Shi Le would never be honored for his efforts, thanks to his death in 335 AD at the age of sixty-one, completely exhausted after a decade of war in a foreign land. His descendants, however, would later be showered with titles and flatteries due to their own future accomplishments, becoming extremely powerful figures that would have a great impact of the future of China and the Wu empire, becoming important players in the events that would later lead to the illustrious dynasty's destruction.

    However, it would take centuries before said events happened.

    For now, emperor Taizong could rest easy, assured that his country was about to experience an era of unparalled greatness and splendor that surpassed even that of the Han dynasty so, so many years ago. The realm in question, at the time of his death in 337 AD, stretched from the Aral Sea and the Oxus in the west to the Han river in the east, and was by far the largest, strongest and richest state in the whole world, no one else even coming close to its magnificence. While lesser kingdoms wrote their decrees and literary works in parchment, papyrus and other rare and expensive materials, the superbly skilled Chinese bureaucracy, as well as its endless number talented and innovative scholars and poets, had a virtually limitless supply of paper, something that increased literacy among the upper classes and made the preservation of literary works, as well as the administration of the state as a whole, infinitely easier.


    Shi Le's great conquests helped spread the use of paper as well as future inventions to the west, and they also had a profound effect on China proper. It was likely because of them that a growing number of Manichean preachers could be found wandering within the borders of the great empire, with their first major Chinese temple being constructed in Chang'an sometime during the reign of emperor Gaozong, Taizong's successor. As the years passed by and turned into decades, the teachings of Mani found fertile ground in the vast plains of the Huang He and the Yangtze, and they would soon earn many powerful followers.


    An obviously sinified depiction of Mani in a Later Xia era hanging scroll (8).

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    Notes:

    (1) IOTL, Sun Hao was the last emperor of Easter Wu before its conquest by the Jin dynasty.

    (2) These five peoples lived inside and outside China during the Jin dynasty, and later rose up against the empire, which was weakened after years of civil war, and created multiple kingdoms (the Sixteen Kingdoms of the Five Barbarians) before China was once again united by the Sui dynasty in the late sixth century.

    (3) Because of this, emperor Yuanzong will later be rehabilitated as a patron of public education ITTL.

    (4) Beijing.

    (5) Spoilers, spoilers...

    (6) Although he was born in 243 AD (the year of the POD), childhood butterflies make Sun Hao into a ruler who's very similar to emperor Yang of Sui, who IOTL ordered the construction of the Grand Canal hundreds of years later: a ruthless, autocratic reformer who enacts several drastic measures and earns many enemies. However, since he doesn't order his army to conduct a series of disastrous wars, he doesn't suffer Yang's fate, and the Wu dynasty lasts.

    (7) IOTL, Shi Le became the first emperor of Later Zhao, one of the Sixteen Kingdoms, and became famous not only for his military talent, but also for his cruelty. ITTL, many in the Wu court consider him to be a potential An Lushan.

    (8) This scroll was made long, long after the demise of Wu.
     
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    Part 18: New Feathers
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    Part 18: New Feathers


    After the death of emperor Claudius II in 324 A.D., the restored Roman Empire (the so-called "Second Empire" as a way to distiguish it from its predecessor) found itself under a difficult position about what was by far its weakest point since the days of the Old Republic: the succession of power from one emperor to another. During his long, successful life, the Restorer of the World may have had as many as eight children, but only three daughters survived to adulthood, with their siblings perishingfrom many illnesses, which are attributed to the fact that his wife was apparently closely related to him (though this might be a later fabrication). With no surviving sons to continue its legacy, the dynasty of Postumus was brought to an end, at least for now. Since Claudius didn't adopt anyone, only one result could happen: a civil war among the generals, where the victor would invevitably take over the reins of absolute power.

    It is, therefore, a massive surprise that such a thing didn't happen. Gaius Tetricus, a scion of one of the empire's most prominent military and landowning families, with extensive properties in northern Gaul, and son of the famous general who reconquered Italy at Claudius' side, quickly took power in Treverorum and ruthlessly crushed any opposition to his rule before it could even rise up (1). However, he was faced with a situation that was vastly different from the one inherited by his predecessor, something that brought with it new hurdles to overcome. The empire once again held a considerable amount of territory in the Mediterranean, and the provinces of Hispania and especially Africa were grumbling about the fact that they were being ruled from a place that was right next to the Rhine. The barbarian migrations had slowed down for now, which gave the northern borders a precious amount of breathing room and also made many of the elites outside Gaul reconsider Treverorum's status as the imperial capital.



    A coin depicting emperor Tetricus.

    Though his position was secure for now, especially after marrying Julia Severina, one of Claudius' daughters, Tetricus knew that these underlying issues could ruin his family's fortune and, with it, the empire, if he kicked the can down the road, so he acted quickly and decisively, but only after he was (almost) unanimously considered to be the state's rightful ruler, of course. In 330 A.D., after six years in power, he began to move the capital from Treverorum to Mediolanum, a city that, although years away from achieving its former glory just yet, was an excellent location from which he could personally oversee the reconstruction of Italy and Dalmatia, as well as receive reports from Africa and its precious grain production more easily. This move, which took years to end, ruffled a lot of feathers back in Gaul, including those of many of his own family members, since it drastically diminished their stranglehold over the state and its institutions.

    While this was done, another, more drastic reform began to take place within the Roman administrative apparatus. Since the long gone days of Augustus and his illustrious successors, the Empire was a highly centralized political unite where the emperor held absolute power over its armies and provinces, and although it could work spectacularly well when it had a good pilot at its helm, it also made the imperial office an extremely coveted one. Combined with an unclear succession system, any ambitious and sufficiently powerful general could be proclaimed emperor by his legionaries and march against the incumbent, something that could have disastrous consequences, as shown in the Crisis of the Third Century.

    The cornerstone of this wave of change was the abolishment of the old provincial system in favour of a new form of local administration, known as the Diocese system. Each diocese was led by a dux (military leader) appointed by the emperor, whose job was to administrate and guarantee said tract of land's security against foreign threats, and was given a number of soldiers to enforce whatever policies he enacted or, as said before, repel outside attacks until help could arrive. It was a great gamble: each dux, once properly consolidated, was almost completely autonomous to the emperor, and could run the province he was assigned to as his own property, and with a personal army to boot. It would also make foreign operations more difficult, since the legions would be divided among the duces and it would take time for a sufficient number of soldiers to be mustered. Not that this mattered to Tetricus, since his primary focus, like any good Gaul, was on defense (2).

    By the time the division was completed in around 334 AD, there were seven dioceses in the Second Roman Empire: Italia (centered in Mediolanum), Dalmatia (centered in Salona), Lugdinensis (centered in Lugdunum), Mauretania (centered in Caesarea), Africa (centered in Carthage), Hispania (centered in Tolentum), Britannia (centered in Londinium) and finally Gallia (centered in Treverorum) (3). The first duces to be appointed to their positions belonged to prominent local families, who, in the emperor's view, would be more interested in maintaining their own estates and protect their newfound autonomy rather than make any moves for the throne, which would leave their dioceses unprotected from bandits and barbarians.

    While the diocese system was his most famous legacy, Tetricus was also a skilled diplomat, and established friendly relations with Lucius Zabbai's regime in Egypt, with the embassy sent by him giving the Palmyrene general turned king many gifts and addressing him as a fellow Roman citizen. In what became known as the Treaty of Alexandria, the Roman Empire promised to assist the country against foreign aggressors (obviously Iran) in exchange of a constant tribute of grain every year, something that would help in the reconstruction and repopulation of Italy. Similar overtures to the Haemus and Asia Minor were unsuccessful, since these areas had no centralized leadership just yet, with the cities and local aristocrats fending for themseves until one could overpower the others.

    It was during this period of fragmentation that the greatest flaw of the new administrative system manifested itself. The dux of Dalmatia was an extremely ambitious and talented general named Marcus Florianus, who was born in Africa and was appointed to his position because the region had been deprived of local notables thanks to decades of raiding and warfare. Always eager in his pursuit of personal glory, he departed from Salona in the spring of 336 AD at the head of an army of around 20.000 men (almost all of the soldiers of his diocese) and marched towards Dyrrhachium, an important port and also the starting point of the road known as the Via Egnatia, which led all the way to Thessalonica and Byzantium. The city surrendered after a brief siege and, after securing his position, Florianus quickly marched to Thessalonica, which was ill-prepared to face a foreign assault and also surrendered after a week long blockade. As a way to minimize resistance to his rule, the Roman general treated his vanquished opponents fairly, and by the end of the year all of the Haemus, was under his control.

    These moves roused great alarm in Mediolanum, for not only the dux of Dalmatia had abandoned his duites by launching himself into a foreign adventure (leaving his diocese vulnerable), he seemed to have become the exact sort of person that Tetricus wanted to prevent from rising, a potential threat to the throne. Florianus didn't care, for he was on the verge of crossing the Hellespont and bring the independent cities of Asia Minor to heel, just like he did to Greece and Thrace. He would land in Troy, and wouldn't turn back until he reached, let's say, Trapezus. Once this deed was done, he would march back to Italy, where he would be... duly rewarded for his bravery. Sadly, he suffered a fate that was shared by many promising leaders and conquerors throughout all of history: he was killed by an assassin's blade. Though contemporary and later historians have many versions on who exactly hired the man that did the deed, it is safe to say that the emperor breathed a sigh of relief when he heard the news.

    The idea of Rome as an universal empire that controlled all of the Mediterranean died with Florianus. Meanwhile, the lands he conquered were organized into the dioceses of Greece, Thrace and Moesia.

    second roman empire.jpg

    The Second Roman Empire and its dioceses in the late fourth century.

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    Notes:

    (1) Nothing out of the ordinary.

    (2) The Sack of Rome left scars that will last for centuries.

    (3) This is nothing like the OTL dioceses established by Diocletian. They're closer to the Theme system (special thanks to @Al-numbers for the suggestion!), since they're very militarized, but they can also rip the empire apart when something bad happens. Such decentralization will bring about interesting results to say the least.
     
    Part 19: Creeping Darkness
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    Part 19: Creeping Darkness


    The gruesome and unexpected death of Ardashir the Liberator in the burning waters of the Nile was a terrible shock to the court of the recently restored capital of Ctesiphon. In just two glorious years, the brilliant young Shah had reunified Iran, routed multiple Syrian armies and completely obliterated the capital of the kingdom that dared to attack and steal his country's rightful place as the master of the Middle East. The fact that he died in a river of what was surely hellfire right as he was on the verge of recreating the empire that was built by Cyrus the Great endless centuries ago didn't help: to the deeply religious people of that age, commoners and aristocrats alike, such a horrific end was surely a sign from God, in whatever way that He was worshipped, that He was deeply displeased with the Sasanian dynasty. The fact that he was the third monarch in a row to suffer a violent death (the other two being Narseh I and Hormizd I, his grandfather and father, respectively) provided further evidence of that.

    The throne was once again occupied by a child, the ten year old Yazdegerd I. With Ardashir being quite absent from his son's life thanks to the many campaigns he led and his untimely end, the young King of Kings was deprived from a crucial role model at an early age, and was shaping up to be quite different from his father because of that. First and foremost, while most of the Shahs that ruled before him were, although officially Zoroastrians, were actually quite irreligious when push came to shove, Yazdegerd was an extremely pious and sometimes superstitious individual who, even though he had little power thanks to his young age, slowly but surely built very good relationships with the Magi, whose prominence in the empire had been steadily decreasing since the first days of the Sasanians. For now, all he could do was wear his crown and robes and see the political games go on in front of him as a harmless spectator.

    There were many ambitious men who hoped to become top dog in such a scenario, but since the circumstances surrounding Yazdegerd's accession to the throne were so sudden, only one was in the right place at the right time to take advantage of them, that man being a most unusual fellow named Samuel bar Ezekiel, whose name already said a lot about him. A wealthy trader and one of the more prominent members of Ctesiphon's Jewish community, Samuel was one of the leaders of the revolt that ended the 65 year long Syrian occupation of the city, and was greatly rewarded by the grateful Ardashir II with many privileges and lands in Mesopotamia, as well as a place in his court. Because of this, he was in a perfect position to quickly seize power as regent once the vigorous Shah passed away in Egypt, for although many important noble families, especially the Seven Great Houses, looked down upon him as an outsider (although Jews were tolerated, the idea of one of them becoming so powerful was unheard of), he had many allies (and assassins) thanks to his trade connections in the capital and elsewhere.

    However, Samuel's biggest and most urgent problem wasn't domestic, but foreign.


    Tyrian pirates attacking an Iranian trading vessel with Syrian Fire.

    Although the entirety of the Levant had been conquered by Ardashir II, a campaign that culminated with the complete destruction of Palmyra, one single and most stubborn holdout remained, allied with remnant Syrian government centered in Alexandria. This settlement was the important port city of Tyre, which was, thanks to the fact that it was located on a heavily fortified peninsula (it was an island until its conquest by Alexander the Great in ) that was almost impervious to land attacks, impossible to be conquered by the Iranians, who had no navy to speak of in the Mediterranean. Worse than that, its excellent position right next to multiple juicy trade routes which carried riches from places as distant as China and India turned the city into a safe haven for pirates and all sorts of similar lowlives, all of whom preyed on defenseless trade ships and caused tremendous damage to Iranian revenues.

    As if that weren't enough, the Tyrians' friendly relations with Egypt allowed them to learn the secrets of Syrian fire, and they began to use the horrible substance to lay waste to important ports like Laodicea, Caesarea and Seleucia in the span of a few years. Ironically, the devastation suffered by these ports and their infrastructure prevented the empire from creating a fleet that could properly challenge the pirates for the time being. The only way they could be defeated was with foreign help.

    Said help finally became available with the Roman reconquest of the Haemus peninsula in 336 AD. Taking advantage of Rome's new, decentralized political system, Samuel secretly made contact with the dux of Graecia (whose name is sadly lost to history), who controlled a powerful fleet thanks to the fact that he had to administrate many islands, promising him that Roman merchants would earn many trading privileges in Syria as long as he blockaded Tyre, which would allow the Iranians to besiege and capture the annoying peninsula. The dux, who was acting independently from the aging emperor Tetricus I, agreed, not only because of the bribe but also because the region he governed would become much richer if the pirates that stood between them and Syria were vanquished. At last, after being an extremely active hub for pirates for four years, Tyre was surrounded on sea by a Roman fleet and on land by an Iranian army in 338 AD. Aware that prolonged resistance was useless, the local authorities surrendered, hoping that their city wouldn't be sacked, and in return Samuel was surprisingly lenient: in exchange for expelling the pirates from its walls and formally submitting to the Shahanshah's supreme authority, Tyre maintained most of its institutions and internal autonomy.

    Sadly, this success was nowhere near enough to offset the catastrophe that was taking place in the far east.



    The magnificent Celestial Empire, having finally cast aside the last ghosts of the era of the Three Kingdoms and now entering a new age of prosperity, began to expand to the west, sending the skilled and ruthless general Shi Le in the campaign that became known as the Pacification of the West. At first, it seemed that only the city-states of the Tarim Basin (as far as Kashgar) would be conquered, but the ambitious Jie leader wasn't content with that, and marched further to the west, to lands that had never been put under Chinese authority before. Far away from a center of power that was in disarray thanks to the premature death of Ardashir II, the main cities of Transoxiana, Samarkand and Bukhara, surrendered to the eastern conqueror with no resistance. By the time the campaign was concluded, all territories east of the Oxus had been lost, wealthy lands that had sustained Iran during the difficult times of the Age of Division.

    Not only that, but the arrival of the Chinese caused great upheaval among the nomadic peoples that lived in Central Asia, especially the Kidarites and the Hephthalites, who began to migrate in large numbers, searching for new lands to settle, and the obviously unguarded areas to the east of the Iranian Plateau, such as Bactria, Khorasan and Kerman, were prime targets. They too were enormously successful in their endeavors, and by the time Yazdegerd came of age in 342, even Merv had been lost to the invaders, and the only reason Kerman hadn't been overrun as well was the presence of the Citadel of Bam, which was still as majestic as ever, having received many upgrades since Odainat's siege in 269 AD. After this, the nomads moved in separate directions: while the Hephthalites would remain in the lands they conquered and would launch further attacks into the Iranian heartland, sometimes even reaching places like Spahan and Istakhr, the Kidarites would move into India, where they would establish a new kingdom that would soon find itself in a bloody struggle against the mighty Gupta Empire (1).

    These colossal defeats, combined with the overly lenient treatment that was given to Tyre (many in the court wanted the port to be given what would become known as the "Palmyra Treatment") led to Samuel's downfall, with Yazdegerd's maturity providing the coup de grace to the battered and unpopular regent. Even his fellow Jews, once his most important base of support, were disgusted by his secret deal with Rome: many still remembered the days when their ancestors were targeted by popular riots and persecutions back when the so called "Old Empire" collapsed in the third century. Thus, the man who would later be seen as a precursor of the Jewish Golden Age (2) suffered a most ignoble fate, first being publicly humiliated and then executed on Ctesiphon's main square, a scapegoat who was unable to properly remedy problems that were more often than not completely outside of his control. Though Samuel bar Ezekiel's reputation would remain tarnished for many years afterwards, until sometime after the death of the man who ordered his execution, he did have one critical positive legacy: the defeat of the Tyrian pirates.


    mapa 342.jpg


    That would come in handy, for Yazdegerd would have to focus almost all of Iran's wealth and energy fighting a terrifying new enemy from the north. Soon, the entire country would burn, and a mighty new conqueror would leave his mark in history.

    Summary:

    334 A.D.
    : Samuel bar Ezekiel, a wealthy trader of Jewish origin and a close confidant of Ardashir II, becomes regent for the young Yazdegerd I.

    Sometime before 335 A.D.: The Pacification of the West ends, and Iran loses all territories east of the Oxus river.

    After 335 A.D.: A growing number of displaced nomads, especially the Kidarites and the Hephthalites, migrate into the provinces of Khorasan, Bactria and Kerman.

    338 A.D.: The city of Tyre submits to Ctesiphon after a combined Roman-Iranian attack. Many in the court object to the leniency with which the Tyrians were treated.

    342 A.D.: After an eight year long tenure full of conspiracies, defeats and instability, Samuel is executed on the orders of Yazdegerd as soon as the latter reaches adulthood.

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    Notes:

    (1) I really need to make an India centered update sometime.

    (2) The Jews who live in the Sasanian Empire are currently very well treated, and this will bring about handsome rewards in the future. The fact that many of them migrated eastward following the Crisis of the Third Century is an additional bonus.
     
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