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Prince Hormizd, son of the King of Kings Hormizd II (302–309), was born to rule Iran. However, most of his life was spent as an exile, serving the enemies of his homeland. As Zosimus relates, when the aristocrats at a palace banquet failed to show Hormizd the respect he considered his due, he threatened them with the “fate of Marsyas” (Hist. nova 2.27.1–2). Remembering this insult, these nobles deprived the prince of his father’s throne, and confined him in the infamous “Prison of Oblivion.” Escaping, Hormizd fled to the Roman Empire, where he was honored as “king in exile” by his hosts (Amm. Marc. 16.10.16, Libanius, Ep. 1402). Although Hormizd never retook his throne, or inflicted the punishment of Marsyas on his enemies, he and his descendants rose to high positions in the Roman state.

The life of prince Hormizd is instructive in understanding the challenges of royal succession in Sasanian Iran. For four centuries, the Sasanian family ruled Iran, almost always passing sovereignty from father to son. However, as Hormizd discovered to his dismay, the aristocrats of Iran (the vuzurgan) often determined which prince would become King of Kings. Indeed, the vuzurgan regularly denied the king his choice of successor, and elevated their preferred candidates to the throne. Thus, a study of royal succession in Sasanian Iran offers the potential to better illuminate the nature of the Iranian aristocracies and the structure of the Sasanian polity. However, the subject has seen little systematic scholarly treatment, aside from studies of the well-documented usurpations of Narseh (293–302) and Bahram Chobin (590–91), and general examinations of the Sasanian aristocracy as an institution (Pourshariati 2008; Banaji 2016; Payne 2017).

My essay surveys Sasanian succession through a variety of less well-known examples of both “failed” and “successful” transitions of power from king to crown prince. For failures of succession, I use the example above of Hormizd, imprisoned and exiled in favor of his brother Shapur II (309–79); and of Shapur, Great King of the Armenians, son of Yazdgard I (399–420), murdered by the vuzurgan on his ascent to the throne. Finally, I examine the succession from Kavad I (488–496, 498–531), where the prince Khusro I (531–79) successfully contended with a restive aristocracy, and plausible rivals for the kingship in the form of his older, more experienced siblings.

Through these examples, I show how Sasanian kings and crown princes sought to manage the transfer of power: delegating royal authority to the chosen heir, establishing independent courts for the crown princes, and cultivating allies among the powerful. Paradoxically though, the very actions meant to empower princes often alienated influential nobles from the crown prince, and precipitated struggles for the throne. The vuzurgan saw themselves as the final arbiters of the succession, and had the resources to back up their claims. Ultimately, it was those princes inattentive to the power of the Iranian aristocracy, like Hormizd, who suffered the fate of Marsyas.