Asia in 500, showing the Hephthalite Khanate at its greatest extent. The peak of Hephthalite power came in 522, with territories from Dzyngaria to northern India, but the empire collapsed quickly after that. In 532 a coalition of Hindu peoples expelled them from India and the Hephthalites disappeared altogether after unsuccessful wars against the Sassanids that took place between 557 and 561.

A nomadic confederation of unknown ethnic and linguistic origins that raided South and Southwest Asia in the fifth century CE, in the process defeating the Persian Sasanian armies in several military confrontations and establishing a large and powerful empire that lasted for more than a century. The Hephthalite Empire was eventually destroyed in a joint military campaign organized by the Western Turk state, based in Central Asia, and the Persian Sasanians.

In the fifth century CE, the southern regions of Central Asia and the eastern provinces of the Persian Sasanian Empire were attacked by nomadic groups called Hephthalites. The ethnic and linguistic origins of the Hephthalites remain unclear. Initially, many scholars regarded the Hephthalites as a branch of the Hun people who invaded and wreaked havoc on Europe under their leader, Attila the Hun (r. ?–453 CE). The proponents of this theory argued that the Hephthalites were most probably from a Tibetan or Turkic ethnic stock. This theory was reinforced by statements from Byzantine historians such as Procopius. In describing the Hephthalites, he wrote that the Hephthalites were of “the stock of the Huns in fact as well as in name; however, they do not mingle with any of the Huns known to us, for they occupy a land neither adjoining nor even very near to them; but their territory lies immediately to the north of Persia. … For they are not nomads like the other Hunnic peoples, but for a long period have been established in a goodly land. … They are the only ones among the Huns to have white bodies and countenances which are not ugly. It is also true that their manner of living is unlike that of their kinsmen, nor do they live a savage life as they do; but they are ruled by one king, and since they possess a lawful constitution, they observe right and justice in their dealings both with another and with their neighbours, in no degree less than the Romans and Persians” (Procopius: I.iii. 2–7).

In 1959, the Japanese scholar Kazuo Enoki utilized Chinese, Greek, and Persian sources to argue that the Hephthalites were a northeastern Iranian people who had originated from Tokharestan, the region formerly known as Bactria that corresponded with the territory of northern Afghanistan. More recently, several scholars have argued that the Hephthalites should be viewed as a heterogeneous tribal confederation, not as a homogenous ethnic and linguistic group.

Beginning in the fifth century CE, the eastern provinces of the Persian Sasanian Empire were invaded by the Hephthalites. The Sasanian monarch Bahram V (r. 421–439 CE) tried to slow down the Hephthalite invaders by building towers to protect the northeastern provinces of his empire from the new invaders. His successors, particularly Yazdegerd II (r. 439–457 CE), spent much of their time on the throne preventing the Hephthalites from entering the northeastern province of Khorasan. One of Yazdegerd’s successors, Peroz (r. 459–484 CE), mobilized his army and fought the Hephthalites several times. In one campaign, he was defeated and captured by the Hephthalites and was forced to pay a substantial ransom for his release. After a second defeat, Peroz was forced to leave his son Kavad as a hostage with the Hephthalites. To avenge the humiliation he had suffered and against the advice of his close advisers, Peroz attacked the Hephthalites again in 484. This time the Sasanian monarch was defeated and killed on the battlefield. The victory over the Sasanian army and the death of the Persian king forced the Sasanian state to sue for peace and agree to pay an annual tribute. The Hephthalites began to interfere in the internal affairs of the Sasanian state and manipulate the civil war between the contenders to the throne in order to expand their own influence. For example, Kavad, who had grown up as a hostage among the Hephthalites, sought their assistance when he was deposed in 496 CE. With support from the Hephthalites, he raised an army and regained his throne in 499. In a series of campaigns from 560 to 563, Kavad’s son and successor, the Sasanian monarch Khosrow I Anushiravan (r. 531–579 CE), defeated the Hephthalites and put an end to their rule. The Persian monarch achieved this victory with significant support and assistance from the Western Turks, who imposed their political and military domination over much of Central Asia. The emperor of the Western Turks, Ishtemi (r. 553–? CE), attacked from the north, capturing Chach (present-day Tashkent, the capital of Uzbekistan), crossing the Jaxartes River (Syr Darya), and defeating the main Hephthalite army near Bokhara, forcing them to retreat southward. The Sasanian army had, however, occupied much of the southern regions of Central Asia, and the Hephthalites did not have any other alternative but to accept defeat. Squeezed between the Turk Empire to the north and the Persian Sasanians to the south, the Hephthalite state disintegrated. At the height of their power in the late fifth and early sixth centuries, the Hephthalites had ruled a vast empire that incorporated the entire territory of present-day southwestern China and much of present-day Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, and Afghanistan. They also penetrated northern India through Gandhara and defeated the Gupta Empire.


Persian king of kings who ruled the Sasanian Empire from 459 to 484 CE. When the Sasanian monarch Yazdegerd II died in 457, a battle for succession erupted between his two sons. At Ray, south of present-day Tehran, the older son, Hormozd, ascended the Sasanian throne, while the younger son, Peroz, fled to the eastern province of Khorasan to raise an army with assistance from the Hephthalites based in Tokharestan (present-day northern Afghanistan). Meanwhile, Denag (Dinak), the mother of Hormozd and Peroz, was ruling the empire from its capital at Ctesiphon, in present-day southern Iraq (Tabari: Tarikh-e Tabari, 2.628). The reign of Hormozd III proved to be short-lived. In 459 Peroz attacked Hormozd and defeated his brother, seizing the Sasanian throne and proclaiming himself the king of kings.

The reign of Peroz began with a devastating drought that lasted for seven years. Rivers, springs, water wells, and underground irrigation systems dried up (Tabari: Tarikh-e Tabari, 6.629). The drought significantly diminished water levels even in the Tigris River. Cattle and other livestock and farm animals perished. Famine spread across the empire, and rural communities began to suffer from starvation. Having secured the throne, Peroz tried to relieve the pain and suffering of his people by temporarily halting collection of taxes by the central government. He also ordered all storehouses and pantries to open their doors and distribute their food reserves among the suffering populace. Peroz threatened that if he ever received news of one single individual dying in a city or a village from starvation, he would punish that community with the full force of the law. The gallant efforts of the Sasanian monarch paid off. According to the historian Tabari, despite enormous hardship and suffering brought about by the drought and famine, with the sole exception of a single village in the province of Fars, no one else suffered (Tabari: Tarikh-e Tabari, 2.629–630). Though he was forced to focus on the devastating impact of the drought and famine on his subjects, Peroz could not ignore the threats posed by internal rebellions and foreign invasions, particularly by nomads penetrating the eastern frontiers of the Sasanian Empire.

The Persian king first led his forces to Albania, which had declared its independence from the Sasanian state. The territory of Albania corresponded with Iranian Arran and the present-day republic of Azerbaijan in the southern Caucasus region north of the Aras River. The Sasanian army suppressed the rebellion. Though he had reestablished Persian rule over the region, Peroz adopted a tolerant policy vis-à-vis the non-Zoroastrian communities, particularly the Armenian and Albanian Christians. He switched his focus from the Caucasus to the empire’s eastern provinces, which had been invaded by the Hephthalites. His campaigns against the Hephthalites brought the Sasanian state to the verge of extinction. The Hephthalites, who were called White Huns, had breached the eastern frontiers of the Sasanian state, particularly Tokharestan (ancient Bactria), which corresponded with today’s northern Afghanistan (Procopius: I.ii.1). The campaigns of Peroz against the Hephthalites, who had supported him in his campaign to seize the Sasanian throne, proved to be disastrous for the Persian monarch and the Sasanian Empire. In the first campaign the Sasanian army suffered a humiliating defeat, and Peroz was captured. The Persian king was released after he agreed to pay a substantial ransom. To avenge the humiliation he had suffered, Peroz attacked the Hephthalites for a second time. Once again the Persian monarch was defeated. This time, he could not pay the heavy ransom demanded from the Hephthalites. As a compromise, he was forced to leave his son Kavad, a daughter, and the chief Zoroastrian priest as hostages with the Hephthalites. But Peroz refused to accept defeat. He therefore organized a third campaign and, against the advice of the members of the Persian nobility at court, attacked the Hephthalites for a third time in 484. Once again, the Sasanian army suffered a humiliating defeat. Peroz and several of his sons were killed on the battlefield (Tabari: Tarikh-e Tabari, 2.628). The entire Sasanian royal harem, including all of the king’s wives and one of his daughters, as well as the chief Zoroastrian priest, were captured by the Hephthalites. The death of the Persian king and the disintegration of his formidable army enabled the Hephthalites to invade and occupy the eastern provinces of the Sasanian Empire. The Sasanians had no other alternative but to sue for peace and agree to pay an annual tribute.

The relegation of the Sasanian Empire from a superpower to a tributary state of the Hephthalite Empire was one of the lowest points in Sasanian history. The growing weakness of the Sasanian central government allowed the powerful members of the Persian nobility to reemerge and interfere in the decision-making process at the royal court. Historical sources mention Zarmehr Sokhra, of the Karen family, who fought the Hephthalites courageously after the death of Peroz on the battlefield and saved the Sasanian army from total annihilation at the hands of the enemy. Mention has also been made of Shapur, a member of the powerful Mehran family, who blamed Peroz for his tyrannical behavior and his refusal to consult the nobility before embarking on adventurous military campaigns. When a son of Peroz, Zarer, attempted to seize the throne after his father’s death, the powerful members of the nobility murdered him and instead installed Balash (Valakhsh), a brother of Peroz, on the throne. Balash, who has been described as a mild-mannered and peace-loving king, displayed his benevolence toward his Christian subjects by allowing them to practice their religion without fear of persecution. Despite his best efforts to restore peace and tranquility in his empire, however, the Sasanian state remained in dire straits. The treasury loomed empty, and the king of kings could not pay the salaries of his troops. Once again Zarmehr Sokhra and Shapur acted as the king makers, deposing Balash and passing the throne to Kavad, “the youngest son of Peroz,” who for a time had been a hostage with the Hephthalites (Procopius: I.iv.34–35).

Further Reading

Frye, R. N. “The Political History of Iran under the Sasanians.” In The Cambridge History of Iran, Vol. 3(I), edited by Ehsan Yarshater, 116–180. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1983.

Litvinsky, B. A. “The Hephthalite Empire.” In History of Civilizations of Central Asia, Vol. III, 138–165. Paris: UNESCO Publishing, 1996.

Procopius. History of Wars, Books I–II. Translated by H. B. Dewing. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2006.

Agathias. The Histories. Translated by Joseph D. Frendo. Berlin: Walter De Gruyter, 1975.

Procopius. History of the Wars, Books I–II. Translated by H. B. Dewing. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2006.

Shahbazi, A. Shapur. “Sasanian Dynasty.” Encyclopaedia Iranica, 2005, http://www.iranicaonline.org/articles/sasanian-dynasty.

Tabari. The History of al-Tabarī, Vol. 5, The Sāsānids, the Byzantines, the Lakhmids, and Yemen. Translated by C. E. Bosworth. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1999.

Tabari. Tarikh-e Tabari, Vol. 2. Translated from Arabic into Persian by Abol Qassem Payandeh. Tehran: Asatir Publications, 1984.