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Was Sapadbizes Yabgu of Kao-fu?

It is important to place Sapadbizes in his political context. Was Sapadbizes the Yabgu of Kao-fu mentioned in the Chinese sources? The evidence so far is ambiguous, Sapadbizes shows strong links with the Kushans and the Yu-chi. His kingdom falls within the geographic boundaries of the Yu-chi and the later Kushan Empire. Yet the evidence from many of the sites is that the region was under Parthian domination. Koshelenko & Pelipko thought that region became a Parthian vassal-state under Mithradates II (123-87 BC). This ambiguity suits the position of Kao-fu in the Chinese sources. The sources begin with the Yu-chi invasion of Bactria:
'... when (the Hsiung-nu ruler) Mao-tun had come to the throne, he attacked and defeated the Yueh-chih, and finally the Lao-shang chieftain of the Hsiung-nu killed the king of the Yueh-chih and made a drinking vessel from his skull. At first the Yueh-chih had been living in the region between Tun-huang and ch'i-lien. When they had been defeated by the Hsiung-nu, they went far away. They passed through Ta-yuan and to the west (of that country) they smote Ta-hsia (Bactria) and subdued it.'

Shi-chi 123.3b

The main source for these events is the Chinese envoy Chang Ch'ien who travelled to the Yu-chi in 128 BC. His report provides much of the information about the Yu-chi in early Chinese histories (Shi-chi and Han-Shu). These histories record how the Yu-chi divided into five principalities (called Yabgu) after they conquered Bactria. One of these principalities, Kuei-chuang, later founded the Kushan Empire but the Yabgu of importance here is the one furthest from China...
'... the Yabgu of Kao-fu resides at the walled city of Kao-fu, at 6041 li from the governor-general and at 9,293 li from the Yang gate. These five yabgu all belong to the Great Yueh-chih.'

Han-Shu 94A.14b

Had this been the only mention of the Yabgu of Kao-fu in our sources it would be of no interest. But it is not and other mentions of Kao-fu match well the ambiguities of other sources. When the general Pan Yung made attempts to reassert Han power in Central Asia, at the end of the first century AD, he came into conflict with the Kushan Empire. Reports from Pan Yung were incorporated into the history of the Later Han (the Hou-Han-Shu). Kao-fu is no longer one of the five Yabgu, but is replaced by a previously unknown Yabgu of Tu-mi. Kao-fu is now listed amongst the conquests of Kajula Kadphises:
'More than a hundred years later (than the events described in the Han-Shu), the Yabgu of Kuei-shang Ch'iu-chiu-ch'ueh (Kajula Kadphises) attacked and destroyed the other four Yabgu and established himself as king; the Kingdom was named Kuei-shuang. This king invaded An-hsi (Parthia), took the country of Kao-fu, and moreover, destroyed P'u-ta and Chipin and completely possessed their territory.'

Hou-Han-Shu 118.9a

For fear that his readers might be confused by this change of Kao-fu's status a description of the country and an explanation of the change are added.
'The country of Kao-fu, to the south-west of the Great Yueh-chih, is also a large country. Its customs resemble those of India, and the people are weak and easily conquered. They excel in commerce, and internally they are very wealthy. Their allegiance has never been constant: the three countries of T'ien-chu (Northern India), Chi-pin (Kabul Region) and An-hsi (Parthia) have possessed it when they were strong, and have lost it again when they were weak. But it had never belonged to the Yueh-chi. The history of the former Han treats Kao-fu as one of the five Yabgu, but this was not its actual state. It lastly belonged to An-hsi, and the Yueh-chih obtained Kao-fu only after they had defeated An-hsi'

Hou-Han-Shu 118.9a

Neither Pan Yung nor Chang Ch'ien could have been well informed about Kao-fu. Neither ever reached the region and were dependent on reports from the people who lived in Bactria and Sogdia. But both are assumed to be accurate sources for the history of the Yu-chi and Kushans. How can these two different sources be reconciled?

Some time between Chang Ch'ien's visit and Pan Yung's report Kao-fu became part of Parthia. This might have happened in the early first century BC when Mithradates II of Parthia launched several campaigns against nomads on the eastern border of Parthia. At this time Kao-fu, which had been part of the Yu-chi was conquered or forced to accept Parthian overlordship. So when Pang Yung received his reports on the region it would have seemed reasonable to say that An-hsi (Parthia) were the last to possess it. Pang Yung's report indicates that Kao-fu had been parthianized to such an extent that it was no longer part of the Yu-chi.

While this is a comfortable interpretation there are others. It could be argued that Chang Ch'ien and Pan Yung were talking about different places but using the same name, Kao-fu. Chang Ch'ien might well have been talking about Western Bactria but Pan Yung could have been talking about Arachosia, the region that lies along the coast between Parthia and India. The reason to prefer the above interpretation is that it matches well with the evidence already presented, that indicate Sapadbizes was both Parthian and Yu-chi.

The Chinese sources offer a solution to the contradictions that the evidence for Sapadbizes presents. The contradiction turns out not to be a contradiction at all. Sapadbizes is both a Yu-chi prince and at the same time a Parthian vassal. His is the dynasty of Kao-fu, which conquers the westernmost regions of Bactria and becomes a vassal of the Parthians.

Evidence for Sapadbizes Sites of Coin Finds Chinese Sources
Overstrikes of Phraates IV Dating the Coins Bibliography
Main Page
Chronology of Kushan History Contacting the Author
© Robert Bracey, 2001