SASSANIDS (A.D. 226-651)

SASSANIDS (A.D. 226-651)

Shapur II Plate
The Sassanids (A.D. 226-651) were native Persians. Their homeland was the original homeland of the Persians. The Sassanids ruled mainly over what is now Iran and Iraq. At its height it ruled over what is now the Caucasus, the southwestern side of the Persian Gulf, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan. They were the last great Persian dynasty before the arrival of Islam. According to one tradition, the Sassanians were named after a 1st century prince or king by the name of Sasan, from whom Papak — the first recognized Sassanid leader — claimed to be descended.

The Sassanids (also known as Sassanians or Sasanians) emerged from the Persian-speaking people in the Fars region of southern Iran. They were dominated by a single family and ruled through a hierarchy of officials and used Zoroastrianism as means of unifying their subjects.

Richard Frye wrote in “The Heritage of Persia”: “Although the Sassanids have been characterised as representing an Iranian reaction to Hellenism, under Shapur we see the last Greek used in inscriptions in Iran, and his patronage of Greek philosophers and savants has come down in Persian tradition. Likewise the mosaics of his new city Bishapur in Fars reveal a strong Western influence not to be attributed solely to artisans among the prisoners from Roman armies. One may suggest that under Shapur there is really a revival of Greek cultural influences in Iran which, however, hardly survives his death.” [Source: Richard Frye, “The Heritage of Persia,” starting with pg. 198 +/ ]

“Social structure under the early Sassanids again most probably was an inheritance from Arsacid times. Divisions in society were normal in the Near East and by no means restricted to the caste-conscious Indians or the Zoroastrian Iranians. For example, Strabo speaks of four 'castes' among the Georgians: the rulers, priests, soldiers and the common people, and the importance of families where possessions were held in common. When the Zoroastrian church became firmly established in Iran it contributed to the fixing of social classes in accordance with religious tradition. As is well known society was later divided into four classes, the priests, warriors, scribes and common folk. The extended family has remained the basic unit of allegiance, trust and authority in Iran down to the present day, and while the centralisation of government in Sassanid Iran was a feature which distinguished it from Arsacid times, none the less the family remained paramount. +/

Books: Herrmann, Georgina The Iranian Revival. Oxford: Elsevier-Phaedon, 1977. Yarshater, Ehsan, ed. The Cambridge History of Iran Volume 3: The Seleucid, Parthian and Sasanian Periods. 2 vols.. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1983.

Importance of the Sassanids

For the Persians solid history begins with the Sassanids, regarded as the heirs of the great Achaemenids of ancient Persia. Holland Cotter wrote in the New York Times: For about four centuries the Sasanians “ruled a territory that covered present-day Iran, Iraq, parts of Afghanistan and Pakistan and stretched to North Africa. Their historical role models were the Achaemenid Iranians, who had built Persepolis a millennium earlier. Their rivals were Rome, then Byzantium and, at the very end, early Islamic dynasties. The Sasanians were lucky with time and place. They came to power when the Silk Road between China and the Mediterranean was in full flow, and they absorbed influences from the many cultures that traveled it. “ [Source: Holland Cotter, New York Times, February 16, 2007]

The Sassanid era is considered to be one of the most important and influential historical periods in Iran. In many ways the Sassanid period saw the highest achievement of Persian civilization. Souren Melikian wrote in the International Herald Tribune: The Sasanian past has been haunting the Iranian psyche ever since the last ruler, Yazdegerd III, was murdered in A.D. 651 or 652. Every history of Iran written in past centuries deals with it at length. Over one quarter of the 10th- century Shah-Nameh, the "Book of Kings," the most frequently copied work at Persian-speaking courts in Islamic times, sings the deeds of Sasanian emperors and allusions to these abound throughout the 1,000-year-old history of Persian literature. [Source: Souren Melikian, International Herald Tribune, December 1, 2006]

History of the Sassanids

The Sassanids came to power when the first Sassanid king Ardashir I defeated the last Parthian king Artabanus in A.D. 225. They revived Zoroastrianism and Persian culture and established a capital in Ctesiphon in central Iraq, an area with a great many Nestorians, Jews, Manicheans, pagan philosophers and Greek medical scientists. The Sassanids controlled the supply of silver in the Near East .

The thousand or so year period between the birth of Christ and the rise of the Mongol Empire was characterized by battles and power shifts between nomadic horseman tribes of the steppes such as the Huns and Turks and settled cultures in southern Central Asia such as the Sogdians. Both groups fought over the Silk Road trade routes. Beginning around A.D. 200, as the Chinese, Roman, Parthian and Kushan empires were in decline, the Sassanids empire of Iran rose up and claimed much of Central Asia only to lose it to the Huns in the 4th century. The Sassanids formed an alliance with the Blue Turks, nomadic tribes who wrested control of the region from the Huns in the mid 6th century.

According to the Metropolitan Museum of Art: “Around 224 A.D., Ardashir I, a descendant of Sasan who gave his name to the new Sasanian dynasty, defeated the Parthians. The Sasanians saw themselves as the successors of the Achaemenid Persians. One of the most energetic and able Sasanian rulers was Shapur I (r. 241–72 A.D.). During his reign, the central government was strengthened, the coinage was reformed, and Zoroastrianism was made the state religion. The expansion of Sasanian power in the west brought conflict with Rome. In 260 A.D., Shapur took prisoner the emperor Valerian in a battle near Edessa. Thereafter the defense of Rome's eastern frontier was left to the ruler of Palmyra, a caravan city in Syria. By the end of Shapur I’s reign, the Sasanian empire stretched from the River Euphrates to the River Indus and included modern-day Armenia and Georgia. [Source: Department of Ancient Near Eastern Art. "The Sasanian Empire (224–651 A.D.)", Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History, New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, October 2003, \^/]

After a short period during which much territory was lost, Sasanian fortunes were restored during the long reign of Shapur II (r. 310–79 A.D.). He reestablished control over the Kushans in the east and campaigned in the desert against the Arabs. Conflict with Rome resulted once again in Sasanian control of northern Mesopotamia and Armenia. During the fifth century, tribal movements in Central Asia resulted in Hephthalite Huns creating an extensive empire centered on Afghanistan. After a disastrous campaign, the Sasanians were forced to pay tribute to their new eastern neighbors. Iran recovered her glory during the reign of Khosrow I (r. 531–79 A.D), who defeated the Hephthalites. However, in the years following Khosrow's death, there were internal revolts and wars with the Byzantine empire. This weakened Iran, and Arab forces, united under Islam, defeated the Sasanian armies in 642. The last Sasanian ruler, Yazdegerd III, died in 651.

Sassanid Rule

The Sassanids established an empire roughly within the frontiers achieved by the Achaemenids, with the capital at Ctesiphon. The Sassanids consciously sought to resuscitate Iranian traditions and to obliterate Greek cultural influence. Their rule was characterized by considerable centralization, ambitious urban planning, agricultural development, and technological improvements. Sassanid rulers adopted the title of shahanshah (king of kings), as sovereigns over numerous petty rulers, known as shahrdars. Historians believe that society was divided into four classes: the priests, warriors, secretaries, and commoners. [Source: Library of Congress]

The royal princes, petty rulers, great landlords, and priests together constituted a privileged stratum, and the social system appears to have been fairly rigid. Sassanid rule and the system of social stratification were reinforced by Zoroastrianism, which became the state religion. The Zoroastrian priesthood became immensely powerful. The head of the priestly class, the mobadan mobad, along with the military commander, the eran spahbod, and the head of the bureaucracy, were among the great men of the state. Rome, with its capital at Constantinople, had replaced Greece as Iran's principal Western enemy, and hostilities between the two empires were frequent. Shahpur I (241-72), son and successor of Ardeshir, waged successful campaigns against the Romans and in 260 even took the emperor Valerian prisoner.*

The Sassanian rulers always considered the advice of their ministers. A Muslim historian, Masudi, praised the "excellent administration of the Sasanian kings, their well-ordered policy, their care for their subjects, and the prosperity of their domains". The Sasanian nobility was a mixture of old Parthian clans, Persian aristocratic families, and noble families from subjected territories. Many new noble families had risen after the dissolution of the Parthian dynasty, while several of the once-dominant Seven Parthian clans remained of high importance. At the court of Ardashir I, the old Arsacid families of the House of Karen and the House of Suren, along with several other families, the Varazes and Andigans, held positions of great honor. Alongside these Iranian and non-Iranian noble families, the kings of Merv, Abarshahr, Carmania, Sakastan, Iberia, and Adiabene, who are mentioned as holding positions of honor amongst the nobles, appeared at the court of the shahanshah. [Source: Wikipedia]

Sassanid Leaders

Sometime in the first decade of the A.D. 3rd century, a king by the name of Papak came into power by seizing the throne of Pars. After unifying the region under his command, Papak waged a difficult war against the central Parthian government, but died before the conflict was resolved. Papak's son Ardashir inherited the throne in 216, and continued the campaign against the Parthian Empire until 224. In this year, a coalition force under Ardashir met the army of the last Parthian ruler, Artabanus V. The Parthians lost the day, with Artabanus killed in the battle. Over the next years Ardashir unified all of Iran under his rule, and appointed members of his family to control provinces bordering Syria in the west. [Source: Encyclopedia Britannica, University of Washington]

According to one tradition, the Sassanians were named after a 1st century prince or king by the name of Sasan, from whom Papak claimed to be descended. An alternative legend claims that Sasan was the name of a shepherd in Papak's kingdom. Papak dreamed the son of this peasant would become a great emperor, and in order to participate in this providence, he gave his own daughter to Sasan. The legend has it that from this union Ardashir I was born By the end of Ardashir's reign (241) the Sassanian Empire stretched from Sogdiana in the north to the Mazun in the Arabian south, from the Indus River Valley in the east to the borders of Roman Syria in the west

The Great Sassanian king Shapur II (ruled A.D. 309-379) is remembered for wresting control of Armenia from Rome and outlawing Christianity — which had been tolerated in Persia — in direct response to the Roman Emperor Constantine embracing it. Shapur II feared that Christians might be tempted to shift their allegiance from himself to the Christian ruler just to the west.

Chosroes I (531-79), also known as Anushirvan the Just, is the most celebrated of the Sassanid rulers. He reformed the tax system and reorganized the army and the bureaucracy, tying the army more closely to the central government than to local lords. His reign witnessed the rise of the dihqans (literally, village lords), the petty landholding nobility who were the backbone of later Sassanid provincial administration and the tax collection system. Chosroes was a great builder, embellishing his capital, founding new towns, and constructing new buildings. Under his auspices, too, many books were brought from India and translated into Pahlavi. Some of these later found their way into the literature of the Islamic world. The reign of Chosroes II (591-628) was characterized by the wasteful splendor and lavishness of the court. [Source: Library of Congress]

Sassanids, Romans and Byzantines

The Sassanids battled with Romans, Huns, Turks and Byzantines. The Sassanian king Shapur I (died A.D. 272) captured the Roman emperor Valerian in Edessa in A.D. 260 and made him a slave and held him prisoner until his death. The Sassanids were successful defending their homeland but lost most of their campaigns outside of Persia and were able only to hold on to Babylon and the lower Tigris-Euphrates Valley.

The Sassanids and Byzantines were almost constantly at war between A.D. 540 to 629. Most of the battles were fought in Iraq and Syria. At one point the Sassanids managed to capture Jerusalem, Antioch and Alexandria but in the 620s they were pushed back by the Byzantine Emperor Heraculius. The Huns were able to conquer large chunks of Persia during the Sassanid era. In the later years of their rule the Sassanids devoted themselves to the pursuit of luxury while their subjects were repressed and treated with cruelty.

Betsy Williams of the Metropolitan Museum of Art wrote: The Sasanian empire expanded its geographic scope dramatically under Shapur I (r. 241–72), when its lands stretched into Central Asia and stopped just short of the Mediterranean in current-day Syria. This began a centuries-long cycle of expansion and retraction, which placed the Sasanians in direct conflict with Rome, and later, Byzantinum.2 Much of the eastern Mediterranean became a buffer zone between empires, which presented opportunities for rich cultural exchanges in between devastating military battles. Trade and the movement of people resulted in a distinctive frontier culture in towns like Palmyra, Dura Europas, and Resafa that mixed Mediterranean-Roman and Hellenistic-Parthian elements. Dress preferences reflect these contacts. Sculptures from Palmyra, for instance, depict some men wearing pants associated with eastern dress styles, while others don the togas of Roman elites. The discovery of Sasanian-style clothing and silk fragments in Egyptian cemeteries further attests to the spreading popularity of these modes of dress throughout the eastern Mediterranean in late antiquity. [Source: Betsy Williams, Department of Islamic Art. Metropolitan Museum of Art]

“On the imperial level, exchanges occurred in Byzantine elites' consumption of Sasanian prestige goods and adoption of ornamental motifs. The courts both mirrored and repelled each other, in an endless game of one-upmanship mediated through diplomatic convoys and reciprocal gifts. The church of Hagios Polyeuktos in Constantinople, built in the sixth century at the height of Byzantine-Sasanian conflict, epitomizes most clearly this dual attitude of appropriation and competition between the powers. It employs distinctly Sasanian motifs in a church commissioned by Anicia Juliana, a powerful member of the Byzantine court and opponent to the emperor Justinian.5 The presence of the ornamental patterns suggests that these motifs were not associated exclusively with a hostile foreign enemy, but carried positive connotations of luxury suitable to sacred space.”]

Royal Seals and the Sassanid Government

Richard Frye wrote in “The Heritage of Persia”: “As the empire expanded so the bureaucracy also must have grown, but again the old traditions continued. We know from several sources that the royal seals were not personal seals, but were used by various officials of the king as had been true earlier. Just as in Seleucid times Sassanid official seals carried only legends or monograms but no figures. Representations of deities, personal portraits or animals were pictured on private seals. The official seals seem to have been important prerogatives of office, and later we find many seal impressions of mobads and other religious dignitaries as well as civil officials. Seals were used for all kinds of business and for religious affairs seals should be mentioned the insignia, coats-of-arms or emblems which were used by noble families as their signs of identification. [Source: Richard Frye, “The Heritage of Persia,” starting with pg. 198 +/ ]

“Many of them were really stylised monograms or abbreviations, but Sassanid heraldry is a complicated subject which has been little studied. Insignia already existed in Parthian times and there is an interesting parallel between the signs or coats-of-arms on the headgear of Kushan notables on sculptures from Mathura, India and the signs on the helmets of the notables of Shapur's retinue pictured on the rocks of Naqsh-i Rajab near Persepolis. The proliferation of titles and honorifics in the course of Sassanid history was a tendency which lasted down to the twentieth century and the confusion of personal names, offices or titles, and honorifics was a problem for Byzantine writers in their day as it was for more contemporary foreign authors writing about Iran.” +/

Decline and End of the Sassanids

Toward the end of his reign Chosroes II's power declined. In renewed fighting with the Byzantines, he enjoyed initial successes, captured Damascus, and seized the Holy Cross in Jerusalem. But counterattacks by the Byzantine emperor Heraclius brought enemy forces deep into Sassanid territory.*

Years of warfare exhausted both the Byzantines and the Iranians. The later Sassanids were further weakened by economic decline, heavy taxation, religious unrest, rigid social stratification, the increasing power of the provincial landholders, and a rapid turnover of rulers. These factors facilitated the Arab invasion in the seventh century.

In early 632, a grandson of Chosrau I who had lived in hiding in Estakhr, Yazdegerd III, ascended the throne. The same year, the first raiders from the Arab tribes, newly united by Islam, arrived in Persian territory. The Sassanids never mounted a truly effective resistance to the pressure applied by the initial Arab armies. Yazdegerd was a boy at the mercy of his advisers and incapable of uniting a vast country crumbling into small feudal kingdoms. [Source: Wikipedia +]

637, a Muslim army under the Caliph Umar ibn al-Khattab defeated a larger Persian force at the plains of al-Qadisiyyah and advanced on Ctesiphon, which fell after a prolonged siege. Yazdegerd fled eastward from Ctesiphon, leaving behind him most of the Empire's vast treasury. The Arabs captured Ctesiphon shortly afterward, acquiring a powerful financial resource and leaving the Sassanid government strapped for funds. A number of Sassanid governors attempted to combine their forces to throw back the invaders, but the effort was crippled by the lack of a strong central authority, and the governors were defeated at the Battle of Nihawand. The empire, with its military command structure non-existent, its non-noble troop levies decimated, its financial resources effectively destroyed, and the Asawaran (Azatan) knightly caste destroyed piecemeal, was now utterly helpless in the face of the invaders. Upon hearing of the defeat in Nihawand, Yazdegerd with some of the Persian nobles fled further inland to the eastern province of Khorasan. Yazdegerd was assassinated by a miller in Merv in late 651, while some of the nobles settled in Central Asia, where they contributed greatly to spreading Persian culture and language in those regions and to the establishment of the first native Iranian Islamic dynasty, the Samanid dynasty, which sought to revive Sassanid traditions. +

Image Sources: Wikimedia, Commons

Text Sources: Internet Islamic History Sourcebook: “World Religions” edited by Geoffrey Parrinder (Facts on File Publications, New York); “ Arab News, Jeddah; “Islam, a Short History “ by Karen Armstrong; “A History of the Arab Peoples “ by Albert Hourani (Faber and Faber, 1991); “Encyclopedia of the World Cultures “ edited by David Levinson (G.K. Hall & Company, New York, 1994); “Encyclopedia of the World’s Religions” edited by R.C. Zaehner (Barnes & Noble Books, 1959); Metropolitan Museum of Art, National Geographic, BBC, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Smithsonian magazine, The Guardian, BBC, Al Jazeera, Times of London, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, Associated Press, AFP, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

Last updated September 2018

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