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The Sassanids

Iranian History - The Sassanids (AD226-650)

The Sassanids

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Many legends surround the origins of the Sassanid dynasty and the role of its eponymous founder. One tradition relates that Sassan was a prince who married the daughter of the King of Persis and whose son, Papak, the father of Ardeshir I, overthrew his grandfather to claim the throne for himself.

Another states that Sassan was a shepherd working in the employ of King Papak who was given the king's daughter's hand in marriage after the king had a dream that their son would grow up to rule the world. Still another has Sassan as a high-ranking Zoroastrian priest in the city of Istakhr near Persepolis. It is therefore unclear what relation Ardeshir I (r. AD226-241), the first great Sassanid king, bore to the founder of the dynasty.

On claiming the kingship of Fars after the death of his father, Ardeshir I quickly began to expand his territory by taking over the surrounding provinces, adding Isfahan, Kerman, Susiana and Mesene in quick succession.

This brought him into conflict with the Parthian suzerain king, Artabanus IV and war began between the fading Parthians and the invigorated Sassanids. In 224, Artabanus was killed in the fighting and it was only left for Ardeshir to begin taking over the territories of the now defunct Parthian Empire.

Ardeshir moved west, intending to reunify the Persian Empire of the Achaemenids from whom he claimed direct descent. He successfully captured Mesopotamia and made Ctesiphon his winter capital but his progress was eventually halted by the Romans at the Euphrates River. Like Darius before him, the rule of Ardeshir was occupied with protecting his borders from powerful enemies and putting down the internal strife which had resulted from the fall of the previous monarch.

Ctesiphon, the Sassanid capital, south of present-day Baghdad.

Ctesiphon, the Sassanid capital, located south of present-day Baghdad, Iraq.

Ghal'eh Dokhtar, Fars Province, Iran.

The Ghal'eh Dokhtar in Fars Province, Iran dates from the Sassanid era

The son of Ardeshir, Shapur I (r. 241-272), continued his father's work in battling the Romans, now Irans principle enemy. In 244, Shapur signed a very advantageous peace treaty with the usurper Emperor Philip the Arab of Syria, but war resumed in 251 and Shapur conquered Armenia, invaded Syria and plundered Antioch.

The Emperor Valerian marched against him in response but Shapur took him prisoner when they were to meet for negotiations in 260. That his methods were not altogether heroic is contrary to how Shapur wished to be perceived as the reliefs at sites such as Bishapur testify. The prisoners taken after the defeat of Valerians armies were put to work to carry out a series of construction projects such as those at Shushtar.

The period between the death of Shapur I in 272 and the accession of Shapur II in 310, saw further exchanges with the Romans and a series of dynastic struggles which culminated in the three sons of Hormizd II (r. 302-309) being respectively murdered, blinded and imprisoned.

The throne was reserved for an unborn child being carried by one of his wives. The child king Shapur II (r. 310-379) was therefore crowned in utero and born king.

Once the young Shapur II was old enough to rule for himself, he began wars that both expanded and strengthened the Empire. In the west, the Romans were pacified and Armenia was once again under Persian control. In the east, the Kushans had been defeated and Persian rule extended to the borders of China.

Within his kingdom, Shapur rigidly enforced observance of the state religion of Zoroastrianism, partly as a reaction to the Christianisation of the Roman Empire by Constantine.

The priestly class became immensely powerful and a stratified caste system arose to solidify social divisions under them and other great men of the state. The resulting Sassanid nation was thus quite unlike the loose federations that the Parthians had ruled over before them. In fact, many of the economic and administrative changes that the Sassanids instituted in their kingdom actively sought to obliterate the liberal Greek influence over Iranian culture that had been prevalent since the time of the Seleucids.

Further centralisation occurred under Khosro I (r. 531-579), also known as "Anurshirvan the Just". Khosro was perhaps the greatest of the Sassanid kings, his rule ushering in the second period of Persian greatness under the Sassanids.

Relief, Sassanid king, Taq-e Bostan, Iran.

A Sassanid king, thought to be Khosro II, depicted in a relief sculpture at Taq-e Bostan, Iran.

Gilded silver Sassanid horsehead.

Gilded silver Sassanid horsehead dating from the 4th century and now in the Louvre, Paris.

Through systematic taxation, town building, and military and bureaucratic reform, Khosro brought new order to the empire. Furthermore, though Zoroastrianism continued to be the official state religion, he was tolerant of minorities, one of his own sons being a Christian.

With the Roman Emperor Justinian, Khosro struck a very profitable deal by which he received a large quantity of gold in return for peace, though he was, it would appear, genuinely in favour of ending the war which he considered to be senseless in any case.

Peace enabled the intellectual life of the empire to flourish and many learned men of different nationalities enjoyed the patronage of the king, who himself had a keen interest in history and philosophy.

7th century Sassanid plate showing musicians.

By the time Khosro II (r. 591-628), grandson of Khosro I, had come to the throne, war with the Romans (now Byzantium) had restarted. The Persians ravaged Syria and captured Jerusalem, even taking the relic of the Holy Cross to be installed in the fire temple of Takht-e Soleiman.

Khosro also went on to campaign successfully in Egypt and these initial successes won him the title of Khosro Parviz ("Khosro the Victorious"). It was during this period that the monumental reliefs at Taq-e Bostan were carved on such a confident scale.

However Khosro II lacked the wisdom of his grandfather and his court was characterised by wastefulness and pomp. Though it is true that Firuzabad and Ctesiphon were magnificent cities and the arts were flourishing as never before, his despotism and indolence had aroused much opposition.

Towards the end of his reign, Byzantium retaliated under the emperor Heraclius and made deep inroads into Persian territory. Khosro fled from the advancing armies without offering resistance and a subsequent palace revolt led to his imprisonment and murder at the hands of his son and heir Kavadh II (r. 628).

Kavadh II died within months of ascending to the throne after having put his father and 18 brothers to death. The fratricide in the royal family had by then reached such proportions that there were no men left to succeed to the throne. This paved the way for two Sassanid princesses, Puran-Dokht and Azarmi Dokht, to rule the declining empire.

Coin, Queen Puran-Dokht, daughter of Khosro II.

Coin showing Queen Puran-Dokht, daughter of Khosro II.

The last Sassanid king, Yazdegerd III (r. 632-652) was no more than a boy when he came to power, and was dominated by his powerful advisers. It was now no longer the Romans who threatened but the tightly organised Arab armies of the generals of Mohammad.

Their victories at the decisive battles of Kadisiya and Nahavand in 642 signalled the end of the Sassanid dynasty and the beginning of the age of Islam. Yazdegerd III fled northeast to what is now Turkmenistan but was murdered in 652 while on the run.

Will Yong and Kazem Vafadari

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