Sassanid Empire (224 – 651 A.D.) [Part 1]
The Sassanid dynasty rose to power as a result of the successful struggle of Ardashir Babakan, not only against his Parthian overlord but also against a multitude of neighboring rulers. Ardashir was a son of Papak/Babak, a local king of Persis (Pars) who was a descendant of Sasan, landlord, and priest of the Temple of Anahita in Estakhr (214). The Sassanid dynasty was named for Sasan in the same manner as the Achaemenid was named for Achaemenes and the Arsacid for Arsaces.
Having consolidated his power in Pars, Ardashir began to expand his realm into Kerman in the east, Isfahan in the north, the coastal Persian Gulf lands in the south, and Elymais (roughly modern Khuzestan) in the west. He then built a stronghold at Gur (modern Firuzabad, 296-305), by this action challenging the Parthian king Artabanus V to a ﬁnal encounter. After Artabanus V was defeated and killed, Ardashir was ofﬁcially crowned and proclaimed suzerain of the former Parthian realm.
The Sasanians considered themselves heirs to the Achaemenians and strove to revive the old values, practices, and prominence of these particularly their old supremacy in World affairs. To that end, Ardashir embarked on an extensive military campaign in the east and conquered Sistan, Gorgan, Bactria (part of modern Afghanistan), and Chorasmia (in present-day Uzbekistan). In the west, Ardashir claimed all the formerly Achaemenid lands which had fallen to the Romans. The Romans, on the other hand, saw themselves as inheritors of Alexander the Great’s Empire and therefore were Continually attempting to subjugate the eastern territories.
Consequently, the perennial wars with Rome which marked the Parthian period in Iranian history continued under the Sasanians. Under Ardashir, Roman Emperor Septimius Severius attempted to invade Iran but was only partially successful. Soon after this conﬂict, internal and external pressures on the Roman Empire resulted in a prolonged civil war over the title of emperor. This internal strife allowed Ardashir to capture the strategically important towns of Hatra, Carrhae, and Nisibis in Mesopotamia.
Although most of Ardashir’s reign was spent in an endeavor to subdue those powers that opposed him, in the end, he succeeded in establishing a powerful monarchy. In contrast with the Parthian confederation with its freedom of religious practices, the Sassanid Empire possessed a strong centralized government, a strict philosophy of dynasticism, and an ofﬁcial religion Zoroastrianism. The society was divided into three classes: ruling elite and warriors, priests and scribes, and farmers and craftsmen.
Although this social order was not as rigid as the caste system in India, still, intermingling rarely occurred, particularly between the commoners and the ruling class. The Zoroastrian priesthood gained a tremendous amount of inﬂuence. The head ﬁx of the priestly class, the Mobed-Mobedan (“Priest of Priests”) a title modeled on the familiar “King of Kings” was among the greatest men of the state. In addition to his purely religious jurisdiction, it appears that he had a more or less decisive voice in the choice of a successor to the throne and other governmental matters, especially in later times.
The greater degree of centralization achieved by the Sassanid government partly explains its increased military effectiveness, as compared to that of the Parthian administration. The Sasanians established their capital at Ctesiphon. The choice was a reasonable one because trade routes from the four points of the compass converged at the city, and wealth from commerce and agriculture accumulated in this area of modern Iraq, once ancient Babylon. Ctesiphon, however, was exposed to enemy attacks, so from time to time, the Sassanid kings sought to establish their courts at cities father removed from the danger of capture.
However, no other city could compete with Ctesiphon for economic or strategic reasons. Among the cities built by Ardashir Were Weh-Ardashir (“the Good Deed of Ardashir”). The rebuilt city of Seleucia on the Tigris River, and the aforementioned Gur. Probably because of failing health, in his declining years Ardashir abdicated the throne in favor of his son Shapur I. Shapur assumed the responsibilities of government but delayed his coronation until after his father’s death.
Shapur continued the expansion of the Sassanid Empire, with the war with the Roman as this major focus. In his ﬁrst major victory over the Romans, Shapur managed to defeat the troops of the Roman Emperor Gordian III, who is always shown prostrated under the hooves of Shapur’s horse in Sassanid bas- reliefs. Gordian was not killed by Shapur’s hand, however, as some think. It seems that the Emperor was murdered in a mutiny, perhaps with the connivance of Philip the Arabian, who had become the new Roman Emperor. Philip started his rule by negotiating a peace which ended the war with Persia. (Philip is often shown kneeling in front of Shapur in Sassanid bas-reliefs.)
According to Shapur’s inscription at Naqsh-e Rostam, Philip paid a ransom of 500,000 gold dinars as a war indemnity. He also seems to have agreed not to aid the Armenians against Shapur. (Armenia had given shelter to the Parthian ruling house, which, striving to recover their power, continued to war against the Sasanians.) In 256, the son of the Armenian king Tiridates ﬂed to Roman territory, and Shapur may have taken it as a casus belli for reopening hostilities against Rome.
The Roman army was destroyed in Syria and Anatolia, and the cities of Dura-Europos and Antioch were captured, among others. The Sasanians also took the lion’s share of Armenia, while the Romans had to be content with a small area around Mount Ararat. At the Battle of Edessa, Shapur inﬂicted a disastrous blow on the Roman troops.
Moreover, he took the Roman Emperor Valerian as a captive a feat all but unique in history. In a commemorative inscription at Naqsh-e Rostam, Shapur brags, Valerian came to meet us with an army composed of twenty-nine European tribes [Shapur names, all these tribes], numbering 70,000 men in all. A great battle ensued around Alreha and Edessa. We captured Valerian with our own hands. We took his generals, senators, and high-ranking ofﬁcers prisoner, banishing them all to Persian states. For many years, rumors asserted that Shapur used Valerian as a mounting block whenever he got on his horse. There were even stories that when Valerian died he was skinned, and his skin stuffed with straw and thrown into the corner of a Persian temple until it rotted away along with other nonsense of the kind.
These rumors may have seemed believable to the Roman soldiers, who were already humiliated by such a tragic defeat. Some modern “scholars”, however, have presented these tall tales as historical facts, with little notice that these fabrications contrast sharply with the simple truth of the matter: Valerian was accommodated in an exclusive palace, built especially for him in the most glorious city of Shapur’s reign, Bishapur (269-277). Even so, Shapur’s victory over Valerian received maximum use as propaganda, and many rock carvings in Fars (Naqsh-e Rostam, Chogan Gorge in Bishapur, and Darab, 332-334) depict the Romans defeat. Shapur does not appear to have aimed at a permanent occupation of the eastern Roman province. He merely carried off enormous booty both in treasure and in men.
The captives from Antioch built in Khuzestan the famous city of Weh-Antioch Shapur (Better than Antioch [has] Shapur [built this]), whose name was corrupted into “Gonde- Shapur”, and later became home to the celebrated Academy of Sciences. The captives also created Shushtar’s “Dam of Caesar”, which is still standing, and contributed to many other Sassanid projects.
At the height of his glory, Shapur’s realm stretched from the Indian Punjab on the east, to the eastern border of Cappadocia in Anatolia on the west, and from Gorgan, and Iberia (present-day Georgia) on the north, to the Mazun region of Arabia on the south. Little wonder that Shapur no longer contented himself with the title “King of Kings of Iran”, as his father had done! Rather he styled himself as “King of Kings of Iran and non-Iran” the formula retained by his successors as the customary designation of the Sassanid emperors.
During the reign of Shapur I, a new religious movement made its appearance. This was Manichaeism, founded by a Visionary called Mani, and Shapur himself seems to have taken great Pouring liquid interest in it. However, adhering panther, to the belief that religion and the undulates on this state are twin sisters, he dutifully supported the state religion, Zoroastrianism.
On Shapur’s death, he was succeeded by his son Hormoz I, king of Armenia during his father’s lifetime. There is some slight disagreement about the date of his accession, which probably took place either in 270 or 272. Hormoz I ruled little more than a year before dying. He was succeeded by his brother Bahram I king of Gilan under his father. The strictest code of dynastic legitimacy was one of the pillars of the Sassanid administrative system. That a usurper not of the royal blood should come to the throne was an extremely rare occurrence, though it did happen in the case of Bahram Chubin. Within the royal line, however, the person of the individual ruler was a matter of comparatively lesser importance, and one member of the dynasty could easily be removed, and replaced by another.
This accounts for the frequent divergence from the principle of primogeniture regarding the succession to the throne, a divergence exempliﬁed by the case of Hormoz, who was succeeded by his brother instead of his son. Under the Bahram I, the religious tolerance of the Achaemenians and the indifference of the Arsacids were gradually replaced by religious persecutions. The priest Kartir gained powerful inﬂuence and was instrumental in the imprisonment of Niani that led to Mani’s death. Bahrain is portrayed on one of the has-reliefs in the Chogan Gorge. His reign, lasting only three years, was otherwise generally unremarkable.