The coup started in southwestern Iran, in the original Achaemenian homeland, in the early third century AD, under the banner of Ardashir. An ancestor of the new regime’s first king was a certain Sasan, hence the identification of the dynasty as ‘Sasanian.’ The region of Firuzabad in Fars province witnessed the first of the giant rock-cut propaganda tableaus that became a trademark of the Sasanians. Here, Ardashir is depicted defeating the last Parthian king, Artabanus, in AD 226. A palace with grand facade is an impressive feature inside the circular city of Firuzabad itself. The circular layout is matched by that of neighbouring Darabjird, as well as by Ctesiphon, the eventual capital in Mesopotamia. The private palace of Qal’eh-i-Dukhtar is perched on a mountain promontory outside of Firuzabad.
The Sasanians’ ancestors were Zoroastrian priests, helping explain how Zoroastrianism was promoted as a state religion in the new Iran. Unlike their Parthian predecessors, who seemingly tolerated most religious expressions, the Sasanians declared what were judged to be deviant beliefs were heretical, and persecutions were imposed. In the third century, Mani’s ecumenical teachings were outlawed. Zoroastrian orthodoxy outlawing Manichaeism is documented in High Priest Kartir’s palimpsest inscription on a triumphal rock tableau of Shapur I at Naqsh-i-Rustam near Persep-olis. Manichaeans fled to Central Asia where they established monasteries that were as intimately linked with spiritual pilgrimage as they were with trade along the great Asian highway.
After Ardashir’s decisive victory over the last Parthian king in AD 226, he campaigned to consolidate his new realm. Seizing control of international trade routes was a major part of his objective. From around the mid-first century, immigrant Kushans had sponsored trade along the River Oxus, and through the Hindu Kush and Indus valley. Kushan trade networks circumvented Iran, meaning that the Parthians were excluded from profits to be had from transshipping oriental luxuries. Ardashir’s campaigns were motivated by ambition to redress that imbalance. Initially, he and his immediate successors had notable successes against their neighbors in this regard. The Arab stronghold of Hatra in northern Mesopotamia, a previously impregnable stronghold, was besieged and eliminated as an independent agent in the transcontinental trade in AD 238. Similarly, the new Roman station of Dura Europos along the Euphrates was seized through tunneling by Sasanian sappers under the massive defensive walls. Like Hatra, Dura no longer had a role to play in the expanded Sasanian state, and it became a ghost city until early twentieth century archaeologists documented its remains.
One must be cautious about awarding excessive merit to the Sasanians for victories against the Romans and their agents at this time. The truth is that Rome was in a crisis during the third century, its leadership manipulated to a large extent by soldiers. Nevertheless, the armies were professional. As a result, one should not downplay Shapur’s decisive victory over Philip the Arab in AD 244. Roughly a decade later, 60 000 Roman prisoners were taken at the battle of Antioch; and 70 000 were captured 4 years later at the battle of Edessa. Such victories were the subject of propagandistic tableaus carved on mountain faces near to the Sasanian ancestral home of Persepolis. Yet, as with their Parthian predecessors, the Sasanians failed to establish lasting control over these northern Mesopotamian territories. One should not discount the fact that the native languages of the area belonged to the Semitic family, and communication may have been difficult. In that sense, the territory would have been defined as ‘non-Iran’. Nevertheless, the related dialect of Aramaic had been a language of international commerce for considerable time, and language difficulties do not explain why the Sasanians failed to establish hegemony in the region. Similarly, it is wrong to imply that the steppe landscape was foreign by Iranian standards. The Sasanians successfully settled similar riverine and desert-fringe terrain in the eastern part of their empire, though this did not happen without a high price being paid for defense of the region.
A significant factor in the failure of the Sasanians to maintain mastery over northern Mesopotamia in the third century was the rising power of Palmyra (see Asia, West: Mesopotamia, Sumer, and Akkad). An oasis in the Syrian Desert, halfway between the Euphrates and the Mediterranean, Palmyra became a proverbial ‘caravan city’, where Eastern goods were transshipped to markets of the West. State support for the trade, including the assignment of armed escorts for protection, allowed the Palmyrenes to keep considerable amounts of international trade out of Iranian hands. The accumulated wealth helped sponsor a variety of lavish building programs in the city, as well as earning it special status in the Roman Empire. In the end, Palmyra’s flamboyance, especially the aggressive behavior of its notorious Queen Zenobia, aroused Roman resentment and the city was put under direct Roman rule under the emperor Diocletian.
Rome had re-entered the Syrian scene just as the Sasanian state was becoming enfeebled through feuding over the throne. In the face of Diocletian’s revitalized Roman administrative system in the late third century, Sasanian weakness resulted in territory being ceded to the west. A status quo of sorts did emerge in the fourth century with the return of stability in Iran and the 70-year-long reign of Shapur II (309-379). Although they battled extensively, neither side made long-lasting gains. It has been argued that the long drawn out wars, which drained the economies and energies of both sides, partly account for the ease with which Islam was eventually to conquer these regions in the seventh century, due to the exhausted frame of mind of the resident populations.
Through defeat of the Kushans and territorial annexation, the Sasanians were brought into confrontation with the tribes across the River Oxus. Shapur was obliged to spend considerable time and effort defending the northeastern frontier of Iran against the Chionite Huns (Chinese: Xiongnu). These efforts had to be maintained under Shapur’s successors, including by one of Sasanian Iran’s most charismatic of kings, Bahram V (AD 420-438). For his hunting exploits, he earned the epithet of ‘Gur’, meaning wild ass. His image was a favourite of Islamic times to depict, along with his constant female companion Azadeh. Less well known is the fact that he battled in the northeast against a new wave of Hunnish invaders identified as the Hephthalites (White Huns). At the site of Bandian near the Iranian border with Turkmenistan, archaeologists unearthed a palace decorated with carved plaster scenes that likely depict a victory against Huns around this time. The compositional arrangement is reminiscent of third century Firuzabad, but the style reflects much more what appears in the Soghdian art of sixth century Samarkand (Uzbekistan). Carved plaster ornament was a universal cliche; of Sasanian palace decoration. The sites of Tepe Hissar (northern Iran), Tepe Mill, and Chal Tarkhan-Eshqabad (south of Tehran), and Ctesiphon have all produced similar examples of geometric ornament, stylized vegetation, heraldic devices, and figural art.
King Peroz (AD 457-484) was obliged to continue the attempt to halt the Hephthalites. Following a defeat, the Sasanian king was obliged to give his son Kavadh as hostage for the armistice. Ironically, this was to serve Kavadh in good stead. When, after his father’s death, challenges were made concerning his coronation, he was installed with Hephthalite help. Furthermore, when Kavadh’s revolutionary doctrine of egalitarian Mazdakism proved to be unpopular with the privileged aristocracy, Kavadh temporarily (AD 496-498) found refuge with the Huns. For the most part, however, he was a strong ruler and confronted Byzantium (Rome’s Christian successor in the east) effectively in northern Mesopotamia.
Sasanian Golden Age
A golden age for Iran set in with Khusrau I’s accession to the throne (Khusrau I, AD 531-579). The era is well reflected in scenes chosen to illustrate the sides of a grotto (Taq-i-Bustan) in the northern Zagros. The back wall shows an investiture scene and the solitary figure of a heavy-armed cavalryman. The walls on the sides depict a royal hunt. This is not an expedition. Rather, the hunt takes place in an enclosed compound where seemingly the king is guaranteed success. Game is driven into the enclosure for easy target. Musicians accompany the event. Everything is geared to ensuring the king’s prowess as a successful hunter.
As for Khusrau’s political successes, he resolved the Mazdakite crisis through persecutions and executions, turning back to orthodox Zoroastrianism, earning the title Anushirvan (‘the Just’). The Mazda-kite movement had caused serious disruption to established legal and fiscal practices. However, recognizing Kavadh’s concern over serious inadequacies in property and product assessments, Khusrau initiated fiscal reform. This included the concept of levying tax on a crop on the basis of an average yield. It was a much more effective way of assessing state income. The measures stayed in place long after the Sasanian regime disappeared.
Creation of a professional army, replacing the former drafting of recruits from private armies of nobles, also had immediate success, both against Byzantines and Huns. Khusrau’s most dramatic victory in northern Mesopotamia included the sack of Antioch in AD 540, and the deployment of prisoners in construction projects in Iran, just as his predecessor Shapur I had done. Equally significant for the adoption of foreign ideas was the welcome afforded to academics expelled from Byzantium when the Emperor Justinian closed the prestigious academy of Athens in AD 529 on the grounds that the study of ancient Greek philosophy was heretical. These scholars helped to form the foundation of the famous medical school of Jundishapur in southwestern Iran.
An undignified interregnum followed, with a successful military general challenging the heir apparent.
The legitimate crown prince was forced to seek Byzantine help in order to achieve his ascendancy to the throne. Concessions were made as a result toward Byzantine claims to territory in the Caucasus. So the epithet Parvez (‘Victorious’) hardly yet befits the individual (Khusrau II, AD 591-628) who became the new Sasanian monarch. However, Khusrau II went on to mount the most impressive of all campaigns that the Sasanians had waged since the third century. The city of Edessa, in the lee of the Taurus Mountains and at the head of northern Mesopotamia, had been an impregnable bastion for Byzantium for decades. When it fell to Khusrau, the door to the rest of Syro-Palestine was open. Antioch was sacked once again (in AD 611); Jerusalem fell in AD 614, with the Holy Cross carried off as a spoil of war. Sasanian armies entered Lower Egypt, capturing Alexandria in AD 619. A Sasanian army even threatened Byzantium itself.
However the tables were turned through the brilliant tactics of Byzantine general-turned-emperor Heraclius, who led his forces on a series of incisive marches into the Iranian heartland between AD 622 and AD 628. In revenge for the sack of Jerusalem, the campaign included sack of the great fire sanctuary of Adhur Gushnasp, at the site of Takht-i Suleiman in the northern Zagros. Khusrau’s successor, King Kavadh II, negotiated for peace and conceded most of the recently won territory. The Sasanians, however, now had to face what turned out to be their ultimate demise.
Shortly after Prophet Muhammad’s death in AD 632, and apostasy rebellions, Khalid b. al-Walid marched into the desert fringes of Mesopotamia to reimpose acceptance of Islam on the apostates. This initial entry of Muslim forces into Mesopotamia was only directed toward dissident Arabs. No confrontation was made with Sasanian authorities. Subsequent raids into Mesopotamia, however, later culminated in a severe Arab defeat at the hands of the Sasanian army, in AD 634. The defeat convinced Caliph Umar of the need to dispatch major forces to the area. Unexpectedly, the Sasanians suffered a severe defeat in the battle of al-Qadasiyya (AD 636, near al-Hira, in southern Iraq). From there they fell back to a position near the capital, Ctesiphon, but which the Sasanians also failed to hold. The Arabs were awestruck by the opulence of the recently abandoned palaces, performing their simple prayers in one of the palaces. The Sasanians made another attempt to make a stand at the Iranian plateau’s edge (battle of Jalula), but unsuccessfully. The final defeat of the Sasanian king of kings occurred at the battle of Nehavand, in AD 642, in the central lands of the plateau.
See also: Asia, West: Archaeology of the Near East: The Levant; Mesopotamia, Sumer, and Akkad; Phoenicia; Roman Eastern Colonies; Civilization and Urbanism, Rise of; Europe, South: Greece; Greek Colonies; Rome.