Long years of Parthian corruption had brought the once mighty empireof Mehrdad II into a state of ruins. Feudal rule of the local powers, theemperors’ lack of power, and long and costly wars with Rome caused generaldissatisfaction with the Ashkanis. Particularly since the change of thecapital from Hecatompolis to Tispon (Ctesiphone) on the western edge ofthe empire, the emperors were even less aware of the internal problemsof the country.
In the 210’s AD, the local governor of Pars (Persia) called Ardeshir-iPabakaan started disobeying the central rule. Ardeshir came from an oldpriestly family who claimed descent from Achaemenid emperors. With localsupport and promise of better future, Ardeshir gained enough force to challengethe Ashkani emperor, Ardavan IV (Artabanus). In 220, Ardeshir defeatedthe emperor in a battle in Lurestan province. After this battle Ardeshirbecame de facto ruler of the eastern half of the Parthian empire. In 224Ardeshir defeated the Parthian emperor and established his rule over thewhole empire. He crowned himself Ardeshir I in Ctesiphon and officiallyfound the Sasanian dynasty.
Ardeshir’s enmity towards the Parthians was so great that he orderedthe distraction of all available Parthian governmental documents. Due tothis savage act, our knowledge of 450 years of Parhtian rule over theirvast empire is surprisingly scarce.
Ardeshir inherited a bankrupt empire from his predecessor. Most of hisseventeen years as the emperor was spent in re-organising the empire. Hebrought the old Achaemenid system of Satrapis back and divided his empireinto twelve provinces. He abolished the feudal rule and once again requiredthe appointment of the governors and local officials with the direct approvalof the central government. Ardeshir also established Zoroastrianism asthe official religion of the country and gave the high clergy a tremendousamount of influence in the country by appointing them as local representativesof the court. The Zoroastrian Mobedhan-i Mobedh (High Priest) became thethird most important figure in the country.
Upon Ardeshir’s death in 241, he left a well maintained empire to hisson Shapur I. The level of prosperity had risen so much that Shapur wasable to wage a war against Rome. Shapur defeated and captured the Romanemperor Valerianus in 260 along with his son Gallienus and kept him inhis court until his death. Shapur’s reign was the beginning of the re-birthof Iran as a mighty empire.
The reign of Shapur’s son’s and grandson’s until 302 was spent mostlybetween wars with Rome and reforms in the country. During the reign ofShapur’s son Vahram I and his son Vahram II, Tansar, the High Priest, becamethe most powerful person in the empire as a result of the victory overMaani and also extreme religiosity of Hormozd I. Tansar created a Zoroastrianpriestly class which controlled the administration of religious propertiesindependently of the central government. He also was the emperors’ topadvisor as he mentions in his inscription on the walls of Kaaba of Zaratushter.Tansar gained so much power that he is pictured behind the emperor in abas-relief in Naghsh-e Rajab, at the moment that the emperor is receivinghis crown from the god.
Hormozd II, son and successor of Narsi I and a grandson of Shapur Itook his turn on the throne in the year 302. Hormozd is described as themost pious of Sasanian emperors. His short and uneventful reign was anera of peace and prosperity, and maybe a temporary quite period for theterrible reign of his son, Azar Narsi.
Azar Narsi, shoulder to shoulder with the Achaemenid Artakhshir IIIand the Roman Emperor Caligula, stands on top of the mountain of cruelrulers. During his incredibly short reign from March to August of 309,he managed to slaughter almost all of his courtiers and most of his relatives,putting himself above Artakhshir III and just coming short of Caligula’sachievements. It was when he attempted to kill his pregnant step-motherthat he saw his end. Fed up with his red coloured antics, the coutierstook the upper hand and let him taste the taste of his own sword.
Hormozd’s pregnant widow was saved, and a crown was placed on his belly,electing his unborn son as the next emperor. Lucky for the courtiers, thequeen managed to give birth to a son whom she called Shapur. She latermarried Vahram, the ruler of Kushan kingdom and a vassal of Sasanians,proving that queen’s need not to stay widowed forever.
Shapur II died in 379, leaving a powerful empire to his half-brotherArdeshir II (son of Vahram of Kushan) and his son Shapur III, none of whichdeserved their great status. Ardeshir III, and old man who was raised as“the half-brother” of the emperor failed to fill the shoes of his mightybrother, and Shapur III was too much of a melancholy character to achieveanything. Luckily for the empire, the affects of glorious reign of ShapurII provided a great pattern for the administrators of the country, andprevented the empire from falling apart. Vahram IV (388-399), althoughnot as mellow as his father, still failed to achieve anything importantin the country, but managed to keep the empire together and ready for hisson, Yazdgerd I.
Yazdgerd I is often compared to Constantine the Great. Like him, hewas very powerful in both his physic and his diplomacy. Much like his Romancounterpart, Yazdgerd was opportunistic. Yazdgerd, similar to Constantine,was very easy going in the matters of religion, and provided a space forthe rise of religious minorities. His reign was a perfect example of arelatively peaceful era in a country ruled by a wise king. He made lastingpeace with the Romans and even took the minor Theodosius II under his guardianship.He also married a Jewish princess and had a son from her called Narsi
Yazdgerd I left the country to his son, Vahram V, without doubt, themost well-known of Sasanian kings and the hero of many myths, even afterthe destruction of Sasanian empire by the Arabs. Vahram V, better knownas Bahram-e Goor, was a symbol of the king in the height of a golden age.He got his crown by competing with his brother, spent sometimes fightingwith foreign enemies, but most of the time kept himself amused by huntingand partying with his famous band of ladies and courtiers. He was the embodimentof royal prosperity. It was during his time that best pieces of Sasanianliterature were written, music were composed, and sports such as Polo becameroyal pastimes, continuing to this day as the royal sport of many kingdomsin the world.
This, needless to say, did not leave a good impression on courtiersand priest back in Ctesiphon who saw an opportunity to regain the powerthey had lost 150 years ago under Shapur II. By choosing Pirooz’ weak brotherValash to the throne, Sasanian aristocracy sought to restore their owngolden days as the rulers of the empire. Regrettably, they overlooked theexistence of a certain Kavad, son of the late Pirooz. This particular creature,being of outstanding background as a well-educated and well-trained prince,did not let his mellow uncle to experience the good aspects of being theemperor. In 488, Kavad decided that it was his turn to sit on the throne,so he very politely asked Valash to yield the way before he comes to regretit.
Kavad’s reign also saw the rise of Mazdak, a Marxist predating Marxhimself by about 1300 years. Mazdak who was Kavad’s close friend, startedpreaching his ideas of communal life and collective life almost immediatelyafter Kavad took the throne. This was the time that the Sasanian societyhad been fed up with the increasing power of the Zoroastrian clergy andhad started creating alternative cults such as Zardoshtegan. Mazdak’s ideas;therefore, managed to attract a lot of attention, especially since theemperor himself supported the modern day prophet. It is disputed that theactual founder of Mazdak’s cult was a man called Zardosht-i Khvargan whowas a follower of Maani. Thus, in a sense, Mazdak can be assumed as a personwho revived and updated Maani’s ideas two hundred years after him. Mazdak’sideas, other than preaching the collective life style, was based on self-disciplineand hardship, along with kindness towards the strangers.
It seems so that Kavad became a faithful follower of Mazdak. He startedordering reforms that caused a great amount of hardship for the aristocracyand the Zoroastrian clergy class. Seeing their future in danger, the upperclass started waging propaganda against the emperor and encouraging peopleto overthrow the heretic monarch. On the other hand, the internal and externalenemies of the Sasanian empire saw this time of disagreement in the courtas a good opportunity to gain their independence. Thus in a period of 2years, we see about 15 uprisings in all sides of the country. Finally in497, the chaos led to the deposition of Kavad, who was throne to gaol,from which he escaped almost immediately with the help of his friend Siyaavashand took refuge in the court of Hun king. Meanwhile, the aristocracy choseZamasp, Kavad’s brother to the throne. A year later, Kavad took his throneback without a need for war, since Zamasp realised his disadvantaged situationand resigned in favour of his brother. Although Zamasp is told to havebeen a very kind and forgiving person, his brother fell short of the samedescription, thus exiling his little brother to somewhere which no oneknows were it was.
The second part of Kavad’s reign was quite different than the first.Upon getting his throne back, he forgave the main conspirators againsthim, and only executed the one that had suggested Kavad’s execution before.Kavad also changed his policies towards Mazdak and stopped supporting him.Still, Mazdak’s cult was given a legal status so to practice their faith.In an attempt to organise the country, Kavad proposed a peace to Justin,the Byzantine emperor and asked him to become the god father to his youngestson, Khosro. Justin put some unacceptable terms as the pre-requisites forthe peace treaty that was not accepted by kavad. Thus, Kavad started afull fledged war against the Romans and conquered Amidia.
Kavad also realised that the large following of Mazdak and his religionof passivism has caused the country to fall into a state of ruins. Consequently,Kavad threw his support behind the Zoroastrian clergy and started a campaignof organisation to bring the country back to its days of glory. The lastdispute of Kavad’s reign was over the succession. From Kavad’s three sons,Kavus, the eldest, was a devout Mazdaki and so unfit for succession tothe throne. Zam, the second son, was blind from one eye, and was soon arrangedfor to become blind from both! The third, Khosro, was a progressive princefrom a noble mother. Thus Khosro was chosen as the heir. The dispute causedthe outrage of Mazdakis who wanted Kavus as the next emperor, and sincetheir request seemed illogical to Kavad and it caused a general uproarin the country, a slaughter of Mazdakis was ordered. Mazdak and most ofhis followers were executed and his cult was declared heretical and illegal.Thus came the end of the second attempt to reform the Sasanian empire,an attempts defeated once again by the help of aristocracy and the dominatingclergy class.
Khosro I Anusheravan is known as Daadgar or the Just in the Iranianhistory. Regardless of the truth behind his title, it is certain that hisage was the last great age of Sasanian empire, and when the Sasanian civilisationreached its height. In political sense, Khosro, like most of his ancestors,spent a lot of time fighting the Romans. In internal matters on the otherhand, with the end of Mazdaki dispute and reinstatement of Zoroastrianreligion, the country was in a state of peace. Many scientists and scholarswere given a chance to conduct researches and write books. The first universityin Iran was built at this time in the town of Gondishapour. Bridges androads were made, palaces like the great palace of Ctesiphon were erected.Books such as Kelile va Demaneh or Madhikan-e Hizar Daastan were translatedor written. Scholars like Bozorgmehr and Borzooye saw the opportunity fortheir rise. Simply put, Anusheravan’s reign ca be considered as the ancientIranian renaissance.
Anushervan was succeeded by his son Hormozd IV after long reign (531-579).After Hormozd’s death in 590, the commander-in-chief (Arteshtaaran-e Saalaar)of Sasanian armies, Vahram-i Chuvineh (Bahram the Wooden Stick!) from thefamous Mehran family, claimed the throne. In a period of a year and a half,5 wars were fought between Vahram VI and Khosro II, Hormozd’s son and successor.In 591, Khosro II Aparvizh finally got his throne with the help of theByzantine emperor, Mauricius, whose daughter Mary, Khosro married. Khosro’sreign was relatively peaceful and prosperous, but it also was the timeof incredible decadence in the Sasanian society. It was during his longreign (590-628) that Prophet Mohammad declared his message in Arabia. Itwas also under him that Iranian troops invaded Egypt and Syria, and kingdomof Yemen became a Sasanian vassal.
Khosro was assassinated in bed by his eldest son, Shirooye, who tookthe throne for a year as Kavad II in 628. He was assassinated in term bythe courtiers who were fed up with his cruelty. From 628 till the reignof Yazdgerd III in 632, the country fell into a state of complete chaos,in which seven monarchs took the throne, including two daughters of KhosroII, and even a Hun nobleman called Sharbaraz.
In 632, Yazdgerd III, grandson of Khosro II and a very educated man,became the emperor of chaotic Sasanian lands. Although very able, Yazdgerd’seffort in restoring the country to a state of stability was halted by severalelements. These elements could be counted as general uproar in the country,rise of local powers such as rule of Bavandis (descendants of Kavad I’sMazdaki son Kavus), and corruption in the court. On the other hand, allthese was overshadowed by a greater incident, the rise of Arab armies andtheir constant attacks on the western borders of the country.
In 651, at Ghadasiye in western Iran, the grand Sasanian armies thathad stopped and defeated the mighty Romans for almost 400 years, were crushedby Muslims. Rostam-i Farrokhzad, the great commander, was forgiven, butlater killed by the Arabs. Yazdgerd fled further inland to the northernprovince of Khorasan, and was assassinated by a miller in late 651. Iranwas invaded completely in a period of five years. The local populationeither willingly accepted Islam, thinking it as an alternative to the imposingZoroastrianism, or were forced to it by the invading armies. Gondi Shapouruniversity and library were destroyed and the books were burned by theinvaders. Most of Sasanian records and literary works were destroyed. Afew that escaped this fate, were later translated into Arabic and laterto Modern Persian, and are of great value to the researchers today.
Thus came the end of one of the most glorious dynasties in Iran. Forover 450 years, Sasanian Iran grew from a feudalistic kingdom to an incrediblyprogressive and civilised land, competing on the forefront of science andcivilisation. Although at times showing unforgivable lapses, Sasanianswere as a whole a positive presence in the long history of this ancientland.
Religion of the Sasanian state was Zoroastrianism. This ancient monotheisticreligion, after undergoing a thousand years of change, was finally chosenas the official religion of the Iranian people. The Zoroastrianism of Sasanianstate was not exactly what was suggested in the Avesta, the holy book ofthe religion. Sasanian Zoroastrian clergy modified the religion in a wayto serve themselves the best, thus causing great uneasiness over the religion.As mentioned before, this Zoroastrian dominance set the ground for manyreligious reform movements, most important one of them being religionsof Maani and Mazdak. Other than Zoroastrianism, other religions, particularlyChristianity were existent in the Sasanian society, and they were freeto practice and preach their belief, sometimes with bits of limitation.Christians of Iran, belonging mainly to the Nestorian and Jacobite branches,kept close relations with the Byzantine, and in occasions, helped the Byzantinearmies in their manoeuvres against Iran. Most of the Christians in theSasanian empire lived on the western edge of the empire, mainly in Antiochand Amidia. Armenians, previously Zoroastrians, were the first people inIran to convert to Christianity.
In the foreign policy, Sasanians always had uneasy relations with theRomans, their wars lasting for generations. Armenians, an autonomous kingdomruled by a descendant of Ashkani emperors, were a great cause of disagreementbetween two mighty empires. Romans claimed them on basis of their conversionto Christianity under Tigran the Great in 100’s AD, and Sasanians claimingthem on basis of their long-time alliance with Iran and the fact that theirruler was an Iranian prince. On the other side of the empire, Huns werethe greatest trouble makers. After almost 200 years of fighting, Sasanianemperors finally reached peaceful terms with Huns only a short time beforethe Arab invasion. India and China, on the other hand, kept their ancientfriendly relations with Iran throughout the Sasanian era.
In terms of trade, Iran continued to play its important role as thecross-roads of major trade roots. Iranian cities of Herat, Marv, Balkh,Zarang, Estakhr, Raga, and Jey continued to grow. Many new cities wereestablished which became major trade ports in the Islamic era, cities suchas Nishapour and Ardashir Khvra. Ctesiphon, the mighty capital of Sasanianempire, grew so large as a result of Sasanian prosperity that in late 500’s,it included 4 cities, causing it to be known as “Shatraan” (Cities!). Itis estimated that Ctesiphone had a population of over 2 millions and wasthe largest city in that time in the sense of area. Palaces and gardensof Ctesiphone were among the most beautiful in the world. After the sackingof the city by Arab armies, Ctesiphone continued its life as a half ruinedcity, until it was completely destroyed by the second Abbasid Caliph, AlMansour, and its material were used to build the city of Baghdad. Today,only one of Ctesiphone’s 50 palaces stand witness to the Sasanian glory.
In general, Sasanian society and civilisation was among the highestof its time, being only matched by the Byzantine civilisation. The amountof exchange of scientific and intellectual exchange between the two empiresis a witness to the competition and co-operation of these ancient cradlesof civilisation.
Sasanian intellect and achievements was not destroyed and forgottenby the Arab invasion. Although destroying many places of learning, Arabinvaders could not avoid using the more experienced and knowledgeable Iranianbureaucrats in their empire. The first 100 years of Islamic empire is somuch under the influence of Sasanian administrative system that we cansimply call it a continuation of Sasanian rule. Iranian scholars and scientistslike Ebn Moghafa, Avicena, Razi, Borooni, Kharazmi, and Yaaghoot contributeda large amount of knowledge to the Islamic civilisation, causing it togrow and prosper like no other civilisation before. An Iranian scribe createdthe Arab-Persian alphabet, the grammar of Arabic was first written by anIranian, and the list goes on. In short, Iranians mixed themselves in theIslamic civilisation and gave it an Iranian flavour without which it couldnot have achieved what it did.
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