“In this world my treasure is justice, and the world prospers through my efforts and good fortune…From end to end the world is in my keeping, and my way is the path of justice. No one, whether he be a slave or a free man, must sleep uneasily because of my subordinates, or captains, or cavalry: my court is open to everyone, whether they wish me good or ill.”
Shahnameh, p. 662. [Ardashir I addresses his court upon ascension]
The Sasanian Empire (AD 224-651) was the last pre-Islamic Persian empire and was ruled by the Šāhanšāh (King of Kings). The empire goes by different names, nominally different iterations of Sasanian, such as Sassanian and Sassanid. Another important name for the Sasanian Empire was Ērānshahr, meaning land of Iran or of the Iranians.
The empire was established in AD 224 by Ardashir I, who defeated the previous ruling Arsacid dynasty, also known as the Parthian dynasty (247BC – 224AD). Upon ascending the throne, Ardashir installed his own dynasty, replacing the Arsacid family name with his family’s name, Sasan. The empire endured and thrived for 400 years under the Sasanian dynasty until it was overthrown by the Arab Caliphate in AD 651.
Although the Sasanian Empire fell in the mid-seventh century, their legacy, culture, and language has endured until present times; even shaping politics and culture upon its journey. This is most notably visible through the important text titled: the Shahnameh (The Book of Kings). The Shahnameh is a poem written in the Persian language during the late 10th and early 11th century AD. It narrates the Persian mythical and historical past from the creation of the world until the Arab Conquests in the 7th century AD.
It is important to note that a large proportion of our sources on the Sasanian Empire do come from Roman authors, of whom were a great adversary of the Sasanian Empire, however, the Sasanians also interacted with a large number of other nations, kingdoms, and empires. We have sources in Arabic, Syriac, Persian, and Armenian, and more, which adds to our knowledge of Sasanian interactions with their neighbours. To the east, they had interactions with several Indian kingdoms, alongside Tang China. To the north, they had relations with the Hephthalites (White Huns), the Sogdians, and the Turks in the northern steppes.
Religion was an integral aspect of Sasanian society. The main religion was Zoroastrianism, a faith that found new life under the Sasanian dynasty. Their most sacred symbol was fire, and its depiction is found on many Sasanian coins and a number of the Sasanian fire temples can still be explored today. Nonetheless, religious minorities such as Jews, Manicheans, and Christians were still present within the empire and had an important role to play in shaping its history and policies.
For 400 years, the Sasanian Empire was a major power in the Near East, rivalling and neighbouring various peoples and cultures. Nonetheless, the Sasanians, and indeed more generally the Persians, are often overlooked, and viewed as intruders or outsiders delving into other people’s history. This mindset needs to change. The Sasanians have a rich and diverse history of their own. By exploring the Sasanian world, it will allow many people to gain a new and different perspective of events during Late Antiquity.
Some Notable Rulers:
Shapur I (240-70 AD)
Shapur I was the second Šāhanšāh of the Sasanian Empire. He consolidated and expanded Ardashir’s empire and waged a number of successful campaigns against the Roman Empire, even capturing the Emperor Valerian in AD 260. Shapur was also known for his ability to reaffirm Sasanian power in Iran and for his military prowess against the Romans and his subjects in the northern and eastern sectors of the empire. Shapur was the earliest model of Sasanian kingship and he commissioned a number of monuments for everyone to not forget it! A number of these can still be seen today.
Khosrow I (531-79 AD)
Khosrow I is probably the most famous of all Sasanian Šāhanšāh and undoubtedly deserves the title. He was a monumental figure in Sasanian history and because of his success, character, and performance he became the new idealised personification of Sasanian kingship. Sorry Shapur! Khosrow was successful in numerous aspects of society. From the re-organisation of the military through his reforms, which also impacted the integral workings of Sasanian society, to his administrative policies and devotion to knowledge and learning. It can be no coincidence that Šāhanšāh Khosrow I and Emperor Justinian (AD 527-565), are two of the most known individuals of Late Antiquity, and ruled simultaneously atop the two largest empires of the period.
Yazdegerd III (632-51 AD)
Yazdegerd III was the last Šāhanšāh of the Sasanian Empire and ruled during the turbulent time of the Arab Conquest (634). He ascended the throne at eight years old and thus lacked any authority or real power. Given the Arab Conquests erupted in 634, the Sasanians were in a precarious situation. They had just concluded a long war with the Roman Empire only four years previous to Yazdegerd’s arrival upon the throne, and this left the empire war-weary and drained of resources. Despite the empire’s best efforts, vital blows were dealt throughout, and the Sasanians were left with limited avenues to recuperate which ultimately led to their downfall.
- For a beginner on the Sasanians, I recommend: Daryaee, T and Rezakhani, K, From Oxus to Euphrates: The World of Late Antique Iran (2016).
- Those wanting a complete overview of the Persian world (Achaemenid, Parthian, and Sasanian dynasties), see Wiesehofer, J, Ancient Persia (London and New York, 2006).
- For an expansion on the themes of ‘Oxus to Euphrates’, see Daryaee, T, Sasanian Persia: The Rise and Fall of an Empire (London and New York, 2009).
- To engage with a complete chronology of the political and military history of the Sasanian Empire, see Bonner, M, The Last Empire of Iran (New Jersey, 2020).
- The Sasanians did not only interact with the Romans, in fact much of their rich history revolved around their northern and eastern frontier, see Rezakhani, K, Reorienting the Sasanians: East Iran in Late Antiquity (Edinburgh, 2017).
For podcasts – check out History of Persia (https://historyofpersiapodcast.com/) and King of Kings (https://podtail.com/en/podcast/king-of-kings/). Both podcasts cover Persian history, however, neither have currently caught up to the Sasanian period. Nonetheless, both are worth listening to and they will soon reach the Sasanian dynasty.
For an interview with Dr Michael Bonner (whose book is on the suggested reading), see the History of Persia’s episode at the link here – https://historyofpersiapodcast.com/2020/05/11/interview-01-dr-michael-bonner/.
For a podcast that delves directly into the Sasanian period, see ‘The History of the Sasanian Empire.’ https://www.listennotes.com/podcasts/the-history-of-the-sasanian-empire-sam-7QVt8LfxNeW/
For the Sasanika: Late Antique Near East Project (a site dedicated to the Sasanians and whose main aim is to increase accessibility into the field) – https://sites.uci.edu/sasanika/
For those wishing to jump into the Shahnameh – please check out the wonderful three-part BBC documentary series titled: Art of Persia. It should still be on iPlayer! This is a great documentary and narrates how Persian culture is retained and envisaged from the Achaemenids up until the modern day.