Portrait of an Empire

Prologue from Touraj Daryaee’s Sasanian Iran (224-651 CE): Portrait of a Late Antique Empire (2008, Mazda Publishers). Dr. Daryaee is Howard Baskerville Professor in the History of Iran and the Persianate World at University of California, Irvine.
Description: The Sasanian era is an important period in the history of the Near East, the Caucuses and Central Asian history. Some of the basic institutions and ideas that developed in the ancient Near East passed to the Sasanian Iran and through the Sasanians it became the foundation of later Islamic civilization. Interestingly, the importance and contribution of Sasanian civilization to Near Eastern and Islamic history is underestimated and little attention is paid to it. The purpose of Sasanika Series is to publish scholarly works related to Sasanian civilization in the fields of history, philology, literature, art and archaeology. This volume provides detailed survey of Sasanian political history in the context of Near Eastern history, taking into consideration its relation with Rome and surrounding world.

By almost all measures, the impact of Iran and its civilization on world history has been immense. Often, due to the ever presence of a Eurocentric approach to ancient history, ancient civilizations – besides those of Greece and Rome – have been less studied and their impact either completely dismissed or seriously underestimated. In particular, Egypt, Mesopotamia and Iran, collectively known in the West as the ancient Near Eastern and African Civilizations, are seldom studied in the academic institutions and history departments of the universities in North America and Europe. These “other” civilizations are by and large glossed over in classes, even though their importance is stated, and are then relegated to the departments of Near Eastern Languages and Cultures or Civilizations. This division has brought about interesting consequences for the study of history of antiquity. [1]

The first and foremost implication is the treatment of non Greco-Roman people as “people without history,” as if only Greeks and Romans had a viable history in antiquity. [2] This view of the past further divides and impairs the study of ancient history as a unit and blurs the historical reality of the past. It also hinders the understanding of Greek and Roman history. As J. Wiesehöfer, one of the most eminent ancient Iranian historians has rightly stated: “the Near East must be an integral part of a history of Antiquity, that the civilizations of Greece and the Imperium Romanum become truly comprehensible only when seen within a much larger environment.” [3] Despite this, through a Eurocentric division, qualitative hierarchies have been attached to civilizations and regions, assigning each section of Eurasian history its own isolated historians and a segregated place in the academic settings in the West.

Fernand Braudel once stated that “Europe invented historians and then made good use of them.” [4] This “good use,” I contend, is the promotion of one vision of ancient history and civilization – namely those that the modern Europeans and Americans wish to associate themselves with, specifically Greece and Rome – and forsaking those civilizations [5] that were certainly older and as significant in the formation of our common civilization today as Greece and Rome.

This is not to demote the importance of the Greek and Roman civilization, rather to caution the reader that by privileging one region and forsaking the others, modern historical scholarship has succeeded in presenting a lop-sided view of the past predicated on the “success” of modern European society and its overseas extensions. This success, simplistically thought to be eternal, is in fact only a temporary economic and specifically industrial dominance determined by four centuries of colonialism and two hundred years of Industrial Revolution, often coinciding with the economic decline of the regions more traditionally dominant in longue durée world history and at their cost and progressive underdevelopment. Presently, while Europe and the United States have reached this economic and political hegemony, many of its historians have attempted to manipulate the past and somehow make a case for the uniqueness of the (Western) European civilization and its self-designated “exclusive” ancestors, the Greco-Romans. [6]

As one of the underprivileged histories, the study of ancient Iranian history faces several obstacles, not entirely the fault of the Eurocentric view of ancient history, nor the predicament of the New World Order. The first and foremost is the disparate and multi-lingual nature of the sources which exist for ancient Iranian history. Almost as important is the geographical expanse of this civilization, consisting of the Iranian Plateau and its neighboring lowlands. The first Persian Empire, the Achaemenids (550-330 BCE) which stretched from the “Danube to the Indus” [7] in its largest extent, did not privilege Old Persian as the language of its multi-ethnic and multi-lingual empire. Rather those languages that best created the environment for managing this huge empire, namely Elamite and Aramaic, were given momentum.

In the Sasanian Empire we also face a similar trend. While Middle Persian was the official language of the Sasanian dynasty, Sogdian, Bactrian and other languages were also commonly used. With the Muslim conquest, some of the texts were lost, but many others were translated into Arabic as it was mandated by the Muslims that one language is to be used as the lingua franca of the early Islamicate world. Indeed this was a very different mental view of language and power than that of late antiquity and the Sasanian order of things.

The second problem is that there are only a few historians who study ancient Iran, and I do not mean dealing with this civilization when it only comes face to face with Greece or Rome, although that has its benefits for the field as well. Indeed, one can easily count the entire body of historians dealing with ancient Iran from memory. If indeed, as it is often alleged, there are no positions in the history departments, then why is ancient Iranian history offered as a field at all? This is a vicious circle that could change by support from outside institutions, governments and individuals, but most importantly by the entire field of history adopting a global and broader perspective.

The third problem has to do with the fact that ancient Iranian history has relied heavily on philology. This means the history of ancient Iran is tangled in the linguistic and philological niceties and rarely given a historical treatment, using methods and approaches designed for history. In this sense, ancient Iranian history has become the domain of Iranian philologists and archaeologists, although the Islamic history of Iran has been far better off. This fact has made ancient Iranian history a fetish of some sorts, seemingly mysterious and far from the reach of most historians.

Now historians have made attempts at reclaiming the history of ancient Iran and making it a matter for those well exercised in the historical approach to ancient times. I myself have very much tried to engage in the study of ancient Iranian history in dialogue with the historians of Rome, India, Asia and Caucasus, as well as those working on the economic, cultural and social history of the world or those interested in the roots and precedents of Islamic history and late antiquity. It is only in this way that ancient Iranian history can be released from philology and archaeology, and at the same time take advantage of the sources of knowledge brought about by these fields.

So, it might be appropriate to preface this book by asking who the Iranian People are. The early Iranian people were a population who spoke languages classified as a branch of Indo-European by the linguists. Some of these languages were used for inscriptions and texts and others for oral communication. They include Avestan, Median, Persian, Scythian, Parthian, Sogdian and other smaller groups who moved to the Iranian Plateau in waves, first to Central Asia and modern day Turkemenistan and then to the plateau itself. Three of them, the Medes, the Arsacids and the Persians established kingdoms and empires or centers of power in antiquity. Medes were the first group to be able to consolidate power on the Iranian Plateau and conquer northern Mesopotamia and parts of Anatolia in the seventh century BCE, often at the expense of the Assyrians. This was the beginning of a process by which the land mass between the Mediterranean Sea and the Persian Gulf was united, where trade could pass from the Indian subcontinent to the Mediterranean world.

The Achaemenid Persian Empire in 550 BCE, under the leadership of one of the most brilliant political and military leaders, a Persian named Cyrus the Great, was able to reconstitute the Median Kingdom and add all of Mesopotamia to it. By the time of the reign of its third ruler, Darius the Great, the three great river civilizations of antiquity, namely the Nile Basin, Mesopotamia and the Indus Plain, were united under the same political power. For the first time in history an empire was formed which stretched from the Indus to the Nile, with a network of roads, centralized monetary system and a provincial organization, headed by a massive operating bureaucracy.

With Alexander the Great, Iran maintained its importance and stability. I very much subscribe to the views of the great Achaemenid historian, Pierre Briant, where he sees Alexander as the continuation and culmination of the Achaemenid Persian rule. [8] With Alexander’s passing, the third ancient Iranian dynasty, the Seleucids, came to power. There are two ways of looking at the Seleucid Empire in the third century BCE. One is to conceive the Seleucids as imperialists who, like their western European successors some eighteen centuries later, came and established their colonial rule in Asia. The other view is that the Seleucids, although Greek in origin, were a force that initiated a Greco-Iranian civilization and continued the path of Iranian history. As with the Achaemenids, we must remember that it is not the language that defines an empire, rather its system of thought, aspirations, organization and aims. In this sense, one can easily make a case for the Seleucids being the third ancient Iranian dynasty. With the weakening of the Seleucid rule over Iran, the fourth dynasty, that of the Arsacids, rose to power. This time from the northeastern fringes of the empire, an Iranian people were able to establish a relatively centralized system which lasted for almost five centuries (247 BCE – 224 CE). The Arsacids were able to amalgamate the Greco-Iranian tradition and to allow different people – be it Greek or Iranian, with different religious affiliation – live side by side.

The religion associated with the Iranian world is of course Zoroastrianism, which manifests itself in various forms. However, one aspect of it, what we may call the Mazdean or Mazdyasnan (“Mazda-worshiping”) tradition, i.e. devotion to the supreme deity Ahura Mazda / Ohrmazd remained constant. Still there were other vibrant religions which the Iranian people gravitated towards. From the Achaemenid period onwards, Jews had lived in Iran and cooperated with the Persian administration, whether in Ecbatana/Hamedan, Babylonia or Jerusalem. Under the Arsacids, Jewish Persian officers served in the army and the regular propaganda assigned the Iranian dynasty a role as saviors, while the Romans were seen as the oppressors. Christianity also found safety from Roman persecution in the Iranian realms, starting in the first century CE. It was only in the third and the fourth centuries that Christianity was held under suspicion, but by the fifth century Persian Christianity itself was recognized by the Sasanian kings and the state. Buddhism and to a far lesser extent Hinduism found a foothold on the eastern fringes of the Iranian World. The Buddhas of Bamiyan are a testament to the vibrant Buddhist community in the eastern Iranian world. We should also mention the Mandeans who lived in Mesopotamia and live there till today, as well as Manichaeans whose religious ideas were almost adopted by a Sasanian monarch in the third century CE.

The fifth ancient Iranian dynasty is the Sasanian Empire whose political history is the subject of this book. The Sasanians are instrumental in the formation of the idea of Iran as a nation and its belief system, moral and ethical values and the language and literature of the Persianate World. It was the Sasanians who forged the concept of a territorial boundary called Iranshahr or “realm of the Iranians,” which in a secularized form, passed on even after the fall of the Sasanians themselves.

The same idea was regularly invoked by the Samanid, Ghaznavid, Mongol, Safavid, Qajar and the Pahlavi dynasties and survives to our day. This traditional historical horizon of the Iranians is encapsulated in the great Persian epic of Shahnameh, the “Book of Kings,” which was originally composed as the royal chronicle, the Xwaday-namag “Book of Lords,” in the Sasanian period. Zoroastrianism as we know it today would not have been established were it not for the Zoroastrian priests in the Sasanian period who committed the Avesta and its twenty one nasks “chapters” – the sacred hymns of that tradition – to writing. It was the Sasanians who firmly established a Persian tradition, with a society based on communal religions in a place called Iranshahr or Iran. When the Sasanians fell to the Arab Muslims, the tradition was so strong that it also influenced Islam and the Persian culture without subsiding. Since the late Qajar and the early Pahlavi period, it has been normal to think of the fall of the Sasanian Empire to the Muslims as the end of all that was glorious and indeed as the demise of Iran.

But cultures do not die, or at least Persian culture did not die and as what it had done with Hellenism, now it did with Islam. Under Islam, the Iranian culture managed to be the driving force in the cultural, artistic, intellectual and literary aspects of the Islamic world. This indeed is the genius of Iranian civilization in that it has been able to absorb foreign conquests and invading cultures into its own tradition and create a universal tradition in return.

This short book attempts to present an outline of the history of Sasanian Iran (224-651 CE) based on the most recent studies. The study of Sasanian history is very much a neglected field, so much so that when I wrote a first draft of this book several years ago for the Sasanika Project (sasanika.com) I was contacted from near and far for permission to cite by the scholars of other periods of Iranian history or other civilizations of the same time period.

It is baffling to me that this piece should merit such reaction, but this reaction goes to show that we are in a dire need of much more in depth study of Sasanian Iran and its history. One can easily survey the existing books on Sasanian history and civilization. The two parts of volume three of The Cambridge History of Iran, edited by Ehsan Yarshater not only deal with the Sasanians, but also with the Arsacids. Richard Nelson Frye’s two important books, the Heritage of Persia, and The History of Ancient Iran deal with the entire period of ancient Persian / Iranian history, where the Sasanians are covered in a chapter or two. Most recently, J. Wiesehöfer’s excellent book, Ancient Persia has provided a complete survey of ancient Iranian history, including the Sasanian period. Consequently, those who want to find a specific book on Sasanian Iran are forced to consult either the classic work of Arthur Christensen, L’Iran sous les Sassanides, written in 1944 in French or Klaus Schippmann’s Grundzüge der Geschichte des sasanidischen Reiches written in 1990 in German. Then it is not surprising that a relatively short piece in English from the internet as part of my Sasanika Project should receive such attention.

Of course this is not to forget the contributions of the scholars who have done much in the past two or three decades to help our understanding of the Sasanian history and civilization. Ph. Gignoux and R. Gyselen in France have revolutionized the epigraphic and administrative history of the Sasanian Empire. M. Alram along with other numismatists such as V. Sarkhosh Curtis, M.I. Mochiri, H.M. Malek, A. Gariboldi and others have given us new ways of understanding political, religious and administrative history. Sh. Shaked, G. Gnoli, A. de Jong, M. Stausberg and others have given us a fresh look at religion in the Sasanian period. The linguistic and philological works of P. O. Skjærvø, A. Panaino, C.G. Cereti, M. Macuch and Ph. Huyse have provided better versions of Middle Iranian texts. Finally, Z. Rubin and J. Wiesehöfer, among others, have tried to make Sasanian history matter in the field of ancient history.

Based on the work of all these scholars in the past decades, I have assumed that a printed version of the internet text with additional observations merits a publication in the Sasanika series under the auspices of the Dr. Samuel M. Jordan Center for Persian Studies and Culture at the University of California, Irvine and Mazda Publishers. I wish to thank Dr. A. Kamron Jabbari for agreeing to undertake the publication of the Sasanika series and to make it see the light of day. I also would like to thank another student of Sasanian history, Khodadad Rezakhani, for reading a draft of this book and making substantial comments and corrections. Without his help this text would not see the light of day. The shortcomings are of course mine alone.

Finally, I would like to dedicate this book to someone who has made me who I am as a scholar. I am a historian and am trained in the history department at the University of California, Los Angeles. My teacher, M.G. Morony, himself has toiled to demonstrate the importance of Sasanian history, not only for late antiquity but also for the post-Sasanian / Islamic period in a time when there was hardly any attention paid to this period of Near Eastern history. Near Eastern history in the West has commonly begun with the Sumerians and end with Alexander. It then begins again with the Arab Muslims and the Islamic history. The gap in between has been the purview of Greco-Roman historians. Morony has tried to change this nebulous view of Near Eastern history. In a sense, he has opened the Pandora’s Box and trained and encouraged most people who deal with Sasanian history today in the United States. He should be thanked and honored for this work and as such, I would like to dedicate this book to him.

Touraj Daryaee
Howard Baskerville Professor in the History of Iran and the Persianate World
University of California, Irvine

Sasanian Iran (224-651 CE):
Portrait of a Late Antique Empire
(2008, Mazda Publishers)


[1] The best historiography of the development of Classical Studies in the past three centuries is by M. Bernal, The Black Athena. The Afro-asiatic Roots of Classical Civilization, New Brunswick, N.J., 1987, where he alleges that a preference was given to the “Aryan Model” in place of the “Ancient Model” because of what he calls Europe’s “Hellenomania.”

[2] The term “people without history,” is of course a borrowing from the important work of E. Wolf, Europe and the People Without History, Berkeley and Los Angeles, 1982.

[3] J. Wiesehöfer, Iraniens, Grecs et Romains, Studia Iranica, Cahier 32, Paris, 2005, p. 47. He has also discussed this matter in another important article on the issue of the place and position of the Sasanian Empire in ancient history, “Statt einer Einleitung: ‘Randkultur’ oder ‘Nabel der Welt’? Das Sasanidenreich und der Westen. Anmerkungen eines Althistorikers,” Birun ud Andarun. Studien zu den Beziehungen zwischen dem Sasanidenreich und der Mittelmeerwelt. Beiträge des Internationalen Colloquiums in Eutin, 8.-9. Juni 2000, eds. J. Wiesehöfer and Ph. Huyse, München, 2006, pp. 9-28.

[4] F. Braudel, The Perspective of the World: Civilization and Capitalism 15th-18th Century, University of California Press, Berkeley & Los Angeles, 1992, p. 134.

[5] S. Amin, Eurocentrism, New York, 1989, pp. 93-94.

[6] For a successful critique of this view see J.M. Blaut, The Colonizers’ Model of the World: Geographical Diffusionism and Eurocentric History, Trenton, N.J., 1993.

[7] P. Briant, “Du Danube à l’Indus, l’histoire d’un empire,” L’Iran et la Perse, Le Monde de la bible, No. 106, 1997, p. 23.

[8] The title of his monumental book, From Cyrus to Alexander. A History of the Persian Empire, Eisenbrauns, 2002 points to the same fact, but also see his conclusions, pp. 873-876.

Meet Iranian Singles

Iranian Singles

Recipient Of The Serena Shim Award

Serena Shim Award
Meet your Persian Love Today!
Meet your Persian Love Today!