Sasanian Society

What was it like living in the Sasanian Empire?


Sasanian Society
by Nabil Rastani

When asked by a relative of mine, “what was it like living in the Sasanian Empire?” I was rather puzzled. I could not able to respond because I had little knowledge on the matter, even though I had studied the Sasanians (224-651AD) for years. But I always knew that the Sasanians were an absolute monarchy, ruled by a single king who together with a select few controlled an empire that extended from the furthered reaches of Gujarat province in India and the Oxus River in the East to Syria and Armenia in the West.

Sasanian society was clearly from all points a very religious one, to the extent of fanaticism. The vast majority of Sasanian citizens were of Zoroastrian background under the keen control of vigilant Zoroastrian clergy known as magi. However, it seems that other religious beliefs somehow managed to spread as well. The most frequently referred to is of course Christianity, which up to that point had been embraced by Byzantine Emperors since the 4th century AD under their first Christian ruler, Constantine the Great who founded the Byzantine Empire and called himself the “13th Apostle” thus the Emperor Constantine, as vicar of Christ, claimed to protect all Christians, including those in Sasanian ruled lands; some of them most likely descended from earlier Roman prisoners of war. Indeed, Constantine advised Shapur II (309-79) to “love the Christians [of the Sasanian Empire]”. 1

However, Sasanian royalty and particularly Zorostrian clergy saw that Christianity was a major threat to the harmony of Sasanian society and empire. In Iran devotion to the Christian faith appeared as al­legiance to a hostile political power, and the Emperor regarded such developments as threats to the security of his empire. 2

This started a sudden wave of terror and persecution irrationally imposed on Sasanian Christians which by the late 3rd century had touched the hearts of many, becoming massively adhered to amongst both the peasants and upper class alike. The Sasanian magi blamed the Byzantine Romans, perceiving the Christians in the Sasanian Empire as “Byzantine spies” and this in turn supposedly gave the Sasanians a solid excuse to put down the Christians.

For a whole host of motives the Sasanians and Byzantines had been at war with each other, attempting to crush each other, often with unnecessary causalities for both sides. All in all, the war was a waste of resources and effort because very little territories were acquired by either side. Their ongoing futile war was one to be rightfully given the title of status quo ante bellum meaning literally "the state in which things were before the war". 3

Sasanian society could be broken down into different social groups: the royalty and aristocracy who controlled the empire at the top,the merchants and traders who were made up of mostly non-Zoroastrian middle class people. The corrupt priesthood or magi whom, the people of Sasanian empire looked up to for moral support. The scribes and academics including scientists, geographers, historians, writers, tutors and physicians who provided the brains of Sasanian society. Finally the majority of citizens made up of peasants, beggars and farmers these are the people who would have been consistently used and abused by the Sasanian government as puppets in politics and used in war as “meat shields” and slaves.

The Shahanshah (Emperor) and the nobles

At the top of the hierarchy was the Shah who the absolute ruler of the Sasanian Empire. He was answerable to no mortals, only God (Ahura Mazda) could judge his deeds and acts. The court of the Shah is detailed in Sasanian scriptures as being colorful. The Shah wore Tyrian purple silk and his beard was adorned with precious gems and gold, with a crown which was so heavy that it was suspended from the ceiling. 4 The Shah was allowed as many women to pleasure him as he wished. According to sources; Khosrow Parviz had over three thousand concubines in his harem amongst other consorts.

Sasanian rulers were considered divinely ordained by God, thus in essence were no ordinary humans. They had to be respected and convey a certain air of holiness. But the Shah's divinity was only placed upon him because of his duty and hereditary background. He was expected to rule with justice and to protect the people of the empire against the evil Ahriman and any aggressors. Here is an example of the duties of the Sasanian rulers, created by Ardashir I the founder of the Sasanian to his son Shapur I who would reincarnate an epic struggle against the Roman Empire to the West:

"Never forget that as a king you are the protector of your religion and your country... You should be an example of piety and virtue, but without pride or ostentation... Remember my son, that the fate of the nation depends on the conduct of the individual who sits on the throne... Learn to meet the frowns of destiny with courage and fortitude, and to receive her smiles with moderation and wisdom... May your administration be such as to bring the blessing of those whom God has confided to our parental care."

The nobles and aristocracy also had there place, they were seen as the “king’s eyes” and served as governors of provinces advisors, as well as loyal generals in battle. Indeed unlike many other empires of late antiquity, the Sasanian kings were not always allocated the position of “commander in chief”. Many soldiers who had shown there worth in battle were promoted to the single position of Ērān Spāhbod (minister of defense and commander in chief of the armies of Iran) the famous Rostam Farrokhzad a noble from Northern Iran, who heroically fought against the Arab invaders in the 7th century AD held the very same office. During the decline of the Sasanian Empire aristocrats became more prominent and powerful in many cases were the power behind a series of weak rulers. 5

The merchants and traders

According to the Zend Avesta, the holy book of the Zoroastrians, setting up trade and business was wrong, but in order to economically grow the Sasanians needed some from of solid trade between not only other nations and empires (China, India and Rome) but with each other. So it was the non-Zoroastrians who served as traders. This included the Christians of the empire who explored and travelled East in search of precious materials and in which to teach the people of the lands of there newly found faith in God and in Jesus Christ.

In general the main “trading race” in the Sasanian Empire was the Sogdians who inhabited the mountainous countries that are modern day Afghanistan, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan this was made up of mostly Buddhists, Pagans, Hindus, small pockets of Jews and of course the growing number of adheres of Christianity. We hear from several sources such as coinage and Middle Persian scripts that the Sasanians formed colonies as far as the east coast of China along the Pacific, across Indian sub-continent and even parts of Vietnam and Thailand. 6

A huge array of exotic goods and items were sold along the Silk Road from China came jade, china ware, bronze, spices and clothes of all kinds namely the luxurious clothing material called silk. From India came various spices, ivory, precious stones and gems, sliver, gold, pearls, corals, nutmeg (a handful of nutmeg could make a man wealthy for the rest of his days) and pepper. A whole host of creatures and beasts were also traded along the road this included wild animals: monkeys, elephants, lions, peacocks, cheetahs, tigers, rhinoceros, horses, eagles, parrots, double humped camels and exotic reptiles such as turtles and lizards as well as aquatic life such as tropical fish. A form of slave trade was integrated into the Silk Road; most of these slaves would have been of Chinese, Turkic and Central Asian origin. 6

Magi the priesthood

The founder of the Sasanian dynasty, Ardashir I was a high magi or priest (Mobadan Mobad) who made Zoroastrianism the official religion on Iran. Sasanian society was highly devout and pious. The magians were men, who knew the word of God written in the holy book the “Zend Avesta” which had originally been stored in the Achaemenid capital city of Persepolis, written in Old Persian on the skin of cows with gold ink. It was however burnt along with the magnificent city by Alexander the Great in 330BC. According to legend Ardashir I gathered the highest magi together to recreate and recompile the lost Avesta. But with so little reliable sources available Ardashir was forced to use a man who would have taken some from of hallucinative drug and would have apparently spoken laws which were complied and analyzed by the magi and used to produce the “Neo-Avesta”. Sasanian Zoroastrian magi modified the religion in a way to serve themselves, causing substantial religious uneasiness.

The magians' responsibility was to take care of the fire temples, and keep people humble and moral, this mainly applied to the peasant class while the more educated upper class with more influence would have taken less notice of these lessons by the magi. It was expected that every citizen was to believe in the teachings of Zoroaster and abide by the laws. However at times the magi flexed there political muscle especially against the Christians amongst other religions in the most gruesome and grotesque ways, martyring them. 7 The forms of execution used included crucifixion, shot by a volley of arrows, boiling in salt water, torn apart by wild animals, burning, starvation, drowning and very rarely crushing by elephants although the expense would have made it necessary to be an important figure rather than a simple adhere of Jesus Christ. 8

Magi influence in the royal court is well recorded amongst both Persian and Roman sources. They held the high position; indeed the Mobadan Mobad (or chief magi) was a very powerful figure in the court of the Sasanian kings. A Mobadan Mobad would have enough power and influence to execute nobles and even royalty for heresy. Heresy included crimes such as breaking the laws of the Avesta such as being a non-Zoroastrian, adultery, thieving, corruption, murder, rape and witchcraft as well as many others. 8

We hear about the clergy having a position of substantial power and influence as far back as the early Achaemenid Empire. After the premature death of Cambyses II of Persia, a magi claimed to have the son of Cyrus the Great by the name of Bardiya. Darius the Great however, knew he that he was a usurper and revealed that he was a magi by the name of Gaumata, according to Herodotus, Gaumata was stabbed to death with the knifes of his own nobles in 522BC and Darius was proclaimed king of the Persian Empire. 9

The most famous magi was Kerdir or Katir who lived during the late 3rd century. Originally he was a magi who rose to become Moabadan-Moabad, 'priest of priests', a position Kerdir ruthlessly used to promote his own position and to punish lower-ranking priests whose opinions he considered contrary to his own. Under three emperors, Kerdir called for the persecution of adherents of other religions, in particular Manichaeans, whose prophet Mani was sentenced to death by Bahram I. He is first referred to during the reign of Shapur I (241-272AD). He was powerful enough to commission his own inscriptions on the mountain side of Naqsh-Rajab and advise the emperors on there doings.

The scribes and academics

The brain of the Sasanian society was made up of intelligent aristocracy made up of scientists, geographers, historians, writers, tutors and physicians. Many of these academics would have taught and worked at the Academy of Jundishpur (Dânešgâh e Gondišâpur) which was the most important medical centre of the world during the 6th and 7th century AD. It was here that science, art, medicine mathematics and philosophy flourished. Indeed even the Byzantine Romans who had always thought of themselves as the pivotal of human civilization, sent many scientists and great thinkers to study at Jundishpur. 10

In the 6th century AD the Roman emperor deemed the art of Philosophy as being “pagan” and for this very reason closed down the universities and academies in Athens. Many of the philosophers were welcomed as refugees by the Sasanian Emperor of the time Khosrau I (Anushiravan the Just) who was a passionate philosopher and “philhellene” and thus offered them academic positions in Jundishpur. The Emperor commissioned the refugees to translate Greek and Syriac texts into Pahlavi (Middle Persian). They translated various works on medicine, astronomy, philosophy, history and useful crafts.

Khosrau also sent one of his most trusted physicians - Borzouye - east to China and India to invite Chinese and Indian scholars to Jundishpur. These scholars translated Indian texts on astronomy, astrology, mathematics and medicine and Chinese texts on herbal medicine and religion. Borzouye is said to have himself translated the Panchatantra from Sanskrit into Persian. 11 As for geographers these learned men studied “Iran and non Iran” and would have travelled as far as India, China, Africa and even parts of Europe in search of new geographical information. The geographers of Rome refer to the landmass of Iran on several occasions for example. Strabo talks of how grapevines grew abundantly throughout parts of Iran and other geographers talk of how Iran was surrounded by mountains and two seas. Iranian geographers would have studied earlier Achaemenid texts as well as the Avesta. 11

Sasanian Empire was colossal and this in turn meant that there was a variety of geographic terrains: In central Iran and Arabia there were deserts. In the Far East of the empire the Himalayas (Imaus) mountain range saw the end of the Sasanian domain and over these ancient snow topped mountains laid the many Chinese and Far Eastern Kingdoms. In the South East of the empire the fertile rainforests, swamps and rivers that flowed throughout Sasanian India. Beyond the terrorizes of Iranians dwelled the elephant riders of the mysterious kingdoms of Hindustan. In the North East of the empire the plains that were once inhabited by the fierce Huns provided the frontier of the Sasanian Empire. In the West the two rivers of Mesopotamia provided a stronghold for many empires for centuries before the Sasanians.

In the south the Arab terrorizes under the control of the Sasanians beyond which the camel riding nomads who would one day take over Iran. In the far west the borders between two of the most powerful empires remained, with this dotted along the constantly changing borders were castles and fortresses. In the north of Iran the thick forests covered the land which hid the tough Dailamite warriors. Khuzestan was the agricultural centre of Iran. In Yazd the fire temples were continuously lit in the warm heat of central Iran. Fars was the humble centre stage and homeland of the Sasanian and Achaemenid Empires, filled with vast vineyards, rose gardens and forgotten palaces.

Peasants, beggars and farmers

The mental image of any ancient nation like Rome or Iran is one of wealthy men seeking pleasure and gluttony. When we think of Romans we think of how overweight senators ruled the bustling city of Rome with an emperor who wore a golden wreath on his head. For the Sasanian Empire we think of the mystical eastern kingdom where "Prince of Persia" is based on. But the backbone of all ancient societies was the poor and peasants.

Life as a peasant in the Sasanian Empire, like any other empire, was tough. At an early age children would have to fight against diseases and malnutrition which was common. If a person was to live passed there early childhood then they would have to work quickly. Usually children worked from the moment they would be able to walk on farms but into adolescence the teenager would work quickly, specializing in becoming a blacksmith, carpenter, farmer or servant. Arranged marriages would have been conceived by about the age of fifteen for a boy and nine for a girl and thus the teenager would have to provide for this family.12

The fact that there was no “dole” meant that if a person lost there house or job then essentially they would be left to starve. However the magi did create a form of donation to the needy but this money rarely relieved the hungry. If a person was a beggar then they would be looked down in society and the likelihood was that the person would die quickly. The mentality of the Sasanian society meant that it was rare to break social barriers. If a peasant girl had caught the eye of a noble then this would provide for her for a short time but life would have been one with little dignity or respect. Another way was through service in the military. Years of fighting would finally gain some notice especially if the soldier was a capable fighter. The final and probably most unlikely way was through socializing; charming the upper class but this was probably extremely unlikely. Indeed one of the emperor’s main aims was to keep people in there social groups. 13

Due to the arid condition of Iran’s climate and terrain this meant that the farmers would have generally worked around greater Iran and some of the more fertile provinces such as Gīlān, Māzandarān, Golestān, Fārs and Khūzestān, which on several occasions are referred to as being the agricultural home of Iran, thanks to the fact that permanent rivers flow throughout the province. Even today it is occasionally referred to as the province of “sugar” because of its vast production of sugar canes. Other provinces around the empire that provided agricultural benefits include not surprisingly the Indian provinces which contained pockets of fertile land.

The Sasanians control over North Western India even reached the tip of the sacred Ganges River. The two great rivers the Tigris and Euphrates that flowed throughout Mesopotamia made it a very valuable province to the empire especially due to the fact that the capital, Ctesiphon lay between the two banks of the rivers.

It is interesting when one refers to a collection of laws called Matikan-e-Hazar Datastan. It talks of how slaves should be treated. For example a slave could only be a foreigner and a non-Zoroastrian. If however the slave would convert to Zoroastrianism then he or she could pay to become free. The owner had to also treat the slave humanely; violence toward slaves was forbidden. In particular beating a slave woman was a crime. 14

Women in Sasanian society

A few words should be said on the status of women in the Sasanian Empire. Women had to maintain a certain standard of physical appearance. Below is the “perfect” woman in the eyes of Sasanians:

“Who in her mind loves her husband, who has good words in bed for her husband but does not talk shamefully. In her looks she must be one whose stature is middle-sized and whose chest is broad and whose head, buttocks, and neck are well formed and whose legs are short and waist slender and soles of the feet arched and whose breast is quince like and whose body down to the toes nails is snowy white and whose cheeks are pomegranate red and whose eyes are almond shaped and hips coralline and [eye] brows vaulted and whose denture is white, fresh and brilliant and locks black and bright and long.” (The Rise and Fall of an Empire, by Touraj Daryaee p.62)

Although it is a generally popular view to think that the Sasanians thought that men and women were equal, this is a wrong assumption and the above quotation quickly undermines the position of women in Sasanian society. Anyone who did not follow these “laws” would be punished. The Sasanians however did allow female companies within the army and there were even two Sasanian queens in charge of Iran in the 7th century (Puran and Azarmidokht). So the view and position of women is a hard one to sufficiently study without being completely biased or unrealistic. This rather sexual view of women for example could mainly be related to the different social class of the person in question. The queen consort for example would have been given this position for political gain such as marriages into different noble families or royal dynasties like that of Rome or imperial China to form imperial ties. 15 However this could be argued since the Emperor had women to sexually pleasure him in his “harem”.

A woman was expected to marry at nine and a man at fifteen. This was so that when they died they would be the same age in heaven. The women would have to have to obey her husband's wishes. However if necessary a women could divorce a man. Rules were also harsh for men as well as women when it came to intercourse: a man or women could be put to death if he/she had sex before marriage or committed adultery. 16

Languages of the empire

The diversity and size of the Sasanian Empire housed a multitude of languages both new and old. In the West of the empire which had once been a haven of Hellenic culture under the Macedonians and later Seleucids, still had impressive numbers of Greek speaking peoples. The Byzantines who quickly began to incorporate Greek as there official language would have of course strengthened the number of Greek speaking peoples and provided a steady flow of Greek linguists into the Sasanian Empire. 17

Even several of Ardashir’s inscriptions read in Greek. Latin the language of the old Roman Empire, flourished in the early Sasanian Empire especially amongst academics. Syriac and the ancient Aramaic language also flourished throughout the empire especially in Mesopotamia and the Syrian parts of the empire which always maintained its ancient history. In Iran and eastern Mesopotamia many Jews lived amongst Iranians. A large Jewish community lived and flourished in Susa, Ctesiphon, Hatra and Istakhr all speaking Hebrew and Aramaic as well as the local languages. Judaism played a key part in Sasanian politics. For example Shapur II's mother was a Jew and many other Emperors claimed Jewish descent. 18

Avestan was the language of the clergy it was originally from Eastern Iran and. It was the language of the Sasanian religious scriptures; centred in Yazd, Sistan, Herat, Merv regions in Eastern Iran. 19 In the East of the empire many vibrant and flowery languages formed including East Iranian, and also languages which were combined with heavy influences from China and India, such as the Buddhist language known as "Khotanese" which principally survived in modern Western China and Tajikistan, under the umbrella of Saka languages. This shows us that Buddhism was widespread enough to have an impact on the local language. Indeed Buddhist culture and art was strong and influential, allowing the construction of large monuments of Buddha in modern Afghanistan known as the Buddhas of Bamiyan constructed in the 6th century AD. 19

Many other Central Asian languages also flourished including the ancient language of the Aryans called Sanskrit which mainly consisted of Indian speakers but had at one time in history been spoken by Iranians and Germans. During the reign of several Sasanian Emperors such as Khosrau I, many Sanskrit speaking academics taught at Jundishpur. Also ancient Sanskrit scripts was translated to the official language of the Sasanian Empire, Middle Persian (Pahlavi). Similar to Old Persian, it was the language of the Sasanian court and thus retained an air of prestige with it. Middle Persian was the most common language in the empire. The modern Persian “New Persian” is an evolved version of Middle Persian which formed by the 13th century with influence from Arabic. 20

While the Sasanian Empire at times can be seen as visionary, glorious and the most powerful and advanced nation on Earth alongside the Byzantines, it can still be perceived as a highly fanatical society which did not allow the growth of other religions such as Christianity. It can in some ways be compared to the modern Islamic Republic of Iran, both of which had based there own laws and society on a single religion and persecuted other religions, an example of this in context to the Islamic Republic of Iran is the current persecution that faced by the Bahais and other minorities similarly to the persecution faced by the Christians of the Sasanian Empire.

The Sasanians based there society and laws on the beliefs of Zoroaster and the Islamic Republic is based on Islam. While there are some similarities between the two there are several major differences, such as the fact that the Sasanians were by far a more organized and a powerful nation. Above all the effective Sasanian administration was based on that of the highly successful Achaemenid Persian Empire of Cyrus and Darius. Another major difference was that women did not have to wear a certain standard of clothing although gender equality did not seem to be a solid part of the Sasanian Empire in any way shape or form.

All in all the Sasanians success came because of their innovative ways of combining the achievements of previous administrations and style of economy as well as combining brilliant Parthian military tactics and style so as to counter Byzantine Rome, while advancing at the same time. Along with innovations in warfare and in law bringing and of course the re-unification of a land called Iran (the land of the Aryans).

The Sasanian Empire went into decline shortly after the death of Khosrow Parviz, and coming to an end after over 400 years in 651AD in the hands of Arab Muslim invaders. I will end with a short quote from the famed 10th century poet, Ferdowsi the father of modern Persian language, on the former glory of Iran, mainly in reference to the Sasanian Empire (224AD-651AD):

“Where are your valiant warriors and your priests? Where are your hunting parties and your feasts? Where are that warlike men, and where are those great armies that destroyed our countries foes?... Count Iran as a ruin, as the lair of lions and leopards! Look now and despair!”

Primary and Secondary Sources

1. Eusebius, Vita Constantini 4.9ff

2. Christensen, Iran Sass., pp. 267ff.; Asmussen, pp. 933f.; Brock, pp. 1ff

3. Ancient World War by Nabil Rastani

4. Sasanian Persia The rise and fall of an Empire Prof Touraj Daryaee p.41

5. Rawlinson (2007)

6. Hill, John E. (2009). Through the Jade Gate to Rome: A Study of the Silk Routes during the Later Han Dynasty, First to Second Centuries CE.

7. Tarikh-i Tabari, vol. II

8. Selected readings from Dr. A. Shapur Shahbazi’s articles and books.

9. Herodotus’ Histories

10. Oman 1893

11. Prof Touraj Daryaee Sasanian Iran pg 113

12. Ammianus Marcellinus XXV

13. Oman 1893

14. K. D. Irani, Morris Silver, Social Justice in the Ancient World , 224 pp., Greenwood Publishing Group, 1995

15. Sasanian Persia The rise and fall of an Empire Prof Touraj Daryaee p.59

16. Sasanian Persia The rise and fall of an Empire Prof Touraj Daryaee p.63

17. Sasanian Persia The rise and fall of an Empire Prof Touraj Daryaee p.100

18. Tarikh-i Tabari vol. V.

19. China and Iran a look on Sino-Iranian relations by Nabil Rastani

20. Ferodswi Shahnameh a translation to New English


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I find the conclusions and suggestions in this text quite shallow.

Comparing the Sassanian Society with the IRI makes no sense when 2000 years are past! Also suggesting that the society was "fanatical" regarding women while applying today's values is ludicrous! Few societies in those days had women queens or allowed women to get divorced. My knowledge is too limited to say whether or not the society was "advanced" regarding women or not but one should judge by relative values and not apply today's views on the matter.


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