The Sassanid Empire

226 - 51 A.D.


Brief Outline


The last of the Parthian kings, Artabanus V, was defeated and killed in battle with the king of the Persian ( Fars ) kingdom, Ardashir I. Ardashir founded one of the greatest Persian empires, named after his grandfather. During its 400 year rule the Sassanid kingdom became rich and the loose administartion of the Parthians was replaced with a stronger system. Schools, hospitals and universities were built with rather heavy taxes .Town planning and irrigation works were carried out on a grand scale . The empire expanded and such Roman emperors as Valerian, Phillip the Arab and Gordian  III were defeated and brought to the capital with thousand of prisoners . The struggles with Rome continued under the Byzantine  empire. Under  Shapur I, the Sassanid empire stretched from Euphrates to the west, Merv in the north and Punjab in the east .The main religion of the empire was Zoroastrianism, and many major fire temples were built. Sculpture, textiles and metal work reached new heights during the Sassanid reign. After exhaustive wars with the Byzantine empire, the weakened Sassanids fell to the armies of the Islamic Umayyd Caliphs from Arabia in 637, but Sassanid resistance continued for 200 years .



 The Sasanian Empire is the second largest Persian Empire which reigned Iran from 224 to 651 CE. The Sasanian dynasty was founded by Ardashir I after defeating the last Arsacid king of kings, Artabanus IV and ended when the last Sasanian the King of Kings (Shahanshah), Yazdegerd III (632--651), lost the war to Arab invaders. One of the most remarkable empires and civilizations of the first millennium CE was that of the Sasanian Empire. As one of the two great powers of late antiquity, the Sasanian domain eventually encompassed not only modern day Iran and Iraq, but it also controlled or influenced the greater part of Central Asia (Afghanistan, Tukremenestan, Uzbekestan), Caucasus (Republic of Azerbijan, Armenia and Georgia) and the Near East (Syria, Arabia, Persian Gulf Arab states, Israel and Egypt).


The Persians in Seleucid and Parthian times


The ancient Persian homeland was one of the first to rise up against Seleucid rule and Greek culture had lass impact . As early as 280 B.C. there were uprisings against the Seleucids and became a defacto independent kingdom and issued their own coins . Between the ruins of Persepolis and Pasargadae a new capital arose called Istakr .

The treatment of the Persians by their Parthian lords seems, on the whole, to have been marked by moderation. However, Mithridates I, their original conqueror, is accused of having alienated his new subjects by the harshness of his rule; and in the struggle which occurred between him and the Seleucid king, Demetrius II., Persians, as well as Elymseans and Bactrians, are said to have fought on the side of the Seleucids. But this is the only occasion in Parthian history, between the submission of Persia and the great revolt under Ardashir, where there is any appearance of the Persians regarding their masters with hostile feelings. In general they show themselves submissive and contented with their position, which was certainly, on the whole, a less irksome one than they had occupied under the Seleucids.

was a principle of the Parthian governmental system to allow the subject peoples, to a large extent, to govern themselves. These peoples generally, and notably the Persians, were ruled by native kings, who succeeded to the throne by hereditary right, had the full power of life and death, and ruled very much as they pleased, so long as they paid regularly the tribute imposed upon them by the "King of Kings," and sent him a respectable contingent when he was about to engage in a military expedition. Such a system implies that the conquered peoples have the enjoyment of their own laws and institutions, are exempt from troublesome interference, and possess a sort of semi-independence.


Ahura Mazda (R), holding the barsam of priesthood,

offers the diadem and crown of kingship to Ardashir I .

At Naqsh-i Rustam


Ardashir I  r. 226?41


 The Palace of Ardashir Pāpakan (in Persian: دژ اردشير پاپکان Dezh-e Ardashir Pāpakān), also known as the Atash-kadeh آتشکده, is a castle located on the slopes of the mountain on which Dezh Dokhtar is situated on. Built in AD 224 by King Ardashir I of the Sassanian Empire, it is located two kilometers (1.2 miles) north of the ancient city of Gor, i.e. the old city of Piruz-Apad in Pars, in ancient Persia

Despite the many myths about the founding the dynasty by later generations the factual details are few . A rebellion broke out in the Persian satrap of the Parthians by Papak who adopted  or was the father of Ardashir, the founder Sassanid dynasty . The name of the dynasty comes from Sasan, the grandfather or more distant ancestor of Ardashir who held a high position at the temple of Anahita in Istakhr .who it was claimed could trace his ancestry back to the founders of the Achaemenid dynasty as a way of legitimatising  Sassanid rule. When Papak died, Ardashir's older brother became king, but Ardashir rebelled against him or his brother was accidentally killed and became king in 208 A.D.. Around this time Ardashir founded his circular walled capital Ardashir-Khvarrah ( Glory of Ardashir in  modern day Firouzabad in Fars province south of Shiraz )




Ardashir ends the Parthian empire



The circumstances of the struggle between Artaxerxes and. Artabanus are briefly sketched by Dio Cassius and Agathangelus, while they are related more at large by the Persian writers. It is probable that the contest occupied a space of four or five years. At first, we are told, Artabanus neglected to arouse himself, and took no steps towards crushing the rebellion, which was limited to an assertion of the independence of Persia Proper, or the province of Fars.


After a time the revolted vassal, finding himself unmolested, was induced to raise his thoughts higher, and commenced a career of conquest. Turning his arms eastward, he attacked Kerman (Carmania), and easily succeeded in reducing that scantily-peopled tract under his dominion. He then proceeded to menace the north, and, making war in that quarter, overran and attached to his kingdom some of the outlying provinces of Media. Roused by these aggressions, the Parthian monarch at length took the field, collected an army consisting in part of Parthians, in part of the Persians who continued faithful to him, against his vassal, and, invading Persia, soon brought his adversary to a battle.


A long and bloody contest followed, both sides suffering great losses; but victory finally declared itself in favor of Ardashir, through the desertion to him, during the engagement, of a portion of his enemy's forces. A second conflict ensued within a short period, in which the insurgents were even more completely successful; the carnage on the side of the Parthians was great, the loss of the Persians small; and the great king fled precipitately from the field. Still the resources of Parthia were equal to a third trial of arms.


Shapur, son of Ardashir, killing the Parthian Grand Vizer at the battle of  Hormizdgan

After a brief pause, Artabanus made a final effort to reduce his revolted vassal; and a last engagement took place in the plain of Hormuz which is known as he Battle of Hormizdgan ( 224 ) where Ardashir.on a decisive victory over Artabanus who was killed . According to some, his death was the result of a hand-to-hand conflict whith their troops looking on, the outcome to decide who would rule .This is doubtful, but does make a romaintic story .



The supposed single combat between Ardashir I

and Artabanus IV from the 14 cent


Some Parthian resistance existed around Ctesiphon, where Vologases V minted coins as late as 228

Ardashir conquered Ctesiphon in 228 and was crowned  'King of kings' ( Shananshah ).


The Eastern campaigns


According to the historian Tabari, Adashir next conquered the areas of Khorasan ( north eastern Iran ), Merv ( Turkmenistan ) , Balkh the old Bactrian capital in modern day northern Afghanistan, Khiva ( Uzbekistan )  and Chorasmia (  Uzbekistan ) . According to historian Vincent Smith, Ardashir marched against India in the area of modern day Punjab, but the king gave him jewels and elephants  to iduce him to leave . the kings of Kushan, Tura and Makran also gave tribute .


Ardashir and Rome


map of Roman and Parthian empires


Ardashir well read in the ancient history of his nation, he sighed after the glorious days of Cyrus the Great and Darius , when all Western Asia from the shores of the Aegean to the Indian desert, and portions of Europe and Africa, had acknowledged the sway of the Persian king. The territories which these princes had ruled he regarded as his own by right of inheritance; and we are told that he not only entertained, but boldly published, these views. to pursue these dreams, in 228 A.D.  Ardashir decided to cross the boundry of the old Parthian empire with Rome, the Euphrates.the troops of the Persian monarch crossed the Tigris and spread themselves over the entire Roman province of Mesopotamia, which was rapidly overrun and offered scarcely any resistance.


Severus Alexander  r. 222 - 235


The young Romam emperor of the time, Severus Alexander learned at the same moment the demands of his adversary and the loss of one of his best provinces. He heard that his strong posts upon the Euphrates, the old defences of the empire in this quarter, were being attacked, and that Syria daily expected the passage of the invaders. The crisis was one requiring prompt action; but the weak and inexperienced youth was content to meet it with diplomacy, and, instead of sending an army to the East, despatched ambassadors to his rival with a letter. .The emperor sent him a letter urging him not to start a great war and to remember the victories of Trajan and Setimus Severus .


 To this Ardashir sent a mision of 400 delivering an arrogant reply demanding the Romans leave Syria and the rest of Asia and to content themselves with Europe. His emissaries everywhere declared that their master claimed the dominion of Asia as far as the AEgean Sea and the Propontis.  The Romans felt this demand was so insolent that they seized the ambassadors as prisoners of war .


By 231 a formidable Roman force had been assembled at Antioch . The Euphrates was crossed by the Romans in the spring of A.D. 232; the Roman province of Mesopotamia was easily recovered; and arrangements were made by which it was hoped to deal the new monarchy a heavy blow, if not actually to crush and conquer it.The Roman plan was to divide their force into three armies . The northern army was to invade Media in alliance with Chosroes of Armenia, the southern army was to invade the Ctesiphon area and the third, commanded by the emperor in person was to invade the Persian homeland . the bad strategy of using three detached forces which could not support each other was destined to fail .The northern army was successful in its raid on Media, but on its return its losses were great .Winter had already set in throughout the high regions; and in its retreat the army of Media suffered great losses through the inclemency of the climate, so that those who reached Syria were but a small proportion of the original force. Ardashir concentrated his forces and annihilated  the southern army . Severus, alarmed by this disaster, ordered a retreat .


The result of the campaign had thus been altogether favorable to the Persians, but yet it had convinced Artaxerxes that Rome was more powerful than he had thought. It had shown him that in imagining the time had arrived when they might be easily driven out of Asia?e had made a mistake. The imperial power had proved itself strong enough to penetrate deeply within his territory, to ravage some of his best provinces, and to threaten his capital. The grand ideas with which he had entered upon the contest had consequently to be abandoned; and it had to be recognized that the struggle with Rome was one in which the two parties were very evenly matched, one in which it was not to be supposed that either side would very soon obtain any decided preponderance A peace treaty with Rome was concluded in 232 . Probably the general principle of the arrangement was a return to the old borders of the Parthian empire.


the Sasanians took advantage of Severus, assassination in 235 to seize areas in Mesopotamia including the towns of  Carrhae and Nisibis .In the years of anarchy in Rome after Severus' assassination the sassanids advance into Syria went unchecked for fifty years .In 238, the important city of Hatra was captured .


Ardashir and the conquest of Armenia


It was essential to the consolidation of the new Persian Empire that Armenia should be subjugated, or at any rate that Parthian  ( Khosrov should cease to govern it. The losses of the northern Roman army left Armenia on its own .The Sassanid army was almost entirely made up of cavalry which was not suited for the mountainous landscape of Armenia . A Persian noble named Anak who was his near relative of Chosroes and would not be likely to suspect him of an ill intent offered to assassinate Chosroes by pretending to be a refugee fleeing the vengence of Ardashir. Ardashir made this appear real by sending a force to pursue the nobleman. Artaxerxes warmly encouraged him in his design, and in a little time it was successfully carried out. Anak, with his wife, his children, his brother, and a train of attendants, pretended to take refuge in Armenia from the threatened vengeance of his sovereign, who caused his troops to pursue him, as a rebel and deserter, to the very borders of Armenia.


Unsuspicious of any evil design, Chosroes received the exiles with favor, discussed with them his plans for the subjugation of Persia, and, having sheltered them during the whole of the autumn and winter, proposed to them in the spring that they should accompany him and take part in the year's campaign. Anak, forced by this proposal to precipitate his designs, contrived a meeting between himself, his brother, and Chosroes, without attendants, on the pretext of discussing plans of attack, and, having thus got the Armenian monarch at a disadvantage, drew sword upon him, together with his brother, and easily put him to death. The crime which he had undertaken was thus accomplished; but he did not live to receive the reward promised him for it. Armenia rose in arms on learning the foul deed wrought upon its king; the bridges and the few practicable outlets by which the capital could be quitted were occupied by armed men; and the murderers, driven to desperation, lost their lives in an attempt to make their escape by swimming the river Araxes. Thus Artaxerxes obtained his object without having to pay the price that he had agreed upon; his dreaded rival was removed; Armenia lay at his mercy; and he had not to weaken his power at home by sharing it with an Arsacid partner.


The Persian monarch allowed the Armenians no time to recover from the blow which he had treacherously dealt them. His armies at once entered their territory and carried everything before them. Chosroes seems to have had no son of sufficient age to succeed him, and the defence of the country fell upon the satraps, or governors of the several provinces. These chiefs implored the aid of the Roman emperor, and received a contingent; but neither were their own exertions nor was the valor of their allies of any avail. Artaxerxes easily defeated the confederate army, and forced the satraps to take refuge in Roman territory. Armenia submitted to his arms, and became an integral portion of his empire


Ardashir revives Zoroastrianism


Artaxerxes, himself (if we may believe Agathias) a Magus, was resolved from the first that, if his efforts to shake off the Parthian yoke succeeded, he would use his best endeavors to overthrow the Parthian idolatry and install in its stead the ancestral religion of the Persians. In the Parthian empire gradually became less popular as the worship of the Sun, Moon and ancestors grew stronger .Fire alters had fallen into ruin and sacred flames had been extinguished .The most essential of the Magian ceremonies and practices disregarded. Everywhere, except perhaps in his own province of Persia Proper, he found idolatry established. Temples of the sun abounded, where images of Mithra were the object of worship, and the Mithraic cult was carried out with a variety of imposing ceremonies.The Magi were no longer the power they once were .


Ardashir began by restoring the Magi to their privilages and gave the Zoroastrian temples land and tithes. the worship of the Sun and Moon were swept away, images were destroyed and the empire rallied once again to the faith of Zoroaster . He then proceeded to collect the supposed precepts of Zoroaster into a volume, in order to establish a standard of orthodoxy whereto he might require all to conform. He found the Zoroastrians themselves divided into a number of sects. Among these he established uniformity by means of a "general council," which was attended by Magi from all parts of the empire, and which settled what was to be regarded as the true Zoroastrian faith.Christians, who were tolerated under the Parthians began to be persecuted .


The next step, after settling the true text of the sacred volume, was to agree upon its interpretation. The language of the Avesta, though pure Persian, was of so archaic a type that none but the most learned of the Magi understood it; to the common people, even to the ordinary priest, it was a dead letter. Artaxerxes seems to have recognized the necessity of accompanying the Zend text with a translation and a commentary in the language of his own time, the Pehlevi or Huzvaresh. Such a translation and commentary exist; and though in part belonging to later Sassanian times, they reach back probably in their earlier portions to the era of Artaxerxes, who may fairly be credited with the desire to make the sacred book "understanded of the people."


Further, it was necessary, in order to secure permanent uniformity of belief, to give to the Magian priesthood, the keepers and interpreters of the sacred book, very extensive powers. The Magian hierarchy was therefore associated with the monarch in the government and administration of the State. It was declared that the altar and the throne were inseparable, and must always sustain each other. The Magi were made to form the great council of the nation. While they lent their support to the crown, the crown upheld them against all impugners, and enforced by pains and penalties their decisions. Persecution was adopted and asserted as a principle of action without any disguise. By an edict of Artaxerxes, all places of worship were closed except the temples of the fire-worshippers. If no violent outbreak of fanaticism followed, it was because the various sectaries and schismatics succumbed to the decree without resistance. Christian, and Jew, and Greek, and Parthian, and Arab allowed their sanctuaries to be closed without striking a blow to prevent it; and the non-Zoroastrians of the empire, the votaries of foreign religions, were shortly reckoned at the insignificant number of 80,000.


Administrative reforms of Ardashir


Ardashir did away with the loose system of governing that had existed under the Parthians and had allowed him to come to power. The vassal kingdoms were abolished the system of Darius I of the Achaemenid  dynasty was used .Instead of vassal kings supplying armies when needed, a standing army was created again . the commanders of the armies would be independent of the satraps . One of Arashir's sayings was :


            ' There can be no power without an army, no army without money, no money without agriculture, and no agriculture without justice . '


To insure justice the king's 'eyes and ears'  returned to check on corruption and disloyalty .To administer strict justice was therefore among his chief endeavors. Daily reports were made to him of all that passed not only in his capital, but in every province of his vast empire; and his knowledge extended even to the private actions of his subjects. It was his earnest desire that all well-deposed persons should feel an absolute assurance of security with respect to their lives, their property, and their honor.


At the same time he punished crimes with severity, and even visited upon entire families the transgression of one of their members. It is said to have been one of his maxims, that "kings should never use the sword where the cane would answer;" but, if the Armenian historians are to be trusted, in practice he certainly did not err on the side of clemency.


coin of Ardashir I with the symbol of Zoroastrianism, the fire altar, minted in the Persian Pahlavi script, unlike the earlier Parthian coins which used Greek and Greek gods.


Under the Parthians, the Magi who kept Zoroastrianism alive were separate from the state .Ardashir fused the religion and the state. He minted coins which replaced the Greek and Greek gods used on Parthian coins with Sassanid coins with  the native Pahlavi script and fire temple images .He consideredthat ' the altar and throne are inseperable; they must always sustain one another. A sovereign without religion is a tyrant .'


The death of Ardashir 241 A.D.


Coins minted before Ardashir's death show that he abdicated his throne before his death to his son Shapur I .The Arabian writer, Macoudi, declares that, sated with glory and with power, he withdrew altogether from the government, and, making over the administration of affairs to his favorite son, devoted himself to religious contemplation. The general principles which guided his conduct both in religious and other matters may perhaps be best gathered from the words of that "testament," or "dying speech," which he is said to have addressed to his son Sapor. "Never forget," he said, "that, as a king, you are at once the protector of religion and of your country. Consider the altar and the throne as inseparable; they must always sustain each other. A sovereign without religion is a tyrant; and a people who have none may be deemed the most monstrous of all societies. Religion may exist without a state; but a state cannot exist without religion; and it is by holy laws that a political association can alone be bound. You should be to your people an example of piety and of virtue, but without pride or ostentation.... Remember, my son, that it is the prosperity or adversity of the ruler which forms the happiness or misery of his subjects, and that the fate of the nation depends on the conduct of the individual who fills the throne. The world is exposed to constant vicissitudes; learn, therefore, to meet the frowns of fortune with courage and fortitude, and to receive her smiles with moderation and wisdom. To sum up all?ay your administration be such as to bring, at a future day, the blessings of those whom God has confided to our parental care upon both your memory and mine!"



 Investure inscription  Taq-i Bostan


The intention of the artist was to represent Ardashir (who wears the cap and inflated ball) as handing the diadem to Sapor?istinguished by the mural crown of his own tablets and coins?hile Ahura Mazda, marked by his customary barsom ( twigs of the haoma plant ), and further indicated by a halo of glory around his head, looks on, sanctioning and approving the transaction. A prostrate figure under the feet of the two Sassanian kings represents either Artabanus or the extinct Parthian monarchy, probably the former; while the sunflower upon which Ormazd stands, together with the rays that stream from his head, denote an intention to present him under a Mithraitic aspect, suggestive to the beholder of a real latent identity between the two great objects of Persian worship.



 end of the

Parthian empire


 Shapur I