Sasanian Empire

gigatos | May 7, 2023


The Sasanian or Sassanid Empire, also known as the Second Persian Empire to distinguish it from the first, namely the Achaemenid Empire, was a political entity established by Ardashir I following the fall of the Parthian Empire and the defeat of the last king of the Arsacid dynasty, Vologase VI.

Ruled by the Sasanian dynasty, it existed from 224 A.D. to 651 A.D. and was known to its inhabitants as Ērānshahr (literally “Aryan empire”) and Ērān in Middle Persian, and as Iranshahr and Iran in New Persian. The last active Persian empire in pre-Islamic times, during its existence it managed to rise to the rank of one of the major powers in West, South, and Central Asia, along with first the Roman and then the Byzantine empires.

In the course of time, the empire came to conquer entirely the territory of today’s Iran, Iraq, Afghanistan, eastern Syria, the Caucasus (Armenia, Georgia, Azerbaijan, and Dagestan), southwestern Central Asia, part of Turkey, some coastal regions of the Arabian Peninsula, the Persian Gulf region, and some regions of western Pakistan. According to legend, the flag of the Sasanian Empire was the Derafsh Kaviani.

The Sasanian interlude is considered one of the most important and prosperous in Persia’s history, as it corresponded to a time of great splendor for several areas of that region. In more detail, the Sasanian period coincided with the peak of ancient Persian civilization, whose culture also considerably influenced Roman civilization in late antiquity. In the late Middle Ages, the cultural influence of the Sasanids extended beyond the territorial boundaries of the empire, even reaching Western Europe, It is known that Ctesiphon, the capital of the political entity under consideration, maintained peaceful relations with the Tang Dynasty in China and the Indian Empire; it also played a key role in the formation of both European and Asian medieval art. Finally, Persian culture laid the foundation for many elements of Islamic culture, influencing such fields as art, architecture, music, literature and philosophy.

Officially, the political entity under consideration was known as the empire of the Iranians (the term is first attested in the Great Inscription of Sapore I, where the king who ordered its construction states “I am the ruler of the Empire of the Iranians” (in Middle Persian: ērānšahr xwadāy hēm, in participle: aryānšahr xwadāy ahēm).

In historical and academic circles, however, it remains more common to refer to the Sasanian empire as the name to which the ruling dynasty referred, namely Sasan, priest of the temple of Anahita, lord of Stakhr, ruler of Fars and father of Papak (or Babak), ruling over a small city in Persia. Historians have also referred to the Sasanian empire as the Neo-Persian empire, pointing out the fact that it was the second Iranian empire, after the Achaemenid empire, developed from the Pars (Persis) region.

The history of Sasanian Persia began with Ardashir I who, after deposing the last Arsacid Vologase VI, became Šāhanšāh in 224 and ended with Yazdgard III in 651, when the Arab conquest ended Persian independence.

At the gates of the third century, the provinces of the Parthian empire constituted kingdoms almost autonomous from the power of the Arsacids, and Persia, over which Gocir ruled, was one of them. Papak, lord of Stakhr whose status was that of vassal, taking advantage of the dynastic war that had broken out between the Arsacid Vologase VI and his brother Artabanus IV, rebelled against Gocir and proclaimed himself king of Persia.

Ardašir proclaimed his dynasty heir to the Achaemenid dynasty and worked to undo Hellenistic cultural influences and reestablish the ancient traditions of Persian culture. Zoroastrianism became the state religion and the magi, i.e., the Zoroastrian clergy, gained great privileges and power. Ardašir also claimed sovereignty over all the Achaemenid territories, including Armenia and Mesopotamia, fatally coming to clash with the Roman Empire.

Origins (205-309)

Accounts recounting the fall of the Parthians and the rise of the Sasanids are discordant, and the details of these events are a mystery. The Sasanian Empire was founded in Istakhr by Ardashir I, a descendant of the priests of the goddess Anahita.

Babak was originally the ruler of the Kheir region, however, beginning in the year 200, he succeeded in overthrowing Gocihr and proclaiming himself the new king of the Bazrangids. His mother, Rodhagh, was the daughter of the provincial governor of Persia. Babak and his eldest son Sapore succeeded in expanding their power over all of Persia. Subsequent events are unclear due to insufficient sources. It is certain, however, that when Babak died, the ruler of Darabgerd, Ardashir, was involved in a power struggle with his elder brother Sapore. The sources narrate that Sapore, leaving a meeting with his brother, was killed by a roof of a building collapsing on him. Beginning in 208, after executing his other brothers, Ardashir proclaimed himself king of Persia.

Once he became shahanshah (king), Ardashir moved his capital to southern Persia by founding Ardashir-Khwarrah (formerly Gur, today’s Firuzabad). The city, well protected by high mountains and easily defended because of narrow passes, became the center of Ardashir’s attempts to gain more power. The city was surrounded by high circular walls, and on the northern side was an immense palace, the remains of which survive to this day. After consolidating rule in Persia Ardashir I rapidly expanded his territory, demanding allegiance from the local princes of Fars and gaining control of the neighboring provinces of Kerman, Isfahan, Susiana, and Mesene. This expansion worried Artabanus IV, the king of the Parthians, who at first ordered the governor of Khuzestan to wage war against Ardashir in 224, but the first clashes were victorious for the latter. In a second attempt to crush him, Artabanus himself clashed with the shahanshah in battle near Hormozgan, being killed. After that, Ardashir I invaded the western provinces of the Parthian empire, subduing them and putting an end to it.

Factors contributing to the rise of the Sasanids were the dynastic struggle between Artabanus and Vologase VI for the Parthian throne, which probably enabled Ardashir to consolidate his authority in the south with little or no interference from the Parthians; as well, of course, as the geography of the Fars province, which separated it from the rest of Iran. Crowned in 224 at Ctesiphon the only king of Persia, Ardashir assumed the title of shahanshah or “King of Kings” (inscriptions mention Adhur-Anahid as his “Queen of Queens,” but her relationship to Ardashir is not certain), leading to the dissolution of the Parthian empire after 400 years and the beginning of four centuries of Sasanian rule.

In the following years, despite uprisings that shook the empire, Ardashir I succeeded in further expanding the empire to the east and northwest, conquering the provinces of Sistan, Gorgan, Khorasan, Margiana (in modern Turkmenistan), Balkh and Corasmia. He also added Bahrain and Mosul to the Sasanian domains. Later Sasanian inscriptions also claim the subjugation of the kings of Kushan, Tūrān and Makran to Ardashir, although based on numismatic evidence, it is more likely that these were subjugated by Ardashir’s son, the future Sapore I. In the West, assaults against Hatra, Kingdom of Armenia and Adiabene were less successful. In 230 he penetrated Roman territory, and a Roman counteroffensive two years later achieved little success, although Emperor Alexander Severus nevertheless celebrated a triumph in the Urbe.

Ardashir I’s son, Sapore I, continued the expansion of the empire, conquering Bactria and the western portion of the Kusana Empire, while leading some campaigns against Rome. Invading Roman Mesopotamia, Sapore I conquered Carre and Nisibis, but in 243 the Roman general Timesiteo defeated the Persians at Resena and recovered the lost territories. Emperor Gordian III (238-244) next advanced toward the Euphrates but was defeated at Mesiche (244), leading to Gordian’s assassination by his own troops and the conclusion of a Persia-beneficial treaty with Rome made with the new emperor Philip the Arab, by which he secured from the Romans the immediate payment of 500,000 denarii and further annual payments.

Sapore soon resumed the war, defeating the Romans at Barbalissus (252), and expelling and sacking Antioch. Roman counteroffensives by Emperor Valerian resulted in a rout when the Roman army was defeated and besieged at Edessa and Valerian was captured by Sapore, remaining his prisoner for the rest of his days. Sapore celebrated his triumph by having bas-reliefs made on rock at Naqsh-e Rostam and Bishapur, as well as a monumental inscription in Persian and Greek near Persepolis. He then invaded Anatolia (260), but was forced to retreat after suffering defeats at the hands of the Romans and their Palmyrene ally Odenatus, losing his harem, captured by the Romans, and all the Roman territories he had occupied.

Sapore promoted trade with India and Arabia and founded several cities in the depopulated territories of Persia, where he settled immigrants from the Roman territories, mostly Christians persecuted at home, to whom the shah guaranteed complete religious tolerance. He was also sympathetic toward Christians, although he particularly favored Manichaeism, protecting Mani (who in return dedicated one of his books, the Shabuhragan, to him) and sending many Manichaean missionaries abroad. He also befriended a rabbi from Babylon, Samuel. This relationship brought benefits to the Jewish community and allowed them a breathing space after the oppressive laws that had been enacted against them.

Sapore’s successors abandoned the previous policy of religious tolerance. Under pressure from the Zoroastrian magi, and influenced by the great priest Kartir, Bahram I killed Mani and persecuted his followers. Bahram II followed, like his father, a policy favorable to the Zoroastrian priests. During his reign the Sasanian capital Ctesiphon was sacked by the Romans under Emperor Caro, and most of Armenia, after half a century of Persian rule, was ceded to Diocletian.

Succeeding Bahram III (who reigned briefly in 293) Narseh embarked on another war with the Romans. After achieving initial success over Caesar Galerius at Callinicum in 296, Narseh was decisively defeated. In fact, Galerius had received reinforcements from the Balkans, probably in the spring of 298. Narseh did not advance from Armenia and Mesopotamia, leaving it to Galerius to lead the offensive in 298 with an attack on eastern Mesopotamia via Armenia. Narseh retreated to Armenia to clash with Galerius’ army under conditions unfavorable to him: the steep Armenian terrain was favorable to Roman infantry and unfavorable to Sasanian cavalry. Galerius won two consecutive battles against Narseh.

During the second battle, Roman troops captured Narseh’s camp, his treasure, his harem and his wife. Galerius advanced into Media and Adiabene, winning other battles, such as Erzurum, and securing Nisibis (Nusaybin, Turkey) before October 1, 298. He descended the Tigris, conquering Ctesiphon.

Narseh had previously sent an ambassador to Galerius begging that his wife and children be returned to him. Peace negotiations began in the spring of 299, and the conditions of peace were heavy: Persia would cede territory to Rome, making the Tigris the border between the two empires. Other conditions were that Armenia would return under Roman rule, with the fort of Ziatha as its border; Caucasian Iberia (Nisibis, now under Roman rule, would become the sole center of trade between Persia and Rome; and Rome would exercise control over the five satrapies between the Tigris and Armenia: Ingilene, Sophanene (Sophene), Arzanene (Aghdznik), Corduene and Zabdicene (near modern Hakkâri, Turkey).

In the treaty that ended the war, the Sasaniids ceded five provinces west of the Tigris and agreed not to interfere in the affairs of Armenia and Georgia. Following this defeat, Narseh abdicated and perished the following year, leaving the Sasanian throne to his son, Ormisda II. Numerous revolts broke out, and while Ormisda II succeeded in putting down rebellions in Sistan and Kushan, he failed to bring the nobles under control and was consequently killed by Bedouins in 309.

Expansion under Sapore II (309-379)

Following the death of Ormisda II, the Arabs began to ravage and plunder the southern cities of the empire, including attacking the province of Fars, the birthplace of the founder of the Sasanian dynasty. Meanwhile, Persian nobles killed Ormisda II’s eldest son, blinded the second son, and imprisoned the third son (who later fled to Roman territory). The unborn son of one of Ormisda II’s wives, Sapore II (309-379), ascended the throne. He may have been the only king in all of history to be crowned in his mother’s womb: the crown was placed on his mother’s belly. Sapore II was therefore already born a king. During his youth, the empire was ruled by his mother and nobles. When he came of age he assumed the reins of power and quickly demonstrated his talents.

As a first step, Sapore II led his small but disciplined army south to repel the Arabs; he defeated and drove them out of the empire, securing the southern part of the empire. Later, he began his first military campaign against the Romans in the west, where the Persians won a series of battles but failed to annex any territory to their empire because of failed sieges to the important frontier city of Nisibis and the Roman reconquest of the cities of Singara and Amida, which had fallen during the war into Persian hands. Contributing to the Persian failure were nomad raids on the empire’s eastern borders, which threatened Transoxiana, a region crucial for control of a section of the Silk Road. Sapore, in order to stop these incursions, decided to stop the war against the Romans and signed a peace treaty with Constantius II (353-361).

Sapore II then marched east, still toward Transoxiana, to fight against the nomadic tribes of Central Asia: once he outclassed the resistance, he annexed the conquered area to the Sasanian empire. He also completed the conquest of Afghanistan, wresting it from the Kushana, and expanded south into Arabia.

Sapore II, together with the nomadic king Grumbate, attacked the Romans in 359 and quickly conquered the border settlements of Singara and Amida. The Latin emperor Julian (361-363) responded by penetrating Sasanian territory and defeating Sapore’s army at Ctesiphon, but retreated when faced with the impossibility of laying siege to the Sasanian capital. The emperor’s death in a minor clash brought the conflict to an end with a substantial nullity, and his successor Jovian (363-364) had to surrender all the provinces that Rome had obtained in 298, along with Nisibis and Singara.

In religious policy Sapore II persecuted Christians, a response this to the Christianization of the Roman empire that Constantine I had inaugurated instead, but also heretics and apostates. During his rule, the redaction of the Avestā, the sacred texts of Zoroastrianism, was also completed. Towards the Jews, on the other hand, Sapore II, like his predecessor Sapore I, showed tolerance, allowing them to live in relative freedom and to enjoy various privileges. By the end of Sapore’s reign, the Persian empire was stronger than ever, with enemies in the east pacified and Armenia firmly in control.

Intermediate Period (379-498)

From the death of Sapore II until the first coronation of Kavad I (488-531) Persia experienced a period of stability with an almost uninterrupted period of peace with the Eastern Roman Empire (better known as the Byzantine Empire), interrupted only by two brief wars, the first in 421-422 and the second in 440. During this period Sasanian religious policy varied from king to king. Despite a series of weak kings, the administrative system founded by Sapore II remained strong, and the empire continued to function effectively.

Upon his death in 379, Sapore II left a powerful empire to his half-brother Ardašir II (son of Vahram of Kushan) and son Sapore III (383-388), neither of whom, however, proved equal to him. By this time Armenia, following a peace treaty, had been divided into two parts: one was part of the Eastern Roman Empire and the other belonged to the Sasanians.

Bahram IV’s son, Yazdgard I (399-421), often went on to be compared to Constantine I. Like him he was strong in both physique and diplomacy. Like his Roman counterpart Yazdgard I was opportunistic. Like Constantine the Great Yazdgard I was tolerant of all religions, even those formerly persecuted by his predecessors. He stopped the persecution of Christians and punished the nobles and priests who persecuted them. His reign was a period of relative peace and he had good relations with Rome, having also married a Jewish princess who bore him a son, Narsi.

Yazdgard I’s successor was his son Bahram V (421-438), one of the best-known Sasanian kings and the hero of many myths. These myths persisted even after the destruction of the Sasanian Empire by the Muslim Arabs. Bahram V, better known as Bahram-e Gur, came to power after the sudden death (or assassination) of Yazdgard I despite the opposition of the nobles with the help of al-Mundhir, king of the Lakhimid Arabs of al-Hira. Bahram V’s mother was Soshandukht, the daughter of the Hebrew Exilarch. In 427 he faced an invasion of Hephthalites and routed them, extending his influence into Central Asia. However, he was defeated by the Romans (by then Byzantines) in 421 and forced to grant freedom of worship to his Christian subjects. Bahram V deposed the vassal king of the Persian part of Armenia and made it a province. During his reign major masterpieces of Sasanian literature were compiled, notable pieces of music were composed, and sports such as polo became royal pastimes, a phenomenon that continues to persist to this day in many kingdoms.

Bahram V’s son Yazdgard II (438-457) was a just and moderate king but, unlike his grandfather of the same name, persecuted religious minorities, particularly Christians.

At the beginning of his reign Yazdgard II formed a multi-ethnic army, including his Indian allies, and attacked the Byzantine Empire in 441 without succeeding in conquering anything. He then gathered his forces at Nishapur in 443 and launched a prolonged military campaign against the Kidarites. He eventually defeated them and drove them across the Oxus River in 450.

During this war Yazdgard II became suspicious of Christians in his military structures and expelled them from the army and politics. He then persecuted Christians and, albeit less so, Jews. To reestablish Zoroastrianism in Armenia he defeated the rebellious Armenian Christians at the Battle of Vartanantz in 451. The Armenians remained, despite everything, for the most part Christian. He later fought the Kidarites again until his death in 457.

Ormisda III (457-459), the youngest son of Yazdgard II, came to the throne. During his short reign he had to fight his older brother Peroz, who enjoyed the support of the nobility and the Hephthalites in Bactria. He was killed by his brother Peroz in 459.

In the early 5th century the Hephthalites (White Huns), together with other nomadic tribes, attacked Persia. At first Bahram V and Yazdgard II inflicted decisive defeats on them and managed to drive them out of the empire, but at the end of the 5th century the Huns resumed hostilities and defeated Peroz I (457-484) in 483. Following this victory the Huns invaded and sacked parts of eastern Persia for two years. The Sasanids for some years had to pay heavy tribute to the Hephthalites. These attacks made the kingdom unstable. Peroz I tried again to drive out the invaders, but on the way to Herat he and his army were ambushed in the desert by the Huns, who allegedly killed Peroz I in battle (his body was never found) and annihilated the Persian army. Following this success, the Hephthalites advanced to the city of Herat, temporarily throwing the empire into chaos, before a Persian from Karen’s family, Zarmihr (or Sokhra), restored some semblance of order. He elevated Balash, one of Peroz I’s brothers, to the throne, but the Hunnic threat persisted until the reign of Cosroe I. Balash (however, led no campaign against the empire’s enemies, particularly the White Huns. Balash, after a four-year reign, was blinded and deposed by the magnates, and his nephew Kavad I was elevated to the throne.

Kavad I (primarily) gave support to the sect founded by Mazdak, son of Bamdad, who demanded that the rich should share their wives and fortunes with the poor. His intention was evidently, through the adoption of Mazdak’s doctrine, to undermine the power of tycoons and the rising aristocracy. These reforms cost him dearly, however, because of the resulting unpopularity among the aggrieved classes: he was deposed and imprisoned in the “Castle of Oblivion” in Susa, and his younger brother Jāmāsp (Zamaspes) was elevated to the throne in 496. Kavad I, however, managed to escape in 498, taking refuge with the White Hun king.

Jāmāsp (496-498) was placed on the Sasanian throne by members of the nobility who had deposed his brother. He was a good and mild king who reduced taxes to improve the living conditions of peasants and indigents. He also adhered to the official Zoroastrian religion, unlike Kavad I, who, embracing the faith of a heretical sect of Zoroastrianism, lost his throne and freedom. His reign, however, was short and ended when Kavad I, at the head of a large army made available to him by the king of the Hephthalites, returned to the capital of the empire. Jāmāsp resigned himself in the face of the strength of Kavad I’s army and returned the throne to his brother. No other mention of Jāmāsp is made in the sources after the restoration of Kavad I, but, according to several scholars, it is possible that he was pardoned and thus treated with regard to his brother’s court.

The apogee of the empire (498-622)

The second golden age began with the second reign of Kavad I. To pay tribute to the Hephthalites, Emperor Kavad I asked the Byzantines for a loan. Upon the Byzantine emperor’s refusal, Kavad I decided to start a new war against the Byzantines (or Eastern Romans). With the support of the Hephthalites, in 502 the Sasanian army took Theodosiopolis (Erzurum) in modern Turkey, but recaptured it soon after. In 503 they took Amida (present-day Diyarbakır) on the Tigris. However, in 504 an invasion of Armenia by the Huns from the Caucasus forced the Sasanians to sign an armistice, which included ceding the city of Amida to the Romans of the East, and a peace treaty signed in 506.

In 521 or 522 Kavad lost control of Lazica, which had become loyal to the Eastern Romans; an attempt by the Iberians in 524-525 to do the same set off a war between the Eastern Roman Empire and Persia. In 527 a Byzantine offensive against Nisibis was repulsed, and attempts to fortify positions near the frontier were thwarted. In 530 Kavad sent an army commanded by Firouz the Mirrane to attack the important Byzantine border town of Dara. The Sasanian army clashed with the Byzantine army led by General Belisarius, and although it was superior in numbers, it was defeated at the Battle of Dara. In the same year, a second Persian army led by Mihr-Mihroe was defeated at Satala by the Byzantines commanded by Sitta and Dorotheus, but in 531 a Persian army, supported by a Lakhmid contingent led by al-Mundhir III, defeated Belisarius at the Battle of Callinicum, and in 532 a treaty of “eternal” peace was concluded. Although he failed to throw off the yoke of the Hephthalites, Kavad succeeded in restoring order to the state with some domestic policy measures, successfully fought the Eastern Romans and founded some cities.

Upon the death of Kavad I, his son Cosroe I (Kusraw), also known as Anushirvan (“immortal soul”), took the throne and reigned between 531 and 579. He is the most celebrated of the Sasanian kings. Cosroe I is best known for his reforms of Sasanian government. He introduced a rational taxation system and sought to increase the empire’s tax revenues. Whereas previously the great feudal lords provided for the equipment of their own armies themselves, Cosroe I introduced a new type of soldiers, the dehkan or “horsemen,” who were paid and equipped by the central government and bureaucracy, tying the army and bureaucracy more firmly to the central government than to local lords.

Although the Byzantine emperor Justinian (527-565) had paid 440,000 gold pieces to keep the peace in 540, Cosroes I broke the “eternal peace” of 532 and invaded Syria, where he sacked the city of Antioch deporting its population to Persia. This was followed by other successes: in 541 Lazica returned to Persian hands, and in 542 a Byzantine offensive in Armenia was defeated at Anglon. A five-year truce signed in 545 was broken in 547 when Lazica returned to Byzantine hands; the war was resumed but remained limited to the Lazica area, which was retained by the Byzantines when the peace was concluded in 562.

In 565 Justinian I died and was succeeded to the throne by Justin II (565-578). A year earlier, the Sasanian governor of Armenia, from the Suren family, built a fire temple at Dvin, near modern Yerevan, and had an influential member of the Mamikonian family killed, sparking a revolt that led to the massacre of the Persian governor and his guard in 571, while the rebellion had also spread to Iberia. Justin II took advantage of the Armenian revolt to stop paying annual tributes to the Sasanids of Cosroe I for the defense of the Caucasus. The Armenians were welcomed as allies, and an army was sent into Sasanian territory and besieged Nisibis in 573. However, the siege failed, and the Persians counterattacked by besieging and taking Dara and devastating Syria. Justin II was forced to agree to pay annual tribute in exchange for a five-year truce over Mesopotamia, although the war continued elsewhere. In 576, Cosroe I attacked Anatolia by sacking Sebasteia and Melitene, but the Sasanian offensive ended in defeat: defeated outside the walls of Melitene, the Persians suffered heavy losses and were forced to retreat across the Euphrates under Byzantine attack. Taking advantage of the momentary Persian vulnerability, the Byzantines broke into Sasanian territory. Khosraw asked for peace, but decided to continue the war after a victory by his general Tamkhosrau in Armenia in 577 and the war resumed in Mesopotamia as well. The Armenian revolt ended with a general amnesty and Armenia returned to Sasanian hands.

Around 570, Ma’dikarib (Arabic: معد يكرب), half-brother of the king of Yemen, requested the intervention of Cosroe I. Cosroe I sent a fleet and a small army under the command of Vahrez, which quickly occupied Yemen’s capital, Sana’a. Sayf, son of Maʿdīkarib, who had accompanied the expedition, became king between 575 and 577. With this success, the Sasanids had succeeded in establishing a base in southern Arabia, such that they controlled land trade with the Mediterranean and sea trade with the East. Subsequently, the Sudarabian kingdom was freed from Sasanian control, and a second Persian expedition was sent in 598, successfully annexing southern Arabia to the empire and turning it into a province.

The reign of Cosroe I is marked by the rise of the dehqan (literally, “village lords”), the landowning nobility that formed the backbone of the late Sasanian provincial administration and tax collection system. In building policy, Cosroe I embellished his capital with sumptuous new monuments, founded new cities, and constructed new buildings. He rebuilt canals and replenished farms destroyed in the wars. He built strong forts at passes and placed subject tribes in carefully chosen towns on the frontier so that they would act as guardians against invaders. He was tolerant of all religions, although he decreed that Zoroastrianism would be the official state religion, and he did not resent it when one of his sons converted to Christianity.

Upon the death of Cosroe I, Ormisda IV (579-590) came to the throne. The war with the Byzantines continued until General Bahram Chobin, sidelined and humiliated by Ormisda, organized a revolt in 589. The following year Ormisda was assassinated and was succeeded to the throne by his son Cosroe II (590-628), but the change of king failed to assuage the wrath of Bahram, who defeated Cosroe, forcing him to take refuge in Byzantine territory and ascending the throne as Bahram VI. With the help of troops provided to him by the Byzantine emperor Maurice (582-602), Cosroe II was able to achieve a decisive victory over Bahram’s army at Ganzak (591), thus succeeding in returning to power. In return for Maurice’s help, Cosroe had to cede to the Byzantines all the territories occupied by the Persians during the war, Armenia and eastern Iberia. The new peace allowed both empires to deal with the other fronts: Cosroe expanded the eastern frontier of the Sasanian Empire, while Maurice restored Byzantine control, threatened by Slavs and Avars, over the Balkans.

When Maurice was deposed and killed by the usurper Phocas (602-610) in 602, Cosroe II used the murder of his benefactor as a pretext to begin a new invasion. Taking advantage of the civil war in Byzantium, Cosroe II conquered Syria and Antioch in 611. In 613 the Byzantines, led by Emperor Heraclius (610-641), counterattacked but were defeated near Antioch by the Sasanian generals Shahvaraz and Shahin. Jerusalem fell in 614, Alexandria in 619 and the rest of Egypt in 621. The Sasanian dream of restoring the Achaemenid empire was almost coming true, while The Byzantine Empire appeared on the verge of collapse.

Decline and Fall (622-651)

Expansion under Khosraw II, however, was followed by decline. Indeed, the Byzantine emperor Heraclius (610-641) had reorganized his army and counterattacked. Between 622 and 627 Heraclius fought the Persians in Anatolia and the Caucasus, inflicting a series of defeats on the Sasanian army commanded by Cosroe, Shahvaraz, Shahin, and Shahraplakan, sacking the great Zoroastrian temple at Ganzak, and forging alliances with the Cazars and the Western Turkish Khaganate. In 626 Constantinople was besieged by the Slavs and Avars, who were supported by the Persian army commanded by Shahvaraz, but attempts to ferry the Sasanids to Europe were blocked by the Byzantine fleet and the siege failed. In the winter of 627-628 Heraclius invaded Mesopotamia and, despite the departure of his Khazar allies, defeated the Sasanian army commanded by Rhahzadh at the Battle of Nineveh. He then marched to the Tigris, devastating the country and sacking the palace of Cosroe at Dastagerd. The destruction of the bridges over the Nahrawan Canal prevented him from attacking Ctesiphon and he conducted further raids before retreating to northwestern Iran.

The impact of Heraclius’s victories, the devastation of the Sasanian Empire’s richest territories and the humiliating destructions of Ganzak and Dastagerd had fatally caused Kosroës to lose his prestige and the support given to him by the Sasanian aristocracy, and in early 628 he was deposed and assassinated by his son Kavad II (628), who immediately ended the war by agreeing to withdraw from all occupied territories. In 629, Heraclius brought the True Cross back to Jerusalem in a lavish ceremony. Kavad died within months, and chaos and a civil war followed his death. As many as five kings, including two daughters of Cosroe II and Shahvaraz, succeeded each other over the next four years, and the Sasanian empire weakened considerably. Power, previously held by central authorities, passed into the hands of generals.

In the spring of 632 a grandson of Cosroe I, Yazdgard III, ascended the throne. In the same year the Arabs, united by Islam, made their first incursions into Sasanian territory. Years of continuous warfare had weakened both the Byzantines and the Sasanids. The Sasanids were also weakened by an economic crisis, high taxes, religious discontent, rigid social stratification, the rise of provincial landowners, and a rapid succession of kings. These factors facilitated the Islamic conquest of Persia.

Yazdgard was a boy at the mercy of his advisors and was incapable of uniting a vast country that had crumbled into small feudal kingdoms, although the Byzantines, busy repelling Arab attacks, were no longer a threat. The first clash between the Sasanians and Arabs took place at the Battle of the Bridge in 634 and was won by the Sasanians; however, the Arabs did not surrender, and shortly afterwards the disciplined troops of Khalid ibn al-Walid, general of the Arab army, defeated the Persian army commanded by General Rostam Farrokhzād in the plains of al-Qadisiyya in 637 and besieged Ctesiphon. Ctesiphon fell after a prolonged siege. The Sasanian governors tried to join forces to repel the invaders, but the attempt failed due to the absence of a strong central authority, and the governors were defeated at the Battle of Nihavand.

Within five years most of the Sasanian territory was annexed to the Islamic caliphate. With the assassination of Yazdgard III at Merv in 651, the history of the Sasanids ended and that of Islamic Persia began.

The rapid fall of the Sasanian Empire was completed within five years, and most of its territory was annexed to the Islamic Caliphate; however, several Persian cities continued to resist by turning against Islamic authority. The local population, not forced to convert to Islam, became subjects of the Islamic Caliphate, and, as dhimmi (i.e., not yet converted to Islam), they were forced to pay a jizya until they embraced the new faith. In practice, such a tax replaced those statuted by the Sasanids, which tended to be quite steep. In addition to the jizya, the old Sasanian land tax (in Arabic Kharaj) was adopted by the Arabs. Caliph ʿUmar is said to have formed a commission to judge whether the land duties were more than the population could pay. The conversion of the Persian population to Islam took place gradually, to be effectively completed in the second half of the 8th century.

State Ordination

The Sasanids established an empire roughly within the borders of the former Parthian Arsacid empire, with capital Ctesiphon, a city in the province of Khvarvaran. In administering their territory, the Sasanian kings assumed the title of shahanshah (“king of kings,” also known simply as shah and transliterated into Italian as shah), became the central authority and assumed the duty of guarding the sacred fire (atar), the symbol of the national religion. This symbol is found on Sasanian coins where the reigning monarch, with crown and regalia, appears on the obverse, with the sacred fire, the symbol of the religion he believed in, on the other side of the coin. His health and well-being were of great importance: as an example, consider that in replying to him, “May you be immortal.” Sasanian coins issued from the 6th century onward depict a moon and sun, which, in the words of Iranian historian Touraj Daryaee, “suggest that the ruler was at the center of the world and the sun and moon revolved around him.” Supporting this hypothesis is to consider of an ancient Mesopotamian formula by which the monarch was designated, namely, “king of the four corners of the world.” The king considered all other rulers, whether Roman, Turkish or Chinese inferior to him. He dressed in colorful clothes, wore makeup, wore a heavy crown, and his beard was decorated with gold. Early Sasanian kings considered themselves to be of divine descent, calling themselves “bay” (precisely divine).

When the king went out in public, he would stay inside a tent and have some of his men in front of him, whose job was to keep the masses away from him and to pave the way. When someone came before the king, they used to prostrate themselves before him (proskýnesis). The royal guards were known by the name pushtigban. At other times, the highest authority was protected by a numerically large group of palace guards, the darigans. Both of these groups were enlisted by the royal families of the Sasanian empire and were under the command of the hazarbed, who was directly responsible for the security of the king, the entrance to the royal palace, the presentation of visitors, and finally the recipient of military commands or negotiator if necessary. The hazarbed was authorized in some cases to act as royal executioner. During Nawrūz (Iranian New Year) and Mihragan (a day dedicated to the holiday of the Zoroastrian deity Mihr), the king used to give a speech.

Sasanian queens held the title Banebshenan banebshen (“queen of queens”). Under ordinary conditions, succession to the throne was hereditary, but it could be transferred from the king to a younger son rather than the eldest son; in two extreme cases supreme power passed to the queens. When there was no direct heir, nobles and prelates were concerned with choosing the new highest authority, but their choice was restricted to members of the royal family.

The kings always held in high regard the advice of their ministers, who supported him in domestic and foreign policy. The Muslim historian Mas’udi praised the empire, speaking of the “excellent administration of the Sasanian kings, for their well-ordered policy, their taking care of their subjects, and the prosperity of their domains.” The center of the empire revolved around the imperial family’s home region, Fars, which was divided into five administrative districts (Istakhr, Ardashîr Khurrah, Churra Firuzabad, Dârâbjird, Sâbûr, Arrajân) and to the north into five districts of the Kurdish tribes (Remm).

The Sasanian nobility, the only class that entered the court, was composed of a mixture of old Parthian clans, Persian aristocratic families, and those from the subject territories. After the dissolution of the Parthian dynasty, many new noble families emerged, despite the fact that some members of the then-dominant seven Parthian lineages still retained their social depth. In the court of Ardashir I, the historic Arsacid families of the Karen and Suren lineages held positions of great prestige, similarly to some Persian families, the Varazes and Andigans. In addition to these Iranian and non-Iranian noble lineages, the rulers of Merv, Abarshahr, Carmania, Sakastan, Iberia, and Adiabene, respected for their prestige in the circle of nobles, often peeped into the shahanshah’s court. When the great domains of the Surenas, Karenas and Varazes merged into the Sasanian territory in the form of semi-independent entities, although the positions previously held independently still carried some weight, the noble families still had to swear allegiance and agree to enter into a vassalage relationship with the shahanshah.

At the local level, the territory appeared to be run by various governors more or less affiliated with the crown known as shahrdaran (sing. shahr), directly under the control of the shahanshah. Sasanian rule was characterized by considerable centralization, ambitious urban planning, agricultural development, and technological improvements. Under the king, a powerful bureaucracy carried on most of the affairs of government, headed by the wuzurg framadar, or vizier of sorts who coordinated the various ministers. The provinces, subject to the vassal kings, were administered with the help of princely officials (marzaban), while at a lower level chief clans (vaspuharan) were identified. In civil society, a prominent place was held by the horsemen (azadhan) and the Zoroastrian clergy of magi (magan). With particular reference to the clergy, the Zoroastrian priests enjoyed enormous power, with the head of the priestly order of magi represented by the mobadan and held in greater or lesser esteem at court depending on the ruler of the day. The supreme general of the armed forces, or the spahbod, as well as the head of the merchants’ and traders’ union, the ho tokhshan bod, and the minister of agriculture, the Vastrioshansalar, who was also at the head of the farm holders, turned out to be the three most powerful secular figures below the emperor in the Sasanian power hierarchy.

In general, wuzurgans attached to families of Persian descent held the most powerful positions in the imperial administration, including the government of the frontier provinces (marzban). Most of these positions had their own patrimonial value, with the result that they could be bought, but other positions remained inaccessible and destined to be held by a single family for generations. This class of higher-ranking marzbans was granted possession of a silver throne, while those in the more strategic frontier provinces, such as the Caucasus, were awarded a golden one. In military campaigns, regional marzbans could be considered field marshals, while lesser spahbods could issue orders to an army on a supplementary basis.

Culturally, the Sasanids adopted a system of social stratification, supported by Zoroastrianism, which had become the state religion. Other beliefs seem to have been widely tolerated, despite the fact that this is still a matter of debate among scholars. The Sasanian emperors consciously sought to bring back Persian traditions and erase Greek cultural influence altogether.

Administrative subdivisions

Below is a list of the empire’s provinces.

Armed Forces

The presence of a standing army of the Sasanian empire was due to Ardashir I, the empire’s first shahanshah. Ardashir restored the Achaemenid military organizations, taking up the Parthian cavalry model and also employing new types of armor and siege techniques.

Paygans made up the bulk of the Sassanid infantry and were often recruited from the peasant population. Each unit was led by an officer called a paygan-salar, or “infantry commander,” and these essentially pursued the task of guarding the supply convoy, obeying the orders of the asvaran, a senior military officer, if necessary, reinforcing walls, fortifications, and supervising the construction of trenches.

Those who served in the infantry were equipped with shields and spears. To replenish their armies, the Sassanids made use of men who came from Media (northwest of present-day Iran) and Daylam. The Medes provided the Sassanid army with high-quality javelins, slingers, and heavy infantry. The Iranian infantry is described by Ammianus Marcellinus as “equipped in the same way as gladiators” and “obeying orders with such ardor.” The Dailamites, an Iranian people who lived mainly in Gilan, Iranian Azerbaijan and Mazandaran, also served as foot soldiers. It is said that they employed equipment such as daggers, swords and javelins and were praised by the Romans for their skill and toughness in close combat. One account of the Dailamites recounted their participation in an invasion of Yemen in which 800 men were led by an officer from their country named Vahrez. The latter would eventually defeat the Arab forces in Yemen and the capital Sana’a, making the region a vassal of the Sasanids until the Arab invasion of Persia.

The Sasanian navy was an important component of the armed forces from the time Ardashir I conquered the Arab portion of the Persian Gulf. Because control of the area represented an economic necessity, the navy did its best to crush cases of piracy, prevent Roman invasion, and quell Arab tribes that became hostile. However, many historians believe that the value of the naval forces could not have gone beyond a certain level, as the men employed in the navy were mostly prisoners. The supreme commander of the navy bore the title of nāvbed.

The cavalry employed by the empire featured two kinds of heavy units, the clibanarians and the cataphracts. The former of the two, composed of elite nobles trained from an early age in warfare, was supported by light cavalry, infantry, and archers. Mercenaries and tribes absorbed by the empire, including Turks, Kusana, Sarmatians, Cazars, Georgians, and Armenians were included in these early cavalry units. The second, even more armored group made use of war elephants, one of the most prized units in the Sasanian world.

Unlike the Parthians, the Sasanians devised fairly advanced siege machines. The development of siege weapons was a useful weapon during conflicts with Rome, where success depended on the ability to seize cities and other fortified sites; in contrast, the Sasanians also developed a range of techniques to defend their strongholds from attack. Although Parthian cavalry had many similarities with that of the Sasanians, the latter armed themselves with spears rather than bows. The Roman historian Ammianus Marcellinus’ description of the cavalry of Sapore II’s Clybanars clearly shows how heavily equipped they were and how only a portion armed themselves with spears:

Knights did not employ a stirrup, preferring instead a war saddle that had a paddle on the back and two protective clamps that curved over the top of the rider’s thighs. This allowed warriors to remain in the saddle at all times during battle, especially during violent confrontations.

Even the Byzantine emperor points out in his Strategikon that many members of the Sassanid heavy cavalry did not carry spears, relying on their bows as their primary weapons. However, the Taq-i Bustan reliefs and Al-Tabari’s famous list of equipment needed by dihqan horsemen, which included the spear, provide a contrast. What is certain is that the armamentarium of the horsemen turned out to be extensive.

The amount of money needed to support a warrior of the asawaran (Azatan) knightly caste required at the very least the possession of a small estate, usually directly conferred by the royal court, which in return demanded protection.

The relationship between priests and warriors was of great importance because the concept of Ērānshahr was also widely taken up by clerics. Without this connection, some historians imagine that the Sasanian empire would not have survived in its early stages. Because of this relationship between warriors and priests, religion and state were considered inseparable in Zoroastrian religion. However, such a connection caused the empire to weaken as each group sought to impose its power on the other. Disagreements between the priests and warriors led to an irremediable internal rift among the Sasanids, causing their downfall.

Rome and Constantinople

The Sassanids, similarly to the Parthians, remained constantly on bad terms with the Roman Empire. Recognized as a major world power, they preserved hostile relations even in the period following the fall of the Western Roman Empire, thus standing between themselves and the Byzantine Empire for about two centuries. To be fair, even after the division of the Roman empire in 395, the Byzantines, whose capital was based in Constantinople, continued to vie with their rivals for dominance over Persia, with hostilities becoming increasingly frequent over time. Like the Roman Empire, the Sassanids continued to fight with other neighboring political entities and nomadic hordes. Although the threat of raids by the latter could never be completely resolved, the central power was able to stem this danger more successfully than the Romans, thanks to effective targeted warfare campaigns by which the more aggressive tribes were neutralized on several occasions.

The last of the many and frequent struggles with the Romans, the decisive Roman-Persian War of 602-628, during which the 626 siege of Constantinople took place, ended in defeat for both factions in terms of human and economic losses. As if this were not enough, social conflicts within the empire had greatly weakened it, thus simplifying the future Islamic conquest of Persia. The sudden appearance and rise in the geopolitical scene of the Rashidun Caliphate caught the Sasanians, tried by wearisome years of conflict, completely unprepared. Muslim forces kicked off a major expansion, subduing and Sasanian empire and the eastern Byzantine provinces during the Arab-Byzantine Wars, depriving Constantinople of territories in the Levant, the Caucasus, Egypt and North Africa. In the following centuries, half of the Byzantine empire and the entire Sasanian territory now appeared permanently under Muslim rule.

In extreme summary and resorting to summary judgment, over the centuries, Sassanid territory bordered that of the large and stable Roman state to the west, while to the east, its closest neighbors were the Kusana Empire and the nomadic tribes of the White Huns. The construction of fortifications such as the citadel of Tus or the stronghold of Nishapur, which later became a cultural and commercial center, helped protect the eastern provinces from enemy attacks.

Nomadic tribes

In southern and central Arabia, Bedouin tribes made occasional incursions into Sasanian territory. The kingdom of Al-Hirah, a vassal of the Sasanids, was established to form a buffer zone between the heartland of the empire and the Bedouin tribes. The dissolution of the aforementioned kingdom accomplished by Khosraw II in 602 contributed greatly to the decisive defeats then suffered against the Bedouin Arabs during the seventh century.

In the north, the Cazars and the Western Turkic Khaganate frequently assaulted the empire’s northern provinces. One of the largest sackings occurred in Media, in what is now northeastern Iran, in 634. Shortly thereafter, the Persian army succeeded in defeating them and drove them out of the area. The Sasanians built numerous fortifications in the Caucasus region to halt these aggressions, including the massive fortifications built at Derbent (Dagestan, Russia) that have largely remained intact to this day.

On the eastern side of the Caspian Sea, the Sasanians erected the Great Wall of Gorgan, a 200-kilometer-long defensive structure probably intended to protect the empire from warlike northern tribes, perhaps especially the White Huns.

In 522, before the reign of Cosroe, a group of Monophysite Axumites led an attack against Himyar, the dominant power in southern Arabia. The local Arab chieftain managed to resist the attack but asked the Sasanids for help, while the Axumites later turned to the Byzantines for help. The Axumites sent another force across the Red Sea and this time successfully killed the Arab chieftain and replaced him with a puppet of their own in the region.

In 531, Emperor Justinian suggested to the Axumites in Yemen that they should exclude the Persians from Indian trade, with the result that they would be forced to perform only maritime trade with them. The Ethiopians never complied with such a request, as an Axumite general named Abraha assumed control of the Yemeni throne and established an independent political entity. After Abraha’s death, one of his sons, Ma’d-Karib, went into exile while his half-brother ascended the throne. After being rejected by Justinian, Ma’d-Karib sought help from Cosroe, who sent a small fleet and an army under Commander Vahrez to depose the new king of Yemen. After capturing the capital San’a’l, Ma’d-Karib’s son Saif took the throne.

Performing a full contextual analysis, Justinian was in a direct way responsible for the Sasanian maritime presence in Yemen. By failing to provide support to the Yemenite Arabs, Cosroe was able to help Ma’d-Karib and later convert Yemen into a principality of the Sasanian empire.

Similarly to the Parthians, the Sassanid empire also had frequent foreign relations with China, as Persian ambassadors frequently traveled there. Some Chinese documents report sixteen Sassanid embassies active in China from 455 to 555. In terms of trade, land and sea trade with China appeared as important to the Sasanian empire as to its counterpart. The discovery of a large number of Sassanid coins in southern China confirms the crowded maritime trade routes.

On several occasions, Sassanid monarchs sent their most talented Persian musicians and dancers to the imperial court in Luoyang when the Northern Jìn and Wei dynasties were in power, as well as to Chang’an during the Sui and Tang interlude. Both empires benefited from the trade that occurred via the Silk Road and shared a common interest in preserving and protecting that vital route. Working together to protect trade routes through Central Asia, the two counterparts built outposts in border areas to protect caravans from nomadic tribes and bandits.

Sources provide evidence of numerous efforts by the Sasanians and Chinese in forming alliances against their common enemy, the Hephthalites. With the rise of the nomadic Göktürk in Inner Asia, it appears that the cooperative relationship continued to defuse the successes of the Turks. Documents found at Mt. Mo confirm the presence of a Chinese general serving the king of Sogdiana at the time of the Arab invasions.

Following the invasion of Iran by Muslim Arabs, Peroz III, son of Yazdgard III, fled with some Persian nobles and took refuge in the Chinese imperial court. Both Peroz and his son Narsieh (neh-shie in Oriental writings) received high titles in the Chinese court. On at least two occasions, the last perhaps in 670, Chinese troops were sent to Peroz’s side to restore him to the Sasanian throne with mixed results: it is likely, at best, that thanks to one of these contingents Peroz remained in power for a short time in Sakastan, as coins found by archaeologists suggest. Later, Narsieh obtained the position of commander of the Chinese imperial guards, with his descendants living in China as respected princes and Sasanian refugees fleeing Arab conquerors. The active emperor at that time in history was Gao Zong of Tang.


After conquering Iran and neighboring regions, Sapore I extended his authority to the northwest of the Indian subcontinent. The previously autonomous Kusana were forced to accept the sovereignty of a foreign power. Specifically, this situation affected the western Kusana, who controlled Afghanistan, while the eastern Kusana were active in India. Although the Kusana empire declined at the end of the third century, a reality that was succeeded by the Indian Gupta empire in the fourth century, the Sasanids nevertheless continued to leave important traces in northwest India throughout this time frame.

Persia and northwestern India, with the latter previously part of the Kusana territories, engaged in cultural and political relations during this period, as some Sasanian practices spread eastward as well. In particular, the Kusana were influenced by the Sassanid conception of kingship, which spread through trade in Sasanian silverware and textiles depicting emperors hunting or dispensing justice.

This cultural interchange, however, did not diffuse Sassanid religious practices or attitudes toward the Kusana. Cultural exchanges relating to India and Persia include the importation into the Persian universe of an ancient version of the game of chess, chatrang (Middle Persian: shatranj). For their part, the Persians introduced backgammon (“Nēw-Ardašēr”) to India.

During the reign of Khosraw I, many books came from India and were translated into Middle Persian. In the centuries to come, some of these texts enjoyed great fortune in the Islamic world and in Arabic literature. A notable example is the translation of the Indian Pañcatantra completed by one of Cosroe’s ministers, Burzoe. The work, published as Kalīlag ud Dimnag, also managed to distinguish itself in Arabic literature and Europe. The details of Burzoe’s legendary journey to India and his daring version of the Pañcatantra were commented on in detail by the poet Firdusi in the Shāh-Nāmeh:

Urbanism and nomadism

In contrast to the society of the Parthians, the Sasanians placed some emphasis on the need to enjoy centralized government and firm command authority. In the collective Sasanian imagination, the ideal society had to preserve a certain stability and manage justice judiciously: the ideal tool for performing these tasks came through a monarch firmly in power of the highest office. The Sasaniids also aimed to establish an empire dotted with thriving cities, a project they accomplished with moderate success. During the late Sasanian period, Mesopotamia boasted one of the highest population densities in the early medieval world. It is possible that such an achievement had been achieved through the founding and re-founding of a number of cities, as is evident in the Middle Persian text that has survived to us entitled Šahrestānīhā ī Ērānšahr (“The Capitals of the Province of Iran”). Ardashir I himself built and rebuilt many settlements, naming Veh-Ardashir, in Asuristan, Ardashir-Khwarrah, in Pars, and Vahman-Ardashir, in Maishan, among others. In Sasanian times as many cities took on “Iran-khwarrah” as their name, as the Sasanians wished to mark the old legacy represented by the Avestic.

Many of these locations, both new and existing, were populated not only by native ethnic groups, such as the Iranians or Syriacs, but also by Roman deportees and prisoners of war, including Goths, Slavs, Latins, and others. Many of these captured were skilled workers, accustomed to erecting structures such as entire settlements, bridges and dams. This allowed the Sasanians to become familiar with Roman construction techniques. The impact these foreigners had on the economy was significant, as many of them were Christians and helped spread that belief throughout the empire.

In contrast to the amount of information known about the settled peoples of the Sasanian empire, little is known about the nomadic communities. It is known that these were indistinctly called “Kurds” by the Sasanians and that they regularly served the Sasanian army, particularly the Daylam tribes and the Gilani. This kind of relationship with the nomads continued into the Islamic period, with the service of the two aforementioned nomadic peoples continuing without interruption.


At the dawn of the Sasanian interlude, Middle Persian stood alongside Greek koinè and Parthian in the inscriptions of the early Sasanian kings. However, by the time Narseh (293-302) was in power, Greek appeared to be in disuse, perhaps due to the demise of the Hellenes or the efforts of the anti-Hellenic Zoroastrian clergy to deplete it once and for all. It was probably also a rejection due to the idiom’s association with the Romans or Byzantines, rivals of the Sasanians. Parthian also soon disappeared as an administrative language, but it continued to be spoken and written in the eastern part of the Sasanian empire, the homeland of the Parthians. In addition, many of the aristocrats of the old empire who entered Sasanian service after the fall of the ancient regime still expressed themselves in Parthian, such as the seven Parthian clans, which wielded much power within the empire.

Aramaic, as in the Achaemenid empire, albeit in the medium form, was widely used in the Sasanian empire and provided the alphabet for Middle Persian and other languages.

Although Middle Persian was the mother tongue of the Sasanians (who, however, did not originate in Pars), this turned out to be only one of many, moreover a minority, in the vast empire; although spoken mostly in Pars, it was widespread in Media and surrounding regions. However, several Persian dialects stood out at that time. Besides Persian, the unattested predecessor of Old Azerbaijani along with one of its dialects, Tati, was spoken in Adurbadagan (Azerbaijan). Ancient Daylami and probably Proto-Caspian, which later evolved into Gilaki in Gilan and Mazanderani (also known as Tabari) in Tabaristan, were spoken in the same regions. In addition, other languages and dialects were also spoken in the same two geographical areas.

Numerous languages were spoken in the Sasanian territories in the Caucasus, including Old Georgian, various Cartvelic languages (especially Lazic), Middle Persian, Classical Armenian, Caucasian Albanian, Scythian, Koine Greek, and others.

Several idioms were spoken in Khūzestān, namely Persian in the north and east and Middle Eastern Aramaic in the rest of the region. In addition, Neo-Elamite may also have been spoken in the province, but there are no references explicitly naming the language under consideration. In Maishan, the Arameans, together with the settled Arameans (known as Mesenite Arameans) and nomadic Arameans, formed the Semitic population of the province along with the Nabataean and Palmyrene merchants. Iranians had also begun to settle in the province, along with the Zutts, who had been deported from India. Other Indian groups such as the Malays may also have been deported to Meshan, either as prisoners or as recruited sailors. In Asuristan, the majority of the population consisted of Aramaic-speaking Nestorian Christians, including especially Middle Syriac, while Persians, Jews, and Arabs formed a minority in the province.

Because of the invasions of the Scythians and their subgroup, the Alans, in Atropatene, Armenia, and other places in the Caucasus, the total number of Iranians present in these areas increased, although in a low percentage. Parthian was spoken in Khorasan along with other Iranian subvariants and idioms, while Sogdian, Battrian, and Korasmian were spoken further east in places that were not always controlled by the Sasanians. Further south, in Sistan, there were mass migrations of Scythians in Parthian times and much later center of the Sistani Persians, they resorted to an unknown central-southwestern Iranian language or, more simply, Middle Persian. Kerman was populated by an Iranian group that closely resembled Persians while, further east in Paratan, Turan, and Makran, non-Iranian languages and an unknown Western Iranian language proliferated. In major cities such as Jundishapur and Ctesiphon, Roman prisoners of war

Social classes

Sassanid society was extremely complex, with many different and rigidly separated groups coexisting within the empire. Historians believe that the society comprised four social classes:

The main caste of the Sasanian system saw the shahanshah reigning over all nobles. The princes closest to the court, petty rulers, large landowners and priests all together constituted a privileged elite in the social hierarchy, being identified as wuzurgan, or great ones.

At a lower level, Sasanian society saw the Azatan (freemen), a large aristocracy of low rank and administrators of no high rank who lived mainly on small estates. From such a class came the cavalry backbone of the Sasanian army.

Since the Sasanian social system suffered from a certain immobility, it is safe to assume that moving from one class to another proved to be an extremely arduous task. The Sasanian caste system survived the empire, continuing to exist in the early Islamic period.


In general, mass slavery was never practiced by the Iranians; paradoxically, in many cases the situation and living conditions of the semi-slaves (prisoners of war) appeared better than those of ordinary people. In Persia, the term “slave” was also used for debtors who had to take part of their time to serve in a Fire temple.

The most common slaves in the Sasanian empire were servants, who worked in private estates and Fire temples. The employment of a slave in a household was common, and her master had total control over her, also being able to conceive children should she so desire. Slaves also received a wage and could hope to build a family of their own regardless of their sex. Physically assaulting or causing injury to a slave were acts considered not permitted, and even the king himself was not allowed to carry out such conduct.

The master of a slave could free the person whenever he or she wanted, an action that, regardless of what faith the slave believed in, was considered a good deed of charity. A slave could also obtain freedom in the event of the master’s death.


Under the Parthian empire, Zoroastrianism fragmented into regional entities that adopted various religious elements related to the Iranian and Ancient Greek religious traditions. Greek paganism, as well as ideas that spread and mingled with Zoroastrianism when Alexander the Great had taken the Persian empire from Darius III, originated a process of Greek-Persian religious and cultural synthesis that continued into the Parthian era. However, under the Sasanians, an interest in orthodox Zoroastrianism revived, despite with some numerous and important differences. Specifically, Sasanian Zoroastrianism would have developed because of clear distinctions with the practices established by the Avestā, the religion’s holy books. It is often argued that the Sasanian Zoroastrian clergy instrumentalized the faith to enhance the policies pursued by the court. Sasanian religious policies helped exhume numerous reformist movements, especially those founded by the influential religious prophets Mani and Mazdak.

The relationship between the Sasanian kings and the faiths practiced in their empire became complex and varied. For example, while Sapore I tolerated and encouraged multiculturalism and apparently secretly embraced Zurvanism, religious minorities were sometimes suppressed by later kings, as in the case of Bahram II. Sapore II, on the other hand, tolerated numerous religious groups but not Christians, whom he persecuted only because of Constantine’s conversion.

From the beginning of Sassanid rule in 224, an orthodox Zoroastrian tradition born in Pars would play an important role in influencing and legitimizing the state until its collapse in the mid-7th century. After Ardashir I deposed the last practical king, Artabanus V, he sought the help of Tansar, a herbad (high priest) of the Iranian Zoroastrians, in order to help him legitimize the new dynasty. Tansar carried out this task by writing to the de facto authorities and vassals active in the different regions of Iran for the purpose of accepting Ardashir I as their new ruler, particularly by resorting to the Letter of Tansar, which was addressed to Gushnasp, the vassal king of Tabaristan. Gushnasp had accused Ardashir I of usurping the throne and that while his actions “may have been good for the world,” they were “bad for the faith.” Tansar refuted these accusations in his letter to Gushnasp, stating that not all aspects of the Parthian world were to be considered better and that Ardashir would be more virtuous than his predecessors. Tansar’s Letter included some attacks on the religious practices and orientation of the Parthians, who did not follow an orthodox but rather heterodox Zoroastrian tradition. Consequently, Zoroastrianism had undergone a process of “decline” after Alexander’s invasion, a decline that continued during Parthian rule and merited a reversal.

Tansar would later help oversee the formation of a single “Zoroastrian Church” run by Persian magi, along with the creation of a single set of texts, the Avestā, which he approved and authorized.

Kartir, a very powerful and influential Persian cleric, served under several Sassanid kings and oversaw the political project of establishing a Zoroastrian orthodoxy centered on the Pars region is valid for the entire Sassanid empire. His power and influence grew so great that he became the only “common man” later allowed to enjoy his own rock inscriptions carved in the manner of the rulers (at Sar Mashhad, Naqsh-e Rostam, Ka’ba-ye Zartosht and Naqsh-e Rajab). Under Sapore I, Kartir became the “absolute authority” over the “order of priests” at the Sassanid court and also in all regions of the empire, with the implication that all regional Zoroastrian clerics would for the first time since then be subordinate to the clerics of Pars. To some extent, Kartir pursued an iconoclastic policy and took it upon himself to help establish numerous Fire temples throughout Iran, supplanting the monuments and temples containing images and idols of cult deities proliferated during the Parthian era. In expressing his doctrinal orthodoxy, Kartir encouraged the pursuit of an obscure Zoroastrian concept known as khvedodah among the common people (marriage within the family, specifically between siblings and cousins). At various stages of his long court career, Kartir also supervised the periodic persecution of non-Zoroastrians in Iran and ensured the execution of the Prophet Mani’s dictates during the reign of Bahram I. During the reign of Ormisda I, Bahram I’s predecessor and brother, Kartir received the new Zoroastrian title of mobad, a clerical office created and thought to be considered superior to the Parthian-era eastern Iranian title of herbad.

Persians had long been familiar with the Egyptian calendar, with its 365 days divided into 12 months. However, the traditional Zoroastrian calendar had 12 months of 30 days each. During the reign of Ardashir I, an attempt was made to introduce a more accurate Zoroastrian calendar for the year, with which 5 previously nonexistent days were added. These were called Gatha days and had practical as well as religious significance. However, they were still kept separate from the “religious year” so as not to disturb the long-standing observances of the older Zoroastrian calendar.

At the time of the introduction of the first calendar reform, some difficulties emerged, particularly with regard to some important Zoroastrian festivals such as Hamaspat-maedaya and Nawrūz in the calendar year after year. This confusion apparently engendered great discontent among the common people; while the court tried to enforce the observance of these lavish celebrations on the new official dates, a large part of the common people continued to observe them on the older traditional dates; because of this, a situation arose whereby parallel celebrations for Nawrūz and other Zoroastrian holidays often took place within a few days of each other. The confusion unleashed by the two calendars caused much confusion and friction among the laity and the ruling class. Later, the clergy chose to introduce a compromise, expanding the duration of the parallel celebrations to one anniversary that would last six days. This change did not affect the Nawrūz.

A further problem arose, however, as the Nawrūz was shifted during this period from the spring equinox to autumn, although this inconsistency had probably arisen as early as Parthian times.

Further calendar reforms took place during the late Sassanid era. Since the time of the innovations introduced by Ardashir I, no changes to the calendar occurred. Therefore, with a quarter of a day lost each year, the swings between months became so sensitive that eventually the New Year ended in July. Noting the problems, a great council was chosen to be convened and it was decided to move the Nawrūz to coincide with the season in which it took place during the Achaemenid interlude, i.e., spring. This change probably took place during the reign of Kavad I in the early sixth century. It seems that at this juncture much emphasis was placed on the importance of spring and its connection with the resurrection and the Frashegerd.

Reflecting the regional rivalry and prejudice that the Sasanids are believed to have held against their historical predecessors, it was probably during the Sassanid era that the two great Fires in the Pars and Media, in Adur Farnbag and Adur Gushnasp, respectively, made their appearance, which ended up flanking and even in the long run eclipsing the sacred temple of Adur Burzen-Mehr in Parthia, eastern Iran. The Adur Burzen-Mehr, traceable according to one legend to Zoroaster and Vishtaspa, the first Zoroastrian king, was too valuable for the Persian magi to order its eventual suppression.

In light of the premise just stated, the Sasanian dynasty thus chose that the three Great Fires of the Zoroastrian world should benefit from specific associations. The Adur Farnbag, in Pars. was associated with the magi, the Adur Gushnasp, in Media, with warriors, and the Adur Burzen-Mehr, in Parthia, with the humbler classes, namely farmers and shepherds.

The Adur Gushnasp became in the long run, by custom, a pilgrimage destination to be reached on foot for newly enthroned rulers after their coronation. It is likely that, during the Sasanian era, the three Great Fires had become the main pilgrimage destination for Zoroastrian worshippers scattered throughout Asia.

The ancient Sasanians spoke out against the use of cult images, reasoning that statues and idols were removed from many temples and, where possible, sacred fires were installed. This policy also extended to regions inhabited by the Aniran (literally non-Iranian) during certain phases. Ahura Mazdā would destroy statues erected in memory of the dead in Armenia. However, they chose to remove only the cult statues. The Sasanians continued to employ images to represent the deities of Zoroastrianism, including that of Ahura Mazdā, in the tradition developed during the Seleucid period.

In ancient times, royal inscriptions often consisted of Parthian, Middle Persian and Greek inscriptions. However, the last time Parthian was used for a royal inscription was in the reign of Narses, son of Sapore I. It is likely, therefore, that soon after this event, the Sasanids adopted the decision to impose Persian as the only official language within Iran and prohibited the use of written Parthian. This had important consequences for Zoroastrianism, as all secondary literature, including the Zend, then went on to be transposed only into Middle Persian, having a profound impact in orienting Zoroastrianism toward the dictates established by the Pars region, home of the ruling dynasty.

Some scholars of Zoroastrianism such as the British Mary Boyce speculated that the yasna, the main collection of liturgical texts of the Avestā, would have been extended in Sasanian times “to increase its grandeur.” Apparently, this was done by joining the gāthā Staota Yesnya with the haoma ceremony. In addition, it is believed that a new, longer ceremony known as Visperad was reified, which was derived from an extended version of the yasna. The Visperad saw the light for the purpose of accompanying the celebration of the seven seasonal holidays (the Gahambars plus the Nawrūz) and was dedicated to Ahura Mazdā.

While the very earliest Zoroastrians avoided writing, believing it to be a form of demonic practice, the Zend, made in Middle Persian, along with much of the second-rate Zoroastrian literature, was brought back in textual form during the Sassanid era. Many of these Zoroastrian texts were original works from the Sassanid period. Probably chief among them was the Bundahishn, the mythical Zoroastrian story of Creation. Other older works, some dating from very early times, were probably translated from various Iranian languages into Middle Persian during this period. For example, two works, Draxt ī Āsūrīg (Assyrian Tree) and Ayadgar-i Zareran (Memorial of Zarer) probably went back to the original Parthian versions.

Of great importance for Zoroastrianism turned out to be the creation of the Avestā alphabet by the Sasanids, which allowed for the first time an accurate writing of Avestā in written form (including in its language

As a result of this development, the Sasanian Avestā then had to be compiled into 21 “nask” (divisions) so that it corresponded to the 21 words of the Ahunavar invocation. The nask had to be further divided into three groups of seven. The first group contained the Gāthā and all associated texts, while the second group contained works of scholastic learning. The final section contained instructional treatises for the magi, such as the collection of Vendidad texts, law texts and other works, such as yasht.

An important literary text, the Khwaday-Namag (“Book of Kings”), was composed in Sasanian times. This text formed the basis of the future Shāh-Nāmeh of Firdusi. Another important Zoroastrian text from the Sasanian period includes the Dadestan-e Menog-e Khrad (“Sentences of the Spirit of Wisdom”).


Christians in the Sasanian empire belonged mainly to the Nestorian (Church of the East) and Syriac (Syriac Orthodox Church) branches of Christianity. Although these churches originally maintained links with the Christian churches in the Roman empire, they had fairly meager points of contact. Among these divergent elements should be considered the sacred language of the Nestorian and Jacobite communities, which was Syriac rather than Greek, the idiom of Roman Christianity during the early centuries and of the Church of the East in later centuries. Another reason for the separation of Eastern and Western Christianity concerned the strong pressure of the Sasanian authorities to sever links with Rome, since the Sasanian empire was often at war with the Urbe.

Christianity was recognized through an edict by Yazdgard I in 409 as an admitted faith within the Sasanian empire.

The main break with traditional Christianity occurred in 431, mostly because of the dictates of the Council of Ephesus. There, it was chosen to condemn Nestorius, a theologian of Cilician origin and patriarch of Constantinople, who was guilty of espousing a view of Christology according to which Mary, the mother of Jesus, was not considered “Theotókos” or Mother of God. Although the decisions of the Council of Ephesus were accepted within the Roman Empire, the Sasanian Church disagreed with the condemnation of Nestorius’ teachings. When Nestorius was deposed as patriarch, some of his followers found refuge in Sasanian territory. The Persian emperors used this opportunity to strengthen Nestorius’ position within the Sasanian church, which represented the overwhelming majority of Christians in the predominantly Zoroastrian Persian empire, by eliminating the most prominent pro-Roman priests in Persia and ensuring that their positions passed to Nestorians.

Most Christians in the Sasanian empire lived at the western end of the empire, mainly in Mesopotamia, but there were also important communities existing in the northernmost territories, namely Caucasian Albania, Lazica, Iberia, and the Persian part of Armenia. Other important communities were located on the island of Tylos (present-day Bahrain), on the southern coast of the Persian Gulf, and in the area of the Arab kingdom of Lakhm. Some of these areas were the first to be Christianized; the kingdom of Armenia became the world’s first independent Christian state in 301. Although a number of Assyrian territories had been almost completely Christianized even earlier during the third century, they never became independent political entities.

Other religions

Some of the recent excavations have uncovered Buddhist, Hindu and Jewish religious sites in the territory of the empire. Buddhism and Hinduism complemented Zoroastrianism in Bactrian and Margiana in the Far Eastern territories. A very large Jewish community flourished under Sasanian rule, with the most prosperous groups located in Esfahan, Babylon, and Khorasan, and with its own semiautonomous command represented by the Exilarchate based in Mesopotamia. Semitic communities suffered only occasional persecution, being able to enjoy relative freedom of belief and privileges denied to other religious minorities. Sapore I (Shabur Malka in Aramaic) proved particularly tolerant of Jews, mostly because of his friendship with Rabbi Samuel. Sapore II, whose mother was Jewish, maintained a similar friendship with a Babylonian rabbi named Rabbah. Their relationship enabled the ruler to secure an easing of the oppressive laws enacted against the Semites in the Persian empire. In addition, in the eastern part of the empire, various Buddhist places of worship, particularly located in Bamiyan, spread as Buddhism began to attract proselytes to the region.


Because most of the inhabitants were from peasant backgrounds, the Sasanian economy was mostly based on agriculture and animal husbandry, with Khuzestan and Iraq being the provinces most devoted to such activities. The Nahrawan Canal, one of the greatest examples of Sasanian irrigation systems, enabled irrigation of several areas of Iran, with the system being functional to this day. The mountains of the Sasanian state served as a suitable place to source timber, material that was then regularly taxed.

At the turn of late antiquity and the late Middle Ages, the two most important trade routes were the famous Silk Road, located to the north, and another, admittedly less frequented, route that followed the southern coast of the Sasanian domains. The industries of Susa, Jundishapur, and Shushtar were known for silk production and rivaled their Chinese counterparts. The Sasanids showed great tolerance toward the rural inhabitants, allowing them to stock up in case of famine.


Persian industry under the Sasanians developed in both small towns and large metropolises. The guilds prospered, pursuing among other tasks that of urging the maintenance of roads and bridges, indeed well patrolled by sentries, and effective postal and mercantile links from Ctesiphon to all provinces. The construction of ports on the Persian Gulf served to increase trade with India. Sasanian merchants moved far and wide and gradually supplanted the Romans from the lucrative Indian Ocean trade routes. Recent archaeological discoveries have revealed the surprising existence of a kind of labels applied by the Sasanians on their goods in order to promote their products and stand out in markets of all longitudes.


Cosroe I further extended the already extensive trade network, enabling the establishment of a veritable monopoly in in the Indian Ocean, Central Asia and southern Russia with reference to such products as luxury goods and some furnishings, competing in the West with the Byzantines. The settlements made in Oman and Yemen confirm the aforementioned importance of trade with India, but the silk trade with China remained almost an exclusive preserve of the Sogdians, vassals of the empire.

The main exports of the Sasanians concerned silk, woollen and gold cloth, carpets, tapestries, leather, leather, and pearls from the Persian Gulf. There were also goods in transit from China (paper, silk) and India (spices), on which Sasanian customs imposed taxes and which were re-exported from the empire to Europe. There was also no shortage of jewelry, wine, and oil among exports, while spices, drapery, silk, ebony, and incense should not be forgotten among imports.

Some attention was paid to the metallurgical production sector as well, with Iran gaining a reputation as the “armory of Asia.” The bulk of the Sasanian mining centers were on the fringes of the Empire, namely in Armenia, the Caucasus and, above all, Transoxiana. The extraordinary mineral wealth of the Pamir Mountains on the eastern horizon of the Sasanian Empire gave rise to a legend spread among the Tajiks, an Iranian people living there, that is still passed down today. The story relates that while God was creating the world, he stumbled into the Pamir, dropping his jar of minerals that then spread throughout the region.

In artistic terms, the Sasanian interlude coincided with one of the time arcs during which Iranian civilization was able to flourish the most. Much of what later became known as Muslim culture, including architecture and writing, originally drew from the Persian world. At its height, the Sasanian empire stretched from western Anatolia to northwestern India (present-day Pakistan), but its influence was felt far beyond these political boundaries. Sasanian motifs made their way into the art of Central Asia and China, the Byzantine Empire, and even Merovingian France. Islamic art, however, the true heir of Sasanian art, preserved yes some of the concepts of the past but at the same time tried to come up with new canons that suppressed the old ones. According to Will Durant:

Sasanian works at Taq-e Bostan and Naqsh-e Rostam show various colors, in the same way as the buildings unearthed by archaeologists, despite the fact that only traces of such painting remain. Contemporary sources confirm that the art of painting flourished in Sasanian times, so much so that it is speculated that the prophet Mani founded his own school. Firdusi spoke of Persian magnates adorning their mansions with images of Iranian heroes, while the poet al-Buhturi described frescoes in the palace of Ctesiphon. Upon the death of a Sasanian king, the best painter of the day would be called upon to create a portrait that would later go into a collection stored in the royal treasury.

Painting, sculpture, ceramics, and other forms of decoration shared their designs with Sasanian textile art. Silk products, embroideries, brocades, damasks, tapestries, chair accessories, canopies, curtains, and carpets were made with patience and painstaking skill and had to be dyed in vivid shades of yellow, blue, and green. Every Persian, except peasants and priests, aspired to wear the clothing typical of the upper class to which they belonged, with members of the court usually wearing very elegant robes. Large colorful carpets proved to be a constant present in the markets of the East from the beginning to the end of the Sasanian era, following in the wake of the very ancient tradition born in Assyria. The 25 or so surviving Sasanian textiles turn out to be especially prized by scholars and experts alike. Even at the time they were made, Sasanian textiles enjoyed great admiration and were imitated from Egypt to the Far East; during the Middle Ages, they were used in the Christian world to cover the relics of saints. When Heraclius I conquered the palace of Khosraw II in Dastagird, delicate embroideries and an immense carpet flowed into the loot brought back to Byzantine territory. Particularly famous was the “Winter Carpet” of Cosror I, also known as the “Spring of Cosroe” (or “Spring Carpet”: قالى بهارستان) of Cosror I, on which spring and summer scenes were painted for the purpose of making the passing of winter less burdensome for the ruler. On the carpet, flowers and fruits made of woven rubies and diamonds grew alongside silver avenues and streams of pearls set against a backdrop of gold. Hārūn al-Rashīd boasted of an extensive Sasanian carpet richly studded with jewels. Persians also used to write love poems on their carpets.

Studies of Sasanian remains have reconstructed more than 100 types of crowns worn by Sasanian rulers. The various crowns testify to the cultural, economic, social, and historical situation of each period, also pointing out the preferences of each king in the era in which he exercised his rule. Among the various symbols and signs that can be traced are often identified the moon, stars, eagle and palm, with each of them exposing the faith and religious beliefs of the wearer of the royal headdress.

The Sasanian dynasty, like the Achaemenid dynasty, originated in the province of Pars. Excluding the Hellenistic interlude and the Parthian era, the Sasanians considered themselves successors to the Achaemenids and believed it was their destiny to restore the greatness of Persia. In an attempt to bring back the glorious past, the rulers did not simply make imitations of the works that were, but sought to encourage art that demonstrated great character and unique aspects, anticipating in some ways the salient features of Islamic art. Sasanian art combined traditional Persian elements with Hellenistic features and influences. It was Alexander the Great’s conquest of Persia that ushered in the spread of Hellenistic art to Western Asia. Although the East accepted the aesthetic canons of this art, it never really assimilated its spirit. Already during the Parthian interlude, Hellenistic art was interpreted freely by the peoples of the Near East. Throughout the Sasanian rule, styles were often inaugurated that were proposed as innovators and at the same time custodians of the forms and atavistic customs of Persia, which in the Islamic period reached the shores of the Mediterranean. According to James Fergusson:


The surviving palaces allow us to admire the affluent world in which the Sasanian monarchs lived. Examples include the palaces of Firuzabad and Bishapur in Fars and the capital Ctesiphon in the province of Asuristan (in present-day Iraq). In addition to local traditions, Parthian architecture influenced Sasanian architectural features. The barrel vaults introduced in the Parthian period known as iwans spread exponentially during the Sasanian interlude, especially in Ctesiphon. Some of them are particularly large, with the arch of the great vaulted hall, attributed to the reign of Sapore I (241-272), having a span of more than 24 m and a height of 36 m. This magnificent structure fascinated countless architects of later centuries and went on to be considered one of the leading examples of Persian architecture. Many of the palaces contain an inner audience hall consisting, as at Firuzabad, of a chamber surmounted by a dome. The Persians solved the problem of building a circular dome on a square building by employing spandrels, or arches built through each corner of the plan, thus converting it into an octagon on which it is easy to place a dome. The domed chamber in the palace of Firuzabad is the earliest surviving example of the use of a spandrel, a circumstance that suggests that this architectural technique was perhaps invented in Persia.

The unique feature of Sasanian architecture resulted in the special use of space. The Sasanian architect conceived his building in terms of masses and surfaces; hence the use of massive brick walls decorated with molded or carved stucco. Stucco wall decorations can be observed at Bishapur, but better examples are found at Chaleh Tarkhan, near Rey (late Sasanian or early Islamic period), and from Ctesiphon and Kish in Mesopotamia. The panels show animal figures set in roundels, human busts, and geometric and floral motifs.

At Bishapur, some of the floors were decorated with mosaics showing banquet scenes. The Roman influence is clear here, and the mosaics may have been made by Roman prisoners. Buildings were decorated with wall paintings, with the main examples found on Mount Khajeh in Sistan.


The Sasanian kings were repeatedly concerned with patronizing literati and philosophers, as well as cultural activities more generally. The three main poles of education were based in Ctesiphon, Gundishapur and Resaina. The one located in the capital, known as the Great School, initially allowed a maximum of 50 students to enter it, but in less than a century enrollment expanded to more than 30,000.

Under Cosroe I, the aforementioned Gundishapur Academy, founded in the fifth century, became “the major intellectual center of the age,” attracting students and teachers from all parts of the known world. Nestorian Christians were accepted in the east and brought with them Syriac translations of Greek works of medicine and philosophy. The medical traditions of India, Persia, Syria, and Greece mingled in that cultural hub, creating a melting pot steeped in the knowledge gained from the various civilizations.


Cosroe I’s passion for literature stimulated him to order translations into Pahlavi of the works of Plato and Aristotle, of which he also mandated their teaching at the Gundishapur Academy and took a look at them himself. During his rule, many historical annals were compiled, of which the only one surviving is the Kar-Namag i Ardashir i Pabagan (“The Deeds of Ardashir”), a work that combines history and romance and served as the inspiration for Iran’s national epic, the Shāh-Nāmeh. When Justinian I closed the schools in Athens, seven of their teachers traveled to Persia and found refuge in the court of Cosroe. In his 533 treaty with Justinian, the Sasanian king stipulated that the Greek sages should be allowed to return and be free from persecution.

The influence of the Sasanian world dragged on long after its fall. The empire, under the leadership of several able rulers before its eclipse, had given birth to a Persian renaissance that would become a driving force for Islamic civilization. In modern Iran and the regions of Greater Persia, the Sasanian period is considered one of the highest points reached by Iranian civilization.

In Europe

Sasanian culture and military structure had a significant influence on Roman civilization. The structure and character of the Roman army were influenced by Persian methods of warfare. In a modified form, the Roman imperial autocracy emulated the royal ceremonies of the Sasanian court at Ctesiphon, and these in turn had an influence on the ceremonial traditions of the courts of medieval and modern Europe. The origin of the formalities of European diplomacy is attributed to diplomatic relations between Persian governments and the Roman empire.

In Jewish history

There are many developments associated with the Sasanian empire in Jewish history. The Babylonian Talmud was composed between the third and sixth centuries in Sasanian Persia, while major Jewish academies of learning were founded in Sura and Pumbedita, which became cornerstones of the Talmudic academy of Babylon. Several members of the imperial family such as Ifra Hormizd the queen mother of Sapore II and Queen Shushandukht, the Jewish wife of Yazdgard I, contributed significantly to the close relations between the Semites in the empire and the Ctesiphon government.

In India

The collapse of the Sasanian empire led to Islam slowly supplanting Zoroastrianism as the main religion of Iran. A large number of Zoroastrians chose to emigrate to escape Islamic persecution. According to the Qissa-i Sanjan, a group of those refugees landed in present-day Gujarat, where they were granted greater freedom to observe their ancient customs and preserve their faith. The descendants of those Zoroastrians would play a small but significant role in India’s development. There are currently more than 70,000 Zoroastrians in India, despite their declining numbers.

Zoroastrians still employ a variant of the religious calendar established under the Sasanids. That calendar still marks the number of years since the accession of Yazdgard III, just as it did in 632.


  1. Impero sasanide
  2. Sasanian Empire
  3. ^ a b Daryaee (2009), pp. 99-100.
  4. ^ (EN) Ctesiphon, su Encyclopaedia Iranica. URL consultato il 27 aprile 2022.
  5. ^ (EN) Peter B. Clarke e Peter Beyer, The World’s Religions: Continuities and Transformations, Routledge, 2009, p. 1091, ISBN 978-11-35-21099-1.
  6. ^ (EN) Peter Turchin, Jonathan M. Adams e Thomas D. Hall, East-West Orientation of Historical Empires (PDF), in Journal of World-Systems Research, vol. 12, n. 2, dicembre 2006, pp. 222-223, ISSN 1076-156X (WC · ACNP).
  7. ^ Mirwaisi (2020), p. 42.
  8. En los primeros años del Imperio, la capital estuvo en Firuzabad.
  9. Turchin, Peter; Adams, Jonathan M.; Hall, Thomas D (2006). “East-West Orientation of Historical Empires” (PDF). Journal of World-Systems Research. 12 (2): 222. ISSN 1076-156X
  10. Garthwaite, Gene R., The Persians, p. 2 ISBN 1-55786-860-3
  11. Bury, p. 109.
  12. Era conhecido por seus habitantes como Ērānshahr – literalmente “Império Ariano”[1] e Ērān, no persa médio, que resultaram nos termos persas atuais Iranshahr e Iran.[2]
  13. Estes quatro são as três tripartições sociais indo-europeias comuns entre os antigos iranianos, indianos e romanos com um elemento iraniano extra (de Yashna xix/17).[111]
  14. 1,0 1,1 Πρότυπο:Wiesehofer
  15. Encyclopedia of the Peoples of Africa and the Middle East, Vol.1, Ed. Jamie Stokes, (Infobase Publishing, 2009), 601.
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