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Sassanid Empire

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Sassanid Empire




Derafsh Kaviani Simurgh
The Sassanid Empire around its greatest extent under Khosrau II in 620.
Capital Ctesiphon
Languages Middle Persian
Religion Zoroastrianism,
Christianity, Judaism
Government Absolute monarchy
 -  224–241 Ardashir I (first)
 -  632–651 Yazdegerd III (last)
Historical era Late Antiquity
 -  Battle of Hormizdegan 28 April 224
 -  Roman–Persian War 602–628
 -  Muslim conquest 633–644
 -  Empire collapses 651
 -  621 6,600,000 km² (2,548,274 sq mi)
Today part of
History of Iran
History of Iran
Proto-Elamite 3200–2700 BCE
Elam 2700–539 BCE
Mannaeans 850–616 BCE
Median Empire 678–550 BCE
  ( Scythian Kingdom 652–625 BCE)
Achaemenid Empire 550–330 BCE
Seleucid Empire 312–63 BCE
Parthian Empire 247 BCE – 224 CE
Sassanid Empire 224–651
  ( Dabuyid dynasty 642–759/760)
Umayyad Caliphate 661–750
Abbasid Caliphate 750–1258
Ziyarid Dynasty
Saffarid Dynasty
Buyid Dynasty
Samanid Dynasty
Ghaznavid Empire 963–1186
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Khwarazmian Empire 1077–1231
Ilkhanate Empire 1256–1335
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Muzaffarid Dynasty
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Timurid Empire 1370–1405
Qara Qoyunlu
Timurid Dynasty
Agh Qoyunlu
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  ( Hotaki Dynasty 1722–1729)
Afsharid Empire 1736–1747
Zand Dynasty
Afsharid Dynasty
Qajar Empire 1796–1925
Pahlavi Dynasty 1925–1979
Interim Government 1979–1980
Islamic Republic 1980–present

The Sassanian Empire or Sassanid Persian Empire (pronounced  /sæˈseɪniən/, /ˈsæsənɪd/; also spelled Sasanid or Sasanian), known to its inhabitants as Ērānshahr and Ērān in Middle Persian and resulting in the New Persian terms Iranshahr and Iran, was the last pre-Islamic Persian Empire, ruled by the Sasanian Dynasty from 224 CE to 651 CE. The Sassanid Empire, which succeeded the Parthian Empire, was recognized as one of the main powers in Western and Central Asia, alongside the Roman-Byzantine Empire, for a period of more than 400 years.

The Sassanid Empire was founded by Ardashir I, after the fall of the Arsacid Empire and the defeat of the last Arsacid king, Artabanus V. According to the Encyclopedia of the Peoples of Asia and Oceania , "at its largest point in the seventh century the Sassanid Empire included territory in contemporary Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Afghanistan, Yemen, Oman, Israel, Lebanon, Syria, United Arab Emirates, Jordan, Turkey, Georgia, Armenia, Azerbaijan, and parts of Kazakhstan, Pakistan, India, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Libya, Kyrgyzstan. and Tajikistan." The native name for the Sassanid Empire in Middle Persian is Eran Shahr which means Aryan Empire. According to legend, the vexilloid of the Sassanid Empire was the Derafsh Kaviani. It was also hypothesized that the transition toward the Sassanid Empire represents the end of struggle of ethnic proto-Persians with their close migrant ethnic relatives, the Parthians, whose original homeland was in modern-day Central Asia.

The Sassanid empire, during Late Antiquity, is considered to have been one of Persia's/Iran's most important and influential historical periods, and constituted the last great Iranian empire before the Muslim conquest and the adoption of Islam. In many ways, the Sassanid period witnessed the peak of ancient Persian civilization. Persia influenced Roman civilization considerably during the Sassanid period. The Sassanids' cultural influence extended far beyond the empire's territorial borders, reaching as far as Western Europe, Africa, China and India. It played a prominent role in the formation of both European and Asian medieval art.


Origins and early history (205–310)

Conflicting accounts shroud the details of the fall of the Parthian Empire and subsequent rise of the Sassanid Empire in mystery. The Sassanid Empire was established in Istakhr by Ardashir I, a descendant of a line of the priests of the goddess Anahita.

Ghal'eh Dokhtar (or "The Maiden's Castle") in present-day Fars, Firuzabad, Iran, built by Ardashir in 209, before he was finally able to defeat the Parthian empire.

Babak was originally the ruler of a region called Kheir. However, by the year 200, he managed to overthrow Gocihr, and appoint himself as the new ruler of the Bazrangids. His mother, Rodhagh, was the daughter of the provincial governor of Persis. Babak and his eldest son Shapur managed to expand their power over all of Persis. The subsequent events are unclear, due to the elusive nature of the sources. It is certain, however, that following the death of Babak, Ardashir who at the time was the governor of Darabgird, got involved in a power struggle of his own with his elder brother Shapur. Sources reveal that Shapur, leaving for a meeting with his brother, was killed when the roof of a building collapsed on him. By the year 208, over the protests of his other brothers who were put to death, Ardashir declared himself ruler of Persis.

Once Ardashir was appointed Shahenshah, he moved his capital further to the south of Persis and founded Ardashir-Khwarrah (formerly Gur, modern day Firouzabad). The city, well supported by high mountains and easily defendable through narrow passes, became the centre of Ardashir's efforts to gain more power. The city was surrounded by a high, circular wall, probably copied from that of Darabgird, and on the north-side included a large palace, remains which still survive today. After establishing his rule over Persis, Ardashir I rapidly extended his territory, demanding fealty from the local princes of Fars, and gaining control over the neighboring provinces of Kerman, Isfahan, Susiana and Mesene. This expansion quickly came to the attention of Artabanus V, the Parthian king, who initially ordered the governor of Khuzestan to wage war against Ardashir in 224, but the battles were victories for Ardashir. In a second attempt to destroy Ardashir, Artabanus V himself met Ardashir in battle at Hormozgan, where Artabanus V met his death. Following the death of the Parthian ruler, Ardashir I went on to invade the western provinces of the now defunct Parthian Empire.

Rock-face relief at Naqsh-e Rustam of Persian emperor Shapur I (on horseback) capturing Roman emperor Valerian (standing) and Philip the Arab (kneeling), suing for peace

Factors that aided the rise to supremacy of the Sassanids were the Artabanus V - Vologases VI dynastic struggle for the Parthian throne, which probably allowed Ardashir to consolidate his authority in the south with little or no interference from the Parthians; and the geography of the Fars province, which separated it from the rest of Iran. Crowned in 224 at Ctesiphon as the sole ruler of Persia, Ardashir took the title Shahanshah, or "King of Kings" (the inscriptions mention Adhur-Anahid as his "Queen of Queens", but her relationship with Ardashir is not established), bringing the 400-year-old Parthian Empire to an end, and beginning four centuries of Sassanid rule.

In the next few years, local rebellions would form around the empire. Nonetheless, Ardashir I further expanded his new empire to the east and northwest, conquering the provinces of Sistan, Gorgan, Khorasan, Margiana (in modern Turkmenistan), Balkh and Chorasmia. He also added Bahrain and Mosul to Sassanid's possessions. Later Sassanid inscriptions also claim the submission of the Kings of Kushan, Turan and Mekran to Ardashir, although based on numismatic evidence, it is more likely that these actually submitted to Ardashir's son, the future Shapur I. In the west, assaults against Hatra, Armenia and Adiabene met with less success. In 230, he raided deep into Roman territory, and a Roman counter-offensive two years later ended inconclusively, although the Roman emperor, Alexander Severus, celebrated a triumph in Rome.

The Humiliation of Valerian by Shapur ( Hans Holbein the Younger, 1521, pen and black ink on a chalk sketch, Kunstmuseum Basel)

Ardashir I's son Shapur I continued the expansion of the empire, conquering Bactria and the western portion of the Kushan Empire, while leading several campaigns against Rome. Invading Roman Mesopotamia, Shapur I captured Carrhae and Nisibis, but in 243 the Roman general Timesitheus defeated the Persians at Rhesaina and regained the lost territories. The emperor Gordian III's (238–244) subsequent advance down the Euphrates was defeated at Meshike (244), leading to Gordian's murder by his own troops and enabling Shapur to conclude a highly advantageous peace treaty with the new emperor Philip the Arab, by which he secured the immediate payment of 500,000 denarii and further annual payments.

Shapur soon resumed the war, defeated the Romans at Barbalissos (253), and then probably took and plundered Antioch. Roman counter-attacks under the emperor Valerian ended in disaster when the Roman army was defeated and besieged at Edessa and Valerian was captured by Shapur, remaining his prisoner for the rest of his life. Shapur celebrated his victory by carving the impressive rock reliefs in Naqsh-e Rostam and Bishapur, as well as a monumental inscription in Persian and Greek in the vicinity of Persepolis. He exploited his success by advancing into Anatolia (260), but withdrew in disarray after defeats at the hands of the Romans and their Palmyrene ally Odaenathus, suffering the capture of his harem and the loss of all the Roman territories he had occupied.

Shapur had intensive development plans. He ordered the construction of the first dam bridge in Iran and founded many cities, some settled in part by emigrants from the Roman territories, including Christians who could exercise their faith freely under Sassanid rule. Two cities, Bishapur and Nishapur, are named after him. He particularly favored Manichaeism, protected Mani (who dedicated one of his books, the Shabuhragan, to him) and sent many Manichaean missionaries abroad. He also befriended a Babylonian rabbi called Shmuel.

The spread of Manichaeism (AD 300– 500). Map reference: World History Atlas, Dorling Kindersly.

This friendship was advantageous for the Jewish community and gave them a respite from the oppressive laws enacted against them. Later kings reversed Shapur's policy of religious tolerance. Under pressure from Zoroastrian Magi and influenced by the high-priest Kartir, Bahram I killed Mani and persecuted his followers. Bahram II was, like his father, amenable to the wishes of the Zoroastrian priesthood. During his reign, the Sassanid capital Ctesiphon was sacked by the Romans under Emperor Carus, and most of Armenia, after half a century of Persian rule, was ceded to Diocletian.

Succeeding Bahram III (who ruled briefly in 293), Narseh embarked on another war with the Romans. After an early success against the Emperor Galerius near Callinicum on the Euphrates in 296, Narseh was decisively defeated. Galerius had been reinforced, probably in the spring of 298, by a new contingent collected from the empire's Danubian holdings. Narseh did not advance from Armenia and Mesopotamia, leaving Galerius to lead the offensive in 298 with an attack on northern Mesopotamia via Armenia. Narseh retreated to Armenia to fight Galerius' force, to Narseh's disadvantage: the rugged Armenian terrain was favorable to Roman infantry, but not to Sassanid cavalry. Local aid gave Galerius the advantage of surprise over the Persian forces, and, in two successive battles, Galerius secured victories over Narseh.

Rome and vassal Armenia around AD 300, after Narseh's defeat

During the second encounter, Roman forces seized Narseh's camp, his treasury, his harem, and his wife along with it. Galerius advanced into Media and Adiabene, winning successive victories, most prominently near Erzurum, and securing Nisibis ( Nusaybin, Turkey) before October 1, 298. He moved down the Tigris, taking Ctesiphon.

Narseh had previously sent an ambassador to Galerius to plead for the return of his wives and children.Peace negotiations began in the spring of 299, with both Diocletian and Galerius presiding.

The conditions of the peace were heavy: Persia would give up territory to Rome, making the Tigris the boundary between the two empires. Further terms specified that Armenia was returned to Roman domination, with the fort of Ziatha as its border; Caucasian Iberia would pay allegiance to Rome under a Roman appointee; Nisibis, now under Roman rule, would become the sole conduit for 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).

The Sassanids ceded five provinces west of the Tigris, and agreed not to interfere in the affairs of Armenia and Georgia. In the aftermath of this defeat, Narseh gave up the throne and died a year later, leaving the Sassanid throne to his son, Hormizd II. Unrest spread throughout the land, and while Hormizd II suppressed revolts in Sistan and Kushan, he was unable to control the nobles and was subsequently killed by Bedouins in a hunting trip in 309.

First Golden Era (309–379)

Following Hormizd III's death, Arabs from the north started to ravage and plunder the eastern cities of the empire, even attacking the province of Fars, the birthplace of the Sassanid kings. Meanwhile, Persian nobles killed Hormizd II's eldest son, blinded the second, and imprisoned the third (who later escaped to Roman territory). The throne was reserved for Shapur II, the unborn child of one of Hormizd II's wives who was crowned in utero: the crown was placed upon his mother's stomach. During his youth the empire was controlled by his mother and the nobles. Upon Shapur II's coming of age, he assumed power and quickly proved to be an active and effective ruler.

Shapur II first led his small but disciplined army south against the Arabs, whom he defeated, securing the southern areas of the empire. He then started his first campaign against the Romans in the west, where Persian forces won a series of battles but were unable to make territorial gains due to the failure of repeated sieges of the key frontier city of Nisibis, and Roman success in retaking the cities of Singara and Amida, after they had fallen to the Persians.

These campaigns were halted by nomadic raids along the eastern borders of the empire, which threatened Transoxiana, a strategically critical area for control of the Silk Road. Shapur therefore marched east toward Transoxiana to meet the eastern nomads, leaving his local commanders to mount nuisance raids on the Romans. He crushed the Central Asian tribes, and annexed the area as a new province. He completed the conquest of the area now known as Afghanistan.

Cultural expansion followed this victory, and Sassanid art penetrated Turkestan, reaching as far as China. Shapur, along with the nomad King Grumbates, started his second campaign against the Romans in 359 and soon succeeded in taking Singara and Amida again. In response, the Roman emperor Julian struck deep into Persian territory and defeated Shapur's forces at Ctesiphon. He failed to take the capital, however, and was killed while trying to retreat to Roman territory. His successor Jovian, trapped on the east bank of the Tigris, had to hand over all the provinces the Persians had ceded to Rome in 298, as well as Nisibis and Singara, to secure safe passage for his army out of Persia.

Shapur II pursued a harsh religious policy. Under his reign, the collection of the Avesta, the sacred texts of Zoroastrianism, was completed, heresy and apostasy were punished, and Christians were persecuted. The latter was a reaction against the Christianization of the Roman Empire by Constantine the Great. Shapur II, like Shapur I, was amicable towards Jews, who lived in relative freedom and gained many advantages in his period (see also Raba (Talmud)). At the time of Shapur's death, the Persian Empire was stronger than ever, with its enemies to the east pacified and Armenia under Persian control.

Second Golden Era (498–622)

The Sassanid Empire in 500. Map also shows borders of Hephthalite Khanate and the Eastern Roman Empire.

The second golden era began after the second reign of Kavadh I. With the support of the Hephtalites, Kavadh I launched a campaign against the Romans. In 502, he took Theodosiopolis in Armenia, but lost it soon afterwards. In 503 he took Amida on the Tigris. In 504, an invasion of Armenia by the western Huns from the Caucasus led to an armistice, the return of Amida to Roman control and a peace treaty in 506. In 521/522 Kavadh lost control of Lazica, whose rulers switched their allegiance to the Romans; an attempt by the Iberians in 524/525 to do likewise triggered a war between Rome and Persia.

In 527, a Roman offensive against Nisibis was repulsed and Roman efforts to fortify positions near the frontier were thwarted. In 530, Kavadh sent an army under Firouz the Mirranes to attack the important Roman frontier city of Dara. The army was met by the Roman general Belisarius, and though superior in numbers, was defeated at the Battle of Dara. In the same year, a second Persian army under Mihr-Mihroe was defeated at Satala by Roman forces under Sittas and Dorotheus, but in 531 a Persian army accompanied by a Lakhmid contingent under al-Mundhir IV defeated Belisarius at the Battle of Callinicum, and in 532 an "eternal" peace was concluded. Although he could not free himself from the yoke of the Ephthalites, Kavadh succeeded in restoring order in the interior and fought with general success against the Eastern Romans, founded several cities, some of which were named after him, and began to regulate the taxation and internal administration.

Hunting scene on a gilded silver bowl showing king Khosrau I

After Kavadh I, his son Khosrau I, also known as Anushirvan ("with the immortal soul"; ruled 531–579), ascended to the throne. He is the most celebrated of the Sassanid rulers. Khosrau I is most famous for his reforms in the aging governing body of Sassanids. He introduced a rational system of taxation based upon a survey of landed possessions, which his father had begun, and he tried in every way to increase the welfare and the revenues of his empire. Previous great feudal lords fielded their own military equipment, followers, and retainers. Khosrau I developed a new force of dehkans, or "knights", paid and equipped by the central government and the bureaucracy, tying the army and bureaucracy more closely to the central government than to local lords.

Emperor Justinian I (527–565) paid Khosrau I 440,000 pieces of gold as a part of the "eternal peace" treaty of 532. In 540, Khosrau broke the treaty and invaded Syria, sacking Antioch and extorting large sums of money from a number of other cities. Further successes followed: in 541 Lazica defected to the Persian side, and in 542 a major Byzantine offensive in Armenia was defeated at Anglon. A five-year truce agreed to in 545 was interrupted in 547 when Lazica again switched sides and eventually expelled its Persian garrison with Byzantine help; the war resumed but remained confined to Lazica, which was retained by the Byzantines when peace was concluded in 562.

Territorial evolution of the Sassanid Empire

In 565, Justinian I died and was succeeded by Justin II (565–578), who resolved to stop subsidies to Arab chieftains to restrain them from raiding Byzantine territory in Syria. A year earlier, the Sassanid governor of Armenia, of the Suren family, built a fire temple at Dvin near modern Yerevan, and he put to death an influential member of the Mamikonian family, touching off a revolt which led to the massacre of the Persian governor and his guard in 571, while rebellion also broke out in Iberia. Justin II took advantage of the Armenian revolt to stop his yearly payments to Khosrau I for the defense of the Caucasus passes.

The Armenians were welcomed as allies, and an army was sent into Sassanid territory which besieged Nisibis in 573. However, dissension among the Byzantine generals not only led to an abandonment of the siege, but they in turn were besieged in the city of Dara, which was taken by the Persians who then ravaged Syria, causing Justin II to agree to make annual payments in exchange for a five-year truce on the Mesopotamian front, although the war continued elsewhere. In 576 Khosrau I led his last campaign, an offensive into Anatolia which sacked Sebasteia and Melitene, but ended in disaster: defeated outside Melitene, the Persians suffered heavy losses as they fled across the Euphrates under Byzantine attack. Taking advantage of Persian disarray, the Byzantines raided deep into Khosrau's territory, even mounting amphibious attacks across the Caspian Sea. Khosrau sued for peace, but he decided to continue the war after a victory by his general Tamkhosrau in Armenia in 577, and fighting resumed in Mesopotamia. The Armenian revolt came to an end with a general amnesty, which brought Armenia back into the Sassanid Empire.

The Sassanid and Byzantine empires in 500 CE, over a century before the Arab conquest

Around 570, "Ma 'd-Karib", half-brother of the King of Yemen, requested Khosrau I's intervention. Khosrau I sent a fleet and a small army under a commander called Vahriz to the area near present Aden, and they marched against the capital San'a'l, which was occupied. Saif, son of Mard-Karib, who had accompanied the expedition, became King sometime between 575 and 577. Thus, the Sassanids were able to establish a base in south Arabia to control the sea trade with the east. Later, the south Arabian kingdom renounced Sassanid overlordship, and another Persian expedition was sent in 598 that successfully annexed southern Arabia as a Sassanid province, which lasted until the time of troubles after Khosrau II.

Khosrau I's reign witnessed the rise of the dihqans (literally, village lords), the petty landholding nobility who were the backbone of later Sassanid provincial administration and the tax collection system. Khosrau I was a great builder, embellishing his capital, founding new towns, and constructing new buildings. He rebuilt the canals and restocked the farms destroyed in the wars. He built strong fortifications at the passes and placed subject tribes in carefully chosen towns on the frontiers to act as guardians against invaders. He was tolerant of all religions, though he decreed that Zoroastrianism should be the official state religion, and was not unduly disturbed when one of his sons became a Christian.

After Khosrau I, Hormizd IV (579–590) took the throne. The war with the Byzantines continued to rage intensely but inconclusively until the general Bahram Chobin, dismissed and humiliated by Hormizd, rose in revolt in 589. The following year, Hormizd was overthrown by a palace coup and his son Khosrau II (590–628) placed on the throne. However, this change of ruler failed to placate Bahram, who defeated Khosrau, forcing him to flee to Byzantine territory, and seized the throne for himself as Bahram VI. Khosrau begged Byzantine Emperor Maurice (582–602) for assistance against Bahram, offering to cede the western Caucasus to the Byzantines. To cement the alliance, Khosrau also married Maurice's daughter Miriam. Under the command of Khosrau and the Byzantine generals Narses and John Mystacon, the new combined Byzantine-Persian army raised a rebellion against Bahram, defeating him at the Battle of Blarathon in 591. When Khosrau was subsequently restored to power he kept his promise, handing over control of western Armenia and Caucasian Iberia. The new peace arrangement allowed the two empires to focus on military matters elsewhere: Khosrau expanded the Sassanid Empire's eastern frontier while Maurice restored Byzantine control of the Balkans.

After Maurice was overthrown and killed by Phocas (602–610) in 602, however, Khosrau II used the murder of his benefactor as a pretext to begin a new invasion, which benefited from continuing civil war in the Byzantine Empire and met little effective resistance. Khosrau's generals systematically subdued the heavily fortified frontier cities of Byzantine Mesopotamia and Armenia, laying the foundations for unprecedented expansion. The Persians overran Syria and captured Antioch in 611.

In 613, outside Antioch, the Persian generals Shahrbaraz and Shahin decisively defeated a major counter-attack led in person by the Byzantine emperor Heraclius. Thereafter, the Persian advance continued unchecked. Jerusalem fell in 614, Alexandria in 619, and the rest of Egypt by 621. The Sassanid dream of restoring the Achaemenid boundaries was complete, while the Byzantine Empire was on the verge of collapse. This remarkable peak of expansion was paralleled by a blossoming of Persian art, music, and architecture.

Decline and fall (622–651)

While originally seeming successful at a first glance, the campaign of Khosrau II had actually exhausted the Persian army and Persian treasuries. In an effort to rebuild the national treasuries, Khosrau overtaxed the population. Thus, seeing the opportunity, Heraclius (610–641) drew on all his diminished and devastated empire's remaining resources, reorganized his armies, and mounted a remarkable counter-offensive. Between 622 and 627 he campaigned against the Persians in Anatolia and the Caucasus, winning a string of victories against Persian forces under Khosrau, Shahrbaraz, Shahin, and Shahraplakan, sacking the great Zoroastrian temple at Ganzak, and securing assistance from the Khazars and Western Turkic Khaganate.

Queen Purandokht, daughter of Khosrau II, the last woman and one of the last rulers on the throne of the Sassanid dynasty, 630

In 626, Constantinople was besieged by Slavic and Avar forces which were supported by a Persian army under Shahrbaraz on the far side of the Bosphorus, but attempts to ferry the Persians across were blocked by the Byzantine fleet and the siege ended in failure. In 627-628, Heraclius mounted a winter invasion of Mesopotamia and, despite the departure of his Khazar allies, defeated a Persian army commanded by Rhahzadh in the Battle of Nineveh. He then marched down the Tigris, devastating the country and sacking Khosrau's palace at Dastagerd. He was prevented from attacking Ctesiphon by the destruction of the bridges on the Nahrawan Canal and conducted further raids before withdrawing up the Diyala into north-western Iran.

The impact of Heraclius's victories, the devastation of the richest territories of the Sassanid Empire, and the humiliating destruction of high-profile targets such as Ganzak and Dastagerd fatally undermined Khosrau's prestige and his support among the Persian aristocracy. In early 628, he was overthrown and murdered by his son Kavadh II (628), who immediately brought an end to the war, agreeing to withdraw from all occupied territories. In 629, Heraclius restored the True Cross to Jerusalem in a majestic ceremony. Kavadh died within months, and chaos and civil war followed. Over a period of four years and five successive kings, including two daughters of Khosrau II and spahbod Shahrbaraz, the Sassanid Empire weakened considerably. The power of the central authority passed into the hands of the generals. It would take several years for a strong king to emerge from a series of coups, and the Sassanids never had time to recover fully.

Genealogical tree of the Sassanid dynasty. Some kings are not shown, either for being non-dynastic, or for an unknown ancestry.

In the spring of 632, a grandson of Khosrau I who had lived in hiding, Yazdegerd III, ascended the throne. The same year, the first raiders from the Arab tribes, newly united by Islam, arrived in Persian territory. According to Howard-Johnston, years of warfare had exhausted both the Byzantines and the Persians. The Sassanids were further weakened by economic decline, heavy taxation, religious unrest, rigid social stratification, the increasing power of the provincial landholders, and a rapid turnover of rulers, facilitating the Islamic conquest of Persia.

The Sassanids never mounted a truly effective resistance to the pressure applied by the initial Arab armies. Yazdegerd was a boy at the mercy of his advisers and incapable of uniting a vast country crumbling into small feudal kingdoms, despite the fact that the Byzantines, under similar pressure from the newly expansive Arabs, no longer threatened. Caliph Abu Bakr's commander Khalid ibn Walid moved to capture Iraq in a series of lightning battles. Redeployed to the Syrian front against the Byzantines in June 634, Khalid's successor in Iraq failed him, and Muslims were defeated in the Battle of the Bridge in 634, which resulted in a Sassanid victory. However, the Arab threat did not stop there and reappeared shortly from the disciplined armies of Khalid ibn Walid, once one of Muhammad's chosen companions-in-arms and leader of the Arab army.

In 637, a Muslim army under the Caliph `Umar ibn al-Khattāb defeated a larger Persian force led by general Rostam Farrokhzad at the plains of al-Qādisiyyah and advanced on Ctesiphon, which fell after a prolonged siege. Yazdegerd fled eastward from Ctesiphon, leaving behind him most of the Empire's vast treasury. The Arabs captured Ctesiphon shortly afterward, acquiring a powerful financial resource and leaving the Sassanid government strapped for funds. A number of Sassanid governors attempted to combine their forces to throw back the invaders, but the effort was crippled by the lack of a strong central authority, and the governors were defeated at the Battle of Nihawānd. The empire, with its military command structure non-existent, its non-noble troop levies decimated, its financial resources effectively destroyed, and the Asawaran (Azatan) knightly caste destroyed piecemeal, was now utterly helpless in the face of the invaders.

Upon hearing of the defeat in Nihawānd, Yazdegerd along with most of Persian nobilities fled further inland to the eastern province of Khorasan. He was assassinated by a miller in Merv in late 651, while the rest of the nobles settled in central Asia where they contributed greatly to spreading Persian culture and language in those regions and to the establishment of the first native Iranian Islamic dynasty, the Samanid dynasty, which sought to revive Sassanid traditions.

The abrupt fall of the Sassanid Empire was completed in a period of five years, and most of its territory was absorbed into the Islamic caliphate; however, many Iranian cities resisted and fought against the invaders several times. Islamic caliphates repeatedly suppressed revolts in cities such as Rey, Isfahan, and Hamadan. The local population was initially under little pressure to convert to Islam, remaining as dhimmi subjects of the Muslim state and paying a jizya. Jizya practically replaced poll taxes imposed by the Sassanids. In addition, the old Sassanid "land tax" (known in Arabic as Kharaj) was also adopted. Caliph Umar is said to have occasionally set up a commission to survey the taxes, to judge if they were more than the land could bear. Conversion of the Persian population to Islam would take place gradually, particularly as Persian-speaking elites attempted to gain positions of prestige under the Abbasid Caliphate.


It is believed that the following dynasties and religious leaders have ancestors among the Sassanian rulers:

  • The Bavandi dynasty (665-1006) of Mazenderan, descendant of Kavadh I.
  • The Sassanids of Georgia, also known as Khosroides (265-570), who sprang from Shapur I.
  • The Gavparehids of Tabaristan (647-1597), children of Djamasp.
  • The Ghaznavids (977-1187), with a Persian ancestor: Yazdegerd III.
  • The Shahs of Shirwan (1100–1382) from Hormizd IV's line.
  • Bahá'u'lláh (1817–1892) founder of the Bahá'í Faith, descendant of Yazdegerd III according to a Bahai Author.
  • The Nawabs Of Karnal,"Mandal-e-Nausherwani", Nawabzada Liaquat Ali Khan, One of the founding fathers and the First Prime Minister of Pakistan was a descendant Of Khosrau II(Khosrow II, Chosroes II, or Xosrov II in classical sources, sometimes called Parvez, "the Ever Victorious".


The Sassanids established an empire roughly within the frontiers achieved by the Parthian Arsacids, with the capital at Ctesiphon in the Khvarvaran province. In administering this empire, Sassanid rulers took the title of Shāhanshāh (King of Kings), became the central overlords and also assumed guardianship of the sacred fire, the symbol of the national religion. This symbol is explicit on Sassanid coins where the reigning monarch, with his crown and regalia of office, appears on the obverse, backed by the sacred fire, the symbol of the national religion, on the coin's reverse. Sassanid queens had the title of Banebshenan banebshen (the Queen of Queens).

On a smaller scale, the territory might also be ruled by a number of petty rulers from the Sassanid royal family, known as Shahrdar, overseen directly by Shahanshah. Sassanid rule was characterized by considerable centralization, ambitious urban planning, agricultural development, and technological improvements. Below the king, a powerful bureaucracy carried out much of the affairs of government; the head of the bureaucracy and Vice-Chancellor, was the "Vuzorg (Bozorg) Farmadar". Within this bureaucracy the Zoroastrian priesthood was immensely powerful. The head of the Magi priestly class, the Mobadan, along with the commander in chief, the Iran (Eran) Spahbod, the head of traders and merchants syndicate "Ho Tokhshan Bod" and minister of agriculture "Vastrioshansalar", who was also head of farmers, were, below the emperor, the most powerful men of the Sassanid state.

The Sassanian rulers always considered the advice of their ministers. A Muslim historian, Masudi, praised the Sassanian administration by saying

"excellent administration of the Sassanid kings, their well-ordered policy, their care for their subjects, and the prosperity of their domains."

In normal times, the monarchical office was hereditary, but might be transferred by the king to a younger son; in two instances the supreme power was held by queens. When no direct heir was available, the nobles and prelates chose a ruler, but their choice was restricted to members of the royal family.

The Sassanid nobility was a mixture of old Parthian clans, Persian aristocratic families, and noble families from subjected territories. Many new noble families had risen after the dissolution of the Parthian dynasty, while several of the once-dominant Seven Parthian clans remained of high importance. At the court of Ardashir I, the old Arsacid families of the House of Karen and the House of Suren, along with several Persian families, the Varazes and Andigans, held positions of great honour. Alongside these Iranian and non-Iranian noble families, the kings of Merv, Abarshahr, Carmania, Sakastan, Iberia, and Adiabene, who are mentioned as holding positions of honour amongst the nobles, appeared at the court of the Shahanshah. Indeed, the extensive domains of the Surens, Karens and Varazes, had become part of the original Sassanid state as semi-independent states. Thus, the noble families that attended at the court of the Sassanid empire continued to be ruling lines in their own right, although subordinate to the Shahanshah.

In general, Bozorgan from Persian families held the most powerful positions in the imperial administration, including governorships of border provinces ( Marzban مرزبان). Most of these positions were patrimonial, and many were passed down through a single family for generations. Those Marzbans of greatest seniority were permitted a silver throne, while Marzbans of the most strategic border provinces, such as the Caucasus province, were allowed a golden throne. In military campaigns, the regional Marzbans could be regarded as field marshals, while lesser spahbods could command a field army.

Culturally, the Sassanids implemented a system of social stratification. This system was supported by Zoroastrianism, which was established as the state religion. Other religions appear to have been largely tolerated (although this claim is the subject of heated discussion; see, for example, Wiesehöfer, Ancient Persia, or the Cambridge History of Iran, vol. 3). Sassanid emperors consciously sought to resuscitate Persian traditions and to obliterate Greek cultural influence.

Sassanid army

Sassanid army helmet

The active army of the Sassanid Empire originated from Ardeshir I, the first Shahanshah of the empire. Ardeshir restored the Achaemenid military organizations, retained the Parthian cavalry model, and employed new types of armour and siege warfare techniques.

Role of priests

The relationship between priests and warriors was important, because the concept of Ērānshahr had been revived by the priests. Without this relationship, the Sassanid Empire would not have survived in its beginning stages. Because of this relationship between the warriors and the priests, religion and state were considered inseparable in the Zoroastrian religion. However, it is this same relationship that caused the weakening of the Empire, when each group tried to impose their power onto the other. Disagreements between the priests and the warriors led to fragmentation within the empire, which led to its downfall.


The Paighan formed the bulk of the Sassanid infantry, and were often recruited from the peasant population. Each unit was headed by an officer called a "Paighan-Salar," which meant "commander of the infantry" and their main task was to guard baggage train, serve as pages to the Sarvan (a higher rank), storm fortification walls, undertake entrechment projects, and excavate mines.

Those serving in the infantry were fitted with shields and lances. To make the size of their army larger, the Sassanids added soldiers provided by the Medes and the Dailamites to their own. The Medes provided the Sassanid army with high-quality javelin throwers, slingers and heavy infantry. Iranian infantry are described by Ammianus Marcellinus as "armed like gladiators" and "obey orders like so many horse-boys". The Dailamite people also served as infantry and were Iranian people who lived mainly within Gilan, Iranian Azerbaijan and Mazandaran. They are reported as having fought with weapons such as daggers, swords and javelins and reputed to have been recognized by Romans for their skills and hardiness in close-quarter combat. One account of Dalamites was their participation in invasion of Yemen where 800 of them were led by the Sarvan officer Vahriz. Vahriz would eventually defeat the Arab forces in Yemen and its capital Sana'a making it a Persian Vassal until the invasion of Persia by Arabs.


The Sassanid navy was an important aspect of the Sassanid military from the time that Ardashir I conquered the Arab side of the Persian gulf. Because controlling the Persian gulf was an economic necessity, the Sassanid navy worked to kept it safe from piracy, Roman encroachment, and on keeping the Arab tribes from getting hostile. However, it is believed that the naval force could not have been a strong one, as the men serving in the navy were those who were confined in prisons.


A Sassanid king posing as an armored cavalryman, Taq-e Bostan, Iran

The cavalry used during the Sassanid Empire were two types of heavy cavalry units: Clibanarii and Cataphracts. The first cavalry force, composed of elite noblemen trained since youth for military service, was supported by light cavalry, infantry and archers. Mercenaries and tribal people of the empire, including the Turks, Kushans, Khazars, Georgians, and Armenians were included in these first cavalry units. The second cavalry involved the use of the war elephants. In fact, it was their specialty to deploy elephants as cavalry support.

Unlike the Parthians, the Sassanids developed advanced siege engines. The development of siege weapons was a useful weapon during conflicts with Rome, in which success hinged upon the ability to seize cities and other fortified points; conversely, the Sassanids also developed a number of techniques for defending their own cities from attack. The Sassanid army was much like the preceding Parthian army, albeit only some of the Sassanid's heavy cavalry were equipped with lance, while Parthian armies were heavily equipped with bows. The Roman historian Ammianus Marcellinus's description of Shapur II's clibanarii cavalry manifestly shows how heavily equipped it was, and how only a portion were spear equipped:

All the companies were clad in iron, and all parts of their bodies were covered with thick plates, so fitted that the stiff-joints conformed with those of their limbs; and the forms of human faces were so skillfully fitted to their heads, that since their entire body was covered with metal, arrows that fell upon them could lodge only where they could see a little through tiny openings opposite the pupil of the eye, or where through the tip of their nose they were able to get a little breath. Of these, some who were armed with pikes, stood so motionless that you would have thought them held fast by clamps of bronze.

Horsemen in the Sassanid cavalry lacked a stirrup. Instead, they used a war saddle which had a cantle at the back and two guard clamps which curved across the top of the rider's thighs. This allowed the horsemen to stay in the saddle at all times during the battle, especially during violent encounters.

The Byzantine emperor Maurikios also emphasizes in his Strategikon that many 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 famed list of equipment requirement for dihqan knights which included the lance, provide a contrast. What is certain is that the horseman's paraphernalia was extensive.

The amount of money involved in maintaining a warrior of the Asawaran (Azatan) knightly caste required a small estate, and the Asawaran (Azatan) knightly caste received that from the throne, and in return, were the throne's most notable defenders in time of war.


A fine cameo showing an equestrian combat of Shapur I and Valerian in which the Roman emperor is seized, according to Shapur's own statement, "with our own hand", in year 256

The Sassanids, like the Parthians, were in constant hostilities with the Roman Empire. Following the division of the Roman Empire in 395, the Eastern Roman Empire, with its capital at Constantinople, replaced the Roman Empire as Persia's principal western enemy. Hostilities between the two empires became more frequent. The Sassanids, similar to the Roman Empire, were in a constant state of conflict with neighboring kingdoms and nomadic hordes. Although the threat of nomadic incursions could never be fully resolved, the Sassanids generally dealt much more successfully with these matters than did the Romans, due to their policy of making coordinated campaigns against threatening nomads.

In the west, Sassanid territory abutted that of the large and stable Roman state, but to the east, its nearest neighbors were the Kushan Empire and nomadic tribes such as the White Huns. The construction of fortifications such as Tus citadel or the city of Nishapur, which later became a centre of learning and trade, also assisted in defending the eastern provinces from attack.

In the south and central Arabia, Bedouin Arab tribes occasionally raided the Sassanid empire. The Kingdom of Al-Hirah, a Sassanid vassal kingdom, was established to form a buffer zone between the empire's heartland and the Bedouin tribes. The dissolution of the Kingdom of Al-Hirah by Pervaiz (King) Khosrau II in 602, contributed greatly to decisive Sassanid defeats suffered against Bedouin Arabs later in the century. These defeats resulted in a sudden takeover of the Sassanid empire by Bedouin tribes under the Islamic banner.

In the north, Khazars and other Turkic nomads frequently assaulted the northern provinces of the empire. They plundered the territory of the Medes in 634. Shortly thereafter, the Persian army defeated them and drove them out. The Sassanids built numerous fortifications in the Caucasus region to halt these attacks.

Relations with China

Like their predecessors the Parthians, the Sassanid Empire carried out active foreign relations with China, and ambassadors from Persia frequently traveled to China. Chinese documents report on thirteen Sassanid embassies to China. Commercially, land and sea trade with China was important to both the Sassanid and Chinese Empires. Large numbers of Sassanid coins have been found in southern China, confirming maritime trade.

On different occasions, Sassanid kings sent their most talented Persian musicians and dancers to the Chinese imperial court at Luoyang during the Jin and Northern Wei dynasties, and to Chang'an during the Sui and Tang dynasties. Both empires benefited from trade along the Silk Road and shared a common interest in preserving and protecting that trade. They cooperated in guarding the trade routes through central Asia, and both built outposts in border areas to keep caravans safe from nomadic tribes and bandits.

Politically, we hear of several Sassanid and Chinese efforts in forging alliances against the common enemy, the Hephthalites. Upon the rise of the nomadic Göktürks in Inner Asia, we also see what looks like a collaboration between China and Sassanid to defuse Turkic advances. Documents from Mt. Mogh talk about the presence of a Chinese general in the service of the king of Sogdiana at the time of the Arab invasions.

Following the invasion of Iran by Muslim Arabs, Peroz II, son of Yazdegerd III, escaped along with a few Persian nobles and took refuge in the Chinese imperial court. Both Peroz and his son Narsieh (Chinese neh-shie) were given high titles at the Chinese court. On at least two occasions, the last possibly in 670, Chinese troops were sent with Peroz in order to restore him to the Sassanid throne with mixed results, one possibly ending in a short rule of Peroz in Sistan (Sakestan), from which we have a few remaining numismatic evidences. Narsieh later attained the position of a commander of the Chinese imperial guards, and his descendants lived in China as respected princes. The sister of the Sassanian Prince Peroz II was married into the imperial court, which allowed Sassanian refugees fleeing from the Arab conquest to settle in China. The Emperor of China at this time was Emperor Gaozong of Tang.

Expansion to India

Coin of the Indo-Sassanid kushansha Varhran I (early 4th century)
Obv: King Varhran I with characteristic head-dress
Rev: Shiva and bull

Following the conquest of Iran and neighboring regions, Shapur I extended his authority eastwards into the northwestern Indian subcontinent. The previously autonomous Kushans were obliged to accept his suzerainty. Although the Kushan empire declined at the end of the 3rd century, to be replaced by the Indian Gupta Empire in the 4th century, it is clear that Sassanid remained relevant in India's northwest throughout this period.

Persia and northwestern India engaged in cultural as well as political intercourse during this period, as certain Sassanid practices spread into the Kushan territories. In particular, the Kushans were influenced by the Sassanid conception of kingship, which spread through the trade of Sassanid silverware and textiles depicting emperors hunting or dispensing justice.

This cultural interchange did not, however, spread Sassanid religious practices or attitudes to the Kushans. While the Sassanids always adhered to a stated policy of religious proselytization, and sporadically engaged in persecution or forced conversion of minority religions, the Kushans preferred to adopt a policy of religious tolerance.

Lower-level cultural interchanges also took place between India and Persia during this period. For example, Persians imported chess from India and changed the game's name from chaturanga to chatrang. In exchange, Persians introduced Backgammon to India.

During Khosrau I's reign, many books were brought from India and translated into Pahlavi, the language of the Sassanid Empire. Some of these later found their way into the literature of the Islamic world. A notable example of this was the translation of the Indian Panchatantra by one of Khosrau's ministers, Burzoe. This translation, known as the Kelileh va Demneh, later made its way into Arabia and Europe. The details of Burzoe's legendary journey to India and his daring acquisition of the Panchatantra are written in full details in Ferdowsi's Shahnameh.

War with Ethiopia

In 522, before Khosrau's reign, a group of monophysite Axums led an attack on the dominant Himyarites of southern Arabia. The local Arab leader was able to resist the attack but appealed to the Sassanians for aid, while the Axumites subsequently turned towards the Byzantines for help. The Axumites sent another force across the Red Sea and this time successfully killed the Arab leader and replaced him with an Ethiopian man to be king of the region.

In 531, Justinian suggested that the Ethiopians of Yemen should cut out the Persians from Indian trade by maritime trade with the Indians. The Ethiopians never met this request because an Axum general named Abraha took control of the Yemenite throne and created an independent nation. After Abraha's death one of his sons, Ma'd-Karib, went into exile while his half-brother took the throne. After being denied by Justinian, Ma'd-Karib sought help from Khosrau, who sent a small fleet and army under commander Vahriz to depose the current king of Yemen. After capturing the capital city San'a'l, Ma'd-Karib's son, Saif, was put on the throne.

Justinian was ultimately responsible for Sassanian maritime presence in Yemen. By not providing the Yemenite Arabs support, Khosrau was able to help Ma'd-Karib and subsequently established Yemen as a principality of the Sassanian Empire.



Ancient Iranians attached great importance to music and poetry, as modern Iranians do today. This 7th-century plate depicts musicians from the Sassanid era.

Sassanid society and civilization were among the most flourishing of their time, rivaled in their region only by the Byzantine civilization. The amount of scientific and intellectual exchange between the two empires bears witness to the competition and cooperation of these cradles of civilization.

In contrast to Parthian society, the Sassanids renewed emphasis on charismatic and centralized government. In Sassanid theory, the ideal society could maintain stability and justice, and the necessary instrument for this was a strong monarch.

Sassanid society was immensely complex, with separate systems of social organization governing numerous different groups within the empire. Historians believe society comprised four social classes:

  1. priests ( Persian: Atorbanan‎)
  2. warriors ( Persian: Arteshtaran‎)
  3. secretaries ( Persian: Dabiran‎)
  4. commoners ( Persian: Vasteryoshan-Hootkheshan‎)

At the centre of the Sassanid caste system the Shahanshah ruled over all the nobles. The royal princes, petty rulers, great landlords and priests, together constituted a privileged stratum, and were identified as Bozorgan, or nobles. This social system appears to have been fairly rigid.

The Sassanid caste system outlived the empire, continuing in the early Islamic period.


There was a major school, called the Grand School, in the capital. In the beginning, only 50 students were allowed to study at the Grand School. In less than 100 years, enrollment at the Grand School was over 30,000 students.

Membership in a class was based on birth, although it was possible for an exceptional individual to move to another class on the basis of merit. The function of the king was to ensure that each class remained within its proper boundaries, so that the strong did not oppress the weak, nor the weak the strong. To maintain this social equilibrium was the essence of royal justice, and its effective functioning depended on the glorification of the monarchy above all other classes.

On a lower level, Sassanid society was divided into Azatan (Azadan)(freemen), who jealously guarded their status as descendants of ancient Aryan conquerors, and the mass of originally non-Aryan peasantry. The Azatan formed a large low-aristocracy of low-level administrators, mostly living on small estates. The Azatan provided the cavalry backbone of Sassanid army.

Art, science and literature

A bowl with Khosrau I's image at the centre
Horse head, gilded silver, 4th century, Sassanid art
A Sassanid silver plate featuring a senmurw
A Sassanid silver shield boss depicting a lion
A Sassanid silver plate depicting a royal lion hunt
Sassanid silver vase featuring wine harvest decorations
Sassanid silk twill textile of a Simurgh in a beaded surround, 6–7th century. Used in the reliquary of Saint Len, Paris

The Sassanid kings were enlightened patrons of letters and philosophy. Khosrau I had the works of Plato and Aristotle translated into Pahlavi taught at Gundishapur, and even read them himself. During his reign, many historical annals were compiled, of which the sole survivor is the Karnamak-i Artaxshir-i Papakan (Deeds of Ardashir), a mixture of history and romance that served as the basis of the Iranian national epic, the Shahnama. When Justinian I closed the schools of Athens, seven of their professors fled to Persia and found refuge at Khosrau's court. In time they grew homesick, and in his treaty of 533 with Justinian, the Sassanid king stipulated that the Greek sages should be allowed to return and be free from persecution.

Under Khosrau I, the Academy of Gundishapur, which had been founded in the 5th century, became "the greatest intellectual centre of the time", drawing students and teachers from every quarter of the known world. Nestorian Christians were received there, and brought Syriac translations of Greek works in medicine and philosophy. Neoplatonists too, came to Gundishapur, where they planted the seeds of Sufi mysticism; the medical lore of India, Persia, Syria and Greece mingled there to produce a flourishing school of therapy.

Artistically, the Sassanid period witnessed some of the highest achievements of Persian civilization. Much of what later became known as Muslim culture, including architecture and writing, was originally drawn from Persian culture. At its peak, the Sassanid Empire stretched from Syria to northwest India, but its influence was felt far beyond these political boundaries. Sassanid motifs found their way into the art of Central Asia and China, the Byzantine Empire, and even Merovingian France. Islamic art however, was the true heir to Sassanid art, whose concepts it was to assimilate while, at the same time instilling fresh life and renewed vigor into it. According to Will Durant:

"Sasanian art exported its forms and motifs eastward into India, Turkestan and China, westward into Syria, Asia Minor, Constantinople, the Balkans, Egypt and Spain. Probably its influence helped to change the emphasis in Greek art from classic representation to Byzantine ornament, and in Latin Christian art from wooden ceilings to brick or stone vaults and domes and buttressed walls. "

Sassanid carvings at Taq-e Bostan and Naqsh-e Rustam were colored; so were many features of the palaces; but only traces of such painting remain. The literature, however, makes it clear that the art of painting flourished in Sasanian times; the prophet Mani is reported to have founded a school of painting; Firdowsi speaks of Persian magnates adorning their mansions with pictures of Iranian heroes; and the poet al-Buhturi describes the murals in the palace at Ctesiphon. When a Sasanian king died, the best painter of the time was called upon to make a portrait of him for a collection kept in the royal treasury.

Painting, sculpture, pottery, and other forms of decoration shared their designs with Sasanian textile art. Silks, embroideries, brocades, damasks, tapestries, chair covers, canopies, tents and rugs were woven with patience and masterly skill, and were dyed in warm tints of yellow, blue and green. Every Persian but the peasant and the priest aspired to dress above his class; presents often took the form of sumptuous garments; and great colorful carpets had been an appendage of wealth in the East since Assyrian days. The two dozen Sasanian textiles that have survived are among the most highly valued fabrics in existence. Even in their own day, Sasanian textiles were admired and imitated from Egypt to the Far East; and during the Middle Ages, they were favored for clothing the relics of Christian saints. When Heraclius captured the palace of Khosru Parvez at Dastagerd, delicate embroideries and an immense rug were among his most precious spoils. Famous was the "Winter Carpet", also known as "Khosro's Spring" (Spring Season Carpet قالى بهارستان) of Khosru Anushirvan, designed to make him forget winter in its spring and summer scenes: flowers and fruits made of inwoven rubies and diamonds grew, in this carpet, beside walks of silver and brooks of pearls traced on a ground of gold. Harun al-Rashid prided himself on a spacious Sasanian rug thickly studded with jewelry. Persians wrote love poems about their rugs.

Studies on Sassanid remains show over 100 types of crowns being worn by Sassanid kings. The various Sassanid crowns demonstrate the cultural, economic, social and historical situation in each period. The crowns also show the character traits of each king in this era. Different symbols and signs on the crowns–the moon, stars, eagle and palm, each illustrate the wearer's religious faith and beliefs. (For more on Sassanid crowns please visit)

The Sassanid Dynasty, like the Achaemenid, originated in the province of Persis ( Fars). The Sassanids saw themselves as successors of the Achaemenids, after the Hellenistic and Parthian interlude, and believed that it was their destiny to restore the greatness of Persia.

In reviving the glories of the Achaemenid past, the Sassanids were no mere imitators. The art of this period reveals an astonishing virility, in certain respects anticipating key features of Islamic art. Sassanid art combined elements of traditional Persian art with Hellenistic elements and influences. The conquest of Persia by Alexander the Great had inaugurated the spread of Hellenistic art into Western Asia. Though the East accepted the outward form of this art, it never really assimilated its spirit. Already in the Parthian period, Hellenistic art was being interpreted freely by the peoples of the Near East. Throughout the Sassanid period, there was reaction against it. Sassanid art revived forms and traditions native to Persia, and in the Islamic period, these reached the shores of the Mediterranean. According to Fergusson:

With the accession of the [Sassanids], Persia regained much of that power and stability to which she had been so long a stranger… The improvement in the fine arts at home indicates returning prosperity, and a degree of security unknown since the fall of the Achaemenidae.

Surviving palaces illustrate the splendor in which the Sassanid monarchs lived. Examples include palaces at Firouzabad and Bishapur in Fars, and the capital city of Ctesiphon in Khvarvaran province, Iraq. In addition to local traditions, Parthian architecture influenced Sassanid architectural characteristics. All are characterized by the barrel-vaulted iwans introduced in the Parthian period. During the Sassanid period, these reached massive proportions, particularly at Ctesiphon. There, the arch of the great vaulted hall, attributed to the reign of Shapur I (241–272), has a span of more than 80 feet (24 m) and reaches a height of 118 feet (36 m). This magnificent structure fascinated architects in the centuries that followed and has been considered one of the most important 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 constructing a circular dome on a square building by employing squinches, or arches built across each corner of the square, thereby converting it into an octagon on which it is simple to place the dome. The dome chamber in the palace of Firouzabad is the earliest surviving example of the use of the squinch, suggesting that this architectural technique was probably invented in Persia.

The structure of the Palace of Sarvestan

The unique characteristic of Sassanid architecture was its distinctive use of space. The Sassanid architect conceived his building in terms of masses and surfaces; hence the use of massive walls of brick decorated with molded or carved stucco. Stucco wall decorations appear at Bishapur, but better examples are preserved from Chal Tarkhan near Rey (late Sassanid or early Islamic in date), 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 scenes of banqueting. The Roman influence here is clear, and the mosaics may have been laid by Roman prisoners. Buildings were decorated with wall paintings. Particularly fine examples have been found on Mount Khajeh in Sistan.

Industry and trade

Sassanid sea trade routes

Persian industry under the Sassanids developed from domestic to urban forms. Guilds were numerous. Good roads and bridges, well patrolled, enabled state post and merchant caravans to link Ctesiphon with all provinces; and harbors were built in the Persian Gulf to quicken trade with India. Sassanid merchants ranged far and wide and gradually ousted Romans from the lucrative Indian ocean trade routes. Recent archeological discovery has shown an interesting fact that Sassanids used special labels (commercial labels) on goods as a way of promoting their brands and distinguish between different qualities.

Egyptian woven pattern woolen curtain or trousers, which was a copy of a Sassanid silk import, which was in turn based on a fresco of King Khosrau II fighting Axum Ethiopian forces in Yemen, 5–6th century

Khosrau I further extended the already vast trade network. The Sassanid state now tended toward monopolistic control of trade, with luxury goods assuming a far greater role in the trade than heretofore, and the great activity in building of ports, caravanserais, bridges and the like, was linked to trade and urbanization. The Persians dominated international trade, both in the Indian Ocean, Central Asia and South Russia, in the time of Khosrau, although competition with the Byzantines was at times intense. Sassanian settlements in Oman and Yemen testify to the importance of trade with India, but the silk trade with China was mainly in the hands of Sassanid vassals and the Iranian people, the Sogdians.

The main exports of the Sassanids were silk; woolen and golden textiles; carpets and rugs; hides; and, leather and pearls from the Persian Gulf. There were also goods in transit from China (paper, silk) and India (spices), which Sassanid customs imposed taxes upon, and which were re-exported from the Empire to Europe.

It was also a time of increased metallurgical production, so Iran earned a reputation as the "armory of Asia". Most of the Sassanid mining centers were at the fringes of the Empire – in Armenia, the Caucasus and above all, Transoxania. The extraordinary mineral wealth of the Pamir Mountains on the eastern horizon of the Sassanid empire led to a legend among the Tajiks, an Iranian people living there, which is still told today. It said that when God was creating the world, he tripped over Pamirs, dropping his jar of minerals, which spread across the region.



The Zoroastrian fire temple, Yazd, Iran

Under Parthian rule, Zoroastrianism had fragmented into regional variations which also saw the rise of local cult-deities, some from Iranian religious tradition but others drawn from Greek tradition too. Greek paganism and religious ideas had spread and mixed with Zoroastrianism when Alexander the Great had conquered the Persian Empire from Darius III; a process of Greco-Persian religious and cultural synthesisation which had continued into the Parthian era too. But under the Sassanids, an orthodox Zoroastrianism was revived and the religion would undergo numerous and important developments.

Sassanid Zoroastrianism would develop to have clear distinctions from the practices laid out in the Avesta, the holy books of Zoroastrianism. It is often argued that the Sassanid Zoroastrian clergy later modified the religion in a way to serve themselves, causing substantial religious uneasiness. Sassanid religious policies contributed to the flourishing of numerous religious reform movements, the most important of these being the Mani and Mazdak religions.

Indeed, the relationship between the Sassanid Kings and the religions practiced in their empire were complex and varied. For instance, while Shapur I tolerated and encouraged a variety of religions and seems to have been a Zurvanite himself, religious minorities at times were suppressed under later Kings, such as Bahram II. Shapur II, on the other hand, was tolerant of most religious groups except Christians, whom he only persecuted in the wake of Constantine's conversion.

Tansar and the Persian magi's justification for Ardeshir I's rebellion

From the very beginning of Sassanid rule an orthodox Pars-oriented Zoroastrian tradition would play an important part in influencing and lending legitimization to the state until its collapse in the mid-7th century CE. After Ardeshir I had deposed the last Parthian King, Artabanus V, he sought the aid of Tansar, a herbad (high priest) of the Persian Zoroastrians to aid him in acquiring legitimization for the new dynasty. This Tansar did by writing to the nominal and vassal kings in different regions of Iran to accept Ardeshir I as their new King, most notably in the Letter of Tansar, which was addressed to Gushnasp, the vassal king of Tabarestan. Gushnasp had accused Ardeshir I of having forsaken tradition by ursuping the throne, and that while his actions 'may have been good for the World' they were 'bad for the faith'. Tansar refuted these charges in his letter to Gushnasp by proclaiming that not all of the old ways had been good, and that Ardeshir was more virtuous than his predecessors. The Letter of Tansar included some attacks on the religious practices and orientation of the Parthians, who did not follow an orthodox Zoroastrian tradition but rather a heterodox one, and so attemptd to justify Ardeshir's rebellion against them by arguing that Zoroastrianism had 'decayed' after Alexander's invasion, a decay which had continued under the Parthians and so needed to be 'restored'.

Tansar would later help to oversee that a single 'Zoroastrian church' was created under the control of the Persian magi, alongside the establishment of a single set of Avestan texts, which were approved and authorised by himself.

The influence of Kartir

Kartir was a very powerful and influential Persian cleric who served under several Sassanid Kings and actively campaigned for the establishment of a Pars-centred Zoroastrian orthodoxy across the Sassanid Empire. His power and influence came to be so much that he was the only 'commoner' to later be allowed to have his own rock inscriptions carved in the royal fashion (at Sar Mashhad, Naqsh-e Rostam, Ka'ba-ye Zartosht and Naqsh-e Rajab). Under Shapur I, Kartir was made the 'absolute authority' over the 'order of priests' at the Sassanid court and throughout the empire's regions too, with the implication that all regional Zoroastrian clergies would now for the first time be subordinated the Persian Zoroastrian clerics of Pars. To some extent Kartir was an iconoclast and took it upon himself to help establish numerous Bahram fires throughout Iran in the place of the 'bagins / ayazans' (monuments and temples containing images and idols of cult-deities) that had proliferated during the Parthian era. In expressing his doctrinal orthodoxy, Kartir also encouraged an obscure Zoroastrian concept known as khvedodah among the common-folk (marriage within the family; between siblings, cousins). At various stages during his long career at court, Kartir also oversaw the periodic persecution of the non-Zoroastrians in Iran, and secured the execution of the prophet Mani during the reign of Bahram I. During the reign of Hormuzd I (the predecessor and brother of Bahram I) Kartir was awarded the new Zoroastrian title of mobad – a clerical title that was to be considered higher than that of the eastern-Iranian (Parthian) title of herbad.

Zoroastrian calendar reforms under the Sassanids

The Persians had long known of 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 Ardeshir I, an effort was made to introduce a more accurate Zoroastrian calendar for the year, so 5 extra days were added to it. These 5 extra days were named the Gatha days and had a practical as well as religious use. However, they were still kept apart from the 'religious year', so as not to disturb the long-held observances of the older Zoroastrian calendar.

Some difficulties arose with the introduction of the first calendar reform, particularly the pushing forward of important Zoroastrian festivals such as Hamaspat-maedaya and Norouz on the calendar year by year. This confusion apparently caused much distress among ordinary people, and while the Sassanid's tried to enforce the observance of these great celebrations on the new official dates, much of the populace continued to observe them on the older, traditional dates, and so parallel celebrations for Norouz and other Zoroastrian celebrations would often occur within days of each other, in defiance of the new official calendar dates, causing much confusion and friction between the layperson and the ruling class. A compromise on this by the Sassanid's was later introduced, by linking the parallel celebrations as a 6-day celebration/feast. This was done for all except Norouz.

A further problem occurred as Norouz had shifted in position during this period from the spring equinox to autumn, although this inconsistency with the original spring equinox date for Norouz had possibly occurred during the Parthian period too.

Further calendar reforms occurred during the later Sassanid era. Ever since the reforms under Ardeshir I there had been no intercalation and so with a quarter day being lost each year the Zoroastrian holy year had slowly slipped backwards, with Norouz eventually ending up in July. A great council was therefore convened and it was decided that Norouz be moved back to the original position it had during the Achaemenid period; that being during spring. This changed probably took placed during the reign of Kavad I in the early 6th century CE. Much emphasis seems to have been placed during this period on the importance of spring and its connection with the resurrection and Frashegerd.

The three Great Fires

Reflecting the regional rivalry and bias the Sassanid's are believed to have held against their Parthian predecessors, it was probably during the Sassanid era that the two great fires in Pars and Media - the Adur Farnbag and Adur Gushnasp respectively - were promoted to rival, and even eclipse, the sacred fire in Parthia, the Adur Burzen-Mehr. The Adur Burzen-Mehr, being that it was said to be linked (in legend) with Zoroaster and Vishtaspa (the first Zoroastrian King) was too holy for the Persian magi to put an end to veneration for it, however, it was demoted during the Sassanid era.

It was therefore during the Sassanid era that the three Great Fires of the Zoroastrian world were given specific associations. The Adur Farnbag in Pars was associated with the magi, Adur Gushnasp in Media with warriors, and Adur Burzen-Mehr in Parthia with the lowest estate; farmers and herdsmen.

The Adur Gushnasp eventually became, by custom, a place of pilgrimage by foot for newly enthroned Kings after their coronation. It is likely that during the Sassanid era that these three Great Fires became central places for pilgrimage among Zoroastrians.

Iconoclasm and the elevation of Persian over other Iranian languages

The early Sassanids ruled against the use of cult images in worship, and so statues and idols were removed from many temples and where possible, sacred fires were installed instead. This policy was extended even to the 'non-Iran' regions of the empire during some periods. Hormuzd-Ardeshir is said to have destroyed statues erected for the dead in Armenia. However, only cult-statues were removed. The Sassanids continued to use images to represent the deities of Zoroastrianism, including that of Ahura Mazda, in the tradition that was established during the Seleucid era.

In the early Sassanid period royal inscriptions often consisted of Parthian, Middle Persian and Greek. However, the last time Parthian was used for a royal inscription came during the reign of Narseh, son of Shapur I. It is likely therefore that soon after this, the Sassanids made the decision to impose Persian as the sole official language within Iran, and forbade the use of written Parthian. The result of this had important consequences for Zoroastrianism, given that all secondary literature, including the Zand, were then recorded only in Middle Persian, having a profound impact in orienting Zoroastrianism towards the influence of the Pars region, the homeland of the Sassanids.

Developments in Zoroastrian literature & liturgy by the Sassanids

Some scholars of Zoroastrianism such as Mary Boyce have speculated that it is possible that the yasna service was lengthened during the Sassanid era 'to increase its impressiveness'. This appears to have been done by joining the Gathic Staota Yesnya with the haoma ceremony. Furthermore, it is believed that another longer service developed, known as the Visperad, which derived from the extended yasna. This was developed for the celebration of the seven holy days of obligation (the Gahambars plus Norouz) and was dedicated to Ahura Mazda.

While the very earliest Zoroastrians eschewed writing as a form of demonic practice, the Middle Persian Zand, along with much secondary Zoroastrian literature, was recorded in writing during the Sassanid era for the first time. Many of these Zoroastrian texts were original works from the Sassanid period. Perhaps the most important of these works was the Bundahishn – the mythical Zoroastrian story of 'Creation'. Other older works, some from remote antiquity, were possibly translated from different Iranian languages into Middle Persian during this period. For example, two works, the Drakht Asurig (Assyrian Tree) and Ayadgar-i Zareran (Exploits of Zarter) were probably translated from Parthian originals.

Of great importance for Zoroastrianism was the creation of the Avestan alphabet by the Sassanids, which enabled the accurate rendering of the Avesta in written form (including in its original language/phonology) for the first time. The alphabet was based on the Pahlavi one, but rather than the inadequacy of that script for recording spoken Middle Persian, the Avestan alphabet had 46 letters, and was well suited to recording Avestan in written form in the way the language actually sounded and was uttered. The Persian magi where therefore finally able to record all surviving ancient Avestan texts in written form.

As a result of this development, the Sassanid Avesta was then complied into 21 nasks (divisions) to correspond with the 21 words of the Ahunavar invocation. The nasks were further divided into 3 groups of 7. The first group contained the Gathas and all texts associated with them, while the second group contained works of scholastic learning. The final section contained treatises of instruction for the magi, such as the Vendidad, law-texts and other works, such as yashts.

An important literary text, the Khwaday-Namag (Book of Kings) was composed during the Sassanid era. This text is the basis of which the later Shahnameh of Ferdowsi drew from. Another important Zoroastrian text from the Sassanid period includes the Dadestan-e Menog-e Khrad (Judgements of the Spirit of Wisdom).


Christians in the Sassanid Empire belonged mainly to the Nestorian Church (Church of the East) and the Jacobite Church (Syriac Orthodox Church) branches of Christianity. Although these churches originally maintained ties with Christian churches in the Roman Empire, they were indeed quite different from them. One reason for this was that the liturgical language of the Nestorian and Jacobite Churches was Syriac rather than Greek, the language of Roman Christianity during the early centuries (and the language of Eastern Roman Christianity in later centuries). Another reason for a separation between Eastern and Western Christianity, was strong pressure from the Sassanid authorities to sever connections with Rome, since the Sassanid Empire was often at war with the Roman Empire.

Christianity was recognized by king Yazdegerd I in 409 as an allowable faith within the Sassanid Empire. In 410, at the Council of Seleucia-Ctesiphon, Mar Isaac was elected as Catholicos of the Church of the East.

The major break with mainstream Christianity came in 431, due to the pronouncements of the First Council of Ephesus. The Council condemned Nestorius, a theologian of Cilician/Kilikian origin and the patriarch of Constantinople, for teaching a view of Christology in accordance with which he refused to call Mary, the mother of Jesus Christ, " Theotokos" or Mother of God. While the teaching of the Council of Ephesus was accepted within the Roman Empire, the Sassanid church disagreed with the condemnation of Nestorius' teachings. When Nestorius was deposed as patriarch, a number of his followers fled to the Sassanid Persian Empire. Persian emperors used this opportunity to strengthen Nestorius' position within the Sassanid church (which made up the vast majority of the Christians in the predominantly Zoroastrian Persian Empire) by eliminating the most important pro-Roman clergymen in Persia and making sure that their places were taken by Nestorians. This was to assure that these Christians would be loyal to the Persian Empire, and not to the Roman.

Most of the Christians in the Sassanid empire lived on the western edge of the empire, predominantly in Mesopotamia, but there were also important communities on the island of Tylos (present day Bahrain), the southern coast of the Persian Gulf, the area of the Arabian kingdom of Lakhm, and the Persian part of Armenia. Some of these areas were the earliest to be Christianized; the kingdom of Armenia became the first independent Christian state in the world in 301. While a number of Assyrian territories had almost become fully Christianized even earlier during the 3rd century, they never became independent nations.

Other religions

Alongside Zoroastrianism, other religions, primarily Judaism, Manicheism and Buddhism, existed in Sassanid society, and were largely free to practice and preach their beliefs. A very large Jewish community flourished under Sassanid rule, with thriving centers at Isfahan, Babylon and Khorasan, and with its own semiautonomous Exilarchate leadership based in Mesopotamia. Jewish communities suffered only occasional persecution. They enjoyed a relative freedom of religion, and were granted privileges denied to other religious minorities. Shapur I (Shabur Malka in Aramaic) was a particular friend to the Jews. His friendship with Shmuel produced many advantages for the Jewish community. He even offered the Jews in the Sassanid empire a fine white Nisaean horse, just in case the Messiah, who was thought to ride a donkey or a mule, would come. Shapur II, whose mother was Jewish, had a similar friendship with a Babylonian rabbi named Raba. Raba's friendship with Shapur II enabled him to secure a relaxation of the oppressive laws enacted against the Jews in the Persian Empire. Moreover, in the eastern portion of the empire, various Buddhist places of worship, notably in Bamiyan were active as Buddhism gradually became more popular in that region.

Legacy and importance

The influence of the Sassanid Empire continued long after it ceased to exist. The empire, through the guidance of several able emperors prior to its fall, had achieved a Persian renaissance that would become a driving force behind the civilization of the newly established religion of Islam. In modern Iran and the regions of the Iranosphere, the Sassanid period is regarded as one of the high points of Iranian civilization.

In Europe

A Sassanid fortress in Derbent, Russia (the Caspian Gates)

Sassanid culture and military structure had a significant influence on Roman civilization. The structure and character of the Roman army was affected by the methods of Persian warfare. In a modified form, the Roman Imperial autocracy imitated the royal ceremonies of the court of the Sassanids at Ctesiphon, and those in turn had an influence on the ceremonial traditions of the courts of modern Europe. The origin of the formalities of European diplomacy is attributed to the diplomatic relations between the Persian governments and Roman Empire.

Through the late Roman Empire's adoption of Cataphract cavalry, the principles of the European knighthood (heavily armoured cavalry) of the Middle Ages can be traced to the Sassanid Asawaran (Azatan) knightly society with whom it also shares a number of similarities.

In Jewish history

"Parsees of Bombay" a wood engraving, ca. 1878

In Jewish history, the Sassanid Empire is a very important chapter in the expansion of the Jewish faith. The Sassanid period saw major developments such as the construction of the Babylonian Talmud and the establishment of several Jewish orientated academic institutions such as Sura and Pumbedita, which were for centuries the most influential in Jewish scholarship. Several individuals of the Imperial family such as Ifra Hormizd the Queen mother of Shapur II and Queen Shushandukht, the Jewish wife of Yazdegerd I, significantly contributed to the close relations between the Jews of the empire and the government in Ctesiphon.

In India

The collapse of the Sassanid Empire caused the state religion to be switched from Zoroastrianism to Islam. Zoroastrianism slowly went from a major religion to a persecuted minor religion. For the survival of their faith and their lives, a large number of Zoroastrians chose to emigrate. According to the Qissa-i Sanjan, one group of those refugees landed in what is now Gujarat, India, where they were allowed greater freedom to observe their old customs and to preserve their faith. The descendants of those Zoroastrians, now known as the Parsis, would play a small but significant role in the development of India. Today there are around 70,000 Parsis in India.

The Parsis, as Zoroastrians, still use a variant of the religious calendar instituted under the Sassanids. That calendar still marks the number of years since the accession of Yazdegerd III, just as it did in 632. (See also: Zoroastrian calendar)

Sassanid Empire chronology

226–241: Reign of Ardashir I:

  • 224–226: Overthrow of Parthian Empire
  • 229–232: War with Rome
  • Zoroastrianism is revived as official religion
  • The collection of texts known as the Zend Avesta is assembled

241–271: Reign of Shapur I "the Great":

  • 241–244: War with Rome
  • 252–261: War with Rome. Decisive victory of Persian at Edessa and Capture of Roman emperor Valerian
  • 215–271: Mani, founder of Manicheanism

271–301: A period of dynastic struggles

283: War with Rome

296-8: War with Rome – Persia cedes five provinces east of the Tigris to Rome

309–379: Reign of Shapur II "the Great":

  • 337–350: First war with Rome with relatively little success
  • 359–363: Second war with Rome. Rome returns trans-Tigris provinces and cedes Nisibis and Singara to Persia

387: Armenia partitioned into Roman and Persian zones

399–420: Reign of Yazdegerd I "the Sinner":

  • 409: Christian are permitted to publicly worship and to build churches
  • 416–420: Persecution of Christians as Yazdegerd revokes his earlier order

420–438: Reign of Bahram V:

  • 420–422: War with Rome
  • 424: Council of Dad-Ishu declares the Eastern Church independent of Constantinople
  • 428: Persian zone of Armenia annexed to Sassanid Empire

438–457: Reign of Yazdegerd II:

  • 441: War with Rome
  • 449-451: Armenian revolt

482-3: Armenian and Iberian revolt

483: Edict of Toleration granted to Christians

484: Peroz I defeated and killed by Hephthalites

491: Armenian revolt. Armenian Church repudiates the Council of Chalcedon:

  • Nestorian Christianity becomes dominant Christian sect in Sassanid Empire

502-506: War with Constantinople

526-532: War with Constantinople

531–579: Reign of Khosrau I, "with the immortal soul" (Anushirvan)

540–562: War with Constantinople

572-591: War with Constantinople – Persia cedes much of Armenia and Iberia to Constantinople

590–628: Reign of Khosrau II

603–628: War with Byzantium. Persia occupies Byzantine Mesopotamia, Syria, Palestine, Egypt and the Transcaucasus, before being driven to withdraw to pre-war frontiers by Byzantine counter-offensive

610: Arabs defeat a Sassanid army at Dhu-Qar

626: Unsuccessful siege of Constantinople by Avars and Persians

627: Byzantine Emperor Heraclius invades Assyria and Mesopotamia. Decisive defeat of Persian forces at the battle of Nineveh

628–632: Chaotic period of multiple rulers

632–644: Reality reign of Yazdegerd III

636(XI): Decisive Sassanid defeat at the Battle of al-Qādisiyyah during the Islamic conquest of Iran

641(XII): Final victory of Arabs when Persian army destroyed at the Battle of Nihawānd

651: Last Sassanid ruler Yazdegerd III then fled eastward from one district to another, until at last he was killed by a local miller for his purse at Merv (present-day Turkmenistan), ending the dynasty. His son, Peroz II, and many others went into exile in China.

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