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Sassanid dynasty

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The Sassanid dynasty (also Sassanian) was the name given to the kings of Persia during the era of the second Persian Empire, from 224 until 651, when the last Sassanid shah, Yazdegerd III, lost a 14-year struggle to drive out the Umayyad Caliphate, the first of the Islamic empires.


The Empire

The Sassanid era began in earnest in 228, when the Shah Ardashir I destroyed the Parthian Empire which had held sway over the region for centuries. He and his successors created a vast empire, based in Firouzabad, Fars, which included those lands of the old Achaemenid Persian empire east of the Euphrates River. The Sassanids wanted to recreate the glories of ancient Iran and claimed to Persianise the country. They made Zoroastrianism the state religion and claimed in inscriptions to have persecuted other faiths (although these claims are not reflected in native Jewish and Christian sources of the time). It was the shahs' long sought-after goal to reunify all of the old Achaemenid territory, which brought them into frequent wars against the Roman Empire and Byzantine Empire.

Ardeshir's son Shapur I (241272) continued this expansion, conquering Bactria and Kushan, while leading several campaigns against Rome. In 259, the Persian army defeated the Roman emperor Valerian at the battle of Edessa where more than 70,000 Roman soldiers were captured or slain. Valerian then tried to negotiate a peace with Shapur, but was captured by treachery and taken into captivity. Shapur used Valerian as a human stepping-stool to assist the Persian king in mounting his horse, thus subjecting a Roman emperor to the ultimate humiliation by a foreign leader. Valerian's body was later skinned to produce a lasting trophy of Roman submission.

Near the end of the 5th century a new enemy, the barbaric Hephthalites, or "White Huns," attacked Persia; they defeated the Persian king Firuz (or Peroz) I in 483 and for some years thereafter exacted heavy tribute. It was not until the reign of Khosroe (or Khosrau) I (531579), one of the greatest Sassanian rulers, that the Huns were beaten. Khosro I (531-579 CE), also known as Anushirvan the Just, is the most celebrated of the Sassanid rulers. He reformed the tax system and reorganized the army and the bureaucracy, tying the army more closely to the central government than to local lords. His 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. Khosro was a great builder, embellishing his capital, founding new towns, and constructing new buildings. He rebuilt the canals and restocked the farms, which had been destroyed in the wars. He built strong fortifications at the passes and placed subject tribes in carefully chosen towns on the frontiers, so that they could act as guardians of the state against invaders.

Justinian paid Khosrow 440,000 pieces of gold as a bribe to keep the peace, but he seems to have been a man who genuinely enjoyed the fruits of peace and saw no reason to continue a senseless war. He was tolerant of all religions, though he decreed that Zoroastrianism should be the official state religion, but he was not unduly disturbed when one of his sons became a Christian. Under his auspices, too, many books were brought from India and translated into Pahlavi. Some of these later found their way into the literature of the Islamic world.

System of Governing

The Sassanids established an empire roughly within the frontiers achieved by the Achaemenids, with the capital at Ctesiphon. The Sassanids consciously sought to resuscitate Iranian traditions and to obliterate Greek cultural influence. Their rule was characterized by considerable centralization, ambitious urban planning, agricultural development, and technological improvements. Sassanid rulers adopted the title of shahanshah (king of kings), as sovereigns over numerous petty rulers, known as shahrdars. Historians believe that society was divided into four classes: the priests, warriors, secretaries, and commoners. The royal princes, petty rulers, great landlords, and priests together constituted a privileged stratum, and the social system appears to have been fairly rigid. Sassanid rule and the system of social stratification were reinforced by Zoroastrianism, which became the state religion. The Zoroastrian priesthood became immensely powerful. The head of the priestly class, the mobadan mobad , along with the military commander, the eran spahbod, and the head of the bureaucracy, were among the great men of the state. Rome, with its capital at Constantinople, had replaced Greece as Iran's principal Western enemy, and hostilities between the two empires were frequent. Shapur I (240-272 CE), son and successor of Ardeshir, waged successful campaigns against the Romans and in 260 CE even took the emperor Valerian prisoner. Between 260 and 263 CE he had lost his conquest to Odenathus , and ally of Rome. Shapur II (ruled 309-379 CE) regained the lost territories, however, in three successive wars with the Romans.

Expansion to India

After The Sassanians came to power in Iran in 226 A.D. The second emperor, Shapur (240-270 A.D.), extended his authority eastwards into India and the previously autonomous Kushans were obliged to accept his suzerainty. Successive Sassanian emperors were either tolerant of other religions or pursued policies of persecution, particularly against Christians, but in India the Kushans were generally tolerant of indigenous beliefs. Thanks to traded goods such as silverware and textiles depicting the Sassanian emperors engaged in hunting or administering justice, their imperial example became well known in Kushan India and, owing to the political relationship, it was wise for Kushan art to be seen to be drawing inspiration from Iran, imitation being one of the best forms of flattery. This adoption of Iranian forms, rather than Indian, also helped the Kushans to maintain their aloofness from their subjects. Although the Kushan empire declined at the end of the 3rd century, leading to the rise to power of an indigenous Indian dynasty, the Guptas, in the 4th century, it is clear that Sassanian influence remained relevant in the north-west.


Khosrau II came close to achieving the Sassanid dream of restoring the Achaemenid boundaries when Jerusalem fell to him and Constantinople was under his siege in 626. However, Khosrau II had overextended his army and overtaxed the people. When the Byzantine Emperor Heraclius in a tactical move abandoned his besieged capital and sailed up the Black Sea to attack Persia from the rear, there was no resistance. Heraclius then marched through Mesopotamia and western Persia sacking Takht-i Sulayman and the Palace of Dastgerd. After the death of Khosrau II, and over a period of 14 years and twelve successive kings, the Sassanid Empire weakened considerably, and the power of the central authority passed into the hands of the generals. The Sassanids never recovered.

In the spring of 633 CE a grandson of Khosrau called Yezdegerd ascended the throne, and in that same year the first Arab squadrons made their first raids into Persian territory. Years of warfare had exhausted both the Byzantines and the Iranians. The later 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. These factors facilitated the Arab invasion in the seventh century. Internal dissension and a long brutal conflict with the Byzantines left Sassanid Persia prey for the Arabs.

This was the beginning of the end. Yezdegerd was a boy, at the mercy of his advisers, incapable of uniting a vast country which was crumbling into a number of small feudal kingdoms. Rome no longer threatened. The threat came from the small disciplined armies of Khalid ibn Walid, once one of Mohammad's chosen companion-in-arms and now, after the Prophet's death, the leader of the Arab army.


In many ways the Sassanian period (AD 224-633) witnessed the highest achievement of Persian civilization, and constituted the last great Iranian Empire before the Moslem conquest .

The Sassanian Dynasty, like the Achaemenian, originated in the province of Fars. They saw themselves as successors to the Achaemenians, after the Hellenistic and Parthian interlude, and perceived it as their role to restore the greatness of Iran.

At its peak, the Sassanian Empire stretched from Syria to north-west India; but its influence was felt far beyond these political boundaries. Sassanian motifs found their way into the art of central Asia and China, the Byzantine Empire, and even Merovingian France.

In reviving, the glories of the Achaemenian past, the Sassanians were no mere imitators. The art of this period reveals an astonishing virility. In certain respects it anticipates features later developed during the Islamic period. The conquest of Persia by Alexander the Great had inaugurated the spread of Hellenistic art into Western Asia; but if 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 and throughout the Sassanian period there was a continuing process of reaction against it. Sassanian art revived forms and traditions native to Persia; and in the Islamic period these reached the shores of the Mediterranean.

The splendour in which the Sassanian monarchs lived is well illustrated by their surviving palaces, such as those at Firuzabad and Bishapur in Fars, and the capital city of Ctesiphon in Mesopotamia. In addition to local traditions, Parthian architecture must have been responsible for a great many of the Sassanian architectural characteristics. All are characterised by the barrel-vaulted iwans introduced in the Parthian period, but now they reached massive proportions, particularly at Ctesiphon. The arch of the great vaulted hall at Ctesiphon attributed to the reign of Shapur I (AD 241-272) has a span of more than 80 ft, and reaches a height of 118 ft. from the ground. This magnificent structure fascinated architects in the centuries that followed and has always been considered as one of the most important pieces of Persian architecture. Many of the palaces contain an inner audience hall which consists, 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 the squinch. This is an arch 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 Firuzabad is the earliest surviving example of the use of the squinch and so there is good reason for regarding Persia as its place of invention.

The unique characteristic of Sassanian architecture, was its distinctive use of space. The Sassanian 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 Rayy (late Sassanian 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 merrymaking as at a banquet; the Roman influence here is clear, and the mosaics may have been laid by Roman prisoners. Buildings were also decorated with wall paintings; particularly fine examples have been found at Kuh-i Khwaja in Sistan.

Sassanid rulers

See also

Sassanid Art

Last updated: 06-01-2005 22:08:24
Last updated: 09-12-2005 02:39:13