History of The Sassanid Empire – Rome’s Biggest Rivals (224–651 c.e.)

The Sassanid Empire was the last pre-Islamic Iranian dynasty that ruled over a large part of western Asia. Following the Achaemenid dynasty, the Sassanids are considered one of the most powerful and famous Iranian dynasties that positively infl uenced the evolution of Iranian nationality and culture during their 400-year sovereignty (224–651 c.e.). The dynastic name, Sassanid or Sassanian, is derived from Sasan, said to have been father or grandfather of Ardashir I, also called Artaxerxes.


Founder of the Sassanid dynasty, Artaxerxes was first appointed as the governor of Darabgard because of his firm familial relationship with the local royal families of Fars. He took advantage of the weakness of the Parthian (Arsacide) kings and expanded his realm. Having achieved a successful supremacy over Fars, he conquered Isfahan and Kirman and won a face-to-face battle with Arsacid Artabanus V, the last Parthian king, defeating and killing him in 224 c.e., leading to the invasion of Ctesiphon, the Parthian’s capital, in 226. He was crowned as the “king of kings of Iran,” according to the fire temple of Anahita at Istakhr. He expanded his kingdom by conquering the east of Persia, invading Sistan, Khurasan, Marw, Khwarazm, and Balkh. Kushan’s kings, who ruled over Punjab and Kabul, sent envoys to announce their obedience to him. To expand his territory Artaxerxes moved toward the west and was involved in a war with the Roman Empire in 228, in which he defeated the Romans several times. Through these wars he invaded Carrhae and Nisibis and then conquered Arminiya and annexed it to Persia. Following Artaxerxes, 34 Sassanid kings ruled over Persia. Amalgamation of clerical institutions with the monarchy provided the Sassanid monarchs a divine legitimacy, which led to the interference of Zoroastrian priests in the social and political affairs of the country, especially when less powerful kings were ruling. This mix of state and Zoroastrian religion threatened the lives of followers of other religions when religious and biased kings ruled the country


During the reign of Shapur I, Armenia, which had gone undisciplined, was brought under control. Gordian III, the Roman emperor who had attacked Nisibis and Mesopotamia, was defeated and killed, while his successor, Philip the Arab, established peace with Shapur in return for submitting a heavy indemnity to Shapur, as well as a free hand in Armenia. In a war between Rome and Persia near Edessa, the Roman army was defeated, and Valerian was taken captive. The event increased the Sassanids’ self-confidence and dignity. Shapur used tens of thousands of captives to advance economic development of his empire. The fall of the Kushan Empire by Shapur was one of the most influential events of his kingdom, because it caused the civilized world to be divided between the two empires of Persia and Rome. This new Persia was no longer a partner with Rome but a more
powerful rival.


Shapur’s successor, Hurmuz I (272–273) was called “brave” for his courageous actions in wars with Rome and Armenia. By allowing the freedom of various religions and limiting the power of clergies and nobles, he followed his father’s lead. These activites brought him an early dismissal from the throne. In Manichaean literature Hurmuz has been mentioned as the “good king.” Following Hurmuz I , his brother Bahram I (273– 276) took the throne. In his reign the policy of tolerance toward non-Zoroastrians was discontinued. Limiting other religions, the clergies of the time gained more king of Perse-Armenia, rebelled. Bahram IV defeated him and made his brother (Bahramshapur/Vramshapuh) king of Perse-Armenia. Another significant event during his reign was the formal division of the Roman Empire into eastern and western parts (395), which was apparently one of the outcomes of Theodosius I’s death, who was killed by his own son. Bahram IV was killed in a violent attack, possibly by a conspiracy of the nobles, which led to a rebellion in his army. Yazdadjird I (399–420) was most likely a brother of Bahram IV and was to some extent successful in limiting the power of nobles in his court, though he was enthroned by them as a pawn. He was called “delight of the state” and “Rameshtras” meaning “peace-seeker” on his coins. Tolorating other religions and their followers, Yazdadjird I was not welcomed by the strict Zoroastrian priests, who had labeled him as a “sinner.” However, he imposed his power rather than endanger the stability and independence of his monarchy. Yazdadjird was not able to escape the nobles’ violence and was killed in a conspiracy.


Attempting to exclude the son of Yazdadjird from succession, nobles enthroned a descendant of Ardashir I, Khosrow, but he later abdicated, and Bahram seized the throne as Bahram V (420–438). Bahram V was the son of Yazdadjird I. Bahram V had been raised at al-Hira by al-Mundhirhir of Lakhm. Early in his reign Bahram V defeated an invasion of Hayatila Hephthalites in the northeast of Iran and killed their king. In the west of Iran the wars with the Byzantines ended (422) with a 100-year peace treaty between Byzantines and Iran, providing security and religious freedom of Zoroastrians in Byzantium and freedom for Christians in the Sassanid state. Bahram V was a comfort-seeking man and apparently was not concerned with the interference of clergy in his affairs. He was fond of hunting and is said to have died after falling into a swamp while hunting. The growing interest in Christianity in Armenia created negativity, and to prevent independence Armenia was invaded, and many Christians were killed. The death of Yazdadjird II was followed by a civil war between his sons. His wife, Dinak, as the “queen of queens,” ruled over the country in Ctesiphon for a short time, until her son Hurmuz III (457–459) took the throne; however, the king’s brother Firuz, who was supported by the nobles and priests, defeated and killed Hurmuz and seized power. A major problem during the reign of Firuz I (459– 484) was a seven-year-long famine and drought. Trying to control and manage the country, Firuz remitted taxes and distributed stores of corn and even imported more corn. Following famine and starvation, the country was involved in a war with Hephthalites. In about 469 Firuz was captured and lost Harat to them, agreed to pay tribute, and left his son Kubadh as a hostage to guarantee its payment and levied a poll tax over his entire state to provide his ransom. Firuz fulfilled his promises, but the Hephthalites did not release Kubadh. Firuz waged war and was killed. The Hephthalites captured many areas in Iran, but Zarmehr, known as Sukhra, one of the great nobles of the state, prevented their advance toward the center of the country. In 484 Zarmehr and other nobles enthroned Balash, Firuz’s brother (484–488), who established peace with the Hephthalites in return for tribute. Balash was a kind and just king as mentioned in Christian and Armenian ducuments, but having an empty treasury, he was not able to control the state and provide stability, even though he encouraged agriculture to improve economic conditions in Iran. In 488 he was deposed by the nobles and priests, whos enthroned Kubadh I (487–531) the son of Firuz.


The early years of Kubadh I’s reign were accompanied by growth of the Mazdakits in Iran. The Mazdak revolution was mainly a reaction toward the increasing power of aristocrats, religious nobles, and the pressure imposed on ordinary people as productive sectors of society and as taxpayers. Mazdak believed that the world was covered in dark, and a resurrection was required to help the light overcome the “darkness.” Accordingly, human beings, who are equally born, should share wealth. It is likely that Mazdak’s philosophy was the first egalitarian and socialistic idea. The competition between the monarchy and clerical institutions caused Mazdak’s thoughts to flourish and spread in the Persian Empire. Kubadh I, with popular support against the nobles and priests, allied with the movement and their leader, Mazdak. The nobles and priests who found the ongoing situation against their own interests, deposed and imprisoned Kubadh and enthroned his brother, Djamasp. Kubadh escaped prison with the help of his wife and one of his generals and took refuge among the Hephthalites, whose army restored him to the throne in 499. In the second phase of his reign Kubadh gradually changed his policies toward Mazdakites and tried to attract the priests’ and nobles’ support. In spite of the Mazdakites’ announcement of Kawus as the crown prince, Kubadh appointed his younger son Khosrow, who successively executed the Mazdakite heads and settled the dispute. Kubadh became involved in a 10- year war with the Hephthalites (503–513) and defeated them so heavily that they were never a threat to Iran’s territory again. He defeated the Byzantines in two wars; the first one in 503 at the reign of Anastase and the other in 531 at the reign of Justinian I. Khosrow I (531–579) was remembered as Anushirwan (of immortal soul) and became the subject of legends. He was recorded in history as the most powerful  and knowledgeable king of the Sassanids. He led Iran toward a flourishing period. Although he was cruel with Mazdakites at the beginning, in his governing policies he followed Mazdak’s socialism and prevented cruelty from the nobles. Properties that had been taken by force were returned to their former owners. The nobles kept their status but lost their power. He tried to satisfy the poor and afterward was entitled as “dadgar,” meaning “fair.” He implemented a tax reform that paid for his expanded governing system. At the beginning of his reign he accepted the peace treaty proposed by the Byzantine emperor, Justinian I, and tried to reconstruct the state, especially the destruction left by Mazdakite rebels. With a well equipped army he revived Sassanid power. A new class of militant landlords was created, and the military was trained and paid regularly so that the army could be a continual power. Kharsaw, who found Byzantine growth and power a threat to Iran, invaded Byzantium and occupied many cities in that state. The Byzantines were obliged to pay tribute and sign a 50-year treaty accepting the expenses for the common defense of the Caucasus passes. Khusraw I destroyed the Hephthalites through an accord with the western Turks and divided Hephthalite territory between the Sassanids and the Turks. At the end of his reign Khosrow occupied Yemen and annexed it to Iran, expanding Sassanid territory up the southern coasts of the Persian Gulf
and the Oman Sea.


Khosrow Anushirwan was succeeded by his son Hurmuz IV (579). He was remembered as “Turkzad” meaning “born as a Turk” since his mother was connected to the kings of western turks. The conflict between the crown and the nobles resurfaced in his reign. Hurmuz IV is said to have favored common people against the nobles, possibly as a basis of support for his crown. The Zoroastrian clergy were dissatisfied with Hurmuz IV’s tolerance toward other religions and turned against him. Ongoing peace negotiations with Byzantium were progressively impeded by Hurmuz IV, and war broke out again, although there was no clear victor. At the same time the king of Turks invaded the eastern borders of Iran. Bahram Chubin of the Mihran family, one of the Parthian princes, fought heavily with the Turks and defeated them at Harat, killing their king. Hurmuz IV, afraid af Bahram Chubin’s fame and wisdom, sent him immediately to Georgia to fight with the Byzantines, where he was defeated. Jealous of Bahram’s popularity, Hurmuz IV disgraced him on the pretext that he held back war booty, provoking Bahram to rebel. Groups of nobles and the military supported Bahram Chubin, and the first steps for the collapse of Hurmuzd IV’s throne were taken. The rebel forces, including Hurmuzd IV’s brothers-in-law, dethroned Hurmuz IV, enthroning his son Khosrow. Hurmuz IV was killed. Bahram Chubin, who had more widespread objectives, did not recognize Khosrow’s monarchy and attacked Ctesiphon and defeated Khosrow and his uncles. Bahram Chubin entered the capital in 590 and took the throne as Bahram VI (590–591), with upper-class support. Khosrow, who was later named Khosrow Parwiz (the triumphant) sought help from the Byzantine emperor Maurice. Maurice sent two armies accompanied by his own daughter, Maria, who married Khosrow. Khosrow then defeated Bahram in 591, and he fl ed to the Turks, where he was killed in the next year. Bahram never was able to obtain legitimacy among the nobles since he did not belong to a royal family. Khosrow Parwiz took preventive measures by selecting his own guards from the Byzantine army and eliminated rival sources of power. His lenient treatment of Christians might have been influenced by the fact that both of his wives (Maria and Shirin) were Christian. In 602 Maurice was dethroned and killed. His son fled to Iran, and Khosrow recognized him as the new Caesar. Supporting the young Caesar to take over by posing as Maurice’s avenger, Khosrow found an opportunity to regain territories ceded to the Byzantines. Khosrow started the last and greatest of Sassanid-Byzantine wars, which lasted about 20 years (604–624). Between 604 and 610 Sassanid armies conquered Armenia, Mesopotamia, and many cities in Syria. Consequently, Byzantiun could not control other parts of the empire as firmly as before. Khosrow Parwiz arrested and killed Noman-b-Mundhar, the king of Hira. This unwise violence later proved to be very costly, because Khosrow destroyed the wall between Iran and the Arabs of the desert. During wars between Iran and Rome, Heraclius found his way to the throne in Byzantine following a revolt; however, he was not able to overcome the chaotic situation. The vigorous Sassanid army conquered Antioch and Damascus (613), and Shahrbaraz, the Sassanid commander, joined by 26,000 messianic Jews, conquered Jerusalem. He burned the churches of the city and deported 35,000 captives to Ctesiphon, the Sassanid capital, along with the patriarch of Jerusalem and the relic of the True Cross. Then Shahrbaraz invaded Alexandria (619) and the rest of Egypt. Another Iranian commander, Shahin, also conquered Asia Minor. Sassanid territory was at this point comparable to Persia of the Achaemenids. Khosrow’s victories, especially conquering Egypt, which was a major source of food for Constantinpole, forced Heraclius to move his capital to Carthage, an ancient city on the coast of North Africa near Tunis. Using the property and treasurers of the churches, the Roman army was again well equipped and able to defend Rome against Iran. In this phase of the war the Byzantine army, enjoying an effective navy, crossed the Black Sea and took the war to the Asian arena. In 622 Heraclius invaded Armenia and Adharbaydjan in 626. The Byzantines allied with the Khazars north of the Caucasus. Heraclius advanced into the Mesopotamia plains and descended into the Tigris Valley, where he defeated Sassanid forces at Nineveh. Khosrow fl ed to Ctesiphon, leaving Dastagered, his royal palace and animal preserve, for Heraclius to capture in 627. Although weakened, Khosrow obstinately rejected the peace proposal suggested by Heraclius. At the same time he killed and imprisoned many people, including some of his own army offi cers. Furious at his behavior and rejection of the peace proposal, in 628 a group of generals and high-ranking officials entered the capital and revolted against him, captured and imprisoned Khosrow, and proclaimed his son Kubadh II as king. They later asked Kubadh to execute Khosrow. In the ancient history of Iran Khosrow is famous for his luxurious lifestyle. Some experts believe that his interest in such a lifestyle promoted and expanded fi ne arts, music, and architecture in his reign. After the execution of Khosrow Parwiz, the Sassanid dynasty lost its power and started to collapse.


During the four-year period between Khursaw’s execution and the enthroning of Yazdadjird III, the last king of the Sassanids (628–632), more than 10 people took power and claimed to be king, none of them exceeding two months in their reign. The real and absolute governors were the priests and nobles to whom the kings were nothing but a pawn. Shiruya, Khosrow’s son, who was enthroned and entitled as Kubadh Firuz (victorious), did not reign more than eight months. He started peace talks with Heraclius and accepted the peace proposal, being aware of Iran’s political instability. Shahrbaraz, the most famous Sassanid general, broke with Khosrow II by the end of his reign and refused to abdicate his provinces, Egypt and Syria. In the summer of 629 he negotitated with Heraclius on his own and left Syria and Egypt. Kubadh II remitted taxes for three years and released many prisoners, in an effort to be unlike his father, Khosrow, but to stabilize his reign and kingdom he killed all of his adult brothers. Leaving only sisters and children, he created subsequent dynastic problems. Kubadh was succeeded by Ardashir III, just a child (628); Sharbaraz was dissatisfi ed with the chaotic situation and revolted and killed Ardashir III and made himself king. He reigned for only 42 days before being killed by his own guards. This was followed by a dynastic crisis, with 11 rulers taking the throne in two years. Khosrow III, who had made himself king in the eastern lands of the Sassanid Empire, was killed, and Jawanshir’s reign was also brief. Since none of Khosrow Parwiz’s sons were alive, his daughter Buran (who was Kubadh II’s wife) was enthroned by the support of the nobles in 630. She struck coins, built bridges, and completed peace negotiations with the Byzantines before being deposed in 631. Her successors were Firuz II, Adhar Midukht, Hurmuz V, and Khosrow IV. At the end of 632 a grandson of Khosrow II, Yazdadjird III (632–651) was proclaimed king. He was the last Sassanid monarch. The Sassanid position in the Arabian Peninsula had already been weakened by widespread revolts. Arab Muslims formed their own alliances and Sassanid governors acknowledged the prophet Muhammad and converted to Islam. The Muslim forces claimed “equality” and “justice” and promised a “better life” for people and were respected and received warmly in the frontiers and even the capital. Yazdadjird III, who hoped to reinvigorate his army, fled to Marw and was killed in 652 by a rogue who coveted his elegant clothes and jewelry. Yazdadjird III’s death put an end to the Sassanid monarchy in its known frontiers. His son Firuz took refuge in Tang China and was permitted to establish a fire temple.

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