term papers categories


  Law & Government



Sassanian Empire

[Writer name appears here]
[Institution name appears here]

Sassanian Empire

The Sassanian dynasty of Iran (also known as Sassanid) was an empire, which at one time ruled from the Indus to the Nile, from Yemen to the Caucasus. They overthrew the Parthians by 226 and fell to the armies of Islam by 651.   Theirs is one of the most poorly documented empires in the world; infact, most of their history was written by their enemies, who projected these Persians as villains of Rome, Constantinople, and Mecca. 

Click to Order a Custom Term Paper Now...


In AD 224 the Sassanid leader, Ardashir (211-241) defeated and killed the last Parthian ruler Artabanus V in battle, and established his capital Ctesiphon near modern Baghdad in Iraq. Ardshir's forefathers had been closely connected with the Zorastrian religion, which had been practiced at Istakhr, in Persia in the sixth century. It was only natural that the new regime had strong religious and nationalistic overtones from that period. Zorastrianism, as a state religion, however, found itself in conflict with the already established Christian Church, Manichaeism and other heterodox beliefs.

 Ardashir was responsible in creating the new Sassanid kingdom in Persia. The role of his government was to provide candidates for top military and administrative positions in the empire, such as generals and provincial governors, and to supply troops from their large estates. There was little direct involvement of the central government back in the capital.

However, Ardashir’s son and successor Shapur I (241-272) expanded the borders of the new Kingdom. After successful campaigns of thirty years, Sassanian territory included all of modern Iran, parts of Pakistan, Afghanistan, the Soviet Union (on both sides of the Caspian), Iraq, and the Gulf Coast of the Arabian Peninsula. In 259, the Persian army defeated the Roman emperor Valerian at the battle of Edessa and more than 70,000 Roman soldiers were captured.

Click to Order a Custom Term Paper Now...

Shapur II, AD 309-79, ninth Sassanian king of Persia greatly enhanced the power of the Persian Empire. He was the posthumous son and successor of Hormuz II. At first his reign was dominated by the nobility and clergy, but when Shapur came of age, he resolved to regain lost Persian territory to the east and west and to assert his own authority. He subdued central Asian tribes--the Kushans in present-day Afghanistan--and annexed their kingdom. From the Romans he took Amida (Diyarbakir) in 359 and won Armenia shortly before his death. Shapur also sent expeditions far into Arabia against the tribes there and built walls and forts in Mesopotamia to defend against their forays.

Persecution of Christians by Shapur began about 339, after the Roman emperor Constantine I converted to Christianity, and lasted until Shapur's death. Under Shapur, Zoroastrianism became firmly established as the state religion, and society was organized into a caste system. Although the reigns of his immediate successors Ardashir II (379-83) and Shapur III (383-88) were weak and brief, Shapur's reign brought to the Sassanian Empire a stability that enabled it to endure a little longer.

However, for nearly four centuries, foreign wars and internal struggles gradually exhausted the Sassanian Empire and a new enemy, the Hephtalite Huns, defeated them. It was not until the reign of Khosroe I (531-579), one of the greatest Sassanian rulers, that the Huns were beaten. Khusro also imposed a new order more responsive to central authority, reformed the bureaucracy, and reorganized the Zoroastrian church. Instead of a single military hierarchy, Khusro quartered the empire under four regional rulers serving at the pleasure of the shahanshah. These changes, when combined with a more efficient and fair tax policy, created a loyal and wealthy mounted gentry owning villages and small estates.

Click to Order a Custom Term Paper Now...

Khosroe I took Antioch in A.D. 540, while Khosroe II, who had rebuilt the empire until it rivaled that of the Archaemenians, laid siege to Byzantium in A.D. 626. However, the dynamic emperor Heraclius turned the tables, with the Byzantines invading Iran in 628. Khosroe II was deposed and murdered by his followers. After his death, over a period of 14 years and twelve successive kings, the Sassanian Empire weakened considerably, and the power of the central authority passed into the hands of the generals. This paved the way for the first Arab attacks in A.D. 633.

Sassanian Militia

Despite its roots in feudal Parthia, and occasional relapses, the Sassanian military showed an increasing degree of sophistication over the years.   From a traveling inspector of cavalry quality, to the elaborate system of unit insignia, their armed forces approached but rarely exceeded the overall "gravitas" of the contemporary Romans.   Doubtless they were more organized and professional than any of their other opponents, formidable as those were, in Arabia, the Caucasus, Bactria, India, and the steppes.  The battle against feudalism took a major boost with the accession of Khusro I, lapsed somewhat under his successors, and picked up too late under the ill-starred Yazdagird III.

Sassanian Artillery & Cavalry

Evidence of the wide use of armor is visible from the artistic depictions and archaeological finds of "ox-headed" maces in the Iranian cultural area. Regarding the Sassanian infantry, Rawlinson (1876) at least has a fairly high opinion.   He estimates they formed at least two-thirds of any Persian army that included any foot.   The elites were archers, firing from behind a wall of shields, while ordinary infantry were spearmen, equipped from government armories.   He also claims the archers deployed before the spearmen, retiring through them to avoid close combat, with the spearmen being a "fair match" for legionaries.

Click to Order a Custom Term Paper Now...

Similarly, the cavalry evolved from the Parthian model - swarming horse archers and a nucleus of armor-plated lancers - to a more capable horseman.   This was not mainly a rearming of troops by imperial fiat, but rather was tied to the sometimes slow, sometimes fast, rate of social and economic change in Persia from the 3rd to 7th centuries.

Sassanian elephants seem usually to have been accompanied by large infantry contingents. They were used in conjunction with cavalry, often spooking enemy horses.   Elephants were mostly posted in the rear, likely acting as a reserve because of the difficulty of replacement.

Another remarkable aspect of Sassanian expeditions involved women.   Lieu notes that at least in the earliest periods "the presence of substantial numbers of women" is noted by Roman authors. The writer Zonaras said that among the fallen Iranians there were "found women also, dressed and armed like men," some taken alive.  At Singara there were noted women "conscripted" as "sutlers in the army." These are not noted after the middle of the 4th century.


 The language of the Sassanian Empire was Middle Persian, often called Pahlavi (a term more strictly reserved for a form of the language used in certain Zoroastrian writings). Middle Persian has a simpler grammar than Old Persian and was usually written in an ambiguous script with multivalent letters, adopted from Aramaic; it declined after the Arab conquest in the 7th century.


Many remains of a variety of structures represent the architecture of the Sassanian period: palaces, fire temples, forts, bridges, dams, houses and planned cities. Hellenistic elements were included in the designs. However, the architecture displays are distinctly bold and grandiose Sassanian style. Shapur’s palace at Ctesiphon is in a ruined state due to frequent earthquakes. The once colossal palace was constructed with baked bricks. The royal audience hall was placed at the center of the façade, was seventy-five feet wide, one hundred and fifty feet deep and was covered by a tunnel vault whose apex was ninety feet above the ground. The frontage on either side of the hall had arcades in a typical Hellenistic tradition.

Click to Order a Custom Term Paper Now...

Art and Sculpture

Sassanian sculpture affords an equally striking contrast to that of Greece and Rome. Some thirty rock sculptures survive, most of them located in Fars. Like those of the Achaemenian period they are carved in relief, often on remote and inaccessible rocks. Some are so deeply undercut as to be virtually freestanding; others are hardly more than graffiti. Their purpose is the glorification of the monarch.
The earliest known Sassanian rock carvings are those at Firuzabad, attributed to the beginning of Ardashir I's reign and still bound to the conventions of Parthian art. The relief itself is very low, the details are rendered by means of fine incisions, and the forms are heavy and massive, but not without a certain vigor. One relief, carved on a rock wall at the Tang-i-Ab gorge near the Firuzabad plain, consists of three separate dueling scenes that express vividly the Iranian concept of battle as a series of individual engagements.

Many depict the investiture of the king by the god "Ahuramazda" with the emblems of sovereignty; others the triumph of the king over his enemies. Roman triumphal works may have inspired them, but the manner of treatment and presentation is very different. Roman reliefs are pictorial records always with an attempt at realism. The Sassanian sculptures commemorate an event by depicting symbolically the culminating incident: for instance in the sculpture at Naksh-i-Rustam (3rd c.) the Roman emperor Valerian hands over his arms to the victor Shapur I. Divine and royal personages are portrayed on a scale larger than that of inferior persons. Compositions are as a rule symmetrical. Human figures tend to be stiff and heavy and there is awkwardness in the rendering of certain anatomical details such as the shoulders and torso.

Relief sculpture reached its zenith under Bahram I (273-76), the son of Shapur I, who was responsible for a fine ceremonial scene at Bishapur, in which the forms have lost all stiffness and the workmanship is both elaborate and vigorous.

Click to Order a Custom Term Paper Now...

Perhaps the most distinctive feature of Sassanian art is its ornament, which was destined to have a profound influence on Islamic art. Designs tended to be symmetrical and much use was made of enclosing medallions. Animals and 'birds and even floral motifs were frequently presented 'heraldically', that is in pairs, either confronted or back-to-back. Some motifs, such as the Tree of Life, have an ancient history in the Near East; others, like the dragon and winged horse, reveal the constant love affair of Asiatic art with the mythical
There is no attempt at portraiture in Sassanian art, either in these sculptures or in the royal figures depicted on metal vessels or on their coins. Each emperor is distinguished merely by his own particular form of crown.

In the minor arts, unfortunately no paintings have survived, and the Sassanian period is best represented by its metalwork. A large number of metal vessels have been attributed to this period; many of these have been found in southern Russia. They have a variety of forms and reveal a high standard of technical skill with decoration executed either by hammering, beating, engraving or casting. The subjects most often portrayed on silver dishes included royal hunts, ceremonial scenes, the king enthroned or banqueting, dancers, and scenes of a religious character


Under the Sassanian dynasty, Zoroastrianism became for the first and last time, an official State Religion. The priesthood was invested with importance and power. The Achaemenians had kept a strict separation between the Church and the State, but under the Sassanians, for the first time, there was a Zoroastrian 'Church'. The religion became intertwined with the State and thrived. There was a revival. Many of the scattered texts, which had been preserved orally, were written down, translated and compiled. Though the early Sassanians were zealous about their own religion, they were tolerant of other faiths. However, they proclaimed Zoroastrianism as the only good and true religion.

Social Structure

The last years of the Sassanian dynasty seem to be a period of extremes and ironies. It was at once a brilliant society, a cultured and luxurious civilization, an open society that was receptive to foreign influences, yet was also fiercely nationalistic. Between the lower classes and the nobility existed an unbridgeable gulf. On one side there was unbridled luxury and a feverish pursuit of pleasure. On the other, famines and plagues. In addition to this spiritual and economic dissatisfaction was political instability. Power-hungry kings and queens ascended the throne and were plotted against and assassinated in quick succession.

The Sassanian Imperial Ideology was based on the Zoroastrian doctrine. In this religion Ahura Mazda, the Lord of Wisdom (Khodavand i Kherad) is the origin of all learning therefore all knowledge is regarded as sacred. According to Dinkard, the Zoroastrian canon in Pahlavi, Book IV, "all knowledge and sciences was received by Zoroaster from Ahura Mazda and transmitted through Avesta. Destruction of Persia by the wicked Alexander dispersed the texts throughout the world.

Click to Order a Custom Term Paper Now...


By the opening of the seventh century the Sassanid Empire lay exhausted, following its long struggle against the Roman and Byzantium armies. A better explanation than this, however, is needed to interpret the reasons for the Sassanians' resounding defeat. For Iran itself, the extended wars against Byzantium had sapped the energies of the country, as well as weakened its coffers. For, the people themselves, the religion had become so codified under the last rulers that it served only the needs of the priesthood and not of the people. There was nothing that they could be called upon to defend in the Zorastrian faith. In addition, with the centralization of power achieved by the ruler Khusrau, the village lords had no way of combining their efforts in resistance once the royal armies had been defeated. But ironically, while Iran was taken over for the moment by a movement of the Arabs and, while the new faith had an immediate simplicity and appeal, it would not be long before the village lords were again to exert a very strong Persianizing influence upon Islam in that area.

Click to Order a Custom Term Paper Now...


Selected Bibliography

Al-Baladhuri, "The Origins of the Islamic State," translated by Hitti, P. KBartold

Frye, R. N., "The Heritage of Persia" (London, 1962).

Inostrancev, C.A., "The Sasanian Military Theory," translated by Bagdanov, L., K.R.

Nicolle, David, "Sassanian Armies" (Montvert 1996).

Porada, Edith, "The Art of Ancient Iran" (New York, 1965).

Hutchinson Family Encyclopedia s.v. Sassanian Empire

Internet Sources:

Retrieved from the World Wide Web on November 21, 2001
URL: http://www.encyclopedia.com/articles/42566.html


URL: www.silk-road.com/artl/sasanian.shtml
URL: http://www.art-arena.com/history.html

Disclaimer: These papers are to be used for research/reference purposes only. All papers should be used with proper references.


© Copyright 1996-2008 Best Term Paper and Research Papers