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The Sassanids (Sassanian)

Ardashir Bābakān established a rule in Iran one of whose most important features was the presence of close ties between religion and government. The other important feature that distinguished the Sassanid rule from that of the Parthians was unity and a centralization of power. As a matter of fact, with the establishment of the Sassanid Dynasty by Ardashir I, the Iranian territories were once again united together gradually after their disintegration following Alexander’s invasion of Iran.

The Sassanid Dynasty began the gradual expansion of its authority and power in the Persian territories from early 2nd Century AD. Sāssān, the great grandfather of the Sassanids, was a grand priest at the Anahitā Temple in Estakhr who had married a girl from a local dynasty of Persia called Bāzrangi and his son, Bābak, was born some time around 155 AD, who later on succeeded his father. Bābak’s son, Ardashir, who was later called “Argbad Dārābgerd”, began invading the neighboring cities some time around 211 or 212 AD and instigated his father to revolt against Guchehr, the Bāzrangi ruler of Persia. As a result, Bābak killed Guchehr in about 220 AD and expanded his territories with the help of Ardashir. The Parthian King, Ardavān V (and according to some historians Ardavān IV), who was concerned over the turn of events in Persia accused the Sassanids of rebellion and initiated a war against them in which Ardashir Bābakān succeeded in conquering Ctesiphon and formally proclaimed himself as the king. Ardashir abolished the feudal system of governance of the Parthian period, diminished the power of the noble families, and by establishing an organized army brought about a unity in his empire. However, the actual establishment of Ardashir’s rule only took place a few years after Ardavān was overpowered. After his coronation in Ctesiphon, and following a military expedition to the north of Mesopotamia, he got involved in a conflict with the Roman Empire over Armenia and remained at war with the Romans almost until the end of his reign. In any case, Ardashir managed to gain extraordinary honor and importance among his successors and came to be looked upon as an exemplar of astuteness and wisdom.

The reign of his successor, Shāpur I (ruled 240-270 AD) was spent in numerous wars with the Kushanas and the Romans in the east and the west. It was during the course of these very wars that the Roman emperor, Gordian was killed (244 AD) and Valerianus (Valerian) and his army were taken captive in 259 or 260 AD. The powerful rule of Shāpur I strengthened the foundations of the Sassanian rule in Iran. The spread of the teachings of Māni throughout the Sassanian Empire under the aegis of Shāpur I displeased the Zoroastrian priests (mobedān) and during the reign of Bahrām I (ruled 271-274 AD), Māni was arrested under the insistence of the Zoroastrian chief priest, Kartir, and met his end in prison (277 AD). After Bahrām, Nārsi (Narses) became the king (ruled 293-302 AD) with the help of the court nobles. He put an end to the powerful influence of Kartir in the royal court but faced severe defeat at the hands of the Romans in Armenia in the year 298 AD, as a result of which, he was forced to hand over the north of Mesopotamia as well as Armenia to the Roman Empire, thus, rendering the River Tigris as the borderline between the two empires. No war erupted between these two rivals for nearly forty years. This defeat and its consequences rendered Iran weak and powerless for quite some time. Ultimately, the nobles of the country placed Shāpur II (309-379 AD), the minor son of Hormezd II (ruled 302-309 AD)), on the throne and took the reigns of power into their own hands. However, Shāpur II freed himself from their influence as soon as he reached maturity and managed to revive the withering rule of the Sassanids with his resolution and tenacity and led it to the zenith of its power. He initially crushed the invading Arabs and earned the title of “Zul Aktāf” among the Arabs and “Hu Beh Sunbā” (lit.: The One Who Bores Holes in Shoulders). Shāpur II once again resumed war with the Roman Empire and in one of the battles in 363 AD, the Roman emperor, Gallienus was killed and vast territories were captured by the Sassanids.

The successors of Shāpur II were mostly incompetent. During the reign of Yazdgerd I (ruled 399-420 AD) many opportunities to regain dominance over Rome appeared. However, Yazdgerd I was a peace-loving king who preferred to stay away from conflict. His son, Bahrām V (ruled 420-438 AD), popular as “Bahrām Gur”, engaged in wars, both, on the eastern as well as the western fronts of his empire. At the time of Piruz (ruled 459-484 AD) Iran got involved in the invasions of the Hephthalites from the east which plunged the country into chaos and insecurity, resulting in the domination of the nobles and the Zoroastrian priests over the affairs of the country. When Qobād I (Kavadh) gained rulership in 488 AD he supported Mazdak and his teachings in order to cut short the hands of the Zoroastrian priests from the reigns of power. However, he faced severe opposition at the hands of the priests and the nobles as a result of which he was dethroned and imprisoned in 496 AD. Subsequently, when he regained power in 498 AD he exercised caution and moderation and even supported the enemies of Mazdak in order to remain in power. In 528 or early 529 AD Mazdak was forced into a simulated debate, at the end of which, he was slain along with a large number of his followers.

Khosrow I or Khosrow Anushirvān (ruled 531-579 AD) on whose behest Mazdak and his followers were massacred continued the killings of the Mazdakites and resumed wars with Byzantium in 540 AD. His military expeditions placed the eastern Roman Empire in great difficulty. Ultimately, in the year 561 AD, a peace treaty was signed between the two empires for a period of fifty years. Khosrow Anushirvān overthrew the rule of the Hephtalites in 557 AD and with the help of the Arabs of Yemen and after expelling the Abyssinians from Yemen c. 575-577 AD spread his power up to the southern parts of the Arabian Peninsula. The reign of Khosrow Anushirvān not only marked the zenith of territorial and military expansion of the Sassanian period but it was also a period of extensive social and administrative reforms. Khosrow brought about a change in the imperial tax system and introduced reforms in the administrative and military affairs of the country. During his times, Greek and Indian books were translated into the Syriac and Pahlavi languages and taught at the Jondishapur Medical School. Similarly, it was during his times that the Iranians were introduced to the game of chess and the book “Kalilah and Demnah” (The Panchatantra Fables). It is for this reason that he came to be remembered as an “ideal ruler” and a “sagacious king”.

After his death, his son, Hormezd IV ascended to the throne in 579 AD. The most important event of his reign was a rebellion by Bahrām Chubin who led an expedition to Ctesiphon in order to overthrow the Sassanian king. The nobles and the priests or mobeds who were unhappy with Hormezd deposed him from power and instead placed his son, Khosrow II or Khosrow Parviz on the throne in 590 AD. The new king, however, fled from Bahrām Chubin’s army and took asylum in Byzantium and, finally, managed to defeat Bahrām with the help of the Byzantine emperor in 591 AD. In order to compensate for the help extended to him by the Byzantine emperor, Khosrow Parviz handed over parts of the Sassanian kingdom to Byzantium and a peace treaty was signed between the two emperors. However, when the Roman emperor was deposed and slain, Khosrow found himself free to attack the Roman Empire. Two of the Iranian generals, Shahbarāz and Shāhin, led a considerable number of conquests against that empire such that Byzantium almost lost all of its Asian territories and even Constantinople was threatened by them. Egypt, too, fell into the hands of the Sassanian army in 619 AD, and in this manner, Khosrow Parviz’s empire reached the vastness of the empire of the Achaemenians. However, the prolongation of the war and Khosrow’s obstinacy in continuing it, gave Byzantium the opportunity for retaliation. From 627 AD, Byzantium began a series of attacks against Khosrow’s empire. Āzarbāyjān (Atropatene) was razed and plundered and the Byzantine army captured Mesopotamia. Khosrow Parviz fled to Ctesiphon but rejected the offer for peace. Ultimately, in the course of a rebellion by the people and his generals, Khosrow Parviz was deposed and imprisoned and his eldest son, Shiruyeh (Siroes) or Qobād II, ascended to the throne, while Khosrow was slain in prison a few days later in 628 AD. His entire reign was spent in tyranny, arrogance, and debauchery and the wars that he imposed on the country made Iran impoverished and desolate.

On the other hand, Qobād II immediately made a peace treaty with Byzantium and exempted people from taxes for a period of three years. He also freed his father’s prisoners and tried to please the army generals. However, his reign did not last for even one whole year because the plague that had spread in Iran as a result of the destructive wars of Khosrow Parviz also put an end to the life of Qobād II (628 AD). With his death, Iran was plunged into chaos and signs of deterioration began to show up. During the next four years since the death of Khosrow Parviz, until Yazdgerd III (628-632 AD), more than ten kings ascended the royal Iranian throne. One of them was Ardashir III who was only a minor child while another was “Burān”, the daughter of Khosrow Parviz, who was the first lady to be officially coronated with the Iranian crown. Khosrow Parviz’s other daughter, Āzarmidokht II, had also ascended to the Sassanian thrown for some time.

When the nobles of the empire appointed Yazdgerd III, the grandson of Khosrow Parviz as the king in 632 AD he was still a minor. In the second year of his rule, Yazdgerd III encountered the forces of the Arab Muslims in the eastern frontiers of the country. By then, a few years had passed from the advent of Islam in Hejāz but the Sassanians had not found the time to pay any attention to that reality. Some time later and following the collapse of al-Hirah at the hands of the Muslims (12 AH/633 AD) the Arab army camped in al-Qādisiyah (near al-Hirah). Following a few months of negotiation, war finally broke out, at the end of which, Rostam Farrokh Hormezd, the chief commander of the Sassanian army was killed (16 AH/637 AD). Thereafter, despite all its resistance, Ctesiphon collapsed and Yazdgerd III fled to the interiors of the country and was defeated for the last time in Nahāvand (21 AH/642 AD). The Arab Muslims regarded this victory as “Fath al-Futuh” (The Victory of Victories) since from then onwards they did not face any organized resistance. Yazdgerd III who had fled to the far off regions of the country was killed in a mill near Marv after years of wandering in 31 AH/651 AD. With his death, not only did the Sassanian Dynasty come to an end, but Iran, too, entered the period of its Islamic history after putting behind its ancient past.

* source: Zarrinkoob ,Roozbeh "Iran Entry" The Great Islamic Encyclopedia. Ed. Kazem Musavi Bojnourdi.Tehran: The Center of Great Islamic Encyclopaedia , 1989-, V. 10 , pp. 527 - 530

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