Interview: The Glittering World of the Sasanians

The Sasanians of Iran have long played a historical “second fiddle” to their Romano-Byzantine, Indian, and Chinese neighbors. The last of the ancient Persian dynasties and perhaps the most culturally sophisticated of all Persian polities, the Sasanians were a dynamic and commanding force in the world of Late Antiquity. In this interview, James Wiener of the Ancient History Encyclopedia took the opportunity to speak with Professor Touraj Daryaee, an expert on Sasanian culture and politics.

JW: Professor Daryaee, Persian civilization is the one of the oldest, continuous civilizations in history. What can explain the lack of attention given to the Sasanian Empire (224-651 CE) in your opinion? Your new book, Sasanian Persia: The Rise and Fall of an Empire, is the first single volume-study of an era so important in Late Antiquity and in world history.

TD: I believe there are several reasons for the lack of attention to the Sasanian Empire and the region before the coming of Islam. One problem is the way the universities in the US and Europe have structured their curriculum. The Ancient Near East is important from ancient Mesopotamia to Alexander the Great. Then there is a blank usually till the coming of Islam in the 7th century CE. Meanwhile, not only the Seleucids, but also the Parthians and Sasanians, that is some nearly a millennium of Near Eastern and Iranian history, is ignored.

The second problem may be they way Ancient History programs have been designed which is a product of 19th century CE and can characterized as “Eurocentric.” Of course things are slowly changing which is encouraging! Here, in the University of California system, the Late Antiquity group has made every effort to make Late Antique Iran (namely, the Sasanians) as part of their work. Other places are thinking the same way, but there is a lack of expertise.

JW: The accomplishments of Sasanian Persia rival those of Gupta India (320-550 CE), Han dynasty China (206 BCE-220 CE), Imperial Rome and later, Byzantium (27 BCE-476/1453 CE). For Iranians, the rule of the Sasanians is largely remembered as a golden age of art, science, and culture: many consider it to be–along with the Achaemenid Empire (c. 550-336 BCE)–the apex of Persian culture until the coming of the Safavids (1501-1736 CE).

Can you explain some of the social and political processes, which helped facilitate this great flourishing of culture? Was it due to specific political or religious institutions or structures only found in Iran?

TD: I think the 6th century CE is the golden age of Iran in that the Sasanians, under the rule of Khusro I (r. 531-579 CE), attempted to be on par with the Byzantines and the Guptas. There was a great translation movement, which was the model for the later Abbasid Caliphate (750-1258 CE), where works in Greek, Hebrew, Syriac, Sanskrit, and even Chinese were translated into Middle Persian.

Economic reforms brought about wealth and prosperity and any empire with wealth draws people. So hospitals such as that in Jundishapur, became great centers of medicine in late antiquity; the structuring of such games as chess and backgammon was also as a result of this process. We should remember that the first manual, on these two games, is in Middle Persian.

Additionally, by the 6th Century CE the “King’s Law,” had created an atmosphere where Jews, Christians along with Zoroastrians had full rights.

JW: Sasanian society was extremely complex and has been characterized as “rigid” by historians. What can explain these complexities and how can a socially “rigid” civilization engineer a golden age? Furthermore, is “rigid” even an accurate label?

TD: I think it is wrong to see and think of Sasanian society as such. Early on, this was not the case and the Middle Persian authors and the kings attempted to plant an Avestan model of the society within the late antique society of Iran. But of course this was a wish and only partly successful.

You have many different ethnic and religious groups that would not fit such an exact model. The Sasanians found a way to have such a “rigid” structure for the Zoroastrian population, which I don’t know if it was all-successful. The Jews, Christians, Manicahaeans, Buddhists and Mandeans certainly did not conform to such tradition.

JW: The inhabitants of Sasanian Persia were primarily Zoroastrian but there were significant minorities of Jews, Christians, Manichaeans, and even Buddhists within the borders of the empire.

How were religious minorities governed and treated by the Sasanian Shahs? It is my understanding that attitudes and policies shifted from time to time, and that there was great social interaction amongst Zoroastrians and religious minorities.

TD: As I mentioned in the 4th century CE, Christianity becomes as issue when Constantine the Great proclaims himself as the head of all [the] Christians, but by the 5th century CE, an official Persian Christian church is established. Jews were in close contact with the king and the imperial court and there was a great deal of intermarriage. The same is true with Christians, and many members of the Persian nobility converted to Christianity in late Sasanian period.

There was certainly communal violence, but we should remember that the king and law tried to reduce inter-communal violence. Zoroastrianism, however, had a significant status among the upper class in Mesopotamia and also among the masses on the Iranian Plateau.

JW: Many are unaware that the Sasanian Empire exerted strong influence on ancient Rome. Could you perhaps elaborate further on some of the ways the Sasanians influenced Rome and the other major civilizations surrounding Persia?

TD: Sasanian dress, games such as chess and backgammon, the idea of jousting (of course these come in later into the west); the title of “King of Kings” in the Greek form for the Emperor and some have even suggested that the Theme System was partly influenced by the Sasanians (that I am not sure of in all honesty). The idea of prosokyneses or prostrating yourself before the all-powerful ruler is another Sasanian tradition subsequently adopted by the Byzantines.

In terms of artistic production, the Sasanians influenced the Caucasus, Central Asia and even China. One only has to just read the great books of people such as Laufer and Schafer (both Sinologists) to see this influence on the East.

JW: The Sasanians saw themselves as the heirs of the Achaemenians. In what significant ways did they continue the legacy of their predecessors and differ from the Parthians (247 BCE-224 CE)?

TD: I think that the Sasanians actually did not really think of themselves as heirs to the Achaemenids, but rather to the Avestan mythical dynasties of Kayanids. In this way they created a sacred lineage and sacred history, which the Shahnameh (“Book of Kings”) is a good form of it.

In their dealings the Sasanians evoked the mythical history of Iran, while the Romans thought that they were talking about the Achaemenids. An interesting misunderstanding!

JW: I do apologize Professor Daryaee! I see that I still have much to learn about the Sasanians.

I was also unaware that the heirs of Yazdegerd III (r. 632-651 CE)–the last Sasanian Shah–tried to reestablish an independent Sasanian state after the Arab conquest of the Iranian Plateau (633-651 CE). Where and when did this occur?

TD: Before the death of Yazdgerd III (r. 632-651), he had sent his daughter and couple of sons, Peroz and Wahram, to China to seek help. They did try their best and established a small Persian kingdom in Sistan for a decade in the 660s and 670s CE. The memory of the Sasanians really never evaporated from the Persian consciousness and by the 9th and 10th centuries CE every dynasty on the plateau connected themselves somehow to the old Sasanian traditions.

JW: Thank you for your time! It’s been an immense pleasure to speak with you Professor Daryaee. To close, can you please tell us about the Sasanika Project?

TD: Thank you very much, I hope your readers and users visit also our website at UC Irvine, Center for Persian Studies and Culture called “Sasanika.” For the past ten years we have been trying to provide information and all the available evidence for the Sasanian Empire. We have great resources for further study at this site. Interested readers and visitors can also access my personal website as well.

  • Professor Touraj Daryaee is the Howard C. Baskerville Professor in the History of Iran and the Persianate World and the Associate Director of the Dr. Samuel M. Jordan Center for Persian Studies and Culture at the University of California, Irvine. His latest work “Sasanian Persia: The Rise and Fall of an Empire,” provides a portrait of the empire’s often neglected social history, exploring the development of political and administrative institutions from foundation by Ardashir I to the last king, Yasdegerd III, and the attempts of his descendants to reestablish a second state almost a century after.
  • James Wiener is the news editor of Ancient History Encyclopedia, providing a continuous listing of must-read articles, exciting museum exhibitions, and recent book reviews. Trained as a historian and researcher, and previously a professor, James is a freelance writer who is keenly interested in cross-cultural exchange. Committed to fostering increased awareness of the ancient world, James welcomes you to the Ancient History Encyclopedia and hopes that you find his news pieces and interviews to be “illuminating.”

 

James Wiener
About the Author
James Blake Wiener is the Communications Director at Ancient History Encyclopedia. Trained as a historian and researcher, and previously a professor, James is chiefly interested in cross-cultural exchange, world history, and international relations. Aside from his work at AHE, James is an avid Arabist, devotee of romance languages (French, Portuguese, and Spanish), reggaetoñero, and fan of ice hockey.