The Sassanian, or Neo-Persian, Empire

The Sassanian, or Neo-Persian, Empire (224–651)

The Sassanians were the last native dynasty in Iran and the last IndoEuropean overlords of Iraq. Upon taking control of the Parthian Empire, the dynasty moved its capital from Istakhr, near Persepolis, to Ctesiphon in order to take advantage of whatever structure and trappings of empire remained. Unlike its predecessor, the Sassanian state was a highly centralized bureaucracy based on a hierarchical system of administration. This centralization accounted for greater stability than under the Parthians throughout most of the empire’s history and allowed it to resist fi rst Roman, then Byzantine intrusions in the west. Like their Parthian predecessors and the Achaemenids, the Sassanian monarchs bore the title “king of kings.”

The Sassanians, in fact, felt a close kinship with the Achaemenids. One of their more important decrees upon taking over in Ctesiphon was the restoration of Zoroastrianism (also known as Mazdaism), which became the state religion (Hourani 1991, 9). Zoroastrianism had been the religion of at least the early Achaemenid kings. Under the Sassanians, Zoroastrianism not only became the offi cial religion, but nonbelievers were often persecuted.

However, the Zoroastrianism of the Sassanians differed from that of the Achaemenids. In the religion’s earlier incarnation, the god Ahuramazda (Wise Lord) was much like the Hebrew Yahweh, the creator of all things. By the time of the Sassanians, indeed even during the time of the Persian Empire, Ahuramazda was considered the creator of all things good, while the origins of Angra Mainyu, the god of evil, had been reinterpreted. In the reinterpretation, which bears a resemblance to ancient Greek mythology, the two gods were twin sons of Zurvan, the god of time; hence, the religion had ceased to be monotheistic.

Sassanian Expansion

The fi rst Sassanian war with Rome began in 231 C.E., during the reign of Ardashir. But it was under Ardashir’s son and successor, Shapur I (r. 241–272), that the Sassanians really began to fl ex their military muscle. Shapur’s most important victory in the West was fought at the Battle of Edessa in 260, when he defeated and captured the Roman emperor Valerian (r. 253–260).

Rome’s ill fortune gradually reversed as the century wound down so that long after Shapur I was dead, under Narseh (r. 293–303), the Sassanians, in 298, signed a treaty with Rome that restored much territory to the latter in northern Mesopotamia. The Sassanians were also victorious in the East. They defeated the Kushans, who controlled Gandara, which had been a satrapy of the Achaemenid Persian Empire but was nevertheless Indian and not Persian. In doing so, they looted the capital of Peshawar (in modern-day Pakistan). Legend has it that one of the objects taken was Buddha’s begging bowl.

The tight governmental structure of the Sassanians meant not only that the plunder from Antioch and Peshawar went to the royal treasury but that the provincial governors had to answer directly to the monarch. The dynasty fi nanced city- and road-building (whereas in the past, generals or satraps would have done so), expanded agriculture, and even instituted a fi nancial system. This tight control also accelerated the spread of Pahlavi as the language of the empire, whereas the Parthians throughout most of their imperial history had had no lingua franca until the emergence of Parthian in the fi nal century or so of the empire’s existence.

The Sassanian Empire was dominated in the fourth century by one man, Shapur II (r. 309–379). Technically, he ruled from the moment of his birth, though a regent actually governed the empire until 325. Shapur II, like his namesake, was driven to expand the empire, and like Shapur I, he did so by attacking Rome’s holdings in Mesopotamia and Armenia in 337. This war went back and forth for the next 13 years and basically was fought to a standstill. But the war had a serious effect on Shapur’s domestic policy.

By 337, the Roman Empire had become Christianized, and with hostilities between the two empires on the increase, the numerous Christians in the Sassanian Empire suddenly became suspect. An empire-wide policy of persecution and forced conversion of Christians was put into place sometime after the beginning of the new war with Rome, which lasted throughout the reign of Shapur II, and even during the eight years when there was relative peace between the two empires. The long and costly confl ict with the Roman and later the Byzantine Empire and a succession of short-lived kings seriously weakened the Sassanian Empire and made it ripe for takeover by Muslim Arabs to the south.

The year 634 marked the fi rst clashes between Arabs and Sassanian Persians in Iraq. After early defeats that resulted in the loss of the fertile area along the Euphrates’ right bank, the Persians routed the Arabs in the Battle of the Bridge. However, in 637, the Arabs attacked again achieving a major victory that allowed them to seize and sack Ctesiphon. By 638, they had conquered nearly all of Iraq, and the fi nal Sassanian king, Yazdgard III (r. 632–651) fl ed to the ancestral homeland. Three years later, the Arabs invaded Iran. When Yazdgard was killed in 651, the Sassanian Empire ceased to exist. By then, however, Iraq was already a province of the Muslim caliphate.

Trade in the Sassanian Empire

Although the Sassanian economy was based on agriculture, trade played an important role in keeping the empire vital and extending its infl uence beyond it political boundaries. China, via the Silk Route, was a prominent trading partner but by no means the sole one in the East. Evidence of Sassanian trade in what is now Vietnam and the Indochinese peninsula has been uncovered in the form of caches of Sassanian coins.

Shahab Setudeh-Nejad points out that after the fourth century, “Sassanians monopolized the maritime trade of the Far Eastern routes,” capitalizing on “technological innovation in the shipbuilding industry of the Persian Gulf” that had begun in the previous century (Setudeh-Nejad). A good deal of Sassanian trade eastward was sparked by the rivalry with the Byzantine Empire. When a war over the satrapy of Armenia threatened the Silk Route, both empires took to the sea to reach the Far East.

For the Sassanians, the war also prodded trade to the south, in the Arabian Peninsula. “The Sassanians,” as historian Touraj Daryaee has noted, “were competing with the Romans and disputing trade concessions as far as Sri Lanka, and it appears there was even a Sassanian colony in Malaysia. . . . Persian horses were shipped to Ceylon [Sri Lanka], and a colony was established on that island where ships came from Persia” (Daryaee 2003, 8–9). Archaeological evidence has shown that Sassanian merchants established ports in various parts of the Persian Gulf, the Arabian Sea, and beyond.

Another important trade route for Sassanian merchants was to the north, with the Ugric peoples of what is now northwestern Russia. Historian Richard N. Frye, in a paper discussing Sassanian trade in the north, contended that “Iranians in the towns of south Russia acted as middlemen in the trade between the Sassanian Empire in the south and the Ugrian-speaking peoples of northern Russia” (Frye 1972, 265).

While Sassanian coins have been discovered in abundance as far to the northwest as Scandinavia, they are usually accompanied by Islamic coins, but Frye noted “the large number of Sassanian silver bowls of the fi fth to eighth centuries” found in the Kama-Perm region of northwestern Russia as evidence that signifi cant Sassanian trade took place prior to Islamic times (Frye 1972, 265).

The silver objects were used in religious worship. What the Sassanians may have received in return was “fi sh, hides, wax, honey, amber, and walrus and mammoth ivory,” which were more prized than elephant ivory (Frye 1972, 266).


The wealth and geographical situation of ancient Iraq made it a point of contention for external dynasties for more than 1,000 years. As each dynasty succumbed to what seems an almost inevitable collapse—following a cycle of empowerment, growth, and decadence—it was succeeded by a hungrier group. The Persians were drawn by the wealth and mystery of Babylon, for example, and the Macedonians by that and its role as the cultural capital of the ancient Near East and the centrality of it geographical position—Alexander the Great planned to make it the capital of his far-fl ung empire.

Even when Babylon’s glory had faded, ancient Iraq had something to offer. Much like the Low Countries of Europe in the 20th century, it was easy to conquer, but unlike them, its conquerors tended to remain, for much the same reasons that Alexander intended to stay. Even the Romans understood the region’s importance as the link between the Mediterranean and the Far East. What is remarkable about this period of Iraq’s history is not so much the amount of warfare and cities seized and retaken over and over but that for more than 1,100 years the area was ruled by and large by only four empires, each of which played its part on the Mesopotamian stage before receding into history.