Sassanids


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Sassanids

 

(also Sassanians), Persian dynasty that ruled in the Middle East from the third to the seventh century. The dynasty originated in Persis (Parsa) and was named after Sasan, who was evidently the father of Papak (Babek, Papag), the first king of Persis of the Sassanid dynasty.

In A.D. 224, Ardashir I, the son of Papak and founder of the Sassanid state, crushed the Parthian king Artabanus V, thereby putting an end to the Parthian Empire. In 226 (or 227), Ardashir I was crowned at Ctesiphon. During the reigns of Ardashir I and Shapur I (reigned 239–272), Persia (present-day Iran) was unified and large regions to the west and east were annexed. In the third century, a number of hereditary local dynasties, such as Sakastan (Seistan), Carmania (Kerman), and Merv (Margia-na), as well as certain polis-type autonomous cities, still survived in the Sassanid state.

The successes of the Sassanids in foreign policy, particularly the victory over Rome, strengthened the Sassanid state and increased the central authority of the shahan shah (king of kings).

From the time of the formation of their state, the Sassanids relied on the Persian priestly class. Zoroastrianism became the state religion, and the Zoroastrian church, one of the chief political and economic forces in the country.

The late third and early fourth centuries were a period of temporary internal weakening of the Sassanid state and of setbacks in the struggle with Rome. A number of regions were lost in the east.

Shapur II (reigned 309–379) restored and strengthened Sassanid authority in some of the regions that had earlier been lost. In wars with the Roman Empire, disputed regions of Mesopotamia and approximately four-fifths of the kingdom of Armenia went to the Sassanids (treaty of 387). Until the early sixth century, the Sassanids maintained essentially peaceful relations with Byzantium.

In the fifth century, the kings of the local dynasties of Armenia, Albania, and Iberia in the Caucasus were replaced by Sassanid viceroys.

Under Shapur II, the power of the king and of the Zoroastrian church increased. The building of new “royal” cities was accompanied by the loss of autonomy of the old cities. Certain “kingdoms” and semiautonomous domains of the aristocracy disappeared in the fourth and fifth centuries. Concentration of power in the hands of the highest representatives of the ranking nobility, military commanders, and clergy was accompanied by increased exploitation of the peasantry and by, in the fifth century, a deepening social and political crisis. There were uprisings in Transcaucasia in the latter half of the fifth century and in Armenia in 571 and 572. Until the mid-fifth century, the Sassanids successfully fought groupings of eastern and northern tribes (including the Chionites). The wars with the Hephthal-ites, however, ended in the defeat of the Sassanids and the death of King Firuz (reigned 459–484). The Sassanids lost the regions east of Merv.

In the early 490’s, the Mazdakite movement began. This movement brought about profound changes in the governmental system, sociopolitical structure, and culture of the Sassanid state. The initial development of a feudal system, which preserved slaveholding, dates from the post-Mazdakite era. Within the peasant commune, differentiation by wealth and obligations led to the emergence of a stratum of servitors free of taxes (azats), who gradually became medium and small landowners (dehqans). The commune’s impoverished members and slaves became dependent upon this class.

In the fifth century, in addition to the head tax (gezit) and levy on agricultural production (from one-sixth to one-third of the harvest), the peasants were burdened with other payments and obligations. Distribution of the property of the aristocracy during the Mazdakite movement aided the development of the peasant economy, but the azats and dehqans extracted the greatest advantages. In the fifth century, the economic condition of most peasants in communes worsened sharply.

Under Khosrow (Chosroes) I, called Anushirvan (Immortal Soul; reigned 531–579), part of the old aristocracy became directly dependent economically upon the state and king. The king, in turn, materially supported the aristocracy but strove to prevent a rebirth of its political domination. The role of the bureaucratic apparatus and of the scribes increased. The tax reforms of Kavadh I (reigned 488–496 and 499–531) and Khosrow I established a fixed land tax (kharaj) and head tax, from which the military, priestly class, and scribes were exempted.

In the sixth century, the Sassanid state achieved great success in foreign policy. The Hephthalites were routed in the years 558–568; a number of regions in Afghanistan and Middle Asia (southwest of the Amu Darya), some of which had been lost under Firuz in the 480’s, were annexed; Yemen was conquered around 570; and the Turks who had invaded the state were routed around 589.

Wars between Byzantium and the Sassanid state began in the early sixth century. The war beginning in 602 that Khosrow II waged with Byzantium led initially to the Sassanid seizure of Byzantium’s eastern provinces. But after a defeat of the Persian troops early in the 620’s, Khosrow was overthrown (in 628). Protracted warfare, leading to the exhaustion of the state’s treasury and increased taxation, undermined the political and economic strength of the Sassanids. Approximately ten kings succeeded one another in the period 628–632. Under Yazdijird (Yazdegerd) III (reigned 632–651 [or 652]), the Sassanid state was conquered by the Arabs.

REFERENCES

Pigulevskaia, N. V. Vizantiia i Iran na rubezhe VI i VII vv. Moscow-Leningrad, 1946.
Pigulevskaia, N. V. Mesopotamiia na rubezhe V i VI vv. Moscow-Leningrad, 1940.
Lukonin, V. G. Kul’tura Sasanidskogo Irana. Moscow, 1969. Perikhanian, A. G. Sasanidskii sudebnik. Yerevan, 1973. Frye, R. N. Nasledie Irana. Moscow, 1972. (Translated from English.)
Nöldeke, T. Geschichte der Perser und Araber zur Zeit der Sasaniden. Leiden, 1879.
Christensen, A. L’Iran sous les Sassanides, 2nd ed. Copenhagen, 1944.
Ghirshman, R. Parthes et Sassanides. Paris, 1962.

E. A. GRANTOVSKII

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