MENU

Volume 3 / 2018 / Issue 1

Show / Hide Annotations
{[annotations_count]}

PDF
Download

Help

Citations

Cited Article

Click and drag then release to select a passage to cite.

Add to my projects
Save to a Word Doc

Annotations

Annotation Tool
How to submit annotations to Mizan Journal articles:
  • 1. The annotation tool is active when this box is open, do not close it until you are finished.
  • 2. Click and drag, then release to highlight the text area you wish to annotate. (If you are not logged in, you will be prompted to do so.)
  • 3. Click on the pencil & paperclip icon to open the annotation toolbox.
  • 4. Enter and format your text then click "Preview" to see how your entry will appear, and/or “Submit” to complete your annotation.
  • 5. Close this box.
  • * Your annotation will be reviewed and you will receive an email notification when
    your work is published.
  • Search within this article:
    About Global Late Antiquity

    The Sasanians and the Late Antique World

    About Global Late Antiquity

    The Sasanians and the Late Antique World

    Late Antiquity from the margins

    The concept of Late Antiquity, Spätantike in German or Antiqué tardive in French, emerged at the beginning of the twentieth century within the context of the study of the Mediterranean world. The term became associated with the introduction of Christianity within the Roman Empire, where the religion made its mark on the political structures, mentalities, and worldviews of those who lived and took charge of the Eastern Mediterranean world. This new world in the Mediterranean—markedly different from what may be called the “pagan” Roman period (for lack of a better term)—is recorded in the writings of Constantine’s counselor, Eusebius, but also by such events as the proclamation of the Edict of Milan and the removal of the Altar of Victory from the Senate.1 The influence of Christianity on the ethos and traditions of the Mediterranean world is also visible in the material culture of the period, from the fourth century CE onward. Looking at coinage, monuments, and churches, we can unquestionably appreciate the changes that occurred within the Roman Empire, specifically in the East, looking towards the Orient.

    The concept of Late Antiquity was made popular in Anglo-Saxon scholarship in the early 1970s through the seminal work of Peter Brown, The World of Late Antiquity.2 Brown’s book revolutionized the common understanding of Late Antiquity by including Iran in its geography, thus juxtaposing the world of the emperor Justinian at Constantinople with that of the Sasanian King of Kings, Khusrow I Anūšīrwān (531–579 CE), at Ctesiphon. As Humphreys and Clover observe, by the end of the 1980s, the concept of Late Antiquity was “neither medieval, nor Roman,” anymore.3 The relevance of Iran as part of the geography of Late Antiquity has been further emphasized by Michael Morony and Beth DePalma Digeser, who have recognized that Iran fits into the late antique paradigm and should be considered part of a “Global Late Antiquity.”4 More recently, Richard Payne has shown that Christianity was as an integral part of the Sasanian world, just as Manichaeism and Judaism were in the Iranian Empire.5 I would like to call the study of the Roman and the Sasanian worlds the study of “Late Antique Eurasia,” where perhaps the Gupta, but also kingdoms farther afield, could be included. Despite a consensus amongst scholars, some authors still question the utility and accuracy of including the lands east of the Euphrates in the late antique paradigm, as if there was a sign on the other side of the Tigris River saying, “Late Antiquity does not exist here; Christianity never really mattered, nor was it an important part of the Iranian world.”6

    This essay is a response to and reflection upon these questions and debates. Using literary sources and material culture from the Sasanian period, I analyze how and why Iran was transformed in Late Antiquity. I contend that we can detect important changes from the Oxus to the Euphrates (the cultural realm of Ērānšahr), between the third and seventh centuries CE. In fact, it appears that the Sasanians actually thought of themselves as living in a new era, different from the past; hence the existence of a distinctly late antique Iran is evident.

    The Walled Garden

    When we look at literary production from the Sasanian period, we must remain cognizant of the fact that much of the surviving Pahlavi literature was written in the post-Sasanian period. However, many texts were composed in the sixth and the seventh centuries CE and clearly reflect the Sasanian ethos. Perhaps the best case in point is the Kārnāmag ī Ardaxšīr ī Pābagān (Book of Deeds of Ardaxšīr, son of Pābāg), a reading staple of late antique society in the Persianate world. From its very first chapter, the Book of Deeds mentions that the Iranian world, Ērānšahr, had been divided between 240 petty kings (kadag-xwadāy) before the rule of Ardaxšīr (224–240 CE), from the time of Alexander to the third century.7 The aim of the book is to show how Ardaxšīr and his sons (XIV.19), equipped with xwarrah (royal glory), were able to unite and rule the Iranian world (Ērānšahr abāz ō ēw-xwadāyīh tuwānist āwurdan), and bring about a new age in the history of the region.

    Of course, Ardaxšīr’s endeavors aimed at bringing back again (abāz) what once was in existence, i.e., unity and power in Iran.8 In reality, Ardaxšīr introduced a change in the status quo of how the Arsacids ruled the Iranian Plateau, moving from a fragmented system (feudal, to use Western terminology) of rule to one in which the King of Kings reigned supreme and could not be challenged by the petty kings as had been done before.9 The move towards centralization can also be gleaned from the administrative practices of the Sasanian Empire, which grew in scale, especially from the fifth century CE, with mintmarks on coins and administrative seals. The administrative division of the Sasanian Empire can be seen in an Ērānšahr in which governors (ostāndār), priests (mow), accountants (āmārgar), and others were involved in an unprecedented level of control and centralization.10

    One may contend that the very notion of an Ērānšahr was a late antique project of the Sasanians. If we are to follow Gnoli’s narrative, there had never been a political understanding of Ērānšahr prior to this time.11 This new political entity called Ērānšahr became a physical space in which the inscriptions of the third century, namely that of Šapūr I and Kerdīr at the Kaʿbeh-ye Zardosht (“Cube of Zoroaster”), provide a tangible as well as a mental boundary between the ēr, “Iranian,” and an-ēr, “non-Iranian.”12 Furthermore, walls were constructed to demarcate a real boundary around this empire, namely the Wall of Darband, the Great Wall of Gorgān, and the Wall of the Arabs, while the two rivers, the Oxus and the Euphrates, seem to have been the other demarcation of Ērānšahr, which eventually was considered a sacred space.13

    While Mazdaism or Zoroastrianism already existed under the Arsacids, it was really under Ardaxšīr that Mazdaism began to be officially propagated on the coinage of the Sasanian Empire as a dominant religious tradition.14 If we take into consideration the coins and the literary corpus, it is no exaggeration to say that the Sasanians wished to project themselves as the promoters of both Zoroastrianism and the start of a new era in Iranian history. This can be seen in late sources such as the Dēnkard IV and the Nāmeh-ye Tansar.15 If we believe the Nāmeh-ye Tansar, the religious changes introduced by Ardaxšīr made many of his contemporaries uncomfortable, as Mary Boyce suggests.16 But Ardaxšīr’s religious revolution was also praised as a re-organization (abāz ārāyišnīh) by those versed in the Zoroastrian religion.17 Nevertheless, we observe a significant shift in the religious affiliation of the new dynasty on the Iranian Plateau, where Zoroastrian symbols and ideas were overtly pushed to the forefront of society. After all, the first word minted on the Sasanian coins was mazdēsn (Avestan, mazdayasna-, “Mazda-worshippers”). As far as we know, the Arsacids never made such an effort to promote any single religion, and based on the scant evidence, they were open to other religions.

    In literature, the fortified walls built in the sixth century CE around Ērānšahr are often connected to the notion of a paradise (Old Persian, *paridayda-), i.e., a walled garden, in which the king would act as the gardener. While Bruce Lincoln has recently discussed the ideological framework of the term *paridayda-, I believe there is much that continues in the Sasanian period, where, for example, King Khusrow is clearly described as a gardener and a caretaker of his realm, and Ērānšahr is imagined as a garden with the king as its gardener.18 In the Shāhnāmeh of Ferdowsī, King Khusrow’s role is portrayed in the following manner:

    Iran is a lush Spring garden,

    where roses ever bloom.

    The army and weapons are the garden’s walls

    and lances its wall of thorns.

    If the garden’s walls are pulled down,

    then there will be no difference between it and the wilderness (beyond).

    Take care not to destroy its walls

    and not to dishearten or weaken Iranians.

    If you do, then raiding and pillaging will follow,

    and also the battle-cries of riders and the din of war.

    Risk not the safety of the Iranians’ wives, children, and lands

    by bad policies and plans.19

    In these verses, we can appreciate the unfolding of a new Iranian world which did not exist before. In this new world of Ērānšahr, justice and civilization rule and the ēr (Iranians) are safe under the protection of the king’s law or justice (dād).

    Khusrow I brought order and organization to the Sasanian Empire after revolts, plagues, and famines. As presented in the Shāhnāmeh, the king’s justice resonated with those who remembered the Sasanian world. The idea of the circle of justice, a classic concept in the Near Eastern tradition, became synonymous with the Sasanians and reverberated in the Islamicate world.20 Such conceptions of the world were not present in the Arsacid world; at least, there is simply no record of such ideological views (see Gallery Image A).

    In the eyes of the Sasanians, those who dwell outside of the walls are the enemies of justice and order, and are considered monsters. Carlo Cereti’s reading of the apocalyptic Middle Persian text, Zand ī Wahman Yasn, explains how the two- legged wolves (gurg ī do zang) stand for the “others” or “outsiders” who raid Ērānšahr.21 The text provides an old Iranian trope which goes back to the Avestan tradition of the two-legged wolves as men—and sometimes as monsters—attacking Ērānšahr.22 These “others” bring chaos and destruction to Mazdean order, in a similar fashion as the Evil Spirit (Ahreman) causes cosmic chaos against Ohrmazd (the supreme god, also known as Mazda). Thus, these barbarians/monsters (an-ēr) reside outside the walls, in the desert wild where there is no order or law, while the ērānagān (Iranians) stay safe within the walled garden. The more difficult question to answer is what position did the an-ēr who lived in Ērānšahr occupy? Was there a “civilizing” effect by living in Ērānšahr, with the king’s justice bringing order to those otherwise considered foreigners?

    This dichotomy between the inside and outside of Ērānšahr is a late antique phenomenon which did not exist before in either the Achaemenid or the Arsacid kingdoms. This creation of Ērānšahr as a paradisiacal space by Khusrow I may go back to the Mazdean tradition associated with the story of the primordial king, Yima/Jamšīd, who rules over paradise in the Avesta.23 Yima/Jamšīd was responsible for building a vara– (wall) that protected the best people and species.

    State and religion: the numismatic evidence

    Another important change within Iranian society characteristic of the late antique period is the role of religion vis-à-vis the state and the specific worldview espoused by the Sasanians. In the Roman Empire, the chi-rho banner marked the dominance of Christianity; its manifestation on material culture began with Constantine I’s son, Constantius II, in the second half of the fourth century CE (see Gallery Image B).24

    Within the Iranian world, we observe differences between the iconography used on imperial Arsacid coinage and that on Sasanian coinage. It is well known that Ardaxšīr, who hailed from the province of Persis, imposed new monetary reforms with better regulation of weight and silver content.25 The obverse of the Arsacid coinage was imitated by the Sasanians (depicting the ruler with distinctive headgear), but they made sure that the difference and distinctness of their new iconographic features would be visible as well. The legends on the coins were in Middle Persian—a departure from the tradition on the Iranian Plateau, where the Greek or deformed Aramaic used on Arsacid coins.26 More importantly, on the reverse, an image of the fire altar was struck instead of a depiction of the seated King of Kings (see Gallery Image C).

    The fire altar had been a well-known symbol used on local coins in Persis before the rise of the Sasanians.27 On the Iranian Plateau at large, however, the use of this symbol on coinage was new. Beginning with the very first imperial coinage of the founder of the Sasanian Empire, the dynasty struck coins with this image as a marker of a new religious identity. This was the king’s fire (nwry MLKA), which, according to the Nāmeh-ye Tansar, was first associated with the Achaemenid Darius I. The Nāmeh-ye Tansar states that since the time of the Achaemenids, the religious (Mazdean) tradition had become obscured and many fire temples had mushroomed without any clear guidelines. Ardaxšīr then extinguished them and carried them to their proper place, probably to his own fire temple, so that there would be only one royal fire.28 One may suggest that if such an action took place, then from the very first Sasanian King of Kings, there was a campaign to bring religious centralization. On the obverse of Ardaxšīr’s coins, the word mazdēsn (Mazda-worshipper) was also struck. This is a significant break from Arsacid numismatic iconography and propaganda, suggesting a new ideological and religious identity, where the kings presented themselves as Mazda-worshippers (see Gallery Image D). Later on, in the third century, two figures were added on each side of the royal fire altar, one of them being most likely the King of Kings himself.

    The introduction of this new ideology was also echoed in Pahlavi texts, and later in Persian and Arabic literature. The Pahlavi book Dēnkard states:

    hād xwadāyīh dēn ud dēn xwadāyī…

    pad awēšān xwadāyīh abar dēn ud dēn

    abar xwadāyīh winnārdagīh

    Know that kingship is religion and religion is kingship…

    from them kingship is arranged based on religion and religion

    based on kingship.29

    This passage, along with Sasanian coinage, clearly reveals the empire’s new conception of “kingship” and “religion” as two interdependent units that cannot survive without each other.30 This paradigm continued well into the Islamic period and became part of the standard discourse among medieval philosophers and statesmen.31

    Sasanian rock reliefs also attest to a new era in royal propaganda on a wider scale. While using old themes found in ancient Near Eastern and Achaemenid art, the Sasanians used the subjects of and connections to the past differently.32 Even though there are signs of continuity, the changes of the Sasanian period are much more visible. Notable examples include the representation of the king, who is now elevated to the status of the gods. This begins with Ardaxšīr in the third century CE and continues into the seventh century with Khusrow II (see Gallery Image E). In these scenes, gods and men are almost indistinguishable and the same size.33 Unlike in the past, the Sasanian kings and queens resemble the deities Ohrmazd and Anāhīd.34 The Sasanian rock reliefs in Persis, at Naqsh-e Rustam and Naqsh-e Rajab, depict a variety of scenes such as the king’s investiture, courtly scenes, and images of jousting, as well as monumental scenes of victories over the Romans and other assailants. Reliefs represent the aristocracy and the king competing for power, defeating enemies, and receiving diadems from the gods. Many of these images are reused from ancient Near Eastern tradition, especially Achaemenid and Arsacid works, but the Sasanians produced a large number of them throughout the duration of their empire.

    A Zoroastrian perspective on history

    Another new development introduced during Sasanian times was the concept of history written by the Sasanians.35 We are mostly dependent on late and post-Sasanian historical writings for Sasanian historical remains. Movses Khorenatsi (ca. 410–490s CE) in his History of the Armenians states that the Arsacids had a historical tradition, but there is scant corroborating evidence that suggests the existence of a written Arsacid history.36 We know, on the other hand, that the Sasanians commissioned a history of Ērānšahr from remote antiquity to their own time. The idea of a royal narrative to be passed down as common history shared by all Iranians is a distinctive project of Late Antiquity.37 This historical narrative, which may have been a genre rather than a single book as in later times, remained a historical blueprint for Iran’s ancient history until the nineteenth century.38 Sources suggest that such a historical work(s) was commissioned in the sixth century during the rule of Khusrow I, and was known as the Xwadāy-nāmag (Book of Lords).39 What makes this narrative distinct from former traditions is its strong religious stance, what we may call a Zoroastrian vison of past and present history. I would contend that different genres became sources of history for different classes of people to read in late antique Iran. For example, the Siyar al-Mulūk and the Shāhnāmeh were kingly texts; the Bundahišn was a priestly text, and such texts as the Garšāsbnāmeh and Kūšnāmeh were popular histories for the masses.40 This form of historical dissemination embodies the organization of Iranian Late Antiquity, in which religion became the most important element used to view the past and frame the present within the context of sacred narrative texts.

    A similar paradigm can also be seen in the late antique Roman world, where from the time of Eusebius, history was remodeled around a biblical framework rather than in the classical style.41 In the historiography and material culture of the Eastern Roman world, even the Persian generals and the King of Kings, Khusrow II, were presented through a biblical lens, for example as Holofernes, the general of Nebuchadnezzar, or as Goliath. Roman material culture, specifically silver plates from Late Antiquity, present us with evidence for this sacred historical framing of events. The most famous group of silver Roman/Byzantine plates in this historiography of the Perso-Roman warfare are those of battle scenes in which David is able to overcome Goliath. On the back of one of the silver dishes depicting the defeat of Goliath by David, the name of Emperor Heraclius is stamped. This action suggests Heraclius’ attempt to portray himself as the victor in the Perso-Roman war (to use James Howard-Johnston’s terminology, “the last great war of Late Antiquity”), but in a biblical context (see Gallery Image F).42

    In Sasanian Ērānšahr, a Zoroastrian vision of historiography in which the burden of the past played its part in the affairs of Late Antiquity also developed. According to that vision, the supporters and enemies of Ērānšahr are given an Avestan coloring and context, meaning they are portrayed as the heroes and villains of Zoroastrian sacred tradition.43 For example, the Xwadāy-nāmag depicts the Turks on the Sasanians’ eastern front as the Tūranians mentioned in the Avesta, with their great king Afrāsīyāb. These associations became an important “historical” tradition that the Turkic tribes and Turkic noble houses such as the Khwarzmshāhs were only too happy to adopt.44 In this new historiography, the Romans were tied to the Avestan Salm, who became the enemies of Ērānšahr on the western front. Such was the cooptation of sacred (Avestan and biblical) narratives in history in Late Antiquity, for both the Iranians and the Romans.

    For the Sasanians, their King of Kings became the inheritor of Iraj, who ruled Iran and the Kayanid dynasty, as indicated in the Avesta and more immediately in the Xwadāy-nāmag. The Sasanian kings then played a role in the sacred history of Iran, where, for example, Khusrow II (590–628 CE) took on the role of heroic king Kay Khusrow/Kavi Haosrauua of the Avesta. Thus, on his coinage, Khusrow II was made to resemble Khusrow/Kavi Haosrauua, endowed with royal glory (xwarrah; see Gallery Image G). To be on par with Kay Khusrow/Kavi Haosrauua, Khusrow II had to emulate his actions and heroics, as is indicated in the Zamyad Yasht, an important part of the Avestan hymns to kings and heroes, which lauds the kings of the past by stating that they “all became brave, all courageous… all filled with wondrous power, all perceptive… bold in action.”45 In a sense, the Sasanian kings, such as Khusrow II, had to prove themselves to be courageous, as his namesake predecessor in the Avesta had been. This connection explains, perhaps, the slogan struck on the special-issue coinage of Khusrow II (if genuine), stating that Ērānšahr is “without fear.”46 Thus, we might suggest that the heroic age of Khusrow II was fully aligned with Zoroastrian historiography and on par with Christian historiography, which, as we have seen, set Heraclius as David in his battles and struggles.47 This historical framework was not present previously in Iran’s history and is a product of the Sasanian Empire. This was a late antique worldview and type of history for the Iranian world, markedly different from the precedents of the past of the Arsacid period.

    A millenarian vision

    The last point I would like to discuss is the framing of Ardaxšīr’s time and the Sasanian Empire according to Zoroastrian millennial expectations. The Zoroastrians constructed a specific form of millenarian vision which began from the “Era of Zoroaster.”48 The world era, divided into 12,000 years, was further divided into 3,000-year cycles. According to that timeframe, 6,000 years elapsed before the first man appeared, and another 3,000 years before Zoroaster’s advent.49 The end of each millennium would bring an important outcome, and so the time of King Ardaxšīr corresponded to one of the major periods of messianic significance among the Zoroastrians.

    The account in Masʿūdī’s Kitāb al-Tanbīh wa’l-ishrāf is instrumental for understanding Ardaxšīr’s propaganda. In his book, Masʿūdī reports how some believed that Zoroaster had predicted that the Iranians would go through a great change after 300 years, and then again after 700 years. Admittedly, these important events coincided with Alexander’s conquest and the end of the Arsacid Empire. It is possible that Ardaxšīr turned the apocalyptic tradition to his advantage, making the establishment of the Sasanian Empire correspond to a new era in the Zoroastrian millennial expectation. The manipulation would have been done expertly, so as to not coincide with an era of “decline,” reducing the Arsacid dynasty’s rule to 260 years, and shifting Zoroaster’s age up to the beginning of his reign.50 Scholars disagree on whether it was Ardaxšīr in the third century CE or Khusrow I in the sixth century CE who manipulated the calendar.51 Regardless, the rule of the Sasanians was reckoned as an important time in history. This sort of millennial expectation was not only current among the Zoroastrians, but also within the Jewish community. In Jewish apocalyptic traditions from Late Antiquity, Ardaxšīr is mentioned as an important king that will bring a great change to history, before the appearance of the Messiah.52 For the Zoroastrians, the savior at that millennium would have been Ušēdar, whom the Manichaeans equated with Mani during the rise of Ardaxšīr in the third century CE; later Mazdak was equated with him as well, during the reign of Kawād I in the sixth century CE.

    Conclusion

    We could include more examples to demonstrate the ideological and historical shifts inaugurated by the Sasanian Empire. However, I believe the discussion above should suffice to demonstrate that the rule of Ardaxšīr in the third century marked the beginning of a new age on the Iranian Plateau. This change is echoed in the fourth book of the Dēnkard, in which it is stated that those versed in religion (dēn-āgāhān) had predicted that Ardaxšīr’s arrival would cause strife but his reign would be “world-profiting” (gēhān sūd).53 This tradition of changes and shifts are reflected in Pahlavi, Arabic, and Persian sources, supporting the idea that Ardaxšīr brought about fundamental shifts in his own time, which can be called the beginning of late antique Iran.

    Indeed, there appears to have been a sharp break from the Arsacid past and a new vision for the people of the Iranian Plateau engineered and crafted by the Sasanian kings. These major changes are not simply reflected in later sources on the third century, but also exist in contemporaneous Armenian and Jewish sources on the third-century transition in the late ancient world. This view of the religious communities living in the late Arsacid-early Sasanian period can be gleaned from the Babylonian Talmud. In one passage in the Talmud, it states that “Antoninus attended on Rabbi [a third-century Palestinian rabbi]; Artabān (the last Arsacid king) attended on Rab [a contemporary Babylonian rabbi]. When Antoninus died, Rabbi exclaimed: ‘The bond is snapped!’ [So also] when Artabān died, Rab exclaimed: ‘The bond is snapped!’”54 Here we are witnessing a change in relationship between the Jews and the new dynasty, i.e., the Sasanians, which was noticed and characterized as a breakage or ‘snapping’ of the status quo of life in Eurasia. This change was brought about by Ardaxšīr I and the Sasanian dynasty, and almost every source acknowledged and understood this as the coming of a new age. Ardaxšīr I was a revolutionary whose militant Mazdean zeal and vision of an empire named Ērānšahr ushered a new period in Iranian history.

    About the author

    Touraj Daryaee is the Maseeh Chair in Persian Studies and Culture and the Director of the Dr. Samuel M. Jordan Center for Persian Studies and Culture at the University of California, Irvine. His research focuses on the ancient and early medieval history of Iran, specifically the Sasanian Empire. He has worked on Middle Persian literature, editing and translating several texts with commentary on geography, dinner speech, chess, and backgammon. He is also interested in the history of Zoroastrianism in Late Antiquity and its encounter with Islam. He is the editor of the Name-ye Iran-e Bastan: The International Journal of Ancient Iranian Studies as well as the electronic journal, DABIR: Digital Archives of Brief Notes and Iran Review and Sasanika: Late Antique Near East Project. His articles have appeared both in English and Persian in Iranian Studies, Iran, Iranistik, Studia Iranica, Res Orientalis, Historia, Electrum, Indo-Iranian Journal, Journal of Indo-European Studies, Iranshenasi, Iran Nameh, Name-ye Baharestan, and Name-ye Iran-e Bastan. His books include Sasanian Persia: The Rise and Fall of an Empire (I. B. Tauris, 2009) and From Oxus to Euphrates: The World of Late Antique Iran (Jordan Center for Persian Studies, 2017). He is also the editor of the Oxford Handbook of Ancient Iran (Oxford University Press, 2012).

    Notes

    1. On the Christianization of Roman material culture, see Lucy Grig, “Portraits, Pontiffs and the Christianization of Fourth-Century Rome,” Papers of the British School at Rome 72 (2004): 203–230.
    2. Peter Brown, The World of Late Antiquity: From Marcus Aurelius to Muhammad (London: Thames and Hudson, 1971); more recently, see Clifford Ando, “Decline, Fall and Transformation,” Journal of Late Antiquity 1 (2008): 30–60 and Mark Humphries, “Late Antiquity and World History: Challenging Conventional Narratives and Analyses,” Studies in Late Antiquity 1 (2017): 8–37.
    3. Frank M. Clover and R. Stephen Humphreys, Tradition and Innovation in Late Antiquity (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1989), 3.
    4. Michael Morony, “Should Sasanian Iran be Included in Late Antiquity?,” E-Sasanika 1 (2008); see also the new journal Studies in Late Antiquity, founded and edited by Elizabeth DePalma Digeser, which expressly includes Sasanian Studies as a central field under its aegis.
    5. Richard Payne, A State of Mixture: Christians, Zoroastrians, and Iranian Political Culture in Late Antiquity (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2015).
    6. For an excellent review of the debates see, Humphries, “Late Antiquity and World History,” et passim.
    7. Frantz Grenet, La geste d’Ardashir fils de Pâbag = Kārnāmag ī Ardaxšēr ī Pābagān (Die: Éditions A Die 2003), 52.
    8. Ibid., 116–117.
    9. On the structure of Arsacid rule, see E. J. Keall, “How Many Kings did the Parthian King of Kings Rule?,” Iranica Antiqua 29 (1994): 253–272. For a nuanced view of Arsacid rule, see Leonardo Gregoratti, “Sinews of the Other Empire: The Parthian Great King’s Rule over Vassal Kingdoms,” in Håkon Fiane Teigen and Eivind Heldaas Seland (eds.), Sinews of Empire: Networks in the Roman Near East and Beyond (Oxford: Oxbow Books, 2017), 95–120.
    10. Rika Gyselen, La Géographie administrative de l’empire Sassanide. Les témoignages sigillographiques (Res Orientales I; Leuven: Peeters Publishers, 1989).
    11. Gherardo Gnoli, The Idea of Iran: An Essay on the Origins (Rome: Instituto Italiano per il Medio ed Estremo Oriente, 1989).
    12. Idem, “Ēr mazdēsn: Zum Begriff Iran und seiner Entstehung im 3. Jahrhundert,” in Transition Periods in Iranian History (Actes du Symposium de Fribourg-en-Brisgau, 22–24 Mai 1985) (Cahiers de Studia Iranica 5; Leuven: Peeters Publishers, 1987), 83–100.
    13. Eberhard Sauer, Tony Wilkinson, Hamid Omrani Rekavandi, and Jabrael Nokandeh (eds.), Persia’s Imperial Power in Late Antiquity: The Great Wall of Gorgān and Frontier Landscapes of Sasanian Iran (Oxford: Oxbow Books, 2013); Hamid Mahamedi, “Wall as a System of Frontier Defense during the Sasanid Period,” in Touraj Daryaee and Mahmoud Omidsalar (eds.), The Spirit of Wisdom: Essays in Memory of Ahmad Tafazzoli (Costa Mesa, AZ: Mazda Publishers, 2004): 145–159; and Touraj Daryaee, “If These Walls Could Speak: The Barrier of Alexander, Wall of Darband and Other Defensive Moats,” in Stefano Pello (ed.), Borders: Itineraries on the Edges of Iran (Eurasiatica 5; Venice: Edizioni Ca’Foscari, 2016), 79–88.
    14. Vesta Sarkhosh Curtis, “Ancient Iranian Motifs and Zoroastrian Iconography,” in Alan Williams, Sarah Stewart, and Almut Hintze (eds.), The Zoroastrian Flame: Exploring Religion, History and Tradition (London: IB Tauris, 2016), 179-203; eadem, “Parthian Coins: Kingship and Divine Glory,” in Peter Wick and Markus Zehnder (eds.), The Parthian Empire and its Religions: Studies in the Dynamics of Religious Diversity (Gutenberg: Computus Druck Satz & Verlag, 2012): 68–81, 68–69.
    15. Dhanjishah Meherjibhai Madan (ed. and trans.), The Complete Text of the Pahlavi Dinkard, Part I (2 vols.; Bombay: Ganpatrao Ramajirao Sindhe, 1911), 412. For a translation, see Mansour Shaki, “The Denkard Account of the History of the Zoroastrian Scriptures,” Archiv Orientalni 49 (1981): 114–125, 117–118.
    16. The Letter of Tansar, trans. Mary Boyce (Rome: Instituto Italisano per il Medio ed Estremo Oriente, 1968), 47.
    17. Siamak Adhami, “A Question of Legitimacy: The Case of Ardašīr I (‘Dēnkard’ IV),” Indo-Iranian Journal 46 (2003): 223–230, 226–227.
    18. Bruce Lincoln, “À la Recherche du Paradis Perdu,” History of Religions 43 (2003): 139–154; idem, ‘Happiness for Mankind’: Achaemenian Religion and the Imperial Project (Acta Iranica 53; Leuven: Peeters, 2012): 5–19.
    19. Abū’l-Qasem Ferdowsī, The Shahnameh = The Book of Kings, ed. Djalal Khaleghi-Motlagh (8 vols.; New York: Bibliotheca Persica, 1988–2008): 7:275–282; the translation is from Maḥmūd Omīdsālār, Iran’s Epic and America’s Empire: A Handbook for a Generation in Limbo (Santa Monica, CA: Afshar Press, 2012), 165–166.
    20. Linda T. Darling, A History of Social Justice and Political Power in the Middle East: The Circle of Justice from Mesopotamia to Globalization (New York: Routledge, 2013), 41–46.
    21. The Zand ī Wahman Yasn: A Zoroastrian Apocalypse, trans. Carlo G. Cereti, (Rome: Instituto Italisano per il Medio ed Estremo Oriente, 1995), 143, 163.
    22. Mary Roche Gerstein, “Germanic Warg: The Outlaw as Werewolf,” in Gerald James Larson, C. Scott Littleton and Jaan Puhvel (eds.), Myth in Indo-European Antiquity (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1974), 131–156, 155; For a complete picture of such cases, see Kim R. McCone, “Hund, Wolf und Krieger bei den Indogermanen,” in Wolfgang Meid (ed.), Studien zum indogermanischen Wortschatz (Innsbruck: Institut für Sprachwissenschaft der Universität Innsbruck, 1987), 101–154.
    23. Bruce Lincoln, “On the Imagery of Paradise,” Indogermanische Forschungen 85 (1980): 151–164, 159–162.
    24. Patrick Bruun, “The Victorious Signs of Constantine: A Reappraisal,” Numismatic Chronicle 157 (1997): 41–59, 41–42. Already Constantine the Great had made changes to the old Roman coinage when he had his coins struck: see idem, “Portrait of a Conspirator: Constantine’s Break with the Tetrarchy,” Arctos, n.s. 10 (1976): 5–23.
    25. Michael Alram, “The Beginning of Sasanian Coinage,” Bulletin of the Asia Institute 13 (1999): 67–76, 68–69.
    26. Khodadad Rezakhani, “From Aramaic to Pahlavi: Epigraphic Observations Based on the Persis Coin Series,” in Vesta Sarkhosh Curtis, Elizabeth J. Pendleton, Michael Alram, and Touraj Daryaee (eds.), The Parthian and Early Sasanian Empires: Adaptation and Expansion. Proceedings of a Conference Held in Vienna, 14–16 June 2012 (Oxford: Oxbow, 2016), 69–75, 72.
    27. Vesta Sarkhosh Curtis, “Observations on Some Coins of Persis,” in Shervin Farridnejad, Rika Gyselen, and Anke Joisten-Pruschke (eds.), Faszination Iran: Beiträge zur Religion, Geschichte und Kunst des Alten Iran. Gedenkschrift für Klaus Schippmann (Wiesbaden: Harrassowitz, 2015), 25–38, 30.
    28. Letter of Tansar, trans. Boyce, 47.
    29. As quoted in Touraj Daryaee, Sasanian Persia: The Rise and Fall of an Empire, (London: IB Tauris, 2009), 81; Madan (ed. and trans.), Dinkard, Part I, 470.7.
    30. R. C. Zaehner, Zurvan: A Zoroastrian Dilemma (New York: Biblo and Tannen, 1972), 36.
    31. Nasir Al-Kaabi, The Debate between State and Religion in Ancient Eastern Thought: Iran, the Sassanid Era as an Example (Beirut: Al-Jamal Publishing House, 2010).
    32. Matthew Canepa, “Sasanian Rock Reliefs,” in Daniel T. Potts (ed.), The Oxford Handbook of Ancient Iran (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013), 856–877, 875.
    33. Andrea Gariboldi, “Astral Symbology on Iranian Coinage,” East and West 54 (2004): 31–53, 32.
    34. Michael Shenkar, “Rethinking Sasanian Iconoclasm,” Journal of the American Oriental Society 135 (2015): 471–498, 490.
    35. Touraj Daryaee, “Historiography in Late Antique Iran,” in Ali Ansari (ed.), Perceptions of Iran: History, Myths and Nationalism from Medieval Persia to the Islamic Republic (London: IB Tauris, 2014), 65–76.
    36. Movses Khorenatsi, History of the Armenians. Trans. Robert Thomson (Harvard Armenian Texts and Studies 4; Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1978), 1.9, as cited in A. Shapour Shahbazi, “Historiography ii. Pre-Islamic Period,” Encyclopaedia Iranica, s.v. (2003). 
    37. Daryaee, “Historiography in Late Antique Iran,” 65–76.
    38. For the most recent discussion of the Xwadāy-nāmag, see Robert Hoyland, The ‘History of the Kings of the Persians’ in Three Arabic Chronicles: The Transmission of the Iranian Past from Late Antiquity to Early Islam (Translated Texts for Historians 69; Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 2018), 6–23.
    39. Shapur Shahbazi, “On the Xwadāy-nāmag,” in D. Amin, M. Kasheff, and S. Shahbazi (eds.), “Iranica Varia”: Papers in Honor of Professor Ehsan Yarshater (Acta Iranica 30; Leiden: Brill, 1990), 208–29; see also Djalal Khaleghi-Motlagh, “Az šāhnāmeh tā khodāynāmeh [From Shahnameh to Khodaynameh: An Inquiry into the Direct and Indirect Sources of the Shahnameh],” Nāme-ye Irān-e Bāstān: The International Journal of Ancient Iranian Studies 7 (2007–2008): 3–120. The most recent work on the subject, to which I have not had access, is by Jaako Hämeen-Anttila, Khwadāynāmag: The Middle Persian Book of Kings (Leiden: Brill, 2018).
    40. Following Dumézil’s trifunctional system of warrior, priesthood, and commoners that he posited as a fundamental aspect of Proto-Indo-European society, I suggest that genres of literature could also match this trifunctional structure. For the basic outlines of Dumézil’s work, see, C. Scott Littleton, The New Comparative Mythology: An Anthropological Assessment of the Theories of Georges Dumézil (rev. ed.; Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1973).
    41. Averil Cameron, “Images of Authority: Elites and Icons in Late Sixth-Century Byzantium,” in Averil Cameron (ed.), Continuity and Change in Sixth-Century Byzantium (London: Variorum Reprints, 1981), 3–35, 4.
    42. James Howard-Johnston, “Al-Tabari on the Last Great War of Antiquity,” in East Rome, Sasanian Persia and the End of Antiquity (Aldershot, UK: Ashgate, 2006), 1–22. For the plates, see David Hendrix, “The David Plates,” The Byzantine Legacy (2016).
    43. Josef Wiesehöfer, Iraniens, Grecs et Romains (Studia Iranica 32; Paris: Association pour l’avancement des études iraniennes, 2005), 141–142; M. Rahim Shayegan, Arsacids and Sasanians: Political Ideology in Post-Hellenistic and Late Antique Persia (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011), 1–4.
    44. For the connection of the Khwarzmshāhs to Afrāsīyāb, seeTao Hua, “The Muslim Qarakhanids and their Invented Ethnic Identity,” in Étienne de la Vaissière (ed.), Islamisation de l’Asie Centrale: Processus locaux d’acculturation du VIIe au XIe siècle (Studia Iranica 39; Paris: Association pour l’avancement des études iraniennes, 2008), 339–350.
    45. Zamyad /Kayan Yašt 19.72. For English translations, see Helmut Humbach, Zamyād Yasht: Yasht 19 of the Younger Avesta. Text, Translation, Commentary (Wiesbaden: Harrassowitz, 1998); William Malandra, An Introduction to Ancient Iranian Religion: Readings from the Avesta and the Achaemenid Inscriptions (Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press, 1983), 94.
    46. The legend on the gold coins reads: ’yl’n d’pbym kart’ / Ērān abēbīm kardār; see Rika Gyselen, New Evidence for Sasanian Numismatics: The Collection of Ahmad Saeedi = Contributions á l’histoire et la géographie historique de l’empire Sassanide (Res Orientales XVI; Bures-sur-Yvette: Groupe pour l’étude de la civilisation du Moyen-Orient, 2004): 126–127.
    47. Cameron, “Images of Authority,” 33.
    48. See Gherardo Gnoli, Zoroaster in History (Biennial Yarshater Lecture Series 2; New York: Bibliotheca Persica Press, 2000).
    49. S.H. Taqizadeh, “The ‘Era of Zoroaster’,” Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society (1947): 33–40, 33.
    50. Otakar Klima, “The Date of Zoroaster,” Archiv Orientalni 27 (1959): 556–564, 560.
    51. In favor of Khusrow I, see A. Shapur Shahbazi, “Recent Speculations on the ‘Traditional Date of Zoroaster’,” Studia Iranica 31 (2002): 7–45, 29. For Ardašīr see S.H. Taqizadeh, “Various Eras and Calendars Used in the Countries of Islam (Continued),” Bulletin of the School of Oriental Studies 10 (1939): 107–132, 128–129. Taqizadeh had already expressed the opinion that we have some indication of the existence of an “Era of Ardashir” in Syriac and non-official sources; ibid., 131, n. 1. For all of these discussions see, Gherardo Gnoli, Da Alessandro ad Ardašir: Storiografia e cronologie arabo-persiane (Rome: ISMEO, 2013), 43–82. It is interesting that in the recent dating of the Bactrian documents, one finds the idea that the letters could be dated from the beginning of Ardašīr’s reign, either 227 CE (see Harry Falk, “The Yuga of Sphujiddvaja and the Era of the Kuṣanas,” Silk Road Art and Archaeology 7 [2001]: 126) or, more interestingly, from 224 CE with the kingship of Ardašīr, as in François de Blois, “Du nouveau sur la chronologie Bactrienne post-hellénistique: l’ère de 223–224 ap. J.-C., Académie des Inscriptions et Belles-Lettres Comptes Rendus 150 (2006): 991–997.
    52. Ory Amitay, From Alexander to Jesus (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2010), 115–116.
    53. Adhami, “A Question of Legitimacy,” 226–227.
    54. Avodah Zarah 10b–11a. See Richard Kalmin, “Sasanian Persecution of the Jews: A Reconsideration of the Evidence,” in Shaul Shaked and Amnon Netzer (eds.), Irano-Judaica VI: Studies Relating to Jewish Contacts with Persian Culture throughout the Ages (Jerusalem: Ben-Zvi Institute, 2008): 87–124, 90–91.
    Cite this passage

    The Sasanians and the Late Antique World

    This essay discusses the shifts brought on the Iranian Plateau by the founder of the Sasanian Empire, Ardaxšīr ī Pābagān, in the third century CE. I contend that these structural changes in rule, religion, physical boundaries, and political propaganda ushered in a new period in Iranian and Middle Eastern history that coincides with the period of Late Antiquity.

    Late Antiquity from the margins

    The concept of Late Antiquity, Spätantike in German or Antiqué tardive in French, emerged at the beginning of the twentieth century within the context of the study of the Mediterranean world. The term became associated with the introduction of Christianity within the Roman Empire, where the religion made its mark on the political structures, mentalities, and worldviews of those who lived and took charge of the Eastern Mediterranean world. This new world in the Mediterranean—markedly different from what may be called the “pagan” Roman period (for lack of a better term)—is recorded in the writings of Constantine’s counselor, Eusebius, but also by such events as the proclamation of the Edict of Milan and the removal of the Altar of Victory from the Senate.1 The influence of Christianity on the ethos and traditions of the Mediterranean world is also visible in the material culture of the period, from the fourth century CE onward. Looking at coinage, monuments, and churches, we can unquestionably appreciate the changes that occurred within the Roman Empire, specifically in the East, looking towards the Orient.

    The concept of Late Antiquity was made popular in Anglo-Saxon scholarship in the early 1970s through the seminal work of Peter Brown, The World of Late Antiquity.2 Brown’s book revolutionized the common understanding of Late Antiquity by including Iran in its geography, thus juxtaposing the world of the emperor Justinian at Constantinople with that of the Sasanian King of Kings, Khusrow I Anūšīrwān (531–579 CE), at Ctesiphon. As Humphreys and Clover observe, by the end of the 1980s, the concept of Late Antiquity was “neither medieval, nor Roman,” anymore.3 The relevance of Iran as part of the geography of Late Antiquity has been further emphasized by Michael Morony and Beth DePalma Digeser, who have recognized that Iran fits into the late antique paradigm and should be considered part of a “Global Late Antiquity.”4 More recently, Richard Payne has shown that Christianity was as an integral part of the Sasanian world, just as Manichaeism and Judaism were in the Iranian Empire.5 I would like to call the study of the Roman and the Sasanian worlds the study of “Late Antique Eurasia,” where perhaps the Gupta, but also kingdoms farther afield, could be included. Despite a consensus amongst scholars, some authors still question the utility and accuracy of including the lands east of the Euphrates in the late antique paradigm, as if there was a sign on the other side of the Tigris River saying, “Late Antiquity does not exist here; Christianity never really mattered, nor was it an important part of the Iranian world.”6

    This essay is a response to and reflection upon these questions and debates. Using literary sources and material culture from the Sasanian period, I analyze how and why Iran was transformed in Late Antiquity. I contend that we can detect important changes from the Oxus to the Euphrates (the cultural realm of Ērānšahr), between the third and seventh centuries CE. In fact, it appears that the Sasanians actually thought of themselves as living in a new era, different from the past; hence the existence of a distinctly late antique Iran is evident.

    The Walled Garden

    When we look at literary production from the Sasanian period, we must remain cognizant of the fact that much of the surviving Pahlavi literature was written in the post-Sasanian period. However, many texts were composed in the sixth and the seventh centuries CE and clearly reflect the Sasanian ethos. Perhaps the best case in point is the Kārnāmag ī Ardaxšīr ī Pābagān (Book of Deeds of Ardaxšīr, son of Pābāg), a reading staple of late antique society in the Persianate world. From its very first chapter, the Book of Deeds mentions that the Iranian world, Ērānšahr, had been divided between 240 petty kings (kadag-xwadāy) before the rule of Ardaxšīr (224–240 CE), from the time of Alexander to the third century.7 The aim of the book is to show how Ardaxšīr and his sons (XIV.19), equipped with xwarrah (royal glory), were able to unite and rule the Iranian world (Ērānšahr abāz ō ēw-xwadāyīh tuwānist āwurdan), and bring about a new age in the history of the region.

    Of course, Ardaxšīr’s endeavors aimed at bringing back again (abāz) what once was in existence, i.e., unity and power in Iran.8 In reality, Ardaxšīr introduced a change in the status quo of how the Arsacids ruled the Iranian Plateau, moving from a fragmented system (feudal, to use Western terminology) of rule to one in which the King of Kings reigned supreme and could not be challenged by the petty kings as had been done before.9 The move towards centralization can also be gleaned from the administrative practices of the Sasanian Empire, which grew in scale, especially from the fifth century CE, with mintmarks on coins and administrative seals. The administrative division of the Sasanian Empire can be seen in an Ērānšahr in which governors (ostāndār), priests (mow), accountants (āmārgar), and others were involved in an unprecedented level of control and centralization.10

    One may contend that the very notion of an Ērānšahr was a late antique project of the Sasanians. If we are to follow Gnoli’s narrative, there had never been a political understanding of Ērānšahr prior to this time.11 This new political entity called Ērānšahr became a physical space in which the inscriptions of the third century, namely that of Šapūr I and Kerdīr at the Kaʿbeh-ye Zardosht (“Cube of Zoroaster”), provide a tangible as well as a mental boundary between the ēr, “Iranian,” and an-ēr, “non-Iranian.”12 Furthermore, walls were constructed to demarcate a real boundary around this empire, namely the Wall of Darband, the Great Wall of Gorgān, and the Wall of the Arabs, while the two rivers, the Oxus and the Euphrates, seem to have been the other demarcation of Ērānšahr, which eventually was considered a sacred space.13

    While Mazdaism or Zoroastrianism already existed under the Arsacids, it was really under Ardaxšīr that Mazdaism began to be officially propagated on the coinage of the Sasanian Empire as a dominant religious tradition.14 If we take into consideration the coins and the literary corpus, it is no exaggeration to say that the Sasanians wished to project themselves as the promoters of both Zoroastrianism and the start of a new era in Iranian history. This can be seen in late sources such as the Dēnkard IV and the Nāmeh-ye Tansar.15 If we believe the Nāmeh-ye Tansar, the religious changes introduced by Ardaxšīr made many of his contemporaries uncomfortable, as Mary Boyce suggests.16 But Ardaxšīr’s religious revolution was also praised as a re-organization (abāz ārāyišnīh) by those versed in the Zoroastrian religion.17 Nevertheless, we observe a significant shift in the religious affiliation of the new dynasty on the Iranian Plateau, where Zoroastrian symbols and ideas were overtly pushed to the forefront of society. After all, the first word minted on the Sasanian coins was mazdēsn (Avestan, mazdayasna-, “Mazda-worshippers”). As far as we know, the Arsacids never made such an effort to promote any single religion, and based on the scant evidence, they were open to other religions.

    In literature, the fortified walls built in the sixth century CE around Ērānšahr are often connected to the notion of a paradise (Old Persian, *paridayda-), i.e., a walled garden, in which the king would act as the gardener. While Bruce Lincoln has recently discussed the ideological framework of the term *paridayda-, I believe there is much that continues in the Sasanian period, where, for example, King Khusrow is clearly described as a gardener and a caretaker of his realm, and Ērānšahr is imagined as a garden with the king as its gardener.18 In the Shāhnāmeh of Ferdowsī, King Khusrow’s role is portrayed in the following manner:

    Iran is a lush Spring garden,

    where roses ever bloom.

    The army and weapons are the garden’s walls

    and lances its wall of thorns.

    If the garden’s walls are pulled down,

    then there will be no difference between it and the wilderness (beyond).

    Take care not to destroy its walls

    and not to dishearten or weaken Iranians.

    If you do, then raiding and pillaging will follow,

    and also the battle-cries of riders and the din of war.

    Risk not the safety of the Iranians’ wives, children, and lands

    by bad policies and plans.19

    In these verses, we can appreciate the unfolding of a new Iranian world which did not exist before. In this new world of Ērānšahr, justice and civilization rule and the ēr (Iranians) are safe under the protection of the king’s law or justice (dād).

    Khusrow I brought order and organization to the Sasanian Empire after revolts, plagues, and famines. As presented in the Shāhnāmeh, the king’s justice resonated with those who remembered the Sasanian world. The idea of the circle of justice, a classic concept in the Near Eastern tradition, became synonymous with the Sasanians and reverberated in the Islamicate world.20 Such conceptions of the world were not present in the Arsacid world; at least, there is simply no record of such ideological views (see Gallery Image A).

    In the eyes of the Sasanians, those who dwell outside of the walls are the enemies of justice and order, and are considered monsters. Carlo Cereti’s reading of the apocalyptic Middle Persian text, Zand ī Wahman Yasn, explains how the two- legged wolves (gurg ī do zang) stand for the “others” or “outsiders” who raid Ērānšahr.21 The text provides an old Iranian trope which goes back to the Avestan tradition of the two-legged wolves as men—and sometimes as monsters—attacking Ērānšahr.22 These “others” bring chaos and destruction to Mazdean order, in a similar fashion as the Evil Spirit (Ahreman) causes cosmic chaos against Ohrmazd (the supreme god, also known as Mazda). Thus, these barbarians/monsters (an-ēr) reside outside the walls, in the desert wild where there is no order or law, while the ērānagān (Iranians) stay safe within the walled garden. The more difficult question to answer is what position did the an-ēr who lived in Ērānšahr occupy? Was there a “civilizing” effect by living in Ērānšahr, with the king’s justice bringing order to those otherwise considered foreigners?

    This dichotomy between the inside and outside of Ērānšahr is a late antique phenomenon which did not exist before in either the Achaemenid or the Arsacid kingdoms. This creation of Ērānšahr as a paradisiacal space by Khusrow I may go back to the Mazdean tradition associated with the story of the primordial king, Yima/Jamšīd, who rules over paradise in the Avesta.23 Yima/Jamšīd was responsible for building a vara– (wall) that protected the best people and species.

    State and religion: the numismatic evidence

    Another important change within Iranian society characteristic of the late antique period is the role of religion vis-à-vis the state and the specific worldview espoused by the Sasanians. In the Roman Empire, the chi-rho banner marked the dominance of Christianity; its manifestation on material culture began with Constantine I’s son, Constantius II, in the second half of the fourth century CE (see Gallery Image B).24

    Within the Iranian world, we observe differences between the iconography used on imperial Arsacid coinage and that on Sasanian coinage. It is well known that Ardaxšīr, who hailed from the province of Persis, imposed new monetary reforms with better regulation of weight and silver content.25 The obverse of the Arsacid coinage was imitated by the Sasanians (depicting the ruler with distinctive headgear), but they made sure that the difference and distinctness of their new iconographic features would be visible as well. The legends on the coins were in Middle Persian—a departure from the tradition on the Iranian Plateau, where the Greek or deformed Aramaic used on Arsacid coins.26 More importantly, on the reverse, an image of the fire altar was struck instead of a depiction of the seated King of Kings (see Gallery Image C).

    The fire altar had been a well-known symbol used on local coins in Persis before the rise of the Sasanians.27 On the Iranian Plateau at large, however, the use of this symbol on coinage was new. Beginning with the very first imperial coinage of the founder of the Sasanian Empire, the dynasty struck coins with this image as a marker of a new religious identity. This was the king’s fire (nwry MLKA), which, according to the Nāmeh-ye Tansar, was first associated with the Achaemenid Darius I. The Nāmeh-ye Tansar states that since the time of the Achaemenids, the religious (Mazdean) tradition had become obscured and many fire temples had mushroomed without any clear guidelines. Ardaxšīr then extinguished them and carried them to their proper place, probably to his own fire temple, so that there would be only one royal fire.28 One may suggest that if such an action took place, then from the very first Sasanian King of Kings, there was a campaign to bring religious centralization. On the obverse of Ardaxšīr’s coins, the word mazdēsn (Mazda-worshipper) was also struck. This is a significant break from Arsacid numismatic iconography and propaganda, suggesting a new ideological and religious identity, where the kings presented themselves as Mazda-worshippers (see Gallery Image D). Later on, in the third century, two figures were added on each side of the royal fire altar, one of them being most likely the King of Kings himself.

    The introduction of this new ideology was also echoed in Pahlavi texts, and later in Persian and Arabic literature. The Pahlavi book Dēnkard states:

    hād xwadāyīh dēn ud dēn xwadāyī…

    pad awēšān xwadāyīh abar dēn ud dēn

    abar xwadāyīh winnārdagīh

    Know that kingship is religion and religion is kingship…

    from them kingship is arranged based on religion and religion

    based on kingship.29

    This passage, along with Sasanian coinage, clearly reveals the empire’s new conception of “kingship” and “religion” as two interdependent units that cannot survive without each other.30 This paradigm continued well into the Islamic period and became part of the standard discourse among medieval philosophers and statesmen.31

    Sasanian rock reliefs also attest to a new era in royal propaganda on a wider scale. While using old themes found in ancient Near Eastern and Achaemenid art, the Sasanians used the subjects of and connections to the past differently.32 Even though there are signs of continuity, the changes of the Sasanian period are much more visible. Notable examples include the representation of the king, who is now elevated to the status of the gods. This begins with Ardaxšīr in the third century CE and continues into the seventh century with Khusrow II (see Gallery Image E). In these scenes, gods and men are almost indistinguishable and the same size.33 Unlike in the past, the Sasanian kings and queens resemble the deities Ohrmazd and Anāhīd.34 The Sasanian rock reliefs in Persis, at Naqsh-e Rustam and Naqsh-e Rajab, depict a variety of scenes such as the king’s investiture, courtly scenes, and images of jousting, as well as monumental scenes of victories over the Romans and other assailants. Reliefs represent the aristocracy and the king competing for power, defeating enemies, and receiving diadems from the gods. Many of these images are reused from ancient Near Eastern tradition, especially Achaemenid and Arsacid works, but the Sasanians produced a large number of them throughout the duration of their empire.

    A Zoroastrian perspective on history

    Another new development introduced during Sasanian times was the concept of history written by the Sasanians.35 We are mostly dependent on late and post-Sasanian historical writings for Sasanian historical remains. Movses Khorenatsi (ca. 410–490s CE) in his History of the Armenians states that the Arsacids had a historical tradition, but there is scant corroborating evidence that suggests the existence of a written Arsacid history.36 We know, on the other hand, that the Sasanians commissioned a history of Ērānšahr from remote antiquity to their own time. The idea of a royal narrative to be passed down as common history shared by all Iranians is a distinctive project of Late Antiquity.37 This historical narrative, which may have been a genre rather than a single book as in later times, remained a historical blueprint for Iran’s ancient history until the nineteenth century.38 Sources suggest that such a historical work(s) was commissioned in the sixth century during the rule of Khusrow I, and was known as the Xwadāy-nāmag (Book of Lords).39 What makes this narrative distinct from former traditions is its strong religious stance, what we may call a Zoroastrian vison of past and present history. I would contend that different genres became sources of history for different classes of people to read in late antique Iran. For example, the Siyar al-Mulūk and the Shāhnāmeh were kingly texts; the Bundahišn was a priestly text, and such texts as the Garšāsbnāmeh and Kūšnāmeh were popular histories for the masses.40 This form of historical dissemination embodies the organization of Iranian Late Antiquity, in which religion became the most important element used to view the past and frame the present within the context of sacred narrative texts.

    A similar paradigm can also be seen in the late antique Roman world, where from the time of Eusebius, history was remodeled around a biblical framework rather than in the classical style.41 In the historiography and material culture of the Eastern Roman world, even the Persian generals and the King of Kings, Khusrow II, were presented through a biblical lens, for example as Holofernes, the general of Nebuchadnezzar, or as Goliath. Roman material culture, specifically silver plates from Late Antiquity, present us with evidence for this sacred historical framing of events. The most famous group of silver Roman/Byzantine plates in this historiography of the Perso-Roman warfare are those of battle scenes in which David is able to overcome Goliath. On the back of one of the silver dishes depicting the defeat of Goliath by David, the name of Emperor Heraclius is stamped. This action suggests Heraclius’ attempt to portray himself as the victor in the Perso-Roman war (to use James Howard-Johnston’s terminology, “the last great war of Late Antiquity”), but in a biblical context (see Gallery Image F).42

    In Sasanian Ērānšahr, a Zoroastrian vision of historiography in which the burden of the past played its part in the affairs of Late Antiquity also developed. According to that vision, the supporters and enemies of Ērānšahr are given an Avestan coloring and context, meaning they are portrayed as the heroes and villains of Zoroastrian sacred tradition.43 For example, the Xwadāy-nāmag depicts the Turks on the Sasanians’ eastern front as the Tūranians mentioned in the Avesta, with their great king Afrāsīyāb. These associations became an important “historical” tradition that the Turkic tribes and Turkic noble houses such as the Khwarzmshāhs were only too happy to adopt.44 In this new historiography, the Romans were tied to the Avestan Salm, who became the enemies of Ērānšahr on the western front. Such was the cooptation of sacred (Avestan and biblical) narratives in history in Late Antiquity, for both the Iranians and the Romans.

    For the Sasanians, their King of Kings became the inheritor of Iraj, who ruled Iran and the Kayanid dynasty, as indicated in the Avesta and more immediately in the Xwadāy-nāmag. The Sasanian kings then played a role in the sacred history of Iran, where, for example, Khusrow II (590–628 CE) took on the role of heroic king Kay Khusrow/Kavi Haosrauua of the Avesta. Thus, on his coinage, Khusrow II was made to resemble Khusrow/Kavi Haosrauua, endowed with royal glory (xwarrah; see Gallery Image G). To be on par with Kay Khusrow/Kavi Haosrauua, Khusrow II had to emulate his actions and heroics, as is indicated in the Zamyad Yasht, an important part of the Avestan hymns to kings and heroes, which lauds the kings of the past by stating that they “all became brave, all courageous… all filled with wondrous power, all perceptive… bold in action.”45 In a sense, the Sasanian kings, such as Khusrow II, had to prove themselves to be courageous, as his namesake predecessor in the Avesta had been. This connection explains, perhaps, the slogan struck on the special-issue coinage of Khusrow II (if genuine), stating that Ērānšahr is “without fear.”46 Thus, we might suggest that the heroic age of Khusrow II was fully aligned with Zoroastrian historiography and on par with Christian historiography, which, as we have seen, set Heraclius as David in his battles and struggles.47 This historical framework was not present previously in Iran’s history and is a product of the Sasanian Empire. This was a late antique worldview and type of history for the Iranian world, markedly different from the precedents of the past of the Arsacid period.

    A millenarian vision

    The last point I would like to discuss is the framing of Ardaxšīr’s time and the Sasanian Empire according to Zoroastrian millennial expectations. The Zoroastrians constructed a specific form of millenarian vision which began from the “Era of Zoroaster.”48 The world era, divided into 12,000 years, was further divided into 3,000-year cycles. According to that timeframe, 6,000 years elapsed before the first man appeared, and another 3,000 years before Zoroaster’s advent.49 The end of each millennium would bring an important outcome, and so the time of King Ardaxšīr corresponded to one of the major periods of messianic significance among the Zoroastrians.

    The account in Masʿūdī’s Kitāb al-Tanbīh wa’l-ishrāf is instrumental for understanding Ardaxšīr’s propaganda. In his book, Masʿūdī reports how some believed that Zoroaster had predicted that the Iranians would go through a great change after 300 years, and then again after 700 years. Admittedly, these important events coincided with Alexander’s conquest and the end of the Arsacid Empire. It is possible that Ardaxšīr turned the apocalyptic tradition to his advantage, making the establishment of the Sasanian Empire correspond to a new era in the Zoroastrian millennial expectation. The manipulation would have been done expertly, so as to not coincide with an era of “decline,” reducing the Arsacid dynasty’s rule to 260 years, and shifting Zoroaster’s age up to the beginning of his reign.50 Scholars disagree on whether it was Ardaxšīr in the third century CE or Khusrow I in the sixth century CE who manipulated the calendar.51 Regardless, the rule of the Sasanians was reckoned as an important time in history. This sort of millennial expectation was not only current among the Zoroastrians, but also within the Jewish community. In Jewish apocalyptic traditions from Late Antiquity, Ardaxšīr is mentioned as an important king that will bring a great change to history, before the appearance of the Messiah.52 For the Zoroastrians, the savior at that millennium would have been Ušēdar, whom the Manichaeans equated with Mani during the rise of Ardaxšīr in the third century CE; later Mazdak was equated with him as well, during the reign of Kawād I in the sixth century CE.

    Conclusion

    We could include more examples to demonstrate the ideological and historical shifts inaugurated by the Sasanian Empire. However, I believe the discussion above should suffice to demonstrate that the rule of Ardaxšīr in the third century marked the beginning of a new age on the Iranian Plateau. This change is echoed in the fourth book of the Dēnkard, in which it is stated that those versed in religion (dēn-āgāhān) had predicted that Ardaxšīr’s arrival would cause strife but his reign would be “world-profiting” (gēhān sūd).53 This tradition of changes and shifts are reflected in Pahlavi, Arabic, and Persian sources, supporting the idea that Ardaxšīr brought about fundamental shifts in his own time, which can be called the beginning of late antique Iran.

    Indeed, there appears to have been a sharp break from the Arsacid past and a new vision for the people of the Iranian Plateau engineered and crafted by the Sasanian kings. These major changes are not simply reflected in later sources on the third century, but also exist in contemporaneous Armenian and Jewish sources on the third-century transition in the late ancient world. This view of the religious communities living in the late Arsacid-early Sasanian period can be gleaned from the Babylonian Talmud. In one passage in the Talmud, it states that “Antoninus attended on Rabbi [a third-century Palestinian rabbi]; Artabān (the last Arsacid king) attended on Rab [a contemporary Babylonian rabbi]. When Antoninus died, Rabbi exclaimed: ‘The bond is snapped!’ [So also] when Artabān died, Rab exclaimed: ‘The bond is snapped!’”54 Here we are witnessing a change in relationship between the Jews and the new dynasty, i.e., the Sasanians, which was noticed and characterized as a breakage or ‘snapping’ of the status quo of life in Eurasia. This change was brought about by Ardaxšīr I and the Sasanian dynasty, and almost every source acknowledged and understood this as the coming of a new age. Ardaxšīr I was a revolutionary whose militant Mazdean zeal and vision of an empire named Ērānšahr ushered a new period in Iranian history.

    About the author

    Touraj Daryaee is the Maseeh Chair in Persian Studies and Culture and the Director of the Dr. Samuel M. Jordan Center for Persian Studies and Culture at the University of California, Irvine. His research focuses on the ancient and early medieval history of Iran, specifically the Sasanian Empire. He has worked on Middle Persian literature, editing and translating several texts with commentary on geography, dinner speech, chess, and backgammon. He is also interested in the history of Zoroastrianism in Late Antiquity and its encounter with Islam. He is the editor of the Name-ye Iran-e Bastan: The International Journal of Ancient Iranian Studies as well as the electronic journal, DABIR: Digital Archives of Brief Notes and Iran Review and Sasanika: Late Antique Near East Project. His articles have appeared both in English and Persian in Iranian Studies, Iran, Iranistik, Studia Iranica, Res Orientalis, Historia, Electrum, Indo-Iranian Journal, Journal of Indo-European Studies, Iranshenasi, Iran Nameh, Name-ye Baharestan, and Name-ye Iran-e Bastan. His books include Sasanian Persia: The Rise and Fall of an Empire (I. B. Tauris, 2009) and From Oxus to Euphrates: The World of Late Antique Iran (Jordan Center for Persian Studies, 2017). He is also the editor of the Oxford Handbook of Ancient Iran (Oxford University Press, 2012).

    Notes

    1. On the Christianization of Roman material culture, see Lucy Grig, “Portraits, Pontiffs and the Christianization of Fourth-Century Rome,” Papers of the British School at Rome 72 (2004): 203–230.
    2. Peter Brown, The World of Late Antiquity: From Marcus Aurelius to Muhammad (London: Thames and Hudson, 1971); more recently, see Clifford Ando, “Decline, Fall and Transformation,” Journal of Late Antiquity 1 (2008): 30–60 and Mark Humphries, “Late Antiquity and World History: Challenging Conventional Narratives and Analyses,” Studies in Late Antiquity 1 (2017): 8–37.
    3. Frank M. Clover and R. Stephen Humphreys, Tradition and Innovation in Late Antiquity (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1989), 3.
    4. Michael Morony, “Should Sasanian Iran be Included in Late Antiquity?,” E-Sasanika 1 (2008); see also the new journal Studies in Late Antiquity, founded and edited by Elizabeth DePalma Digeser, which expressly includes Sasanian Studies as a central field under its aegis.
    5. Richard Payne, A State of Mixture: Christians, Zoroastrians, and Iranian Political Culture in Late Antiquity (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2015).
    6. For an excellent review of the debates see, Humphries, “Late Antiquity and World History,” et passim.
    7. Frantz Grenet, La geste d’Ardashir fils de Pâbag = Kārnāmag ī Ardaxšēr ī Pābagān (Die: Éditions A Die 2003), 52.
    8. Ibid., 116–117.
    9. On the structure of Arsacid rule, see E. J. Keall, “How Many Kings did the Parthian King of Kings Rule?,” Iranica Antiqua 29 (1994): 253–272. For a nuanced view of Arsacid rule, see Leonardo Gregoratti, “Sinews of the Other Empire: The Parthian Great King’s Rule over Vassal Kingdoms,” in Håkon Fiane Teigen and Eivind Heldaas Seland (eds.), Sinews of Empire: Networks in the Roman Near East and Beyond (Oxford: Oxbow Books, 2017), 95–120.
    10. Rika Gyselen, La Géographie administrative de l’empire Sassanide. Les témoignages sigillographiques (Res Orientales I; Leuven: Peeters Publishers, 1989).
    11. Gherardo Gnoli, The Idea of Iran: An Essay on the Origins (Rome: Instituto Italiano per il Medio ed Estremo Oriente, 1989).
    12. Idem, “Ēr mazdēsn: Zum Begriff Iran und seiner Entstehung im 3. Jahrhundert,” in Transition Periods in Iranian History (Actes du Symposium de Fribourg-en-Brisgau, 22–24 Mai 1985) (Cahiers de Studia Iranica 5; Leuven: Peeters Publishers, 1987), 83–100.
    13. Eberhard Sauer, Tony Wilkinson, Hamid Omrani Rekavandi, and Jabrael Nokandeh (eds.), Persia’s Imperial Power in Late Antiquity: The Great Wall of Gorgān and Frontier Landscapes of Sasanian Iran (Oxford: Oxbow Books, 2013); Hamid Mahamedi, “Wall as a System of Frontier Defense during the Sasanid Period,” in Touraj Daryaee and Mahmoud Omidsalar (eds.), The Spirit of Wisdom: Essays in Memory of Ahmad Tafazzoli (Costa Mesa, AZ: Mazda Publishers, 2004): 145–159; and Touraj Daryaee, “If These Walls Could Speak: The Barrier of Alexander, Wall of Darband and Other Defensive Moats,” in Stefano Pello (ed.), Borders: Itineraries on the Edges of Iran (Eurasiatica 5; Venice: Edizioni Ca’Foscari, 2016), 79–88.
    14. Vesta Sarkhosh Curtis, “Ancient Iranian Motifs and Zoroastrian Iconography,” in Alan Williams, Sarah Stewart, and Almut Hintze (eds.), The Zoroastrian Flame: Exploring Religion, History and Tradition (London: IB Tauris, 2016), 179-203; eadem, “Parthian Coins: Kingship and Divine Glory,” in Peter Wick and Markus Zehnder (eds.), The Parthian Empire and its Religions: Studies in the Dynamics of Religious Diversity (Gutenberg: Computus Druck Satz & Verlag, 2012): 68–81, 68–69.
    15. Dhanjishah Meherjibhai Madan (ed. and trans.), The Complete Text of the Pahlavi Dinkard, Part I (2 vols.; Bombay: Ganpatrao Ramajirao Sindhe, 1911), 412. For a translation, see Mansour Shaki, “The Denkard Account of the History of the Zoroastrian Scriptures,” Archiv Orientalni 49 (1981): 114–125, 117–118.
    16. The Letter of Tansar, trans. Mary Boyce (Rome: Instituto Italisano per il Medio ed Estremo Oriente, 1968), 47.
    17. Siamak Adhami, “A Question of Legitimacy: The Case of Ardašīr I (‘Dēnkard’ IV),” Indo-Iranian Journal 46 (2003): 223–230, 226–227.
    18. Bruce Lincoln, “À la Recherche du Paradis Perdu,” History of Religions 43 (2003): 139–154; idem, ‘Happiness for Mankind’: Achaemenian Religion and the Imperial Project (Acta Iranica 53; Leuven: Peeters, 2012): 5–19.
    19. Abū’l-Qasem Ferdowsī, The Shahnameh = The Book of Kings, ed. Djalal Khaleghi-Motlagh (8 vols.; New York: Bibliotheca Persica, 1988–2008): 7:275–282; the translation is from Maḥmūd Omīdsālār, Iran’s Epic and America’s Empire: A Handbook for a Generation in Limbo (Santa Monica, CA: Afshar Press, 2012), 165–166.
    20. Linda T. Darling, A History of Social Justice and Political Power in the Middle East: The Circle of Justice from Mesopotamia to Globalization (New York: Routledge, 2013), 41–46.
    21. The Zand ī Wahman Yasn: A Zoroastrian Apocalypse, trans. Carlo G. Cereti, (Rome: Instituto Italisano per il Medio ed Estremo Oriente, 1995), 143, 163.
    22. Mary Roche Gerstein, “Germanic Warg: The Outlaw as Werewolf,” in Gerald James Larson, C. Scott Littleton and Jaan Puhvel (eds.), Myth in Indo-European Antiquity (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1974), 131–156, 155; For a complete picture of such cases, see Kim R. McCone, “Hund, Wolf und Krieger bei den Indogermanen,” in Wolfgang Meid (ed.), Studien zum indogermanischen Wortschatz (Innsbruck: Institut für Sprachwissenschaft der Universität Innsbruck, 1987), 101–154.
    23. Bruce Lincoln, “On the Imagery of Paradise,” Indogermanische Forschungen 85 (1980): 151–164, 159–162.
    24. Patrick Bruun, “The Victorious Signs of Constantine: A Reappraisal,” Numismatic Chronicle 157 (1997): 41–59, 41–42. Already Constantine the Great had made changes to the old Roman coinage when he had his coins struck: see idem, “Portrait of a Conspirator: Constantine’s Break with the Tetrarchy,” Arctos, n.s. 10 (1976): 5–23.
    25. Michael Alram, “The Beginning of Sasanian Coinage,” Bulletin of the Asia Institute 13 (1999): 67–76, 68–69.
    26. Khodadad Rezakhani, “From Aramaic to Pahlavi: Epigraphic Observations Based on the Persis Coin Series,” in Vesta Sarkhosh Curtis, Elizabeth J. Pendleton, Michael Alram, and Touraj Daryaee (eds.), The Parthian and Early Sasanian Empires: Adaptation and Expansion. Proceedings of a Conference Held in Vienna, 14–16 June 2012 (Oxford: Oxbow, 2016), 69–75, 72.
    27. Vesta Sarkhosh Curtis, “Observations on Some Coins of Persis,” in Shervin Farridnejad, Rika Gyselen, and Anke Joisten-Pruschke (eds.), Faszination Iran: Beiträge zur Religion, Geschichte und Kunst des Alten Iran. Gedenkschrift für Klaus Schippmann (Wiesbaden: Harrassowitz, 2015), 25–38, 30.
    28. Letter of Tansar, trans. Boyce, 47.
    29. As quoted in Touraj Daryaee, Sasanian Persia: The Rise and Fall of an Empire, (London: IB Tauris, 2009), 81; Madan (ed. and trans.), Dinkard, Part I, 470.7.
    30. R. C. Zaehner, Zurvan: A Zoroastrian Dilemma (New York: Biblo and Tannen, 1972), 36.
    31. Nasir Al-Kaabi, The Debate between State and Religion in Ancient Eastern Thought: Iran, the Sassanid Era as an Example (Beirut: Al-Jamal Publishing House, 2010).
    32. Matthew Canepa, “Sasanian Rock Reliefs,” in Daniel T. Potts (ed.), The Oxford Handbook of Ancient Iran (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013), 856–877, 875.
    33. Andrea Gariboldi, “Astral Symbology on Iranian Coinage,” East and West 54 (2004): 31–53, 32.
    34. Michael Shenkar, “Rethinking Sasanian Iconoclasm,” Journal of the American Oriental Society 135 (2015): 471–498, 490.
    35. Touraj Daryaee, “Historiography in Late Antique Iran,” in Ali Ansari (ed.), Perceptions of Iran: History, Myths and Nationalism from Medieval Persia to the Islamic Republic (London: IB Tauris, 2014), 65–76.
    36. Movses Khorenatsi, History of the Armenians. Trans. Robert Thomson (Harvard Armenian Texts and Studies 4; Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1978), 1.9, as cited in A. Shapour Shahbazi, “Historiography ii. Pre-Islamic Period,” Encyclopaedia Iranica, s.v. (2003). 
    37. Daryaee, “Historiography in Late Antique Iran,” 65–76.
    38. For the most recent discussion of the Xwadāy-nāmag, see Robert Hoyland, The ‘History of the Kings of the Persians’ in Three Arabic Chronicles: The Transmission of the Iranian Past from Late Antiquity to Early Islam (Translated Texts for Historians 69; Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 2018), 6–23.
    39. Shapur Shahbazi, “On the Xwadāy-nāmag,” in D. Amin, M. Kasheff, and S. Shahbazi (eds.), “Iranica Varia”: Papers in Honor of Professor Ehsan Yarshater (Acta Iranica 30; Leiden: Brill, 1990), 208–29; see also Djalal Khaleghi-Motlagh, “Az šāhnāmeh tā khodāynāmeh [From Shahnameh to Khodaynameh: An Inquiry into the Direct and Indirect Sources of the Shahnameh],” Nāme-ye Irān-e Bāstān: The International Journal of Ancient Iranian Studies 7 (2007–2008): 3–120. The most recent work on the subject, to which I have not had access, is by Jaako Hämeen-Anttila, Khwadāynāmag: The Middle Persian Book of Kings (Leiden: Brill, 2018).
    40. Following Dumézil’s trifunctional system of warrior, priesthood, and commoners that he posited as a fundamental aspect of Proto-Indo-European society, I suggest that genres of literature could also match this trifunctional structure. For the basic outlines of Dumézil’s work, see, C. Scott Littleton, The New Comparative Mythology: An Anthropological Assessment of the Theories of Georges Dumézil (rev. ed.; Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1973).
    41. Averil Cameron, “Images of Authority: Elites and Icons in Late Sixth-Century Byzantium,” in Averil Cameron (ed.), Continuity and Change in Sixth-Century Byzantium (London: Variorum Reprints, 1981), 3–35, 4.
    42. James Howard-Johnston, “Al-Tabari on the Last Great War of Antiquity,” in East Rome, Sasanian Persia and the End of Antiquity (Aldershot, UK: Ashgate, 2006), 1–22. For the plates, see David Hendrix, “The David Plates,” The Byzantine Legacy (2016).
    43. Josef Wiesehöfer, Iraniens, Grecs et Romains (Studia Iranica 32; Paris: Association pour l’avancement des études iraniennes, 2005), 141–142; M. Rahim Shayegan, Arsacids and Sasanians: Political Ideology in Post-Hellenistic and Late Antique Persia (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011), 1–4.
    44. For the connection of the Khwarzmshāhs to Afrāsīyāb, seeTao Hua, “The Muslim Qarakhanids and their Invented Ethnic Identity,” in Étienne de la Vaissière (ed.), Islamisation de l’Asie Centrale: Processus locaux d’acculturation du VIIe au XIe siècle (Studia Iranica 39; Paris: Association pour l’avancement des études iraniennes, 2008), 339–350.
    45. Zamyad /Kayan Yašt 19.72. For English translations, see Helmut Humbach, Zamyād Yasht: Yasht 19 of the Younger Avesta. Text, Translation, Commentary (Wiesbaden: Harrassowitz, 1998); William Malandra, An Introduction to Ancient Iranian Religion: Readings from the Avesta and the Achaemenid Inscriptions (Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press, 1983), 94.
    46. The legend on the gold coins reads: ’yl’n d’pbym kart’ / Ērān abēbīm kardār; see Rika Gyselen, New Evidence for Sasanian Numismatics: The Collection of Ahmad Saeedi = Contributions á l’histoire et la géographie historique de l’empire Sassanide (Res Orientales XVI; Bures-sur-Yvette: Groupe pour l’étude de la civilisation du Moyen-Orient, 2004): 126–127.
    47. Cameron, “Images of Authority,” 33.
    48. See Gherardo Gnoli, Zoroaster in History (Biennial Yarshater Lecture Series 2; New York: Bibliotheca Persica Press, 2000).
    49. S.H. Taqizadeh, “The ‘Era of Zoroaster’,” Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society (1947): 33–40, 33.
    50. Otakar Klima, “The Date of Zoroaster,” Archiv Orientalni 27 (1959): 556–564, 560.
    51. In favor of Khusrow I, see A. Shapur Shahbazi, “Recent Speculations on the ‘Traditional Date of Zoroaster’,” Studia Iranica 31 (2002): 7–45, 29. For Ardašīr see S.H. Taqizadeh, “Various Eras and Calendars Used in the Countries of Islam (Continued),” Bulletin of the School of Oriental Studies 10 (1939): 107–132, 128–129. Taqizadeh had already expressed the opinion that we have some indication of the existence of an “Era of Ardashir” in Syriac and non-official sources; ibid., 131, n. 1. For all of these discussions see, Gherardo Gnoli, Da Alessandro ad Ardašir: Storiografia e cronologie arabo-persiane (Rome: ISMEO, 2013), 43–82. It is interesting that in the recent dating of the Bactrian documents, one finds the idea that the letters could be dated from the beginning of Ardašīr’s reign, either 227 CE (see Harry Falk, “The Yuga of Sphujiddvaja and the Era of the Kuṣanas,” Silk Road Art and Archaeology 7 [2001]: 126) or, more interestingly, from 224 CE with the kingship of Ardašīr, as in François de Blois, “Du nouveau sur la chronologie Bactrienne post-hellénistique: l’ère de 223–224 ap. J.-C., Académie des Inscriptions et Belles-Lettres Comptes Rendus 150 (2006): 991–997.
    52. Ory Amitay, From Alexander to Jesus (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2010), 115–116.
    53. Adhami, “A Question of Legitimacy,” 226–227.
    54. Avodah Zarah 10b–11a. See Richard Kalmin, “Sasanian Persecution of the Jews: A Reconsideration of the Evidence,” in Shaul Shaked and Amnon Netzer (eds.), Irano-Judaica VI: Studies Relating to Jewish Contacts with Persian Culture throughout the Ages (Jerusalem: Ben-Zvi Institute, 2008): 87–124, 90–91.

    The Sasanians and the Late Antique World

    The Sasanians and the Late Antique World

    About Global Late Antiquity

    The Sasanians and the Late Antique World

    This essay discusses the shifts brought on the Iranian Plateau by the founder of the Sasanian Empire, Ardaxšīr ī Pābagān, in the third century CE. I contend that these structural changes in rule, religion, physical boundaries, and political propaganda ushered in a new period in Iranian and Middle Eastern history that coincides with the period of Late Antiquity.
    This essay discusses the shifts brought on the Iranian Plateau by the founder of the Sasanian Empire, Ardaxšīr ī Pābagān, in the third century CE. I contend that these structural changes in rule, religion, physical boundaries, and political propaganda ushered in a new period in Iranian and Middle Eastern history that coincides with the period of Late Antiquity.
    Show Less

    TABLE OF CONTENTS

    About Global Late Antiquity

    The Sasanians and the Late Antique World

    Late Antiquity from the margins

    The concept of Late Antiquity, Spätantike in German or Antiqué tardive in French, emerged at the beginning of the twentieth century within the context of the study of the Mediterranean world. The term became associated with the introduction of Christianity within the Roman Empire, where the religion made its mark on the political structures, mentalities, and worldviews of those who lived and took charge of the Eastern Mediterranean world. This new world in the Mediterranean—markedly different from what may be called the “pagan” Roman period (for lack of a better term)—is recorded in the writings of Constantine’s counselor, Eusebius, but also by such events as the proclamation of the Edict of Milan and the removal of the Altar of Victory from the Senate.1 The influence of Christianity on the ethos and traditions of the Mediterranean world is also visible in the material culture of the period, from the fourth century CE onward. Looking at coinage, monuments, and churches, we can unquestionably appreciate the changes that occurred within the Roman Empire, specifically in the East, looking towards the Orient.

    The concept of Late Antiquity was made popular in Anglo-Saxon scholarship in the early 1970s through the seminal work of Peter Brown, The World of Late Antiquity.2 Brown’s book revolutionized the common understanding of Late Antiquity by including Iran in its geography, thus juxtaposing the world of the emperor Justinian at Constantinople with that of the Sasanian King of Kings, Khusrow I Anūšīrwān (531–579 CE), at Ctesiphon. As Humphreys and Clover observe, by the end of the 1980s, the concept of Late Antiquity was “neither medieval, nor Roman,” anymore.3 The relevance of Iran as part of the geography of Late Antiquity has been further emphasized by Michael Morony and Beth DePalma Digeser, who have recognized that Iran fits into the late antique paradigm and should be considered part of a “Global Late Antiquity.”4 More recently, Richard Payne has shown that Christianity was as an integral part of the Sasanian world, just as Manichaeism and Judaism were in the Iranian Empire.5 I would like to call the study of the Roman and the Sasanian worlds the study of “Late Antique Eurasia,” where perhaps the Gupta, but also kingdoms farther afield, could be included. Despite a consensus amongst scholars, some authors still question the utility and accuracy of including the lands east of the Euphrates in the late antique paradigm, as if there was a sign on the other side of the Tigris River saying, “Late Antiquity does not exist here; Christianity never really mattered, nor was it an important part of the Iranian world.”6

    This essay is a response to and reflection upon these questions and debates. Using literary sources and material culture from the Sasanian period, I analyze how and why Iran was transformed in Late Antiquity. I contend that we can detect important changes from the Oxus to the Euphrates (the cultural realm of Ērānšahr), between the third and seventh centuries CE. In fact, it appears that the Sasanians actually thought of themselves as living in a new era, different from the past; hence the existence of a distinctly late antique Iran is evident.

    The Walled Garden

    When we look at literary production from the Sasanian period, we must remain cognizant of the fact that much of the surviving Pahlavi literature was written in the post-Sasanian period. However, many texts were composed in the sixth and the seventh centuries CE and clearly reflect the Sasanian ethos. Perhaps the best case in point is the Kārnāmag ī Ardaxšīr ī Pābagān (Book of Deeds of Ardaxšīr, son of Pābāg), a reading staple of late antique society in the Persianate world. From its very first chapter, the Book of Deeds mentions that the Iranian world, Ērānšahr, had been divided between 240 petty kings (kadag-xwadāy) before the rule of Ardaxšīr (224–240 CE), from the time of Alexander to the third century.7 The aim of the book is to show how Ardaxšīr and his sons (XIV.19), equipped with xwarrah (royal glory), were able to unite and rule the Iranian world (Ērānšahr abāz ō ēw-xwadāyīh tuwānist āwurdan), and bring about a new age in the history of the region.

    Of course, Ardaxšīr’s endeavors aimed at bringing back again (abāz) what once was in existence, i.e., unity and power in Iran.8 In reality, Ardaxšīr introduced a change in the status quo of how the Arsacids ruled the Iranian Plateau, moving from a fragmented system (feudal, to use Western terminology) of rule to one in which the King of Kings reigned supreme and could not be challenged by the petty kings as had been done before.9 The move towards centralization can also be gleaned from the administrative practices of the Sasanian Empire, which grew in scale, especially from the fifth century CE, with mintmarks on coins and administrative seals. The administrative division of the Sasanian Empire can be seen in an Ērānšahr in which governors (ostāndār), priests (mow), accountants (āmārgar), and others were involved in an unprecedented level of control and centralization.10

    One may contend that the very notion of an Ērānšahr was a late antique project of the Sasanians. If we are to follow Gnoli’s narrative, there had never been a political understanding of Ērānšahr prior to this time.11 This new political entity called Ērānšahr became a physical space in which the inscriptions of the third century, namely that of Šapūr I and Kerdīr at the Kaʿbeh-ye Zardosht (“Cube of Zoroaster”), provide a tangible as well as a mental boundary between the ēr, “Iranian,” and an-ēr, “non-Iranian.”12 Furthermore, walls were constructed to demarcate a real boundary around this empire, namely the Wall of Darband, the Great Wall of Gorgān, and the Wall of the Arabs, while the two rivers, the Oxus and the Euphrates, seem to have been the other demarcation of Ērānšahr, which eventually was considered a sacred space.13

    While Mazdaism or Zoroastrianism already existed under the Arsacids, it was really under Ardaxšīr that Mazdaism began to be officially propagated on the coinage of the Sasanian Empire as a dominant religious tradition.14 If we take into consideration the coins and the literary corpus, it is no exaggeration to say that the Sasanians wished to project themselves as the promoters of both Zoroastrianism and the start of a new era in Iranian history. This can be seen in late sources such as the Dēnkard IV and the Nāmeh-ye Tansar.15 If we believe the Nāmeh-ye Tansar, the religious changes introduced by Ardaxšīr made many of his contemporaries uncomfortable, as Mary Boyce suggests.16 But Ardaxšīr’s religious revolution was also praised as a re-organization (abāz ārāyišnīh) by those versed in the Zoroastrian religion.17 Nevertheless, we observe a significant shift in the religious affiliation of the new dynasty on the Iranian Plateau, where Zoroastrian symbols and ideas were overtly pushed to the forefront of society. After all, the first word minted on the Sasanian coins was mazdēsn (Avestan, mazdayasna-, “Mazda-worshippers”). As far as we know, the Arsacids never made such an effort to promote any single religion, and based on the scant evidence, they were open to other religions.

    In literature, the fortified walls built in the sixth century CE around Ērānšahr are often connected to the notion of a paradise (Old Persian, *paridayda-), i.e., a walled garden, in which the king would act as the gardener. While Bruce Lincoln has recently discussed the ideological framework of the term *paridayda-, I believe there is much that continues in the Sasanian period, where, for example, King Khusrow is clearly described as a gardener and a caretaker of his realm, and Ērānšahr is imagined as a garden with the king as its gardener.18 In the Shāhnāmeh of Ferdowsī, King Khusrow’s role is portrayed in the following manner:

    Iran is a lush Spring garden,

    where roses ever bloom.

    The army and weapons are the garden’s walls

    and lances its wall of thorns.

    If the garden’s walls are pulled down,

    then there will be no difference between it and the wilderness (beyond).

    Take care not to destroy its walls

    and not to dishearten or weaken Iranians.

    If you do, then raiding and pillaging will follow,

    and also the battle-cries of riders and the din of war.

    Risk not the safety of the Iranians’ wives, children, and lands

    by bad policies and plans.19

    In these verses, we can appreciate the unfolding of a new Iranian world which did not exist before. In this new world of Ērānšahr, justice and civilization rule and the ēr (Iranians) are safe under the protection of the king’s law or justice (dād).

    Khusrow I brought order and organization to the Sasanian Empire after revolts, plagues, and famines. As presented in the Shāhnāmeh, the king’s justice resonated with those who remembered the Sasanian world. The idea of the circle of justice, a classic concept in the Near Eastern tradition, became synonymous with the Sasanians and reverberated in the Islamicate world.20 Such conceptions of the world were not present in the Arsacid world; at least, there is simply no record of such ideological views (see Gallery Image A).

    In the eyes of the Sasanians, those who dwell outside of the walls are the enemies of justice and order, and are considered monsters. Carlo Cereti’s reading of the apocalyptic Middle Persian text, Zand ī Wahman Yasn, explains how the two- legged wolves (gurg ī do zang) stand for the “others” or “outsiders” who raid Ērānšahr.21 The text provides an old Iranian trope which goes back to the Avestan tradition of the two-legged wolves as men—and sometimes as monsters—attacking Ērānšahr.22 These “others” bring chaos and destruction to Mazdean order, in a similar fashion as the Evil Spirit (Ahreman) causes cosmic chaos against Ohrmazd (the supreme god, also known as Mazda). Thus, these barbarians/monsters (an-ēr) reside outside the walls, in the desert wild where there is no order or law, while the ērānagān (Iranians) stay safe within the walled garden. The more difficult question to answer is what position did the an-ēr who lived in Ērānšahr occupy? Was there a “civilizing” effect by living in Ērānšahr, with the king’s justice bringing order to those otherwise considered foreigners?

    This dichotomy between the inside and outside of Ērānšahr is a late antique phenomenon which did not exist before in either the Achaemenid or the Arsacid kingdoms. This creation of Ērānšahr as a paradisiacal space by Khusrow I may go back to the Mazdean tradition associated with the story of the primordial king, Yima/Jamšīd, who rules over paradise in the Avesta.23 Yima/Jamšīd was responsible for building a vara– (wall) that protected the best people and species.

    State and religion: the numismatic evidence

    Another important change within Iranian society characteristic of the late antique period is the role of religion vis-à-vis the state and the specific worldview espoused by the Sasanians. In the Roman Empire, the chi-rho banner marked the dominance of Christianity; its manifestation on material culture began with Constantine I’s son, Constantius II, in the second half of the fourth century CE (see Gallery Image B).24

    Within the Iranian world, we observe differences between the iconography used on imperial Arsacid coinage and that on Sasanian coinage. It is well known that Ardaxšīr, who hailed from the province of Persis, imposed new monetary reforms with better regulation of weight and silver content.25 The obverse of the Arsacid coinage was imitated by the Sasanians (depicting the ruler with distinctive headgear), but they made sure that the difference and distinctness of their new iconographic features would be visible as well. The legends on the coins were in Middle Persian—a departure from the tradition on the Iranian Plateau, where the Greek or deformed Aramaic used on Arsacid coins.26 More importantly, on the reverse, an image of the fire altar was struck instead of a depiction of the seated King of Kings (see Gallery Image C).

    The fire altar had been a well-known symbol used on local coins in Persis before the rise of the Sasanians.27 On the Iranian Plateau at large, however, the use of this symbol on coinage was new. Beginning with the very first imperial coinage of the founder of the Sasanian Empire, the dynasty struck coins with this image as a marker of a new religious identity. This was the king’s fire (nwry MLKA), which, according to the Nāmeh-ye Tansar, was first associated with the Achaemenid Darius I. The Nāmeh-ye Tansar states that since the time of the Achaemenids, the religious (Mazdean) tradition had become obscured and many fire temples had mushroomed without any clear guidelines. Ardaxšīr then extinguished them and carried them to their proper place, probably to his own fire temple, so that there would be only one royal fire.28 One may suggest that if such an action took place, then from the very first Sasanian King of Kings, there was a campaign to bring religious centralization. On the obverse of Ardaxšīr’s coins, the word mazdēsn (Mazda-worshipper) was also struck. This is a significant break from Arsacid numismatic iconography and propaganda, suggesting a new ideological and religious identity, where the kings presented themselves as Mazda-worshippers (see Gallery Image D). Later on, in the third century, two figures were added on each side of the royal fire altar, one of them being most likely the King of Kings himself.

    The introduction of this new ideology was also echoed in Pahlavi texts, and later in Persian and Arabic literature. The Pahlavi book Dēnkard states:

    hād xwadāyīh dēn ud dēn xwadāyī…

    pad awēšān xwadāyīh abar dēn ud dēn

    abar xwadāyīh winnārdagīh

    Know that kingship is religion and religion is kingship…

    from them kingship is arranged based on religion and religion

    based on kingship.29

    This passage, along with Sasanian coinage, clearly reveals the empire’s new conception of “kingship” and “religion” as two interdependent units that cannot survive without each other.30 This paradigm continued well into the Islamic period and became part of the standard discourse among medieval philosophers and statesmen.31

    Sasanian rock reliefs also attest to a new era in royal propaganda on a wider scale. While using old themes found in ancient Near Eastern and Achaemenid art, the Sasanians used the subjects of and connections to the past differently.32 Even though there are signs of continuity, the changes of the Sasanian period are much more visible. Notable examples include the representation of the king, who is now elevated to the status of the gods. This begins with Ardaxšīr in the third century CE and continues into the seventh century with Khusrow II (see Gallery Image E). In these scenes, gods and men are almost indistinguishable and the same size.33 Unlike in the past, the Sasanian kings and queens resemble the deities Ohrmazd and Anāhīd.34 The Sasanian rock reliefs in Persis, at Naqsh-e Rustam and Naqsh-e Rajab, depict a variety of scenes such as the king’s investiture, courtly scenes, and images of jousting, as well as monumental scenes of victories over the Romans and other assailants. Reliefs represent the aristocracy and the king competing for power, defeating enemies, and receiving diadems from the gods. Many of these images are reused from ancient Near Eastern tradition, especially Achaemenid and Arsacid works, but the Sasanians produced a large number of them throughout the duration of their empire.

    A Zoroastrian perspective on history

    Another new development introduced during Sasanian times was the concept of history written by the Sasanians.35 We are mostly dependent on late and post-Sasanian historical writings for Sasanian historical remains. Movses Khorenatsi (ca. 410–490s CE) in his History of the Armenians states that the Arsacids had a historical tradition, but there is scant corroborating evidence that suggests the existence of a written Arsacid history.36 We know, on the other hand, that the Sasanians commissioned a history of Ērānšahr from remote antiquity to their own time. The idea of a royal narrative to be passed down as common history shared by all Iranians is a distinctive project of Late Antiquity.37 This historical narrative, which may have been a genre rather than a single book as in later times, remained a historical blueprint for Iran’s ancient history until the nineteenth century.38 Sources suggest that such a historical work(s) was commissioned in the sixth century during the rule of Khusrow I, and was known as the Xwadāy-nāmag (Book of Lords).39 What makes this narrative distinct from former traditions is its strong religious stance, what we may call a Zoroastrian vison of past and present history. I would contend that different genres became sources of history for different classes of people to read in late antique Iran. For example, the Siyar al-Mulūk and the Shāhnāmeh were kingly texts; the Bundahišn was a priestly text, and such texts as the Garšāsbnāmeh and Kūšnāmeh were popular histories for the masses.40 This form of historical dissemination embodies the organization of Iranian Late Antiquity, in which religion became the most important element used to view the past and frame the present within the context of sacred narrative texts.

    A similar paradigm can also be seen in the late antique Roman world, where from the time of Eusebius, history was remodeled around a biblical framework rather than in the classical style.41 In the historiography and material culture of the Eastern Roman world, even the Persian generals and the King of Kings, Khusrow II, were presented through a biblical lens, for example as Holofernes, the general of Nebuchadnezzar, or as Goliath. Roman material culture, specifically silver plates from Late Antiquity, present us with evidence for this sacred historical framing of events. The most famous group of silver Roman/Byzantine plates in this historiography of the Perso-Roman warfare are those of battle scenes in which David is able to overcome Goliath. On the back of one of the silver dishes depicting the defeat of Goliath by David, the name of Emperor Heraclius is stamped. This action suggests Heraclius’ attempt to portray himself as the victor in the Perso-Roman war (to use James Howard-Johnston’s terminology, “the last great war of Late Antiquity”), but in a biblical context (see Gallery Image F).42

    In Sasanian Ērānšahr, a Zoroastrian vision of historiography in which the burden of the past played its part in the affairs of Late Antiquity also developed. According to that vision, the supporters and enemies of Ērānšahr are given an Avestan coloring and context, meaning they are portrayed as the heroes and villains of Zoroastrian sacred tradition.43 For example, the Xwadāy-nāmag depicts the Turks on the Sasanians’ eastern front as the Tūranians mentioned in the Avesta, with their great king Afrāsīyāb. These associations became an important “historical” tradition that the Turkic tribes and Turkic noble houses such as the Khwarzmshāhs were only too happy to adopt.44 In this new historiography, the Romans were tied to the Avestan Salm, who became the enemies of Ērānšahr on the western front. Such was the cooptation of sacred (Avestan and biblical) narratives in history in Late Antiquity, for both the Iranians and the Romans.

    For the Sasanians, their King of Kings became the inheritor of Iraj, who ruled Iran and the Kayanid dynasty, as indicated in the Avesta and more immediately in the Xwadāy-nāmag. The Sasanian kings then played a role in the sacred history of Iran, where, for example, Khusrow II (590–628 CE) took on the role of heroic king Kay Khusrow/Kavi Haosrauua of the Avesta. Thus, on his coinage, Khusrow II was made to resemble Khusrow/Kavi Haosrauua, endowed with royal glory (xwarrah; see Gallery Image G). To be on par with Kay Khusrow/Kavi Haosrauua, Khusrow II had to emulate his actions and heroics, as is indicated in the Zamyad Yasht, an important part of the Avestan hymns to kings and heroes, which lauds the kings of the past by stating that they “all became brave, all courageous… all filled with wondrous power, all perceptive… bold in action.”45 In a sense, the Sasanian kings, such as Khusrow II, had to prove themselves to be courageous, as his namesake predecessor in the Avesta had been. This connection explains, perhaps, the slogan struck on the special-issue coinage of Khusrow II (if genuine), stating that Ērānšahr is “without fear.”46 Thus, we might suggest that the heroic age of Khusrow II was fully aligned with Zoroastrian historiography and on par with Christian historiography, which, as we have seen, set Heraclius as David in his battles and struggles.47 This historical framework was not present previously in Iran’s history and is a product of the Sasanian Empire. This was a late antique worldview and type of history for the Iranian world, markedly different from the precedents of the past of the Arsacid period.

    A millenarian vision

    The last point I would like to discuss is the framing of Ardaxšīr’s time and the Sasanian Empire according to Zoroastrian millennial expectations. The Zoroastrians constructed a specific form of millenarian vision which began from the “Era of Zoroaster.”48 The world era, divided into 12,000 years, was further divided into 3,000-year cycles. According to that timeframe, 6,000 years elapsed before the first man appeared, and another 3,000 years before Zoroaster’s advent.49 The end of each millennium would bring an important outcome, and so the time of King Ardaxšīr corresponded to one of the major periods of messianic significance among the Zoroastrians.

    The account in Masʿūdī’s Kitāb al-Tanbīh wa’l-ishrāf is instrumental for understanding Ardaxšīr’s propaganda. In his book, Masʿūdī reports how some believed that Zoroaster had predicted that the Iranians would go through a great change after 300 years, and then again after 700 years. Admittedly, these important events coincided with Alexander’s conquest and the end of the Arsacid Empire. It is possible that Ardaxšīr turned the apocalyptic tradition to his advantage, making the establishment of the Sasanian Empire correspond to a new era in the Zoroastrian millennial expectation. The manipulation would have been done expertly, so as to not coincide with an era of “decline,” reducing the Arsacid dynasty’s rule to 260 years, and shifting Zoroaster’s age up to the beginning of his reign.50 Scholars disagree on whether it was Ardaxšīr in the third century CE or Khusrow I in the sixth century CE who manipulated the calendar.51 Regardless, the rule of the Sasanians was reckoned as an important time in history. This sort of millennial expectation was not only current among the Zoroastrians, but also within the Jewish community. In Jewish apocalyptic traditions from Late Antiquity, Ardaxšīr is mentioned as an important king that will bring a great change to history, before the appearance of the Messiah.52 For the Zoroastrians, the savior at that millennium would have been Ušēdar, whom the Manichaeans equated with Mani during the rise of Ardaxšīr in the third century CE; later Mazdak was equated with him as well, during the reign of Kawād I in the sixth century CE.

    Conclusion

    We could include more examples to demonstrate the ideological and historical shifts inaugurated by the Sasanian Empire. However, I believe the discussion above should suffice to demonstrate that the rule of Ardaxšīr in the third century marked the beginning of a new age on the Iranian Plateau. This change is echoed in the fourth book of the Dēnkard, in which it is stated that those versed in religion (dēn-āgāhān) had predicted that Ardaxšīr’s arrival would cause strife but his reign would be “world-profiting” (gēhān sūd).53 This tradition of changes and shifts are reflected in Pahlavi, Arabic, and Persian sources, supporting the idea that Ardaxšīr brought about fundamental shifts in his own time, which can be called the beginning of late antique Iran.

    Indeed, there appears to have been a sharp break from the Arsacid past and a new vision for the people of the Iranian Plateau engineered and crafted by the Sasanian kings. These major changes are not simply reflected in later sources on the third century, but also exist in contemporaneous Armenian and Jewish sources on the third-century transition in the late ancient world. This view of the religious communities living in the late Arsacid-early Sasanian period can be gleaned from the Babylonian Talmud. In one passage in the Talmud, it states that “Antoninus attended on Rabbi [a third-century Palestinian rabbi]; Artabān (the last Arsacid king) attended on Rab [a contemporary Babylonian rabbi]. When Antoninus died, Rabbi exclaimed: ‘The bond is snapped!’ [So also] when Artabān died, Rab exclaimed: ‘The bond is snapped!’”54 Here we are witnessing a change in relationship between the Jews and the new dynasty, i.e., the Sasanians, which was noticed and characterized as a breakage or ‘snapping’ of the status quo of life in Eurasia. This change was brought about by Ardaxšīr I and the Sasanian dynasty, and almost every source acknowledged and understood this as the coming of a new age. Ardaxšīr I was a revolutionary whose militant Mazdean zeal and vision of an empire named Ērānšahr ushered a new period in Iranian history.

    About the author

    Touraj Daryaee is the Maseeh Chair in Persian Studies and Culture and the Director of the Dr. Samuel M. Jordan Center for Persian Studies and Culture at the University of California, Irvine. His research focuses on the ancient and early medieval history of Iran, specifically the Sasanian Empire. He has worked on Middle Persian literature, editing and translating several texts with commentary on geography, dinner speech, chess, and backgammon. He is also interested in the history of Zoroastrianism in Late Antiquity and its encounter with Islam. He is the editor of the Name-ye Iran-e Bastan: The International Journal of Ancient Iranian Studies as well as the electronic journal, DABIR: Digital Archives of Brief Notes and Iran Review and Sasanika: Late Antique Near East Project. His articles have appeared both in English and Persian in Iranian Studies, Iran, Iranistik, Studia Iranica, Res Orientalis, Historia, Electrum, Indo-Iranian Journal, Journal of Indo-European Studies, Iranshenasi, Iran Nameh, Name-ye Baharestan, and Name-ye Iran-e Bastan. His books include Sasanian Persia: The Rise and Fall of an Empire (I. B. Tauris, 2009) and From Oxus to Euphrates: The World of Late Antique Iran (Jordan Center for Persian Studies, 2017). He is also the editor of the Oxford Handbook of Ancient Iran (Oxford University Press, 2012).

    Notes

    1. On the Christianization of Roman material culture, see Lucy Grig, “Portraits, Pontiffs and the Christianization of Fourth-Century Rome,” Papers of the British School at Rome 72 (2004): 203–230.
    2. Peter Brown, The World of Late Antiquity: From Marcus Aurelius to Muhammad (London: Thames and Hudson, 1971); more recently, see Clifford Ando, “Decline, Fall and Transformation,” Journal of Late Antiquity 1 (2008): 30–60 and Mark Humphries, “Late Antiquity and World History: Challenging Conventional Narratives and Analyses,” Studies in Late Antiquity 1 (2017): 8–37.
    3. Frank M. Clover and R. Stephen Humphreys, Tradition and Innovation in Late Antiquity (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1989), 3.
    4. Michael Morony, “Should Sasanian Iran be Included in Late Antiquity?,” E-Sasanika 1 (2008); see also the new journal Studies in Late Antiquity, founded and edited by Elizabeth DePalma Digeser, which expressly includes Sasanian Studies as a central field under its aegis.
    5. Richard Payne, A State of Mixture: Christians, Zoroastrians, and Iranian Political Culture in Late Antiquity (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2015).
    6. For an excellent review of the debates see, Humphries, “Late Antiquity and World History,” et passim.
    7. Frantz Grenet, La geste d’Ardashir fils de Pâbag = Kārnāmag ī Ardaxšēr ī Pābagān (Die: Éditions A Die 2003), 52.
    8. Ibid., 116–117.
    9. On the structure of Arsacid rule, see E. J. Keall, “How Many Kings did the Parthian King of Kings Rule?,” Iranica Antiqua 29 (1994): 253–272. For a nuanced view of Arsacid rule, see Leonardo Gregoratti, “Sinews of the Other Empire: The Parthian Great King’s Rule over Vassal Kingdoms,” in Håkon Fiane Teigen and Eivind Heldaas Seland (eds.), Sinews of Empire: Networks in the Roman Near East and Beyond (Oxford: Oxbow Books, 2017), 95–120.
    10. Rika Gyselen, La Géographie administrative de l’empire Sassanide. Les témoignages sigillographiques (Res Orientales I; Leuven: Peeters Publishers, 1989).
    11. Gherardo Gnoli, The Idea of Iran: An Essay on the Origins (Rome: Instituto Italiano per il Medio ed Estremo Oriente, 1989).
    12. Idem, “Ēr mazdēsn: Zum Begriff Iran und seiner Entstehung im 3. Jahrhundert,” in Transition Periods in Iranian History (Actes du Symposium de Fribourg-en-Brisgau, 22–24 Mai 1985) (Cahiers de Studia Iranica 5; Leuven: Peeters Publishers, 1987), 83–100.
    13. Eberhard Sauer, Tony Wilkinson, Hamid Omrani Rekavandi, and Jabrael Nokandeh (eds.), Persia’s Imperial Power in Late Antiquity: The Great Wall of Gorgān and Frontier Landscapes of Sasanian Iran (Oxford: Oxbow Books, 2013); Hamid Mahamedi, “Wall as a System of Frontier Defense during the Sasanid Period,” in Touraj Daryaee and Mahmoud Omidsalar (eds.), The Spirit of Wisdom: Essays in Memory of Ahmad Tafazzoli (Costa Mesa, AZ: Mazda Publishers, 2004): 145–159; and Touraj Daryaee, “If These Walls Could Speak: The Barrier of Alexander, Wall of Darband and Other Defensive Moats,” in Stefano Pello (ed.), Borders: Itineraries on the Edges of Iran (Eurasiatica 5; Venice: Edizioni Ca’Foscari, 2016), 79–88.
    14. Vesta Sarkhosh Curtis, “Ancient Iranian Motifs and Zoroastrian Iconography,” in Alan Williams, Sarah Stewart, and Almut Hintze (eds.), The Zoroastrian Flame: Exploring Religion, History and Tradition (London: IB Tauris, 2016), 179-203; eadem, “Parthian Coins: Kingship and Divine Glory,” in Peter Wick and Markus Zehnder (eds.), The Parthian Empire and its Religions: Studies in the Dynamics of Religious Diversity (Gutenberg: Computus Druck Satz & Verlag, 2012): 68–81, 68–69.
    15. Dhanjishah Meherjibhai Madan (ed. and trans.), The Complete Text of the Pahlavi Dinkard, Part I (2 vols.; Bombay: Ganpatrao Ramajirao Sindhe, 1911), 412. For a translation, see Mansour Shaki, “The Denkard Account of the History of the Zoroastrian Scriptures,” Archiv Orientalni 49 (1981): 114–125, 117–118.
    16. The Letter of Tansar, trans. Mary Boyce (Rome: Instituto Italisano per il Medio ed Estremo Oriente, 1968), 47.
    17. Siamak Adhami, “A Question of Legitimacy: The Case of Ardašīr I (‘Dēnkard’ IV),” Indo-Iranian Journal 46 (2003): 223–230, 226–227.
    18. Bruce Lincoln, “À la Recherche du Paradis Perdu,” History of Religions 43 (2003): 139–154; idem, ‘Happiness for Mankind’: Achaemenian Religion and the Imperial Project (Acta Iranica 53; Leuven: Peeters, 2012): 5–19.
    19. Abū’l-Qasem Ferdowsī, The Shahnameh = The Book of Kings, ed. Djalal Khaleghi-Motlagh (8 vols.; New York: Bibliotheca Persica, 1988–2008): 7:275–282; the translation is from Maḥmūd Omīdsālār, Iran’s Epic and America’s Empire: A Handbook for a Generation in Limbo (Santa Monica, CA: Afshar Press, 2012), 165–166.
    20. Linda T. Darling, A History of Social Justice and Political Power in the Middle East: The Circle of Justice from Mesopotamia to Globalization (New York: Routledge, 2013), 41–46.
    21. The Zand ī Wahman Yasn: A Zoroastrian Apocalypse, trans. Carlo G. Cereti, (Rome: Instituto Italisano per il Medio ed Estremo Oriente, 1995), 143, 163.
    22. Mary Roche Gerstein, “Germanic Warg: The Outlaw as Werewolf,” in Gerald James Larson, C. Scott Littleton and Jaan Puhvel (eds.), Myth in Indo-European Antiquity (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1974), 131–156, 155; For a complete picture of such cases, see Kim R. McCone, “Hund, Wolf und Krieger bei den Indogermanen,” in Wolfgang Meid (ed.), Studien zum indogermanischen Wortschatz (Innsbruck: Institut für Sprachwissenschaft der Universität Innsbruck, 1987), 101–154.
    23. Bruce Lincoln, “On the Imagery of Paradise,” Indogermanische Forschungen 85 (1980): 151–164, 159–162.
    24. Patrick Bruun, “The Victorious Signs of Constantine: A Reappraisal,” Numismatic Chronicle 157 (1997): 41–59, 41–42. Already Constantine the Great had made changes to the old Roman coinage when he had his coins struck: see idem, “Portrait of a Conspirator: Constantine’s Break with the Tetrarchy,” Arctos, n.s. 10 (1976): 5–23.
    25. Michael Alram, “The Beginning of Sasanian Coinage,” Bulletin of the Asia Institute 13 (1999): 67–76, 68–69.
    26. Khodadad Rezakhani, “From Aramaic to Pahlavi: Epigraphic Observations Based on the Persis Coin Series,” in Vesta Sarkhosh Curtis, Elizabeth J. Pendleton, Michael Alram, and Touraj Daryaee (eds.), The Parthian and Early Sasanian Empires: Adaptation and Expansion. Proceedings of a Conference Held in Vienna, 14–16 June 2012 (Oxford: Oxbow, 2016), 69–75, 72.
    27. Vesta Sarkhosh Curtis, “Observations on Some Coins of Persis,” in Shervin Farridnejad, Rika Gyselen, and Anke Joisten-Pruschke (eds.), Faszination Iran: Beiträge zur Religion, Geschichte und Kunst des Alten Iran. Gedenkschrift für Klaus Schippmann (Wiesbaden: Harrassowitz, 2015), 25–38, 30.
    28. Letter of Tansar, trans. Boyce, 47.
    29. As quoted in Touraj Daryaee, Sasanian Persia: The Rise and Fall of an Empire, (London: IB Tauris, 2009), 81; Madan (ed. and trans.), Dinkard, Part I, 470.7.
    30. R. C. Zaehner, Zurvan: A Zoroastrian Dilemma (New York: Biblo and Tannen, 1972), 36.
    31. Nasir Al-Kaabi, The Debate between State and Religion in Ancient Eastern Thought: Iran, the Sassanid Era as an Example (Beirut: Al-Jamal Publishing House, 2010).
    32. Matthew Canepa, “Sasanian Rock Reliefs,” in Daniel T. Potts (ed.), The Oxford Handbook of Ancient Iran (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013), 856–877, 875.
    33. Andrea Gariboldi, “Astral Symbology on Iranian Coinage,” East and West 54 (2004): 31–53, 32.
    34. Michael Shenkar, “Rethinking Sasanian Iconoclasm,” Journal of the American Oriental Society 135 (2015): 471–498, 490.
    35. Touraj Daryaee, “Historiography in Late Antique Iran,” in Ali Ansari (ed.), Perceptions of Iran: History, Myths and Nationalism from Medieval Persia to the Islamic Republic (London: IB Tauris, 2014), 65–76.
    36. Movses Khorenatsi, History of the Armenians. Trans. Robert Thomson (Harvard Armenian Texts and Studies 4; Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1978), 1.9, as cited in A. Shapour Shahbazi, “Historiography ii. Pre-Islamic Period,” Encyclopaedia Iranica, s.v. (2003). 
    37. Daryaee, “Historiography in Late Antique Iran,” 65–76.
    38. For the most recent discussion of the Xwadāy-nāmag, see Robert Hoyland, The ‘History of the Kings of the Persians’ in Three Arabic Chronicles: The Transmission of the Iranian Past from Late Antiquity to Early Islam (Translated Texts for Historians 69; Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 2018), 6–23.
    39. Shapur Shahbazi, “On the Xwadāy-nāmag,” in D. Amin, M. Kasheff, and S. Shahbazi (eds.), “Iranica Varia”: Papers in Honor of Professor Ehsan Yarshater (Acta Iranica 30; Leiden: Brill, 1990), 208–29; see also Djalal Khaleghi-Motlagh, “Az šāhnāmeh tā khodāynāmeh [From Shahnameh to Khodaynameh: An Inquiry into the Direct and Indirect Sources of the Shahnameh],” Nāme-ye Irān-e Bāstān: The International Journal of Ancient Iranian Studies 7 (2007–2008): 3–120. The most recent work on the subject, to which I have not had access, is by Jaako Hämeen-Anttila, Khwadāynāmag: The Middle Persian Book of Kings (Leiden: Brill, 2018).
    40. Following Dumézil’s trifunctional system of warrior, priesthood, and commoners that he posited as a fundamental aspect of Proto-Indo-European society, I suggest that genres of literature could also match this trifunctional structure. For the basic outlines of Dumézil’s work, see, C. Scott Littleton, The New Comparative Mythology: An Anthropological Assessment of the Theories of Georges Dumézil (rev. ed.; Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1973).
    41. Averil Cameron, “Images of Authority: Elites and Icons in Late Sixth-Century Byzantium,” in Averil Cameron (ed.), Continuity and Change in Sixth-Century Byzantium (London: Variorum Reprints, 1981), 3–35, 4.
    42. James Howard-Johnston, “Al-Tabari on the Last Great War of Antiquity,” in East Rome, Sasanian Persia and the End of Antiquity (Aldershot, UK: Ashgate, 2006), 1–22. For the plates, see David Hendrix, “The David Plates,” The Byzantine Legacy (2016).
    43. Josef Wiesehöfer, Iraniens, Grecs et Romains (Studia Iranica 32; Paris: Association pour l’avancement des études iraniennes, 2005), 141–142; M. Rahim Shayegan, Arsacids and Sasanians: Political Ideology in Post-Hellenistic and Late Antique Persia (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011), 1–4.
    44. For the connection of the Khwarzmshāhs to Afrāsīyāb, seeTao Hua, “The Muslim Qarakhanids and their Invented Ethnic Identity,” in Étienne de la Vaissière (ed.), Islamisation de l’Asie Centrale: Processus locaux d’acculturation du VIIe au XIe siècle (Studia Iranica 39; Paris: Association pour l’avancement des études iraniennes, 2008), 339–350.
    45. Zamyad /Kayan Yašt 19.72. For English translations, see Helmut Humbach, Zamyād Yasht: Yasht 19 of the Younger Avesta. Text, Translation, Commentary (Wiesbaden: Harrassowitz, 1998); William Malandra, An Introduction to Ancient Iranian Religion: Readings from the Avesta and the Achaemenid Inscriptions (Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press, 1983), 94.
    46. The legend on the gold coins reads: ’yl’n d’pbym kart’ / Ērān abēbīm kardār; see Rika Gyselen, New Evidence for Sasanian Numismatics: The Collection of Ahmad Saeedi = Contributions á l’histoire et la géographie historique de l’empire Sassanide (Res Orientales XVI; Bures-sur-Yvette: Groupe pour l’étude de la civilisation du Moyen-Orient, 2004): 126–127.
    47. Cameron, “Images of Authority,” 33.
    48. See Gherardo Gnoli, Zoroaster in History (Biennial Yarshater Lecture Series 2; New York: Bibliotheca Persica Press, 2000).
    49. S.H. Taqizadeh, “The ‘Era of Zoroaster’,” Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society (1947): 33–40, 33.
    50. Otakar Klima, “The Date of Zoroaster,” Archiv Orientalni 27 (1959): 556–564, 560.
    51. In favor of Khusrow I, see A. Shapur Shahbazi, “Recent Speculations on the ‘Traditional Date of Zoroaster’,” Studia Iranica 31 (2002): 7–45, 29. For Ardašīr see S.H. Taqizadeh, “Various Eras and Calendars Used in the Countries of Islam (Continued),” Bulletin of the School of Oriental Studies 10 (1939): 107–132, 128–129. Taqizadeh had already expressed the opinion that we have some indication of the existence of an “Era of Ardashir” in Syriac and non-official sources; ibid., 131, n. 1. For all of these discussions see, Gherardo Gnoli, Da Alessandro ad Ardašir: Storiografia e cronologie arabo-persiane (Rome: ISMEO, 2013), 43–82. It is interesting that in the recent dating of the Bactrian documents, one finds the idea that the letters could be dated from the beginning of Ardašīr’s reign, either 227 CE (see Harry Falk, “The Yuga of Sphujiddvaja and the Era of the Kuṣanas,” Silk Road Art and Archaeology 7 [2001]: 126) or, more interestingly, from 224 CE with the kingship of Ardašīr, as in François de Blois, “Du nouveau sur la chronologie Bactrienne post-hellénistique: l’ère de 223–224 ap. J.-C., Académie des Inscriptions et Belles-Lettres Comptes Rendus 150 (2006): 991–997.
    52. Ory Amitay, From Alexander to Jesus (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2010), 115–116.
    53. Adhami, “A Question of Legitimacy,” 226–227.
    54. Avodah Zarah 10b–11a. See Richard Kalmin, “Sasanian Persecution of the Jews: A Reconsideration of the Evidence,” in Shaul Shaked and Amnon Netzer (eds.), Irano-Judaica VI: Studies Relating to Jewish Contacts with Persian Culture throughout the Ages (Jerusalem: Ben-Zvi Institute, 2008): 87–124, 90–91.