The Sassanids, A.D. 224-642
The Sassanids established an empire roughly within the frontiers
achieved by the Achaemenids, with the capital at Ctesiphon
. The Sassanids consciously sought to resuscitate Iranian
traditions and to obliterate Greek cultural influence. Their rule
was characterized by considerable centralization, ambitious urban
planning, agricultural development, and technological improvements.
Sassanid rulers adopted the title of shahanshah (king
of kings), as sovereigns over numerous petty rulers, known as
shahrdars. Historians believe that society was divided
into four classes: the priests, warriors, secretaries, and commoners.
The royal princes, petty rulers, great landlords, and priests
together constituted a privileged stratum, and the social system
appears to have been fairly rigid. Sassanid rule and the system
of social stratification were reinforced by Zoroastrianism, which
became the state religion. The Zoroastrian priesthood became immensely
powerful. The head of the priestly class, the mobadan mobad,
along with the military commander, the eran spahbod,
and the head of the bureaucracy, were among the great men of the
state. Rome, with its capital at Constantinople, had replaced
Greece as Iran's principal Western enemy, and hostilities between
the two empires were frequent. Shahpur I (241-72), son and successor
of Ardeshir, waged successful campaigns against the Romans and
in 260 even took the emperor Valerian prisoner.
Chosroes I (531-79), also known as Anushirvan the Just, is the
most celebrated of the Sassanid rulers. He reformed the tax system
and reorganized the army and the bureaucracy, tying the army more
closely to the central government than to local lords. His reign
witnessed the rise of the dihqans (literally, village
lords), the petty landholding nobility who were the backbone of
later Sassanid provincial administration and the tax collection
system. Chosroes was a great builder, embellishing his capital,
founding new towns, and constructing new buildings. Under his
auspices, too, many books were brought from India and translated
into Pahlavi. Some of these later found their way into the literature
of the Islamic world. The reign of Chosroes II (591-628) was characterized
by the wasteful splendor and lavishness of the court.
Toward the end of his reign Chosroes II's power declined. In
renewed fighting with the Byzantines, he enjoyed initial successes,
captured Damascus, and seized the Holy Cross in Jerusalem. But
counterattacks by the Byzantine emperor Heraclius brought enemy
forces deep into Sassanid territory.
Years of warfare exhausted both the Byzantines and the Iranians.
The later Sassanids were further weakened by economic decline,
heavy taxation, religious unrest, rigid social stratification,
the increasing power of the provincial landholders, and a rapid
turnover of rulers. These factors facilitated the Arab invasion
in the seventh century.
Data as of December 1987