History of Iran: Sassanids

This is part of a series of an overview of Iranian history–please refer to my post of 5.10.


With no clear successor to Alexander the Great following his early death, now Iran became part of a dynasty founded by one of his generals, Seleucus. Around 250 BC, the Seleucid empire was largely conquered by the Parthians (of Central Asian Turkic origin). Parthian rule of now Iran, characterized in part by a rivalry with Rome, lasted from 250 BC to 224 AD. A brief post on the Seleucids and Parthians perhaps to come.

The Sassanid dynasty was founded in 226 AD, when Ardeshir defeated the Parthian Emperor Artabanus IV.

A bas relief, showing the victory of Ardeshir over Artabanus IV. On the right is an anthropomophized Ahura Mazda, the god of Zoroastrianism, handing a ring of royal authority to Ardeshir. Under Ardeshir’s horse is Artabanus, while the God of Evil lies under Ahura Mazda’s horse.

Ruins of Gur, the first capital of the Sassanids, located about an hour and a half southwest of Shiraz

Ardeshir’s palace. This building is notable in particular for its great domes, said to be the first to be built over a square base by use of the squinch.

Zoroastrianism became an orthodox state religion under the Sassanids, led largely by the priest Kartir, who served six different Sassanid emperors over a period of fifty years. The Sassanid Empire practiced a form of Zoroastrianism that is said to have been contaminated by Mithraism, another local faith. Also, gone was the religious tolerance of the Achaemenids–at times, violence toward those of other religions (especially Christians, who were seen as favorably disposed to the Christian Byzantine Empire) was promoted by the state. In one inscription, Kartir speaks proudly of his destruction of the temples of Jews, Buddhists, Christians, Hindus and Greeks throughout the Sassanid Empire. It has been suggested that the decline of Zoroastrianism was due in part to its close association with the Sassanid state. [Post on Zoroastrianism to come.]

A water, or Anahita, temple at the city of Bishapur. When used, the central courtyard would have been flooded along with channels that run around an interior perimeter within the walls, on the other side of the doors that are visible.

On and off for almost its entire duration, the Sassanid Empire fought with the Roman/Byzantine Empire (first based in Rome, and then Constantinople). Earlier on our trip, we visited the site of one Sassanid victory, the city of Dura Europos, described in my post of 4.24. One ally of the Romans against the Sassanids was the city-state of Palmyra, described in my post of 5.2.

In AD 256, Sassanid Emperor Shapur I captured Roman Emperor Valerian following a battle at Edessa (in now Turkey). In this bas relief, Roman Emperors Philip the Arab (kneeling) and Valerian are shown defeated by Shapur. [Philip founded Philippopolis, now Shahba, Syria, one of the “dead cities” of the Hauran.] Emperor Valerian is said to have been held captive in the city of Bishapur until his death.

The Sassanid Empire ended with the Arab (Islamic) conquest of now Iran in the seventh century. While in the ninth and tenth centuries there were smaller dynasties, especially in the eastern part of now Iran, that at times claimed independence from the Islamic Caliph, first based in Damascus and then Baghdad, the next truly great empire to incorporate all of now Iran would be the Seljuk Turks’, itself followed by the coming of the Mongols.

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