Face Music - History: Horsemen – Nomads
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P & C December 1998
- Face Music / Albi

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  • Sassanids
    3rd to 7th century after Christ.

- map sketch:
The Sassanid Empire was the second Persian Empire extending over the territories of today’s Iran and Iraq as well as some of their frontier territories; it existed between the end of the Parthian Empire and the conquest of Persian territories by the Arabs, this is from 224 AD until the battle of Nehawend in the year 642 AD or the death of the Great-King Yazdegerd III in the year 651 AD, respectively. The Sassanid Empire is frequently also called the Neo-Persian Empire. For centuries, it was an important power, in this way rivalling the Roman and the Byzantine Empires. The name of the realm goes back to the last Pre-Islamic Persian dynasty of the Sassanids. The Sassanians, in their turn, quote their descent from Sasan, a historically not relevant tribal founder, who – according to later sources – had been a high priest in the temple of Anahita in Isakr about 200 AD.

The founder of the Sassanid Empire was Ardashir I (reign from 224 to 240 AD), a rebellious prince from the south of the Parthian Empire, the lands of the Persian people, where the Sassanids acted as sub-kings. After having killed the last Parthian king, the Aracid Artabanos IV, in the year 224 AD, he assumed his rule and also liquidated rather soon Vologaeses VI, the long-lasting rival of Artabanos, and about 226 AD he conquered the Parthian capital Ctesiphon, which as a consequence he re-built and enlarged rather splendidly and made it the main point of residence for the Sassanid kings. Aradashir’s son, King Shapur I (240–270/272 AD) already named himself King of the Kings of Iran and Non-Iran. He is considered one of the influential Sassanid rulers, who, apart from his military successes, was also rather successful in regard to internal political matters. In 243 AD, the Romans attacked Persia. Shapur, after having to experience several defeats, finally defeated the Roman emperor Gordian II in 244 AD, who had attacked him and was then killed in the battle of Mesiche. Thereupon, Gordian’s successor agreed to a peace treaty rather infamous for Rome; later on, Shapur in 253 AD then invaded Roman territories for a number of times. He plundered Cilica and Cappadocia, territories now belonging to today’s Turkey, and he also conquered Hatra, a Mesopotamian principality, and he invaded Syria. On his way back from Syria, Shapur, however, was defeated by the Palmyrenian Septimius Odaenathus, who also attacked the Persians in 262 AD and was able to advance as far as the capital Ctesiphon. Odaenathus re-established the Roman borders at the Euphrates, while Shapur had to fight the Cushan (see under Parthians/Persians) in the East. Manichaeism, which was developing at the times of Shapur, was further fostered by the king protecting its founder Manis; at the same time, however, he also heavily relied on Zoroastrianism. His successor Bahram I (273–276 AD) and especially Bahram II (276–293 AD) resumed the persecution of the Manchiaeans, who also found many followers in the Roman Empire. Mani was then sentenced to death. After a serious defeat inflicted upon him by the Caesar Galerius in 298 AD, he had to accept the peace treaty of Nisibis, and he had to yield several territories in northern Mesopotamia and also five satrapias (districts) in the east of the river Tigis to the Romans. Before this, also Armenia had to be handed over; there the Romans installed a suitable Arsacid prince as a ruler (the Arsacids ruled in Armenia until 428 AD). Under the reign of Peroz I (459– 484 AD), who assumed his throne by force, the Inner-Persian Church (Assyrian church of the East), to be distinguished from the Orthodox church of the Roman Empire, became the dominating and prevailing Christian church in Persia.

– The military defence of the Sassanids in the East.
The Sassanids, however, had to defend more than simply one border – just as the Romans. Also the Neo-Persian Empire had to fight invading tribes from the Central-Asian steppes. The passes of the Caucasus Mountains also had to be defended, just like the north-eastern border, permanently threatened by the Cushan and Saka people (Scyths). These people had invaded the western part of the Cushan Empire and had it administered by governors. Around 350 AD the Xionites (Red Huns) invaded the eastern Persian Empire; at the beginning of the 5th century, they were followed by the Hephthalites (White Huns). Upon the collapse of the Hephthalite Empire around 560 AD (with remains of their reign prevailing in today’s Afghanistan), the danger, however, was not over, as then other tribes assumed the role of the Hephthalites, even entering an alliance with the Byzantine emperor Justus II. Later on, the Gökturks supported Emperor Herakleios in his battle against Khosrau II. After the end of the Sassanid Empire, the tribal communities then settling in Transoxania fought bitter resistance against the invading Arabs for a considerable period of time.

– The end of the Sassanids
Under Great-King Khosrau I Anushirvan (“with the immortal soul”, reigned from 531–579 AD) the empire reached its peak. When the end of his reign was near, he even succeeded in conquering the territories at the southern coast of the Persian Gulf, in this way making Oman and Yemen Persian. He himself continued to live on in the fairy tales of the Orient. There were developed rather magnificent building, and he soon became famous as a patron of the arts and sciences, even as far away as in Athens. His biggest enemy was the Byzantine emperor Justianus I. Und Khosraus II, the Persian troops were successful in advancing as far as Syria and Egypt, they even nearly reached Tripolis, and also some of these troops even invaded the Sudan. Crusades were led also into the provinces of the weakened Byzantine Empire, this, however, never being crowned by success. But in December 627 AD, Heraclius (Byzantine emperor) defeated the Sassanid army in the battle at Ninive, which is why they had to return the territories conquered only recently before. Khosraus‘ II being killed and Kavadhs‘ II death, who had only ruled for several months, led to a period of confusion with a dozen of quickly changing rulers; in this time even two of Khosraus’ daughters and the (possibly Christian) general Sharbaraz kept the throne to themselves for a short period of time. The end of the weakened Sassanid Empire was concluded under Yazdegerd III (632–651 AD) when the troops of the Muslim Arabs invaded the Byzantine Orient provinces as well as the Sassanid Empire. The Sassanids were then being expelled from Mesopotamia. Already in 639 AD, the Arabs – after severest conflicts – succeeded in conquering the important province of Chuzestan. At the same time, the Lakhmids, the former Arab vassals of the Persians, were the last to convert to the Islam belief. Yazdegerd III was killed in 651 (or 652) in Merw, in the utmost northeast of the collapsing empire, by one of his servants. For conquering the Iran, the Arabs had to pay a high price. Yazdegerd’s son fled to the Chinese royal court of the Tang and settled in Xian. Supported by his Chinese allies, he tried – however, in vain – to regain power at least in eastern Persia during the civil war between Ali and Muawiya (656 AD).

The culture conserved by the Parthians and interspersed with Hellenism was gradually pushed back, and Iranian elements started to dominate. The political concept of the land of the Aryan started to develop. The king was facing royalty. The ruler was king by the grace of god and of divine descent; he was, however, not a god-king. Powerful rulers were able to compel absolute obedience from their feudal gentry, this leading frequently to fights for the throne and confrontations with the aristocracy. Until the final phase of the empire, it was stated by law that only a (physically unharmed) member of the dynasty was allowed to ascend the throne. Their fiscal system was a combination of poll tax and land tax. There were existent the Zoroastrian priests (mobads) being active as judges as well as legal scholars. Apart from internal trade (Silk Road), they also controlled the sea routes in the western Indian Ocean to India and Ceylon (Sri Lanka). Until the end, the armoured riders and riding archers constituted the most important units of the army.

Literature had been rather flourishing; after the end of the empire, however, literature gradually vanished. Perso-Arabian authors like Tabari assumed the role of important mediators, as they had the opportunity to make use of sources having been lost and edit and rearrange these. Such pieces of literature art offer at least an idea of the former splendor of the secular literature of Middle Persia, including historical pieces as well as poetry, legal scripts, fictional stories, geographical reports, medicine- and astronomy-related abstracts and also heroic epics. There were further included comprehensive religious texts. At the time of the most important king, Khosrau I, who had texts of Greek philosophers and Indian tales translated into the Middle Persian language, life and art at the imperial court were at their zenith: the art of hunting was further developed, and chess and polo were introduced at the royal court; the pompous palace of Taq-e Kisra was being built. The people, furthermore, had a profound interest in medicine, law and philosophy, and Greek and Roman knowledge was readily accepted; on the other hand, also oriental, this is Indian and Far-East culture, knowledge and traditions were introduced – via the Iran – to the Western societies. .Manichaeans and Nestorians resumed their missionary tasks, leading them to the border to China. Cultural achievements were the development of the free-dome-construction (there is to be noted a rather intensive mutual influence in the 6th century AD between Persian and Byzantine architecture). They also refined sugar, and they were the first to construct windmills. Garments like trousers and turban became rather popular. Although the traders and craftsmen played an important role in urban areas, the majority of the population still earned their living as farmers. The Zoroastrian priests (mobads) acted as judges as well as legal scholars at court. Although slaves were considered as “objects”, the still nevertheless were treated as human beings. Prisoners of war and people deported from Roman territories, who were re-settled, constructed buildings and bridges that are still existent today. Artfully designed silver works (rare: gold examples) were elaborated, with the style of these silver works rarely changing at all over time. These contained depictions of the great-king in combination with hunting scenes on silver plates. Other silver works, for example, displayed cult rituals and actions. Mythological depictions are less frequent, and they are often imitations of Greek-Roman pieces of work. The rock reliefs, for example near Naqs-i Rustam, Taq-e-Bostan or Bishapur, are the most impressive ones. Stucco pieces made from plaster were also very frequent, as well as coins, their silver drachma.

Genghis Khan and his sons were the last important figures of the Nomadic steppe riders coming from the Asian steppe lands. Their end was also the end of the riding troops invading for millennia and coming to an end in the European Middle Ages: the Scyths, the Sarmats, the Huns, the Avars, the Khazars, the Pechenegs, the Kipchak people and finally the Mongols.

September 2010 – Albi - translated by Hermelinde Steiner – July 2011