Sassanid Empire

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Sassanid Empire

Type of Government

The last great Iranian empire before the Muslim invasion of Iran in the seventh century, the Sassanid Empire united diverse holdings under a shahenshah (king of kings), who was considered to be of divine origin. The king was advised by a council comprising four regional kings and a variety of other officials. The empire was strongly centralized and was administered by a highly structured bureaucracy that included priests of the state religion, Zoroastrianism.


The Sassanid Empire was centered in the fertile lowlands of Mesopotamia, now southeastern Iraq, and on the Iranian plateau on the other side of the Zagros Mountains. At its peak, the empire stretched from beyond the Oxus River (modern-day Amu Dar’ya) in Central Asia, south to the Indus River in India, and west through present-day Afghanistan, Iran, and Iraq, to the Tigris River, where it bordered and contested with the Roman Empire.

The first Sassanid monarch, Ardashīr I (third century) defeated his predecessor, the Parthian king Artabanus V (third century), in 224. Ardashīr I was from the Persian heartland of Fārs. (Persia was the name used in Western languages for Iran from ancient times into the twentieth century; from the time of the Sassanids, the natives have called it Iran. The local language is called either Persian or Farsi.) Borrowing from the courtly rule and customs of the Achaemenid ancestors he claimed, he sought to revive the Iranian traditions and set his sights on reestablishing the borders held by the Achaemenid Empire before its conquest by the Macedonian Alexander the Great (356–323 BC) between 330 and 327 BC. Ardashīr is thought to have observed the benefit Roman emperors drew from allowing the existence of small semiautonomous kingdoms on their borders. While he promoted a strongly centralized government, Ardashīr allowed for these sorts of buffer states in outlying territories.

One of the most powerful factors uniting citizens of the new Sassanid Empire was their shared Zoroastrian religion. The world’s first monotheistic religion, Zoroastrianism was founded by the Persian prophet Zoroaster (c. 628–c. 551 BC) in the seventh century BC. His teachings described existence as a struggle between the forces of good and evil. The establishment of Zoroastrianism as the official state religion unified most of the empire’s inhabitants in one faith and ushered in a well-organized state church that was administered by the powerful Zoroastrian priesthood.

The empire’s foreign policy focused on military engagement and competition for supremacy with the Roman and Byzantine empires in the western Sassanid territories, especially the fertile region between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers. On the eastern frontier, raiding Central Asian nomads tried to drive the Sassanids from their territorial strongholds east of the Oxus River. At home, the Sassanid emperor contended with economic and political challenges posed by the empire’s long frontiers, expensive military campaigns, and diverse populations and economies.

Government Structure

The Sassanid model of imperial rule began with the shahenshah, whose royal authority was declared by the powerful Zoroastrian priests to be of divine origin. The shahenshah was seen as the earthly incarnation of the supreme god, though not identical with it. Governance of the empire was strongly centralized in the strategically located capital of Ctesiphon, at the near-junction of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers near present-day Baghdad, but extended out to the farthest regions by means of an organized division of the empire into smaller kingdoms, provinces, and royal cities.

An advisory council assisted the shahenshah in governing. At the head of the council sat four regional kings who acted as governors of the outlying provinces and enjoyed rights of succession. These were usually princes of the royal clan appointed by the king. Three queens sat on the council, and toward the end of the Sassanid rule two queens in close succession assumed the throne itself. A bidasis (viceroy) and hazaruft (prime minister) rounded out the council, followed by members of prominent noble families or clans who often governed smaller provinces. Fifteen other dignitaries had important roles in Sassanid government, including the heads of the army and chancery. Some sources mention a different kind of Sassanid prime minister, or vuzurg framadar (great commander), but whether the office was chiefly administrative or military, or overlapping, remains largely unknown. Like many positions in the hierarchy of the Sassanid government, its function and stature probably changed over time.

The actual governance and administration of the empire was also highly structured and was carried out by prominent and influential scribes, accountants, military governors, and other state officials. These scribes and other secular members of the government were especially important toward the end of Sassanid rule, when the throne changed hands more frequently, emphasizing the importance of a stable bureaucracy. The mobads (Zoroastrian priests) concerned themselves primarily with legal affairs and were active both at court and in the outlying districts. They were judges, as well as advocates for the poor, and some were spiritual counselors to the Sassanid queens. The official status of Zoroastrianism as the state religion often made it difficult to distinguish between civil and religious authority. Poets, musicians, and artisans also frequented the Sassanid court, which was renowned at home and abroad for its splendor and opulence.

The Sassanid economy and tax system were never fully monetized, meaning that some commerce, including payment of taxes, continued to be conducted through barter or exchange of goods. Among many other reforms, the great Sassanid ruler Khosrow I (d. 579) attempted to standardize tax rates and calculate them in drahms, the official silver coinage of the empire. His system allowed the government to anticipate income and to budget expenses accurately, and it succeeded for several decades after his reign until it proved susceptible to corruption. A weak economic infrastructure was one of the factors to irreversibly weaken Sassanid rule.

Political Parties and Factions

Instigated by the Zoroastrian priest Mazdak (fifth century), the Mazdakite rebellion lasted some thirty years (494–524) and was the first social movement in history to promote egalitarianism (a belief in human equality). Mazdak advocated greater freedoms for women and the abolishment of privately held property. He and many of his followers were killed in 531 during religious persecution by rival Zoroastrian priests.

Major Events

Shāpūr I (d. 272) succeeded Ardashīr and campaigned successfully against the Roman military, famously taking the Roman emperor Valerian (d. 260) prisoner in 260. He protected the life and defended the teachings of the influential Persian prophet Manes (216–c. 277), the founder of Manichaeism, a religious synthesis of Zoroastrian, Christian, and Buddhist teachings.

Khosrow remains the most celebrated of Sassanid rulers. He instituted extensive reforms in the empire’s bureaucratic, military, economic, and social infrastructures and sought to reinforce the king’s authority. He surveyed the country, defined important water rights, and divided the empire into four key regions, defined by the points of the compass, to be overseen by military governors. He strengthened the military by making it more accountable to the central government rather than local rulers. One of Khosrow’s principal aims was the promotion and control of trade along the Silk Road, between China, Central Asia, India, and the Persian Gulf region. Khosrow also welcomed exiled Greek, Indian, and other scholars to the internationally known scholarly community of Gundeshāpūr in southwestern Iran, a center of scientific and medical inquiry first established by Shāpūr.


Yazdegerd III (d. 651), the last Sassanid emperor, lacked the resources and reputation to challenge invading Muslim armies in the seventh century. The nobility transferred their allegiance from the Sassanids to the new Muslim rulers, who seemed to offer greater stability. After 611, the territories formerly ruled by the Sassanids came under the authority of the Islamic Abbasid caliphate. The Sassanid Empire provided the Abbasids with a complete model of imperial rule—including courtly manners and customs—from which the Abbasids would borrow more than from any other source.

Persian civilization reached a high point under the Sassanids, and their cultural influence spread as far as Western Europe and China. Long after the fall of the empire, Persian influence persists in the outlying regions of their former holdings, such as the modern-day Republic of Georgia, Armenia, and Azerbaijan. Its legacy is greatest across northern Afghanistan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan, where the Persian language is spoken and elements of Persian culture are commonplace.

Frye, Richard N. The Golden Age of Persia: The Arabs in the East. London: Phoenix Press, 2000.

Garthwaite, Gene R. The Persians. Malden, Mass.: Blackwell, 2004.

Lukonin, V. G. “Political, Social and Administrative Institutions: Taxes and Trade.” In The Cambridge History of Iran. Vol. 3, The Seleucid, Parthian, and Sasanian Periods, edited by Ehsan Yarshater. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1983.

Rawlinson, George. The Seventh Great Oriental Monarchy, or, the Geography, History and Antiquities of the Sassanian or New Persian Empire. Boston: Adamant Media, 2000.

Rubin, Ze’ev. “The Sasanid Monarchy.” In The Cambridge Ancient History. Vol. 14, Late Antiquity: Empire and Successors, AD 425–600, edited by Avril Cameron, Bryan Ward-Perkins, and Michael Whitby. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2000.