Emperor Ardeshir and the cycle of history
By: Dr. Richard Frye
For the Persians solid history begins with the Sasanians. What transpired before Ardashir is vague and legendary, a heroic age; but this does not mean that after Ardashir we escape myth and uncertainty, for what happened and whal people believe should have happened are frequently confused even in that portion of Iran's history which is related by many different sources. The story of the founding of the Sasanian dynasty is not unlike the story of Cyrus or even Arsaces, both of which generally conform to epic norms.
In one Pahlavi source, the Kar Namak of Ardashir, or his 'book of deeds', it is related that Sasan was a shepherd of King Papak who ruled in the city of Istakhr near Persepolis. Sasan was a descendant of the Achaemenids, but he kept this a secret until Papak had a dream which was inerpreted that the son of Sasan would one day rule the world. So Papak gave his daughter to Sasan and from this union Ardashir was born. This story is repeated by Firdosi in the national epic and it was evidently widely believed since Agathias, living in the sixth century, gave a somewhat garbled version of the story, stating that Papak was an astrologer and Sasan a soldier who was a guest in his house. Recognising signs of greatness in Sasan Papak gave him his wife and Ardashir was born. Much later when Ardashir was king a quarrel between the two old men broke out, which was settled by calling Ardashir the son of Papak though descended from Sasan.
Another tradition found in Ibn al-Athir (ed. Tornberg I.272), in Eutychius (ed. Cheikho, foll. 65v) and others, has Sasan a princelet in Fars, Papak his son and Ardashir his grandson. This is the position adopted by most scholars today, especially after the discovery -of the famous trilingual inscription of Shapur I on the Ka'bah of Zoroaster which is the Sasanian counterpart of the OP Behistun inscription. This inscription, however, merely names Sasan with a title 'the lord' presumably as an ancestor, while Papak is here and elsewhere specifi- cally called the grandfather of Shapur. The mother of Papak is given as Denak, but it is not stated whether she was married to Sasan who is never named as Ardashir's grandfather, although this is a probable assumption. Therefore an obscurity does exist, even in the inscriptions, about the exact relationship between Sasan and Papak.
In the Syriaic chronicle of Arbela, we read that in the time of Vologeses IV (circa 191-207 CE) the Parthians fought against the Persians, and later the same chronicle says: 'In earlier times the Persians tried to unseat the Parthians; many times they exerted them- selves in war but were defeated.' The chronicle further says that later the Persians and Medes made an alliance with the kings of Adiabene and Kirkuk and that together they overthrew the Parthians. The date and circumstances of the defeat and death of Artabanus V, the oppo- nent of Ardashir, are not clear; the usual dates have been given as either AD 224 or 226. The coins of the last Arsacids, however, confuse the matter, so much that a long joint rule of Vologeses V (207-227?) and Artabanus V (213-224?) has been proposed with the son of Artabanus, Artavasdes, ruling one year 226-227. Inasmuch, however, as Arsacid resistance did not end with the death of Artabanus one might suppose that coins of the last Arsacids were minted in his name even after the victory of Ardashir which may be dated from various sources probably as April 224 CE.
In the titulary of the royal Sasanian inscriptions one may see the expansion of the state. Sasan, as noted, is referred to merely as 'lord' while Papak is 'king'. Ardashir is 'king or kings of Iran' and Shapur is 'king of kings of Iran and non-Iran'. An indication of how one might be misled in interpreting an inscription, is the appellation 'god' (bgy) for Papak in KZ, but 'Mazda worshipping god' for Ardashir and Shapur. This might induce one to assume that Papak held a different position or faith in religion than his son and grandson. Yet the same formula appears on later inscriptions in Taq-i Bustan, and one cannot conclude anything from the practice of omitting 'mazda-yasnian' from the name of a grandfather. The phrase 'whose seed (or origin) is from the gods', however, is a continuation of a Seleucid if not Achaemenid formula while the term 'god' applied to the ruler had probably by this time assumed the significance of 'your majesty' in protocol.
For the dating we fortunately have an inscription written in the Parthian and Sasanian Middle Persian languages on a pillar in Bishapur. The text says: 'in the month of Fravardin of the year 58, forty years of the fire of Ardashir, twenty-four years of the fire of Shapur, (which is) the king of fires'. On the reverses of Sasanian coins we have Aramaic NWR' ZY 'fire of-' until Shapur II; then we have the Iranian 'twr y until Yazdagird II (439-457) after whom it disappears. Each king apparently had his own fire, lighted at the beginning of his reign, and this fire was on a portable fire altar similar to those on the coins, as one would gather from Sebeos the Armenian writer, from Ammianus Marcellinus and from others. Shapur's fire was caled the king of fires possibly because it was identified with the Gushnasp fire of the warriors, which was later designated 'the victorious king of fires', but the text is not clear), or maybe the king's fire was called the king of fires simply as a manner of speaking. The date of accession and the date of the crowning of a king have usually differed in the ancient Orient, and these dates are not precisely known in regard to Ardashir and Shapur. From the inscription of Bishapur we would have three dates, the beginning of the Sasanian era, the accession of Ardashir and the accession of Shapur. Great controversy has raged over the date of Shapur's accession and crowning, but his first year must begin either at the end of 239 or 241. The coins of Artabanus V and Vologeses, mentioned above, would tend to favour the year 241 but they are not decisive.
If Papak had been the director of the Anahita shrine at Istakhr before he became king, afterwards he and especially his son were busy with other affairs, even though both may have retained the dignity as head of the temple. Papak had a small court, the most prominent members of which are named in Shapur's great trilingual inscription. There is only one title, the major domo (dnyk), mentioned and no religious designations, so one should assume that Papak's court was that of a small principality with no bureaucratic tradition. After Ardashir became the king of kings of Iran, the successor of the Parthians, the situation changed. Ardashir inherited the feudal organisation of the Arsacids which is clearly seen in the inscription. At the new court we find an order of protocol beginning with four powerful eastern kings, three of whom oddly have the same name as Ardashir. The first on the list is the king of Khurasan, the upper country and homeland of the defeated Parthians, while the second is the king of Merv who is called Ardashir. It would be natural to suppose that relatives or close friends of Ardashir were appointed to offices in the new empire, especially in the important posts in eastern Iran, but we do not know the relationship of these rulers to the king of kings. The next two kings of Seistan and Kirman are also both called Ardashir, the latter, according to Tabari, being a son of the king of kings. One may further assume that these 'kingdoms' were won by force of arms, and hence were free to be assigned to favourites, while rulers who submitted to the Sasanian monarch probably retained their principalities in a feudal relationship.
The inscription continues with three queens, probably the king's mother, grandmother and sister, the 'queen of queens'. Then follows an Ardashir the bitaxs and a Papak the chiliarch (hazarpat). From their names and high rank both were presumably members of the Sasanian family. The former was probably almost like an assistant to the king since the title as used earlier in Georgia implies that there the pitiaxsi was second to the king in rank and importance. At the Sasanian court this rank may have declined somewhat, so that the bitaxs and the chiliarch divided the civil and military direction of the affairs of the empire between them.
The heads of the great Parthian feudal families are next in the list, first the Varaz family which is new. The Varaz may have been essentially a northern Iranian family since the name appears frequently in connection with Armenia or Azerbaijan. Second in rank of the feudal families is a representative of the famous Suren family, while third comes the lord of Andegan, also called Indegan, presumably another feudal appanage. Two members of the well-known Karen family are followed by a name known elsewhere, Apursam, who bears the honorific 'glory of Ardashir', followed by the lord of the area around Mt. Demavend and a member of the Saphpat family which ends the list of families.
The chief of the scribes, chief of the armoury and other officials, as well as prominent persons with no offices named, complete the list of people in Ardashir's court who were honoured by having sacrifices performed in their names at the fires established by Shapur I at Naqsh-i Rustam. The court of Ardashir shows the same features of an unfixed central state and bureaucracy which also would have been characteristic of the Parthian court, and everything points to a continuity from the past. The early coins of Ardashir too are copies of those of Mithradates II, but the traditions of iconography of the various crowns worn by the early Sasanian kings are by no means clear. One must resist the temptation to see cultic or religious significance in every feature of ancient art and archaeology even though such ideas must have been frequently present.
Later Sasanian tradition, reported mainly in Arabic sources, traces the beginnings of all institutions of church and state back to Ardashir. He is the ruler who reinstated or resurrected the old Persian empire with its various institutions as well as the religion of Zoroaster which had been in eclipse under the Hellenistic kings and the Parthians. Apursam, the confidant of Ardashir, was credited with holding the office of prime minister (vuzurg framadar) while Tansar was the first chief mobad according to Arabic sources. The purpose of the later Sasanians in attributing an early origin for many offices was probably that they wished to seek authority for new developments by clauning that these were in fact not new, but dated from the beginning of the empire although they had fallen into decay. The antiquarian renaissance of the time of Chosroes I is well known and will be discussed below, and this was probably the period when the reference of institutions back to Ardashir was made. A writer in Arabic Mas'udl, for example, not only attributed the founding of certain offices to Ardashir but also the ordering of society into classes which, however, could not be the work of one king, Ardashir I.
From Shapur's inscription we can also infer the extent of Ardashir's empire. From Islamic and other sources scholars have proposed that Ardashir re-established the Achaemenid empire in the east including the Punja and did well in advancing the frontier against the Romans in the west. The same sources, however, tell us that Ardashir had much fighting to do to consolidate his rule, especially in Armenia where resistance was strong. The fact that in inscriptions Ardashir is called the king of kings of Iran, but not of non-Iran, would imply that he did not appreciably advance his boundaries outside of Eranshahr which, of course, included Mesopotamia but not Armenia (according to the Paikuli inscription, line 8) and probably not the Kushan empire in the east. On the other hand Tabari says that the kings of the Kushans, of Turan and Makran came to Ardashir, after his victories in the east, and offered their submission. It is possible that under Ardashir they stood only in a vassal relationship to him while under Shapur the Kushan kingdom and other areas were really included in the empire. This further implies wars by Shapur of which we have no evidence. The hegemony of Ardashir may have been light, based on a few victories over the allies of the Arsacids rather than actual conquest afterwards.
The Imperialism of Shapur
The Sasanian kings greatly favoured urbanism, a trait not in such evidence among their predecessors. The first two sovereigns of the house of Sasan were the greatest city founders of the line and most of the cities with royal names in them were founded or renamed by Ardashir or Shapur. The confusion of ancient native, Hellenistic, and Sasanian names given to cities frequently makes identifications of the cities difficult.
While their neighbours must have realised that the change of dynasties in Iran was not particularly to their interest, the Sasanians were soon to show the Romans and Kushans that a new Iranian nationalism and imperialism was a distinct peril to the peace. The Romans had won many victories in the last century of Parthian rule, so Ardashir was somewhat of a change while Shapur's conquests turned the balance of power in favour of Iran. We know much about his wars with the Romans because they were spectacular as well as victorious campaigns. His inscription of the Ka'bah of Zoroaster is both an important record and a paean of victory regarding his wars with Rome. Some scholars have accepted every word of his record of the struggle with the Romans as true, but have denied any other conquests of Shapur since they are not mentioned. Another inscription on the same structure, written by the order of an important religious figure Kartir, however, does tell of campaigns in Transcaucasia. We may also assume that victories in eastern Iran extended the empire to India, although we cannot exclude the possibility that some of these campaigns occurred towards the end of Ardashir's reign.
Shapur's inscription of KZ tells of three campaigns against the Romans, first at the beginning of his reign when Gordian marched against Shapur but was defeated and killed, whereupon Philip the Arab succeeded him as Roman emperor and made peace with Shapur. The second campaign resulted in the destruction of a Roman army of 60,000 men, after which the Persians ravaged Syria and Cappadocia, capturing Antioch on the Orontes as well as many other cities. In the third campaign the Emperor Valerian was defeated and captured after which Shapur again raided Syria and eastern Anatolia. Other sources tell us that in the third campaign King Odenath of Palmyra attacked and defeated the Persians, seizing much of their booty while they were on the homeward march. The first and third campaigns of Shapur can be dated in 243-244 and 259-260 and can be followed in literary sources. The second campaign presents problems in dating and identification because of the excavations at Dura-Europos. The evidence from Dura suggests that this Roman outpost on the Euphrates was captured by the Persians in 253 who held it for a few months and then again in 256 when the city was stormed and destroyed by Shapur. The question arises, which of the dates belong to Shapur's second campaign. Generallv speaking a 'campaign' in the Near East from ancient times has meant an expedition of one year. It is possible that the second expedition of Shapur lasted a number of years, including 253 and 256, as I have suggested elsewhere. More study has convinced me that this is unlikely and that 256 is the date of the second campaign while 253 was a minor raiding expedition not mentioned in KZ.
The capture of Valerian was an unparalleled event in history and Shapur made certain that the world knew about it through his inscription and rock reliefs at Bishapur and Naqsh-i Rustam. Although the interpretation of these reliefs is varied and disputed it may be true that they are a kind of counterpart in pictures of the inscription and the three Romans at Bishapur represent the three Roman emperors mentioned in the inscription, Gordian, Philip and Valerian. The prisoners captured by Shapur in his wars with the Romans included many technicians and from Antioch the bishop of the city who, with many of his flock, was settled in Khuzistan. The city of Gundeshapur ('the better Antioch of Shapur') was settled with Roman prisoners and the Caesar's dam at Shustar was one of their constructions. Prisoners were set led in Fars, Parthia, Khuzistan and elsewhere and they probably provided the basis of the later Christian communities in Iran.
The fortress town of Hatra which had repulsed the Romans on various occasions fell to Shapur, probably on his second campaign. One may also tentatively assign the ruin and abandonment of the towns of Hatra, Assur, Dura and other sites to the conquests of Shapur which thus must have changed the face of the Roman-Iranian frontier lands with the consequent end of certain trade routes and roads. The Romans contributed to this too when Aurelian conquered and destroyed Palmyra under Queen Zenobia in 272. Thereafter the Romans, and later the Byzantines, and the Sasanians maintained a system of border buffer states and limes between their two empires which were as often at war with each other as not.
Shapur was not only victorious against the Romans but also in the north in Transcaucasia and presumably in the east. According to KZ the Sasanian empire included 'Turan, Makuran, Paradan, India and the Kushanshahr right up to Pashkibur and up to Kash, Sogd and Shsh'. This passage has been discussed by several scholars, and I would interpret it to mean that first the land of Turan, probably in- cluding most of the province of Kalat in present-day Pakistan, was included in the empire. This Turan may well have some relation to the opposition of Iran and Turan in the national epic, especially when we know that many of the stories come from neighbouring Seistan. A further possibility, that the kingdom of Turan was created by invaders from Central Asia, cannot be dismissed. Next comes Makuan which is easily identified and then Paradan which presents a problem since we have no definite literary references to it and cannot locate it. I suggest that it may be located either in Arachosia or at the mouth of the Indus river rather than a small locality in Gedrosia. India or Hindustan is generally recognised as the Indus valley, but I suspect it is only the upper Indus here, north of present Sukkur into the Punjab. Exactly when this area submitted to the Sasanians is uncertain.
The Kushan empire at this time had already passed its prime and according to some numismatists may have split into two kingdoms, a Bactrian and an Indian kingdom, or even into more parts. It is tempting to think that the limits given in Shapur KZ refer only to the extent or boundaries of a northern Kushan kingdom, which submitted to Shapur after a defeat, since there is no evidence that the Sasanian armies actually reached the confines of the Peshawar region, Kashgar, Sogdiana, and Tashkent. It is not certain that Pashkibur is in fact modern Peshawar, but in any case a district or principality rather than the city is meant. The district either was possibly restricted to the Peshawar plain east of the present Khyber pass, or more likely comprised all of the lowlands which were the ancient Gandhara, including present Jalalabad. Kashgar surely means the kingdom which may have extended into Russian Turkestan north of the Oxus river, or we may have in the inscription the actual or the pretended extent of the Kushan empire up to the borders of the state of Kashgar which was more or less restricted to eastern Turkestan. I am inclined to favour this latter view since Sogdiana and Shash were probably states with their centres primarily and respectively in the Zarafshan and Ferghana valleys. In other words the boundaries of the Kushanshahr in theory, if not in practice, included the mountainous area of part of the Pamirs and present-day Tajikistan. The scanty archaeological and Chinese literary evidence would not contradict this view.
Thus in the north-east Ardashir and/or Shapur secured the sub- mission of the Kushan state. A good guess would put the first defeat and submission of the Kushans under Ardashir while the incorporation of the Kushanshahr in the Sasanian empire would date from Shapur's reign. In all probability the oasis state of Merv marked the military outpost of direct Sasanian rule under Shapur as it did later. In the eyes of the Persians what was beyond was no longer Iran but non-Iran. The archaeological evidence for the destruction of the city of Kapisa (hodie Begram) north of Kabul can be neither attributed nor denied to Shapur, but is probably earlier.
The extent of Shapur's hegemony in the east, on the whole, is now known from his inscription. From Shapur's inscription KZ we see that most of Transcaucasia was included in his empire, and from the inscription of Kartir at the same site we learn 'the land of Armenia, Georgia, Albania and Balasagan, up to the Gate of the Albanians, Shapur the king of kings with his horse(s) and men pillaged, bumed and devastated'. This indicates that Shapur did not inherit these lands from his father but had to conquer them, and for Kartir these are lands of non-Ian (Aniran) . Shapur re-created the Achaemenid empire and the Persians again ruled over non-Iranians. Yet Shapur was not the great innovator` or organiser that Darius was, since he continued for the most part in the path he had inherited, the legacy of the Parthians. A new feature, however, was the state church which will be discussed below.
The list of notables at the court of Shapur in KZ is both longer and more variegated than that of his father. From this and other inscriptions, the protocol and the social stratification of the Sasanian court are revealed. In the bilingual (Parthian and Middle Persian) inscription of Hajjiabad Shapur tells of an arrow he shot in the presence of the rulers (shahrdar, i.e. the kings of various countries in the Sasanian empire), the royal princes (BR BYT' or vispuhr), the great nobles (vazurkan) and the small nobles (azatan). In the Paikuli inscription of Narseh we find the expression, 'the Persian and Parthian royal princes, great and small nobles', which reveals the fusion of the Parthian and Persian nobility, perhaps similar to the Medes and Persians in the time of the Achaemenids. The court of Shapur, like that of Ardashir, does not show the developed forms of imperial bureaucracy characteristic of the later empire, for example the offices of the prime minister or chief of priests are not present. The functions of many of the listed posts are not known, but a number of considerations lead one to believe that the court differs little from the Arsacid court. A surprise is the presence of seven satraps, the latest appearance of this title, referring to the districts or provinces as well as the chief city which gave its name to the province. The satrapies depended directly on the king and the central government hence were located in western Iran and not on the frontiers. Subdivisions of provinces existed but apparently neither in a uniform system nor throughout the empire.
Although the Sasanians have been characterised as representing an `Iranian reaction to Hellenism, under Shapur we hhe Iast Greek used in inscriptions in Iran, and his patronage of Gr-e-esophers and savants has come down in Persian tradition. Likewise the mosaics of his new city Bishapur in Fars reveal a strong Western influence not to be attributed solely to artisans among the prisoners from Roman armies.2l One may suggest that under Shapur there is really a revival of Greek cultural influences in Iran which, however, hardly survives his death.
As the empire expanded so the bureaucracy also must have grown, but again the old traditions continued. We know from several sources that the royal seals were not personal seals, but were used by various officials of the king as had been true earlier. Just as in Seleucid times Sasanian official seals carried only legends or monograms but no figures. Representations of deities, personal portraits or animals were pictured on private seals. The official seals seem to have been important prerogatives of office, and later we find many seal impressions of mobads and other religious dignitaries as well as civil officials. Seals were used for all kinds of business and for religious affairs seals should be mentioned the insignia, coats-of-arms or emblems which were used by noble families as their signs of identification. Many of them were really stylised monograms or abbreviations, but Sasanian heraldry is a complicated subject which has been little studied. Insignia already existed in Parthian times and there is an interesting parallel between the signs or coats-of-arms on the headgear of Kushan notables on sculptures from Mathura, India and the signs on the helmets of the notables of Shapur's retinue pictured on the rocks of Naqsh-i Rajab near Persepolis. The proliferation of titles and honorifics in the course of Sasanian history was a tendency which lasted down to the twentieth century and the confusion of personal names, offices or titles, and honorifics was a problem for Byzantine writers in their day as it was for more contemporary foreign authors writing about Iran.
Social structure under the early Sasanians again most probably was an inheritance from Arsacid times. Divisions in society were normal in the Near East and by no means restricted to the caste-conscious Indians or the Zoroastrian Iranians. For example, Strabo speaks of four 'castes' among the Georgians: the rulers, priests, soldiers and the common people, and the importance of families where possessions were held in common. When the Zoroastrian church became firmly established in Iran it contributed to the fixing of social classes in accordance with religious tradition. As is well known society was later divided into four classes, the priests, warriors, scribes and common folk. The extended family has remained the basic unit of allegiance, trust and authority in Iran down to the present day, and while the centralisation of government in Sasanian Iran was a feature which distinguished it from Arsacid times, none the less the family remained paramount.
Shapur was known for his liberal spirit and in religion, if nowhere else, his liberalism apparently was in contrast to the policy of his successors. It is significant, I think, that the successor of Shapur, Hormizd Ardashir and another son, the future king of kings Narseh, are both mentioned prominently among those members of the royal family for whom special fires were instituted by Shapur; while another son Varahran, king of Gilan, does not have a fire instituted in his honor. The succession of Hormizd Ardashir seems to have been unopposed and under him the policy of Shapur was still in effect, but Hormizd did not rule long and he was succeeded by Varahran, known as Bahram in Islamic sources. A change in religious policy occurred which we shall discuss below and quite probably there were other changes too. Unfortunately our sources tell us little of this period of Sasanian history and Islamic authors give no hint of difficulties or important changes. Varahran was succeeded by his son of the same name, who after a reign of seventeen years was followed by his son, a third Varahran.
Then came a reaction and Narseh, son of Shapur and now surely advanced in years, revolted and seized the throne. Among other actions he had the name of a predecessor, Varahran I, chipped away from an inscription in Bishapur and his own name substituted for it. This, and his toleration of Manichaeism, in which he followed his father, indicate a change in the policy which had been followed by the Bahrams. Under his rule the Romans recouped their lost prestige and also some territory so that future relations were based on a kind of balance of power. The Sasanian empire was now more occupied with internal affairs than with external, and presumably a modus vivendi between the great feudal lords and the king of kings had been forged in such a way that a new allegiance to the house of Sasan was accepted by all.