Emperor Ardeshir and the cycle of history
By: Dr. Richard Frye
The Glory that was Iran
If one asks an ordinary Persian who had built an unknown, ancient, ruined mosque or other structure in some locality, the chances are great that he would reply it was Shah 'Abbas, the Safavid ruler who embellished with edifices the city of Isfahan. If the ruins were clearly pre-Islamic the reply might be Khusro or Chosroes Anosharvan 'of the immortal soul', the Sasanian counterpart of Shah 'Abbas. His very name became, like that of Caesar, the designation of the Sasanian kings for the Arabs (Kisra in Arabic) and almost a synonym for splendour and glory. But Chosroes ruled Iran less than a century before the Arab conquest and, as is not uncommon in history, the seeds of decay already existed in the period of greatest splendour in the Sasanian Empire.
Iran had not fared well in her external relations under the successors of Shapur I; under Varahran II the Romans regained lost territory in northern Mesopotamia as well as hegemony over Armenia. Narseh fared no better and further concessions had to be made to the Emperor Galerius. After him it seemed as though the Romans had regained the dominant position which they had held in Parthian times. Under Shapur II, who had an unusually long rule of seventy years, the Sasanians passed to the offensive both in the west and in the east where the Kushan state and other territories probably had proclaimed their independence during the minority of Shapur. On the whole Shapur II was successful in regaining both territory and lost prestige for the Persians. He followed the practice of Shapur I in settling Roman prisoners in various provinces of his empire, according to Ammianus who is a valuable source for the history of Shapur II and his wars with the Romans.
After Shapur his weak successors lost much of their imperial authority to the nobility which grew in strength and influence. Although there may be no causal connection it is interesting to note that as royal power declined in favour of the feudal lords, the heroic, or epic tales regarding the reigns of such kings as Varahran V or Bahram Gor (42I-439) the hunter of wild asses, increased or came to the fore. One may suspect that titles and offices increased in number and importance during the long period of weak monarchs. Concomitant with the new power of the nobility were struggles over the succession by opposing parties of the feudal lords. Such was the case with the crowning of Varahran V (in 421) and of Peroz (459).
In the fifth century a forrnidable new enemy appeared in the north-east as successor to the Kushans, a new wave of invaders from Central Asia called the Hephthalites. They are connected with the new order on the steppes of Central Asia which can be characterised best as the rise of the Altaic-speaking peoples or the Hunnic movement. Just as the first millennium BC in Central Asia was considered by classical authors as the period of Scythian dominance in the steppes, so the first half of the first millennium AD is the time of the Huns, while the second half and later is the period of the Turks and the Mongols. Of course the term 'Scythian' continued to be used by classical authors for various steppe peoples well into the Christian era just as the Ottomans were designated 'Huns' by several Byzantine authors. None the less the various terms 'Scythian, Hun and Turk' were general designations of the steppe peoples in Western sources including the Near East, though the Chinese had other names. Obviously not all peoples who lived in, or came from Central Asia into the Near East or eastern Europe in the first half of the first millennium AD were Huns, and the fact that Western and Near Eastern sources call a tribe Hunnic really only means that they came from the steppes of Central Asia, a vast area. The word 'Hun' has caused scholars great trouble as have other problems of Hunnic history, but this is not the place to discuss such questions as, for example, the iclentity of the Hsiung-nu of Chinese sources with various 'Huns' of Western, Near Eastern or Indian sources.
Although presumably the name of the Huns appears as early as the geography of Ptolemy, applied to a tribe in South Russia, we cannot find any other evidence for 'Huns' in the Near East or South Russia before the fourth century AD. The joining of the word 'Hun' to the Kidarites by Priskos is probably an example of the use of the general fifth-century term for an earlier history and no proof that the Kidarites were Altaic-speaking people. Presumably Kidara was the name of a ruler since the name appears on coins, but there is no evidence that he led a new Central Asian horde to conquer the Kushan realm. Several attempts to date a ruler Kidara have not been convincing and we may only hazard a guess that such a reign was in the fourth century.
Another name from eastern Iran or Central Asia seems to indicate a migration or invasion from the North. The newcomers are called Chionites in classical sources. In 359 the king of the Chionites, Grumbates, is mentioned by Ammianus as an ally with Shapur II and his army before the walls of Amida. It is generally believed that the Chionites, with the form OIONO=Hyon=Hun on their coins, were Central Asian invaders of eastern Iran connected with the Hunas of Indian sources and with their successors the Hephthalites. Unfortunately we have no sources for the history of eastern Iran in this period and the many and varied coins have not been properly classified, an extremely difficult task.
From the coins of certain Sasanian Kushan rulers one would conclude that the Persians were at least liege lords of part of the Kushan domains throughout most of Shapur II's rule. Some time, probably at the end of the fourth or early fifth century, a new ruler Kidara appears as an independent southern Kushan ruler. The Chionites probably moved into the northern Kushan domains (north of the Oxus river) some years before Kidara whose power seems to have been based mainly in lands south of the Hindu Kush since he has coins with Brahmi legends. This division between lands north and south of the mountains is important. The Chionites probably expanded over Kushan domains and independent rulers of them appeared in Bamiyan, Zabul and elsewhere, the coins of which are very difficult to classify. The confusion in our sources between Kidarites, Chionites and Hephthalites may well reflect a real mixture of peoples and rulers. One may say, however, that the name of the Chionites is followed by that of the Hephthalites in history.
It is difficult to determine the ethnic composition of Chionites or Hephthalites, but there is no evidence that the Chionites were different from the Hephthalites; rather the meagre evidence indicates that the Hephthalites may have stood in the same relation to the Chionites as the older Kushans did to the Yueh-chih. In other words, the Hep thalites may have been a prominent tribe or clan of the Chionites. One may well expect Altaic, i.e. Hunnic, elements among the Hephthalites, to use the later name, but again the evidence points primarily to Iranians. It is possible that some of the early rulers were Huns, but there were still many Iranians in Central Asia, and the people of eastern Iran among whom the Hephthalites settled were also Iranian, so we may consider the Hephthalite empire in eastern Iran and north-west India as basically an Iranian one. Zoroastrian as well as Manichaean missions in Central Asia must have increased the West Iranian cultural elements among the people. Undoubtedly by the time of the Arab conquests, however, the Turkic elements among the Hephthalites had increased, but that was after the Turks themselves had appeared in the Near East. It is, of course, possible to construct theories of history and of ethnic relationship on the basis of suggested etymologies of one or two words, but the lack not only of sources but of reliable traditions in the fragmentary information about Central Asia and eastern Iran in classical sources makes any theory highly speculative.
The Persians in the last half of the fifth century suffered a series of defeats at the hands of the Hephthalites and King Peroz lost his life in 484 in battle with them. After him the nobles waxed even stronger, placing several rulers on the throne in succession and finally Kavad I, who then maintained his throne only with Hephthalite aid. This was a period of low ebb for the Sasanians when their eastern neighbours exercised influence even in internal affairs. The Mazdakite revolution already has been mentioned, but the great change or revolution in Iran came with Chosroes I who, as we have said, was the greatest pre-Islamic ruler in the minds of the Persians.
The far reaching reform of taxation under Chosroes has been discussed by several scholars, notably F. Altheim, whose merit was to show repeatedly that the model for the new system of taxation was the system in force in the eastern Roman Empire which in turn had been built on the reforms of Diocletian. The unrest and social changes of the Mazdakite period made a new assessment of property and of taxes necessary, but we cannot say with certainty what the situation was before Chosroes. What is reported by later authors of Sasanian times refers to the post-Chosroes period. We may assume that Chosroes wanted stability, and in terms of taxation, of course principally on the land, a fixed sum rather than a yearly variation according to the yield, which seems to have been the old system. A survey of the land was made including a census and a counting of date palms and olive trees. The land tax of the later Roman empire was based on the land unit the iugum, but the amount of taxation was already determined by the indictio and divided among the various plots of land. This became the system of Sasanian Iran, of course with many different details into which we cannot go. The Sasanian head tax, like the Roman capitatio, was under Chosroes assessed in a number of fixed categories according to the productive capacity of a man. In both empires state employees were exempt from paying the head tax, and in Iran the Magi, soldiers and the high nobility were exempt as well. Certain details of the taxation are disputed but the main lines are clear; Chosroes sought stability and a fixed income for government coffers.
From the Talmud we learn that ancient practices in regard to the payment of taxes still continued under Chosroes. If one could not pay his land tax and another paid it, the latter received the land. By paying the land tax of someone who could not pay, one could obtain the debtor as a bondsman or slave. According to one source, if a Jew declared he was a Zoroastrian he could escape the head tax. This was rather a special tax, or a heavier head tax, placed on Jews, Christians and other minorities. The bishop for the Christians and the head of the Jews for the Jewish communities collected taxes from their followers. This continuity of tax practices in Iran continued into Islamic times. The Sasanian system provided the background of the well-known but also in part different and complicated system of the Islamic kharaj and jizya.
In addition to a tax and financial reform, there was a social and bureaucratic revolution, but again many details escape us or are subject to various interpretations. Certain innovations may be the work of Chosroes' predecessors, but one may say that after him they appear as a characteristic feature of Sasanian Iran. The most important was perhaps the growth of the lower nobility or the dihqans (literally village lord) as the Arab conquerors called that backbone of Persian provincial and local administration. This lower nobility really possessed and ruled the land at the end of the Sasanian empire and it would seem that they owed their positions to the ruler and were an effective counter-weight to the few great families who became progressively less important. In line with his policy of stability Chosroes may have sought religious support for a social stratification of four classes or castes, which, however, may have developed throughout earlier Iranian history so that by the time of Chosroes it was full-fledged.
There is considerable material in Islamic works, such as the Kitab al-Taj of Jahiz, and countless anecdotes and stories which refer to the activities of Chosroes I. The sources agree in their assessment of the empire of the Sasanians after Chosroes as a tightly organised structure with the king supreme at the top of the hierarchy. The 'mystique' of the king of kings was reinforced, and books of protocol, mirrors of princes and other writings, laid down the duties of monarchs to their subjects and subjects to their ruler. It would seem that there was a considerable activity in fixing rules of behaviour, prerogatives and obliga- tions for various classes of society in this period. The ofices of mobadan-mobad or chief of the clergy, dabiran-debir, or chief of the scribes, and similar titles, in imitation of the king of kings, indicate the ordering of society by imperial and religious sanction. The fascinating picture of society under the later Sasanians is one of a people who have seemingly reached a social and religious stability in religion, class structure and general culture but continuing with the seeds of decay in the resultant stagnation.
The age of Chosroes was one of conquest too. Antioch was briefly captured in 540 and in the east the Hephthalite power was crushed by a joint Persian and Turkish attack circa 558 when the Western Turkish khanate and the Sasanians ended a united Hephthalite rule replacing it with at least nominal Turkish hegemony north of the Oxus river and Sasanian overlordship over many of the Hephthalite principalities south of the Oxus. Chosroes, as Shapur I and II, was known also for his systematic transport and settlement of prisoners of war in various parts of Iran, an age old custom followed in Iran by Shah 'Abbas and Reza Shah in more recent times. It was under Chosroes that the unusual but not really important Sasanian conquest of Yemen took place which had echoes in the Quran. Under Chosroes we find the frontiers of the empire secured by a system of limes in the Syrian desert, in the Caucasus by Derbend and east of the Caspian Sea in the steppes of Gurgan. The institution of a system of four spahbads or generals of the realm in north, south, east and west is also attributed to Chosroes, and one hears more of the importance of marzbans or 'wardens of the marches' in this later period of Sasanian history. The city building activity of Chosroes already has been mentioned. One town he built with the aid of Byzantine prisoners was the better Antioch of Chosroes near Ctesiphon, with a name similar to the better Antioch of Shapur I of Gundeshapur. The seal of Chosroes was a wild boar which symbol was very widespread in Sasanian art. The reorganisation of the bureaucracy by means of a system of divans or ministries by Chosroes is generally regarded as the prototype of the 'Abbasid divans by many Islamic authors and while proof of direct continuity is sometimes difficult to establish beyond doubt, there were many influences.
There is so much written about Chosroes that one may omit a discussion here and refer to various writings about him. The internal reforms of the king of kings were more important than external changes in the frontiers, and their overall result was a decline in the power of the great nobility and the subkings in favour of the bureaucracy. The army too was reorganised and tied to the central authority more than to the local officers and lords. While one could continue with a long list of reforms attributed to Chosroes, some of the lesser known developments in that period of Sasanian history might be of interest.
It is well known that names which we find in the national epic appear at the end of the fifth and the beginning of the sixth century arnong the royal family and presumably also among the nobility although we hear little about the latter. The old title of kavi in its Middle Persian form kay, written kdy, appears on coins of Peroz and Kavad, another indication of an antiquarian revival. It is highly probable that the lays and legends of ancient Iran were gathered together in the days of Chosroes I and that the national epic as we know it in Firdosi was much the same then as now. Whether there was any great remaking of the epic, such as weaving events of Chosroes' life into those of Kai Khusro, cannot be proved but it is not impossible. Some scholars would even attribute the introduction of the highest offices of the empire, such as mobadan-mobad, first to the reign of Chosroes, but the wholesale assignment of innovations to him is probably an exaggeration. Likewise the contention that Chosroes founded a new hierarchy of fire temples with the introduction of a Gushnasp fire, tied with the crowning of the king in Shiz or Ganzak, is possible but unproved.43
Chosroes' name is also connected with a revival of learning with both Greek and Indian influences coming into Persian intellectual activities. Agathias has a well-known passage about the Greek philosophers (presumably neo-Platonists) who came to the Persian court after the closing of their academy in Athens in 529 and who were well received. The question of the extent of Sasanian learning is unsettled in its details, some scholars attributing a Persian origin to much of later Islamic science and learning, others denying the existence of a large Pahlavi scientific literature. We know of Burzoe, the famous physician of Chosroes, who reputedly was sent to India by the king and brought back the game of chess plus many Sanskrit books such as the fables of Bidpay and works on medicine which he translated into Pahlavi. Other Persian authors are known only by later references. Many Arabic and New Persian works on astronomy such as star tables (especially the Zt-j-i Shahriya-r) betray Sasanian prototypes, and one may suspect that much Pahlavi profane literature was lost because the mobads were not concemed to preserve it, while men of learning were content to use Arabic rather than the difficult Pahlavi form of writing for their works of science and literature.
On the other hand it is virtually certain that various Greek scientific works were translated into Pahlavi and then later from Pahlavi to Arabic, an indication of the existence of scholarly activity in Pahlavi. This learning, however, would seem to be more compilation than original, and the literary renaissance in the time of Chosroes also was primarily concerned with writing down and fixing various stories and legends including the national epic. The letter of Tosar, which has been mentioned, the Kar Namak of Ardashir and other tracts of Pahlavi literature have been attributed to this period. Some scholars have maintained also that the Avestan alphabet was created under Chosroes rather than earlier. The changes and additions which must have occurred in both epic and religious literature make datings difficult, but the great activity under the rule of Chosroes cannot be denied.
Sasanian art can be characterised as the culmination of a millennium of development. For one may discern Greek and Roman elements, ancient Oriental archaising motifs and purely Iranian subjects, such as the investiture of the king on horseback, in later Sasanian art. The brief Greek revival under Shapur I hardly interrupts the development of Iranian art from the Parthian period and Ardashir down to Chosroes. Just as in late Gandharan art so in Sasanian art stucco and plaster are supreme as the medium of expression. The widespread use of monograms, symbols and complicated designs is typical of late Sasanian art and as such is a forerunner of Islamic art . The more naturalistic emphasis in earlier Sasanian art seems to give ground before more stylised and even geometric art at the end of the period. The anthropomorphic representation of the god Ahura Mazda, perhaps a residue from the 'messianic period' of the religions of the Near East, is not attested at the end of the empire. Although ancient motifs of the hunt, investiture of the king or battles on horseback, appear on rock carvings or on the wonderful silver platters, they are all distinctive and could not be mistaken for anything other than Sasanian. The Sasanian hallmark or 'stamp' may be considered another evidence of the freezing of culture and society. What has remained of the architecture, sculpture, metalwork, ceramics and silks of the Sasanian period, however, is enough to testify to the grandeur and richness of Iranian culture.
The Sasanian empire seemed stronger than ever after Chosroes but in spite of his changes and reforms the age was not one of innovation. Rather the period in a truer perspective might be characterised as a summation of the past, of gathering-in and recording, when history becomes important as a justification for the state and the religion. The past which was revived in epic, in traditions and in customs, however, was a heroic past of great and noble families and of feudal mores, not of a centralised, bureaucratic state which Chosroes wanted to establish. Were the successors of Chosroes somewhat like Don Quixote while the people were ready for the new message of the followers of Muhammad? The noble families kept alive the heroic traditions of Iran and they survived the Islamic onslaught while the empire went down in ashes. Local self-interest and fierce individualism have been both the bane and the glory of Iran throughout its history, but through triumph and defeat the culture and the way of life of the Persians have unified the population of the country more than political or even religious forms unless they too were integrated into the heritage of Persia.