The Early Years of Sassanid Empire and Religious Turmoil in Persia
During the war between Marcus Aurelius and the Parthians, the Great Pestilence not only devastated the Romans, it threw the economy of the Parthian Empire into decline. While the Roman Empire was busy with German intrusions, plague and a rapid turnover in emperors, the Parthian Empire disintegrated. The Parthians no longer ruled in Persia. They now ruled only in Mesopotamia. And, in Persia, nobles and villagers sought protection from roaming bands of brigands and the small armies of local despots.
Shapur I of Sassanid
In the mountainous desert province of Persis in southwestern Persia, a military leader named Ardashir saw opportunity, ventured out with his army and overran several neighboring cities. He overran the lands of other Persian lords in Persis. He either defeated them or let them join him. And, in the year CE 208, he was crowned king of Persis. Then in the coming years he moved against Parthian rule in Mesopotamia. He met the Parthian army in a great battle in 224, and defeated it, ending the Arsacid dynasty's four hundred years of rule.
Ardashir claimed that his family was linked to the Old Persian royal family of Cyrus the Great of the Achaemenids. He took the title of King of Kings and spoke of his revitalizing the Achaemenid Empire. Ardashir began what would be called the Sassanid Dynasty, named after his grandfather, Sasan. He established his rule in the old Parthian capital at Ctesiphon, on the Tigris River. He moved troops northward into Roman ruled Syria and into Armenia, which led to the war against the Roman Empire that came during the rule of Severus Alexander.
Ardashir Encourages the Zoroastrian Priesthood
In Persia, the Zoroastrian priesthood had endured rule by the foreign Parthians, and they had suffered from a prevalence of religions that were not Persian in origin. Now, the Zoroastrian priesthood was pleased under the rule of Ardashir, for Ardashir wished to ally himself with Zorastrianism. Ardashir announced that religion and kingship were brothers, and he said that his rule was the will of God. The Zoroastrian priesthood felt empowered, and they looked forward to converting non-Zoroastrians who lived within Ardashir's empire.
Ardashir had a Zoroastrian priest, Tansar, collect sacred texts of the Avesta (the Zoroastrian Holy Book) some of which is said to have been destroyed during the conquest of Alexander the Great. In the Avesta were songs, hymns, legends, prayers, prescriptions for rituals, and formulas for cleansing one's body and soul. And Tansar put Zoroastrian law into the Avesta, from which Ardashir drew his laws.
Zoroastrian priests inherited their positions and their special skills and learning passed from father to son. They operated Persia's courts, and they controlled Persia's schools. The priesthood performed the rituals that were a frequent part of the lives of the common people, including ceremonies of purification at the births of children, rituals at weddings, deaths and many other occasions. They received fees for every service performed, at the home of a believer or in their temple. And from those who confessed their sins they received payment in the form of fines (as a substitute for corporal punishment) the fines fixed according to the sin.
The Zoroastrian priesthood believed that their religion embodied the most advanced learning, and they tried to control the empire's intellectual life. They tried to frighten people with talk of hell. They claimed that only their rituals and prayers and a life of virtue and ritual cleanliness could save one's soul from the devil and make it possible for one to pass final judgment and enjoy paradise in the hereafter. They preached that for the sake of goodness and public health all putrefying matter had to be buried.
One priest, Kartir, led a crusade to purify Zoroastrianism, to obliterate what he saw as heresies. During the rule of Ardashir he succeeded in having Zurvanist myths purged from the Avesta. And Kartir had Zoroastrian doctrines inscribed on the face of cliffs, the inscriptions to number over seven hundred in the decades to come.
Various religions remained in Ardashir's empire, adhered to by people who had, under previous rulers, acquired the habit of worshiping as they pleased and the habit of running their affairs in accordance with their religious laws, so long as they paid their taxes. Ardashir had no experience ruling over a diversity of cultures, and he denied these people of different faiths the right to govern their own affairs. He forced Jews in his empire to live under his law, which for the Jews was a revocation of Judaic law. The Zoroastrian priesthood tried to extend their authority over the Jews. And, believing fire sacred, they limited the use of fire by Jews, including flames used in lamps. And attempting to dominate education among the Jews, they destroyed synagogues.
The Zoroastrian Persians
Most Persians, like the civilized elsewhere, were peasants, while a few Persians were wealthy tradesmen or the owners of estates. People within the Roman Empire tended to believe that Persians were barbarians, while the Persians saw themselves as highly civilized. And Persia's aristocracy had a proud bearing and easy grace.
The Persians mixed music with their Zoroastrian religion, using such instruments as the lyre, guitar, horn and drum. In court, they swore by their Zoroastrian faith to tell the truth, and violations of oaths were severely punished. They believed that violations of an oath would be punished after death, and they were known as a people whose word was good.
The Persians gave much respect and ritual to marriage, celebrating it with elaborate Zoroastrian rites. Parents generally arranged the marriage of their children, with females marrying only those approved by their parents, and if it appeared that a first wife could not give birth, a husband was allowed another wife. The birth of a child was seen as strengthening God in his conflict with Satan, and heavy penalties were given to those found guilty of infanticide or abortion.
Persian law allowed men to have concubines (who were usually free to come and go), while wives stayed at home. According to a Roman observer named Ammeanus Marcellinus, prostitution and pederasty was less prevalent among the Persians than among the Greeks. The Persians punished pederasty by death. But, according to Marcellinus, there was much adultery among the Persians, and while a Persian husband could divorce his wife for infidelity, a wife could not win a divorce from her husband on the same grounds. But she could divorce him for desertion or cruelty. A wife found guilty of adultery could have her nose and ears cut off. And men caught with someone else's wife could be banished.
Mani Starts a Universalistic Faith
Mani is believed to have been the son of Parthian royalty, born in a village near Ctesiphon and a boy when Ardashir overthrew Parthian rule. As a young boy, Mani might have been taken by his father into a cult called the "Practitioners of Ablutions" -- a cult that believed in washing away sins in baptisms. Or the group may have been the Elkesaites, a Jewish-Christian sect that arose around the year 100, a group believed to have celebrated the Sabbath, practiced vegetarianism, believed in circumcision, condemned the apostle Paul and criticized what it called falsehoods in Christian scripture and Mosaic law -- a sect that died out around the year 400.
In CE 228, when Mani was about thirteen years old, a Parthian prince in the city of Seleucia (a few miles from Ctesiphon) attempted but failed to restore Parthian rule. It was said that just after this failure, Mani had a revelation from God, a command to leave the religious community to which he belonged. God, it was said, told him that he did not belong in that community. God told him to keep aloof from impurity, and God told him that because of his youth he should avoid proclaiming his revelation publicly.
Mani's father had acquired a variety of religious ideas, and beliefs from the variety of religious cults were to appear in the new creed that Mani developed. By the time Mani grew into adulthood he saw commonality in various religions, and he saw himself as having a universal message. When he was around twenty-five, he claimed that he was obeying an order from heaven to abandon passions and spread the truth. He consciously imitated the apostle Paul and began traveling about in Ardashir's empire preaching his new creed. He claimed that God called on him to preach as God had called on others before him. Mani claimed that he was the successor to prophets such as Zarathustra and Jesus, and he claimed that he was the helper promised by Jesus (as described in John 14:16. He claimed that he was the final prophet and that other religions were limited in their effectiveness because they were local and taught in one language to one people). Mani hoped that his message would be heard in all languages and in all countries.
Mani traveled to Parthia -- a part of Ardashir's empire -- to become a stronghold of his faith and a base for missionary expeditions into Central Asia. He attracted followers whom he called upon to do missionary work in order to convert the entire world. Mani went to northwestern India, where Ardashir's son was leading an army and extending Ardashir's rule. And while there, Mani strengthened the Buddhist element in his faith. He learned Buddhist organization and propaganda techniques and proclaimed that he was successor to the Buddha. Mani sent disciples to Egypt, and he traveled as far west as the border of the Roman Empire to strongholds of Mithra worship, where he tried to associate himself with Mithraism. Mithraism (believed to have originated among the Hindus) had been popular among the Parthians and had grown in Mesopotamia, Armenia and north-western Persia during the first centuries BCE and CE. Mani had heated discussions with Mithraic priests, and he strengthened the Mithraism in his doctrine. Mani argued also with Zoroastrians, and he compared his beliefs with theirs. In Media, where Zurvanite Zoroastrians were strongest, Mani attempted to reform their movement.
Manichaean Doctrine and Organization
Mani believed that his views were the most advanced and the sum and perfection of all religious wisdom. With worldly knowledge having become a greater part of religious thought, this included Mani's positions on the origins of the universe, anthropology, history, botany, zoology and geography. Like the Zoroastrians and Zurvanites his movement had an encyclopedia. He proclaimed belief in the Buddha and acknowledged the god of the Zoroastrians. He proclaimed belief in Jesus Christ and that he had taken the best of the New Testament and cleansed it of accretions and falsifications. And, like the Christian Marcion, he rejected Judaism's Old Testament.
Mani saw himself in agreement with the Zoroastrian belief that the universe was in a battle between the forces of good and the forces of evil. But where Zoroastrians saw their god Mazda as stronger than the force of evil, Mani held that the forces of evil dominated the world and that redemption -- the triumph of good -- would come only with a determined struggle by a select group of devotees. Mani saw the eating of flesh as the first great sin of Adam and Eve (Gehmurd and Murdiyanag). And he believed that redemption for humanity would come by abstaining from eating meat and by fasting. He taught that someday a final purification would occur, that the earth would be destroyed, that the damned would collect into a cosmic clod of dirty matter and that the kingdom of goodness and light would separate from the kingdom of evil and darkness. This, he claimed, would come as the result of people rejecting evil.
Mani organized his followers into three groups. The first group was called The Elect. The Elect lived ascetically and devoted themselves to redemption: to separating the kingdoms of light and darkness by living as purely as possible, living ascetically, and by fasting on Sundays and Mondays. They ate mainly fruit and drank fruit juice, believing that fruit contained many light particles, that water was not heavenly like fruit juice because it was simply matter. In the pursuit of redemption, the Elect was forbidden to eat or to uproot plants, to cut down any tree or kill any animal, and, like Buddhist monks, the Elect was obliged to follow complete sexual abstinence and marriage.
Mani's second group was an accommodation with worldly realities. This group was called the Hearers. They followed Mani's teachings but they also did what was forbidden for the Elect: they worked in the making of food, and they had sex and created children. They furnished the elect with food and drink, led a normal life, even eating meat, but they were obliged to fast on Sunday, and like the Elect they observed an entire month of fasting prior to the principle feast of the year: the Bema festival.
The third group of Mani's followers was necessary in making Manichaeanism a popular religion. This third group was not obliged to adhere to any religious practices. They merely had to believe.
The Religious Mix Under Shapur I
Ardashir died in 241 or 242, and he was succeeded by his son, Shapur I. Shapur invited Mani to his coronation. He invited Mani to speak to him in person, and he granted that Manichaeanism could be taught freely through the empire, Shapur hoping, perhaps, that his support of Manichaeanism might contribute to a wider spectrum of loyalty.
Shortly after Shapur succeeded his father, the Romans finally retaliated against Persian aggressions against their empire. Off and on into the next decade Shapur fought the Romans in Mesopotamia, Syria and Asia Minor. Shapur took Mani and Zoroastrian priests with him on his expeditions, with the Zoroastrians more favored, wearing their conical hats and white cotton robes, the white representing light and purity. With their rituals, the Zoroastrian priests cleansed the conquered lands of demons, and in the conquered lands they established their fire temples to commemorate Shapur's victories. In seeing indigenous religions as competitors, they spoke of smashing idols and destroying the dens of demons. As advocates of good, they saw no evil in war itself or in Sassanid imperialism. Mani, on the other hand, perhaps because of his broader view of culture, developed an opposition to war.
Shapur shared Mani's appreciation of different cultures. He enjoyed talks with Greek philosophers and decreed that all people, including Manichaeans, Jews, and Christians should be left free in their worship, and he persuaded the Zoroastrian priesthood to include in the Avesta works on metaphysics, astronomy and medicine borrowed from the Greeks and Indians. He created an accommodation with the Jewish leader in Mesopotamia -- Samuel. Samuel accepted that Sassanian law would be respected in Jewish courts and that taxes to the Sassanid government would be paid.
The Christians under Shapur were also tolerated. By the time of Shapur, Christians had become a noticeable minority in Mesopotamia. Christian evangelists had arrived as early as the first century, mainly in Jewish communities. More Christians arrived during Shapur's rule, with his invasion of Syria. Shapur deported the populations of Damascus and other cities that he had conquered, sending large groups of Greek speaking Christians from Syria to the provinces of Persis, Parthia, Susiana and the city of Babylon, where they were allowed to organize their own communities and follow their own leaders.
With the spread of their communities, the Christians attempted to unite and describe diocese boundaries. Disputes arose between Christian communities that spoke Syriac and those that spoke Greek. A Christian bishop, Papa bar Aggai, at the capital, Ctesiphon, claimed patriarchal rights -- as had the Bishop of Rome -- and the bishop of Ctesiphon remained in rivalry for influence with the Christian leadership in Nisibis.
The Zoroastrians, meanwhile, were offended by Christian beliefs, foremost by the belief in a god that was the creator of all rather than the creator just of goodness. The Zoroastrians were offended also by the Christian belief that Jesus was both a god and born of an impure, earthly woman, and they were offended by the idea that a god could be crucified and die. The Christians on the other hand, drawing from their Jewish tradition and the law of Moses, were offended by the Zoroastrians not condemning marriages between close relatives.
Sassanid Persecutions and The Execution of Mani
Shapur I died sometime between 270 and 273, and he was succeeded by his son, Hormizd. Mani received from Hormizd the same permission to teach that Shapur had granted him. But after only a year in power, Hormizd died, and he was succeeded by another of Shapur's sons, Bahram. With practicing a religion being a privilege granted by the king rather than a right, Manichaeanism, Christianity and Judaism were threatened by the whims of any succeeding monarch. Mani was probably aware of the danger that came with Bahram's accession to power, for he decided to leave for the east, to the Kushans around Bactria, where he could count on protection. But Bahram prohibited Mani's travel.
The zealous Zoroastrian priest, Kartir, had been elevated to chief priest. And, with Bahram's support, Kartir launched an attack on the Manichaeans. Manichaeanism was criticized for not identifying itself with the Sassanid Empire, and Persia's landed elite saw Manichaeanism as a threat because its power base was people of the cities and merchants. A bill was presented to Bahram with accusations against Mani, and Mani was ordered to present himself to Bahram at the royal residence. Mani's arrival there created a great sensation. The King spoke to Mani with hostility, and Mani asked whether he had done anything evil. The king responded with rage and reproached Mani for various ethical transgressions. The king was most displeased by Mani's dislike of war. Mani, in turn, spoke of his services as an exorcist. The king stopped Mani's attempt to defend himself and ordered Mani and three of his followers chained and sent to prison. There, Mani died in less than a month and became a martyr to his followers.
Persecution of Mani's followers followed his execution, and many of them scattered. Manichaeanism had already reached Syria, Palestine and Egypt, and now it was to spread farther into the Roman Empire. It spread into Armenia, and it spread into Sinkiang, where it would become the state religion of the Uigur Turks.
The Rulers Bahram II and Narseh
Bahram died the same year as Mani (in 276) and he was succeeded by his son Bahram II. The priest Kartir remained a dominant figure under Bahram II, and the persecution of the Manichaeans was followed by the persecution of Christians, Jews and Buddhists. Then, sometime during the reign of Bahram II, Kartir died, and religious tolerance began to reassert itself. Bahram II was relatively tolerant. He had been influenced by his grandfather, Shapur I and had become acquainted with advanced Hellenistic culture, and he was offended by the zealotry of the Zoroastrians.
Bahram II died in 293, and he was succeeded by Narseh, who ruled to 303. Narseh claimed to restore the rule of Ardashir, which he claimed was unequaled. Power over spiritual matters remained with Narseh rather than with the Zoroastrian priesthood. And ruling over peoples of various religions, Narseh claimed that he was king in the name of Mazda and all the gods, and he claimed to be a disciple of Mani. In the Roman Empire, however, which was often at war with the Sassanids, the Manichaeans continued to be seen as representatives of a foreign power and as dangerous aliens. In the Roman Empire the Manichaeans suffered persecutions -- as did the Christians. But without acquiring the backing of the brute power of a major state, by modern times Manichaeanism would all but disappear.