Sasan, in Persian tradition, was a priest of Persepolis; his son Papak was a petty prince of Khur; Papak killed Gozihr, ruler of the province of Persis, made himself king of the province, and bequeathed his power to his son Shapur; Shapur died of a timely accident, and was succeeded by his brother Ardashir. Artabanus V, last of the Arsacid or Parthian kings of Persia, refused to recognize this new local dynasty; Ardashir overthrew Artabanus in battle (224), and became King of Kings (226). He replaced the loose feudal rule of the Arsacids with a strong royal power governing through a centralized but spreading bureaucracy; won the support of the priestly caste by restoring the Zoroastrian hierarchy and faith; and roused the pride of the people by announcing that he would destroy Hellenistic influence in Persia, avenge Darius II against the heirs of Alexander, and reconquer all the territory once held by the Achaemenid kings. He almost kept his word. His swift campaigns extended the boundaries of Persia to the Oxus in the northeast, and to the Euphrates in the west. Dying (241), he placed the crown on the head of his son Shapur, and bade him drive the Greeks and Romans into the sea.


FIG. 1—Interior of Santa Maria Maggiore



FIG. 2—Interior of Hagia Sophia



FIG. 3—Interior of San Vitale



FIG. 4—Detail of Rock Relief


Courtesy of Asia Institute


FIG. 5—Court of the Great Mosque


Courtesy of Metropolitan Museum of Art


FIG. 6—Dome of the Rock



FIG. 7—Portion of Stone Relief

Mshatta, Syria


FIG. 8—Court of El Azhar Mosque



FIG. 9—Wood Minbar in El Agsa Mosque



FIG. 10—Pavilion on Court of Lions, the AIhambra



FIG. 11—Interior of Mosque



FIG. 12—Façade of St. Mark’s



FIG. 13—Piazza of the Duomo, Showing Baptistry, Cathedral, and Learning Tower



FIG. 14—Interior of Capella Palatina



FIG. 15—Apse of Cathedral


Shapur or Sapor I (241–72) inherited all the vigor and craft of his father. The rock reliefs represent him as a man of handsome and noble features; but these reliefs were doubtless stylized compliments. He received a good education, and loved learning; he was so charmed by the conversation of the Sophist Eustathius, the Greek ambassador, that he thought of resigning his throne and becoming a philosopher.35 Unlike his later namesake, he gave full freedom to all religions, allowed Mani to preach at his court, and declared that “Magi, Manicheans, Jews, Christians, and all men of whatever religion should be left undisturbed” in his Empire.36 Continuing Ardashir’s redaction of the Avesta, he persuaded the priests to include in this Persian Bible secular works on metaphysics, astronomy, and medicine, mostly borrowed from India and Greece. He was a liberal patron of the arts. He was not as great a general as Shapur II or the two Khosrus, but he was the ablest administrator in the long Sasanian line. He built a new capital at Shapur, whose ruins still bear his name; and at Shushtar, on the Karun River, he raised one of the major engineering works of antiquity—a dam of granite blocks, forming a bridge 1710 feet long and 20 feet wide; the course of the stream was temporarily changed to allow the construction; its bed was solidly paved; and great sluice gates regulated the flow. Tradition says that Shapur used Roman engineers and prisoners to design and build this dam, which continued to function to our own century.37Turning reluctantly to war, Shapur invaded Syria, reached Antioch, was defeated by a Roman army, and made a peace (244) that restored to Rome all that he had taken. Resenting Armenia’s co-operation with Rome, he entered that country and established there a dynasty friendly to Persia (252). His right flank so protected, he resumed the war with Rome, defeated and captured the Emperor Valerian (260), sacked Antioch, and took thousands of prisoners to forced labor in Iran. Odenathus, governor of Palmyra, joined forces with Rome, and compelled Shapur again to resign himself to the Euphrates as the Roman-Persian frontier.

His successors, from 272 to 302, were royal mediocrities. History makes short shrift of Hormizd II (302–9), for he maintained prosperity and peace. He went about repairing public buildings and private dwellings, especially those of the poor, all at state expense. He established a new court of justice devoted to hearing the complaints of the poor against the rich, and often presided himself. We do not know if these strange habits precluded his son from inheriting the throne; in any case, when Hormizd died, the nobles imprisoned his son, and gave the throne to his unborn child, whom they confidently hailed as Shapur II; and to make matters clear they crowned the foetus by suspending the royal diadem over the mother’s womb.38

With this good start Shapur II entered upon the longest reign in Asiatic history (309–79). From childhood he was trained for war; he hardened his body and will, and at sixteen took the government and the field. Invading eastern Arabia, he laid waste a score of villages, killed thousands of captives, and led others into bondage by cords attached to their wounds. In 337 he renewed the war with Rome for mastery of the trade routes to the Far East, and continued it, with pacific intervals, almost till his death. The conversion of Rome and Armenia to Christianity gave the old struggle a new intensity, as if the gods in Homeric frenzy had joined the fray. Through forty years Shapur fought a long line of Roman emperors. Julian drove him back to Ctesiphon, but retreated ingloriously; Jovian, outmaneuvered, was forced to a peace (363) that yielded to Shapur the Roman provinces on the Tigris, and all Armenia. When Shapur II died Persia was at the height of its power and prestige, and a hundred thousand acres had been improved with human blood.

In the next century war moved to the eastern frontier. About 425 a Turanian people known to the Greeks as Ephthalites, and mistakenly called “White Huns,” captured the region between the Oxus and the Jaxartes. The Sasanian King Bahram V (420–38), named Gur—“the wild ass”—because of his reckless hunting feats, fought them successfully; but after his death they spread through fertility and war, and built an empire extending from the Caspian to the Indus, with its capital at Gurgan and its chief city at Balkh. They overcame and slew King Firuz (459–84), and forced King Balas (484–8) to pay them tribute.

So threatened in the east, Persia was at the same time thrown into chaos by the struggle of the monarchy to maintain its authority against the nobles and the priests. Kavadh I (488–531) thought to weaken these enemies by encouraging a communist movement which had made them the chief object of its attack. About 490 Mazdak, a Zoroastrian priest, had proclaimed himself God-sent to preach an old creed: that all men are born equal, that no one has any natural right to possess more than another, that property and marriage are human inventions and miserable mistakes, and that all goods and all women should be the common property of all men. His enemies claimed that he condoned theft, adultery, and incest as natural protests against property and marriage, and as legitimate approximations to utopia. The poor and some others heard him gladly, but Mazdak was probably surprised to receive the approval of a king. His followers began to plunder not only the homes but the harems of the rich, and to carry off for their own uses the most illustrious and costly concubines. The outraged nobles imprisoned Kavadh, and set his brother Djamasp upon the throne. After three years in the “Castle of Oblivion” Kavadh escaped, and fled to the Ephthalites. Eager to have a dependent as the ruler of Persia, they provided him with an army, and helped him to take Ctesiphon. Djamasp abdicated, the nobles fled to their estates, and Kavadh was again King of Kings (499). Having made his power secure, he turned upon the communists, and put Mazdak and thousands of his followers to death.39 Perhaps the movement had raised the status of labor, for the decrees of the council of state were henceforth signed not only by princes and prelates, but also by the heads of the major guilds.40 Kavadh ruled for another generation; fought with success against his friends the Ephthalites, inconclusively with Rome; and dying, left the throne to his second son Khosru, the greatest of Sasanian kings.

Khosru I (“Fair Glory,” 531–79) was called Chosroes by the Greeks, Kisra by the Arabs; the Persians added the cognomen Anushirvan (“Immortal Soul”). When his older brothers conspired to depose him, he put all his brothers to death, and all their sons but one. His subjects called him “the Just”; and perhaps he merited the title if we separate justice from mercy. Procopius described him as “a past master at feigning piety” and breaking his word;41 but Procopius was of the enemy. The Persian historian al-Tabari praised Khosru’s “penetration, knowledge, intelligence, courage, and prudence,” and put into his mouth an inaugural speech well invented if not true.42 He completely reorganized the government; chose his aides for ability regardless of rank; and raised his son’s tutor, Buzurgmihr, to be a celebrated vizier. He replaced untrained feudal levies with a standing army disciplined and competent. He established a more equitable system of taxation, and consolidated Persian law. He built dams and canals to improve the water supply of the cities and the irrigation of farms; he reclaimed waste lands by giving their cultivators cattle, implements, and seed; he promoted commerce by the construction, repair, and protection of bridges and roads; he devoted his great energy zealously to the service of his people and the state. He encouraged—compelled—marriage on the ground that Persia needed more population to man its fields and frontiers. He persuaded bachelors to marry by dowering the wives, and educating their children, with state funds.43He maintained and educated orphans and poor children at the public expense. He punished apostasy with death, but tolerated Christianity, even in his harem. He gathered about him philosophers, physicians, and scholars from India and Greece, and delighted to discuss with them the problems of life, government, and death. One discussion turned on the question, “What is the greatest misery?” A Greek philosopher answered, “An impoverished and imbecile old age”; a Hindu replied, “A harassed mind in a diseased body”; Khosru’s vizier won the dutiful acclaim of all by saying, “For my part I think the extreme misery is for a man to see the end of life approaching without having practiced virtue.”44 Khosru supported literature, science, and scholarship with substantial subsidies, and financed many translations and histories; in his reign the university at Jund-i-Shapur reached its apogee. He so guarded the safety of foreigners that his court was always crowded with distinguished visitors from abroad.

On his accession he proclaimed his desire for peace with Rome. Justinian, having designs on Africa and Italy, agreed; and in 532 the two “brothers” signed “an eternal peace.” When Africa and Italy fell, Khosru humorously asked for a share of the spoils on the ground that Byzantium could not have won had not Persia made peace; Justinian sent him costly gifts.45 In 539 Khosru declared war on “Rome,” alleging that Justinian had violated the terms of their treaty; Procopius confirms the charge; probably Khosru thought it wise to attack while Justinian’s armies were still busy in the West, instead of waiting for a victorious and strengthened Byzantium to turn all its forces against Persia; furthermore, it seemed to Khosru manifest destiny that Persia should have the gold mines of Trebizond and an outlet on the Black Sea. He marched into Syria, besieged Hierapolis, Apamea, and Aleppo, spared them for rich ransoms, and soon stood before Antioch. The reckless population, from the battlements, greeted him not merely with arrows and catapult missiles, but with the obscene sarcasm for which it had earned an international reputation.46 The enraged monarch took the city by storm, looted its treasures, burned down all its buildings except the cathedral, massacred part of the population, and sent the remainder away to people a new “Antioch” in Persia. Then he bathed with delight in that Mediterranean which had once been Persia’s western frontier. Justinian dispatched Belisarius to the rescue, but Khosru leisurely crossed the Euphrates with his spoils, and the cautious general did not pursue him (541). The inconclusiveness of the wars between Persia and Rome was doubtless affected by the difficulty of maintaining an occupation force on the enemy’s side of the Syrian desert or the Taurus range; modern improvements in transport and communication have permitted greater wars. In three further invasions of Roman Asia Khosru made rapid marches and sieges, took ransoms and captives, ravaged the countryside, and peaceably retired (542–3). In 545 Justinian paid him 2000 pounds of gold ($840,000) for a five-year truce, and on its expiration 2600 pounds for a five-year extension. Finally (562), after a generation of war, the aging monarchs pledged themselves to peace for fifty years; Justinian agreed to pay Persia annually 30,000 pieces of gold ($7,500,000), and Khosru renounced his claims to disputed territories in the Caucasus and on the Black Sea.

But Khosru was not through with war. About 570, at the request of the Himyarites of southwest Arabia, he sent an army to free them from their Abyssinian conquerors; when the liberation was accomplished the Himyarites found that they were now a Persian province. Justinian had made an alliance with Abyssinia; his successor Justin II considered the Persian expulsion of the Abyssinians from Arabia an unfriendly act; moreover, the Turks on Persia’s eastern border secretly agreed to join in an attaack upon Khosru; Justin declared war (572). Despite his age, Khosru took the field in person, and captured the Roman frontier town of Dara; but his health failed him, he suffered his first defeat (578), and retired to Ctesiphon, where he died in 579, at an uncertain age. In forty-eight years of rule he had won all his wars and battles except one; had extended his empire on every side; had made Persia stronger than ever since Darius I; and had given it so competent a system of administration that when the Arabs conquered Persia they adopted that system practically without change. Almost contemporary with Justinian, he was rated by the common consent of their contemporaries as the greater king; and the Persians of every later generation counted him the strongest and ablest monarch in their history.

His son Hormizd IV (579–89) was overthrown by a general, Bahram Cobin, who made himself regent for Hormizd’s son Khosru II (589), and a year later made himself king. When Khosru came of age he demanded the throne; Bahram refused; Khosru fled to Hierapolis in Roman Syria; the Greek Emperor Maurice offered to restore him to power if Persia would withdraw from Armenia; Khosru agreed, and Ctesiphon had the rare experience of seeing a Roman army install a Persian king (596).

Khosru Parvez (“Victorious”) rose to greater heights of power than any Persian since Xerxes, and prepared his empire’s fall. When Phocas murdered and replaced Maurice, Parvez declared war on the usurper (603) as an act of vengeance for his friend; in effect the ancient contest was renewed. Byzantium being torn by sedition and faction, the Persian armies took Dara, Amida, Edessa, Hierapolis, Aleppo, Apamea, Damascus (605–13). Inflamed with success, Parvez proclaimed a holy war against the Christians; 26,000 Jews joined his army; in 614 his combined forces sacked Jerusalem, and massacred 90,000 Christians.47 Many Christian churches, including that of the Holy Sepulcher, were burned to the ground; and the True Cross, the most cherished of all Christian relics, was carried off to Persia. To Heraclius, the new Emperor, Parvez sent a theological inquiry: “Khosru, greatest of gods and master of the whole earth, to Heraclius, his vile and insensate slave: You say that you trust in your god. Why, then, has he not delivered Jerusalem out of my hands?”48 In 616 a Persian army captured Alexandria; by 619 all Egypt, as not since Darius II, belonged to the King of Kings. Meanwhile another Persian army overran Asia Minor and captured Chalcedon (617); for ten years the Persians held that city, separated from Constantinople only by the narrow Bosporus. During that decade Parvez demolished churches, transported their art and wealth to Persia, and taxed Western Asia into a destitution that left it resourceless against an Arab conquest now only a generation away.

Khosru turned over the conduct of the war to his generals, retired to his luxurious palace at Dastagird (some sixty miles north of Ctesiphon), and gave himself to art and love. He assembled architects, sculptors, and painters to make his new capital outshine the old, and to carve likenesses of Shirin, the fairest and most loved of his 3000 wives. The Persians complained that she was a Christian; some alleged that she had converted the King; in any case, amid his holy war, he allowed her to build many churches and monasteries. But Persia, prospering with spoils and a replenished slave supply, could forgive its king his self-indulgence, his art, even his toleration. It hailed his victories as the final triumph of Persia over Greece and Rome, of Ormuzd over Christ. Alexander at last was answered, and Marathon, Salamis, Plataea, and Arbela were avenged.

Nothing remained of the Byzantine Empire except a few Asiatic ports, some fragments of Italy, Africa, and Greece, an unbeaten navy, and a besieged capital frenzied with terror and despair. Heraclius took ten years to build a new army and state out of the ruins; then, instead of attempting a costly crossing at Chalcedon, he sailed into the Black Sea, crossed Armenia, and attacked Persia in the rear. As Khosru had desecrated Jerusalem, so now Heraclius destroyed Clorumia, birthplace of Zoroaster, and put out its sacred inextinguishable light (624). Khosru sent army after army against him; they were all defeated; and as the Greeks advanced Khosru fled to Ctesiphon. His generals, smarting under his insults, joined the nobles in deposing him. He was imprisoned, and fed on bread and water; eighteen of his sons were slain before his eyes; finally another son, Sheroye, put him to death (628).

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