The Sasanian Empire (ca. 224 - 651 CE)


Sasanian empire's usual borders (solid region) and maximum extent (striped, ca. 620 CE)

In 224 CE, after the Arsacid empire had suffered a series of military defeats and economic downturns, the vassal king of Fars, Ardashir, defeated the Arsacid king Artabanus IV in battle and founded a new dynasty named after his grandfather Sasan. Ardashir built the Sasanian empire on a set of principles: restoring the Achaemenid legacy, making Zoroastrianism the state religion, and centralizing the king’s power. As part of this program, the Sasanian kings intentionally obliterated remnants of Parthian rule, reorganizing society along new lines.

The change in politics naturally led to a change in society and culture. Sasanian monarchs invested in the agriculture and economy of their empire, with the construction of canals, roads, and fortifications. Many new cities were founded, and Mesopotamia soon had the greatest estimated population density of the ancient world.  Though Zoroastrianism was elevated to the primary religion – the government and the magi class cooperated to ensure this – many other religious traditions found followers in the empire. Christianity - especially Syriac and Armenian varieties - spread freely, as did Manicheanism, Buddhism, and Judaism.  

Sasanian art blossomed under elite patronage, especially with scenes of hunting, dancing and feasting. Precious metals were a primary medium in this tradition, as illustrated by silver vessels widely circulated both within and beyond the empire's borders. Sasanian glassware, made by master craftsmen, became popular across the Silk Road. New architectural styles were developed as well, such as the iwan (which in Islamic times would adorn the exteriors of many mosques across the world) and the vaulted roof. Both of these architectural forms were on display in the capital Ctesiphon, where the one of largest vaulted roofs ever built sheltered the entrance to the palace.

Threatened by the Roman Empire in the west as well as steppe nomads to the north, the Sasanians built a formidable military to defend the Iranian heartland. The final great war of antiquity between Khusro II (r. 590-628 CE) and the Byzantine emperor Heraclius witnessed the temporary loss of Ctesiphon and sparked profound political upheaval. Shortly thereafter, Arab armies overwhelmed the capital and the empire collapsed, sending the final members of the Sasanian royal family into exile in China.  

The Arab conquest ushered in a new political and religious epoch. However, Sasanian culture exercised a profound influence on the new Muslim world. Across numerous areas of cultural, intellectual, and religious life, Sasanian models continued to shape society under Islamic rule. 

The Sasanian Empire