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From the Parthian Empire to the Sassanids

After Alexander died in 323 BCE, one of Alexander's former generals, Seleucus, began a dynasty whose rule extended from Asia Minor, Syria and Mesopotamia through Persia all the way to Bactria. Seleucus appointed a governor for Bactria, whom he largely ignored.

In this vast area there was the usual problem of warrior migrants. People from steppe lands east of the Caspian Sea were intruding into northern Persia and absorbing Persian culture. The Seleucus dynasty did little if anything to stop these migrants, seeing them as no significant threat given the vastness of his empire. The migrants founded their own towns, and around the year 250 BCE one of them founded a Persian-style hereditary monarchy called the Arsacids.

In 246 BCE, the governor of Bactria formally declared independence. He allied Bactria with the empire of Chandragupta's Buddhist grandson, Ashoka. Drawing mainly from Greek and Macedonian support, the Seleucids continued to control Syria, Mesopotamia and Palestine, but only parts of Persia. Colonies that Alexander had founded in Persia and Bactria remained Greek islands in a sea of eastern peoples. And in these colonies, Greek and Macedonian ways were being diluted by the taking of Asian women as wives.

Sketch of Parthian warrior

Parthian Warrior

Around 238 BCE, the Arsacids conquered territory ruled by a Macedonian or Greek satrap, Andragoras. From this territory, identified as Parthia, the Arsacids seized Hyrcania, an area along the southern shore of the Caspian Sea. The Seleucid monarchs tried to retake Parthia, but war between the Seleucids and Rome allowed Parthian rule to continue.

The Parthians expanded farther under their King Mithridates. Around 141 BCE, the Parthians seized the Seleucid capital of Seleucia, on the bank of the Tigres River in Mesopotamia. The Parthians took control of much of Mesopotamia. Their rule extended to the Caucasus mountains and to the eastern border of what today is Iran and beyond into what today is Turkmenistan a couple of hundred kilometers short of reaching the Oxus River. Seleucid power had vanished in military defeats.

The Parthian Empire Replaced by Sassanid Rule

Like other vast empires, expansion was a burden. From around 130 BCE, Parthian rule contended with invasions by various nomadic tribes. And beginning in 105 BCE, Parthian rule from the center weakened. A handful of Parthian noble families contended with the Parthian monarchs for power.

Around 32 BCE, the Parthian king, Phraates IV, fought a rebellion that had the support of the nobility. By 25 BCE that revolt had failed, but in the decades that followed the nobility was able to put a person of their choosing on the throne, and dynastic instability followed. The Arsacid dynasty survived, but centralized power was weak and provincial rulers held sway. The Parthian empire was going the way of other empires.

During the war between Marcus Aurelius and the Parthians (162–66) a "great pestilence" devastated the Romans and also threw the economy of the Parthian empire into decline. The Parthian empire fractured as local potentates claimed independence. Parthian rule held only in Mesopotamia.

In Persia, nobles and villagers sought protection from roaming bands of brigands and the small armies of local despots. In the mountainous desert in southwestern Persia a military leader named Ardashir saw opportunity. He ventured out with his army and overran several neighboring cities. He overran the lands of other Persian potentates in the southwest – Persis. He either defeated them or let them join him. In the year 208 he was crowned King of Persis. In 224 he met the Parthian army in a great battle and defeated it, and in the coming years he moved against the Parthian rule that remained in Mesopotamia.

Ardashir and the Zoroastrian Priesthood

Ardashir coin

Coin of Ardashir, founder of the Sassanid dynasty who reigned from 224 to 242 and embraced the Zoroastrian priesthood.

After deposing the last Parthian King, Ardashir sought recognition and association of his rule with religious authority. He chose association with the Zoroastrian high priest, Tansar. Tansar wrote to potentates of various regions calling on them to accept Ardashir as their new king. Ardashir pleased the Zoroastrians. He gave the Zoroastrian priesthood the attention they thought they deserved. He announced that religion and kingship were brothers. With the Zoroastrian priests on his side he said that his rule was the will of God. The Zoroastrian priesthood felt empowered. The Zoroastrians looked forward to converting non-Zoroastrians. Ardashir claimed that his family was linked to the old Persian royal family of Cyrus the Great. He took the title of King of Kings and spoke of his revitalizing the Achaemenid Empire. He gave rise to use of "Iran" in place of Persia, and he named his dynasty after his grandfather, Sassan. He established his rule in the old Parthian capital at Ctesiphon, on the Tigris River.

To restore that great empire that had existed prior to Alexander's conquests, 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 had Tansa collect sacred texts of the Avesta – the Zoroastrian Bible – 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. Tansar put Zoroastrian law into the Avesta, from which Ardashir drew his laws.

With confidence Ardashir in 230 attacked the Romans in Mesopotamia and threatened them in Syria and Cappadocia – wars that were to drag on into the 240s.

Ardashir, meanwhile, had no experience ruling over a diversity of cultures. Under previous rulers, people had 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 tried to reverse this. 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.


Copyright © 1998-2018 by Frank E. Smitha. All rights reserved.