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Zoroastrians and Sassanid Rule to 399 CE

In Persia, the Zoroastrian priesthood had been devastated by Alexander the Great. And it had endured rule by the Parthians and a prevalence of religions that were not Persian in origin.  Ardashir pleased them. He gave the Zoroastrian priesthood the attention they thought they deserved. Ardashir allied himself with Zorastrianism, united the power of the state with their ideas. Ardashir wanted to strengthen his rule and 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, and it was not just to have unequal notice. 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 – the Achaemenids. He took the title of King of Kings and spoke of his revitalizing the Achaemenid Empire. He used the word eran to describe the Persian people – not, it seems, a Persian empire – a usage said to date back to the Achemenids. And this gave rise to Iran replacing Persia as a designation.

Ardashir named his dynasty, the Sassanids, after his grandfather, Sassan. He established his rule in the old Parthian capital at Ctesiphon, on the Tigris River. He wished to restore the great Persian Empire of centuries before, and 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 a Zoroastrian priest, Tansar, 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. And Tansar put Zoroastrian law into the Avesta, from which Ardashir drew his laws.

A man who had known mostly success, with confidence Ardashir led his army in making what he thought should be a great Persian empire. In 230, he attacked the Roman province of Mesopotamia. At the same time, his cavalry ranged ventured past the Roman border and threatened Syria and Cappadocia. The wars dragged on into the 240s.

Shapur II (the Great), War and Persecutions

The wars between Rome and the Sassanid Empire were destroying caravan cities in Mesopotamia and Syria – one of which was Palmyra. This was bringing a decline in trade in the direction of the Roman Empire. But the Sassanid Empire continued to thrive economically as it benefited from its control of travel over land between it and China.

The ninth Sassanid king, Shapur II, began to rule in name from the day he was born, in the year 309, and he was to rule to 379. He grew up to become known as a brave warrior, and he is said to have demanded the greatest respect from his subjects, and many of his subjects looked upon his accomplishments and believed he was a god. Shapur organized frontier cities into a defensive system. He maintained and extended irrigation systems in many areas of his empire. Under his rule, cultivation increased. Food production was on the rise, and with it came a rise in population and the creation of new towns.

Shapur II continued the attempt to restore the greatness that was thought to have belonged to the Persian Empire of centuries before. In 337, Shapur broke the peace that had been established 40 years. Constantine the Great died that year and Shapur observed his sons fighting among themselves. Shapur chose to send his armies northwest into Mesopotamia and Armenia, which his predecessors had lost to the Romans – another great Iran-Iraq war.

His first war against the Romans lasted to 350. That year he had to break of war with the Roman Empire to fight an invasion by the Huns from the East. By 357 he had defeated the Huns, and he forced them into an alliance. Two years later he resumed his war against the Roman Empire, advancing to Ctesiphon. His enemy, Julian the Apostate, had invaded Persia and defeated the Persians north of Ctesiphon. Then, in 363 Julian was wounded and died. Shapur pushed the Romans out of Nisibis and nearby territory. Julian's successor, the Christian Emperor Jovian, made peace with Shapur, giving back to Persia all the Mesopotamian territories taken from them as well as Nisibis and Singara. And Jovian gave Shapur the territory of Armenia.

The Christian emperor Jovian gave to Shapur II the territory of Armenia. Shapur forced the Armenian king, Arsaces III, to commit suicide, and then he tried to introduce Zoroastrian orthodoxy into Armenia, resisted by Armenia's nobility.

The persecutions against Christians within the Sassanid Empire were to last to about forty years – some Christians going to their deaths with what was reported as a fanatical longing for martyrdom. The survival of Christianity under the Sassanids had appeared threatened, but Christianity in the Sassanid Empire was saved by the same slowness and inefficiency that had taken place in Rome's attempted extermination a century or two before.

The successors of Shapur II failed to continue the persecutions of Christians. Shapur III, freed Christian prisoners, believing they would be of greater value to him pursuing their crafts and paying taxes. In 389, Shapur III was succeeded by his son, Bahram IV. In 399, Bahram was succeeded by his brother, Yazdegerd I. Yazdegerd respected diversity and wanted peace between the religions of his realm. He helped Christians rebuild their churches.



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