Ancient Iran : The Sassanid

Map of the Sassanid Empire

and Narseh

The Emperor Bahram died the same year as Mani — in 276 — and was succeeded by his son, Bahram II. The priest Kartir remained a dominant figure under Bahram II. The persecution of Manichaeans (Manicheans) continued and included the persecution of Christians, 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.  He had become acquainted with Hellenistic culture and was offended by the zealotry of the Zoroastrians. As with the autocracies before, freedom to worship depended upon the whim of the ruler, and for awhile persecution was lifted from the Manichaeans, Christians and .

Bahram II died in 293, and he was succeeded by Narseh, who ruled to 303. Narseh claimed to restore the rule of Ardashir. Power over spiritual matters was with Narseh rather than with the Zoroastrian priesthood. And, ruling over peoples of various , Narseh claimed that he was king in the name of Mazda and all the and claimed to be a disciple of Mani.

Shapur II ()

The wars between Rome and the Sassanid 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 . But the Sassanid continued to thrive economically as it benefited from its control of travel over land between it and China.

This was the condition when Hormuz II reigned, from 300 to 309 — the ninth Sasanian king. Hormuz died before his son was born, his son becoming king at birth, to acquire the title Shapur II. Shapur 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. And, under his rule, cultivation was increasing. Food production was on the rise, and with it came a rise in population and the creation of new towns. For the Persians the gods favored the Sassanid Empire over the Roman Empire, and Shapur wished to restore the greatest that was thought to have belonged to the 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.

In launching against the Romans he turned against the Christians within his empire. Shapur was a devout Zoroastrian, and with Christianity in the Roman Empire having allied itself with Roman power, in to loyal Persians within the Sassanid Empire it appeared as an enemy . Needing money for his war, Shapur doubled taxes against the Christians, and the Christians objected. In 339 he began persecuting the Christians, and Jews and Manichaeans, Shapur seeking their conversion to Zoroastrianism.  Entire villages of Christians were slaughtered. Then Shapur restricted the attacks against Christians to priests, monks and nuns.

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 near Samarra 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 Armenia. The Persians in 365 returned there and occupied Armenia, and Shapur began trying to suppress Christianity in 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 against Christians within the Sassanid Empire were to last to around 580 — 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.

Persecutions, Tolerance and War to the mid-400s

Across history, religious zealots have been disappointed with failures in zeal among others of the same faith. And so it was with the Zoroastrian priesthood when the successors of the Sassanid emperor, Shapur II, failed to continue the persecutions of Christians. In 379 Shapur II died. His son and successor, 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, I, and respected diversity and wanted peace between the religions of his realm. He helped Christians rebuild their churches, destroyed during the persecutions. sponsored a council meeting of Christian bishops and other Christian ecclesiastics to mend their internal quarrels, and the council created rules and an organizational structure to unite Christians within the empire.

Zoroastrian priests tried to convince Yazdegerd that Christianity was a threat. During the conflict between Yazdgird and the Zoroastrian priests Yazdgird was known as “Yazdgird the Wicked.” They tried to pressure him into renewing repression against the Christians. Christian helped by their hostility the Zoroastrians Emboldened and viewing Zoroastrianism as paganism and the work of the devil, Christians attacked the Zoroastrian priests and destroyed Zoroastrian fire temples. With this, Yazdgird’s toleration the Christians ceased.

After Yazdegerd’s death in 420, nobles exercised their prerogative of supporting one faction or another within the royal family, and they tried to prevent any of Yazdegerd’s sons from succeeding him. But one did: Bahram V, who became known for his prowess in hunting game and women. Hostility toward Christianity intensified with an increase in influence of Bahram’s Prime Minister, Mihr-Narseh – who was much honored by the Persians for his charity and his building for public benefit. Bahram V attempted to win and maintain good will for himself among the Zoroastrians, and, in 421, the persecution of Christians was resumed. Many Christians fled westward to the Roman Empire, and Bahram sought their extradition. But the Roman emperor at Constantinople, Theodosius II, refused Bahram’s request.

Bahram V allowed Prime Minister Mihr-Narseh to seek resolution through war against Constantinople. A council of Persian Christian bishops met and sought to protect Christianity in Persia by proclaiming their independence from the Christians of Constantinople. But Mihr-Narseh met with frustration as Constantinople overpowered Persia’s forces in a series of skirmishes. Bahram made a hundred-year peace with Constantinople in which he agreed to grant freedom of worship for Christians in the Sassanid Empire in exchange for Constantinople granting freedom of worship for Zoroastrians under its rule.

In 424, a third Synod of Bishops was held in the Sassanid Empire, and the bishops proclaimed the autonomy of their Christianity from the Christianity of the Roman Empire. They claimed they were responsible only to Jesus Christ, and with their declared independence they offered fellowship with the Church in the Roman Empire.

Under the influence of the now elderly prime minister, Mihr-Narseh, the new king, Yazdegerd II (438-457) made another attempt to force the Armenians to give up their Christianity. Zoroastrian missionaries were sent to Armenia in great numbers, and there a systematic persecution of Christians and Jews there began.


Attempts at forcing religious conformity had been of little help to the Sassanid kings. Trouble came to them as it had for the Romans: migrating foreigners. The invaders were called Hephthalites, or White Huns, descendants perhaps of those the Chinese called Xiongnu. From the desert in central Asia, during the rule of Bahram V, they penetrated Sassanid territory to the Oxus River. Bahram V repelled the invasions, but in the second half of the 400s the Hephthalite invasions continued. In 484 the Hephthalites feigned a retreat, luring the Sassanian king, Firuz, his cavalry and much of the Sassanid nobility, into a concealed pit. The Hephthalites slaughtered them all. Then they captured the king’s family and treasury and forced the new Sassanid king, Balash — the brother of Firuz – to pay them tribute.

After military defeat came drought and famine, and with this came political unrest. In 488, Balash, who had been elected by nobles, was deposed by nobles and blinded. He was replaced by Kavad, a son of Firuz. Unrest among the Persians grew into rebellion, which was joined by the country’s major workers’ guilds – a movement led by a priest named Mazdak (or Zaradust-e Khuragan). Mazdak’s movement was a religious sect — said to be Manichaean and said to be Zoroastrian — that had been founded by his father. His father had directed his followers to enjoy life and to satisfy their appetites in food and drink but to do so in a spirit of friendship and equality. He had directed them to aim also at good deeds, to extend hospitality to others, to avoid dominating others or inflicting any kind of harm on others, and especially to avoid shedding the blood of others. Following his father as leader, Mazdak proclaimed that he had been sent by God to preach that all men are born equal. He proclaimed that no one had a right to possess more than did another. He claimed that he was reforming and purifying Zoroastrianism and quoted from the Avesta, claiming that God had placed the means of subsistence on earth so that could divide them equally. He claimed that had strayed from this as some had sought domination over others, as the strong had defeated the weak and had taken exclusive possession over property. He described the world as having been turned from righteousness by five demons: Envy, Wrath, Vengeance, Need and Greed.

Mazdak called for distributing to the community the contents of the granaries belonging to the nobles. He proclaimed that whoever had an excess of property or women had no right to them. Mazdak’s followers began plundering the homes and harems of the rich. His uprising was strong enough that the new Sassanid king, Kavad I, feared it, and for the sake of staying in power Kavad sided with it. Kavad approved Mazdak’s call for intermarriage between aristocratic women and peasant men. The Nobles, outraged over Kavad’s siding with the revolution, captured and imprisoned him. They put his brother upon the throne, and, after three years in captivity, Kavad escaped and fled east to the Hephthalites.

The Hephthalites were eager to have a ruler in Persia dependent upon them, and they provided Kavad with an . In 499, Kavad marched to the Sassanid capital, Ctesiphon, and re-established his rule. The nobles fled to their estates, and the century ended with rebellion still triumphant. But communism at the end of antiquity in Persia was not to remain in power as long as it would in the 20th century. Nobles, Zoroastrian priests and eventually Khavad and his son managed a counter-revolution. In 528, leading followers of Mazdak were massacred, and in following years other followers were persecuted and driven underground.

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