During the war between Marcus Aurelius and the Parthians (the years 162-66) the Great Pestilence not only devastated the Romans, it threw the economy of the Parthian Empire into decline. While the Roman Empire was busy with German intrusions, plague and a rapid turnover in emperors, the Parthian Empire disintegrated. The Parthians no longer ruled in Persia. They now ruled only in Mesopotamia. And, in Persia, nobles and villagers sought protection from roaming bands of brigands and the small armies of local despots.
In the mountainous desert province of Persis in southwestern Persia, a military leader named Ardashir saw opportunity, ventured out with his army and overran several neighboring cities. He overran the lands of other Persian lords in Persis. He either defeated them or let them join him. And, in the year 208, he was crowned king of Persis. Then in the coming years he moved against Parthian rule in Mesopotamia. He met the Parthian army in a great battle in 224, and defeated it, ending the Arsacid dynasty’s four hundred years of rule.
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. Ardashir began what would be called the Sassanid dynasty, named 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.
In Persia, the Zoroastrian priesthood had endured rule by the foreign Parthians, and they had suffered from a prevalence of religions that were not Persian in origin. Now, the Zoroastrian priesthood was pleased under the rule of Ardashir, for Ardashir wished to ally himself with Zorastrianism. Ardashir announced that religion and kingship were brothers, and he said that his rule was the will of God. The Zoroastrian priesthood felt empowered, and they looked forward to converting non-Zoroastrians who lived within Ardashir’s empire.
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.
Zoroastrian priests inherited their positions — their special skills and learning passed from father to son. They operated Persia’s courts, and they controlled Persia’s schools. The priesthood performed the rituals that were a frequent part of the lives of the common people, including ceremonies of purification at the births of children, rituals at weddings, deaths and many other occasions. They received fees for every service performed, at the home of a believer or in their temple. And from those who confessed their sins they received payment in the form of fines — as a substitute for corporal punishment — the fines fixed according to the sin.
The Zoroastrian priesthood believed that their religion embodied the most advanced learning, and they tried to control the empire’s intellectual life. They tried to frighten people with talk of hell. They claimed that only their rituals and prayers and a life of virtue and ritual cleanliness could save one’s soul from the devil and make it possible for one to pass final judgment and enjoy paradise in the hereafter. They preached that for the sake of goodness and public health all putrefying matter had to be buried.
One priest, Kartir, led a crusade to purify Zoroastrianism, to obliterate what he saw as heresies. During the rule of Ardashir he succeeded in having Zurvanist myths purged from the Avesta. And Kartir had Zoroastrian doctrines inscribed on the face of cliffs, the inscriptions to number over seven hundred in the decades to come.
Various religions remained in Ardashir’s empire, adhered to by people who had, under previous rulers, 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 had no experience ruling over a diversity of cultures, and he denied these people of different faiths the right to govern their own affairs. 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.
Most Persians, like the civilized elsewhere, were peasants, while a few Persians were owners of great agricultural estates and some were wealthy tradesmen. People within the Roman Empire had little or no contact with the Persians and tended to believe that they were barbarians, while the Persians saw themselves as highly civilized. And Persia’s aristocracy had a proud bearing and easy grace.
The Persians mixed music with their Zoroastrian religion, using such instruments as the lyre, guitar, horn and drum. In court, they swore by their Zoroastrian faith to tell the truth, and violations of oaths were severely punished. They believed that violations of an oath would be punished after death, and they were known as a people whose word was good.
The Persians gave much respect and ritual to marriage, celebrating it with elaborate Zoroastrian rites. Parents generally arranged the marriage of their children, with females marrying only those approved by their parents, and if it appeared that a first wife could not give birth, a husband was allowed another wife. The birth of a child was seen as strengthening God in his conflict with Satan, and heavy penalties were given to those found guilty of infanticide or abortion.
Persian law allowed men to have concubines — who were usually free to come and go, while wives stayed at home. According to a Roman observer named Ammeanus Marcellinus, prostitution and pederasty were less prevalent among the Persians than among the Greeks. The Persians punished pederasty by death. But, according to Marcellinus, there was much adultery among the Persians, and while a Persian husband could divorce his wife for infidelity, a wife could not win a divorce from her husband on the same grounds. But she could divorce him for desertion or cruelty. A wife found guilty of adultery could have her nose and ears cut off. And men caught with someone else’s wife could be banished.