Ardashīr I Establishes the Sāsānian Empire Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

Ardashīr I took over the Parthian monarchy and established the powerful empire of the Sāsānians, which experienced a cultural revival.

Summary of Event

During the third century b.c.e., Persia and Mesopotamia were conquered by the Parthians, cattle- and horse-breeding nomads whose original home lay between the Caspian and Aral Seas. Their royal house, the Arsacids, ruled for nearly five centuries (c. 247 b.c.e.-224 c.e.), but by the end of the second century c.e., protracted dynastic conflicts and rivalry with Rome left the regime fragmented and exhausted. In these circumstances, Ardashīr I, a local leader from Persis (modern Fārs Province, Iran), was able to challenge Parthian hegemony and establish in its place the formidable empire of the Sāsānians (224-651 c.e.). Ardashīr I

The final century of Parthian rule involved periods of disastrous warfare with the Romans. Trajan captured Ctesiphon, the Parthian capital, in 115 c.e., and there were further Roman occupations in 165 and 198. In 216, there was yet another Roman incursion into Mesopotamia during the reign of Caracalla, by which time warfare and plague had ravaged the Parthian kingdom, and the last Parthian monarch, Artabanus V (r. 213-224) was losing control. The time was ripe for Ardashīr to challenge his overlord.

Ardashīr was a member of an influential family in Persis, where his grandfather, Sāsān (after which the Sāsānian Dynasty was named), was custodian of the temple of the goddess Anahita at Istakhr. Ardashīr’s father, Bābak, established himself as an independent ruler in Persis. According to one account, Ardashīr seized the fortress of Dārābgerd (near modern Dārāb, Iran), overcoming several local rulers (Parthian vassals), and incited his father to rebel. However, it is more likely that Bābak himself initiated the revolt, making his elder son, Shāpūr, co-ruler. Numismatic evidence confirms that Bābak and Shāpūr were co-rulers for a time, but when Shāpūr died or was killed, Ardashīr took his place. Coins survive showing Ardashīr on the obverse, either full face or in profile, with Bābak on the reverse. On both sides, there occurs the Middle Persian MLK, meaning “king.”

The date of Bābak’s death is not recorded, but Ardashīr I may have been the sole ruler for a decade before his final victory over Artabanus V in 224 c.e. He certainly acted as an independent ruler, extending his control over Khūzestān and Kermān (both in Iran), minting coins in his name, and undertaking the founding of new cities, an activity for which he would become famous. Probably, it was at this time that he selected what is now Fīrūzābād, India, southwest of Istakhr, as the site for the circular city of Gur, where his well-preserved palace still stands and where he constructed a cliff-top fortress above the gorge leading into Fīrūzābād.

What triggered the final confrontation between Ardashīr and Artabanus is unknown. Probably the time came when Artabanus felt the need to confront this overpowerful subject, or Ardashīr felt himself strong enough to confront his nominal overlord. The precise location of the Battle of the Plain of Hormizdagān is unknown, but it was somewhere in Media, perhaps between Hamadān and Eṣfahān. It was fought on April 28, 224, a date confirmed by an inscription of Ardashīr’s son, Shāpūr I (r. 240-272), at Bishapur. No contemporary description survives, but if the scene portrayed on a Sāsānian rock carving at Bishapur is reliable, Ardashīr slew Artabanus in hand-to-hand fighting, and the heir-apparent, Shāpūr I, killed the Parthian vizier, Darbendam.

On the battlefield, Ardashīr assumed the lofty title of shahanshah, or “king of kings,” justified by the presence of subordinate allies, the subkings of Adiabene (ancient Assyria) and Kirkuk (ancient Arrapha) and perhaps others. As the founder of a new dynasty, Ardashīr marched into lower Mesopotamia and in 226 held his coronation at Ctesiphon, which became the Sāsānian capital. He then advanced into upper Mesopotamia but failed to take the great fortress of Hatra (now Al Ḥḍr, Iraq), an undertaking that had twice frustrated the Romans, and in Armenia, he met with fierce resistance from an Arsacid collateral. Moreover, from 226 to 227, a son of Artabanus, Artavasdes, continued to resist.

For Ardashīr, political legitimation was a priority, and he initiated vigorous propaganda, including a claim of descent from the ancient Achaemenids, who ruled from c. 705 to 330 b.c.e. He commissioned a series of rock sculptures in the tradition of the Bisitun inscription of Darius the Great (r. 522-486 b.c.e.), but these cannot be precisely dated. The combat scene at Bishapur has already been mentioned. At Naqsh-i Rustam, where several of the Achaemenids were commemorated, and close to the Achaemenid ceremonial capital of Persepolis, Ardashīr commissioned the carving of an investiture scene in which he receives a ring, symbol of sovereignty, from Ahura Mazda (supreme deity of the ancient Iranians and the “good” god of Zoroastrianism). Both figures are on horseback. Beneath the feet of Ardashīr I’s horse lies the prostrate figure of the dead Artabanus V, while at the feet of Ahura Mazda’s mount is stretched Ahriman, embodiment of evil in Zoroastrian dualism. The names of both Ardashīr and Ahura Mazda are inscribed on their horses’ breasts, and the inscription is trilingual: in Middle Persian, Parthian, and Greek. It is likely that this relief was commissioned soon after the victory of the Plain of Hormizdagān.

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Close to Naqsh-i Rustam is the grotto known as Naqsh-i Rajab, which holds a second investiture scene: In this instance, Ardashīr is on foot, receiving the ring of sovereignty from Ahura Mazda, observed by Shāpūr, his son; a wife of Ardashīr and Shāpūrur; and two of Ardashīr’s grandsons. A similar investiture scene at Fīrūzābād shows Ardashīr receiving the ring of sovereignty from Ahura Mazda, with a fire altar between them; there are other surviving examples.

These reliefs proclaim Ardashīr as reigning under the protection of Ahura Mazda, and convey the idea that he was endowed with that special quality of hvarna, a term denoting the imperial glory of Iran. The full extent of Ardashīr’s conquests cannot be precisely delineated. Before 224 c.e., the eastern Iranian lands had drifted out of Parthian control, and Ardashīr had to reconquer much of what is now central and western Afghanistan from the Kushāns. These conquests were confirmed by the use of the title Kushanshah, or “king of the Kushāns,” by the heir apparent, Shāpūr, and successive Sāsānian crown princes.

Control of upper Mesopotamia was crucial. In 230 c.e., Ardashīr sent troops to besiege Nisibin (now Nusaybin, Turkey), and western sources mention raids into Syria and Cappadocia. The Roman emperor, Severus Alexander (r. 222-235), assembled an army in Antioch, but war was avoided. In a year or so, however, the strategic fortress of Hatra, between the upper Tigris and the Euphrates, went over to the Romans. Ardashīr embarked on his last and most successful campaign, taking advantage of Severus Alexander’s assassination in 235. Hatra fell after a protracted siege, Dura-Europos (in Mesopotamia, now Salahiyeh, Syria) was raided, and in 240, Ardashīr’s army captured both Carrhae (now Haran, Turkey) and Nisibin.

Sources for Ardashīr’s reign occur in Latin, Greek, Armenian, Syriac, Arabic, and Middle and New Persian, but are of a fragmentary character. The Taՙrikh al-rusul wa-al-muluk (c. late ninth, early tenth century c.e.; The History of al-Tabari, 1985) of Tabari (d. 923) contains a detailed narrative of Ardashīr’s career, and the Shahnama (compiled late tenth and early eleventh centuries c.e.; The Epic of Kings, 1926) of Firdausi (d. 1030), Iran’s national poet, includes both historical and legendary material about him. Ardashīr’s prestige in later times is exemplified by his spurious “Testament of Ardashīr” (third century c.e.) and the Letter of Tansar (third century c.e.; English translation, 1968).

Significance

Ardashīr ended the disintegrating Parthian regime and laid the foundations for the mighty Sāsānian Empire of the future. At his death, he bequeathed to his experienced successor, Shāpūr I, an imperial regime of great ethnic, linguistic, and cultural diversity, which Shāpūr would further expand and consolidate. Not surprisingly, future generations would revere Ardashīr as a model ruler of beneficence and wisdom, a reputation that the seventh century Islamic conquest of Iran would do nothing to diminish.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Frye, Richard N. “The Political History of Iran Under the Sāsānians.” In Vol. 3 of The Cambridge History of Iran. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1982. A detailed narrative history of the Sāsānians.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Herrmann, Georgina. The Iranian Revival. Oxford, England: Elsevier-Phaidon, 1977. Well-illustrated. Contains much information on art and archaeology.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Levy, Reuben, trans. The Epic of the Kings. 2d ed. Costa Mesa, Calif.: Mazda, 1996. A partial translation of the Shahnama, including sections on the early Sāsānians.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Shepherd, D. “Sāsānian Art: Rock Reliefs and Sculpture.” In Vol. 3 of The Cambridge History of Iran. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1982. A detailed account of Ardashīr’s reliefs.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Wiesehöfer, Josef. Ancient Iran. New York: I. B. Tauris, 1996. An excellent account of the Sāsānian period.
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