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1. Introduction and Index

Semper Victor

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1. INTRODUCTION.

For a long time, I’ve been interested in the history of ancient Iran. And one part of this history that has interested me specially is the demise of the Arsacid dynasty as rulers of Iran and their replacement with the Persian Sasanians. So, I’ve decided to write a series of posts dealing with this subject. I have a penchant for writing long walls of text, so I apologize in advance if I cause any fellow forumites any undue annoyance.

The posts will be divided in three major series. First, a block of posts dealing with the political, demographic, geographical, cultural and economic realities of ancient Iran. Then, a second part dealing with the events that led to the fall of the Arsacids and the rise of the Sasanians. And finally, a third part dealing with the reigns of Ardašir I and his son Šābuhr I.

As anybody minimally acquainted with Roman history should know, the only polity that the Romans of the Principate deigned themselves to consider even remotely comparable to their own res publica was the Regnum Parthorum, the Iranian empire ruled by the Arsacid dinasty and centered in the Iranian plateau. Before I go into further discussion, I should make clear that scholars don’t know much about that empire which rivaled Rome and that lasted for five centuries in the Iranian plateau. The Arsacid dinasty was created by an adventurer called Aršak (Arsaces in Greek and Latin), that according to the writings of the Greek and Latin chroniclers Arrian, Justin and Strabo (with some differences in details) had fled from the Graeco-Bactrian kingdom and sought refuge among the Parni tribe, a part of the Dahae tribal confederation that dwelled in the ancient land of Khwarazm, now in western Turkestan. Aršak eventually managed to convince some of the Parni tribesmen to accept him as a leader and invaded the Seleucid satrapy of Parthiene, then governed by a satrap called Andragoras (who despite his Greek name seems to have been an Iranian) and who for the last ten years had been independent from Seleucid rule following the successful secession of the satrapy of Bactriana under the Greek satrap Diodotus, who’d proclaimed himself king. Aršak managed to conquer Parthiene and kill Andragoras, after which he also proclaimed himself king, thus he gave his name to a dinasty and his people became known to Greeks and Romans as “Parthians” due to their first conquest in the Iranian plateau. The Parni were also an Iranian people, but they seem to have quickly lost their own Iranian language (a member of the eastern Iranian language family, close to Scythian) and adopted as their own the language of Parthiene (Parthava in Achaemenid Old Persian, Parthia in Latin), which was the Parthian language (Pahlav in Parthian), a northwestern Iranian language close to Median and Azeri.

In turn, five centuries later, the Arsacid dinasty would lose its throne to another parvenu, Ardašir I, a scion from a foreign family that had recently settled in the southern Iranian province known to the Greeks and Romans as Persis / Persia (Old Persian Pārsa, Middle Persian Pārs, Modern Persian Fārs). The dinasty he founded, the Sasanians, would rule the Iranian plateau for four more centuries until the Muslim invasion.

The main reason for the lack of knowledge of Arsacid history and society is the total lack of written historical texts written in Iran in that time. This is a strange fact, because Iranians were not illiterate at the time. Apart from Greek, which was the language mostly employed by Arsacid kings in their coins until the Augustan era, Iranian languages were written using the Pahlavi script, an evolution of the Imperial Aramaic script used by the Achaemenid kings to write their Old Persian texts. Lots of short texts written in Parthian using Pahlavi script have survived, written on coins, ceramic fragments (especially the ostrakha from Old Nisa) and other materials, suggesting that Iranians had no trouble writing, but there’s no trace of historical, literary or religious texts. This puzzling fact can only be explained resorting to cultural bias. Zoroastrianism seems to have displayed a strong dislike and mistrust towards written texts, probably due to its intimate relationship with the “dirty” activity of trade. The Zoroastrian sacred text, the Avesta, was not written down until the IV or V centuries CE, and then only because the pressure of the new “bookish” religions like Christianity convinced the priesthood that they needed to do so or go under.

This peculiar, and unfortunate, situation means that the only sources extant for reconstructing the history of Arsacid Iran and the rise of the Sasanians are foreign ones, mainly Greek and Latin ones, with Armenian, Syriac and late Middle Persian sources that add some elements to the rise of the Sasanians that are not found in Greek and Latin sources.

To this utter scarcity of texts we should add the exhaustive practice of the Sasanians, followed along all their 400 years of history, of erasing the memory of the Arsacids, condemning them to an implacable damnatio memoriae more far-reaching in its effects than anything practiced by the Romans. When Abu’l-Qāsem Ferdowsī wrote in the late X century CE his monumental Šāh-nāma, his encompassing recollection of Iranian history since the founding of the world until the coming of Islam, compiling informations from all kind of oral and written sources now lost to us, the memory of the Arsacids had been so utterly defaced and erased by the Sasanians that they are completely absent from Ferdowsī’s epic poem, even their name was lost.


NOTE: for the Romanisation of Iranian words, I’ll be following the spelling used by Encyclopaedia Iranica.

NOTE: following Herbert West's suggestion, I'll add here an index for the thread, which I'll keep updated regularly:

0. SOURCES.
1. INTRODUCTION.
2. THE PHYSICAL ENVIRONMENT.
3. DEMOGRAPHICS.
4. RELIGION AND TRADITIONS.
5. THE ARSACID MILITARY.
6. THE END OF THE ARSACID DYNASTY.
7. PERSIA UNDER THE SELEUCIDS AND ARSACIDS.
8. THE REVOLT OF ARDAXŠIR I.
9.0 THE CONSOLIDATION OF ARDAXŠIR I’S RULE.
10.0 THE ROMAN EMPIRE BETWEEN 217 AND 228 CE.
11. THE WAR OF SEVERUS ALEXANDER AGAINST ARDAXŠIR I.
12. THE FINAL YEARS OF ARDAXŠIR I’S REIGN.
13. ARDAXŠIR I’S INTERNAL POLICIES. IDEOLOGY OF KINGSHIP, RELIGION, ART AND ECONOMY.
14. THE EARLY SASANIAN ARMY.
15. THE CAMPAIGN OF GORDIAN III AGAINST ŠĀBUHR I.
16. THE AFTERMATH OF GORDIAN III’S EASTERN EXPEDITION.
17. THE REIGN OF PHILIP THE ARAB.
18. THE REIGN OF DECIUS.
19. THE AFTERMATH OF ABRITUS.
20. ŠĀBUHR I'S SECOND CAMPAIGN.
21. VALERIAN'S REIGN.
22. THE AFTERMATH OF EDESSA. ŠĀBUHR I’S SECOND ONSLAUGHT AGAINST THE ROMAN EAST.
23. IRAN UNDER ŠĀBUHR I.
24. THE SUCCESSORS OF ŠĀBUHR I AND THE ROMAN RECOVERY. THE REIGNS OF HORMAZD I, BAHRĀM I AND BAHRĀM II.
 
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Semper Victor

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Caspoi

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Good post, I have always found ancient Iran to be very interesting and so it is good to see things that I was not aware of.
 

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I always wondered why we had so little information about the Arsacid period, thanks for the explanation !
 
2. THE PHYSICAL ENVIRONMENT

Semper Victor

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2. THE PHYSICAL ENVIRONMENT.

For this post, I will shamelessly quote a previous post of mine in an old thread.

You could add to the list the Aq Koyunlu, and most important of all, the Safavids themselves, who conquered Iran from Azerbaijan and eastern Anatolia.

Iran is a country that, like Russia or Germany, lies in an exposed central strategical position, and is potentially open to invasion from all quarters. But unlike Russia or Germany, geography has lent a hand to Iran in order to make things more complicated to invaders. Iran is a plateau, and a high one. It's medium altitude over sea level is of around 600 meters, with its central parts (where the largest cities are located, like Teheran, Hamadan or Isfahan) at a medium altitude of 1,200 meters over sea level. It's surrounded by mountains on all sides, but these mountains do not form a continous barrier. The weather is extreme, very hot in summer and very cold in winter, with snow being pretty common even in the southern province of Fars by the Persian Gulf:

The tomb of the poet Saadi in Shiraz in winter:



Persepolis in winter:



The most formidable of these barriers are the Alborz mountains that separate the central plateau from the Caspian sea seashore. They are a volcanic chain that fall precipitously in their Caspian side from a main height of 3,000 meters (its highest peak, and the highest mountain in Iran, is the Damavand volcanic peak, at a heigh of 5,680 meters).

Mount Damavand seen from the south:



The Zagros mountains, that separate the plateau from the Armenian / eastern Anatolian highlands in the north, and from the Mesopotamian basin in the south, are somewhat lower, but still an imposing barrier. Its highest peak, the Zardeh Kuh, rises to 4,570 meters, and most ot the chain is regularly covered by snow several months of the year (even near the Persian Gulf). Plus the array of the mountain ranges in a northwest to southeast direction means that there are very few passes to cross the Zagros, and even then, they are unpassable due to snow several months of the year (in ancient times the main pass of the central Zagros, the Diyala pass that led directly to Ecbatana / Hamadan, was blocked until June due to snow). The northern passes are somewhat more negotiable, but the weather there in winter is atrocious, meaning that campaign seasons in the eastern Anatolia / Armenia / Azerbaijan was short, and several times armies attacking Iran suffered disastrous losses having to retreat in winter across the inhospitable highands (Mark Antony's retreat is a good example).

The Zardeh Kuh in the Zagros:



Another invasion avenue is through the Caucasus. Historically, Iran suffered invasions by Alans, Turks and Russians through this route. It needs to negotiate the passes of the Alborz mountains to enter the Iranian plateu proper, hence it's not an easy route either. But as Azerbaijan has been under Iranian political control during most of its history, this route of invasion menaced one of the richest provinces of the Iranian domains and had to be defended, so the Sasanians built the formidable fortifications of Derbent (now in Russia) to close the "Caspian Gates", were the main Caucasus range almost touches the Caspian shore and leaves only a narrow corridor open.

The fortifications of Derbent:



In contrast, the Iranian plateau is much more accessible from the east, and especially from the northeast. In this area, tha mountains that encircle the central plateau have two great breaches.

The first one is the one at Gorgan, between the end of the Alborz mountains and the Kopet Dag mountains (which run along the modern border between Iran and Turkmenistan). Again in order to close this potential invasion route, the Sasanians built there in the V century CE the Great Wall of Gorgan, running along 195 km following the Gorgan river, one of the great linear barriers of ancient times.

The Great Wall of Gorgan:



And the second "great gap" is the one east of the Kopet Dag. There, an immense stretch of land lies totally open without natural defences, until reaching the westernmost reaches of the Afghan mountains. In this area, linear defences were out of the question, and Iranian empires usually relied on great fortified cities with huge garrisons to delay invasors until a large enough relief army could be gathered in the plateau to counterattack. In Sasanian times, the most important of these outposts was the Merv oasis (today in Turkmenistan), Nishapur (founded by Shapur I precisely to fulfill this military function) and Tus. This area was always the most vulnerable border of any unified state based on the Iranian plateau.

The eastern border with Afghanistan is also totally open. Looking at the below map, you'll see that there's no real natural or physical border or limit between both states:



Rather the contrary: western and central Afghanistan are natural continuations of the Iranian plateau, until it reaches the great mountain ranges of the Hindukush and the Pamir. And the Afghan provinces of Farah and Nimruz are in fact part of a same natural and historical region with the Iranian province of Sistan, fed by the waters of the Helmand river, running from north-central Afghanistan. Population is also ethnically the same on both sides of the border, speaking Persian in the north (called Dari in Afghanistan for political reasons), and Balochi in the south. The only difference is religious, with Shiism being predominant on the Iranian side and Sunnism in the Afghan one. Historically and culturally, most of Afghanistan (except for the majoritary Pashto areas), has been part of polities that included also the Iranian plateau; the creation of the modern state of Afghanistan dates only to the collapse of the Safavid empire in the XVIII century. This means that military threats from this quarter were very rare, and mostly limited to raiding by Pashto and Balochi tribesmen.
 
3.1. GENERAL OUTLINE.

Semper Victor

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3. DEMOGRAPHICS.

3.1. GENERAL OUTLINE.

As it happened with the Achaemenid and Sasanian empires, the Arsacid empire had its vital core in the Iranian plateau, but it also included extensive territories both east and west.

We find Iranian-speaking peoples in the western Iranian plateau quoted in Assyrian cuneiform tablets during the second half of the time frame of the Neo-Assyrian empire, in the VIII century BCE. These Iranian peoples had entered the plateau from the northeast and had slowly expanded westwards and southwards from there. The oldest attested texts written in an Iranian language are the Yašts of the Avesta, a collection of religious hymns attributed to Zarathustra himself and written in Old Avestan, an East Iranian language. Due to the extreme similarity of Old Avestan with the Sanskrit of the Rig-Veda, the Yašts have been dated to a timeframe between 1,500 and 1,000 BCE, and they were written outside the Iranian plateau, in Central Asia, either in Khwarazhm or Soghdiana.

Although in Arsacid times the Iranian plateau had been thoroughly Iranicized, it would be a mistake that Iranians saw themselves as a single ethnical group like happened with the Greeks and Romans. The demography of the Iranian plateau, due to environmental and historical reasons, was extremely complex and fragmented, and it had a very different structure than in the Classical Mediterranean world; this explains the little use of Classical Greek and Latin texts to understand it, because these authors (most of whom had never been to Iran) were talking about something totally alien to their environment, and used concepts totally unsuited to it.

One of the main characteristics that has defined Middle Eastern societies from Antiquity until the XX century has been the division of the population into two main elements, sedentary peasants and nomadic pastoralists. Usually, these two groups have coexisted pacifically except in times of political or climatic turmoil, and in fact both parts of these societies developed a symbiotic relationship: the nomads produced what settled peoples did not (leather, wool, milk, meat) in lands unsuited for agriculture, and in exchange the settled peoples sold them agricultural produce.

Ancient Iran was not an exception to its rule. The Iran plateau is like a doughnut, with an inner part formed by arid steppe and deserts (some of them salt deserts), surrounded by mountains, and only the mountain valleys and the parts of the inner plateau closer to the mountains had enough water at their disposal to develop an agricultural lifestyle. Just to get a perspective, until the land reforms of Mohammad Shah Reza Pahlavi in the 1950-60s, almost half of the Iranian populations were nomads. And probably this was also the situation in times of the Arsacids and Sasanians.

Remember that for now we’re talking only about the population of the Iranian plateau, we’ll deal later with the western and eastern territories.

If we consider the settled population of the Iranian plateau, we could divide them in three main groups for the sake of convenience:

  1. The inhabitants of towns and cities. Archaeology shows that during the Arsacid era, urban settlements in Iran were scarce and usually small. Most of them were concentrated in the northern part of the plateau, at the feet of the Alborz mountains, because it was the path followed by the main transcontinental Eurasian trade route known as the Silk Road. Although small in size and number, these settlements were heavily fortified, attesting to the warlike nature of the society, and besides their proper urban functions many of them were probably used as garrisons and power bases by either royal governors or the great Iranian magnates.
  2. The inhabitants of the irrigated lowlands, situated in the immediate vicinity of the great mountain chains that surrounded the central plateau. It was in the Arsacid era that the great irrigation works called qanāt or karēz (still in use today and declared by the UNESCO as World Heritage) began to be developed, although they did not attain their final form until the Muslim era. It’s quite safe to guess that most of these populations “enjoyed” a servile status subordinated to the great magnates.
  3. The settled mountain populations, who lived in scattered villages in the mountain valleys, sometimes in truly incredible places. Politically, their political status seems to have been quite varied, and often most confusing. We know for example that some of them were fiercely independent and retained their independence even well into the Abbasid era (like the Daylamites). The ones who were semi-independent or autonomous were usually organized around tribal lines, and they could be found all along the perimetric mountain circuit, especially in the Alborz mountains. In that era, the word “Kurd” is first attested, and rather than referring to a single ethnicity, it meant “mountain bandit” or mountain nomad”. The southern province of Pārs was something of a special case, as it was a mountainous territory, but where ample valleys and plains were scattered between the mountain ranges; thus the population of the province was an extreme case of mixing between settled agriculturalists and nomadic mountaineers (mostly practicers of transhumance).

Then there was the nomadic component of the population. As we’ve said before, there were mountain nomads, but most of the nomads lived in the central plateau, in arid steppes or semi deserted land unsuited for agriculture.

The nomads were politically speaking, the most volatile and unstable part of the population, and would usually prey on sedentary villagers in times of scarcity or political turmoil.
 
3.2. THE SOCIAL FRAMEWORK.

Semper Victor

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3.2. THE SOCIAL FRAMEWORK.

Superimposed onto this first division of the population along economic lines there was also a layer of social division. Unlike the nomads versus sedentary villagers division, which is rooted in basic environmental realities and thus survived unaltered across centuries and even millennia, social structures are much more mobile and changing, as they mostly depend on cultural and historical factors which are much more prone to change.

Here we crash again with the frustrating lack of documentary evidence from Iranian sources. The only contemporary sources surviving are by Greek and Latin authors that explained it awkwardly, without really understanding all their implications.

What all Classical authors agree is that the society of the Arsacid kingdom was dominated by an upper layer of Iranian magnates, that in later Sasanian times would receive the formal rank of wuzurgān (literally “the great ones” or “the grandees”).

The Greek author Strabo, quoting a lost work by Posidonius of Apamea, stated that Arsacids kings ruled alongside a “senate”, whose members were religious, military and civilian dignitaries. According to this same author, this “senate” was bicameral, with the “upper chamber” formed exclusively by Zoroastrian priests (the Magi), who ensured that the acts of the king and the nobles were in accordance with Zoroastrian tradition.

Then we have the writings of the Latin author Justin, who wrote that the Parthians had a council (ordo probulorum) which worked alongside the king, and in another passage he also speaks of a Senatus Parthorum. It’s possible that both expressions referred to the same collegiate entity.

But, how should we understand this magnate-based social order, when we put it alongside the complex demographics of ancient Iran? How did these nobles exert their dominance over the bulk of the population, and especially over the nomads? How did their estates work?

Classical texts (like Strabo and Plutarch when talking about the battle of Carrhae and Surena) explicity state that “the Parthians” were divided in four ranks: the magnates, the free men or warriors, the priests (or Magi) and finally the serfs. This partition of society recalls closely the primitive division of Indo-Aryan societies, as reflected in the Vedas, which in India gave birth to the society of castes. It seems thus a legitimate and realistic fact. Later Sasanian texts also explicitly divide the society of Sasanian Iran into these social groups, so it’s probably safe to assume that this division existed also in Arsacid times.

Given that in origin the Arsacids themselves and their Parni followers were nomads, it’s most probable that the Parthian nobility itself was of nomadic origins, and given the extreme conservatism of ancient Iran’s society, the social and cultural mores of a nomadic warrior aristocracy became perpetuated among the ranks of Iranian nobility until the Muslim conquest. Although the Parthians have left no written texts, they had a very vital literary oral tradition, which was transmitted by the gōsān, traveling minstrels. These oral traditions were strong enough to survive until the Muslim era, when Ferdowsī and the anonymous author of the Tārikh-e Sistān, wrote them down in verse in Modern Persian. In them we see an aristocracy whose only activities are hunting, war and feasting; any other activity is considered to be below their dignity.

We also know that ancient Iranian tribes (like modern Bedouins) followed an agnatic heritage tradition, which was probably the reason behind the recurring civil wars among members of the Arsacid family, usually between brothers contesting their father’s inheritance.

If we had to make a guess, I’d say that the core followers of the great noble clans (rather than “families” in the narrow, western sense of the word) were the nomads of the inner plateau, which were tied to their overlords by ancient tribal loyalty ties. And in turn, these nomads were the “warrior class” of “free men” of Classical texts (which in later Sasanian texts would be known as āzādan). The agricultural settlers were under the “protection” of these magnates and their nomadic followers and were the “serfs” of the Classical texts.

This leaves out of the picture of course the isolated mountain tribal peoples (Gilani, Daylamites, etc) who seem to have been left mostly out of this framework, and that would cause political trouble recurrently until the Muslim era. Probably one of the better ways to control them was to hire their men of fighting age as mercenaries for the armies of the king or the magnates, to keep them busy and out of trouble.
 
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Excellent work so far, I look forward to more.
 
3.3. THE MAGNATES.

Semper Victor

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3.3. THE MAGNATES.

Classical sources agree that the power of the great noble clans was enormous. They were strong enough that together, or just a coalition amongst them, was often enough to topple the king. And for the following Sasanian era, things remained the same in this respect.

We know the names of some great nobiliary clans for the Sasanian era, but only two of them are firmly attested in Arsacid times: the Sūrēn and Kārin clans.

Of them, the Sūrēn clan had been once by far the most powerful of all nobiliary clans. Their power came from the fact that, according to the II century CE Latin chronicler Justin, they had once saved the Arsacid monarchy from total catastrophe. Between 127 and 123 BCE, the Arsacid kingdom was in turn attacked on the west by the Seleucid king Antiochos VII Sidetes, who was defeated by the Arsacid king Farhād II (Phraates in Greek and Latin); but then in turn Farhād II was killed by the invading Saka tribes on the eastern border, who then proceeded to settle in the eastern satrapy of Drangiana, which from that moment on would be known as Sakastan (evolving later into Sistān). And then after the Sakas came the Yuezhi tribes, who killed in battle yet another Arsacid king, Ardawān II (Latin Artabanus). The situation in the East was put under control by the Sūrēn clan, who expelled the Sakas from Sakastan to the east into what is now Afghanistan, which enabled the next Arsacid king, Mihrdad II the Great (Mithridates in Greek and Latin) to finally stabilize the situation.

Echos of Justin’s tale can be found in the lore of Sistān, as compiled in Ferdowsī’s Šah-nāma and the Tārikh-e Sistān, and some scholars believe that the family of the legendary Iranian hero Rustam was no other than the Sūrēn clan itself.

Because of its services, the Sūrēn clan received extensive rewards and privileges. For starters, they became hereditary lords of Sakastan, one of the richest Iranian provinces. And according to Justin, Strabo and Plutarch, the head of the Sūrēn clan became also the hereditary commander of the Arsacid army, and the one who put the crown on the head of the Arsacid kings during their coronation.

The Surena who defeated Crassus at Carrhae was probably the head of the Sūrēn clan at the time, the head of the family and of the royal army, and the 10,000 men cavalry force with which he defeated Crassus was the private army of the Sūrēn clan, which had traveled to Mesopotamia from Sakastan.

And after that, the Sūrēn clan became even more powerful. By the 20s BCE, we begin finding coins struck in northern India by a new dinasty of Indo-Parthian kings, who are considered by scholars to be none other than the Sūrēn clan, who from their power base in Sakastan had crushed the remnants of the Saka state in Afghanistan and Gandhara, and had occupied all their former territories. The first Indo-Parthian king thus attested is Gondophares I (sanskrit Guduvharasa) who struck coins in Taxila, which seems to have been his capital. His successors managed to control all these extensive territories until the Kushan king Kujula Kadphises, who after 60 CE expelled them from Gandhara and the Indus valley.

This was the zenith of the Sūrēn clan’s power, but also the beginning of their fall. According to Tacitus, during the reign of emperor Tiberius, the Arsacid empire became engulfed in one of its many nobiliary revolts / civil wars. The nobility revolted against the ruling Arsacid king Ardawān III, and the revolted nobles were headed by a certain “Abgadaeses” and “his house”, who wanted to replace Ardawān with one of the sons of the previous Arsacid king Frahād IV, whom the king had sent to Rome under the protection of Augustus (presumably to avoid the sort reserved to unwanted brothers should one of them become king).

And who was this Abgadaeses? Here numismatics may lend us a clue, for the successor of Gondophares I is called Abdagaš in some coins struck in Parthian, and thus it’s quite probable that it was the Sūrēn clan who was the main supporter of the rebellion. As the civil war was finally won by Ardawān III, it’s probably at this time that the Sūrēn clan lost its extensive privileges in the Arsacid kingdom. But they survived, played an important part in Ardašir I’s uprising, again held almost supreme power in the Sasanian empire in the V century, and survived until the Muslim conquest.

The history of the Sūrēn clan serves to illustrate two points. First, the extraordinary amount of power some of these clans could wield, almost being a state within the state, and being even able to play their own exterior politics, independently from the king. And second, the extraordinary stability and durability of Iranian social order. The Sūrēn clan ruled over Sakastan / Sistān for six centuries and a half, without interruption. For comparison, in the Roman empire it was very rare to find a senatorial family who lasted more than 100 years, and impossible to find one who lasted for 200 years.

Clearly, the first preoccupation of any Arsacid king had to be keeping his nobility happy, if he wanted to keep his head, but it’s again remarkable that the House of Aršak kept the throne for more than five centuries. This is again a testimony to the essential social conservatism of Iranian societies and to the extraordinary strength of the dynastic principle in them (again, a comparison with the short-lasting Roman imperial dynasties comes into mind). For all the times that the nobles revolted and sought to replace a king, they always sought to replace him with another Arsacid. The one and only attested attempt by a non-Arsacid was Ardašir I’s revolt.

Another practice of the Arsacid kings that was later followed by the first Sasanians was to appoint as kings (literally) of parts of their empire some members of the royal family. For example, before becoming Šahanšah, the Arsacid Ardawān III had been king of Media Atropatene. This practice kept the empire decentralized and allowed alienated members of the Arsacid family to build local nets of supporters and clients and launch revolts to try to seize the throne of the Great King. It’s unclear why did they do this, and what was the origin of such custom. In Sasanian Iran, this practice disappeared after the reign of Narseh at the end of the III century CE.
 
Last edited:

Semper Victor

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Thanks for your appreciation, guys :).
 

Andre Bolkonsky

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First off, it's always nice to learn something new when it is as well written as this is.

Out of curiosity,

- You mention Pahlavi. What is the link between this and Reza Pahlavi regarding his name/background?

- At which point does Persia become Iran/Iraq?
 

Caspoi

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First off, it's always nice to learn something new when it is as well written as this is.

Out of curiosity,

- You mention Pahlavi. What is the link between this and Reza Pahlavi regarding his name/background?

- At which point does Persia become Iran/Iraq?
I believe that Pahlavi simply was the Farsi name for the Parthians, though I do not know why the much later Pahlavi dynasty would take it. And Persia had been known as Iran since the days of Cyrus, the name Persia simply stems from the province of Fars, from which he first arrived. The Greeks then spread the name to the rest of Europe.
 

Tufto

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These are truly excellent posts, Semper- I'm always a bit fuzzy on my pre-Islamic stuff, so this is wonderful to read :).

First off, it's always nice to learn something new when it is as well written as this is.

Out of curiosity,

- You mention Pahlavi. What is the link between this and Reza Pahlavi regarding his name/background?

- At which point does Persia become Iran/Iraq?
-The Pahlavi dynasty was very big on Iranian nationalism, which (at that time, and to a great extent still) emphasises the pre-Islamic past and the idea of Iranian glory under the Sassanids and the Achaemenids. Reza Shah thus took the name upon his accession as a conscious link to the Sassanid and prior periods.

-"Persia" is just a European distortion of "Fars" (or "Pars/Parsa" as it was back then), a particular region of Iran where the ancient Persians settled. The entire plateau didn't have a single name (to my knowledge) until Ardashir, who took the religious idea of Eranshahr and used it to define a physical place; from then on, it was usually described as "Iran" among its inhabitants/the surrounding region until the present day (although its political/ethnic function was in abeyance between the Islamic conquest and the Mongols). There was always a sense of Aryan/Iranian self-identity since Achaemenid times, though.
 

Semper Victor

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First off, it's always nice to learn something new when it is as well written as this is.

Out of curiosity,

- You mention Pahlavi. What is the link between this and Reza Pahlavi regarding his name/background?

- At which point does Persia become Iran/Iraq?
Thanks for your kind words. As far as I know, there’s no link whatsoever between the Pahlavi dynasty of XX century Iran and the old Pahlavi script. The Pahlavi script was an awkward and cumbersome script used to write Parthian (Pahlav) and Middle Persian (Parsīg) during the Arsacid and Sasanian eras. After the Muslim conquest it was quickly discarded, and from the X century onwards Modern Persian has been written in a modified version of the Arabic alphabet.

Then, about the question of the country name. Iranians as a whole have never called themselves “Persians”. “Persia” or “Persis” is the Hellenized version of “Pārsa”, which was the name of a region in southern Iran, bordering the Persian Gulf. As the Achaemenid dynasty came from there, the Greeks called their empire “Persia” and by extension its inhabitants as “Persians”, and the name stuck among westerners due to the influence of Latin and Greek authors. In Modern Persian, the name of the province is “Fārs”.

It’s however a mistake, as if you call the whole country “Persia” you’re naming the whole by the name of one of its parts. A similar situation happens when we refer to the United Kingdom as “England” or to the Netherlands as “Holland”.

‘Iranian” has derived directly from “Aryan”, which is a name already attested in the Avesta, between 1,500 and 1,000 BCE. Already then, the people amongst whom Zoroaster lived and who were the cultural ancestors of modern Iranians called themselves “Aryans”. In the Behistun rock carving of Darius I, he calls himself “of Aryan stock, an Aryan”, and the Sasanian kings called themselves “King of kings of Iran and non-Iran”.

When Reza Shah Pahlavi officially changed the name of the country to “Iran” in the 1930s, he was basically just asking foreigners to refer to the country with the same name that Iranians had always used; in reality he changed nothing.

As for Iraq, it’s just the name that the Arabs gave to Mesopotamia. Although it’s been ruled many times from Iran, its inhabitants have never been speakers of any Iranian language; before the Muslim conquest the native inhabitants were mostly Aramaic speakers; and for curiosity’s sake I could add that Sasanian Middle Persian texts refer to it as “the province of Asuristan”.
 
Last edited:

Fishman786

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@Semper Victor didn't the ancient Persians refer to Iraq as "Eragh"?
 

Graf Zeppelin

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Very nice.
 

Semper Victor

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@Semper Victor didn't the ancient Persians refer to Iraq as "Eragh"?
I’d never heard that name before. In Achaemenid inscriptions, the territory of modern Iraq is referred using the names of Bābiruš (Babylon) and Athurā (Assyria). Under the Sasanians, the name consistently used time and again to refer to Iraq was Asōrestān.