OXFORD CENTRE for LATE ANTIQUITY

The Sasanian World

King Sapor I
Shapur I capturing the Roman
emperor Valerian, from a
relief at Naqsh-i-Rustam

The Sasanian Empire (226–651) ruled Iran–Iraq and surrounding regions, including parts of Southeast Asia, Armenia, and – for a short period in the early seventh century – even Egypt and greater Syria. As a formidable world-power, it not only challenged Rome (and, later, Constantinople) for supremacy in the Near East, but also expanded militarily into India, and maintained regular diplomatic ties with China. Though occasionally rocked by invasion, the Sasanians were at the centre of an enormously successful empire and international trade network, and Sasanian culture and civilization benefited accordingly. Even historians from rival empires grudgingly acknowledged the reigns of Shapur II (309–79) and Khusraw I (531–79) as being high-points of political stability and cultural achievement.

The Sasanian Empire has captured the attentions of modern historians for three reasons. First, it is credited with having restored Persian culture and bureaucratic centralization to a region that had been hellenized under the Seleucids and fragmented under the Parthians. The Sasanians are thus seen as reviving the spirit and traditions of the great Achaemenid rulers (of 559330 BCE). Second, Sasanian administrative and political traditions have been recognized by modern and medieval scholars alike as a formative influence on the Islamic empire of the Abbasids (7501258 CE). Third, their empire played an important role in the development of late antique religions. Although the official religion of the State was Zoroastrianism, Christians, Jews, Buddhists, and others flourished and contributed openly to Sasanian society: Christians were extremely influential as administrators in the Sasanian capital of Ctesiphon, while Jews in Sasanian Iraq produced the Babylonian Talmud and effectively transferred Judaism’s centre of gravity from Palestine to Iraq for centuries to come.

Perhaps the most telling testament to the Sasanians’ importance is the fact that their achievements were widely accepted by posterity, despite the fact that they left only a very partial account of their story in their own words. It is this lack of indigenous sources that has made the study and teaching of Sasanian studies difficult; that information about the Sasanians has to be pieced-together from sources in various languages (emanating from several cultural/religious traditions) has meant that universities in the UK tend not to teach all aspects of the subject in one place (if at all!). Although Oxford is no exception to this rule, the University is home to a relatively large number of scholars who work on assorted aspects of Sasanian history. Arabic, Aramaic, Armenian, Chinese, Hebrew, and Syriac sources on the Sasanians are taught at the Oriental Institute, while the interaction between the Sasanian Empire and its neighbours may be studied in the Faculty of History (with the further support of scholars based in the Faculty of Classics).

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