The Histroy of Ancient Iran


Owing to its special geographical location, which connects Central Asia and the Far East to the near east and Europe, the Iranian plateau has since pre-historic times been one of the most attractive regions of the world from the viewpoints of migration, inhabitation, war, and various kinds of other developments.It is not clearly known when human settlement in the Iranian plateau first began. Nevertheless, some researchers have referred to the possibility of human exodus from Africa, Central Asia, the Caucasus, and the Indian subcontinent towards this region. Apparently, the oldest region belonging to the Stone Age to have been discovered in Iran thus far is located in the Khorāsān province and on the bed of the Kashafrud river and the age of the excavated stone objects discovered from these areas have been estimated to be 8,00,000 years old. Some of the stone effects belonging to the middle Stone Age (middle Paleolithic), too, have been discovered in Central Iran, south-east of Shirāz. Following the course of these periods, Iran, like the other parts of the Middle East too had entered the Copper Age at a time when Europe was still in the Stone Age.Evidences and effects of the presence of human life and the earliest human civilizations have been discovered from various parts of Iran. The excavations from the Kamarband Cave (near Behshahr) and the Hutu Caves (near Torijān, west of Behshahr) prove that civilization in Iran dates back to about 9000 BC. Similarly, the effects excavated from the Asiyab Hill (East of Kermānshāh), Ganjdarreh (Southwest of Kangāvar), the Ghorān Hill (in the valley of the Holaylān river in the Kermānshān province), the Alikosh Hill (Southeast of the Dehlorān Valley), the Sarāb Hill (Northeast of Kermānshāh), the Zāgheh Hill (in Buin Zahrā), Talleh Bākun (Southwest of the Persepolis), the Yāniq Hill (Southwest of Tabriz), the Chaghamish Hill (Southwest of Dezful), the Gudin Hill (West of Kangāvar), the Giyān Hill (near Nahāvand), the Cheshmeh Ali Hill (near the Rey city), Talleh Iblis (in Kerman), and the Yahyā Hill (South of the Bāft region of the Kermān province) indicate the presence of human life in this region between the 9th and the 4th millenniums BC. The excavations from Bampur (in the Halilrud Valley), Shahre Sukhteh (South of Zābol), the Shush Valley, and Haft Tappeh (Southeast of the Shush city), the Hasanlu Hill (near Naqadeh), the Marlik or Chirāg Ali Hill (in the Rudbar city of the Gilān province), the Turang Hill (Northeast of Gorgān), the Ziviyeh Hill (East of Saqqez), the Hesār Hill (near Dāmghan), the Musiyān Hill (in the Dehlorān region), the Shahdād or Khabis Hill and graveyard (East of Kermān), and Ganjtappeh (in the Kelārdasht region of the Māzandarān province), too, are evidences of the existing civilizations in the Iranian plateau up to the beginning of the 1st Millennium BC.One of the earliest known pre-historic civilizations of Iran is the Sialk civilization. Evidences of this civilization found from the Sialk Hills, southwest of Kāshān, indicate that this was one of the earliest regions to have been inhabited in the Iranian plains. The age of the oldest Sialk Hills dates back to between the latter part of the 6th millennium BC and the early 5th millennium BC. The earthenware excavated from these hills is among the oldest in Iran. A large number of decorated pots have been discovered from this region, the ages of some of which date back to c. 4000 BC and it is for this reason that researchers believe that the Iranian plateau has been the birthplace of decorated pottery.Owing to its interaction with Mesopotamia, the western and the southwestern parts of the Iranian plateau entered the historical age before the other regions of this plateau. In the early 3rd millennium BC, the pictographic script – generally referred to as the early Elamite (Ilāmi) script – was invented in the Khuzestān province. Some samples of this script have been discovered from Sialk, the Gudin Tappeh of Kangāvar, Talleh Malayān of Fārs and even the Shahre Sukhteh of Zābol, indicating to the cultural relations shared between the western part of the Iranian plateau and the other regions of this plateau during those times. The most important native communities that inhabited the western part of the Iranian plateau – from the south to the north – comprised the Elamites, the Kassites, the Lullubis, and the Gutis. These communities were related to each other and were very close from the racial and linguistic viewpoints. The main territory of the Elamites comprised the plains of Shush (Susā) and the valleys of the rivers Kārun, Karkheh, and Dez as well as the mountainous regions and the elevated parts of the north and northeast of the Shush plains. However, the Elamite Empire comprised larger territories and included Liān (the present Bushehr) on the southern side and Anshān or Anzān (Talleh Malyān near present-day Marvdasht in the Fārs province) on the eastern side. In the ancient times, the economy of Mesopotamia depended on the natural resources of the Iranian plateau and the Zagros Mountains and this was the main reason for the frequent military expeditions of the Sumerians and the Akkadis to Khuzestān and the foothills of the Zagros. These military expeditions eventually prompted the small neighboring autonomous kingdoms of the Zagros and Khuzestān to unite politically and militarily and to establish a unified Elamite empire that lasted up to 646 BC or a little longer, when it was toppled by Āshurbanipāl. The Elamite empire included several dynasties. The most important rulers of the various Elamite dynasties were Pozur (Kutic) – Inushinak, Shilhaha, Awntash – Gal, Shutruk – Nahawnteh, Kutir – Nahawnteh, and Shilhak -Insushinak. Besides Shush and Anshān, the other important large cities of the Elamite Empire included Avan (probably the present-day Shushtar), Simash (the present Khorramabād), Madaktu (probably the northern part of Shush), and Hidalu (in the mountainous regions of the east, on the way to Fārs).

The Kassite, the Lullubi, and the Guti communities lived in central Zagros. From among these, the Kassites lived in the present-day Lorestān towards the end of the 3rd millennium BC but their place of origin in not clearly known. From the 17th or 16th centuries BC up to about 1155 BC Babylon (Bābel) was also part of the Kassite territories, making this the longest period of foreign occupation in the history of Mesopotamia. The gun-metal works of Lorestān that were the best examples of the art of western Iran towards the end of the 2nd millennium BC and the early 1st millennium BC have been attributed to the Kassites by some research scholars. Apparently the Lullubis had a large part of the mountainous regions of Zagros, from the upper parts of the Diāleh river up to Lake Orumieh, under their control and their capital was the Zur city. The most important relic that has survived from that age is an engraving of the Lullubi king Anubanini, found near Sare-pole Zahāb, which is a short inscription in the Akkadian language. The Gutis who probably lived in the north of the Zur city conquered Babylon towards the end of the 3rd millennium BC and apparently also gained control over Ilām after some time.

However, the history of “Iran” as the “Land of the Āryans” began with the exodus of a group of Aryans (Indo-Iranian) to the Iranian plateau. The Aryans were from the Indo-European community who lived in central Asia in the 2nd millennium BC after separating from others of their own race. Zoroastrian texts refer to the ancient land of the Iranians as “Irānvij”. As per the Vendidād, “Irānvij” is the first land that was created by Ahurā Mazdā. According to some researches, the Aryan immigrants entered the western part of the Iranian plateau some time around 1000-800 BC when this plateau was still in the Iron Age. As regards the route of the migration of the Aryans to the Iranian plateau, some researchers are of the opinion that these immigrants headed westwards from central Asia, until they reached the Zagros Mountains. Some other scholars, on the other hand, believe that the migration of the Aryans took place on two separate routes on both sides of the Caspian Sea, and that the Median and the Persian tribes entered the Iranian plateau through the Caucuses. Accounts of the Kiyāni rulers, although mixed with mythological elements, depict the historical evidences after the settlement of the Aryans in eastern Iran until the advent of Zoroaster (Zardosht). It appears possible to regard the Kiyāni dynasty of eastern Iran to be the first establisher of the great and organized Aryan political system in the Iranian plateau. In any case, with the advent of the Aryans a new phase began in the history of the Iranian plateau.

From the early 9th century BC, the Aryans increased their pressure on the original inhabitants of the Zagros Mountains and managed to gradually conquer the cities and settlements of these regions on their westward journey, eventually rising up to the Assyrians. It is from this context that the names of the Median and Persian tribes first appeared in the Assyrian texts along with their lands called Madai (near present day Hamedān) and Parsua (in the west and southwest of Lake Orumieh). The chronological accounts of the Assyrian king, Shalamnasr III, makes mention of the Persians in the year 844 BC and the Medians in the year 836 BC.

The power of the Assyrians declined towards the end of the 9th century BC and the early 8th century BC resulting in the strengthening of the Orārtu (Ārārāt) rule. The spread of the power of Orārtu evoked concern among the Assyrians and the Assyrian kings were forced to post huge armies on their borders with the Orārtu kingdom in order to encounter any possible attacks. One of the Orārtu kings managed to invade the Assyrian kingdom in the early 8th century BC and to conquer the western coasts of Lake Orumieh as well as parts of the lands belonging to the Mannai tribes on the eastern coasts of this lake. However, it was a difficult task to monitor the movements of the freedom-loving and warrior Median and Persian Aryans who had settled in these regions, resulting in the intensification of the sense of independence of these communities. With the advent of the reign of Tiglath Pilesar III (744-727 BC) the attacks of the Assyrians on the east, in order to stop the spread of the Orārtu rule, were resumed and large parts of the Zagros fell into their hands. These military operations brought the Assyrians face to face with the Medians and in the year 737 BC the Assyrians entered the Median territories. The Assyrian inscriptions depict the exaction of tributes (tolls) from the Medians and their hold on their lands up to the Bikni Mountains. The location of the Bikni Mountain – earlier believed to be the same as Mt. Damāvand but now identified as the Mt. Alvand – can indicate the extent of the advancement of the Assyrians into the Median territories.

The Median and Persian tribes had very close ties and bonds at the time of their exodus and settlement in the Iranian plateau and their internal independence did not come in the way of the continuation and expansion of such ties and bonds. Although recent etymological studies indicate that the term “Mede” has no specific Indo-European root, according to Herodotus, in the ancient times, all the Medians were referred to as “Aryans”. According to Herodotus, Medes comprised six large tribes, the Moghs being one of them. This Greek historian had categorized the Persians into ten tribes and referred to the “Pasargadis” which included the Achaemenians as the superior Persian tribe. As a matter of fact, even the Persians moved southwards from their original lands of settlement in the Iranian plateau when the Median tribes gained power c. 815 BC and settled around the northeast of Shush, at a little distance from Anshān, in a region which was referred to as Parsumash. The ruler of the Persian tribes the Achaemenid apparently had allied with Ilām and Babylon in a war that resulted in the defeat of the Assyrian king, Sennākhereb during c. 700 BC. Thus, like the Medians, the Persians too had entered into the political arena of their times. However, the conditions and situations turned in favor of the Median chiefs and by uniting the various Median tribes they managed to establish a powerful rule before the Persians.

The Medians

The accounts of the two ancient Greek historians, Herodotus and Thucydides, relating to Median history differ completely. The record of the number of Median kings and the extent of their reigns as mentioned by Thucydides – now proved as baseless – by far exceeds what has been reported by Herodotus.

It has been reported that Rusā, the Orārtu king, initiated a revolt in some parts of the Assyrian kingdom in c. 716 or 715 BC with the help of Dayāukku. However, the Assyrian king, Sargon II, suppressed the rebellion and exiled Dayāukku and his family to Hamāh in Syria. Although there appears to be a difference of ten to fifteen years between the times of this Dayāukku and the times of Deioces, to whom Herodotus refers to as the founder of the Median rule, in all probability “Deioces” is none other than the “Dayāukku” of the Assyrian sources. Nevertheless, the account given by Herodotus about Deioces’s independent rule and his capital in Ecbatana (the present-day Hamadān), with its seven labyrinthine forts, is subject to doubt since it seems very unlikely that the Assyrian kings would tolerate the existence of such a large citadel.
According to Herodotus, the Medians had selected “Deioces” as the judge of their community and to administer justice among them because of his honesty. He adds that “Deioces” had shied away from this responsibility several times until he was ultimately chosen by the people as their king. However, Dayāukku’s rule was merely a local one and the independent Median rule was only established years later. Farvartish (known to the Greeks as Phraortes) succeeded Dayāukku in 675 or 674 BC, and apparently after managing to subjugate the Persians, tried to initiate an alliance against the Assyrians by uniting the Mannai and the Cimmerian tribes that had entered the Iranian plateau from the Caucasus, towards the end of the 8th century. When Farvartish and his allied forces reached the Assyrian capital, Nineveh, the Sakās unexpectedly attacked the Medians. Farvartish was killed during this attack – that was apparently inflicted on the request of the Assyrians – and the Sakas came to dominate the Median territory for a period of twenty-eight years.
When Cyaxares succeeded his father, Farvartish, he was very young and had no other choice but to make peace with the Sakas. However, he finally managed to kill the Saka king and his commanders and put an end to their dominance over the Median territory. Cyaxares is, therefore, the actual founder of the Median rule. He organized his army into various divisions of infantry and cavalry and deployed the remaining Sakas in his army. After managing to subjugate all the Median, Persian, and Mannai tribes he took advantage of the internal and external problems facing Āshur and prepared his army to attack the ancient Assyrian Empire. Cyaxares and his ally Nabopolassar, the Babylonian ruler, unsuccessfully attacked Āshur several times but finally succeeded in besieging Nineveh, and after conquering it, plundered and razed it completely in 612 BC. Shortly, all the vestiges of resistance on the part of the Assyrians were crushed and this defeat marked the end of the Assyrian Empire in 610 or 609 BC. The Assyrian kingdom was then divided between the Median and the Babylonian kings and from this point on the Median dynasty carved a niche for itself as a new power in Persian history. Consequently, Cyaxares began to expand his empire and confronted the Lydian empire in Asia Minor. The battle between these two newly established empires lasted for five years but finally came to an end with a solar eclipse that came to be interpreted as a bad omen by them on May 28, 585 BC and the Hālis River (present-day Kizilirmak) came to be recognized as the boundary-line between the two empires. Cyaxares died some time during the course of the peace talks and his son, Ishtuvigu (Hystaspes), known to the Greeks as “Astyages” in 585 BC came to power. Little information is available regarding the thirty-five year rule of Ishtuvigu. It is said that towards the end of his rule, the ideas of attacking Babylonia and conquering Harrān stirred up in his mind. However, news of the rebellion of the Persian tribes under the leadership of Cyrus, the Achaemenian, and the King of Anshān – who was apparently his own grandson – reached his ears and he was left with no choice but retreating to his own capital. This war between the two rivals lasted for three years and finally Ishtuvigu’s army rebelled against him and handed over the Median king to Cyrus in 550 or 549 BC. In no time, the Median capital fell into the hands of Cyrus, and in this manner, the first independent Iranian reign came to an end


The Achaemenians

With the rise of the Achaemenian Dynasty, Iran came to play a strategic role in the global politics of those times. Achaemenes (Hakhamanesh), the great grandfather of Cyrus, had established a small local kingdom in Anshān in c. 700 BC. His son, Chishpish (ruled 675-645 BC) expanded his kingdom and besides Anshān also gained dominion over Persia. After him, his empire came to be divided between his two sons. Pars fell into the hands of Aryāramnah while Anshān was bequeathed to Cyrus I. From then on, the Achaemenian Dynasty got divided into two main branches that divided the rule between themselves throughout the history of this dynasty.

Cyrus II, popular as “Cyrus the Great”, was the son of Cambyses I and hailed from the Anshān branch of the Achaemenids and was, in fact, the founder of a global rule. His local rule in Anshān began in the year 559 BC. However, by uniting all the Persian tribes he managed to wrest the power out the hands of the Medians throughout the Iranian plateau. With the downfall of Hamadān, the independent rule of Cyrus began. Thereafter the Persian army attacked Sārd and brought about the downfall of the Lydian empire in 547 BC. Gradually, all of Asia Minor as well as the Greek colonies in Anatolia fell into the hands of the Achaemenians (546 BC). This was the first direct encounter between the Greeks and Achaemenians that turned into a permanent state of rivalry and conflict. Cyrus succeeded in adding the eastern parts of Iran and parts of Central Asia to his empire in the next few years, and after a few short battles, captured Babylonia despite its strong fortresses in the year 539 BC. Cyrus proclaimed himself also as the “King of Babylonia” and after stressing upon peace and harmony ordered the reconstruction of the places of worship. Following the conquest of Babylonia, all of the Syrian, Palestinian, and Phoenician territories fell into the hands of the Achemenians after 539 BC. Apparently, Cyrus was killed during a battle with one of the nomad Sakan tribes but his end is, however, shrouded in mystery and many various narrations are to be found in this regard.

Cyrus’s kingdom was so vast that it was unprecedented in human history. He named his capital as “Pāsārgād” in honor of his tribe. As a great ruler and a conqueror, Cyrus was not only very popular during his lifetime but also for centuries after his death. In times during which murder, plunder, bloodshed, and religious fanaticism were the trend of the day and the traditions of the kings, Cyrus introduced a fresh system of rulership to the world by refraining from such customary traditions.
After Cyrus, his son Cambyses (ruled 530-522 BC) materialized his father’s plans of the conquest of Egypt in the year 525 BC and annexed a part of northern Africa to the Achaemenian Empire. In the absence of Cambyses from Iran, a Magi by the name “Gaumata” (Greek: Comates) claimed to be “Bardiyah” (Greek: Smerdis), the slain brother of Cambyses and seized the throne of Persia. Cambyses who was returning to Iran to quell this rebellion died under mysterious circumstances on his way back. Ultimately, Darius I who hailed from the Persian branch of the Achaemenian tribe gained dominion by slaying Gaumata in 522 BC.
As per the proclamations of Darius I recorded in the Behistun inscriptions (column 4, paras 52, 56, 57, 59, and 62), until one year after ascending to the throne, Darius was occupied in crushing the various rebellions throughout the Achaemenian Empire. Nevertheless, skepticism has been raised about the authenticity of Darius’s claims recorded in the Behistun inscriptions, particularly those concerning the Gaumata episode. The Achaemenian Empire gained extraordinary expansion during the reign of Darius I. Darius’s sagacity and resolution brought about the establishment of security throughout the empire. By establishing a skillfully organized administrative, economic, and military system, he fortified the power of the Achaemenian Empire. Grand architectural structures were erected under his command in Persepolis and Shush, gold coins were minted, the royal roadway connecting Shush to Sārd (Sardis) in Lydia, and the “Sepāh Jāvidān” (lit. “The Everlasting Army”) was formed, and thus, Darius came to be known as the “Architect of the Persian Empire” and gained the title of “Darius the Great”. However, his army faced difficulty in the western parts of his empire and his forces were defeated by the Greeks in the historic Battle of Marathon in 490 BC. This unexpected incident encouraged the Greeks to indulge in amplification and exaggeration over the outcome of this battle. Shortly later, Darius I who was perhaps the most powerful ruler of the East in the ancient world died in the year 486 BC.

His son and successor, Xerxes I, lacked the resolution of his father. After violently suppressing the rebellions of Egypt and Babylonia, he led an expedition to Greece and conquered Athens. However, the Achaemenian navy faced great damage in the Strait of Salamis (480 BC). The Greeks hastened in their exaggerated claims over this battle and especially indulged in making legendary claims about the size of the Achaemenian naval fleets and the number of their troops. There is no doubt that this defeat was most unexpected by Xerxes even though it was publicized only as an ordinary incident and a temporary defeat in Iran.

With the murder of Xerxes, who was killed as the result of a conspiracy in the year 465 BC, gradually the Achaemenian court came to be plunged into the internal intrigues of the harems and the political games of the harem officials. Most of the successors of Darius I lacked his competence and skills and the only reason why the Achaemenian Empire did not face any major instability was because of the well-organized administrative system and the powerful rule that Darius I had left behind. Moreover, despite the fact that Egypt had separated from the Achaemenian kingdom towards the end of the reign of Darius II (ruled 423-404 BC), and notwithstanding the revolt of his son Cyrus against his elder brother Ardeshir II (ruled 404-359 BC) in the year 401 BC as well as the return of ten thousand Greek warriors from the heart of the Achaemenian Empire to their own lands – in fact indicating the military deterioration of the Achaemenians – the Achaemenian Empire almost remained untouched, and a few years later, in 342 BC and during the reign of Ardeshir III (ruled 359-338 BC) Egypt once again came to be annexed to the Persian Empire. Darius I had divided his kingdom into various provinces or satrapies and this division continued to prevail until the downfall of the Achaemenian Empire with slight changes. Although the account of Herodotus of the division of the Achaemenian Empire differs from what has been recorded in the inscriptions left behind by the Achaemenian kings, it provides interesting information of the extent of the taxes collected from these regions. Despite his political and military achievements, Ardeshir III practically pushed the Achaemenian Empire towards its downfall by killing his brothers and close relatives. Ultimately, the last Achaemenian king, Darius III (ruled 336-330 BC) was forced to encounter Alexander, the King of Macedonia. The first battle between the two armies took place on the banks of river Granicus, east of Asia Minor, which resulted in the defeat of the Achaemenian army (334 BC). Following Alexander’s other victory at Issus, near the Gulf of Eskandarun (Alexandretta) in northeastern Syria in 333 BC, Darius’s family along with large amounts of booty fell into the hands of the invaders. After conquering Egypt in 332 BC Alexander headed for Babylonia and in Gaugamela, near present-day Mosul, encountered the well-organized Achaemenian army for the last time and as a result of his victory in the battle, Shush and Persepolis, too, were captured by him in 331 BC. Alexander chased Darius III and finally found his dead body near the present-day Dāmghān in 330 BC said to have been killed by his own companions


The Seleucids

Some years following the downfall of the Achaemenian Empire, Alexander of Macedonia, died in Babylonia in 323 BC and his vast empire came to be divided among his commanders. Eleven years after the death of Alexander and following the internal conflicts among his successors, Babylonia fell into the hands of a Macedonian commander by the name of “Seleucid” (312 BC). Consequently, he also added on Ilām and parts of the Median territories to his own kingdom and named himself “Seleucus Nicator” (The Conqueror) and proclaimed himself to be an independent ruler. He also gained control over Syria and a large part of Asia Minor in the year 301 BC. Seleucus I and his son Antiochus I tried to spread the Hellenistic culture throughout the eastern parts of their kingdom by establishing new cities. Two of the most prominent of these cities were Sulukiyah (Seleucia) on the western banks of the River Tigris and Antioch in Syria. Selecting Antioch as the capital as well as the conflicts between the Seleucids and the Egyptian Ptolemies drew their attention towards the western part of their empire as a result of which the Greek rulers of the eastern part of the Seleucid Empire began to think of gaining autonomy, prompting Andragoras and Diodotus to revolt against them in Parthia and Bactria (Balkh) in the years 245 BC and 239 BC respectively. Later on Arsaces (Persian: Arshak) proclaimed independence in Parthia (the historical land of Khorāsān) in the year 238 BC, as a result of which the Seleucids could not regain dominion over the eastern regions. Eventually, the victory of the Parthian army over Antiochus VII in 129 BC ended the Seleucid dominion over Iran completely.


The Parthians (Arsacids)

The revolt of the Parthian tribes under the leadership of Arsaces against the Seleucid rulers in Iran was in fact the reaction of the Iranians against the West which resulted in the revival of Persia and the continuation of the Persian culture. The family of Arsaces which was the head of the Aparni branch of the Dāheh tribes hailed from Ostovā (present-day Quchān). Arsaces revolted against the Greek ruler of the Ostovā region and in 238 BC freed Parthia, and later on, Gorgān from the Seleucid domination. After him, his younger brother Tirdād who succeeded him called himself “Arsace II” in honor of his older brother. From then on, all the kings of this dynasty added the title of “Arsace” to their names and it is for this reason that their successors were all called the “Arsacids” or the “Ashkāniyān”. The ascension of Mehrdād I to the throne of the Parthian Dynasty in c. 171 BC was an important event in the history of this dynasty. He first conquered a part of Bactria or Balkh and subsequently, after the conquest of the Median territories and Hamadān (148 or 147 BC) annexed Babylonia and Seleucia to his empire in 141 BC. Thereupon, he also conquered Ilām and minted coins under his name in Sush. A little later, Persia, too, came under his control and all of Ilām fell into his hands. Mehrdād I had proclaimed himself as “The Great King” on his coins. At the time of his death in 138 BC the Parthian rule had turned into a great global empire from being merely a local rule in the eastern part of the Iranian plateau.

After Mehrdād I, the Parthian kingdom was threatened and invaded by the Sakas in the east.

Nevertheless, Farhād II managed to drive away the remaining Seleucids from Iran in 129 BC. His successor Mehrdād II (ruled 123-87 BC) engaged himself in bringing about order and solving the internal and external problems facing the empire. After conquering Babylonia (121 or 120 BC), he invaded Armenia and captured Dura Europos in Mesopotamia in 113 BC. Thereafter, he led an expedition to the east in order to put an end to the Saka rebellion and recaptured Herāt and annexed Sistān to his conquests. At this time, apparently, the satrapies of the eastern part of the Caspian Sea were also part of Mehrdād II’s empire. A little later, he again attacked Mesopotamia and by overthrowing the small local kings, extended the boundaries of his empire up to the River Euphrates. From then on, the Parthians came to become the neighbors of the Romans. During the times of Mehrdād II, Iran and China also exchanged ambassadors. Like the Achaemenian kings, he, too, gave himself the title of “King of Kings”. During his reign, administrative and tribunal reforms took place and topography was given importance.
With the expansion of the Parthian Empire and their neighborhood with Rome, the first serious differences between these two governments erupted during the reign of Farhād III and Pompey, the great Roman ruler, which however never developed into a serious war. However, during the reign of Herod I, a Roman general, Crassus, attacked the Parthian territory that resulted in war between the two empires. In this war, Crassus was slain and the Parthians won the battle of Harrān in 53 BC. A few years later and during the reign of Farhād IV, Mark Anthony, the Roman general and the ruler of Syria invaded the Parthian kingdom in 36 BC but eventually suffered heavy casualties and had to retreat. Even after this battle, the Parthians and the Romans repeatedly fought over Armenia and the Syrian borders. The last great Parthian king was Balāsh I (ruled 51-80 AD) who spent most of his reign in stabilizing the rule of the Iranians in Armenia. Following his death Iran plunged into internal conflicts, prompting the Roman generals to think of conquering the Parthian territory. During the course of their military expeditions, the Roman invaders did not make much gain even though they did manage to capture Ctesiphon – the capital of the Parthians – several times. The last Parthian king, Ardavān V (or according to the latest narrations Ardavān IV) crushed the Roman army in 127 AD and even forced them to pay compensation. However, he could not withstand the revolt of his rival Ardashir Bābakān (Ardashir I) and was defeated in the “Hormezdagān” plains and was killed in 224 AD, marking the collapse of the Parthian Empire.


The Sassanids (Sassanian)

Ardashir Bābakān established a rule in Iran one of whose most important features was the presence of close ties between religion and government. The other important feature that distinguished the Sassanid rule from that of the Parthians was unity and a centralization of power. As a matter of fact, with the establishment of the Sassanid Dynasty by Ardashir I, the Iranian territories were once again united together gradually after their disintegration following Alexander’s invasion of Iran.

The Sassanid Dynasty began the gradual expansion of its authority and power in the Persian territories from early 2nd Century AD. Sāssān, the great grandfather of the Sassanids, was a grand priest at the Anahitā Temple in Estakhr who had married a girl from a local dynasty of Persia called Bāzrangi and his son, Bābak, was born some time around 155 AD, who later on succeeded his father. Bābak’s son, Ardashir, who was later called “Argbad Dārābgerd”, began invading the neighboring cities some time around 211 or 212 AD and instigated his father to revolt against Guchehr, the Bāzrangi ruler of Persia. As a result, Bābak killed Guchehr in about 220 AD and expanded his territories with the help of Ardashir. The Parthian King, Ardavān V (and according to some historians Ardavān IV), who was concerned over the turn of events in Persia accused the Sassanids of rebellion and initiated a war against them in which Ardashir Bābakān succeeded in conquering Ctesiphon and formally proclaimed himself as the king. Ardashir abolished the feudal system of governance of the Parthian period, diminished the power of the noble families, and by establishing an organized army brought about a unity in his empire. However, the actual establishment of Ardashir’s rule only took place a few years after Ardavān was overpowered. After his coronation in Ctesiphon, and following a military expedition to the north of Mesopotamia, he got involved in a conflict with the Roman Empire over Armenia and remained at war with the Romans almost until the end of his reign. In any case, Ardashir managed to gain extraordinary honor and importance among his successors and came to be looked upon as an exemplar of astuteness and wisdom.

The reign of his successor, Shāpur I (ruled 240-270 AD) was spent in numerous wars with the Kushanas and the Romans in the east and the west. It was during the course of these very wars that the Roman emperor, Gordian was killed (244 AD) and Valerianus (Valerian) and his army were taken captive in 259 or 260 AD. The powerful rule of Shāpur I strengthened the foundations of the Sassanian rule in Iran. The spread of the teachings of Māni throughout the Sassanian Empire under the aegis of Shāpur I displeased the Zoroastrian priests (mobedān) and during the reign of Bahrām I (ruled 271-274 AD), Māni was arrested under the insistence of the Zoroastrian chief priest, Kartir, and met his end in prison (277 AD). After Bahrām, Nārsi (Narses) became the king (ruled 293-302 AD) with the help of the court nobles. He put an end to the powerful influence of Kartir in the royal court but faced severe defeat at the hands of the Romans in Armenia in the year 298 AD, as a result of which, he was forced to hand over the north of Mesopotamia as well as Armenia to the Roman Empire, thus, rendering the River Tigris as the borderline between the two empires. No war erupted between these two rivals for nearly forty years. This defeat and its consequences rendered Iran weak and powerless for quite some time. Ultimately, the nobles of the country placed Shāpur II (309-379 AD), the minor son of Hormezd II (ruled 302-309 AD)), on the throne and took the reigns of power into their own hands. However, Shāpur II freed himself from their influence as soon as he reached maturity and managed to revive the withering rule of the Sassanids with his resolution and tenacity and led it to the zenith of its power. He initially crushed the invading Arabs and earned the title of “Zul Aktāf” among the Arabs and “Hu Beh Sunbā” (lit.: The One Who Bores Holes in Shoulders). Shāpur II once again resumed war with the Roman Empire and in one of the battles in 363 AD, the Roman emperor, Gallienus was killed and vast territories were captured by the Sassanids.
The successors of Shāpur II were mostly incompetent. During the reign of Yazdgerd I (ruled 399-420 AD) many opportunities to regain dominance over Rome appeared. However, Yazdgerd I was a peace-loving king who preferred to stay away from conflict. His son, Bahrām V (ruled 420-438 AD), popular as “Bahrām Gur”, engaged in wars, both, on the eastern as well as the western fronts of his empire. At the time of Piruz (ruled 459-484 AD) Iran got involved in the invasions of the Hephthalites from the east which plunged the country into chaos and insecurity, resulting in the domination of the nobles and the Zoroastrian priests over the affairs of the country. When Qobād I (Kavadh) gained rulership in 488 AD he supported Mazdak and his teachings in order to cut short the hands of the Zoroastrian priests from the reigns of power. However, he faced severe opposition at the hands of the priests and the nobles as a result of which he was dethroned and imprisoned in 496 AD. Subsequently, when he regained power in 498 AD he exercised caution and moderation and even supported the enemies of Mazdak in order to remain in power. In 528 or early 529 AD Mazdak was forced into a simulated debate, at the end of which, he was slain along with a large number of his followers.

Khosrow I or Khosrow Anushirvān (ruled 531-579 AD) on whose behest Mazdak and his followers were massacred continued the killings of the Mazdakites and resumed wars with Byzantium in 540 AD. His military expeditions placed the eastern Roman Empire in great difficulty. Ultimately, in the year 561 AD, a peace treaty was signed between the two empires for a period of fifty years. Khosrow Anushirvān overthrew the rule of the Hephtalites in 557 AD and with the help of the Arabs of Yemen and after expelling the Abyssinians from Yemen c. 575-577 AD spread his power up to the southern parts of the Arabian Peninsula. The reign of Khosrow Anushirvān not only marked the zenith of territorial and military expansion of the Sassanian period but it was also a period of extensive social and administrative reforms. Khosrow brought about a change in the imperial tax system and introduced reforms in the administrative and military affairs of the country. During his times, Greek and Indian books were translated into the Syriac and Pahlavi languages and taught at the Jondishapur Medical School. Similarly, it was during his times that the Iranians were introduced to the game of chess and the book “Kalilah and Demnah” (The Panchatantra Fables). It is for this reason that he came to be remembered as an “ideal ruler” and a “sagacious king”.

After his death, his son, Hormezd IV ascended to the throne in 579 AD. The most important event of his reign was a rebellion by Bahrām Chubin who led an expedition to Ctesiphon in order to overthrow the Sassanian king. The nobles and the priests or mobeds who were unhappy with Hormezd deposed him from power and instead placed his son, Khosrow II or Khosrow Parviz on the throne in 590 AD. The new king, however, fled from Bahrām Chubin’s army and took asylum in Byzantium and, finally, managed to defeat Bahrām with the help of the Byzantine emperor in 591 AD. In order to compensate for the help extended to him by the Byzantine emperor, Khosrow Parviz handed over parts of the Sassanian kingdom to Byzantium and a peace treaty was signed between the two emperors. However, when the Roman emperor was deposed and slain, Khosrow found himself free to attack the Roman Empire. Two of the Iranian generals, Shahbarāz and Shāhin, led a considerable number of conquests against that empire such that Byzantium almost lost all of its Asian territories and even Constantinople was threatened by them. Egypt, too, fell into the hands of the Sassanian army in 619 AD, and in this manner, Khosrow Parviz’s empire reached the vastness of the empire of the Achaemenians. However, the prolongation of the war and Khosrow’s obstinacy in continuing it, gave Byzantium the opportunity for retaliation. From 627 AD, Byzantium began a series of attacks against Khosrow’s empire. Āzarbāyjān (Atropatene) was razed and plundered and the Byzantine army captured Mesopotamia. Khosrow Parviz fled to Ctesiphon but rejected the offer for peace. Ultimately, in the course of a rebellion by the people and his generals, Khosrow Parviz was deposed and imprisoned and his eldest son, Shiruyeh (Siroes) or Qobād II, ascended to the throne, while Khosrow was slain in prison a few days later in 628 AD. His entire reign was spent in tyranny, arrogance, and debauchery and the wars that he imposed on the country made Iran impoverished and desolate.

On the other hand, Qobād II immediately made a peace treaty with Byzantium and exempted people from taxes for a period of three years. He also freed his father’s prisoners and tried to please the army generals. However, his reign did not last for even one whole year because the plague that had spread in Iran as a result of the destructive wars of Khosrow Parviz also put an end to the life of Qobād II (628 AD). With his death, Iran was plunged into chaos and signs of deterioration began to show up. During the next four years since the death of Khosrow Parviz, until Yazdgerd III (628-632 AD), more than ten kings ascended the royal Iranian throne. One of them was Ardashir III who was only a minor child while another was “Burān”, the daughter of Khosrow Parviz, who was the first lady to be officially coronated with the Iranian crown. Khosrow Parviz’s other daughter, Āzarmidokht II, had also ascended to the Sassanian thrown for some time.
When the nobles of the empire appointed Yazdgerd III, the grandson of Khosrow Parviz as the king in 632 AD he was still a minor. In the second year of his rule, Yazdgerd III encountered the forces of the Arab Muslims in the eastern frontiers of the country. By then, a few years had passed from the advent of Islam in Hejāz but the Sassanians had not found the time to pay any attention to that reality. Some time later and following the collapse of al-Hirah at the hands of the Muslims (12 AH/633 AD) the Arab army camped in al-Qādisiyah (near al-Hirah). Following a few months of negotiation, war finally broke out, at the end of which, Rostam Farrokh Hormezd, the chief commander of the Sassanian army was killed (16 AH/637 AD). Thereafter, despite all its resistance, Ctesiphon collapsed and Yazdgerd III fled to the interiors of the country and was defeated for the last time in Nahāvand (21 AH/642 AD). The Arab Muslims regarded this victory as “Fath al-Futuh” (The Victory of Victories) since from then onwards they did not face any organized resistance. Yazdgerd III who had fled to the far off regions of the country was killed in a mill near Marv after years of wandering in 31 AH/651 AD. With his death, not only did the Sassanian Dynasty come to an end, but Iran, too, entered the period of its Islamic history after putting behind its ancient past.[1]



[1] Zarrinkoob ,Roozbeh “Iran Entry” The Great Islamic Encyclopedia. Ed. Kazem Musavi Bojnourdi.Tehran: The Center of Great Islamic Encyclopaedia , 1989-, V. 10 , pp. 522 – 530