Rise of the Sasanian Empire: The Persians (205-310 CE)

The accounts of the fall of the Parthians and the rise of the Sasanians are shrouded by time. Yet the Sasanians rose from obscurity to establish one of the most powerful empires of the Ancient Near East.

Mar 16, 2023By Robert C. L. Holmes, MA Ancient & Medieval History, BA Archaeology

rise of the sasanian empire


In 247 BCE, the Parthians reestablished Iranian rule over the Persian homeland by driving out the Hellenistic Seleucids. However, the Parthians were never powerful enough to meet the external challenge posed by Rome. Nor were they able to quell internal descent, which ultimately proved to be their undoing. Around 200 CE, a Persian nobleman established a dynasty that rapidly grew in power. Through military conquest and political maneuvering, the Sasanians spread their influence until they created what would become one of the most powerful empires of the Ancient Near East. The meteoric rise of the Sasanian Empire destroyed the Parthians and several old Hellenistic dynasties and created a Persian empire that had not been seen since the days of the Achaemenids.


Parthian Problems: Before the Sasanians

ceramic relief mounted archer ceramic spout
Ceramic Relief of a Mounted Archer, Parthian ca. 1st-3rd Century CE, via The British Museum; with Spout in the Form of a Man’s Head, Parthian ca. 1st-2nd Century CE, via The Metropolitan Museum of Art


The Parthian Empire endured numerous devastating invasions and raids launched at it by the Roman Empire. Though they were a powerful empire in their own right, the Parthians were never strong enough to truly pose a threat to Rome. As a result, a sort of stalemate had developed in which the Romans were able to invade Parthia and sack its capital but were not capable of destroying the empire. This situation arose, in part at least, due to the internal problems faced by the Parthians. Parthian society was rather feudal, so the power of the central government was relatively weak. This in turn resulted in frequent civil wars between Parthian contenders for the throne.


The frequent civil wars of the Parthian Empire were far more dangerous to its survival than the invasions of Rome. To achieve the support necessary to advance their claims to the throne, reward their supporters, and pacify those who had supported the losing side, Parthian rulers had to give up more and more of their authority. This meant that the Parthian Empire consisted of several semi-autonomous kingdoms and powerful satrapies. While they theoretically recognized the Parthian emperor as their overlord, they were largely free to conduct their own affairs.


Seeds of the Sasanian Empire

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Parthian Silver Coins Depicting Artabanus IV, ca. 216-224 CE, and Vologases V, ca. 191-208 CE, via The British Museum


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As a result of the decentralized Parthian government, the various client kings and satraps enjoyed a wide degree of autonomy. One of these rulers was Papak or Pabag, who ruled the region of Khir and was a vassal of Gochir, the Bazrangid king of Istakhr. At this time, the Parthian Empire was ruled by the Arsacid king Vologases V (r.191-208 CE). Vologases V was a weak king, and during his reign, the Roman Emperor Septimius Severus sacked the Parthian capital of Ctesiphon. This led to revolts across the regions of Pars and Media as the Parthian Arsacid dynasty lost most of their prestige. Pabag, who may have also served as a priest of the fire temple of Anahita in Istakhr, rebelled. Unable to rely on Parthian support, Gochir was overthrown by Pabag in ca. 205-206 CE. Now the ruler of Istakhr, Pabag made his eldest son Shapur his heir and appointed his younger son Ardashir commander of Darabgerd, an important fortress.


silver boss with lion head
Silver Gilt Boss with a Lion’s Head, Sasanian c.4th Century, via The British Museum


Since it was reportedly Ardashir who encouraged Pabag to overthrow Gochir, he refused to acknowledge Shapur. There is some strong evidence that Shapur played a larger role in the overthrow of Gochir, however, and Pabag had asked Artabanus IV (r. 213-224 CE) to appoint Shapur as ruler. Nevertheless, when Pabag died of natural causes ca. 207-210 CE, the brothers went to war. Shapur himself died shortly thereafter when he was struck in the head following the collapse of a ceiling. Some claim that Ardashir and his followers were responsible for the accident since they benefitted most directly, but this is impossible to prove. With the death of Shapur, there was no one powerful enough to contest Ardashir’s control of Pars, and he moved quickly to consolidate his position by eliminating any potential rivals.


Ardashir I (d. 242 CE) Creates the Sasanian Empire

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Investiture of Ardashir I with the Ring of Kingship by Ahura Mazda, Sasanian ca. 3rd-4th Century CE, via Wikimedia Commons


Ardashir’s actions were a direct challenge to the authority of the Parthians, but they were in no position to suppress his rebellion. In the first phase of his rebellion, Ardashir challenged Parthian authority by minting coins with his image, founding new cities, and forcing local rulers to swear fealty to him. Due to a civil war between rival Arsacid claimants to the throne, Artabanus IV and Vologases VI (r. 208-228 CE), there was little the Parthians could do in response. When Ardashir then conquered the region of Kerman, however, the Parthians took action. The governor of Susa was ordered to suppress the rebellion but was killed in battle along with the governor of Spahan. This allowed Ardashir to add Isfahan, Susiana, and Mesene to his territory. Artabanus IV then led the Parthian army against Aradashir in 224 CE but was defeated and killed at the battle of Hormozgan.


After the death of Artabanus IV, Ardashir had himself crowned Shahanshah or King of kings in Ctesiphon in either 224 or 226 CE. He then launched an unsuccessful attack on the city-state of Hatra, which had also resisted attacks by the Roman emperors Trajan and Septimius Severus. This setback turned Ardashir’s attention to the east. He proceeded to subdue the large Parthian landholders and nobility while also receiving the surrender of the rulers of Kushan, Turan, and the Merv desert in the East. Ardashir’s final years of conquest were directed at Roman Mesopotamia and Hatra. Though he was able to capture a few cities from the Romans, his conflict with them was inconclusive. Hatra, however, was finally conquered in 240 CE triggering a series of events that would ensure the conflict between Rome and the Sasanian Empire continued.


Zoroastrian Justifications

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Cornelian Stamp Seal with a Device of Stars, Crescent Moon, and Triangle, Sasanian ca. 4th Century CE, via The British Museum; with Zoroastrian Fire Temple of Niasar, Late Arsacid or Early Sasanian, via Wikimedia Commons


Ardashir’s rebellion would have had no chance of success had he not found widespread support amongst the many vassals of the Parthians. Many sources note Ardashir’s hatred of all things Parthian and the lengths that he went to erase traces of their rule. From Ardashir, this attitude is understandable, but subsequent generations of rulers of the Sasanian Empire continued to view the Parthians in the same way as well. One possibility is that the Parthians were far more tyrannical rulers than is generally presumed. However, there is another possibility that can be found in the Zoroastrian writings which supported the creation of the Sasanian Empire.


cornelian seal moon stars letters
Cornelian Stamp Seal with a Device of Crescent Moon, Star, and Greek Letters, Sasanian ca. 4th Century CE, via The British Museum


After crowning himself Shahanshah, Ardashir supported Tansar to support the legitimacy of the new Sasanian Empire. Tansar was a Zoroastrian herbad, or High priest, who would later oversee the creation of a single “Zoroastrian church” under the Persian magi with a single set of Avestan texts which he had approved and authorized. On Ardashir’s behalf, Tansar wrote to the various lords and vassals of the Parthian Empire to justify what had happened. The most famous of these is the “Letter of Tansar.” In this letter, he describes how Zoroastrianism had decayed and how the Parthians had practiced a heterodox form of the religion. Ardashir was depicted as more virtuous than his predecessors since the new Sasanian Empire had done away with the heretical practices of the Parthians.


Shahanshah of the Sasanian Empire

bronze statue sassanian seal king
Bronze Statue of a King, Sasanian ca. 224-667 CE, via The Louvre Museum of Art; with Cornelian Stamp Seal Depicting a King, Sasanian ca. 3rd Century CE, via The British Museum


A distinct weakness of the Parthian Empire was its lack of centralized power. Ardashir was able to exploit this but also recognized that there was little he could do about this in the short term. The basis of the early Sasanian Empire had been inherited from the Parthians’ decentralized model. However, by crowning himself Shahanshah, or King of kings, he set the Sasanian Empire on the road to greater centralization. The Shahanshah was the central power of the Sasanian Empire and strove to increase his power, but the great landlords acted to prevent this and were sometimes successful in securing more power for themselves. Yet under the Sasanian Empire, there were fewer subordinate rulers and more of a trend towards centralization than under the Parthians.


The Shahanshah of the Sasanian Empire viewed all other kings as his subordinates. All other kings and rulers, including those of Rome, China, and the Turks, were beneath the Shahanshah of the Sasanian Empire. Early Sasanian kings also appear to have viewed themselves as being of divine descent. While this undoubtedly helped to fuel conflict with their neighbors, it also allowed them to justify overthrowing the Parthians and legitimizing their rule over the other semi-autonomous rulers of the Sasanian Empire. The elevation of the Sasanian monarch in this way was different than how Parthian kings had depicted themselves. It, therefore, formed the ideological basis for the rule of the Sasanian monarch over a more centralized government than had previously existed.


Shapur I (r. 240-270 CE)

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Silver Coin Depicting Shapur I, Sasanian ca. 241-272 CE, via The British Museum; with Colossal Statue of Shapur I, Sasanian ca. 240-270 CE, via Wikimedia Commons


Ardashir was succeeded by his son Shapur, who had participated in the battle of Hormozgan in 224 CE and was named co-ruler in 240 CE. At the time of Ardashir’s death, the Sasanian Empire had experienced a period of rapid growth and expansion after it was established. Shapur largely continued his father’s expansionist policies both to the east and west. His campaigns in the east expanded the Sasanian Empire deep into Central Asia with the conquest of Kushan, Sakastan, Dihistan, Khwarezm, and possibly Bactria. It is also believed that he may have conquered Peshawar as well. In the west, he fought major wars with the Romans, forcing the emperor Philip the Arab (r. 244-249 CE) to pay a huge indemnity, cede influence over Armenia, and then capture the emperor Valerian (r. 253-260 CE). Shapur was later defeated and driven out of the Roman East through the efforts of Odaenathus lord of Palmyra.


Under Shapur, the territory of the Sasanian Empire was expanded, and its borders were consolidated so that they were more stable. Shapur also expanded the Sasanian government and established Zoroastrianism as the official religion of the empire. The expansion of the emperor led to Shapur adopting a new title to better reflect the extent of his rule. Thus, he became the “King of kings of the Iranians and non-Iranians” rather than just the “King of kings of the Iranians.” Shapur also embarked on a major program of building. Many new temples and monuments were constructed while many cities were rebuilt or refounded.


Rome and the Sasanian Empire

bronze figurine man sassanian
Bronze Figurine of a Man, Sasanian ca. 200-300 CE, via The Louvre Museum of Art; with Bronze Figurine of a Legionary, Roman ca. 2nd Century CE, via The British Museum


Rome played an important role in the rise of the Sasanian Empire. However, the exact nature of its role is unclear due to our limited source material. Rome’s pressure on the Parthian Empire and then its period of profound weakness, known as the Crisis of the Third Century, served as the impetus for the creation of the Sasanian Empire. This confluence of events shaped both the founding of the Sasanian Empire and the development of its government.


While the Sasanian Empire was undoubtedly more powerful than the Parthian Empire, it was still not nearly as powerful as the Roman Empire. At least, not until the western half of the Roman Empire was lost anyway. As a result, the early goals of the Sasanian Empire in the west were limited. This is even despite that on two occasions, the Sasanians were able to humble Roman armies led by the emperors Philip the Arab and Valerian. The Sasanian emperors were content to raid and capture a few border cities, though these attacks were damaging.


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The Triumph of Shapur I over the Roman Emperors Valerian and Philip the Arab, Sasanian c.3rd Century CE via Wikimedia Commons


The Sasanian Empire and the Romans recognized each other as being two great empires. There was a level of respect as much as there was animosity. Rome, even though it was weak, represented a barrier to further Sasanian expansion to the west. This barrier was political, economic, and cultural as much as it was a military one. The rise of the Sasanian Empire was fueled by a desire to reassert Persian rule after centuries of Parthian domination. It was a conflict between Iranian peoples, which did not directly include the Romans, even though they were still a major part of it.


Sasanian Empire: Aftermath

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Silver Bowl Depicting a King Hunting, Sasanian c.4th-5th Century CE, via The Smithsonian National Museum of Asian Art


The Sasanian Empire enjoyed a meteoric rise to become one of the most powerful empires to rule over the Ancient Near East. Its rise was the result of the inherent weaknesses of the Parthian Arsacid Empire and the threat posed by Rome. However, had Rome not entered its Crisis of the Third Century, during which it experienced a period of profound weakness, the rise of the Sasanian Empire may not have occurred. The cultural influence of the rise of the Sasanian Empire extended far beyond its borders. Zoroastrianism was particularly influenced by the Sasanians, who made use of it to justify Ardashir I’s revolt and legitimize their rule.


gilded silver plate king hunting
Gilded Silver Plate Depicting a King Hunting, Sasanian c. 4th Century CE, via The British Museum


Ultimately, the rise of the Sasanian Empire reshaped the ancient world, and its effects were felt for centuries. Rome, the great imperial rival of the Sasanians in the Ancient Near East, was also profoundly affected. The imperial conflict between the two powers consumed vast resources and would eventually lead to the destruction of both. As such, the importance of the rise of the Sasanian Empire cannot be overstated. Today, however, this once great empire that rose so quickly to such great heights is most commonly found in books and museums around the world.

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By Robert C. L. HolmesMA Ancient & Medieval History, BA ArchaeologyRobert Holmes has an MA in Ancient & Medieval History and a BA in Archaeology. He is an independent historian and author, who specializes in the Military History of the Ancient and Medieval World and has published over a dozen articles on related topics. Originally from Massachusetts, he now lives in Florida where he works doing public history leading tours, giving lectures, and educating people about the local history.