Book Review: How Did the Persian Empire Collapse?
This book review was originally published in Iran Times International in Washington D.C.
Decline and fall of the Sasanian Empire: The Sasanian-Parthian Confederacy and the Arab Conquest of Iran, Parvaneh Pourshariati
(International Library of Iranian Studies), 510 pp.
This is a landmark work of original scholarship that gathers much new information to provide an answer to a an age-old question: How could the seemingly strong and well-managed Persian Sasanian empire stumble, crumble and disappear so swiftly when faced with attack by Arabs who had never challenged any organized state before.
The collapse of the Sasanian Empire in the middle of seventh century and the subsequent conquest of Persia at the hands of invading Arab armies stand as an indelible and uncomfortable part of the Iranian psyche. To this day, they evoke deep nationalist sentiments and arouse intense debates among Iranians of all walks of life.
The defeat of the Sasanians, the superpower of the era along with the Byzantines, brought an end to more than four centuries of Persian glory—a glory comparable only to that of the Achaemenid Empire founded by Cyrus the Great.
Dr. Parvaneh Pourshariati, the author of Decline and Fall of the Sasanian Empire, is professor of Near Eastern languages and cultures at Ohio State University. Pourshariati’s book has been hailed as a “monumental work of first-class scholarship” on late antique Iranian history, and “one of the most important individual contributions to our understanding of the history of Iran. It breaks many taboos about Iranian history and deconstructs long-standing beliefs about the governance style of the Sasanians and the dynamics of the Persian-Arab wars.
The overarching theory proposed by the author is that throughout their rule, Sasanian government was not centralized, but based on a confederacy between the Parsig (Persian) families, who formed the core of the Sasanian monarchy, and those of the Parthians (Pahlav). The end of the Parthian Dynasty in 224 CE did not mean the end of Parthian contribution to history. During the succeeding Sasanian period, Parthian dynastic families continued to rule eastern and much of the northern parts of Iran in an autonomous fashion and played a crucial role in the Sasanian empire.
However, as Pourshariati argues, there was always room for friction between the Sasanian kings and Parthian families. This dichotomy played itself out in politics, spirituality, and management of the economy and military. Far from being a centralized political entity, the Sasanians owed their continuity to an undeclared confederative structure with Parthian families.
Over the course of her research, Pourshariati came to observe that important families in the tenth century history of Tus, and who were responsible for the patronage and production of Iran’s “national history,” that is the Shahnameh, were actually of Parthian ancestry, or at least, claimed this genealogy.
Pourshariati’s theories demystify our long-standing beliefs, shaped, primarily, by the Danish scholar Arthur Christensen’s magnum opus seven decades ago, which portrayed the Sasanian polity as a highly centralized state in which the ruling monarch governed as the supreme figure of the Persian empire, with the help of an “orthodox” and dogmatic Zoroastrian clergy.
Pourshariati argues that far from being characterized by an artificially imposed “orthodox” creed, the religious scene of Sasanian Iran can be viewed as a mosaic in which a variety of Iranian systems of belief, including Zoroastrianism and Mithraism, coexisted side-by-side with the Iranian Judaic and Christian communities.
The book details how Parthian families exerted their influence in the military affairs of the Sasanian Empire, and the part that these families played in the Byzantine-Persian wars of 603-628 CE and the Arab conquest of Iran. In certain periods, this influence became a source of factional strife among Parthian families, as well as between the Parthians and Sasanians.
The Sasanian treatment of certain Parthian families gradually brewed discontent among the Parthian nobility. Here Pourshariati’s research proposes another taboo-breaking theory: The internal discord created cracks in the confederacy, which sowed the seeds of the empire’s degeneration into a chaotic state, which, in turn, precipitated its eventual collapse and defeat by the conquering Arab armies.
Pourshariati highlights two seminal developments as playing a crucial role in bringing the empire to its teetering point: The implications of the reforms of Khosrow Nowshirwan and three decades of Byzantine-Persian warfare under Khosrow Parviz II. Many of Khosrow Nowshirwan’s reforms were aimed at reducing financial corruption in the affairs of state—but they also targeted the influence of Parthian families.
The book then demonstrates how targeting Parthian families followed by three decades of Byzantine-Persian wars drained the Persian Empire and its once mighty armed forces. This was in addition to the worsening discord between various Pahlav (Parthian) and Parsig (Sasanian) families. The discord took such dimensions that the empire experienced major revolts against the ruling Sasanian monarchy, leading to the accession of three Parthian kings to the Sasanian throne in the course of the late sixth and early seventh centuries.
The book traces the dynamics behind major episodes of the Arab conquest of Iran; these are sections of the book that read like a suspense thriller as the author re-constructs Arab and Persian army commanders, their negotiations, military strategies, as well as their defeat and victories, culminating in the chase and subsequent murder of the last Sasanian king Yazdgird III in 651 AD.
Then came the Arab invasion. Based on new discoveries in the book, it turns out that the Arab armies did not in fact intend to overthrow the Sasanians, much less colonize Iran. Rather, as Pourshariati argues, the Sasanian collapse was a mere by-product of the Arab invasion.
Having realized the Persian weakness, the Arabs attacked. Tapping into factional disputes among the Parthian and Parsig families, the Arabs shrewdly achieved their key aim: access to trade routes to Central Asia through Persian territories. Their tactics were crucial in the battles of Nihavand and Rayy, for example, where the Arabs successfully took advantage of existing factionalism in the Iranian ranks.
Pourshariati argues that the portrayal of the Arab conquest of Iran as an “Islamic” conquest is nothing more than a religious color-coding of events by medieval Muslim scholars. This view is flawed, she argues, as it took Islam at least three centuries to take hold in Iran. This claim is buttressed in the book by the author’s detailed display of chronological discrepancies in classical Arab histories.
Pourshariati is quick to remind us here that this is where “pre-Islamic” and “post-Islamic” become problematic characterizations of Iranian history. She argues that such characterizations create false watersheds and abrupt discontinuities that in turn undermine the clear continuities in the cultural traditions of Iran.
Based on her arguments, which run counter to popular belief, Iran certainly did not become Muslim overnight as it took Islam itself three centuries to form into a substantive creed to begin with. Pourshariati also draws attention to similar scholarly debates in the last decades that have focused on Roman and Byzantine societies, asking the question, when did these societies become “Christian” after all? Based on the methodologies used in this book, it appears that past categories of history that we have grown accustomed to are no longer valid.
For Pourshariati, one of the main problems in today’s Iran is the urge by the ruling class to create cultural and religious hegemony. Such impossible goals, she says, are pursued by a select few who abuse their power at the expense of the majority. A humanist government in contemporary Iran must pay heed to the fantastic mosaic that forms Iran’s cultural identity. Ignoring this simple fact will cause horrific problems. Furthermore, historically, the legitimacy of the ruling powers in Iran was always contingent on a theory of government known in medieval times as the “Circle of Justice.”
The worldview that engendered the Circle of Justice theory is a millennia-old Mithraic concept arguing that rulers, to have legitimacy, must pursue “justice” and ensure the protection and well-being of their people, who are ultimately the very source of power for their rule. Pourshariati emphasizes that, according to principles of the Circle of Justice, the moment the state (the ruling class) abuses its power and the rights of its citizens, citizens obtain the right to overthrow the state and replace it with a just system.
Pourshariati asserts that this has been part of the soul of Iran for more than 3,000 years and transferred to the Shiite principles of justice. She says Iran has never had a monolithic culture and/or religion and its social make-up is not suited for hegemonic rule.
For anyone interested in developing a fresh understanding of this crucial period in Iranian history, its significance in understanding today’s Iran, and the role of Shahnameh in the development of Iranian national identity, Decline and Fall of the Sasanian Empire is a must read.