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Candid Discussions: Touraj Daryaee on Ancient Iranian Empires’ Approach to Foreign Affairs


Touraj Daryaee is the Howard C. Baskerville Professor in the History of Iran and the Persianate World and the Associate Director of the Dr. Samuel M. Jordan Center for Persian Studies and Culture at the University of California, Irvine. A leading Iranologist, Dr. Daryaee is the editor of the Name-ye Iran-e Bastan: The International Journal of Ancient Iranian Studies, and the creator of Sasanika: The Late Antique Near East Project. Dr. Daryaee is author of numerous articles in leading academic journals on ancient and early medieval Iranian history. He is the author, among others, of the widely acclaimed book Sasanian Persia: The Rise and Fall of an Empire , which won British-Kuwait Friendship Society Prize in Middle Eastern Studies and the British Society for Middle Eastern Studies (BRISMES) award. Dr. Daryaee recently sat down with Reza Akhlaghi of the Foreign Policy Association to discuss how ancient Iranian empires conducted matters of foreign affairs.


If you compare the first Iranian empire (the Achaemenid Empire 550–330 BC) and the third (Sasanian Empire 224-651 AD), what do you see as key differences in their approach to foreign affairs ?

The expansionist nature of the Achaemenid Empire is clear, in that it was an Afro-Eurasian Empire. The Achaemenids never gave a name to their empire, which seems odd, but now it has been suggested that it was deliberate. Their ideological stance mandated that they were attempting to bring happiness to humanity and to create a heaven on earth (paradaiza-).

On the other hand, the Sasanians had a different attitude towards their neighbors. The Roman Empire to the West, the Arabs to the South and the Guptas in the East were treated differently. In late antiquity an equilibrium had been reached between the Romans and the Sasanians, where they were seen as equal in power and majesty. In time, China was considered the third super-power.

Based on what principles did the Achaemenids develop their relations with Greece? Was it always based on military confrontations?

Warfare was only after the time when Darius-I came to power. The Greeks, Persians, and others had been in contact and lived together. There was quite a bit of borrowing from both sides. For example, in Athens, Persian dress became a fad for sometime, and Persian exotics were cherished. There were some Greek city-states that worked with the Achaemenids and there were those who engaged in warfare.


Sasanian Persia, 256 pages; Published by I. B. Tauris (February, 2009)

During the Achaemenids, what were the key differences between the Iranians and the Greeks in their approach to foreign relations as we know it today? Which of the two more influenced the other in the adoption of what we call today ‘diplomatic’ approach to foreign powers?

The Achaemenids had a multi-national empire, an empire which was on three continents. Their form of diplomacy was very much imperial, in the way today we have an American Empire, or Rome for antiquity. Direct negotiations, or through a third-party was normal for the Achaemenids. Playing one side against another to establish equilibrium in regional conflicts was also a normal practice. Ambassadors where sent to the courts and they also received ambassadors.

The Greeks, on the other hand, were a cluster of city-states who basically were interested in their own regional affairs and to its largest, the Mediterranean.

What were the extent and nature of cultural exchanges between Iran and its two foreign rivals under these two periods: Achaemenid and the Greeks, Sasanian and the Romans?

Gift giving provided exotics and things not known, either for the Iranians and their rivals. However, conflicts also bring more than war. It brings interest about the other side and then items and ideas also flow. There is a lost that the rivals exchanged in terms of ideas, material goods and also people. We should not forget about inter marriages, contacts and trade which is as important. The world was not as divided in antiquity as we tend to think today.

Given the Achaemenids efforts to rebuild the Temple in Jerusalem and emancipate Jews followed by their return to the holy land, what significance did Jerusalem hold for the Achaemenid kings from a foreign affairs perspective?

Achaemenids needed allies and by providing material and money for the rebuilding of the Temple at Jerusalem, they were given an ally in the far western reaches of their empire. Also, because of the contacts between the Rabbis and the Magis, some religious ideas were exchanged.

How would you characterize key aspects of the Parthian (Arsacid) Empire as it pertains to their relations with and approach to outside powers, particularly compared to the Sasanians and the Archamaenids?

The Parthians were very much in line with the Achaemenid and the Sasanians in terms of their defensive policies against the Romans. It is interesting that in the first half of their existence, the Parthians are expanding and by the time of Mithradates II, they are claiming Achaemenid lineage and proper Iranian policy of imperial kingship, hence taking the title of King of Kings.

What was the nature of relations between Sasanian and Arabs and what, in your opinion, were the key factors in Sasanians’ downfall and the subsequent Arab conquest of Persia?

Arabs and Sasanians were in contact before the fall of the Sasanians. Already in the fourth century CE, Shapur II had settled Arab tribes in the Sasanian Empire. So, it is wrong to think that the Arabs only came to the Iranian Plateau after the Arab Muslim Conquest. One Sasanian king, Bahram Gur, was raised in the Arab court of the Lakhmids.

To answer this question, one needs to write a book or books, but simply put: The Arab tribes at a particular moment were unified and at the same time the Sasanians were defeated by the Romans and were in disarray. The conquest was then successful.

Did religious ideology play a role in the development of tensions between the Sasanians and the Romans?

I think by the sixth century, when Christianity became a form of religious ideology for the Eastern Roman Empire, it was used as such. When the emperor, Heraclius was coming to the Sasanian Empire in the Seventh Century to take back the True Cross and the Holy Grail, on the way, he would baptize his soldiers and it was mentioned that heaven awaited them, if they died for the cause. I call this a ‘proto-crusade” history of the wars that would eventually be called the Crusades. The Sasanians, I believe had a different attitude. Certainly they were Zoroastrians, but also by bringing the True Cross, they were trying to suggest that they also were the protectors of Christianity and a center for it.