Seminar: Who’s Who in Sasanian Iran

Today I attended a fascinating seminar given by Dr. Khodadad Rezakhani of the London School of Economics on the topic ‘The Prosopography of the Family of Sasan in Late Antiquity and Beyond,’ which attempted to confront some of the complexities surrounding the royal dynasty of Sasanian Persia, who ruled from 224-651 CE.

As you can see from these dates, the Sasanians are not precisely mediaeval, but their status as the last rulers of a Persian empire before the Arab conquests means that they, and their dynasty, exerted a powerful influence over subsequent rulers of the Iranian world.

Sasanian Empire

The Sasanian Empire, in yellow, ruled over not only modern Iran, but also areas of Iraq, Afghanistan, the Caucasus, and Uzbekistan. (http://www.szabir.com/blog/the-history-of-late-antique-iran/)

Before I begin to discuss some of the themes of the talk in depth, however, a few words on the nature of prosopography are in order. According to Merriam-Webster, a prosopography is a study that identifies and relates a group of persons or characters within a particular historical or literary context. (Source) As such, it functions as a kind of collective biography, teasing out networks, relationships, social groups and institutions that have their own specific history within larger national, ethnic, or imperial narratives.

A prosopography of the Sasanians, therefore, can delve into questions of origin, social connection, genealogy, and inheritance within the dynasty, teasing out familial relationships as well as political concepts which are unseen when looking at Persia from other angles. By far the most fascinating question about the Sasanians, and their namesake Sasan, however, is ‘Where did they come from?’

The traditional narrative begins in Persis, a region to the northeast of the Persian Gulf, where a rebel Pabag seized power from the local rulers. His son, Ardashir, carried on the family ambition, eventually killing the reigning Persian Shah and taking the empire for himself.

Ardashir Relief

A relief from Naqsh-e Rostam, Iran, depicting the god Ahura Mazda (right) and Ardashir, first Sasanian Shah (left). (Wikimedia Commons)

Sasan is usually depicted as Pabak’s father, or even a more distant ancestor, but when we widen our view to other sources, complications arise. One later Persian poem, for example, claims that Sasan was actually a shepherd who married Pabak’s daughter, and was a descendent of an ancient Persian family. More confusing still, one of Ardashir’s chief enemies, Farn-Sasan, traced his genealogy through several other Sasan’s. With such a variety of stories, its almost impossible to discern which Sasan gave his name to this famous dynasty.

What is clear, however, is that this dynasty had a powerful impact upon the perception of political legitimacy in the Iranian world, as well as beyond its frontiers. A splinter dynasty of the Sasanian royal house, for example, took over the Kushan empire of Central Asia, inspiring a political culture that blended symbols of Sasanian royalty with Kushan themes.

Kushano-Sasanian Coins

Coins minted under the Kushano-Sasanian Shahs, who ruled the area around the Oxus River (modern Uzbekistan) but also moved into the areas of Afghanistan and northern India. (Wikimedia Commons)

After the Arab conquests, too, the Sasanian legacy was kept alive on the margins of Iran, particularly in the mountainous region south of the Caspian Sea. Here, local rulers claiming Sasanian descent established royal houses with distinctive Persian terminology, even reconquering parts of central Iran.

Some aspects of the Sasanian royal family, however, still await research. For example, what were their links with other aristocratic families in ancient Iran? Who were their wives, and how did women bind the dynasty together? And what ethnic group did the Sasanians come from? Were they ultimately from eastern Iran, and therefore foreigners in Persis when they seized power, or were they a native Persian dynasty? Hopefully, continuing scholarly interest in a prosopographical approach to late antique and early mediaeval Iran will bring us closer to these answers.

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