Persian/Sassanians (224-651 CE)

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Ardashir I and Ahura Mazda
Triumph of Shapur I over Valerian
Colossal Statue of Shapur I
Naqsh-e Rustam Rock reliefs

Shapur’s palace mosaic
Taq-e Bostan rock relief
Gilded silver horse head
Simurgh silver plate

The Sassanid Empire, aka the Empire of Iranians, was the last Persian imperial dynasty before the Muslim conquest in the mid-7th c CE. It was named after the House of Sasan and lasted four centuries, from 224-651 CE, becoming the longest-lived Persian dynasty.

The Sassanian Empire succeeded the Parthian Empire, re-establishing the Iranians as a late antiquity superpower; vying with its arch-rival the Roman-Byzantine Empire.

A local Iranian ruler, Ardashir, rose to power as Parthia imploded from internal strife and its battles with Rome. In 224 Ardashir defeated the last Parthian shahanshah, Artabanus IV, at the battle of Hormozdgan and founded the Sassanian dynasty. He sought to restore the legacy of the Achaemenid Empire by expanding Iran’s dominions.

At its peak the Sassanian Empire encompassed all of present-day Iran and Iraq, it reached from the eastern Mediterranean to Pakistan, and from parts of southern Arabia to the Caucasus and into Central Asia.

Shapur I, aka Shapur the Great, was the second Sasanian King of Kings of Iran (240-270), he expanded the empire by attacking the Roman Empire, advancing as far as Roman Syria. He was defeated at the Battle of Resaena in 243 by Roman emperor Gordian III, but the following year won the Battle of Misiche and wrested a favourable peace treaty from the new Roman Emperor, Philip the Arab, The ‘deal’ was regarded by the Romans as ‘a most shameful treaty’.

In 260, Shapur’s third campaign resulted in the defeat and capture of the Roman emperor, Valerian. Shapur was the first Iranian monarch to call himself ‘King of Kings of Iranians and non-Iranians’. Shapur had Zoroastrian fire temples constructed and incorporated elements into the faith from Greece and India.

The Sassanian kings were great patrons of the arts, much of what later became known as Muslim culture was originally drawn from Persian culture. For example, Khosaru I (531-579) had the works of Plato and Aristotle, translated into Pahlavi, and had it taught at the intellectual centre of the Sassanid Empire, the Academy of Gundishapur, originally founded by Shapur I. During Khosaru’s reign a number of historical annals were produced, including the Iranian national epic, the Shahnameh. When Roman emperor Justinian I closed the schools of Athens, seven of their professors moved to Persia finding refuge at Khosrau’s court.

The surviving art of the Sassanids is its architecture, reliefs and metalwork, and there are some surviving paintings.


A relief at Naqsh-e Rustam (the Achaemenid necropolis) of Ardashir I receiving the ring of power from Ahura Mazda.
Ahura Mazda, literally Lord of Wisdom, is the creator deity and highest deity of Zoroastrianism.
Image source: Wikimedia commons

Image source: Wikimedia commons

In 260 CE Shapur I and his army defeated the Romans at the Battle of Edessa and captured the Roman emperor Valerian. The first time a Roman emperor became a prisoner-of-war. Valerianhad to bear the insults of his captors, for example, being used as a human footstool by Shapur to mount his horse.

A relief at Naqsh-e Rustam depicting the Triumph of Shapur I over the Roman Emperor Valerian, and of emperor Philip the Arab. It is dated to 240-270 BCE.

The lower image is of a 7 x 10 cm sardonyx cameo dated to 260 CE. The headgear is intriguing, on the left is Valerian with a laurel wreath to identify him as Roman, on the left Shapur has a globe on his helmet and on each of his shoulders. This can be seen at the Bibliothèque nationale de France.
The 3rd c Colossal Statue of Shapur
is located in a limestone cave in the Zagros Mountains in southern Iran.

It is 7 kms from the ancient city of Bishapur, believed to have been founded by Shapur. This statue is regarded as one of the most outstanding extant Sassanian sculptures.

It is 6.7m tall and is claimed to have been carved from a pre-existing stalagmite.

The middle image is a sketch that reveals some of the detail in the sculpture. Shapur wears a necklace and a pair of pearl earrings, he also has a bracelet on his right wrist.

The lower image shows how the statue was discovered, tumbled and broken. It is speculated that it was felled by an earthquake.

Image source: Wikimedia commons

Image source: ancient-origins.net

Image source: Wikimedia commons

A panorama view of the necropolis Naqsh-e Rustam rock reliefs. Above are the Achaemenid tombs, from left to right they are said to belong to Darius II, Artaxerxes I, Darius I, Xerxes I. Each has a replica of an entrance to Persepolis, entrance is at the centre of each cross, and leads to a small chamber, where the king lay in a sarcophagus. A fifth tomb, presumed to be for Artaxerxes III, was never finished.

Seven Sassanian reliefs below. are over-life-sized rock reliefs at that depict events in the reigns of monarchs of the Sassanid period. Their approximate dates range from 225-310 CE, and they show subjects including investiture scenes and battles.
The two selected images are the investiture of Ardashir I, and of Bahram II with his family and courtiers.
Shapur built a palace at Bishapur, Iran on the road between the Sassanid capital Estakhr and Ctesiphon on the east bank of the river Tigris.

This is a detail of the mosaic floor that was discovered there, it depicts female musicians and dancers. It is dated to c 260 CE.
Image source: Wikimedia commons

Taq-e Bostan (Arch of Stone) has a series of Sassanid rock reliefs.

The middle image shows women playing changs (Persian harps) while the king is hunting.

The lower image is an investiture.

Image source: Wikimedia commons

Image source: ancient-origins.net

Image source:

Sassanid gilded silver horse head, found in Kerman, Iran and dated to the 4th c.
A Sassanid silver plate featuring a simurgh, a mythical bird was used as the royal emblem in the Sasanian period. The simurgh is benevolent and always female.

It is sometimes linked with other mythological birds such as a phoenix and the humā, but it was much larger. A winged creature in gigantic enough to carry off an elephant or a whale.

Image source: Wikimedia commons

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