20 November 2007

Sassanian Stuff III

Were the Sassanians post-Achaemenids?

One of the most interesting questions about the early Sassanians (if only to a classical archaeologist) -- and perhaps the most unanswerable -- is whether they were related in any real sense to the kings of the earlier Persian dynasty of the Achaemenids. Ardashir (according to a very late source) claimed that they were direct descendants, which justified his rebellion against the Parthians. He was only doing his duty:

He rose to avenge the blood of his cousin Dara (Darius III) ... whom Alexander had fought and whom his two chamberlains had murdered. As he declared, he wanted to bring back the reign to the legitimate family, to restore it the way it had always been at the time his forefathers who had lived before the petty [Parthian] kings and to reunite the empire under one head and one king.

Modern scholars generally pooh-pooh this claim, and when they do have to mention it, usually put "forefathers" within dubiety quotes. Obviously, since almost 500 years of Parthian sovereignty separated the Old from the Middle Persian dynasties, there was more than enough time for memories to fade, or be fabricated. Oral traditions are anyway always shifting and changing according to circumstances -- and who will ever know the motives of the teller of tales or his patron? Yet, I think it's fair to say, that Ardashir really had the idea, however distorted, that the kings of Pars [Persis] were true heirs of the Achaemenids.

Plenty of Casus belli.

That's also what contemporary Romans thought. Herodian said as much, writing at about the time that Ardashir seized power:
Ardashir overran Mesopotamia and threatened Syria. Believing these regions to be his by inheritance, he declared that all the countries in that area, including Ionia and Caria [in Anatolia], had been ruled by Persian governors, from the time of Cyrus .... He asserted that it was therefore proper for him to recover for the Persians the kingdom which they formally possessed.
And Cassius Dio agreed: Ardashir boasted that he would win back everything that the ancient Persians had once held as far as the Grecian Sea. It was, he said, his rightful inheritance from his forefathers.

Of course, they might simply have interpreted current Persian intentions in the light of their traditional Graeco-Roman history, imagining that the first Persian wars were about to be replayed. But it's also possible that they were reporting rightly -- that the Sassanians did consider themselves heirs of the earlier kings.

Even if they did, of course, that doesn't make it true.

Suppose for a moment, though, that they had kept alive such a story all through the Parthian period. What kind of evidence should we be looking for? Here's a question we might ask as a start:

Did they know that the Achaemenids built Persepolis?

Just down the road from their own capital, Istakhr, were the ruins of Persepolis. If they didn't know who built it, then they really were making it up. But if they knew, the city burnt by Alexander must have been an ever-present reminder to them of the lost power and magnificence of their ancestors.

Among the most intriguing finds of the post-Achaemenid age at Persepolis are a few figural graffiti engraved with very thin lines on the limestone blocks of the Harem of Xerxes and the palace of Darius the Great.* At first, only isolated images of princely figures were recognised, but a more accurate survey now shows that the parts of one of the Harem graffiti (at least) can be combined into a more complex scene, which is very similar to some images on later Sassanian rock-reliefs.

Since their discovery, the images have been compared with those on coins issued by the vassal kings of Pars. Three princes were tentatively identified: 1. a local dynast of Pars immediately preceding the Sassanians; 2. Pâpak (the father of Ardashir I); and 3. Ardashir's older brother Shapur, "who reigned for three months and was killed by a falling stone when visiting Persepolis" .**

None of these identifications are secure. The only sure information is that their headdresses are very similar to those of the rulers of Pars: a high tiara (as worn by the mounted figures illustrated on this page), bordered with pearls and with a "coat-of-arms" at the middle, a crescent or a crescent with disc. The same type of tiara, in fact, appears on their coins from the first half of the 1C BC to the first quarter of the 3rd C AD. The peculiar headdress worn by the standing man (above left) -- a seven-pointed fan-like element apparently made by tying a large cloth onto the head -- is similar to a fan-shaped object which also appears on coins on the head of the penultimate kinglet of Pars.

Four princes are mounted on horseback -- and note the elaborate trappings of the horses, as lovingly detailed as the richly intricate costumes of the riders. One can imagine the terrific effect of those embossed metal discs (almost certainly of gold) when shaken by the rapid motion of the horse.

Two of the horsemen hold in their extended right arm the ribboned diadem that is the symbol of the royal divine radiance, the xvarrah, given by the god Hormizd to each Sassanian king (scroll down to the previous post, Sassanian Stuff II to see the god put the diadem in Ardashir's right hand). This is the visual sign of the king's divine election: whoever possesses the xvarrah is the rightful ruler, and any rebellion against him is doomed to fail. It seems impossible for any two princes to have split up the divine grace -- a good argument, I would think, for the graffiti to have been drawn at different times.

I really wish we had another word than 'graffiti' to describe these drawings. They are far from hasty or unskilled scrawls. Rather, they are the work of several well-trained craftsmen (at least two or three different artists drew the larger figures). These are not casual doodles but works of art, commissioned by the personages who are represented.

Whoever these characters are, and whatever their poses and postures mean, they must be fathers, forefathers, sons, or crown princes of the vassal dynasty of the Kings of Pars.

Recently, the scholar Pierfrancesco Callieri noted that the engraved lines on the stones are so thin that the motifs are only visible in a certain glancing light. I have seen the same phenomenon on walls in Egypt: if the sun isn't exactly at the right height, you cannot see a thing of the decoration. That didn't matter to the ancient Egyptians because the images were originally painted in many colours -- so the pictures stood out whatever the angle of sunlight. Was this true at Persepolis as well?

Callieri thinks so. He proposes that the images were filled in with colour, long vanished, and that the incisions were only the preliminary phase of the painting. Now, in your mind's eye, picture the walls blazing with the vivid colours of the princes' cloaks and tunics - reds and blues, browns and purples and gold - such as we know from contemporary Palmyran costume. And imagine, too, that the isolated partial figures stuck by themselves on the walls (often just heads, with headdress and streaming ribbons) were not unfinished bits, but engraved patches of a larger scene that was originally finished by painting.

When Callieri applied this idea to the figures stretched out along one wall at the Harem of Xerxes, he came up with a procession, in which mounted princely figures line up with their horses, each guided by two standing figures. Something like this:

Now, mentally complete the picture, filling in the blanks with parading nobles and squires, ending up perhaps with something like this:

What, then, was the purpose of these paintings on the walls of important buildings of the Achaemenid era at Persepolis?

Homage to the Ancestors?

In the 4th C AD, Prince Shapur Sakanshah, brother of Shapur II, left two inscriptions at Persepolis near the main hall of Darius' palace. One reads: He [Shapur Sakanshah] came to Persepolis [såd-stŭn, the place of '100 columns'], and organized a great feast, and he had divine rituals performed, and he prayed for his father and his ancestors, and he prayed for Shapur, the king of kings, and he prayed for his own soul, and he also prayed for the one who had this building constructed.

It is not by chance that the prince chose the palace of Darius the Great at Persepolis to have a banquet, order rites for the gods, and give blessing to his father and grandfather -- and to those who built the city (though he didn't call it by its ancient name, Parsa, 'city of Pars'). This was homage due to his ancestors. Similarly, the images that the pre-Sassanian kings of Pars ordered to be painted on its walls may have been intended to demonstrate continuity with the great kings of the mythical past.

A mark of ownership, if you will.

The rulers of Pars thought that they derived their claims and titles from their forefathers (with or without quotation marks). They knew of Persia's special place within the empire, of the disastrous reign of Alexander, and all about the divine radiance of kings whose origin is from the gods. How did they remember this and pass it on to the Sassanians?

Surely, that was thanks to the Zoroastrian clergy, the subject of Zoroastrian Stuff I, coming soon.

* This post is deeply indebted to P. Callieri's discussion of the graffiti , At the roots of the Sasanian royal imagery.

** Cui bono? The younger son Ardashir certainly gained the most out of this 'accidental death', but he's innocent until proven guilty. More to our point today, what was the newly enthroned king doing at Persepolis? What was so important that he visited the ruins in the midst of an ongoing war against the Parthian king?


  1. Wow. This stuff is sooo interesting! Thanks for the information!

  2. I agree. I love your blog.

  3. Thanks so much, both of you, for the comments. I love hearing from readers. Even when the comment is negative, that's better than silence, but positive + your enthusiasm is just great.

  4. I have to say that this was quite facinating. I used to be focused on Iron Age Zoroastrianism, so I love anything on ancient Persia, though the Sassanians are a bit modern for me.
    A good article, and I am going to link to you so that others may find it.

  5. This is the first time I've been accused of being modern :-)
    My friends laugh when I say something happened 'recently' because I usually mean within the last 1000 years.

    Have a look, Thadd, at my new posting Zoroastrian Stuff I. I'd be glad of your opinion. And thanks for the link (can you send me your blog's address: it's not on your Blogger Profile).

  6. Anonymous2/12/11 17:59

    Thanks so much for your dedicated blogging! I'm actually writing a paper for an Ancient Near East class and your mention of the Sassanid empire, art, and architecture really pointed me in the right direction. Thanks again!


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