By Robin Park
Advised by Professor David Sheffield
“Forgetting, I would even say historical error, is an essential factor in the creation of a nation and it is for this reason that the progress of historical studies often poses a threat to nationality. Historical inquiry, in effect, throws light on the violent acts that have taken place at the origin of every political formation, even those that have been the most benevolent in their consequences.”
—Ernest Renan, What Is a Nation?
Approximately 12 kilometers east of the Iranian city of Kermanshah lies Mount Bisotun, featuring multiple steep limestone walls, one of which harbors a large inscription of a king displaying his power and authority. Commonly known as the Behistun inscriptions, these reliefs detail the rise to power of the King of Kings of the First Persian (i.e. Achaemenid) Empire, Darius I (r. 522-486 BCE) – more specifically, his subjugation of countless rebellions across the empire, and his supposed lineage as rightful ruler of the “Four Quarters of the World.” Designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2006, these multilingual inscriptions — written in Old Persian, Elamite, and Babylonian — have been referred to by linguists as the “Rosetta stone” of cuneiform scripts. Atop this, these inscriptions are one of few preserved sources created by the Achaemenids themselves that allow a glimpse into the history of the largely obscured Achaemenid period of Iranian history.
Prior to the discovery and decipherment of these inscriptions, the only sources that mentioned the Achaemenids were non-Persian sources — mostly Greek, such as Xenophon’s Cyropaedia and Herodotus’s Histories, but also Semitic sources such as the Torah — which give historians a largely embellished view of the Persian Empire. No Persian historical records prior to the modern age seem to recall the Achaemenid dynasty; none of the major works such as Ghaznavid poet Ferdowsi’s Shahnameh (1010) or Abbasid historian al-Ṭabarī’s Tārīkh al-Rusul wa al-Mulūk (i.e. the Tārīkh al-Ṭabarī), both of which are believed to have been based on the lost Sasanian chronicle Xwaday-Namag (English: “Book of Lords”; ca. late 6th century CE), mention anything about the Achaemenid dynasty. Instead, the kings of Persia preceding the Sasanian dynasty are referred to as the ‘Kayanians’, preceded by the ‘Pishdadians’, whose reigns collectively span from the creation of humankind to the conquests of Alexander the Macedonian.
The absence of the Achaemenids in Iranian history has puzzled many modern historians, who have attempted to explain this phenomenon through their analysis of Greek, Roman, and Sasanian records of pre-Hellenistic Iranian history. In particular, Sasanian records such as the Xwaday-Namag (referred to in general as the Pahlavi Texts) have become important for the purposes of this study, as the Sasanian dynasty (224—651 CE) saw a prolific production of historical records and Zoroastrian texts that would go on to serve as a foundation to many later historical texts produced under Muslim rule. Regarding these records, there is general consensus that the last two of the Kayanian kings — both of whom happen to be named “Dārā” in the Pahlavi Texts — refer to Darius I and III of the Achaemenid dynasty, though in actuality their reigns were over a century apart from one another. Along these lines, many scholars have attempted to map many of the later Kayanian kings onto various Achaemenid kings, owing much of their claims to speculation based on select textual excerpts and tomb inscriptions. For instance, scholars such as Mary Boyce speculate that the Kayanian king Vishtaspa (Pahlavi Wištāsp) was a pseudonym of Cyrus II within the Zoroastrian tradition, due to the similarities in their courses of action during their respective reigns. Iranian writer Jalal Khaleghi-Motlagh also believes the Kayanian king Bahman (Pahlavi Wahman) to have been a fusion of Cyrus II and Artaxerxes I, as Bahman is portrayed as the person who conquered Babylonia and returned the Israelites to their original homelands (an accomplishment of Cyrus II) and is also described to have been “long-handed,” an epithet that Artaxerxes I carried due to his abnormally long right hand. Another perhaps more subtle way in which scholars have endeavored to connect the Sasanians’ invention of Kayanian kays to Achaemenid kings is visible in Abolala Soudavar’s writing, where he claims that the scene in the legend of Fereydun, where the hero Fereydun overthrows his father but decides not to kill him in a display of virtue, seems to have been inspired by the actions of Cyrus II, who went about the same course of actions. 
In the above ways, much of modern scholarship – particularly those coming from Iranian scholars of antiquity – focus on the ways in which Achaemenid kings can be mapped onto the kings, or kays, of the legendary Kayanian dynasty. This is, to give the benefit of the doubt, certainly an important lens through which the Kayanians must be examined; after all, as Soudavar states, “legends are never created out of thin air” and are usually “inspired from powerful symbols.” However, it would be rather presumptuous to assume that every founding legend correlates to some sort of historical event or development. Along the lines of this sentiment, Gregor Schoeler suggests that the Sasanians’ lack of acknowledgement of the Achaemenids was a result of historical amnesia – in other words, because there was an overall stagnation of Persian culture during the 800-odd years that passed between the fall of the Achaemenid dynasty in 330 BCE and the compilation of Sasanian historical sources such as the Xwaday-Namag (the precise date of the authorship of which is so far unknown), the Sasanians naturally did not have the devices to accurately remember the Achaemenid dynasty.
On the other end of the spectrum lies Touraj Daryaee, one of the leading scholars on the Sasanian period, who suggests that “the Sasanians did not forget, but [rather]... ignored the Achaemenids purposefully to create a sacred history which connected them not to the Achaemenids, but to the Kayanids.” Daryaee’s claim that the Sasanians purposefully “ignored the Achaemenids” is antithetical to the claims of scholars such as Boyce and Khaleghi-Motlagh, as it suggests that the Sasanians and their successors did not, in fact, try to weave Achaemenid figures into the Kayanid lineage, but rather completely ignored the Achaemenids and traced the Sasanian lineage to a family that extended into the past far beyond the Achaemenids. Indeed, the fact that certain Achaemenid names such as Guštāsp and Dārā/Dārāy are actually preserved in the Shahnameh and the Avesta while others are omitted seems to suggest that the Sasanians and later Iranian scholars had no apparent reason to selectively change the names of certain Achaemenid kings while preserving the names of others when the aim was to immortalize all of them through posthumous records.
It is on the basis of Daryaee’s idea of deliberate historical amnesia that I aim to challenge this discourse on the presence—or lack thereof—of the Achaemenids in Iranian historiography. I argue that the Achaemenids were neither “forgotten” by the Sasanians, nor erased for the sake of establishing royal legitimacy — at least not entirely. Instead, certain Achaemenids were selected — and others erased — in an attempt to create a single, Zoroastrian-Iranian state identity that could justify the early Sasanians’ unprecedented centralization of power, as these reforms, left to their own devices, could potentially lead to rebellions, as had occurred under the reign of the Achaemenid Emperor Darius I. Thus this selective filtering of Achaemenid history was not necessarily targeting Achaemenid history itself, but rather a byproduct of a greater religio-political project by Sasanian emperors to establish strong theocratic autocracy over their empire.
To this end, I first show the ways in which the Sasanian Shahanshahs’ construction of cities and the cities’ rise to prominence as societal hubs of the empire, combined with an institutionalized theocratic system became the primary vehicle through which the Shahanshahs extended control over their domain. I then show the way in which this was further justified by the creation and appropriation of a shared “Iranian” identity, which was then extrapolated into the far past using Zoroastrian mytho-historiography, showing the way in which the concept of “Iran/Ērān” was natural, divinely ordained, and therefore inviolable. This then finally reveals the way in which records of the Achaemenids were sculpted to fit the narrative of the Sasanians, in the process of which much of Achaemenid history was ignored, while others highlighted and even embellished.
In 224 CE, Ardashir I, the founder of the Sasanian dynasty, overthrew the Parthian Empire (247 BCE—224 CE), and immediately adopted an expansionist foreign policy, launching military campaigns in all directions. Most of these were directed at former vassals of the Parthians such as Armenia and Sakastan (present-day Afghanistan), but many, such as the Roman campaign of 230, were directed at neighboring polities that had been rivals of the Parthian Empire. Such expansionism, however, warranted major reforms to the administration of the empire — the previous Seleucid and Parthian dynasties had been characterized with a general decay in central governance, and did not permit the emperor to exercise full control over his territories.
The Parthians that directly preceded the Sasanians ruled over a largely fractured empire that was, in essence, a federation of smaller kingdoms under the suzerainty of the Parthian crown; this decentralized organization of the empire was likely what inspired the Iranian national epic, the Shahnameh, to describe the Parthian period as a time when “chieftains… were scattered about in different corners of the world, each of them cheerfully ruling a petty kingdom.” The Parthians had largely subdued the various kingdoms that arose from Macedonian and Seleucid rule through military conquest; however, the precedent of indirect rule through tribute and taxation under the Seleucids persisted into Parthian rule. As much as this system of indirect rule, in theory, granted the Parthian King of Kings dominance over these minor kingdoms, these vassal kings were able to rule their domains with considerable — and often rebellious — autonomy, having almost complete control over administrative and military affairs within their domain, and, in some cases, even being able to mint their own coins and control their own economies. The Parthians also instituted satraps, i.e. regional governors appointed by the emperor; however, they did not hold much power or prestige over the lands they ruled over, and were often overshadowed by the hegemonies of vassal kings and noble families that ruled lands adjacent to the satrapies. Thus, though forming a large army from the was certainly doable and achieved multiple times throughout the Parthian period, this lack of centralized organization left the empire often vulnerable and weak to attacks from neighboring polities. This vulnerability was proven during Roman Emperor Trajan’s campaign of Parthia of 115 CE, where the Romans were able to easily penetrate deep into Parthian territories and capture the Parthian capital at Ctesiphon before the Parthian king Osroes I could request his satraps to come to his aid.
It was this very system that would lead to the downfall of the Parthians. The Darayanids, kings of the region of Pars (Greek: Persis) in southwest Iran, were vassals of the Seleucid and Parthian Empire that would eventually become the basis of the Sasanian Empire — Ardashir I, prior to being crowned emperor at Ctesiphon, had held the office of Shah of Pars. Perhaps the greatest contribution to Ardashir I’s rise to power was the fact that his Darayanid predecessors, even after being subjugated by Mithridates I of Parthia, had been allowed to exercise autonomy over their domain of Pars. We can see the autonomy that Pars enjoyed is attested via numismatic evidence; coins from Pars issued by Ardashir I in the early 3rd century CE, prior to his ascendance to Sasanian Shahanshah, or emperor, display the face of Pabag, father of Ardashir I, alongside the words MLK, Aramaic for “king” that would have been read /shah/ in Middle Persian (Fig. 1).
Such a lack of central authority had been the case under the Achaemenids as well, though not to the extent of the Parthian Empire. Cyrus II, upon founding the Achaemenid Dynasty and conquering territories of unprecedxented expanse, appointed twenty-six satraps to rule over various parts of the empire that had been divided into satrapies, though Herodotus writes that the Achaemenid Empire had “twenty tax districts.” Though the number of said “tax districts” in the Achaemenid Empire is largely contested by modern scholars, most agree that these tax districts refer to satrapies, as regional governance under the Achaemenids, as well as in many other polities around the world at the time, was done through the collection of taxes from administrative regions that divided the empire into smaller governable units. Furthermore, certain city-states that were conquered by the Achaemenids were allowed to continue self-governance so long as they “recognized the supremacy of the [Achaemenid] king, paid tribute and provided military support.” Consequently, this system of regional administration granted the satraps and certain city-states considerable autonomy to establish their own bases of power, signifying that the imperial court did not always necessarily have control over all of the lands and peoples under its domain.
Given these precedents, perhaps the most significant aspects of governance that distinguished the Sasanians from previous empires that had governed over Greater Iran was in this administrative organization of land. The Sasanians, throughout the four hundred years during which they reigned, gradually created a cephalous, hierarchical administration that moved toward centralizing religio-political power onto the throne of the Sasanian Shahanshah.
A key aspect of this was the push for urbanism — i.e. the normalization of cities — that occurred under the reign of Sasanians. It must be clarified that, as much as this study characterizes the Sasanian Empire as an “urban empire”, the Sasanian concept of “city” is distinct from the definition of “city” that describes modern industrial cities. Sasanian cities, similar to modern cities, were confined regions of exchange rather than production.
Even before being crowned Shahanshah in 224, Ardashir I was a champion of urbanism — he built the city of Gor-Ardashir-Xwarrah, i.e. present-day Firuzabad, sometime before his final battle with Ardavan IV and used this city as a headquarters for his subsequent conquering of neighboring regional satrapies and vassal-kings. Upon being crowned, Ardashir I also commissioned the creation and renovation of cities — many of which carried his name, likely inspired by the way in which Alexander had constructed multiple cities that carried his name during his conquest of Egypt and Greater Iran. Shapur I, son and successor of the Ardashir I, also passionately engaged in city-building, constructing major cities such as Gundeshapur, Nishapur, Bishapur, and Ērān-xwarrah-Shapur — all of them having confirmed to be built by Shapur, not only through records but also through archaeological evidence. The last of these, the Ērān-xwarrah-Shapur, will be explored in later sections due to the charged nature of its name.
Unlike modern industrial cities, which economist Bert Hoselitz has described as “parasitic,” the cities of the Sasanian empire served as regions where goods from different parts of the empire, and oftentimes from different parts of the world, came and went; the outer edges of the cities were lined with bazaars, or markets, that featured highly coveted imports such as silk from China, as well as Sasanian exports such as metalwork. Though largely an agrarian society, Sasanian economy also depended heavily on commerce; being situated at the heart of the Silk Roads, Sasanian cities, with their giant bazaars and well-secured walls, naturally attracted merchants. According to Roman sources, it appears that Sasanians were very keen on establishing control over overseas trade by conquering the entirety of the territory surrounding the Euphrates and Tigris rivers, as well as the Persian river, as this would allow them to control the flow of goods in and out of the Persian gulf. It is, however, noted in the Menog-i Khrad (English: “Spirit of Wisdom”) that Sasanians did not have a positive view on merchants; this suggests that, as much as the Sasanians depended on merchants for diversifying their economy, their dialectical view of insider vs. outsider — which will be explored extensively in later sections — largely determined their views on non-Iranians, as well as those who mingled with non-Iranians such as merchants.
Why Build Cities?
For the most part, early Sasanian cities were megastructures created for four primary purposes – the four being economic, administrative, symbolic, and religious purposes. Of these, two reflect the close link between Zoroastrianism and the Sasanians’ administration over their empire. The close-knit relationship between administrative governance and Zoroastrianism under the Sasanian Empire will serve as the incessant undercurrent that influences the idiosyncrasies in both the governance and historiography of the Sasanians. The above four purposes of cities will thus be the primary focus of understanding Sasanian urbanism as a Zoroastrian phenomenon — as a form of theocratic urbanism.
The first, and perhaps the most obvious, was for economic reasons — as mentioned earlier, cities served as protected spaces for people to engage in commerce and exchange services, goods, and ideas without being occupied with agrarian labor, thus allowing for the flourishing of trade, commerce, and specialized jobs. Furthermore, the Sasanians lay at the center of most of the Silk Routes at the height of their activity, having conquered the Sogdians and monopolized access to the Persian Gulf. Within this context, Sasanian cities served as important junctions and asylums for merchants trekking across the Silk Routes.
The second was to aid in the centralization of the administration of Sasanian territory, referred to as the Ērānšahr (English: “Land of Iranians”) under the authority of the Sasanian Shahanshah. With the development of cities, most regional rulers and governors began to migrate into the cities, as the cities offered protection, a stable military base, and access to a prosperous market bustling with goods from throughout and outside the empire. Thus, to control regions, all that the Shahanshah needed to do from his throne in Ctesiphon was to control the cities.
Due to this, rather than ruling with the decentralized fashion of the Achaemenids and Parthians — where the emperor essentially preserved the existing rulers of regions under their rule and controlled them via a contract of taxation in return for protection — Sasanian kings ruled the cities, and by extension the administrative divisions, within their realm through bureaucrats issued from Ctesiphon and responding directly to their command. While the institution of satrapies were largely preserved, Sasanian kings sent viceroys called bidaxš to cities to symbolize his constant presence in all regions across their realm. The etymology of the title “bidaxš” is contested between two different general approaches to the etymology— Pagliaro suggests that it is a combination of pati- (“master”) and axš (“eye”) and thus translating roughly to “eyes of the lord”, while Hinz and Szemerényi suggest that it is derived from dvitiya-xšaya (“second/vice ruler”). It is more likely, however, that “bidaxš” meant “eyes of the king,” as the bidaxš were an entirely separate office from the satraps, who were closer in role to a “vice ruler” that managed the administration and military of the regions they were assigned to. With the existence of satraps appointed by the crown, there would be no need for bidaxš to serve as a “vice ruler;” rather, the bidaxš likely acted as an inspector and representative of the imperial court at Ctesiphon. Furthermore, the Greeks translated the title “bidaxš” to “ophthalmòs toû basiléōs” (English: “eye[s] of the king”), which Pagliaro uses as his primary evidence behind his gloss of the title of bidaxš. Either way, both approaches at glossing this title points to the role of this office as a bureaucratic office that would represent the king in observing and maintaining order in local provinces. Thus, through the bidaxš that served as their “eyes”, the Shahanshah were able to exert more direct control over cities, which allowed them to control and standardize administrative apparatuses across various distinct regions that had traditionally been ruled under distinct administrative systems.
Pragmatic administrative reforms were not the only ways in which Sasanian Shahanshahs bolstered their authority over cities. The names of the cities served as a strong symbolic representation of the Shahanshah that built the respective cities, and this is the third purpose for which cities were created. While many cities, such as Nishapur and Bishapur, were simply slight alterations made to the name of the Shahanshah who founded said cities (in the case of the aforementioned examples, Shapur I), other cities contained the term “xwarrah” in their names — key examples being Ardashir I’s Gor-Ardashir-Xwarrah and Shapur I’s Ērān-Xwarrah-Shapur. It is here that the Zoroastrian undertones of local administration makes an appearance. Xwarrah was Middle Persian for the Avestan word xvarenah, which has been translated directly to “glory” or “splendor;” though it is also understood to have meant “fortune,” as Sasanian inscriptions containing the word “xwarrah” use the Aramaic GDE, read as gada and literally meaning “fortune”, to notate the word.
The Yashts, a series of twenty-one Zoroastrian hymns written in Young Avestan, show multiple different types of xvarenah: Yasht 19 mentions the “kauuaēm xvarənah” within the context of the legendary Kayanian kings, translated as a sort of “kingly glory” enjoyed by Kayanian kings due to their valor, wisdom, and adherence to the way of good as ordained by Ahura Mazda, the supreme Zoroastrian deity of light and good, that allowed them to maintain their rule over the land of Iran. Yasht 19 also repeatedly mentions “axvarətəm xvarənah”, roughly translated to “brightness and glory.” If the glory that the kauuaēm xvarənah was referring to pertained to kingship, the axvarətəm xvarənahgave a broader sense of glory that was semantically more obviously Zoroastrian than the kauuaēm xvarənah. The axvarətəm xvarənah is stated repeatedly at the end of each verse, which states that “for its brightness and glory [i.e. axvarətəm xvarənah ], I offer it a sacrifice.” This shows that the concept of axvarətəm xvarənah refers to the path of good which all Zoroastrians — divine beings, kings, and the common people alike — should strive to achieve. Thus the xvarenah determines the degree to which an individual is a “good” Zoroastrian who adheres to the practices and beliefs set forth by Ahura Mazda through his prophet Zarathustra.
The Persian national epic, Shahnameh, has a particularly interesting way of discussing the concept of xvarenah. Dick Davis, in the foreword of his translation, states that the xvarenah, which he transliterates into its New Persian alternative of “farr”, is “a God-given glory, and inviolability, bestowed on a king, and sometimes on a great hero. Its physical manifestation was a light that shone from the king’s or hero’s face.” Indeed, the Shahnameh writes that when Fereydun, the primary hero of the first section of the Shahnameh, was born, “the world was renewed. He grew as tall as a straight cypress tree, and Jamshid’s imperial farr radiated from him as if he were the sun.” The farr is depicted as “radiating” from Fereydun’s face; this is in line with the Zoroastrian idea of akhvartem khvarena, the notion of light and radiance being associated with what is considered good and adhering to the way of Ahura Mazda. The “Jamshid” whose farr Fereydun inherited had been the last king of the Pishdadian dynasty before rule of the villainous snake-king Zahhak (Avestan Azhi Dahaka), portrayed as having been led astray by the work of daevas, or the Zoroastrian counterpart of demons. The Shahnameh states that in the last years of his reign, Jamshid’s “divine farr grew dim, and he gave himself to evil and foolishness. Petty kings and their armies sprang up on all sides, every province produced its own claimant to the throne, and they felt no love for Jamshid.” Thus the idea of xvarenah, though characterized as bestowed by the supreme god Ahura Mazda, is manifested in what is referred to as the “love” that the people of a realm have for their ruler who possesses the xvarenah. Thus the xvarenah was the way in which Sasanian monarchs justified their rule and propagandized their right to rule over people due to divine endorsement, which would supposedly be visible if their reigns were peaceful and approved by the people (the latter, granted, is difficult to define, as such approval could be coerced through administration.
Therefore the use of such a strictly Zoroastrian term denoting kingly glory and divine ordainment in city names can be understood as a strategy by Sasanian Shahanshahs to establish their actions of city-building, and their subsequent imposition of direct control over those cities, as justified by a divine authority. City-building was often done either in regions that had existing towns or were difficult to manage; furthermore, building cities required a significant depletion of tax revenue and labor. Thus, the imposition of Zoroastrian moralism that defined the city as a natural existence ordained by Ahura Mazda helped the Sasanian court achieve the degree of justification such taxing projects would require. In short, the idea of kavam xvarenah featured prominently in Yasht 19, along with invocations of Kayanian kings, defined the Sasanian Shahanshah as a yazata, or a figure “worthy of worship,” justifying the existence of these cities that carried the name of their founders and by extension the Zoroastrian value of xvarenah.
Yet it may seem irrational for the notion of xwarrah to be of such importance to Sasanian Shahanshahs in their choice to name cities, as many of these cities lay in regions that had previously worshiped their own respective belief systems rather than Zoroastrianism. The Sasanians’ Achaemenid predecessors had been known for maintaining a multi-religious empire. For instance, the Achaemenid Cyrus II is famous for having conquered Babylon and freed Jews from captivity, allowing them to return to their homelands and practice Judaism once more. Darius I, third emperor of the Achaemenid Empire, also practiced a degree of religious tolerance; he not only followed the will of his predecessor, Cyrus II, in restoring the Second Israelite Temple, but also supported Egyptian polytheistic practices by commissioning the creation of a temple for the Egyptian sun god Amun. Based on this, the attitudes of Achaemenids toward various belief systems is often characterized by scholars as “religious tolerance.” Yet, it is more appropriate to understand this as an acceptance of a multi-religious society by the Achaemenids that was based on a pragmatic mode of indirect governance, which, as explored earlier, relied on a system of tax-based rule over semi-autonomous regional lords.
In contrast, Sasanian Shahanshahs were able to use Zoroastrianism as a backing to their ownership over their cities and thereby their right to exert control over regional governors. Sasanian society, for one, showed a marked departure from their Achaemenid and Parthian predecessors in their approach to the idea of religion in governance. Sasanians aggressively adopted Zoroastrianism as their state religion, creating a standardized orthodox Zoroastrianism by spearheading a state-commissioned reconstruction of the Avesta which had been destroyed and scattered during the 500-year period between Alexander’s conquests and the rise of the Sasanian Empire. The Sasanian court also created the titles of mowbed and herbed that served as Zoroastrian clergy — the former of which could conduct religious ceremonies such as the yasna ritual, whereas the latter could not, and thus rather served as religious scholars and educators. A Zoroastrian herbed named Tansar, who had been a noble under the Parthians but had supported Ardashir I’s uprising, would eventually create a unified Zoroastrian doctrine by creating a single set of ‘orthodox’ Zoroastrian texts to create Sasanian Zoroastrianism. This Sasanian Zoroastrianism also became distinct from the original Avestan Zoroastrianism in its incorporation of different Iranian deities as yazatas aiding Ahura Mazda, as well as in the revision of the mythological history of Iran, which will be explored in the following section. Thus, Zoroastrianism became officially institutionalized under the Sasanians, creating the nearly inseparable contingency between Zoroastrianism and administrative politics that serves as the premise for this study.
However, simply institutionalizing a state-endorsed belief system does not make it a theocracy; a theocracy requires said religion to be imposed upon, and practiced within, all administrative districts within said state. It is in this context that the fourth and final purpose of Sasanian cities becomes apparent — to house Zoroastrian temples (hereon referred to as “fire temples” (Persian Atashkadeh)) across the Ērānšahr. The legibility of Fire temples within the core of Sasanian cities is visible within the site plan (Fig 2). Hossein Maroufi notes that the concentric layout of the city was a manifestation of the rigid hierarchical nature of the Sasanian class system — with the priests at the top, followed by the warrior class, secretaries, commoners, in that order.
The archetypal Sasanian city was organized as following: the nucleus, surrounded by the inner walls, housed the city’s main fire temple at its center; this temple, in turn, was surrounded by the residential and administrative buildings of whomever was the direct head administrator of the city, whether that be the Shahanshah, satrap, or a noble.
1 - Residential/administrative area for elites (e.g. kings, nobles, satraps); 2 - Fire temple; 3 - Military garrison; 4 - Public city-space (shahrestan); 5 – Bazaar; 6 - Suburb (birun); 7 - Agricultural land; 8 - Commercial road
Fig 2. Layout of a typical major Sasanian city. Key has been re-written for clarity.
Outside this nucleus lay the general living spaces of commoners, artisans, and merchants; while Figure 2 somewhat misleadingly labels this region as the shahrestan, it must be noted that the shahrestan referred to all of the lands beyond the inner walls of the city, including the lands between the inner and outer walls, and oftentimes referring to the lands beyond the outer wall as well, extending the meaning of the word to “subprovince.” The walled nucleus was connected to the outside via roads that often extended far beyond the outer wall — it was through these roads that visitors of significant social status such as imperial bidaxš, heads of large merchant guilds, and ambassadors from other polities could make their way directly into the nucleus of the city, bypassing much of the regions inhabited by commoners, artisans, and merchants. Thus, while the bazaars at the periphery of these cities bustled with cosmopolitan activities, the core of the cities were fire temples often exclusively accessible to Zoroastrian priests and nobility.
Not every city was shaped in a precisely concentric manner: the city of Bishapur had its royal sector in its eastern half, with the central temple being located adjacent, rather than within, the royal sector. However, every Sasanian city infallibly housed a fire temple; no sites of Sasanian city show an absence of a temple complex. Though no records explicitly state the role of clergy in the administration of cities, it is likely, given the Zoroastrian clergy system of the Sasanians, that each city’s temple complex was run by at least one mowbed, as herbeds were not allowed to carry out the yasna rituals that are, to this day, a central tenet of Zoroastrianism.
Thus the constant presence of Zoroastrianism in these cities allowed the Sasanians to standardize Zoroastrianism as the state religion across the Ērānšahr. Aside from the theocratic urbanism that we have explored thus far, the enforcement of Zoroastrianism as an administrative religion is historically visible in the way in which deities of non-Zoroastrian Iranian polytheistic religions become incorporated into Zoroastrianism. For instance, the Iranian water goddess Anahita (Middle Persian Anahid), who had been worshiped by the Indo-Iranian people since before the Achaemenids, becomes a supporting figure of Ahura Mazda in later Yashts.
This section showed the way in which urbanism, a unique feature of Sasanian society that characterized its marked departure from previous dynasties’ feudal multi-state societies, was accompanied by a push for theocratic autocracy by Sasanian monarchs. The next two sections will illustrate the ways in which such theocratic autocratic rule, achieved through rather radical reforms in societal structure, was justified through the use of mythological history.
The Land of Iranians
In 1935, for the Persian new year of Nowruz, Reza Shah Pahlavi (1878-1944) announced that his country would be officially called “Iran” internationally, rather than “Persia”, which had, until then, been its official exonym among European nations. This name — “Iran” — though largely foreign to people outside of the Iranian cultural sphere, had in fact been used for millennia among the Iranian people as an identity marker, as well as to, in some cases, refer to the lands on which they lived.
Earliest historical accounts of this word being used can be traced to the Achaemenid dynasty, when Darius I referred to himself as “an Aryan, having Aryan lineage” on the aforementioned Behistun inscriptions. It must be first clarified here that the word “Iran” is derived from the Middle Persian word Ērān, which is in turn a derivative of the Indo-Iranian word *arya-, which was an endonym that Indo-Iranians referred to themselves as. The trilingual inscriptions of Sasanian Shahanshah Shapur I (r. 240-270) at the Ka’ba-ye Zarthosht is perhaps the most obvious way through which this derivation can be traced, as an examination to the entries parallel to one another reveals certain proper nouns as cognates of one another (Fig. 3).
|Language||Verbatim Transcription||Phonetic Transcription|
|Middle Persian||*ʾNH . . . ʾylʾnštry ḥwtʾy ḤWHm||/an. . .Ērānšahr xwadāy hēm/|
|Parthian||ʾNH . . .ʾryʾnḥštr ḥwtwy ḤWYm||/az. . .aryānšahr xwadāy ahēm/|
|Koine Greek||ἐγō . . .του ᾽Αριανōν ἐθνους δεσποτēς εἰμι||egō . . .tou Arianōn ethnous despotēs eimi|
|English||I ... am the lord of the nation of Aryans|
Fig 3. Trilingual Inscriptions of Shapur I at the Ka’ba-ye Zartosht (bolding added for clarity)
Here we see that the Middle Persian Ērān is a direct equivalent of aryān in Parthian and arian in Greek; thus this serves as one of many points of evidence for the link between Ērān and its Indo-Iranian root, *arya-. Thus the word Ērān came to replace the ethnic marker aryān that had existed under Parthian rule, and came to refer to a certain group of people who belonged to what Shapur I, in the above inscription, refers to as his “kingdom.” However, though the word Ērān comes from an earlier ethnic label that existed since even before the Achaemenid period, it, in its Middle Persian form, carries connotative idiosyncrasies that must, to some degree, be studied in isolation from its cognate versions in other languages.
The earliest instance where the word Ērān appears in its Middle Persian form is in the investiture relief of Ardashir I, founder of the Sasanian dynasty, at the necropolis of Naqsh-e Rostam. The relief refers to Ardashir I as “ʾrtḥštr MLKʾn MLKʾyrʾn” (/ardašīr šāhān šāh ērān/), roughly translating to “Ardashir, King of Kings of Iranians.” This was the sole title that the Sasanian kings used; in comparison, rulers of previous dynasties used multiple titles that boasted their rule over various parts of their empires. For instance, the Achaemenid Cyrus II describes himself as “King of the World, the Great King, the Powerful King, King of Babylon, King of Sumer and Akkad, King of the Four Quarters of the World.” This list of titles further expanded under his successors, Cambyses II and Darius I, who, upon conquering Egypt and turning the region into a satrapy of the empire, began Ancient Egypt’s 27th dynasty as its Pharaohs. Furthermore, the Achaemenids referred to their empire as “The Kingdom” (Old Persian: 𐎧𐏁𐏂 (Xšāça)) — here again the lack of geographical markers is visible. Parthians used the titles “Great King” or “Arsaces” — though certain scholars write that the Parthians tried to show connections to the Achaemenids by using the the title Vasileos tou Vasileon (English: “King of Kings”), this was in actuality only used by a select few Parthian monarchs, suggesting that the Parthians had no solidified political doctrine to which they adhered.
Thus the way with which Sasanian monarchs referred to themselves as the “Šāhān Šāh Ērān,” i.e. King of Kings of Iran/Iranians was an unprecedented action never before seen among previous rulers of Greater Iran. This can in some ways be understood as an ancient precursor to citizenship; the label of “Iran” referred to people that the Shahanshah considered to be his rightful followers. Thus the label “Iran” can be understood as an identity created through a dialectical juxtaposition with an “other,” referred to as “Anērān,” or “non-Iranian” in texts and inscriptions from the Sasanian period.
Yet it is oftentimes unclear as to what characteristics made one an “Iranian” and others “non-Iranian.” While such dialectical identity formation in modern times would entail some sort of ethnic, or even racial, divide, it is unlikely that this was the case at a time when the concept of ethnicity or race did not exist. Thus we must think of “Iranian” and “non-Iranian” within the bounds of the Sasanian context so as to avoid an anachronistic interpretation of the use of this term in the Sasanian period.
Being “Iranian” in the Sasanian Period
A clue to defining “Iranian” identity lies in the calendrical texts of the Manichean prophet Mānī (216-274 CE), who refers to the former territories of the Roman Empire as “Anērān” in said texts, suggesting that in the early Sasanian period, the term largely referred to Romans. However, in the Inscriptions of Kerdir in Pars, carved after he had become the head mowbed of the Sasanian Empire, he refers to not only the Romans, but also the people of adjacent territories, including the Caucasus, Central Asia and India, as “Anērān,” as well. This ambiguity potentially suggests the flexible nature of what it meant to be “Iranian;” it may initially seem that whatever the ‘other’ with which the Sasanians were engaged in tension or struggle was would be considered non-Iranian, and thereby define what it meant to be “Iranian.”
However, a parallel examination between the development of the concept of Ērān and the association of Ahura Mazda with the Sasanian Shahanshah reveals that the label of “Iranian” was largely associated with lands that imposed Zoroastrianism as their official religion. The inscriptions of Kerdir features a list of lands that are considered to belong to “Ērān” and “Anērān”; among these, Kerdir lists the Caucasus, Cappadocia (in Eastern Anatolia), and Armenia as “Anērān” in the context of the conquests of Shapur. Since the late Parthian period until the conquests of Shapur I in 252, Armenia was ruled by kings of the same Arsacid lineage that had ruled the Parthian empire; therefore, this reflects the narrative reflected in the letters of Tansar, the aforementioned Zoroastrian herbed of Ardashir I’s reign, who claimed that Ardashir I had conquered the heretics of Parthia because they had lost the way of Zoroastrianism. The other lands were largely under Roman influence until the first two Shanshahs of the Sasanian Empire conquered them, reflecting the way in which the conflict between the Roman and Sasanian Empires was also viewed as a conflict between Christianity and Zoroastrianism.
It was also under Hormizd I that Sasanian coins begin referring to the Sasanian emperor as “Šāhān Šāh Ērān ud Anērān ” (Eng: “King of Kings [of] Iran[ians] and non-Iran[ians]) (Fig. 4). This was not necessarily a novel invention of Hormizd I, as his father and predecessor, Shapur I, had already referred to himself as the Shahanshah of Iranians and non-Iranians on his inscriptions at Naqsh-e Rostam, recognizing that non-Iranian people were a part of the Sasanian Empire. However, the fact that Hormizd I’s use of this title was on his coins is of particular importance, since the purpose of the Shapur I’s inscriptions for the Naqsh-e Rostam was to immortalize his name and deeds for posterity, while the purposes of coins are to be used in everyday transactions by the people of the empire, and thus was a more direct mode of spreading propaganda to the general populace of the empire.
M. Rahim Shayegan states that the addition of “ud Anērān” to the title of the Sasanian Shahanshah in 272 CE suggests an acquisition of new territories under the reign of Hormizd I. However, there are no records that there was a particularly notable addition of territory to the empire during his reign, especially because Hormizd’s reign only lasted for one year — hence the rarity of the coin pictured above. Thus, it is more likely that there was a transition in the population that the term “Ērān” (i.e. Iranian) encompassed — from referring to all inhabitants of the empire under the Shahanshah’s jurisdiction to a select population that could be considered a component of the identity label of “Ērān.” Because of the way in which this coincides with the religious hegemony of Kerdir over the Sasanian Empire, it is likely that the label of “Ērān” transitioned – sometime around Kerdir’s hegemony in the late 3rd century – from a general marker of the inhabitants of the Sasanian Empire to specifically a label referring to adherents of Zoroastrianism living in the empire.
This transition is furthermore visible in the way in which early Sasanian Shahanshahs practiced religious tolerance. Ardashir was supposedly rather intolerant of other religions, coming from a traditionally priest family, but still did not actively persecute non-Zoroastrians; rather, he is recorded to have made attempts at taking away the autonomy of Jewish temples as well as their independent judiciary and legal rights. Frenschkowski notes that Shapur I was even more tolerant than his father, even allowing the prophet Mani to join the Sasanian court and publish works in Middle Persian to promulgate his religion, Manichaeism. However, under the reign of Hormizd I and Bahram I, the influence of Kerdir reached a zenith, as he, despite having had good relationships with Mani during the reign of Shapur I, began persecuting Manichaeism, and eventually executed Mani in the city of Gundeshapur in 274 CE.
As religious intolerance became the norm, Zoroastrianism gained a stronger hold on Sasanian society. Nevertheless, with the persecution of non-Zoroastrian beliefs — especially Christianity, due to its association with the Roman Empire — the definition of the empire itself began to mean “Empire of the Zoroastrians” as much as “Empire of Iranians;” this would last even into the reigns of more religiously tolerant Shahanshahs such as Narseh (r. 293-303 CE).
Eternalizing the Ērānšahr
Discourse on the formation of the Ērānšahr inevitably brings us to the Persian national epic Shahnameh. It is common for any new ideology to be met with resistance — especially when an overarching ideology is imposed onto a collective of formerly disparate groups of peoples. Thus the Sasanians used history as a way of justifying the Ērānšahr and their system of centralized governance by portraying it as eternal, inevitable, and a result of past precedence by the glorious monarchs of the past.
The section of the Shahnameh that begin with Fereydun’s partition of the world into three and end with the vengeance of Manuchehr is essentially the tale of the genesis of the concept of Ērānšahr — far before the Sasanians, or, for that matter, even before the beginning of the reign of the legendary Kayanians.
The Shahnameh tells of Fereydun (Pahlavi Fredon), the first of the great heroes of the epic, who overthrew the snake-king tyrant Zahhak and united the world as its sole king; this shows a clear parallel — likely influence — from the line in the Young Avesta that states the way in which “Azhidahag took up his evil rule and ruled for a hundred years. At the end of the millennium, Fredon seized and bound him.” According to the Shahnameh, Fereydun, upon vanquishing Zahhak:
“...divided the world into three parts: one part consisted of the West, another of China and the land of the Turks, and the third of Persia, the land of warriors. The first area he gave to Salm, whom he ordered to select an army and set off to the West, where he was enthroned and acclaimed as the Lord of [Rum]. He made Tur the master of Turan, and gave him sovereignty over the Turks and the land of China…when the affairs of these two had been settled, Feraydun turned to Iraj, on whom he bestowed [Iran] and the lands of the Arabs. He gave him the crown and sword, the seal and ivory throne, because he was worthy of them.”
Thus the Shahnameh flips the order of naming the character of Iraj and the land of Iran. The order of chronology of these terms suggests that the term “Iran,” derived from the Indo-Iranian “aryan,” was used for the first time in the Sasanian period to refer to the land that lay bounded by the Euphrates, Indus, and Oxus Rivers, which was then slightly altered to give Iraj his name in Sasanian era texts such as the Khwaday-Namag (English: Book of Kings) and the Pahlavi Texts. However, the Shahnameh switches this to suggest that the name of the land was inspired by this mythical prince named Iraj.
The “crown,” “sword,” “seal” and “ivory throne” that Fereydun hands Iraj is a symbol of the farr, i.e. xvarenah, as those are all items that symbolize the right to rule; Fereydun’s symbols of royal legitimacy would refer to the right to rule the world, though it is ironic that Fereydun would divide his realm, only to give just one of his sons the right to rule the entire realm.
The Shahnameh then tells of the way in which Salm and Tur turned on Iraj. Though the two brothers conspired against their youngest brother, it was Salm, the king of Rome and the West, who plotted to overthrow his father and Iraj, while it was Tur, the king of Turan and the East, who actually killed Iraj with his own hands. These two are later killed by Iraj’s son, Manuchehr, who becomes the first shah of Ērānšahr (as Iraj never had the chance to rule as shah) and campaigns against Salm and Tur. It is then recorded that Tur is the ancestor of Afrasiyab, the archnemesis of the Kayanians of Iran, which continues the vicious cycle of rivalry between Iran and Turan.
This story of the tripartite partitioning of the world and the subsequent fratricide is reflective of the geopolitical atmosphere of the late Sasanian period, where wars with Rome had been waging since the beginning of the dynasty, and the steppe powers, namely the Hephthalites and the newly founded First Turkic Khaganate, had become a new threat to the eastern borders of the Sasanians. Wars between the Sasanians and Romans began with the very inception of the empire, when in 230 CE, Ardashir I invaded Roman territory and captured Mesopotamian territories held by Rome, including the city of Nusaybin. In 260 CE, Shapur I captured the Roman emperor Valerian — a feat that has largely been immortalized in the Inscriptions of Shapur I at Naqsh-e Rostam, as well as in Christian sources of the time. Though wars continued for the next four centuries, the border never changed significantly from the boundary that now largely defines the eastern border of the Levant — polities on the border between the Byzantines and Sasanians such as Armenia and Iberia consistently changed alliances and were frequently torn between the two superpowers. Multiple peace treaties were also signed, including the famous “Treaty of Eternal Peace” that lasted a short 8 years after the Iberian War (527–531 CE). These conflicts would climax with the Byzantine–Sasanian War of 602—628 CE, which exhausted both empires to the degree that they were virtually unable to resist the conquests of the Muslim Rashidun Caliphate and would eventualy result in the fall of the Sasanian Empire.
Conflicts with Central Asian powers was a more late Sasanian development, largely beginning with the ascendance in power of the Hephthalites in the mid-5th century. Sasanians had engaged in conflicts with nomadic peoples of the Central Asian steppes such as the Kidarites and Alchon Huns since the late 3rd century, but none formed a strong enough polity that could muster up a military force powerful enough to threaten the Sasanians. However, beginning in 474 CE, Hepthalites, having conquered most of what is now Turkestan, formed an empire and began invading the northeast frontier of the Sasanian empire, even capturing the Sasanian emperor Peroz I and using him as a hostage to extract ransom from the Sasanians. Starting in the 480s until the mid-6th century, the Hephthalites wrested Bactria from Sasanian control, levying taxes on local populations and forcing Sasanians to pay tribute so that they would not have to expend effort, resources, and personnel to conquer more of Sasanian territory. These conflicts are thought to have been the reason behind the construction of the Great Gorgan Wall, i.e. the “Red Snake,” which is the second longest defense wall in history, tracing 195 km eastward from the eastern coast of the Caspian Sea. In 557 CE, Khosrow I, having revitalized the Sasanian empire through a series of administrative reforms, allied with the Göktürk Empire to conquer the Hephthalites; however, this would backfire in 588 CE, when the Göktürks attacked the eastern provinces of the Sasanian Empire.
While this triangular relationship of conflict and cooperation between the Central Asian peoples, the Roman Empire, and the Sasanian Empire may appear to the modern historian as a development confined to the 5th-7th centuries, Sasanians, especially in the context of the aforementioned wars that depleted much of its coffers and manpower, would have portrayed this to have historically deep and intimate roots dating back to the very creation of Iran. This inspired them to eternalize the wars between Sasanians and its neighbors as a fated conflict that could only be ended with the defeat of either of its neighbors by the Sasanians, as had been done in the story of Manuchehr’s vengeance.
Through this context, the reason behind the dialectical undertones of the concept of “Iran” becomes more evident. The Sasanians needed a means to consolidate a united empire in the advent of invasions by foreign powers, notably the Romans and Central Asian nomadic empires, and thus needed to posit the invaders as the “other,” paradoxically as having come from the same root in the case they would need to make peace.
It is only when this dialectical framework is paired with the Zoroastrian duality between Ahura Mazda and Angra Mainyu — representing light and darkness, good and evil, order and chaos and so forth — that the significance of the anachronistic use of the notion of Ērānšahr comes to light. The account of the murder of Iraj in the Shahnameh mentions Ahriman, the Middle Persian name for the Zoroastrian spirit of evil i.e. Angra Mainyu, when Fereydun laments how “my young prince [Iraj], my noble warrior, no one who wore the crown has died as you have died: your head severed by Ahriman.” Thus, although the killers of Iraj are brothers of the rightful ruler of Iran and sons of Fereydun the Pishdadian king of the world, their actions are interpreted as having led astray by Ahriman. In the next section of the Shahnameh, commonly referred to as dealing with the “Heroic” or “Legendary” age, introduces the general and later king Afrasiyab of Turan, the arch-nemesis of the Kayanian Kays of Iran; though this is not specified in the Avestan accounts of his equivalent counterpart, Frangrasiyan, the Shahnameh establishes that Afrasiyab is descended from Tur and therefore is a far-removed cousin of the Kayanians, who are descended from Iraj. Yet once again Afrasiyab is described as an agent of Ahriman for his constant attacks on Iran and his eventual usurpation of the golden throne of Iran that the Kayanians were rightfully entitled to. Even Kay Kavus, a Kayanian, is told to have been “led… astray” by Ahriman and, upon losing his xvarenah, eventually is usurped by Afrasiyab.
These case studies, a select few among other instances where Ahriman is featured in the Avesta and Shahnameh, show that regardless of who the person may be, anyone that threatens Iran as a land and as a people — through corruption, violent invasions, sinfulness — is considered to have associated with Ahriman and therefore unaligned with Hormazd (i.e. Ahura Mazda). Therefore, by extrapolating Ērān and Anērān to the past, they are portrayed to be directly in alignment with the dualistic struggle between and Hormazd and Ahriman. Because of the dualistic nature of Zoroastrian cosmology that does not leave any ambiguity, or, colloquially, “gray areas” between the way of Hormazd and the way of Ahriman, anyone who is not Zoroastrian and therefore does not follow the ways of Hormazd is automatically considered an agent of Ahriman, not unlike the way in which the Bible portrays “non-believers” to “not have God” and to be caught within the “the snare of the devil.”
Aligning the dialectical duality of “Ērān” and “Anērān” with the Zoroastrian duality of Ahura Mazda and Ahriman elucidates two things about what determines Ērān, i.e. their Iranianness: the first being the Zoroastrian virtues that align a believer with the way of light and good as guided by Ahura Mazda, and second being their association with the land of Ērānšahr, which denotes a land situated between Rome and Turan, albeit with malleable boundaries. Without either of these, one was not considered an Iranian under Sasanian society — a Zoroastrian who was not of the land of Ērānšahr would not have been considered an Iranian as they are not a subject of the Kay or Šāhān Šāh Ērān; a non-Zoroastrian of the land of Ērānšahr would not be not considered an Iranian due to the Zoroastrian doctrine immediately associating them with Ahriman. Thus, understanding this in the context of the Sasanian Empire, it becomes clear how the idea of “Iran” thus became an effective way of championing Zoroastrianism as a means of unifying the empire. Simultaneously, the notion of an “Iran” bound to a land and a faith made it a strong binding force that justified the rapid expansion of autocratic authority under the Sasanians, as it created a paradigm in which the people of Iran united under the Shahanshah, and constantly engaged in a struggle against neighboring peoples.
The Filter of Mythical History: (Not) Remembering the Achaemenids
The Sasanians’ objective in structuring their histories was to establish a series of justifications behind three key aspects of their society: the propagation of urbanism, the establishment of an Iranian identity among the subjects of the Shahanshah, and the undercurrent of the state religion of orthodox Sasanian Zoroastrianism that ran under the previous two aspects of Sasanian society.
Thus, the way in which the evidence-based history of the Sasanians’ predecessors — in particular the Achaemenids, as Parthians and Seleucids were othered in the Sasanian period for different reasons — would be remembered by the Sasanians was largely dependent upon how they fit into this narrative of the Sasanians’ justified rule over the Ērānšahr. However, it must be understood that it is unlikely that the Achaemenids were forgotten by the Sasanians. The Achaemenid capital of Persepolis was maintained as the capital of the province of Persis under the Macedonian and Seleucid Empires, and the very city of Istakhr that the Ardashir I’s House of Sasan emerged from was built a mere five miles north of Persepolis. This way of locating new cities near the ruins of major cities of old was common practice in the premodern world; the city of Baghdad that remains the second largest city in Southwest Asia was built near the Ctesiphon. This was due to not only the fact that the original city had been built there due to geographical advantages that stay relatively consistent throughout time — whether that be preexisting irrigation systems, trade routes, or natural barriers.
Next, it is important to note the ways in which the lines between evidence-based history and what we may refer to as “mythological history” were severely blurred in late antiquity. This is visible in the words of Bahram V, as told in the Shahnameh, who, in greeting the Byzantine ambassador, states that he “should remember that Feraydun placed a crown on the head of Salm, from whom the present Byzantine emperor is descended. He has acted with nobility and chivalry and has not taken leave of his senses like the emperor of China.” Here, Bahram V seems to be emphasizing the filial connection between Salm and Iraj, the mythical ancestors of the rulers of the Byzantine and Sasanian Empires, respectively; he conveniently ignores the historical (?) enmity between them for the sake of diplomacy. Thus this passage shows not only the way in which this mythical history, told only through oral and literary works, served as an important cornerstone in practical political affairs, but also the ways in which history could be selectively chosen for the purposes of advancing a narrative appropriate to the context in which it was used.
Thus these are the contexts we must consider when understanding the selective ways in which Achaemenid emperors were forgotten or remembered. The reason behind the erasure of the name of the dynasty of Achaemenids, as well as those of other Iranian polities such as Medes, Anshan, and Elam, is rather obvious. The Sasanians needed to create a direct genealogical connection between the Sasanian dynasty and the very beginning of humanity, and thus could not connect it to another dynasty whose ancestor could be clearly dated to a time in history (Achaemenes, recorded to be 9 generations above Darius I in the Behistun Inscriptions). Perhaps more importantly, however, Sasanian historiography was founded on Zoroastrianism, as Sasanian historiography, similar to its theocratic urbanism and its invention of the labels of Ērān and Ērānšahr, was a enterprise intended to use Zoroastrianism as a means of consolidating power and creating overall cohesion within the empire. Thus, any history written in the Sasanian period needed to align with the stories of heroes, kings, and the supernatural present in the texts of the Avesta. In a sense, the history of Iran (and technically the world) as recorded in Sasanian/ Sasanian-based sources such as the Inscriptions at Naqsh-e Rostam, the Shahnameh (by extension the Xwaday-Namag), and the Šahrestānīhā-ī Ērānšahr were chronologically oriented, expanded, and embellished versions of the stories of the Avesta.
It is, however, less obvious, and perhaps more important to, understand why the name of Cyrus II (hitherto Cyrus, as he is the only Cyrus relevant to this study), who is largely considered the founder of the Achaemenid Empire, was erased from the Shahnameh (with some of his accomplishments attributed to other legendary kings), when he is, to modern Iranians, a figure that defines the Iranian identity, especially after Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, in 1970, proclaimed the Cyrus Cylinder to be the “oldest-known declaration of human rights.” A possible explanation is that the erasure of Cyrus was a result of the aforementioned erasure of the Achaemenid dynasty from history; it only seems natural that the founder of a dynasty would be erased along with the name of the dynasty. However, the fact that the Achaemenids themselves did not see Cyrus as the first emperor, but rather the 7th successor of the founder of the dynasty, Achaemenes, complicates this explanation, as this relegates Cyrus to a position no more special than Darius I or Darius III, both of whom are preserved in Sasanian historiographic works.
Thus, to understand the conscious erasure of Cyrus in Sasanian historiography, we return to the three key aspects of Sasanian society, using them as lenses through which Cyrus and Darius I can be compared. First and foremost, Cyrus was not a builder of cities, whereas Darius I was. Throughout most of his reign (c. 559—530 BCE), Cyrus conquered vast expanses of land, creating the largest land empire that the world had ever seen until his time. However, most of his reign was characterized by conquest and very little focus on cultural or administrative matters; the only major building project he is described conducting is the building of the palaces at Pasargadae, which was one of the capital cities of the Achaemenid Empire. In contrast, Darius I is credited in the Šahrestānīhā-ī Ērānšahr with the creation of Dārābgird, which not only carried value as a former administrative capital of a Parthian province, but also was the city in which Ardashir I had served as a military commander prior to becoming the ruler of Pars. Furthermore, Darius was known for sponsoring significant
Second, Cyrus did not define his domain through the use of a single, unified term as the Sasanians traditionally did; at best, the title “King of the World” or “King of the Four Quarters of the World” shows the idea that Cyrus deemed himself the ruler of the entire known world. The fact that Cyrus includes in his titles the names of the various regions he had conquered (e.g. “King of Babylon”) shows the goal of a multi-state empire that Cyrus was aiming to create. This is contrasted in Darius, who aggressively suppressed rebellions, implemented the royal inspectors policy to directly manage local governance, and issued the first coinage system in Iranian history — the issuing of the Persian daric that unified currency across the extent of the Achaemenid empire became a significant binding force for the empire. Darius I also defines the extent of his empires in the Behistun inscriptions, where he states:
“This is the kingdom which I hold, from the Sacae who are beyond Sogdia, to Kush, and from Sind [i.e. India] to Lydia [i.e. Anatolia] — [this is] what Ahura Mazda, the greatest of gods, bestowed upon me. May Ahura Mazda protect me and my royal house!”
Here, Darius I blatantly shows the extent of his empire, swears ownership of it to Ahura Mazda, and defines a bounded nation that could be interpreted as a parallel to the Ērānšahr. Unlike Cyrus, he showed a clear boundary to his holdings, which to Sasanians would have made Darius I a far better figure to trace the history of the Ērānšahr.
Finally and perhaps most importantly, it is likely that Cyrus was neither a Zoroastrian, nor perceived as one by posterity — whereas Darius I was likely at least perceived as one. Modern scholars such as Mary Boyce, often operating under the modern cultural climate of Iran where Cyrus is considered to be a national symbol, assume that Cyrus was an adherent of Zoroastrianism like his successor Darius I. However, it is likely that both of these assumptions — that Cyrus and Darius I were both Zoroastrian — were incorrect, given that the idea of a state religion itself was a newly instituted policy in the Sasanian period. Pierre Briant wrote that “it seems quite reckless to try to reconstruct what the religion of Cyrus might have been,” as there are not enough sources of his contemporary time period that point towards a single belief system that Cyrus would have subscribed to. In fact, Cyrus does not mention the supreme Zoroastrian deity Ahura Mazda in any of his inscriptions, but rather, in his most famous and well-preserved inscriptions, the Cyrus Cylinder, he invokes Marduk, the patron god of Babylon, referring to himself as “Cyrus, the king who reveres you.” Marduk was not considered one of the venerable yazatas of the Zoroastrian faith, and was largely perceived as a pagan local god of Babylon beginning with the era of Iranian rule over Mesopotamia with the Achaemenid dynasty. Thus this passage points to Cyrus’s religious flexibility, suggesting that divine veneration, to Cyrus, was largely a tool through which he maintained legitimacy in ruling over various regions with distinct cultures.
That is not to say there is necessarily evidence that defines Darius I as a Zoroastrian. The most convincing evidence one could use to characterize Darius I as a Zoroastrian is the fact that he invokes Ahura Mazda in the Behistun Inscriptions. A close look at the above passage from the Behistun Inscriptions shows Darius I clearly showing his reverence of Ahura Mazda, and, atop that, declaring that his right to rule over the empire came from Ahura Mazda, suggesting that Ahura Mazda is the overarching ruler of his empire through him. He also establishes Ahura Mazda as the “greatest of gods,” which could either suggest his belief of the Zoroastrian pantheon, where Ahura Mazda is the pinnacle of all deities, or his belief in Ahura Mazda specifically without any connections with Zoroastrianism. The latter is possible because Ahura Mazda is attested to have been an Indo-Iranian deity that was worshiped well before the inception of Zoroastrianism circa 1000 BCE by Zarathustra, which suggests that simply because one worshiped Ahura Mazda did not necessarily mean they were Zoroastrian. It could also potentially be argued that because Darius I refers himself as an “Aryan,” which, as explored earlier in the gloss of the word Ērān,” attested earliest in the Avesta in its Old Avestan form “ariianam,” this suggests his association with Zoroastrianism.
While neither of these prove definitively whether or not Darius I was Zoroastrian, what the Sasanians needed was not definitive proof that Darius I was Zoroastrian. As the French scholar Ernest Renan states in the above epigraph, “the progress of historical studies often poses a threat to” the purpose for which said historical studies are being appropriated for. The Sasanians were not interested in an evidence-based historical understanding of the religious beliefs and philosophy of Darius I. As long as he was an adherent of Ahura Mazda and committed actions that appeared to champion the same three key aspects that made Sasanian society distinct, he could very well be included within the ranks of the Kayanian kings who exercised their xvarenah by building cities, keeping order and unity within the Ērānšahr, and following the path of a good Zoroastrian.
While it is now clear why Darius I was included amongst the ranks of the Kayanians, it is the presence of Darius III — referred to as “Dārā, son of Dārā” in nearly every Persian source that mentions his name — that is the remaining enigma in this long and convoluted question of why certain Achaemenids were included while others excluded. Darius III (r. 336-330 BCE) was the last King of Kings of the Achaemenids whose reign was prematurely ended by his murder at the hands of Alexander the Great, who went on to swallow the entirety of the Persian Empire. Thus, in virtually all histories, Darius III is featured as a foil to Alexander; consequently, because Alexander was of such great interest to historians across the Hellenistic world, Darius III inevitably became a prominent figure in association with Alexander.
In this sense, Darius III is as important of a character in the Avesta and Shahnameh as are characters such as Jamshid or Nowzar, who are both characters whose the xvarenah bestowed by Ahura Mazda and plunge Irani. The notion of the xvarenah, or the divine glory of those who possess the right to rule, is one that neither is eternal nor can be taken for granted; in fact, the xvarenah is quite susceptible to corruption and external threats, making it in ways a metaphor for the precarious state of Iran as a target of expansion from all four directions.
Thus Darius I and Darius III became the only Achaemenids who had left a legacy which the Sasanians could appropriate to fit their narrative of an eternalized, urban, and Zoroastrian Ērānšahr, thus finally elucidating the reason behind the Achaemenids’ seeming disappearance from Persian historical records.
The question of the missing Achaemenids in traditional Persian historical literature has confounded historians for over a hundred years, bringing about dozens of different theories attempting to answer this enigma. The fact that the Achaemenids were so vividly alive in the memories and histories of surrounding cultures such as the Israelites and Romans, but seemed to have been entirely forgotten amongst the Iranians themselves was perplexing — especially on the basis of the knowledge that Iran constantly engaged with these surrounding cultures, and moreover, recognized the existence of Achaemenid monuments. Thus this study was an attempt to frame this phenomenon as a result of purposeful actions by the Sasanians to mold their histories to a narrative that would aid in strengthening a centralized theocracy; thus, the phenomenon that intrigued us becomes understood as simply a byproduct of this greater project. The angle at which this study approached the issue of the “national amnesia” of premodern Iranian historians, as Gregor Schoeler would say, shows that when evidence does not directly point to a cause, it can be important to decentralize the problem as something the agents of the time would have been focused on, and to understand it within a broader context.
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Ernest Renan, What Is a Nation?
ESV: Study Bible: English standard version. Wheaton, Ill: Crossway Bibles.
Ferdowsi, Abolqasem. Shahnameh. Trans. Dick Davis (New York: Penguin Books, 2016), 36
Gnoli, Gherardo (1999), "Farr(ah)", Encyclopaedia Iranica, vol. 9.3, Costa Mesa: Mazda, pp. 312–316
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Hossein, Maroufi, “Urban planning in ancient cities of Iran: understanding the meaning of urban form in the Sasanian city of Ardašīr-Xwarrah,” in Planning Perspectives 35, no. 6 (2020), 1055-1080.
Huff, Dietrich (1999). "ECONOMY." Encyclopaedia Iranica, Vol. IX, Fasc. 1. pp. 104–107.
Huff, Dietrich (1999). "FĪRŪZĀBĀD." Encyclopaedia Iranica, Vol. IX, Fasc. 6. pp. 633–636.
Joseph Wiesehöfer, “ARDAŠĪR I i. History,” Encyclopaedia Iranica, 1986, II/4, pp. 371-376, available online (accessed online on 08 August 2011)
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MacGregor, Neil. "The whole world in our hands" from The Guardian. (London, 2004).
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MacKenzie, D.N. “Kerdir’s Inscription” from Iranische Denkmäler: Iranische Felsreliefs (Berlin: Reimer, 1989).
Marco Frenschkowski (1993). "Mani (iran. Mānī<; gr. Mανιχαῑος < ostaram. Mānī ḥayyā "der lebendige Mani")". In Bautz, Traugott (ed.). Biographisch-Bibliographisches Kirchenlexikon (BBKL) (in German). Vol. 5. Herzberg: Bautz. cols. 669–80.
Mary Boyce, A History of Zoroastrianism (Brill, 1982), 68.
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Omrani Rekavandi, H., Sauer, E., Wilkinson, T. & Nokandeh, J. (2008), “The Enigma of the Red Snake: Revealing One of the World’s Greatest Frontier Walls,” Current World Archaeology, No. 27, February/March 2008, pp. 12-22
Pierre Lecoq, “DPh Inscriptions”, Les inscriptions de la Perse achéménide (Paris: Gallimard, 1997)
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 Ferdowsi, Shahnameh trans. by Dick Davis (Penguin, 2016): 642
 Wiesehofer, Josef, Ancient Persia from 550 BC to 650 AD. trans. Azizeh Azodi (New York, London: I.B. Tauris, 2001): 144-151
 Bennett, Julian Trajan. Optimus Princeps. (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2001): 194-195
 Daryaee, Touraj, Sasanian Iran (224-651 CE) - Portrait of a Late Antique Empire. (Costa Mesa: Mazda Publishers, 2008): 8-11
 Herodotus, Histories. Book III, 89-95
 Brosius, Maria, The Persians: An Introduction, (London & New York: Routledge, 2006): 113-114
 Referred to the “Iranian Cultural Continent” by the Encyclopaedia Iranica, this refers to the lands in which Iranian culture, language, and script dominated during much of the premodern era, roughly bounded by the Euphrates river and Caucasus mountains to the east, the Indus River to the west, and the Amu Darya (i.e. Oxus River) to the north.
 Daryaee, Touraj. Sasanian Persia — the Rise and Fall of an Empire (London & New York: I.B. Tauris, 2009): 39-41
 Sunderman, Werner. “BIDAXŠ” from Encyclopedia Iranica, Vol. IV, Fasc. 3, pp. 242-244
 Daryaee, Touraj. Šahrestānīhā-ī Ērānšahr: A Middle Persian Text on Late Antique Geography, Epic, and History. (Costa Mesa: Mazda Publishers, 2002)
 Gnoli, Gherardo (1999), "Farr(ah)", Encyclopaedia Iranica, vol. 9.3, Costa Mesa: Mazda, pp. 312–316
 “Zam Yasht” from The Avesta, trans. L.H. Mills and James Darmesteter (1898): 171-179
 Farr is the transliteration of the way in which certain dialects of New Iranian pronounce the Standard New Persian Xorra, which is equivalent to the Middle Persian Xwarrah and the Avestan Xvarenah.
 Ferdowsi, Abolqasem. Shahnameh. Trans. Dick Davis (New York: Penguin Books, 2016), 36
 Boyce, Mary. Zoroastrians: Their Religious Beliefs and Practices (London: Routledge, 2001); the term yazata is also used to refer to what are the equivalent of angels in Zoroastrianism, while Ahura Mazda is occasionally referred to as the “greatest of all yazatas,” suggesting that the term refers to any venerable being on the side of good in the dualistic cosmology of Zoroastrianism.
 Boyce, Mary, History of Zoroastrianism, vol. 1 (Leiden: Brill, 1975).
 Shahbazi, Shapur, "Darius I the Great", Encyclopedia Iranica, vol. 7 (New York: Columbia University, 1994): 41–50
 Wiesehöfer, Josef, Ancient Persia, trans. Azizeh Azodi (London: I.B. Tauris, 2001): 42, 47, 57.
 Boyce, Mary. The Letter of Tansar. (Roma: Instituto Italiano Per Il Medio Ed Estremo Oriente, 1968), 48
 While modern Zoroastrianism sees a clear hierarchy where mowbeds are of higher status than herbeds due to their ability to carry out yasna rituals, records of herbeds in Sasanian history suggest that, while this hierarchy did exist during the Sasanian period, herbeds often had greater influence in religious and political affairs.
 A combination of the words šahr (Eng: “city”) and -stan
 Hossein, Maroufi, “Urban planning in ancient cities of Iran: understanding the meaning of urban form in the Sasanian city of Ardašīr-Xwarrah,” in Planning Perspectives 35, no. 6 (2020), 1055-1080.
 Massoud Kheirabadi, Dietrich Huff, Georgina Herrmann, “DĀRĀB,” from Encyclopedia Iranica, Vol. VII, Fasc. 1, pp. 5-7.
 Boyce, Mary, A History of Zoroastrianism, Vol. II, (Leiden/Köln: Brill, 1982)
 Schmitt, Rudiger. “The Bisitun Inscriptions of Darius the Great: Old Persian text.” from Corpus Inscriptionum Iranicarum ed. International Committee (London: School of Oriental and African Studies, 1991)
 Kent, Roland G. Old Persian: grammar, texts, lexicon. (American Oriental Society, 1954) p. 181.
The Greek terminology here is due to the fact that Parthians, as a hellenic state, used Greek as its primary written language.
 MacKenzie, D.N. “ĒRĀN, ĒRĀNŠAHR”
 MacKenzie, D.N. “Kerdir’s Inscription” from Iranische Denkmäler: Iranische Felsreliefs (Berlin: Reimer, 1989). §11-16
 Toumanoff, C. (1986). "Arsacids vii. The Arsacid dynasty of Armenia". Encyclopaedia Iranica, Vol. II, Fasc. 5. pp. 543–546.
 Boyce, Mary. The Letter of Tansar. (Roma: Instituto Italiano Per Il Medio Ed Estremo Oriente, 1968), 48
 Shayegan, M. Rahim (2004). "Hormozd I," Encyclopaedia Iranica, Vol. XII, Fasc. 5. pp. 462–464.
 Marco Frenschkowski (1993). "Mani (iran. Mānī<; gr. Mανιχαῑος < ostaram. Mānī ḥayyā "der lebendige Mani")". In Bautz, Traugott (ed.). Biographisch-Bibliographisches Kirchenlexikon (BBKL) (in German). Vol. 5. Herzberg: Bautz. cols. 669–80.
 In the Avesta, Azhi Dahaka, the parallel to the Shahanameh’s Zahhak, is portrayed as a “Giant Dragon,” as opposed to a human king with snakes sprouting from his shoulders. However, as this is a detail irrelevant to the present study, Zahhak will be referred to as the “snake-king” as he is portrayed in the Shahnameh.
 Skjaervo, The Spirit of Zoroastrianism, 116, §40:2
 This particular translation, by Dick Davis, uses many localizations of terms to translate this passage, largely corrupting and literalizing the connotations each of the names of the regions carry: he translates “Rum” — Middle Persian for “Rome” — as “Western Lands,” and Ērān” as “Persia.” While these are not inaccurate as to the lands each of these terms describe, this translation largely forsakes the way in which the geopolitical atmosphere of Medieval Persia influenced the way in which history was understood by Iranian people, including Ferdowsi. The fact that “Rome” refers to lands west of Iran, as well as the use of the term Ērān” to refer to Iraj’s lands, which we have established to be a Sasanian neologism, carry far more connotative weight that cannot be captured in Dick Davis’s current translation.
 Ferdowsi, Shahnameh, 73
 Iranian term that can be traced to the Avesta, used primarily in association to Tur, one of the sons of Thraetona (New Persian: Fereydun), as well as the Frangrasiyan (Middle Persian: Afrasiyab), archnemesis of the Kayanians. Traditionally refers to lands northeast of Khorasan, including the Central Asian steppes and in some cases even encompassing China
 Ferdowsi, Shahnameh, 80
 Wiesehofer, Josef, Ancient Persia from 550 BC to 650 AD. trans. Azizeh Azodi (New York, London: I.B. Tauris, 2001)
 Daryaee, Touraj, Sasanian Iran (224-651 CE) - Portrait of a Late Antique Empire. (Costa Mesa: Mazda Publishers, 2008): 22-29
 Greatrex, Geoffrey; Lieu, Samuel N. C. (2002). The Roman Eastern Frontier and the Persian Wars (Part II, 363–630 AD). (New York & London: Routledge, 2002)
 Wiesehofer, Josef, Ancient Persia from 550 BC to 650 AD.
 Daryaee, Touraj. Sasanian Persia: The Rise and Fall of an Empire. (New York & London: I.B.Tauris, 2014), 25
 Omrani Rekavandi, H., Sauer, E., Wilkinson, T. & Nokandeh, J. (2008), “The Enigma of the Red Snake: Revealing One of the World’s Greatest Frontier Walls,” Current World Archaeology, No. 27, February/March 2008, pp. 12-22
Shahbazi, A. Sh. "Bahrām VI Čōbīn". Encyclopaedia Iranica, Vol. III, Fasc. 5. (London et al., 1988) pp. 514–522.
 Ferdowsi, Shahnameh, 82
 Ferdowsi, Shahnameh, 184
 John 1:9; Timothy 2:26 from ESV: Study Bible: English standard version. Wheaton, Ill: Crossway Bibles.
 The “othering” of Seleucids is obvious — they were perceived as the Greek-speaking remnants of Alexander’s conquests. On the other hand, Parthians were considered distant cousins of the Pars-based ruling class of the Sasanians, as they were also portrayed as having descended from Kayanians; however, the Sasanians saw them as unorthodox Zoroastrians and therefore pagans, as mentioned previously in the letters of Tansar.
 Ferdowsi, Shahnameh: 800.
 MacGregor, Neil. "The whole world in our hands" from The Guardian. (London, 2004). Retrieved 2010-06-26.
 Daryaee, Touraj. Šahrestānīhā-ī Ērānšahr: A Middle Persian Text on Late Antique Geography, Epic, and History. (Costa Mesa: Mazda Publishers, 2002), §42
 Pierre Lecoq, “DPh Inscriptions”, Les inscriptions de la Perse achéménide (Paris: Gallimard, 1997)
 Mary Boyce, A History of Zoroastrianism (Brill, 1982), 68.
 Briant, Pierre (2002). From Cyrus to Alexander: A History of the Persian Empire. Eisenbrauns. pp. 1–1196.
 Schmitt, Rudiger. “The Bisitun Inscriptions of Darius the Great: Old Persian text.”
 Ernest Renan, What is a Nation?
 Skjaervo, The Spirit of Zoroastrianism, 118, §40:19