Decline and Fall of the Sasanian Empire – The Sasanian–Parthian Confederacy and the Arab Conquest of Iran by Parvaneh Pourshariati
Decline and Fall of the Sasanian Empire
The “last great war of antiquity” of 603–628 CE, between the two great empires of the Near East, the Byzantines (330?–1453 CE)5 and the Sasanians (224–651 CE), was on the verge of drastically redrawing the map of the world of late antiquity.
For almost two decades during this period, the Sasanian empire was successful in re-establishing the boundaries of the Achaemenid (559–330 BCE) empire at the height of its successful campaigns against the Byzantines.
As Sebeos’ account bears witness, when in 615 the Persians reached Chalcedon,6 the Byzantine emperor Heraclius (610–641) was about ready to become a client of the Sasanian emperor Khusrow II (591–628).
When, in 622, a small, obscure, religio-political community in Mecca is said to have embarked on an emigration (hijra) to Medina—an emigration that in subsequent decades came to be perceived as the watershed for the birth of a new community, the Muslim ‘umma—the Sasanians were poised for world dominion.
Unexpectedly, however, the tides turned. For in the wake of what has been termed “one of the most astonishing reversals of fortune in the annals of war,”8 and after the ultimate defeat of the Sasanians in the last crucial years of the war (621–628 CE)—itself a tremendously perplexing question—a sociopolitical upheaval unprecedented in the world of late antiquity began:
the Arab conquest of the Near East. While the event truncated Byzantium beyond recognition by the 640s, its consequences were even more dire for the Sasanians.
For with the death of the last Sasanian king, Yazdgird III (632–651), in the aftermath of the Arab conquest of Iran, came the end of more than a millennium of Iranian rule in substantial sections of the Near East.
The Sasanian empire was toppled and swallowed up by the Arab armies. What had happened?
Why was an empire that was poised for the dominion of the Near East in 620, when successfully engaging the powerful Byzantines, utterly defeated by 650 by the forces of a people hitherto under its suzerainty, the Arab armies? This work is an attempt to make sense of this crucial juncture of Iranian and Middle Eastern history.
It will seek to explain the success of the Arab conquest of Iran in the early seventh century, as well as the prior defeat of the Sasanians by the Byzantines, with reference to the internal dynamics of late Sasanian history.
Our very conceptualization of the internal dynamics of Sasanian history, however, will involve a heretical assessment of this history, for it will take serious issue with the Chris- tensenian view of the Sasanians as an étatiste/centralized polity, a perspective that ever since the 1930s, when Christensen published L’Iran sous les Sassanides, has become paradigmatic in scholarship.9
The overarching thesis of the present work is that episodic and unsuccessful attempts of the Sasanians at centralization notwithstanding, the Sasanian monarchs ruled their realm through a de-centralized dynastic system, the backbone of which was the Sasanian–Parthian confederacy.10
The theses proposed in this work have been formed after an exhaustive investigation and at times reevaluation of a host of external and internal sources pertaining to this period of Iranian history. Armenian, Greek, Syriac, and classical Islamic histories, especially the futu¯h. (or conquest) narratives have been utilized in a source-critical juxtaposition with literary and primary sources of Sasanian history, the Xwad¯ay-N¯amag (Khud¯ayn¯amag or the Book of Kings)11 tradition(s) as they appear in classical Arabic histories but especially in the Sh¯ahn¯a- ma of Ferdows¯ı; Middle Persian literature produced in the late antique period of Iranian history; local Iranian histories; and, above all, the numismatic and sigillographic evidence of late Sasanian history.
The present work, therefore, engages in a continuous and pervasive critical dialogue between the ways in which the Sasanians were perceived by their foreign, generally hostile, contemporary, or near contemporaries, the ways in which they wished to be perceived from an imperial, central perspective, and the ways in which they were actually perceived by the powerful polities within their own periphery—polities which in fact forcefully articulated their own perception of the Sasanians.
The end result, as we shall see, is that the historiographical strengths evinced by each of