Cameo of Shahpour I captures Valerian the Roman emperor AD 260.
Courtesy "Iran Photo Album"
From "The Pengiun History of the World", third edition, by J.M. Roberts. (Published by the Penguin Group, London, 1992).
Sassanid Persia was a religious as well as a political unity. Zoroastrianism had been formally restored by Ardashir, who gave important privileges to its priests, the magi. They led in due course to political power as well.
Priests confirmed the divine nature of the kingship, had important judicial duties, and came, too, to supervise the collection of the land-tax which was the basis of the Persian finance. The doctrines they taught seem to have varied considerably from the strict monotheism attributed to Zoroaster but focused on a creator, Ahura Mazda, whose viceroy on earth was the king. The Sassanids' promotion of the state religion was closely connected with the assertion of their own authority.
The ideological basis of the Persian state became even more important when the Roman empire became Christian. Religious differences began to matter much more; religious disaffection came to be seen as political. The wars with Rome made Christianity treasonable. Though Christians in Persia had at first been tolerated, their persecution became logical and continued well into the fifth century.
Nor was it only Christians who were tormented. In 276 [A.D.] a Persian religious teacher called Mani was executed -- by the particularly agonizing method of being flayed alive. He was to become known in the West under the Latin form of his name, Manichaeus, and the teaching attributed to him had a great future as a Christian heresy.
Manichaeism brought together Judeo-Christian beliefs and Persian mysticism and brought the whole cosmos as a great drama in which the forces of Light and Darkness struggled for domination. Those who apprehended this truth sought to participate in the struggle by practicing austerities which open to them the way to perfection and to harmony with the cosmic drama of salvation. Manichaeism sharply differentiated good and evil, nature and God; its fierce dualism appealed to some Christians who saw in it a doctrine coherent with what Paul had taught. St. Augustine was a Manichee in his youth and Manichaeism traces have been detected much in the heresies of medieval Europe.
Perhaps an uncompromising dualism has always a strong appeal to a certain cast of mind. However that may be, the distinction of being persecuted both by a Zoroastrian and a Christian monarchy preceded the spread of Manichaen ideas far and wide. Their adherents found refuge in central Asia and China, where Manichaeism appears to have flourished as late as the thirteenth century.
As for orthodox Christians in Persia, although a fifth-century peace stipulated that they should enjoy toleration, the danger that they might turn disloyal in the continual wars with Rome made this a dead letter. Only at the end of the century did a Persian king issue an edict of toleration and this was merely to conciliate the Armenians. It did not end the problem; Christians were soon irritated by the vigorous proselytizing of Zoroastrian enthusiasts.
Further assurances by Persian kings that Christianity was to be tolerated do not suggest that they were very successful or vigorous in seeing that it was. Perhaps it was impossible against the political background: the exception which proves the rule is provided by the Nestorians, who were tolerated by the Sassanids, but this was just because they were persecuted by the Romans. They were, therefore, thought likely to be politically reliable.
Though religion and the fact that Sassanid power and civilization reached their peak under Chosroes I in the sixth century both help to give the rivalry of the empires something of the dimensions of a contest between civilizations, the renewed wars of that century are not very interesting. They offer for the most part a very dull, dingdong story, though they were the last round but one of the struggles of East and West begun by the Greeks and Persians a thousand years earlier. The climax of this struggle came at the beginning of the seventh century in the last world war of antiquity. Its devastations may have well been the fatal blow to the Hellenistic urban civilization of the Near East.
Chosroes II, the last great Sassanid, then ruled Persia. His opportunity seemed to have come when a weekend Byzantium -- Italy was already gone and the Slavs and Avars were pouring into the Balkans -- lost a good emperor, murdered by mutineers. Chosroes owed a debt of gratitude to the dead Maurice, for he had been restored to the Persian throne with his aid. His armies poured into the Levant, ravaging the cities of Syria.
In 615 they sacked Jerusalem, bearing away the relic of the True Cross which was its most famous treasure. The Jews, it may be remarked, often welcomed the Persians and seized the chance to carry out pogroms of Christians no doubt all the more delectable because the boot had for so long been on the other foot.
The next year Persian armies went on to invade Egypt; a year later still, their advance-guards paused only a mile from Constantinople. They even put to sea, raided Cyprus and seized Rhodes from the empire. The empire of Darius seemed to be restored almost at the moment when, at the other end of the Mediterranean, the Roman empire was losing its last possessions in Spain.
This was the blackest moment for Rome in her long struggle with Persia, but a savior was at hand. In 610 the imperial viceroy of Carthage, Heraclius, had revolted against Maurice's successor and ended that tyrant's bloody reign by killing him. In his turn he received the imperial crown from the Patriarch. The disasters in Asia could not at once be stemmed but Heraclius was to prove one of the greatest of the soldier emperors.
Only sea-power saved Constantinople in 626, when the Persian army could not be transported to support and attack on the city by their Avar allies. Next year, Heraclius broke into Assyria and Mesopotamia, the old disputed heartland of Near Eastern strategy. The Persian army mutinied, Chosroes was murdered and his successor made peace. The great days of Sassanid power were over. The relic of the True Cross -- or what was said to be such -- was restored to Jerusalem. The long duel of Persia and Rome was at an end and the focus of world history was to shift at last to another conflict.
The Sassanids finally went under because they had too many enemies. The year 610 had brought a bad omen: for the first time an Arab force defeated a Persian army.