Josef Wiesehöfer
Search for other papers by Josef Wiesehöfer in
Current site
Google Scholar
H. Luschey
Search for other papers by H. Luschey in
Current site
Google Scholar

(7,844 words)

(d. 242 CE), the founder of the Sasanian empire.

(d. 242 CE), the founder of the Sasanian empire.

A version of this article is available in print

Volume II, Fascicle 4, pp. 371-380

ARDAŠĪR I (?-242 A.D.), the founder of the Sasanian empire.

ARDAŠĪR I i. History

Ardašīr, Middle Persian spelling ʾrthštr ( = Parthian ʾrthštr), pronounced Artašīr, later Ardašīr, is derived from Old Iranian *Ṛtaxšira, a two-stem hypocoristic name (*ṛta-xš-ira) to a full name *ṚtaxšΘra (R. Schmitt, “Artaxerxes, Ardašīr und Verwandte,” in Incontri Linguistici 5, 1979, pp. 61-72 and below under Artaxerxes).

Family and early career. Sources on Ardašīr’s birth and early years vary on many points. According to one account given by Ṭabarī (I, p. 814) he stemmed from a noble family of Persis and was born at Ṭīrūda, a village in the district of Ḵīr and subdistrict of Eṣṭaḵr. His grandfather Sāsān (q.v.), whose name was to be given to the dynasty, is described as custodian of the temple of the Fire of Anāhitā (Bayt nār Nāhīḏ) at Eṣṭaḵr and his grandmother, Rāmbehešt, as a descendant of the princely family named Bāzrangī. His father was Pāpak (Bābag, q.v.), a son of Sāsān, and his successor to the “governorship of the people.” A second version may be adduced from the inscription of Šāpūr I on the Kaʿba-ye Zardošt (ŠKZ), which names Sāsān as a lord (hwtʾy) but not as Pāpak’s father (Mid. Persian, line 25). A third version appears in the Middle Persian romance generally known as the Kār-nāmag ī Ardašīr (Book of the deeds of Ardašīr, tr. Th. Nöldeke, Geschichte des Artachšīr i Pāpakān [ = Bezzenbergers Beiträge 4, 1878, pp. 22ff.]), repeated in Ferdowsī’s Šāh-nāma (Moscow, VII, pp. 116ff.) and echoed by Agathias (2.27). According to this, the local ruler Pāpak gave his daughter in marriage to Sāsān after learning of Sāsān’s descent from Dārā, i.e. the Achaemenid king Darius III, and Ardašīr was the child of their union. Thereafter, however, Sāsān disappears from the romance and Pāpak is treated as Ardašīr’s father. The discrepancy of the sources is variously explained. Some accept Ṭabarī’s version, dismissing the third as a legend, or suggest a possible adoption, consistent with Zoroastrian practice, of Sāsān’s son Ardašīr by Pāpak. Others surmise that, as in the case of Achaemenes, Sāsān may have been an ancestor and patronym of the Sasanian dynasty (see Nöldeke, Geschichte der Perser, pp. 1ff.; Herzfeld, Paikuli I, pp. 35f., 240ff.; R. N. Frye, Camb. Hist. Iran III, 1983, pp. 116ff.; M. L. Chaumont, RHR 153, 1958, pp. 154ff., and JA 247, 1959, pp. 175ff.).

Equal obscurity surrounds Ardašīr’s early career. According to Ṭabarī (in Nöldeke, ibid., pp. 4f.; see also Balʿamī, Tārīḵ, pp. 877ff., and the anonymous Nehāyat al-erab, cited and tr. in G. Widengren, “The Establishment of the Sasanian Dynasty in the Light of New Evidence,” in La Persia nel Medioevo, Rome, 1971, pp. 767ff.), Pāpak obtained permission from Gōzihr, the king of Eṣṭaḵr to place his son in the care of Tīrī, the commandant of the castle of Dārābgerd; when Tīrī died, Ardašīr took over his post, but then defiantly began to extend his own sway, and in the process killed several local princes, and even urged his father to overthrow Gōzihr. Pāpak did so and upon the refusal of the Parthian Great King to make Šāpūr the new king of Eṣṭaḵr, declared open rebellion. The leading role of Ardašīr in the rebellion against the central authority could be a later interpretation; it is quite likely, on the other hand, that Pāpak gained partial control of Fārs because he is known from Ardašīr’s coins (see below). The rebellion began with the overthrow of the king of Eṣṭaḵr, after which the realm was consolidated and its independence from the Parthian monarch was proclaimed. It may be inferred that one of these events took place in 205-206 A.D., because that year is implied as the start of an era (the Sasanian era?) in a Middle Persian-Parthian inscription at Bīšāpūr which is dated to “the year 58, forty years of the [royal] fire of Ardašīr, twenty-four years of the fire of Šāpūr” (see R. Ghirshman and A. Christensen in RAA 10, 1936, pp. 123ff.; O. Hansen, ZDMG 92, 1936, pp. 441ff.; W. B. Henning, BSOAS 9, 1939, pp. 825f.). The chronological implication of this text is much discussed (see esp. W. B. Henning and S. H. Taqizadeh, Asia Major 6, 1957, pp. 106-21, and most recently R. Altheim-Stiehl, AMI, N.F. 11, 1978, pp. 113ff., and more fully in Boreas 5, 1982, pp. 153ff.). The supposition that the date indicated Pāpak’s rebellion seems all the more probable because subsequent Sasanian time-reckoning was not based on the epochal year 205-206, but either on the start of each king’s reign or on the Seleucid era, and Ardašīr himself initiated his own era (Ḥamza, p. 23) with his overthrow of the Parthians in 224. The reign of the Parthian monarch Vologeses IV (192-207) was disturbed by the invasion of Mesopotamia by the Roman emperor Septimius Severus, and the attention of the paramount Iranian power was naturally directed to the west providing a good opportunity for the local rulers in the southwestern and central regions to initiate revolts. Pāpak was supported by his sons, the eldest of whom, Šāpūr, became king in his father’s life time (his coins are known), but after they both were dead, Ardašīr assumed power and gave the movement a new impetus (see for details and sources S. H. Taqizadeh, in BSOAS 9, pp. 125ff.; V. G. Lukonin, Kulʾtura Sasanidskogo Irana, Moscow, 1969, chap. 2; Widengren, op. cit., pp. 711ff.).

By 224, Ardašīr had extended his sway over Persis and beyond into Elymais (Ḵūzestān) and Kermān, forcing to submission many local kings and vassals of the Parthians (Ṭabarī, I, p. 815; Balʿamī, pp. 881ff.). The extent of his original realm cannot be determined precisely. During this first phase he was already flouting Parthian authority through administrative actions such as the foundation of new towns and probably the issue of coins (see details in Lukonin, op. cit.). The story of an exchange of letters between Ardašīr and the reigning Arsacid, Artabanus (Ardavān) V (told by Ṭabarī, I, pp. 817f.) and some other Oriental sources, e.g., Balʿamī, pp. 880f.) may be regarded as a literary or historiographical dramatization of the fact that Ardašīr was claiming the throne of all Iran. His prospect of success would have been less good if his pretensions had not concurred with a widespread mood of discontent with the Parthian régime and willingness to look favorably on the rebellion. His policy declarations and propaganda (cf. the letters to local kings cited in Ḥamza, p. 45), as well as his military victories, probably induced many individuals to stake their lot on the movement’s success (see also Ferdowsī, VII, pp. 130f.).

Overthrow of the Parthian empire (224), and subsequent expansion of Ardašīr’s realm. The decisive battle between the Parthians and the Sasanians was fought in the plain of Hormazǰān in Media on 28 April 224 (Nöldeke, Geschichte der Perser, p. 411). The year is confirmed by the evidence of the inscription of Šāpūr at Bīšāpūr (cf. Altheim-Stiehl in a forthcoming work on the Chronicle of Arbela, ed. by P. Kawerau). A detailed account of the battle was probably composed for the official history of the Sasanians, and if so, is likely to have been Ṭabarī’s ultimate source. An illustration of this account was carved by Ardašīr in a bas-relief at Fīrūzābād (see Ṭabarī, I, p. 818, Balʿamī, pp. 882ff.; Ṯaʿālebī, pp. 478ff.; Dīnavarī, p. 44; Ferdowsī, VII, pp. 134f.; Chronicle of Arbela, in A. Mingana, ed., Sources syriaques I, Leipzig, 1908, p. 29.8ff.; Acta Martyrum et Sanctorum Syriaca, ed. P. Bedjan, II, Paris, 1891, p. 128. On the bas-relief, see below).

While still on the battlefield, Ardašīr assumed the title Šāhānšāh (king of kings), and this marked his accession, and indeed, in the light of the most plausible interpretation of the bilingual inscription at Bīšāpūr, the “official” opening year of the Sasanian régime began in 223-224 A.D., i.e. the Sasanian calendar year starting with 27 September 223 and ending with 25 September 224 (R. Altheim-Stiehl, AMI, N.F. 11, 1978, pp. 113ff., and Boreas 5, 1982, pp. 152ff.). In other sources an official coronation of Ardašīr at Ctesiphon in 226 is mentioned in the context of an expedition to annex former Parthian territories in northwestern Iran and Upper Mesopotamia (see Taqizadeh and Henning, op. cit., and Lukonin, op. cit., for references and discussion).

In the campaign in the northwest of the Parthian empire, Ardašīr failed in an attempt to capture Hatra about 226-227 (Dio Cassius 80.3.2), just as two Roman emperors—Trajan (Dio Cassius 68.17ff.) and Septimius Severus (Dio Cassius 76.9ff.; Herodian 3.9)—had failed before him. He was also repulsed (in 227-228?) by the Arsacids of the collateral line reigning in Armenia, who were to give the Sasanians trouble for a long time (Dio Cassius 80.3.2-3). On the other hand Ardašīr was apparently able, in the following years, to take over the east of the Parthian empire and obtain the submission of numerous Parthian vassals, local magnates, and noble families (Lukonin, op. cit., chap. 2). The precise extent of the Sasanian empire can not be ascertained. It appears that the rulers of the Kūšān and of Turan in the east paid homage to Ardašīr and that the oasis of Marv (and presumably also Ḵᵛārazm) fell into his hand (Ṭabarī, I, p. 819; Yaʿqūbī, I, p. 179; Dīnavarī, p. 44; Nehāya, in Widengren, op. cit., p. 770. On the campaign see E. Herzfeld, Paikuli I, Berlin, 1924, pp. 37ff.; Widengren, op. cit., pp. 752ff.). In the southwest, the Sasanians succeeded in conquering the north Arabian coast (Baḥrayn) (Ṭabarī, I, p. 820; Dīnavarī, pp. 44f.; Nehāya,in Widengren, op. cit., p. 771; cf. R. N. Frye, “Bahrain under the Sasanians,” in Dilmun, ed. D. T. Potts, Berlin, 1983, pp. 167ff.). In the northwest, the old Roman-Parthian frontier probably at first marked the limit of Sasanian influence (Wiesehöfer, Klio 64, 1982, pp. 440ff. with literature). There can be no doubt that Ardašīr’s view of foreign relations was shaped by his ambition to resume “Achaemenid” policy and repeat its successes. As J. Wolsksi (in Aufstieg und Niedergang der römischen Welt, ed. H. Temporini and W. Haase, II/9, pt. 1, Berlin, 1976, pp. 195ff.) has rightly observed, the Sasanians were not the first to pursue a consciously Iranian policy and propagate a related political ideology (see below); the Arsacids had done the same before them. In both war and propaganda, however, Ardašīr and his heirs achieved better results.

Ardašīr appears to have discerned that an irredentist and offensive policy would have no chance of success without prior stabilization of conditions within the empire. The Parthian central government’s dependence on local magnates and tribal leaders, and the autonomy acquired by the aristocratic and tribal interests, had for two centuries curbed foreign policy and repeatedly enabled dangerous adversaries, above all the Romans, to exploit internal troubles (Ḥamza, p. 45; Ṭabarī, I, p. 814; Ebn Qotayba, Ketāb al-maʿāref, ed. Wüstenfeld, Göttingen, 1850, p. 321; Ebn Meskawayh, Taǰāreb al-omam I, ed. Caetani, Leiden and London, 1909, p. 77. Cf. The Letter of Tansar, tr. Boyce, Rome, 1968, p. 29). Only through elimination of most of the local kings and establishment of a new centralized and bureaucratically organized system (Ṯaʿālebī, Ḡorar, p. 480) would it be possible to change the existing military balance and territorial configuration. Both the army and the administration would have to be reformed to ensure success (Christensen, Iran Sass., pp. 97ff., 107ff., 130ff., 207ff.). Although the Sasanians had only a superficial and imprecise knowledge of their “ancestors” (see E. Yarshater, “Were the Sasanians Heirs to the Achaemenids?” in La Persia nel Medioevo, Rome, 1971, pp. 517ff.) there is plenty of evidence in the Middle Persian and Perso-Arabic literature to show that the aggressive confrontation with Rome was meant to restore a once glorious position in the west, aims that were also taken seriously by the Romans. Thus, Ṭabarī (I, p. 814) reports a declaration by Ardašīr that he had risen “to avenge the blood of his cousin Dārā b. Dārā whom Alexander had fought and two of Alexander’s hirelings had murdered” (Nöldeke, Geschichte der Perser, p. 3. Cf. The Letter of Tansar, tr. Boyce, p. 29). This claim to the imperial lineage and territory of the Achaemenids is also evidenced by Roman historians who report that the Sasanian ruler demanded retrocession of all the former Achaemenid domains in the west (Herodian 6.2.2; Dio Cassius 80.3.4; Zonaras 12.15). The Sasanian claims were probably not so precisely formulated and historically based as Herodian, in particular, suggests; but these reports show that the objective of Sasanian foreign policy was well understood by their Roman adversaries, although they failed to see the change of regime in Iran as revolutionary (Christensen, op. cit., p. 97), for the Parthians had also aired similar pretensions at times when their military position was strong (Tacitus, Annals 6.31). It is noteworthy that the Sasanian evocation of the traditional view of Alexander as the great wrecker of Iran was matched by a contemporary Roman emphasis on the idea of imitatio Alexandri. The emperor Caracalla described himself as a second Alexander (Dio Cassius 78.7.1ff.; Herodian 4.8.1f.), and Alexander Severus cherished the same notion (Dio Cassius 79.17.3; Herodian 5.7.3; Historia Augusta, Alexander Severus 5l.4).

The available information about the fighting in the west comes almost exclusively from Latin and Greek sources (mainly Herodian 6.2ff.). Sasanian troops invaded the Roman-ruled part of Upper Mesopotamia in 230 A.D. and laid siege to Nisibis, one of the territory’s two main fortresses (the other being Carrhae), but were unable to capture it. Raids by Sasanian cavalry squadrons penetrated into Syria and Cappadocia (Herodian 6.2.1; Zonaras 12.15; Syncellus 1.674 ed. Dinorf). When negotiations, which the Romans had proposed, broke down, Alexander Severus reluctantly decided to march in person against Ardašīr. After conscripting troops and reinforcing them with experienced veteran units (vexillationes) from garrisons in the Danube region, he proceeded overland to Syria. From his headquarters at Antioch he appears to have made another unsuccessful attempt in the winter of 231-232 to settle the conflict by diplomatic means (Herodian 6.4.4; Zonaras 12.15). A mutiny in the army had to be crushed before any advances to the war fronts could be undertaken.

The war ended unrewardingly for the Romans, whose early victories were outweighed by later defeats (Herodian 6.5f.); but the result of this first trial of strength was not exactly advantageous to Ardašīr either, because the Sasanian army suffered severe losses and was for the most part so exhausted that the troops had to be discharged (Herodian 6.4.4ff., 7.1). The lack of any mention of this war in the Perso-Arabic literature suggests that the whole venture in fact ended ingloriously for Ardašīr. Conversely, in some of the Roman writings, the war’s outcome in maintenance of the status quo is made to look like a great success for the emperor. Alexander Severus staged a triumph for himself after his return to Rome (Aurelius Victor, Caes. 24.2; Eutropius 8.23; Festus 22; Hieronymus, Chron. 215; Orosius 7.18; Jordanis, Rom. 36; Historia Augusta, Alex. Sev. 55.1, 56.1ff. all discussed in A. Rösger, “Die Darstellung des Perserfeldzugs des Severus Alexander in der Historia Augusta,” Bonner Historia-Augusta-Colloquium 1975/76, Bonn, 1978, pp. 167ff.)

No formal peace treaty was signed, but in the following years Rome’s eastern frontier was not disturbed by any new Sasanian attacks. Perhaps more important for the Romans was the defection to them of Hatra and the incorporation of its fortress in the Roman frontier defense system (A. Maricq, “Les dernières années de Hatra,” Syria 34, 1957, pp. 228ff.; H. J. W. Drijvers, “Hatra, Palmyra und Edessa,” in Temporini and Haase, eds., op. cit., II/8, pp. 799ff. esp. p. 825). The people of Hatra knew that their relative autonomy in the later Parthian period had been made possible by the weakness of the Arsacid central government and was now in peril from the declared political designs of the Sasanians. The foreign policy of Iran’s new rulers was set on westward expansion and perhaps also intended to distract from the coercion within the country, whereas the Parthian and likewise the Roman policy in recent years had been to leave things as they were. Certainly Hatra’s concerns would have to be subordinated to the Sasanian objective, and probably its special political or economic interests would be disregarded altogether (literature in Maricq, op. cit.; Wiesehöfer, art. cit.).

Disorder in the Roman empire after the murder of Alexander Severus in 235 evidently encouraged Ardašīr to launch new attacks on Rome’s eastern frontier: The most important were a raid on Dura in April 239 (Supplementum Epigraphicum Graecum [ = SEG], VII, 743 b), a thrust into Upper Mesopotamia about 237-238 when Carrhae and Nisibis were captured (Syncellus I, 681 [Dindorf]; Zonaris 12.18) and an expedition against Hatra. It appears that Hatra resisted a very long siege and did not fall until sometime between April and September 240 (Mosig-Walburg, Boreas 3, 1980, pp. 117ff. Cf. also Chaumont, “A propos de la chute de Hatra et du couronnement de Shapur Ier,” Acta Antiqua Scient. Acad. Hungarica 27, 1979 [1981], pp. 207ff.). The city appears to have been chosen as a base for operations against the Roman Mesopotamia (Dio Cassius 80.3.2). The capture of Hatra was presumably the cause of the Persian war of Gordianus III (cf. Historia Augusta, Gordianus 23.5 with the date given in the Cologne Mānī Codex [ = CMC], 18, 2-5. Important maps (BV 11 and BV 12 of the Tübinger Atlas des Vorderen Orient, by E. Kettenhofen).

Because of the difficult state of the sources, Ardašīr’s last years and the date of his death are subjects of scholarly controversies. His son Šāpūr was probably crowned as co-monarch on 12 April 240 (A. Henrichs and L. Koenen, “Der Kölner Mani-Kodex;” Zeitschrift für Papyrologie und Epigraphik 5, 1970, p. 129; 19, 1975, p. 21 (CMC 18, 5-8). Probably assignable to this time is the rock relief in northwestern Iran at Pīr Čāvūš near Salmās, which appears to be a representation of the co-monarchy (see below). The question whether Šāpūr was designated (and crowned) as sole monarch during Ardašīr’s lifetime depends on the interpretation of a particular coin type (Mosig-Walburg, in Boreas 3, 1980, pp. 117ff.). It can now be accepted, on the evidence of the Cologne Mānī Codex (164, 1ff.) that Ardašīr lived until the early part, perhaps February, of the year 242 (Henrichs-Koenen, Zeitschrift für Papyrologie und Epigraphik 48, 1982, pp. 4ff., 44).

Administration. The Sasanian empire in Ardašīr’s reign resembled the later Parthian state in many ways, though differences were already apparent. In the ŠKZ inscription (Middle Persian, line 28), Ardašīr’s name as the Great King is mentioned together with the names of four “kings” who governed the provinces of Aprēnak, Marv, Kermān, and Sagestān with some measure of semi-independence from the central authority. There were also “kingdoms” (Makurān, Tūrestān, Kūšānšahr) whose rulers had had to accept vassal status (Lukonin, op. cit., chap. 2 and in Camb. Hist. Iran III/2, 1983, pp. 681ff.; M. L. Chaumont, in Acta Iranica 4, 1975, pp. 89ff.). Next came provinces comparable with the Achaemenid satrapies. In addition to royal lands, there were large areas under the administration of local chiefs and noble families, and thus not immediately subject to royal control. Taxes could of course only be obtained from these areas through indirect channels (F. Altheim and R. Stiehl, Ein asiatischer Staat, Wiesbaden, 1954, pp. 3ff.). Even at this early time, Sasanian policies had to be shaped with due regard to the relationships between the monarch, the royal family, and the landowning magnates (including members of the old Parthian aristocracy). Although a process of centralization was set on foot, and the number of local kings was greatly reduced, during Ardašīr’s reign, his empire was still run on much the same lines as the later Parthian empire (see Lukonin, in Camb. Hist. Iran III/2, 1983, pp. 681ff.).

The order of precedence of the dignitaries and offices at Ardašīr’s court is given in the ŠKZ inscription (Middle Persian, lines 28ff.) as follows. First are four kings holding governorships with right of succession inheritable by the youngest son, namely Sadāraf (Satārōp ?) king of Aprēnak (Nīšāpūr); Ardašīr king of Marv; Ardašīr king of Kermān; Ardašīr king of the Sacae (of Sagestān). Next are three queens, namely Dēnak grandmother of Ardašīr; Rōdak mother of Ardašīr; Dēnak wife of Ardašīr. Then come Ardašīr the bidaxš (viceroy); Pāpak the hazāruft (prime minister? or guard commander ?); and five members of the great noble families, namely Dēhēn of the family of Warāz, Sāsān of the family of Sūrēn, Sāsān the lord of Andīgān, and Pērōz and Gōk of the family of Kārin, together with Apursām (Abarsām) “Ardašīr-Farr” whose function is not clear, but was perhaps that of the chief counselor to the monarch. After these come fifteen more named dignitaries including the spāhbed (head of the army) and the dibīruft (head of the chancery) (Lukonin, ibid., pp. 681ff.).

Other officials which already existed in this early stage were: the aywēnbed (master of ceremonies), the framādār with his secretaries, and the religious functionaries hērbads, mōbads and mōgs (Lukonin, ibid., pp. 73f.; Christensen, Iran Sass. pp. 97ff.; Ph. Gignoux, “Die religiöse Administration in sasanidischer Zeit: Ein Überblick,” in H. Koch and D. N. MacKenzie, eds., Kunst, Kultur und Geschichte der Achamenidenzeit und ihr Fortleben, Berlin, 1983, pp. 254ff.; cf. also Boyce, The Letter of Tansar, pp. 1ff. ). Higher offices of wuzurg framādār, mōbadān mōbad and hērbadān hērbad were not Ardašīr’s foundations (against Christensen, ibid., pp. 118ff., see Gignoux, op. cit., pp. 255ff.; cf. Boyce, Zoroastrians, London, 2nd ed., 1984, p. 122).

Urban foundations. Iranian monarchs could only establish, reestablish, or rename cities and towns on sites lying within the royal lands (dastkart). Ṭabarī (I, p. 820) credits Ardašīr with the following urban foundations: (1) Ardašīr-Ḵorra( = Gūr, Fīrūzābād); (2) Rām-Ardašīr; (3) Rēv-Ardašīr ( = Rīšahr); (4) Hormozd-Ardašīr ( = Sūq al-Ahwāz) in Ḵūzestān; (5) Vēh-Ardašīr opposite Ctesiphon; (6) Astarābād-Ardašīr ( = Karḵ-e Meyšān) in Lower Mesopotamia; (7) Psʾ (and variants) Ardašīr on the Arab side of the Persian Gulf; (8) Nūḏ-Ardašīr near Mosul. Further foundations are mentioned by Ḥamza (pp. 46f.), Dīnavarī (p. 47), and other authors. The materials are discussed in D. Metzler, Ziele and Formen königlicher Innenpolitik im vorislamischen Iran, Munster, 1977, pp. 184ff., but the dating back to Ardašīr I’s reign must be considered dubious. Several more towns are known with names compounded with Ardašīr, but some were definitely founded by Šāpūr I and named in honor of his father, while some may have been founded by, or named after, other bearers of the name Ardašīr (Nöldeke, Geschichte der Perser, p. 20 n. 4). Each of these towns was made the center of a rural district under a šahrab (ŠKZ, p. 34 of the Middle Persian text); and the tax revenues from the town and district went straight to the monarch (Lukonin, in Camb. Hist. Iran III/2, pp. 723ff.). It was for this reason that increase of number of royal urban foundations and attached districts was a goal of Sasanian internal and fiscal policy from Ardašīr I onward. Even so, the dichotomy between lands under direct royal control and lands in the possession of the nobility and only indirectly subject to the central government continued to be a basic feature of the agrarian economy until the tax reforms of Kavāḏ I and Ḵosrow I Anōšīravān (for possible models of this reform mentioned by Ṭabarī, I, p. 897, see N. V. Pigulevskaya, “K voprosu o podatnoĭ reforme Khosrova Anushirvana,” VDI, 1937, pp. 143ff. accepted and supported by Altheim and Stiehl, op. cit., pp. 129ff.; cf. also Lukonin, op. cit., pp. 745f.; N. Garsoïan, in Camb. Hist. Iran III/2, 1983, pp. 587f.).

Coinage. As a broad generalization, it may be said that the coins minted for Ardašīr I are of three distinct types (R. Göbl, Sasanidische Numismatik, Braunschweig, 1968; idem, in Comb. Hist. Iran III/2, 1983, pp. 322ff.; V. G. Lukonin, in Acta Iranica 8, 1968, pp. 106ff.; Mosig-Walburg, Die frühen sasanidischen Könige als Vertreter und Forderer der zarathustrischen Religion, Frankfurt, 1982, pp. 25ff.). Type I shows Ardašīr in full face or profile on the obverse, and his father Pāpak facing to the left in Parthian style on the reverse. The legends are ʾrthštrMLKʾ “Ardašīr the king” and bgy pʾpky MLKʾ “the Lord, Pāpak the king.” Type II, the commonest, shows Ardašīr facing to the right and variously capped or crowned on the obverse, and a fire altar on the reverse. The legends read: mzdysn bgyʾrthštrMLKʾnMLKʾʾyrʾnMNW čtry MNyzdʾn “the Mazda-worshiping Lord, Ardašīr, king of kings of Iran, whose origin is from the gods.” They show the Zoroastrian beliefs of Ardašīr. Type III shows Ardašīr and Šāpūr facing each other on the obverse, and again a fire altar on the reverse. The legends on this third type are šhpwhry MLKʾ ʾryʾn MNW čtry MN yzdʾn “Sapur, king of Iran, who is descended from the gods,” and NWRʾ ZY ʾrthštr “the fire of Ardašīr.”

The emblem on the reverse of Type II, showing a fire altar of a design found in Persis, and the legend NWRʾ ZY ʾrthštr (fire of Ardašīr) refer to the royal fire which was kindled at the start of each king’s reign (A. Christensen, RAA 10, 1936, p. 127). As regards the fire altar, the part supported by a pillar has been seen as resembling the throne platform of the Achaemenids (I. Pfeiler, “Der Thron der Achaimeniden als Herrschaftssymbol auf sasanidischen Münzen,” Schweizer Münzblätter 23, 1973, pp. 107ff.; cf. J. Duchesne-Guillemin, in La Persia nel Medioevo, Rome, 1971, p. 377). The ribbons may perhaps be interpreted as ends of an unfastened and outspread diadem, the traditional Iranian symbol of sovereignty. Thus the reverse of these coins reflects Ardašīr’s concern to present himself not only as the rightful successor to the Achaemenids, but also as a pious Zoroastrian. In the matter of headdresses and crowns, Ardašīr at first adhered to Parthian conventions and took over a type of crown dating from Mithridates II (Göbl, Sasanidische Numismatik, Type II). In later years, however, his principal crown was of a type (Göbl’s Type III) which permitted arranging part of the hair into a globe over the cranium and a shock projecting from the nape of the neck; the headpiece (often with cheek-guards) and the globe are covered with thin silk gauze from which ribbons dangle to the rear. Also found are variants in which Ardašīr wears a crenellated crown or a tall, round cap with an eagle held in place by a tape. While Göbl thinks that all these types symbolize Ohrmazd’s or Anāhīd’s investiture of Ardašīr with the kingship (“Investitur im sasanidischen Iran und ihre numismatische Bezeugung,” WZKM 56, 1960, pp. 36ff.), Mosig-Walburg maintains (op. cit., p. 31) that only the first of these designs denotes a special relationship of Ardašīr to Ohrmazd and that the second is a “victory crown” (otherwise Lukonin, Iran v III veke, Moscow, 1979, p. 117). The coin-type III, which shows Ardašīr with his son Šāpūr, can be associated with the introduction of Šāpūr as the successor (Chaumont, “Corégence et avènement de Shāpuhr Ier,” in Ph. Gignoux and A. Tafazzoli, eds., Mémorial J. de Menasce, Louvain, 1974, p. 135). In the matter of coin denominations and weights, the Sasanians at first strictly followed the existing traditions, though Ardašīr introduced a new half-drachma. Moreover some gold pieces minted for him have been found. Apparently only three mints were at work in his reign, the former mints in semi-autonomous parts of the empire having been closed down (Göbl, Sasanidische Numismatik, pp. 25ff. and in Camb. Hist. Iran III/1, pp. 328ff).

Religious policy. In Ardašīr’s reign, Zoroastrianism was already the religion which the Sasanian king supported and personally professed. It has been suggested that under Ardašīr, the supporters of ātaš-kadags “fire temples” were favored but those honoring temples with cult statues (uzdēs-kadag) were persecuted (Boyce, The Letter of Tansar, p. 47, and “Iconoclasm among Zoroastrians,” in J. Neusner, ed., Christianity, Judaism and other Greco-Roman Cults. Studies for M. Smith at Sixty IV, Leiden, 1975, pp. 93ff.), but this view is strongly disputed (G. Gnoli, Zoroaster’s Time and Homeland, Naples, 1980, pp. 221ff.). Although no member of the priesthood figures in the list of the dignitaries at his court, it seems likely that the first steps to organize a Zoroastrian state church were taken in his reign and that traditions from Achaemenid, Hellenistic, and Parthian times were applied and developed in this connection. On his coins and in his inscription at Naqš-e Rostam (ANRm-a), Ardašīr describes himself as “Mazda-worshiping” and “descended from the gods.” His religious belief is also proclaimed pictorially through the fire-temple emblem on the reverse of his coins. (Christensen, Iran Sass., pp. 116ff., 141ff.). The investiture reliefs depicting Ardašīr’s divine appointment at Fīrūzābād, Naqš-e Raǰab, and Naqš-e Rostam give further evidence of the first Sasanian monarch’s close attachment to Ohrmazd. In Middle Persian lore, the incidence of Ohrmazd’s choice on Ardašīr is concretized in the mental image of the Xwarrah, “(God-given) fortune,” which may be compared with the Greek Tyche and the Roman Fortuna (cf. A. Sh. Shahbazi, “Farnah Symbolised,” AMI 13, 1980, pp. 119ff.; Calmeyer, in Jahrbuch des Deutschen Archäologischen Instituts 94, 1979, pp. 347ff.). Ardašīr, having been invested with the Xwarrah, is the rightful ruler; and investiture with the Xwarrah is always prerequisite for legitimate rulership. Ardašīr is also credited with the erection and endowment of fire-temples and with a helpful interest in Zoroastrian literature (Ṭabarī, I, p. 817; Dēnkard, p. 412.11-17). A special fire-temple, the “fire of Ardašīr,” which he founded at the start of his reign, is named in the inscription of Šāpūr at Bīšāpūr. Masʿūdī (Morūǰ II p. 162) gives a traditional version of Ardašīr’s words concerning the church-state relationship: “Know that the religion and the monarchy are two brothers neither of which can exist without the other. The religion sustains the monarchy, and the monarchy protects the religion. That which lacks sustenance and support must perish, and that which has no protector will pass away” (see Mosig-Walburg, loc. cit.).

Ardašīr’s policy toward other religions made his reign, on the whole, a hard time for the non-Zoroastrian communities. The Jews and others had enjoyed considerably mote tolerance and autonomy under the Parthians. Ardašīr, and later also Šāpūr in the early years of his reign, sought to incorporate and control the Jewish population more effectively and to deprive them of their communal jurisdiction in religious and legal matters (which were hardly separable). The underlying motive was probably to propagate Zoroastrianism and enlarge the Zoroastrian community by procuring conversion of non-Zoroastrians. The Syriac-speaking Christian communities enjoyed more tolerant or at any rate milder treatment, and their numbers grew substantially up to the middle of the 3rd century. Mani did not publicly come forth until after Ardašīr’s death, perhaps in the correct expectation that Šāpūr would be more receptive than his father (see J. Neusner, in Camb. Hist. Iran III/2, 1983, pp. 909ff.; J. P. Asmussen, ibid., pp. 924ff.; Chaumont, RHR 165, 1964, pp. 165ff.; Henrichs-Koenen, op. cit., pp. 1ff., esp. p. 5).

Royal ideology and propaganda. Ardašīr’s efforts to present himself as a god-related and devout Mazda-worshiper, and as the possessor of the divinely given Xwarrah, his claim to legitimacy as a worthy scion of the Iranian (mythical) kings, his successful propaganda against the rightfulness of the Parthians and their proper place in the sequence of Iranian history, prove the importance of the Achaemenid legacy to the minds of the early Sasanians though they presumably did not know much about actual Achaemenid conditions and figures. This interest was enhanced by the location of the temple of Anāhīd at Eṣṭaḵr, the choice of major Achaemenid sites such as Naqš-e Rostam for the carving of reliefs and inscriptions and the erection of fire-temples, the inclusion of members of the Achaemenid dynasty in the legendary Sasanian genealogies (conserved in the Arabo-Persian literature, the mentions of Ardašīr’s ambition to “avenge his ancestors” in the Arabo-Persian literature and of his claims to former Achaemenid territories in the histories of Herodian and Dio Cassius. The question whether such plans and claims were really formulated by Ardašīr as literary sources claim (on the Testament (ʿahd) of Ardašīr see M. Grignaschi, JA 254, 1966, pp. 1ff.) or ascribed to him, as the empire’s founder, in later times can not be answered with certainty for lack of evidence though the latter seems more probable. The same applies to the endeavor of the Sasanians to remove the Parthian link from the chain of Achaemenid-Sasanian legend and to depict the Parthian kings as alien “chiefs of tribes” in a time of Iranian weakness (Gnoli, Zoroaster’s Time and Homeland, pp. 166ff.; M. Grignaschi, in La Persia nel Medioevo, pp. 143ff.; A. Sh. Shahbazi, BSOAS 40, 1977, pp. 25ff.). To all appearances, Ardašīr actually owed a great deal to the Parthian legacy (Yarshater, op. cit.). On surer ground, scholars are now examining Achaemenid relics in Sasanian administration, art, religion, coinage (resumed minting of gold), and epigraphic texts and formulas.

ARDAŠĪR I ii. Rock reliefs

The first Sasanian ruler Ardašīr I (224-241) established the Sasanian tradition of rock carving, which flourished until the reign of Šāpūr III (383-88) and made an impressive resurgence under Ḵosrow II (590-628) (H. Luschey, Iranica Antiqua 11, 1975, pp. 127ff. and plates 21, 22; D. Shepherd, in Camb. Hist. Iran III, 1983, pp. 1085ff. and plates 94ff.). Ardašīr’s rock reliefs differ markedly from the few preserved Parthian specimens (as do his coins) and foreshadow a new monumental form. His three earliest reliefs are in various styles and do not show any clear development. Only the fourth, namely the investiture relief at Naqš-e Rostam, attains a well-defined form, which reappears in the rock carvings of Šāpūr I and his successors. The chronological order of Ardašīr’s reliefs is a matter of some controversy, with certain details still remaining unresolved. The problems of figure identification has been discussed in the detailed study of all Ardašīr’s reliefs by W. Hinz, (Altiranische Funde und Forschungen, Berlin, 1969).

The bridge relief at Fīrūzābād. Ohrmazd, standing, invests Ardašīr, also afoot, by handing the ring of sovereignty to him over a fire altar. Behind Ardašīr stand the crown prince Šāpūr and two more princes. Dimensions: 7m x 3.70m (Plate VI A). The very well-shaped figures are in profile and arranged like those in the relief of Mithridates II at Bīsotūn (E. Herzfeld, Am Tor von Asien, Berlin, 1920, pp. 35ff., fig. 11 and plate 21; D. Schlumberger, in Camb. Hist. Iran III, 1983, p. 1041 and fig. 7). The carving, however, shows a radical departure from Parthian work and a reversion to Achaemenid tradition.

Plate VI A. Ardašīr’s investiture by Ohrmazd. Bridge relief at FīrūzābādPlate VI A. Ardašīr’s investiture by Ohrmazd. Bridge relief at FīrūzābādView full image in a new tab

This type of investiture scene became a recurrent theme of Sasanian rock carving. Its source, and the exact significance of the ring-like object which the god bestows, can evidently be traced to a line of tradition through the 3rd millennium Anubanini relief at Sar-e Pol (Kurdistan), where a goddess hands over a ring (Herzfeld, ibid., p. 3, fig. 1; B. Hrouda, Iranische Denkmäler, Lieferung 7, Reihe II C, Berlin, 1976, pp. 7ff., plates 5 and 6); to Darius’s relief at Bīsotūn, where a winged man emerging from a circle and holding a ring, who is commonly identified as Ohrmazd (see most recently P. Lecoq in Orientalia J. Duchesne-Guillemin Emerito Oblata, Acta Iranica 23, Leiden, 1984, pp. 301-26, who defends this identification against the alternative one as xwarrah “Royal Fortune,” see A. Sh. Shahbazi, AMI, N.F. 7, 1974, pp. 139ff. and M. Boyce, Zoroastrianism II, pp. 103ff. with references; Luschey, AMI, N.F. 1, 1968, pp. 63ff., plates 25ff.), and to the portrayals of this same winged figure at Persepolis (E. F. Schmidt, Persepolis I, Chicago, 1953, III, 1969, passim). In the relief of Artabanus V at Susa, the king invests a satrap by giving him a ring (Schlumberger, in Camb. Hist. Iran III, p. 1042 and plate 67). Furthermore, on certain Parthian coins the goddess Tyche hands a garland to a figure on horseback (E. T. Newall, in Survey of Persian Art, p. 489, plate 143; G. D. Sellwood, in Camb. Hist. Iran III, pp. 279ff. and plates 1ff.; P. Calmeyer, in Jahrbuch des Deutschen Archäologischen Instituts 94, 1979, pp. 347ff. and fig. 2); no doubt this coin design was influenced by Greek portrayals of garland-presentation by the goddess Nikē. Some recent researchers see the conferred badge of office as a ring, others as a diadem. There are grounds to suppose that the ring was the original form and that the diadem was a later development (R. Göbl, WZKM 56, 1960, p. 37 note 5; P. Calmeyer, AMI 10, 1977, p. 167).

In the opinion of K. Erdmann (Die Kunst Irans zur Zeit der Sasaniden, Berlin, 1943, pp. 52, 56), investiture reliefs should not all be dated from the beginning of a king’s reign, but are likely to have been carved successively during the whole of the reign as expressions of gratitude for divine favor. V. G. Lukonin (Iranica Antiqua 8, 1968, pp. 106-17) argues on the basis of coin designs that all Ardašīr’s rock reliefs date from the years 235-240, i.e., from the last part of his reign. This theory, however, presents difficulties; moreover it would invalidate all attempts to understand the stylistic development, particularly if the Fīrūzābād combat relief had to be dated from those years, as Lukonin maintains.

The mounted combat relief at Fīrūzābād (see Figure 14 and Plate VI C, Plate VI D). This depicts a scene from Ardašīr’s victorious battle against the last Parthian king, Artabanus (Ardavān) V, in 224. Eighteen meters long and nearly four meters high, it is the largest surviving Iranian rock relief (Camb. Hist. Iran III, fig. 1 on p. 1078, and plate 89). Six mounted figures are shown in three groups of single combatants: right, Ardašīr transfixing Artabanus with a lance; center, crown prince Šāpūr overpowering Artabanus’s chief minister Dāḏbundāḏ (mss. dʾbndʾd, dʾdbndʾr), left, a page grappling with a Parthian knight. The portrayal is strikingly dynamic as well as rich in detail. Hair and beards, armor (chain mail), and horse trappings are represented with remarkable precision. The carving is in relatively low relief and has been damaged by weathering in the lower part. The treatment conforms with Parthian tradition showing affinities with the rock relief of Gotarzes (one of the Arsacid kings of that name) at Bīsotūn (Herzfeld op. cit., pp. 40ff. and plates 21-23) and with the fresco of galloping knights in armor at Dura Europos (M. Rostovtzeff, Dura and the Problem of Parthian Art, New Haven, 1935, pp. 273, 280, 283, and figs. 71, 79, 82-85; C. Kraeling, The Synagogue, in The Excavations at Dura Europos. Final Report VIII, 1, 1956, p. 93 and plate 55). The theme is resumed in the later mounted combat reliefs of Bahrām II (276-293) and Hormozd II (303-309), both at Naqš-e Rostam (E. F. Schmidt, Persepolis III, p. 130 and plate 89, p. 135 and plates 91-94).

Figure 14. Ardašīr’s triumph-relief at Fīrūzābād (drawn by E. Smekens)Figure 14. Ardašīr’s triumph-relief at Fīrūzābād (drawn by E. Smekens)View full image in a new tab

Plate VI C. Detail from the battle of Hormozgān: Šāpūr overthrowing Dādbondāḏ (cf. Figure 14)Plate VI C. Detail from the battle of Hormozgān: Šāpūr overthrowing Dādbondāḏ (cf. Figure 14)View full image in a new tab

Plate VI D. Detail from the battle of Hormozgān: Ardašīr overthrowing Ardavān V (cf. Figure 14)Plate VI D. Detail from the battle of Hormozgān: Ardašīr overthrowing Ardavān V (cf. Figure 14)View full image in a new tab

The investiture relief at Naqš-e Raǰab. The scene (5m x 3m) shows (Figure 15) Ohrmazd entrusting the ring of sovereignty to Ardašīr in the presence of six onlookers (Hinz, op. cit., pp. 123ff. and plates 57ff.; E. F. Schmidt, Persepolis III, pp. 123ff and plates 96ff.). The accompanying figures are: left, crown prince Šāpūr and a page; right behind Ohrmazd, the spouses of probably Ardašīr and Šāpūr; center, two small figures identified by Hinz as Ardašīr’s grandsons Bahrām and Heracles. This relief represents a third stylistic trend. With its heavy, larger-than-life-sized forms, it foreshadows the specifically Sasanian style of rock carving but remains cramped by a provincial clumsiness peculiar to itself.

Figure 15. Ardašīr’s investiture by Ohrmazd. Rock relief at Naqš-e Raǰab (drawn by E. Smekens)Figure 15. Ardašīr’s investiture by Ohrmazd. Rock relief at Naqš-e Raǰab (drawn by E. Smekens)View full image in a new tab

The investiture relief at Naqš-e Rostam. (Width 6.30m; height 4.20m): it shows Ohrmazd handing the ring of sovereignty to Ardašīr (Schmidt, Persepolis III, pp. 121f. and plates 80ff.; Camb. Hist. Iran III, p. 1079 and plate 90). Both figures are mounted. Under the hoof of Ardašīr’s horse lies the defeated Parthian king Artabanus V, and under the hoof of Ohrmazd’s horse lies a figure symbolizing Ahriman. Behind Ardašīr stands a page holding a fly-whisk (Plate VI B). The relief is made more explicit by two inscriptions: on the breast of Ohrmazd’s horse, “This is the effigy of the god Ohrmazd” in Middle Persian, Parthian, and Greek, and on the breast of Ardašīr’s horse a corresponding identification of Ardašīr (Schmidt, op. cit.; M. Back, Die Sasanidischen Staatsinschriften, Acta Iranica 19, Tehran and Liège, 1978, p. 282).

Plate VI B. Ardašīr investiture by Ohrmazd. Rock relief at Naqš-e RostamPlate VI B. Ardašīr investiture by Ohrmazd. Rock relief at Naqš-e RostamView full image in a new tab

These inscriptions became known in the 17th century through engravings by Chardin (Voyages en Perse et autres lieux de l’Orient, Amsterdam, 1711, II, pl. 73) and E. Kaempfer, Amoenitates exoticae, Lemgo, 1712, p. 307). Being trilingual, they were a great help to Silvestre de Sacy in his decipherment of the Middle Persian script in 1793 (Mémoires sur diverses antiquités de la Perse, Paris, 1793, pp. 106ff. and plate 1), an achievement long antedating the decipherment of the ancient Persian cuneiform script by Grotefend and Rawlinson. Ohrmazd was already named as the sovereignty-conferring god in the inscription of Darius at Bīsotūn.

This is the most mature, and therefore certainly the latest, of Ardašīr’s reliefs. With its balanced composition and fully lifelike sculpture, it falls little short of the earliest relief of Šāpūr I at Naqš-e Raǰab (Hinz, op. cit., pp. 137ff. and plate 73; Luschey, Iranica Antiqua 11 , 1975, p. 125 and plate 29.2).

While the first three reliefs above may be regarded as very dissimilar but basically commensurable first starts, and are certainly the work of different sculptors, this relief bears the stamp of the distinctive Sasanian style dominant in the later reliefs. There is also a borrowed foreign element in its subject-matter. The portrayal of the defeated adversary under the hoof of the victor’s horse is derived from Roman monumental art, cf. Marcus Aurelius on horseback trampling the now missing figure of a vanquished king (W. Technau, Kunst der Römer, 1940, pp. 210f. and fig. 176; Luschey, AMI, N.F. 1, 1968, pp. 33f. and plate 19.1). Furthermore the horses are on the whole similar to the typical horse with a raised foreleg in Roman monuments—a characteristic maintained until the relief of Bahrām II (276-293) at Bīšāpūr (R. Ghirshman, Bîchâpour I, Paris, 1975, pp. 73f. and plate 16). Reminders of Persepolis also stand out in Ardašīr’s relief. In the head and trunk of the figure of Ohrmazd, the features of the great king as shown in the central edifice at Persepolis (which was never covered by sand) are consciously reproduced, even to details of the hair and beard and the pleats of the clothing (E. F. Schmidt, Persepolis I, plates 75, 76; Luschey, Iranica Antiqua 11, 1975, p. 125). First signs of this influence are traceable, though not so cleanly, in the investiture relief at Naqš-e Raǰab.

The relief at Salmās. The scene (5m x 2.60m) represents Ardašīr and Šāpūr, both on horseback, investing two Armenian governors, who are on foot (W. Hinz, op. cit., plate 69). The workmanship is provincial and the style heavy and lifeless; from the later part of Ardašīr’s reign, probably to be dated, as Hinz does, to 238 A.D.

It has recently been argued that the relief at Dārāb was carved in two phases, the first in Ardašīr’s reign, the second in Šāpūr’s (L. Trumpelmann, Das Relief von Darab, Iranische Denkmäler, Lieferung 6, Reihe II D, Berlin, 1975). This is unconvincing, if only because the style of the robes and other apparel of the royal figures belong in all respects to Šāpūr’s reign. Moreover Šāpūr is the subject of this relief.

The rock reliefs of Ardašīr I are tokens of a momentous historical change. Their designs, like those of Ardašīr’s coins, are the first manifestations of a swing away from outworn Parthian tradition. They announce the renaissance of Iranian tradition and the start of all-out confrontation with the Roman world. They were the basis from which Sasanian rock carving developed in the four centuries up to the relief of Ṭāq-e Bostān (left partly unfinished at the death of Ḵosrow II in 628)—a much longer time than the allotted span of the Achaemenids.


  • See also F. Sarre and L. Herzfeld, Iranische Felsreliefs, Berlin, 1910.
  • E. Herzfeld, “La sculpture rupestre de la Perse Sassanide,” Revue des Arts Asiatiques 5, 1928, pp. 129-42.
  • N. C. Debevoise, “Rock Reliefs of Ancient Iran,” JNES 1, 1942, pp. 76-104.
  • L. Vanden Berghe, Archéologie de l’Iran ancien, Leiden, 1959.
  • R. Ghirshman, Parthes et Sasanides, Paris, 1962.
  • G. Herrmann, “The Dārābgird Relief, Ardashīr or Shāhpūr? A Discussion in the Context of Early Sasanian Sculpture,” Iran 7, 1969, pp. 63-88.
  • D. Shepherd, “Sasanian Art. Rock Reliefs and Sculpture,” Camb. Hist. Iran III, 1983, pp. 1077-1098.
  • L. Vanden Berghe, Reliefs rupestres de l’Iran ancien, Bruxelles, 1983.
  • H. von Gall, Das Reiterkampfbild in der altiranischen Kunst, AMI, Ergänzungsband (in preparation).
  • H. von Gall, Iranische Denkmäler, forthcoming.
Encyclopaedia Iranica Online

Content Metrics

All Time Past Year Past 30 Days
Abstract Views 0 0 0
Full Text Views 9 9 2
PDF Views & Downloads 0 0 0