Rezension über:

M. Rahim Shayegan: Arsacids and Sasanians. Political Ideology in Post-Hellenistic and Late Antique Persia, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press 2011, XXIX + 539 S., 4 Kt., 16 s/w-Abb., ISBN 978-0-521-76641-8, GBP 65,00
Buch im KVK suchen

Rezension von:
Edward Dąbrowa
Instytut Historii, Uniwersytet Jagielloński, Krak√≥w
Redaktionelle Betreuung:
Matthias Haake
Empfohlene Zitierweise:
Edward Dąbrowa: Rezension von: M. Rahim Shayegan: Arsacids and Sasanians. Political Ideology in Post-Hellenistic and Late Antique Persia, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press 2011, in: sehepunkte 12 (2012), Nr. 4 [15.04.2012], URL:

Bitte geben Sie beim Zitieren dieser Rezension die exakte URL und das Datum Ihres Besuchs dieser Online-Adresse an.

M. Rahim Shayegan: Arsacids and Sasanians

Textgröße: A A A

An issue that is the cause of much disagreement in the debate on the political ideology of the Arsacids and Sasanians is the extent to which the contents and elements of the Achaemenids' political ideology was adopted by their successors. Finding an answer to this question is of great significance for determining the foreign policy aims of these two dynasties with respect to Rome. What makes an unambiguous response to this question more difficult, however, is the nature of sources. Since they were all written by Roman authors, according to some scholars we should err on the side of caution in interpreting them - particularly because the sources present the Roman rather than the Iranian point of view. [1] An attempt to settle this dispute has been made by M. Rahim Shayegan.

In his book, Shayegan attempts to define the contents of the Sasanians' political ideology in the initial period of the existence of their state that were important for describing the nature of Roman-Persian relations in the 3rd century CE, but also that of earlier, Roman-Parthian ones. A further important goal of his research is to identify those factors which may have influenced the shape of the Sasanians' political ideology (cf. p. xii). The research aims set out by the author may appear to be somewhat limited, but this is an impression gained only from the first paragraph of the introduction. In fact the list of issues which he sets out to analyse is a very long one (p. xii-xiv). It is important to note, though, that a central place among the many topics is taken by the question of transmissions of historical tradition concerning the Achaemenids at the time of the Arsacids and Sasanians.

The first two chapters of the book (1. Sasanian epigraphy, 5-29; 2. Classical sources: Dio, Herodian, Ammianus Marcellinus, 30-38) are devoted to an assessment of the credibility of the content of Persian and Roman sources on the political programme of the first Sasanians in the context of the hypothesis that, immediately upon assuming power, they propagated the slogan of rebirth of the Achaemenid empire. An analysis of the content of Res Gestae Divi Saporis and other early Sasanian inscriptions leaves no doubt that in none of them did they refer to the Achaemenid traditions (13, 20-22, 29). It is only Roman authors who point to such references. Shayegan sees the causes of this position as lying in the great popularity in the Roman Empire of the 3rd century CE of Alexander the Great, whom some Roman emperors endeavoured to emulate (imitatio Alexandri). According to him, beginning in the time of Augustus, Roman propaganda led to the Arsacids being associated with the Achaemenids (334-340), and subsequently to a conscious falsification of the new opponent whom the Romans came up against in the East after the fall of the Arsacid state, since it was easier to perceive them in the same way as the earlier dynasty exercising control over Iran. An extensive discussion of this subject features in Chapter Four (Imitatio veternae Helladis and imitatio Alexandri in Rome, 332-368). No fault can be found with the arguments presented and interpretations proposed for this problem. The author convincingly proves the correctness of the view that there are no reasons to treat the Sasanians' political ideology as a continuation of the tradition of the Achaemenids (369-371).

Although critique of the hypothesis of the Sasanians' usage of Achaemenid traditions was one of the important aims that the author set himself, in fact matters concerning the Sasanians are given much less space in the book than those of the Arsacids. He devotes the second chapter of his work, whose dimensions themselves equal those of a substantial book (Arsacids and Sasanians, 33-331), to a discussion of the history of the Parthian state in the period from the 2nd century BCE to the 1st century CE. This chapter contains the results of analyses and interpretations of sources conducted by the author in an attempt to test the legitimacy of the hypothesis that attributes the Arsacids with using references in their propaganda to the heritage of the Achaemenids. [2] In order to do this, he uses three factors which are most frequently cited as arguments to support the correctness of this view: Mithradates II's assumption of the title "king of kings" (41-292), Orodes II's conquests in Asia Minor and the Near East (292-293), and Artabanus (I)II's claims to the heritage of the Achaemenids addressed to Emperor Tiberius (Tac., Ann. 6,31) (293-307). Although according to the author these elements alone do not allow the unequivocal statement that the Arsacids invoked the traditions of their predecessors, the presence of these traditions can be perceived in their ideology, which he believes results from the fact that in the period of rule of the Parthians memory of the Achaemenids survived thanks to Babylonian scribes (cf. pp. xiii, 42-46, 369) as well as the propaganda of Mithradates VI, the king of Pontus, who based his political programme on Iranian traditions (cf. pp. xvi, 307-311, 369). [3]

This conclusion, arising on the basis of extensive arguments, appears to be well documented and difficult to contend. However, the thesis which the author is attempting to prove is by no means as reliable as it may seem. The claim that it was mostly the activity of Babylonian writers that contributed to the Arsacid preservation of the memory of the Achaemenids is not persuasive. The author himself demonstrates that the titles of the rulers used by them in documents were often different from the official ones, which by no means signifies that this fact was evidence of conscious historical policy, but rather of bureaucratic habits. This interpretation is further supported by the fact that the majority of cuneiform documents dating from the time of the Arsacids in Babylonia are not of a public nature. Astronomical diaries - for it is this type of documents (as well as legends on coins) that contain the main examples of the preserved titles of the Parthian rulers - were documents of internal use. The records contained in them of historical events (thanks to which we know so much today about the Parthian rule in Mesopotamia in the period between 141 and the 60s BCE), are of a private nature, and it is hard to perceive them as an expression of the political involvement of their authors. I am also unconvinced by the argument that attributes to Mithradates VI a major role in the process of the transmission of the Achaemenids' traditions, as this would lead to the conclusion that before him the Arsacids clearly did not value them. In only beginning the discussion about the presence of this tradition in the consciousness of the Parthians from the times of Mithradates II, the author ignores the huge role played by Mithradates I in forming the Parthian political ideology. I have no doubt that this was considerably greater than the influence of the propaganda of the king of Pontus. As a result of the author's failure to take into account the entire period preceding the rule of Mithradates II, during which important aspects of the Parthian political ideology were formulated, the value of his interpretations and conclusions is lessened.

This assessment, however, concerns only one of the book's main theses. The work itself, although its title does not fully correspond to its content and it is difficult to follow author's arguments owing to its unusual construction, deserves the attention of any scholars interested not only in the history of the Arsacids and Sasanians, but also in that of Hellenistic Mesopotamia. The aforementioned second chapter of the book contains a detailed analysis of the historical information hidden in cuneiform and classical texts as well as numismatic evidence concerning the history of Mesopotamia in the 2nd and 1st centuries BCE. The results of this analysis allow the author to present a great many new observations and interpretations which comprise a considerable expansion to the state of knowledge. Owing to the limited space available for this review, it is impossible to describe them in a few words. While some of them, departing from generally accepted opinions, will doubtless meet with criticism, many offer important conclusions which make it possible to better understand the nature and course of the events that took place in the territory of Mesopotamia under the rule of the Seleucids and Arsacids. The author's erudition is impressive, although at times it is demonstrated to excess, making the book harder to read and taking away from the clarity of the arguments. Finally, it is important to add that the bibliography, in spite of its considerable volume, is lacking in publications from the last few years. With knowledge of them, Shayegan would certainly have expressed some of his judgments and interpretations somewhat differently. [4]


[1] Cf. E. Kettenhofen: Die Einforderung des Achämenidenerbes durch Ardašīr: Eine interpretatio Romana, Orientalia Lovaniensia Periodica 15, 1984, 177-190; id., Die Einforderung der achaimenidischen Territorien durch die Sāsāniden: Eine Bilanz, in: S. Kurz (ed.): Yādnāme-ye Irdaj Khalifeh-Soltani: Festschrift Iradj Khalifeh-Soltani zum 65. Geburtstag, Aachen 2002, 49-75.

[2] The first scholars to express this view were J. Neusner (Parthian Political Ideology, Iranica Antiqua 3, 1963, 40-59) and J. Wolski (Les Achémenides et les Arsacides. Contribution à l'histoire de la formation des traditions iraniennes, Syria 43, 1966, 65-89).

[3] It is worth quoting this conclusion in full: "We may conclude that the Achaemenid reminiscences we observe under the early Arsacids are not to be attributed to the perseverance and longevity of Iranian traditions that were resuscitated in an act of self-consciousness, as a means to define the Arsacid dominion in light of a newly Re-discovered 'Iranism', but to the adoption by the Arsacids of memories that cultures expose to the Iranian civilization had preserved from their own (Iranian) past. Indeed, the Achaemenid reference recorded by Tacitus is due to the invariability alleged continuity of Iranian history, but is due to the constancy of the Babylonian literary tradition, which, by preserving and conferring upon the Arsacids the Achaemenid title 'king of kings' provided the form, and to the strength and permanence of the Iranian element in the Pontic kingdom, which by safeguarding the memory of its Achaemenid heritage furnished the substance of what was to become the Arsacid political ideology" (331).

[4] Many of the issues discussed are referred to by a number of studies published in: E. Dąbrowa (ed.): Greek and Hellenistic Studies (Electrum, vol. 11), Kraków 2006; id.: Orbis Parthicus. Studies in Memory of Professor Józef Wolski (Electrum, vol. 15), Kraków 2009.

Edward Dąbrowa