II. Ancient and Classical Periods, 3500 B.C.E.–500 C.E. > F. The Neo-Persian Empire of the Sassanians, 223–651 C.E.
  The Encyclopedia of World History.  2001.
(See Arabia, c. 850–332 B.C.E.)
F. The Neo-Persian Empire of the Sassanians, 223–651 C.E.
a. Economy, Society, and Culture
The economy of the Sassanian Empire was based on agriculture, and the great majority of its inhabitants were peasants. While most farming was done by free peasants, chattel slavery was employed in royal mines, in building, in the crafts, and in agriculture, particularly on temple estates. Sassanian rulers, especially Shapur I (240–270) and Khusrau I (531–579), undertook a great increase in irrigation and land under cultivation. Much of the empire's agricultural wealth was centered in Mesopotamia, especially in the south region of Asuristan, where extensive irrigation produced an abundance of wheat and barley. To the southeast and across the Tigris was Khuzistan, which also produced great harvests of wheat and barley, sesame and rice. The district of Meshan (modern Kuwait) was famous for its palm dates; it also controlled access to the Persian Gulf and trade with India. Commerce was predominantly local, but a lucrative international caravan trade followed the royal road, extending north to Merv, Samarkand, and then on the silk road to China. Syrian glass, dyed fabrics, and metals were exchanged for silk, which served a diplomatic as well as an economic function. The primary form of taxation under the Sassanians was a land tax and, for religious minorities, a poll tax. The reforms of Khusrau I made the land tax, which began to be calculated in monetary terms, more efficient and extended the poll tax to all inhabitants between the ages of 20 and 50.  1
Sassanian society was divided into the traditional Iranian estates: priest (magian), noble (azatan), and farmer (ram); the last estate also included traders, craftsmen, and bureaucrats. The basic social unit was the extended family of three or four patrilineal generations. Members shared religious and secular obligations and rights, as well as joint family property. Beyond the agnatic family, the larger social group was the clan (naf, toxum, or gohr) which comprised several dozen families whose heads shared a common ancestor and within which endogamous marriage was the rule. A wife and her property entered into the family of her husband, he becoming her guardian. The exercise of full legal rights required membership in a recognized urban or rural community, which in turn was determined by membership in one of the clans which formed the community. Free persons who were not members of a community—aliens, illegitimate children, freed slaves—were semidependent and had restricted rights.  2
The Sassanian period saw an increase in centralization. The semi-independent kingdoms characteristic of the Parthian era gave way to a unified state administration. Independent city-states that flourished under the Parthians were replaced by “royal cities,” that is, military centers governed by state-appointed officials called shahrabs. Rural districts were under the jurisdication of the city administration. In the late Sassanian period, the kingdom was divided into four large divisions headed by a military and civil authority. The numerous religions tolerated by the Parthians were replaced by the single state religion, Zoroastrianism, whose administration of temple lands throughout the empire by officials called magupats paralleled that of the civil and military administration.  3
In Sassanian Persia, state and religion were twin sisters. By the mid-fourth century, thanks to the efforts of the priest Kartir, Zoroastrianism had become the official state religion, whose priesthood sometimes challenged the authority of the king. The ruler, the king of kings, was chosen by God and crowned by the chief priest (mobadan-mobad). All power and law devolved from the king, who ruled with the support of the priesthood and the nobility that monopolized high administrative and court positions. The court of the Sassanian king was famous for its elaborate protocol and hierarchy of officials in which the priests played an important role. Despite the intolerance of Zoroastrianism, a number of influential religious movements sprang up during the Sassanian period. Mani (216–277), the founder of Manichaeism, was born in Babylonia of an Arsacid priestly family. He gained the support of the upper levels of Iranian society and become a companion of Shapur I. His doctrine became especially strong in Parthia and central Asia. Mani eventually fell afoul of the powerful Zoroastrian priest, Kartir, and in 277 he was imprisoned and died. Manichaeism spread from Spain to China. Another new religion was Mazdakism. The gnostic-socialist offshoot of Zorastrianism caused major social unrest during the reign of Kavad I (488–531), who initially supported it as a counterbalance to the power of the nobles and the priesthood. Its leader, Mazdak, son of Bamdad, preached a radical doctrine of redistribution of wealth and women which threatened the privileges and power of the upper classes. Mazdak was executed at the end of Kavad's reign, and the sect was persecuted and went underground. The official attitude toward previously established religions varied. The large Jewish population of Mesopotamia suffered sporadic persecution at the hands of Zoroastrian magi. Because of its connection with Rome, Christianity aroused the political as well as the religious opposition of the Sassanian state and church and was frequently persecuted.  4
The Encyclopedia of World History, Sixth edition. Peter N. Stearns, general editor. Copyright © 2001 by Houghton Mifflin Company. Maps by Mary Reilly, copyright 2001 by Houghton Mifflin Company. Published by Houghton Mifflin Company. All rights reserved.