Reevaluating the Empire of the Orient: Methodological Reflections on the State of Sasanian Affairs

The study of the Sasanian Empire has had a nebulous history. From the late nineteenth century the study of this empire gained grounds, but the last great work was written in 1944 by Arthur Christensen. While there has been great leaps in the understanding of the Zoroastrian religion of the period, archaeological excavations in Iran and the neighboring countries, the study of historical sources and the material culture, still no synthesis exist. Furthermore, the variety of approaches from different disciplines has fragmented the idea of a field of "Sasanian Studies." Those working on the Sasanian Empire in light of Late Antique Studies, Iranian Studies and Religious Studies have all taken a different perspective and approach. This panel discusses the state of the study of the Sasanian Empire in the past century and the issues and problems that it faces today. These papers deal with the Sasanian Empire in terms of archeological, religious and historical approaches and methodology.

Personal Information (Panel Organizer)

Touraj Daryaee
Univesity of California, Irvine


Shaul Shaked
The Hebrew University of Jerusalem


by Touraj Daryaee / University of California, Irvine

The Sasanian Empire and its history has been slow in becoming a field of study. George Rawlinson's The Seventh Great Oriental Monarchy in 1875 was the first book dedicated to the study of Sasanian history. This was followed by Arthur Christensen's L'Iran sous les Sassanides in 1944. Since then much work has been done to understand the history of this great empire, but its reception has been slow in the field of late ancient / late antique studies. This paper examines all the major works and their approaches to the study of Sasanian history and suggests how the inclusion of this dynasty into the field of late ancient studies has caused it to flourish outside of the narrow field of ancient Iranian history. This inclusion, however, has caused the fragmentation in approaches and methods in the study of the Sasanians. The consequence of this development will also be elucidated for the study of ancient Iranian history as a unit and its relation to the late ancient world history.

by M. Rahim Shayegan / University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA)

The integration of Sasanian Iran into late antique studies has certainly prompted the field of Altiranisik to move beyond the restrictive confines
of the discipline and embrace the interconnectedness of the ancient world. It has now doubt infused new life and methodological breath into the
reconstruction of the Sasanian past. While Sasanian history ought to participate in this festival of connectivity, its own essence, which may be evinced in the tapestry of Iranian languages, and the multitude layers of Iranian history, religions, and archaeology, seems now largely neglected in favor of broad-brush syntheses merely informed by expertise on the empire's fringes. In this presentation, a case shall be made for the singularity of the Sasanian empire, as a multi-confessional polity, bestowed with a writing system rooted in Mesopotamian
heterography, and a distinct mytho-epic vision of the past, that by continuing the legacy of the Ancient Near East, in ways more than one, is to be placed at the antipodes of the late antique world.

by Greg Fisher / Carleton University

In contrast to their Roman counterparts, the Jafnids (Ghassanids), sources for the ‘Persian Arabs’ of al-Hira, often called Nasrids or
Lakhmids, are scarce. A hostile tradition from Roman classicising and ecclesiastical writers, and compilations from much later traditions—the medieval Syriac chronicles, the Christian Arabic Chronicle of Seert, the Arabic-Islamic tradition, and a few mentions in medieval Persian
texts—form the basis for our understanding of Persia’s late antique Arab allies. Compounding the challenges of the literary sources is the lack of detailed excavation of locations associated with the Nasrids, such as al-Hira itself, or any of the surrounding palaces known primarily from the Arab-Islamic tradition.
This paper will offer a brief discussion of the evidence for the Persian Arabs, including an assessment of the utility of the different source
traditions. It is often assumed that little of certainty can be said about the Nasrids, because of historiographical problems and ‘known unknowns’ – vast lacunae in the sources – and to some extent this paper reinforces this general conclusion. But it will also offer an upbeat assessment: while the sources constitute significant obstacles to our knowledge of the Nasrids, a surprisingly complete picture of their activities and place in late antique eastern history can be outlined through the careful use, in particular, of pre-Islamic material contemporary to the Nasrids themselves.