The Sasanian Empire and Zoroastrianism: A Symbiotic Relationship

By Ali Ghafoori Religion has often been one of the foundational elements of civilizations. This is particularly true for the Sasanian Empire. From the very beginning of its establishment, religion and its advocates played a crucial role in this mighty Empire. This happened partly because the founder of the empire made Zoroastrianism the religion of the state which resulted in direct involvement of priesthood in the politics of the empire. By introducing religion into the political arena, Sasanian kings both changed the religion of Zoroastrianism and made their rule susceptible to priests. The dynamic relationship between the priests and kings is one of the main themes in the Sasanian era that can be traced from the beginning to the end of the dynasty. But why did the founder of the Sasanian Empire decide to make religion an essential part of his rule? How exactly did the priests influence Sasanian politics? In what way did this relationship affect Zoroastrianism as a religion? These crucial questions essentially outline the subject matter of this paper. The following is an attempt to answer these questions through examination of Sasanian history with a focus on religion. As the founder of Sasanian Empire Ardashir I determined the general directions that the state followed after him. One of his significant actions was making Zoroastrianism the state religion. There are several possible explanations for this decision. Firstly, according to some reports the family of Ardashir have been the hereditary guardians of an important religious site.1 Their role as the guardians of a temple dedicated to the goddess Anahita in Istakhr directly connects Ardashir and his family to the religious establishment. This provided them with power and authority in that limited area. However this authority is closely tied to the religion and is dependent on the religious clergy. Therefore dealing with religion and priesthood was not a novel matter; to the contrary, it had been the way his family had made their living for many years. The other possible explanation for Ardashir I’s reliance on religion has to do with the issue of legitimization. Just like his ancestors, whose authority and power were based on religion, he too needed a basic foundation to build his empire on. Religion has historically been used as a form of legitimization by rulers. In ancient societies religion was the dominant force that laypeople respected and followed. Therefore rulers who intended to reign over the population had to

Touraj Daryaee, Sasanian Persia: The Rise and Fall of an Empire (London: I.B.Tauris, 2009), 3.


Ohrmazd. Rather he has become the king because he is descended from the gods and his kingship is ordained by the Supreme deity. His wise and able chief priest. 71.B. Ardashir I had difficulty justifying his overthrow of a co-religionist to a local ruler. Sasanian Persia. Zoroastrians were donating money to these temples which created a “temple economy”. 6 Parvaneh Pourshariati. 3 Therefore the king is not just an ordinary ruler who has reached this position by having a powerful army. Daryaee. 1. 102. Tonsar offered the critics answers and tried to win them over by religious reasoning. Decline and Fall of the Sasanian Empire: The Sasanian –Parthian Confederacy and the Arab Conquest of Iran (London: I. He started building new fire temples which had to be administrated by a religious authority. These temples were an important part of his rule since they had financial functions. 3 Daryaee. This usually created a two way relationship between the religious and the ruling establishments. 2008). In order to receive the approval of the religious community the ruler had to offer them something back. Most importantly it opens up the administration of the King to the priests who are the maintainers of state religion. Ohrmazd. For instance. Sasanian Persia.6 Therefore the main role of early chief Sasanian priests was institutionalization of Zoroastrianism. According to the evidence from early Sasanian period 1 2 Mary Boyce. 35. Sasanian Persia. In addition to the functions of priests that are mentioned above they had one other role in the state that made their existence crucial for the King and his rule.Tauris. The use of such religious legitimization by the king has other consequences as well. Different Sasanian kings relied on priests to assist them in difficult times. On the other hand diversity can create internal conflicts and various forms of revolutions. They created doctrinal uniformity in Zoroastrianism.legitimize their position according to the popular religion.4 Ardashir depended on the priests for another reason. Zoroastrians: Their Religious Beliefs and Practices (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul Ltd. [30] .5 These are just some of the examples of religious functions of priests which in turn made them an integral part of the state. In the case of Ardashir I he made Zoroastrianism the official religion of the state and vows to promote it throughout the state. A doctrinal uniformity in the land would allow the rulers to better control and manage the population.2 According to his inscriptions his position as the king was approved by the divine.1 As for the religious legitimization he is depicted as “the king of kings from the line of gods”. 419. 1979). Many scholars have pointed out the diversity of Zoroastrian beliefs in Persia at the beginning of Sasanian era. 5. 4 Boyce. Zoroastrians. 5 Daryaee.

but it was Kerdir. At some points serious power struggles between the two sides caused their relationship to deteriorate. 333.Zoroastrianism did not exist as a single entity. Boyce. Tansar. He was the chief priest under three Sasanian kings. Following Ardashir I. He considered his and the official state interpretation of the religion as the one and only true interpretation and therefore dismissed and fought against the opposing or different interpretations. In brief the reforms and changes that Kerdir brought with him increased the power and influence of priesthood in the Sasanian Empire. Another important contribution of Kerdir that helped with the institutionalization of Zoroastrianism was founding of seminaries (herbedestan). As it was mentioned. Sasanian Persia. Avesta. 97. The process of institutionalization began with Ardashir I and his chief priest.2 Tansar might have begun religious reforms. Zoroastrians. He promoted the beliefs and practices that were considered by him and the state as the “true” Zoroastrianism while harshly oppressing those who had different ideas. The increase in power of priesthood class created some instability in the relationship between kings and priests. 3 Pourshariati. religion was an integral part of this empire therefore for this political system to work the religious leaders and the king had to work together.3 He attempted to create a doctrinal uniformity among Zoroastrians. With Ardashir’s order. [31] . the priest after him that had the most influence on both Sasanian politics and Zoroastrianism. Despite the fact that it is the religion of his ancestors he keeps an open 1 2 Daryaee. At that time it was a collection of diverse popular beliefs and practices that varied from one area to another. 103. his son Shapur I came to power in a smooth transition. Despite his closeness to his father his worldview was somewhat different from him particularly with regard to Zoroastrianism. Decline and Fall of the Sasanian Empire.1 The two early chief priests of the Sasanian kings took up the task of unifying Zoroastrianism and creating a well-defined religion with similar beliefs and practices across the region. The indications of this problem can be seen early on in the empire. Tansar began collecting different religious texts across the country to compile a single version of Zoroastrian sacred text. However this was not the case all the time. This was a significant contribution by Kerdir since it eventually led to creation of a class of priests who will have a critical influence on the way Sasanian Empire functions in the era to follow. Another result of his actions was creation of Zoroastrianism as an institutionalized and uniform religion. As he mentions it himself on a remaining rock relief his main concern was the eradication of what he called “heresy”.

However the great influence of Zoroastrian priesthood defused this threat under the leadership of Kerdir who eventually managed to convince the next king to capture Mani and execute him. 2 Mazdak was a priest who had “socialist” ideas in today’s terminology. there are other more severe instances which result in total breakaways between these two ruling classes. Obviously the priesthood and the ruling class were targets of his message so they tried to prevent him and Kawad I from implementing these ideas. Importantly he did not care much about the strict dogmas of Zoroastrianism which were rigorously imposed by state priests. Daryaee. Instead of persecuting him Shapur I allows Mani the prophet of Manichaeism to travel in his kingdom and spread his message.1 Also the priests played an important role in implementation of poll tax on religious minorities which caused an increase in conversion of people to Zoroastrianism. 56. 68. He went even as far as considering adopting his faith as the state religion since it appeared to be more universal and popular in areas outside of Iranian culture. However. [32] . In other instances the priests played a crucial role in persecution of other religious minorities in the Sasanian lands. 2008). At this time the priests used their power to put pressure on the Christian population within the Sasanian lands to denounce any sort of ties with Christians in Byzantine and declare their independence from them. He came into power at a time of economical difficulty. Sasanian Iran. He is visited by a travelling prophet whose ideology seems very different from Zoroastrianism. For example during the reign of Shapur II Zoroastrian priests and the ruling class felt threatened by the expansion of Christianity in the region after the acceptance of Christianity by Byzantine Empire. He proposed a mixing of classes and redistribution of wealth so those in need can be saved. However the King managed to escape and organized an army with the help of a neighboring state. The most obvious example is perhaps the conflict that occurred during the reign of Kawad I. The distancing of Shapur I from the priests is one of the minor cases of conflicts between kings and priests. The state was under pressure from famine and heavy taxation which created a hostile social atmosphere. CA: Mazda. He comes back and reassumes his 1 2 Touraj Daryaee. Sasanian Iran (224–651CE): Portrait of a Late Antique Empire (Costa Mesa. The radical message of a priest caught the attention of the Kawad I. They managed to arrest and imprison the King. This incident is one example of how the Zoroastrian priesthood influenced the politics of Sasanian Empire.mind about other traditions.

54. 38. [33] .power. For instance priests with the help of nobility deposed Adur-Narse and replaced him with his infant son. Just as the founder of Sasanian Empire influenced the fate of Zoroastrianism.5 These examples show how the doctrinal beliefs of Zoroastrianism influenced the way the kings perceived the world around them. Decline and Fall of the Sasanian Empire. 1 2 Daryaee. They defined and preserved the hierarchical structure of the society which benefited them and their allies. This change allowed them to rule the state until Shabur II reached the age of maturity. In general. priests had more influence on the kings and their decision making. In addition to the influence of religion on domestic politics the religious language and sentiment can also be found in the foreign relations of Sasanian Empire. 24-25. The Zoroastrian worldview affected even the way kings perceived their rivals. 4 Daryaee. His decision to make Zoroastrianism the state religion eventually resulted in ossification of the religion and possibility the reason it has been preserved until now. Sasanian Iran. 70. 56. Sasanian Iran. However this was a two way relationship.3 These examples are all indications of how powerful the priests were in the Sasanian Empire. the enemies of King Narseh are described as liars and followers of lies. Sasanian Persia.4 In another inscription with the exact same message. In several cases it was the priesthood and nobility that decided who the next king will be especially when there was a dispute between heirs with regard to succession. Their influences were as powerful as bringing a king to power to dethroning another. Zoroastrianism and its priests also changed the fate of Sasanian Empire.1 Following his return he implements the reforms he had in mind which greatly weakens the traditional ruling elites and creates new elite of land owners (dehgans). For instance on the rock-relief at Naqsh-e Rustam Shapur I says that “Caesar lied.2 This example shows how severe the conflict between kings and priesthood had been at some points. this religion and its priests influenced his dynasty. Sasanian Iran. 3 Pourshariati. 5 Daryaee. All these points attest to the great cultural and political influence of Zoroastrian priesthood during the Sasanian era. Daryaee. It should now be clear how important the role of religion was in the politics of Sasanian Empire.” which refers to the binary Zoroastrian worldview of lie/chaos/darkness versus truth/order/light. These priests were also responsible for persecution of rival traditions within Sasanian borders.

2008. London: I. Daryaee.B. Pourshariati. Sasanian Iran (224 . —. Mary. Zoroastrians: Their Religious Beliefs and Practices. 1979.Tauris. 2009. Parvaneh.651 CE): Portrait of a Late Antique Empire. London: I. Costa Mesa: Mazda Publishers.Bibliography Boyce. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul Ltd. Decline and Fall of the Sasanian Empire: The Sasanian–Parthian Confederacy and the Arab Conquest of Iran. [34] . Touraj.Tauris. 2008. Sasanian Persia: The Rise and Fall of an Empire.B.