Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2008.01.35

Josef Wiesehöfer, Phillip Huyse, Eran und Aneran: Studien zu den Beziehungen zwischen dem Sasanidenreich und der Mittelmeerwelt. Oriens et Occidens 13.   Stuttgart:  Franz Steiner Verlag, 2006.  Pp. 288.  ISBN 978-3-515-08829-9.  €56.00.  

Reviewed by Matthew P. Canepa, College of Charleston (
Word count: 3637 words

The papers of twelve scholars who participated in a colloquium organized by the French, state-sponsored research group 'Monde Iranien' (now 'Mondes Iranien et Indien') and Kiel University's Institüt für Klassische Altertumskunde, held June 8-9, 2000, are now available at the relatively affordable price of 56 euros. The contributions vary widely in their methodology, scope and originality; and given the quality of the majority of the papers, the volume should be on the acquisitions list of every serious research library and institutions with collections and faculty strengths in the ancient world. Specialists in Middle Iranian studies and the late Roman empire (especially those who work on the third century) will find this volume important. Considering the length of this review (organized according to chapter), readers might find it convenient to refer to the table of contents included at the end of the article.

The editors, Phillip Huyse and Josef Wiesehöfer, eminent scholars in the fields of ancient Iranian linguistics and history respectively, presented the colloquium participants with an ambitious research agenda. According to Wiesehöfer and Huyse's forward, the colloquium dealt with three main research questions: 1) the problem of Roman/Sasanian diplomatic relations, military confrontations, economic exchange from the third to the seventh century, 2) Roman and Sasanian images of the 'other,' and 3) exchange of intellectual material. While a single colloquium could not be expected to exhaust these themes and many papers focus on only one of the two cultures, the resulting publication presents a varied collection of approaches and topics that do effectively touch on many aspects of this research program. As one would expect from a 'proceedings' volume, the papers are of varying lengths and intensity. Several (such as Philip Huyse's study of Sasanian royal titulature) are important breakthrough studies, while others, such as Balty's summary of Roman and Sasanian mosaics or Gyselen's overview on Mediterranean motifs in Sasanian seals present syntheses of an author's previous work.

Wiesehöfer's introductory essay presents an overview of previous work on the Roman-Sasanian interaction and Middle Iranian studies. He does not pretend to offer a comprehensive historiographical picture, but rather provides a valuable 'bird's eye view' of the field and a stimulating call for further research. Wiesehöfer notes many of the assumptions, research questions, and methodologies were formed and distorted by those working from the perspective of classical languages and literature. Often not departing far from the 'orientalist' image that the Greek and Latin sources themselves often presented, the scholars too long understood and presented the Sasanian empire as a caricatured and calcified 'oriental monarchy,' diminished, yet fundamentally unchanged since the days of the Achaemenids. New theoretical approaches in the social sciences and the humanities have only recently begun to correct that approach. Wiesehöfer points out that what was once taken for a study of the Sasanian empire now would be considered the basis for a study of the Roman 'image' of the Sasanian empire. While historical practice based in classical philology retains the potential to contribute to the conversation (witness Hartmann's and Heil's contributions in this volume) it is now subordinate to a wider array of complementary approaches and disciplines that consider points of view stemming from Iran itself, as well as the Armenian, Syriac, Jewish and Arabic traditions, and classical, and visual and archaeological evidence. Wiesehöfer identifies several areas of potential for future scholarship, some of which relate specifically to the topic of the volume while others extend far beyond. At the top of this list he places the study of 'identity-construction' in multicultural societies and how individual identities were negotiated against collectives, especially in minority religious communities, such as Mesopotamian and Iranian Christians, Jews and Manichaeans. He calls for a consideration of how the dominant cultures themselves could be mutually constructed regarding diplomacy, court ceremony, religion, economic, social and political relations, and he lists an examination of the 'Image of the Sasanian' in Roman-Byzantine literature and art, Sasanian foundations myths, and the afterlife of Sasanian and Roman-Byzantine interaction in European and Iranian speaking cultures. I note that there are several works, some of which escaped the author's notice and others that were published since this volume went to press, which address some of these desiderata, including Joel Walker's The Legend of Mar Qardagh (2006) This book explores the cultural complexity and richness of Mesopotamia under the Sasanians, focusing both on the topic of the hybrid culture of Sasanian Christianity and the larger problem of negotiation of cultural identity in the ancient world,. Similarly Garth Fowden's Qusayr 'Amra (2004) skillfullyevaluates the afterlife of the Roman and Sasanian empire in Umayyadcourt culture.

Jean Balty ("Mosaïques romaines, mosaïques sassanides: jeux d'influences réciproques") presents a synthesis of scholarship on Sasanian visual culture from the eastern provinces and Roman mosaic work in Shapur I's Bishapur in the Sasanian home province of Pars (New Persian Fars). Drawing largely from her 1977 and 1995 publications and Ghirshman's excavation reports, she reviews the formal correspondences between the mosaic work at Bishapur and the eastern Mediterranean and traces the appearances of Sasanian motifs in Roman mosaics from the region of Antioch, such as a diademed lion and rams, before concluding with a brief consideration of the persistence of Roman and Sasanian motifs as synthesized and transformed by the Umayyads. In his essay, "Ammianus Marcellinus' Image of Sasanian Society," Jan Willem Drijvers presents a study of those passages within Ammianus Marcellinus' Res Gestae that mention Sasanian society and culture. He begins with a review of' the Res Gestae and its account of Roman-Sasanian conflicts. He collects and summarizes all passages relating to the"Image of the Persian," "Image of Sapor [sic] II," "The Sasanian Army," "Impressions of Sasanian Social Relations," and "Casual Observations," and concludes by looking at the "Persian Digression." Drijvers observes that Ammianus' text shows a strong Herodotean imprint and the influence of Ptolemy's Geography. How these traditions influenced the author's and other Romans' views of the Sasanian empire remains the work of a future study. As our most important western source for the mid- to late fourth century, I think most scholars working in Iranian studies might question his claim that Ammianus has been underused as a source for Sasanian culture. In fact it is hard to think of one serious study of Sasanian Iran that does not rely on it in some way. Nevertheless, this article should be a convenient resource for those students of Iran who wish to use Ammianus.

In his, "Prolégèmenes pour une histoire des idées de l'Iran sassanide: convergences et divergences," Philippe Gignoux focuses primarily on those areas where the intellectual material of the Iranian world was imprinted by Greek, Roman, South Asian and Syriac traditions. The article relates to his other work on the topic such as Man and Cosmos in Ancient Iran (2001). As Gignoux amply demonstrates, the enterprise of writing an intellectual history of Sasanian Iran is an incredible challenge, due to the fragmentary and problematic nature of the sources. Gignoux has lled the field in establishing sound methodologies because he relies on those points where there is evidence of outright convergence rather than forcing comparisons. In writing about "La philosophie et la science grec," "Astronomie et astrologie," and Médicine et pharmacopée," he emphasizes that the primary mode of transmission of Greek philosophical and scientific work occurred by means of Syriac translations, as a close analysis of loan words demonstrates. Important results of this study (and one which remains to be explored in future work) are its challenge to existing assumptions of the primacy of many of these ideas in the Iranian tradition and the mode of transmission from one cultural sphere to the other.

Rika Gyselen is the most prolific scholar in the field of Sasanian seals and among her many contributions to Iranian political and art history, one of the most important has been the establishment of seals as an important primary source ('primary' according to Gignoux's 1979 article, which privileges Iranian and contemporary material over non-Iranian or post-Sasanian material, such as Greek and Latin historiography). Gyselen has skillfully collected and interpreted the evidence from seals to establish many aspects of Sasanian geography, administrative and military structure (for example: Nouveaux Matériaux pour la Géographie historique de l'Empire sassanide : Sceaux administratifs de la Collection Ahmad Saeedi, 2002; "L'Administration "provinciale" du naxwar d'après les sources sigillographiques," Studia Iranica 33.1 2004). The present contribution builds on her previous work on Mediterranean and Near Eastern interaction, ("Sasanian glyptic: an example of Cultural Interaction between the Hellenistic world and the Iranian world," in Coins, Art, and Chronology, 1999). According to Gyselen, seals from Sasanian Iran evince a rich repertoire of images that stem in part from a Mediterranean origin (at least indirectly). Many of these seals have in fact been misclassified in museum collections and have languished in classical collections. In reviewing the possible origins of such motifs she reminds the reader that Hellenistic art was not just a Mediterranean phenomenon and that, though they took a different path, the visual traditions of Near Eastern, Central and South Asian Hellenism were quite vibrant at the time of the rise of Sasanian dynasty (ca. 224). While direct importation of motifs or even craftsmen should be not discounted (and in some cases might be the best explanation for some motifs-- such as the 'She-Wolf'), that mode of transmission should not be privileged. Gyselen points out that while the seals reproduce several motifs more or less faithfully in a new Iranian context ('context' provided by technique, shape, inscriptions or very rarely archaeological context), many more have been adapted and combined with iconography of an Iranian origin. Gyselen organizes the body of her article according to those objects with a direct imprint of Mediterranean iconography (such as Leda and the swan) which present a more complex amalgam with motifs from an Iranian origin, such as investiture and triumph, motifs that parallel the "Graeco-Egyptian magic seals," and a body of seals that present variations on a composite of eagles and human faces. While Gyselen does not extend her study beyond establishing this classification and noting parallels, it will provide intriguing groundwork for future studies. In the realm of Sasanian sigillography, the forthcoming dissertation of Nils Ritter (Freie Universität Berlin) will be a welcome resource for studies of this type.

Udo Hartmann's and Matthäus Heils' articles, intensive studies stemming from a close and careful reading of the Roman sources, contribute to our understanding of the movement of officials and aristocrats and their service in the opposing empire. In "Mareades-- ein sasanidischer Quisling?" Hartmann presents an extensive and valuable inquiry into Mareades, a decurion of Roman Antioch attested in several third century sources, who sought refuge at the court of Shapur I. After a review of the sources and the mid-third century conflicts between the two the author reconstructs the career of Mareades, providing a balanced appraisal of the very fragmentary and diverse sources. Hartmann considers several problems in the body of his article: 1) the dating of the Mareades episode(s), evaluating the divide in the sources, with Peter the Patrician, Malalas and the Sibylline oracle setting it at 253, and Ammianus Marcellinus and the Genesis Rabba at 260 (Hartmann concludes that Mareades fled in the early 250s) 2) the nature of the internal political in Roman Antioch, 3) Mareades' leadership in campaigns against Antioch and 4) the length of Shapur I's occupation of the Roman eastern provinces and Mareades' participation in these operations.

Matthäus Heil's article "Perser im spätrömischen Dienst," documents the long line of Sasanian courtiers, officials and military deserters who fled the Sasanian empire to seek their fortune with the Romans and considers the movement of Romans to Iran. Heil tracks the change in Roman attitudes towards 'Persians' from one of extreme suspicion after capture of Valerian, to the great respect and honor that the imperial court held for some Iranian exiles beginning in the mid-fourth century. Heil dedicates sections to the army and court culture, areas in which Sasanian defectors made special contributions. Not surprisingly, considering the relative wealth of information Ammianus Marcellinus supplies us, Heil concentrates on the career of the family of Hormisdas/Ohrmazd under Constantius II and Julian. Heil cautiously approaches such fragmentary sources , reminding us that not every Iranian name belonged to someone of immediate Iranian origin (witness pope Hormisdas, born in Campania) nor did every Sasanian exile or defector have an Iranian name (witness the many Sasanian Christians). Indeed Heil's study indicates that individuals could expediently change or cultivate such cultural designations as was expedient. For example Hormisdas the younger, who was referred to as 'Persian' despite his Constantinopoliltan upbringing and Roman mother, possibly to cultivate his connection to the Sasanian throne. Heil also reviews the instances of Romans who were captured or voluntarily entered Sasanian service (such as the population of Antioch, deported by both Shapur I and Khosrow I and the army of Valerian on the one hand and the last members of the Athenian academy and Roman silk workers driven out by Justinian's monopoly on the other). Heil concludes that there was a considerable difference in the role of defectors in Rome and Iran and attributes this difference to Rome's relatively open imperial bureaucracy and Sasanian Iran's hereditary Iranian aristocracy, which prevented Romans from ascending to the comparable levels of power in Iran. I do not believe that such an absolute contrast is warranted considering that Heil's own evidence indicates there was first no dearth of defectors of rank enfolded into the Sasanian court. While they might not have entered into the ranks of the wuzurgan, the careers of Antoninus Protector, Mareades, and Craugasius indicate that the inner circle of power was open to Romans. It remains for future studies to consider whether Sasanian Iran's dominant geopolitical position vis-à-vis Rome for most of their coexistence and the wider pool of human capital the Sasanian court had at its disposal also impacted this phenomenon. Nor should we forget that most of our evidence on the inner workings of the Sasanian court is limited to Roman sources. Heil includes three appendixes: I. a prospographical list of Persians in Roman service, II. a consideration of the career and identity of the eunuch Antiochus, and III. a list of Romans in Persian service. Heil's treatment of Antiochus bears comment. While he does raise important points, his basis for rejecting the preponderance of evidence for Antiochus' background rests-- as far as I can tell-- on the objection that Procopius was not an eyewitness to the era of Theodosius II's accession. This appendix should still be read in concert with Greatrex' and Bardill's 1996 article on this topic. All in all, this is a very important study.

Although the scope of Phillip Huyse's article might seem relatively modest from his title ("Die sasanidische Königstitulatur: eine Gegenüberstellung der Quellen"), the article is important. Huyse's primary contribution is the collection and evaluation of the Middle Iranian sources (coin legends, legends on seals and gems and the royal inscriptions). These he compares to evidence stemming from the non-Iranian sources (mainly 'official correspondence' that Armenian and Roman sources purport to preserve and to a lesser extent mentions of the Sasanian king in Armenian sources). In addition to an intensive study of Sasanian titulature, Huyse provides a methodology for evaluating the evidence of Sasanian culture in Roman sources, which are viewed by Iranists as less reliable because they stand at a cultural and often temporal remove, and must be evaluated against the actual primary source material of Sasanian inscriptions, coins and seals. While Huyse's methodology might be jarring for disciplines that have assumed the Roman sources present 'the truth,' it provides an important corrective and represents the best practice for serious studies of the ancient Iranian world. Huyse holds a hard line in interpreting the evidence, observing that the non-Roman sources do not exactly match the Sasanian sources; his conclusion is that these titles are better evidence of how the Romans and Armenians viewed the Sasanian monarch than direct evidence of the productions of the Sasanian court itself. I would temper these conclusions by reminding the reader that these correspondences, such as they are, should not be taken entirely for granted. While it is clear that the non-Roman sources are not direct and faithful translations, they are not (for the most part) complete inventions either. Since we have no primary source that preserves a Sasanian letter, the possibility must remain open that they do reflect diplomatic correspondence even if they deviate from the inscriptions, held here as the gold standard. In addition, the Sasanian royal ideology shifted considerably between the third to fourth centuries and the fifth through sixth centuries, when the kings of kings also stopped carving inscriptions--our most detailed body of primary source material--leaving us to depend largely on the evidence of coins for the late period. Future studies will now have to evaluate how this might have impacted the non-Roman impression of the Sasanian monarch and the extent to which the Sasanian sovereign could present different faces to different audiences.

In his article, "Roms mesopotamische Provinzen nach der Gefangnahme Valerians (260)," Andreas Luther inquires into the state of these borderlands during this period of extreme turmoil. As Luther notes, this is one of the most challenging and intriguing periods of Roman history in which to work because of the fragmentary and problematic nature of the sources. Luther presents a careful and thorough review of the sources and literature and evaluates differing approaches to the problem. These have varied from considering the provinces as held almost entirely by the Sasanian empire, to considering them as 'no-man's-land,' to their existing under intermittent Roman/Palmyrene control. Luther observes that even if even if Rome lost the provinces (temporarily or permanently) Roman troops would not have withdrawn completely from the region. He concludes that before the year 296, one can prove only that the Sasanians occupied the region in 260; Luther maintains that the question of another short occupation in 282-83 must remain open.

In "Women and Kingship: Some Remarks about the enthronisation [sic] of Queen Boran and her Sister Azarmigduxt," Antonio Panaino presents a study of the nature of royal power in the waning years of the Sasanian empire. In its tumultuous final chapter,which unfolded between Heraclius' victorious campaign and Khosrow II's fall and the Muslim invasions, the Sasanian empire experienced a dizzying succession of sovereigns, thrown up by various internal factions of the nobility and by the victorious Heraclius. Although they lasted only a matter of months, the reigns of Boran and Azarmigduxt were among the longest in this period. Sasanian imperial ideology restricted legitimate kingship to the Sasanian dynasty, a stricture whose importance would challenge the traditional role of women in Sasanian Iran and produce the only female sovereigns who ruled in their own right in Sasanian history. Panaino challenges the view that these two queens were puppets of the wuzurgan and argues that, especially in the case of Boran, they ruled independently despite the low legal and social standing of women in the culture. He maintains that these two queens capitalized on the aristocracy's unwillingness to consider a non-Sasanian such as Shahr-Waraz (who had the added stigma of being a Roman puppet) and forged innovative images and ideologies of kingship. While these were partially adapted from Khosrow II's precedents, they were not mere imitation. Panaino's argument would have found support in Touraj Daryaee's 1999 and 2000 articles on Boran's coinage and Khosrow II's image of kingship, respectively. Panaino also takes on the seemingly intractable problem of the identity of Khosrow II's Christian wives and the relationship among his offspring. Panaino asserts that in the case of Shirin, a direct relationship to the Byzantine emperor Maurice is important, such a bride would be under his protection. tThe article would have benefited from better proofreading.

The final large-scale contribution to this volume, Rolf Schneider's "Orientalism in Late Antiquity: The Oriental in Imperial and Christian Imagery," builds on the author's earlier contributions on the image of the eastern "other" in the Roman world. Schneider summarizes his earlier work ("Die Faszination des Feindes. Bilder der Parther und des Orients in Rom," in Das Partherreich und seine Zeugnisse, 1998) and underscores what studies like Paul Zanker's Power of Images in the Age of Augustus have also argued: that the image of the 'Oriental' was important for the Roman's self-conception. He traces the shift from imperial imagery to ecclesiastical imagery using the example of the Magi, but other than cataloguing instances of the iconographic motif does not analyze the function of the image within and between the two realms.

The volume's final article, "Ankündigung eines prosopographischen Projektes," by Ursula Weber presents a report on the author's research which can be evaluated in its current form here. This project will surely be an important contribution to the study of the Sasanian empire and will provide a resource for study of the empire's western counterpart in the Prosopography of the Later Roman Empire. I leave it for a future reviewer to evaluate this major undertaking on its completion.


Josef Wiesehöfer: Statt einer Einleitung: Randkultur oder Nabel der Welt? Das Sasanidenreich und der Westen. Anmerkungen eines Althistorikers.

Janine Balty: Mosaïques romaines, mosaïques sassanides: jeux d'influences réciproques.

Jan Willem Drijvers: Ammianus Marcellinus' Image of Sasanian Society.

Philippe Gignoux: Prolégomènes pour une histoire des idées de l'Iran sassanide: convergences et divergences.

Rika Gyselen: Note de glyptique sassanide. 6. Le phénomène des motifs iconographiques communs à l'Iran sassanide et au bassin méditerranéen.

Udo Hartmann: Mareades -- ein sasanidischer Quisling?

Matthäus Heil: Perser im spätrömischen Dienst.

Philip Huyse: Die sasanidische Königstitulatur: Eine Gegenüberstellung der Quellen.

Andreas Luther: Roms mesopotamische Provinzen nach der Gefangennahme Valerians (260)

Antonio Panaino: Women and Kingship. Some remarks about the enthronisation of Queen Boran and her sister *Azarmigduxt.

Rolf Michael Schneider: Orientalism in Late Antiquity. The Oriental in Imperial and Christian Imagery.

Ursula Weber: Ankündigung eines prosopographischen Projektes.

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