Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2009.03.51

Beate Dignas, Engelbert Winter, Rome and Persia in Late Antiquity: Neighbours and Rivals.   Cambridge:  Cambridge University Press, 2007.  Pp. 347, figs. 18, maps 14.  ISBN 978-0-521-61407-8.  $34.99 (pb).  

Reviewed by Alan Farahani, University of California, Berkeley (
Word count: 2747 words

The Sasanian Empire has often been neglected or marginalized compared to its Western (and in more recent years, its Eastern, Chinese) neighbor. Studies that focus on the Roman Near East usually include the Sasanians only when warfare between the Romans and the Sasanians is involved, and such analyses are frequently undertaken from an exclusively Roman perspective. Lately, however, there has been an increased interest in understanding not only Roman-Sasanian relations more fully, but also in generating multifaceted approaches to the Sasanian impact on the Near East.1 To this end, the present volume, coauthored by Beate Dignas and Engelbert Winter, seeks to fill an intellectual gap and provide a narrative and sourcebook on Roman and Sasanian relations "based on a foundation that shows respect for the history of the East and does not shape this history according to Western needs" (p. 2). This English-language edition published in 2007 by Cambridge University Press is the successor to a German-language original (Rom und das Perserreich. Zwei Weltmächte zwischen Konfrontation und Koexistenz) published in 2001 by Akademie Verlag. This edition is not merely a translation; the authors have greatly expanded on their original text and have added new chapters, new maps, updated appendices, and have in places responded, above all, to comments provided by one of the original reviewers, Stefan R. Hauser, a historian and archaeologist of the Parthian and Sasanian periods of Iran.2 As Hauser's evaluation surveyed the entirety of the book, much of the content of which remains unchanged, this review focuses instead on the impact of the revisions upon the original.

In light of the stated goal of the book, this work in many ways accomplishes its modestly stated ambition. That is, the authors wish to provide a brief narrative and then a compendium of passages (with short but meaningful analyses) pertinent to Roman-Sasanian relations useful to the "undergraduate and non-specialist audience". Such an endeavor is particularly aided by the book's structure and navigable presentation. This edition still captures the fundamental strength of the original study in that it provides a non-intimidating and still detailed introduction (a "textbook") with which to approach the multiple dimensions of the relationship of Rome and Sasanian Iran, primarily in in bello and in post bellum diplomacy.

The addition of two new chapters ('Warfare' and 'Emperor and King of kings') as well as a subchapter ('Armenia') greatly enhances the utility of the study as a whole. In fact, the most commendable quality of this book is its ability to transmit information using highly polished source material in translation; without this exposure in a readable format, some of these texts might well be overlooked even by specialists. The new English translations of Greek, Latin, Syriac, Armenian, and Middle Persian sources are smooth, clear, and accessible. Likewise the presence of frequent but light footnoting, dispersed throughout a majority of these passages, enhances their usefulness substantially; such mild referencing encourages intent readers to explore extended analyses. Nevertheless, in a work committed to describing the sometimes violent and ever mutating relationship of two major empires over a period of 400 years, it is not easy to accommodate many frequently opposing views. Thankfully the authors often refer to the controversial nature of their interpretations of historical events, even if they usually do so only in footnotes. More difficult to reconcile, however, is the authors' somewhat dubious methodology concerning the dichotomy of East and West, an issue that shall be explored in full below.

The book begins with a revised Preface in which the authors acknowledge the many suggestions they received from colleagues in the field. In this context, they underscore their intent to respond to the presence of a 'discipline-wide' Eurocentrism through their own emphasis upon "Eastern textual and visual testimonies". This contrasts with the authors' admission in the similarly revised "Introduction" that their own emphasis is on Roman history. Nonetheless, they assert that a fuller understanding of Roman-Sasanian relations must be grounded on extra-military affairs and must incorporate social and economic dynamics. The authors continue by augmenting the "Introduction" with a valuable summary of important literature on Roman-Sasanian relations and on surveys of Late Antiquity since the publication of the German original. This initial presentation of newer scholarship presages the subsequent depth and breadth of secondary literature that the authors cite in support of their narrative and source criticism. Although the authors do not claim to present a "comprehensive sourcebook", the presence of an extended bibliography of 43 pages is a tremendous asset. This bibliography will long serve as an excellent resource for researchers in this field.

After the Introduction, the book is divided into two major sections, one dealing with the "Narrative" (Part I) of Roman-Sasanian conflicts, and the other with "Sources and Contexts" (Part II). In turn, each major section is divided into a series of chapters and then sub-chapters. Each sub-chapter is a nearly independent unit of content (e.g. "Sasanian Armaments and Tactics" or "Economy and Trade"); these sub-chapters are often cross-referenced throughout the book, especially in the narrative of Part I. This division of chapters only slightly improves on the closely similar German original.

Chapter 1 begins with a brief, but useful discussion of diplomatic and military contacts between Rome and Iran up to the 3rd century CE. In this section the authors refer to the Iranian identity of the Parthian and Sasanian polities given their desire to address the social underpinnings of each interacting party. Unfortunately this crucial identification is not maintained throughout the book, and instead recedes in face of the characterization of Sasanian Iran as "the East". The first chapter also illustrates the largely error-free and readable English translation.

Apparent after the first page of the narrative (p.10) is the introduction of a new, large map. It is noteworthy that the authors have completely replaced all of the maps from the German edition (which were themselves outstanding) in favor of new ones drawn from various English-language sources. Readers will certainly appreciate the presence of the clean, well-illustrated, and numerous maps that are provided, still rather rare in many histories of this region during similar eras. But while most are largely without error, some contain noticeable mistakes. For example: Persepolis is located east, not west, of Istakhr (p. 21); Dvin lies northeast of, not south of, Artaxata (p.31); and on one map one finds Hecatompylos spelled as "Hacatomphylos" along with Ecbatana rendered as "Ecoatana" (p.198).

Chapter 2 then surveys the military and diplomatic relations between the Roman and Sasanian Empire until the collapse of the latter in the seventh century CE. The authors successfully survey a wide expanse of chronological terrain century by century, cross-referencing particular events to sub-chapters in Part II of the book (as in the German original). It is one of the better recent narratives of military and political relations between Sasanian Iran and Rome. From this point onward, however, the authors at times refer to the expansion of the Sasanian empire as following "a far-reaching and programmatic foreign policy" (p.33). The concept of a "foreign policy" (especially a programmatic one) may be a bit misleading to the extent that it retrofits modern labels to ancient phenomena, although the authors recognize its controversial connotation. Throughout Part I there is also a recurring tendency to reduce the complexities of Roman-Sasanian interactions and even descriptions of these interactions to dichotomies. For instance, the return of the Holy Cross to Jerusalem in 628 C.E. is characterized as "the final victory of the West over the East" (p. 47).

Part II, entitled "Sources and Contexts", is the larger of the two parts, containing nine chapters: 1) Political goals; 2) Warfare; 3) Military confrontations; 4) The diplomatic solutions; 5) Arabia between the great powers; 6) Shared interests: Continuing conflicts; 7) Religion: Christianity and Zoroastrianism; 8) Emperor and 'King of kings'; 9) Exchange of information between West and East. Among these chapters and subchapters, a subchapter entitled "Armenia" (within Chapter 6), as well as Chapters 2 "Warfare" and 8 "Emperor and King of kings" represent new material. The introduction of "Armenia" alongside the importance given (an entire chapter) to Arabia's position between the two principal empires serves as an excellent corrective to other analyses that do not take such important regions into consideration within this diplomatic context. Areas once relegated the status of buffer zones or outlying regions are carefully incorporated by the authors with thoughtful analysis and a judicious attention to detail.

Chapter 1 of Part II ('Political goals') begins with a slightly modified introductory paragraph that is characteristic of the new non-chapter additions to the text. In it the authors emphasize that the "following examination...should not evoke the impression that the Sasanians acted as aggressors" (p. 53). Yet even with a constant reiteration of this awareness, a notable stress on Sasanian aggression still percolates through the text. For instance, the authors at one point characterize the Sasanians as a "dangerous opponent" (p.90), a phrase not extant in the German original in this position. Nearly every introductory paragraph in each chapter of Part II contains some subtle additions that serve to embody the authors' commitment to addressing their scholarly peers' suggestions.

Chapter 2 ('Warfare'), a new chapter, while incredibly short (seven pages, three with illustrations), is a worthwhile addition. Though not comprehensive, it provides a manageable commentary on two Late Antique sources on Sasanian armament and tactics, namely one passage from both Heliodorus' Aethiopica and Maurice's Strategikon. At the same time, a supplement of what is known about Sasanian warfare from an archaeological perspective (admittedly not the focus of this book) would have benefited interested readers.3 In general the archaeological contribution to the overall study still remains relatively meager. This is unfortunate given that our knowledge of the Sasanian world is impaired if seen only through the lens of textual evidence.

The next significant addition is located in Chapter 3 ('Military confrontations'), which includes a treatment of the very "Eastern textual...testimonies" the authors earlier promise to provide. In a subsection dealing with Shapur I's wars with Rome, Ferdowsi, the author of the Iranian epic, the Shahnameh, is presented as an exemplar of the so-called "Eastern" perspective (pps. 82-84). However, claims that the illustrations of a Shahnameh commissioned in 1605 C.E. by the Safavid emperor Shah Abbas represent "how the Sasanians saw themselves", (p.84) seem stretched. The lack of the mention of Daqiqi (the initiator of the New Persian Shahnameh) and of the Xwaday Namag (the original Sasanian 'book of kings' on which the Shahnameh was based; acknowledged on p.253 n. 42) as the foundations of the Shahnameh, omits important background information that is useful to the authors' goal of incorporating more extra-Greco/Roman material into their original text. In Chapter 3 the authors also significantly add to their discussion of the first Sasanian-Byzantine war (502-532 C.E.; p.100-6) by providing two new textual sources, Joshua the Stylite (90; 309.1-310.3) and Marcellinus Comes (a. 518) as well as a discussion of archaeological evidence--such occasional supplements greatly add to the quality of information presented.

Chapter 6 ('Shared interests: Continuing conflicts') includes a new subchapter ('Armenia'), which in its depth and scope is an excellent, and essential, addition to the book. The authors provide Greek, Latin, and Armenian sources in their treatment of the geopolitical importance of Armenia during this period. As it is often difficult to elucidate the history of Armenia because of a later adoption of a native textual historiography, the authors have struck a reasonable balance in their inclusion of Armenian sources. Admittedly, Armenian scholars might opt for a different selection, but, given the constraints of scale, the authors have succeeded commendably. Still, the authors questionably highlight the Armenian cultural refusal to 'accept' the Zoroastrian religion without discussing the originally long and mutually influential Iranian-Armenian cultural relationship.4 The authors also claim here that there have been no archaeological excavations in Istakhr, an ideological center of the Sasanians, which is not totally correct.5

The next new chapter, Chapter 8 ('Emperor and King of kings') is another that deals with the further incorporation of the "Sasanian voice" into the chronicle of Roman-Sasanian relations. Here the authors pay particular attention to the idea of the construction of kingship in Sasanian Iran, and its significance for then contemporary international politics. The content of this chapter will be especially useful to those coming from a Roman-Latin tradition. In particular, extended reference to the Middle Persian Book of Deeds of Ardashir (Phl. Karnamag i Artaxsher i Papagan) may herald the integration of more Middle Persian sources into narratives involving ancient Iran and Rome, and provides much-needed insight into the cultural milieu of Sasanian kingship.

The last additions to the book can be found in the Appendices. Appendix I now contains a small, but highly useful chronologically tabulated list of the Sasanian kings side by side with their Roman counterparts (an improvement on the German original). The authors have also completely revised their glossary by including 11 new entries and deleting five original entries.

Unfortunately, a number of typographical and editorial errors have crept into the new text, artifacts of the press, and they do not significantly detract from the otherwise high quality of the presentation and translation. Some errors include dates (p.46, 323 should read 623) and the conflation of languages with peoples (p.216, Hindi should read Hindus).6

More significant criticism must extend, however, to an imbalance in the way that Roman sources tend to be accepted at least provisionally, while reports from Arab, Persian, or Syriac traditions are typified. Where reference is made to the latter traditions, one finds, for instance, such statements as: " was typical in Eastern historiography to record only victorious events" (p.79); "...the oriental literature provides us with stories embellished in the typical way." (p.43 n. 152); "...along with the typical poetic elaboration--it is indeed reflected in the Eastern sources" (p. 237). The non-Roman tradition is reduced, in short, to embellishment and exaggeration. What is more confusing is that the authors also refer to the analogous tendency of omitted defeats in Western historiography (p.57).

This imbalance only complements the ideologically insurmountable chasm that the authors have constructed between the Sasanians and the Romans under the aegis of an "East and West" division. It is seemingly a continuation of the German original's "tangible eurocentrism which taint[ed] the book's achievements"--a Eurocentrism which can be detected even in the new chapters of the 2007 publication.7 That this has survived into the new English translation is truly unfortunate. The creation of such broad monolithic categories severely curtails the intellectual mobility of this work at an interpretive level. In the quest for creating anachronistic, "natural kinds", the authors overlook some of the defining characteristics of these civilizations that contributed to their uniqueness. For example, to understand Sasanian ideology is to understand that the Sasanians were marked by their desire to connect to their perception of their Iranian heritage. Understanding the emergence of "Eranshahr", i.e. an ideology centered on a particular nationalistic concept--especially useful in an analysis of relations--is perhaps more indicative of dynamic social processes than references to the character of "the East".8 Recent research into the social history of this era provides copious evidence for exchange between the citizens of these two polities that unveils an extremely complex interaction of reigning ideology and contextual pragmatics.9 Instead, parallel homogeneity is preferred to diversity -- the authors refer at one point to the "'national' confidence of the East" (p.121), insinuating a degree of uniformity that even their own evidence contradicts.

Hard adherence to this rhetoric results in paradox. In a work that accommodates "non-specialists and undergraduates", this methodology, if not given explicit justification as to its utility, may well misrepresent a region that is in dire need of sober analysis now if ever.

The efforts of the authors have produced a work of scholarship that will be unquestionably useful to a wide range of scholars and initiates in many related fields. Despite a questionable framing of the relationship of Rome and Sasanian Iran, the authors nonetheless manage to provide a detailed and accessible study in which they have sieved and sorted a great deal of textual evidence and have presented it to the reader in a clear, approachable format. The supplements to the original German edition undoubtedly strengthen what was already a unique, well-researched study on an oft-neglected dimension of the overlapping Sasanian and Roman polities. While these aspects of the book receive the greatest commendation, it remains to be seen whether the methodology employed will find further usefulness in an area, as Hauser remarked, "urgently" in need of a more-informed view.


1.   E.g. recent compendia such as V. S. Curtis and S. Stewart, The Idea of Iran Vol. 3: The Sasanian Era, (New York, 2008); R. McC. Adams "Intensified Large-Scale Irrigation as an Aspect of Imperial Policy: Strategies of Statecraft on the Late Sasanian Mesopotamian Plain." in J. Marcus and C. Stanish, eds., Agricultural Strategies (Los Angeles, 2006) 17-37; R. Wenke "Western Iran in the Partho-Sasanian Period: The Imperial Transformation" in F. Hole, ed., The Archaeology of Western Iran (Washington D.C. 1987) 251-272.
2.   Stefan Hauser, BMCR 2002.05.06. Hauser's review is inherently important with respect to the current state of ancient scholarship concerning the Near East and its interaction with Europe.
3.   For a brief summary of the relevant archaeology see: J. Simpson. Review of Sassanian Armies: The Iranian Empire, Early 3rd to mid-7th centuries AD Antiquity 71 (1997) 242-246.
4.   Recent scholarship has illustrated that portions of the Armenian populace, if not adherents to some form of Zoroastrianism (J. Russell, Zoroastrianism in Armenia, [Cambridge, 1988]), continued the functional aspects of their pre-Zoroastrian religion (A. Petrosyan, The Pre-Christian Armenian Pantheon, Aramazd II (2007) 174-201.
5.   Istakhr was the focus of excavations by E. Herzfeld, Iran in the Ancient Near East, (London 1941), and E. Schmidt, The treasury of Persepolis and other discoveries in the homeland of the Achaemenians, (Chicago, 1939).
6.   Other errors include: Yazdgard is "the sinner" not "the infidel" (Arabic al-Athim; Middle Persian bckly; New Persian bazehkar). p.179 The contents of notes 29 and 30 are reversed (i.e. note 29 should have the content of note 30 and vice versa). p.213 "Middle Persian script" should read "Middle Persian language" p.256 While Gundeshapur only represents a phonological evolution of Veh-Andiyok-Shapur (and was later folk-etymologized), the translation should still read the "army" not "weapons" of Shapur.
7.   Stefan Hauser, BMCR 2002.05.06.
8.   T. Daryaee, Shahrestaniha i Eranshahr. A Middle Persian Text on Late Antique Geography, Epic, and History, (Costa Mesa, 2002). See especially, G. Gnoli "The Sassanians and the Birth of Iran" in The Idea of Iran: An Essay on its Origins, (Rome, 1989) 129-183.
9.   J. Walker. "The Limits of Late Antiquity," Ancient World 33 (2002) 45-69. For an archaeological correlate see: E. de Bruijn and D. Dudley. "The Humeima Hoard: Byzantine and Sasanian Coins and Jewelry from Southern Jordan," American Journal of Archaeology 99 (1995) 683-697.

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