Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2018.06.37 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2018.06.37

Khodadad Rezakhani, Reorienting the Sasanians: Eastern Iran in Late Antiquity. Edinburgh studies in ancient Persia.   Edinburgh:  Edinburgh University Press, 2017.  Pp. 224.  ISBN 9781474400299.  £56.00.  

Reviewed by Craig Morley, University of Chester (


While interest and research in late antiquity continues to increase, particularly in the fields of Later Roman and Sasanian history, the history of Central Asia is less understood, and there is a comparative dearth of studies on this region. To help redress this, the focus of this book is Central Asia and the Hindu Kush in late antiquity: what Rezakhani terms, ‘East Iran’. Rezakhani’s aim is to provide a political narrative and chronology of the regions in Central Asia and the Hindu Kush that make up his East Iran. The underlying argument is that Central Asia in late antiquity was not an unimportant periphery between larger and more important empires, but was politically important in its own right, particularly in the role it played in the later Islamic and medieval period.

Rezakhani uses the Sasanian Empire, its influence and interactions with the regions of Central Asia, to anchor and inform his political narrative. Rezakhani’s premise is that by understanding these regions better, we can develop a better understanding of the Sasanian Empire as a whole. In relation to the insights similar investigations into Roman-Sasanian relations have given about Sasanian history,1 this is a reasonable assumption, and one that is developed and justified throughout.

The term ‘East Iran’ is Rezakhani’s most important innovation. The justifications in coining the term ‘East Iran’ for territories including Sogdiana, Chach, Tokharistan, Sistan and Zabulistan, amongst others, are convincing. These are: 1) the need to give these regions equal attention as surrounding territories; 2) the ‘inefficiency’ (p.13) of existing terminology and labels, such as Central Asia, Transoxiana, Khurasan, for this broad region in its late-antique genesis and medieval context. Although the use and scope of the term ‘East Iran’ is likely to be debated, it is nevertheless a useful innovation in promoting these regions as a distinct historic and political entity worthy of, and needing, further research.

Rezakhani’s political narrative is based on extensive use of modern archaeological, numismatic, sigillographic and palaeographic investigations, supported by evidence from third-party (Roman, Byzantine, Chinese and Arabic) primary sources. This methodology comes with inherent problems. A reliance on secondary sources that are likely to change, be adapted and debated as new evidence becomes available and new studies made, means that certain aspects of this political narrative may not be built on the surest ground. Indeed, Rezakhani himself admits the reliance on secondary sources will likely result in parts of his study becoming “obsolete and eventually modified” (p.26). Likewise, the use of third-party primary sources, which come with their own cultural and political biases, perspectives and agendas, can often distort our understanding of the political structures and decisions of outside powers: in this instance, Central Asian dynasties. Despite these issues, and the concerns they may raise, it is perhaps the only realistic solution currently available, due to the dearth of literary-historical sources from East Iran in late antiquity itself.

The study is structured chronologically, investigating the major Central Asian dynasties of late antiquity, starting with the Sistanis (Saka, Pahlavas) in the third century and culminating with the Nēzak and Turks in the seventh century. This chronological approach is punctuated twice, in chapters seven and nine, which focus on the development of Sogdiana. Rezakhani argues that this region played a central role in the genesis of East Iran as a distinct political, cultural and geographic entity.

Individual chapters consistently follow the chronology of rulers in the different available literary sources. Most chapters are summed up with a ‘conclusion’ or ‘legacy of’ section, which summarises the effect a dynasty had on the political evolution of East Iran. Unfortunately, these summary sections are missing from chapters one and eight. It is unclear why the pattern is not followed in these chapters. It would have been useful to keep these subheadings consistent throughout, with ‘legacy of’, seemingly more in-fitting with the aim of showing the development of East Iran over the longue durée of late antiquity.

In the first chapter, "The Sasanians and the Sistanis", the focus is as much on the Sasanians’ first forays into East Iran under Ardashir I in the third century, as it is an investigation of the peoples of that region, the Indo-Parthians and Indo- Sakas. An interesting theory posited here, based on numismatics, is that the Sasanians themselves originated from East Iran.

Next, in "The Kushans and the Sasanians", Rezakhani’s skill in synthesising diverse and often contradictory numismatic and literary (Chinese, Roman and Middle Persian) evidence to weave together a convincing chronology is first evident. In this chapter, it is argued that the Kushan, as the first power to create a unified political empire in these regions, started the process of East Iran’s development as a distinct political and geographic entity.

"The Kushano-Sasanians" chapter argues that the Kushano-Sasanians were not subservient governors for the Sasanians, but were an independent cadet branch of the Sasanian dynasty who ruled Kushan independently of the Shahanshahs in Ctesiphon. Indeed, it is shown that the Kushano-Sasanians occasionally even challenged and threatened the main branch of the (imperial) Sasanians. Interestingly, it is argued that the Kushano-Sasanians used royal names and titulature (Pērōz and kay) before the imperial Sasanian dynasty. This certainly supports Rezakhani’s idea that there was reciprocal political and cultural influence between the Sasanian Empire and East Iran. This chapter also argues the end of the Kushano-Sasanians resulted in direct Sasanian involvement in East Iran. This conforms with the drive to achieve increased control of the frontiers in other parts of the empire, namely Shapur II’s campaigns in Arabia, in the same period.

Following the chronology, Rezakhani next investigates "The Iranian Huns and the Kidarites", invaders from the east who played a direct role in the demise of the Kushano-Sasanians in the region. The most contentious issue in this area is whether the Iranian Huns were a single large wave of invasion or multiple waves of smaller invasions. Rezakhani touches on this debate rather briefly, and more elucidation of the author’s own position would have been welcome here. Nevertheless, the actions of Shapur II in confronting and countering the Chionites, before turning his attention to the Roman Empire, emphasises the priority the east had over the Sasanian’s western frontier at this time, which supports Rezakhani’s overall idea on the importance of East Iran for the Sasanians.

In "The Alkhans in the Southern Hindu Kush", a chronology for the Alkhans, perhaps the least well-known group in this study, is provided. Rezakhani argues that the Alkhans were an independent political entity, not a part of the Hephthalites, as is commonly believed. Two main reasons are given for this theory: 1) the use of distinctive busts in Alkhan coins; 2) they ruled territories in the southern Hindu Kush, further south than the Hephthalites travelled.

In contrast to the Alkhans, Chapter 6 deals with arguably the most famous progenitors of Rezakhani’s East Iran: the Hephthalites. For Rezakhani, the Hephthalites were fundamental in shaping East Iran as a major part of world history in later Islamic history. The scale of their power and influence brought Indian, Chinese, Iranian, Bactrian and Sogdian cultures together. Rezakhani’s ability to succinctly synthesise debates and ambiguities to present a clear political chronology is again apparent in his treatment of the contentious Mazdakite movement. Unsurprisingly, given the focus of this book, it is argued that Kavad was removed from the throne due to Hephthalite involvement in his initial ascension, rather than for any religious heresy. The internal competition and instability that disturbed the Sasanian Empire in the late fifth century certainly makes this a reasonable assumption.

The next chapter, "Sogdiana in the Kidarite and Hephthalite Periods", takes a detour from the chronological narrative. Rezakhani traces the early development of Sogdiana from a political and economic backwater to a region that would hold such importance in the later Islamic and medieval periods. It is argued that the beginnings of Sogdian development and urbanisation began with the Kidarite invasion, which dragged Sogdiana into the wider orbit of Central Asia and a nascent East Iran. Kidarite, and later Hephthalite, links to the wider world allowed Sogdian merchants to reach new markets, such as China, and increase their wealth.

Chapter 8, "The Nēzak and Turk Periods", returns to establishing the political chronology of Central Asia in late antiquity. It is important to note that this chapter focuses on the Nēzak Shahs, not the Nēzak Tarkhāns, who Rezakhani believes were a separate entity. It is noted that unlike their predecessors, the Nēzak Shahs appear to have made official use of Persian language in their coinage. Importantly, this indicates increased Sasanian interest and influence in East Iran in the sixth century.

Next, "Tokharistan and Sogdiana in the Late Sasanian Period" traces the relationship between the Sasanian Empire and the West Turks after their joint victory over the Hephthalites, and the effect their relationship had on these two regions. Rezakhani argues that Tokharistan did not decline into a destitute region after this conflict, as has been previously thought, but instead developed along new lines: horticulture replacing agriculture and a series of small powers holding political sway. West Turk control over Sogdiana once again allowed the Sogdians to increase their economic and mercantile reach and to colonise new areas, helping to develop the famous Sogdian trade network. From a Sasanian perspective, Yazdgard III’s ability to gather an army for his last stand from East Iran underlines the importance this region had to the empire, and the importance the Sasanian had on this region.

Chapter 10 summarises Rezakhani’s ideas on the political chronology and importance of East Iran in late antiquity. Chapter 11 gives a short excursus on the Shahnameh, the main claim advanced here is that the "Shahnameh" is the quintessential example of East Iranian influence on later Persian culture.

In the concluding chapter Rezakhani states that his study was an attempt to put Central Asian history in its own context, rather than as a periphery of other regions and civilisations. In this aim, Rezakhani has largely succeeded. However, the book’s title ReOrienting the Sasanians: East Iran in Late Antiquity detracts from this aim. By having Sasanians in the title it is implied that they, not the Central Asian dynasties and powers, are the central focus of the book, and that these dynasties can only be given importance and context through their relationship with the Sasanians. Given the scope and interest of the series this book was published with, Edinburgh Studies in Ancient Persia, the choice of title seems an unfortunate and misleading compromise.

Rezakhani openly states that his approach to this broad topic may be criticised as that of a generalist, but that such an approach is necessary. I would certainly agree with that point. This study is a valuable addition to the literature, and will be of particular interest to non-specialist as an entry point and framework from which to familiarise themselves with the history of Central Asia and the Hindu Kush in late antiquity. Although Rezakhani purposefully stayed away from cultural history, his effective use of numismatics has the beneficial side-effect of highlighting some important cultural developments in Central Asia and the inception of East Iran.

Clear and well-labelled maps help make this book useful to specialists and non-specialists alike. Likewise, the generous inclusion of images of coins illustrates points raised in the text itself. A time-line of the dynasties of East Iran would have been a welcome addition to complement these maps and figures, and would have helped to visualise Rezakhani’s political framework.


1.   B. Dignas and E. Winter, Rome and Persia in Late Antiquity, (Cambridge, 2007).

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