On January 1, 1980 the Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique announced that Philippe Gignoux would lead a group of scholars in the revision, correction, completion, and enlargement of the (still standard today) work of A. Christensen, L’Iran sous les Sassanides (second edition, 1944), according to a note printed in Studia Iranica. Regrettably, the effort never came to fruition , although all the scholars placed under Gignoux’s direction have succeeded in producing their own work, expanding and revising our knowledge of the Sasanian world. They have been joined by others, some of whose inquiries have been noted in this Review’s ethereal pages (I append a list of rather recent works, appearing in mid-2008 and in 2009, from which one may generate standard bibliographies).
Two recent efforts are deserving of Classicists’ attention. The first is Parvaneh Pourshariati’s study of the period beginning with the reign of Khusro II (590 AD). Her careful treatment of chronological problems and local family traditions call to mind the challenges faced by those studying the history of the Roman Republic, in particular those posed by family traditions and Annalistic writing. And while we have extended narratives for that period of Sasanian history, the period discussed by Karin Mosig-Walburg’s work, the subject of this review, must rely on a record far more fragmentary, marked by panegyrics, imprecise chronographers, local traditions of a legendary nature, plus modern efforts to anachronistically project deep-seated religious tensions and grandiose dreams. Such is the challenge she outlines in her introductory material on the topic of Roman-Sasanian relations from the third century AD to 363 AD.
In Chapter 1, Mosig-Walburg, following the lead of Kettenhofen, removes the onus of a Sasanian desire to re-establish the Achaemenid Empire, a view held by ancients still enthralled by the memory of the Persian Wars and the need to forestall similar future threats. The early Sasanians (to 293) sought to recapture territories once under late Arsacid control. While the Sasanians picked away at the frontier, Rome tried to re-establish their “Mesopotamia” in its old boundaries. Raiding, not a conquest of the West, marked Persian policy. The Arsacid Kingdom of Armenia, rent by internal strife among noble groups (the stuff of later Armenian legendary accounts), maintained a fitful independence broken by temporary Sasanian control. The most recent treatment of the putative Sasanian dream, Shayegan’s 2008 article, accepts Kettenhofer and Mosig-Walburg (in its earlier form as a Habilitationsschrift), but the Iranian evidence he cites, including Kushan-era inscriptions, seems to me to indicate that there was an “Achaemenid style” (with its emphasis on family and on moral principles) transmitted in stone and by voice throughout the Iranian world. No role need be hypothesized for a Sasanian adoption of Roman imitatio -propaganda.
Chapters 2 and 3 discuss events leading to the Roman treaty of 298. Although Narseh’s reign opened in a state of relative peace with Rome, by 296 Sasanian concerns over Diocletian’s attempt to bolster Rome’s frontiers led to a more vigorous raiding, which were perceived by locals, such as Lactantius, as a repetition of Shapur’s. By late summer 297 hostilities paused, when Galerius captured Narseh’s family, who had accompanied him on campaign. The Sasanian king sought peace for the safety of his family. In spite of the imprecision of sources as to geographic specifics, Mosig-Walburg is able to present a sober reconstruction of the terms based on information from the Justinianic-era diplomat Patrios Patrikios. Rome gained additional territory under the control of local nobility, the so-called ‘transtigritanische Gebiete’. Armenia emerged as an independent state, still subject to factional tensions. The peace, which led to some measure of stability for Roman interests, lasted a number of decades, a period when the Sasanians, busy on their other frontiers, were unable to mount enough force to overturn the settlement. The period from 298 into the 330s (Chapter 4) is documented by scattered notices in panegyrics, boastful inscriptions, and chronographers presenting dubious citations of hostilities. All are admirably handled by Mosig-Walburg, in particular the illusion that the Manichaeans were Persian fifth-column and the overblown credence granted to “Hormisdas”‘s pretensions of Sasanian descent.
Chapter 5 discusses the beginnings of a more serious conflict, one ending with a status quo ante following the failure of Sasanian thrusts. Modern reconstructions of events present a variety of sequences (p. 193), but Mosig-Walburg takes as her fixed point the death of Constantine I (22 May 337): Shapur II’s military preparations are assigned to the year 1 October 336-30 September 337, and the date of Shapur’s embassy requesting the abolition of the 298 treaty to late spring of 337. The tipping point for Shapur (pp.235-239) was his concern over Constantine’s plans to reorganize imperial administration, including the creation of a special command, “rex”, assigned to Hanniballianus, placing him atop allied—and restive—minor kings and satraps. General Narseh’s defeat by Rome at Amida and Shapur’s failed siege of Nisibis permitted the continuation of an unsteady peace at the end of 337, when neither side could continue the fight. Chapter 6 removes the force of Eusebius’ desire to make Constantine a prototypical Christian emperor. Mosig-Walburg argues that neither Constantine nor Constantius thought in terms of a ‘crusade’, at best a modern retrojection of later religious tensions.
Chapters 7 and 8 reconstruct the Roman efforts to shore up a crumbling frontier (punctuated by local Roman attempts to negotiate in 358/9), efforts which ended when Julian forced a decision on Persian soil. Foiled by Ktesiphon’s defenses and their own supply shortages, Roman forces were worn away by Shapur’s pursuit and Julian’s death. Terms were offered to Jovian, who was politely permitted minor modifications. Sasanian aims had remained the same from 337 to 363: the removal of the 298 treaty, now replaced by Shapur’s well-thought-out defensive posture. No plans were made to overrun Armenia and regions west: the former remained precariously independent, and Rome was forbidden to answer any Armenian requests for anti-Persian aid.
The author has done an excellent job threading through sources grandiose in claim and lacking in content. This was a border dispute empty of repeated set battles, but one which allowed local principalities to boast of great deeds. In all, Mosig-Walburg has emended successfully part of Christiansen’s work. Christensen, Arthur. L’Iran sous les Sassanides. 2nd ed. Copenhagen: Ejnar Munksgaard, 1944
Curtis, Vesta Sarkhosh, and Stewart, Sarah, eds. The Sasanian Era. The Idea of Iran, vol. 3. London: I. B. Tauris, 2008
Daryaee, Touraj. Sasanian Persia. London: I. B. Tauris, 2009
Pourshariati, Parvaneh. Decline and Fall of the Sasanian Empire. London: I. B. Tauris, 2008
Shayegan, M. Rahim “On the Rationale behind the Roman Wars of Shabuhr II the Great,” Bulletin of the Asia Institute New Series / Volume 18 (2004 [= 2008]) 111-133.