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 Sacral Kingship in Sasanian Iran


By: Jamsheed K. Choksky



Shâhigân-i Sepid (white Palace),

Tyspawn (Ctesiphone) in Khvârvarân Province (now-days Iraq)


In ancient Near Eastern societies the king stood at the apex of the social hierarchy. He possessed supreme status, vast wealth, and great authority. The ruler rested his claim to rule on divine sanction. All other prerequisites for rule such as tradition and royal descent also required and received their warrant from the gods through religion. For the exercise of rule the king often depended on royal charisma, personal and family allegiances, the alliance of noble families, and retainers. The authority of the king required divine sanction based upon the prevailing religious institutions, and hence kingship in the ancient Near East was primarily of two types: divine kingship and sacral kingship. Both forms of kingship were based on religious doctrines and beliefs and resulted in the development of political ideologies and practices to legitimize and propagate the claim to power and authority. 

All doctrines and ideologies of divine kingship embodied the fundamental belief that the king was of divine essence; a god incarnate or descended among mankind. The ruler was not deified at any particular moment such as coronation or death, and indeed his coronation was an epiphany, not an apotheosis.' The monarch was usually identified as the incarnation of a major deity of the state religion. In doctrines and ideologies of sacral kingship, however, the king was not divine. The ruler, though greater than ordinary men, and often claiming to be of the lineage of the gods, was always subordinate to the gods. He was a mortal and a member of the human community, not a god incarnate or descended on earth. The king led and ruled his people but was not believed to be greatly different from his subjects in essence or nature. The king was the chosen representative of the gods on earth and hence required their support, assistance, and good will. 

Thus such kings were often depicted in attitudes of worship and humility before the gods or their symbols. Since kingship originated from the gods it was regarded as sacral, and conferred physical inviolability, wisdom, great physical prowess, and often personal sanctity upon the recipient. Sacral kingship was widely practised in ancient Mesopotamia. 

Concepts of kingship in Iran and their relation to organized religion originated from the convergence of ancient Indo-Iranian concepts of leadership, social order and class structure, and the belief in the divine origins of these, with Mesopotamian ideologies and practices of rule and sacral kingship, under the Medes and the Achaemenians (549-330 BCE ). Under the Achaemenians, kingship was believed to originate from Ahura Mazda, and all royal success occurred through this god's will. The conquest of the Achaemenian empire by Alexander II of the Macedonia (356-322 BCE) in 330 BCE, with the death of the last Achaemenian emperor Darius III Codomannus (ruled 336-330 BCE), resulted in the influx of Hellenistic ideas of kingship into Iran under Alexander's successors: the Seleucids. (312-129 BCE). The hellenization of Iran continued under the Iranian Arsacid (Parthian) rulers (247 BCE-CE 224).5 The belief that the ruler was appointed by the gods, and represented these gods on earth, was reinforced under Arsacid dynasty. 

Ardeshir_golden_coin.jpg (32064 bytes)

In CE 224 Emperor Ardeshir the son of Papak, scion of the ruling house of Persis, after subduing local lords and defeating the Arsacid king of kings Artabanus V, ascended the throne of Iran. Emperor Ardeshir I (ruled CE 224-240) founded the Sasanian dynasty which ruled Iran for 427 years, from CE 224 until the Arab conquest of the empire by CE 651. Under the rule of this dynasty Iran was gradually transformed from a feudal state to a centralized empire. Over the span of four centuries the royal court was reorganized, theories of government were developed, administrative bureaus were created, the military was transformed from a composite of the clan-armies of local lords to a professional enlisted army, and power and authority were centralized. The Sasanian kings wielded great power, and held the title "King of Kings" (Phl: Shahan-Shah) which they inherited from their royal predecessors, the Arsacids. They also established Zoroastrianism as the official religion of the empire, and used religious doctrines to justify state enforcement of imperial law and political ideology. The Sasanids had inherited the Iranian concepts of kingship and social order from their forerunners the Achaemenians and Arsacids. The close association and political interdependence of state and church which developed in the Sasanian Empire thus enabled the kings to seek legitimacy for their rule in Zoroastrian doctrines. This resulted in the crystalization of a Zoroastrian doctrine of sacral kingship and the development of a royal ideology and practice of sacral kingship under Sasanian rule. 

This article will examine both the religious doctrine and the political ideology of sacral kingship in the Sasanian empire. It will reconstruct and analyze the religious basis and tenets of the Zoroastrian doctrine of sacral kingship. The actual practice of this doctrine as a political ideology by the Sasanian royal family will then be traced using both textual and material evidence. The means by which the ideology was propagated among the Iranian people will also be established. Further, the success of both the royal ideology and its propagation will be analyzed. Finally, the limits of the royal ideology of sacral kingship, in practice, will be established in conjunction with the political history of the empire. 


The Zoroastrian Doctrine of

Sacral Kingship

The Zoroastrian religion, which served as the religious basis of Sasanian sacral kingship, incorporated this doctrine into its tenets, and preserved it after the fall of the Sasanian dynasty with the Arab conquest of Iran by CE 651. The doctrine, as represented, legitimized, propagated, and preserved by the religion, can be reconstructed from the Zoroastrian Pahlavi literature of the 9th century CE These texts, although compiled in their final forms after the Arab conquest of Iran, are based on doctrines and practices which evolved during the long history of Zoroastrianism. They thus serve as a valid and accurate source of information on Zoroastrian doctrines and practices of the pre-Islamic period, especially the Sasanian era. The main source for the Zoroastrian doctrine of sacral kingship is the Denkard "Acts of the Religion," an encyclopedia of Zoroastrian knowledge, which greatly emphasizes the importance of this doctrine. The Pahlavi and Pazand Shkand Gumanig Wizar "The Doubt Dispelling Explanation," an exposition of Zoroastrianism and didactic criticism of all other major religions-Judaism, Christianity, Islam, and Manichaeism-contains references to the intimate connections between the social hierarchy of the Sasanian empire and orthodox Zoroastrian doctrine. This text also emphasizes the role of the Sasanian monarch as the supreme representative of Ahura Mazda on earth. Other Pahlavi sources include the Greater or Iranian Bundahishn "[Book of] Primal Creation;" whose final major redaction dates from CE 1078, the Karnamag-i Emperor Ardeshir Papakan "The Book of Feats of Emperor Ardeshir, son of Papak," the legendary story of the founder of the Sasanian dynasty, and the Zand-i Wahman Yasht "The Commentary of the Prayer [to] Vohu Manah," an apocalyptic and eschatological work whose final redaction dates from the thirteenth century CE The concept of sacral kingship among the Sasanians is also preserved in the New Persian Shah-name "Book of Kings" of Ferdowsi (d c. CE 1020/1026). 

The Zoroastrian doctrine of sacral kingship as reconstructed from these sources has three broad divisions: the king and his physical person, the role of kingship, and the relationships among kingship, religion, and the people of Iran. 


The King 

Sovereignty over Iran, in every age, was believed to be restricted to a single family. Iranian history was perceived as the eras of these ruling families: the rule of Gayomard (Av: Gayo.maretan-) "mortal life," the prototype of humanity, and the beginning of the human race; the Pishdādiān dynasty and the rise of civilization; the Kayanian era, which in Sasanian belief included the Achaemenian dynasty; and the Arsacids and the Sasanian royal family (DKM 292.1-17/.' The chosen family, and especially the king, was endowed with royal glory (Av: xvarenah-, OP: farnah-, Phl: xwarrah, NP: farr) and wisdom by Ahura Mazda and the other deities. This royal glory and wisdom marked the royal family as supreme among the people, and indicated that they had been divinely endowed with kingship (DKM 290.20-291.8, 338.14-22/. Thus, in the founder legend of the dynasty, Emperor Ardeshir I (ruled CE 224-240) is chosen by the gods who bestow xwarrah upon him (KAP 17.6-19.9; ShN 259-62/. The divine choice of the Sasanian family to rule Iran was also depicted in the signs and omens which portend the ascendance of Emperor Ardeshir I in the legends of the Sasanian family: dreams foretell and reveal his royal ancestry and rise to supremacy (KAP 2.11-5.8, 11.1012.13, 16.9-15; ShN 252-54, 257-58/. Kingship itself was believed to originate from Ahura Mazda and the Zoroastrian religion, and have been transferred through successive dynasties to the Sasanians (DKM 338.14-22/. This kingship is said to be reclaimed by the Creator at the final renovation (Av: frasho.kereti-, Phl: frashagird / of the universe (DKM 92.16-17/. Thus the Sasanid family claimed both descent and kingship from all the earlier, divinely chosen royal families of Iran (DKM 292.1-17; KAP 2.5-10, 15.1-8; GBd 214.10-215.1, 232.10; LT 26-29/. The founder legend of Emperor Ardeshir I was used by the Sasanians to establish connections with the previous dynasties; where such connections did not exist, they were fabricated.9 Further, the monarch and his family were held to be scions of the gods, a claim they repeated on the imperial coinage. 

The Denkard states that the source of the Sasanian king of king's nobility was perfection (DKM 529.17-18/. His own physical person was inviolable because he was chosen by the gods to rule Iran, and had been granted the sacred royal glory. It was also reinforced by the belief that the king arose from the lineage of the gods. Yet, although a king's glory, sovereignty, and authority arose from Ahura Mazda, and he himself had descended from the gods, the king was at all times considered a mortal and never a god incarnate (DKM 299.21-300.15/. Indeed, it is clearly stated in the Denkard that "all corporeal kings are men" (DKM 300.3-4/ and not gods. Hence, the Zoroastrian doctrine of sacral kingship, as crystalized in the Sasanian era, held kingship as god-given and sacred, but the king, while chosen of god and physically inviolable, was never regarded as divine. According to the doctrine of sacral kingship "the symbol of the Beneficent Spirit manifests itself on earth in the good and righteous king, one whose will is inclined on increase, whose nature is pure, whose desires for his subjects are righteous" (DKM 401.3-5)." 

Therefore the Sasanian monarch was the omnipotent and all-protecting representative of Ahura Mazda in the corporeal world, was lord over all persons, and wielded absolute authority granted by god through religion /DKM 299.21300.15, 388.9-390.19/. His function was to maintain the religiously sanctioned social structure of the empire and thus to ensure that law, order, and righteousness were supreme on earth. The will of the Sasanian ruler was, according to the Denkard, supreme in all religious and secular affairs. It is stated that "when he who is the country ruler, the lord, has given an order not to perform even the greatest act of virtue, one should not perform it. And he who performs it should abstain. For it is not an act of virtue, but a grievous sin; one [who performs it] is, for his own part, in heresy, and the sovereignty is destroyed" (DKM 523.10-14/.'2 The will of a righteous king was held above the soul, mind, wisdom and religion (DKM 178.3-11 /. Thus the domain of the king's authority excluded only the purely spiritual essences of his subjects, while he was lord over all the seven climes and the entire corporeal world /ShGW 1.18-19/. 

In the interconnection of the material and spiritual realms, as established by Zoroastrian doctrine, the body was equated to the soul, wealth to virtue, honor to righteous effort, the king to the Zoroastrian religion, and generosity to wisdom (DKM 141.6-15/. Since Zoroastrian doctrine regarded Ahura Mazda, and his space, time and religion as a unity (GBd 2.15-22/, the Sasanian ruler became the mortal representative and counterpart of both the Zoroastrian religion and its supreme creator deity. Further, the monarch served as the divinely ordained link between man the microcosm and god the macrocosm. Only through the king did the people have access to religion, god, and salvation. The Denkard instructs: "Let your thought transcend your own will, and pass to the supreme will and lord upon the earth, the king recognized by the religion. And let it pass from him to the highest lord of all the spirits, the creator Ahura Mazda" /DKM 218.19-21 /. 

In summary, the king in Zoroastrian belief, as sovereign of Iran and the entire corporeal world, was the divinely designated protector, religious and secular authority, and guide of the material creation. He served, in the corporeal world, the same roles as Ahura Mazda does as universal sovereign of both the material and spiritual worlds. 


The Role of Kingship 

Kingship in Iran had both political and mythicritual roles, the first by virtue of royal office, the second as protector of the creatures and divine law on earth (DKM 287.15-288.18; 388.9-390.19). The king was expected to fulfill his role as supreme protector and enforcer of law and order through defending Iran in combat, and by submission of his subjects to his will and reason (DKM 287.17-22). Material prosperity was to be achieved through maintenance of the Zoroastrian social order. Indeed, in Zoroastrianism all material growth and prosperity derived from Ahura Mazda through the medium of the king (DKM 292.20-293.1, 335.20-336.2, 337.7-8). Since a righteous ruler, in league with the Good Religion, was to improve the kingdom and bring prosperity and peace to all his subjects, the faith decreed that the material prosperity of Iran was a sign that legitimate authority and sacral kingship were vested in the ruler. In that the monarch's success was due to his divine royal glory, its loss would bring calamity and strife (DKM 290.20-291.8). 

Because the Sasanian monarch was also expected to serve as the protector and propagator of Zoroastrianism, he was required to have received training as a magus (OP: magu-, `magupati-, Phl: mowbed, NP: mobad) during his youth." This priestly training enabled him to claim both secular and religious functions, and provided the nexus between his political and mythic-ritual roles. By upholding the law and doctrines of Ahura Mazda the king combated evil in the world, and thereby furthered the eventual vanquishing of the Evil Spirit (Av: Angra.Mainyu-, Phl: Ahreman, Gannag Menog) and the renovation of the universe. The Denkard claims, of a righteous, divinely appointed ruler, that "Salvation is his fruit" (DKM 293.1). The eschatological role of kingship and religion in furthering the renovation of the universe through union of the functions of king and priest is emphasized in the Denkard which states "The thing against which the Evil Spirit struggles most vigorously is the uniting, in full force, of the glories of kingship and the Good Religion in a single person, because such a combination would vanquish him .... Whenever, in this world, religion is united with sovereignty in a good Mazdean ruler, then vice becomes weak and virtue increases, hostility diminishes and cooperation increases, righteousness increases and unrighteousness decreases among mankind, the good prosper and prevail and the evil are restrained and deprived of kingship, the world is prosperous, all creation is joyful, and the people flourish .... When these two glories unite in one person, then the Adversary will be completely vanquished and creation saved and purified . . . ." (DKM 129.18-130.16). Thus the ideal (future) earthly ruler will possess both absolute secular and religious authority, and will use this authority and power to vanquish evil. All other earthly rulers did not possess both divine glories, but through their royal xwarrah united with the religion and clergy to combat evil. They therefore played a vital role in furthering the final renovation of the universe, and were of fundamental importance in Zoroastrian eschatology. 

The ruling monarch was also represented as a dragon-slayer, the protagonist in the ancient IndoIranian fertility myth, freeing the waters for the world. This myth is found in the Avesta where the legendary Pishdadian king Thraetaona (Fredon) battles the dragon-king Dahaka (Av: Azi DahakaPhl: Az Dahag) for the waters of the world (Y 9.78; Yt 5.33-35, 9.13-14, 13.131, 14.40). In a variation of this myth, Sirius (Av: Tishtrya-, Phl: Tishtar) battles the demons of drought Apaosha (Av: Apaosha-, Phl: Aposh) and Spenjaghrya (Av: Spenjaghrya-, Phl: Aspenzarush) for rain (Yt 8.20-33; GBd 50.11-12, 63.5-8, 63.12-13, 135.7-137.15). The belief that the ruler must combat a dragon to free rain and water for the world is also present in the Rg Veda, where Indra defeats the dragon Vrtra." The motif of a ruler or god as the bringer of rain, and hence fertility, through battle with forces which withhold water from the world is of great antiquity, as in the Old Babylonian Creation epic where Marduk, the chief god of Babylon, vanquishes Ti'amat, the primordial goddess of marine water.'' These ancient myths were reworked under Sasanian rule, and therefore Emperor Ardeshir I was portrayed slaying the dragon of Kerman (KAP 36.1-40.12; ShN 267-69). Here the founder of the Sasanian dynasty was presented both as a great hero and in the religious role as bringer of rain, water, fertility, and This motif of the dragon-slayer persisted after the Arab conquest of Iran, especially in Persian art, although it lost its mythic-ritual significance and survived solely as a representation of heroic valor. 


Kingship, Religion and the People 

The Zoroastrian doctrine of sacral kingship, as crystalized under the Sasanians, enjoined all Iranians to obey and assist the king (DKM 338.1432, 523.10-22[. The Denkard emphasizes that devotion and service to the ruler brings a Zoroastrian spiritual and material exaltation: "He who gives [his] entire person to the king of kings, [and] who also holds the product as the property of Ahura Mazda, is empowered to show the saved and the condemned [people] to the spirits" (DKM 901.10-13). Such devotion and loyalty was essential since the king and his office were regarded as an integral part of the law and wisdom of. god (DKM 313.9-15[. The greatest service to religion arose from the king and his state, and doctrinally there was total unity between kingship and religion: "Essentially, royalty is religion, and the religion [is] royalty" (DKM 47.5-6[. The union of king and priesthood, kingship and religion was believed to make both these glorious and vigorous. Therefore in Zoroastrian doctrine, kingship originated from Ahura Mazda and his religion, and was bestowed upon the king. The king, through his sacral kingship, united the state and religion, aiding the progress of god's material creations (DKM 335.18-336.2). The intimate connection between the social hierarchy of the Sasanian empire and orthodox Zoroastrian doctrine is best expressed in a passage from the Shkand Gumanig Wizar: 

And he [Ahura Mazda] created the religion of all knowledge like a very great tree, with one trunk, two limbs, three boughs, four branches, and five shoots. And its one trunk is discernment; its two limbs are performance and abstinence; its three boughs are good thoughts, good words, and good deeds, which are, thinking well, speaking well and behaving well; its four branches are the four classes of the religion by which the world is arranged, which are the priesthood, the warrior class, the herdsman class and the artisan class; the five shoots are the five rulers whose scriptural names are master of the house, village headman, tribal chieftain, provincial governor, and the highest religious authority [the person most like Zarathushtra, the Mowbedan Mowbed]. And [over these rulers is] the one chief of chiefs who is the king of kings, the ruler of the world (ShGW 1.11-19). 

It is clear then, that in the orthodox Zoroastrianism of the Sasanid empire, the state, religion, law and order, justice, salvation, and divine will were united in and symbolized by sacral kingship and the king. Hence rebellion against a just and divinely appointed king who possessed the royal xwarrah was equated to rebellion against religion and god. 

Just as the religious doctrine of sacral kingship provided legitimacy for the rule of a just king who protected the faith, it also contained safeguards to protect itself from monarchs who threatened the religion in any way. A ruler who abused his authority, caused calamity, strife, poverty, harmed Zoroastrianism or assisted other religions was an evil monarch who lacked the royal glory (DKM 292.18-293.14). In Iranian mythology and religious belief calamities and strife had always been associated with monarchs whose kingship did not originate from god and was therefore non-sacral. Such evil rulers were held to symbolize the Evil Spirit, and their rule represented the sign of the manifestation of Ahreman in the material world (DKM 401.12). Hence they were regarded as unfit for the royal office by the religion. Therefore it was considered a religious duty to depose such monarchs and replace them with one chosen in accordance with Zoroastrian doctrine. This aspect of the doctrine of sacral kingship granted the clergy and nobles theoretical, doctrinal, and ideological sanction and justification for deposing Sasanian monarchs whenever these rulers threatened the power of either the priesthood or the nobility. It also enabled these two classes of Iranian society to influence accession to the throne. According to the Letter of Tansar, the Zoroastrian high priest, the chief scribe, and the military commander each opened a copy of the last will and testament of a deceased ruler and appointed the new ruler according to the instructions in these wills. If the choice of successor expressed in these three wills was not identical a gathering of the clergy and nobles was convened. At this assembly the Zoroastrian high priest, in accordance with the doctrine of sacral kingship, appointed any member of the Sasanid family who he believed to have been chosen for kingship by Ahura Mazda (LT 61-62). 

Thus it is clear that, during the Sasanian era, the orthodox Zoroastrian church developed an elaborate doctrine of sacral kingship. This doctrine served a vital role in granting religious sanction and sanctity to kingship and the ruling monarch. It also established secular and religious roles and functions for the rulers. It is, however, important to note that kingship and not the king was sacral. Kingship incorporated both a social position and its inherent powers and responsibilities. The particular individual who occupied that position and fulfilled its inherent functions was respected, inviolable, and exalted, and functioned as god's representative on earth because his position and functions were sacral. As long as a king fulfilled his secular and religious duties according to the tenets of the religion, he retained the sacral kingship and his sanctity, and was regarded as a scion of the gods. But he could never lay claims to divinity; if he failed in duties prescribed by the religion, he lost both the sacral kingship and his personal sanctity. This extensive religious doctrine was, in turn, practiced as a political ideology by the Sasanian monarchs. Such use of religious doctrine for political ideology was completely in accordance with Zoroastrian belief, since church and state, priest and king, religious doctrine and political ideology were considered a unitary whole. 

Fig. 1.


The Practice of Sacral Kingship:

Textual Evidence 

Evidence for the practice of sacral kingship as a political ideology by the Sasanian monarchs is present in textual sources dating from the Sasanian period onwards. The textual evidence consists of traditions preserved in Pahlavi, New Persian, Arabic, Classical, and Syriac sources. The Pahlavi traditions are found in the Denkard and the Greater or Iranian Bundahishn. The Shah-name and the Letter of Tansar are the primary New Persian sources. The Shah-name of Ferdowsi, a repository of national Iranian epic and tradition, had as its major source the now lost Sasanian Xwaday-namag "Book of Lords," even though Ferdowsi's technical expressions are not based directly on Pahlavi terminology of the Sasanian era.zz The core of the Letter of Tansar represents a genuine document written by the Zoroastrian high priest under Emperor Ardeshir I to Gushnasp, a vassal king of the defeated Arsacid monarch Artabanus V. It thus dates from the third century CE It appears to have been revised in the sixth century during the reign of Xusro I for purposes of propaganda, was translated into Arabic in the ninth century, and finally into New Persian in the thirteenth century and included by Ibn Isfandiyar in his Ta'rikh-a Tabaristan "History of Tabaristan." Only this New Persian version is now extant. The Arabic sources include at-Tabari's (CE 839-923) Ta'rikh ar-rusul wa 1-muluk "The History of the Prophets and Kings"; Sa'id Ibn Batriq (died CE 940), also called Eutychius the Patriarch of Alexandria; al-Mas'udi's (died 956) Kitab muruj adh-dhahab wama'adin al-jawhar; Hamza al-Isfahani (wrote 961); and ath-Tha'alibi's (died 1038) Kitab ghurar akhbar muluk al-Furs wa-siyaruhum. These sources contain important and reliable accounts on the Sasanian era. 

The Classical sources provide contemporary accounts of the Sasanian period which are nonIranian in origin, and are often based on outside, hostile observers. Ammianus Marcellinus (c. CE 325-395) is an important and extremely reliable primary source for the reign of Emperor Shapur II (ruled 309-379), against whose armies he fought in the campaign waged by Julian the Apostate. The de Legationibus of Menander Protector (mid- to late sixth century) is a reliable source for the later Sasanian era. The Byzantine writer Theophylactos Simocatta (wrote mid-7th c.) is important but not always a reliable source. There are also the valuable works of the late Byzantine historians Nicephorus, the patriarch of Constantinople from 806 to 815, and George Cedrenus, who preserves Theophanes' account of Iran. Syriac sources also contain some information on the Sasanian practice of sacral kingship and are generally valuable. 

The Zoroastrian Pahlavi books discuss the interdependence between the king and religion in terms of the Sasanian monarchs assisting and propagating the faith. Sasanian monarchs in conjunction with the high priests defined the orthodoxy of Zoroastrianism, determined its religious canon, and supported the clergy. According to the Denkard, Emperor Ardeshir 1, acting on the authority of Tansar, had the Zoroastrian canon codified; Emperor Shapur I is said to have added to this canon, while Emperor Shapur II and Xusro I persecuted heresy and strengthened the four social classes (DKM 412.11-413.11). 

The Greater Bundahishn also states that Emperor Ardeshir I greatly promoted the faith (GBd 214.14215.11), while Xusro I restored orthodoxy after slaying the heretic Mazdak and suppressing the Mazdakite movement which had threatened the institutions of monarchy, religion and class structure (GBd 215.13-216.1 /. Although details in these texts regarding Emperor Ardeshir I and Emperor Shapur I are probably inaccurate, reflecting attributions from the reign of Xusro I to the two near-legendary founders of the dynasty, nevertheless they reveal the close association between monarchy and state religion during the mid- to late Sasanian era. These passages reflect the sacral legitimacy given by the Zoroastrian religion to kingship, and the social power and status the monarchy garnered for the religion. They also reveal that the clergy accepted the authority of Sasanian monarchs in both secular and religious affairs, confirming that each ruler was indeed the highest authority in the material world. Further, the linking of all previous ruling families to the Sasanians, and the perception of these rulers as protectors and governors of the faith, reveals that the Sasanians used Zoroastrian doctrine to legitimize their political ideology of sacral kingship (D KM 411.17-415.3/. The revision of the Letter of Tansar for use as political propaganda under Xusro I, with its claim that "Church and state were born of one womb, joined together never to be sundered . . ." ALT 33-34/, is also evidence that the Sasanian ruling family propagated an ideology of sacral kingship using religion as its source of legitimacy. 

Emperor Ardeshir I is reported as having said that "Religion and kingship are two brothers, and neither can dispense with the other" (Mas'udi L289/. AthTha'alibiattributes another such saying to Emperor Ardeshir I: "Kingship preserves itself by religion, and religion strengthens itself by kingship" (Tha'alibi 483). 

Thus the Pahlavi and Islamic sources find the religious doctrine and political ideology to have commenced crystallization during the reign of Emperor Ardeshir band such appears to be the case although these sayings date from the time of Xusro I. The authority of the Sasanian monarch over the religion and clergy, even in conflicts between the state church and adherents of other faiths, can be found in the work of at-Tabari (Tabari 268/. The influence of this ideology of sacral kingship on Zoroastrian literature of the Sasanian and the post-conquest periods resulted in the Sasanian king Emperor Kuwadh I being considered an evil monarch because he supported and assisted the heretic Mazdak in contrast to his son Xusro I, who restored Zoroastrianism to supremacy (GBd 215.9216.1 /.Further, the victorious Arab Muslims, who deposed both the Sasaniansand the Zoroastrian state religion, were depicted as having introduced irreligion, heterodoxy, evil rule, and calamity to Iran because they ruled the country by conquest, and hence lacked legitimacy (GBd 1.10-11, 216.5-14/. Indeed, their rule was believed to originate from the Evil Spirit (ibid.). 

Direct claims to sacral kingship by Sasanian kings are preserved in both the Letter of Tansar where every king is said to accept the covenant of kingship from god (LT 62/, and Karnamag i Anoshirwan "The Book of Feats of Xusro I," a Pahlavi text now extant only in an Arabic translation, in which Xusro thanks god for granting him the kingship (KA 26/. These texts suggest that Sasanian monarchs did indeed claim kingship from the gods, and were aware that sacral kingship granted them great privileges but required much service to god, religion and country. 

The doctrine of sacral kingship dictated that the ruling family be of royal blood and descent, a continuation of earlier beliefs of royal legitimacy in which there was a chain of dynasties transferring kingship from one family to another (DKM 2921.17/. Since there was no clear line of royal descent from earlier rulers to the Sasanid family, these relations were invented and descent was claimed from the last Achaemenian monarch Darius III Codomannus (Phl: Daray/. This claim of royal ancestry was introduced into the founder legend of Emperor Ardeshir I which appears to have been elaborated by the priesthood and wandering minstrels /KAP 2.4-10, 15.1-8/. A claimant to the throne had to be a direct member of the royal family, a doctrine placed by Tha'alibi in the words of Gurdoya, the sister and wife of the Persian general Bahrain Chobin who rebelled against Xusro II (Tha'alibi 683/.24 A similar indictment of rebellion against the monarchy is voiced by the elder son of Shahrburaz, a rebellious general under An dashir III /Tha'alibi 733-34/. Islamic literature also indicates that Iranian royal blood was sacred and that the personal sanctity of Sasanian kings ought not to be violated. Burzmihr, whose father Sukhra had been slain by Emperor Kuwadh I, was prevented by his belief in the sanctity of royal blood from slaying Emperor Kuwadh when the latter was deposed and placed under Burzmihr's authority /Tha'alibi 509/. Hamza al-Isfahani mentions that to his day the people of Marw referred to the descendants of Mahoe, the governor of Marw who betrayed the last Sasanian monarch Emperor Yazdegerd III, and hence caused the king's death, as khuda-kushan "king-killers" (Isfahani 63). Ibn Batriq also mentions the sanctity of the royal blood of Sasanian rulers (Batriq 176/. It appears that the Sasanian monarch was usually inaccessible to visitors and separated from their gaze. He sat on the throne with a veiled face or behind a curtain,25 perhaps following Achaemenian court practice (Xenophon Agesilaus 9.12; Herakleides 4.145-46). 

Islamic sources note that the kings wore special vestments. Al-Mas'udi describes an illustration portraying Emperor Ardeshir I wearing a red shirt, sky-blue trousers, and a green crown set in gold.26 This account is supported by al-Isfahani's detailed descriptions of each Sasanian king, accounts which appear to be based on imperial court records (Isfahani 48-49). A portrait of Xusro I on a rockcrystal bowl coincides with al-Isfahani's description of that monarch.z' Such vestments may have symbolized the kings' claims to sacral kingship, their role as the earthly representatives of Ahura Mazda, and their position at the apex of the four classes of society. 

The Classical sources provide contemporary evidence of sacral kingship. Ammianus Marcellinus offers a sharp contrast between the claims of Emperor Shapur II and Constantius Caesar: "I, Emperor Shapur, king of kings, partner of the stars, brother of the sun and moon, to my brother Constantius Caesar offer most ample greeting" and "I, Constantius, victor by land and sea, perpetual Augustus, to my brother king Emperor Shapur, offer most ample greeting" (Ammianus Marcellinus 17.5.3; 17.5.10). 

As a Roman, Ammianus Marcellinus attempts to present Emperor Shapur as arrogant and full of pride, but the epithets do have a degree of correspondence, especially in style, to Emperor Shapur's titulature found in the inscription at Hajjiabad and on his imperial coinage: "The Mazdean lord, Emperor Shapur, king of kings of Iran and non-Iran, who [is] of the seed from the gods." In a similar vein, Menander Protector represents the titulature of Xusro I in a letter from that king to Justinian Caesar: "Xusro, the divine, the good, the father of peace, the ancient, king of kings, fortunate, pious, the doer of good, to whom the gods have given great good fortune and a mighty empire, giant of giants, who bears the image of the gods, to Justinian Caesar, our brother" (6.1.179-83). Theophylactos Simocatta presents a letter purported to have been sent by Xusro II to the Byzantine emperor Maurice in which Xusro refers to himself as "Xusro, king of kings, master of those who have power, lord of peoples, prince of peace, savior of men, good and eternal man among gods, most powerful god among men, most honored, victorious, ascended with the sun and companion of the stars" (4.8.1722). 

Although the titulatures are exaggerated in these sources, they reflect the Sasanid claim to kingship from the gods. Further, in a Syriac source, Xusro II is addressed as "god" (Syr: alaha) by his queen Shirin, but this was due to a depreciation of the term over the years, meaning simply "lord" by the late sixth century CE29

Numerous accounts indicate that during the reign of Xusro II this doctrine was used extensively as a political ideology. Xusro II's authoritarian use of sacral kingship and his aspirations to universal rule are said to have been symbolized on the canopy above his throne by gold stars, signs of the zodiac set in a sky of lapis lazuli, and a depiction of the seven climes of the Zoroastrian world view (Tha'alibi 699). He himself was supposed to have been portrayed enthroned in heaven on the dome of the building at Takht-a Sulaiman (ancient Ganzaka).3° These accounts of Xusro's throne rooms probably are legendary, but indicate that the ideology of Sasanian sacral kingship was sufficiently powerful both during the Sasanian era itself, and thereafter in the Islamic period, to influence the legends and myths which surrounded Sasanid rulers.   

The Practice of Sacral Kingship:

Material Evidence 

Material evidence for the practice of sacral kingship consists of coins, seals, rock reliefs, silver plates, and inscriptions from the Sasanian period itself. Much of this evidence is of imperial origin. Since they were created for or by the royal court and bureaucracy, these items often served as vehicles for royal propaganda. 

The crowns of the kings portrayed on their coinage appear to have been derived from crowns of various Zoroastrian deities. Merlons or battlements, part of the crown of Ahura Mazda, were present on crowns of Emperor Ardeshir I, Emperor Shapur I, Emperor Shapur II, Emperor Yazdegerd 11, Walash, and Emperor Ardeshir III (fig. 1-1). The crowns of Emperor Pirooz, Xusro II, Emperor Hormozd V Xusro III, and Emperor Yazdegerd III showed the wings of the war god Emperor Vahram (Av: Verethragna-) and the water goddess Anahid (Av: Anahita-) (fig. 1-2). The eagle's head, with a pomegranate or pearl in its beak, revealed the ruler's connection to Anahid, as in the case of Emperor Hormozd II /fig. 1-3). The presence of an undulating fillet on a crown was also a symbol of this goddess, as were the arcades seen on the crowns of Emperor Shapur III and Emperor Narseh. The depiction of rays conveyed the ruler's claim to possessing the grace of Mihr (Av: Mithra-/, the god of the contract, as on the coinage of Emperor Vahram I fig. 1-4). 

Emperor Vahram II linked himself to the god Emperor Vahram via the symbol of a boar's head on his crown. The crescent moon, representing Mah, the moon god, became a symbol of increasing importance in the latter period of this dynasty It was used by every ruler from Emperor Kuwadh I to Emperor Yazdegerd III, paralleling the increasing importance given to pretensions to universal rule by the later Sasanian monarchs. This elaborate symbolism on the crowns developed gradually; the first crown of Emperor Ardeshir I was shaped simply on the hemispherical model of that of the Arsacid king Mithradates II and of the kings of Persis. 

In addition to these crown elements, both the crown and rims were decorated with various celestial symbols such as crescents and stars. The wreath was used as a symbol of investiture on the globe of the crown. These appeared as early as the reign of Emperor Shapur I, and were continued by Emperor Shapur II, Emperor Shapur III, Emperor Vahram IV, Emperor Vahram V, and from Emperor Kuwadh I to Emperor Yazdegerd III /fig. 1-2). The celestial symbols compare well with the titulatures attributed by Ammianus Marcellinus to Emperor Shapur II, and by Theophylactos Simocatta to Xusro II as noted above. Further, on all the regular crowns since Emperor Ardeshir I, the cap and globe of the crown are covered with a thin gauze. This gauze may be a depiction of part of the veil which was worn by the king in order to separate him from the gaze of his subjects. This veil would have been slightly lifted in the obverse depictions so as to present an ideal, stylized portrait of the king. The diadem which carried these different elements is the same diadem of kingship granted to the monarchs by Ahura Mazda and other deities on the investiture rock reliefs. 

At first the crown elements of a single deity sufficed to provide the design for a Sasanian king's crown, representing the deity who purportedly invested the monarch. For example, Emperor Vahram II had the wings of the god Emperor Vahram on his crown. However, since the number of such divine crowns was limited, and because the monarchs often claimed investiture by more than one deity, symbols of many divine crowns were combined, and the royal crowns became progressively more elaborate. For example, Emperor Vahram IV, who claimed sanction of his rule by both Ahura Mazda and the god Emperor Vahram, carried merlons on the front and wings on the side of his crown. Both Emperor Ardeshir I, who claimed investiture by Ahura Mazda and Anahid, and Emperor Shapur I, who claimed investiture by Anahid, represented this on special investiture crowns. Further, the obverses of the entire coinage of Zamasp were used to depict the king receiving the diadem of kingship from a male figure; the three merlons on the crown of this figure suggest that it represents Ahura Mazda /fig. 1-5). Such a claim to sacral kingship directly from Ahura Mazda on the coinage was probably necessary in order for Zamasp to justify to the people his usurpation of the throne from his brother Emperor Kuwadh I. Emperor Kuwadh was deposed by the royal family, nobles, and clergy for supporting the religious heretic Mazdak who had threatened the social hierarchy of Zoroastrianism. Zamasp's claim to divine investiture would thus have been supported by the nobles and clergy who needed his rule to protect both the state religion and their own social positions. 

Each king ruled by virtue of his divinely granted xwarrah. The glory, conceptualized as a deity, was one of the most enduring concepts of Iranian tradition and mythology, and played a prominent role in Iranian national history. Xwarrah was a symbol of both the legitimacy of rule granted by the divine, and the divine origin and sacral nature of kingship. It departed from rulers who violated their covenant with the gods.3' This royal glory was symbolized by the entire crown .38 If the royal glory was believed to have departed from the monarch, even temporarily as when the throne was usurped, the ruler was required to wear a new crown once the throne, and hence the royal glory, had been regained. For example, the coinage of Emperor Pirooz shows three different crowns, the third in the sequence dating from CE 469 after he had been captured and ransomed back from the Hephtalites.39 Xusro 11, whose reign was interrupted when the general Bahram Chobin rebelled against him in CE 590, forcing the king to flee to Byzantium, wears two distinct crowns on his coinage. These monarchs may wear other crowns on their coinage, but these changes do not result from loss of the royal glory as is indicated by continued use of the earlier crown types on the coins. 

The reverses of Sasanian coins usually depict a flaming fire altar, and often two attendants. The altar and flames symbolized the main icon of the Zoroastrian fire cult. The presence of the ruler's bust on the obverse and the fire altar on the reverse of this coinage is therefore a clear representation of the doctrinal and ideological link between king and religion, state and church. The coinage of Emperor Ardeshir I, and special issues by Emperor Shapur II, Emperor Shapur 111, Emperor Vahram IV, and Emperor Yazdegerd I depict a combination of a complete throne and a fire altar in a single image.4° This throne-altar also symbolized the close connection between kingship and religion. Each Sasanian monarch kindled a new sacred fire after his coronation, a custom that may have existed among the Arsacids. The regnal fire was named after the king and always extinguished at the end of his reign. It symbolized the religious role of sacral kingship. It is this regnal flame that was depicted on the reverse of the imperial coinage together with the inscription: 

NWR' ZY        . . . [name of king] . . . 

Fire of . . .           [name of king] . . .

although the ideogram NWR' was replaced with the Pahlavi equivalent 'twl (Adur) "fire" from the reign of Emperor Shapur III. This inscription remained constant from the coinage of Emperor Ardeshir I until just prior to the reign of Emperor Vahram V; that is, for nearly 197 years. Further, from the reign of Emperor Vahram II onward, one of the two attendants was replaced by a figure of the king himself, who was thus depicted fulfilling the dual roles of king and priest. The reverse of this coinage was often used to depict scenes of investiture either by a deity or through his or her symbol. Emperor Vahram II was shown receiving a diadem from the goddess Anahid on his coinage where both goddess and king wear the eagle crown of this deity (fig. 1-6[. Emperor Shapur III depicted investiture by Anahid through the presence of a wreath, instead of a fire altar, on the reverse of his coins .4' Some of the coins of Emperor Kuwadh presented investiture by Anahid through a portrait of the goddess extending a wreath on the reverse. This depiction was duplicated on coins of his son Xusro I. While the use of symbols of divine investiture was a practice inherited from the Arsacids, the presence of a deity directly granted sovereignty is unique to Sasanian coinage, and clearly represents elaboration of the political ideology and practice of sacral kingship under Sasanian rule. 

The obverses of Sasanian coins also bear inscriptions in Pahlavi (with ideograms/; the most common is one which lays claim to sacral kingship by virtue of the ruler being of divine descent: mzdysn bgy . . . [name of king] . . . MLK'n MLK' 'yl'n MNW ctry MN yzd'n "The Mazdean lord . . . [name of king] . . . , king of kings of Iran, who [is] of the seed from the gods." This legend-type, though often abbreviated, remained constant from the reign of Emperor Ardeshir I through that of Emperor Vahram V. From the reign of Emperor Hormozd I through that of Emperor Shapur III the political and geographical expansion of Iran was reflected by the occasional modification of this legend to read: . . . 'yl'n W 'nyl'n . . . ". . . Iran and non-Iran. . ." in keeping with the belief that the Sasanian monarch wielded sacral kingship over the entire world. The claim of divine descent was not unique to the Sasanians, for they inherited the practice from their predecessors, the Arsacids and the minor rulers of Persis. Both the Arsacids and the rulers of Persis frequently made such claims on their coinage.45 Thus for 215 years, up to the reign of Emperor Yazdegerd II, during more than half the period of Sasanian rule, royal coinage propagated the claim of descent from the line of the gods. The legend was discontinued after CE 439 probably because the sacral nature and legitimacy of the Sasanid family had been well established in the minds of the general populace.46 It is also possible that the gradual loss of power by the nobles and clergy, with the rise of a centralized bureaucracy under Emperor Shapur II and his successors, eventually made such overt claims of descent from and investiture by the gods less acceptable to the increasingly influential administrative class of Iranian society. 


Fig.2. Onyx gem of Emperor Vahram IV

Although a large number of Sasanian stamp seals are extant, many of which bear inscriptions and portraits, only seals which belonged to royal personages display claims of sacral kingship. Of the few of this type that remain, the best representation is found on a fourth-century CE onyx gem bearing the image of Emperor Vahram IV. The king stands, holding a sword in one hand, and a lance in the other, upon the body of a fallen enemy (fig. 2). His crown, decorated with wings and a stepped crenellation, expressed his claim of investiture with sacral kingship by the war god Emperor Vahram. This portrait corresponds closely to the stylized busts of the king on his coinage. In addition, a thirdcentury CE amethyst seal bears a stylized bust and the inscription: "Emperor Vahram, king of Kerman, son of the Mazdean lord Emperor Shapur, king of kings of Iran and non-Iran, who [is] of the seed from the gods." The prince is probably the young Emperor Vahram I, son of Emperor Shapur I. The inscription corresponds closely to that on the early to mid-Sasanian coinage, and when compared with the inscriptions on other seals reveals that this particular epithet was used exclusively by the ruling monarch and his offspring. There are no known examples of coins or seals other than those belonging to the Sasanian royal family which bear claims either to kingship granted by the gods or descent from the lineage of the gods.

Most common among the scenes portrayed on the thirty Sasanian rock reliefs so far documented are those of investiture and hunting or combat.48 Neither the Achaemenian nor Arsacid predecessors of the Sasanians appear to have portrayed the scene so common in Sasanian rock reliefs: investiture of the monarch by a deity or deities. Achaemenian rulers were often depicted facing a winged symbol containing a figure holding a ring or diadem in its hand, but the monarch neither reaches for this diadem nor is the ring extended toward the king. There are representations of investiture on rock reliefs from the Arsacid period, but these involve the granting of authority by the ruling monarch to a local governor or satrap. 

In the investiture scenes of Emperor Ardeshir I at Firuzabad and Naqsh-a Rajab the king stands with members of his royal court before Ahura Mazda . At Naqsh-a Rustam (fig. 3), both king and god are mounted on horses. In all three scenes Ahura Mazda extends a beribboned diadem which the king reaches for with his right hand while his left hand points at the deity with the bent forefinger gesture of deference. Further, on the Naqsh-a Rustam investiture relief the last Arsacid ruler Artabanus V (Ardawan) and Ahreman, the Evil Spirit, are trampled under the hooves of the horses of the king and god, illustrating that the king in the material world and the god in the spiritual world had similar roles: the vanquishing of opposition and evil, and restoration of order in the material and spiritual worlds.


Fig.3. Naqsh-e Rostam. Investiture of Emperor Ardeshir I, (CE 224-240)


Emperor Shapur I was portrayed being invested with kingship by Ahura Mazda at Naqsh-a Rajab in a relief scene which copied that of Emperor Ardeshir I at the same site. 12 But Emperor Shapur's victory scenes at BiEmperor Shapur and Darabgird, while demonstrating to his subjects that the king adhered to his covenant with the gods by defeating enemies and thus maintaining cosmic and earthly order, do not depict his apotheosis.53 Emperor Vahram I was depicted at BiEmperor Shapur being granted kingship by Ahura Mazda.54 The investiture scene from the reign of Emperor Ardeshir II, at Taq-a Bustan, shows the ruler and Ahura Mazda, from whom he receives the diadem, trampling an enemy of righteousness while the god Mihr guards the monarch from the rear (fig. 4). Then, after 159 years of Sasanian rule, such rock reliefs ceased to be carved, and their disappearance parallels the discontinuation of claims to divine descent on the imperial coinage. Only approximately 208 years later, during the turbulent period just prior to the final downfall of the Sasanids, does one final rock relief scene of divine investiture occur at Taq-a Bustan. Here Xusro II was portrayed being offered diadems by both Ahura Mazda and Anahid.

It has been suggested that all these scenes of investiture are allegorical references to divine kingship, and the Sasanian rulers were, for all practical purposes, elevated to the ranks of the gods. I suggest, rather, that they document a political manifestation of the Sasanian ideology of sacral kingship in which the king was chosen by the deities and functioned as their earthly representative. The king was supreme over all the people on earth and had personal sanctity because he had been entrusted with the office of kingship. But because only kingship was sacred, and not the king himself, every monarch remained subordinate to the gods. Although a ruler could claim descent from the line of the gods, he could never lay pretensions to apotheosis or to being a god incarnate, and was never regarded as such by his subjects. Dependence of the king upon the will of the gods was symbolized by Ahura Mazda extending the diadem which the monarch reaches out to obtains' In Roman investiture scenes, sub-kings and even kings receive sovereignty from mortal rulers. 

In Byzantine art the symbolic presence of Christ is seen in scenes involving the Christian church, but Christ does not hand sovereignty itself directly to a monarch. Thus in that time period, the Sasanian investiture reliefs were unique to Iran, with its elaborate royal ideology of sacral kingship. The investiture depiction itself represented the central movement of one of the most important events in the political and religious life of a monarch-the instant he was granted supreme authority over the material world by the gods. Reliefs of Sasanian kings in combat and hunting also illustrated the Zoroastrian doctrine central to the Sasanian ideology of sacral kingship: the king was believed to possess ritual and actual physical perfection and prowess which assisted him in combat to preserve the material realm of Ahura Mazda. Through physical perfection each ruler furthered the defeat of evil and the final renovation of the universe. Physical perfection was also necessary in order for a king to serve Ahura Mazda as his religious representative on earth. All injury, deformities, or weaknesses were considered a sign of affliction by evil, revealing that the king had lost the protection of his royal glory. 


Fig.4. Taq-e Bostan.  Investiture of Emperor Ardeshir II (CE 379-383)


The sites chosen by the Sasanian monarchs to proclaim their ideology of sacral kingship on rock reliefs were places which had similar reliefs carved by preceding kings. This provided a link for the rulers with earlier dynasties. Thus Xusro II had his reliefs carved at Taq-a Bustan near those of his predecessor Emperor Ardeshir II. Emperor Shapur I, Emperor Vahram II, and Emperor Narseh linked themselves to the Achaemenians, from whom they claimed descent, by erecting their reliefs near the tomb of Darius I at Naqsh-a Rustam. 

Silver vessels were also used by the Sasanids to proclaim this royal ideology. The most common scenes on these vessels are those of the king enthroned or hunting.  Enthronement scenes depicted the monarch seated in imperial glory surrounded by courtiers.  These highly stylised scenes presented the king in his idealized role as absolute ruler on earth. Hunting scenes depicted the ruler in military splendor, and referred to his role as warrior-king.' In this respect the scenes parallel the rock relief combat and hunt carvings. The rock reliefs, due to their immovable nature, served only a limited role as vehicles of royal propaganda among the people. Therefore a more easily produced, prestigious, and widespread form of propaganda became essential after the Sasanians had completed the initial stages of consolidating their power. It has been suggested that the decorated silver plates and bowls came to serve as reminders of royal power and authority through their illustrations of victory in the subtle and allegorical form of the hunt. Although hunting scenes featuring royalty exist on rock reliefs and wall paintings from the Arsacid era, it was only under Sasanid rule that such scenes were produced on silver plates and bowls for  widespread distribution. This allegorical use of hunt scenes by the Sasanians parallels that of Roman art.' It appears that from the reign of Emperor Shapur II until the mid- to late sixth century only the ruling monarch was represented on Sasanian silver. Further, the standardization of the design, size, and silver content of these plates suggests that they were produced under state supervision.« As luxury items, these plates and their propaganda were produced for the Iranian nobility, clergy, and the upper echelon of the bureaucracy, as well as for wealthy individuals of other states, but not for the herdsmen and artisans who comprised the majority of Iran's population. 

The Sasanians, following the traditions of the Achaemenids and Arsacids, also produced royal inscriptions. These inscriptions were usually erected on the orders of kings and officials of state, and served to establish the legitimacy of the rulers. The early Sasanian monarchs proclaimed their prerogative to the throne and their special relationship with the gods in these inscriptions. On his equestrian investiture relief at Naqsh-e Rustam, Emperor Ardeshir I claimed "The image [is] that of the Mazdean lord Emperor Ardeshir, king of kings, who [is] of the seed from the gods, the son of Papak, the king."  Emperor Shapur I duplicated this claim on his trilingual inscription in Pahlavi, Parthian, and Greek on the Ka'ba of Zoroaster at Naqsh-a Rustam: "I, the Mazdean lord Emperor Shapur, king of kings of Iran and non-Iran, who [am] of the seed from the gods, son of the Mazdean lord Emperor Ardeshir, king of kings of Iran, who [is] of the seed from the gods, grandson of lord Papak, am ruler of the land of Iran . . ." (ShKZ 1). Emperor Shapur also claimed that he was granted victory and sovereignty because he functioned as the instrument of the gods (ShKZ 22). These claims were repeated by Emperor Narseh,. and were especially important because this monarch's ascension was initially opposed by several nobles (NPk A1-15). Emperor Narseh also stated that sovereignty had been granted to the Sasanid family by the gods, implying that this sacral right could not be usurped by other claimants to the throne. Similarly, there are short inscriptions by Emperor Shapur II at Mishkinshahr and Emperor Shapur III at Taq-a Bustan from the fourth century CE These proclamations were probably most essential during the first two centuries of the regime, from when these inscriptions date, to ensure the legitimacy and sanctity of the royal family and protect the throne from potential usurpers. 

These inscriptions, paralleling the imperial coinage, echoed the statement that Sasanian monarchs were "of the seed from the gods." This divine determinant was merely part of a theophoric element and was not intended by the monarchs as a claim that they were gods or even demigods. The royal claim simply distinguished the ruler and his family from all other people in the kingdom-the ruler and his relatives were the chosen of the gods. The king stood at the apex of the social hierarchy and was supreme lord on earth. Only his role in the material world paralleled that of Ahura Mazda in the universe. No monarch ever sought deification nor did any Sasanian king occupy position in Iranian society comparable to that of pharaoh in ancient Egypt; neither the state religion nor the people ever regarded a monarch as a god manifest or incarnate. Members of the royal court, government administrators, priests, and commoners referred to the monarch as "kings of kings" (Phl: Shahan-Shah ) and "lord" (Phl: bay). No mention was made of the king being "of the seed from the gods." Thus, for example, Seleucus, a judge of the cities of Jawed-Emperor Shapur and Kawar, on his private Pahlavi inscription at Persepolis,'° and the high priest Kerdir on his inscriptions at Sar Mashhad, Naqsh-e Rajah, Naqsh-a Rustam, and on the Ka'ba of Zoroaster used only the epithets Shahan-Shah and bay when referring to their rulers." 

Evidence from the material remains of the Sasanian period therefore supports the textual evidence that the royal family practiced an ideology of sacral kingship. This royal ideology was itself based upon the Zoroastrian doctrine of sacral kingship, and obtained legitimacy and support from the state religion. With the approval of the Zoroastrian church, the rulers claimed legitimacy for their rule through this royal ideology. Thus they proclaimed their descent both from the gods and the previous dynasties of Iran. They also depicted themselves as receiving kingship directly from the gods. The rulers regarded themselves as the chosen representatives of the gods on earth; they were lords over all persons, and their will was to prevail over both religious and secular affairs. Their power and authority was held to derive from the sacral nature of kingship. The kingship, because it originated from the gods, granted the king's personal inviolability. Yet never could a monarch lay claim to the status of a god. Zoroastrian doctrine regarded earthly monarchs as mortals, and this belief was incorporated into the Sasanian ideology of sacral kingship. The inscriptions and rock reliefs displayed the subordinate role of the kings to the gods, and the kings themselves acknowledged their mortality. Sasanian rulers propagated their ideology in many ways. The monumental rock reliefs and inscriptions preserved their claims for travellers and for posterity; silver plates propagated the ideology among the upper classes of Sasanian society and in neighboring states; and the imperial coinage, with its vast circulation and great popularity, conveyed the basic tenets of the ideology throughout the empire, reaching members of all social classes. The material evidence also indicates that although the people in the empire accepted, and possibly even believed both the Zoroastrian doctrine and the royal ideology of sacral kingship, commoners referred to the monarchs simply as "lord" or "king of kings," without any reference to the divine lineage of these kings. This suggests that while the people respected and obeyed the king, regarded him as inviolable and the kingship itself as sacral, they did not venerate the monarch or believe that he was a god incarnate. Further, there is no textual or material evidence that Sasanian monarchs were elevated to the ranks of the gods after death.   

Conclusion: The Limits of Royal

Ideology in Practice 

Although the doctrine of sacral kingship flourished during the entire period of Sasanian rule and survived the Arab conquest of Iran, in practice it was most successful during the first two centuries of Sasanid rule. In the first two hundred years, extensive propagation entrenched it among the lower classes of Iranian society. The power of sacral kingship was, however, of limited success when the interests of a king conflicted with those of the nobles and clergy. Initially, the founding of a stable dynasty which developed close ties with both the clergy and the noble families was mutually beneficial, and therefore the early Sasanian kings Emperor Ardeshir I and Emperor Shapur I seem to have been highly successful in ensuring that the upper classes of society accepted and adhered to the royal ideology of sacral kingship. Over the next one hundred years their successors continued to enjoy the benefits, sanctity and inviolability conferred by this ideology, and used royal authority to proclaim their sacral kingship. 

Thereafter, the power of the regime to implement this ideology gradually waned. The increasingly powerful priesthood and nobility, although claiming to subscribe to the religious doctrine of sacral kingship, began to misuse and violate many of its tenets for political gain. They also appear to have opposed overt claims of sacral kingship by the royal family, and such claims eventually declined due to the influence of these two classes. Therefore imperial proclamations of sacral kingship were made on rock reliefs only during the first 157 years of Sasanian rule, in inscriptions only for 164 years, and on the coinage for 215 years. After this the ability of monarchs to proclaim the ideology was limited to instances when a ruler had the support of both the nobility and priesthood, and political circumstances made such overt claims of legitimacy essential. Thus Zamasp, who inherited the throne after Emperor Kuwadh I had been deposed by the nobles and clergy, portrayed investiture scenes on his coinage, as did Emperor Kuwadh when he regained the throne. Xusro I, son of Emperor Kuwadh I, also used imperial coinage to issue proclamations of sacral kingship in order to legitimize his authority after the political turbulence of his father's reign. As in the case of Zamasp, Xusro I had the assent of the nobles and clergy to make such claims. Xusro II, inheriting the throne during the last century of Sasanian rule, was also supported by these classes of society in his claims to sacral kingship on both rock reliefs and the imperial coinage. 

Analysis of the practice of sacral kingship in conjunction with the political history of the Sasanian empire reveals that the initial decline in effectiveness of this imperial ideology occurred during the reigns of Emperor Ardeshir II, Emperor Shapur III, and Emperor Vahram IV. This is also the period in which overt proclamations of the ideology declined. Prior to the reign of Emperor Ardeshir II, the nobles and clergy had often used the authority granted to them by the doctrine of sacral kingship to justify influencing succession to the throne in cases of conflicting claims. After the demise of Emperor Hormozd I in CE 273 the high priest Kartir raised, in succession, Emperor Vahram I, Emperor Vahram II, and Emperor Vahram III to the throne over the opposing claims of Emperor Narseh. Similarly, in CE 309, after the death of Emperor Hormozd II, the nobles chose an unborn child, the future Emperor Shapur II, as king. However, the physical inviolability of the king had never been challenged, and no Sasanian monarch had been deposed. In the fourth century CE the dictatorial rule of Emperor Shapur Il made the nobles malcontent and they finally rebelled against his son, Emperor Ardeshir II, whom they slew (CE 383). Shortly thereafter (CE 399), Emperor Vahram IV met a similar fate. Expansion of the bureaucratic class during the reign of Emperor Shapur II may have been perceived by the nobles as a threat to their political power and influence, causing them to protect their interests by deposing monarchs who opposed their wishes. With kings no longer inviolable, the clergy and nobles influenced succession to the throne and deposed rulers they considered unsuitable. Thus after the death of Emperor Yazdegerd I (CE 421 ) the nobles murdered his son Emperor Shapur, the king of Armenia, and raised another Sasanian prince named Xusro to the throne. Only after considerable conflict was Emperor Vahram V another son of Emperor Yazdegerd, able to obtain the support of the nobles and clergy and oust Emperor Xusro. Emperor Balash was also raised to the throne and later deposed by members of these two social classes. 

The noble families and Zoroastrian priesthood did, however, continue to accept sacral kingship in theory, and they tried to justify their political actions by claiming that only rulers who lost their royal glory were deposed. They based these claims on the Zoroastrian doctrine that such non-legitimate monarchs were those who brought calamity to Iran or threatened the religion and class structure. When Kawad I supported the Mazdakite movement, threatening the wealth and power of priests and noblemen, they claimed that the king was spreading irreligion and heresy, and deposed him. Emperor Kuwadh, however, was able to defeat the nobles with assistance from the Hephtalites and hence regained the throne. Kawad's son Xusro I successfully controlled the nobles and priests during his rule, but his wide-ranging social, military and administrative reforms failed to wrest power away from the upper classes of Iranian society. In CE 590 Emperor Xusro's son Emperor Emperor Hormozd IV was deposed and blinded by the nobles. The noble families and the Zoroastrian priesthood then raised Emperor Xusro 11 to the throne. Emperor Xusro II initially proved to be both popular and victorious in combat, but eventually his incessant battles with the Byzantines dissipated the wealth and resources of the Sasanian empire and he too was deposed and executed by the clergy and nobles in CE 628. 

Although they frequently deposed rulers during the last century of Sasanian rule, the nobles and clergy remained loyal to the requirement that a monarch always be a member of the ruling family in recognition of the gods bestowing kingship only on that family. Their right to rule was believed to be god-given, and no mortal could take the kingship away from the royal family. Usurpers never gained lasting support from the priests and nobles, even during the last years of the empire when the royal family was weak and usually ineffective. Thus the rebellious general Bahrain Chobin, although of noble birth and a descendant of the Arsacid royal house, failed to secure the throne. During the next twenty-three years the nobles and clergy crowned five princes and two princesses of the Sasanid family, frequently deposing ineffective rulers. But between CE 632634 the first military clashes between the Arabs and the Iranian frontier forces occurred, and in CE 637 the Sasanian army was defeated at the battle of Qadisiya. With the nobles and clergy divided and at odds with the royal family there was little organized resistance to the invaders. The last Sasanian monarch, Emperor Yazdegerd III, fled eastward, and was murdered outside Marv in CE 651. With his death the Sasanian empire, and the might of the Iranian noble families and Zoroastrian religious hierarchy, passed into history.

List of Abbreviations 

ANET   Ancient Near Eastern Texts Relating to the Old Testament

CHI        The Cambridge History of Iran

CII          Corpus Inscriptionum Iranicarum

DKM      Denkard, ed. D. M. Madan

GBd       Greater Bundahishn

KA          Karnamag i Anoshirwan

KAP       Karnamag i Ardashir Papakan

LT          The Letter of Tansar

NPk       Emperor Narseh, Paikuli inscription

ShGW  Shkand Gumanig Wizar

ShKZ     Shapur, Ka'ba of Zoroaster inscription

ShN       Shah-nameh

Y             Yasna

Yt            Yasht

ZWY       Zand i Wahman Yasht





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