Would-be imperialists beware: You gotta be careful when you go to pick a fight with a country possessed of a 5000-year history, for such a nation will inevitably have in its historical record an example of every kind of victory and every kind of loss, and every kind of human triumph and failing in between. In these countries, ideas like a Declaration of Human Rights aren't imports; they're the original products of ancestors and fellow countrymen. Been through a few golden ages, followed by periods of decline and ruin? Check. Dealt with foreign aggressors and internal revolt? Check. Been led by people that history remembers as "the Great," as well as by guys so incompetent that they make George W. Bush look adequate? Check.
Join me, if you will, in the Cave of the Moonbat, where tonight we'll take a look at
Historiorant: The original Persia series was posted shortly after I started posting on DKos, in February and March, 2006, and wound up consisting of seven diaries that were considerably shorter (and less illustrated) than the present incarnation of a History for Kossacks piece. Accordingly, I've decided to commemorate the occasion of my anniversary with a navel-gazing ceremony, retrofitting some of these earlier diaries into the format that evolved in their wake – such was the case with the episode from two Sundays ago, Ancient
Apologies for last week's hiatus, btw: early in the evening, I was unable to divert my attention from my beloved New England Patriots, and afterwards, I was preoccupied with bemoaning their fate and rending my garments. – u.m.
Ride of the Horse Archers
When last we gathered for an historiorant, a particularly ambitious (and blithely arrogant) Roman named Crassus had just led tens of thousands of men to their doom in The Imperial Surge of 53 BCE. The people who slaughtered the Romans on the dusty plain of Carrhae (in extreme southeastern Turkey) were the Parthians, descendents of the semi-nomadic Parni tribe that had migrated from their homeland east of the Caspian Sea and adopted many of the ways of the people they found already living in the region of Parthia (northern Iran). The blending of military styles, in particular, made the Parthian 2.0 no slouch on the battlefield; expanding behind armies of highly disciplined horse archers and heavily armored cataphract knights, the Parthians at one point (ca. 100 BCE) dominated an area stretching from Armenia to the borders of India.
In time, the Parthians came to think of themselves as the bloodline-bona fide rulers of
The Parthian Dynasty (246 BCE-224 CE) – sometimes called the Arsacid, after one of its founders – established its main capitol at
Zhang Qian in the 2nd century BCE, as potrayed by a 7th century CE mural
The Parthians fought along their northern borders, as well, eventually capturing several important cities along the
Weird Historical Sidenote: The Chinese thought very highly indeed of Parthian horses – I'm told another name for them, "Soulun," translates to "vegetarian dragon." There's also a rumor that the horses sweated blood, but stories like that (especially the 2000-year-old ones) are notoriously difficult to verify. Something that is a little easier to establish is that the Scythians dug Parthian horses, too – but usually just the chestnuts and bays. So it is that the Russian Don breed (est. 18th c. CE) preferred by the Cossacks often shows similar coloration even today.
Weird Historio-Political Parallel: The silk for which Rome was willing to pay dearly had to pass through the lands of a mortal enemy first, and the only reason that enemy didn't cut off trade entirely was that their own economy became increasingly dependent upon the commodity. For the life of me, I can't think of a single modern parallel to this situation – can you? ;-)
The Parthian governmental system was comprised of up to 18 vassal states and a Royal Council of 5 client kings with significant authority to check the power of their liege – the Suren clan, for example, had exclusive crowning rights. The decentralized nature of their government both helped and hurt the Parthians: they could (and did) survive multiple falls of their capital by simply relocating, but like all feudal systems, conflicts resulted when lords began to acquire power that rivaled that of the king. Such was the case in the early 3rd century CE, when the descendents of a priest named Sassan began dethroning and usurping other local lords in the region of Persis (a/k/a Pars; southern
An Empire of the Old School
In 224 CE, Papak (alternate spellings abound), a village leader and the son of Sassan, a priest of the
Historiorant: As I mentioned above, I'm trying to compress those seven earlier diaries into four, so it really doesn't behoove me to be chasing after every shiny historical tidbit that appears along our route, but every once in while, your resident historiorantologist runs into one he can't help but share. Such is the case with Ardashir, founder of the Sassanid Empire – though I'm shortly going to blaze through four hundred years of their rule in just a few paragraphs, the story of their founder is simply too colorful to ignore. It's also quite a work of court history, and will no doubt serve as an invaluable resource after the Bush
misadministration is gone and historiogrovelers (the sworn enemy of the historioranter) like Fances Fukuyama seek to tortuously justify the stupid assertions they made at the onset of the Era of Compassionate Conservatism.
The army of the Worm, which had been inside the fortress, completely marched out, and zealously and vehemently struggled and fought with Ardashir's troops, many being killed on both sides. When the army of the Worm came out (of the fortress), it took such a by-road that it became impossible for any of Ardashir's troops to go out (of the camp) or to bring in any food for himself or fodder for his horses, and, (consequently), the satiety of all men and animals was changed into want of food and helplessness.
When Mitrok, son of Anoshepat, an inhabitant of Zarham in Pars, heard that Ardashir was without provision near the capital of the Worm, and obtained no victory over its army; he accoutered his troops and heroes, marched towards the residence of Ardashir, and carried away all the wealth and riches of Ardashir's treasure.
Ardashir, hearing of such violation on the part of Mitrok and other men of Pars, reflected upon it for a while thus: "I ought to postpone the battle with the Worm, and [then] go to fight out a battle with Mitrok." He, (therefore), summoned all his forces back to his quarters, deliberated with their commanders, (first) sought the means of delivering himself and his army, and then sat himself down to eat breakfast.
That very moment a long arrow, dispatched from the fortress, came down and pierced, as far as its feathers, through the (roasted) lamb that was on the table.
On the arrow it was written as follows: "This arrow is darted by the troops of the lord of the glorious Worm; we ought not to kill a great man like you, so we have struck that (roasted) lamb," Ardashir, having observed the state of things, disencamped his army and withdrew from the place.
The army of the Worm hastened after Ardashir, and hemmed in his men again in such a manner that Ardashir's army could not proceed further. So Ardashir [himself] passed [lit. dashed] away singly by the sea-coast.
Weird Historical Sidenote: Great story about that "army of the Worm" thing. Seems that once upon time, a maiden found a kerm ("worm") in an apple, and made a pledge to feed and care for it. Since it just so happened to be a lucky worm, this turned out to be a really good decision: soon her father conquered the entire province, which became known as
Consequently he (Ardashir) resolved on a daring stratagem, and, disguising himself as a merchant prince, he presented himself before Haftan Bokht (the King of Kerman) and said, that as he owed all his success in trade to the good fortune of the Worm, he requested the honour of feeding it for three days. This petition was readily granted, and as Firdausi, the greatest epic poet of all the cycles of time, writes:
When their souls were deep steeped in the wine-cup;
Forth fared the Prince with his hosts of the hamlet,
Brought with him copper and brazen cauldron,
Kindled a flaming fire in the white daylight.
So to the Worm at its meal-time was measured
In place of milk and rice much molten metal.
Unto its trench he brought that liquid copper;
Soft from the trench its head the Worm upraised.
Then they beheld its tongue, like brazen cymbal,
Thrust forth to take its food as was its custom.
Into its open jaws that molten metal
Poured he, while, in the trench, helpless the Worm writhed;
Crashed from its throat the sound of fierce explosion,
Such that the trench and whole fort fell a-quaking.
Swift as the wind Ardeshir and his comrades
Hastened with drawn swords, arrows, and maces.
Of the Worm's warders, wrapped in their wine-sleep,
Not one escaped alive from their fierce onslaught.
Then from the Castle-keep raised he the smoke-wreaths
Which his success should tell to his captains.
Hasting to Shahr-gir swift came the sentry,
Crying, "King Ardeshir his task hath finished!"
Quickly the captain then came with his squadrons,
Leading his mail-clad men unto the King's aid.
And in the name of all that's holy, please, please: nobody tell President Bush that the key to conquering Iran lies in finding a gigantic, enchanted worm and pouring molten copper down its throat.
Despite the grandiosity of the title adopted by Sassanid rulers, "king of kings" accurately describes their government, which followed the same basically feudal format as the preceding three Iranian empires. Their aristocracy was an amalgamation of earlier history, too, with nobility comprised of a mix of the leaders of old Parthian clans, Persian aristocratic families, and nobles from subjected territories. The Sassanids imposed a 4-tiered caste system of Priests, Warriors, Secretaries, and Commoners, and sought actively to eradicate Greek influence in Iranian culture. Ardashir, especially, recognized the potent weapon that faith mixed with national pride can be, and he wasn't afraid to play favorites: Zoroastrianism was made the state religion, the Magi were given special privilege, and more than a few marble friezes show Ahuramazda, the supreme deity as spaken of by Zarathustra, conferring the authority to rule upon Ardashir.
The religious fervor of the Sassanids had, as religious fervors tend to, a darker side. . Run-of-the-pew Christians were periodically persecuted – a situation that became worse after
...who claimed to be both Christ and the Buddha, and was crucified, (ca. 236 CE). Mani preached a Zoroastrian conflict between good and evil, but then (like the Gnostics) regarded matter as evil. Served by a celibate and vegetarian priesthood, Manicheanism spread both East and West. To the East, it was adopted by the Sogdians and Uighurs (under Bugug Khan, 759-780), until the advent of Islâm, and spread all the way to
. Marco Polo's description of a Christian community in China which had actually forgot it was Christian may actually refer to a group of Manicheans. China
Manicheanism headed West, too, where elements of it can be seen in the religion of the Cathars of southwestern France, whose unique culture and civilization were pretty much wiped out by a deliberate act of genocide emanating from Rome in the early 13th century.
The Crossroads of Classical Geopolitics
There's not much left of
From their position astride the
"Sasanian art exported its forms and motifs eastward into India, Turkestan, and China, westward into Syria, Asia Minor, Constantinople, the Balkans, Egypt, and Spain. Probably its influence helped to change the emphasis in Greek art from classic representation to Byzantine ornament, and in Latin Christian art from wooden ceilings to brick or stone vaults and domes and buttressed walls."
Being a neighbor of the Roman Empire wasn't easy for anyone who had the pleasure, but the Sassanids began drawing lines in the sand in the earliest days of their power. Ardashir’s son Shapur antagonized the Romans even further than his father had, by demanding that they relinquish all their territories in
Persian sources claim that a battle was fought (
of Misiche) near modern Fallujah ( Battle ) and resulted in a major Roman defeat and the death of Gordian III. Roman sources do not mention this battle and suggest that Gordian died far away, upstream of the Iraq Euphrates. Although ancient sources often described Philip, who succeeded Gordian as emperor, as having murdered Gordian at Zaitha (Qalat es Salihiyah), the cause of Gordian's death is unknown.
Philip the Arab (r. 244-249 CE), the Praetorian Prefect (recently ascended to his office following the mysterious death of his predecessor), quickly grabbed up the purple robes of the emperor's office, bought off Shapur to the tune of 500,000 denari (he also left behind bunch of legionaries, who were enslaved and compelled to build the city of Bishapur to commemorate the guy who had beaten them), and headed back to Rome to secure his claim in the Senate. Despite Philip's promise of future payments, Shapur soon resumed the war by looting Antioch – which provoked another Mesopotamian troop surge that would end with the first-ever capture of a Roman Emperor in battle.
In 253 CE, Valerian was named Emperor, and he spent the next seven years flitting about the imperial borders, putting out fires where he could. There were Marcomans in the
Shapur was also busy in the east. He expanded into the
It Was (mostly) Fun While It Lasted
Bahram Gur and the Indian princess in the black pavilion from a Khamsa (Quintet) by Nizami mid 16th century Safavid dynasty. (Wikipedia Commons)
For three centuries, the Sassanids and
The final war between
Notice the dates? Now check them against your Hegira calendar.
After being decisively spanked by the Byzantines, not to mention having their ruler assassinated by his own army, the Sassanids fell into chaos and disunion. They ran through a dozen kings in the last twenty years of the empire, but this was just one of many symptoms of social and economic decline that were ultimately rooted in the vast power of the Zoroastrian state religion. Its rigid system of social stratification was beginning to strain under the weight of taxation – more favors to the priests and the powerful than could be paid for by the plebians – and the common folk were starting to resent the burden. Additionally, since persecution of non-Zoroastrians was sanctioned by the state, the empire could always be counted upon to produce a small-but-virulent undercurrent of seething resentment, just waiting for an opportunity to erupt into rebellion. And finally, that old Persian problem of freedom-minded satraps started cropping up again – the Lakhmids were only the first to assert their independence after the assassination of Khorsow II in 628 CE; other vassal states on the periphery soon followed.
The original thought was to get all the way through the arrival of Islam in Persia, leaving off at the rise of the Abbasid Dynasty, but that version of the diary wound up at 15 single-spaced pages without pictures. That's a little long, even by my standards – but I gotta think a story like that of Ardashir and the Worm is worth delaying a discussion on the
Next up, then, will be Islam and Medieval Persia; for this week, let's try'n think of some of the other non-Roman cultures of Classical Antiquity that our Dear Leader has spurned in his tortured interpretation of the historical record – what's the most critical thing he hasn't learned about Han China or Mauryan and Gupta India?, for example. If that seems a little esoteric, then how about this: Had he attended a university whose history professors had sufficient integrity to ensure that he actually earned his degree through study and effort, what lessons about the Parthians and the Sassanids might now be able to inform Bush's decision-making with regard to Iran?