The Sasanians ruled an empire stretching from the Mediterranean to the Aral Sea. Under them, the Zoroastrian religion developed its most subtle metaphysics. Greek philosophers flocked to their capital in Ctesiphon, while in Babylon, the Jewish Talmud ripened. Iranian painting, metalwork and music were received enthusiastically in China and India.
For all their cultural accomplishments, however, the Sassanians are remembered in history as having spent 146 of their 400 year rule waging war against neighboring Rome. Most of what we know about the Sasanians is the dire narrative of sieges, massacres, enslavements and ransoms. For all the extensive Greek and Latin documentation, do we understand why the Sassanians spent so much effort on these fruitless wars, which ultimately led to their destruction at the hands of the Muslims?
Michael J Decker’s The Sasanian Empire at War follows the efforts of the Iranians to field an army equal to that of their formidable Roman rivals. The Roman empire enjoyed greater wealth than the Iranians. Their army was more professional. The Sasanian dynasty enjoyed more continuity than the Roman emperors, who frequently lasted only a few years. Both sides had to deal in parallel with incursions by steppe invaders: the Romans’ headache came in the form of the Goths and Gepids; for the Iranians it was the Huns and Turks. Overall, no one enjoyed an advantage. Roman generals managed to sack the Iranian capital Ctesiphon; Sasanians burned down Antioch in Roman Syria. Yet both sides continued the conflict right up to the end of the Sassanian empire.
Inevitably, two immense neighboring empires, with their capitals separated by 2,000 miles, in the absence of a hotline like that of Moscow-Washington, were going to blunder into war for all kinds of reasons. Hotheaded local governors and local warlords—Arab, Armenian or Laz—could start a conflict that soon spiraled out of control. The mobs of Constantinople and the aristocrats of Ctesiphon clamored for trophies and triumphs.
Decker is good at making the reader feel that the constant renewal of fighting was unavoidable. And yet… one must wonder why it never occurred either to the Romans or the Sassanians that these wars did not pay for themselves, even in victory. The destruction of crops and populations, and the crushing burden of taxation slowly ground down both empires. It may be that the militarization of both the Roman and the Iranian elite made them incapable of seeing politics as anything other than preparing for the next campaign. A contrasting example is China, where an essentially civilian group of governing elites provided a balance to the bellicose generals.
The irruption of the newly emergent Muslim army into the exhausted and politically divided realm of the Sasanians destroyed the empire in a way that successive Roman invasions never could. As Decker points out the Muslims were well-trained and increasingly well-armed as they took on the Iranians. The decisive difference, however, was that the Romans had always moved cautiously, trying to cover their return route back to Anatolia, whereas the Muslims were keen to settle in the much more prosperous lands of Mesopotamia and Azerbaijan. This turned into a war of colonization and ultimately conversion to the new religion, rather than a positional war between two incumbent monarchs.
Decker’s lively narrative synthesizes the history of the Roman-Sasanian wars from a wide of selection of sources, and brings to life the Iranian side of the story that is missing from the works of Ammianus Marcellinus and Procopius, for example, our main sources for this period. Similar to recent books on the earlier Achaemenid Empire (Persians by Lloyd Lewellyn-Jones and King of the World by Matt Waters), while Classical writers provide the backbone, archeology and later Persian and Arab sources flush out the details on the other side of the conflict. Excavation of Khosrow Parviz’s military defenses against the Huns, for example, demonstrates the resources and engineering of the Sasanians in a way we scarcely expected it.
This is very much a military history, but retells the history of the Sasanians in a cogent manner.