Around 224 A.D., Ardashir I (r. 224–241), a descendant of Sasan who gave his name to the new Sasanian dynasty, defeated the Parthians. The Sasanians saw themselves as the successors of the Achaemenid Persians. One of the most energetic and able Sasanian rulers was Shapur I (r. 241–272). During his reign, the central government was strengthened, the coinage was reformed, and Zoroastrianism was made the state religion.
The expansion of Sasanian power in the West brought conflict with Rome. In 260 A.D., Shapur I took the Roman emperor Valerian prisoner in a battle near Edessa. Thereafter, the defense of Rome’s eastern frontier was left to the ruler of Palmyra, a caravan city in Syria. By the end of Shapur I’s reign, the Sasanian empire stretched from the River Euphrates to the River Indus and included modern-day Armenia and Georgia.
After a short period during which much territory was lost, Sasanian fortunes were restored during the long reign of Shapur II (r. 310–379). He reestablished control over the Kushans in the east and campaigned in the desert against the Arabs. Conflict with Rome resulted once again in Sasanian control of northern Mesopotamia and Armenia.
During the fifth century, tribal movements in Central Asia resulted in Hephthalite Huns creating an extensive empire centered on Afghanistan. After a disastrous campaign, the Sasanians were forced to pay tribute to their new eastern neighbors. Iran recovered her glory during the reign of Khusrau I (r. 531–579), who defeated the Hephthalites. However, in the years following Khusrau’s death, there were internal revolts and wars with the Byzantine empire. This weakened Iran, and Arab forces, united under Islam, defeated the Sasanian armies in 642. The last Sasanian ruler, Yazdgard III, died in 651.
Sasanian art borrowed from ancient Near Eastern and Greco-Roman traditions to express a new Iranian cultural identity, particularly manifest in prestigious monuments and objects connected to the royal court. Secure dates for many Sasanian buildings and works of art are difficult to determine, in part due to the lack of material from documented archaeological contexts. Trade, conquest, and diplomacy resulted in the diffusion of Sasanian luxury arts both east and west during the four centuries of Sasanian rule.
The most renowned Sasanian objects are finely crafted silver vessels produced in large numbers in Iran and Mesopotamia. They were usually hammered into shape and then decorated using a variety of techniques. Typical shapes include high-footed bowls, ewers, vases, and plates. Many feature imagery derived from Greco-Roman iconography whose significance was adapted for the Sasanian repertoire. The bearded nude dancing male figure in the center of a silver-gilt bowl is possibly Silenos, leader of the Greek wine god Dionysos’ satyrs, surrounded by grape clusters and vines (59.130.1). Dancing female figures on Sasanian ewers and vases resemble maenads (Dionysos’ attendants) and personifications of the Seasons: the motif appears only on pouring vessels, suggesting that they had a ceremonial or cultic function linked to Zoroastrianism, the state religion (67.10a, b). A silver plate with images of two young spearmen and winged horses borrows from images of Bellerophon and Pegasus as well as of the Dioskouroi (the divine twins Castor and Pollux), the constellation Gemini, called do-paykar in Middle Persian astronomical texts (63.152).
Beginning during the reign of Shapur II (r. 310–379), the king as hunter, a powerful theme symbolizing the prowess of Sasanian rulers, became a standard royal image on silver plates that were most likely official state products and were often sent as gifts to neighboring courts. The kings are identifiable sometimes by inscriptions and often by their crowns through comparisons with their portraits on coins (99.35.2965). Yazdgard I (r. 399–420), recognizable by his crown, is depicted on a gilded silver plate spearing a rearing stag with a crescent-tipped lance (1970.6). The king on horseback hunting rams on another example (34.33) has various royal attributes, including a crown and fillet, a covered globe, a nimbus with beaded border, and a beaded chest halter with fluttering ribbons: he is either Peroz I (r. 459–484) or Kavad I (r. 488–497, 499–531). A silver-gilt plate decorated with images of the Sasanian king Bahram V (Bahram Gur) and Azadeh (1994.402) is the earliest known representation of a story made famous in the Persian epic the Shahnama (Book of Kings) (57.51.32), a popular subject in the art of much later periods (57.36.2).
Hunting scenes, battles, and royal investitures are featured on the monumental Sasanian rock reliefs carved on the mountain cliffs of Iran and other sites in western Asia. Most were carved within the Sasanian home province of Pars during the first 175 years of the empire, between the reigns of Ardashir I (r. 224–241) and Shapur III (r. 383–388). Drawings of various reliefs were made by Iranian artists as well as by European travelers to Iran in the nineteenth century: subjects include the equestrian investiture of Ardashir I, who receives the ring of office from the Zoroastrian god Ahura Mazda at Naqsh-i Rustam in southern Iran (1998.6.3).
Colorful stucco decorated both the interiors and exteriors of Sasanian royal palaces and elite residences. Ctesiphon, located on the Tigris River 20 miles (30 km) south of modern Baghdad, served as the Sasanian court’s winter capital and was the location of the Taq-i Kisra, the fabled palace of Khusrau I (r. 531–579). Remains of its legendary vaulted throne hall, housing the largest parabolic barrel vault in the world, still exist today. Stucco wall panels from Umm ez-Za’tir, a large house near Ctesiphon, include plaques decorated with animals and floral and geometric designs that attest to the lavishness of Sasanian architectural decoration (32.150.22; 32.150.23; 32.150.48).
Sasanian luxury arts also include seals made from precious and semi-precious stones (22.139.41), textiles including silks (2004.255), and glass and ceramic vessels (59.34; 1997.31). Objects were traded via sea and land routes that connected Europe and East and South Asia. Peripheral workshops that adapted Sasanian designs and produced silver vessels in particular were established in Central Asia, western Iran, and areas south of the Caspian Sea. As Sasanian culture spread abroad, the imagery and style of Sasanian art left a legacy discernible in the art of early medieval Europe, western Central Asia, and China that endured after the fall of the Sasanian dynasty in the mid-seventh century and the growth of Islam.
Fowlkes-Childs, Blair, expanded original text by Department of Ancient Near Eastern Art. “The Sasanian Empire (224–651 A.D.).” In Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000–. http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/sass/hd_sass.htm (originally published October 2003, last updated April 2016)
Curtis, Vera Sarkhosh, Robert Hillenbrand, and J. M. Rogers, eds. The Art and Archaeology of Ancient Persia: New Light on the Parthian and Sasanian Empires. London: I. B. Tauris, 1998.
Harper, Prudence O. In Search of a Cultural Identity: Monuments and Artifacts of the Sasanian Near East, 3rd to 7th Century A.D. New York: Bibliotheca Persica, 2006.
Potts, Daniel T., ed. The Oxford Handbook of Ancient Iran. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013.
Fowlkes-Childs, Blair. “Ctesiphon.” (July 2016)