The Last Empire of Iran: Interview with Michael Bonner

Michael Bonner is an independent scholar specializing in Iranian history. Having received his DPhil from the University of Oxford, he is currently a policy advisor within the government of Ontario. His new book, The Last Empire of Iranis a narrative history of the Sasanian dynasty from its founding in the 3rd century to the Arab conquests in the 7th century.

Sasanian Iran is a hugely important topic of scholarship, particularly given what little history there is about what was perhaps the world power of its time. We are particularly excited about The Last Empire of Iran because of its implications for understanding Armenian history—Sasanian Iran was, after all, home to some of the most significant events in Armenian history; namely, the creation of the alphabet and the Golden Age of Armenian literature, the Battle of Avarayr and the heroic defense of Christianity, and the severance of ties between the Armenian and Byzantine churches following the Council of Chalcedon.

In this interview, we’re excited to find out more about Michael’s new book, its relevance to Armenian history and the importance of Armenian literary sources for studying Sasanian history.

Sophene Books (SB): How did you come to write The Last Empire of Iran?

Michael Bonner (MB): I simply wanted to tell the story of Sasanian Iran. This hasn’t been done very often, believe it or not. Excluding Rawlinson’s Seventh Great Oriental Monarchy, published in 1870, we have had to rely on only two works: Christensen’s L’Iran sous les Sassanides (1936) and Daryaee’s Sasanian Persia (2008). Both of those books are good, but it seemed to me that there was more than enough room for a new attempt to tell the story, at least for the sake of variety. I also wanted to tell the story in a specific way. The study of Late Antiquity is (I think) unfairly dominated by the history of the Mediterranean world and the late Roman Empire. Those topics are obviously interesting on their own merits; but they are only a part of the whole scene of Late Antiquity, and if that period is to be properly and fully understood, we need to understand the empire that repeatedly humiliated and eventually subjugated most of the Mediterranean world, and which cast such a long shadow over the later Islamic world. The dominance of the Roman Empire in late-antique history is answered by a near total neglect of the peoples of Inner Asia, and I wanted to remedy this neglect and include them in the story. Those peoples (Kushans, the Kidarite and Hephthalite Huns, Tuoba, Rouran, Turks…) had political, military, and commercial goals which made deep impressions on the Iranian and Romans states alike. Their history deserves to be told, and they ought to be portrayed as something other than demons, forces of nature, or an inexplicable succession of barbarians. I also think that it’s easy to get distracted by the many legendary accounts of the splendors of the Sasanian court because Medieval Islamic sources are basically obsessed by them. I wanted to avoid the whole Arabian Nights-style fixation, and focus on political and military affairs, so that the Sasanian state could come into its own as a real world power, no less sophisticated than the empires of Rome and China. I also did not want to write about it as merely a prelude to the coming of Islam, although that topic is covered in my book too.

SB: Sasanian Iran was, along with Rome, one of the great world powers of its time—perhaps the world power for a part of this period. In what ways was the Sasanian state different to Rome?

MB: Good question! Older scholars, such as Jakob Burckhardt, used to think that the Sasanian state was some sort of feeble, sparsely populated ‘Asiatic despotism’ without a standing army and which was no match for Rome. Others used to argue in favor of a loosely-organized state, similar to a decentralized feudal monarchy. These ideas are nonsense. It’s true that our imperfect historical sources tend to offer little insight to the operations of the Sasanian government and its organization. We have some useful inscriptions from the early Sasanian period, but no literary sources produced by the Sasanians themselves have survived. So we have to depend mostly on sources from the Roman world, and most of these are hostile, and show little interest in the sort of cultural, political, and religious information that we would now expect from historians. Often the most useful information has to be extracted from a huge mass of garbled anecdotes, misunderstandings, and exaggerations. So if you depend only on those sources you could very easily form the assumption that Iran was an inferior cultural and military power who defeated Roman forces only because of Roman accidents. The reality was quite different. The early Sasanian state was more than a match for Rome, and several Roman armies were destroyed in the wars provoked by the first two Sasanian kings, and in the 7th century nearly all the Roman empire was conquered by Iran. Reading between the lines, I detect in many Roman sources a great fear of Sasanian espionage, propaganda, and diplomacy also, so I believe that those organs of the state were no less powerful than their foreign counterparts. So when we think of Sasanian Persia, we should think of a state more than capable of matching Rome blow for blow.

Dracm of Bahram IV (ca. A.D. 388-99)

But the two states were very different. The Roman empire never evolved anything like a royal family, or a smooth hereditary succession, but the Sasanian state did. Despite small interruptions and some troubled reigns, the Sasanian family established an organized system of dynastic power from the very beginning, sort of like an eastern prefiguration of the Habsburgs. So for about 400 years only one family ruled over most of the Near East. Even when a king’s rule was questionable, normally the people trying to overthrow him were other members of the Sasanian family. This bespeaks a strong ideology of state, and a centralized government capable of reinforcing the prestige of the royal household and projecting it to all corners of the empire. It is arguable that the centralizing administrative reforms executed under the Roman emperor Diocletian were inspired by the Sasanian model. Sasanian silver coinage and agriculture offer good evidence of a well-run, centralized state also. Unlike the Roman example of repeatedly debased gold coinage, the purity of Sasanian silver drachmas hardly wavered. Similarly, no Roman parallel can be found for the Sasanian state’s enormous investment in, and management of, agriculture and irrigation. The lowlands of Iraq were the most fertile in the world, and the state created and maintained a system of canals between the rivers Tigris and Euphrates to guarantee sufficient water for irrigation. Again, this presupposes considerable organizational powers on the part of the state. Then we have the example of military infrastructure which by the late 5th century had surpassed anything the Romans had ever done. Most notably, the wall across the plain of Gurgan (on the eastern side of the Caspian sea) was the second largest wall in the world, and shows that the Sasanian government could execute infrastructure projects on a scale with imperial China. The Romans were certainly good at building defensive infrastructure, but they achieved nothing on that scale.

Then there’s the matter of religion. The Sasanian state was the first world empire to espouse a single religious ideology. Ardashir, the founder of the dynasty, is supposed to have revived and purified the Zoroastrian religion, and his successors boasted of spreading it and encouraging it throughout the empire and even in lands conquered from Rome. It’s a controversial idea, but I suggest in my book that the Sasanian example may have inspired Constantine and his successors to establish the Christian religion as the ideology of state. I think Zoroastrianism was the most potent support of the Iranian monarchy, and obliged its followers to participate in the cosmic battle between good and evil. The religion would have given the Iranian people a strong identity and a sense of mission in the world. Christian, Jewish, and other minority communities were, of course, often persecuted as a result, but there was enough flexibility built into the state ideology to allow some kings of 5th century and onward to declare themselves rulers and protectors of their non-Zoroastrian subjects. Yazdgard I even summoned a church council and was hailed as a second Constantine. It’s difficult to imagine a Roman emperor doing something similar.

SB: Now what made Sasanian Iran different to its powerful predecessor—the Achaemenid empire, and to what extent did the Sasanids view themselves as different from or as an extension of the Achaemenids?

MB: The big question about this is whether the Sasanians even remembered the Achaemenids or not. Some scholars insist that they had been forgotten. But I don’t see how that could be possible. Achaemenid ruins and inscriptions would have been visible in a lot of places, and several Sasanian kings reused them for their own purposes, such as inscriptions and monumental reliefs. I see an effort to associate the Sasanian state with the memory, however dim it may have been, of the first Iranian empire. Roman sources claim that the early Sasanian kings announced their hereditary rights to Roman territory by virtue of descent from the Achemenid monarchy. I don’t think that they really were descended from them, but I don’t think that Roman historians made up those claims. I think the Sasanians saw themselves as the fulfilment of the religious and imperial ideas that first took shape in the Achaemenid age, as well as the political expression of the mythical ‘Abode of the Aryans’ described in Zoroastrian scripture. The closest they ever came to realizing it was in the reign of Khusro II in the early 7th century. Khusro’s armies conquered nearly the entire Roman empire, and he ruled over an empire stretching from Egypt to what is now Afghanistan for almost a generation. This would have been the fulfilment of Ardashir’s imperial ambitions, and it would have constituted a revival, of sorts, of the Achaemenid empire. Without the Arab conquest of Iran, which happened soon after Khusro’s conquests, we could imagine the largest empire in the world stretching from the Nile to the Indus under the rule of the Persian king. That isn’t how things turned out of course. But the dream lived on, and the new Arab empire united most of the old Roman and Sasanian worlds for several centuries until it too fell apart.

SB: As you know, Raffi is one of Armenia’s greatest novelists. One of his most renowned works, Samuel, is set in 5th century Iran. In the preface to Samuel, Raffi lamented the lack of information recorded about the private lives of Armenians of the time (e.g., societal and familial customs, housing, dress, cuisine, etc.). In fact, something many people don’t realize about what makes Raffi so unique is that he was painstaking about capturing this information in his contemporary fictional works, to the point that he would travel to the regions he was writing about just to be able to experience the customs himself. But in the preface to Samuel, he almost begs his reader for forgiveness for having to make certain assumptions about life at the time. Raffi was certainly biased to Armenian sources and Armenian life, but Armenians were just one of many non-Iranian and Christian groups in the Sasanid empire. Using a broader range of sources in your history, and a broader point of reference to Sasanian citizens more generally, what can one say about life in Sasanian Iran for its citizens?

MB: This question cannot really be answered. The main problem is that the sources take no notice of ordinary people. Their focus never moves beyond the royal court, diplomatic relations, and the battlefield. Even aristocrats or state functionaries only sometimes come into focus. So writing the history of late-antique Iran doesn’t really include things like social or economic history. In later Islamic sources, which look back on Sasanian history, the phrase ‘the people’ always refers to the high aristocracy, and no account is ever taken of the life of peasants or common folk. But I can make a few general observations. Sasanian society was rigidly stratified. Zoroastrian priests and noblemen seem to have held all important government and military posts, and many of these seem to have been hereditary. So I can’t imagine there was much of what we would call social mobility. Public opinion would never have been consulted in any government decision, but the threat of popular uprising would probably have kept the government in check most of the time. Common people would surely have come under strain from time to time, since they would have done most of the farming and would have paid most of the taxes on which the state depended. But, as I say, our sources don’t focus on that at all. Instead, most of the emphasis, especially in later Islamic texts such as Al-Tabari’s history, is on the richness and splendor of the royal court and the Sasanian kings’ accomplishments hunting or on the battlefield. And Roman sources take no notice of Sasanian internal affairs unless they impinged directly on the Roman state.

Armenian sources are an important exception to this. Armenia had been part of the Iranian world since Achaemenid times, and its historians took a keen interest in the workings of the Sasanian state. Writers such as Moses Khorenatsi, Yeghishe, Ghazar Parpetsi, and Sebeos had no doubts about the power of the centralized Iranian state and its military and religious policies. The Sasanian demand for Armenian troops made a deep impression on those writers, especially Yeghishe and Ghazar, and they reflect a common Christian Armenian hatred of the Sasanian king’s ministers and governors who are portrayed as fundamentally evil men determined to exploit Armenian manpower. This might reflect a general view amongst other peoples of the Sasanian empire, but I don’t know. Despite some periods of tolerance, some kings tried to enforce religious conformity on Armenia too. King Yazdgard II is portrayed in Armenian sources as an odious tyrant bent on destroying the Christian religion, and I can well imagine that many of the common people throughout the empire would have resented the state’s religious policy at that time. In later Islamic sources which look back on the Sasanian empire, Yazdgard II is thought of as the paragon of an orthodox, Zoroastrian king whose policies pleased the clergy and high nobility. But those Armenian sources offer some insight into how other people might have felt at the time.

SB: You cover one of the most significant episodes of Armenian history in your book—the Battle of Avarayr (451), in which the largely outnumbered Armenians fought for their right to freely practice Christianity against the threat of forced conversion to Zoroastrianism. This freedom came at a high price, with decades of tensions leading up to the battle, and with many Armenians taking or defecting to the Sasanian side against their own families and friends before, during and after the battle. Although the Battle of Avarayr was ultimately a victory for Armenians and for Christianity, little has been said about the aftermath of this religious freedom and the broader significance of Avarayr. How did the outcome of this battle influence Sasanian governance over the following 200 years until its fall, and what did the outcome of this battle mean for Christians in Sasanian Iran more generally?

MB: This is a good example of the kind of thing that we would know absolutely nothing about without those Armenian sources. There is no mention of any trouble in Armenia or the rest of the trans-Caucasus in any of the Islamic sources dealing with Sasanian Iran. I am not aware of any Roman sources dealing with it either. And we are very fortunate to have two Armenian historians who cover the period from different perspectives: Yeghishe and Ghazar. But to answer your questions, let’s start at the beginning. I said before that Armenia was, as long as anybody could remember, part of the Iranian world. The king of Armenia had long been a sort of ‘number two’ to the Persian king – even, I believe, before the Sasanian state appeared. This had never been a problem until the Roman empire had expanded so far to the east that it began to share a border with and encroach upon Armenia. Even this wasn’t really cause for alarm as long as Armenia stayed firmly in the Iranian orbit. Things started to change when the king of Armenia, Trdat III, converted to Christianity in the late 2nd or early 3rd century AD. Not all Armenians followed him. Some remained ‘pagan’ or Zoroastrian. Not long after Trdat’s conversion, Constantine the Great himself became a Christian and the Roman empire quickly adopted Christianity as the state religion under his successors. The Sasanian government began to suspect the loyalty of Armenian Christians, and efforts to convert them back to Zoroastrianism failed. The Iranian state began to regard Christian Armenia as a natural ally of Rome, its greatest enemy. So every effort was made to ensure that the loyalist, Zoroastrian party in Armenia got the upper hand. This resulted in many conflicts, which we could regard as civil wars. In the late 4th century, the Roman and Sasanian governments settled on partitioning Armenia between them: a sort of Iron Curtain in the opinion of some modern Armenian historians. The result of this was that Rome and Iran were forced to defend an ambiguous frontier running south from the Caucasus down into northern Arabia, even though much the same sorts of people lived on either side of it. Anyway, the battle of Avarayr in 451 came about because the tensions between Armenian Christians and their Zoroastrian compatriots never got resolved. Competition for power and influence smoldered on until a civil war erupted and the Sasanian state intervened on the side of Zoroastrian Armenia and defeated the Christian faction led by Vartan Mamigonian. But the Christian side put up such a fight, and the conflict spread throughout the trans-Caucausus to such a degree, that the Iranian government was left with no choice but the tolerate Armenian (and Caucasian) Christianity. Tolerance was not immediate, but came a little over thirty years after the battle in the reign of king Peroz I in the late 5th century. Since that time Armenia has always thought of itself as a Christian nation, and the Battle of Avarayr has been remembered as the archetype of Christian holy war. So it is no surprise that Armenia resisted the spread of Islam while under Arab rule.

One thing I would add, though, is that the context of the Battle of Avarayr from the Sasanian perspective is often overlooked. Yeghishe and Ghazar describe the Iranian state’s fierce conflict with the Kidarite and Hephthalite Huns who had overwhelmed the Iranian border in Central Asia. Armenia had long been a source of manpower in the Persian army, and so Yazdgard II undertook a massive levy of troops to help fight the invaders. Naturally, Armenians tended to resent this, especially since the policy had the effect of removing many Christian Armenian leaders far from their country.

SB: What were the consequences of the fall of Sasanian Iran for Armenia and for Christians more generally?

MB: I think there is evidence to suggest that Christianity had become a major force in the Sasanian state by the time of the Arab conquest. Khusro II had, for instance, gone out of his way to conciliate Christian opinion and to suggest that Christians could be just as loyal to the Sasanian state as Zoroastrians were. The context of this is, of course, the preparation for conquering most of the Roman empire, but it’s still clear that Iranian Christians had risen to high ranks in the government and that churchmen had attained great influence over royal policy. Khusro even had a famous and influential Christian wife named Shirin. One of the most interesting consequences of the fall of the Sasanian state was the way in which the kings were remembered by their Christian subjects. In the Shahnameh of Ferdowsi, the Iranian National Epic, the last king Yazdgard III flees the Arab invasion and seeks refuge in the east where he is killed in a plot. The king’s body was thrown into a river. Then, according to Ferdowsi, a group of monks found the body and took it to their monastery where they erected a tomb and buried the Sasanian king. This is a legend, of course, but it shows that a strong sense of Christian loyalty to the Sasanian monarchy endured after the Arab conquest. But with time, Iranian Christians were mostly absorbed into the Arab Caliphates and they gradually embraced Islam.

Armenia was different. Armenia and much of the trans-Caucasus began as a semi-independent part of the Caliphate, but direct rule was eventually imposed. But the Armenian commitment to Christianity didn’t waver, and Armenia remains a Christian country now. Interestingly, the Armenian historian Sebeos argues that the fall of the Sasanian empire was nothing short of a disaster. His history is full of apocalyptic imagery, and he is one of the earliest historians to describe the Arab conquests. Notably, he blames the collapse of the Iranian state not on the Arabs but on Khusro II’s tyrannical ambitions and his disastrous overreach in attempting to conquer the entire Roman empire.

SB: You learned Grabar (Classical Armenian) to be able to study and use the primary Armenian historical sources in your work, which is hugely impressive, particularly for someone with no prior knowledge of Armenian. What makes Armenian historiography so important for understanding Sasanian Iran?

MB: Another excellent question. The truth is that unless I had been told to do it, I would never have learnt Armenian and would never have known about the richness of its historiographical tradition. It was hard, but I did it. It was hard because, apart from a sizeable vocabulary of Persian origin, which was easy to recognize, Armenian vocabulary is very different from other languages. The grammar is not hard compared to Latin or Greek. It’s really the vocabulary that I found challenging to remember. It preserves some very old Indo-European features, as well as a lot of words from languages which are now extinct such as Hittite and Hurrian, I think. Anyway, I managed to learn it to the point where I could read a text with the help of a dictionary, I passed my exams, and I was determined to use the sources as best I could. I regret never attempting the modern language.

Armenian texts are useful because they are among the few literary sources that actually come from within the Iranian world. Moreover, the Armenian sense of history and historiography was already mature by the Sasanian period, and so Armenian texts tend to provide serious analysis and credible explanations alongside reliable dates. Compare Sebeos and Moses Daskhurantsi, for example, to Al-Tabari’s account of the fall of Sasanian Iran. Al-Tabari is much longer and more detailed of course, but hardly anything he says can be fixed to a specific time or place, a lot of his information is contradictory, and he offers a variety of different dates which vary sometimes by more than a decade. Sebeos and Moses confidently date the Arab sieges of Ctesiphon, the battles of Qadisiya and Jalula, the death of Yazdgard III, and virtually everything in between. In fact, a very reliable account of the last days of the Sasanian state can be written from Armenian sources alone. There often seems to be a documentary foundation to Armenian histories, since the authors tend to quote letters and official edicts, and so forth, and that sort of thing inspires confidence.

SB: Your book also utilizes many other sources written in other languages; and, like many of the great Armenian historians, you cover immense ground—from China in the east to Rome in the west, over a period of about 400 years. What was your greatest challenge in writing this book?

MB: I needed to gain some understanding of the world of the steppe but could not read any other primary sources. Inner Asia was dominated by one nomadic empire after another, and each of them exerted enormous influence over China, Iran, and Rome because all three abutted the Eurasian steppe. Iran, however, is more open to the steppe than the others. That was the reason for building the huge wall at Gurgan and for the massive defenses in the Caucasus which Iran was obliged to build and defend. So in order to understand that strange, outer world, I had to get some knowledge of Chinese sources, since they are the most informative on that topic. The Chinese had been dealing with steppe peoples for many centuries, and Chinese dynastic annals are full of valuable detail about the steppe. Unfortunately, I don’t know any Chinese, and few of the relevant sources have been translated. The so-called Records of the Grand Historian by Sima Qian is the most famous such source, and has been put into English, but I’m not aware of anything else. So I had to depend on summaries and commentaries in other scholars’ works when it came to the collapse of the Han dynasty and the ensuing chaos, the short-lived Jin dynasty, and the military dictatorship of Ran Min, the rise of the Northern Wei, Sui, and Tang dynasties, and so forth. I was fascinated by what I discovered and I think it contributed enormously to understanding Sasanian Iran, but I wish I could read the original sources.

SB: Just as every reader has a model writer, one can say that every writer has a model reader. In Finnegan’s Wake, James Joyce commented on his “ideal reader suffering from an ideal insomnia”. But much more than being so absorbed in a book that one cannot sleep, a model reader may have other characteristics, like the assumptions s/he holds or the spirit with which s/he approaches the text. Tell us about your model reader of The Last Empire of Iran

MB: I don’t want to seem negative, but let me tell you who first is not the ideal reader. I am telling the story of Iran based on the best available evidence, but I am selecting what strikes me as most convincing and most relevant. I never get into academic debates or on-the-one-hand-on-the-hand sort of thing, unless the available alternatives are equally probable. I am quite open about declaring when I am uncertain about something, but I am always trying to communicate both the facts and my considered view of them. The ‘postmodernist’ approach to history I totally reject. Postmodernists themselves reject what they call the ‘positivist’ practice of judging historical sources on specific standards, and they deem all opinions to be relative. Some even argue that we cannot know what an author or historian really meant, so criticizing and evaluating sources must be pointless for them. And for them the judgement of an historian must be nothing more than another opinion. Nothing could be further from my approach to history. Personally, I see very grim consequences to postmodernist thought, which I see as basically an anti-intellectual movement, inimical to real knowledge about anything. So anyone who wants to see history presented as a series of doubtful opinions and counter-opinions should stay away.

Now the positive! The ideal reader takes pleasure in learning about the past. I want to attract people who are fascinated by old books, by ruins, by myths, by plagues, by the whole scene of human achievement and failure. I want readers who know that history is the only academic discipline that is also a branch of literature. And I hope they also appreciate a good footnote, and have a strong sense of irony.

SB: How would you like The Last Empire of Iran to be remembered?

MB: I hope people find it above all to be readable. I hope it inspires people to take an interest in the Iranian world. I hope it inspires more people with an academic training to write narrative history.


The Last Empire of Iran is available now from Gorgias Press.