Persian Empire Tip: Sassanids and Late Antiquity

Rock-face relief at Naqsh-e Rustam of Persian emperor Shapur I (on horseback) capturing Roman emperor Valerian (standing) and Philip the Arab (kneeling), suing for peace, following the victory at Edessa. CC BY-SA 2.5 Fabienkhan

Transitioning into researching the Sassanid/Sasanid Persian Empire, some of the points made in the articles that I intend to make notes about here include the idea that by the time of the Sassanids, a.) the Roman Empire and the Persian Empire were experiencing similar growing pains, b.) both saw a brief renaissance during the period of their most colorfully productive monarch, c.) the Sassanids appear to have had some kind of collective amnesia about their predecessors.

Today’s post considers the name of the period that applies to both Post-Constantinian Romans and Persians of the Sassanian Dynasty.

The term Late Antiquity has replaced the term Dark Ages to refer to a transformative(1) period from roughly 300-700 A.D., give or take a century at either end. Although there have been other so-called “dark ages,” the Dark Ages was used to describe life in Europe after the fall of Rome and was sometimes synonymous with the entire Middle Ages(2) until Enlightenment, but sometimes it covered only the first part when people had fallen into general ignorance of their Classical culture. Sometimes used to replace “late Roman Empire,”  it covers “roughly from Diocletian and the tetrarchy to Heraclius and the first defeats suffered at Islamic hands,” according to James J. O’Donnell(3). Neither Dark Ages nor Late Roman Empire is applicable to the Persian Empire during this time. But the term Late Antiquity could fit. And so, despite some dissenters and arguments, Late Antiquity is now applied to the Sassanian Empire, which ruled in Persia until the advent of Islam, c. 224–650 A.D.

Scholars emphasize that the period of Late Antiquity was transitional. There were significant changes in the class systems and geographic borders, but most importantly, religion came to trump civic identification and so, “the other” now meant those of a different religion.

We pass from a world in the third century wherein identity was primarily political (the principal affiliation being either civic or ethnic), to a world in the seventh century wherein identity became above all religious (the principal affiliation depending on one’s religious community). Late Antiquity was a historical period in which the two conceptions coexisted and in which the second overcame the first: this is true whether within the empire of Constantinople, the kingdoms of the West, the Sasanian empire, or in the Qur’ān with “the people of the book.” This transition can be explained by the fact that the notion of religion had changed, insisting henceforth less on cosmic and topical aspects and more on soteriology and history (Brown 1978). The main consequence was that the notion of “civilized” was redefined, juxtaposing the ancient political criteria, which permitted the inclusion of the Sasanian empire, and the new Christian religious criteria, which justified the inclusion of converted peoples, even those who were barbarians. (4)

You might want to read an article on the topic: Should Sasanian Iran be Included in Late Antiquity? e-Sasanika 1 MICHAEL G. MORONY University of California, Los Angeles.


  1. Review: LATE ANTIQUITY
    Reviewed Work: A Companion to Late Antiquity by P. Rousseau, Jutta Raithel
    Review by: MURIEL MOSER
  2. Petrarch’s Conception of the ‘Dark Ages’
    Theodore E. Mommsen
    Speculum
    Vol. 17, No. 2 (Apr., 1942), pp. 226-242
  3. Late Antiquity: Before and After, by James J. O’Donnell; Transactions of the American Philological Association (1974-), Vol. 134, No. 2(Autumn, 2004), pp. 203-213.
  4. Introduction: Late Antique Conceptions of Late Antiquity
    Hervé Englebert
    The Oxford Handbook of Late Antiquity
    Edited by Scott Fitzgerald Johnson
    Print Publication Date: Oct 2012; Online Publication Date: Nov 2012
    DOI: 10.1093/oxfordhb/9780195336931.013.0000

Image: CC BY-SA 2.5 Fabienkhan
Rock-face relief at Naqsh-e Rustam of Persian emperor Shapur I (on horseback) capturing Roman emperor Valerian (standing) and Philip the Arab (kneeling), suing for peace, following the victory at Edessa.

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