Building new identity in Sassanid Era
The first two kings of the Sassanid Dynasty, Ardaxshir I (224–239 CE) and his son Shapur I (239–270 CE), crafted a repertoire of early Sassanid urban and memorial practices that at once shaped the early Sassanids’ experience of the past and inspired the activities of their successors. Reacting in part to the activities of their regional predecessors and competitors, they modified august Achaemenid ruins such as Persepolis and Naqsh-e Rostam while creating grand, new Persian monumental zones. In both cases, they cloaked their often radically new visual and ritual innovations in forms and practices carefully drawn from ancient Persian tradition. Their ambitious building campaigns and ritual activities meaningfully connected these ancient sites and their new creations with the living experience of the empire. They were intended to yield a convincing perception to their subjects and vassals of what was an ideologically coherent and useful, though historically inaccurate, past. The end result was a landscape and visual culture that presented the new Sassanid Dynasty and their ancient Kayanid predecessors as intertwined and spliced.
Ruins, memory, and royal identity
The rhetoric of rebirth of ancient traditions that underpinned the Sassanid’s revolution was not entirely an invention of their own, but rather an outgrowth of a deep-seated regional culture of Persian pride. The early Sassanid rulers presented themselves as the true stewards of Persia’s patrimony of magnificent ruins, but their memorial activities owed a great deal to their more proximate predecessors in the region.
The Sassanids initially drew from, and reacted to, the accumulated Hellenistic, Arsacid, and provincial post-Achaemenid Persian reinterpretations of the sites and memories of Persian royal ritual. By the beginning of the second century BCE, local rulers, rather than Macedonian governors, administered Pars. They pledged loose allegiance to the Seleucids while that dynasty held power; however, within their province, which they ruled largely autonomously, they pursued a vigorous program of engagement with the Achaemenid past. They called themselves frataraka, a title that derived from the Old Persian title of a subsatrapal Achaemenid governor, and while they did not have imperial pretensions, they continued to use many of the old Achaemenid names, including Darayan and Ardaxshir. The archaeological and visual evidence firmly indicates that the fratarakas engaged Achaemenid visual culture as a prestigious starting point for their own official representations.
The early obverse coin portraits of the frataraka rulers show the influences of Hellenistic royal portraits and incorporate some symbols of Hellenistic kingship, such as the diadem. The Hellenistic period of the classical antiquity spans the period of Mediterranean history between the death of Alexander the Great in 323 BCE and the emergence of the Roman Empire.
The dominant symbol of their rule, however, was the kyrbasia, headgear originally worn by satraps who served the Achaemenid Empire. Their royal costume subtly integrated contemporary Hellenistic markers of power with those that connected them to the Persian past. The reverses of tetradrachmas (large silver coins) of the Frataraka Baydad portray the ruler enthroned in an Achaemenid-style throne holding a flower in his left hand. His costume is clearly satrapal rather than imitative of Achaemenid royal regalia.
Although the figure holds a scepter as in the Achaemenid reliefs, Seleucid rather than Persian models inspired the form of the scepter. In addition to their regalia, the fratarakas incorporated into their coins aspects of the most prominent features of Achaemenid royal architecture and architectural ornament that still existed around them. Most of the coins depict a winged disk with a male bust emerging from it, recognizable on every Achaemenid royal tomb, many prominent reliefs at Persepolis, and many seals. On most issues, this figure hovers over a stepped rectangular structure with coffering or coffered doors, recalling Achaemenid architectural forms and crenellations at Persepolis.
The above is a lightly edited version of part of chapter entitled, ‘Sassanid Memory and the Persian Monumental and Ritual Legacy’, from a book entitled, ‘The Iranian Expanse’, written by Matthew P. Canepa, published by the University of California Press.