Sassanian Administration

Saturday, July 25, 2009

The Sassanian Dynasty or Sassanid Empire is the name of the last pre-Islamic Iranian empire. It was one of the two main powers in Western Asia for a period of more than 400 years. The Sassanid dynasty was founded by Ardashir I after defeating the last Parthian (Arsacid) king, Artabanus IV Ardavan) and ended when the last Sassanid Shahanshah (King of Kings), Yazdegerd III (632–651), lost a 14-year struggle to drive out the early Arab Caliphate, the first of the Islamic empires. The Sassanid's empire, which they called Eranshahr ("the Iranian Empire"), encompassed all of today's Iran, Afghanistan, Iraq, Armenia, the southern Caucasus (including southern Dagestan), southwestern Central Asia, parts of Turkey, parts of Syria, some coastal parts of the Arabian Peninsula, Persian Gulf area, and some parts of southwestern Pakistan.

The Sassanid era, encompassing the length of the Late Antiquity period, is considered to be one of Iran's most important and influential historical periods. In many ways the Sassanid period witnessed the highest achievement of Persian civilization, and constituted the last great Iranian Empire before the Muslim conquest and adoption of Islam. Persia influenced Roman civilization considerably during the Sassanids' times, and the Romans reserved for the Sassanid Persians alone the status of equals, exemplified in the letters written by the Roman Emperor to the Persian Shahanshah, which were addressed to "my brother." Their cultural influence extended far beyond the empire's territorial borders, reaching as far as Africa, China and India and played a prominent role in the formation of both European and Asiatic medieval art.

Sassanians, who inherited the economic conditions left behind by Parthians, were quick to forge an economic state so powerful and distinctive that its fame spread well beyond their political frontiers and their period.

Although it is impossible in this brief article to take note of all the factors that shaped Sassanian economic power, whether successively or in conjunction, it is possible to highlight several elements that contributed to its particular character, which became a model for the economic evolution of the Near East.

The Sassanian economy, like any economy, was fundamentally conditioned by two sets of factors: natural elements and human intervention. Among the former were climate, topography, fertility of soil and availability of water. Among the latter were the activities of farmers, administrators, priests, nobles and the ruler, as well as the impact of international relations.

The interaction among these elements determined the degree of economic development or regression at any given moment. The Sassanian Empire has often been treated as a centralized state, but as far as the economy was concerned, state control remained relatively circumscribed.

Although the royal house arrogated to itself certain monopolies, it seems that most economic production was in the hands of private entrepreneurs. Rather than participating directly in economic activity, the government was more concerned with collecting taxes, levies and customs duties from it. Nevertheless, the revenues from part of its territories remained outside its control, in particular the large estates in the hands of powerful nobles.

It is within this framework that the Sassanian policy of centralization, culminating in the administrative reorganization by Kavad I (484-531, with interruptions) and Khosrow I Anushiravan (531-79) must be understood. Before successfully bringing the entire country under direct control, however, the Sassanians, like the Parthians before them, tried to appropriate whole regions piecemeal whenever the opportunity presented itself.

One means of achieving this goal was the foundation of cities, which were often existing towns re-baptized’ with names incorporating that of the sovereign. The practice was initiated by Ardeshir I (224-40) and continued under his successors. In this way, each new city and, equally important, its surrounding districts came under the direct tutelage of the crown, which could thus control the entire economic life of a given region: agriculture, crafts, mining, trade and transportation.

The Sassanian kings took care to promote the economies of these royal cities and their hinterlands by ensuring security and by transporting to them highly skilled labor drawn partly from conquered populations. On the other hand, the central administration installed local officials who collected levies and taxes, an important source of revenue for financing warfare, which enriched the dynasty through booty: metals, precious materials and skilled workmen.

It is difficult to assess the exact role played in different economic enterprises by each social group: royalty, nobility, citizens, prisoners of war and slaves. Attempts at reconstruction of Sassanian economic life and its development failed because of the inadequacy of resources.

Agriculture was the basis of the economy. In the absence of significant climatic change, it can be supposed that the types of crops and animals raised in the different natural zones remained, with slight variations, about the same as in the preceding millennium.

Crops included cereals (barley, rye, millet), legumes (lentils, chickpeas), forage (alfalfa), fibers for spinning (flax, hemp, cotton), fruits (cherries, grapes, figs, pomegranates, dates, nuts), and vegetables. Only rice, emmer (hard wheat), and apricot and olive trees were perhaps introduced relatively late.
Similar continuity can be assumed for domestic animals (oxen, sheep, chickens, ducks, geese), which furnished labor, meat, milk and materials for textile manufacturing and tanning.

Text sources and archeological surveys seem unanimous in confirming the expansion of the agrarian economy, which must have reached a peak under the Sassanians, though it seems that the occupation of the land and population were clearly declining in certain regions toward the end of the period.
The overall growth can be explained only by the economic policies adopted in the royal domains. It is hardly known to what extent the regions that belonged to the great traditional families contributed to this ’national’ economic growth. Nor is there much information on the exact status of farmers who were organized in associations: whether or not they were entirely independent proprietors of the lands that they worked on or received them from the royal house as concessions.
That private property, whatever the precise nature of ownership, was not limited to land but also included canals, qanats (underground aqueducts) and mills is clear from juridical documents reproduced in texts.
From the beginning of the Sassanian period, lands were granted to relatives and friends of the ruler, but relations between these new proprietors and farmers already on their land are obscure. Small pieces of land were also granted to soldiers at the end of their military service. At any rate, the intensive agriculture practiced under the Sassanians both ensured production of agricultural surpluses and required construction of considerable infrastructure, particularly that connected with irrigation: bridge dams, wells, canals, qanats and the like.

Such projects were beyond the means of individuals; only associations of individuals or institutions could make authoritative decisions and engage technically trained personnel. This hydraulic infrastructure was equally indispensable in supplying water to cities where population growth went hand in hand with high agricultural yields and the manufacturing and commercial activities that they supported.

It is also difficult to evaluate the part played by each social group in the different conservation industries (drying of fruits, milk processing, preservation of meat) and the transformation of agricultural products (oil pressing, milling, tanning, weaving, dyeing), but it is likely that these activities accounted for a large portion of the private, that is, domestic, economic sector. The pattern in the storage of agricultural products (in granaries, warehouses and silos) was different, for, though supplies for local consumption and surpluses intended for regional exchanges and even exports were probably managed by the producing community, the portion of those commodities owed to the state as taxes was perhaps stored locally under the supervision of state functionaries.

Many other sectors of economic life, including extraction of raw materials from mines, quarries, forests, salt deposits and bitumen fields, as well as all processing industries, are even less well documented.

About the organization of industries that today would be labeled ’sensitive’, that is, the entire chain of metal production from extraction of ores to manufacture of weapons and coins, nothing at all is known. The only state monopolies on which the sources contain information were those producing precious goods.

In the royal cities such artisans as masons, woodworkers, ceramicists, metalworkers, jewelers and stone cutters (Tafazzoli) were organized in corporations, unless they belonged to royal workshops, with the exception of the narrative of the 7th-century Chinese traveler HsŸan Tsang, documentation survives only in Syriac sources from the western part of the empire.

From the latter sources, it appears that a large majority of craftsmen were Christians, and it is possible that there was a cause-and-effect relationship with exemption from military service, enjoyed by artisans but not by farmers.

Particularly problematic is what happened in the domains of the nobility at different periods. It is, for example, not clear whether the state had any control over economic activity on the nobles’ estates or whether the latter were absolute masters on their own lands. Nor is anything known about lands belonging to the clergy, mainly Zoroastrian.

At least one aspect of the economy was always completely under control of the king, that is, the minting of coins. Aside from several experiments at the beginning of the Sassanian period, when coins of different alloys were struck, Sassanian coinage consisted of three types: gold, limited to a few commemorative issues; bronze, copper, and lead for regional, or perhaps only local, circulation; and silver, of which the drahm was the basic unit.

Whether the entire process of minting operations was directly controlled by the state or whether certain steps were commissioned under state supervision is not yet known. It is, however, clear that periods of intense monetary production corresponded to periods of war, when it was necessary to pay mercenary troops, or to compensate for military defeats such as payment of indemnities.

Throughout the Sassanian period, internal economic life was characterized by the struggle between the royal house and the vassals for political and economic power. The government’s interest in the prosperity of the country was dictated in the first place by the benefits that it drew from a highly productive agriculture and a class of competitive artisans. As a result, both farmers and artisans lived in relative comfort.

But, when peaceful conditions were interrupted and the state had temporarily to withdraw its economic support, the situation soon became precarious; the economic infrastructure, especially irrigation facilities, and the living conditions of the population deteriorated. Such a period of relative hardship seems to have occurred after the reign of Shappur II (309-79), at least if foundation of royal cities is taken as an indicator.

That the social situation did not immediately become untenable was probably owing to the fact that Shapur II’s successors, profiting from a period without major political and military problems, concentrated on developing international trade over land, in particular the Silk Route, and sea, thus benefiting all active levels of society.

Providing armed protection for caravans and shipbuilding were doubtless in the hands of private entrepreneurs organized in merchant companies. The state was content to levy taxes on the transit trade entering and leaving cities and national territory.
Markets and fairs, which provided another source of revenue for the state, were connected with local, regional and international commerce.

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