Khodadad Rezakhani. Reorienting the Sasanians: Eastern Iran in Late Antiquity. Edinburgh University Press, 2017.
The study of Ancient Iran is experiencing a kind of renaissance. A wave of recent positions opened at Oxford, Princeton, UC Berkeley, and UC Irvine, and institutes dedicated to Iranian Studies in general, with an eye towards Ancient Iran in particular, were founded in UC Irvine (including a new journal, starting in 2015) and now UCLA.
This increase in positions reflects the transformation of the study of Ancient Iran – from the Achaemenids through the Sasanians and beyond - from a niche specialty to a subfield essential to our understanding of the ancient world. Those interested in Greece, Rome, or Byzantium now pay close attention to the Persian empires. New publications have brought these once separately studied empires together, to wonderful results.
The new monograph series by Edinburgh University Press (EUP), Edinburgh Studies in Ancient Persia, exemplifies this growing interest in Ancient Iran and its integration into the larger scholarly conversation. The series, dedicated to various periods of Ancient Iran, published its first book in 2014, and four more since, with several slated for the coming months and years. Khodadad Rezakhani’s book ReOrienting the Sasanians: East Iran in Late Antiquity is the newest in the series.
Rezakhani studies East Iran, including Bactria, Sogdiana, and both sides of the Hindu Kush, roughly corresponding to the period of Sasanian rule. Rezakhani makes clear that he is charting quite difficult waters. Where others might be deterred by the paucity of evidence, the range of languages and disciplines required to make heads or tails of the area, or the lack of any preceding comparable work, Rezakhani refreshingly admits these difficulties and treks on despite – and perhaps even because of – them.
The book is divided into an introduction and nine relatively short and manageable chapters, along with a conclusion and brief epilogue. Rezakhani notes that this region has suffered from the confluence of a few trends. First, the Sasanian Empire has been conceptualized as a Western leaning Empire, mostly invested in Iraq and Khuzistan, less of a reflection of the actual history of the empire than the western-centrism of scholars. Second, as a result of the lack of Sasanian or more local contemporary historical or literary works concerning East Iran, the various barriers to accessing this material and the general disinterest in this area by related fields, most of the studies that have appeared are philologically focused, and do not attempt to provide a larger historical narrative of this region. Rezakhani therefore sets out to fill this desiderata by providing a narrative history of East Iran.
The first chapter examines the history of rule in Sakistan (Sistan), beginning before the Common Era with the Indo-Parthian dynasty up through the rule of Farn-Sasan, the ruler whom Ardashir I, the first king of the Sasanian dynasty, conquered in the first quarter of the 3rd century. Interestingly, both of these rulers issued coins with strikingly similar iconography, their images on one side and a fire altar on the other, and both claimed the title of ‘King of Kings’ (shāhān shāh) for themselves. Even the script used in their coins are similar. Lastly, it is telling that the name Sasan appears in Farn-Sasan’s name (as well as the rulers who preceded him), a name invoked by Shapur I, Ardashir’s son, as an ancestor. This may indicate that Ardashir and the Sasanians more generally may share some kind of past with Farn-Sasan and his dynasty, also emerging from East Iran, before the Sasanians came to rule first in Persis/Fars and then in the region that came to be known as the Sasanian Empire more broadly.
Chapter 2 studies the Kushan Empire, which ruled Bactria and eventually both sides of the Hindu Kush roughly during the same period covered in the preceding chapter. Already Shapur I boasts that his rule extends to “Kushanshahr.” While some scholars debate whether this is a baseless boast or an exaggerated truth, Rezakhani leans towards the latter, noting that it is during this period that the Kushans lose control of Bactria to a branch of the Sasanians known as the Kushano-Sasanians (or Kushanshahs), while the Kushans themselves were reduced to a local dynasty that ceased to exist soon after. Most of chapters 1 and 2 are dedicated to uncovering the history of the dynasties in these areas, rather than on their encounter with the Sasanians or their relevance to Iranian history more broadly. One gets the sense that Rezakhani enjoys the challenge of reconstructing these shadowy pasts, and it is this spirit of adventure that leads him on a few tangents from the main narrative simply for the thrill of taking a shot, but which at times distract from the main narrative he set out to tell.
The narrative begins in earnest in chapter 3 with the Kushano-Sasanians. This hyphenated name encapsulates the continuity the Kushano-Sasanians exhibited with certain Kushan customs, as well as the deep connections they shared with the Sasanians, such as names, appellations, and iconography. Nevertheless, the actual genealogical or other connections between these groups is not entirely clear. Unlike other areas in the early Sasanian Empire, like Mesene, where the Sasanians appointed one of their own as a local governor, the Kushano-Sasanians were at least semi-autonomous, functioning as a “cadet branch of the Sasanian royal house” (p. 73). The Kushano-Sasanians are interesting precisely because they are emblematic of “the longer trajectory of Sasanian administrative philosophy and the move towards centralization” (p. 76). The Kushano-Sasanians appear to have begun as a petty kingdom of the Sasanians before striving for more independence, as seen by their adoption of the title “King of Kings,” perhaps bringing them into conflict with the Sasanians. At some point in the mid to late 4th century, the Kushano-Sasanian dynasty came to end at the hands of the Huns/Chionites. After their defeat, the Sasanians install a more centralized administrative presence in the region and established treaties with the Huns.
As Rezakhani continues in Chapter 4, the treaties with the (Iranian) Huns/Chionites did not curb the Huns’ own ambitions, and they soon conquered part of the Kushano-Sasanian kingdom, adopting much of their iconography in the process, to form the Kidarite kingdom, which flourished from the late 4th to late 5th century. The Huns/Chionites were the first of a number of invading groups to rule in East Iran. It seems that Shapur II initially fought these tribes before signing treaties with them. While the terms of the treaty are not clear, they were strong enough to allow Shapur II to invade the Roman Empire with the aid of his new Eastern allies, who played a central role (as described by Ammianus Marcellinus, Rerum Gestarum, book 19). It is refreshing to read here about the Huns as historical actors in their own right, rather than as the marauding bandits they so often appear to be in both primary and secondary materials.
A specific subgroup of the Huns were the Kidarites, though interestingly they are often referred to as the Kushans, as the latter term became a catch-all for rulers in East Iran. It was not just the name that was used for both groups; some Chinese historians simply copied the history from earlier periods and applied it wholesale to later ones, rendering the source largely unusable for historical reconstruction. Still, from numismastic evidence we can get a better sense of the chronology of this dynasty. The numismatic evidence may suggest that an important title appended to Sasanian coins in the mid-5th century, kay, meaning one related to the mythical royal dynasty of the Kayanids, is first attested, and therefore perhaps originates with, the Kidarites. As we are now primed to expect, the relationship between the Sasanians and their eastern allies frayed, and thus a number of wars (beginning with Wahram V) ensued, in which the Sasanians established a firmer eastern border. Thus, Pērōz went on the offensive, conquering Bactria around 466/7, leaving the Kidarites in Sogdiana and further East. The Kidarites seem to have persisted for some time after these military defeats, before being defeated by the other invading groups, the Alkhans in Gandhara and the Hephthalites in Sogdiana.
The latter two groups are the subjects of Chapters 5 and 6. Clearly there is extensive overlap between the characteristics of the two groups, which prompted many scholars to treat them as one group, or the Alkhans as a subgroup of the Hephthalites. This is partly due, once again, to the paucity of evidence, as the Alkhans are mainly attested in, and mainly distinguishable from the Hephthalites by, the numismastic evidence. This evidence also helps reconstruct the line of kings (with the help of additional inscriptional and literary reports), and reveals a dynasty coming into its own, originally producing replicas of Sasanian or Kidarite coins, to minting coins with distinct busts, imagery that would continue to be artistically significant in the region for centuries. One notable numismastic feature is the introduction of the legend “King of the East” for several figures who appear to be Alkhan kings, perhaps reflecting the desires of these rulers. Rezakhani here could have spelled out the significance of the self-fashioning of this group as East of something to their West (pp. 117-123).
We know much more about the Hephthalites, the most famous denizens of the region during this period. This group, though living in East Iran, shaped the fate of the Sasanian Empire for nearly two centuries. We first hear of the Hephthalites in the battle between the brothers Hormizd III and Pērōz for the throne. Pērōz, at the time the governor of Sistan, won the Sasanian throne in 459 CE with the support of his Hephthalite neighbors. Remember that Pērōz also defeated the Kidarites in 466/7. This latter victory must have enabled the Hephthalites to expand their territory. This eventually put Pērōz in conflict with the Hephthalites, but to his detriment; he lost his first campaigns, and eventually was captured, required to pay a hefty ransom and leave his son Kavad in the Hephthalite court as a captive. Undeterred, Pērōz led a final excursion against the Hephthalites, during which he was killed. Pērōz’s daughter was taken by the Hephthalite king as a wife, and their daughter (aptly named Pērōzduxt) eventually wed her uncle, Kavad. Kavad’s inauspicious entry to the Hephthalite court turned favorable when the Hephthalites supported him as he deposed his uncle Walash to become the Sasanian king. The Hephthalites also assisted Kavad in retaking the throne after he was briefly deposed, though the reason(s) for his deposal remains obscure. In any event, Kavad’s long rule came to an end when his son Khusro I removed him and defeated his longtime allies, the Hephthalites, with the help of the ‘Western Turks’ (discussed in the ensuing chapters). Khusro’s famous military reforms served to better defend and combat East Iran.
Chapter 7 takes a brief interlude from the string of ruling dynasties to focus instead on the effects of these dynasties – particularly the Kidarites and the Hephthalites – on Sogdiana and its locals. It was during the rule of these dynasties that Sogdiana underwent rapid urbanization and became a center of commerce and trade. The region was ruled, however, primarily by a local merchant aristocracy, and over the course of this period it too, like Bactria and the other areas studied in the book, came ever further under the purview of the Sasanian Empire, evidenced by the penetration of the Sasanian monetary system.
Chapter 8 backtracks to investigate the regions of Kabulestan and Zabulestan and the local dynasties that were able to rise as a result of the concentration of the efforts and energies of the Hephthalites on Tokharistan and Transoxiana. The Nēzak-shahs rose to power and survived from at least the mid-5th through mid-7th centuries. Rezakhani then turns to the Western Turks, who aided Khusro I to defeat the Hephthalites in the mid-6th century, and who were a major presence in the area during this period and beyond. This chapter and the next introduce many terms and groups without fully clarifying the relationships between them, resulting in some confusion.
Chapter 9 focuses on the late Sasanian period and the relationship between the Sasanians and their eastern frontier. Agreements between the Sasanians and the Turks were broken, leading to hostility and war, with victory and defeat on both sides. However, the Arab conquests changed everything. The last Sasanian shah, Yazdgird III, fled to Fars/Persis after losing Ctesiphon (637 CE), and then to East Iran after losing the battle of Nihawand (642 CE). Here Yazdgird III was killed, possibly at the order of a local Hephthalite ruler (651 CE), a kind of final revenge. Still, Yazdgird’s children and grandchildren, backed by the Tang Court in China, attempted to restore the Sasanian Empire, succeeding only in establishing some kind of rule in East Iran. These efforts came to an end a century after Yazdgird III’s death. If East Iran was never quite as peripheral to the Sasanians as was once believed, its moment in the center marked the dénouement of the once great empire.
In the conclusion, Rezakhani moves forward to the Middle Ages, demonstrating even further how East Iran became the center of Iranian culture, especially under the Samanids who were great patrons of Persian language and culture, hosting such great figures as Avicenna, Al-Biruni, and perhaps most importantly Ferdowsi, the author of the Shahnameh (and the subject of a brief epilogue). The later Ghaznavids and the Seljuks, and subsequent dynasties, whether Turkish, Mongolian, or other, similarly sponsored Persian culture. It is in this once “peripheral” region that Persian culture survived and even flourished.
Despite slogging through difficult terrain, the book makes for a shockingly smooth read. Any difficulties following the complicated historical narrative is helpfully relieved by the clear and comprehensive conclusions furnished at the end of each chapter. Rezakhani is explicit about the limits of the evidence, and does an enviable job producing a narrative history despite these constraints. Nevertheless, the limitation of the evidence does shape the narrative, as it often restricts discussion to lists of kings and dynasties, without allowing for serious engagement into causes, ideology, motivation, and the other central features of narrative histories.
Moreover, as an open and honest attempt at constructing a narrative history despite the paucity of evidence, the broad time span (roughly the 1st century BCE till the 8th CE), and the vast geographic region, there is opportunity to disagree with which subjects Rezakhani includes or excludes, as well as his interpretation of some sources, without finding serious fault in Rezakhani’s work. As an example of the former, Rezakhani centers his study on East Iran, and engages the Sasanian Empire when it is relevant to the region. But Rezakhani might have offered a broader discussion and overview of the Sasanian’s shifting ideology as a result of the shifting circumstances he so ably describes. In terms of sources, for example, Rezakhani is too credulous in his treatment of the Acts of Thomas, seemingly accepting their historicity and working with outdated scholarship (pp. 35-36, 39). But this in no way undermines Rezakhani’s arguments in that chapter, nor in the book more broadly. On the whole, Rezakhani skillfully guides the reader through uncharted territories, and successfully centers East Iran as a subject worthy of study in its own right.
Dr. Simcha Gross is an Assistant Professor in the History Department of UC Irvine.
 See, for instance, Matthew Canepa, Two Eyes of the Earth: Art and Ritual of Kingship between Rome and Sasanian Iran (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2010); Paul Kosmin’s The Land of the Elephant Kings: Space, Territory, and Ideology in the Seleucid Empire (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2014); Richard Payne, A State of Mixture: Christians, Zoroastrians, and Iranian Political Culture in Late Antiquity (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2015).
 Rezakhani suggests that more attention needs to be paid to Kavad’s Hephthalite ties as a contributing factor in his deposal, but this tantalizing suggestion remains unexplored (pp. 132-133).
 For instance, Rezakhani includes in his bibliography the article by Richard Payne, “The Reinvention of Iran: The Sasanian Empire and the Huns” in The Cambridge Companion to the Age of Attila ed. Michael Maas (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press 2014), 282-299, but does not engage with it in the book itself.
 Rezakhani cites A. E. Medlycott, India and the Apostle Thomas: An Inquiry, with a Critical Analysis of the Acta Thomae (London: David Nutt, 1905). (p. 36), and does not cite Jan Bremmer, “The Acts of Thomas: Place, Date and Women,” in The Apocryphal Acts of Thomas ed. Bremmer (Leuven: Peeters, 2001), 74-76, nor the edition by A.F. J. Klijn, The Acts of Thomas: Introduction, Text, and Commentary 2nd edition (Leiden: Brill, 2003).