Episode 13: The Sassanid Shahs and the Hephthalites*
Barbarian Empires of the Steppes (2014)
Dr Kenneth Harl
The Sassanid (aka neo-Persian) Empire, which overthrew the Parthian empire in 224 AD, was a contemporary of the Western Roman Empire (which would fall in 476 AD). The former was an extremely effective bureaucratic state practicing monotheistic Zororastorianism.**
Unlike their Parthian predecessors, the Sassanids had the ability to capture and rule cities, which made them a much greater threat to Rome. Romans and Sassanids engaged in increasingly destructive wars for control of Meosopotamia and Armenia (a vassal state of both the Parthian and Sassanid empires).
Despite Rome’s eventual victory, in 364 and 379 AD the Romans ceded parts of Mesopotamia and Armenia to the Sassanids. This left the neo-Persians with the hassle of dealing with the Hephthalites and other nomads entering the steppes via the Caucasus mountains.
Initially allied with the Hephthalites, the Sassanids also seized control of Transoxiana (the former heartland of the Kushan empire – see The Parthian Empire: Rome’s Greatest Rival), seeking to control the Silk Road’s wealthy caravan cities.
The Hephthalites eventually reclaimed most of Transoxiana, establishing the Oxus River as the boundary between the Sassanid and Hepththalite empires. With the capitol in Bactrium, they issued coins imprinted with Greek text.
As the Hephthalites gradually gained control of most of the eastern steppes, the Sassinids formed an alliance with the Eastern Roman Empire against them. In the 5th century, the Sassanids built the Great Wall of Gorgan (manned by 15,000 – 30,000 troops) to block Hepththalite movement via the Caucasus passes. They also formed anti-Hepthalite alliances with the Göktürks (a Turkic-speaking people originating from the region which became Xinjiang in modern-day China).
*The latter taught that Ahura Mazda was the sole god in perpetual battle with Ahareem, the evil one.
**Also known as the White Huns, the Persian-speaking Hephthalites represented several ethnic and linguistic groups and were most likely driven onto the Central Steppes by the Northern Wei kingdom, which ruled northern China in the third century. The Sassanids hired them as mercenaries.
***At present Uzbekistan, Tajkistan, Afghanistan and northern India make up the region formerly known as Transoxiana.
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