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The Ancient World

ca. 2500 B.C. - 900 A.D.


Persia under the Parthians and the Sassanians

250 B.C.-651 A.D.


The Parthian dynasty, and the Sassanians who followed them, were for centuries the most dangerous opponents on Rome's eastern frontiers. The kings considered themselves heirs to the Achaemenid Empire. While the  Pathians adopted much from Hellenic tradition, the Sassanians sought to revive Persian traditions such as Zoroastrianism. Rome was also influenced by Persian traditions, the Byzantine Empire inspired by Eastern "divine rule." Exhausted by its struggles with Rome, the Sassanid Empire ultimately succumbed to the Arab Muslim invasions of the seventh century a.d.

The Parthian Empire
  250 B.C.-224 A.D.

Map Parthian Empire

The Parthians emerged as the successors to the Seleucid Empire. They extended their territories westward, which eventually brought them into conflict with the Roman Empire.

Beginning in the fourth century B.C., the Parni, a tribe of nomads, migrated from the southeastern shore of the Caspian Sea into the Iranian highlands.

They were known as 1, 2, 4 Parthians after the province of Parthia, which they conquered in 250 B.C. under their first ruler, Arsaces I.

1 Statue of a Parthian king,
marble, second century B.C.

2 Parthian soldier

4 Parthian soldier, color lithograph

He and his successors, the Arsacids, drove the Seleucids out of Iran and under Mithradates I in the second century B.C., out of Mesopotamia.

This then became the center of their empire, with its capital, 6 Ctesiphon, located on the Tigris River.

The Parthians adopted the 3 Hellenistic culture of the Seleucids, as well as their administrative structure.

3 Parthian Temple in the Hellenistic style, Hatra, Iraq
6 Palace of the King in the Parthian capital, Ctesiphon

The provinces were almost autonomously ruled by independent governors, who were often members of the ruling royal dynasty. The Parthian Empire reached its greatest extent under Mithradates II "the Great" in the first century B.C., when it stretched from the Euphrates to the Indus. There were clashes with the Roman Empire over the control of Armenia, but neither side was able to gain the upper hand.

The Parthians defeated the Roman consul Crassus in the Battle of 5 Carrhae in 53 в.с.

5 The Battle of Carrhae

However, during the reign of Augustus the Romans were able to take advantage of the Parthian provincial governors' desire for independence and dynastic disputes over the throne. The Romans thus pursued a policy of divide and rule by supporting different pretenders to the Parthian throne.

Emperor Trajan conquered Mesopotamia in 114 but it was lost again under Hadrian. Further Roman campaigns against the Parthians followed at the beginning of the third century. The Parthians were forced to make peace with the Romans in 218, as their empire was starting to collapse from within. Finally, Ardashir, who as a Parthian governor had run Fars (Persis), the ancient Achaemenid home province, ended Arsacid rule in 224 and replaced it with the Sassanid dynasty.


The Empire of the Sassanians  224-651 A.D.

The Sassanians saw themselves as heirs to the Achaemenids and sought to revive their culture. War with the Romans drained the kingdom and it succumbed to the Arab invasions.

The Sassanid 10 Ardashir I overthrew the last of the Parthian rulers in 224.

10 Ahura Mazda passes the ring of power to the Sassanian Ardashir I, rock relief in Persepolis, third century



Ardashir I

Ardashir I, (flourished 3rd century), the founder of the Sāsānian empire in ancient Persia (reigned ad 224–241).

Ardashir was the son of Bābak, who was the son or descendant of Sāsān and was a vassal of the chief petty king in Persis, Gochihr. After Bābak got Ardashīr the military post of argabad in the town of Dārābgerd (near modern Darab, Iran), Ardashir extended his control over several neighbouring cities. Meanwhile, Bābak had slain Gochihr and taken the title of king. Although Bābak’s request that the Parthian king Artabanus V allow him to transmit the crown to his eldest son, Shāpūr, was refused, Shāpūr nevertheless succeeded him. In the ensuing struggle between him and Ardashīr, Shāpūr was killed, and Ardashir was crowned king of Persis in 208. Having suppressed a revolt in Dārābgerd, he gradually conquered the neighbouring province of Kermān and the coastal Persian Gulf lands. He made his capital at Gūr (modern Fīrūzābād), which he renamed Ardashir-Kwarrah.

Ardashir then moved against western Iran, taking Esfahān, Kerman, Elymais, and Mesene. Withdrawing again to Persis, he met the Parthian army at Hormizdagān (site unknown) in ad 224 and won a decisive victory, slaying Artabanus. Soon after, Ardashīr entered the Parthian capital of Ctesiphon, in Mesopotamia, in triumph and was crowned “king of kings of Iran.”

With his son and successor, Shāpūr I, Ardashir established the Sāsānian empire. Nothing is known of Ardashir’s personal life; his deeds, however, indicate that he was ruthless, a great soldier, and a capable king. He founded or rebuilt many cities and is credited with digging canals and building bridges. Several great rock carvings commemorate his reign.

Ardashir made Zoroastrianism the state religion, and he and his priest Tosar are credited with collecting the holy texts and establishing a unified doctrine. Two treatises, The Testament of Ardashīr and The Letter of Tosar, are attributed to them. As patron of the church, Ardashir appears in Zoroastrian tradition as a sage. As founder of the dynasty, he is celebrated in a 5th-century book in Pahlavi, the Karnamag-i Ardashir.

Encyclopædia Britannica

To a much greater extent than the Arsacids, the Sassanians identified with the ancient Persian traditions and sought to revive this culture, particularly Zoroastrianism. This became the official state religion. The Sassanians attempted to revoke the autonomy of the provinces—which would ultimately result in the downfall of the Parthian Empire—and centralized all authority. The Sassanians continued to pursue the conflict with the Romans and the Byzantine Empire.

Shapur I defeated the Romans with ease at Edessa in 260 and even took 9 Emperor Valerian prisoner.

9 Shapur I takes the Roman
Emperor Valerian prisoner,
engraving, third century

Under Shapur's successors in the fourth century, Christians were seen as politically suspect and persecuted as potential supporters of Rome. Once the conflict ended, in the fifth century, they were granted freedom to practice their religion.

The Sassanid Empire reached the height of its power under 7 Khosrow I, who had destroyed the Hephthalite Empire by 560 and conquered southern Arabia by 570.

War with the Bvzantines culminated in 8, 12 Khosrow II bringing the Byzantine Empire to the verge of collapse.

7 The gold and crystal
"Khosru Bowl,"
decorated with an
enthroned Khosrow I

8 Khosrow II and the Christian Shirin, illustrated book, 15th century

12 Khosrow II and the Christian Shirin,
book illustration, 15th century


He occupied Syria and Egypt, before capturing Jerusalem in 614, and stealing holy relics. The Fmperor Heraclius, however, halted the Persian advance, and won a decisive victory in the Battle of Nineveh in 627.

Khosrow II was deposed and 11 murdered, while his successor had no choice but to make peace with Heraclius.

Persia had been so militarily exhausted by the conflict that it was unable to defend itself effectively against the onslaught of the Arab invaders spreading Islam. The last Sassanid, Yazdegerd III, fled eastwards and was murdered in 651. However, the language and refined culture of the Persians fused with the new faith, and marked out the elite.

11 Khosrow is executed by his own son after his defeat,
engraving, 17th century


Shapur I

Shapur I, Latin Sapor, Arabic Sābūr (died ad 272), Persian king of the Sāsānian dynasty who consolidated and expanded the empire founded by his father, Ardashīr I. Shāpūr continued his father’s wars with Rome, conquering Nisibis (modern Nusaybin, Tur.) and Carrhae (Harran, Tur.) and advancing deep into Syria. Defeated at Resaina (now in Turkey) in 243, he was able, nevertheless, to conclude a favourable peace in 244. In 256 he took advantage of the internal chaos within the Roman Empire and invaded Syria, Anatolia, and Armenia; he sacked Antioch but was repulsed by the emperor Valerian. In 260, however, Shāpūr not only defeated Valerian at Edessa (modern Urfa, Tur.) but captured him and kept him a prisoner for the rest of his life. The capture of Valerian was a favourite subject of Sāsānian rock carvings. Shāpūr does not appear to have aimed at a permanent occupation of the eastern Roman provinces; he merely carried off enormous booty both in treasure and in men. The captives from Antioch were forced to build the city of Gondēshāpūr, later famous as a centre of learning. Using the same captives, who excelled the Persians in technical skill, he built the dam at Shūshtar known from that time as the Band-e Qeyṣar, Dam of Caesar.

Shapur, no longer content to describe himself as “king of kings of Iran,” as his father had done, styled himself “king of kings of Iran and non-Iran”—that is, of non-Persian territories as well. He appears to have tried to find a religion suitable for all of the empire, showing marked favour to Mani, the founder of Manichaeism. Inscriptions show that he also founded Zoroastrian fire temples and sought to broaden the base of the newly revived Zoroastrian religion by the addition of material derived from both Greek and Indian sources.

Encyclopaedia Britannica




Valerian, Latin in full Publius Licinius Valerianus (died 260), Roman emperor from 253 to 260.

Licinius Valerianus was consul under Severus Alexander (emperor 222–235) and played a leading role in inducing the Senate to risk support for Gordian I’s rebellion against the emperor Maximinus (238). He may have been one of the 20 consulars who successfully defended Italy against the emperor. He is not again mentioned until the reign of Decius (emperor 249–251). Under Gallus (emperor 251–253), Licinius Valerianus held a command on the Upper Rhine and was summoned to bring the northern armies to aid in the struggle against the rival emperor Aemilian. He arrived too late to save Gallus but managed to avenge and succeed him.

As the emperor Valerian, he vigorously renewed Decius’s persecution of the Christians, executing, among others, Bishop Cyprian of Carthage and Bishop Xystus (Sixtus II) of Rome. Recognizing that it was no longer possible for one emperor to control the whole empire, Valerian appointed his son Gallienus to rule the West while he marched east to repel the Persian invasion. His attempts to negotiate personally with the Persian king Shāpūr I (Latin: Sapor) ended in failure. He was captured in June 260 and died in captivity. Like his predecessor, Decius, Valerian tried valiantly to preserve the ideals of the High Empire but ultimately failed to save himself or the regime he served.

Encyclopaedia Britannica



Khosrow I

Khosrow I, byname Khosrow Anūshirvan (Persian: “Khosrow of the Immortal Soul”), or Khosrow the Just (died ad 579), Persian king who ruled the Sāsānian empire from 531 to 579 and was remembered as a great reformer and patron of the arts and scholarship.

Rise to power.
Little is known of the early life of Khosrow beyond legends. One story says that when Khosrow’s father, King Kavadh, took refuge with the Hephthalites, eastern neighbours of Iran, on the way (near the town of Nishapur) he married a peasant’s daughter, who gave birth to Khosrow. At his father’s death Khosrow did not at first succeed him, but in a struggle for the throne he was successful and put to death his brothers. At the end of his father’s reign, great social disorders had occurred because of a religious revolution of a sect called the Mazdakites. Khosrow first restored order and then launched reforms to transform the declining Sāsānian empire.

The reform of taxation was the most important of his actions, and it was probably copied from the Roman system inaugurated by the emperor Diocletian. Previously in the Sāsānian empire taxes had been levied on the yield of land; Khosrow established a fixed sum rather than a yearly variation. Other taxes were introduced that brought stability to the income of the state and were also fairer to those who paid the taxes. Khosrow’s program of taxes lasted into Islāmic times.

Khosrow also reorganized the Sāsānian bureaucracy, and the system of ministries, or divans, under a prime minister is said to have been initiated by him. He was fortunate during most of his reign in having a capable prime minister called Bozorgmehr, who became famous in story and legend for his wisdom and abilities.

Under Khosrow the process of decentralization of the power of the monarch was reversed, and the lower aristocracy, or knights, called dihqāns, grew in importance at the expense of the great feudal lords, who had been more powerful under Khosrow’s predecessors. It is difficult to know how many changes really can be attributed to Khosrow’s reign and how many are arbitrarily assigned to him because of his place in history. Whether the religiously sanctioned division of society into priests, warriors, bureaucracy, and common folk was codified under his reign, as claimed by some sources, is difficult to determine.

Military campaigns.
Khosrow also reorganized the army and appointed four chief commanders to guard the four frontiers of Iran. On the frontier against the Byzantines and their Arab allies in the Syrian Desert, against the peoples of the steppes of southern Russia at the town of Derbent between the Caucasus Mountains and the Caspian Sea, and to the east of the sea in the present Turkmen steppes, Khosrow built defensive walls. The army, however, did not remain on the defensive, for Khosrow’s reign is noted for his wars against the Byzantines. In 540 Antioch was conquered and held for a short time by Khosrow. He brought many prisoners from Antioch and settled them in a new town near his capital of Ctesiphon, modeled on old Antioch. In the east, Khosrow, in alliance with the Turks, a new power in Central Asia, crushed the Hephthalites, and he established a hegemony over many of their principalities. The Sāsānian frontier in the east reached the Amu Darya (Oxus River) during his reign.

He also fought extensively in Armenia and Lazica in the Caucasus. Furthermore, under his reign a Sāsānian army conquered Yemen. Khosrow relied on a professional army more than his predecessors, who had summoned feudal levies when they set out to war.

Patron of culture.
Khosrow was also a great patron of culture, and in 529, when the ancient academy of Athens was closed, a number of Greek philosophers migrated to the Sāsānian empire, where they were well received by the ruler. The later famous medical school of Gondēshāpūr was probably started in Khosrow’s reign, and the famous physician Burzoe is supposed to have been sent to India by Khosrow to gather Sanskrit books of learning to be translated into the Middle Persian language. The game of chess reportedly was also brought by him from India. Astronomy and astrology flourished at the court of Khosrow, and one star table (called the zīj-i Shahriyār), which was the basis of many later Islāmic tables, is said to have originated during the reign of Khosrow. Several works of Middle Persian, such as the Book of Deeds of Ardashir (Kārnāmak), are attributed to this period. Likewise, some scholars claim that the codification of the Avesta, the sacred book of the Zoroastrian religion, as well as the creation of a special Avestan alphabet to record the text, took place at the order of Khosrow. Further, it is supposed that the stories and legends of ancient Iran were gathered into a Khwatāy-nāmak (“Book of Kings”) in the time of Khosrow and thus provided the source for Ferdowsī’s immortal epic much later. Some of the names found in Ferdowsī’s Shāh-nāmeh appear among the royal family of Khosrow, which indicates at the least an interest on the part of the monarch in ancient legends.

Perhaps more than fact, the stories told about Khosrow have made his name famous in history. Almost any pre-Islāmic structure in Iran whose origin is unknown will be attributed to Khosrow by the simple folk. Undoubtedly he built many bridges, roads, and palaces, but much more is assigned to him in legend. The famous palace with the huge arch, called Ṭāq Kisrā, in Ctesiphon, near modern Baghdad, is said to date from Khosrow I, but this is uncertain. Several collections of wise sayings of this monarch, as well as stories about him, have been preserved in Arabic or New Persian versions. In them his reputation for justice as well as wisdom is constantly cited. The splendour of the court and the glory of his reign provided models for the later ʿAbbāsid court in Baghdad, and many of the institutions established by Khosrow were maintained in Islāmic times, when Khosrow was hailed as the model pre-Islāmic ruler to be emulated by Muslim princes.

Richard N. Frye

Encyclopaedia Britannica



Khosrow II

Khosrow II, byname Khosrow Parvīz (Persian: “Khosrow the Victorious”) (died ad 628), late Sāsānian king of Persia (reigned 590–628), under whom the empire achieved its greatest expansion. Defeated at last in a war with the Byzantines, he was deposed in a palace revolution and executed.

Expansion of the empire
The son of Hormizd IV, Khosrow was proclaimed king in ad 590 in turbulent times. Hormizd’s general, Bahrām Chūbīn, after his defeat by the Byzantine army at Lazica, had been openly insulted by the king. During a subsequent palace revolt led by Bostām and Bindōē (brothers-in-law of Hormizd), which culminated in the king’s assassination, Bahrām Chūbīn renounced the allegiance of his army to the monarchy and forced the new king Khosrow to flee to Mesopotamia. Khosrow’s pursuers were held off by the military tactics of his uncle Bindōē, until eventually the Byzantine emperor Maurice provided Khosrow with forces to defeat his adversary. Bahrām Chūbīn was subsequently assassinated.

Insecure and unpopular, Khosrow now eliminated those connected with his father’s murder, including Bindōē, on whose support he had relied. Although he retained a bodyguard of Byzantine legionaries, he resented the Byzantine presence in Armenia, which he had been forced to cede. Using the murder of Maurice (602) and his replacement as emperor by Phocas as a pretext and encouraged by the fact that Narces, who had commanded the Byzantine force that established Khosrow on the throne, refused to recognize Phocas, Khosrow’s armies invaded Armenia and Mesopotamia. The Byzantine forces in Mesopotamia were weak, and the towns of Dara, Amida, and Edessa soon fell (604). Crossing the Euphrates, Khosrow took Hierapolis and Beroea (Aleppo). Internal dissensions made the eastern Byzantine provinces easy prey, and Armenia and central Asia Minor were overrun by the Persians—though apparently not permanently occupied or administered. Nor was the Persian advance checked when Heraclius became emperor in 610 and sued for peace.

A second invasion of Mesopotamia, by Khosrow’s ablest general, Shahrbarāz, took place in 613. Damascus was taken in that year, and in 614 Jerusalem fell. The Holy Sepulchre was destroyed and the True Cross carried to Ctesiphon. Although Khosrow himself was generally tolerant of Christianity, Shahrbarāz permitted thousands of Christian prisoners to be tortured by his Jewish aides. In 616 Alexandria was captured, and in 617 Chalcedon (opposite Byzantium), which had long been under siege by another of Khosrow’s generals, Shāhīn, finally fell to the Persians.

This tide of conquest was turned by Heraclius in a series of brilliant campaigns between 622 and 627. Since he retained command of the sea, Heraclius was able to sail to Issus and rout the Persian army near the Armenian border. In alliance with the Khazar kingdom north of the Caucasus, he invaded Armenia again in 623, gaining victory over the King’s army near Canzaca. The town and fire temple were destroyed, together with the temple at Lake Urmia, traditionally associated with Zoroaster. The campaigns of 624 and 625 ranged across northern Syria and Mesopotamia and culminated in a reversal for Shahrbarāz’ forces on the river Saras.

Khosrow rallied his forces in 626 and, in alliance with the Avars, a people who were also in conflict with Byzantium at this time, sent one army to besiege Constantinople and another to oppose Heraclius. Constantinople held, and Shāhīn was defeated; the Persian second force was outmanoeuvred in 628 by Heraclius’ brave dash to Dastagird, the royal residence 70 miles (113 kilometres) north of Ctesiphon. An important but indecisive battle was fought near Nineveh, but, as the Byzantine army reapproached Dastagird, Khosrow fled. His letters calling Shahrbarāz to his aid had been intercepted, and, although his resources were by now drastically reduced, he refused peace terms.

Khosrow’s prestige was shattered, and he was now sick. The execution of Shahrbarāz and the desecration of Shāhīn’s corpse were followed by revolution in the royal household. Khosrow was condemned to death and executed (628), and his youngest son and heir, Mardānshāh, was murdered before his eyes. His eldest son, Kavadh (Qobad) II, Shērōē, signed the peace.

Cultural and economic influence
Khosrow was a serious patron of the arts; silverworking and carpet weaving reached their peak during his reign. Sources tell of the enormous “Spring of Khosrow,” a carpet whose design was a garden. A splendid silver dish in the Bibliothèque Nationale is thought to depict him in the traditional Sāsānian royal hunt. Most authorities attribute to Khosrow II the grottos at Taq-e Bostan (Kermanshah), taking them as evidence of a renaissance of rock sculpture in his reign. The reliefs depict the King in hunting scenes and standing motionless listening to a group of harpists—a reminder of the famous musicians Bārbad and Sarkash, who were kept at Khosrow’s court. His architectural work is chiefly known from the ruins of the enormous palace Imirat-e Khosrow near Qasr-e Shīrīn (near Khānaqīn) and at nearby Hawsk-Kuri. A provincial palace exists at Qaṣr al-Mushattā, Jordan.

Booty and taxes brought Khosrow enormous wealth, including thousands of elephants, camels, horses, and women. The 9th-century Arab historian aṭ-Ṭabarī describes his golden throne supported by legs of rubies, as well as such curios as a piece of malleable gold and an asbestos napkin. But, despite widespread trade connections and the amassing of individual fortunes, there is no evidence that the economy flourished. High taxation and the uncertainties of war did nothing for the merchant class. By creating a military aristocracy, Khosrow II had weakened the authority of the king, while his administrative reforms and bureaucratic centralization removed the power of regional dynasties and their feudal armies, which might have resisted the invasion of the Arabs 12 years after Khosrow’s death. Already in 611 the Arabs had inflicted a defeat on the Sāsānian army at Dhu-Qar. The destruction by Khosrow II of the Christian Arab states of the Lakhmids and Ghassānids in Syria and western Iraq was a further factor exposing Iran to Arab attack.

The love of Khosrow for his Christian wife Shīrīn was celebrated by the poets, especially by the 12th-century poet Neẓāmī in Khosrow-va-Shīrīn.

William Culican

Encyclopaedia Britannica


The assassination of Chosroes, in a Mughal manuscript of ca 1535,
Persian poems are from Ferdowsi's Shahnameh





In the third century a.d., a Persian thinker, Manichaeus, propagated a dualistic doctrine that integrated elements of Zoroastrianism, Christianity, and Buddhism, and to which he gave his name.

He identified God with the kingdom of light that opposed a kingdom of darkness and taught that man must constantly defend himself against the darkness, which threatens him. Mankind is helped in this by redeemers sent by God.

Manichaeism strongly influenced both Gnosticism and Christianity. He was persecuted as a heretic and flayed to death in 276 a.d.





Dualistic religious movement founded in Persia in the 3rd century AD by Mani, who was known as the "Apostle of Light" and supreme "Illuminator." Although Manichaeism was long considered a Christian heresy, it was a religion in its own right that, because of the coherence of its doctrines and the rigidness of its structure and institutions, preserved throughout its history a unity and unique character.

Mani was born in southern Babylonia (now in Iraq). With his "annunciation" at the age of 24, he obeyed a heavenly order to manifest himself publicly and to proclaim his doctrines; thus began the new religion. From that point on, Mani preached throughout the Persian Empire. At first unhindered, he later was opposed by the king, condemned, and imprisoned. After 26 days of trials, which his followers called the "Passion of the Illuminator" or Mani's "crucifixion," Mani delivered a final message to his disciples and died (sometime between 274 and 277).

Mani viewed himself as the final successor in a long line of prophets, beginning with Adam and including Buddha, Zoroaster, and Jesus. He viewed earlier revelations of the true religion as being limited in effectiveness because they were local, taught in one language to one people. Moreover, later adherents lost sight of the original truth. Mani regarded himself as the carrier of a universal message destined to replace all other religions. Hoping to avoid corruption and to ensure doctrinal unity, he recorded his teachings in writing and gave those writings canonical status during his lifetime.

The Manichaean Church from the beginning was dedicated to vigorous missionary activity in an attempt to convert the world. Mani encouraged the translation of his writings into other languages and organized an extensive mission program. Manichaeism rapidly spread west into the Roman Empire. From Egypt it moved across northern Africa (where the young Augustine temporarily became a convert) and reached Rome in the early 4th century. The 4th century marked the height of Manichaean expansion in the West, with churches established in southern Gaul and Spain. Vigorously attacked by both the Christian Church and the Roman state, it disappeared almost entirely from Western Europe by the end of the 5th century, and, during the course of the 6th century, from the eastern portion of the Empire.

During the lifetime of Mani, Manichaeism spread to the eastern provinces of the Persian Sasanian Empire. Within Persia itself, the Manichaean community maintained itself in spite of severe persecutions, until Muslim 'Abbasid persecution in the 10th century forced the transfer of the seat of the Manichaean leader to Samarkand (now in Uzbekistan).

The religion's expansion to the East had already begun in the 7th century with the reopening of caravan routes there after China's conquest of East Turkistan. A Manichaean missionary reached the Chinese court in 694, and in 732 an edict gave the religion freedom of worship in China. When East Turkistan was conquered in the 8th century by the Uighur Turks, one of their leaders adopted Manichaeism and it remained the state religion of the Uighur kingdom until its overthrow in 840. Manichaeism itself probably survived in East Turkistan until the Mongol invasion in the 13th century. In China it was forbidden in 843, but, although persecuted, it continued there at least until the 14th century.

Teachings similar to Manichaeism resurfaced during the Middle Ages in Europe in the so-called neo-Manichaean sects. Groups such as the Paulicians (Armenia, 7th century), the Bogomilists (Bulgaria, 10th century), and the Cathari or Albigensians (southern France, 12th century) bore strong resemblances to Manichaeism and probably were influenced by it. However, their direct historical links to the religion of Mani are difficult to establish.

Mani sought to found a truly ecumenical and universal religion that would integrate into itself all the partial truths of previous revelations, especially those of Zoroaster, Buddha, and Jesus. However, beyond mere syncretism, it sought the proclamation of a truth that could be translated into diverse forms in accordance with the different cultures into which it spread. Thus, Manichaeism, depending on the context, resembles Iranian and Indian religions, Christianity, Buddhism, and Taoism.

At its core, Manichaeism was a type of Gnosticism--a dualistic religion that offered salvation through special knowledge (gnosis) of spiritual truth. Like all forms of Gnosticism, Manichaeism taught that life in this world is unbearably painful and radically evil. Inner illumination or gnosis reveals that the soul which shares in the nature of God has fallen into the evil world of matter and must be saved by means of the spirit or intelligence (nous). To know one's self is to recover one's true self, which was previously clouded by ignorance and lack of self-consciousness because of its mingling with the body and with matter. In Manichaeism, to know one's self is to see one's soul as sharing in the very nature of God and as coming from a transcendent world. Knowledge enables a person to realize that, despite his abject present condition in the material world, he does not cease to remain united to the transcendent world by eternal and immanent bonds with it. Thus, knowledge is the only way to salvation.

The saving knowledge of the true nature and destiny of humanity, God, and the universe is expressed in Manichaeism in a complex mythology. Whatever its details, the essential theme of this mythology remains constant: the soul is fallen, entangled with evil matter, and then liberated by the spirit or nous. The myth unfolds in three stages: a past period in which there was a separation of the two radically opposed substances--Spirit and Matter, Good and Evil, Light and Darkness; a middle period (corresponding to the present) during which the two substances are mixed; and a future period in which the original duality will be reestablished. At death the soul of the righteous person returns to Paradise. The soul of the person who persisted in things of the flesh--fornication, procreation, possessions, cultivation, harvesting, eating of meat, drinking of wine--is condemned to rebirth in a succession of bodies.

Only a portion of the faithful followed the strict ascetic life advocated in Manichaeism. The community was divided into the elect, who felt able to embrace a rigorous rule, and the hearers who supported the elect with works and alms.

The essentials of the Manichaean sacramental rites were prayers, almsgiving, and fasting. Confession and the singing of hymns were also important in their communal life. The Manichaean scriptural canon includes seven works attributed to Mani, written originally in Syriac. Lost after Manichaeism became extinct in the Middle Ages, portions of the Manichaean scriptures were rediscovered in the 20th century, mainly in Chinese Turkistan and Egypt.

Encyclopaedia Britannica






Iranian prophet
Old Iranian Zarathushtra, or Zarathustra

born c. 628 bc, probably Rhages, Iran
died c. 551, site unknown

Iranian religious reformer and founder of Zoroastrianism, or Parsiism, as it is known in India. (See Zoroastrianism; Parsi.)


A major personality in the history of the religions of the world, Zoroaster has been the object of much attention for two reasons. On the one hand, he became a legendary figure believed to be connected with occult knowledge and magical practices in the Near Eastern and Mediterranean world in the Hellenistic Age (c. 300 bc–c. ad 300). On the other hand, his monotheistic concept of God has attracted the attention of modern historians of religion, who have speculated on the connections between his teaching and Judaism and Christianity. Though extreme claims of pan-Iranianism (i.e., that Zoroastrian or Iranian ideas influenced Greek, Roman, and Jewish thought) may be disregarded, the pervasive influence of Zoroaster’s religious thought must nevertheless be recognized.

The student of Zoroastrianism is confronted by several problems concerning the religion’s founder. One question is what part of Zoroastrianism derives from Zoroaster’s tribal religion and what part was new as a result of his visions and creative religious genius. Another question is the extent to which the later Zoroastrian religion (Mazdaism) of the Sāsānian period (ad 224–651) genuinely reflected the teachings of Zoroaster. A third question is the extent to which the sources—the Avesta (the Zoroastrian scriptures) with the Gāthās (older hymns), the Middle Persian Pahlavi Books, and reports of various Greek authors—offer an authentic guide to Zoroaster’s ideas.

A biographical account of Zoroaster is tenuous at best or speculative at the other extreme. The date of Zoroaster’s life cannot be ascertained with any degree of certainty. According to Zoroastrian tradition, he flourished “258 years before Alexander.” Alexander the Great conquered Persepolis, the capital of the Achaemenids, a dynasty that ruled Persia from 559 to 330 bc, in 330 bc. Following this dating, Zoroaster converted Vishtāspa, most likely a king of Chorasmia (an area south of the Aral Sea in Central Asia), in 588 bc. According to tradition, he was 40 years old when this event occurred, thus indicating that his birthdate was 628 bc. Zoroaster was born into a modestly situated family of knights, the Spitama, probably at Rhages (now Rayy, a suburb of Tehrān), a town in Media. The area in which he lived was not yet urban, its economy being based on animal husbandry and pastoral occupations. Nomads, who frequently raided those engaged in such occupations, were viewed by Zoroaster as aggressive violators of order, and he called them followers of the Lie.

Zoroaster’s teachings.
According to the sources, Zoroaster probably was a priest. Having received a vision from Ahura Mazdā, the Wise Lord, who appointed him to preach the truth, Zoroaster apparently was opposed in his teachings by the civil and religious authorities in the area in which he preached. It is not clear whether these authorities were from his native region or from Chorasmia prior to the conversion of Vishtāspa. Confident in the truth revealed to him by Ahura Mazdā, Zoroaster apparently did not try to overthrow belief in the older Iranian religion, which was polytheistic; he did, however, place Ahura Mazdā at the centre of a kingdom of justice that promised immortality and bliss. Though he attempted to reform ancient Iranian religion on the basis of the existing social and economic values, Zoroaster’s teachings at first aroused opposition from those whom he called the followers of the Lie (dregvant).

Ahura Mazdā and the Beneficent Immortals.
Zoroaster’s teachings, as noted above, centred on Ahura Mazdā, who is the highest god and alone is worthy of worship. He is, according to the Gāthās, the creator of heaven and earth; i.e., of the material and the spiritual world. He is the source of the alternation of light and darkness, the sovereign lawgiver, and the very centre of nature, as well as the originator of the moral order and judge of the entire world. The kind of polytheism found in the Indian Vedas (Hindu scriptures having the same religious background as the Gāthās) is totally absent; the Gāthās, for example, mention no female deity sharing Ahura Mazdā’s rule. He is surrounded by six or seven beings, or entities, which the later Avesta calls amesha spentas, “beneficent immortals.” The names of the amesha spentas frequently recur throughout the Gāthās and may be said to characterize Zoroaster’s thought and his concept of god. In the words of the Gāthās, Ahura Mazdā is the father of Spenta Mainyu (Holy Spirit), of Asha Vahishta (Justice, Truth), of Vohu Manah (Righteous Thinking), and of Armaiti (Spenta Armaiti, Devotion). The other three beings (entities) of this group are said to personify qualities attributed to Ahura Mazdā: they are Khshathra Vairya (Desirable Dominion), Haurvatāt (Wholeness), and Ameretāt (Immortality). This does not exclude the possibility that they, too, are creatures of Ahura Mazdā. The good qualities represented by these beings are also to be earned and possessed by Ahura Mazdā’s followers. This means that the gods and mankind are both bound to observe the same ethical principles. If the amesha spentas show the working of the deity, while at the same time constituting the order binding the adherents of the Wise Lord, then the world of Ahura Mazdā and the world of his followers (the ashavan) come close to each other. The very significant eschatological aspect of Zoroastrianism is well demonstrated by the concept of Khshathra (Dominion), which is repeatedly accompanied by the adjective Desirable; it is a kingdom yet to come.

Monotheism and dualism.
The conspicuous monotheism of Zoroaster’s teaching is apparently disturbed by a pronounced dualism: the Wise Lord has an opponent, Ahriman, who embodies the principle of evil, and whose followers, having freely chosen him, also are evil. This ethical dualism is rooted in the Zoroastrian cosmology. He taught that in the beginning there was a meeting of the two spirits, who were free to choose—in the words of the Gāthās—“life or not life.” This original choice gave birth to a good and an evil principle. Corresponding to the former is a Kingdom of Justice and Truth; to the latter, the Kingdom of the Lie (Druj), populated by the daevas, the evil spirits (originally prominent old Indo-Iranian gods). Monotheism, however, prevails over the cosmogonic and ethical dualism because Ahura Mazdā is father of both spirits, who were divided into the two opposed principles only through their choice and decision.

The Wise Lord, together with the amesha spentas, will at last vanquish the spirit of evil: this message, implying the end of the cosmic and ethical dualism, seems to constitute Zoroaster’s main religious reform. His monotheistic solution resolves the old strict dualism. The dualist principle, however, reappears in an acute form in a later period, after Zoroaster. It is achieved only at the expense of Ahura Mazdā, by then called Ohrmazd, who is brought down to the level of his opponent, Ahriman. At the beginning of time, the world was divided into the dominion of the good and of the evil. Between these, each man is bound to decide. He is free and must choose either the Wise Lord and his rule or Ahriman, the Lie. The same is true of the spiritual beings, who are good or bad according to their choices. From man’s freedom of decision it follows that he is finally responsible for his fate. Through his good deeds, the righteous person (ashavan) earns an everlasting reward, namely integrity and immortality. He who opts for the lie is condemned by his own conscience as well as by the judgment of the Wise Lord and must expect to continue in the most miserable form of existence, one more or less corresponding to the Christian concept of hell. According to Avestan belief, there is no reversal and no deviation possible once a man has made his decision. Thus, the world is divided into two hostile blocks, whose members represent two warring dominions. On the side of the Wise Lord are the settled herdsmen or farmers, caring for their cattle and living in a definite social order. The follower of the Lie (Druj) is a thieving nomad, an enemy of orderly agriculture and animal husbandry.

Eschatological teachings.
The Gāthās, the early hymns, many of which may have been written by Zoroaster, are permeated by eschatological thinking. Almost every passage contains some reference to the fate awaiting men in the afterlife. Each act, speech, and thought is viewed as being related to an existence after death. The earthly state is connected with a state beyond, in which the Wise Lord will reward the good act, speech, and thought and punish the bad. This motive for doing good seems to be the strongest available to Zoroaster in his message. After death, the soul of man must pass over the Bridge of the Requiter (Činvat), which everyone looks upon with fear and anxiety. After judgment is passed by Ahura Mazdā, the good enter the kingdom of everlasting joy and light, and the bad are consigned to the regions of horror and darkness. Zoroaster, however, goes beyond this, announcing an end phase for the visible world, “the last turn of creation.” In this last phase, Ahriman will be destroyed, and the world will be wonderfully renewed and be inhabited by the good, who will live in paradisiacal joy. Later forms of Zoroastrianism teach a resurrection of the dead, a teaching for which some basis may be found in the Gāthās. Through the resurrection of the dead, the renewal of the world bestows a last fulfillment on the followers of the Wise Lord.

Cultic reforms.
Zoroaster forbade all sacrifices in honour of Ahriman or of his adherents, the daevas, who from pre-Zoroastrian times had degenerated into hostile deities. In the prevailing religious tradition, Zoroaster probably found that the practice of sacrificing cattle, combined with the consumption of intoxicating drinks (haoma), led to orgiastic excess. In his reform, Zoroaster did not, as some scholars would have it, abolish all animal sacrifice but simply the orgiastic and intoxicating rites that accompanied it. The haoma sacrifice, too, was to be thought of as a symbolic offering; it may have consisted of unfermented drink or an intoxicating beverage or plant. Zoroaster retained the ancient cult of fire. This cult and its various rites were later extended and given a definite order by the priestly class of the Magi. Its centre, the eternal flame in the Temple of Fire, was constantly linked with the priestly service and with the haoma sacrifice.

Influence and assessments.
After the conversion of Vishtāspa to such teachings, Zoroaster remained at the court of the king. Other officials were converted, and a daughter of Zoroaster apparently married Jāmāsp, a minister of the king. According to tradition, Zoroaster lived for 77 years, thus indicating that he died about 551 bc. After his death, many legends arose about him. According to these legends, nature rejoiced at his birth, and he preached to many nations, founded sacred fires, and fought in a sacred war. He was viewed as a model for priests, warriors, and agriculturalists, as well as a skilled craftsman and healer. The Greeks regarded him as a philosopher, mathematician, astrologer, or magician. Jews and Christians regarded him as an astrologer, magician, prophet, or arch heretic. Not until the 18th century did a more scholarly assessment of Zoroaster’s career and influence emerge.

The Most Rev. Franz Cardinal König

Encyclopaedia Britannica