CLASS SYSTEM iii. In the Parthian and Sasanian Periods



iii. In the Parthian and Sasanian Periods

Parthian period

The scant and fragmentary information available on the Parthian period does not permit a comprehensive descrip­tion of social structure; in fact, the vast but decentralized empire encompassed a variety of social structures. In Mesopotamia there were city-states with substantial populations, characterized by a predominantly Greek culture (see ARSACIDS ii. THE ARSACID DYNASTY, p. 532; Lukonin, pp. 713-23); in Persia the older satrapies contin­ued as vassal states, following their ancient traditions; and in Parthia proper, in the east and northeast, the population was predominantly tribal and nomadic, with a small sedentary component (Tolstov; ARSACIDS, ii. THE ARSACID DYNASTY, p. 532; Bivar, pp. 24-27; Ghirshman, pp. 262-­66).

As the class structure of any given society closely reflects the socioeconomic realities, no single stage in the development of an eastern community can be equated exactly with a European counterpart. Western scholars who refer to Iranian “feudalism” have apparently been misled by the main feature that ancient Iranian and medi­eval European societies to some extent had in common: the relationship between lord and vassal. In contrast to European feudal states, however, Iranian societies had long been characterized by slavery and tribalism; Parthian society was thus divided between the aristocracy, on one hand, and peasants, tribesmen, and slaves, on the other. Despite the prevailing tolerance of the Parthian rulers toward other creeds and forms of social organization, the tenacity of Iranian social traditions connected with birth­right suggests that the main social strata must have been much the same as those of the Achaemenids (Lukonin, pp. 684-89; Frye, pp. 207-08; see ii, above). One exception, in that she managed to breach the ranks of the nobility, was Thesmousa (in mss. also Thea Mousa or Thermousa), an Italian slave girl who, according to Josephus, in the year 2 C.E. was made the legitimate wife (gametḗn) of Phraates IV but later conspired with her son Phrataaces, with whom she was also reported to have had sexual relations, against the king (Josephus, 18.40-43 [18.2.4], Loeb ed. pp. 34-35; cf. Debevoise, pp. 148-49; Bivar, pp. 67-68). It may also be surmised that, in those tribal and nomadic areas where class differentiation had developed at all, the main divi­sion was between tribal chieftains (ktk-ḥwtwy, Pahl. kadag-­xwadāy, NPers. kadḵodā) with their attendants (hamherzān; Draxt ī Asōrīg, p. 111), relatives, and de­pendents, on one hand, and the tribesmen, on the other.

A glimpse of the social structure under the Parthians has been provided by Greek historians. According to Plutarch (Crassus 21.6; cf. Frye, p. 187), a large part of the normal entourage of Surena (Sūrēn), commander of the Parthian army at the battle of Carrhae in 53 B.C.E., consisted of pelátai “clients” and doûloi “retainers.” In Justin’s epitome of the contemporary historian Pompeius Trogus’s work it was reported that their army consisted of “depen­dents” (servitiorum; Justin, 41.2), without the right of manumission, whom they raised as their own children, teaching them the art of riding and shooting with the bow. Nevertheless, Justin (41.2) stated that only 400 of the 50,000 cavalry confronting Mark Antony in 36 B.C.E. were “free men” (liberi; see below) and that the difference between slaves (servos) and freemen (liberos) was that the former went on foot, whereas the free men went only on horseback (Justin, 41.3; cf. Plutarch, Crassus 19.2, 27.1­-2; Appian, Civil War 2.18). The interpretation of these reports is debatable (see ARSACIDS, ii. THE ARSACID DY­NASTY, p. 536). Probably the “slaves” or “servants” were tribesmen, attendants, clients, retainers, and the like, and the confusion may have arisen because they were called slaves (bandag) owing to their servile submission to their masters (cf. the use of bandaka in Achaemenid times and banda in Islamic times; see BANDA i-ii; see ii, above).

Judging by conditions before and after the Parthian period, the lowest groups on the social scale comprised slaves of various kinds. Perpetual warfare must have ensured an ample supply of foreign captives (*wartak, *anaxšahrīk, Arm. anašxarhik [Perikhanian, 1973, p. 435]; see BARDA AND BARDADĀRĪ) who could be put to work in agriculture and construction. Slaves who worked the mines of the Parthian king were branded (Perikhanian, Camb. Hist. Iran, p. 635). Another type of slavery resulted from indebtedness or insolvency; a fort of indentureship similar to Sasanian bandag (see below) is attested by a loan contract from Dura Europos (parchment no. 10; Rostovtzeff and Welles, pp. 46-47), in which it was stipulated that, as interest on the loan, the debtor, a peasant, was to serve the creditor, an aristocrat, as a slave (see CONTRACTS ii; Frye, p. 187).

In view of the number of cities that flourished all over the vast Arsacid empire, the middle ranks of society must have been quite large. They included artisans, artists, non­-Zoroastrian philosophers like Bardesanes of Edessa, traders, and physicians, as well as the minstrel poets (gōsān) who roamed the land entertaining both nobles and commoners; what has survived of Parthian literature, including Ayādgār ī Zarērān, Draxt ī Asōrīg, and Vīs-o Rāmīn, is owing to them (Boyce, “Middle Persian Litera­ture,” pp. 56-57; idem, 1957). In Armenian sources dealing with the Arsacid period it is reported that com­moners were generally called either *ramak “the com­mon people” (Arm. ramik-kʿ), referring to tradespeople, artisans, and working people generally; *šēnakān “peas­ants” (Arm. šinakan-kʾ < šin “village” < Av. šaiiana- ­“dwelling, abode”; Perikhanian, 1968, p. 13; Widengren, p. 113 n. 46; see ARMENIA AND IRAN ii. THE PRE-ISLAMIC PERIOD, p. 436); or *pasānīg, probably “attendants, bodyguards” (Georgian pasanigi; Widengren, p. 38; see also Chubinov, col. 1006). These peasants and working people seem to have been free men in law, as there is no evidence of institutionalized serfdom in Iranian history, but in fact they were entirely subject to the power of overlords, a situation that persisted through great social upheavals until the beginning of the present century. Unlike slaves they could not be sold with the land, as Roman Ghirshman suggested (p. 310), but, as they were traditionally attached to their birthplaces, they nevertheless remained on the land when it was sold.

At the highest levels, among nobles and officials, there is evidence of extensive internal stratification, though the precise standings of individuals are not always clear. In the 1st century B.C.E. Pompeius Trogus reported that “commanders in war and rulers in peace” were selected from the ranks of those closest to the king (Justin, 41.2, where populorum ordo “the order of peoples” is undoubt­edly corrupt). According to Seneca (Epistula 4.7), the nobles and heads of noble clans bore the title megistánes; they were probably comparable to Sasanian grandees (wuzurg; see BOZORGĀN; Lukonin, p. 700). Some of the Parthian titles that can be attributed to this group, attested mainly in the documents from Nisa (1st century B.C.E.) and the Sasanian inscriptions (3rd century C.E; e.g., of Šāpūr I [240-70] on the Kaʿba-ye Zardošt at Naqš-e Rostam [ŠKZ] and of Narseh I [293-302] at Paikuli [NPi]), are *naxwdār (Arm. naxarar “feudal chief, first in rank”; Hubschmann, Armenische Grammatik, p. 514; cf. Henning, “Mitteliranisch,” p. 42); ḥštrp “margrave, satrap” (Nina, passim; Gignoux, 1972, p. 53); BRBYTʾ (i.e., wispuhr) “prince of the blood” (inscriptions); ḥštrdr “governor, local king, dynast” (inscriptions); btḥšy “second in command, viceroy” (inscriptions; Arm. bdeašx; see BIDAXŠ); ʾrkpty “lord of *tribute” (inscriptions; see ARGBED); marzbān “margrave” (cf. Mtrssnkmrzwpn, Nisa, 1899; ed. D’yakonov and Livshits,1960, p. 114); šāpistān “eunuch” (inscriptions; Henning, “Mitteliranisch,” p. 62). Another category of aristocrats, called liberi by Pompeius Trogus (Justin, 41.2.6), probably consisted of āzāds, or knights (cf. Sāsān the asbār in Nisa N. 280 bis, ed. D’yakonov and Livshits, 1966, p. 141).

Parthian nobles were entitled to various attributes, which are frequently represented in art. The early kings wore the “satrapal” headgear (Lukonin, p. 686). The diadem, or “fillet of honor” (Arm. patīv [Faustus, 3.9; Lukonin, p. 707] < MPers. padēxw “fortunate, prosperous”; Nyberg, Manual II, p. 155), in Middle Persian “fillet of nobility” (wandag ī āzādīh; Dēnkard, ed. Madan, II, p. 570; ed. Dresden, p. 380; tr. Shaked, p. 179, erroneously emended to *bawandag āzādīhā “full praise”; cf. Shaki, forthcom­ing), seems to have been the common emblem of nobility. The belt and perhaps the entire costume represented on a bronze statue of a Parthian chieftain from Shami (Camb. Hist. Iran III/2, pl. 69) and on other sculptures of the period must have been prerogatives of the upper classes (Colledge, 1967; idem, 1986; see also CLOTHING ii. IN THE ARSACID PERIOD; CROWNS ii. FROM THE PARTHIAN PERIOD TO THE MONGOL INVASION).

Little is known about religious organization in the Parthian period (see ARSACIDS iv. ARSACID RELIGION). According to Strabo (11.9.3 = C 515), citing Poseidonius (ca. 135-50 B.C.E.), the council (synedrion) of the Parthians consisted of two groups: one the kinsmen (of the king; syggenoi) and the other the wise men and the Magi (sophoi and magoi). Kings were appointed from either group. This may be an indication that the higher clergy was reckoned as a nobility of the faith, equal in rank to the nobility of office. From extant ecclesiastical designations it can be surmised that lower-ranking mem­bers of the priesthood also acted as judges (dʾtbr, ŠKZ 24, 29; Back, p. 353), scribes (cf. dpyrpty “chief of the scribes,” Nisa 90; ed. D’yakonov and Livshits, 1960, p. 75), custo­dians of fire temples (mgwpt; inscriptions of Kardēr) or image shrines (bagnapat; Boyce. 1979, p. 98; see BAGINA, BAGINAPATI), and attendants of the sacred fires (cf. Spōsak the ʾtwršpty in Nisa N. 280, ed. D’yakonov and Livshits, 1966, pp. 148-49, 152), but their standing relative to other social groups is not clear.

Sasanian period

Social arrangements under the Sasanians are much better documented than those of the preceding period. The sources include royal inscriptions of the 3rd century C.E. and the Pahlavi literature (much of it dating from the 8th-9th centuries, though incorporating earlier material), as well as Syriac, Armenian, and later Persian and Arabic texts, some of which were based on Pahlavi writings.

The estates. The Avestan concept of four estates (see i, above) persisted in Sasanian times under the designations āsrōnīh, the estate of the priests (āsrōns); artēštārīh, the estate of the warriors (artēštār); wāstaryōšīh, the estate of the husbandmen (wāstaryōš); and hutuxšīh, the estate of the artisans (hutuxš, lit. “who strives well”; Dēnkard, ed. Madan, II, p. 595; ed. Dresden, p. 360; tr. Molé, chap. 1.22, pp. 6-7). Ohrmazd is said to have personally taught the theory and practice of the four estates to Zarathustra (ed. Madan, II, p. 599, cf. p. 623; ed. Dresden, p. 357, cf. p. 337; tr. Molé, chap. 1.41 pp. 12-13, cf. 3.48 pp. 38-39). In Mēnōg ī xrad the duties (xwēškārīh) and sins (wināh) of each estate are listed in detail (questions 30-31, 58, pp. 97-99, 108-09; tr. West, chaps. 31-32, 59, pp. 67-69, 105-­06). It is significant that the duties of the artisans (hutuxšān, pēšagkārān) are described in a separate chapter (chap. 31) in rather impassive terms as those who “are to do well and carefully that which they know and are to demand fair reward.” The four estates listed in the Tansar-nāma are the clergy; the military; the scribes (dabīrān), including various administrators, as well as physicians, poets, and astronomers; and the artisans, including peasants, traders, cattle breeders, and others who earned their livings (tr. Boyce, p. 38).

It was probably in the Sasanian period that the three higher estates were first put under the patronage of the three most powerful fires of the realm, symbolizing the creation of the fires by Ohrmazd for the protection of the world (Bundahišn, TD 2, p. 124, tr. Anklesaria, chap. 18.8, pp. 158-59), as well as the prosperity of Iranian society through the functioning of the estates. In Selections of Zādsprahm (chap. 30) the fire in the head is associated with the priests, that in the heart with the warriors, and that in the stomach with the farmers. The priests were attached to the most exalted Ādur Farrbag/Farnbāg (see ĀDUR FARNBĀG, p. 474; Kār-nāmag 1.13), the king of kings and the warriors to Ādur Gušnasp (p. 195; Kār-nāmag, 1.13), and the husbandmen to Ādur Burzēn-Mihr (Bundahišn, TD 2, pp. 126-27, tr. Anklesaria, chap. 18.17 pp. 162-63). In the Iranian cosmogonic myth, as told in the Middle Persian Bundahišn (TD 2, pp. 31-32, tr. Anklesaria, chap. 3.3-6, pp. 36-39), Ohrmazd donned a white garment, the garment of the wise, of the estate of priests; the good Wāy (or space) a golden dress, the garment of the estate of warriors; and Spihr (or firmament) a dark-blue dress, the garment of the estate of husband­men (cf. Zaehner, pp. 122, 124, 333).

Although the arrangement in estates was taught as immutable, according to the Tansar-nāma (tr. Boyce, pp. 37-38), it seems not to have reflected social reality, for other social divisions had gained importance during the Parthian period. Traces of the old structure can be recognized mainly in the titles of chiefs of the second and third estates: artēštārān sālār and wāstaryōšān sālār, though only the former is found in a Pahlavi text (Kār-nāmag; see Nyberg, Manual, I, p. 16.8). Both were mentioned in ca. 302/915 by Ṭabarī (I, p. 869), who reported that each of the three sons of Mihr-Narseh, the prime minister (wuzurg-framādār or hazārbed, misread in NPers. orthography as hazār-banda “having a thou­sand slaves”; see Shaki, 1986, p. 258 n.16), was appointed as head of an estate by Bahrām V (420-38): Zurwāndād as hērbedān hērbed, Māh-Gušnasp as wāstaryōšān sālār, and *Kārdār (emendation by de Goeje for kārd in the manu­script) as artēštārān sālār (distorted in the ms.; Nöldeke, Geschichte der Perser, pp. 109-11; Baḷʿamī, ed. Bahār, p. 948; Christensen, Iran Sass., pp. 277-88). But, as mem­bership in any of the estates was entirely hereditary, it is highly unlikely that Zurwāndād, a layman of the highest rank, could have discharged the functions of high priest. Furthermore, it was the mowbed, or perhaps the mowbedān mowbed, rather than the hērbedān hērbed, who headed the first estate in the Sasanian period (Lukonin, p. 942; Christensen, Iran Sass., p. 265; Dēnkard, ed. Madan, II, p. 711; ed. Dresden, p. 291; tr. West, p. 61). It seems, therefore, that the entire account, as Ṭabarī found it in his sources, was devised to demonstrate the exceptional merits of the family of Mihr-Narseh and that the titles mentioned probably did not designate actual administra­tive chiefs of the respective estates, as assumed by Christensen (Iran Sass., pp. 122-23, 131-32). There was also another high official, pēšag-sālār “chief of the es­tates,” whose decisions were subject to the approval of the dehbed “local dynast” (Mādayān, pt. 1, p. 3). The names of the estates were still known in later medieval times; they appear in corrupt form in the Šāh-nāma (ed. Khaleghi, pp. 42-43; Moʿīn, p. 408): ʾtwrbʾn, āturbān for *āsrōnān < Av. āθrauuan; nysʾryʾn for *(ar)tēštārān < MPers. artēštārān; bswdy for *pasudī (cf. Av. pasu- “small cattle”) < Av. fšuiiant; and ʾhnwxšy for hutuxšīh.

Social groupings. Under the Sasanians, who were themselves descended from one of the seven great Persian aristocratic families of the Parthian period (Lukonin, pp. 703-05), the social system inherited from their predecessor was further elaborated into a specifically Sasanian social, political, and cultural superstructure (Pigulevskaya, p. 101). The power of the nobility continued to increase until the mid-5th century C.E. Administrative centraliza­tion, coupled with state sanction of religious orthodoxy and the concentration of political, social, and economic affairs in the hands of the landed nobility, created an insuperable barrier between the aristocracy and higher ecclesiastics, on one hand, and wage earners, including peasants, artisans, and traders, on the other. For example, great landholders and high officials traditionally be­queathed their dignities and estates in fee simple (pad xwēšīh ud āzādīh; Shaki, 1983, pp. 191-92); offices of state thus became hereditary prerogatives.

Traditional social relations were thus enshrined in a system of exclusive classes backed by doctrinal justifica­tion: “Everything may be changed but the good and evil substance (gōhr) (of man)” (Mēnōg ī xrad, ed. Anklesaria, 9.7; tr. West, chap. 10.7, p. 37; Dēnkard , ed. Madan, p. 547; ed. Dresden, p. 400; tr. Shaked, A6b, pp. 132-33). The severity of this prescription was tempered to a degree by exceptions for men of singular worth and moral excellence. For example, Wahrām (Bahrām) II (274­-93) conferred the rank of “grandee” (wuzurg) on his chief priest, Kardēr (KKZ 8; Back, p. 408) and Bahrām V that of nobility on his musicians ([Pseudo-]Jāḥeẓ, p. 28); according to the Dēnkard, the high priest (mowbedān mowbed) offered the “fillet of nobility” (wandag ī āzādīh “diadem”) to two pious and sagacious priests (hērbeds) whom he had taken for menials but who were in fact worthy of a higher social standing (ed. Madan, II, pp. 569­-72, see above; Shaki, forthcoming). Finally, in the words of the Tansar-nāma, “if outstanding worthiness is ob­served in the natural disposition of a person, after due examination by the high priests (mowbeds and hērbeds), he shall be promoted to a higher scale, subject to the approval of the King of kings” (tr. Boyce, pp. 38-39).

For the Sasanians class distinction and social privilege were the birthright of the landed classes, who strove to protect their prerogatives from encroachment. As in earlier periods, aristocrats were distinguished from com­moners by dress, gardens, palaces, luxurious objects, and large numbers of horses, wives, and concubines (Tansar-­nāma, tr. Boyce, p. 44). Aristocratic dress included tall bonnets or tiaras (kulāf; see CROWNS ii. FROM THE PARTHIAN PERIOD TO THE MONGOL INVASION), jeweled belts (kamar) like those conferred by Wahram II on Kirdēr (Back, p. 394; see also Sasanian seals in Gignoux, 1978), and earrings (see CLOTHING iii. IN THE SASANIAN PERIOD). Aristocratic women were permitted to hunt, wearing dresses of silk, high boots, trousers, and sumptuous head­dresses (Tansar-nāma, ed. Dehḵodā, p. 1631 ll. 12-13). Some emblems of rank and title are known from their contemporary use in Armenia, for example, the cushion (Arm. barj) at the royal table, the “fillet of honor” (Arm. patīv “diadem”), and the throne (gāh; Faustus, 3.9, 11; Lukonin, p. 707). The nobles were active in warfare, administration, athletic games, the chase, banqueting, and the like but did no other work (see CITIZENSHIP ii. IN THE SASANIAN PERIOD).

The Sasanians probably inherited from the Parthians a four-part internal division of the nobility, including the šahrdārs, vassal kings and dynasts; wispuhrs, princes of the blood royal and members of royal families; wuzurgs, grandees; and āzāds, the gentry and the knights (for the lists in NPi, see Humbach and Skjærvø, III/2, p. 46; Lukonin, pp. 698-99; Christensen, Iran Sass., pp. 95-107). In the Paikuli inscription the āzāds were sometimes listed before and sometimes after kadag-xwadāys; according to the Kār-nāmag (par. 1), Persia had been ruled by 120 kadag-xwadāys at the time of Ardašīr’s birth. They must have been “tribal chieftains” (molūk al-ṭawāʾef the term by which Islamic historians referred to the Arsacid rulers; e.g., Ṭabarī, I, p. 706) equal in rank to the āzāds and the dehkāns “small landowners.” These internal subdivisions were further elaborated under the Sasanians. For ex­ample, lists of dignitaries from other 3rd-century inscriptions reveal a more complex hierarchy of ranks (for a comparative table, see the inscription of Narseh I, Humbach and Skjærvø, III/2, pp. 40-43; for the complete list of dignitaries in the inscription of Šāpūr I, see Maricq, pp. 318-30). The highest rank included members of the royal family and some high officials (hargbed, bidaxš, hazārbed), all probably of royal blood; second were military leaders (spāhbed) from the great families (Warāz, Sūrēn, Kārin) and, during the reign of Narseh, the mowbed Kirdēr; the third level included other military officers (spāhbed), steward or overseer of the royal demesne (framādār; cf. Livshits, p. 134; Gignoux, 1978, p.15 no. 1.1), secretaries (dibīrbed), members of the royal household (e.g., the cupbearer, mayār), lesser clergy (e.g., Kardēr, the ēhrbed under Šāpūr I), satraps (šahrab), accountants (hamārgar), judges (dādwar), masters of the hunt (naxčīrbed), and various other officials. This arrangement, reflecting a very different reality from that of the estates recognized in the scriptures, had probably resulted from the expansion of urban centers and the central administration; it re­mained basically unchanged throughout the Sasanian period. Lists of Sasanian ranks have also been preserved in the works of several Muslim authors, who drew their information from the Sasanian Gāh-nāmag, “notitia dignitatum, or charter of ranks,” a section of the āyēn-­nāmag “code of customs” that is now lost (Christensen, Iran Sass., pp. 62-63). The earliest example seems to be that given in ca. 278/891 by Yaʿqūbī (Boldān, I, pp. 202-­03), who gave the titles associated with various ranks: the king of kings (malek al-molūk), kesrā; the vizier, boḏorjfarmaḏār (< Pahl. wuzurg-framadār); the chief priest (ʿālem al-ʿolamāʾ), mūbaḏ mūbaḏān; the overseer of the fire, harbaḏ; the chief scribe, dabīrbaḏ; grandees (ʿaẓīm) like the commander in chief, esbahbaḏ (< Pahl. spāhbed), and his subordinate (“he who repels the enemy”), fādūsbān (< Pahl. pād/ygōsbān); the provincial gover­nor, marz(o)bān; the district chief, šahrīj (< Pahl. šahrīg); military commanders, asāwera; appeals judge (ṣāḥeb al­maẓālem), šāhrīšt (?); and the head of chancery, archivist (ṣāḥeb al-dīwān; d ī wānbān, Mādāyān, pt. 2, p. 26) mardmāṛʿad (?) < *mardmārḡar (or Ērān-āmārkār, Christensen, Iran. Sass., pp. 265, 524-25). According to Masʿūdī (Tanbīh, pp. 103-04), who was writing in ca. 345/956, there were five ranks of nobility: the mūbaḏs, whose chief was the (mūbaḏān) mūbaḏ; the vizier, called boḏorjfarmaḏār; the eṣbahbaḏ “commander-in-chief”; the dabīrbaḏ; and the ṯastaḵšabaḏ (emended to hūtoḵšbaḏ by J. Darmesteter; see Tanbīh, p. 104 n.) “those who work with their hands,” also called vāstarīūš. In ca. 390/1000 Bīrūnī (p. 100) gave a slightly different list: “the knights and princes,” “the monks, the fire priests, and the lawyers,” “the physicians, astronomers, and other men of science,” and “the husbandmen and artisans” (cf. Ketāb al-tāj, erroneously attributed to Jāḥeẓ [160-255/776­-869], p. 25, where a similar list is attributed to Ardašīr [224-40]; cf. Dehḵodā, p. 1587.13-14). The various strata within the Sasanian aristocracy were also reflected in dress and degree of wealth. For example, the dehkāns “lower class of landowners” were divided into five sub­groups, each distinguished by the color of the garments worn (Christensen, Iran Sass., p. 107). Marriage, whether legitimate (pādixšāyīhā) or substitute (stūrīh; see ČAKAR), could he concluded only among people of the same subclass; according to a note in the Tansar-nāma, “nothing needed such guarding as degree among men” (tr. Boyce, p. 45) and a strict observance of distinction be­tween social classes (ed. Dehḵodā, p. 1630 ll. 10-11). Sasanian family law provided that an “appointed proxy” (stūr ī gumārdag; see BŪDAG, Ar. badal, plur. abdāl, should be chosen from among the deceased man’s equals in rank (ham-hāwand; Dādestān ī Dēnīg, chap. 58; Mādayān, pt. 2.14; Shaki, 1987, p. 192; Tansar-nāma, ed. Dehḵodā, pp. 1630.21; tr. Boyce, pp. 46, with erroneous translation). If a man of noble birth married a woman of lower rank, he lost his social position, forfeited his claim to inheritance and property, and was even banished from his homeland (Tansar-nāma, ed. Dehḵodā, p. 1630.12­-18; tr., Boyce, pp. 44-45). According to the 6th/12th­century Fārs-nāma by Ebn al-Balḵī (pp. 97-98), the kings of Persia could marry foreign princesses, but their own daughters were allowed to marry only members of their own families (bayt). In that way the purity of the lineage and class were maintained and the patrimony retained within the family.

Although in the 3rd century the high priest Kirdēr had a brief moment of power, it was apparently only later, in the reign of Yazdgerd II (399-420), that the higher clergy ­the chief priest, mowbedān mowbed (Gignoux, 1986, pp. 102-04), the hērbedān hērbed, the chief secretary (dabīrbed), and the like—were ranked with the nobility. The lesser clergy ranked a step lower in the social hierar­chy, with the scribes, magistrates, physicians, astrono­mers (Ketāb al-tāj, p. 25), cavalrymen, and foot soldiers, all of whom earned wages under the supervision of higher-ranking officials (Christensen, Iran Sass., pp.132-­36). The priests (mowbed, hērbed) were paid from the revenues of endowments and from fees (nīrmad) for services connected with marriage. Judges (dādwar) re­ceived fees for hearing lawsuits. The salaries of cavalry­men (aswār) and foot soldiers (payg) were carefully graded. At the time of Ḵosrow Anūšīravān (531-79) the maximum salary for amounted soldier was 10,000 drahms, the minimum for a foot soldier 100 drahms (Baḷʿamī, ed. Bahār, p. 1049), an index of their relative military impor­tance. Warriors in general were held in high respect, and commoners were required to show deference to them (Tansar-nāma, ed. Dehḵodā, p. 1631). The majority of the lowest ranks of free men consisted of farmers (warzīgar), husbandmen, and artisans, referred to gener­ally as ramān “herds, masses,” amaragān “populace” (lit. “innumerable ones”), pādram “commoner,” or mardom “people.” They earned their livings from manual labor and paid both land and poll taxes. A passage in the Dēnkard (ed. Madan, II, p. 742; ed. Dresden, p. 96; tr. West, p. 103) implies that the peasants worked on share­cropping contracts, in a system similar to that of the Islamic mozāraʿa (on Islamic sharecropping, see Lambton, Landlord and Peasant, p. 295).

A wage earner was entitled to only one or, in rare instances, two wives (Mādayān, pt. 2, p. 1) and to owner­ship of only a small plot of land. He was advised to be diligent and moderate in life and to live from his own labor (Mēnōg ī xrad, ed. Sanjana, chap. 1.42-43, ed. Nyberg, Manual I, p. 69), to save no more than 300 stērs (Pahlavi Rivayat, ed. Dhabhar, p. 123), and to give any surplus as alms for the worthy poor (driyōšān; Ardā Wirāz-nāmag 31.3; see CITIZENSHIP). He was also required to obey the higher ranks (padān) and warned not to curse them (Dēnkard, ed. Madan, II, pp. 699, 749; ed. Dresden, p. 90; tr. West, chap. 19, p. 45). The hostility and suspicion with which the lower classes were regarded by the aristocracy may be reflected in a passage of the Šāh-nāma (Moscow, VII, p. 189) in which Ardašīr-e Pādagān is supposed to have advised: “Do not seek truthfulness in the hearts of commoners; the more you seek the less you find. Should you be informed of their misdeed, pay no heed to such accounts. They are ungodly and disloyal servants, unre­liable, intractable. Such is the measure (of the worth of) commonalty.” Indeed, statements in religious texts about the community (hamīh) of masters (padān) and common people (ramān; Dēnkard, ed. Madan, II, p. 749), and particularly about the just Rašn’s holding a sovereign equal to the humblest man (Mēnōg ī xrad, ed. Anklesaria, 1.122, p. 23; tr. West, p. 18), are pious frauds.

At the bottom of the Sasanian social structure were the poor and the slaves. From repeated injunctions on the well-to-do to help the worthy poor and repeated curses on recalcitrant indigents (škōh) it seems that there was a substantial pauperized urban population. The putative attitude of the škōh toward the upper classes reveals the class antagonism and social tension that culminated in the Mazdakite upheavals of the 5th-6th centuries (see Shaki, 1978). A škōh was described as a person who was dissat­isfied with what he had, considered himself unfortunate, and was contemptuous of the opulent (Dēnkard, ed. Madan, II, p. 505; ed. Dresden, p. 438; tr. Shaked, pp. 58­-59). Ādurbād ī Māraspandān, one of the fathers of the faith, regarded the contest between an “arrogant” škōh and a lord (xwadāy) one of the five grave evils that might befall men (Pahlavi Texts, p. 71). Another group may well have been the predecessors of the Islamic javān-­mardān (< MPers. mard-juwān; Dēnkard, ed. Madan, II, pp. 723; ed. Dresden, p. 281; tr. West, p. 78; cf. ʿAYYĀR ii, pp. 162-63), described in the Pahlavi commentary to Vidēvdād 3.41 as those who believed that robbing the rich to give to the poor was a meritorious act (tr. Darmesteter, II, p. 47 n. 81). The style, phraseology, and vocabulary of Samak-e ʿayyār by Farāmarz b. Kodādād Arrajānī, writ­ten ca. 585/1189, attest its pre-Islamic origins and confirm the Sasanian origin of this group. Although the conduct of such men was not censured (but also not approved of) by the author of the Pahlavi Vidēvdād (loc. cit.), in the Ardā Wirāz-nāmag they were declared worthy of severe corporal punishment (chap. 45). It is quite conceivable that they allied themselves with the Mazdakites (drīstdēn) against the nobility (Shaki, 1978, p. 305 n. 142.).

The institution of slavery (see BARDA AND BARDADĀRĪ) seems to have been more highly developed in the Sasanian period than previously, as is confinned by the quantity of legislation relating to it in Middle Persian literature. By that time slaves had apparently become the chief producers in society. They were bought or captured by the hundreds (Ammianus Marcellinus, 23.6.76) and were classed as property, with an average price of 500 stirs, comparable to that of a woman (Mādayān, pt. 1, pp. 12, 33; Pahl. Vd. 4.2). Masters (xwadāyān) were allowed to treat them as draft animals (Dēnkard, ed. Madan, II, p. 737; ed. Dresden, p. 269; tr. West, p. 98). Nevertheless, they did have certain civil rights; the law not only protected their lives (Pahlavi Rivayat, ed. Dhabhar, p. 108) but also provided them with recourse in defense of their rights (see CITIZENSHIP). Each category of slaves had a specific social status: bandag “servant” (lit. “bound”), anšahrīg (lit. “outlander”), wardag (lit. “captive”), tan (lit. “body”). The bandag was normally engaged in household (mānišn) and other types of services, as at a fire temple (Mādayān, pt. 1, pp. 1, 103). The anšahrīg, originally a non-Zoroastrian for­eign slave, was usually attached permanently to a farm, regardless of any transfer of ownership; such a slave rarely worked in a household (Mādayān, pt. 2, p. 36). The wardag, like the anšahrīg, worked on the land, in con­struction, or at some other kind of manual labor, according to his abilities. The Roman captives whom Šāpūr I put to work on his royal demesne are an example (ŠKZ, Parth. line 16; Back, pp. 325-26). A slave delivered as security for a bond was called tan (Mādayān, pt. 1, p. 89). Female slaves served in households as bandag paristār “slave maidservants” (Dādestān ī dēnīg, chap. 56, p. 203; Dēnkard, ed. Madan, II, p. 737) and perhaps on farms as zan ī anšahrīg “female anšahrīg.” A slave could be par­tially manumitted, in which instance he was paid wages proportional to his degree of freedom (Mādayān, pt. 1, p. 1; Yišōʿboxt, p. 179). Slavery was hereditary (Mādayān, pt. 1, pp. 1, 96), and, according to the jurist Syāwaxš, against Rād-Hormizd, no Persian subject (bandag ī šāhānšāh) could be enslaved (Mādayān, pt. 1, p. 20). If a Christian slave embraced Zoroastrianism and took to the people of the good religion (hu-dēnān) it was incumbent upon them to buy him out of slaver; but if he did not take to the Zoroastrians, he could procure his own manumission (Mādayān, pt. 1, p. 1). The sale of slaves to non­-Zoroastrians was strictly prohibited, a crime punishable by branding (drōš) of both contracting parties (Mādāyan, 1, p. 1).



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(Mansour Shaki)

Originally Published: December 15, 1992

Last Updated: October 21, 2011

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