Imperial History

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"Proclaims Darius the King: ‘For that reason, Ahuramazda bore me aid, and the other gods who are, because I was not disloyal, I was no follower of Falsehood, I was no evil-doer, neither I nor my family (but) I acted according to righteousness, neither to the powerless nor to the powerful did I do wrong’ ..."
(Bisitun inscription of Darius the Great, IV 61-7)

During the first millennium BCE Zoroastrianism reached the west of Iran. It was evidently known to the Achaemenids (559-330 BCE), a dynasty that united the Persian and Median peoples. The inscriptions of the Achaemenid kings, although not mentioning Zarathustra by name, evoke ideas and even expressions known from the Avesta. Some of the most significant sources of information about this period come from the inscriptions of the Achaemenid kings and from the so-called Oxus Treasure that includes a collection of gold plaques depicting human figures wearing Median dress some of whom carry the barsom, or bundle of sticks associated with the priestly Yasna ceremony.

Dating from the reign of Artaxerxes II (404-358 BCE) cult statues of Anahita were found. This divinity, popular amongst the Persians, was known by the Greeks in various guises including that of Aphrodite. The conquest of the empire by Alexander in 334 BCE which earned him the title in Middle Persian texts of gizistag or ‘accursed’, was followed by the rise of the Parthians (c. 247-224 CE), a people from northeastern Iran, who were Zoroastrian and perhaps best remembered for their rich minstrel tradition.

The Parthians were succeeded by the Sasanians (224-651 CE), through whom Zoroastrianism as an imperial faith is best known. Sasanian kings are identified through the crowns that they wear portrayed on the obverse of coins minted during this period. On the reverse the king is sometimes shown worshipping before a fire with Ahura Mazda or Anahita opposite him. Zoroastrian ideas are also evident in the arts of the Sasanian period, particularly the engraved and embossed metalwork which depict animals, plants and fantastic creatures such as the mythical senmurv that combines the features of a dog and a peacock and represents the kingly glory of the Kayanians, the legendary dynasty from which the Sasanians claimed descent.

Senmurv Sasanian Silver Coin Shapur I Terracotta horse's head, Sasanian Detail of Sasanian silver dish The Throne Hall, Persepolis