When we think about the Sassanid Persian Empire, we often visualize it as a mighty enemy of ancient Rome, but don’t contemplate its own unique entity. In this article, we will examine some of this identity by discussing the history of its official religion, Zoroastrianism. This ancient religion is still practiced in areas of Iran and India, as well as by members of the diaspora in countries such as the United States, Germany, Australia, the United Kingdom and New Zealand. Zoroastrianism is one of the world’s smallest religions, with some sources estimating that there are now only around 150.000 followers worldwide.
Zoroastrians worship one God, Ahura Mazda, the “Wise Lord”, and believe he created the universe. In Zoroastrianism, Ahura Mazda has an adversary called Ahreman, the Evil Spirit, the Anti-God. There is a hierarchic structure within Zoroastrianism. Under Ahura Mazda are the six Holy Immortals, which are emanated by God but are not God. These emanations are seen as the divine attributes of Ahura Mazda. Each is associated with a particular aspect of creation. For example, Asha is associated with fire, a vital element of Zoroastrian rituals. Beneath the Holy Immortals are the Venerables, such as Mithra and Daena, who help the Holy Immortals. Finally, the Fravashi or “preexistent souls” are guardian spirits, with each being having a Fravashi. Even Ahura Mazda himself is believed to have one.
Zoroastrianism is characterized by the dualism of Good and Evil. Man can choose the path of Evil or the path of Righteousness. The first leads to hell, the latter to happiness in Heaven.
The main source of Zorastrianism is the Avesta, a collection of texts compiled in successive stages. Within the Avesta are the Mantras, very ancient sacred formulas often recited during rituals. Within the Mantras are the five Gathas, five religious hymns which are attributed to Zarathustra. They are written in a dialect different from the rest of the Avesta.
The founder of Zoroastrianism is considered to be Zarathustra, Zoroaster in Greek, an obscure historical figure who is believed to have extracted elements of his “new religion” from ancient Iranian Pagan cults.
The famous “Towers of Silence”, commonly found in India and Iran, are built as places in which the dead bodies of Zoroastrian followers are laid out exposed to the sun and left to be eaten by animals. Zoroastrians believe that dead bodies are impure, and that contaminating natural elements such as earth, air, fire and water with corpses is a sacrilege to the Holy Immortal linked to that element. Modern Zoroastrians however often opt for cremation.
By the time of the official political “fall” of the western roman empire in 476 AD with the removal of teenage emperor Romulus Augustus by Germanic general Odoacer, western Europe was a mosaic of so-called successor states led by “barbarian” kings and leaders. In this essay, I will focus on the successors I consider the most successful. But first, we must clarify what is meant by the term ‘successful successor state’. As an Italian, I believe that success in late antique and the early middle ages is shown through: political stability, military might, the presence of a central authority with administrative and military branches, territorial control and expansion, achievements in the arts, as well as the willingness to adopt roman cultural traits as the base for further reforms and development.
We often consider the political disintegration of the western roman empire as the end of what we think to be the classical period. Most evidence points to the contrary however, as the so-called “barbarians” that took positions of power inside the imperial bureaucracy became heads of successor states and tried to perpetuate the western roman empire. Most probably, the average roman citizen after 476 AD would not have noticed any changes in his or her daily life, despite now being ruled by a “barbarian” king. Proof of this is the consular ivory diptych depicting Manlius Boethius, father of the famous philosopher Severinus Boethius, shown after 476 AD as a man of high social status who was able to remain in a position of power even after the fall of the western roman empire in 476 AD.
Among the many successor groups of the western roman empire, I believe the Goths were one of the most successful. Both the Visigoths and the Ostrogoths, respectively western and eastern Goths, had military and commercial contacts with the Romans for centuries and seem to have had some level of admiration for their culture, as they were the most ‘romanized’ of the “barbarian” groups. This can be seen even today, as Theodoric’s capital, Ravenna, shows his attempt at reproducing late roman and classical forms of art and architecture. Ravenna was to be modeled after Constantinople, as Theodoric had been raised there. His city also took from Rome, in particular his mausoleum, which imitates the classical tombs of the emperors Augustus and Hadrian. Another example is the Basilica of Sant’Apollinare Nuovo in the city of Ravenna, the palatine chapel of king Theodoric, built on the model of the roman civil basilica. Its mosaics on a golden background emulate eastern roman styles.
During the 4th century AD, the Goths’ conversion to Arian Christianity, aided by Bishop Wulfila’s translation of the bible into Gothic, constituted a clear attempt of an immigrant group to better integrate into roman society, although Aryanism was later deemed a heresy at the council of Nicaea in 325 AD. Their adoption of Arian Christianity presented a great obstacle to the successful amalgamation of Nicene Romans and Arian Goths under the rule of Theodoric in Italy, which would have otherwise been entirely successful.
Theorodoric’s respect and admiration for senatorial elites as well as roman civilization and administration reflects itself in the Ostrogothic administration of his kingdom, which was modeled on its roman counterpart. While military power remained in the hands of the Goths, he left the administration to the senatorial elite, as a sign of admiration for their experience and political shrewdness. He also kept some positions of courtly bureaucracy and power that were directly inherited from the late roman state, such as the office of quaestor sacri palatii, held by Aurelius Cassiodorus and that of magister officiorum, held by Severinus Boethius, author of De consolatione philosophae. Based upon our earlier definition of what constitutes a successful successor state, it is clear the Goths should be seen as successful because they had the ability to adapt and integrate the imperial roman administrative machine to their tribal reality, turning gothic kings from purely military leaders into heads of state with authority over both the administrative and military branches of their reigns.
In terms of political stability however, the Goths lacked continuity as they were often on the move, first on the Danube frontier, then in Moesia, Aquitania Secunda, Italy and finally Spain. These repeated migrations is where their success becomes blighted.
The Goths were to also find success though in the realm of law. The reign of king Chindasuinth saw the compilation of the Liber Iudiciorum, later expanded by his son king Recceswinth in 654 AD, based on the work of past great legislators, such as emperor Justinian and Theodosius II. The main innovations of this code were that women were allowed to inherit land and title, and dispose of their properties independently from their husband’s consent. In his Etymologiae, a monumental collection of general knowledge and etymology, Saint Isidore of Sevilla, although not a Goth himself, shows that visigothic Spain was not a brutish and “barbaric” land, but a culturally flourishing one.
In the field of numismatics, Theodoric the Great, tried to heavily imitate late roman coinage and their characteristic abstract representations while introducing some Germanic elements such as the moustache. During the middle ages, the main Visigoth mints were located in Gaul and in the Iberian peninsula. Visigoths minted mostly solidii and tremissis, two coins which were popular during the late roman era.
The Vandals are another Germanic group that can be considered successful within our construct. Beginning in 429 AD, they were able to establish a relatively stable kingdom in North Africa thanks to the leadership of King Geiseric, a politically able and intrepid leader. Their military prowess showed in their victories against the multiple roman attempts at regaining North Africa, such as that of eastern roman general Basiliscus in 468 AD. The Vandals were successful in developing advanced military tactics, as demonstrated by their use of fireships against the Roman fleet in Cap Bon, Tunisia. They went as far as sacking Rome in 455 AD, when led by Geiseric, who did not burn the city or slaughter its inhabitants due to his promise to Pope Leo I.
Like the Goths, the Vandals also minted their own coinage which was heavily inspired by late roman numismatics.
The Vandals are usually disparaged because of their perceived brutality, of which little historical proof exists. Modern historians however consider them as perpetuators of roman values and culture. I believe the Vandals were not as successful as the Goths or the Franks as their kingdom was brief and ended when North Africa was regained in the 6th century by Belisarius, with very limited resources and manpower.
The transition from a tribal system to some form of centralized government was also a unique skill of the Franks, another Germanic people who were first reunited under King Clovis I and had significant exposure to the roman world.
In terms of territorial control, the Franks came to rule most of central Europe with their sphere of influence extending to northern Italy and the Iberian peninsula under Charlemagne. However, this large territory was divided among Charlemagne successors by the treaty of Vedun in 843 AD, reducing the opportunity for a centralized government and undermining Frankish political stability and unity.
Unlike the Goths who were Arians, the Franks converted to Nicene Christianity with the conversion of King Clovis I on December 24th 496 AD. The king’s conversion to Nicene Christianity and alliance with the church constituted an attempt to align himself with the great Christian emperors of Rome, and the future basis for the empire of Charlemagne. Frankish leaders allied themselves with the personnel of the catholic Church in order to better control their lands as well as influence the political and social spheres of the empire.
In fact, the Frankish kingdom under the Merovingian dynasty paved the way for the establishment of the Holy Roman Empire, a Germanic attempt at reestablishing some level of universal authority over Western Europe. The Franks were also able to demonstrate significant military strength, defeating Islamic forces at the Battle of Tours in 732 AD thanks to the leadership of Charles Martell, mayor of the palace under the Merovingian dynasty.
Even more than under the Merovingian dynasty, the reign of Charlemagne brought about a period of flourishing cultural activity called “Carolingian Renaissance”. This cultural renaissance was characterized by the restoration, preservation and emulation of ancient and classical texts and artistic canons by scholars and clergymen of the time, pointing in the direction of the renovatio imperii that saw Charlemagne as the restorer of imperial roman authority in Western Europe. In particular, illuminated manuscripts made mostly by clergymen, such as the “Godescalc Gospels”, can be recognized as works of particular artistic and cultural significance. Another relevant cultural innovation was the introduction of the Carolingian minuscule, a clear script promoted by Charlemagne between the 8th and 9th century AD. This script provided a standardized writing style which facilitated reading and comprehension of medieval Latin throughout Europe. During his reign, Charlemagne also promoted better education for clergymen as they played a relevant role in the administration of the Carolingian empire. The reign of Clovis I, saw the compilation of the Frankish legal code around 500 AD. Unlike the Visigothic legal code, the Frankish one displayed little Roman influence. However, it nonetheless represents an important attempt to regulate life in the Frankish kingdom and, most importantly, constitutes a transition from early Germanic laws, which were oral compilations of custom, to written statutes.
In my opinion, the Goths can be considered as a worthy successor state to the western roman empire. Their close interaction with the Romans within the lands they occupied shows a strong willingness to amalgamate with them. This may have been related to the fact that they conquered coastal territories such as Italy and Spain which were the heart of the old roman world. Their conversion to Aryan Christianity was also a way to integrate themselves into the empire in the 4th century, as the empire was almost fully converted to Christianity, with the eastern roman empire having an Arian emperor, Valens. The Goths also had the cunning and perhaps the luck, to keep the roman senatorial elites in a position of power, taking advantage of their administrative skills and keeping them in line. Unlike the Goths, the Vandals did not experience the same cultural development, as their reign was relatively brief, despite occupying the most fertile lands of the old roman empire. The Franks however do rival the Goths as the most successful successor group of the western roman empire. While the Franks developed a form of centralized government under Clovis I, their interaction with the Roman world at that time was relatively marginal. In terms of religion, the Franks made a more forward looking decision than the Goths, as they converted immediately to Nicene Christianity bypassing all other heresies. As for political longevity, the Franks outlasted all other Germanic groups as they formed the nucleus of what was to become the Holy Roman Empire. Finally, the Franks were also able to demonstrate the greatest military proficiency of all of the successor states, through their halting of the Arab advance into western Europe and the defeat of the Lombards under Charlemagne, while the Visigothic kingdoms fell prey to the Arab push and Ostrogoth Italy became prey to the armies of Constantinople. Although the Franks appear to be the most successful state in terms of prowess, longevity, and cultural achievements, I nonetheless believe the Goths had a symbiotic relationship with the roman world that the Franks never had, and are thus a more direct successor state to the western roman empire.
On November 30th 374 AD, the atmosphere was extremely tense in the city of Medionalum (modern day Milan). Arian archbishop Auxentius had just died and the city had to nominate his successor. The election occurred in an unidentified church of the city. There, the citizens, divided between the Arian and the Nicene creeds, were struggling to find common ground, while a high ranking imperial official, a man named Ambrose, listened carefully to their speeches. After listening to their reasons, Ambrose made a speech aimed at restoring harmony between the two factions. While talking, a man in the crowd shouted: “Ambrose for bishop!”. Soon afterwards, the whole crowd started shouting: “Ambrose for bishop!”. This is how Ambrose, an important player at the court of emperor Valentinian I, became Archbishop of one of the most important cities of the Roman West. However, he never wanted to pursue a career in the church. Although a Nicene Christian, he was trained to become an imperial civil administrator, not a member of the clergy. With time however, Ambrose, a strong personality with impressive rhetorical skills,learned how to act as a successful religious figure and even became the tutor of the emperor’s son, Gratian. Ambrose was elected bishop during a time in which the power of the Roman state in the West was waning and the Christian church was gradually taking control over secular matters. As a bishop, Ambrose was an enemy to Arian Christians, deemed as heretics at the council of Nicaea in 325 AD. The emperor’s wife, Giustina, however, was among the Arian faction. After the death of Valentinian I in 375 AD, Ambrose therefore entered into a fierce contrast with the imperial court, which was dominated by Arian christians. During this period, Ambrose built four basilicas in the city in order to strengthen his position: the basilica martyrum, the basilicaapostolorum, the basilicavirginumand the basilica prophetarum. He also clashed with a pagan aristocrat, Quintus Aurelius Symmachus, who was a stern supporter of the traditional politeistic roman religion. The Archbishop eventually won both encounters, risking his own life during an Arian attack and becoming one of the most powerful men in Milan. He went as far as excommunicating emperor Theodosius I after the massacre of Thessalonica, during which the emperor ordered the slaughter of 7.000 citizens. This demonstrated his enormous personal power and extreme self confidence. Ambrose introduced a new form of liturgical chant, the Canto Ambrosiano, known for its collective singing. He was one of the first Christian religious figures to hold significant secular power. Currently, he is the patron saint of Milan. He is displayed on the first Gonfalone of the same city.