From 226 to 636 CE, the Iranian Empire integrated the elites of geographically, socially, and culturally diverse territories from Northern Arabia to Bactria into a network of impressive extent and endurance. This paper will examine the instruments through which the ruling Sasanian dynasty consolidated relations with the aristocracies both provincial and trans-regional that mobilized men and material in the service of the empire. Recent accounts of late antique Iran present the empire in a state of ineluctable instability and decline because of its dependence on aristocratic sources of military and fiscal power (Pourshariati, 2009; Rubin, 2004). And yet the aristocratic houses - even the Parthian families the Sasanians had displaced - reliably supported the development of Iranian imperial institutions across four centuries (Gyselen, 2007). In place of studies that assume centralization and bureaucratization as the sole routes to lasting empire, the case of Iran demands consideration of the ways in which an imperial dynasty could rule through, not over, landed elites.
How, in short, did the Sasanian dynasty persuade the aristocracies of the Iranian world to collaborate in the erection and extension of their structures of rule? This paper will suggest that the production of myth-histories at court played crucial roles in the construction of aristocratic consensus, particularly in the fifth and sixth centuries. Best known from the Shahnameh of FirdawsÄ«, courtly literary specialists produced extensive royal histories - the Book of Kings - in the late Sasanian period that traced the sacred-historical lineage of the Sasanian kings of kings back to the primordial kings of the earth (Yarshater, 1983). What has gone unnoticed in these histories is the way in which their authors subtly included great aristocratic families, including Parthians, as the reliable partners of the kings of kings, whose military prowess frequently safeguarded the imperial project against outside, "barbarian" invasion. When the Sasanians imagined their imperial order, the sharing of power and the cultivation of aristocratic consent were the distinguishing marks of effective rulership. These myth-histories, moreover, documented the genealogies of the greatest aristocratic houses alongside the royal lineage. Some aristocratic lines were as ancient and as vaunted as the Sasanian dynasty itself. This was not an empire of a single dynasty but rather of multiple dynasties that imagined themselves in a collaborative relationship forged at the primordial origins of political power.
This new imperial imaginary emerged just as the Iranian Empire was developing fiscal and military structures of unprecedented scope. Kawad and Khosro I revamped the fiscal system, which resulted in the burgeoning administration, dizzying revenues, and military expansionism characteristic of the Iranian Empire in the sixth and early seventh centuries. In revisiting the political history of the period in light of recent sigillographic and numismatic studies, we will show how mythical-historical models for imperial-aristocratic cooperation well account for the success of the dynasty at expanding its power not at the expense of, but to the benefit of, landed elites. At the same time, we will show how these literary ventures of the court and the great aristocratic houses spurred their provincial inferiors - the middling local aristocracies of Northern Mesopotamia, Iberia, and Armenia - to produce mythical histories of their own in the sixth century.