A State of Mixture

Christians, Zoroastrians, and Iranian Political Culture in Late Antiquity

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Richard E. Payne
Transformation of the Classical Heritage
  • Oakland, CA: 
    University of California Press
    , August
     320 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Late antiquity is a rapidly developing field of study, and its eastern half is, in part, represented by the Sasanid Empire (c. 225-651 CE). Eastern late antiquity is a complex and difficult period to study, a difficulty that has arisen due to several factors. These factors include the plethora of languages needed to pursue the primary sources as well as the many important religious and social monuments produced in this period—for example, the Babylonian Talmud, the formation and spread of Manichaeism, and the codification of the Zoroastrian Avesta, among others. These factors are further complicated by the dearth of primary sources deriving from certain key voices of this period, and the most conscious scarcity are the emic Sasanid sources. Therefore, despite their hegemonic role in eastern late antiquity, the Sasanids are mostly silent. In light of this, scholars have invested in interdisciplinary approaches based on the available evidence, accomplishing this in three main ways: first, scholars dig into later sources to unearth evidence for this earlier period; second, scholars utilize the robust contemporary Jewish and Christian sources; and third, scholars refer to the interpretively elusive seals, bullae, coins, and other archaeological remains from the Sasanids themselves. These three methods are not mutually exclusive, and synthetic historical narratives for this period rely upon all three. 

The recently published A State of Mixture: Christians, Zoroastrians, and Iranian Political Culture in Late Antiquity, by Richard E. Payne, is just such a work. Situating itself mostly on Christian sources in Syriac and Arabic from the Sasanid and Islamic periods, but including discussion of seals, bullae, and other artifacts, this text utilizes all three means in its attempt to depict the political culture of the Sasanid period. Payne’s project is to explore the interaction of the Zoroastrians and Christians in the elite strata of Sasanid society; in this way, it is primarily a synchronic sociopolitical analysis of the Sasanid Empire, bringing together the eastern Christian sources and the sparse emic Sasanid sources. This is not a work of textual analysis nor philology, and translation appears invariably in service of the overall argument; it is not a straight-forward history of the Sasanid Empire, a history of the Church of the East, nor of late antique Zoroastrianism—but a familiarity with all these subjects is presumed. 

Payne’s explicit methodology is “historical materialism” (xiii), and this method of engagement appears clearly throughout the work; the work comprises five chapters with an introduction and conclusion, and each chapter is somewhat independent—though each is supplemented by the others’s discussion. The first and fifth chapters focus on the Zoroastrians, while the middle three chapters focus on Christian martyrologies. Payne’s first chapter introduces the Zoroastrian principles subtending the social and hierarchical relationships described in the middle chapters; this is done through a discussion of an inscription, positively datable to the late 3rd century, by the high-ranking Zoroastrian priest Kerdīr (also spelled Kartīr), which Payne supplements with later post-Sasanid Zoroastrian sources. His fifth chapter returns to the Zoroastrian perspective, evident during the reign of the last major Sasanid king Husraw II (r. 591–628). 

Chapter 2 is the clearest example of Payne’s historical materialism, focusing on the Martyrdom of Pethion, which is a Syriac text particularly verbose in its discussion of Zoroastrianism. Payne’s discussion contextualizes the narrative through the concepts of “landedness” (72), and this is connected to the explicit setting of the martyrology: Bisutun. Bisutun, which he translates as “Place of the Gods” (59), is a mountain near modern-day Kērmānšāh, in western Iran. The mountain’s cliff face preserves an important inscription dating to the early Achaemenid period (6th to 4th century BCE), but the site was still highly venerated during the Sasanid period. In this chapter, Payne attempts to uncover the strategies employed by the authors of this text in appropriating this Zoroastrian sacred site into their Christian imaginary. In contrast to the fabulous and miraculous life—and ultimate death—of Pethion, Payne’s third chapter focuses on concrete legal relationships recorded during this time. While discussing the 6th century patriarch Mar Aba, Payne tries to integrate many topics, such as the so-called “worldly” Christian church leaders, Zoroastrian marriage law—including the practices of “consanguineous marriage” (xwēdōdah) and “successorship” (stūrīh)—and the Zoroastrian festivals of Nowruz and Mihragān. Here, Payne is likely on solid footing with regards to the Zoroastrians, as the extant Zoroastrian law book “Thousand Judgements” (Hazār Dādestān) dates from shortly after this period. From legal practice, Payne moves onto archaeological remains in his fourth chapter, discussing seals, bullae, and other such artifacts in relation to the Christian accounts of The History of Karka and The History of Mar Qardagh. In a continuation of the previous chapter’s discussion on marriage practices, chapter 4 discusses how Christians asserted themselves through lineage. Therefore, this chapter includes Payne’s most detailed discussions of the “princes” (wispuhr), “great nobles” (wuzurg), “free men” (āzād), and the lesser “local landlords” (dahigān). 

While Payne admirably mixes Christian and Sasanid sources, it should be kept in mind that this mixture cannot be balanced, as Sasanid and Zoroastrian sources are exceptionally sparse. Thus, when Payne says “Zoroastrian priestly elite, moreover, developed a body of literature, especially mythical historiography and political andarz, ‘political guidance,’ that provided the court with a potent discourse” (9), it must be remembered that this “body of literature” is mostly lost, the gaps having been filled in with Christian polemics against the Zoroastrian elite.Nevertheless, this book still contains a wealth of information on eastern late antiquity, and will supplement most research.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Ted Good is a doctoral candidate in Near and Middle Eastern Civilizations at the University of Toronto.

Date of Review: 
May 22, 2019
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Richard E. Payne is Neubauer Family Assistant Professor of Ancient Near Eastern History at the University of Chicago.


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