Silver plate showing Shapur II

Contributed by British Museum

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This plate depicts a Sasanian king, probably Shapur II, leaping onto a stag and stabbing it in its neck. Sasanian kings were frequently portrayed as hunter-warriors, protecting their subjects from wild animals that ate their livestock or crops. Shapur II fought two long wars against the Roman Empire and, after killing the Roman emperor Julian, forced them to make peace with him. Shapur II also rigorously promoted Zoroastrianism, during the same period Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire.

Who were the Sasanians?

The Sasanians came from Iran and ruled a large empire from Iraq to Afghanistan from AD 224 to 622. They were the first Iranian dynasty to promote Zoroastrianism as the state religion. Zoroastrianism is the earliest religion to be based on a set of scriptures ? the teachings of the Prophet Zoroaster or Zarathustra. The conflict between man and animal on this plate may reflect the struggle between good and evil that lies at the heart of Zoroastrianism.

A previous Sasanian king is said to have killed Roman emperor Valerian in AD 260 by forcing him to swallow molten gold

The king of kings

The Sassanian Empire is the second great ancient empire that is founded in the land of Iran. Originally we have the empire of Cyrus and Darius who fought the Greeks and was overthrown by Alexander. Then in 224 AD the Persian king, Ardashir, overthrows his Parthian overlords, and establishes a Persian Empire right on the borders of the Roman Empire.

What it says to me is a magnificent expression of the Persian ideal of kingship – which absolutely underlies Persian civilisation throughout the entire ancient period. This is the image of what the Persians call Shah n Shah – king of kings. He rules because he is strong, because he is mighty, because he is powerful. And this was absolutely fundamental to the way the Persians saw the functioning of the world.

There’s this wonderful detail – when the Persian king rode into battle no one was allowed to have a taller horse, and he would have grooms standing around to make sure his horse didn’t even urinate, because that would obviously diminish the royal aura. What you have here is a horse that is in no danger of urinating because it is an absolutely ideal model of what a horse should be, just as the king is an absolute ideal model of what a man should be.

Tom Holland, author and historian

Meet the Sasanians

The Sasanians, who originated from Fars in southern Iran and came to power in AD 224, ruled over an empire stretching from Mesopotamia (modern Iraq) to Afghanistan.

For over 400 years they were the main opponents of Rome and often fought for supremacy in various regions, in particular Armenia, until they were overthrown by the Arabs in 651.

Religion was important under the Sasanians and kings were keen to emphasise their religious affiliation wherever possible. They described themselves in their inscriptions as “The Mazda-worshipping … King of Kings of Iranians and non-Iranians, whose origin is of the gods��?.

Mazda (orAhura Mazda), also known as Ohrmazd or Hormuz, is the Wise Lord and Creator of All in Zoroastrianism. This ancient Iranian religion is named after the Prophet Zarathushtra, known in Greek as Zoroaster. To this day Zoroastrianism is practised in Iran as well as in India and also other parts of the world. In India Zoroastrians are known as Parsees.

Under Shapur II (AD 309-379) Zoroastrianism became the state religion of Iran and remained so until Islam was gradually adopted after AD 651.

The Sasanians followed an earlier Near Eastern tradition and often depicted the king in symbolic hunting scenes, in which he attacks and kills a deer, a lion, or a boar. Such scenes emphasised the divine and earthly powers of the king, who in the Zoroastrian tradition was chosen by God.

Vesta Sarkhosh Curtis, curator, British Museum

Worth its weight in silver

Hunting scenes on early Sassanian decorated silver are often dramatic and naturalistic. The hunter has to assume unusual and extreme positions dictated by the realities on the ground. Thus on this fourth century plate that we have here at the British Museum the king is without a horse, having mounted the stag in the heat of the hunt, a mark of his extraordinary agility and hunting skills.

Such hunts are usually conducted on horseback, but on this occasion the animal is the Iranian red deer or mural, from the largest deer family in Iran that weighs from 400-500lbs, 200-300 kilos. Therefore again it is the extraordinary skills of the hunter that are emphasised on this plate.

They were appreciated by the imagery on them and for the value of the metal that was used to produce them. For example in silver-poor China, such a vessel would have had an enormous amount of value. Many such vessels have engraved inscriptions on them, on the back and on the base, giving the weight, the exact weight of the vessel in drachmas, which was the Sassanian standard silver coin that weighed overfour grams with a silver content of over 90%. Therefore the object was worth its value in silver.

We have representations of the magi in Santa Maria Magiore in Rome. The three magi carry vessels of this type, Sassanian vessels that are given as special gifts to Christ. These were given as special awards and gifts, what else would have been so spectacularly interesting and valuable as a platter or a bowl of this type, so embellished and permanent in its use so that it could have been kept in a treasury for centuries, millennia – and it actually was!

Guitty Azarpay, Professor of Near Eastern and Central Asian Art, University of California

Comments are closed for this object


  • 1. At 20:34 on 7 June 2010, osutora wrote:

    Steady on, Tom! This is actually the third, not the "second great ancient empire that is founded in the land of Iran". Let's not forget the Arsacids: they were the kings of those same Parthians that the first Sasanian, Ardeshir, conquered in 224. Arsaces had overthrown the last of the Greek Seleucids stemming from Alexander, founding an empire that would last 360 years from ca 140 BC; its extent was quite equal to those who went before and those who came after. Notably, it repeatedly crushed Roman attacks when the Romans were at their peak, and (having e.g. defeated and beheaded Marcus Crassus) were recognized by a historian such as Pompeius Trogus in the time of Augustus as Rome's equal in world domination - an unheard-of humility from a Roman.

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  • 2. At 16:34 on 19 June 2010, Catriona Robertson wrote:

    I wonder whether you could re-check Tom Holland's suggestion that Zoroastrianism has "two gods"? As I understand it, Zoroastrianism was and is a monotheistic religion, with God wholly identified with good, while acknowledging (as the Abrahamic faiths went on to do with eg references to Satan) the existence of evil (and its opposition to good).

    People listen to the BBC in countries where believing in two gods would present difficulties. Maybe Tom's contribution could be re-worded? Thanks.

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Made in Iran


4th century AD


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