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  • Sasanian Persia: Between Rome and the Steppes of Eurasia ed. by Eberhard W. Sauer
  • Thomas Benfey
Sasanian Persia: Between Rome and the Steppes of Eurasia Eberhard W. Sauer, Ed. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2017. Pp. 356. ISBN 978-1-474-45230-4

The Sasanian Empire remains poorly understood, given its prominence in Eurasian history. The situation is improving, however, in no small part thanks to Eberhard Sauer's Gorgan Wall Project; here Sauer's team conclusively established this massive border wall's Sasanian origins, and, by extension, Sasanian Iran's considerable military might, and broader capacity for undertaking major infrastructure projects. As Sauer points out in the introduction to his new edited volume here under review scholarship on Sasanian Iran has tended toward an over-reliance on the analysis of literary sources, and many of the articles gathered here further demonstrate the potential of archaeological and environmental evidence to reshape our understanding of this empire's history.

Simpson's contribution is a useful overview of what archaeology and satellite photography have to say about Sasanian urbanism. The main takeaway here, as in much of the volume, is that Sasanian cities bear the stamp of a powerful state, with the capacity to implement coordinated responses to various needs—military and agricultural, for instance—on a grand scale.

Shumilovskikh, et al. show us ancient and medieval Iran from a novel vantage point: arboriculture, as reflected in pollen cores, from a wide variety of sites. Additional information, concerning the ebbs and flows of pastoralism over time, is furnished by coprophilous fungal spores and insect remains. This data suggests many interesting trends: a peak in arboriculture, and agriculture more broadly, in Fars during the Achaemenid period; a shift further north for the most intensive cultivation under the Sasanians; and a move toward pastoralism everywhere in the aftermath of the Muslim conquests.

Mashkour, et al. focus on animal exploitation in border regions in the Caucasus and northeast Iran, drawing on the bone assemblages found in these areas. Much of the article concentrates on Dariali Fort, in what is now Georgia, where a particularly great concentration of animal bones, with dates extending from the Sasanian period until early modern times, is available for analysis. Across all of the locales surveyed, the data points to a reliance on sheep, goats and cows during the Sasanian period, as far as animal exploitation is concerned; domesticated pigs are not well-represented in the bone records, nor does hunting seem to have played a major economic role at any of these sites.

Continuing with the frontier theme, Lawrence and Wilkinson compare fortification and settlement patterns in the Sasanian Empire's various border regions. As one might expect, the policies pursued in a given place were matched to the local landscape and environment. The authors make the intriguing observation that the Sasanians tended to make use of long walls and trenches where a more decentralized society lay across the border—not in the northwest, where they faced the Roman Empire, but in the southwest, Caucasus, and Gorgan Plain.

Hopper's contribution, likewise frontier-oriented, looks at movement along the Gorgan Wall, primarily as reflected in settlement patterns and hollow ways—lines in the landscape, discernible [End Page 182] in satellite photography, that correspond to well-traveled routes. Although these hollow ways are difficult to date with much precision, this evidence further underscores the level of strategic planning that went into the construction of this massive fortification, and the development of nearby land.

The first part of Ball's article is a cogent appeal to give the archaeological evidence for a Sasanian presence in third- and fourth-century Bactria and Gandhara greater weight in discussions of the history of these individual regions and the Sasanian Empire alike. Ball's argument that Sasanian Iran was more oriented toward the East than to the West, on the other hand, while generally a salutary corrective to much existing scholarship, depends on a selective presentation of the sources (historiography in Arabic drawing upon the Sasanian historical tradition, much of which focuses on relations with Rome, is ignored completely), and, often, a blurring of the history of the Sasanian Empire with that...