The Roman-Persian Wars: two views on borders

During this semester I was interested in researching the historical and ancient geopolitical situation of Antioch at the time of the mosaics and relating that to the mosaics themselves. This final blog finishes my chronology of the various “border” wars fought during the Roman-Persian wars, between the Eastern Roman Empire and the Sassanid Persian Empire.

The Eastern Roman Empire was first founded as part of Diocletian’s reforms after the Crisis of the Third Century that I mentioned in a previous blog. He split the Roman Empire into the Eastern Roman Empire and the Western Roman Empire with two co-emperors to try to make the empire easier to run. However, his reforms failed and there were more civil wars until Constantine reunified the Empire. Eventually, after even more civil wars, Emperor Theodosius finished the process of dividing the Roman Empire in two by leaving the eastern and western halves to his two sons when he died in 395 AD.

The Sassanid Empire was founded when Ardashir I, who was the satrap, or governor, of Pars (modern day Fars Province of Iran) under the Parthians rose up and overthrew the last Parthian king of kings and proclaimed himself King of Kings of Persia. The mutual hatred between the Roman and Persian Empires that had existed for centuries continued even with this change in government because unlike the previous two Persian Empires, the Sassanid government was less religiously tolerant, more militantly Zoroastrian, more nationalistic (even though nationalism as we know it today did not yet exist) and more religiously conservative. The culmination of all these factors was many persecutions of Christians and Manichaeans under the Sassanids.

This angered the Romans, especially after the Roman empire turned Christian, and it was exacerbated when the Sassanids tolerated Christian sects that the Romans did not like. In their minds, any enemy of Rome was a friend of Persia. The Sassanids also tolerated Jews for the same reason, because Rome had always had a rocky relationship with Jews ever since they first revolted against Rome and the situation got even worse after Rome turned Christian.

This is a map of the Eastern Roman Empire and the Western Roman Empire as they stood at the death of Theodosius in 395 AD.

images courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

This is a map of the Sassanid Empire at its greatest extent including areas occupied during the Roman-Persian Wars.

The Persians captured and recaptured Antioch many times during the course of the Roman-Persian Wars. As a result, as I have already mentioned in an earlier blog, Persian influence was very strongly reflected in Antioch as evidenced by the use of lions and geometric patterns in mosaics. This was also because of the presence of many Persian and other merchants from the Persian Empire that worked on the Silk Road in Antioch. Chinese, Indian, Central Asian and other goods traveled through the Persian Empire to get to Antioch. Its strategic position on the Silk Road and the other trade routes connected to the vast Indian Ocean trade network contributed to Antioch’s accumulation of its vast wealth. Despite the constant conflict around it, Antioch remained a tolerant, multicultural city.

I have talked previously about the acculturation that all of this geopolitical conflict created in the area around Antioch and pointed out the use of peacocks, lions, Greek writing and literature as examples. As I end my chronology with this discussion of the Sassanid Empire, I see the Persian influence in Antioch as reflected in the “borders” of the mosaics. Much like a fine Persian carpet, the mosaics often include layers of borders that frame the interior of the mosaics. Scholars of Persian textiles note this link, too. As Maryam D. Ekhtiar said in Art of the Early Caliphates (7th to 10th centuries), “Artistically, both empires have developed similar styles and decorative vocabulary, as exemplified by mosaics and architecture of Roman Antioch”.

image courtesy of

After the Roman-Persian wars, the ancient city of Antioch ended. It was gradually diminished and eventually devastated by a series of earthquakes in 526 and 528 AD. The city went on to be conquered by the Muslims and became a part of the Rashidun Caliphate. This conquest finally ended the Roman-Persian Wars.

image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

This is a map of the Rashidun Caliphate at its greatest extent.

I am thankful to my classmates for what I learned from their various perspectives on the mosaics. I am especially thankful to Ella and Maya for what they shared about their efforts to create GIS maps of the existing Antioch mosaics around the world. Their work sparked a modern-day mystery for me—what happened to the Cuban mosaic after the revolution? That remains unsolved, but now when the world returns to its new normal, I will travel to Cuba and try to solve that modern-day mystery myself.

The lion in the East

#the striding lion

When I look at the Striding Lion in the museum’s prominently displayed mosaic, it reminds me of a similar lion on the Ishtar gate, (depicted below) in what was once Babylon. That makes sense, as both Mesopotamia and Syria (the precursor to Antioch) were part of the Achaemenid Persian Empire. After Alexander the Great conquered that Empire, he eventually died and his generals divided up his Empire amongst themselves.  The biggest chunk of his Empire went to General Seleucus and included Syria and Mesopotamia, among other things. Seleucus built Antioch in what was then Syria and made it the capital of his Empire, switching it from Seleucia Pieria. After many wars, Antioch eventually became part of the Roman Republic in 64 BC. Then in 27 BC, the Roman Republic became the Roman Empire.

Why did animals feature so prominently in the art of this period?  Like today, animals symbolized many meanings.  The Babylonians said that different animals embodied specific gods. For example, the lion was associated with the goddess Ishtar, the bull with the god Adad and the mushussu dragon was associated with Marduk, the chief god of the Babylonian pantheon. Lions were also said to have protective qualities because the Babylonians viewed them as being strong. There are many examples of statues of lions in front of gates at sites throughout the former Neo-Babylonian Empire, implying that the Babylonians believed that having an image of a lion facing outward near the door could protect the building.  Babylonians also described lions as terrifying by nature, so it was believed that images of lions could scare away demons and evil spirits. A pair of lion statues found near the gate of a temple whose names are listed in a cuneiform inscription as “Dan-Bitim” and “Rašub-Bitim”. meaning “Strong one of the Temple” and “Terrifying one of the Temple” respectively. The names reveal that these animal statues serve the temple with their “strong” and “terrifying” nature.

 After the Achaemenid Persian Empire conquered the neo-Babylonian Empire, they adopted the practice of depicting bulls and lions, but not the mushussu dragon. Even though the Persians didn’t follow the same gods as the Babylonians, they allowed the people living in Mesopotamia to keep believing in them. The Persians also continued the use of the lion as the symbol of strength. Given the large Persian community in Antioch in the Third Century AD and its relative proximity to the border with the Sassanid Persian Empire, anyone from the Eastern half of the Empire who came to Antioch would know what the Striding Lion symbolized.