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Open Access Publications from the University of California

Connected Histories in Late Antiquity: A Study of a Peace between the Roman and Sasanian Empires and Its Diverging Impacts on Christianity in Greater Armenia and Iran

  • Author(s): Honarchiansaky, Ani
  • Advisor(s): Cowe, Peter
  • Morony, Michael
  • et al.

The dissertation examines the impact of the peace Yazdgerd I (r. 399-420) maintained with the Roman emperor Theodosius II on the conditions of Christians in the Sasanian Empire and Greater Armenia under Sasanian suzerainty. The objective of this study is to create a broad, inclusive reconstruction of the situation of Christians in the Sasanian Empire during the fourth and fifth centuries. The developments of Christianity in Greater Armenia were parallel and interconnected with the situation of the Church in heart of the Sasanian Empire. It is my goal here to study the consequences that followed the peaceful reign of Yazdgerd I for the Christian communities of the Sasanian Empire and Greater Armenia over the next centuries into the early Islamic period.

Previous studies have represented the policies of the empire towards Christians as part of a deliberate, systematic plan to promote imperial centralization by defining Christians as a distinct religious group with related policies on their taxation, legal rights, and political status, a precursor to the millet system. Challenging this idea, this dissertation argues that even though Yazdgerd I permitted the Christians of the empire communion with the Roman Church and Roman centers of learning, it was the institutions which were organized during this peaceful juncture that helped the Christians of the empire retool themselves to weather the crisis that emerged in the fifth and sixth centuries.

The history of Christians in the Sasanian empire is diverse and complicated. It is not possible to trace a continuous line of policy, strategy, and ideology to understand the many narratives presented to us in our sources. However, by using both hagiographical and historiographical accounts in Armenian, Syriac, Arabic, and Greek I have tried to weave together a comprehensive account of the events preceding and following the reign of Yazdgerd I. The texts discussed in this dissertation reflect a decentralized empire that tried to achieve a level of unity especially at the time of war by constraining Christianity with heavy taxations, embarking on teaching/conversion projects led by the magi and sometimes by violence. The narratives about the encounters of the Sasanian authorities with the ecclesiastical leaders and military nobles of Armenia reflected in these accounts defined and distinguished the concepts of loyalty to the Empire and faith. In the case of the Church of the East, we encounter a Christianity that marks its place in the Sasanian Empire by rejecting the Christology of the Roman Church. The synods which were assembled to align the Church in the Sasanian Empire with the Roman Church were used to re-orient and distance itself from the “Western Fathers,” and established themselves as the acceptable form of Christianity belonging to the Sasanian Empire.

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