Thursday, April 7, 2011


Matthew P. Canepa, The Two Eyes of the Earth: Art and Ritual of Kingship between Rome and Sasanian Iran. The Transformation of the Classical Heritage 45. Berkeley/Los Angeles/London: University of California Press, 2009. Pp. xx, 425. ISBN 9780520257276. $60.00.

Reviewed by Peter Edwell, Macquarie University, Sydney (

Version at BMCR home site


This book is based on a PhD thesis completed by the author at the University of Chicago and analyses how Sasanian Persian and Late Roman/Byzantine rulers acted as rivals in securing claims of universal sovereignty while at the same time recognising each other's right to exist. Canepa identifies a "commerce of ideas and identities" (p. 1) between the two powers which expressed itself in "images, performances and ideologies of kingship." The competition for universal sovereignty by both courts, which at the same time inherently included the recognition of each other's right to exist, had profound ramifications for the shaping of images, rituals and discourse of legitimacy produced at the courts of each power. The agents of information and contact were primarily embassies which were "unceasing" at certain times. Canepa's efforts to use both the Roman and Iranian sources without privileging either is an important means by which he emphasises extensive mutual awareness and competition between the courts.

Chapter 2 sets the scene by considering similarities and differences in the ways Roman and Sasanian rulers employed visual symbols in art and architecture directed at internal audiences to establish and maintain their legitimacy at the top of the political and social order. Canepa emphasises the significance of Constantinople and the symbolism of its urban environment compared with the Sasanians' use of a number of cities, the sites of the regnal fires of each ruler, and more natural environments such as Naqsh-i Rustam. An important element of this chapter and the last three chapters of the book is a discussion of the means by which information may have been exchanged between the two courts through trade and war but especially through embassies. These exchanges provided each court with a greater awareness of the universal claims of the other which had a direct impact on the symbolic claims made by both Roman emperors and Sasanian kings to universal sovereignty, especially from the reign of Diocletian.

There is only passing reference to the Sasanian defector Prince Hormozd who arrived at the court of Constantine ca. 324 (not Constantius II as claimed on p.30) and there is no mention of Mariades the defector from the boule of Antioch to Shapur I ca. 250. Hormozd's knowledge of the Sasanian court would have been intimate and he was present at the courts of Constantine, Constantius II and Julian. As the emperor was regularly present at Antioch up to 250, and Mariades was a senior member of the boule, he may have provided information to Shapur.

Chapter 3 investigates initial ideas that each power had about the other from ca. AD 230 and ideas that they had about their own pasts, especially the Sasanians. Canepa illustrates how initial Roman ideas about the Sasanians were strongly influenced by entrenched ideas about the Parthians whereas the Sasanians tended to approach the Romans with fresh eyes. There is considerable and sensible discussion of questions concerning Sasanian knowledge of the Achaemenid past and emphasis on their attempts to establish links to the past and to the semi-mythical Kayanids. The appeal to the past was a key element in how the two courts related to one another at this early stage. The initial hostility to each other in the third century was an important element in the development of an "international language of kingship" by which the two implicitly recognised each other's right to exist by the fourth century.

There are some basic errors in this chapter with Shapur II's regnal years (not 309-89 [p.43] but 309-379), Aurelian's regnal years (not 270-76 [p.44] but 270-75) and Diocletian's regnal years (not 285-305 [p.44] but 284-305).

Chapter 4 emphasises the importance of the reign of Shapur I to Roman and Sasanian agonistic exchange. This is because major changes to "the bounds, claims and identity of kingship in Iran" (p.53) took place during Shapur's reign. These changes extended to Aneran (Non-Iran) for the first time, constituting a clear claim to universal sovereignty in direct competition to the universal sovereignty claimed by Rome for centuries. In Canepa's view, Shapur saw Rome as the most important enemy and this contributed to his own attitudes to kingship, demonstrated no more clearly than in the SKZ and numerous triumphal reliefs carved around the empire. Shapur's palace at Bishapur, the Paris cameo and coin evidence are also used as visual evidence to show deliberate stylistic appropriation of Roman styles as a means of demonstrating captured Roman art and science. This was an important part of competing with Roman claims for universal sovereignty and was central to Shapur's image of kingship. The importance of Zoroastrianism is also covered in this chapter and reference is made to the possible influence of other kingdoms such as the Kushans on the Sasanians.

Chapter 5 places greater emphasis on Rome in contrast with chapter 4's concentration on the Sasanians and Shapur I. An important focus in this chapter is Gallienus' attempts at a program of legitimacy in response to the devastating losses experienced at the hands of Ardashir and especially Shapur. In contrast to this, the other significant focus is Galerius' visual program of legitimation following his great victory over the Sasanian ruler Narseh in 298. In a detailed treatment of the Arch of Galerius Canepa analyses the monument as part of a direct response to Sasanian claims of legitimacy since Ardashir. Given the admirably detailed description of the Arch of Galerius, more close-up illustrations of the reliefs would have been helpful.

Chapter 6 moves to the situation in the fourth century from which time both empires thought of themselves as the rightful rulers of the entire civilised world. Significantly, this was conceived by both in terms of divine appointment and blessing. Changes in visual culture at this time include the disappearance of triumphal rock reliefs from the Sasanian repertoire and the disappearance of defeated Persians from Roman imperial art. This is largely because conflict between Rome and Persia was at a much lower level between the defeat of Julian in 363 and the sixth century. Constantinople became the centre of Roman imperial art from this time and its importance to Roman imperial expressions of legitimacy viz-a-viz the Sasanians became paramount. A number of examples from imperial art and monumental architecture which display a dialogue with the Sasanians are discussed. Canepa sees this as evidence for a change of orientation in the Roman court in the direction of competition with the Sasanian court.Images and rituals also discussed in the chapter would have been witnessed by the Sasanian envoys regularly present at Constantinople. The visual evidence from Persia for this period is more limited but the textual evidence for claims of divine legitimacy by both Sasanians and Romans is also used.

The seal discussed on pp.109-110 and the embroidery discussed on p.115 would have been better served with illustrations and the illustration of coins is quite limited throughout the book. There is an error in Julian's regnal years on p.109 (not 360-363, but 361-363).

Chapter 7 is important as it works in detail through the evidence for embassies between the Sasanians and Romans from the late third century. Canepa's argument relies heavily on envoys as the means by which symbols and rituals of power were exchanged between the Sasanian and Roman courts to develop a "shared visual, ritual and discursive language of legitimacy to conceptualise their coexistence." (p.122) The reigns of Justinian and Kosrow I provide the most detailed evidence for these embassies and there is considerable treatment in this chapter of what a Persian envoy to Constantinople in the mid-sixth century experienced and in turn what a Roman envoy to Ctesiphon is likely to have experienced.

Chapter 8 is closely related to chapter 7 and provides detail of the protocols, rituals and gifts which were exchanged by envoys. A discussion of gifts such as silver plate highlights ways in which the design of gifts was specifically aimed at communicating messages between the courts. In turn, these designs had an impact on the visual culture of the recipient court. Ritual was also important as envoys witnessed games and processions in Constantinople and hunting, polo and archery at the Sasanian court each court. An example of this is seen in Khosrow I's construction of a hippodrome in Ctesiphon where rituals were appropriated from performances in the hippodrome at Constantinople.

Chapter 9 further emphasises "an increasingly similar visual culture of power" (p.188), which contributed to a global language of legitimacy by the sixth and seventh centuries. This became part of the language not only of king and emperor, but of the aristocracies in both Sasanian Persia and Byzantium. Canepa investigates elements such as costume, court hierarchy and other ornamental motifs to support this claim. In the case of Byzantium he points to Hagia Polyeuktos and Hagia Sophia, which contain elements of Sasanian artistic and architectural style, and suggests that "by the 6th century Sasanian court art and architecture replaced Hellenistic art as the new Eurasian aristocratic visual common culture" (p.215).

In a brief epilogue, Canepa reinforces the idea of a "global, cross-cultural and extrareligious" language which had emerged between Sasanian Persia and Rome/Byzantium and which lasted beyond the dissolution of the Sasanian Empire in the middle of the seventh century.

There is a tendency throughout the book to treat exchanges between the Sasanian and Roman courts and the impact they had on their visual and discursive language as monolithic from the reign of Diocletian onwards. There were undoubtedly periods in which exchange and impact was extensive and others where it was less so. The Romans might not have had any other neighbours who were similarly constituted in very broad terms but the Sasanians certainly did in India and especially China. The reference on p.143 to Kosrow I having thrones for China, Rome and the Khazar king placed next to his as a symbol of his claim to universal sovereignty illustrates the point well. If the Roman/Byzantine court had such influence on the symbolic language and ritual of the Sasanian court we must also allow for the impact of other imperial claims to legitimacy as well.

While the emphasis throughout the book is on an "extrareligious" language of debate and legitimacy, religion—especially Christianity—is dealt with in limited ways. The letter of Constantine to Shapur II regarding the Christians of Persian (Eusebius, Vita Constantini, II.34) is surprisingly not referred to and the reportedly intimate interest of Yazdegerd I in the Persian Christian church and its synod in 410 must have had ramifications for an international language of imperial legitimacy. Christianity was, after all, a proselytising, universalising religion which Zoroastrianism certainly seems not to have been. There is also no discussion in the appropriate chapters of the presence of Zoroastrian communities in the eastern Roman provinces, which Kartir encountered during the campaigns of Shapur I according to the KKZ.

An important but unaddressed question is why both Shapur I and II did not retain the Roman territories they conquered, in spite of the fact that Canepa demonstrates quite clearly that the Sasanians were an important element in creating a language of competition for universal sovereignty. Part of the answer is undoubtedly of a mundane military nature but some consideration of the issue would have been useful.

I note also that there are a number of typographical errors in the book which should have been detected by the press in the editorial process.

Ultimately, the above comments critical of this book are for the most part contributions to the debate which Canepa has very much enlivened. This very good book is a welcome contribution to the study of the relationship between the Sasanian and Roman/Byzantine empires and is worthy of the prestigious series in which it appears.

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