Communism in Ancient Persia

Mazdak and the Sassanian Persian Empire: 493 - 531 AD. Read time - 6 minutes 54 seconds

Mazdak and Communism - Origins

What are the first things that come to mind when I say “Persian?” You probably think King of Kings, Cyrus the Great, the bad guys in the movie 300, or at least that one South Park parody of it with the lesbian bar. 

One thing you (probalby) don’t  think about is communism, but the Sassanid Persian Empire was once home to a man who spearheaded a “communist” revolution of his own.

Sassanid Persian Empire: The last Persian dynasty before the Arab conquests. They ruled from 224-651.

Mazdak i Bamdadan was a religious leader in the Sassanid Persian Empire during the 5th Century. He began life as an unknown Zoroastrian priest, only authorized to perform minor rituals. 

His life would change after leading a religious movement called Mazdakism which caused quite a ruckus.

He’s frequently described as a communist by historians and political commentators alike. 

When I say communism, think more disillusioned hippie communist than hardcore Stalinist. 

Mazdak i Bamadan: A religious leader and reformer in the Sassanid Persian Empire from 493-520 AD whose teachings have been compared to communism.

Zoroastrianism: The traditional religion of ancient and Iran and the surrounding area before Islam. It was founded by the prophet Zoroaster and preached a dualist worldview between the forces of a cosmic truth and a cosmic lie. (More on this later).

Mazdakism: The communist-esque heretical sect of Zoroastriansim founded by Mazdak i Bamadan.

Sassanid Persian Empire at its peak. c. sixth century. Territory outside the dotted line indicates territory conquered by Khosrow II (after Mazdak).

Kings, religion, and communism: Name a better trio

There are two major divergences from the communism we know and don’t love today:

  • This was a religious movement
  • Mazdak partnered with a king

He partnered specifically with the Persian King of Kings, Kavad I.

*Persian kings were referred to as King of Kings.

Kavad I: The King of Kings of the Persian Empire from 488-531 who first supported Mazdak.

Now let’s get you up to speed on the political turmoil in the Persian Empire in 488 AD:

  • Kavad’s uncle and predecessor was deposed by a conspiracy of nobles and important religious figures
  • Kavad was a minor and could not yet ascend the throne
  • A noble named Sukhra would act as regent for five years until Kavad could ascend the throne

 

Sukhra: The regent for Kavad I at the outset of his reign who represented a threat to royal supremacy.

Five years later, Kavad finally became old enough to rule. However most of the government and high priests were still loyal to Sukhra. 

Kavad feared that Sukhra would try to seize power, however Sukhra was like a father to Kavad… just kidding, Kavad had Sukhra executed.

old coin depicting King Kavad I courtesy of Classical Numismatics Group, Inc.

This was good for Kavad’s immediate position and personal independence, but bad for his relationship with the other powerful people in his own court. The nobility and high ranking clergy of the Persian Empire now viewed the young king as a potential threat to their own ambitions. 

Lacking supporters among the nobles and high priests, Kavad soon took an interest in Mazdak. We’re not exactly sure how they met, but it’s thought that at this time Mazdak was preaching his communist manifesto and was becoming popular with the people. 

We all know how peasants eat that commie stuff up. 

A man named Mazdak, who was eloquent and knowledgeable and possessed of great abilities, came to the court. Qobad (alternate spelling for Kavad) listened to his wise words and made him the king’s chief minister and treasurer.

– The Shahnameh

Class power rankings

The dominant religion of Persia was Zoroastrianism. Like all religions it’s super complex, but I’ll give it a solid three bullet point summary.

  • There’s the supreme god, Ahura Mazda, who structured the universe around truth and order.
  •  He is simultaneously opposed by the dark god Ahriman, who corrupts the universe with lies and disorder. 
  • All of creation is characterized by the struggle between these two forces. 

If you ever watched The Legend of Korra it’s kind of like Raava vs Vaatu.

Under the Sassanid Persian Empire existed an influential and centrally organized priesthood who had developed a standard interpretation of these beliefs. Most importantly they divided the population into four classes. Ordered from most to least supposedly righteous: 

  1. The priesthood (not surprising) 
  2. Nobles and warriors
  3. Farmers and peasants
  4. Artisans and merchants (also not surprising) 

Of course, anyone who wanted to interpret the religion in a different way and shake up the hierarchical order was seen as a threat.

Merchant meme
Throughout history, artisans and merchants were seen as immoral and greedy and were at the bottom of many societal structures. However they often became richer than those above them

Time to seize the means

Mazdak said “nah that’s wack” and interpreted Ahura Mazda’s divine truth and order as a call to social justice and equality. 

He taught that the priests had corrupted Ahura Mazda’s goals for mankind by creating this artificial hierarchy and hoarding power and wealth in the hands of a select few. 

At this time, Persia was struggling through a year of drought and famine. Mazdak convinced Kavad to allow the commoners to empty the royal granaries and stockpiles rather than selling off the hoarded produce for a profit. 

*While this seems like the sensible thing to do, as recently as 1932 Joseph Stalin did the opposite of Mazdak and continually exported grain when eight million of his people starved to death in the Holodomor Famine.

He advocated for land reform that would take farmland from nobles and allow commoners to work the land without rent, open pastures to anybody with a herd of animals, and apply water rationing equally to the upper and lower classes.

In addition, even women were to be shared amongst the men. 

Lastly, Mazdak called for complete economic and political equality and the abolition of the strict social classes upheld by the traditional priesthood. 

Naturally, the aristocracy was disgusted by the suggestion of social equality.

Men should be equal in the world, and why should one man seek to have more than another? Women, houses, and possessions were to be distributed, so that the poor would have as much as the rich. “By the power of the pure faith I proclaim equality,” Mazdak said, “and what is noble will be distinguished from what is base; any man who follows any faith but this will be cursed by God.”

 – Mazdak in the Shahnameh

Whether or not Kavad was a true believer, this presented an opportunity for the king. With hostile nobles and priests on every side, Mazdak’s message provided the young king with a divine calling that could simultaneously weaken his political rivals and appease his restless subjects during a time of famine and unrest. 

While Kavad didn’t suddenly abolish the entire social system of his empire, he did implement many reforms in accordance with Mazdak’s teachings.

Mazdak meme

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A different type of revolution

Unfortunately for Mazdak and Kavad, this period of revolutionary reforms only lasted for three years. The nobility and the clergy still controlled most of the wealth and military, and were pissed that some nobody can come in and sway the king to take away that power. 

This anger would come to fruition in 496 when Kavad was overthrown by his brother.

While Kavad’s brother took the throne, Mazdak and his followers were left unscathed, but could no longer influence the king. 

Kavad escaped and made contact with the Hepthalites on Persia’s northeastern border three years later. 

In exchange for an alliance, the Hephthalite king gave Kavad an army, which he used to invade his own territory and depose his brother, once again taking the throne.

Hephthalites: Also called the White Huns, they ruled a powerful kingdom in Central Asia from 440-550.

Mazdak meme

Unfortunately for Mazdak, Kavad still shunned him from court. However, Kavad still allowed Mazdak to continue preaching in public with the same old message of social justice and dramatic societal reforms. 

Kavad’s newest reforms were mild by comparison. Property values were reassessed to determine fair tax rates, but this was balanced with a poll tax nominally equal for every person, as Mazdak preached. However this was disproportionately burdensome on the common people. 

For over 20 years, a small group of pro-Mazdak nobles remained at court while Mazdak continued to grow his following to tens of thousands of people. 

As Mazdak’s influence continued to grow with the populace, the traditional high priests were putting their support behind someone new – Kavad’s son, Khosrow.

Khosrow: Kavad I’s son and heir who opposed Mazdak and went on to become King Khosrow I.

Sharing is caring but you should also care about yourself

Unlike his father, Khosrow fully supported the traditional religious order and despised Mazdak’s reforms. Unsurprising since under Mazdak’s teachings, Khosrow would have a tough time inheriting the king’s wealth and would maybe even have to share the hundreds of women in his harem.

He argued that the existing class structure was an example of truth and order in the universe and argued with his father that Mazdak was actually spreading lies and causing unrest despite his diminished political power.

Silver coin depicting Khosrow I as king courtesy of Classical Numismatics Group, Inc.

If women and wealth are to be held in common, how will a son know his father, or a father his son? If men are to be equal in the world, social distinctions will be unclear; who will want to be a commoner, and how will nobility be recognized? If a laboring slave and the king are the same, when a man dies, who is to inherit his goods? This talk of yours will ruin the world, and such an evil doctrine should not flourish in Iran. If everyone is a master, who is he to command? Everyone will have a treasure, and who is to be its treasurer?

 – Khosrow criticizing Mazdakism according to the Shahnameh

As Mazdak became politically unpopular, Kavad was forced to buckle to pressure from his son and high priests or risk being deposed again. He had the leading Mazdakite nobles at court executed following a show trial, and allowed Khosrow and the priesthood to embark on a pogrom against Mazdak and his followers in 520.

Mazdak was invited to the palace where Khosrow showed him 3,000 Mazdakites, buried upside down in the earth like a gruesome forest before ordering the palace guard to seize and hang Mazdak himself. While dangling from a noose Mazdak was repeatedly shot with arrows. 

From then on Khosrow and Kavad outlawed Mazdakism in the empire.

A legacy of heresy

Kavad went on to fight a war with the Byzantine Empire beginning in 528. Ultimately he died of illness during a siege, but not before he personally crowned his son as Khosrow I, King of Kings in 531.

Mazdak on the other hand had been dead for 11 years, and his followers were stamped out completely. Despite that, the idea of Mazdakism would live on in infamy for centuries. 

Even after Persia was conquered by the Arabs in the 7th Century, Mazdak’s call for complete equality and the abolition of noble classes he was remembered as one of Persia’s greatest heresies in Zoroastrian and Islamic literature alike. 

It is manifest that, at one time, the accursed Mazdak son of Bamdat, the adversary of religion, appeared, in order to make men inimical to the religion of God…

Zand-i Vohuman Yasht

I tried to be funny 🙁

Joseph Stalin, Karl Marx, and Mazdak walk into a bar. The bartender sees these three important people and offers free drinks for his esteemed guests.

Karl Marx tells him that everyone is equal and that he should not be treated any differently. 

Stalin is suspicious that the free drink may be poisoned and orders the bartender and his family be sent to the gulags. 

Before that happens… Mazdak gives the bartender’s wife to some neckbeard. 

Timeline - Terms - Sources - Memes - Sources

473: Kavad I is born

488: Kavad becomes king under the guidance of Sukhra, a scheming nobleman.

493: Kavad becomes a legal adult and has Sukhra executed. Kavad soon meets Mazdak

494-496: Mazdak preaches his message of brotherly love and redistributing wealth with royal support.

496: Kavad is kicked out of power by his brother and flees.

499: Kavad makes an alliance with the Hephthalites and retakes his throne with their army.

496-520: Mazdak keeps preaching his communist twist on Zoroastrianism. His following grows, but without royal support.

520: Prince Khosrow leads a pogrom to execute Mazdak and 3000 of his followers.

528: Kavad and Khosrow go off to war with the Byzantine Empire.

531: Kavad dies of illness shortly after crowning Khosrow I king.

1010: Abol-Qasem e Ferdowsi publishes the Shahnameh, the Iranian national epic, featuring Mazdak as a villain.

Ahriman: The most powerful evil spirit in Zoroastrianism. He tries to corrupt Ahura Mazda’s creations.

Ahura Mazda: The supreme deity and creator of the universe in Zoroastrianism.

Hephthalites: Also called the White Huns, they ruled a powerful kingdom in Central Asia from 440-550.

Kavad I: The King of Kings of the Persian Empire from 488-531 who first supported Mazdak.

Khosrow: Kavad I’s son and heir who opposed Mazdak and went on to become King Khosrow I.

Mazdakism: The communist-esque heretical sect of Zoroastriansim founded by Mazdak i Bamadan.

Mazdak i Bamadan: A religious leader and reformer in the Sassanid Persian Empire from 493-520 AD whose teachings have been compared to communism.

Sassanid Persian Empire: The last Persian dynasty before the Arab conquests. They ruled from 224-651.

Sukhra: The regent for Kavad I at the outset of his reign who represented a threat to royal supremacy.

Zoroastrianism: The traditional religion of ancient and Iran and the surrounding area before Islam. It was founded by the prophet Zoroaster and preached a dualist worldview between the forces of a cosmic truth and a cosmic lie.

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