A State of Mixture is a rich and complex study of the interweaving of Christian and Zoroastrian communities in late antique Iran. Payne draws on a wealth of sources, most notably East Syrian hagiography, providing a portrait of a “state of mixture” in place of older and misleading views of the two communities as discrete groups at perennial odds with each other. Payne shows how Christians constantly negotiated their position in the Sasanian state, repeatedly testing boundary lines and overlapping their communal identities with those of the Zoroastrian communities amongst whom they lived. State authorities used intercommunal boundaries to reinforce socioreligious and political norms and to foster the integration of Christians into their own, hierarchically organised cosmological project. Examining periods of apparently savage persecution and looking beyond the fervour and outrage of Christian martryological texts, Payne clearly demonstrates the fluidity of the Sasanian state and the deep integration of Christian nobles within its structures, providing a context for efforts by the last major Sasanian king, Khusrau II, to appropriate the traditional role of the Roman emperor as the touchstone for the world's Christians after Iran's victories at the turn of the seventh century.
Payne organises his study into five self-contained chapters that lead the reader chronologically and geographically through the late antique Iranian landscape, from the persecutions of Shapur II to the demise of Khusrau II and the legacy of the “state of mixture,” and from Bisitun and Mesopotamia to the palaces of the capital. In the first chapter, Payne shows how episodes of persecution subordinated Christians in Iran, defining the parameters of their inclusion in a hierarchy governed by the cosmological precepts of Zoroastrianism. Violence reinforced boundaries, keeping Christians subservient to the “Good Religion.” Another form of boundary testing is found in the second chapter, which examines the ways in which Christian hagiographies visualised the ordeals of martyrs in the landscape. Locating such trials at places of great importance to Zoroastrians such as Bisitun superimposed a Christian identity on the land, giving a sense of belonging to Christians “within Zoroastrian politicogeographical categories” (72). This was especially important to the thousands of captives forcibly moved to Iran in the Romano-Persian wars of the third and fourth centuries. But martyr legends went one step further, specifically giving Christian saints authority over the land and thereby explicitly contesting Zoroastrian rites that underpinned agricultural prosperity. From one perspective such cultural appropriation was combative; yet from quite another, it provided both communities with something in common. By overlapping a Christian identity onto spaces that were the preserve of the Zoroastrians, churches were strengthened as they adopted some of the self-same categories—here, by intimate connections to the land—that had long defined Iranian communities.
Chapters three and four address similar ambiguities. Efforts by Christian leaders to wrestle with problems of marriage (particularly “substitute successorship”) and feasting challenged Zoroastrian jurisprudence, but remained somewhat politically neutral, explicitly avoiding a challenge to the courts themselves. While Christian leaders railed against what they saw as incest and bristled at Iranian feasting customs, their efforts at defining categories of inclusion and exclusion for Christians only underscores the importance of “shared practices.” Oppositional attitudes therefore grounded Christians and Zoroastrians at comparable sociopolitical focal points, even while they appear to have been driving them further apart. Crucially, by avoiding a deliberate political challenge to the state's juridical norms, Christian communities could both compromise (from a spiritual perspective) and remain secure in a politically subservient position (from a “worldly” perspective). In chapter four, Payne places the Legend of Mar Qardagh alongside the History of Karka (Kirkuk in northern Iraq) to show another facet of the integration of a dynamic Christianity into the society of Iran. Here, Christian authors drew on the rich range of myth and historiography to locate the ancestors of Christian nobles in terms familiar to Iranians, fostering the integration of the two communities. As with the question of martyr cults in the landscape (chapter two), Christian writings endowed adherents of their religion with a stake in Iran's empire.
In the fifth and final chapter Payne gives a broader meaning to his exploration of late-antique Iranian political life by examining the actions and self-representation of the Sasanian court. He is particularly interested in the ambiguities surrounding the figure of Khusrau II. The king of kings was a patron of the martyr St. Sergius (whom Theophylact memorably called “the most efficacious saint in Persia”) and enjoyed a close relationship with the Roman emperor Maurice, who sent Khusrau a robe adorned with crosses after he was restored to the Sasanian throne. As the eventual conqueror of most of the Roman empire, Khusrau later “sought to undo the divisions that Chalcedon had generated” (185) and presented himself (with some success) as a legitimate ruler for Rome's Christian populations. When Khusrau was toppled by his own aristocrats following the victory of Heraclius, it was Christian monks who gave his body a decent burial. The elaboration of Khusrau's character and political outlook in this chapter gives further context to studies of the complexity of the relationship between Rome and Iran in late antiquity.
In his conclusion, Payne considers the legacy of his research, looking beyond the collapse of the empire in the face of the Arab invasions of the seventh century. While much of A State of Mixture concerns the efforts of Christians to negotiate their position in the state, Payne is interested throughout in the acts of state authorities and Zoroastrian elites as well; in his closing remarks, he reminds the reader of the imprint of East Syrian Christianity in places as far afield as Kerala and China, an imprint made possible by the acts of the Iranian state as much as those of the Christians themselves.
In a clear and highly readable narrative that scholars of late antiquity will find accessible and extremely useful, Payne traces the evolution of a “dynamic Christianity” that made important contributions to the Sasanian state. It did so by remaining politically subservient, a place in the state hierarchy reinforced through periodic episodes of violence and by constant negotiation and the testing of boundaries by both sides. Payne convincingly overturns older ideas that pitted Christians and Zoroastrians against each other. Christians were not “insulated” from the state; rather, they were assimilated into it by the very mechanisms, such as persecution, that had been hitherto presumed to operate with starkly different results. A State of Mixture is a highly significant contribution to the study of the late antique east and eastern Christianity, to the burgeoning scholarship on the Sasanian empire, and to the growing corpus of the study of ancient borderlands.