Reading History #15 – The Persians

Copyright @2015 Robert M. Shurmer

Questions to consider:

  1. How did the Persian emperors manage to conquer and control such a large and culturally diverse empire? How did they secure their legitimacy as rulers?
  2. What benefits came with accepting Persian rule?
  3. What intellectual/philosophical concepts did the Persians pass along to the Judeo-Christian tradition?

 And seek the peace of the city, to which I have caused you to be carried away captives; and pray to the Lord for it: for in the peace thereof shall be your peace. (Jememiah 29:7)

Photo by dynamosquito, Paris, 2010.

Photo by dynamosquito, Paris, 2010.

During the 1980s the two states of Iran and Iraq engaged in one of the longest conventional wars of the 20th century, a war may have killed over one million people and left millions more wounded. It devastated the economies and wrecked the infrastructure (physical, technological, and human) of two of the most advanced states of the Middle East. While the reasons for the conflict are many and various, these three stand out: religion, identity, and possession of the rivers flowing into the Persian Gulf. The very name we use to identify that body of water is still disputed, as some insist on calling it the Arab Gulf (Google maps lists both). The argument provides insights into a major and long-standing ethnic divide between the peoples of Mesopotamia living in Iraq and those living just east of the Tigris, in Iran, which was known as Persia until 1937.

Persia was one of the largest and historically significant empires of the ancient world and originally emerged in what is now the southern region of Iran. The ancient people known as the Persians derive their name from the region in which they first dwelt, the province of Pârsâ (now called Fars), a regional name still evident in the dominant language spoken in Iran, that is, Fârsi or Pârsi. Separated by the Zagros Mountains from the Tigris and Euphrates River valleys, the tribes of this region remained culturally distinct from the peoples of the flood plains, i.e. the Sumerians, Babylonians, and Assyrians. And while the Semitic peoples of Mesopotamia had been carving out empires since 3000 BCE, the Iranian peoples had only arrived in the region east of the Zagros Mountains around 1000 BCE. and were ruled by petty chieftains until the Medes established a kingdom in 615 BCE. Though the Iranians (Medes) arrived relatively late as an organized kingdom, they quickly established their presence over northern Mesopotamia by conquering the Assyrians in 612 BCE. The Persian Empire was established fifty years later when the Pars subsequently conquered the Medes.

Language and religion united the core of the Iranian peoples (henceforth referred to as Persians) both in ancient times and in the 1980s , though a different religion to be sure by the 20th century. The Persians, not surprisingly, embedded their cultural and political origins in a myth that associated the first civilized man with the benevolence of a god.  Here is ‘The Beginning of History’ from the Persian Shahnameh (Book of Kings), the epic of Iranian history from creation to the Arab conquest in the 7th century:

What saith the rustic bard? Who first designed
To gain the crown of power among mankind?
Who placed the diadem upon his brow?
The record of those days hath perished now
Unless one, having borne in memory
Tales told by sire to son, declare to thee
Who was the first to use the royal style
And stood the head of all the mighty file.
He who compiled the ancient legends,
And tales of paladins, say that Gayōmart
Invented crown and throne, and was a Shah.
This order, Grace, and lustre came to earth
And shone so brightly that the world grew young.
Its lord was Gayōmart, who dwelt at first
Upon a mountain; thence his throne and fortune
Rose. He and all his troop wore leopard-skins,
And under him the arts of life began,
For food and dress were in their infancy.
He reigned over all the earth for thirty years,
In goodness like a sun upon the throne,
And as a full moon over a lofty cypress
So shone he from the seat of king of kings.
The cattle and diverse beasts of prey
Grew tame before him; men stood not upright
Before his throne but bent, as though in prayer,
Awed by the splendor of his high estate,
And thence received their Faith.

Gayōmart (or Keyumars in modern Farsi) literally means ‘alive-mortal’ or simply man. According to Persian cosmogony, then, Gayōmart is both the first man and the first earthly king; he is the first law giver, the font of order and justice on earth. He is the legendary founder of Persian kingship, the man who, according to Persian texts, was the first to acknowledge the supremacy of the god of True Light, Ahura-Mazda, who in turn sanctified his reign. Kingship and religion, again twisted round each other like strands of DNA, formed the building blocks of civilization and empire.

Persian religion, Zoroastrianism was named for its founder, Zoroaster, who is credited with first composing the hymns of praise to the single, primordial, benevolent creator god, Ahura Mazda (‘Light of Wisdom’). Like so many other founding figures of the ancient world, Zoroaster’s true identity and historical dates are disputed and ultimately unknowable. The Persians associated him with the first (mythical) kings and while some early religious texts might date to the 900s BCE, Ahura Mazda does not make an appearance in writing until the time of the Persian Empire, that is c.550s BCE. Zoroastrian teaching impressed upon its followers the idea of a divine energy radiating through the natural world. Purity might be achieved by praising the True Light (Ahura-Mazda) and tuning in on the correct wavelength. Maintaining proper relations with the forces of nature, therefore, was the path to wealth and health, both physical and mental. Sunlight and fire, being direct emanations of Ahura Mazda, were considered particularly holy and played a large role in the religious rituals presided over my the magi, Zoroastrianism’s priestly caste.

Ahura-Mazda ruled through his mouthpiece, the shah, and was never depicted in art (except during the later Parthian Empire). Besides the empty chariot that accompanied the imperial army on campaign, which suggested Ahura-Mazda’s presence with the emperor during battle, all ceremony and ritual centered on the shah himself, as the god’s representative on earth. Zoroastrian cosmology depicts a universal struggle between good and evil, darkness and light, and, unlike what we read in the Enuma-Eliš, puts man directly into the fight. Instead of serving the gods, Zoroastrians were asked to engage actively in the cosmic struggle against evil by attuning themselves to the natural world, doing good deeds, and seeking truth.

Though the mythical line of Iranian kings reaches back into the dim mists of myth and legend, the historical empire of Persia only begins with the reign of Cyrus in 559 BCE. This first king is known simply as Cyrus the Great because he established Persia as a dominant power over the Iranian Plateau, Mesopotamia, and Anatolia, first by conquering its northern neighbor Media, which had controlled Persia as a vassal province. [Because Media was the first state conquered and incorporated into the Persian Empire, foreigners often confused the two peoples, which is why you will often find that Greek writers refer to the Persians as the Medes. Both are considered Iranian peoples.] Cyrus’ military campaigns against Media began seventy-five years of almost constant war and expansion for the Persian Empire. By the time he died, Cyrus had extended the borders of the Persian Empire from modern-day Afghanistan in the east to modern-day Israel and Turkey in the west.

Besides toppling the Median Empire (the Medes had already taken down Assyria, destroying Nineveh in 612 BCE), Cyrus conquering Lydia in 546 BCE and the Neo-Babylonian kingdom in 539 BCE. Under subsequent Persian rulers, Cambyses and Darius I (r.522-486 BCE), Persia also absorbed Egypt and the Punjab, a Persian word meaning ‘Land of the Five Rivers’, in north-western India. So by the time that the former tyrant of Athens, Hippias, joined the court of the Darius I, the Persian Empire stretch some 3800 miles west to east, about the distance between Washington, D.C. and Alaska.  Essentially Persia succeeded in extending its rule over all of the civilized world west of India. This gargantuan, multi-ethnic state, a military superpower with a core civilization of its own, played the pivotal role in the development of Western Civilization, as Persia’s attempt to draw the peoples of Aegean Sea into its incredible powerful zone of control ultimately brought on a showdown with the Greeks.

Cyrus’ ubiquitous military campaigns had made ‘first-contact’ with Greek society which existed on the edge on the known world.  Scattered as they were along the coasts of the Aegean and Black Seas, Greeks and their colonies seemed to be everywhere engaged in vigorous commercial enterprises. Cyrus inherited a sizable Greek population (the Ionian cities), about which he knew little, when he conquered Lydia in 546 BCE. Once free and flourishing along the eastern coast of the Aegean, these Greek cities had already lost their self-governing institutions, the highly valued core of Greek political life, to the ambitions of Lydia’s kings. Prior to his own war with Persia, king Croesus of Lydia had, bit by bit, overpowered and absorbed the Ionian Greeks into his kingdom — the more significant poleis that he conquered were Miletus, Ephesus, Samos, and Mycale. After its unsuccessful war with Persia, Lydia itself was reduced to a mere province. Both Lydians and Ionians had a new master who dwelt in far off Pasargadae. By the mid-6th century BCE no independent Greek polis remained in Asia.

Herodotus tells us that after defeating the Lydian army and capturing Croesus, Cyrus had built a large pyre, upon which he planned to burn Croesus and fourteen sons of the leading families of Lydia. He continues:

Quite what Cyrus had in mind, I am not sure: perhaps he was aiming to dedicate the choicest offerings in his possession to some god or other; or perhaps he was looking to fulfill a vow; or perhaps he had heard of Croesus’ reputation as a god-fearing man, and made him mount the pyre to see if some god would save him from being burned alive. Whatever the explanation, Cyrus did what he did. And Croesus, standing there on top of the pyre, and in full consciousness of his ruin, was suddenly reminded of the maxim, that seemed to him now touched with divine wisdom, pronounced  by Solon, when he had declared that no one still living ranks as happy. The recollection of this prompted Croesus to sigh bitterly, and to utter a groan: breaking a long silence, he repeated, three times over, the name of Solon. (Herodotus, 5-86)

So by the time when Athens had embarked upon its radical democratic experiment in Attica, the Greek cities of Ionia were already under Persian control, ruled by a regional governor (satrap) who resided in the old Lydian capital city of Sardis. In 513 BCE Emperor Darius I had even built a pontoon bridge across the Hellespont and taken an army into Europe near the Greek polis of Byzantium. Whether or not European civilization would remain beyond the orbit of the great Persian Empire would be decided by a twenty-year conflict waged against Darius and his successor Xerxes by a handful of independent Greek city-states.


The Persian imperial government revolved around a single person, the emperor, and he ruled by divine right. In other words, his god (Ahura-Mazda) granted him the authority to rule. A collection of elite Persian families, known as ‘The Sons of the House’, essentially ran the government and it served primarily their own interests. However, Cyrus understood something about authority and governance and the difficulties that ruling over such a large and multi-ethnic state presented. He appointed twenty regional officials, known as satraps, to rule regionally in his name. These officials were men intensely loyal to the emperor, often handpicked from a local aristocracy or ruling house (Croesus of Lydia is a good example). When Persia first attempted to subdue the Greek mainland, the emperor Darius I famously offered to make the king of Sparta a satrap for Greece. While the satraps ruled ‘in the voice of the emperor,’ they essentially presided over elaborate courts of their own, living amidst a great deal of luxury while carryout orders from the central government of the Persian court, located since about 500 BCE  in the newly constructed city of Persepolis.

A satrap administered his province by controlling local officials and cities. He collected taxes and dispensed justice (in the name of the emperor of course). Another responsibility included maintaining the road system, which was a vital part of the infrastructure of the empire. It should be stated that these satraps, however exulted or wealthy, were closely watched and controlled. Persian secretaries, emissaries, and inspectors were dispatched from the emperor’s court to keep an eye on each one. To check their own ambitions, satraps were neither given control over fortresses nor command over a royal army. Even though the satrap of Babylon, for example, might be a Babylonian, his chief secretary, financial officer, and commanding general were all Persians who answered directly to the shah.

Historians generally agree that Persia’s success depended upon, first and foremost, a formidable military machine that grew in size along with the empire, and, secondly, a reluctance to impose Persian culture and religion upon subject populations that shared neither. Considering the sheer size of the Persian Empire, Cyrus’ decision to guarantee and protect regional cultures seems wise. Imposing Persian culture and religion on such a vast and multi-ethnic empire might have doomed the political project from the start. Restoring the worship of Marduk in Babylon and Yahweh in Jerusalem, to take two of the more prominent examples, made Cyrus more of a liberator and a restorer than a conquering tyrant. The Cyrus Cylinder, which tells of the conquest of Babylon in 539 BC, famously portrays the Persian emperor as a true king (as opposed to the Babylonian Nabonidas) called by God to bring peace and stability to the empire by restoring shrines and temples.

The army, however, was the main arm of Persian power and authority. In order to facilitate the movement of his army, Emperor Darius I improved old roadways and constructed new ones into conquered regions. This project, know as the Royal Road, ultimately stretched 1667 miles, from the imperial capital at Susa (and later Persepolis) to the capital of Lydia at the city of Sardis. It was extended to the Greek port-city of Ephesus on the Ionian coast, where it tapped into the vigorous trading network of the seaborne Greek city-states.  A Persian courier, it was said, could travel between these two cities (Persepolis and Ephesus) in about three months in a method that looks a lot like the Pony Express: couriers riding from station to station, exchanging horses that were maintained in royal stables at regular intervals along the way. The Greek historian Herodotus commented that ‘neither snow, nor rain, nor darkness of night prevents these couriers from completing their designated stages with utmost speed,’ a statement has been appropriated by the US Postal Service. From the Ionian coast the road passed eastward through both Nineveh and Babylon and on to Susa and Persepolis. A traveler could easily continue eastward from Nineveh or Persepolis, following the established paths that lead into both India and China. This is the origin of the Silk Route.

It has been argued that the Persian Empire was the first to govern an array of culturally and ethnically diverse peoples by embracing their distinctions. Rather than impose religious and cultural homogeneity, i.e. impose the culture of the conqueror upon subject peoples, the Persians seem to have accepted regional variations. They governed by offering stability and by imposing universal responsibilities (military service and taxation) upon conquered territories. The Babylonians and Jews, for example, were allowed to keep their gods and local customs, as long as they continued to pay their taxes, sent men to the army, and unquestioningly supported Persian rule. Whether or not this ‘policy’ constitutes the first acknowledgment of fundamental human rights, as modern-day Iranian propagandists like to claim, remains questionable, but it does account, in some part at least, for the cohesiveness of the huge geographical area that fell under Persian domination in the 6th and 5th centuries BCE.

That being said, the Persians may have been planning to homogenize the empire culturally by elevating the status of Zorastrianism throughout the cities of the empire. Emperor Darius I, the great builder and administrator, did attempt to create one universal and imperial religious system for all his people. His idea involved replacing the hundreds of idol-worshipping cults in his vast empire with a single, benevolent, just, and all-wise god. Ahura-Mazda, ‘god of Light, father of Justice, creator of Truth.’ Was it not Ahura-Mazda who had invested the Persian shah with the power to rule over all men? Was it not Ahura-Mazda who, at the end of times, would destroy evil and sit in judgement over all men? Do these religious assumptions sound familiar? Darius boasted in one of the inscriptions on his tomb: “What is right I love and what is not right I hate. The man who decides for the lie I hate.” The implications are clear for those who follow other gods.

[INTERESTING: While the contemporary Islamic Republic of Iran has readily embraced and exploited the history of the Persian Empire as its super-power heritage, the state has gone to lengths to act in ways that Darius himself was moving. Instead of protecting religious freedom, a tradition with which Iranian propaganda ironically likes to credit Cyrus, Iran is one of the worst offenders against religious freedom according to the UN. Zoroastrianism has all but disappeared in Iran.

U.S. Department of State, Annual Report on International Religious Freedom, Released by the Bureau for Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor Washington, DC, 2011.]


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