Iran, sometimes referred to as Persia, is a country that as seen many empires rise and fall over the many centuries. However, in the west the empires of Iran are often seen as 'the bad guy'. The main reason for this is because the people who shaped western civilizations often warred against Iran. The Romans repeatedly fought against the Parthians, the splintering Seljuk empire warred against Christian armies during the First and Second Crusades and since 1979 the United States and Iran have been enemies. Hence quite often historical bias has clouded interpretations on the many Iranian societies. Today we shall look at an Iranian empire which has been praised and reviled: the Achaemenid Empire. The Achaemenians rose to power around 550 BCE and created an empire which stretched from the Indus River Valley to Greece. Only in 331 BCE would the Achaemenians fall. How did this empire come into prominence though?
The forging of an empire
|Cyrus the Great: http://www.iranchamber.com/history/cyrus/cyrus.php|
The empire of the Achaemenians was not the first empire to take route in what is now Iran. A group known as the Medes established themselves near the Zagros mountains in western Iran during the Bronze Age. Unfortunately most of the literary sources that we have referring to the Medes comes from Greek sources, (notably the early historian Herodotus who lived a long time after the Medes were around), so we have much historical bias and inaccuracies to work with. What makes it worse is that only two Median sites, Godin Tepe and Nush-i Jan have been excavated. The Medes would go out and conquer modern day Iran bringing into their borders another group of people called the parsus or Persians. In fact they would even use the Persians to help conquer the Mesopotamian civilization of Assyria. Oral tradition has alleged that a legendary king overthrew the Medians. Through archaeology, and bias Greek sources, we know that during the reign of King Nabonidus of Babylon (554/553-550-549 BCE) Cyrus of Anshan from his city of Fars/Anshan overthrew the Median king Astyagas around 559 BCE. Cyrus was made Cyrus II and began a series of conquests which would rival that of Alexander the Great and Napoleon. Until his death around 530 BCE Cyrus was conquer the rest of Iran, Mesopotamia, Afghanistan and Central Asia with him supposedly being killed while campaigning against the Scyths east of the Aral Sea. His son, Cambyses, would go on to conquer Egypt. Cyrus, however, would be later called Cyrus the Great.
|Tomb of Cyrus: http://www.historvius.com/tomb-of-cyrus-the-great-770/|
The Achaemenians managed to achieve such successes against their opponents for several reasons. Greek sources allege that the Medians were skilled horsemen and it is likely that the Persians were equally as capable with horses. Horses can be used for chariots and chariots were powerful weapons, they were fast and hard to stop. However, it is one thing to conquer land it is another thing to keep it. Hitler and Napoleon were both heavily hindered not from opposing armies, but rather opposition among the people (although the armies were the main reason why they were defeated). Most of how he kept people on side shall be explained later on but Cyrus and his successors managed to establish a pro-Achaemenid government and appeal to the people. A recurring theme in history is how important religion was (and is) in society. When Cyrus took Babylon the Cyrus Cylinder claimed that he took Babylon a the bequest of Marduk, a Mesopotamian god, and restored his cult to dominance. He also extended tolerance to Jews by letting them return to Jerusalem. By appealing to the religion of most people in Babylon this helped Cyrus keep his empire. He also kept in place most of the ruling elite and had a military governor, with Babylon his son Cambyses, to rule the province. The best way to stop people from revolting was to let them rule themselves. Which brings us nicely onto the next point.
Ruling an Empire
The above image shows how large the Achaemenid Empire was. Empires throughout history faced revolts based on religion and nationalism ranging from the Iceni revolts against Roman rule in Britain to countless uprisings against the often intolerant rule of the British and other European powers during the 1800s. The Achaemenids did face these types of uprisings but there were never an Achaemenid equivalent of Boadicea or George Washington. In fact the first widespread uprising against the Achaemenid was under Darius I, and even then it was because Darius had usurped the throne. How then did this empire manage to rule over so many different peoples?
The first main reason was communication. Despite the animosity Herodotus had for the Achaemenids he did complement how good their communication was. Efficient roads allowed messages sent via donkey to travel 200 miles a day. Aramaic was used as the lingua franca of the empire and it used the Phoenician alphabet instead of cuneiform to allow it to be more widely used. As stated earlier the Achaemenids used the pre-existing elite to rule the empire. This decentralization greatly aided the rulers. They would appoint Persian officials to make sure the territories were ran efficiently and the locals were normally left alone. The Achaemenid rulers actually referred to themselves as the 'king of kings' as they literally were this. Sources indicate that local cultures were regularly respected and even adopted by the Achaemenids. The tomb of Cyrus is heavily based on Greek design and the tomb of Darius has decorated Egyptian columns and Greek reliefs. This tolerance can also be seen in an account when Cambyses went to Egypt:
The King of Upper and Lower Egypt [Cambyses] came to Sais. His majesty betook himself to the temple of Neith. He touched the ground before her very majesty as every king had done. He organized a great feast of all good things for Neith, the Great One, the Mother of God, and the great gods who are in Sais, as every excellent king has done.
By showing religious and cultural tolerance they created an empire which would last. Speaking of religion...
Religion and tolerance
The Achaemenids were Zoroastrian. Little is known about the founder of the religion, Zoroaster, but it perfectly encapsulates the key beliefs of the Achaemenids. Due to the inclusive nature of Zoroastrianism this allowed Cyrus to claim the victory over Babylon in the name of Marduk. Zoroastrianism states that there is one god, Ahura Mazda, who is opposed to the destructive nature of Angra Mainyu. Sacrifice centering on fire is a core part of the belief as fire is believed to represent Ahura Mazda's light and wisdom. Persecuting religious minorities is prohibited in Zoroastrianism so the Achaemenids never enforced their religion on their subjects. When Babylon was captured and the Jews were allowed to rebuild the Temple in Jerusalem this allowed them to support Cyrus. In fact he is mentioned in the Bible and has been called 'God's anointed'. In fact Zoroastrianism would deeply affect Jewish thinking and its influence would inspire several Christian teachings. Although Cyrus's tolerance could be seen merely as pragmatism rather than an actual tolerance. Another thing to mention is how Zoroastrianism forbade slavery. Slavery was banned in the Achaemenid Empire where the 'cradle of democracy' Athens had slavery.
Like most societies the Achaemenids were patriarchal. Men had primary inheritance rights and women were often silenced from politics, they were not allowed to perform religious ceremonies or hold office. However, they did have some power. Both men and women could work equally as laborers and women frequently headed the workforce in a position called arraššara pašabena where they could earn a high wage. Women have often been reported owning property and being educated on an equal basis as men also. High ranking women could also influence the king. Two women, Amestris and Amytis, managed to convince the king to spare the life of a local leader named Megabyzus. Although subordinate in society they were not completely suppressed.
|A shot from 300: http://screenrant.com/300-prequel-movie-xerxes-sandy-109614/|
Many people will recognize the above image from the hit film 300. Based on a graphic novel, based on a film called The 300 Spartans, based on ancient Greek propaganda and based on the Battle of Thermopylae where, according to Herodotus, 300 Spartans fought valiantly against the 5 million Persians under the tyrant Xerxes. However, this is all bull****. The truth lies to before Cyrus took power. The Greeks had colonized parts of Anatolia (modern day Turkey and Cyprus) and were known as the Ionian Greeks. Cyrus would later conquer them but unlike in other areas there was no local aristocracy or elite that was not divided to rule through. Hence the Persian imposed rulers, called 'tyrants', were met with constant revolt. In fact the Ionian Greeks were the few who opposed Achaemenid rule based on culture/ethnicity. In 499 BCE the Ionian Greek city states rose up and Darius I went to stop them. Athens and Sparta started helping the rebels which caused Darius to invade Greece. He landed at Marathon, about 42.195 kilometers or 26 miles 385 yards from Athens (and coincidentally the same distance as a marathon), but was defeated. After the death of Darius his son Xerxes decided to do what his father failed to do and conquer Greece. The Battle of Thermopylae was one such battle where King Leonidas of Sparta was killed. Xerxes was later defeated after another year of fighting.
Why is this important? Figures like Herodotus writing about history can show just how easily it can be distorted. From a society which forbade slavery, gave women some rights, adopted cultures and tolerated religions we instead saw it is a tyrannical monarchy. Would democracy have been stamped out in its infancy if the Achaemenids had won? Next time on World History we'll look at this as we look at Ancient Greece.
The sources I have used are as follows:
-The Persians by Gene Garthwaite
-The Human Past edited by Chris Scarre
-The Penguin History of the World by John Roberts