Have you ever heard the commonly used adage that history is written by the victors?
Well, the totalitarian Persian Empire was defeated by the democratic Greeks, bringing
about a Greek golden age, and with it what many consider to be the dawning of the governing principles of western civilisation.
With essential contributions to our lives, including democracy, mathematics, philosophy, art, and literature, the Greeks can indeed claim to have made positive innovations to the progress of humanity.
However, the framing of this narrative distorts the truth.
The Persians were, in fact, civilised themselves – perhaps even more so than the Greeks by modern standards.
In Cyrus the Great, we have a leader with a light touch, who didn’t impose cultural hegemony over conquered lands, promoting religious tolerance and mercy instead.
We see innovations in commerce and trading networks, and funding of public works to improve the lives of citizens.
The Greek society was based on slavery, yet Persian emperors did not believe in enslaving their populations.
Studying history is always about shifting perspectives to get a better understanding.
Many assumptions about the Persians came from the writings of the Greek historian, Herodotus, the father of history.
Any amateur history student can see the potential for bias in this situation.
With this in mind, let’s dive a little deeper into the Persian Empire, and see if we can begin to shift the perspective a little. First, let’s have a look at its origins.
The Persian Empire refers to a series of dynasties based in modern-day Iran and spanning several centuries, beginning in the 6th-century B.C.E. It had a relatively humble foundation with several semi-nomadic tribes engaged in sheep and goat-farming across the Iranian plateau.
From these simple beginnings, there emerged a leader that began to conquer surrounding tribes:
Cyrus the Great, founder of this first stage of the Persian Empire, sometimes called the
Achaemenid Empire. Amazingly, this empire would become vast, a sprawling area stretching from the Balkans in the West to India’s Indus Valley in the East and going into the Nile valley in Africa.
We all know that vast empires can prove difficult to reign over; history provides us with an abundance of stories where mismanagement led to ruin.
Cyrus realised that the key to peace was calm diplomacy as opposed to oppression.
He created a new way of managing an empire, where the best elements of conquered territories were adopted elsewhere – an exchange that served to build new and better cultures There was no need to impose Persian culture on politically submissive territories.
The most famous example of his mercy is in the freeing of the Jewish slaves of Babylon once that empire fell to Cyrus.
He not only released them, but he then funded their passage home to Jerusalem and helped them rebuild their temple.
Cyrus is immortalised in the ‘Cyrus Cylinder’, an artifact inscribed with his beliefs of overthrowing tyranny.
The UN describes this as the “first charter of human rights
The second prominent figure of the Achaemenid Empire was Darius the Great, distantly related to Cyrus.
Under Darius, the Persian Empire reached its heights in terms of the land he ruled.
Maintaining the growth prevailing during Cyrus’ reign, he sought to unify the empire through added emphasis on standardization.
Under Darius, the realm introduced standardized currency, weight, and measurement systems – while Aramaic was championed as the official language. Additionally, building roads and transport networks that allowed trade and commerce to flourish throughout the empire helped create many wealthy merchants.
What was life like for the average citizen under the rule of these emperors? Undestandably, it’s difficult to paint a complete picture, but there is a lot we know from various sources. We know that the Persians practised
a monotheistic religion – Zoroastrianism – though this was not the official religion of the state.
Named after the Persian prophet, Zoroaster, rulers followed those precepts, but did not
claim to be divinely selected.
Zoroastrianism is possibly the first religion to introduce the concept of a good vs evil struggle in life, and through this morality, slavery was forbidden.
Zoroastrianism is still practised today as a minority religion in parts of Iran and India.
Women in Persian society enjoyed much more liberty than their Greek counterparts.
In the ancient Greek world, women often needed an escort to leave their houses and could not own property.
Conversely, in Persian society, women could be managers, gaining high positions in their professions, and often owned property; many owned large estates.
As for culture, we know that many art forms excelled during the Achaemenid Empire,
with many cultural norms being adapted from the acquisition of new lands.
We see from excavation sites (such as at the ancient capital, Persepolis), that Persians were exceptionally gifted rock carvers and were capable of ornate relief designs.
In other archaeological sites, we have found evidence of skilled metalwork, including silver trinkets, a golden chariot, and sophisticated carpet-weaving techniques.
This all points to a progressive society, seemingly fluid and willing to merge
culture with each new land acquisition.
It’s often said that the Persian Empire provided
the perfect blueprint for a well-managed land-based empire – a blueprint that many subsequent emperors around the world would follow. Yet, empires rise, and empires fall.
What brought about the decline of this first iteration of the Persian Empire?
As Twain said, “history doesn’t necessarily repeat, but it often rhymes,” and foten,
it’s a costly war that serves as the catalyst for decline.
The Persian Empire met its match
with a failed invasion of Greece under the rule of Xerxes I in 480 B.C.E.
Widely popular for the miraculous defeat by 300 Spartans led by Leonidas at Thermopylae, this oft-dramatized story isn’t always presented accurately.
Actually, there were a lot more soldiers involved in this conflict, including thousands of soldiers from other Greek-city states. Nevertheless, Herodotus was correct in highlighting this defense – the Greeks were heavily outnumbered yet inflicted tremendous casualties on Xerxes’ armies. Ultimately, the costly invasion of Greece failed for Xerxes,
followed by an expensive defense of Persia’s lands, diminishing the empire’s funds – which
Xerxes tried to replenish with heavier taxes. The final nail in the coffin came in 330 BC
as the Achaemenid Empire fell to Alexander the Great’s armies.
Many versions of the Persian Empire history focuses on the Achaemenid era since this is where it reached its heights.
However, it is important to delve a little deeper into the subsequent
iterations to explain how later Islamic invaders were influenced by Persian culture.
This led to another Golden Age – the Islamic one. Historians often manufacture neatly-packaged eras and foundation stories, so it’s essential to step back and understand that history is not so simple.
Once an empire is conquered, the culture and mentality of that empire do not simply dissipate.
Mapping the stories of later dynasties helps to build a picture of how the Persian culture persists to
this day across many nations in terms of language, art, architecture, cuisine, and much more.
Returning to the original premise that Greek culture formed the basis of western civilization, we can now see that the idea is not wholly supported by history.
In many ways, life was actually much more stable and progressive in 5th century Persia.
Over and above this observation, the lasting impact of the Persian-influenced middle-eastern civilisations cannot be
Right up into the modern-day scientific and technological innovations of Iran, it’s essential that we recognize Persia’s contribution to human progress.
The story of progress is much than just a Eurocentric tale based on the ancient Greco-Roman world.