The Empires of Persia

The land of Persia was situated in present day Iran. It was largely overshadowed for many years by the several Mesopotamian Empires, but came into its own roughly 600 B.C.E. A series of four dynasties built a large empire that lasted more than one thousand years.

The Achaemenid Empire: Before 1000 B.C.E. the Medes and Persians migrated to Persia from central Asia. They spoke an Indo-European tongue and were part of the larger Indo-European migrations. They were mostly nomadic shepherds with a small amount of agriculture; and organized themselves by clans rather than by states or formal political institutions. They were, however, loosely subject to rule from the Babylonian and Assyrian Empires, and paid tribute to Mesopotamian overlords. They were very skilled militarily; were expert archers and horsemen, and often raided adjacent lands. When the Assyrian and Babylonian Empires crumbled, the Medes and Persians built their own empire.

The first Persian Empire was founded by Cyrus the Achaemenid. He became king of the Persian tribes in 558 B.C.E. and ruled from a mountain fortress. He soon controlled all of Persia, and in 546 defeated the Anatolian Kingdom of Lydia. Within twenty years, his kingdom stretched from India to the Egyptian border. He probably would have attacked Egypt also, but was killed in battle in a battle with nomadic raiders. His body was placed in a tomb in Pasargadae that still stands today. His son, Cambyses, conquered Egypt; and later Darius, the greatest of the Persian rulers, (521-486 B.C.E. conquered territory as far as the Indus River and West to the Black sea.

Darius’ empire stretched over 1800 miles and encompassed over thirty million people. It was the largest Empire the world had seen. It included over seventy ethnic groups and a plethora of religions and customs. Darius and his successors often adopted grandiose titles: "The Great King, King of Kings, King in Persia, King of Countries, etc. They appointed governors to serve as agents in the various regions and divided the empire into Satrapies, each governed by a Satrap. Although the Satraps were almost all Persian, local officials were hired to fill offices below that level, thus insuring a degree of local control.

In an empire the size of Persia, close control of the Satraps was difficult, and there was always the danger they might revolt and attempt to establish an independent kingdom. To keep this from happening, the emperies established military officers and tax collectors in each satrapy who answered to the Emperor. The Emperors also established a system of secret police, known as "the eyes and ears of the king" who traveled throughout the country with their own military forces and conducted surprise audits and collecting intelligence. This enabled the rulers to maintain close control over a huge empire.

Rather than irregular payments of tribute, Darius imposed a tax system by which each satrapy was required to pay annually a set quantity of silver. This was sometimes to be supplemented with horses or slaves. He also standardized coinage which made trade within the empire more efficient. He left the local laws of his subjects largely in place, although he did hire experts to see that they were in harmony with imperial law. This move made governance much easier than had he imposed a uniform law throughout the Empire, which might have fostered resistance.

Persian Emperors built a magnificent road, the Royal Persian Road which extended 1600 miles from the Ephesus to Susa in Iran. Inns were situated along the road, and it was policed to protect against robbers. Caravans could traverse the entire road in 90 days. A courier service was instituted with 1000 postal stations along the way at which fresh horses were maintained. Couriers could travel the length of the road in a week.

The Greek historian Herodotus praised the couriers in a phrase that has been adopted as the slogan of the United States Post Office: "Neither snow, nor rain, nor heat, nor gloom of night stays these couriers from the swift completion of their appointed rounds."

Cyrus and Darius were remarkably tolerant of the various cultures of their Empire. This is illustrated by Darius allowing the Jews of the empire to return to Jerusalem and rebuild the temple destroyed by the Babylonians. This story is recounted in the Old Testament. Their policy of tolerance lent stability to the Empire. However, the emperor Xerxes (486-465) attempted to impose his own personal rule on the empire and flaunted his Persian identity. (The previous rulers had avoided this effrontery.) This attitude caused tremendous resentment, especially among the Greek subjects who lived in Anatolia and on the Aegean coast. They ultimately rebelled, which resulted in a series of Greek/Persian conflicts known as the Persian Wars. They are discussed more fully in notes on the Greeks.

Darius managed to put down the revolts, but attempted to prevent further rebellion by attacking the Greek city-states and making them part of his Empire. The Persian Army was larger and more powerful than the Greek armies but their supply lines were overstretched. They were defeated by the Greeks at the battle of Marathon. Ten years later, Xerxes tried again, and was also defeated. The Second Persian War included the famous battle of Thermopylae.

The Empire ultimately collapsed when attacked by Alexander of Macedon, commonly known as Alexander the Great in 334 B.C.E. Alexander defeated the Persians at the Battle of Gaugamela, and the Empire was dissolved within a year. Alexander then portrayed himself as the successor to the Achaemenids and stepped into their stead, even reappointing a number of Satraps. Alexander did not live to enjoy his conquests, as he died a few years later at age 34.

Following his victory, Alexander’s troops burned Persepolis to the ground. The conflagration was so great that the ruins of the city were buried under three feet of ash.

The Seleucid, Parthian, and Sasanid Empires: After the death of Alexander, his empire was divided between three of his top commanders. The former Achaemenid Empire went to Seleucid, the commander of Alexander’s personal guard, and thereby established the Seleucid Dynasty. They substantially maintained the Achaemenid social structure and encouraged Greek settlers to move there. They faced opposition, however, from the Native Persians, and the Empire gradually weakened and shrank in size. It finally collapsed in 83 B.C.E. when conquered by the Romans.

The Parthians established an empire in Iran to Mesopotamia and also retained many local customs. They were organized into a lease federation of rulers rather than a centralized government. Decisions were made by a council of rulers. They also developed an especially strong cavalry, by feeding their horses alfalfa in the winter, which made them very strong. The stronger horses could support the weight of an armored warrior and the combination was lethal against the nomadic warriors who clashed with them. (The latter normally rode ponies.) The Parthians eventually broke free from the Seleucids and established their own Empire. Their most famous ruler was Mithradates I. The empire lasted for three centuries before its collapse.

The Parthians were defeated by the Sasanids, and ruled for 300 years. Their rulers took the title "Shah en Shah en Eran" (King of Kings in Iran.) The last ruler of Iran before its Islamic Revolution was known as the "Shah." The empire ended when it was conquered by Arabs who killed the last Sasanid ruler and made it part of the Arabic Islamic Empire.

Imperial Society and Economy: Public life and social structure was significantly more complex than had been the case during the early complex societies. Large numbers of bureaucrats were needed to operate centralized governments. As a result, an educated class developed. Trading created a wealthy class which distanced itself (and often lived in considerable tension with) the poorer citizenry. Slavery was also more commonplace.

The early social structure of the Medes and Persians had been similar to that of the Aryans in India with warrior, priestly and peasant classes. They followed a semi-nomadic lifestyle for many years in which family and clan relationships were very important. Each clan was headed by a male warrior. However, as the empire grew and became more complex, educated bureaucrats were needed. By the time of the Achaemenid and Seleucid Empires, Persian cities had numerous tax collectors, administrators and recording clerks. Because the Empire included people of many nationalities who spoke a variety of tongues (the proper designation is of a polyglot empire) a large corps of translators were kept on the government payroll. Since the Empire was dependent on this group of government professionals to operate efficiently, they soon rivaled clan leaders for influence and power.

A substantial majority of Persian society were free citizens who were not slaves; but did not enjoy the privileges of clan leaders or government bureaucrats. Inside Persian cities, free people were often merchants, craftsmen, and lower ranking government employees. Members of the free societies participated in religious observances at local temples. The temples themselves often owned agricultural and craft industries such as textiles, and the local free populace were allowed to share in the temple’s income. Women who wove textiles were paid in rations of grain, wine, beer, and occasionally meat. In rural areas, some free peasants owned their own land while others who were landless worked as tenants or laborers. Free peasants had the right to marry and move to other areas at their will, or could serve in the Persian military. Low annual rainfall required the building of irrigation systems, including a series of underground canals known as qanat which allowed the transport of water without loss to evaporation.

Slavery was commonplace in Persia. A substantial number of slaves consisted of prisoners of war captured in military campaigns. Although some were military, others were civilians who had either resisted Persian control or rebelled against them. Still others were former merchants or artisans who had fallen into debt, and sold themselves or their families into slavery. Slaves were the property either of an individual, the government, or even a temple or other community institution. They could not move or marry without the consent of their masters, although slave families were seldom separated. Although many served as domestic servants or skilled laborers for wealthy people, some worked for temple communities on agricultural tasks. They often developed considerable influence themselves and could accumulate wealth.

The economic foundation of Persian society was agriculture. The most commonly grown crops were barley and wheat, but peas, lentils (a form of bean) mustard, garlic, onions, cucumbers, dates, apples, pomegranates, pears and apricots also were cultivated. The most common beverages were beer and wine. Quite often, a huge agricultural surplus was harvested, much of which was sent to cities for distribution to government employees and the populace, although a substantial amount was used by Persian Emperors to furnish lavish banquets. Darius often entertained as many as ten thousand guests at a single banquet.

Although agriculture was the backbone of the economy, long distance trade was also important. Several conditions made trade convenient and profitable:

The relative stability of the Persian empires.

The general prosperity of the area.

The use of standardized coinage.

Good trade routes including highways such as the Royal Persian Road and established seaways.

In addition to markets, several large cities, such as Babylon, maintained banks and investment companies that engaged in commercial operations. Various regions in the empire contributed a variety of products. India contributed gold and ivory; Iran and central Asia turquoise and other semi-precious stones; Mesopotamia and Iran furnished textiles, mirrors and jewelry, and Phoenicia contributed glass, cedar, timber, and dyed woolen fabrics. Long distance trade was especially prominent under Alexander the Great and the Seleucids. The interchange of ideas in trade led to a mingling of religious ideas, art, and even languages.

Persian Religions of Salvation: Early Persian religion was in cult form which often venerated the sun, moon, water and fire. Their gods were similar to the Aryan gods of India, including the use of a hallucinogen that called haoma, similar to the Aryan soma. Their common religious features resulted from their common Indo-European ancestry. They glorified strength and martial virtues.

Later, Zoroastrianism, based on the teachings of Zarathustra (also known as Zoroaster) emerged. Zarathustra, although historical, little is known about him because few records survive. There is no certain date for his lifetime, although it is generally thought to be between 700 – 600 B.C.E. He was born into an aristocratic family; was most likely a priest who became disenchanted with traditional religion, and left home at age twenty in search of wisdom. After ten years of searching, he had a series of visions that the supreme God whom he called Ahura Mazda ("wise lord") had chosen him as his prophet.

Zoroastrian teachings were disseminated orally by priests known as Magi. Their teachings were not reduced to writing until the Seleucid dynasty, when they were recorded in a holy book known as the Avesta. Zarathustra’s own works, known as the Gathas, were hymns composed in honor of the various deities he recognized.

Zoroastrians recognized Ahura Mazda as the chief God and the creator of all good things; but who engaged in constant conflict with an evil adversary known as Angra Mainyu (the "destructive" or "hostile" spirit. Below him were six lesser deities. Zarathustra taught that after a twelve thousand year struggle, Ahura Mazda would prevail, and evil would disappear forever; however the souls of humans would face judgment; after which they would receive reward in the form of paradise, or punishment in the form of a realm of pain and suffering based upon their previous lives. Rather than a renunciation of the physical world, Zarathustra considered it to be a blessing from Ahura Mazda. Human beings should enjoy the world and all its elements so long as they did so in moderation and behaved honestly towards each other. Zoroastrian teaching is often summarized in the formula: "good words, good thoughts, good deeds."

Zoroastrianism became prominent in Persia in the reign of Darius when stone inscriptions devoted to Ahura Mazda and stating opposition to evil were erected. Darius did not attempt to exclude or suppress other religions, but rather tolerated all faiths within the Empire, although he considered Ahura Mazda superior to all other deities.

Zoroastrianism suffered under the invasion of Alexander the Great, who burned temples and killed many magi. Since the religion was transmitted orally, much of it was lost with them. The religion did survive and was cultivated by the Parthians who used it to rally support against the Seleucids. During the Sasanid dynasty, it revived, as the Sasanid rulers supported it. Competing religions were often persecuted, and Zoroastrian theologians prepared holy texts in writing which comprised the Avesta. Although it is doubtful that many people understood the teachings of the religion, many attended rituals and worshipped at its temples.

In the seventh century, C.E. Islamic invaders overthrew the Sasanid Dynasty and although they did not outlaw Zoroastrianism, they placed severe political and financial pressure on it; primarily by imposing heavy taxes. Most followers converted to Islam, but some few fled to India where they became known as Parsis ("Persians.") The religion still exists there today, although it has very few followers.

Numerous Jewish communities lived in Persia following the collapse of the United Kingdom of Israel, and these Jews adopted a number of Zoroastrian teachings, including the encouragement of high moral standards, the belief in supernatural forces which promoted good and evil, the doctrine of reward or punishment after life for ones deeds during life; and the conviction that good would ultimately prevail over evil. Zoroastrian teaching is particularly reflected in the Book of Daniel in the Old Testament. Later Christians further refined teachings of heaven and hell which became central elements of the faith. Islam also adopted similar teachings; but all seem to have originated from Zoroastrianism.