History Summarized: Ancient Persia


If you, like me, learned about the Persian wars from the Greek perspective, or have even so much as heard of the movie 300, you might be inclined to view the Persian Empire as some kind of First Order level big bad. But that couldn’t be farther from the truth. Persia is often branded as the antagonist because of the wars with Greece and the general Hellenistic-centric take on a particular branch of ancient history. But I hope that I can show you why even someone like me a fall on Helenus Classicist who loves ancient greece more than he loves most people can see that persia has a fascinating and amazingly unique history That’s so much more than just being the bad guy in a zack snyder movie mesopotamian history before persia is certainly interesting But it’s easily its own topic so I’ll skip it for now Just know that it existed our story begins in the mid 500 BC The big kid in town was the median Empire and they had a reputation for being mean to their subjects So some people to the south Persians and in particular this guy cyrus wanted to have a go at conquering them cyrus didn’t really have a big army But he was smart And he garnered a lot of military and political support from some of the annoyed Median nobility he managed this by promising his new allies that their people would be treated as full equals of the persian and unlike some other Empires I could name he actually followed through not only that but when he defeated the Medians He made a point to forgive his defeated enemies and treated them as equals as well, but wait. There’s more uh Yeah, thank you infomercial version of blue anyway in the following years he crossed the tigris River and conquered the Babylonians and not only was he nice to the babylonians, too He famously freed their captive Jewish population and helped them build the second temple which just wow Cyrus definitely wins my award for the nicest world conquering Empire builder in history and those two things don’t usually go together so props to Cyrus for actually pulling it off, and if you know you’re herodotus You’ll also know the story of croesus king of lydia which actually happened seven years before the conquest of Babylon, but details So this guy croesus is rich Stupid rich croesus bored of the newfound achaemenid persian Empire and each one wanted to conquer the other Croesus a greek wanted to be sure of his chance, so he got an oracle from delfy That said oh great king croesus if you attack the achaemenid persian empire you will destroy a great empire and then he thought Huh, well I guess that settles that and attacked Unfortunately for him the oracle being Trixie’s always didn’t tell him that it was his own empire. That would be destroyed, so Syrus being the Clever military tactician that he was defeated croesus and conquered the whole of anatolia in the long run This is going to end up coming back to by persia in the ass but for now good for them then like we said the achaemenid persians conquered Babylon and cyrus had himself a merry little empire and By little I mean it was bloody huge No Empire in history had been so sprawling before this that thing ran from the indus Valley all the way to the Hellespont Dam but we’re actually not done yet after cyrus died his son Cambyses conquered egypt the egyptians were less than thrilled because Cambyses did not share his father’s kindness as he famously killed the SUPER SUPER SACRED Bull of Apis among many other bad things Cambyses was later Assassinated and replaced by Darius the first who put things back on track his first order of business was suppressing a series of revolts that resulted from the assassination and with only a small army against all odds He actually did it okay. So now that the person empire is all nice and resettled I should say that they had a fantastic system of Bureaucracy the Great King or King of Kings like Cyrus or Darius was the ruler of all of the empire Local power however was delegated to a series of satraps, mini Kings picked from the local nobility who ruled the 50 Odd persian provinces, like a governor. In 498 Bc a collection of Ionian Greek City-States on the coast of Anatolia revolted from Persia partially for political reasons but also because the Ionians and company didn’t much care for the rulers that persia had chosen to govern them But whatever the case there was a revolt which is what’s important here eventually Athens got involved as the narrative turned from the initial politics more towards. Hey Let’s fight the oppressive and evil persians for our freedom It’s understandable to see why the message changed the way it did in this particular situation But it misrepresents persia on the whole fight for freedom fine, but oppressive and evil hardly. There is a mountain of evidence to how much Cyrus and Darius did for the well-being of all the people in their empire. Not only were they welcoming of multiple different cultures. They restored buildings, created roads and a postal system, promoted education And we’re notably egalitarian and women’s rights. Now You can’t guarantee that the satrap of your particular province isn’t going to do something stupid and mean. Which is Unfortunately exactly what happened to the Ionians, but all things considered, living in the persian Empire was pretty great if you’re from somewhere that’s part of the western classical tradition like, say America. You might have a different more aggressive war mongery picture of persia because of the Ionian revolt and the subsequent wars with greece which, by the way, while I don’t have the time to get into the detail here if you would like to learn more about the Persian Wars please go check out this video on Greek history. So anyway, while all of those anti-persia sentiments are valid for Greeks, It’s unfair and flat-out incorrect to think that the entire empire was just plain evil. The Athenian Playwright, Aeschylus wrote his play The Persian specifically to humanize them in the aftermath of the battle of salamis. So if even he thinks that there’s more to persia than a couple of wars, surely we can all make an effort to see them for what they really are. The persians were the first and arguably one of the most successful examples of a fair, multi-ethnic, internally peaceful, and prosperous nation. And that’s seriously impressive even calling them persia kind of does them a disservice because persians were only one of the Empire’s many peoples. Back to the point all that cooperation and Trans-imperial Trade made persia fabulously rich as the abundance of art, statuary, and palaces should indicate. And also the justice system in Persia was extensive and effective at ensuring fair treatment for all. Persia had a rich cultural heritage as well, in part relating to its tradition of zoroastrianism the main Persian Religion. Zoroastrianism is a complex monotheistic belief system that heavily stresses duality between good and evil, and arguably played a strong part in influencing the later development of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. It’s easily its own topic But for now just know that it existed. All in all the century and a bit following the formation of the empire was pretty great. But things deteriorated as a result of disputes over the throne as monarchies are likely to do. Conflicts in the later 5th century left central powers somewhat weakened and the strength of the Empire continued to fray through the following century, and ultimately the weakened military failed to stop the invasion of Alexander the Splendid. And then in under a decade just like that, The Achaemenid Persian Empire was done. Alexander’s conquest in itself will be its own video soon enough but I’ll just say now that he conquered persia, and following his death the Macedonian Seleucid kingdom ruled for 200 ish years of steady decline until the parthians swept in from behind the Caspian Sea and gained back persia. By the time parthia was on the scene in the latter 2nd century BC greek power in Persia, Egypt, and Greece itself had succumbed to infighting and was mostly replaced with the romans fresh from their victories in the punic wars. The parthian Empire was a big center for trade and Commerce between Asia and the Mediterranean and this was especially lucrative because the Romans really enjoyed their chinese silk. One of the distinct features of the parthian Empire was how it reacted to its environment because the world was really changing. Although Greek power was on the decline Greek culture, which was spread through the conquests of Alexander, was still widely popular. Many people living in the Parthian Empire were greek and the Parthian culture was very much a mix of persian and greek culture in one. Parthian Kings were even known to write the word Philhellene or lover of Greece, in Greek, on their coins. And not only were the parthians kind to Greeks and Greek culture, the parthian Empire continued the Achaemenid tradition of respecting all of the cultures and peoples in their empire. Medians, Jews you name it. Conflict started happening when Rome expanded eastward in the centuries after Caesar. Looking for more land and also probably wanting a direct line to the silk trade. Famously the Parthians killed Crassus and company in 53 BC. Which then opened up the door to a flood of roman generals who wanted to succeed where Crassus had failed. And part of the difficulty for the romans in dealing with these guys was their army. The parthians were working with mounted archers Which was a serious pain for the roman infantry to deal with. Not only was combat on open terrain likely to end in a roman bloodbath. Parthian speed meant that roman supply lines were really vulnerable. On the flip side the romans used hilly terrain and ambush tactics to their advantage. And their cities were nearly impenetrable to the parthians. So I wish I had a more interesting story for you here, but it was basically just a two century stalemate. Augustus tried to make peace but Nero turned around and knackered it, so conflict continued and in the later second and early third centuries it only got fiercer. The Parthians managed to resist an invasion from Emperor Caracalla and company. But as the battles were very hard-fought, the conflict left the empire in weakened disarray. This set the stage for the Sassanid Dynasty to usurp power from the Parthians and create a new empire that would last all the way up until the Islamic Conquest. Still the Parthians had a good run, did a lot of trade, and while the government wasn’t as strong or effective as in Achaemenid times, overall things were still pretty good. For me the coolest part here is the interesting incorporation of Greek culture into persian in the realms of art, architecture, and literature as well as a persian cultural revival following the hellenistic age. It may not be Persia’s most awesomest Empire ever, but it’s pretty damn cool. In 226 a guy named Ardashir from back in ye olde persia, as in Persia before the Persian Empire happened Persia, usurped the empire from the Parthians. Through a mix of military and diplomatic maneuvering he established the Sassanid Empire, and began a shift away from Greek culture back towards the more persian stuff. That reestablishment of persian identity was a dominant and lasting feature for much of Sassanid and empire. As part of this Ardashir instituted Zoroastrianism as the official state religion. And this is where the Sassanids starts to look not quite so similar towards the Achaemenids. In the Achaemenid empire as we mentioned, things were fair and just for an overwhelming majority of people However in the Sassanid empire religious forces became much more powerful, and them along with the growing aristocracy put some seriously unwanted pressure on non-zoroastrians and non-persians in the empire. So the Sassanid empire really committed to that pro-Persia pivot, and as that distance to them from the notorious kindness and toleration of the Achaemenids, we should also note how the Sassanids are different from their predecessors the Parthians. The Sassanid Empire saw a recentralization of government following the broad localization and arguably a weakening of power under the Parthians. And after Shapur the first took the throne following the death of his father Ardashur, the Sassanid Empire also found itself winning a series of wars with Rome. Surprising right? Well, though the Parthians were locked into a stalemate in centuries prior. Rome now happens to be going through a 50 year long crisis in which the empire was in constant danger of collapsing. So the Sassanids were contending with a much weaker Rome and they found much greater success because of it. The next famous Sassanid ruler was Shapur the second who repelled eastern invaders and strengthened Persia’s overall military standing. He also helps consolidate Zoroastrian orthodoxy which in turn led to greater social strife between zoroastrians and everyone else. In particular, when Constantine declared himself the protector of all Christians in 313 the Persian zoroastrians started looking at the persian Christians really suspiciously. And then there were a bunch of persecutions, and also the increased religious pressure resulted in women having fewer rights which is never fun. While Shapur II did do a lot to strengthen the empire against Rome and eastern invaders, he’s an uncommon example of a king or shah in the persian who actively went backwards and made Persia a less tolerant and open place. And this all really went against what the persian empire was supposed to stand for. From the moment Cyrus established the Achaeminid empire he was fair and just to all. And even in the Sassanid Empire too, most of the shahs were pretty good about maintaining equal justice. But between Shapur II, the strong zoroastrian establishment, and the aristocracy, life was difficult for a lot of people of Sassanid empire for a long while. It wasn’t until almost 200 years later after inconsistent leadership and invasion from the east that Khosrow the first got things back on track. Khosrow consolidated power and diminished the influence of the religious establishment and the aristocracy. Which helped put all that strife we were just talking about on the down low. In their place he instituted a system of bureaucrats who worked on behalf of the central government. This should hopefully start to resemble the Achaemenid system. So it should be no surprise that Khosrow is by far the most celebrated shah of the Sassanid Era, and here’s my take on why. See the Parthian Empire was still Persian in theory, but to me there’s a lot of greekness going on. So it’s more its own thing and most of the Sassanid Empire up until Khosrow, was overly concerned with promoting that singular, unified, persian-zoroastrian identity in what’s arguably an attempt to reclaim the greatness of the Achaemenids. But they missed the point entirely, from the very beginning the point of the Achaemenid Empire was never about being Persian, it was about being good. Cyrus founded his Empire on fairness and openness and it succeeded because of it. Being Persian was always just a part of the Empire’s identity. Khosrow’s actions made Persia more open, more centralized, more enlightened, and more in-line with the ideal that made Achaemenid Persia so special almost a thousand years beforehand. In my opinion, Khosrow was a modern Cyrus. With that all said let’s get back to the events. While Khosrow’s reforms did a lot for the well-being of Persia, he also had a hand in a handful of conflicts. In the east and with the formerly Roman now Byzantine empire. Y’know wars on and off, treaties made and broken, land reclaim from invaders, all that jazz. Later Khosrow’s grandson, Khosrow II, launched a huge series of campaigns in the west against the Byzantine’s. Grabbing the levant in Egypt, and briefly poking up into Anatolia. In 627 the war ended and Khosrow was forced to give up the land he took during the war, and this was pretty rough for the Persians because they expended a lot of money, resources, and soldiers fighting for what ended up being a whole lot of nothing. Yeesh. Even worse they could barely catch their breath before Muhammad and friends marched north and invaded six short years later. The Sassanid Empire was crippled within a decade and wiped out entirely within two. I’ve covered some of the subsequent history of persia elsewhere. But really after the fall of the Sassanids, it’s a revolving door of Empires. Muslims, mongols, and more. And it really shouldn’t be a surprise that the heart of the Islamic Golden age was Persia. I mean, a cultural heritage with a history of producing great works of art and scholarship, suddenly becomes famous again for producing great works of art and scholarship. Definitely not a plot twist in my book. If you ask me the Persian empires, and the Achaemenid Empire in particular are, nothing short of amazing. The works they accomplished and the culture they created is one thing. But I don’t know if there’s any better example of a civilization with such famously long-standing and successful commitment to justice, fairness, and openness.. …….. aaaaand to sand powered time daggers. Gotta remember those sand powered time daggers

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