The Persian empire: myth vs reality
Thomas Harrison sets the record straight on some of the many misconceptions that have grown around a powerhouse of the ancient world...
The Persians produced one of the great empires of human history. Its heartland lay in modern-day Iran, but, at its fullest extent, the Persian king’s writ ran from Egypt or Macedonia in the west to modern-day Afghanistan in the east.
Persian domination was no flash in the pan. Founded in the mid-sixth century BC in the breathtaking series of conquests of Cyrus the Great, the empire was only brought to an end over 200 years later, through an equally extraordinary figure. Alexander the Great stormed through the western provinces of the empire (or ‘satrapies’, as they were known), and then rounded off his conquest by setting light to the royal palace of Persepolis as a gesture of revenge for the Persians’ earlier invasion of Greece.
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But how do we know what the Persian empire was really like? When Persepolis was excavated in the 1930s, a vast archive of administrative documents was unearthed. These small, simple clay tablets have transformed our knowledge of the everyday realities of Persian rule (at least within a few early years). We now know, for example, how the relays of couriers, who carried messages for the king at supposedly superhuman speed, were organised, and who was who in the Persian court. We also have a small collection of the Persian kings’ pronouncements inscribed on stone – timeless statements of the kings’ power and legitimacy in beautiful, austere language.
For a narrative of what happened, however, and for detail of court life, we are dependent on the accounts of Persia’s enemies, and above all Greeks such as Herodotus, the father of history, or Xenophon. As a result, reconstructing ancient Persia presents special challenges. Can you rely on the Greek version of events at all? Or is it somehow possible to sidestep the Greeks’ bias while extracting worthwhile historical facts from their accounts?
Historians still tend to take sides. Indeed, 2,500 years later, it is tempting to imagine that the Persian Wars are still going on.
Myth 1) They were pampered
The Persians “are much more effeminate than they were in Cyrus’s day,” complained Xenophon. The problem was that they got used to all the luxuries of the lands they had conquered. The king, in one account, had agents searching the known world for new foods that might satisfy his increasingly jaded taste buds. In fact, so pampered were Persian monarchs that they only ever walked on rich carpets, their every whim catered for by a household of eunuchs and courtesans (one for each day of the year). Hardly surprising then that “these Frenchmen of the East,” as one 19th-century writer termed them, were swept away by Alexander’s Macedonian cavalry.
This picture of inevitable Persian decline is mostly fantasy. They may have enjoyed extravagant ceremonial banquets but the clay tablets of Persepolis do not suggest anything remotely flimsy about the empire they ruled over. And, far from disappearing from view after its defeats at the hand of the Greeks, Persia remained a huge, if largely off-stage, presence through Greek history.
Greek writers liked to play with images of Persian decadence, but they knew the truth very well. Persian meals may have lots of courses, according to Herodotus, but they are small extra courses. If the Greeks got into the same habit, he quotes the Persians as saying, they would never stop eating.
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Myth 2) They were peace-lovers
The Persian empire may have been built on conquest, but by comparison with its near-eastern predecessors or with Alexander the Great it was fundamentally peaceful in nature. Persian art does not, in general, show us rebels prostrate before the king but images of the peoples of the empire offering their cheerful submission. Stories of the kings – or, more often, their wives and mothers – inflicting hideous tortures and deaths on those they saw as rivals for the throne are the product of Greek bias and misogyny.
It is important not to be misled by the image that the Persian kings wanted to convey. The images of Persian art suggest an inevitability and a timelessness to their power. But there is no mistaking the threat of brute force under the calm surface, or the pride that the king takes in conquest for its own sake. “If now you shall think,” declares the Persian king Darius in one inscription, “‘how many are the countries which King Darius held?’, look at the sculptures of those who bear the throne… then shall it become known to you: a Persian man has delivered battle far indeed from Persia!”
As for stories of cruel torture, we can only rely on probability. History shows us plenty of monarchies in which lack of accountability leads to extreme violence. Can we really exclude ancient Persia?
Myth 3) They killed creativity
If the Persians, rather than the Greeks, had come out victorious in the Persian Wars of the early fifth century, it would have killed western civilisation dead. It was the bustling, democratic atmosphere of cities like Athens that gave rise to the best of Greek literature and culture, but a Greek satrapy of the Persian empire would inevitably have been a grey and conformist place. According to the historian Anthony Pagden: “Had [the Persian king] Xerxes succeeded… there would have been no Greek theatre, no Greek science, no Plato, no Aristotle, no Sophocles nor Aeschylus.”
Would a Persian victory have made so much difference? And is it only prejudice that tells us that democracies have more vital cultures? There is evidence that the king would not have trampled all over the political systems in place in the Greek cities, so long as they did not cause trouble. After crushing an earlier revolt of some Greek cities, the Persians in fact toppled a group of tyrants and introduced democracy. And for the vast majority of Greek cities, it was never a simple choice between submission to Persia and outright independence. These cities, most of them tiny, operated in the shadows of their larger neighbours, their power of action vastly restricted. A change in the background power might have made little difference.
The Persian king liked to present himself as a kind of global policeman, sorting out the squabbles of other peoples. We should, of course, be sceptical of such claims, but it is possible that some Greeks – weary of their constant local wars – may just have seen some benefits in Persian rule. So would a Persian-backed peace in fact have enhanced Greek creativity?
Myth 4) They were tolerant
Unlike some other empires (Rome, say, or Britain), the Persian empire never set out to establish a single, universal way of doing things. It never sought to impose a common language or common religion on its subject peoples, but followed the principle of ‘live and let live’, of tolerance of different religions and cultures. As a result, if you are looking to judge the impact of Persian control on the peoples of the empire, you shouldn’t expect to see strong cultural influence of the sort that Rome had on the Mediterranean world.
The truth is that the Persian kings could not realistically have imposed a universal religion or language over such a diverse empire, even if they had wished to. When they were in Babylon or Egypt, the kings behaved – at least outwardly – as if they were themselves Babylonian or Egyptian. But this approach was probably shaped by pragmatism rather than principle. A balance between clear displays of force and championing the status quo was an effective way of maintaining their power, and getting on with what all empires do in varying ways – exploiting the conquered.
Tom Harrison teaches ancient Greek and Persian history at Liverpool University. He is the author of Writing Ancient Persia (Bloomsbury, 2011)
This article was first published in the September 2011 issue of BBC History Magazine
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