Sunday, March 25, 2007

The Persians

As promised last week, here is the second installment of my discussion of the two peoples involved in the movie 300. Today, it's the Persians.

In the writings of 18th and 19th century historians, the ancient Persians were the poster boys for the idea of Oriental Despotism. According to this world view, which still rears its head from time to time, Asiatic civilizations are characteristically authoritarian, scornful of individual liberty, sycophantic, decadent, and lacking in innovation. Their accomplishments are achieved via brute force or sheer numbers rather than ingenuity. The Persians in 300 display all of these features. The truth, however, is rather different.

The Persian homeland of Iran was one of the earliest cradles of civilization. Agriculture may have first developed in the Zagros mountains of western Iran more than 11,000 years ago. In southwestern Iran, the land of Elam developed cities in parallel with the better-known states in southern Mesopotamia (modern Iraq). The Persians themselves were highland farmers and herders, who were also highly-trained horsemen. The various Persian groups were united in the middle of the 6th century B.C. by a man named Kurush, known to the Greeks and us as Cyrus. Cyrus' first accomplishment was the conquest of Media, a kingdom based in northern Iran. The Greek historian Herodotus has an account of the conquest that shows that by his day it had already become shrouded in semi-legend. The Medes had participated in the destruction of the Assyrian kingdom 60 years earlier and had a very similar lifestyle to the Persians, such that outsiders, such as the Greeks and Hebrews, had difficulty telling them apart, and both names were used almost synonymously.

After uniting with the Medes, the Persians had a powerful army. Their first target was Asia Minor, modern Turkey, which was conquered in 547 BC. The Babylonian and Egyptian kingdoms followed. The Persians were very skilled at warfare, particularly siegecraft, which is often a weak spot of cavalry-based armies. Large siege mounds, such as that preserved at Paphos on Cyprus, would allow Persian armies to go over enemy walls. Alternately, as at Babylon, rivers or canals were diverted to allow the Persians to go under them. We tend to take the viewpoint of the Greeks, for whom the Persian Wars were a defining moment, but except for the two campaigns, the Persians weren't very interested in Greece; Cyrus himself died fighting to extend the empire into Central Asia, and northwestern India would be one of Persia's most profitable provinces. This first Persian empire is known as the Achaemenid Empire, after a supposed ancestor of Cyrus and the later usurper, Darius I, named Achaemenes (Persian Haxamanis).

The Persians developed a reputation as relatively benign rulers. The Empire was largely decentralized, divided into several provinces, or satrapies as they are known in Persian, ruled by governors, or satraps, who were often selected from the local nobility. Local religion and culture was tolerated -- if you paid obeisance and tribute, the Persians generally left you alone. It is no coincidence that the only foreign conquerors who are given favorable treatment in the Bible are the Persians. There were serious revolts: the Ionian revolt of 499 BC, which triggered the invasion of Greece, is one prominent example, and the Egyptians rebelled several times. On the whole, however, the empire was fairly prosperous and peaceful.

The Persian empire had a significant impact on later civilizations. Alexander, who conquered the empire, and his successors borrowed much from Persian administration, science and art (such as their formal gardens, or paradeisos, whence our term paradise). In turn they influenced later states such as the Parthians and the later Persian empire, known as the Sassanian Empire. The Shahs of Iran deliberately emphasized the linguistic and cultural debt owed to ancient Persia, something that continues under the revolutionary regime. For Iran to complain about the portrayal of the Persians in 300 may see risible to us. To them, however, Cyrus and Xerxes are as central to their national identity as George Washington and Paul Revere are to us.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I've been told, that modern Iran only recently started to embrace it's pre-islamic past. Afaik, not so long ago the persian empire was seen as a bunch of godless barbarians by the conservative leaders. But just now, as 300 is released, this has changed. So today even the more critical and liberal interlectuals join in to an outcry of protest, that was started by the conservative regime and successfully unites many parts of iranian society. At least, thats what i've been told.