the mighty persian empire -- 7/19/22

Today's selection -- from Persians: The Age of the Great Kings by Lloyd Llewellyn-Jones. The Persians ruled the largest of all ancient-world empires:

"This history [of Persia] uses genuine, indigenous, ancient Persian sources to tell a very different story from the one we might be familiar with, the one moulded around ancient Greek accounts. This story is told by the Persians them­selves. It is Persia's inside story. It is the Persian Version of Persia's history.

"What emerges is new. Far from being the barbarians of the Greek imagination, the Persians emerge here as culturally and socially sophisticated, economically strong, militarily powerful, and intellectually gifted. The Persian Version (a phrase I borrow from the title of a 1945 'conflict poem' by Robert Graves) grounds us in a new reality. It provides us with an original, sometimes startling, understanding of Persia's place in antiquity and highlights Iran's contribution to world civilisation.

"In this book, we will travel through time and space, plotting the rise, spread, and consolidation of the Persian empire from its modest beginnings as a tribal society in south-western Iran to the time it dominated the earth as history's first great superpower. We will examine the lives of its monarchs, the Great Kings of Persia, the autocratic rulers of the mighty Achaemenid family, and explore the way in which dynastic politics affected the governance of the empire at large. As we encounter a rich panoply of memorable char­acters -- kings, queens, eunuchs, soldiers, prisoners, tax-collectors, and concubines -- we will pause to explore the world they inhab­ited: their religious ideas, their political thoughts, their territorial aspirations. We will discover how and where they lived, what they ate, how they dressed, what they thought, and how they died. This book is both a political history of ancient Iran's first great empire and a socio-cultural exploration of the world of the Persians.

"The creation of the Persian empire made possible the first significant and continuous contact between East and West and prepared the ground for the later empires of antiquity. Its impor­tance in the conception of what a successful world-empire should be cannot overstated. The Persian empire opened up, for the first time in history, an international dialogue, for, by and large, the Persians were enlightened despots. They employed a surprisingly laissez-faire attitude towards their imperial authority. Unlike the Romans or the British who were to follow them as enthusiastic imperialists, the Persians had no desire to impose their language upon conquered peoples. British settlers, soldiers, merchants, and administrators carried the Queen's English to every continent and forced it on captive nations. From Britannia to Syria, the Romans employed Latin as the language of business, finance, and law and order; to be anybody in the Roman empire, Latin was required. The Persians never forced their language on subject peoples. They pre­ferred to utilise local languages for their decrees and they employed Aramaic as a form of lingua franca throughout the imperial terri­tories to help facilitate effective -- unbiased -- communication. In the realm of religion, too, the Persian kings were careful to appear as active upholders of local cults, if only to ensure control of the wealthy sanctuaries and the adherence of powerful priesthoods. Even in small administrative regions, the Persians granted temple privileges and acknowledged the support their local gods had given them. Nor was a Persian 'look' imposed upon the architecture of the empire in the way that, under the Romans and the British, a visual brand was employed across their realms. This remarkably modern and enlightened mindset can be summed up by a single Old Persian word that Darius the Great used to describe his empire: vispazanānām -- 'multicultural'.

Impression of a cylinder seal of King Darius the Great hunting in a chariot, reading "I am Darius, the Great King" in Old Persian

"Ancient Persian imperial inscriptions delight in emphasising the diversity of the empire (although they always privilege Persia at its heart). As an inscription of Darius puts it, 'this is the kingdom which I hold, from the Saka who live beyond Sogdiana, from there all the way as far as Ethiopia, from India, from there all the way as far as Sparda'. Another text, found at Persepolis, demarcates Persia as the centre of the world, but shows that the empire was bestowed on Darius as a gift by Ahuramazda, 'the Wise Lord', the chief deity of the Persian pantheon, who entrusted the king with this most precious present:

Ahuramazda is a great god. He made Darius king and gave to King Darius the kingship of this wide earth with many lands in it -- Persia, Media, and the other lands of other tongues, of the mountains and the plains, of this side of the ocean and the far side of the ocean, and of this side of the desert and the far side of the desert. 

"Darius and his successors controlled an empire which stretched out of Persia to the Mediterranean Sea in the west, and to India in the east. It extended south to the Gulf of Oman and far north into southern Russia. The empire encompassed Ethiopia and Libya, northern Greece and Asia Minor, Afghanistan, and the Punjab up to the Indus River. It was rich in countless farmlands. Barley, dates, lentils, and wheat were grown, and the lands of the empire groaned with precious materials -- copper, lead, gold, silver, and lapis lazuli. There was no kingdom on earth to rival its wealth.

"The Persians ruled the largest of all ancient-world empires. All more remarkable then is its rise to greatness. It ascended out of a minuscule tribal territory in what is now the modern province of Fārs in south-west Iran. In the Old Persian language, the area was known as 'Pārs' or 'Pārsa'. This was later heard by the ancient Greeks as 'Persis' and it is that name which has come down to us as 'Persia'. The ruling family of the Persian empire, the focus of this book, was the Achaemenids, who took their name from an eponymous founder, 'Achaemenes', an alleged ancestor of both Cyrus the Great and Darius the Great. 'Achaemenes' was also a Greek rendering of a Persian name: 'Haxāmanish', which in turn was derived from the Old Persian words haxā-, 'friend', and manah, 'thinking power'. Formed of a patronymic, the dynasty was known to the speakers of Old Persian as 'Haxāmanishiya' -- 'Achaemenids'."



Lloyd Llewellyn-Jones


Persians: The Age of the Great Kings


Basic Books


Copyright 2022 by Lloyd Llewellyn-Jones


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