History of Ancient Persia

Dr. Lloyd Llewelyn-Jones

The Ancient Persian Empire

…The earliest Iranians seemed to have come in from the Northeast of the modern-day state of Iran.  Moving in, colonizing the north and then moving down to the south.  We must remember that in antiquity the Iranians were always tribal peoples.  The people that we know as the Achaemenids, are the Achaemenid clan, tribal clan, from the south of Iran.  Actually, the whole of the Iranian world was made up of vast numbers of tribes.  They came in to the Iranian plateau as nomadic horse men and it’s very important to remember that this essential nomadism was retained as a quality of the Iranians throughout the Achaemenid period.  And I would argue still actually is there in the Iranian mentality today as well.

This is the interesting things.  Because these horsemen sweep in to what we now call Iran and this of course butts up against the very ancient civilizations of Mesopotamia.  The ancient pastoral and city dwelling states of Mesopotamia.  here we have actually two very different people’s meeting in this border zone of the Zagros mountains which of course separates Iran today from places like Iraq.  Two very different ideologies going on there as well. But what’s remarkable about the Iranians as they move in to this area; they begin to assimilate their ways into the ways of the people of Mesopotamia. And Elam is a very, very ancient Mesopotamian civilization.  It sits on the flat plains, the flood plains, the alluvial plains, of Mesopotamia and it was a very highly sophisticated culture.  The capital, the royal capital really, was the city of Suza which continued in existence right the way through into our Persian period.

Here essentially Elam was a Mesopotamian style of civilization, an urban civilization, which drew on many of the cultural identities of Mesopotamia; Babylon, Ur, all these kind of cities, but also become then a focus for the incoming Iranians because Elam was the nice meeting point, if you like, in the lower plains between these two civilizations.  It’s not surprising really that as the Iranians settled down in Southwest Iran, in the Fars area, they came into contact with this border zone of Elam carrying with it Mesopotamian backgrounds as well.  The Iranians became very influenced by this Mesopotamian culture so we see this horseman nomadic culture coming into contact with this lowland farming and urban civilization.  Farming where the sheep, the cow, the bull becomes very important so even animal ideology is completely different between these two people.  We get this mix going on.  In the past historians used to think that there was this great link between the Persians and the northern parts of Iran, the Medes, but now more and more archeology investigation into iconography of early seals and imagery are revealing, in fact, Elam is the key to everything. The Iranians, the early Iranians, were becoming Elamized more and more.

Cyrus the Great

So we see first of all Cyrus establishing the empire.  One of the big things he does is move his forces north, to the north of Iran, around the Hamadan area where he conquers the tribes of the Medes.  Then he moves, with this sphere of influence of the Medes once had, into Northern Iraq, into Anatolia, and this is where our Greek sources start talking about Cyrus.  We have the fall of Sardis, the great city of Sardis, in the western part of Anatolia.

So Cyrus suddenly from this, being a small tribal leader in the south of Iran, suddenly is conquering the whole of Asia Minor, modern day Turkey.  With that then he doubles back and conquers Babylon.  Now Babylon was the biggest city the world had ever known.  It was a super city, a metropolis, bigger than anything.  You have to think of Babylon on the scale of kind of New York of the ancient world.  It was a multi-cultural, multi-ethnic cultural religious political capital and it falls to Cyrus.

It’s Cyrus’ son, Cambyses, who then goes and conquers Egypt.  Now Egypt is a very political – politically important land to hold because it’s enormously wealthy.  Egypt was traditionally the bread basket of antiquity; the Nile flows through it making it one of the most fertile lands.  More importantly ideologically it was vital for the Achaemenids because Egypt was such an ancient society and we suddenly see these new Persian rulers integrating themselves into very, very ancient Pharaonic traditions as well.

Now there’s a rupture in Persian history at the death of Cambyses and our sources become very muddled, very indistinct, at this period.  Because we have a new man suddenly rise to power he claims to be of the family of Cyrus and Cambyses but probably he wasn’t at all and this is the character of Darius, Darius the First, who becomes known as Darius the Great.  He probably initiates a coup d’état.  He possibly murders the genuine heir to the Persian throne and he establishes his own reign.

Centrality in Persian Identity

The Achaemenids clearly have this self-perception of them being the center of the world.  This is really well represented even in the titles the kings use for themselves.  They are, of course, King of Kings, but they’re also King of all People’s in all Lands.  They are King of Egypt, they are King of Babylon, they are ipso facto King of Persia.  Their titles alone suggest this idea of multi-ethnicity, multi-lands coming to them.

Persian kings demand symbolically from their empire representations of that land.  One thing they always ask for is earth and water.  That, I think, physically means that upon the conquest or at least the acquisition of another part of the empire it probably means that representatives came to the king bearing maybe a gold dish of earth and a cup of water from that land.  It’s a physical manifestation of the symbolic rite of conquest, the act of conquest over this land.  Territory, land, space, centrality is really a very important Persian conception and it’s all there in the texts and in the art and the architecture of the empire itself.