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Persians: The Age of The Great Kings

If you're a student who has been sent here by your teacher - the 5 stretch questions on this blog post are at the bottom of the post. Good luck :)

This book opened a Pandora’s box on my view of history. I’ve long been a modern historian, scoffing and sneering at anything that looked remotely like an archaeological dig, wondering how ‘real’ history could ever be achieved when all you had was a pile of rocks and the rantings of a mad poet some 500 years after the supposed event to go on…

Well, I still think I may have a point about the above, but, the answer to that question is that a fascinating combination of a) you have to be darn clever about it and b) the blanks that are left open space for some very exciting (if not eccentric) interpretations. Combined these attributes make Ancient History a beyond fascinating subject.

It has also made me push Iran from near the bottom of my ‘Places to visit’ list to hear the top!

So, where to begin?

With an overview. The Persians rose to power by uniting/conquering the tribes in the Iranian peninsula. They captured Egypt. They battled with the Greeks routinely. An invasion was launched by Darius I in revenge for Athenian support of the Ionian rebels in Western Turkey. This resulted in the burning of Athens but then also a decisive Greek victory at Athens that sent the Persians packing. Later Xerxes invaded, again burning Athens after the Battle of Thermopylae (the famous ‘300’ Spartans (helped by thousands of others)) fell guarding a valley. This was shortly followed however by a huge Greek naval victory at Salamis – which again sent the Persians packing. The Persians were famous for the opulence of their Kings and their Royal Court, with Cyrus the Great, Cambyses II, Darius I and the Xerxes I being the most famous. Eventually the Persians fell to the might of Alexander the Great, who plundered and burnt Persepolis, the richest and most symbolic of all the Persian cities to the ground.

That’s the overview. Now, in a but more detail…

The original tribe in central Iran, called the Achaemenid, rose to power by defeating their local rivals in battle and establishing what we now call the Persian Empire. Their most famous local rival were the Babylonians, who in their own right are one of the most fascinating and important civilisations in history. They were no match for the march of the Persians and they were soon incorporated into the Empire.

The founder of the Empire was Cyrus the Great. He was famous for having a practical and generous view of how to rule Empires, he usually allowed local rulers and customs to continue more or less unchanged so long as they sore loyalty and did all the big things right – paid tax and supplied soldiers. He is also mentioned the Jewish holy books as being a Messiah because upon capturing Babylon he freed the prisoners inside that city – among who were the first Jews. They left the city and headed west to Jerusalem where they built their Temple (later destroyed by the Romans and that is left today is part of it, the so called ‘Wailing Wall’. He is also accredited with writing the first ‘charter of human rights’ as spelt out in the famous Cyrus Cylinder (found in modern day in Iraq in the 1800s and currently in the London Museum). In it Cyrus spells out his commands that allows the locals, including the Jewish prisoners, to practice their own religion. Calling him the ‘father of human rights’ however is a bit overblown, according to the author – as it was a temporary ruling focussed on just one area and was never intended as a universal declaration of what he would permit or enforce.

After Cyrus came Cambyses. He famously conquered Egypt but had a reputation for being less of a tolerant ruler. He is supposed to have built a canal linking the Nile with the Red Sea. Historians argue over whether or not this happened. There are markers along the way delcaraing that is exists and that it was built in the name of Cambyses, however little evidence that it was operational exists and many believe the Persians lacked the ‘lock’ technology required to make the waters flow in the correct manner. Cambyses wounded himself getting on his horse (Stab himself in the thigh, apparently) as he tried to return to Persia to deal with an uprising against him.

Cambyses had sent Darius, his trusted advisor, ahead of him to defeat the uprising. On arrival he did so, and upon hearing of his bosses death there then followed a struggle for power. Legend has it that it was decided by the contenders lining up their horses and seeing which one ‘neighed’ first. Apparently this was a long held tradition (a bit like drawing straws). Darius’ horse won – apparently after his servant snuck up and put something spicy on the horses private regions).

Darius would go on to become called Darius the great. He wanted to focus on expanding Eastwards into modern day India and was doing just that when the Persian territories in Eastern Turkey rose up against him in the Ionian revolt. He had to divert his armies East to deal with this threat. A few year later he marched on Athens in retaliation for their support of the revolt. He burnt the city to the ground but was then eventually defeated at the battle of Marathon before returning home – but he felt he’d taught the Greeks a lesson. Another notable campaign fought by Darius was against the Scythian Empire in modern day Ukraine. They had become a problem for him so he sailed across the Black Sea to give them a bloody nose. Initial success led to disaster as winter set in and his armies found themselves freezing and far from supply routes. Darius returned – no memorials were made to the campaign so it appears like it was an experience Darius wanted to forget. But interesting that the Persians may have been the first great Empire to come unstuck in the depths of a Ukrainian winter. And by the far the last.

Darius’ son, Xerxes, became ruler next and he too launched attacks against Athens. At first, he defeated the Greek army (Supported by their allies from around the region, notably Sparta) at the Battle of Thermopylae. This success, at which 300 Spartans were famously slaughtered in a last stand guarding the valley, allowed the Persians to burn Athens for the second time.

However, that was to be the height of Persia’s European ambitions. Time passed and Greece and then Rome rose as alternative powers. In 330BCE Alexander the Great led his mighty armies into Persia against the then King, Darius III. He would be defeated, after a series of embarrassing defeats, losing his hareem, then Babylon, and then Persepolis. Following the battle of Guagamela DArious III was once again on the run from Persian forces. One of his commanders, a man called Bessus, decided enough was enough and took the King prisoner. After some poorly handled discussions with other Persian nobles Bessus realised he would never get their support and so murdered his captive, and with him buried the Achaemenid dynasty forever. Bassus was himself later killed by Persian nobles for his actions.

And that, ladies and gentleman, is about all I can remember. A remarkable book that his blown a new period of history (indeed a whole new style of history) wide open to me – and I’m desperate to know more about the Ancients. The Persians are my ‘in’.


Stretch questions for students:

1. What was the Persian Empire and how did it rise to power?

2. Who was Cyrus the Great and why is he important in Persian history?

3. What is the Cyrus Cylinder and why is it significant?

4. Who were Cambyses and Darius, and what were their major accomplishments and failures?

5. What role did the Persians play in the ancient conflicts with the Greeks, and how did the fall of the Achaemenid dynasty come about?


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