There have been surprisingly few studies of the ancient Persian Empire. Most of what we think we know has been garnered through the prism of Greek and later writers. In this book, Lloyd Lewellyn-Jones uses genuine, indigenous, ancient Persian sources to tell a very different story from the one moulded around ancient Greek accounts. This is the Persian Version of Persia’s history.
The Persians ruled the largest of all ancient-world empires. Remarkably it ascended out of a minuscule tribal territory in Fārs in southwest 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.
The description of how the Empire was organised reminded me a bit of the Ottomans. They didn't impose their religion, respecting local gods, or impose their architecture in the way that the Romans and the British 'branded' 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).
Another reason we know so little about the Persians is that their language was only deciphered in 1837. We, therefore, only had the Bible, Greek and Roman sources to rely on. The classical authors depict Persia in an almost wholly negative light. The Great Kings are shown as lustful, capricious, mad tyrants, and the empire is regarded as an oppressive challenge to the Greek ideals of ‘freedom’ (whatever that meant). The Greeks represent the Persians as cowardly, scheming, effeminate, vindictive, dishonourable - as classic barbarians. Even then, Persian sources say absolutely nothing of Xerxes’ Greek war. Therefore, we are entirely dependent on Greek accounts for the events of 480 BCE and the years that followed.
I confess to having never heard of the Battle of Pasargadae, one of the most significant events in Iran’s history. Here the Persians defeated an invasion by the Medes, helped by their women who turned back retreating soldiers by opening their robes, flashed their genitals, and shouted out to them, ‘Where are you off to, you quitters?! Do you want to crawl back in where you came from?’ Women continued to play a key role in the Empire, some of who you would certainly not want to get the wrong side of. Particularly Darius' mother, Parysatis, who was one of the greatest politicians the Achaemenid dynasty ever encountered. She surreptitiously policed the family’s fortunes with great care and control, attacking and destroying its enemies, and defending and supporting its loyal followers.
The author takes the reader through the different periods and their rulers and gives a detailed breakdown of how the Empire was organised. The Persians had some pretty gruesome punishments and some bizarre ones. For example, a Mede named Arbaces was charged with cowardice and weakness and was given the extraordinary sentence of having to carry a naked prostitute around for an entire day.
A better understanding of ancient Persia won't be found under the current Iranian leadership of Ayatollah Khomeini. He set in motion a systematic butchering of Persia’s ancient past. By shutting down archaeological digs throughout Iran, closing university history programmes, and cordoning off all historical monuments, the theocratic regime began a bloodless crusade against Iran’s past, making the Muslim conquest of Persia by the Arabs the genesis of a new national chronology. The names Cyrus, Darius, and Xerxes were anathema and were expunged from school textbooks.
Thankfully, we now have a proper history of ancient Persia to set the record straight.