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THE FIRST HEGEMON
The Great Persian Empire from Cyrus to Alexander
When Cyrus entered Babylon in 539 B.C., the world was old. More significant, the world knew its antiquity. Its scholars had compiled long dynastic lists, and simple addition appeared to prove that kings whose monuments were still visible had ruled more than four millenniums before.
—A. T. Olmstead, History of the Persian Empire, 1948
I should be glad, Onesicritus, to come back to life for a little while after my death to discover how men read these present events then.
—Alexander the Great, quoted by Lucien in “How to Write History,” circa AD 40
The word paradise is Persian in origin. Old Persian had a term pairidaeza, which the Greeks rendered as paradeisos, referring to the fabulous royal parks and pleasure gardens of the Achaemenids—the kings of the mighty Persian Empire who ruled from roughly 559 to 330 BC. Indeed, the earliest Greek translators of the Old Testament used this term for the Garden of Eden and the afterlife, as if to suggest that the Achaemenid paradises were as close as man had come to replicating heaven on earth. (1)
The Achaemenid paradises were famous throughout the ancient world. Their riches, it was said, included every tree bearing every fruit known to man, the most fragrant and dazzling flowers that grew anywhere from Libya to India, and exotic animals from the farthest reaches of an empire covering more than two million square miles. There were Parthian camels, Assyrian rams, Armenian horses, Cappadocian mules, Nubian giraffes, Indian elephants, Lydian ibex, Babylonian buffalo, and the most ferocious lions, bulls, and wild beasts from throughout the kingdom. Not just formal gardens, the paradises were also centers for horticultural experimentation, zoological parks, and hunting reserves. A royal hunt in a single paradise could yield four thousand head. (2)
In this respect, the Achaemenid paradises were a living metaphor for the Achaemenid Empire as a whole. Founded around 559 BC by Cyrus the Great and spanning more than two centuries, the Achaemenid Persian Empire was, even by today's standards, one of the most culturally diverse and religiously open empires in history. The Achaemenid kings actively recruited the most talented artisans, craftsmen, laborers, and warriors from throughout the empire. In 500 BC, Persepolis was home to Greek doctors, Elamite scribes, Lydian woodworkers, Ionian stonecutters, and Sardian smiths. Similarly, the Achaemenid military drew its colossal strength from Median commanders, Phoenician sailors, Libyan charioteers, Cissian cavalrymen, and hundreds of thousands of foot soldiers from Ethiopia, Bactria, Sogdiana, and elsewhere in the empire. (3)
For most Westerners, antiquity refers solely to classical Greece and Rome. But the Achaemenid Empire was the first hyperpower in world history, governing a territory larger than all the ancient empires, including even Rome's. Achaemenid Persia dwarfed—in fact conquered and annexed—the great kingdoms of Assyria, Babylonia, and Egypt, ruling at its peak as many as 42 million people, nearly a third of the world’s total population. (4) How could a relatively small number of Persians govern so vast a territory and population? This chapter will suggest that tolerance was critical: first in allowing the Persians to establish their world–dominant empire, then in helping them maintain it.
WHERE IS BACTRIA, AND SHOULD WE BELIEVE HERODOTUS?
As early as 5000 BC, the great plateau that is now modern Iran was already populated. Its early inhabitants had some curious family practices:
[A]mong the Derbices, men older than seventy were killed and eaten by their kinsfolk, and old women were strangled and buried…Among the Caspians, who gave their name to the sea formerly called Hyrcanian, those over seventy were starved. Corpses were exposed in a desert place and observed. If carried from the bier by vultures, the dead were considered most fortunate, less so if taken by wild beasts or dogs; but it was the height of misfortune if the bodies remained untouched. …[F]arther east, equally disgusting practices continued until Alexander's invasion. The sick and aged were thrown while still alive to waiting dogs. (5)
Starting in the second millennium BC, these friendly peoples succumbed to the Aryan conquest. The term “Aryan,” despite the Nazis’ later twisting, is essentially a linguistic designation referring to a variety of peoples who spoke eastern Indo–European languages or dialects and migrated from southern Russia and central Asia into India, Mesopotamia, and the Iranian plateau. How the Aryans overpowered the preexisting societies is unclear, but within a few hundred years they had established kingdoms in eponymous territories throughout the region: for example, the Medes in Media, the Bactrians in Bactria, and the Persians in Persis or Parsa. (6)
The Persians themselves consisted of a number of tribes and clans, of which the Achaemenids were one. In time, the Achaemenids would extend Persian rule to the other Aryan kingdoms. Indeed the name Iran derives from the Persian word Eransahr, meaning “Empire of the Aryans.” The Achaemenid Empire was, however, far larger than modern–day Iran. Its provinces or satrapies, with their archaic names, correspond to some modern headline-making regions in the Middle East and central Asia. Babylon, for example, which the Achaemenids conquered in 539 BC, stood in what is now Iraq, approximately sixty miles from Baghdad. Sogdiana was located in modern Uzbekistan. And Bactria, so significant in the Achaemenid Empire, maps roughly onto present-day Afghanistan. (7)
A note about sources: The Achaemenid rulers left virtually no written histories of their own empire. The ancient Persians transmitted the triumphs and deeds of their kings primarily through oral traditions. The few written records we have from the Achaemenid kings consist principally of royal inscriptions—for example, Cyrus’s cylinder or Darius’s trilingual engravings on the cliffs of Behistun. Unfortunately, these inscriptions are not narrative accounts of actual events. Rather, they are abstract exaltations of royal power and virtue and more than a little propagandistic. Cyrus’s cylinder, for example, proclaims, “I am Cyrus, king of the universe, great king, mighty king, king of Babylon, king of Sumer and Akkad, king of the world quarters.” (8)
As a result, most of what we know about the Achaemenid Empire comes from a very limited number of Greek sources, including Xenophon’s Anabasis, Aeschylus's Persians, and, most important, Herodotus’s Histories. Most of these classical authors lived in the latter half of the Achaemenid period and presumably based their accounts in part on oral testimonies and Persian legends passed on over the years; here again, it may be difficult to separate historical fact from political propaganda.
Additionally, depending on the era, the Greeks were the enemies, subjects, or conquerors of the Persians. Thus, Greek authors were not necessarily the most impartial expositors of Persian history—imagine Saddam Hussein writing A History of the United States, 1990-2006. As a result, Greek references to Persians as “barbarians of Asia,” or the frequent Greek portrayals of the Achaemenid kings as decadent and gluttonous, should be taken with a grain of salt. An exceptional case may be Herodotus, who wrote about the Persians with such little hostility, relative to that of his contemporaries, that Plutarch accused him of being a “friend of the barbarians” (philobarbaros).9
In general, there are enough corroborating sources from different perspectives, often supported by archaeological evidence, to feel comfortable with most of the basic facts about the Achaemenid Empire. Where there are doubts, discrepancies, or differing interpretations among historians, I will point them out.
TOLERANCE AND THE RISE OF THE ACHAEMENID EMPIRE
The story of the Achaemenid Empire begins with Cyrus the Great. Cyrus’s origins are shrouded in legend. According to the version favored by Herodotus, Cyrus was the grandson of Astyages, the weak final ruler of the powerful kingdom of Media. When Cyrus was born—to Astyages’s daughter and her husband, Cambyses, a Persian from the Achaemenid clan—Astyages ordered his newborn grandson killed, after an ominous dream suggesting that Cyrus would one day depose him.
The plan failed, as these types of plans always do. Harpagos, whom Astyages had ordered to kill Cyrus, gave the baby instead to a shepherd, who raised Cyrus as his own. Astyages eventually discovered that Harpagos had deceived him and that Cyrus was alive, but his magi advisors reinterpreted his dream so that Astyages feared Cyrus no longer. Cyrus was sent to Persia, where he rejoined his Achaemenid family. Harpagos, however, did not fare as well: Astyages invited him to a banquet, where he served him the flesh of his own son mixed with lamb. (10)
A different version of the Cyrus legend has him abandoned by the shepherd but saved and suckled in the wild by a female dog. Yet another says that his mother was a goatherd and his father a Persian bandit. However he got there, Cyrus had by 559 BC become a vassal king under Astyages in Persia. A few years later, Cyrus led a rebellion against Astyages. Assisting him were a number of Persian tribes and clans, most prominently the Achaemenids, as well as the same Harpagos who had been served the unappetizing dinner.
In 550 BC, Cyrus defeated Astyages and took over the Median kingdom and its claims to Assyria, Mesopotamia, Syria, Armenia, and Cappadocia. By 539, Cyrus had conquered both the Lydian kingdom (located in modern–day Turkey) and the formidable neo–Babylonian kingdom. He was now ruler of the largest empire that had ever existed. (11)
The strategy Cyrus employed was essentially “decapitation”—but of leadership, not of the leader’s head. After conquering each new kingdom, Cyrus simply removed the local ruler, typically sparing his life and allowing him to live in luxury, and replaced him with a satrap who governed the territory, or satrapy. The satrap was almost always a member of the Persian aristocracy. Beneath the satrap, however, Cyrus interfered very little with the daily lives of his subject peoples, leaving them their gods and their disparate cultures. He embraced linguistic diversity, including as languages used for official administrative purposes in the empire Aramaic, Elamite, Babylonian, Egyptian, Greek, Lydian, and Lycian. He codified and enforced local laws, keeping in place local authority structures. It was not unusual for high–ranking officials in conquered territories to retain their official positions under Achaemenid rule. Babylonian records also show that the same families often dominated business before and after Cyrus's conquest. (12)
Perhaps most striking was Cyrus’s religious tolerance—his legendary willingness to honor the temples, cults, and local gods of the peoples he conquered. In a sense, it was easier in the ancient world for rulers to allow the worship of multiple deities. Unlike Judaism or Christianity, the religions of the ancient Near East were syncretic. They assumed the existence of many gods, each guarding its own city, people, or aspects of life. But this syncretic worldview did not necessarily imply that one people had to respect or tolerate the religious beliefs of others. On the contrary, many conquering kings of antiquity liked to demonstrate the superiority of their own gods—and assert their own power—precisely by suppressing and destroying rival cults.
For example, not long before the fall of the Assyrian Empire, the Assyrian king Ashurbanipal conquered the country of Elam. He ravaged the entire kingdom, leveling major cities, desecrating temples, and dragging off sacred cult objects. He also ordered his troops to destroy the royal tombs of the Elamite kings because they, in Ashurbanipal’s own words, “had not revered the deities Ashur and Ishtar,” his “lords.” Assyrian kings similarly razed the cities of Jerusalem and Thebes and left many other districts a wilderness stripped of human and animal population. (13)
Nabunidus, the king of Babylonia when it fell to Cyrus, is also famous for his religious intolerance. He suppressed popular worship of the god Marduk, forcing adherence instead to the deity of his own cult, the moon-god Sin. If we can believe the inscriptions on the Cyrus cylinder, now in the British Museum, Nabunidus “did evil” to his subjects, tormenting them by imposing “a cult that was not proper to them.” By contrast, Cyrus took just the opposite approach.
Entering the city of Babylon with his army, Cyrus prostrated himself before the god Marduk in order to win over the local people. He presented himself as the liberator of the Babylonians, divinely chosen and assisted by their own great deity. In his own words from the Cyrus cylinder:
When I made my gracious entry into Babylon, with rejoicing and pleasure I took up my lordly residence in the royal palace. Marduk, the great lord, turned the noble race of the Babylonians toward me, and I gave daily care to his worship.
I did not allow anybody to terrorize [any place] of the [country of Sumer] and Akkad. I strove for peace in Babylon and in all his [other] sacred cities. As to the inhabitants of Babylon…I abolished forced labour…From Nineveh, Assur and Susa, Akkad, Eshnunna, Zamban, Me–Turnu and Der until the region of Gutium, I returned to these sacred cities on the other side of the Tigris, the sanctuaries of which have been ruins for a long time. (14)
Although this account is in part self–glorifying propaganda, it is nonetheless instructive of how Cyrus wished to be perceived by his subjects.
Classical sources consistently attest to Cyrus’s tolerance and magnanimity. In his romanticized Cyropaedia, for example, Xenophon writes:
Believing this man [Cyrus] to be deserving of all admiration, we have therefore investigated who he was in his origin, what natural endowments he possessed, and what sort of education he had enjoyed, that he so greatly excelled in governing…That Cyrus’s empire was the greatest and most glorious of all the kingdoms in Asia—of that it may bear its own witness…And although it was of such magnitude, it was governed by the single will of Cyrus; and he honoured his subjects and cared for them as if they were his own children; and they, on their part, revered Cyrus as a father. (15)
As a side note, Xenophon also writes admiringly of Cyrus’s skill in cultivating public image. At a parade in Persepolis, Cyrus “appeared so great and so goodly to look upon,” evidently in part because he chose to wear the physique–flattering Median native costume:
[Cyrus] thought that if anyone had any personal defect [the Median] dress would help to conceal it, and that it made the wearer look very tall and very handsome. For they have shoes of such a form that without being detected the wearer can easily put something into the soles so as to make him look taller than he is. He encouraged also the fashion of pencilling the eyes, that they might seem more lustrous than they are, and of using cosmetics to make the complexion look better than their nature made it. He trained his associates also not to spit or wipe the nose in public. (16)
The biblical accounts of Cyrus are even more exalting. After conquering Babylon, Cyrus freed the Jews from their Babylonian captivity and allowed them to return to Jerusalem. For this benevolence, Jewish prophets hailed him as a savior. The biblical book of Isaiah describes Cyrus as “anointed” by Yahweh, the Jewish name for God:
Thus says Yahweh to his anointed, to Cyrus, whom he has taken by his right hand to subdue nations before him and strip the loins of kings, to force gateways before him that their gates be closed no more: I will go before you levelling the heights. I will shatter the bronze gateways, smash the iron bars. I will give you the hidden treasures, the secret hoards, that you may know that I am Yahweh.
From the Hardcover edition.