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Persians: Achaemenids and Beyond

What’s so special about the Persians? Surely, they were just another nomadic group that swept down from the Central Asian steppes - with minimal effect on the world?


Achaemenid Empire of Persia with Persian homeland shaded
Dark purple is the Persian homeland.
Light purple is the extend of the
Achaemenids.
Pictures from Utah State University
They might have just been a nomadic group migrating downwards from the steppe, like the later Hephthalites (White Huns). What many forget is that these groups were extremely influential. The Slavs were from Central Asia, too, and their language is spread from Russians and Ukrainians to Serbians and Poles. The Hephthalites (also known as the Sveta Huna) were important in shaping Indian language and controlled large parts of northern India, including portions of Maharashtra to Uttar Pradesh.


Unlike the other nomadic groups that have since faded into history (the White Huns were driven out of India later), the Persians have endured to modern times. The nation of Iran is descended from the Persians, with their name literally meaning "Land of the Aryans". It’s important to repeat a question now - what’s so special about the Persians?


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Whole Wheat Grains
Here, have some! More! More!
Wish we could do this instead of the IRS, huh.
From Crazy Fit Health
First, they greatly reduced the chances of a conquered group becoming slaves. Long before the Persians, a pharaoh-dom had existed in Egypt. Mesopotamia was occasionally united by nomadic barbarians sweeping down towards the cities. In these rare cases, taxes were mainly grain-based. ‘Provinces’ literally consisted of cities and some surrounding countryside.


The Persians literally changed the definition of empire. Before, an ‘empire’ was formed just by conquering other nations, a definition that admittedly is mostly true. However, they created several revolutionary concepts about this definition. Most refused to enslave the Jews, and Cyrus the Great actually freed them. Still, the more things change, the more they stay the same.


As Livius explains on July 31, 2015, “...King Darius I the Great had...decided to deport a group of Greeks from the Cyrenaica to Bactr[i]a...Another group of Greek settlers was called the "Branchidae" and descended from a group of priests that had once lived near Didyma (near Miletus) and had been taken captive by the Persians.” Cyrenaica is, by the way, a modern day part of Libya, while Bactria is located near the Oxus River. As this continued enslavement shows, even the ‘great’ Persian kings still stayed with established customs.


This differs greatly with earlier civilizations. During the Chinese conquest of the south, which continued from the Shang Dynasty, enemies were normally castrated, allowing for the more loyal to dominate southern populations (mostly in Guangdong and Fujian).


Theseus' Route from Troezen to Athens
Google Map says that roads would allow someone
 to walk from Troezen to Athens in 32 hours.
Go Google!
Next, their new ‘Royal Road’ was exemplary for their time and showed just how safe Persia was. Greece was infamous for have unsafe roads. Plutarch explained that Theseus had to fight off six of the biggest, baddest villains ever on a short trip. Google shows that a Greek ‘Royal Road’ would have shortened travel times from Troezen to Athens from several days to a mere 32 hours (or less, if one runs).

To travel from Sardis, Achaemenid Persia to Susa, (also) Achaemenid Persia, one could take a horse in seven days. Not only is this a much longer trip, but it was much safer. One could rest each night in government-sponsored inns, while government-sponsored watchmen patrolled the entire length to ensure complete security. It was possible to switch horses at each station, since horses eventually tire.


Persian Irrigation Canal Qanat
The Qanat was an innovative irrigation
method.
Image from Wikipedia.
Third, in addition to revolutionary political concepts, they introduced new technologies like the qanat. Dictionary.com defines it as “a gently sloping underground tunnel for irrigation purposes”, which is definitely true. The qanat allowed for settlement around Iran. Most notably, population densities in Iran are centered around places where qanats are possible - even in modern times.

Here's how Qanats work. As you can see on the picture, it bisects the Water Table. Below the water table, there's a lot of water in the soil. The water flows on the gentle slope downwards towards the land that needs to be irrigated. It's a relatively simple concept.


Fourth, their government had many checks and balances. There were three administrators for each region - a governor, a military commander, and a treasurer - and they all reported separately to the king, all checking each other. They had surprise audits, too,  verifying the truthfulness of reports.


Fifth, the Persian religions were special - very special. It was rare for a religion to be so common in such a large swathe of territory. Even in Mesopotamia and Greece, people often worshipped deities that were local to their specific region, despite recognizing other deities. In Egypt, you could find adherents to their regional mythology anywhere, but only in Egypt.


Zoroastrianism, on the other hand, was found everywhere, from Egypt to Anatolia to Persia to Central Asia to India. It wasn’t region-specific, either, and had a strong emphasis on morality. There were only two deities in this religion, too. Zoroastrianism greatly influenced later Abrahamic faiths like Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.


Adorable Persian Cats
Meow... Isn't he so adorable?
From Bobby Schaefer Designs
In addition, one might have noticed that I said “religions” and not religion. That’s because most Persian emperors were tolerant of other faiths, like Manichaeism, Judaism, and later Christianity and Buddhism.


Finally, their empire was the biggest up to their time. It extended as far as the edges of Macedonia to large swathes of Egypt, controlling people as diverse as the Ionian Greeks, Nile Egyptians, and the Bactrians of Central Asia. They became a medium for goods to travel from east to west - safely, one might add, too.

The Persian Empire might bring up simple images of fat Persian cats, but it also invokes the first real sense of an empire - a predecessor to later ones like Rome and Macedonia.

Tomorrow, we'll be talking about the first Chinese philosophers. Like you know, Confucius, Laozi, and Han Fei, the creators of Confucianism, Daoism, and Legalism.

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2 comments

  1. Outstanding. What a scholarly work. I will be using this as a reference often. Thanks John! :)

    ReplyDelete
  2. Thanks Mrs. Craddock! I hope you enjoyed the article :)

    ReplyDelete