Lecture 5: From the Persian Empire to the Fractious Greeks

Today we are going to discuss two of the most important classical civilizations in the Mediterranean world, the Persians and the Greeks. Although the Persians have been overshadowed by Greece’s cultural glory, their contributions to the civilization of the period were just as significant. It was they who made possible the first real empire and, hence, the first unified cultural world. And we can see in their empire the first hint of themes that dominated the Mediterranean through Rome, Byzantium, and the coming of Islam. Moreover, in the cultural realm they acted as a link between far eastern philosophy and what would become the West. It was through the Persians that what we call eastern mysticism entered the Mediterranean and, later, European worlds. They also had a tremendous influence on religion. Many basic themes in Judaism and Christianity can find their origins in Persia. The significance of the Greeks will not, of course, surprise any of you. They produced the world’s first version of democracy, even if it was not a modern one. They introduced forms of philosophical speculation, and left us a literature that still identifies fundamental issues in human life. Thus, in this lecture, we bring the Greeks and the Persians together, in order to show how both contributed to the ancient Mediterranean world.
I will begin with Persia. In this section of the lecture I will give you a broad sweep of Persian history first and then move to a more detailed discussion of the Persian relationship to the Greeks. The Persians came from modern-day Iran. The word Iran means the land of the Aryans, and was given to the region only in 1932. We will stick with the ancient name here. Persia had long been on the fringes of Mediterranean civilization and had absorbed a series of peoples that arrived from the Asian steppes. Over the years, Persians collected many skills brought by these new peoples, especially skills in the art of war. In this respect, Persia had a great advantage, its land was ideal for raising horses, and horses were the foundation of their future military superiority. During the 6th century BC, these people exploded out of Persia and founded one of history’s great empires. The Persian Empire lasted for more than 1000 years, though its significance lies in more than just longevity; much of its importance was a function of geography. Consider that the Persian empire controlled access to a series of oceans, seas, and rivers, which made it a bridge not merely between Asia and the Mediterranean, but also between Africa and what would later be eastern Europe.
Now, let us put this broad sweep into a basic chronology. Persian history is generally divided into four dynasties: 1) Achaemenids (558-330BC); 2) Seleucids (323-83BC); 3) Parthians (247BC-224AD); 4) Sasanids (224-651AD). In this lecture, I will only talk about the Achaemenids. The Seleucids will appear in the next lecture. We will have cause to bring up the Parthians and the Sasanids later, but only in a limited context.
The Achaemenids: We need to start, as always, by considering this people’s origins. Around 1000 BC, two related tribes, the Medes and the Persians, migrated into what would later be called Persia. Both peoples were subject to Babylon and Assyria, if only peripherally. They were organized by clans and practiced a limited form of agriculture. One would not think that there is much here to consider. But what made these people so important were their riding skills. As their horses and their skills improved, the Medes and the Persians began raiding Mesopotamia, hitting a city or town and then retreating into their own hilly country. The raids became ever more frequent during the eighth and seventh centuries BC, until Babylon became so weak that the Persians were able to translate their equestrian skills into an empire.
To understand this process of empire building we must begin with Cyrus II (558-530 BC), the leader of a Persian tribe called the Achaemenids. Cyrus was a tough, wily leader. He became King of the Persians in 558 BC, and set up his capital in a mountain city named Passagardae. By 553 BC, he had subdued the Medes. By 548 BC, he controlled all of what we consider Iran. In 546, he attacked the kingdom of Lydia, a wealthy society that served as a bridge to the Mediterranean. The Greek historian Herodotus tells us of his attack on the kingdom of Lydia. Apparently Lydia’s king Croesus consulted the Greek oracle at Delphi before considering whether to attack Cyrus. The oracle told him that a great empire would fall as a result. So Croesus ran off to meet Cyrus, was defeated and captured, and became one of Cyrus’ advisers. From 548 BC until 539 BC, Cyrus also fought repeatedly in Asia and in the area we today call Afghanistan. (Back then it was called Bactria). In 539 BC, he turned west and crushed Babylon. He would have finished off Egypt as well, but he died of a war wound in 530 BC.
Cyrus’ empire then passed to his son, Cambyses II (530-22), who attacked Egypt and subdued it. In 522, however, he died and was replaced by a younger brother. A member of Cambyses’ court, a distant kinsman named Darius (521-486), then assassinated the brother and assumed command. Darius would become Persia’s greatest King, because he was a great military leader. Under his command Persian troops extended the empire as far as the Indus, into Thrace, Macedonia, and around the Black Sea. But what really made Darius important was his development of an imperial government. The system he developed allowed Cyrus’ small empire to manage a huge expanse of territory and peoples. How did he do this? First, he built a new capital, called Persepolis. It was situated roughly in the middle of his empire and became, thus, the imperial administrative center. Judging simply by the city’s ruins, it must have been an impressive, busy place. Darius then divided the empire into 23 satrapies, each of which was headed by a satrap. The satraps were usually Persian, but occasionally locals were chosen. In order to ensure the loyalty of the satraps, Darius then separated military from tax officials in each satrap. This prevented any satrap from stealing egregious amounts of tax revenue or from building a private army. Then, to keep all three of these officials honest, he created roving inspectors, who could audit anyone’s records at any time. These officials were described as “the eyes and the ears of the King.”
The empire’s administrative foundations were solid, but the empire also had two other virtues. First, it was relatively tolerant. The king only cared that taxes were paid. He did not interfere in local affairs and especially not in religious ones. As an example, after Darius crushed the Babylonians, he allowed the Jews to rebuild their temple in Jerusalem, for which he was profusely thanked in the Old Testament. Moreover, he was also depicted in conquered regions in local garb. In Babylon, for example, he was not Persian, but Babylonian. Second, he instituted sound financial and legal policies. Darius began the process of codifying laws, which unified the empire. He also issued standardized coinage, an innovation borrowed from the Lydians. He also built roads and established courier services that allowed goods and people to move more easily.
The spirit behind these policies dissipated under Darius’ son and successor, Xerxes (486-465 BC). Xerxes took himself to be a Persian king and began to impose Persian values on his diverse subjects. He was especially forceful in Mesopotamia and Egypt, and uprisings appeared there continually, as a result. Xerxes’ biggest problem came, however, in the Greek speaking region around the Aegean, which included modern Greece, as well as the coastal region of Anatolia and the many islands nearby. The Persians had acquired a great many Greek speaking subjects through their conquest of Lydia. You will recall how I mentioned that Phoenician colonization may have been a response to Greek colonization. Greeks were everywhere in the northeastern part of the Mediterranean for reasons that we will discuss. Xerxes inherited the problem of the Greeks from Darius. Darius had already lost a major battle to the Greeks, and Xerxes would fare no better. I will discuss these events in the next section on the Greeks. At this moment, however, I want to turn briefly to one of Persia’s most importance cultural contributions, which I mentioned at the start of this lecture.
Although Persian art and pottery spread throughout the empire and exerted great influence as far away as modern Russia, I want to concentrate here on Persia’s religious ideas. Persia became an important religious zone, and its religious ideas influenced Buddhism, Judaism, Christianity, and a religion called Manichaeism. Its influence came through Zoroastrianism, a religion that took its name from a person named Zoroaster (c.628BC-c.551BC). (You may not have heard the name Zoroaster before, but you have probably encountered his name in another form, Zarathustra.) Zoroaster represents another moment in the Mediterranean interest in a supreme god. He argued that there was one Supreme God named Ahura Mazda and he was Ahura Mazda’s prophet, though he also held that there were other, lesser gods. In a series of hymns that he wrote about his various gods, Zoroaster developed what became the key element of his religion, the emphasis on moral conduct in this world. Zoroaster’s universe was essentially dualistic. Ahura Mazda was in a constant struggle with the evil god Angra Mainyu, though good would, according to Zoroaster, prevail in the end. At that point, judgment day would come, which was the moment when all people were judged and sent either to Heaven or Hell. The fascination with morality and judgment, as well as the notion that good would prevail in the end had a great impact on Jewish and Christian eschatology. For those of you interested in this, you can look to the books of Daniel in the Old Testament, which holds that people will be rewarded or punished for their acts on this earth. With that, we need to stop here and shift to the Greeks, even though the Persians deserve much more time.
The ancient Greeks already had a long history before their conflict with the Persians began. As early as 2200 BC, groups of Indo-European Greek-speaking peoples entered what is today Greece. By 1600 BC, these people were trading with the Minoans and they had adopted the Linear “B” alphabet. By 1450 BC these people begin building massive fortresses to protect their cities. One of these fortresses is at a city called Mycenae, from which we get the name for this civilization Mycenaeans. Around 1200 BC, these people entered into a conflict with a city in Anatolia, called Troy. The Mycenaeans won, but about a century later another wave of migrations brought down the curtain on this civilization, and three hundred years of chaos was the result.
Around the 800BC we can discern the outlines of a new civilization that was based on the old Mycenaean, but that also had its own characteristics. One of the main characteristics was a national myth that was based on Mycenaean history. This myth was written down in the Iliad and the Odyssey for the first time around 800 BC. Both stories soon become fundamental to the future Greek identity. There was, however, also a deep tension in the new Greek identity, and it was rooted in Greek settlement patterns. Greeks lived in what we now call a city-state. There were many institutional variations. Some cities became democracies, others were monarchies, still others tyrannies. Each was, however, a very small settlement, tightly knit, and enormously proud of itself, to boot. The sense of local pride was important, because although the people in these city states defined themselves through the Homeric epics, they also defined what they were not by comparison to other city-states. What we get is an argumentative bunch, just as ready to turn on each other as on an outside enemy. Another important aspect of these states is that they had to remain small. Greek soil is not particularly fertile, and city-states dealt with population problems by founding colonies, particularly in the area called Ionia. So what we want to keep our eye on here is what the basic characteristic of ancient Greek history. The Greeks came to understand themselves as a people through conflict, whether it was the remembrance of Troy or the later conflict with the Persians. But, once the enemy was gone, they then also turned on each other, which shattered their own power and opened the door for other enemies. We’ll talk more about the end of Greek freedom next time. For now, we’ll pursue the wars between the Greeks and the Persians.
I mentioned earlier that Cyrus’ conquest of Lydia brought a host of Greek-speaking colonies into its realm. Greek city-states always valued their independence and it didn’t take long, only 46 years in fact, before the Ionian Greeks revolted against their new Persian overlords. The period from 500-494 BC is known as the Ionian revolt, and during this time the local city-states rose up against the Persians. Importantly, Athens and some other Greek cities send military aid to the Ionians, largely out of a sense for cultural affinity. Darius put the revolt down by 494 BC, but he did not appreciate the meddling from the other side of the Aegean. He then prepared a major military force and in 492 BC his troops went off to Greece, intent on punishing the meddlers. Unfortunately, a bad storm sank the entire invasion fleet. Darius regrouped, however, and put together a 25,000 man army, which arrived safely in Greece, where it was met by an Athenian army on a large plain called Marathon. Here, 10,000 Athenians and 1,000 Plataeans confronted the mighty Persian army and routed it. (This is, supposedly, the inspiration for the modern marathon, as a messenger was dispatched to Athens from Marathon to deliver the good news. As the story goes, he ran the whole way back, delivered the news, and promptly dropped dead.) After the defeat, the Persians went home, if only temporarily. This was, however, an important moment for the Greeks, because the victory instilled in many city-states a common sense that Greeks were a unique people. Athenians and Plataeans had fought side by side against foreigners. The Spartans had also sent help, though it arrived too late. Then, filled with pride, the Greeks then began to harass the Persians in a series of small wars.
The sense of common purpose that lay behind these attacks came in handy ten years later, when the Persians returned to Greece under Xerxes. In 481, Xerxes began to prepare a huge army just to deal with these irritating people. Word got back to the Greeks of the impending attack and they then organized a defense. The Spartans were in charge of the army, and the Athenians led the navy. This turned out to be another heroic tale. We do not know how large the Persian army was, though Herodotus claimed that it was 100,000 men strong. This was probably an exaggeration. Nonetheless, the Greeks fought heroically, as in 480 BC a 7,000-man Spartan army that was led by the Spartan general Leonidas defended a narrow pass at Thermopylae against a huge Persian force. The Spartans fought to the last man, and this event quickly entered Greek lore. The Athenians, for their part, took on the much larger Persian Navy, and under the leadership of the Athenian Themistocles sank most of the Persian navy at Salamis. Apparently, Xerxes himself watched the battle from a throne set up on a bluff. Herodotus says that he threw himself to the ground and had a tantrum when he saw the defeat.
This phase of the Greco-Persian conflict came to an end in 479 with a land battle at Plataea and another naval battle at Mycale. Both were Persian defeats. The Persians never again threatened the Greek mainland, though the war was not over, as a final peace was signed only in 449 BC. Two things are important here. First, with the victory over the Persians, the Greeks gained an extraordinary sense of themselves. Imagine how this rag-tag group of people must have felt at having defeated the world’s greatest empire. And the new confidence showed in their literature, which I will discuss in a moment. Second, the Athenians responded to the Persian threat by building their own empire, the so-called Delian league. This league set in motion a series of horrible events that I will discuss after a brief overview of Greek culture.
It is no exaggeration to say that the victory over the Persians encourage one of the greatest cultural flowerings that the globe had ever seen. Much of this flowering was centered in Athens, the city-state that had gained the most self-confidence from the victory, and had become extraordinarily wealthy through the Delian league. Among the names we find in Athens are scholars such as Herodotus (490-425 BC), the world’s first historian, in the sense that he tried to use evidence to tell his story, and Thucydides (450-399 BC), who is perhaps the first person to seek actively the causes of historical events. (Some see him as the first political scientist, though I think that that’s nonsense.) We also find dramatists, such as Aeschylus, who fought at the battle of Marathon and very likely watched the battle at Salamis. Aeschylus’ great trilogy Agamemnon traces the path of power, betrayal, and retribution, as Agamemnon is killed by his wife Clytemnestra, who is then in turn killed by Agamemnon’s sun, Orestes. We must, of course, mention Sophocles (496-406/5 BC), whom you will be reading, and who gave us the immortal Oedipus Rex. And then there is Euripides (485-406 BC), whose greatest work is probably Medea, which is about a sorceress that kills her own children, because they have rejected her.
On the lighter side, there is the comic writer Aristophanes (455-385 BC). His most famous work may be Lysistrata, a bitter comedy in which the women of Greece all agree to stop having sex with their husbands until the latter stop fighting a terrible war. In this context, it is significant that the play was written in 411, when the Peloponnesian war was almost at its end. In politics the greatest name is Pericles (495-429 BC), whose funeral oration offers a vision of both the arrogance and greatness that characterized the Greeks. And then in philosophy we have Socrates (470-399 BC), who never wrote anything down, and his student Plato (427-341 BC), both of who philosophized on the nature of knowledge and duty. If you wish to consider these men’s philosophy, you should read Plato’s Symposium.
We see in ancient Athens the development of a literature that speculated on what it was to be human. It delved into great conflicts and questions. How do people find their place in society? How does one balance honor and family? So we have here a remarkable people, full of pride and self-confidence exploring who they were. In the process, they posed many of the fundamental questions about humanity that we have yet to answer, and indeed are still arguing about. But here we need to return to the basic tension that I mentioned earlier. Although the Greeks thought and wrote boldly, they were still a remarkably provincial people, jealous of each other and always willing to start a fight, often over something stupid.
The classic example of this fractiousness is the Peloponnesian War (431-404 BC). This war had its roots in the response to the Athenian response to the Persian Wars. After expelling the Persians, the Athenians founded a defensive organization, called the Delian League. The capital was on the island of Delos, hence the name, and the various cities supposedly paid money into a common fund for mutual defense. Unfortunately for the smaller members, this league rapidly became an empire, with most of the money going to finance a large Athenian navy and public works program. The navy enforced Athens’ authority over the members and the public works program built today’s Acropolis, whose central component is the remarkable Parthenon.
As a result of the league’s success in fleecing smaller cities, Athens grew wealthy and powerful—even arrogant. Other cities watched jealously, especially Sparta, and in 431BC war broke out between the two. I can’t go into the details here, but the war ended in 404 BC with Athens’ defeat and Sparta’s near collapse. The end result was that all of Greece was exhausted and all the city-states were deeply suspicious of each other. Bitter and angry, the Greeks were unable to rise up when the next empire attacked them. This time the danger came from the north, as the kingdom of Macedon moved into Greece, setting the stage for one of the most remarkable imperial crusades in human history. We’ll talk more about that next time.