Ancient Hoplites

Ancient Hoplites

Sunday, September 1, 2019

The Rise of Persia

Next year, August 2020, marks the 2,500th anniversary of the Battle of Thermopylae.
In the coming year, I plan a series of posts that consider key events leading up to that key battle and the individuals involved. I start the series today with a brief summary of the rise of Persia.

It has been alleged that all ancient history (as we define it in the West) "sprang from the conflict between Persian (Iranian) culture and that of the Greco-Roman world." [Ernle Bradford, Thermopylae: The Battle for the West (New York: De Capo Press, 1993) 40.] While that may be a bit grandiose, there can be no doubt that the Persian empire was home to one of the greatest civilizations of the ancient world. 

The Persian ascent started with the revolt of the Persian King Cyrus against the overlordship of the Medes, which historians estimate occurred between 553 and 550 BC. It resulted in the establishment of the Achaemenid dynasty. Having established himself in the old Mede empire, Cyrus rapidly added what had been Assyria and present-day Armenia. Just three years after coming to power, he defeated the famous King Croesus and absorbed Lydia (now Eastern Turkey) into his empire as well. Within eight years of coming to power, his empire already stretched from Anatolia to the Indus and from Armenia to the Persian Gulf. From this power base, he turned his armies against Babylon and conquered that as well. Babylon at this time included (as vassal states) Syria and Phoenicia -- or what we know as the Levant. 

Significantly, Cyrus pursued a policy of religious tolerance toward his subject peoples. This included the emancipation of the Jews forced into slavery and exile by the Babylonian King Nebuchadnezzar. The Jews were allowed to return to Palestine and to rebuild the Temple in Jerusalem. Cyrus appears to have enjoyed widespread respect for his wisdom and fairness -- by contemporary standards -- even among Greek observers. Herodotus, for example, tells the story of how, after the conquest of Babylon, a courtier suggested to Cyrus that the Persians leave their arid and mountainous homeland and resettle somewhere more fertile and pleasant. Cyrus allegedly replied that it was a bad suggestion because (to paraphrase) soft-countries breed soft men and soft men soon become slaves. Cyrus was killed in battle on his way to conquer Egypt in or around 530 BC. 

There are good reasons to doubt the "official version" of what happened next, given the fact that this was written by the man who ended up on the Persian throne. Historians suspect that Darius was actually the leader of a conspiracy against the legitimate heirs of Cyrus, but this is impossible to prove. According to Darius, Cyrus' son Cambyses II succeeded his father and successfully subdued Egypt, but failed to take Nubia. Instead, he turned back to put down a revolt only to die of "natural causes" along the way. The alleged revolt in Persia was led by an "imposter" claiming to be Cambyses brother. Darius and his co-conspirators assassinated him before proclaiming one of their number, Darius, the new "King of Kings."

Historians' suspicions that Darius' real role are both fed by the fact that Darius was not widely recognized as the legitimate successor to Cyrus/Cambyses. Indeed, according to Darius' own admission, he had to subdue no less than 19 rebellions against his rule in his first year in power. These included revolts led by other members of the royal family. Darius put them down and dealt ruthlessly with the "liars." For example, he bragged about publicly torturing the leaders and their lieutenants before killing them. 

Yet it would be wrong to see Darius as a barbaric tyrant. His rule was characterized by sophisticated administrative reforms, starting with the reorganization of the empire into 23 "satrapies" or provinces. Significantly, he also established a new legal code. This was based in large part on existing laws, judgments, and customs, but the notion of writing it all down into a single code -- with supplemental "case books" recording judgments of the past -- was novel; remnants of these laws still find expression in Iranian law today. Notably, the Persian legal code relied heavily on evidence and precedent. There were also severe penalties for corruption -- particularly on the part of judges. Allegedly, one corrupt judge was skinned alive, his skin worked into leather and then used to cover the chair of his successor.

Darius also introduced standard units for measuring everything from grain and oil to land, i.e. he established standards for weights and measures. In addition, he introduced a sound (gold) currency and fixed rates of tribute based on the assessed wealth of the various provinces. He employed an extensive, educated bureaucracy to ensure the enforcement of the laws, the collection of taxes and the recruitment of troops across his wide and diverse empire. They, in turn, developed sophisticated systems of accounting, recording, and reporting.

Darius built magnificent monuments to himself and he built splendid palaces. He also founded a new capital at Persepolis. The gardens of the palace there have been uncovered by archaeologists revealing paths and plants laid out in harmonious patterns, colonnaded pavilions and a sophisticated system of irrigation. Yet Darius was no decadent despot lolling in luxury. He was more interested in economic development and administrative control. These led him to build a network of roads across his vast empire, and the first "Suez Canal" -- a canal connecting the easternmost branch of Nile River to the Red Sea. This was 101 miles long, 16 feet deep and wide enough for two triremes to pass one another with their oars extended.  

Yet for all his bold ventures and successes, Darius was a cautious man. He did not respond to events spontaneously but after due deliberation and investigation. Before each of his wars of conquest, he first sent out spies to investigate the political and physical landscape of his intended target. We have evidence of these "scouting expeditions" in the Indus Valley, the Balkans, Greece, and Italy. The fact that Darius controlled the fleets of Phoenicia, Cyprus and Egypt made Persia a naval power as well as a land power. Furthermore, at the height of his power, Darius had created an empire that could field 700,000 fighting men.

Beside such might, Sparta's 6,000 citizens and 6,000 Perioikoi were not particularly impressive. Yet it is worth noting the following incident recorded in Herodotus (Book One: 152-152):
...the Spartans dispatched a fifty-oared galley to the Asiatic coast, in order, I suppose, to watch Cyrus and what was going on in Ionia. The vessel put in at Phocaea, and the most distinguished of the men on board, a man called Lacrines, was sent to Sardis to forbid Cyrus, on behalf of the Lacedaemonians, to harm any Greek city or they would take action.
 Cyrus' response was to ask some Greeks at his court "Who are the Spartans?" On learning who they were and how small their city was, he replied:

I have never yet been afraid of men who have a special meeting place in the center of their city, where they swear this and that and cheat each other. Such people, if I have anything to do with it, will not have the troubles of Ionia to chatter about, but their own.

In the event, Cyrus did not have anything to say about it -- but his son and grandson did indeed bring war to the Spartans as future entries will outline.

This series continues next month with "The Ionian Revolt." 

Spartans and their unique culture are depicted as realistically as possible in all my Spartan novels:


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