Video 1 Transcript
The Persian Empire has all the great aspects of an amazing story - an unlikely rise to power against an evil king, a ruler who is beloved by his people, and a military that was centuries ahead of its time.FoundingThe Persian Empire began in a very unlikely way. For years, the Persians had been partners with a more powerful group of people known as the Medians, who lived to the north of the Persians on the Iranian Plateau. The partnership between the Persians and the Medes was generally a very good one, until an evil Median king made his daughter marry the king of the Persians. The evil Median king declared that any children of his daughter should be killed, as they would overthrow him. As often happens in this sort of story, the grandson of the evil king, a boy named Cyrus, was not only hidden, but also did come back to revolt against his Median grandfather and start his own Persian Empire.
While we don't know for sure if that story is true, we do know that by 550 BC, a great Persian king named Cyrus had not only conquered the Medians, but also much of Mesopotamia, including the realm of the Neo-Babylonians, who ruled almost all of that region. Cyrus would go on to conquer east, into India, as well as all the way west to the border of Egypt and Greece. The first great Persian Empire was born.
ExpansionCyrus was a very different leader than other emperors in the ancient world. He often portrayed himself as someone who had come to save the common people from their oppressive rulers. After all, Cyrus himself had known what it was like to be oppressed, having been nearly killed by his own grandfather. To this end, Cyrus granted a level of freedom that did not exist in the world before, or for hundreds of years after. In fact, Cyrus liberated enslaved peoples, such as the Jews, while he also provided Persian Imperial funds to rebuild their cultural buildings.
Of course, not all expansion is peaceful, and Cyrus fought in many battles. However, unlike leaders before him, Cyrus started to use a professional army. Known as the Immortals, this unit of 10,000 of the bravest soldiers in the empire received the best armor and weapons and were trained to be the best soldiers in the world. Part of their training, called Zorkhaneh (Zor-khan-nae), was a cross between karate and medieval chivalry, and is still taught today as a sport in Iran.
PoliticsConquering such a massive empire was relatively easy for Cyrus. Maintaining it was going to be the real challenge. Luckily, the new Shahanshah, or King of Kings, was not going to let administration stop him. Cyrus soon divided the empire into a number of provinces, known as satrapies, each ruled by a satrap, or governor. These satrapies were further organized into smaller satrapies, meaning that a government official was never far away from any situation that required attention. To reduce the risk of rebellions or unrest, Cyrus gave people religious freedom throughout the Persian Empire, allowing people to live largely as they had lived before.
Responding to the needs of those satraps was only possible with a quality communications network, and this too was a priority of the Persians. The Persians built some of the first roads in the Middle East, including the Royal Road which stretched from the Aegean seacoast in Turkey through Mesopotamia and into the Persian homeland. In fact, the rhyme many of us think of about the Postal Service, 'not rain or sleet nor gloom of night' is modeled on what the Greek historian Herodotus had to say about the Royal Road. Along the main road, as well as at strategic points in between major cities, the Persian government also paid for special inns for travelers. For official travelers, there was no cost for staying the night, eating, or even switching out horses.
Later ShahanshahsCyrus earned his title the Great for his conquests, but these were by no means the last expeditions for the Persians. His son managed to capture Egypt, and other descendants such as Xerxes and Darius were able to almost conquer Greece on multiple occasions. However, ruling such a vast empire, all while treating ethnic groups equally, caused great stress on the Imperial administration. Ultimately, by the time Alexander the Great conquered the Persian Empire in 330 BC, the Empire was already weakened.
Lesson SummaryGoing from a young boy trying to avoid being murdered by his evil grandfather to ruler of one of the largest empires in history, Cyrus the Great was able to establish the Persian Empire through military skill, open-mindedness about how to treat his subjects, and administrative skill. While some of his successors would be talented too, such leaders would be rarer and rarer as the Persian Empire continued on through ancient history.
Video 2 Transcript
The Persian Empire was sophisticated and complex in many ways. In this lesson, we'll talk about two of the biggest influences on Persian lives: their religion and their social status.The Persian EmpireIt was one of the first truly international empires in the world. It was a dominant cultural and economic center. It was one of the first governments in the world to adopt a policy of religious tolerance. That's right, we're talking about the Persian Empire, sometimes called the Achaemenid Empire, a powerful military state that ruled from modern day Iran from roughly 550 BCE until being conquered by Alexander the Great around 330 BCE. The Persian Empire was sophisticated and complex, but two forces that greatly impacted daily life in the empire were religion and social structure. One defined the place of people within the empire, the other defined their place in the cosmos.
Persian ReligionIn the ancient world, most cultures followed a polytheistic religion, or one featuring several deities. The Babylonians had many gods, the Egyptians had many gods, and the Sumerians had many gods. The Persians, however, did not. Around 600 BCE, a Persian prophet named Zoroaster began preaching a new ideology, based around a single god called Ahura Mazda. This was one of the world's first monotheistic religions, recognizing only a single deity. His teachings, contained in a series of poems called the Gathas and later the sacred book called the Avesta, spread quickly across Persian society.
According to Zoroaster, and the religion based on his teachings called Zoroastrianism, earthly life was a constant struggle between good and evil. All people suffered, and this suffering was to prepare people for a future life. In the afterlife, humans would have to choose between good and evil in a final judgment. Ultimately, good would triumph over evil. This final judgment, and all of the world, was watched over by Ahura Mazda, who was the very embodiment of goodness and wisdom. If these ideas sound familiar, some scholars believe that Zoroastrians influenced the ancient Hebrews and their concepts of faith.
Zoroastrianism was the official religion of the Persian Empire, and was practiced widely by the Persian people. However, it was not the only religion of the empire. Mesopotamian and Egyptian empires forced conquered people to adopt their religions, but the Persians embraced a much more tolerant policy. As long as conquered peoples paid their taxes and recognized Persian control, they would be allowed to practice their own religions. The Persian emperors even rebuilt local temples that had been destroyed in wars to conquer a city. It was the first system of religious tolerance in the world.
The Persian Social StructureReligion was very important to the ancient Persians, and it dominated lots of their time and attention. It was not, however, the only influence on their lives. Persian cities also had rigid social structures that organized people into various classes.
At the top were the royals, consisting of the king and his family. Royalty and other noble titles were passed on hereditarily, so there was little hope of joining this class outside of marrying into it. Below the royals were the priests. Again, religion was very important, and priests were the most important advisors to the emperors who assisted in nearly every important decision. Groups of aristocrat nobles and military officials came next, who were in charge of the daily bureaucratic administration of this complex empire. Most of society was composed of merchants, craftsmen/artisans, and peasants. Those who worked for themselves, like merchants and artisans, held higher social status than the peasants who worked the land owned by nobles. At the very bottom of society were slaves, who were generally enslaved during war or as a form of punishment for breaking the laws or defaulting on a debt.
The Persian social structure was strictly enforced as a way to keep their complex society organized, but that doesn't mean it was without flexibility. Merchants and artisans could potentially increase their wealth and status through successful business moves, and a very few that became very wealthy may even be able to marry a child into the aristocracy. While social mobility was limited by our standards, all people in the Persian Empire did have some form of rights. The Persians created some of the first legal codes in the world as well, guaranteeing a few that we might call basic human rights to all Persians and conquered people, regardless of their class. Again, by our standards these rights were minimal, but in the ancient world this was an action without precedent. Although they didn't know it, the people of the Persian Empire were experiencing history in the making.
Lesson SummaryThe Persian Empire was one of the first great international empires in the world. Based in modern-day Iran, it controlled a wide region of the Middle East from roughly 550 to 330 BCE. The Persians followed a monotheistic religion called Zoroastrianism, which recognized only a single deity named Ahura Mazda. Based on the teachings of the Persian prophet Zoroaster, this was the official religion of the Persian Empire, although conquered peoples were allowed to practice their own religions. Persian social structure was strict, with the royal family at the top, followed by priests, nobles, merchants, artisans, peasants, and finally slaves. Between their religion and their social structure, Persians had a good sense of where they belonged in the cosmos and in society, but they likely would never have guessed the major place they would belong to in history.