Culture of the Ancient Persian Empires

The major Persian Empires for the millennium preceding the Arab Conquest were carriers of monolithic religions, and expansive and influential in world history and culture

The Empire of the Medes was seized by the Achaemenids (from Old Persian Haxamaniš “of friendly mind” or “wisdom”) who were Persians. The Medes were Indo-Europeans from the northwest portion of present-day Iran known then as Media, and the Persians were also Indo-Iranians but from the south of Iran, known as Parsa, or today’s Fars region.

Between the 7th century B.C.E. and the 7th century C.E., prior to the Arab conquest of the region, Persia was dominated by four major empires: Achaemenid Empire (648–330 BCE), Seleucid Empire (330–150 BCE), Parthian Empire (250 BCE– 226 CE), and the Sassanid Empire (226–650). The following are some of the cultural features of these sweeping empires.

The Achaemenid Empire (648–330 BCE)

This great Achaemenid Empire eventually became the largest in the ancient world, reaching even as far as Egypt and including areas in the continents of Asia, Africa and Europe. Culturally the Achaemenids brought forth the important concept of free will. But they also seemed to follow some of the customs of the Elamites and Medes.

The Greek historian, Herodotus, writes that for religious practices the Persians of the earliest era offered sacrifices to “the sun and moon, to the earth, to fire, to water, and to the winds. These are the only gods whose worship has come down to them from ancient times.” The Zoroastrians were a major source of culture and power for the Achaemenids and their worship evolved over time.

Cyrus the Great was embalmed and placed in a tomb at Pasargadae. Later Achaemenid kings were buried in tombs cut out of the mountain. Achaemenid burials other than the mountain tombs have not been found, and perhaps the Achaemenid’s as a whole already had a burial practice of exposure of the corpse to the elements (excarnation) as did the later Zoroastrians in order to not pollute the earth, sky, waters or fire wich were sacred. The great kings may have been the exception.

Cyrus seems to need to apologize for wanting to be entombed: “I am Cyrus, who founded the empire of the Iranians. Grudge me not therefore, this little earth that covers my body.”

Cyrus, of course, was killed in the midst of warfare with the Massagetae tribe of Scythians led by the Iranian Queen, Tomyris, or Tahm-Rayish. Tomyris had the head of Cyrus cut off and placed in a skin filled with blood, as he had previously offered the tribe excess of wine waiting in an apparently abandoned camp as a ploy to get them intoxicated. She said that now Cyrus could have his fill of blood.

Persian civilization was established by the great Achaemenid kings. While Aramaic was used mostly in the kingdom, Old Persian was the official language. Darius I organized the empire, rewrote the legal code, fortified and reorganized the military and standardized weights and measures. While he was a Zoroastrian, he held a policy of religious tolerance, and did not allow the use of slaves.

The Seleucid Empire (330–150 BCE)

The Seleucid Empire was next established by the Macedonian Alexander the Great, as Darius III was deposed by Alexander III, and the Persian Empire absorbed into the new, overextended, Hellenistic Empire. Much cultural exchange took place during this era.

The Parthian Empire (250 BCE– 226 CE)

The Parthians wrestled the Seleucid Empire from the Greeks and Romans. They were well-known for their horsemanship and the ability to ride forward while shooting arrows accurately behind them, just like the previous Scythians. They followed Zoroastrian-Mithraism as a religion.

The Sassanid Empire (226–650 CE)

And next came the Sassanids, the last Persian era prior to the Arab Conquest. While the Sasanids sometimes tolerated other religions (Shapur II’s mother was Jewish), there was also persecution for Christian and heretical Zoroastrian groups. For example, one leader, Khosrau I, known as Anushirvan “The Just”, killed Mazdak and his followers, and was praised by the Zoroastrians as a hero for it.

Mazdakism was a communal religion which was developed in opposition to the Sassanid form of Zoroastrianism, which had been oppressive to the lower classes at the time. They believed in communal positions, including wives, as the leading Zoroastrians and political leaders had usurped the women in their practices.

Sassanids practiced dualistic Zoroastrian with belief in two gods representing good and evil. They began rule in their home of Persis (Pars) and eventually ruled from Cappadocia in Turkey to the Indus River.

Following the Sassanids, Islamic rule and cultural overhaul of Persia came with the Islamic Conquest. There were a variety of Turkish, Mongol, and Indo-Iranian dynasties with both Islamic Sunni and Shi’ite kingdoms, but no more Zoroastrian dynasties prospered after the Islamic Conquest. There were Christians, Zoroastrians, and Jewish populations still found in Iran during Islamic rule.

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