The Circle of Ancient Iranian Studies
T. CUYLER YOUNG, JR.
Persians were one of several Iranian language groups who migrated onto the
Iranian plateau from lands east of the Caspian Sea, perhaps as early as the
mid-second millennium BCE. These Old Iranians are divided into three
sub-language groups: Old Northeast Iranian (known from Gathic Avestan); Old
Northwest Iranian, or Median (known from Persian personal names and loanwords);
and Old Southwest Iranian (known from Old Persian cuneiform inscriptions, the
ancestor of modern Persian).
the mid-ninth century BCE, Mesopotamian records attest the presence of both the
Medes and the Persians in the central western Zagros Mountain region. After
these sources fall silent (c. 640 BCE), the Persians appear in the southwestern
Zagros, in the land of Parsa, modern Fars. The possible relationship between
ninth-century BCE Parsua/Parsumash and sixth-century BCE Parsa is a matter of
debate. There is no consensus on whether the Persians migrated from north to
south; whether two Persias existed at the same time; or which Persia Herodotus
described as a Median vassal (7702). The best explanation may be that there were
indeed two groups of Persians, one in the central western and one in the
southwestern Zagros. The former may have been tributary to, and eventually
absorbed by, the Medes. The latter, under Cyrus II, may have either rebelled
against the Medes, or may, as an independent Iranian group, have attacked them.
to trace these migrations in the archaeological record have met with little
success. One hypothesis, that the radical shift from painted to plain gray-black
and buff ceramics at the end of the Bronze Age in central and northwestern Iran
represents the arrival of Iranians in about 1450 BCE, is not widely accepted
(Young, i967). Others have suggested that the appearance of the distinctive
plain buff pottery of the Iron Age III period in central-western Iran in the
ninth century BCE marks the appearance of Iranians in the Zagros. This
hypothesis has also gained little support. More widely accepted is the
proposition that the rapid spread of Iron III pottery throughout the Zagros in
the seventh century scE may be archaeological evidence of the rise of the
unified and powerful Median kingdom that is documented textually (Young,
Parsa, the Achaemenid Persian homeland, there is almost no archaeological
evidence for the centuries immediately preceding the rise of the Persians to
imperial power. This may indicate that these early Persian tribes were
to Imperial Power. Cyrus II (559-53o BCE) was the first great king of the
Persian royal house, the Achaemenids. His initial task was to unite the Persian
tribes. He then successfully attacked the Median king Astyages (SSo BCE). Among
Iranians this event may have been seen as nothing more than an internal dynastic
power struggle, for the Medes became so closely allied with the Persians that
the Greeks often had difficulty distinguishing between them.
547 BCE Cyrus defended himself against Lydian attack, and after an inconclusive
battle, successfully besieged the Lydian capital, Sardis. Shortly thereafter,
all of Asia Minor came under Persian rule (Herodotus, r.74-84). In October 539
BCE, Cyrus invaded Babylonia, where he fought only one battle, at Opis; the
Persians then marched unopposed into Babylon. Cyrus performed the religious
rituals required of a Babylonian king and returned confiscated deities to their
native Mesopotamian cities. That same year, his decree (Ez. i-4) permitting the
Jews to rebuild the Temple in Jerusalem established the Persian custom of ruling
with religious and cultural tolerance.
died in 530 BCE, fighting the Scythian Massagetae on the northeastern frontier
of the empire. His conquests included all of eastern Iran, Afghanistan, much of
central Asia, Anatolia, and all of the Babylonian Empire. Of the four kingdoms
that held the balance of power in the Near East at the time of Cyrus's
succession, only Egypt remained independent.
II (530-522 BCE), Cyrus's son, conquered Egypt in 525 BCE in a well-planned
campaign. He remained there for three years, extending Persian conquest south
into Nubia and west into North Africa. He ruled in Egypt as a legitimate
pharaoh, but, probably because of a reorganization of the Egyptian religious
establishment, gained a poor historical reputation. While he was in Egypt,
rebellion broke out in Persia. He turned homeward in 522 BCE but died en route.
It fell to Darius I to suppress the rebellion and to restore the Achaemenid
family to power.
I (52i-486 BCE) dealt first with the rebellion of Gaumata (Bardiya/Smerdis). The
story of the rebellion in Herodotus (3.67-88) and in Darius's Bisitun
inscription is that Cambyses killed his brother Bardiya before leaving for
Egypt. Then Gaumata (Greek Smerdis), a Magian (Median) priest, claiming he was
Bardiya, rebelled. Darius and six other nobles were the only Persians willing to
challenge the false Bardiya. They killed him and the kingship was given to
Darius. He then restored the sanctuaries Gaumata had destroyed, returned
confiscated private property, and "re-established the people on its
foundation, both Persia, Media, and the other provinces" (Bisitun
inscription, I. y-72). Clearly, this was more than a palace coup. The empire had
been shaken to its foundations by issues involving Mede versus Persian,
"haves" versus "have nots," upper versus lower social
orders, and different religions.
confusions provided the climate for widespread rebellion in the first year of
Darius's kingship. Elam and Babylon rebelled first but were quickly retaken. In
the meantime, Armenia, Persia, Media, Assyria, Parthia, Margiana, Sattagydia,
and Scythia rebelled. Subordinate generals were sent to deal with distant
trouble spots; the king himself concentrated on the most dangerous core
rebellion, in Media and neighboring regions. Once those provinces were under
control, troops were available to crush rebellion elsewhere. Darius won because
he retained control of the professional army, used his central position to
prevent rebel coordination, and was a first-class general.
an administrative reorganization of the empire, Darius turned to further
expansion. Sometime between 520 and 513 BCE, India (the Punjab) was conquered.
By 517 BCE Persia controlled the Ionian islands, and in 5 13 BCE Darius
campaigned, with some success, against the Black Sea Scythians and conquered
European Thrace and most of the northern Aegean.
499 BCE peace in the west was disturbed by the Ionian Revolt. Fierce fighting
restored the power of Persia throughout western Asia Minor and northern Greece
by 494 BCE. In response to Athenian support for the Ionians, Darius decided to
invade mainland Greece, which the Persians did in 490 BCE, only to lose the
battle at Marathon. The Persians retired to Asia. Darius was determined to
return, but he died before he could do so, in 486 BCE.
(486-465 ME), Darius's son, assumed the task of conquering Greece. First,
however, he had to put down rebellions in both Babylon and Egypt. The invasion
of Greece began in 480 BCE, with initial success for the Persians: they
outmaneuvered the Spartans at Thermopilae, conquered Attica, and burned the
Acropolis in Athens. Their navy, however, was defeated in the confined waters of
the Bay of Salamis. Xerxes returned to Persia, leaving general Mardonius in
command. In spring 479 BCE, Persians and Greeks fought a close battle at Plataea.
Only when Mardonius himself was killed did the Persians collapse and flee both
the field and Greece. In the decade that followed, Persian power in western Asia
Minor and the Aegean was at its nadir. Xerxes was effectively not heard of again
until he was assassinated in 465 BCE.
Persian Empire survived for 134 years after the death of Xerxes, but its days of
expansion were over. Persia continually intervened, to her advantage, with
diplomacy and bribery in the internecine wars in Greece. The Peace of Callis was
signed with Athens in 448 BCE by Artaxerxes I (464-425 BCE), which left Asia
Minor to Persia and the Aegean to the Greeks. The agreement broke down, however,
and in 400 BCE Persia and Sparta were at war. Persia supported Sparta's enemies
with gold, and eventually Artaxerxes II (405-359 BCE) was invited by the Greeks
to mediate their disputes. The result was the so-called King's Peace of 387-386
BCE, with which the Persian Empire firmly re-established its hold on Asia Minor.
II had to deal with two major challenges from within. His brother, Cyrus the
Younger, rebelled but was defeated at the battle of Cunaxa in 401 BCE. Then, in
373 BCE, the Revolt of the Satraps ("protectors of the Kingdom/
Kingship") began. Several satraps, mainly from Asia Minor, combined in
rebellion. The rebels, however, fell out among themselves and Artaxerxes
had successfully rebelled in 405 BCE and was not brought back into the empire
until 343 BCE under Artaxerxes III (359-338 BCE). The real threat to the Persian
Empire by this time, however, was not from rebellion but from the growing power
of Macedonia. By the time Darius III (336331 BCE) was on the throne, Alexander
the Great was ready to invade Asia. Alexander won his first battle at the
Granicus River in 334 BCE. Victory also went to the invaders at a second battle
shortly thereafter, near the Cilician Gates. Alexander spent the next two years
consolidating his hold on the Levant and Egypt. The final Persian defeat took
place on 1 October 331 BCE, at Gaugamela, near modern Erbil. Alexander captured
Persepolis in April 330 BCE, and the fleeing Darius was murdered that summer.
royal court was the center of imperial government. At its center was the king,
so that the capital was wherever the king was. Fixed capitals were Susa,
Persepolis, Ecbatana/Hamadan, and sometimes Babylon. King, court, and government
were supported by a large scribal bureaucracy concentrated in the treasuries of
the empire, for which the best evidence comes from Persepolis. The treasuries
were repositories from which stores of imperial wealth in kind were
administered. The Persepolis texts tell of provisions issued to work parties,
craftsmen, travelers, treasury officials, priests, members of the royal
household, and the king himself. These texts make clear that the central
government was highly organized and accountable to a hierarchy of officialdom,
ending with the king.
the reign of Xerxes, the language of the treasury at Persepolis was Elamite. The
end of the Elamite record suggests that the language of the treasury became
Aramaic, the lingua franca of the empire, which was written not on clay tablets
but on perishable materials. The language of the royal inscriptions was
alphabetic Old Persian, probably invented under Darius I in order to write the
Bisitun inscription (see above).
empire was organized into provinces (satrapies), each ruled by a satrap. This
system existed under Cyrus II but was restructured by Darius I. Satraps were
appointed by the king, often from among his relatives. Except for certain royal
fortresses, the satrap was both the military and civil commander of his
province. Representatives of the king, however-the "king's eyes" or
"king's ears"-traveled in the provinces and reported directly to him.
Control of the empire was also facilitated by an extensive system of "royal
roads," the most famous of which ran from Susa to Sardis.
military was divided into the army and navy. At the core of the standing army
were the ten thousand Immortals, a thousand of whom formed the king's elite
bodyguard. There were also ten thousand cavalry in the standing army. Troops of
the standing army-exclusively Persians, Medes, Elamites, and perhaps Scythians-were
often permanently stationed in the satrapies. Provincial forces were supported
by native troops and long-term mercenaries, such as the Jewish soldiers
stationed at Elephantine on the southern Egyptian frontier. In time of
full-scale war, the army was augmented by a levy called up from almost all of
the empire's subject peoples. The standing forces in the navy were supplied by
Phoenicians, Egyptians, and perhaps Cypriots. Ionian Greeks often participated.
All marines were Persians, Medes, or Scythians.
and the economy
is known of ancient Persian law. Following the model set by Cyrus II, the
Achaemenids generally governed with tolerance of, and respect for, the customs,
traditions, and laws of its conquered peoples. The best evidence comes from
Babylonia, where, in the main, legal affairs were conducted according to
longstanding Babylonian law and custom. There is, however, evidence of what
might be a "king's" law administered in a "king's" court,
though the available texts suggest that even there the Persians were introducing
new economic and administrative arrangements rather than rewriting law.
wealth of the empire was founded on agriculture, but manufacturing and commerce
played important roles in the economy. The government taxed with vigor. State
and royal properties were rented, funds were collected in lieu of obligations,
tribute was paid by peoples outside the provincial structure, customs charges
were collected, and selected sales taxes were levied. Most taxes were paid in
kind. Some of this wealth, however, went back into the economy. Seed grain and
seedlings (probably fruit trees) were issued to private estates by the
treasuries. Archaeological evidence demonstrates that state investment in
irrigation systems greatly increased productivity in Mesopotamia. Manufacturing,
at least in cottage industries, was encouraged by payments from the treasuries,
and exploratory sea voyages were undertaken at government expense to discover
trade routes. Darius dug a canal from the Nile River to the Red Sea, and on land
the state-supported road network allowed the peoples of the empire to benefit
from what was, for ancient times, a very large common market.
tolerance of the customs of her subjects precludes speaking of an imperial
social organization. There were two reasons for that tolerance: it was a
realistic policy, given the empire's size and cultural diversity; and such a
policy fit the Persians' own sense of social structure. Their vertical view of
society began at the base, with the family, and progressed upward through the
levels of clan, tribe, and country, to culminate in a people or nation. Viewed
horizontally, Persian society had four classes: priests, warriors, scribes, and
artisans/peasants. At the summit of society was the king, surrounded by the
concept khvarna, or "kingly glory," that attached itself both to the
man and the office. Thus, the king functioned only at the highest level: he was
king of countries, peoples, and nations; it was therefore logical that imperial
policy not interfere with the affairs of tribes, clans, and families. If the
peoples of the empire remained loyal and functioned well, how they did so was
not the business of the central government. Tolerance was built into the Persian
concept of how the world was organized.
wide a variety of religions were practiced in the empire as there were subject
peoples. From the Persepolis texts we know that a number of different beliefs
and practices were found even in Persia. The critical question, however, remains
whether the Achaemenid kings were Zoroastrians, in terms of what Zoroastrianism
may have been like in the sixth-fourth centuries BCE. Zoroaster was a great
ethical prophet who preached in northeast Iran sometime prior to the rise of the
Achaemenids. In due time his message triumphed over the polytheism of the
Iranian world, and Zoroastrianism eventually became the state religion of Iran
in Sasanian times.
are no data on the religion of Cyrus. Darius I, in several of his inscriptions,
uses wording compatible with Zoroaster's teaching, however: truth (arta) is in
conflict with the lie (druj). Ahuramazda is the supreme and only god mentioned.
Darius may have been a Zoroastrian. Xerxes elevated Arta to the role of a deity
and seemed particularly concerned about devil worship, as Zoroaster was. The
relapse into polytheism must have continued under Artaxerxes I, as the goddess
Anahita and the god Mithra appear in royal inscriptions. Yet, with the imperial
adoption of the Zoroastrian religious calendar, a clear commitment to
Zoroastrianism is made under this king. Thus, beginning with Darius I, the
Persian kings seem to move steadily toward a Zoroastrian theology.
of ritual practice from Persepolis confirms this drift. That fire, whose purity
and importance Zoroaster emphasized, was central to Persian royal religious
ritual can be seen in the royal tomb reliefs and the great fire altar at
Pasargadae. There also appears to have been no animal sacrifice at court-a
practice Zoroaster had condemned. The Persepolis texts yield evidence of
offerings only of wine, beer, wheat, and flour. Zoroaster had preached against
the Haoma cult, a drunken pagan ritual; however, textual and archaeological
evidence from Persepolis indicates that the cult was practiced. Nevertheless, on
balance, Persian royal religious ritual seems to have come close to Zoroastrian
practice at the time.
Persian art is a blend of two elements: the experiences Persians had with
material culture on the Iranian plateau during the centuries prior to the rise
of Cyrus II, and the material culture of the empire's conquered peoples. These
elements are most evident in architecture. The artists who decorated the great
imperial capitals of Pasargadae, Susa, and Persepolis came from every corner of
the empire. Their influence on individual elements is so great as to lead some
scholars to argue that Achaemenid art and architecture are only eclectic. A
closer look at Pasargadae and Persepolis shows that this is not true.
Pasargadae, founded by Cyrus II, a clear Egyptian and Mesopotamian influence is
evident and a considerable amount of decorative detail; Greek influence is also
patent. The layout of the site and the conception of the "whole" is
entirely Persian, however. The Pulvar River, which runs through the site, is the
key to understanding the plan of the "city": the tomb of Cyrus, the
main gate, two major palaces, two pavilions, a bridge, the so-called Zendan, the
sacred precinct, and the hilltop fortress, the Tall-i Takht. Most of these
structures were oriented to life in the open air. The various water channels
feeding off the river and running among the buildings make it clear that the
site was in fact a great park, not a city: a physical manifestation of a Persian
concept and the details-of the columned halls and pavilions-are fundamentally
Persian. Although the columned hall was foreign to the ancient Near East outside
of Egypt, it was an architectural tradition that can be traced back in western
Iran to Median times at such sites as Tepe Nush-i Jan and Godin II and from
there back to the Early Iron Age at Hasanlu V (r4go-i tso BCE). It was an
architectural concept the Persians brought with them to Parsa. Pasargadae
remains a superb expression in stone, wood, and brick of what the city of the
king of a new empire (only recently the ruler of tent-dwelling pastoralists)
might look like.
imperial authority was yet more forcefully expressed at Persepolis and Susa-the
former grander and better preserved. At Persepolis Darius built a great stone
platform jutting westward from the base of the Kuh-i Rahmat ("mountain of
mercy"). Xerxes expanded the platform and completed buildings his father
had begun and added others. Construction continued under Artaxerxes, and, in a
more desultory way, under even later kings. Two large columned audience halls
(the Apadana and the Hall of a Hundred Columns), a columned gateway (Gate of All
Nations), private columned residence palaces, a treasury, and a harem were the
main structures on the platform.
of the most remarkable reliefs ever carved in the ancient Near East adorn the
walls of these structures. Again, foreign influence is clear, but the basic
Persian conception of the totality is equally clear. The carving was done by a
team of artisans: a master craftsman working with others, each assigned special
elements of each figure. In short, the reliefs were created in an assembly
line-the master artist(s) was not the carver of the reliefs (where foreign
influences show). Rather, the master was he who conceived, designed, and decided
on the final layout of the reliefs. He was a Persian, for the story he told, and
the way he told it, was an original contribution of the Achaemenid Persians to
the art of the ancient world.
reliefs are unhistorical. Unlike those of Egypt and Assyria, they tell no story.
Instead they are a static picture of accomplishments-they are not scenes of
warfare, of the king's conquests, or of enemies defeated, but of contented
subject peoples paying homage to their ruler. The king is the central focus, but
he is not an individual: he is not Darius or Xerxes or Artaxerxes, but the image
of khvama, of the glory of kingship in the abstract. The reliefs are a
sculptured statement of the philosophy behind the tolerance of Persian imperial
rule, the perfect pax persica.
sites have produced few small objects from foreign countries, for the Persians
preferred their own products. Relatively plain stone and pottery vessels, with
an emphasis on crisp shapes derived from metal prototypes, are common. Bird and
animal heads are used as decoration, often on handles-a tradition going back to
Median times. Stone-seal cutting was a consummate art, as were metalwork and
jewelry. Metal vessels were practical, even when ornate, with an emphasis on
intricate, repetitive, and highly geometric decorative elements; animal motifs,
long a tradition on the plateau, also were common. Achaemenid jewelry and
tableware represent some of the most delicate achievements in ancient metalwork.
nothing is known outside of ceramics of the material culture of the common
people for excavation has concentrated on royal sites. At Persepolis the
platform was only the acropolis of a large city which may have spread north and
west as far as the royal rock-cut tombs at Naqsh-i Rustam. Excavations off the
terrace revealed some palaces of the nobility, but no peasant or artisan
Achaemenids combined the art of others before them with traditions of their own.
In doing so they produced an art which, like their empire, marked the end of the
ancient world and the beginning of something new.
Balcer, Jack Martin. "The Athenian Episkopos and the
Achaemenid `King's Eye."' American Journal of Philology 98 (1977): 252-263.
Burn, Andrew R. Persia and the Greeks: The Defense of the West, c.
5¢6¢78 B. C. 2d ed. London, 1984. Authoritative study of Persian-Greek
relations from the time of Cyrus to Xerxes.
Cook, J. M. The Persian Empire. London, 1983. Expansion of his
essay in Gershevitch (below); some excellent insights, but uneven in quality.
Dandamaev, Muhammad A., and Vladimir G. Lukonin. The Cultural and
Social Institutions of Ancient Iran. Translated by Philip L. Kohl. Cambridge,
1989. Stimulating, somewhat idiosyncratic discussion, very worthy but sometimes
marred by factual inaccuracies.
Frye, Richard N. The History of Ancient Iran. Handbuch der
Altertumswissenschaft, IIL7. Munich, 1984. The most recent statement on ancient
Iran by a distinguished American scholar.
Gershevitch, Ilya, ed. The Cambridge History of Iran, vol. z, The
Median and Achaemenian Periods. Cambridge, 1985. Uneven but very useful series
of articles, with an excellent bibliography.
Miroschedji, Pierre de. "La fin du royaume d'An"san et
de Suse et la naissance de (empire perse." Zeitschrift fur Assyriologie 75
(t985): z65-3o6. Excellent discussion of the relationship between the Late
Elamites and the rise of the first Persian Empire.
Roaf, Michael. "Sculptures and Sculptors at Persepolis."
Iran 21 (1983). Definitive work on the reliefs at Persepolis.
Schmidt, Erich F. Persepolis, vol. r, Structures, Reliefs,
Inscriptions. Oriental Institute Publications, 68. Chicago, 1953. The first
volume on the University of Chicago excavations at Persepolis. Superseded in
some details since, but the starting point for any understanding of the site.
Schmidt, Erich F. Persepolis, vol. 2, Contents of the Treasury and
Other Discoveries. Oriental Institute Publications, 69. Chicago, 1957. Final
report on the small finds of the Chicago Persepolis expedition.
Schmidt, Erich F. Persepolis, vol. 3, The Royal Tombs and Other
Monuments. Oriental Institute Publications, 70. Chicago, 1970. The final report
on the excavations and investigations of the Achaemenid royal tombs at Naqsh-i
Rustam and related structures (some dating to the Sasanian period).
Stronach, David B. Pasargadae: A Report on the Excavations
Conducted by the British Institute of Persian Studies from 1961 to 1963. Oxford,
1978. Definitive excavation report, incorporating all previous work at the site.
Summer, William M. "Achaemenid Settlement in the Persepolis
Plain." American Journal of Archaeology 90 (t986): 3-3t. Poses the problem
of the lack of archaeological evidence for any settled village life in the
Persepolis area immediately prior to the foundation of Persepolis under Darius
Vogelsang, W. J. The Rise and Organisation of the Achaemenid
Empire: The Eastern Iranian Evidence. Leiden, 1992. Stimulating, thoughtful, but
not always convincing argument on the organization of the eastern Achaemenid
Empire and the role played by the Scythians in the first Persian Empire.
Young, T. Cuyler, Jr. "The Iranian Migration into the Zagros."
Iran 5 (t967): t t-34. Attempt to demonstrate that both the Medes and the
Persians came to western Iran from the northeast, and that their appearance can
be traced in the archaeological record; dated but useful.
Young, T. Cuyler, Jr. "The Persian Empire." In The
Cambridge Ancient History, vol. 4, Persia, Greece, and the Western
Mediterranean, edited by John Boardman, pp. t-253. Cambridge, 1988. Narrative
report on the early history of the Medes and the Persians to the death of
Xerxes, with an excellent bibliography.
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