the glory that was Greece and the grandeur that
was Rome. The greatest of all ancient
civilisations was, according to a forthcoming show
at the British Museum, the Persian empire.
Its achievements have been so overlooked that no
exhibition devoted to it has ever been staged. But
the empire, which flourished from 550BC until the
sacking of Persepolis by Alexander in 330BC, was
almost as big as the Roman, stretching "from
the Aral Sea to the Persian Gulf, and from the
River Indus to Libya", according to the
exhibition's curator, John Curtis.
But for the past 2,500 years, it has been the
victim of Greek propaganda. Portrayed by classical
Athenian writers, especially Herodotus, as
despotic, luxurious, effete and cruel, the
Persians have been thoroughly vilified.
Some argue that the Greeks' characterisation of
their near and Middle Eastern neighbours has stuck
so successfully it still informs western
stereotypes of the Muslim world.
According to Dr Curtis, the Greek portrayal is far
The Persians, for example, showed a notable degree
of religious tolerance. "The Persian kings
never attempted to to impose their own religion on
different parts of the empire - in this respect
they were enlightened," he said.
The empire bridged Europe and the great centres of
Assyrian and Babylonian learning, he said.
The objects in the exhibition, nearly three years
in the planning and many on loan from the Tehran
National Museum and the Louvre, bear out his
argument. Splendid bronze figures of lions,
finely-worked cloisonné jewellery and a lapis
lazuli carving of the head of a young man are just
some of the objects in the show.
As for the Graeco-Persian wars, Athens' proudest
moment, when it defeated King Xerxes and ushered
in the golden age, Dr Curtis is dismissive.
"As far as the Persians were concerned, they
were nothing more than frontier skirmishes."
Forgotten Empire: The World of Ancient Persia
is at the British Museum, London WC1, from
September 9 until January 8.