Topics in Middle East History

Chapter 1: The Persian Empire

Copyright ©2009, 2010 by T. Pavlidis


Starting in the 6th century BCE the big power in the Eastern Mediterranean was the Persian Empire. It stretched from parts of today's Afghanistan and Pakistan in the East to what is now Turkey and parts of northern Greece. It also included Egypt and all the countries of Middle East. (See also the Wikipedia article: The Persian Empire was certainly an authoritarian state with the "great king" ruling the vast empire through regional governors, the satraps. That the latter word has entered the English language as a synonym for a petty tyrant tells something about the way the Persian Empire was administered. However, it was also an improvement over previous rulers in the treatment of the various ethnic groups that lived in its land. This has been well document in the case of the Jews. It also included a level of government organization not seen before.

For example, the Persian Empire is credited with the first postal service in the world. The phrase "Neither snow, nor rain, nor heat, nor gloom of night stays these courageous couriers from the swift completion of their appointed rounds" was written by the Greek historian Herodotus while describing that service. ( A version of that statement has been engraved on the neoclassical building of the New York City General Post Office. It is not the motto of the U.S. Postal Service.) Of course the couriers carried only royal correspondence and the service meant to consolidate the king's control over the empire. (See for a discussion of this phrase.)


Click on the map for a larger display. Source:,

Early in the 5th century BCE the Persians tried to extend their rule to Greece but they were soundly defeated. The modern Marathon race commemorates the Persian defeat at the battle of Marathon, about 26 miles from Athens although hardly any participants or spectators are aware of that meaning. Some historians refer to the Greek victories as saving the ideals of democracy from despotism. However the democratic Greek city states did not last very long and, eventually, the Persian form of government prevailed in that region of the world (we discuss that in the next chapter). The end of the 5th century saw another Greek-Persian military encounter. Cyrus, the younger brother of the Persian king Artaxerxes staged a campaign against his brother so that he would become the king. A large part of his force was a troop of Greek mercenaries that helped defeat the king's army in a crucial battle. However, Cyrus himself was killed in that battle, so the mercenaries were left with no goal. They had to make their long way home through hostile territory. One of the leaders of the mercenaries was Xenophon who also happened to be a gifted writer and he left two books about the campaign: Κυρου Αναβασις (The Ascend of Cyrus) and Καθοδος των Μυριων (The Descend of the Myriad). The first describes the campaign on behalf of the pretender Cyrus and the second describes the return of the mercenaries (about 10,000 of them, or a myriad in classical Greek) to Greece.

The ability of Greek soldiers to repeatedly defeat the much larger Persian army did not go unnoticed. In the latter part of the 4th century the Macedonian king Phillip started planning a campaign against the Persians. First he subjugated the Greek city states (putting an end to the Athenian democracy) and he was ready to invade the Persian Empire when he was assassinated. It was left to his son Alexander the Great (reigned 336-323BCE) to carry out the plan.

In a span of ten years Alexander conquered the immense Persian Empire reaching all the way to India, even though his army was much smaller than that of the Persians. Alexander died soon after the completion of the conquest and his empire broke up into several kingdoms headed by his former generals. These kingdoms flourished at what used to be the western part of the Persian Empire, but they soon lost Persia proper. In 238BCE , a Parthian kingdom rose in the area of Persia and the Greek rulers were expelled. However the Greek rulers of Bactria (modern day Afghanistan) lasted for another century. The Parthians were an Iranian people, so the core of Persia reverted to native rulers. Around 224CE, the Persian lands fell under the Sassanid dynasty that lasted until the Islamic conquest in the 7th century. Under either dynasty the Persian Empire remained a serious rival to the Roman Empire.

Persian Military Weakness against the Greeks

The ease with which Alexander's Greek army conquered the mighty Persian empire raises some questions. How can a small army overwhelm a big one? One answer is the wedge formation illustrated below. This formation has been used throughout the centuries, most recently by the Germans in WW II. (See the Wikipedia article for more on this subject.) The Greeks had tried the wedge formation in the first Greek-Persian war circa 490BCE and several decades later it was used by Greek mercenaries that Xenophon wrote about. The Persians never managed to defend against the wedge and the next question is why? There is a defense against the wedge by using the flanks to encircle the attacker as shown in the illustration below.

Figure 2: Military Strategies

Far Left: Successful wedge attack. The center of the enemy line breaks and the flanks do nothing.

Near Left: Successful defense against the wedge. The center retreats in an orderly way and the flanks encircle the attackers. This type of defense against the wedge is shown beautifully in Eisenstein's movie "Alexander Nevsky". (The battle on the ice.) The overall battle of Stalingrad as it evolved over several months was a successful application of this defense.

We cannot be sure about the reasons for the Persian failure but here is a hypothesis. In a highly centralized autocratic regime the leader could command a lot of reluctant followers. The troops at the center were under the direct command of the king and they might have been quite capable. However, the reluctant followers at the flanks were there because of the fear of the king's authority. Once the king was on the run, they would also join the retreat.

We many evenventure a generalization: The strongest the internal position of the ruling elite, the more vulnerable they are to external attacks.


One characteristic of the Persian Empire (both before and after Alexander) is that it had an organized state religion. That was Zoroastrianism, named after its founder Zoroaster. (This is the Hellenized version of his name. A more faithful rendering of his Persian name is Zarathusthra.) Scholars do not agree about the time that Zoroaster lived but it was well before the 6th century BCE, the time of Cyrus the Great. The basic tenet of the religion that there is a supreme creator god, Ahura Mazda, that is in constant battle with Ahriman, that embodies all evil. The king was considered the favorite of Ahura Mazda, so obedience to the king was associated with religion. Such a religion reinforces state control of the subjects and this practice has been followed widely through the Middle Ages and even in our times.

Zoroastrianism is arguably the first monotheistic religion in history and that had the political effect of solidifying the position of the king. In the religion of ancient Egypt Pharaoh was a god and so was the emperor in pagan Rome. But being a god was no big deal in a religion where there were hundreds of other gods, some of them more important than the ruler god. In the Persian system the ruler gave up the pretension of being a god, but because he was the favorite of the only god, it strengthened his position. Bernard Lewis [BL95, p. 29] points out that there was a state-imposed orthodoxy and the functions of the priesthood included the detection and suppression of heresy.

Some scholars, particularly James Kugel, think that Judaism did not become monotheistic until the time of the half-century long Babylonian exile and the subsequent restoration of the Temple by the Persian king Cyrus [Wr09, Ku07, p. 560, PC98, pp. 152-156]. Until then the God of Israel was one of many gods, although more powerful than the others, as the hymn Mi Kamocha demonstrates. The critical passage of the Persian influence can be found in Isaiah:45. "Thus said the LORD to CYRUS, His anointed one - ....". Also the concept of life after death in Judaism appears for the first time in the same period. It is worth noting that the word Paradise is of Persian origin.

Another novel feature of Zoroastrianism was its collection of holy texts or scripture (Avesta). The pagan religions did not have such texts. It is an interesting coincidence that the Jewish bible was codified only after the return from the Babylonian exile, i.e. after the Jews had contact with Zoroastrianism.

The priests of Zoroastrianism were the Magi who under the Sassanids evolved into a well organized priesthood that was part of the apparatus of the government. At the top of the hierarchy were the dasturs who had a function similar to that of bishops. Such an organization was absent from all the pagan religions but it existed in the Jewish sect of the Essenes. The Essenes existed several centuries before the Sassanids came to power but Zoroastrianism as a religion predates the Essenes. It is possible that the Essenes were influenced by the Zoroastrians, not only in adopting the organization of the priests but also in adopting their world view of a battle between good and evil. Both the organization and the views were passed on to Christianity (Satan is Ahriman, see PC98, p. 154). The story of the Nativity with the three Magi bringing gifts to the new-born Jesus offers another instance of Persian influence. Finally the story of the virgin birth of a savior, Saoshyant, is also present in Zoroastrianism. According to Zoroastrian tradition a Saoshyant acting as an agent of Ahura Mazda will resurrect the dead and start the era of righteousness and immortality. (See the Wikipedia article of Saoshyant: .)

Today Zoroastrianism survives mainly in India where its adherents are known as Parsi, i.e. Persians. There is a significant Parsi diaspora in the West but there are very few Zoroastrian communities in Iran, the place of its origin [MB77].( As it often happens with religious minorities, Zoroastrians are well represented in the arts, the sciences, and the professions.) Even though it is no longer a major religion, it has influenced the major religions of our times, both in theology (monotheism) and in organization. Both the theology and the organization were developed for the strengthening of the state and they seem to continue to be used to that effect in modern times. We will return to these issues in Chapter 3.

Some Sources on Zoroastrianism
[MB77] Mary Boyce A Persian Stronghold of Zoroastrianism, Oxford, 1977.
[EB82] Article on Zoroastrianism of Encyclopedia Britannica, Fifteenth edition, 1982, vol. 19, pp. 1171-1176.
[PC98] Peter Clark Zoroastrianism, Sussex, 1998.
[SN93] S. A. NIgosian The Zoroastrian Faith, McGill-Queen's Univ. Press, 1993.


The Persian kings made extensive use of eunuchs not only to guard their women but also to staff the state administration. Gibbon [EG, Chapter XIX, vol. 2, pp. 177, Footnote 1] quotes the Greek historian Xenophon as stating that the Persian king Cyrus the Great (585-529BCE) entrusted his person to the guard of the eunuchs because "those separated from the rest of human kind would be more firmly attached to the person of their benefactor." (Gibbon questions the wisdom of Cyrus' decision but he has the benefit of hindsight.) The most likely reasoning behind Cyrus' decision was that because eunuchs cannot have children they will be dependant on their master to look after them in their old age. Therefore they had to be loyal servants.

It should be noted that Xenophon is probably wrong in attributing the first use of eunuchs to Cyrus. Eunuchs (as part of the retinue of a king) are mentioned in the first book of Samuel in the Bible (8.15) and in the book of Jeremiah (38.7). The latter lists a eunuch in the service of the last king of Judah Zedekiah who reigned 597-587BCE, well before Cyrus. The former mentions eunuchs as part of a warning that Samuel gives to the people of Israel when they ask him to appoint a king for them. The text (Samuel I, 8.11-8.18) is a list of the oppressive actions of kings, clearly a reflection of the oppressive practices of kings in the Middle East. Samuel I was written well before the reign of Cyrus. There is also a mention of eunuchs in the Deuteronomy (23.2) and that book probably dates from the time of the religious reforms of king Josiah, circa 621BCE.

Still, the Persians are the ones who introduced eunuchs to their Greek conquerors and they in turn introduced them to the Romans. When the Greek queen of Egypt Cleopatra visited Rome she had eunuchs in her entourage and the Romans were appalled by their spectacle [EG, Chapter XIX, vol. 2, pp. 176]. However, it soon became acceptable within the Roman empire to employ eunuchs. Eventually, they were employed in large scale by emperors such as Diocletian. Constantine the Great limited their employ but his son Constantius II reversed that policy so eunuchs "acquired the knowledge, and at length the direction of the secret councils of Constantius" [ibid, pp. 177].

The deliberate mutilation of human beings is by itself a sign of a despotic regime and that practice alone tells something of the the nature of the Persian Empire. Entrusting a significant part of the state administration to eunuchs creates a layer of "marked" people between the king and his subjects. This makes a revolution by the state organs against the king unlikely but it also isolates the king from his subjects. It is worth noting that while this practice continued in the Easter Roman Empire until its fall (1453), it was not adopted in the western parts of the empire.

Addendum: A discussion on how to stay in power

First Posted: December 14, 2009. Latest Revision: September 7, 2011.

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