Ancient Persian culture flourished between the reign of Cyrus II (The Great, r. c. 550-530 BCE), founder of the Achaemenid Persian Empire, and the fall of the Sassanian Empire in 651 CE. Even so, the foundations of Persian culture were already set prior to the 3rd millennium BCE when Aryan (Indo-Iranian) tribes migrated to the region which would come to be known as Ariana or Iran – the land of the Aryans. The Persians were only one of these tribes who settled in the territory of Persis (also Parsa, modern-day Fars) which would give them their name.
Initially, the Persians were subject to another Aryan tribe, the Medes, who had helped topple the Assyrian Empire of Mesopotamia in 612 BCE and extended their reach to form their own empire. The Medes were overthrown by their vassal Cyrus the Great in c. 550 BCE and, with the rise of the Achaemenid Empire, Persian culture began to develop fully. It should be noted, however, that many of the cultural advancements Cyrus II is regularly credited for were actually developed by earlier Persians and Medes (such as the qanat system of irrigation, the yakhchal, and military organization). Cyrus II’s brilliance – which would be mirrored by many of his successors – was in recognizing worthwhile concepts and adapting them on a large scale.
His vision of an all-inclusive empire whose citizens could live and worship as they pleased – as long as they paid their taxes and caused no problems for their neighbors or the king – provided the basis for one of the most vital and influential cultures of the ancient world. Much has been made of the Greek influence on the Persians after the fall of the Achaemenid Empire to Alexander the Great in 330 BCE but, long before and long after Alexander and the succeeding Hellenistic Seleucid Empire (312-63 BCE), Persian culture influenced the Greeks and many other civilizations, and its effects still resonate around the world in the present day.
The Aryan tribes who settled in the Iranian Plateau and environs brought with them a polytheistic religion whose supreme being was Ahura Mazda (Lord of Wisdom) with many other lesser gods and spirits under his dominion. Among these, the most popular were Mithra (god of covenants and the rising sun), Anahita (goddess of fertility, health, water, and wisdom, Atar, (god of fire), and Hvar Khsata (sun god/god of the full sun). These forces of good stood in opposition to the evil spirit of chaos. Ahura Mazda, source of all good, was both invoked and worshipped through a ritual known as the yazna (a meal to which the deity is invited). At the yazna, a drink called hauma was prepared from the juices of a plant (which has not been identified) and consumed, altering the participants’ minds and allowing an apprehension of the divine. Fire, kindled at the yazna, was both a sacred element in itself and a manifestation of the divine presence in the form of Atar.
At some point between 1500-1000 BCE, the Persian prophet Zoroaster (also given as Zarathustra), claimed to receive a revelation from Ahura Mazda and preached a new religion – known as Zoroastrianism – which developed the concepts of the earlier religion in a monotheistic framework. Zoroaster recognized Ahura Mazda as the supreme being but claimed he was the only god - requiring no others - engaged in an eternal struggle with Angra Mainyu (also given as Ahriman), the eternal spirit of evil.
The purpose of human life was to choose which deity one would follow, and this choice would inform and direct all of one’s actions as well as one’s final destination. One who chose Ahura Mazda would live a life devoted to Asha (truth and order) and would adhere to the practice of Good Thoughts, Good Words, Good Deeds. One who chose Angra Mainyu would live a life attached to Druj (lies and chaos), evident by self-indulgence, faithlessness, and cruelty.
After death, all souls would cross the Chinvat Bridge and those who had been righteous would go to the House of Song (paradise) while those who had followed Angra Mainyu’s path were dropped into the House of Lies, a vision of hell in which one feels eternally alone – no matter how many other souls are near – while suffering various torments. At some point in the future, a messiah would come – the Saoshyant (“One Who Brings Benefit”) and linear time would end in the event known as Frashokereti when all would be reunited with Ahura Mazda in paradise, even those who had been led astray by evil. Zoroaster kept the ritual of the yazna and the concept of fire as a divine element, only now it was a manifestation of Ahura Mazda instead of Atar.
Although scholars continue to debate the precise nature of Zoroastrianism, the Avesta (Zoroastrian scripture) strongly suggests it is a monotheistic religion whose dualistic characteristics were exaggerated later in a movement known as Zorvanism (popular during the Sassanian Empire, 224-615 CE). Zoroastrianism, with its focus on a single, uncreated, supreme being, the importance of human free will and choice in living a good life, judgment after death, a messiah, and final account at the end of time would become important elements of the later religions of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam and influence still other faiths.
Social Hierarchy & Women
It is unclear how much, if at all, Zoroastrianism influenced Cyrus the Great since his inscriptions mentioning Ahura Mazda could as easily be referencing the old religion as the new. The same could be said for later Achaemenid rulers in different eras although it seems Darius I (the Great, r. 522-486 BCE) and Xerxes I (r. 486-465 BCE) were Zoroastrians. The social hierarchy of Persian culture was informed by religious belief with the king at the top and all others following after since the king was considered to have been divinely appointed. Scholar Homa Katouzian explains:
Even if he was the first son of the previous [king], which he often was not, [the king’s] fundamental legitimacy was not due to that fact or even to his belonging to the ruling dynasty: it came directly from God, His Grace or Divine Effulgence, called Farrah in Middle Persian and farr in New Persian…the Persian kings did not draw their legitimacy from an aristocratic and/or priestly class but directly from God by possessing the farr or divine grace. (5)
A king (shah) was supported only as long as he held the farr and, when a king was deposed, he was thought to have lost the favor of God. As long as he ruled, however, he was supported (at least in theory) by the social hierarchy which ran, top to bottom:
- The king and the royal family
- The priests (magi)
- Nobles (aristocrats and satraps)
- Military commanders and elite forces (such as the Persian Immortals)
- Artisans and craftspeople
Within each class, there were also hierarchies. After the king came the king’s mother and then the queen (mother of the king’s chosen successor), followed by the king’s sons, then daughters, then brothers and sisters with other relatives coming last. In the priestly class, there was a high priest and then lesser priests and the same paradigm applied all the way down to slaves as there were some slaves who supervised others.
Men and women often worked the same jobs and women were highly respected. Early evidence of this is seen in the goddess Anahita who not only presided over fertility and health but water – the vital life-giving element – and wisdom – the ability to discern rightly in making any given choice. Specifics on women’s roles, jobs, and general treatment come from the Persians themselves through the so-called Fortification and Treasury Texts found at Persepolis, the capital of the empire commissioned by Darius I, which list rations, payments, and job titles among other information.
Women served as supervisors and especially skilled and powerful women held the title of arashshara (great chief). Female artisans and craftspeople often supervised shops creating goods not only for daily use but for trade. They were paid the same as their male counterparts, as evidenced by statements showing the same rations of grain and wine for female and male workers. Pregnant women and those who had recently given birth received higher pay and, if a woman gave birth to a son, she was rewarded (as was the attending physician) with extra rations for a month, but this is the only discrepancy in pay between the sexes. Women could own land, conduct business, and there is even evidence that women served in the military.
Jobs & Economy
The king was the ultimate authority and responsible for running the Persian government, initiating various reforms, and overseeing military campaigns. He was assisted by the magi, members of his family, and nobles who counseled him. The magi were responsible for religious rituals, divination, and banking. Unlike Mesopotamia or Egypt, which raised grand temples to their gods, the Persians believed the divine should be recognized and worshipped out of doors in the natural world and so built altars on which the sacred fire would be lighted and sacrifices made.
The concept of a temple bureaucracy, however, was observed with a high priest employing lesser priests and, eventually, taking on the role of bankers. Magi offered loans with an interest rate of 20 percent but could, and did, waive interest at various times for whatever reason. Homes, land, livestock, businesses, and slaves could be bought on credit offered by the priests who would expect a return on their investment.
The satraps (governors) were the king’s representatives in the provinces (satrapies) of the empire. As long as they pleased the king, they reigned for life and lived well in their own palaces with their own retinue. Each satrap was expected to levy and collect taxes as well as raise soldiers for military campaigns which they were also expected to participate in. Satraps were therefore indistinguishable as a class from military commanders in many cases.
Merchants – who could be male or female – engaged in short and long-distance trade while also supervising production and acquisition of raw materials. Merchants who succeeded could become quite wealthy, and female merchants were as free to spend their money as they pleased as males. Artisans and craftspeople, fundamentally important to the merchant as well as many others, were employed in a number of different occupations from sculpting reliefs on homes, buildings, and palaces, to fashioning statues, creating jewelry, forging weaponry and armor, making tack for horses, and providing people with plates, jars, and bowls. Artisans could also be entertainers such as musicians, dancers, and mimes.
Peasants were, as usual, the backbone of the economy as they were largely farmers and either skilled or unskilled laborers. The peasant class was in no way considered inferior, however, and could even own their own land (which not even the peasants of so advanced a culture as ancient Egypt could do). Peasants either farmed or herded livestock of sheep, goats, and cattle and also worked on the king’s building projects. When called upon by the satrap, the peasants participated in Persian warfare either as soldiers or as baggage handlers, cooks, or in other capacities of support.
In Persian culture, slaves were treated as paid servants were elsewhere. Slaves could not be beaten or killed indiscriminately, and Darius I, in fact, made it law that a master who mistreated a slave was subject to the same penalties as if a free person had been injured. Slaves received compensation for their labor, shelter, and clothing, and lived better under the Persians, whether the Achaemenid or Sassanian, than slaves anywhere else in the ancient world.
The economy was based on agriculture and crops grown and traded included barley, lentils, beans, figs, grapes, sesame seeds, and flax. Trade was conducted from one end of the Achaemenid and Sassanian empires to the other – roughly from the borders of modern-day India across to the coast of Turkey and down through the Levant and Egypt. Under Darius I, a network of roads was built which made trade easier and maritime trade also flourished. Darius I even built a canal in Egypt (c. 500 BCE) connecting the Nile River to the Red Sea to further enhance trade (though a number of Greek historians claim the canal was never completed).
The many different subject nations were able to trade confidently with each other because they all operated under a single government which ensured fair trade practices, standard weights and measures, and protection from robbers. Darius I also standardized the currency throughout the empire in the form of the Daric. Subject nations minted their own coins and used their own monetary systems, but these were brought in line with the value of the Persian Daric.
Sports & Leisure
Athletic accomplishment was especially important to the Persians who enjoyed archery, boxing, fencing, horsemanship, hunting, polo, javelin-throwing, swimming, and wrestling. The sons of nobles were trained for military service from the age of five and encouraged to excel in all of these sports but girls and boys of all classes were equally expected to participate and remain physically fit. It is unclear when the sport of polo was developed by the Persians but it was sometime prior to 330 BCE as it is said that representatives of Darius III gave Alexander the Great a polo mallet as a gift following his victory.
In their leisure time, when not participating in or watching sporting events, Persians enjoyed board games, banquets (which included drinking significant amounts of wine), music, mime, dance and, especially, storytelling. Mime was a popular form of entertainment because it combined elements of dance to dramatically present a story. The most popular stories featured epic heroes such as those from the later Shahnameh (The Book of Kings) written by Abolqasem Ferdowsi in the late 10th century CE or the tales which make up the famous One Thousand and One Nights (popularly known as The Arabian Nights). Both of these works are based on a long oral tradition of Persian storytelling. One Thousand and One Nights is based on the earlier Persian work One Thousand Tales which was written down during the Sassanian Period but reflects a much older oral history.
Among the many inventions of the Persians were the board games backgammon and chess (although the Persian origin of chess has been repeatedly challenged). They also invented the musical instrument known as the cartar (popularly known as a tar) and the sestar, precursor of the modern-day guitar, and developed the art of mime because mimes could tell a story in any of the subject nations without worrying about language barriers. A Persian mime could perform as easily in Egypt as in Bactria.
As part of their banquet entertainment, the Persians also seem to have invented the art of animation as evidenced by a cup which, when turned quickly, shows a goat leaping up to eat the leaves from a tree. For their comfort while eating or relaxing in their homes, the Persian carpet was created and the tradition of dessert after a meal is also a Persian innovation. In order to have cool drinks and ice at their meal or afterwards, the Persians developed the first refrigerators – the yakhchal – a tall, ceramic, domed structure with a subterranean storage space which produced ice and kept food cold.
The crops which provided that food, and kept the economy stable, were irrigated by a system known as the qanat, a sloping channel in the earth with vertical shafts at intervals which brought subterranean waters up to ground level. The qanat was also utilized in the creation of elaborate gardens which adorned the grounds of palaces and private homes alike. These magnificent gardens were known as pairi-daeza; the origin of the concept and word paradise in English.
The enormous expanse of the empire and the different cities (Babylon, Susa, Ecbatana, Persepolis) used as important administrative centers had necessitated the road system of Darius I for rapid communication and this led to another Persian invention: the postal service. The Persian postal system, in fact, has served as the model for others down through history and up to the present day. The motto of the United States of America’s postal service comes from Herodotus’ description of the Persian messengers.
Persians also invented sulfuric acid, their own alphabets, and developed the craft of perfumery as well as the concept of the hospital. The later Persian polymath Avicenna (l. c. 980-1037 CE) would advance the medicinal arts through his Canon of Medicine and the mathematician Al-Khwarizmi (l. c. 780 - c. 850 CE) invented algebra. According to some interpretations, Cyrus the Great also established the first written document concerning human rights through the Cyrus Cylinder which mandated tolerance of other’s beliefs throughout the empire.
Cyrus’ belief in the importance of accepting and embracing others, fostered a culture founded on recognition of and appreciation for different beliefs, customs, and values. Herodotus noted that “the Persians adopt more foreign customs than anyone else” (I.135) and his observation is borne out in the Persian practice of adapting the best aspects of other cultures for their own use and improving upon them. After the fall of the Sassanian Persian Empire to the invading Muslim Arabs in 651 CE, Persian culture spread to other regions and then, through trade along routes such as the Silk Road, toward the West. From ancient times to the present day, in fact, Persian culture, inventions, and innovations have, and continue to, inform the lives of people around the world.