Christopher Allen and Public Works
The Persians tend to be cast in the bad role in ancient history, as the oriental superpower that tried and failed to crush the Greeks at the beginning of the 5th century BC — even though in Jewish history they appear as liberators, releasing the people of Israel from Babylonian captivity at the end of the 6th century and allowing them to return to their homeland.
Of course this liberation was only relative, since the Jews continued to live under the rule of the Great King. The trouble with the Greeks was that they had a different, much more radical and ultimately new conception of liberty — an obstinate determination to govern themselves in subservience to no foreign power.
Reading Herodotus’s account of the Persian Wars, two things are striking. One is that the author does not demonise the Persians: he is willing to admire certain aspects of their culture or to recognise the generosity of Darius’s behaviour on various occasions. Xenophon’s later Cyropaedia gives an even more positive account of Cyrus the Great, the founder of the empire and already discussed at length by Herodotus.
But just as striking is the impression of the fierceness of the Greek city states, tiny as they were in comparison with the vastness of the empire they opposed. In the rest of their oriental dominions, the Persians had had to conquer local sovereigns and warlords but not whole populations, for whom a change of master made little difference to a life of unrelenting labour.
It must have been almost incomprehensible to encounter peoples who were not only attached to their freedom but willing to fight and die for it. The Athenians, outnumbered almost 10 to 1, defeated the Persian army at Marathon in 490BC, and then the Greeks overcame a far greater invasion by land and sea under Xerxes in 480BC. A century and a half later, Alexander the Great conquered the Persian empire, uniting east and west from Greece to Pakistan.
Although they may figure, in simplistic accounts of this period, as a faceless oriental superpower, the Persians were in reality far less foreign than the Turks who later menaced Europe and the Mediterranean area for centuries. They were in fact Indo-Europeans whose language was related to Sanskrit, Greek and Latin, and even German — a fact that struck the first modern European scholars who began to learn it in the 16th century.
After the fall of the western Roman empire in the 5th century, Persia and the Greek-speaking eastern empire whose capital was Constantinople were caught in a destructive cycle of wars, weakening both in the period before the rise of Islam and the Arab conquests in the 7th century. The Byzantine empire lost most of its territory to the invading Arabs, but held on to its heartland; Persia was conquered and forcibly converted to the new religion.
But the Persians had a far longer and deeper history of civilisation than the tribal Arabs — after a millennium of dialogue with Greece, India and even China — and it is not surprising that so many of the great Islamic scholars of the ensuing period were Persian. Even the Arabian Nights emerged from a core of Persian storytelling, as the name of the heroine Scheherazade (or Shahrazad) reminds us.
Above all, although the Persians adopted the Arabic alphabet, they resisted the cultural im- perialism of the language itself, maintaining and developing their own into what became the lingua franca of courtly life and political administration from Turkey to Mughal India. Hamid Dabashi has recently stressed the open-minded spirit of the Persian tradition in his book The World of Persian Literary Humanism (Harvard, 2012). Great authors such as Rumi, Saadi, Hafez and Omar Khayyam are an invaluable part of the great family of Indo-European literature.
This is why Iran today is such an interesting case: it is one of the few nations in the Islamic world in which a significant proportion of the population has a sophisticated understanding of the modern and secular world, although they are for the time being living under an ultra-con-