Ancient History & Civilisation


The empire—The people—The language—The peasants—The imperial highways—Trade and finance

At its greatest extent, under Darius, the Persian Empire included twenty provinces or “satrapies,” embracing Egypt, Palestine, Syria, Phoenicia, Lydia, Phrygia, Ionia, Cappadocia, Cilicia, Armenia, Assyria, the Caucasus, Babylonia, Media, Persia, the modern Afghanistan and Baluchistan, India west of the Indus, Sogdiana, Bactria, and the regions of the Massagetæ and other central Asiatic tribes. Never before had history recorded so extensive an area brought under one government.

Persia itself, which was to rule these forty million souls for two hundred years, was not at that time the country now known to us as Persia, and to its inhabitants as Iran; it was that smaller tract, immediately east of the Persian Gulf, known to the ancient Persians as Pars, and to the modern Persians as Fars or Farsistan.15 Composed almost entirely of mountains and deserts, poor in rivers, subject to severe winters and hot, arid summers,* it could support its two million inhabitants17 only through such external contributions as trade or conquest might bring. Its race of hardy mountaineers came, like the Medes, of Indo-European stock perhaps from South Russia; and its language and early religion reveal its close kinship with those Aryans who crossed Afghanistan to become the ruling caste of northern India. Darius I, in an inscription at Naksh-i-Rustam, described himself as “a Persian, the son of a Persian, an Aryan of Aryan descent.” The Zoroastrians spoke of their primitive land as Airyana-vaejo—“the Aryan home.”Strabo applied the name Ariana to what is now called by essentially the same word—Iran.18

The Persians were apparently the handsomest people of the ancient Near East. The monuments picture them as erect and vigorous, made hardy by their mountains and yet refined by their wealth, with a pleasing symmetry of features, an almost Greek straightness of nose, and a certain nobility of countenance and carriage. They adopted for the most part the Median dress, and later the Median ornaments. They considered it indecent to reveal more than the face; clothing covered them from turban, fillet or cap to sandals or leather shoes. Triple drawers, a white under-garment of linen, a double tunic, with sleeves hiding the hands, and a girdle at the waist, kept the population warm in winter and hot in summer. The king distinguished himself with embroidered trousers of a crimson hue, and saffron-buttoned shoes. The dress of the women differed from that of the men only in a slit at the breast. The men wore long beards and hung their hair in curls, or, later, covered it with wigs.19 In the wealthier days of the empire men as well as women made much use of cosmetics; creams were employed to improve the complexion, and coloring matter was applied to the eyelids to increase the apparent size and brilliance of the eyes. A special class of “adorners,” called kosmetai by the Greeks, arose as beauty experts to the aristocracy. The Persians were connoisseurs in scents, and were believed by the ancients to have invented cosmetic creams. The king never went to war without a case of costly unguents to ensure his fragrance in victory or defeat.20

Many languages have been used in the long history of Persia. The speech of the court and the nobility in the days of Darius I was Old Persian—so closely related to Sanskrit that evidently both were once dialects of an older tongue, and were cousins to our own.*Old Persian developed on the one hand into Zend—the language of the Zend-Avesta—and on the other hand into Pahlavi, a Hindu tongue from which has come the Persian language of today.22 When the Persians took to writing they adopted the Babylonian cuneiform for their inscriptions, and the Aramaic alphabetic script for their documents.23 They simplified the unwieldly syllabary of the Babylonians from three hundred characters to thirty-six signs which gradually became letters instead of syllables, and constituted a cuneiform alphabet.24 Writing, however, seemed to the Persians an effeminate amusement, for which they could spare little time from love, war and the chase. They did not condescend to produce literature.

The common man was contentedly illiterate, and gave himself completely to the culture of the soil. The Zend-Avesta exalted agriculture as the basic and noblest occupation of mankind, pleasing above all other labors to Ahura-Mazda, the supreme god. Some of the land was tilled by peasant proprietors, who occasionally joined several families in agricultural cooperatives to work extensive areas together.25 Part of the land was owned by feudal barons, and cultivated by tenants in return for a share of the crop; part of it was tilled by foreign (never Persian) slaves. Oxen pulled a plough of wood armed with a metal point. Artificial irrigation drew water from the mountains to the fields. Barley and wheat were the staple crops and foods, but much meat was eaten and much wine drunk. Cyrus served wine to his army,26 and Persian councils never undertook serious discussions of policy when sober—though they took care to revise their decisions the next morning. One intoxicating drink, the haoma, was offered as a pleasant sacrifice to the gods, and was believed to engender in its addicts not excitement and anger, but righteousness and piety.28

Industry was poorly developed in Persia; she was content to let the nations of the Near East practice the handicrafts while she bought their products with their imperial tribute. She showed more originality in the improvement of communications and transport. Engineers under the instructions of Darius I built great roads uniting the various capitals; one of these highways, from Susa to Sardis, was fifteen hundred miles long. The roads were accurately measured by parasangs (3.4 miles); and at every fourth parasang, says Herodotus, “there are royal stations and excellent inns, and the whole road is through an inhabited and safe country.”29 At each station a fresh relay of horses stood ready to carry on the mail, so that, though the ordinary traveler required ninety days to go from Susa to Sardis, the royal mail moved over the distance as quickly as an automobile party does now—that is, in a little less than a week. The larger rivers were crossed by ferries, but the engineers could, when they wished, throw across the Euphrates, even across the Hellespont, substantial bridges over which hundreds of sceptical elephants could pass in safety. Other roads led through the Afghanistan passes to India, and made Susa a half-way house to the already fabulous riches of the East. These roads were built primarily for military and governmental purposes, to facilitate central control and administration; but they served also to stimulate commerce and the exchange of customs, ideas, and the indispensable superstitions of mankind. Along these roads, for example, angels and the Devil passed from Persian into Jewish and Christian mythology.

Navigation was not so vigorously advanced as land transportation; the Persians had no fleet of their own, but merely engaged or conscripted the vessels of the Phoenicians and the Greeks. Darius built a great canal uniting Persia with the Mediterranean through the Red Sea and the Nile, but the carelessness of his successors soon surrendered this achievement to the shifting sands. When Xerxes royally commanded part of his naval forces to circumnavigate Africa, it turned back in disgrace shortly after passing through the Pillars of Hercules.30 Commerce was for the most part abandoned to foreigners—Babylonians, Phoenicians and Jews; the Persians despised trade, and looked upon a market place as a breeding-ground of lies. The wealthy classes took pride in supplying most of their wants directly from their own fields and shops, not contaminating their fingers with either buying or selling.31 Payments, loans and interest were at first in the form of goods, especially cattle and grain; coinage came later from Lydia. Darius issued gold and silver “darics” stamped with his features,* and valued at a gold-to-silver ratio of 13.5 to 1. This was the origin of the bimetallic ratio in modern currencies.33

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