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The Kingdom of Persia

The growth of Persian power had begun when Cyrus1 ( ruler between 560-530 B.C.) established himself as the first Persian king. Previously, the Persians had been ruled by the Medes2, a related people whose original territory occupied what is now northern Iran. The Greeks indeed often used the term “Mede” to refer to Persians. The ancestral homeland of the Persians themselves was found to the south of what is now the country of Iran. The Iranian language of today remains a descendant of ancient Persian, in contrast to the Arabic now spoken in neighboring Iraq and other countries of the Near East. By the reign of Darius I3 from 522 to 486, the Persian Kingdom had expanded to encompass a vast territory of heterogeneous populations stretching east-west from what is now Afghanistan to Turkey, and north-south from the southern territory of the former U.S.S.R. to Egypt and the Indian Ocean. The Persian king governed this immense area through a system of provincial organization, whose chief administrators were governors, called satraps4, like the one whom the Athenian ambassadors met in Sardis. A satrap was a powerful figure in his own right, ruling over his province like a monarch.

The Resources of Persia

By 500 B.C the Persian Kingdom had millions of subjects. The Persian kings exacted taxes from their many subject peoples5 in different ways in different regions. Tax revenues could be levied in the form of food stuffs, precious metals as bullion or coinage, and other valuable commodities. The various provinces were also responsible for supplying soldiers to staff the royal army. The material and human revenues of the immense kingdom made the Persian kings wealthy beyond the Greek imagination. Although the Persians did not regard their king as a god, everything about him was meant to emphasize his grandeur and superiority to ordinary mortals. His purple robes were of the most splendid fabric; red carpets were spread for him alone to walk upon; his servants held their hands before their mouths in his presence to muffle their breath so that he would not have to breathe the same air; he was depicted as larger than any other human being in the sculpture adorning his palace. To display his concern for his loyal subjects, as well as the gargantuan scale of his resources, the king provided meals for some 15,000 nobles, courtiers, and other followers every day, although he himself ate hidden from the view of his guests. The Greeks, in awe of the Persian monarch's power and lavishness, referred to him simply as “The Great King.6

Persian Religion

As absolute autocrats, the Persian kings believed they were superior to all human beings. Neither they nor their subjects, however, considered the king to be a god but, rather, the agent of the supreme god of Persian religion, Ahura Mazda. Persian religion7, based on the teachings of the prophet Zoroaster, was dualistic, conceptualizing the world as the arena for a constant battle between good and evil. Unlike the Greeks, the Persians avoided animal sacrifice. Fire, kindled on special altars, formed an important part of their religious rituals. Although the language of ancient Persia has survived in its homeland in the form of modern Iranian, the religion of ancient Persia has been replaced in today's Iran by Islam. The religion called Zoroastrianism, a descendant of the dualistic religion of ancient Persia, survives to this day in the modern world. Contemporary Zoroastrianism has preserved the central role of fire in its practice, and its sanctuaries are called fire temples. The largest surviving population of Zoroastrians today resides in Bombay, India, descended from Persians, who had emigrated from their homeland over a thousand years ago.

Persian Religious Non-Interference

Despite their autocratic rule, the ancient Persian kings usually did not interfere with the religious practices or everyday customs of their subjects. When the Persian king Cyrus overthrew the Babylonian kingdom8 in 539 B.C., for example, he permitted the Hebrews to return from exile in Babylon to Palestine, which was designated as the province Yehud, from the name of the southern Hebrew kingdom Judah. From this geographical term came the name Jews, the customary designation of the Hebrews after the exile. Cyrus allowed the Jews to rebuild their main temple in Jerusalem, which had been destroyed by the Babylonian king Nebuchadnezzar II in 587 B.C., and to practice their religion. Like the rest of the subjects of the Persian kings, the Jews were permitted to live as they pleased, so long as they did nothing to foment revolt, impede the regular flow of taxes to the royal treasury, or hinder the occasional dispatch of soldiers to the royal army.

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