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Ancient Persia

This overview of Ancient Persia explains the origins of the term "Persia" and Zoroastrianism; it also puts the Median, Achaemenid, Seleucid, Parthian, Sassanian dynasties in context.

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Video transcript

- [Instructor] We're going to do in this video is have an overview of one of the greatest empires and really civilizations of not only the ancient world, but of the world, and that is Persia. And we see a map here, this is the extent of the Persian empire at around 500 B.C.E. under Darius the Great and in future videos we'll talk more about Cyrus the Great and Darius the Great and the various Shah and Shahs King of Kings of the Persian empire, but you can see it was a massive empire. Not only did it contain modern Iran which is really the heart of the Persian empire, but much of the modern Middle East including Turkey, you have Egypt here we go into central Asia and also Afghanistan and even parts of Pakistan. But before talking more about how it was established and who established it, I'm gonna dig down a little bit into the word "Persia" because just as the ancient Greeks did not refer to where they lived as Greece that is a Latin idea of calling it Greece, the Greeks referred to where they lived as "Hellas", it turns out that the Persians did not refer to where they lived as "Persia". Their terms are actually much closer to ideas around land of the Aryans, so there's, based on my research, ideas like Aryan-Vega and Aran-Shah and Aran. So it actually turns out that the modern name of the country, the modern word Iran is probably more appropriate or in some ways closer to what the region has always called itself, what the Iranians or the Persians have always called themselves, and called where they lived. They referred to themselves as the Aryans and where they lived as the Aryanan-Vega or Aran, or Aran-Shah or some version of that and the modern version is Iran. Now, with that said, you might say, "Well, why did the Greeks call it Persia?" Well, the Persian empire what we consider to be the first true Persian empire is the Achaemenid empire, and we'll talk in a second why do we call it even the Achaemenid, but the Achaemenid empire emerges from a region of Persia, I guess we can say, that in this map is referred to as Persus, but other names for it are Pars, and even in modern Iran there's a region called Fars which coincides very close with it. And since the leaders of the Persian empire, and especially Cyrus the Great, emerged from this region, they called them the Persians and it was the "Persian" empire that emerges from this region which you might wanna call Pars, Fars. Fars especially comes from Arabic where they don't have the P sound, but Pars or Persus or whatever you wanna call it, and that's why it was called the Persian empire. Now, it wasn't the first empire in that region. Before the Persian empire gets established or what we associate with the Persian or the Achaemenid empire of Cyrus the Great, much of this region of where we call modern day Iran was controlled by the Medians, and you can see Media is this region right over here. And it was Cyrus the Great that in 549, some accounts say 550 B.C.E., is able to overthrow the Median emperor who happens to be his grandfather. And that is the really dawn of the Achaemenid dynasty. Now the next question and this was established, let me write this down, this was established by Cyrus the Great, he was Cyrus the II but he became Cyrus the Great because he was able to break out and overthrow the Medians and establish this massive empire. And the reason why it's called the Achaemenid empire not the Cyrid empire, is that Cyrus claims to be from the family of the patriarch Achaemenis and a lot of these names, these are come from Greek accounts so that's why they sound a little bit more Greek. But Achaemenis is a semi-legendary figure that, we're not sure exactly when he lived, but the best accounts I could see is near the beginning of the seventh century B.C.E. And Cyrus the Great is from Achaemenis' family, and so since they came to power, this first really Persian empire, when the people talk about the Persian empire they don't tend to refer to the Median empire, they're really referring to the Achaemenid empire, that's why it's called Achaemenid. Now, in future videos we'll talk more about what happened in the Achaemenid empire, but you can see the extent of it was pretty significant and it lasts for a little over 200 years until they're conquered by foreigners. And the foreigners that conquer them are the Greeks. Philip of Macedon's son, Alexander the Great, is able to, on some level, unify Greece and Persia. And it's interesting because a lot of what we learn about ancient Persia, it's accounts from the Greeks, from folks like Herodotus, but during the time of classical Greece, Greece was really a bit of a sideshow, it was really this kind of thorn in the side of Persia. Persia was really where the power was. But as we get to the mid or the end of the fourth century B.C.E., Persia weakens, Greece unifies under Philip of Macedon and Alexander the Great and Alexander the Great is able to conquer the Persian empire. And he is short-lived, we have videos on Alexander the Great I encourage you to watch them, his life is short-lived and his unified empire is short-lived, but he has this dream of mixing the cultures and really being a unified people, but as soon as he dies his empire splits, but the Persian empire for the most part, is in the control of the Seleucid's. And the Seleucid dynasty, this is essentially foreign rule 'cause Seleucus, who establishes Seleucid dynasty, he is one of Alexander's generals, he's fundamentally Greek, and so the rulers of the Seleucid dynasty are Greek. And you don't get back to having Persian rule until 238 B.C.E. It's in 238 B.C.E. that the Parthian's emerge to conquer the empire and so, once again you could say, "Well, this is back to non-foreign rule." It's really important to keep in mind, because in it's day the Achaemenid empire was, if not the dominant, one of the very dominant empires of the world. At it's peak it had a population, this is roughly under Darius the Great, and we'll talk more about him, he was an interesting character, but the Achaemenid empire at it's peak had approximately 50 million people. And that's a lot of people at any time in history, but especially at that time in history because at that time in history there was only a little over 100 million people in the world, or at least that's our current estimates. So this is actually the largest proportion of the world's population that any empire has ever had in history, as far as we can tell, so that gives it some claim to being maybe the greatest or one of the greatest empires in world history. And then, as we get into the Seleucid and especially the Parthian empire, you know, in the West we talk a lot about the glory of the Roman empire, but the Parthian's were right there beside of them, and they kind of went back and forth but they were side by side, the peak of the Parthian empire coincides with the peak of the Roman empire, and they give each other space and they went back and forth especially around the Middle East. And you have this empire from the Parthian's you go to the Sassanian's and eventually in the seventh century C.E., Islam comes into the Persian empire and becomes the dominant religion. And so that might make you ask, "Well, what was the dominant religion before that?" And the answer there is Zoroastrianism. Zoroastrianism. And it was really Cyrus the Great, by establishing the Persian empire, who really spreads Zoroastrianism. And Zoroastrianism is based on their prophet Zarathustra. And when Zarathustra lived is up for some debate, it might be as early as 1500 B.C.E., some people say it might be even right before even coincident with the life of Cyrus the Great, so there's some debate on when Zarathustra lived, but it was a monotheistic religion, following the one god of Ahura Mazda. Ahura Mazda. And it was based on these ideas of good thoughts lead to good words and good deeds. Other big ideas of the Persian empire is their system of governments, of governants. Because it was such a vast empire they delegated the emperor, the Shah and Shah, the King of Kings, delegated authority to the regions so each region, each satrapy had it's governor called a satrap. And as we see over time, some of these satraps got more power then maybe was intended and then eventually took over. But this was a major empire in the history of the world, they unified people, they're famous for royal road that connected Sardis all the way, all the way to Sousa, as you can imagine it would have facilitated the transfer of knowledge and the transfer of trade. Under the Seleucid's you had huge Greek influence, but it was two way street. Not only did the Greeks influence the Persians, but the Persians heavily influenced the Greeks. So with that, in the next few videos we'll go into even more depth on the Persian empire and specifically the Achaemenid's.