The ascendancy of the Persian Achaemenid dynasty in the 6thC BC and the subsequent Greco-Persian wars provides another ‘event horizon’ which impacts deeply upon our abilities to make a clear analysis of Europe’s ancient pagan history. The reason this so is not because Persian armies eventually reached Europe (they invaded the Balkans and Greece) but because of the negative and dismissive reaction it fostered in Greek opinion towards Persian and Mesopotamian ideas and civilisation from the 6th BC onwards. In view of the dark turns of current affairs in the Middle East involving campaigns of savage aggression towards the modern remnants of ancient Persian and Mesopotamian civilisation (focussed on Kurds, Yazidis, Mandaeans, Shia muslims and Iranians as well as actual archaeological sites), I thought it a noble cause worth examining.
Ancient Mesopotamian and Persian civilisations have rightly been placed as the cradle of civilisation, credited with creating the first cities, the first writing, and leading the world in technologies of agriculture, philosophy, astronomy and mathematics. These innovations were supported by and developed alongside a pervasive cosmological and religious philosophy which has made these civilisations a byword for mystery and ancient wisdom, from a long before the time Europeans could claim any such plaudits for their own religious, cultural and intellectual achievements.
Our story involving the Greeks starts with the collapse of the Indo-European Hatusa (Hittite) Empire of Asia Minor at the close of the 2nd millennium BC. This was a period of increasing colonisation and influence by Ionian and Aeolian peoples and culture (possibly those whom the Egyptians called the ‘Sea Peoples’) spreading from the east coast of Greece and from the region around the Gulf of Corinth (Homer’s Achaea) and out through the archipelagos of the Aegean. Their cultural influence spread and established itself in what would become known as the Troas, Lydia and Caria along the west coast of Asia Minor. By the 6th BC these cultures had grown powerful and wealthy through trade and industry and would have developed close mercantile and cultural ties to the Persian (Mede), Semitic (Phoenician) and Mesopotamian (Assyria and Babylonia) cultures of the Near East.
An example of their cultural affinity to easterners is illustrated by the fact that mainland Greeks frequently characterised the Ionians by their ‘long robes’ – a style influenced by a succession of pre-Hellenic Anatolian cultures including the civilisation of the Hatti or ‘Hittites’, the Lydians, the Assyrians of northern Mesopotamia and the Indo-Iranian Medes. The Phrygians – like the Celts – wore breeches.
“… Many are your temples and wooded groves, and all peaks and towering bluffs of lofty mountains and rivers flowing to the sea are dear to you, Phoebus, yet in Delos do you most delight your heart; for there the long robed Ionians gather in your honor with their children and shy wives…” Homeric Hymn to Apollo, c.522BC.
The collapse of the Neo-Assyrian Empire during the 7th and 6thC BC was a catalyst for growth and expansion of those nations it had formerly held in check. The empire of the Indo-Iranian Medes (Media) expanded to occupy eastern Asia Minor, Scythia (as far as the Caucasus) and northern Mesopotamia (Syria). In Eastern Anatolia, the Ionic-Anatolian kingdom of Lydia gradually expanded its power and influence until it controlled most of western Asia minor and began to push eastwards against the Medes. Lydia’s proverbially wealthy king, Croesus, became politically and economically powerful due to his empire’s innovations in trade and industry (particularly cloth making, dyeing and metallurgy) and the development of gold coinage as an exchange medium.
The Lydians were particularly friendly with Ionian Greeks (who claimed to be descendants of the solar God Apollo), and in 560BC, says Herodotus, Croesus came to the oracle of Delphi, bestowing it with great wealth. In simultaneously demonstrating his affinity to the Greeks and to Apollo, Croesus was no doubt looking for support to push his empire eastwards against Median ruler Astyages.
By the time he had crossed into the Median lands in 547BC, Atyages had been deposed by the western Persian leader Cyrus, who defeated Croesus and used his treasury to fund his efforts establishing the new Persian Empire, which by 540BC had conquered or formed treaties with the coastal Ionians. Cyrus was an enlightened man who no doubt valued the Ionic values of statesmanship and philosophy, and preferred to work with the Ionians against the Lydians and their neighbours. For starters, they had ships and naval experience that he and his son would call upon, as they built and consolidated their Empire. Having secured Lydia, Cyrus’ had the finances needed to conquer Babylon in 539BC. He died in 530BC campaigning against the Scythians of central Asia and was replaced by his reputedly mentally unstable son, Cambyses II, who took Egypt in 525BC before his death followed by the succession of Darius in 522BC, during which there was a period of instability and fracture at the Empire’s roots.
Some Ionians, such as the colonies Samos of Miletus, became – for almost 50 years – trusted allies, power-brokers and advisors of the Persians and maintained a degree of independence that colonies such as Ephesus and Colophon could not. Likewise the Dorian colony of Halicarnassus on the Carian coast to the south of Ionia served a similar special purpose to the Persians. Under Cambyses successor, Darius I, the Empire stretched from Thrace to the Indus valley.
So, having consolidated their empire, was the scene really set for the invasion of Greece? Let’s just ‘stop the tape’ for a minute and discuss a few issues and clear up a few misconceptions about the Persians and the Greeks.
Poster for the 2014 movie ‘300: Rise of an Empire’, directed by Noam Murro. Those scary Persians!
Anyone who has seen the movies ‘300’ and ‘300: Birth of an Empire’ (based on the Frank Miller comics) will know that the Achaemenid empire was a brutal, tyrannical, sexually debauched, scary and ill-disciplined alien horde, right? They must also know that when these apes swept into Greece they had their backsides kicked by a bunch of noble, well-oiled, disciplined man-loving hoplites, who then united to make Greece a glorious democracy as well?
This certainly fits with the ‘barbarian’ image of the Persians that the ancient Greeks came to entertain of them. Curious to the movie industry, charged as it is with the ideological politics of its impresarios and wealthy financiers, the story of the ‘300’ films and their imagery also appears to have functioned on an explicit allegorical level related the modern middle eastern conflict, presenting the Persians (whose army in the film are made consciously to look like Arabs) as some kind of dark twisted enemy of ‘Grecian’ light.
The magical ‘demonisation’ of Xerxes in the ‘300’ movie franchises fitted a very modern narrative. Were the opinions of the ancient Greeks ultimately to blame?
Of course, the ‘300’ franchise was really just a brutal fantasy, based partly on the memoirs of Herodotus and partly on the prejudices of the 21st century. In reality, the Achaemenids were far from how they were depicted in these films. For starters, Cyrus the Great had established his empire promoting a policy of tolerance and respect for the religions and administrative structures of the countries he invaded, ensuring that rebellion was relatively rare, and his territories easier to govern. When George Bush Jr invaded Babylon, he himself might have taken a leaf out of Cyrus’ book, but instead chose (deliberately it would seem) to set the nation of Iraq on a path to factionalism and chaos. Cyrus famously liberated the Jews of Babylon and helped them (re)build the temple at Jerusalem. Xenophon of Athens (a student of Socrates) declared of him in the 4th BC:
“… And those who were subject to him, he treated with esteem and regard, as if they were his own children, while his subjects themselves respected Cyrus as their ‘Father’…” (Xenophon, Cyropaedia, trans. Bohn)
Indeed, it appears that Cyrus was not considered a great threat to Greek interests. His successor and son Cambyses II likewise showed no particular interest and even allied with the Ionian and Dorian Greeks in his conquest of Egypt, even exploiting the Greeks’ good relations with the Egyptians during this period. Cambyses died in 522BC, supposedly by his own hand, although an assassination by his successor Darius (also implicated in the killing of Cyrus’ other son Bardiya) has been proposed as likely. Whatever the truth, Darius’ accession to the imperial throne was certainly marked by a period of dissatisfaction and unrest, and the Emperor was obliged to exercise harshness in putting down revolts across the Empire. This included the assassination of Samian tyrant Polycrates by the satrap of Lydia, Oroetus, at Sardis, which was then followed by the final conquest of the island, and a hurried exit or ejection for Pythagoras and other likely agitators of the Ionic cause.
In 499BC an open rebellion broke out among the Ionian city-states of Asia Minor, led by Miletus and backed by a military force from Athens. This pushed inland and sacked Sardis in 498 in an act which appears in the wider context of revolt within Darius’ Empire to be more an act of challenge and aggression by Athens than one in support of the interests of Ionia or Lydia. The scene was therefore set for Darius and his successor Xerxes to take punitive action against the Athenians as well as to try and take advantage of the Greek tendency to infighting.
Democracy – far from being the noble ideal of the ‘300’ films and modern political polemic – was used as a weapon imposed by Darius on the Ionian states: he saw it as a tool by which to weaken resistance – an enabler of empires. Think about this for a minute, in the light of modern world politics!
Although the combined power of the (nearly) united Greeks eventually and famously defeated Xerxes’ huge invading army, Greek opinion of Persian culture (and Athenian opinion in particular) was never to recover, and would spark a chain of developments which ultimately lie behind a change in the course of religion in Europe and the Near East, with a focus increasingly based upon human power.
Greek opinion of Persians after the War:
One of the earliest accounts of Athenian Greek jingoism (or at least tragedian schadenfreude) following the defeat of Xerxes at the Battle of Salamis in 479BC is playwright Aeschylus’ The Persians, which was performed at the City Dionysia in spring of 472BC. The play deals with the return and despair of Xerxes to Persia, and is essentially a chance for the Greeks to wallow in the glory of their victory, and to portray the vanity of working against the will of the gods. Aeschylus’ words – the delight of his Athenian audiences – were later to ring hollow with the internicene chaos of Hellenic civil wars which closed the 6thC:
“…Ah, what a boundless sea of woe hath burst on Persia, and the whole barbaric race…”
Of course, not all Greeks opposed Xerxes’ invasion – the Carians under Queen Artemisia and the Ionians and Aeolians provided critical naval support. This may be why Herodotus of Halicarnassus was more or less sympathetic to the Persian cause in his account of the war. The Dorians of the Peloponnese (Sparta and Argos, for instance) were later sponsored by the Persians in the Peloponnesian Wars which occupied the closing third of the 5th BC. Athens was not popular with everyone.
Before the War – Ionian philosophers and the influence of Persia and Mesopotamia:
The period both immediately before and after the Persian conquest of Lydia and Ionia had been one during which the Ionians experienced a flowering of religious philosophy, almost certainly under the influence of their eastern neighbours and eventual conquerors. The colony at Miletus was a particularly influential case in point, being home to the philosophical school of Thales (born c.624BC) and his successors Anaximander (born c. 611BC), Anaximenes and then Anaxagoras. Further to this, Miletus’ main Ionian sparring partner, the island of Samos, could (under the rule of Persian ally, Polykrates) boast of Pythagoras (born c.570BC) and his school. Out in the Cycladic gulf south of Delos, was the famous Pherekydes (born c.584BC) on the island of Syros, who is known to have corresponded with Thales. Coming slightly later we have Xenophanes of Colophon (born c.570BC) , and Herakleitos of Ephesus (born c.535BC). These are credited as formulating the doctrines underpinning the Classical Era philosophy and cosmology expressed by Plato and his successors, often termed the ‘fathers’ of western philosophy. The Ionian philosopher Anaxagoras (died c.428BC) was credited with bringing philosophy to Athens, but how far could the ideas of the ‘pre-socratics’ be truly be considered ‘western’? I would argue ‘not many’:
Persian and Assyrian religion:
Unlike the Greeks, the Persians (according to Herodotus) did not idolise their gods or god with imagery. Their’s was a religion that seemed to mirror divine principles, founded in the supreme divinity Ahura Mazda, a god of ethereal light and goodness who challenged the forces of evil or chaos. Ahura Mazda, appears to be a Persian development of the ancient Assyrian and Hurrian sky god – Ashura or Assura – in whose name the kingdoms were theophorically titled. They are part of an continuum, tied up with the ancient mythology of ancient Sumer and Akkad, and to Egypt further to the south. The innovation in the time of the Persian Empire appears to have been a vigorous refining of the Assyrian and Persian religion into what would become known as Zoroastrianism, possibly evolving during the reign of Darius.
As such, compared to the often confusing imagery supporting the Greek pantheon of gods it was philosophically attractive, especially to those who wished to promote an empire whose leader was personified as the logos or divine utterance of Ahura Mazda. Ahura/Ashura was no doubt the archetype upon which the Phrygian ‘Attis’ was based. He would have been the god of the Hittites (‘Hatusa’). The love of the Aeolian, Ionian and Dorian colonists of Asia Minor (not to mention king Croesus of Lydia) for the god Apollo was no doubt heavily influenced by this ancient Indo-Iranian divinity who celebrated intellect and the mind.
Here are a selection of comparisons between Persian and East Semitic religion and the philosophies of the Ionian pre-socratics.
Principle of the waters as ‘first cause’:
Attributed by Aristotle to Thales of Miletos in his Metaphysics is the concept of water as the ‘first principle’ of creation, eternal and itself uncreated. The Aeolian rhapsode-theologian, Hesiod (8th/7thC BC), attributed the first cause to ‘chaos’.
Pherekydes of Syros shared this viewpoint – his primal triad: Chronus (‘eternal time’), Zas (Zeus – the creative expression of ethereal light or pure water) and Chthonie (the feminine receiving principle equated with Anahita, Persian divinity of the salty waters) was very congruent with Persian and Babylonian religion. ‘Zas’ is probably a Hellenisation of ‘Ashura’ or ‘Ahura’, accomplished by the addition of the prefixal ‘Z’.
Herakleitos opined: “…For it is death to souls to become water, and death to water to become earth. But water comes from earth; and from water, soul…”, and: “…it is pleasure to souls to become moist…”, to which he qualified: “…The dry soul is the wisest and best…”
He saw water as a lower more primal form of development transcended by fire – that holy principle of the Persians. The Sumerian, Babylonian and Assyrian mythology placed the waters at the root of creation, and fire with the heavens and the divine – long before the Greeks became interested in the idea.
Strife as an life-giving factor for the universe:
Herakleitos said: “…Homer was wrong in saying: ‘Would that strife might perish from among gods and men!’ He did not see that he was praying for the destruction of the universe; for, if his prayer were heard, all things would pass away…”. This is an expression of
The Mazdean (Persian, Zurvan, Zoroastrian) concept was that life came about because of a necessity for conflict of opposites.
The Universal Soul and the circle:
Herakleitos said: “…You will not find the boundaries of soul by travelling in any direction, so deep is the measure of it…”
Thales was said by Aristotle to have proclaimed that “…all things are full of gods…”
Again, the Persian and Mesopotamian philosophies attributed a connecting divine fire to the root of all existence in pure water – the mystical transformation through annihilation, and the Greeks were evidently borrowing this idea. The circle was a prominent part of the winged symbol used to represent the divine emanation in Babylonian and Persian symbolism. Likewise the mysterious cycle of the waters from mountain to river to sea, back to mountain. This geometry was at the heart of Persian and Babylonian thought.
The mixed elements of water and earth imply destruction:
Xenophanes is quoted as saying: “…All things are earth and water that are come into being and grow…”. This was an expression of the Persian/Mesopotamian idea of the creative aspect of salty fluids, including the sea which was made of fresh water and the land mingled:
Hippolytus, quoting Theophrastus said: “… Xenophanes said that a mixture of the earth with the sea is taking place, and that it is being gradually dissolved by the moisture. He says that he has the following proofs of this. Shells are found in midland districts and on hills, and he says in the quarries at Syracuse has been found the imprint of a fish and of seaweed … These, he says, were produced when all things were formerly mud, and the outlines were dried in the mud…”
Pherekydes claimed that the generative act of Zeus (Zas) was bestowing a wedding blanket upon Chthonie made of earth and water, thus causing her to be fertile.
The legends of Enki (pure waters) and Tiamat (salt water of the abyss) expressed the same in Babylonian/Assyrian culture.
The Athenian ‘aftermath’ of eastern philosophy:
Considering the immense similarities between Ionian ‘Pre-Socratic’ and much more ancient Persian and Mesopotamian philosophies, we must presume that the Athenian schools of the lineage of Socrates, Plato and Aristotle were simply trying to put a Hellenic spin on ideas that were not originally their own, but part of a much older pagan mythology of the ancient Indo-Europeans, which epitomised morality in its emphasis of virtues of goodness over evil: a ‘rationality’ that Greeks might find it hard to identify with ease in their own 1st millennium BC religion. Theirs was an ‘event horizon’ imposed by the victors of warfare and cultural dominance which denied the old and remodelled it in their own image.
Ancient connections between the Greeks and Indo-Persian peoples:
Many Greek myths are set deep within the Indo-European world. The most striking of these is the most ancient tales of Phrixus and of Iason/Jason and the Argonauts and their adventures in the Scythian kingdom of Colchis/Aia in the Caucasus. The recovery of the ‘golden fleece’ from the sanctuary of Ares (god of violent destruction), guarded by a dragon and beguiled by a lovely sorceress is an exploration of the heart of Indo-Aryan myth. Likewise, the oriental arrival of Dionysus follows in the footsteps of a people whose sacraments of intoxication (called Haoma in the Zoroastrian Avesta and Soma in the Rigveda) and may have underpinned the mysteries of ancient cults and oracles at Eleusis and Delphi.
Placing ancient mystical ideas in the mouths and written words of philosophers, and of prophets and emperors, rather than in the mouths of poets and Magi, created a direct and legalistic expression of the divine, which was to fundamentally change religion.
It combined to form a religious and temporal model of authority which seeks today to destroy and enslave the ancient pagan seeds of tolerance and diversity which gave birth to mankind and her greatest achievements.