The civilization of ancient Persia was one of the greatest civilizations in the ancient world. It absorbed influences from Mesopotamia, Greece and India - even China - to produce a rich cultural fusion built on top of native Iranian foundations.
The term “Persian civilization" can refer to two distinct, but closely related cultural entities, Pre-Islamic Persian civilization and Islamic Persian civilization. This article deals with Pre-Islamic Persian civilization.
Persia, or Fars, is now a province of modern day Iran, and Persian civilization would perhaps be more accurately described as “Iranian” civilization. It developed in a series of empires in ancient times ruled by Iranian peoples.
Iranian tribes had settled the country of Iran in the 1st millennium BC. A few centuries later a major Itanian-ruled state emerged, the kingdom of the Medes (c. 8th to 6th centuries BC). In the late 7th century and much of the 6th century BC this was one of the leading powers of the Middle East. The Mede kingdom came to an end when one of the vassals of the Mede king rebelled and took over his kingdom, before conquering far and wide to create the largest empire the ancient world would see.
The Achaemenid empire
This man in known to history as Cyrus the Great, and the empire that he and his descendants ruled was the first of the great Iranian empires. Because Cyrus and his dynasty came from Persia (or Persis, the modern province of Fars), the empire that they ruled is normally known as the “Persian” empire. Here, however, we will use another common label for it, the “Achaemenid” empire, a name which references the Achaemenid royal family to which the kings belonged. This distinguishes this state from a second Persian empire which came later.
The Hellenistic interlude
For the next 170 years much of the Middle East, including Iran, was ruled by Alexander and then his successors, kings of the Seleucid dynasty, also from Macedonia. Under them, Greek language and culture spread far and wide in the region, centred on the many Greek-style cities that Alexander the Great and his Seleucid successors founded.
The later Iranian empires: Parthians and Sasanians
An Iranian people called the Parthians then established a second Iranian empire in the 140s BC. This endured for some 360 years, until the 220s AD, when a rebellion brought a second Persian dynasty to power. This was the Sasanian dynasty, whose kings ruled the third and final pre-Islamic Iranian empire for more than four hundred years (224 to c. 640 AD). This empire then fell to the armies of Islam.
Social changes: trade and cities
Throughout all this period, more than a thousand years of history, Iranian society experienced great changes. Before Achaemenid times the Iranians were a pre-literate, non-urban people who had no written literature and no sophisticated art and architecture of their own. Under the Achaemenids, cities began to appear in Iran. This was the result of wealth flowing into the country from the subject peoples of the empire, but it was also caused by new trade routes coming into existence which passed through Iran. These connected the old civilizations of the Middle East with the re-emerging civilization in northern India.
Long-distance trade routes continued to expand under the Achaemenid’s successors. Alexander the Great and the Seleucids were famous for founding many Greek-style cities throughout the lands they ruled, from which the ruling classes of their realms were recruited. These stimulated trade, and at this time maritime trade routes across the Indian Ocean to India and South Asia also came into operation. Under the Parthians the famous trade route across central Asia between the west and China, known as the Silk Roads, began to function; under the Sasanians both these trade routes to the east experienced considerable expansion.
Internal trade also thrived under the Sasanians, encouraged by their policy of founding numerous cities. This was linked to their policies of encouraging agriculture in their empire through a series of major irrigation schemes and other public works projects. Indeed the historic irrigation systems of Mesopotamia probably reached their peak at this time.
Throughout these developments Iranian society remained dominated by a powerful and wealthy aristocracy. This class played a significant - and often destabilizing - role in politics, particularly under the Parthian and Sasanian empires, with the kings’ authority checked and even undermined by aristocratic factions.
Iranian religion was originally polytheistic, as with most religions of the ancient world; but at some point a religious teacher called Zoroaster began preaching a form of monotheism. The religion he founded, Zoroastrianism, spread through Iran and beyond; it may have been the faith of the Achaemenid kings, and under the Sasanians, certainly, it was the official religion of the state. It had a significant influence on the other monotheistic faiths of Judaism, Christianity and Islam - the concept of angels, perhaps even the idea of Satan, seem to have originated with it, and in art the motifs of halos and certain postures derived from Zoroastrian paintings and statues. It has survived to this day despite fierce persecution in its homeland in medieval and modern times, notably amongst the Parsee community in India and elsewhere.
The Achaemenid kings had to solve the problem of governing a huge empire. To do so they drew on Middle Eastern practices pioneered by the Assyrians and Babylonians, by dividing their empire into large provinces and appointing officials - satraps - with almost regal powers to govern them. In this they were followed by Alexander the Great and the Seleucids. Both the Achaemenid and Seleucid kings had to combat a tendency for these satraps to break away from central control, and under the Parthians weakness at court allowed the provinces to become virtually independent kingdoms. This situation was reversed by the Sasanians, who appointed members of the royal family to govern the provinces and placed them under firmer central control.
A cultural fusion
The Achaemenids adopted the civilization of their subject peoples, especially that of the Babylonians. Greek, Egyptian and other elements were also introduced, creating the first stages in the rise of a distinctive civilization.
The conquests of Alexander the Great brought Greek civilization to the Middle East, and under Alexander and the monarchs of the Seleucid dynasty, Greek art, architecture and literature were widely disseminated amongst the urban upper classes.
The early Parthian kings eagerly adopted Greek ways, and continued to patronize Greek culture. At around the end of the first century BC and the first century AD, however, the Iranian nobility grew in political influence, and they championed an Iranian cultural revival. Under the Sasanians, a mingling of Iranian and Greek elements created the rich cultural fusion which constituted the mature civilization of ancient Persia.
Much of what we today think of as Islamic civilization derives from ancient Persia - the lovely architecture, the intricate paintings and sophisticated literature. The inate attractiveness of these cultural products is the fruit of a complex mingling of ancient influences - Mesopotamian, Greek, Indian, even Chinese - within an Iranian context.
Short historical surveys:
Overviews of Persian civilization: