The term “Persian civilization” can refer to two distinct historical entities. The Pre-Islamic civilization of Ancient Persia came first, and was followed by the Persian civilization of Islamic times.
The two are very closely related, in that the latter was, to a large extent, an Islamized version of the former. It became the elite culture of the Muslim world: royal courts from Delhi to Constantinople were Persian in languages, literature and art. This is testimony to the rich cultural heritage it possessed, which was as much Ancient Persian as Muslim.
Ancient Persia has therefore had a huge indirect influence, over a large part of the world, down the centuries. It deserves to be considered as one of the great civilizations of world history, and it is the story of this civilization we will summarize here, with links out to more detailed information in other articles.
The heartland of ancient Persian civilization – as is true for its Islamic successor – is the modern country of Iran.
In ancient times, Iran bordered the land of Mesopotamia (in modern Iraq), and was deeply influenced by Ancient Mesopotamian civilization. This was the first urban and literate culture in world history, and it is hardly surprising that the earliest kingdom which arose in Iran, that of Elam, appeared very early in the historical record, in the late 3rd millennium BCE.
In kingdom of Elam was located in south-west Iran. It was extremely long-lasting, but its power was eventually sapped by the coming of new groups into the region. These were the Persians, a tribe of the Iranian people who formed a branch of the Indo-European speaking peoples. These had originated in central Asia and then spread out across a vast area of Eurasia between the fourth and second millennia BCE. Large numbers of them settled in Iran in the 2nd and 1st millennia BCE, and the Persians were the group that settled in the region which had been occupied by the kingdom of Elam.
It was the Medes, however, who formed the first powerful Iranian state. From around 700 BCE, they ruled a kingdom which played a major part in Middle Eastern international politics, including the downfall of the Assyrian empire.
The Mede kingdom then formed one of the leading states in the Middle East. It was based in west-central Iran, but its power extended to the south-west, being overlords of the small Persian kingdom.
In the mid-6th century BCE, however, the Persian king Cyrus rebelled against his overlord, defeated the Medes and took over their kingdom. He then expanded its borders to take in the whole of Asia Minor, Syria, Palestine, and Mesopotamia. The last three regions had belonged to the Babylonian empire before succumbing to Cyrus’ forces.
Cyrus thus founded one of the greatest empires of of the ancient world, and is known to history as Cyrus the Great. His successor, Cambyses, conquered Egypt, and his successor, Darius the Great, brought the Persian empire to the height of its power by conquering a large slice of central Asia and western India. Darius also reorganized the empire’s government and placed it on firm foundations.
Largely as a result of Darius’ reforms, this first Persian empire lasted down to 330 BCE. This empire is sometimes known as the Achaemenid empire, after the line of kings who ruled it and who belonged to the Achaemenid dynasty. Under them, an international culture emerged, which combined features of many of the conquered peoples who lived within the empire’s bounds. Its main cultural debt, however, was to the ancient Mesopotamians, who had transmitted their art, architecture, religion and literature to the Babylonians, and from them to the Persians.
The first Persian empire was brought to an end by Greek-Macedonian forces under Alexander the Great, between 333 and 323 BCE. Alexander’s early death ended any hopes for another enduring state to take the place of the Persian empire. From the long wars between Alexander’s generals which followed, the Seleucid kingdom emerged, which initially covered Asia Minor, Syria, Iran, Iran and eastwards into western India.
Under the Seleucids, Persian culture (an amalgam of ancient Mesopotamia with other western Asian styles) mingled with that of the new Greek ruling class to form a hybrid civilization which modern scholars have labelled Hellenistic.
The Seleucid kingdom had fragile foundations, however. Almost as soon as it had been established, it began shedding territory. Several small kingdoms appeared, but the main beneficiaries were the Parthians.
These were an Iranian people closely related to the Persians, who from c. 150 BCE began building their own empire. This soon covered Iran and Iraq, and came to form the most powerful opponent to the new Roman Empire to the west. Although of Iranian origin, the Parthian elite adopted Hellenistic culture wholesale.
The Parthian empire lasted for more than three centuries. The Romans made several attempts to conquer it, but never succeeded. They did, however, contribute to weakening it, and in c. 220 CE the Parthian rulers were overthrown by a new Persian dynasty, called the Sasanians.
Under the Sasanians, ancient Persian civilization reached its peak. Iranian elements became much more dominant, though many Greek features were retained. A rich new cultural fusion emerged, and the characteristically “Persian” civilization came to maturity. This would come to form the most important cultural strand within the new Islamic civilization which was about to appear.
The Sasanian monarchs were more aggressive than their Parthian predecessors had been, and more formidable opponents for the Romans. Nevertheless, they were never really able to conquer much more territory than the Parthians had done. A long-lasting stalemate characterized relations between the Roman and Sasanian empires, until, in the early 6th century CE, one of the fiercest wars of the ancient world broke out. These powerful empires nearly destroyed one another, and the war left them both exhausted. This opened the gate to desert tribesmen from Arabia. In the 630s and 640s, the Sasanian empire was completely overrun by Arab forces. Iran, and with it, Persian civilization, were incorporated wholesale into the new Islamic empire.
Maps tracking the history of ancient Iran start at: Iran 2500 BCE.
Maps tracking the Persian/Iranian empires of the Achaemenid, Parthian and Sasanian dynasties (and including the Greek-Macedonian empire of the Seleucids amongst them) begin here: Middle East 500 BCE.
Maps of the World at the time of the ancient Persian empires start at The World 500 BCE
Map pages which include references to the ancient Persian empires in their maps or accompanying information are:
Also, an article on the History of Elam deals with a powerful kingdom which, whilst not a Persian or even Iranian state per se, was located in ancient Iran and had a major influence on the early rise of the Persian empire.
Articles with references to Iran of the Persian/Iranian empires, showing their impact on different parts of the world, and vice versa, are:
The term “Ancient Persia” covers three great empires – the Achaemenid, Parthian and Sasanian empires.
The main source I have used has, for a change, been a website This is:
Encyclopedia Iranica Online
This has numerous superb scholarly articles on every conceivable topic to do with this subject. I have plundered it mercilessly, and would like here to express my gratitude to it. A word of warning – not for the reader looking for a general overview.
Wikipedia of course has vast amounts of information on the topic. The gateway page is Ancient Persia.
For books, my main source on the Achaemenid empire has been:
Cook, JM, The Persians, Dent, 1983 – this is a readable and scholarly account of the Achaemenid empire.
Also of use have been:
Roaf, M., A cultural atlas of Mesopotamia and the Ancient Near East, Andromeda, 1990, pp. 203ff. – offers a superbly illustrated and highly informative survey of the history of the Achaemenid empire, with an emphasis on its archaeology.
A lavishly illustrated work on archaeology for the general reader which includes good coverage of ancient Persia, is Renfrew, C. (ed.), Past Worlds: The Times Atlas of Archaeology, Times Books, 1995; p. 158-9 deals with the Achaemendi empire, p. 186-7 with the later ancient Persian empires.
For an insightful look at government of the Achaemenid empire, see Finer, S. E., The History of Government, I, Ancient Monarchies and Empires, OUP, 1999, p. 286ff.
Some recent books (which I can’t vouch for yet but get very high ratings) offering introductory surveys to all the great Persian empires of antiquity, are:
Wiesehofer, J., Ancient Persia, Tauris, 2006.
Vansan, A., Ancient Persia, 2012.
Curtis, J., Ancient Persia (Introductory Guides), 2001.