Princes of Persia: Part One
By David Meyler
The popularity of such franchises as Frank Miller’s graphic novel 300 (made into the movie of the same name) and the Prince of Persia video games (also morphed into film), provided the inspiration for this article. Designed for exciting entertainment, these projects, no surprise, only give a very vague impression of the real Persia.
Avalanche Press games give us real Persian princes, appearing in a number of games, most notably in the Rome at War series (Fading Legions and the book supplement King of Kings), which will be the primary focus here. Persian princes also appear, albeit more indirectly in the Soldier Emperor/Indian Empires series (Qajar dynasty). While these games also exist to provide entertainment, they also provide excellent history.
The following is a brief panoramic overview of the pre-Islamic Persian Empire and its princes (and rarely, princesses) – as brief as one can be covering man than 1000 years of history. The focus is military, but some cultural and economic information is given when relevant. The Islamic conquest was chosen as the cut-off date, as it is usually seen as the end of classic Persian culture, and not because the Persians disappear. Indeed, within three generations of the Arab conquest, Persia had become the political and cultural centre of the Islamic world.
The first written reference to Persians comes from an Assyrian tax document of 834 BC, listing revenue collected from a region called Parsua. Persians are frequently mentioned in connection with a closely related people, the Medes. Both were Indo-European speaking nations under the control of the Semitic Assyrian kingdom – one of the first multi-national kingdoms, or empires, known in history.
Although a relatively minor province, the Medes were eventually, over the course of two centuries, able to challenge the Assyrians themselves for control of the empire. In 612, the Assyrians were decisively defeated and their capital Nineveh captured by a coalition led by Cyaxares, king of the Medes. However, this Median empire, already stretching from the Afghan foothills to Mesopotamia, was to last little more than two generations.
In 553, Cyrus II (later called the Great), rebelled against his grandfather, Astyages, the son of Cyaxares. Astyages was defeated and captured in 550. A new Persian empire now existed, under what was to be called the Achaemenid dynasty. The reign of Cyrus the Great is usually dated as beginning in 546. The name of the dynasty derives from Achaemenes, the great-great-grandfather of Cyrus, who ruled a subject Persian kingdom under the Assyrians in the 7th century BC. This kingdom had been called Anshan (the Persian form of Susa, one-time capital of the Elamite Kingdom), and Cyrus still went by the traditional title, king of Anshan.
The Persians kept and built on the Assyrian model of empire, based on provinces under their own semi-independent governors. Persian had no written language, but cuneiform was adopted, and official languages included old Persian, Elamite and Aramaic. Their own religion, based on the teachings of the prophet Zarathustra (Zoroaster to the Greeks), was one of the first monotheistic religions.
One of its main beliefs was a constant struggle between the forces of good, represented by light against the forces of evil, represented by dark and the evil spirit Ahriman. Unlike the deities of the Greek pantheon, who possessed all the foibles of humanity, the Zoroastrian god of light, Ahura Mazda, was wholly good, and humans could support the struggle for good through moral behavior – a tenet of Zoroastrianism is: “Good Thoughts, Good Words, Good Deeds.” Likewise, humanity could bring on the darkness through immoral acts. Zoroastrianism, therefore, did not preclude other beliefs, as long as they worked for the light. In fact, there was a religious imperative to the early expansion of the empire, a kind of crusade to save other peoples, and indeed, the whole of creation, from the darkness.
The Persian empire was the first to use a national postal system, operated by a kind of pony express. This system of communications, using a network of royal roads, supported by a widespread intelligence service held the disparate peoples of the empire together.
Hallmarks of the Persian empire, which would be maintained throughout its existence, were toleration, an effective bureaucracy, a highly developed civilization, and an ability to adapt other cultures’ differences into a national whole. In short, Persia combined its own unique religion and system of beliefs, with a literate, urban culture based on Babylon, a monarchical system of government adapted from the Assyrians, and a military derived from a tribal tradition of mounted archers from the plains of Central Asia
By 525, with the conquest of Egypt, the empire stretched north and west to the Ionian and Black Sea coasts, and east to the Indus valley. The Battle of Marathon in 490, one of the first checks on Persian expansion, heralded a generation’s long war against the Greek city states. Xerxes I won the costly Battle of Thermopylae and burnt Athens in 480 (thus using holy fire to cleanse the temple of Athena of the corrupting influence of Ahriman). However, the following year, the Persians suffered decisive defeats at sea at Salamis and on land at Plataea.
However, the Greeks then engaged in a decade’s long civil war (431-404). Only in 334, with the Greek states forcibly united by the Macedonian king, Alexander, would the war against Persia be renewed. After crushing Darius III’s imperial army at Gaugamela in 333 (the 13th and last Achaemenid king), Alexander became the new king, ending the Achaemenid line. In revenge for Athens, Alexander destroyed the royal city of Persepolis, turning the holy fire against the Achaemenids, and thereby showing himself to be the true servant of Ahura Mazda. Most Persian institutions survived the Macedonian conquest. Indeed, the conquest actually made it easier in some ways for Persian culture to influence the west, through Alexander’s efforts to create a multi-ethnic Graeco-Persian state.
However, Alexander’s efforts proved transient as he left the Persian heartland to continue his campaigns in India, and his vast empire broke apart almost immediately upon his death in 330. The general Seleucus ended up ruling most of what had been the heartland of the old Achaemenid empire, but his dynasty, lasting five generations, saw a steady decline. He was succeeded by Antiochus I in 281, followed Antiochus II in 262. There were almost continuous wars with other surviving dynastic houses from Alexander’s day, in particular Ptolemaic Egypt. There were also frequent internal dissensions.
During the reign of Seleucus II, the provinces of Parthia and Bactria in the east had broken off to form independent kingdoms. He also faced the loss of territory in the west, and upon his death in 225 was succeeded by his hapless son Seleucus III. He ruled for less than three years, assassinated by officers in his army in 223 while on campaign in Pergamum. Antiochus III would be the last Seleucid ruler of note. He regained lost territories in both the east and west, and campaigned as far as India. Antiochus reclaimed the old Persian title of Great King upon reconquering Syria. But his conquests would not last. In 217, Egypt inflicted a massive defeat at the battle of Raphia. While expanding into Asia Minor, he came into conflict with Rome and was decisively defeated. Internal revolt ensued, and Antiochus died in 187 while on campaign against the rebels.
Play the real Prince of Persia: order Rome at War: Fading Legions!