Wednesday 25 August 2010

Pondering Persians

I've been considering the ultimate foes of the Greeks, the Persian Empire.

They get a pretty bad press. Eastern Asiatic hordes, armies of a despotic regime, coming to conquer the plucky, outnumbered, democratic, free-thinking Greeks.

It is theme that is repeated quite often in Western literature (and, for that matter, politics). Consider, for example, The Lord of the Rings. Now, trespassing on Tolkein's classic might be risking an outcry, but the nasties come from the East. Similarly, with David Edding's Belgariad. The endless wastes of the East, and concomitant evil nasties are pretty well a fixture. The west is safe, homely, civilised.

Politically, of course, the east has been the 'other'. Ponder the anxiety in the west over the 'yellow peril' in the early 20th century. The image to the left (nicked from Wikipaedia) is an example, sent by the Kaiser to the Tsar at the turn of the century. The Archangel Michael is rallying the nations of Europe against the consuming fire of the east, complete with figure of Bhudda.

The east, while posing a threat, also represents the mystical, the decadent, and the amazing riches of strange cultures and their empires. It is exciting, interesting, dangerous, different.

Not all of this, of course, is the fault of the Greek historians, but it could perhaps be argued that they started it. The Persians, after all, did not leave much in the way of books of history to defend their reputation against the barbarian slurs.

So what can we do?

Not all literature which has come down to us so negative. The Bible, for example, is suprisingly positive about these eastern despots:

Isaiah 44:28: [The LORD] says of Cyrus, 'He is my shepherd and will accomplish all that I please; he will say of Jerusalem, "Let it be rebuilt," and of the Temple "Let its foundations be laid".

Isaiah then goes on to describe Cyrus (who of course, started the whole Persian "thing") as his annointed, which is pretty powerful stuff when it comes to ethnicity in the ancient world. And this is not an isolated example. In 2 Chronicles 36, Cyrus again is presented positively, returning the Israelites to Judah from exile in Babylon. Ezra too refers positively to Cyrus, as does Nehemiah to Artaxerxes (although the whole Ezra - Nehemiah - Chronicles complex is interrelated). Esther is also positive about the Empire, and Daniel also joins the party.

Even if we discount these documents as historical (which we probably shouldn't, at least, not in every detail), and claim they were written much later under the Hasmonian kings, Persia is still presented positively, not negatively.

Similarly, the pre-Socratic Greek philosophers - Thales, Anaximander and Anaximenes came from Miletus on the coast of Anatolia, and Heraclites from Ephesus. Technically, then, all of them were Persian subjects (Thales only just, because he died in 546 BC, admittedly). For that matter, the magi in the Gospels came from the east, and were probably Persian sages, astonomers and philosophers.

So, what is the point of this ramble?

I think that we need to try and see, in wargaming terms, the Persians not as hordes of faceless Asiatic Greek fodder, but as capable and dangerous foes. To some extent our culture, and the relative lack of alternative historical documentation to that of the Greeks, works against us here. But the Persians managed a large empire for around 200 years (about 550 - 330 BC), and only fell to that chancer, Alexander. In fact, it could be argued that Alexander bought into the Persian culture and methods of empire, and became a Persian emperor, as opposed to a Greek one, much to the horror of his Greek officers.

So the Persians, I think, deserve some respect, not to have their troops dismissed as 'hordes'.


  1. Hi, i think u right about not considering the persians like barbarian.
    But Persians USED horde of people.
    For me they didnt have the organitation to use their infantry otherwise i mean use them like a horde. I say only infantry not cavalry.
    The great part of the persian infantry cant really face the hoplite, in a melee combat.

    I suggest u to read the Anabasis of Xenofonte, the book give a lot differents prospectives.


  2. Hi Marco,

    Well, it is reported that the Persians used hordes of people, but I'm prepared to be sceptical of the reports of Greek historians. If we accept the reports of these folks, then sparabara, for example, are, I'd say, quite organised.

    I will get to Xenophon, but would point out that he landed in the middle of a civil war when both sides would turn out as many blokes with pointy sticks as possible. The Persian forces at Marathon were picked ones, for example, so I'd expect fewer hordes there.

    Thanks for the post.