How will these resources help you?

The Persian empire was the cultural, scientific and technological centre of the world for 200 years – the world’s first superpower. In 560 BCE, Cyrus became king of a largely nomadic and little-known nation called the Persians. 30 years later, he had created the largest empire the world had yet seen. The empire eventually stretched from the Mediterranean to the Indus valley. However, much of this success has been underplayed or ignored by western historians, who characterised Persia as backward, despotic and tyrannical. These resources will give you the material to recast this view, offering a full reassessment of current scholarship, and material that can be used in discussions of historiography as a concept.

Persia's 'inside story'

Persians: The Age of The Great Kings

by Lloyd Llewellyn-Jones, published by Wildfire, (2022), 9781472277282

This book explores the topic by using Persian sources, rather than Greek. Instead of believing the ‘corrupting power of western historiography’, Llewelyn-Jones presents a ‘culturally and socially sophisticated, economically strong, militarily powerful and intellectually gifted’ Persia. He explains how the lack of any available Achaemenid sources until the 19th century allowed the Greeks to promote a view of Persians as cowardly, dishonourable barbarians – a view he looks to challenge. He is scathing of Herodotus (‘much of what Herodotus passes as history is, in fact, make-believe’), of the Athenians (‘puffed-up pride and inflated self-importance’), and the Spartans (who had a ‘terrorist-like hold over the rest of Greece’). (The author's criticism of Herodotus could be juxtaposed against the resources by Robinson and Holland.)
These arguments could be used as the basis of a discussion with students about the reality of Persia. The author presents a Persia that behaved far better than the Roman and British empires. Instead of imposing culture and systems, the Persians were enlightened, self-aware and tolerant. While narrative accounts of the events of the empire are relatively easy to find, the nature of the empire and its administration is rarer. Llewelyn-Jones offers fascinating insights into Persian monarchy, royal buildings, harems and Persian religion, all of which receive a chapter to themselves.

The rise and fall of the Persian empire

Forgotten Empire: The world of ancient Persia

by John Curtis and Nigel Tallis (edited by), published by British Museum Press, (2005), 9780714111575

This richly illustrated book has a series of extremely useful chapters, all focused on a specific area of the life of the empire, from the archaeology of Persian buildings to personal adornment and the administration of the Achaemenids. Central to the book is an attempt to correct a negative Eurocentric view of Persia. Through archaeology and inscriptions, the authors shift the focus from Greek sources to Persia. Though the Persian Wars might have been a catalyst for Greek cultural acceleration, Greece remained on the fringes of Persian consciousness, and had little impact upon the empire. In fact, the Achaemenids were unusual in the ancient world for their inclusive approach to empire. In Chapter 9, Andrew Meadows suggests that we tend to admire Athenian democracy, even though it was imposed on member states and also banned dissent. The Persians, however, were distinctive for their inclusivity, and this ‘underlying tolerance was one of the reasons why the Persian empire survived for two-and-a-half centuries, and the Athenian barely a half.’ I would use these resources to investigate how history is constructed and to illustrate the issues raised by one-sided historical sources. The richness of the (especially visual) source material is an unparalleled resource and allows the construction of excellent classroom activities to engage students in the topic.

Placing Persia in the context of the Persian Wars

Persian Fire: The First World Empire and The Battle for the West

by Tom Holland, published by Abacus, (2006), 9780349117171

This book offers a very helpful outline for anyone who wants to understand the context around the Persian Wars. It includes two chapters on the nature of the Persian empire: one on the Spartans and another on Athens. It also offers an exceptionally clear and detailed account of the Persian Wars. Holland outlines the causes of the Persian invasion, and then weaves his narrative around the battles of Marathon, Thermoplylae, Artemisium, Salamis and Plataea.

Further materials

‘Persia: How to Run a Great Empire’ by Amélie Kuhrt, published by Omnibus magazine (Issue 25), (2016) Read this article
Why is Herodotus called the ‘Father of History’? by Mark Robinson, published by TEDEd Watch this video
Persia’s Forgotten Empire, published by Tracks, YouTube, presented by Lloyd Llewelyn-Jones and Dr Maria Brosius, (2020) Watch this video
Mark Robinson is a history teacher who has many years’ experience of teaching both History and Classical Civilisation. He has also been an examiner. He has written on a wide range of topics for the educational website TEDEd.

Text © Mark Robinson, 2021-2023