The Persians



BEYOND the Euphrates or the Tigris, through all the history of Greece and Rome, lay that almost secret empire which for a thousand years had stood off expanding Europe and Asiatic hordes, never forgetting its Achaemenid glory, slowly recuperating from its Parthian wars, and so proudly maintaining its unique and aristocratic culture under its virile Sasanian monarchs, that it would transform the Islamic conquest of Iran into a Persian Renaissance.

Iran meant more, in our third century, than Iran or Persia today. It was by its very name the land of the “Aryans,” and included Afghanistan, Baluchistan, Sogdiana, and Balkh, as well as Iraq. “Persia,” anciently the name of the modern province of Fars, was but a southeastern fraction of this empire; but the Greeks and Romans, careless about “barbarians,” gave the name of a part to the whole. Through the center of Iran, from Himalayan southeast to Caucasian northwest, ran a mountainous dividing barrier; to the east was an arid lofty plateau; to the west lay the green valleys of the twin rivers, whose periodic overflow ran into a labyrinth of canals, and made Western Persia rich in wheat and dates, vines, and fruits. Between or along the rivers, or hiding in the hills, or hugging desert oases, were a myriad villages, a thousand towns, a hundred cities: Ecbatana, Rai, Mosul, Istakhr (once Persepolis), Susa, Seleucia, and magnificent Ctesiphon, seat of the Sasanian kings.

Ammianus describes the Persians of this period as “almost all slender, somewhat dark … with not uncomely beards, and long, shaggy hair.”1 The upper classes were not shaggy, nor always slender, often handsome, proud of bearing, and of an easy grace, with a flair for dangerous sports and splendid dress. Men covered their heads with turbans, their legs with baggy trousers, their feet with sandals or laced boots; the rich wore coats or tunics of wool and silk, and girt themselves with belt and sword; the poor resigned themselves to garments of cotton, hair, or skins. The women dressed in boots and breeches, loose shirts and cloaks and flowing robes; curled their black hair into a coil in front, let it hang behind, and brightened it with flowers. All classes loved color and ornament. Priests and zealous Zoroastrians affected white cotton clothing as a symbol of purity; generals preferred red; kings distinguished themselves with red shoes, blue trousers, and a headdress topped with an inflated ball or the head of a beast or a bird. In Persia, as in all civilized societies, clothes made half the man, and slightly more of the woman.

The typical educated Persian was Gallicanly impulsive, enthusiastic, and mercurial; often indolent, but quickly alert; given to “mad and extravagant talk … rather crafty than courageous, and to be feared only at long range”2—which was where they kept their enemies. The poor drank beer, but nearly all classes, including the gods, preferred wine; the pious and thrifty Persians poured it out in religious ritual, waited a reasonable time for the gods to come and drink, then drank the sacred beverage themselves.3 Persian manners, in this Sasanian period, are described as coarser than in the Achaemenid, more refined than in the Parthian;4 but the narratives of Procopius leave us with the impression that the Persians continued to be better gentlemen than the Greeks.5 The ceremonies and diplomatic forms of the Persian court were in large measure adopted by the Greek emperors; the rival sovereigns addressed each other as “brother,” provided immunity and safe-conducts for foreign diplomats, and exempted them from customs searches and dues.6 The conventions of European and American diplomacy may be traced to the courts of the Persian kings.

“Most Persians,” Ammianus reported, “are extravagantly given to venery,”7 but he confesses that pederasty and prostitution were less frequent among them than among the Greeks. Rabbi Gamaliel praised the Persians for three qualities: “They are temperate in eating, modest in the privy and in marital relations.”8 Every influence was used to stimulate marriage and the birth rate, in order that man power should suffice in war; in this aspect Mars, not Venus, is the god of love. Religion enjoined marriage, celebrated it with awesome rites, and taught that fertility strengthened Ormuzd, the god of light, in his cosmic conflict with Ahriman, the Satan of the Zoroastrian creed.9 The head of the household practiced ancestor worship at the family hearth, and sought offspring to ensure his own later cult and care; if no son was born to him he adopted one. Parents generally arranged the marriage of their children, often with the aid of a professional matrimonial agent; but a woman might marry against the wishes of her parents. Dowries and marriage settlements financed early marriage and parentage. Polygamy was allowed, and was recommended where the first wife proved barren. Adultery flourished.10 The husband might divorce his wife for infidelity, the wife might divorce her husband for desertion and cruelty. Concubines were permitted. Like the ancient Greek hetairai, these concubines were free to move about in public, and to attend the banquets of the men;11 but legal wives were usually kept in private apartments in the home;12 this old Persian custom was bequeathed to Islam. Persian women were exceptionally beautiful, and perhaps men had to be guarded from them. In the Shahnama of Firdausi it is the women who yearn and take the initiative in courtship and seduction. Feminine charms overcame masculine laws.

Children were reared with the help of religious belief, which seems indispensable to parental authority. They amused themselves with ball games, athletics, and chess,13 and at an early age joined in their elders’ pastimes-archery, horse racing, polo, and the hunt. Every Sasanian found music necessary to the operations of religion, love, and war; “music and the songs of beautiful women,” said Firdausi, “accompanied the scene” at royal banquets and receptions;14 lyre, guitar, flute, pipe, horn, drum, and other instruments abounded; tradition avers that Khosru Parvez’ favorite singer, Barbad, composed 360 songs, and sang them to his royal patron, one each night for a year.15 In education, too, religion played a major part; primary schools were situated on temple grounds, and were taught by priests. Higher education in literature, medicine, science, and philosophy was provided in the celebrated academy at Jund-i-Shapur in Susiana. The sons of feudal chiefs and provincial satraps often lived near the king, and were instructed with the princes of the royal family in a college attached to the court.16

Pahlavi, the Indo-European language of Parthian Persia, continued in use. Of its literature in this age only some 600,000 words survive, nearly all dealing with religion. We know that it was extensive;17 but as the priests were its guardians and transmitters, they allowed most of the secular material to perish. (A like process may have deluded us as to the overwhelmingly religious character of early medieval literature in Christendom.) The Sasanian kings were enlightened patrons of letters and philosophy—Khosru Anushirvan above all: he had Plato and Aristotle translated into Pahlavi, had them taught at Jund-i-Shapur, and even read them himself. During his reign many historical annals were compiled, of which the sole survivor is the Karnamaki-Artakhshatr, or Deeds of Ardashir, a mixture of history and romance that served Firdausi as the basis of his Shahnama. When Justinian closed the schools of Athens seven of their professors fled to Persia and found refuge at Khosru’s court. In time they grew homesick; and in his treaty of 533 with Justinian, the “barbarian” king stipulated that the Greek sages should be allowed to return, and be free from persecution.

Under this enlightened monarch the college of Jund-i-Shapur, which had been founded in the fourth or fifth century, became “the greatest intellectual center of the time.”18 Students and teachers came to it from every quarter of the world. Nestorian Christians were received there, and brought Syriac translations of Greek works in medicine and philosophy. Neoplatonists there planted the seeds of Sufi mysticism; there the medical lore of India, Persia, Syria, and Greece mingled to produce a flourishing school of therapy.19 In Persian theory disease resulted from contamination and impurity of one or more of the four elements—fire, water, earth, and air; public health, said Persian physicians and priests, required the burning of all putrefying matter, and individual health demanded strict obedience to the Zoroastrian code of cleanliness.20

Of Persian astronomy in this period we only know that it maintained an orderly calendar, divided the year into twelve months of thirty days, each month into two seven-day and two eight-day weeks, and added five intercalary days at the end of the year.21Astrology and magic were universal; no important step was taken without reference to the status of the constellations; and every earthly career, men believed, was determined by the good and evil stars that fought in the sky—as angels and demons fought in the human soul—the ancient war of Ormuzd and Ahriman.

The Zoroastrian religion was restored to authority and affluence by the Sasanian dynasty; lands and tithes were assigned to the priests; government was founded on religion, as in Europe. An archimagus, second only to the king in power, headed an omnipresent hereditary priestly caste of Magi, who controlled nearly all the intellectual life of Persia, frightened sinners and rebels with threats of hell, and kept the Persian mind and masses in bondage for four centuries.22 Now and then they protected the citizen against the taxgatherer, and the poor against oppression.23 The Magian organization was so rich that kings sometimes borrowed great sums from the temple treasuries. Every important town had a fire temple, in which a sacred flame, supposedly inextinguishable, symbolized the god of light. Only a life of virtue and ritual cleanliness could save the soul from Ahriman; in the battle against that devil it was vital to have the aid of the Magi and their magicthai divinations, incantations, sorceries, and prayers. So helped, the soul would attain holiness and purity, pass the awful assize of the Last Judgment, and enjoy everlasting happiness in paradise.

Around this official faith other religions found modest room. Mithras, the sun god so popular with the Parthians, received a minor worship as chief helper of Ormuzd. But the Zoroastrian priests, like the Christians, Moslems, and Jews, made persistent apostasy from the national creed a capital crime. When Mani (c. 216–76), claiming to be a fourth divine messenger in the line of Buddha, Zoroaster, and Jesus, announced a religion of celibacy, pacifism, and quietism, the militant and nationalistic Magi had him crucified; and Manicheism had to seek its main success abroad. To Judaism and Christianity, however, the Sasanian priests and kings were generally tolerant, much as the popes were more lenient with Jews than with heretics. A large number of Jews found asylum in the western provinces of the Persian Empire. Christianity was already established there when the Sasanians came to power; it was tolerated until it became the official faith of Persia’s immemorial enemies, Greece and Rome; it was persecuted after its clergy, as at Nisibis in 338, took an active part in the defense of Byzantine territory against Shapur II,24 and the Christians in Persia revealed their natural hopes for a Byzantine victory.25 In 341 Shapur ordered the massacre of all Christians in his Empire; entire villages of Christians were being slaughtered when he restricted the proscription to priests, monks, and nuns; even so 16,000 Christians died in a persecution that lasted till Shapur’s death (379). Yezdegird I (399–420) restored religious freedom to the Christians, and helped them rebuild their churches. In 422 a council of Persian bishops made the Persian Christian Church independent of both Greek and Roman Christianity.

Within the framework of religious worship and dispute, governmental edicts and crises, civil and foreign wars, the people impatiently provided the sinews of state and church, tilling the soil, pasturing flocks, practicing handicrafts, arguing trade. Agriculture was made a religious duty: to clear the wilderness, cultivate the earth, eradicate pests and weeds, reclaim waste lands, harness the streams to irrigate the land—these heroic labors, the people were told, ensured the final victory of Ormuzd over Ahriman. Much spiritual solace was needed by the Persian peasant, for usually he toiled as tenant for a feudal lord, and paid from a sixth to a third of his crops in taxes and dues. About 540 the Persians took from India the art of making sugar from the cane; the Greek Emperor Heraclius found a treasury of sugar in the royal palace at Ctesiphon (627); the Arabs, conquering Persia fourteen years later, soon learned to cultivate the plant, and introduced it into Egypt, Sicily, Morocco, and Spain, whence it spread through Europe.26 Animal husbandry was a Persian forte; Persian horses were second only to Arab steeds in pedigree, spirit, beauty, and speed; every Persian loved a horse as Rustam loved Rakush. The dog was so useful in guarding flocks and homes that the Persians made him a sacred animal; and the Persian cat acquired distinction universally.

Persian industry under the Sasanians developed from domestic to urban forms. Guilds were numerous, and some towns had a revolutionary proletariat.27 Silk weaving was introduced from China; Sasanian silks were sought for everywhere, and served as models for the textile art in Byzantium, China, and Japan. Chinese merchants came to Iran to sell raw silk and buy rugs, jewels, rouge; Armenians, Syrians, and Jews connected Persia, Byzantium, and Rome in slow exchange. Good roads and bridges, well patrolled, enabled state post and merchant caravans to link Ctesiphon with all provinces; and harbors were built in the Persian Gulf to quicken trade with India. Governmental regulations limited the price of corn, medicines, and other necessaries, and prevented “corners” and monopolies.28 We may judge the wealth of the upper classes by the story of the baron who, having invited a thousand guests to dinner, and finding that he had only 500 dinner services, was able to borrow 500 more from his neighbors.29

The feudal lords, living chiefly on their rural estates, organized the exploitation of land and men, and raised regiments from their tenantry to fight the nation’s wars. They trained themselves to battle by following the chase with passion and bravery; they served as gallant cavalry officers, man and animal armored as in later feudal Europe; but they fell short of the Romans in disciplining their troops, or in applying the latest engineering arts of siege and defense. Above them in social caste were the great aristocrats who ruled the provinces as satraps, or headed departments of the government. Administration must have been reasonably competent, for though taxation was less severe than in the Roman Empire of East or West, the Persian treasury was often richer than that of the emperors. Khosru Parvez had $460,000,000 in his coffers in 626, and an annual income of $170,000,00030—enormous sums in terms of the purchasing power of medieval silver and gold.

Law was created by the kings, their councilors, and the Magi, on the basis of the old Avestan code; its interpretation and administration were left to the priests. Ammianus, who fought the Persians, reckoned their judges as “upright men of proved experience and legal learning.”31 In general, Persians were known as men of their word. Oaths in court were surrounded with all the aura of religion; violated oaths were punished severely in law, and in hell by an endless shower of arrows, axes, and stones. Ordeals were used to detect guilt: suspects were invited to walk over red-hot substances, or go through fire, or eat poisoned food. Infanticide and abortion were forbidden with heavy penalties; pederasty was punished with death; the detected adulterer was banished; the adulteress lost her nose and ears. Appeal could be made to higher courts, and sentences of death could be carried out only after review and approval by the king.

The king attributed his power to the gods, presented himself as their vicegerent, and emulated their superiority to their own decrees. He called himself, when time permitted, “King of Kings, King of the Aryans and the non-Aryans, Sovereign of the Universe, Descendant of the Gods”;32 Shapur II added “Brother of the Sun and Moon, Companion of the Stars.” Theoretically absolute, the Sasanian monarch usually acted with the advice of his ministers, who composed a council of state. Masudi, the Moslem historian, praised the “excellent administration of the” Sasanian “kings, their wellordered policy, their care for their subjects, and the prosperity of their domains.”33 Said Khosru Anushirvan, according to Ibn Khaldun: “Without army, no king; without revenues, no army; without taxes, no revenue; without agriculture, no taxes; without just government, no agriculture.”34 In normal times the monarchical office was hereditary, but might be transmitted by the king to a younger son; in two instances the supreme power was held by queens. When no direct heir was available, the nobles and prelates chose a ruler, but their choice was restricted to members of the royal family.

The life of the king was an exhausting round of obligations. He was expected to take fearlessly to the hunt; he moved to it in a brocaded pavilion drawn by ten camels royally dressed; seven camels carried his throne, one hundred bore his minstrels. Ten thousand knights might accompany him; but if we may credit the Sasanian rock reliefs he had at last to mount a horse, face in the first person a stag, ibex, antelope, buffalo, tiger, lion, or some other of the animals gathered in the king’s park or “paradise.” Back in his palace, he confronted the chores of government amid a thousand attendants and in a maze of officious ceremony. He had to dress himself in robes heavy with jewelry, seat himself on a golden throne, and wear a crown so burdensome that it had to be suspended an invisible distance from his immovable head. So he received ambassadors and guests, observed a thousand punctilios of protocol, passed judgment, received appointments and reports. Those who approached him prostrated themselves, kissed the ground, rose only at his bidding, and spoke to him through a handkerchief held to their mouths, lest their breath infect or profane the king. At night he retired to one of his wives or concubines, and eugenically disseminated his superior seed.

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