Photo by Steven Su on Unsplash

Western Ambivalence toward Iran

By Abbas Amanat —

The Persians, and before them the Medes, were among the first people known to the ancient Greeks outside their own geographic sphere. As early as the sixth century BCE, when Cyrus the Great, the founder of the Achaemenid Empire (c. 550 BCE–330 BCE), conquered Asia Minor, the Persians came to occupy in the Greek mind the place of a formidable Other. For more than two centuries the Persians inspired in the Greek imagination a mixture of awe and fear toward an imperial power, which, in contrast to the vulnerable Greek city-states, was based on a centralized state and ruled by the King of Kings. It was admired as a vast multinational empire with legendary wealth and economic power, a universal currency, and an efficient administration, army, and communication (long-distance carriage roads and horse couriers rather than barefoot runners). It had a belief system totally different from that of the Greeks, with their quarreling Olympian deities. Herodotus, himself a Greek subject of the Persian Empire living in Asia Minor, embarked on The Histories with the chief aim of answering one major question: how was the only “superpower” of his time, the empire of Cyrus and Darius, resisted and eventually defeated in the Persian Wars (499 BCE–449 BCE) by the seemingly vulnerable Greeks? His flattering answer, a blend of fact and fiction, greatly influenced ancient historical consciousness and even helped shape Western ambivalence toward Iran in modern times. 

The Greeks called this civilization “barbarian” (barbaros), which in the original sense of the term meant “alien,” or more specifically, a person who mumbles, presumably because the Greeks could not understand the languages of Iran, whether ancient Persian or Aramaic. The term implied Persian inferiority to the Greek and, later, Roman sense of superiority. Such a condescending attitude was a predictable reaction, one could argue, to the Greeks’ fear of succumbing in real life to the Persians and their material superiority. Aeschylus’s The Persians, the first surviving Greek historical tragedy, written by a soldier who himself had fought in the Persian Wars, celebrated the Greek victory by imagining the impact of the devastating news of the Persian defeat in the war on the Persian royalty and the court—a clever ploy, no doubt reflective of the Greeks’ jubilant mood at being saved from Persian hegemony. 

It was not an accident that the Athenian Parthenon, the architectural representation of a rare moment of Greek solidarity, was built to celebrate victory in the Persian Wars. As has been related, on the famous shield of Athena, whose huge statue was worshipped in the Parthenon, the Persians were depicted as barbarians clad in effeminate dress, about to be humbled by the masculine and victorious Greeks. In this case, Occidental artistic representations seem to have determined long ago their choice depiction of Persia as the Orient par excellence: feminine and exotic. Nor was it an accident that the chief target of Alexander’s world-conquering ambition should have been the Persian Empire. 

The Macedonian adventurer, whom the Zoroastrian sources of pre-Islamic Iran labeled as “evil Alexander,” no doubt exploited these anti-Persian sentiments, rampant among the Greeks of Asia Minor, as a pretext to reclaim Greek lands after more than two centuries under Persian rule. When Alexander conquered the Achaemenid Empire in 330 BCE, he was too anxious—to the dismay of some of his generals, and against the advice of his teacher, Aristotle, who viewed the Persian state as tyrannical—not only to adopt Persian costumes and courtly manners, but also to create a universalistic Greco-Persian political hybrid. In this vision, as far as can be recovered from the Greek narratives, greater weight was given to the realties of the Persian model of government than to the Greek ideals. The Greek conquest nevertheless resulted in an infusion of Hellenistic culture into the Iranian world that lasted for hundreds of years afterward and well into the Islamic era. 

Resonating through the early modern and modern centuries, the victory against the Persian Empire was celebrated in post-Enlightenment Europe and during the Western imperial expansion in the nineteenth century as a turning point in the history of Western civilization. For modern Europeans who “rediscovered” Persia, these memories were alive and hugely reinforced by the retrieval of classical texts, and later by archeological findings in the Near East and in Iran. 

References in the Hebrew Bible were far more favorable to the Persians. Cyrus the Great (Heb. Koresh, taken from the Old Persian), in particular, fared well. He was the “anointed one” (messiah, or mashiah) who delivered the Israelites from their Babylonian captivity and allowed them to return to their homeland; later, his Achaemenid successors allowed them to rebuild their temple in Jerusalem. He was the only historical figure in the Hebrew Bible to be recognized as the Lord’s “messiah” and his “shepherd” (Isaiah 44–45), and one of the very few rulers to be praised for his tolerance and compassion. Although the story of the book of Esther—whereby the Jewish concubine of the Persian King of Kings saves her coreligionists from massacre at the hands of a sinister minister—is largely a composite narrative pieced together to reassure the Jews of their ultimate redemption against later occurrences of anti-Semitism, it nonetheless demonstrates the Israelites’ favorable attitude and loyalty toward their Persian overlords in exchange for Achaemenid royal protection. 

The positive attitude of the Bible toward the Persians may also be attributed to the affinity the Israelites felt between their own omniscient God and the Persian Wise Lord, the Ahura Mazda of Iranian religion and later of Zoroastrianism. Unlike the Babylonian deities, Ahura Mazda was compassionate and predictable, a supporter of the righteous and an enemy of the wicked. A distant memory of such an affinity can be seen in the book of Daniel, which, though a composite product of later centuries, represented in its apocalyptic imagery a just and mighty Persian King of Kings who redeems the saved and eliminates the damned, an image that may well have been colored by the Zoroastrian apocalyptic tradition of Iran. 

From Iran by Abbas Amanat. Published by Yale University Press in 2019. Reproduced with permission.

Abbas Amanat is William Graham Sumner Professor of History at Yale University and director of the Yale Program in Iranian Studies at the MacMillan Center for International and Area Studies.

Further Reading

Recent Posts

All Blogs