The Persian Empire - were they really such bad guys?

Marathon. Thermopylae. Salamis. Plataea.

Battles that have become legendary for the Greek underdog during the Greco-Persian wars, a war in which the Persians are commonly cast as abject villains, battles where the flower of western civilisation was saved in its sapling form. The view of the Persians as antagonists has been repeated many times in history and fiction (their elite Immortals depicted as literal monsters in the testosterone-overdosed 300).

However, reading the wiki on them, they really don’t seem so bad - especially in comparison to other powers at the time. The famed Spartans who are so revered for their actions at Thermopylae practised ritual child murder and kept a brutalised slave caste, the helots, for example.

The Persians on the other hand had a rich culture and love of truth - their founder, Cyrus the Great, was positively enlightened.

Why have they got such a bad reputation? Their expansionism? Not unique by any means in the ancient world - Alex’s later naked aggression isn’t seen in the same light. Despotism? Again, hardly unique - and at least the Persian Empire was well-ruled and reasonably tolerant.

Or is it just a simple case of the victor writing history - Alex making pan-Hellenism the hot new thing. Or a view of east-versus-west, where those in the west naturally side with the Greeks? Or a case of good old fashioned xenophobia?

They probably weren’t as bad as the Greeks said they were, or as good as their own records say they were. Western civilization fancies itself descended from the Greeks and not from the Persians, so the natural side is taken.

I recall Mahmoud Ahmadinejad going on about the movie 300 when it came out because of the way it portrayed the Persians, back when Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was in the news.

I suggest you read the historical novel The Persian Boy, by Mary Renault. All about the contrasts between Greek and Persian culture. Even told from a Persian character’s POV, some things about his culture seem repellent, and other things seem backward, compared to the Greek.

Obviously I’m hardly going to be an opponent of the Persians but nobody in the ancient world treated their slaves anything but harshly so I wouldn’t fault the Spartans too much for that.

As for their “rich culture” and their “love of truth” you could say the same about lots of cultures that practiced slavery and didn’t give their subjects freedom.

I’d certainly say the Persian leaders weren’t any worse than the various Greek Oligarchies.

It’s not like the Persian Empire went after the Greeks without good cause. The Persians were a bit miffed because they felt the Athenians helped to support a rebellion against Cyrus. Plus, when Cyrus sent emissaries to the Greek states at least one of them was murdered in Sparta which was a big no no in the ancient world. Herodotus doesn’t seem overly critical of the Persians in his magnum opus.

But that’s the thing, slavery was a part of the ancient world no matter what culture you want to pick from, in Egypt, Carthage, Greece, Rome, the near east - you name it. It’s hard to point the finger and say that they were evil bastards just because they kept slaves, when everyone else did it - you don’t need to point the finger. Not to mention, the lot of Helots was pretty brutal even by slave standards.

Perhaps it’s just me, but they never seemed to be cast in a black hat wearing bad guy role, just opponents of the Greeks. I’ve only seen them cast that way in 300, which while visually stunning, is garbage as far as an actual history goes. The constant hammering in the movie of Sparta and Greece standing for freedom and a new age of enlightenment while the Persians stood for slavery and mysticism was quite amusing for flying in the face of history.

Oh, the Spartans were defending some things of value not found in Persia . . . but not found in Sparta, either. Athens.

Of course one area where they are NOT consistently cast as the bad guy is the Tanakh. Cyrus, afterall, is much celebrated by the Jews for bringing an end to the Babylonian Captivity.

Otherwise insomuch as the Persians were ( lightly ) demonized it was probably largely as a result of the rampant philhellenism of the 19th century, carrying over into the 20th. The classical Greeks were lionized as the forefathers of Western civilization, with Athens in particular coming in for the greatest praise. The Persians were seen as the enemy of all of that - it was the oriental despots vs. the enlightened democrats.

So, yes. A heaping does of xenophobia and rooting for “our side.” The Achaemenids were not much worse or better than most ancient societies. Just vastly more successful than most.

Cyrus, by the way, was the Straight Dope victor in the Greatest National Leader elimination game.

And their art was more refined, especially if you compare it to cruelty-fixated art of the Assyrians.

Before getting too misty-eyed over Athens, remember they too practiced slavery and used the Delian League to establish hegemony over other independent Greek city-states.

Yes, but that was no worse than anyone else at the time did. Athens – really, all-of-Greece-but-Sparta – was the source of all the philosophy, art, drama, literature, that enriched later cultures.

While Athens was democratic internally, they attempted to squelch the independence in other Greek city-states through the Delian League, leading to the Peloponnesian War. Sparta, while an oligarchy internally, fought to prevent this; so ironically the democracy fought to stifle independence while the more dictatorial sought to preserve it. All-of-Greece-but-Sparta does a disservice to Sparta.

Others have pointed out that slavery was the norm in ancient times. It’s less well known, but the murder of babies was as well. The Spartans were not the only Greek city state to weed out children who were deformed or sickly or in many cases just female. That was common practice throughout ancient Greece and the Roman Empire as well, and it’s estimated that a quarter to a third of female babies were killed. I frankly don’t know if the Persians did it. Perhaps some expert will enlighten us.

I doubt very much Persian leadership was achieved by participating in youthful night-time murder spreeson your unarmed slaves…

It’s because of xenophobia, plain and simple. I personally think the world would have been much better had the Persians won out over the Hellenists.

I’d like to see some evidence for those “estimates”. I’m not aware of any ancient civilisation that killed female infants, on the basis of sex.

Even the issue of Sparta killing it’s deformed infants is dubious. The chasm into which they supposedly flung their infants has, on archaeological investigation, proven to contain no infant remains at all, only the bodies of what were probably adult criminals. We know that Sparta had at least one deformed king, and we know that Sparta had a perennial population crisis (at least among citizens), so murdering their offspring, when breeding was seen as a duty of a citizen, would be a last resort.

Was there really a difference between the internal “democracy” of the Athenians and the “oligarchy” of the Spartans? Sparta was controlled by the citizenry as Athens was, and had more citizens than a lot of the “democratic” polities. Obviously slaves didn’t get a say in either. The Lacedaemonian perioecci were allowed effectively to control their own affairs, and even the Helots were allowed to serve in the armed forces. No Athenian even armed his slaves, while the climactic battle between the Greeks and Persians saw the Spartans heavily outnumbered by their own armed slaves.

Of course, the Messenian helots didn’t have it very good.

As far as I know then the Persians generally have a fairly good reputation comparable to other expansionist despotic regimes of the period. They were rather tolerant and generally allowed their subject people to go on with their business as long as they paid their taxes, &etc. It was also the Persians that released the Jews from captivity.

The Persians greatest contemporary misfortune and historic fortune is to come up against the greatest culture in the history of mankind. The Persians were mismatched, but without the Greeks (which often mistook them for the Medes) little would have been written of them and they would have been as little known in today’s popular perception as the Hittites or Assyrians.

Those were Athenian daughter cities (Miletus) that the Persians had recently conquered, so I’d say the Athenians had good grounds. The Persians afterwards razed Miletus to the ground and slaughtered most of the population and dragged the remaining away to slavery.

Greatest culture? I didn’t know the Persians went up against the Romans.

(ah the vagaries of silly continental phihellenism. Got the bloody Greks into the EU)