Posted by: ken98 | October 3, 2009

All Things Persian

Well, its midnight again, and here I sit writing into the night. I really have to do this earlier in the day.

Gibbon on the Persians

Chapter 8 is a long essay on the history of Persia, especially from the perspective of 1) the later weakening Roman Empire, and 2) a British author whose own nation is on the verge of becoming the Empire upon which the sun never sets. Gibbon is more interested, and probably more accurate in his geography than the ancient and modern (meaning 18th century) historians were. After all the British have commercial interests throughout the Near and Far East at this point.

I have to admire Gibbon for devoting an entire chapter to a non-Roman people. It shows his desire to be thorough and (somewhat) impartial.

But the manners, customs, and culture remain forever alien to Gibbon, wrapped in the classical drapery of depravity and luxury which make much Eastern history by Western authors caricatures. But occasionally he pokes his head out of the clouds and gives amazing and lucid analyses which ring with truth and meaning. And he writes so well also – it’s hard not to believe him.

And… another Gibbon Quote

For example he denigrates the Persian infantry, but exalts the cavalry, and as a byproduct describes the noble Persian youths’ upbringing – although he can’t help throwing in one of those typical Gibbon double-takes with a backhanded compliment: “From the age of seven years they were taught to speak the truth, to shoot with the bow, and to ride; and it was universally confessed that in the two last of these arts, they had made a more than common proficiency.” (DF viii p. 229).


Author makes Strong Case for Feeling more sympathetic for the Persians than the Romans

It’s kind of sad in a sentimental way starting to talk about the Persians now. This is their last big moment on the stage of history before they submerge into Islam. They should be very familiar to us, as the Persian Empire was much more like Medieval France than the Romans were. Knights, feudal tenure, chivalry, devotion to a God-anointed monarch, an established, organized clergy – whenever you read about a Persian/Roman battle you should think of how St. Louis the King of France would’ve held up to a Roman Empire basically camping out in a Roman province in the Netherlands. We are much more like the Persians than the ancient Romans because the Modern age is a child of the long Medieval millennium (500-1500).

1st Persian Empire - 500 BCE

1st Persian Empire - 500 BCE

Another way we are more like the Persians, is that both the Persians and ourselves are sons of Greece (although Rome was certainly a frantic imitator of all things Greek). But the Persian Empire inherited Greece the same way we did – by accident. The first Persian Empire was in the 400s BCE and was the result of the blond haired, blue-eyed Persians taking over the ancient civilizations of the Fertile Crescent. Just as their brothers had moved through Europe earlier in a barbarian horde and ridden down other advanced civilizations (ex. the Ancient Greeks wiping out the older world of Mycenae). The Persians attacked and lost some battles with minuscule provinces of the Empire (Asian Greek city states), and then a generation or so later disappeared underneath a Greek state (Alexander the Great’s).

After that, Persia had an overlay of Greek thought, poetry, mathematics, that continued right down to the conversion of the Zoroastrian state to Islam in the 600’s. It was a toss-up in the early years of Islam which of the 2 great eyes (Rome or Persia) would bequeath the machinery of civilization to a Bedouin people (the Arabs) who had suddenly and embarrassingly inherited a 2000 year old culture of cities – at first it was Roman (which would have made the Middle East a very different place than today), but after the total submission of Persia, it was mostly Persian (feudal) machinery which was spread throughout the East – and Persian culture. Arabic numerals, Algebra, Aristotle – all kinds of things came out of that melting pot.

Edessa - Urfa Castle

Edessa - Urfa Castle

Anyways… we start on the final great 400 years of Persian history – battling the Romans tooth and nail for what was (to the Persians) just the small western rim of their wide empire. Still (and we’ll talk about this later) I love reading about the frontier between Persia and Rome. Edges are the most dynamic and prolific parts of any system – and the upper Tigris/Euphrates, Edessa, Ctesiphon, Seleuca are a fascinating places.

until tomorrow


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