Ancient Persian Civilization



Alexander had planned to unite the Persians with his own people in one great nation; and, perhaps, it is this more than anything else which accounts for their ready submission to his sway. With his death, however, his mighty schemes fell to pieces. There was civil war among his generals, until finally one of them, Seleucus, succeeded to the strictly Persian part of the empire. He ruled the Persians as a conquered and inferior people to be domineered over by Greek troops and Greek satraps. The proud Persians mast have welcomed gladly the change of dominion, when the Parthians overthrew the Greek rule about 250 B.C.

The Parthians, though they came from the deserts of central Asia and knew little of the outer world, were a strong and shrewd people. They recognized the superior civilization of their new subjects, and treated them with much liberality and even distinction, allowing them to be ruled by their own native kings. Thus the two nations dwelt together very amicably. Through the whole period of the Parthian empire, extending over four centuries, there was no Persian revolt.

During this time Greece fell from power, and Rome became mistress of the world. The Parthians alone, trusting in their deadly deserts and their peculiar mode of warfare, maintained the independence of their domain against Roman conquest. The beginning of the Christian era came and passed; and the new religion, spreading swiftly over the world, entered Persia also. Finally the Parthian empire began to crumble to pieces. The Parthian race seems to have become weak and corrupt. Province after province asserted its freedom, and hardly an effort was made to put down the various rebellions. Persia began to dream of her ancient greatness; mere independence could not satisfy her re-aroused ambition.

There must be some deep and rare vitality in the Persian race. History knows no parallel to their case, when a nation was so stirred by the memory of its own famous history as to rise after hundreds of years of complete submission and win its place a second time among the great peoples of the world. Greece has made a similar attempt in our own times; but we all know how hopelessly she would have been crushed by the Turks in 1898 had not the generous interference of Europe saved her, and given her the shadow of a place among the nations.

The reawakening of Persia reads like the glowing fancy of some poet of romance. Artaxerxes, a descendant of Sassan, from whom the family and empire are called Sassanian, was the Persian king who, in the year 226 A.D., declared his county independent of Parthia. Then, at the head of an army of eager and enthusiastic Persians chanting their ancient war-songs, he proceeded to seize and subdue the bordering provinces. The Parthians made no move to stop him, until his army actually threatened their own country. Then Artabanus, the last Parthian king, roused himself to resistance. Apparently there was no ill-feeling between the combatants. The Persians were merely proffering a courtly challenge to their old friends, to meet them and prove which had the better right to empire.

In two great battles the Persians were victorious. The Parthians, however, refused to accept the result as decisive; so a third contest was officially appointed, to take place on the plain of Hormuz. It was the last trial of strength, and the Parthians were completely overthrown. One historian tells of a personal encounter between Artaxerxes and his rival. The daring Persian spurring far in advance of his troops, coaxed his adversary from the shelter of his shield-bearers by a pretended flight, and then sent an arrow through his heart. The Parthian king was certainly slain in the battle, and his empire disappeared.

The next step in Artaxerxes' career was even more spectacular. His actual dominion as yet extended only over the mountains and deserts of Persia and Parthia; but he calmly announced that the Persians resumed all the territory of their ancient empire; and he sent notice of this in stately terms to Rome Four hundred youths, selected from the handsomest in Persia, gorgeously dressed and mounted, presented to the Emperor Severus their master's "order" to withdraw the Roman troops from the different Asian provinces, since all Asia belonged to the Persians.

The astonished Severus tried to argue the matter; but you can guess how much effect argument had on the proud and fiery Artaxerxes. He marched his army down from the mountains and seized the whole Roman territory along the Euphrates. Severus gathered an immense force to punish this insolence. Roman dignity was not hurt when the Parthians escaped her by scurrying into the deserts; but here was a regular army established on Roman territory, and actually besieging and capturing Roman cities.

Artaxerxes retreated before the advancing foe. Despite his boastful message, he was far too wise a general to risk his new empire on the chances of a decisive Lattle between his raw troops and these splendidly armed and trained legions. He withdrew into the Persian mountains, leading his adversary along as he had led the Parthian king; and when Severus followed with his great army in three, widely separated divisions, Artaxerxes fell suddenly upon one section. It was overwhelmed and utterly destroyed by the deadly arrows of the Persian bowmen.

Severus made haste to withdraw the remainder of his troops; but privation, disease, and the fierce attacks of the pursuing Persian cavalry so reduced their numbers, that he reached the Mediterranean with scarcely a third of his original army. It was one of the most terrible disasters the Roman arms ever encountered.

The terms of the peace that followed are not clear. Artaxerxes certainly did not get all the territory he had so extravagantly claimed. Probably he contented himself with some small concessions, fully aware that, despite his success, Roman power was greater than his own. Besides, he had an enemy nearer at hand, and one easier to subdue. The King of Armenia had joined forces with the Romans, and was now abandoned by them to his fate. His punishment and subjugation were to Artaxerxes a far more immediate and important matter than the Roman war. It was several years before Armenia was wholly conquered, and the ambitious Artaxerxes was growing old. Some further record we find of wars and conquests in the far East, in Scythia, and in India; and then, quite suddenly, Artaxerxes gave up his throne. He had always been a religious man; his first rebellion against Parthia was partly religious; and it seems probable that he spent his old age in religious retirement and meditation. His mission was accomplished: Persia was again at the head of a great empire.

Sapor, the son of Artaxerxes, succeeded to the abandoned throne, and ruled Persia for over thirty years (240-272 A.D.). He was the worthy son of a great father. Fired with the same dream of Persian glory, he deliberately reopened the war with the Romans. At first he met reverses, but, having taken several years to strengthen his forces, he renewed the attack. His cavalry spread over Mesopotamia and Syria with such rapidity that he had captured the great city of Antioch, the Roman capital in the East, before the inhabitants knew of his approach. An actor in the theatre was the first to inform the astonished audience that the Persians held possession of the city.

The Roman emperor, Valerian, hurried in person to defend his kingdom against this formidable foe. He was a veteran commander; and the Persians, who had defied and defeated his lesser generals, retreated before him. He eagerly followed them toward the Euphrates. His provisions ran short; Roman treachery conspired against him; then suddenly the Persians turned and surrounded his troops. It was a trap. For a second time, an entire Roman army was annihilated by Persian generalship. Few or none of Valerian's soldiers escaped, and he himself was made a prisoner.

On the pages of Roman historians, Sapor's name looms large and terrible. Immediately on his great victory, his troops swept like a devouring flame over all Roman Asia. We are told that, recapturing Antioch, he killed or sold into slavery its entire population; that he filled the ravines of Cappadocia with dead bodies, so that his cavalry might ride across; that his prisoners were left to starve, and for drink were driven to the river once a day like horses. These stories may be exaggerated, but they show the terror in which the Romans held him. Never before had their empire suffered such a frightful humiliation. At last, laden with plunder and sated with blood, Sapor withdrew half-unwillingly to Persia.

The Romans never made any serious attempt to avenge this fearful raid, or to rescue their captured emperor. Sapor is said to have used the aged and broken man as a block to mount his horse; and whenever poet or historian seeks a tremendous illustration of fallen fortunes, he quotes the tragic fate of the Emperor Valerian. There must have been a savage taint in all the Persian monarchs. Irresponsible and unlimited power is always beset by strange temptations and grossly debasing influences. Nebuchadnezzar is not the only well-meaning despot who has sunk to the level of a beast of the field. The story of Valerian may be, and probably is, exaggerated; for we must remember how intensely the Romans hated Sapor. Still it seems established that, after Valerian's death, his body was flayed, and his stuffed skin hung in a public temple, where it was left to dance in horrible mockery over the heads of Roman ambassadors of later days.

It was this ferocious brutality that was one of the main causes of the weakness of the Persian state. The tyranny of the kings seems to grow more and more intolerable. Rebellions, palace-plots, and murders make up most of the story that follows. More than one king celebrated his accession to the throne by slaying all possible rivals.

Occasionally there are heroic deeds to tell; the nation flashes out into sudden, splendid war against the hereditary enemy. A third Roman army was almost destroyed, and its leader, the Emperor Julian, slain during the reign of Sapor II., a monarch who, being born after his father's death, found a throne awaiting his birth, and ruled for seventy-two years, from infancy to beyond the allotted age of man. Chosroes II. in 615 wrested Egypt from the falling empire of Rome, and by 620 held all Asia, realizing for a few brief years the dream of Artaxerxes. Europe was again threatened by a Persian army, for the first time since the Greeks had defeated Xerxes, more than eleven centuries before.

We moderns, with China and India in our thoughts, are apt to speak scornfully of the fighting ability of Asian races. So it is well to understand what these Persians did. No one has ever questioned the prowess of the Roman legions. Only one people ever met them on equal terms in open fight. These were the Persians. They first challenged Rome in the very height of her power; and throughout four centuries the greatest forces the mistress of the world could gather were repeatedly and vainly hurled against Persia. Not one Persian army was destroyed; not one Persian king was led captive in a Roman triumph. Battles were won as often by one nation as by the other; but Rome suffered the great disasters of which we have told; and Rome paid Persia large sums of money for peace so often that the Roman populace complained bitterly, declaring they were become mere tributaries of Persia.

The defense of Petra, one of the most famous sieges in history, established Persian courage and endurance forever. Petra was a rock-hewn fortress on the shores of the Black Sea. The Persians had taken it from Rome, and she sent a powerful army to recapture it. The garrison repelled for months so persistent an attack that, when a rescuing army drove away the assailants, less than one-fourth of the heroic defenders were alive, and the fortress was tumbling to pieces around them. The garrison was increased to three thousand, the fort hastily repaired, and the Persian army withdrew, leaving the new defenders to meet a second siege more savage and bloody than the first. The fort was at last carried by an assault from every side, the Persians having become too reduced to guard all their walls at once. Of the prisoners captured by the Romans, only eighteen were found unwounded, while the remaining Persians, five hundred in number, threw themselves into a central tower, and, refusing all proposals to surrender, fought until every one of them had perished by fire or the sword.

Chosroes II., who spread the Sassanian empire to its widest extent, saw also the beginning of its decline. His plans of European conquest were checked by the genius of the Emperor Heraclius; and in the year 628 he was deposed and killed by his son, Kobad II.

To the crime of parricide, the infamous Kobad soon added that of fratricide, thinking thus, perhaps, to be secure from retributive justice. All the possible heirs to the throne, his brothers and other male relatives, over thirty in number, were slain by his orders. His two sisters were allowed to survive; and, frantic with grief, the unhappy women rushed from the scene of the murder, and denounced the incredible wretch to his face. They cried out that he had swept away Persia's best defense, and all would perish now in a general ruin. They cursed him as the destroyer of his own royal line, and of his country. Remorse seems to have stricken the monster; he hung his head without answer; he remained brooding in his seat, and grew ill. Four days later, he followed his victims to the realm of death and judgment.

There was no one to succeed him. The land plunged headlong into anarchy. Rivals, eager to be king, strove to win by treachery or by brute force, and they struggled fiercely with one another. Kobad's two sisters sat in turn for a little while on the throne, the first queens to reign in Persia. But one died and one was slain. War was everywhere in the land. Famine and pestilence followed in its train. The population of Persia is said to have been reduced one-half during that period of horror. Think what it would mean to you if just one-half of those nearest and dearest, and half of all you know, and half of all those you pass upon the street were taken away forever.

The people unearthed at last one surviving descendant of the old royal line, a boy of fifteen, whose very existence had been kept secret by his parents, lest he, too, should be slain. The exhausted factions gladly united in raising him to the throne, as Isdigerd III.; but it was too late to save Persia.

The Arabs had started on their remarkable career of conquest under Mahomet and his successors: and they now burst like a cyclone upon the enfeebled country. There were years of tremendous fighting. There was one great four-days' battle at Cadesia; but Mahometan fanaticism triumphed. The Persian capital was captured in 639; and so enormous was the wealth of the city that every private soldier in the Arab army had a sum equal almost to two thousand dollars allotted to him as his share of the spoils.

Isdigerd established a new capital in the north near the modern one of Teheran. He continued the war for years in the face of repeated reverses, proving himself a worthy scion of his fierce race. Finally he was able to maintain only a mere guerilla warfare in the mountains; and then a servant stabbed him for the poor reward of his clothes and jewels. The Persian empire sank in blood and the blackness of night.






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