The Persians is an introduction to the civilisations that flourished in the Greater Middle East (from modern Turkey to Afghanistan), from the Persian empire of the Achaemenids, through the Macedonian/Greek occupation by Alexander the Great and his successors, to the Iranian reconquest by the Parthians, and their replacement by the Persian Sasanians. The story ends with the conquest by the Arabs in the 7th century AD. Emphasis is on the earlier periods, however, because the narrative of the wars between Persia and the Greeks in the 5th and 4th centuries BC are a more familiar ingredient of the history of Europe and Asia, as it's usually taught.

The material is appropriate for students from Key Stage 3 onwards.

The Persian empire grew rapidly, and was extremely successful under its first leaders, the Achaemenids, Cyrus and Darius. Attempts to absorb the warring city-states of Greece and Asia Minor were ultimately unsuccessful, leaving a power vacuum in the Aegean area which was filled for a while by Athens. Under later kings, the Persian empire became unwieldy and hard to control, leaving it exposed, especially on the western flank.

The power of Athens and the city-states in Greece was broken by Philip II of Macedon, whose son, Alexander, inherited the dream of Greek conquest of Persia. Once Alexander had taken revenge for the earlier Persian treatment of the Greeks, he began to plan a different sort of empire. His early death stopped his ideas being fulfilled, but his dream of an empire ruled by a god-king over subjects united in culture was an important example and influence on the Roman empire and on others.

So we look at the Persian Empire and the empire of Alexander, (and its successors, the Macedonian Seleucids), the Parthians - an Iranian people from near the Caspian Sea, and the Sasanians - who emerged from Persia itself. The Sasanians after 400 years succumbed to an invasion from the Arabian peninsula.

The Persian story is seen as far as possible, from a Persian viewpoint (although much of the source material is necessarily Greek, for reasons which are explained). The Greeks (except as storytellers) do not appear until students have become familiar with (and possibly sympathetic to?) the Persian point of view. A secondary aim is to demonstrate that the "clash of civilisations" in which the Greeks believed (the Trojan War, the Persian Wars, Alexander) was a result of their own particular and limited point of view.

A question in the background will be whether empires (from the Persian to the British and American) are good for the rulers, or the subjects, and discuss how they should be governed. Note that Persia was a monarchy and Athens a democracy. Possibly too questions will arise about other structures that mimic empires: the church, and religious organisations; commercial organisations; federations such as the EU; past and present policies towards other peoples by Britain, the United States and others.

Iran is frequently in the news, but few people have any significant knowledge of the long and fascinating history of the various dynasties who ruled over it and often its neighbours too. Iran was ruled by monarchs for 2,500 years until 1979 - an important fact in considering Iran today. Under many of the monarchs wonderful art and architecture were produced; many monarchs (sometimes the same ones) were cruel and tyrannical. The monarchs were backed up by powerful nobles, and religious leaders. The ordinary people knew little of freedom and much of poverty whichever regime was in power (but note the "communist" Mazdakite movement in the 6th century AD:

But despite long-lasting rule by a single ruler, whose family was in power for hundreds of years (Achaemenids 200, Parthians 500, Sasanians 400), ancient Iran contributed much to civilisation: we mention the international roads, a postal system, amazing irrigation projects, a single currency, wonderful poets and storytellers (unrecorded in the earlier periods, for reasons that are explained), innovative architecture, the first monotheistic religion, which contributed ideas and beliefs to Judaism, Christianity and Islam, carpets, a refined and luxurious aristocratic lifestyle that captivated the earliest European visitors.

The answers to all these questions are the same - the Persians/Iranians or Persia/Iran!

  1. Which people were the first to have an empire which included Asia, Africa and Europe?
  2. Who were the first to have a "common market" and free trade area, with everyone using the same coinage?
  3. Who first had a national banking system?
  4. Who first had a system of taxation, which was used by the government to finance projects useful to all?
  5. Who had the first international road system?
  6. Who invented the idea of mail, the post?
  7. Who produced what has been considered the first ever declaration of human rights?
  8. Who first had a legal system which distinguished between civil and criminal cases?
  9. Who had the first regular navy?
  10. Who built the first "Suez Canal"?
  11. Which was the first religion to say that there was a life after death (heaven or hell) according to how you'd behaved when alive?
  12. Where was the first multi-ethnic, multi-religious, multi-language community?
  13. Who opened the Silk Route, which first introduced Chinese goods to the west?
  14. Who made the first carpets?
  15. Where is the first evidence of wine-making?

Notes on the above

3. The Assyrians had the world's first banking system; the Persians took it over after the conquest of Media, which had conquered Assyria earlier. Perhaps they are not quite 'cheques' or 'credit cards' but the Persian rulers had a system of giving out clay 'vouchers' or chits entitling officials and their animals to 'bed and breakfast' at an inn on the Royal Road and suchlike . 1000s have been discovered.

4. Much taxation was actually in kind, rather than cash but of course taxation does tend to make governments unpopular! Earlier taxation had merely been trousered by the rulers

7. The Cyrus cylinder - according to some!

10. Actually between Nile and Red Sea but it did link the Mediterranean with the Red Sea etc.

11. The teachings of Zoroaster.

13. See section on the Parthians

15. Persia; 6 narrow-necked pottery jars, each holding 9 litres, with wine residue. including resin (as in Greek retsina) from around 5000 BC. ironically it is illegal to drink alcohol in modern Iran.