Section 1 - General background

The location of Iran in the world and the Greater Middle East. The geography of the Iranian plateau - the mountain ranges, deserts, rivers and seas.

The name - should we talk about Iran or Persia? Origin of the Iranian peoples; and their ruling dynasties.

Sources of knowledge - Persian inscriptions, cuneiform, Greek writers.

Herodotus - our Greek source for early Persian history. What sort of a writer was he?

Persian customs through Herodotus' eyes.


Section 2 - The founders of the Persian empire, Cyrus and Darius.

Cyrus - how he tells his own story, the Cyrus Cylinder. His conquest of the Medes and Lydians.

His conquest of Babylon - more from the Cyrus Cylinder.

Cyrus and the Jews - also his conquests in the east, and his death.

Cambyses, son of Cyrus, and his conquest of Egypt. A mad king?

Darius - how he became king, and celebrated his achievement.

How Darius ruled his vast and diverse peoples. - his religious beliefs (Ahura Mazda).

The palace he began building at Persepolis - its scale and luxury: and how we know about the way it was run.


Section 3 The Greek Wars

East v west - Homer and the Trojan War. There were Greeks but no Greece.

The Ionian Greeks, living on the islands and the Anatolian coast since Homeric times had been under Persian rule since Cyrus conquered Lydia. They now chose to try to free themselves from what was a fairly benign supervision. They failed, despite some help from Athens in m mainland Greece.

Darius wanted to control the Aegean in order to make sure of his ability to keep Egypt and Macedonia. The Athenians assumed it was all about them - punishment for the help they'd sent to the Ionians. A Persian force landed near Athens at Marathon, and was driven off. The Athenians saw this as their greatest achievement ever.

Darius died, leaving his son Xerxes to complete his plans. This time it involved an attempt to annex mainland Greece - which he'd would have done, but for the Athenians and Spartans. The Spartans held up the Persian land force at Thermopylae, while Athens built herself a navy, and at Salamis outmanoeuvred the Persian fleet (which contained a large Greek contingent). The Greek coalition won an impressive victory at Plataea the following year, and the Persians withdrew. Xerxes remained king of Persia.

Following up their success, the Greek coalition, led by Sparta and Athens tried to continue the war. But as this seemed to be a means for Athens to build her own empire at the expense of the Ionians, Sparta soon found herself encouraged by many other cities to declare war on Athens. The Peloponnesian War lasted from 431 BC - 404, when Sparta, financed by Persia, finally defeated Athens. Sparta was top dog once more - but the war had produced a large number of men whose main trade was fighting. They were very happy to join an expedition paid for by Cyrus - brother of king Artaxerxes, who had succeeded his father Xerxes. When Cyrus was killed just as they reached their goal, the Greeks had to fight their way home. Persia continued to use money to keep control over affairs in Greece.

But a forgotten power, Macedon, emerged - and under its king Philip II (helped by his son Alexander) crushed the cities of Greece, and began looking to attack the Persian empire itself. But he dies before he could launch his expedition. The Persians relaxed.


Section 4 - Alexander and his successors. The Parthians. The Sasanians. The Arab conquest.

After Alexander, much of the material my be unfamiliar even to classicists. Alexander's family and early life are important to understand this most enigmatic of historical figures. The story of his actual conquests has been hijacked by historians (mostly in the Roman period) who - as Mary Beard suggests - saw him as an inspiration to all later Roman would-be conquerors. Pompey admired him and compared his own achievements in the east to Alexander's (though he called himself Magnus, the Great, even earlier). The actual conquest of Asia is not examined in detail - his impact on Persia is seen as more significant than the details of his battles - especially what happened to Persepolis, which has already featured . We are also interested in the Persian view of him, as seen by Firdowsi in the Shahnameh (Book of Kings). He's an important figure in the Persians' own story.

The Seleucids were among several dynasties that claimed to succeed Alexander - they get attention because it was they who took over the bulk of the Achaemenid empire conquered by Alexander - but a complex period is passed over somewhat rapidly!

The Parthians ousted them - but their 500 year history is difficult to follow, as they left no records (we don't even know what they called themselves!) - and their story is pieced together - not without controversy - from references in Roman writers and above all from their coinage. But they deserve to be acknowledged - for first defeating and then holding off the Romans for 500 years, while at the same time securing their eastern frontiers and opening up relations with China. The Silk Road has a long and fascinating history, which we can only hint at here!

The Sasanians are even less well known - they presided over an unprecedented period of prosperity and cultural development in central Asia, absorbing influences from Europe, India, the Steppes and China, while at the same time holding off invasions from east and west. Finally they were surprised by an unexpected enemy - the desert Arabs who exploited the Sasanians' long and expensive conflicts with the eastern Roman empire in Constantinople (the Byzantines) to overwhelm both empires. The Byzantines survived because of geography - Constantinople was a long way away, and shielded by the mountains of Anatolia. Iran was very quickly over-run. The Arabs' religion - Islam - appealed to the Iranians, where the Zoroastrian priests had made their religion exclusive and unpopular with ordinary people. From then on all Iran's rulers followed Islam - or were converted to it - even the Turks and Mongols, who also succumbed eventually to Persian culture (just as Alexander had done)..