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Ancient Persia

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The Royal Court of Shah of Shahs, Darius I

"All the children of the great men in Persia are brought up at court, where they have an opportunity of great learning, and where nothing immodest is ever heard or seen."

The land of Cyrus, Darius and Xerxes, great Shahs of The Empire that Alexander once conquered. Home also of Zoroaster, founder of Zoroastrianism, which was one of the first monotheistic religions and may have influenced Judaism itself to abandon henotheism (i.e. the belief of many gods but worship of one). At the time the biggest empire the world had seen, it stretched at its peak from Greece in the west to India in the east and from Central Asia in the north to Egypt in the south, although depictions of it will be based on its heartland in Iran and maybe Mesopotamia.

In Persia, you will find beautiful gardens literally called "paradise" (*pari-daiza-, means enclosed space as they were walled off) watered by aqueducts called qanat that brought water from aquifers to the surface adorned with trees, canals, pools, and pavilions, as well as magnificent palaces where the court live their hedonistic lives with their fans, banquets, and eunuchs (the latter of which are particularly likely to be bad news). The people will wear sirwal trousers (seen as barbaric by the Greeks), pointy shoes, Phrygian caps, tiaras with lots of symbols, tunics, shawls, coats, robes, elaborate and carefully groomed long beards and earrings. Popular drinks are wine, beer, rosewater, and haoma.note  The Empire was defended by its army of cataphracts and archers riding horses, camels, and chariots into battle, along with foot archers and spearmen from Persia and vassal countries, and the naval galleys of coastal territories like Phoenicia and Egypt. Especially famous are the Immortals, the imperial guard of the Shah, who thanks the Pop-Cultural Osmosis from 300 are often depicted as wearing Cool Masks that they did not wear historically.

Thanks largely to the Greeks, Persia may be the origin of Orientalism with all that entails: proskynesis, despotic satraps, barbaric practices like scaphism or impalement, concubines in the Royal Harem, beautiful carpets, cats, eating lavish banquets while laying on sofas, etc.

The Greeks perceived the magi (priests of the Zoroastrian religion) as carriers of ancient and esoteric knowledge such as astrology and alchemy which gave Persia an image of mysticism leading to Greeks and, later, Romans to advertise stuff that had to do with magic or religion as having come from Persia and, in some cases, to have been written by Zoroaster. Magi themselves will interpret the dreams of the Shah, read the stars, worship fire, and carry out sacrifices and libations.

Main rival of Ancient Greece, Rome and the Byzantines. Also bordered (and often fought) Ancient Egypt, Mesopotamia, India, Imperial China, and nomadic people like the Scythians. It fell in the 7th century to the Rashidun army, after which event it would be portrayed as "Arabian Nights" Days, a set of images which draws many of its elements from Persia (indeed, the Framing Device of the Arabian Nights itself is set there). This is quite historical; the conquering Muslims (who had little experience of running an empire) absorbed many cultural ideas from the Persians, and adopted much of their system of government and bureaucracy. See also The Achaemenid Empire for a more grounded description of this land, at least in the early days — after the Achaemenid dynasty fell to Alexander the Great, the Macedonian-descended Seleucid dynasty followed, then the Parthian and Sassanid dynasties.

Works set here include:

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    Comic Books 
  • The Cartoon History of the Universe: Persia appears recurringly, starting with the Persian invasion of Babylon that freed the Jews.
  • Donald Duck in Ancient Persia: Donald and his nephews are taken by a mad scientist to the ruins of an ancient Persian city where he intends to revive the dead king to learn his secrets about turning people to dust.

    Film — Live-Action 
  • 300: A highly fantastical portrayal of the Battle of Thermopylae fought in 480 BC during the Greco-Persian Wars.
    • 300: Rise of an Empire: A direct prequel/sequel to 300, showing the origin story of Xerxes, the rise of his most competent and highest-ranking minion Artemesia, the origins of the conflict between Greece and the Persian Empire, and the follow-up in the wake of Leonidas' death and the Persian victory at Thermopylae.
  • The 300 Spartans: The 1962 film that directly inspired the 300 Graphic Novel, this film features a more accurate version of the Ancient Persian Empire, with Xerxes himself having full hair and a beard. While mainly focusing on the Battle of Thermopylae, a few of the sea battles and campaigns happening at the same time are also mentioned in passing.
  • Wishmaster: The prologue takes place in Persia in the year 1127 B.C. and stars Zoroaster at the service of an unnamed Persian emperor. The prophet is first seen in his workshop crafting an amulet with the power to trap powerful supernatural beings. He immediately puts it to the test by trapping the emperor's Jinn, who already turned the latter's court into a freak show to astonish his master and "show him wonders".

  • In Harry Turtledove's Agent of Byzantium series of alternate history short stories, Muhammad became a Christian saint so the Byzantine Empire survived into the 14th century and a non-Muslim Persian Empire remained their major opponent.
  • The stories of the Arabian Nights are mostly set in Muslim times, after the fall of Persia, but feature not only Persian locations and characters (notably the Grand Vizier Jafar), but some distorted ideas about Persian culture, such as "fire worshippers" who are presumably meant to be Zoroastrians but who are written as villains who may wish to sacrifice people in their sacred fires (not a Zoroastrian practice).
  • Much of the Belisarius Series is set here, with the Sassanids under Khusrau Anushirvan being the initial enemy and eventual ally of the Byzantines under Justinian. They're depicted as proud warriors of the honorable and aristocratic variety, a longtime Worthy Opponent of the Byzantines (and therefore worthy allies), famous for their fantastic wealth and their cataphracts. The third and fourth books largely involve the Roman and Persian armies allying to break the Malwa siege of Babylon and then retake the port of Charax.
  • Creation (1981) by Gore Vidal is about Cyrus Spitama, the fictional grandson of Zoroaster, sent by Darius the Great to visit faraway places like India, China, and, because of the war, Greece, where he meets Buddha and Confucius among others.
  • The Heroic Legend of Arslan: A series of fantasy novels based on ancient Persia.
  • The Histories: A detailed account on the rise of the Achaemenid Empire and the Greco-Persian Wars, it's still one of the most important sources on it.
  • The eponymous boy in The Persian Boy by Mary Renault is a Sex Slave of the Shah who goes on to become a loyal servant and lover of Alexander the Great, portrayed as a Lover and Beloved situation.
  • A good chunk of Thais of Athens is set in Babylon and Persepolis immediately after Alexander's conquest of Achaemenid Persia, showing the beginnings of the Hellenistic epoch in the region.

    Myths & Religion 
  • The Bible:
    • Book of Daniel: Set in Babylon during the Captivity, King Belshazzar summons Daniel, a Jewish sage, to interpret some writing that mysteriously appeared on a wall. Daniel reads that it warns of the coming of the Persians, and that very night Belshazzar is slain and the kingdom is taken by one Darius the Mede. The rest of the book takes place under Persian rule.
    • Book of Esther: Hebrew woman Esther is chosen by King Ahasueres (i.e. Xerxes) to become queen of Persia and thwarts a genocide of her people planned by viceroy Haman after Esther's cousin Mordecai refuses to bow down to him.
    • The Four Gospels: the wise men who visit the infant Jesus in the Gospel of Matthew are described as being 'from the East' and specifically referred to as Magi, suggesting that they are Persian astrologers. Other apocryphal materials develop this idea further, and even in orthodox Catholicism, one of the wise men, Melchior, is specifically mentioned as being from Persia.
  • The Mysteries of Mithra was a religion that was popular in Ancient Rome from the 1st through 4th century CE purported to be a continuation of the oriental cult of Mithra in Persia, although scholars now believe the differences between the two are too big and the cult was actually based on Roman perceptions of a Zoroastrianism cult.
  • The Shahnameh: Naturally, as it's the national epic of Iran. It recounts the history of Persia from the very beginning until the Islamic conquests. The author made a point by writing the myths as they were before Islam.

    Tabletop Games 
  • Chess as we know it today has its origins in the Sassanian Empire, where it was known by the name shantranj. After the Islamic conquests, it spread westwards and made its way into Christian Europe via Al-Andalus. This is where we get words like rook (from Persian rokh, chariot) and alfil in other languages (bishop; from Persian pil + Arabic al-, the elephant).

  • The Persians (or Persae) is an Ancient Greek tragedy that takes place in Susa, one of the capitals of the Persian Empire, during Xerxes' invasion of Greece, where the Queen Mother Atossa awaits news about the war and then summons the ghost of her dead husband Darius, who condemns the hubris behind his son's decision to invade.

    Video Games 
  • Both Age of Empires I and Age of Empires II feature the Persians as a playable base race. In both cases they feature an early Food bonus that takes effect immediately as the game starts, they have access to Camel units and the fully upgradable Heavy Cavalry and prominently feature War Elephants with speed bonuses while missing otherwise common heavy infantry options as well as the final upgrade for their main archers:
    • In Age of Empires I, they use the West Asian architecture set, shared with the Babylonians and the Hittites. Their Triremes fire 25% faster, their War Elephants and Elephant Archers move 25% faster, and their Hunters work 30% faster and carry +3 food units. As for their tech tree, they're missing the whole Hoplite/Phalanx/Centurion infantry line, the Chariot Archer, the Chariot/Scythe Chariot cavalry unit, the Ballista/Helepolis siege unit, and the Fire Galley. In addition, they have a complete Temple tech roster (which includes techs such as Mysticism, Astrology, and Sacrifice), and their Wonder is the Ziggurat of Ur, the same as the Babylonians and Hittites get.
    • In Age of Empires II, they use the Middle Eastern set, shared with the Berbers, Saracens and Turks. Their Unique Unit is the War Elephant, their Unique techs are/were "Mahouts"note , "Boiling Oil"note  and "Kamandaran"note , their team bonus grants Knights +2 attack against archers, they start the game with +50 food and +50 wood and their Town Centers and Docks have double HP and work gradually faster from Feudal Age onwardsnote . As for their tech tree, they miss the Two-Handed Swordsman and Champion infantry upgrades, the Arbalester archer upgrade, the Siege Onager siege upgrade, the "Shipwright" tech, the Keep, Fortified Wall and Bombard Tower defensive upgrades, the Bracer archer upgrade and the University techs "Siege Engineers", "Treadmill Crane" and "Arrowslits". Unlike I their Monastery is quite lacking (missing Redemption, Illumination, Atonement, Heresy, and Sanctity). Finally, their unique Wonder is the Taq Kasra Palace.
    • In Age of Empires Online, the Persians were the first new civilization added after the launch of the game. They specialize in ranged combat, possessing unique units such as the Immortals, Mounted Archers, and War Wagons, at the cost of having a mediocre selection of dedicated melee units outside of the powerful Cataphracts. They also possess unique Toggle Techs which can be researched at the Academy.
  • Persia is a playable faction in most versions of Civilization, starting with the second game. Despite the presence of many different dynasties in its history, the games' portrayals of Persia usually only focus on The Achaemenid Empire while omitting anything that came after it (a trend that would not be broken until until the inclusion of Nader Shah of the Afsharid Dynasty in the sixth game) and their unique unit in all appearances has been the Immortals. In Civilization VI, they are well-suited for a military or cultural victory, and can choose between two leaders: Cyrus II (who focuses on surprise wars) and the aforementioned Nader Shah (who focuses on both culture and conquest). Aside from the Immortals, Persia can build Pairidaezas as a unique tile improvement.
  • Cradle of Persia is a puzzle game that lets you build the ancient city of Persepolis, capital of the Achaemenid Empire with masterpieces of architecture such as the Palace of Darius, the Ziggurat, and... the Hanging Gardens of Babylon.
  • The Total War series frequently depicts Persia in its installments that focus on antiquity (which include Rome: Total War, Total War: Rome II, Total War: Attila, and their respective expansions). While the Achaemenids have never been playable in any campaign (being the main enemy faction in the Alexander expansion for Rome I and a non-playable faction in the Wrath of Sparta expansion for Rome II), their successor dynasties such as the Parthians and Sassanids have been playable in the main campaigns.

    Western Animation 
  • VeggieTales has adapted a number of Biblical stories, including those where the Persian Empire plays a major role.
    • The very first episode features an adaptation of the story of Daniel and the Lion's Den, and is set in Persian-occupied Babylon, just after the Israelites have been freed from slavery. King Darius, portrayed as a talking asparagus, is a major character.
    • Another episode, Esther, The Girl Who Became Queen tells the Purim story, with Emperor Xerxes as a zucchini and Esther as a green onion.

    Real Life 
  • Pseudo-Zoroaster and Ostanes, in Greece and then Rome, were thought to be the father of magic and the one who introduced it to the Greek world, respectively. These were pen-names used by pseudonymous authors that mostly treated topics related to magic, alchemy, necromancy, divination, etc. Pseudo-Hystaspes was another such name in Greco-Roman literature, the patron of Zoroaster being turned into an apocalyptic prophet and ancient sage of sorts.