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The Persian Empire

The Persian Empire

Professor John W. Lee Ph.D.
University of California, Santa Barbara
Course No.  3117
Course No.  3117
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Course Overview

About This Course

24 lectures  |  29 minutes per lecture

What do we know about the Persian Empire? For most of the past 2,500 years, we've heard about it from the ancient Greek perspective: a decadent civilization run by despots, the villains who lost the Battle of Marathon and supplied the fodder for bad guys in literature and film. But is this image really accurate?

Recent scholarship examining the Persian Empire from the Persian perspective has discovered a major force that has had a lasting influence on the world in terms of administration, economics, religion, architecture, and more. In fact, the Persian Empire was arguably the world's first global power—a diverse, multicultural empire with flourishing businesses and people on the move. It was an empire of information, made possible by a highly advanced infrastructure that included roads, canals, bridges, and a courier system. And the kings of Persia's Achaemenid dynasty —Cyrus, Darius, Xerxes, and others—presided over an empire that created a tremendous legacy for subsequent history.

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What do we know about the Persian Empire? For most of the past 2,500 years, we've heard about it from the ancient Greek perspective: a decadent civilization run by despots, the villains who lost the Battle of Marathon and supplied the fodder for bad guys in literature and film. But is this image really accurate?

Recent scholarship examining the Persian Empire from the Persian perspective has discovered a major force that has had a lasting influence on the world in terms of administration, economics, religion, architecture, and more. In fact, the Persian Empire was arguably the world's first global power—a diverse, multicultural empire with flourishing businesses and people on the move. It was an empire of information, made possible by a highly advanced infrastructure that included roads, canals, bridges, and a courier system. And the kings of Persia's Achaemenid dynasty —Cyrus, Darius, Xerxes, and others—presided over an empire that created a tremendous legacy for subsequent history.

The Persian Empire is your opportunity to see one of the greatest empires in the ancient world from a fresh new perspective: its own. Over the span of 24 fascinating lectures, Professor John W. I. Lee of the University of California, Santa Barbara—a distinguished teacher and an expert on the long-buried secrets of the ancient world—takes the role of a history detective and examines Persian sources to reveal what we now know about this grand civilization. Tapping into the latest scholarship on the Persian Empire, this course is sure to fill in some critical gaps in your understanding and appreciation of the sweep of ancient history and its undeniable effect on later civilizations. Including our own.

Meet Ancient Persia's Great Leaders and Everyday Citizens

According to Professor Lee, the Achaemenid Persian Empire was enormous, comprising 25 million people—only 1 million of whom were Persian. How did such a small minority manage such a large population? Why were these imperialists so tolerant of those under their rule, leaving untouched many of the subjugated population's local customs?

In The Persian Empire, you'll discover how the Persians were able to create and control such a vast empire. And the key to that success lay in the empire's greatest rulers, each of whom played a critical role in shaping and strengthening a civilization we still remember today. Among the fascinating leaders you'll meet are

  • Cyrus, ancient Persia's first Great King, whose pragmatic leadership solidified the empire;
  • Cambyses, who through military prowess expanded the Persian Empire into Egypt;
  • Darius I, who created Persia's imperial ideology and built up the empire's celebrated infrastructure; and
  • Artaxerxes II, who held the empire together in the face of civil war and restored its power.

But while these great kings were administering justice or waging wars, everyday Persians were just as important to the success of the empire. Professor Lee expertly moves between the historical record—the story of kings and battles—and the lives of ordinary people. You'll learn about

  • the empire's efficient communications network, which in some ways presaged today's globalized world;
  • the Persian economy and the workers and entrepreneurs who supported it;
  • the role of women in the empire, especially the power and influence of royal women;
  • the relationship between the state and the popular Achaemenid religion; and
  • the daily cultural exchanges between the diverse peoples of the empire.

Get at the Startling Truths about the Persian Empire

The Persians did not write histories, and no literature from ancient Persia survives; rather, the earliest historical narratives we have about this empire come from Greeks such as the historians Herodotus, Xenophon, and Ctesias. While important, these accounts detail the frequent wars between the Persians and the Greeks, and they tend to demonize the Persians as despotic barbarians.

Unfortunately, it's a stereotype that's persisted through the millennia. But The Persian Empire helps correct this misinformation by tapping into the ways that historians, within only the last 30 years, have been reconsidering this civilization. Professor Lee guides you through a wide variety of sources that finally get at the startling truths about the Persian Empire:

  • Histories written by non-Greek sources, including the Hebrew Bible
  • Persian administrative records and historical documents
  • Inscriptions by Persia's great kings, including Darius
  • Long-buried archaeological artifacts and ruins

By learning from these and other sources, you'll get to know the people and the culture of the Persian Empire on intimate terms. And, in doing so, you'll come to grasp a much fuller history of an important early empire.

For instance, despite the negative accounts of war, the Greeks and the Persians had many peaceful interactions. Many Greek doctors, craftsmen, and especially mercenary soldiers were comfortable serving under Persian rule. It was this tolerance and practical leadership, you'll learn, that allowed the Persians to maintain their powerful empire for hundreds of years.

Discover a Whole New History of the Ancient World

With The Persian Empire, and with Professor Lee, you'll discover a whole new history of the ancient world—a perspective largely unknown even by students of history. In fact, even today very few universities offer in-depth courses on ancient Persia. With these lectures, you'll find yourself on the cutting edge of historical research.

Recognized multiple times by the University of California, Santa Barbara for his teaching prowess and scholarship (including the Academic Senate Distinguished Teaching Award and the Harold Plous Award), Professor Lee is the perfect guide on your tour of this unique corner of the ancient world. With dozens of maps, animations, illustrations, and other informative graphics featured in the video versions of the course, you'll get to know the terrain of the empire, which stretched from the Mediterranean all the way to the Indus Valley in South Asia.

Spanning these thousands of miles, the Persian Empire was truly a force to be reckoned with in the ancient world. Its successes were great—and so were its failures. The empire's downfall to Alexander the Great and the Macedonians is a suspenseful tale of military cunning and historical circumstance. And while the Persian Empire ultimately fell, its legacy lives on in the areas of language, religion, and so much more.

Professor Lee's The Persian Empire captures the people, the strength, the rise, and the downfall of this great empire, revealing the complexity behind centuries of a previously one-sided history. Take this opportunity to complete your understanding of the ancient world and discover the humanity of the ancient Persians.

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24 Lectures
  • 1
    Rethinking the Persian Empire
    Cyrus. Darius. Xerxes. These great Persian kings were sometimes stereotyped as one-dimensional despots in Greek histories. But through modern history detective work, you’ll uncover the truth about the Achaemenid Persian Empire—an “empire of information” that stretched from Egypt and Asia Minor, through Mesopotamia and Iran, all the way to the Indus Valley. x
  • 2
    Questioning the Sources
    Explore how we’ve come to know the Persian Empire. Greek historians such as Herodotus provided valuable information, but the Greek perspective was often negatively biased. For a more balanced perspective, turn to archaeology, which has uncovered inscriptions, administrative tablets, and other documents that let the Persians speak for themselves. x
  • 3
    The World before Cyrus
    Take a tour of the ancient world before the Persian Empire. In the centuries leading up to the Persian Empire, the Assyrians were the major international power. When the Assyrian kingdom collapsed, it left a power vacuum in the region. Watch as the stage was set for a new power to seize the imperial mantle. x
  • 4
    Cyrus and Cambyses—Founders of the Empire
    Learn how Cyrus, the first great king of the Persian Empire, expanded the empire through pragmatic leadership. You’ll see how he made use of local customs and traditions and thereby gained legitimacy over a wide territory—including central Asia and Babylon. His son Cambyses continued that method when he expanded the empire into Egypt. x
  • 5
    Darius I—Creator of the Imperial System
    Witness the first challenge to the new empire: Was Darius, the son-in-law of Cyrus, a legitimate king? After Cambyses died, and in the face of civil war, Darius established himself as a swift, decisive, unwavering leader. See how Darius created both a royal genealogy and a Persian identity, after which he turned to building infrastructure. x
  • 6
    Persian Capitals and Royal Palaces
    Step back and tour the five Persian capitals—Pasargadae, Ecbatana, Babylon, Susa, and Persepolis. Built in strategic, fortified locations, these cities were important symbols of power for the great kings. For instance, you’ll encounter the great hall at Persepolis, which could hold 10,000 guests. x
  • 7
    The Great King—Images and Realities
    Look beyond the outside stereotypes of Persian kings as tyrants and see what the kings themselves had to say. In sculpted reliefs and carvings on royal tombs, the words and images of Darius and Xerxes show Persian values of harmonious cooperation. x
  • 8
    Royal Roads and Provinces
    Take a road trip into the western provinces and see the empire’s diverse local customs. The Persian Empire was famous for its roads and bridges, and people traveled often. Learn how its express messenger system allowed information to travel quickly—and allowed the king to keep tabs on every corner of the empire. x
  • 9
    East of Persepolis
    Travel east through what is now Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan, and onward into Afghanistan, Pakistan, and India. Here you’ll discover the complexity of Persian power, as well as its lasting influence. With people moving across vast distances, the Persian Empire was held together by its efficient administration and communication systems. x
  • 10
    Challenges in the West, 513–494 B.C.
    Revolts in Ionia and Cyprus and an attack by the Athenians show the limits of the Persian philosophy of harmonious cooperation—not everyone was content under Persian rule. Explore the early challenges to Persian power and see how Darius contained these threats using diplomacy, military force, and strategic communication. x
  • 11
    Across the Bitter Sea, 493–490 B.C.
    Examine the war with the Greeks from the Persian perspective. After the Athenians threw a Persian herald into a pit, Darius sent his fleet across the Aegean Sea. They advanced into Greece without trouble, but at Marathon the Persian forces stumbled and were defeated by the Athenians. x
  • 12
    Xerxes Becomes King
    Learn the facts that dispel the image of Xerxes as a decadent “Oriental despot.” As a grandson of Cyrus, Xerxes was handpicked by Darius to succeed him. After assuming the throne, Xerxes easily defeated rebellions in Egypt and Babylonia, then returned to Persepolis to finish his father’s domestic projects. x
  • 13
    Xerxes’s War, 480–479 B.C.
    Once again, the Persian Empire tried to take control of Greece, this time under Xerxes. See how Xerxes captured half the nation without a fight—and then scored a great victory against the Spartan king Leonidas. But witness the critical mistake at Salamis, after which the Persians were forced to retreat. x
  • 14
    Cultures in Contact
    Discover the variety of cultural exchanges in the Persian Empire. Never before in human history had such a large area of the globe come under the control of a single power. Here, people were constantly exchanging goods and adopting foreign customs. See how the Persian policy of tolerance of local customs enabled this multiethnic empire to flourish. x
  • 15
    Achaemenid Religion
    Continue your investigation of Persian culture—this time, Achaemenid religion. The Persians were influenced by the sage Zarathustra, who lived around 1000 B.C. The ancient Persians practiced polytheism, with the god Ahuramazda on top. Learn how the kings viewed themselves as instruments of god, which helped legitimize their power and justify imperialism. x
  • 16
    From Expansion to Stability, 479–405 B.C.
    Delve into a new phase of the Persian Empire, which experienced relative security and stability following Xerxes’s war in Greece. After the assassination of Xerxes, his middle son, Artaxerxes I, held the empire together and used diplomacy to deal with the Greeks. Further down the line, watch how Darius II used diplomacy during the Peloponnesian War. x
  • 17
    The War of the Two Brothers
    The empire was stable under Darius II, but his passing presented a new challenge to the empire. Experience the crucial moment when, after Artaxerxes II took power, his brother Cyrus orchestrated a revolt. Feel the suspense as the two brothers clashed in a great showdown at Cunaxa, fighting for the kingship. x
  • 18
    Persian Gold
    As part of its administrative system, the empire created a new Persian currency. From surviving business documents, discover that while agriculture was important, wealth sometimes became concentrated in the hands of a few crafty entrepreneurs, whose financial clout presented systemic risk to the empire. x
  • 19
    City and Countryside
    The history of the empire was not just about kings and battles. Take a look at the lives of ordinary folks. Beyond the capital cities, farming was the basis of the empire’s wealth. Explore the agricultural practices of the empire and meet day-to-day workers—including migrant laborers and slaves. x
  • 20
    Women in the Persian Empire
    Learn why scholars debate how much political power women had in ancient Persia. Compared to Greek women, Achaemenid women had considerable legal and economic freedom. Discover how royal women participated in palace ceremonies, and meet three powerful women in the empire—Artemisia, Mania, and Epyaxa. x
  • 21
    Artaxerxes II—The Longest-Ruling King
    Chart the life of “the king who loved his subjects.” After defeating his brother Cyrus, Artaxerxes II stabilized the empire, eventually negotiating an important peace with the Spartans. Watch as he then embarked on a building program unlike anything since Darius I, which showed the empire could still mobilize enormous resources. x
  • 22
    Persia and Macedon, 359–333 B.C.
    As the empire progressed into the 4th century B.C., rumors of Macedonian aggression abounded. See how Philip II—father of Alexander the Great—reformed the Macedonian military. In an interesting historical coincidence, Darius III came to power in Persia the same year as Alexander in Macedon. See how Darius III prepared for battle. x
  • 23
    The End of an Empire, 333–323 B.C.
    Witness the suspenseful battles between the Persians and the Macedonians, the sieges of Alexander the Great, and Darius III on the run. Alexander, arguably one of the greatest generals in history, commanded a powerful army and defeated Darius, then took on the mantle of Great King, adopting much of Persian ideology. x
  • 24
    Legacies of the Persian Empire
    When an empire ends, its culture and institutions don’t vanish overnight. Learn about the Persian legacy and what became of the kingdoms that followed—the Seleucids, the Parthians, and the Sasanians. By the time Islamic invaders arrived in 651, the Persian Empire had become legend, but its legacy lives on even in modern Iran. x

Lecture Titles

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John W. Lee
Ph.D. John W. Lee
University of California, Santa Barbara

Professor John W. I. Lee is Associate Professor of History at the University of California, Santa Barbara. He grew up in Southeast Asia and Hawaii. After studying history at the University of Washington, he earned his Ph.D. in History from Cornell University. Professor Lee's research specialty is the history of warfare in the ancient world. He has published on ancient mercenary soldiers, Greek and Persian armies, women in ancient war, the origins of military autobiography, and urban combat in antiquity. He is the author of A Greek Army on the March: Soldiers and Survival in Xenophon's Anabasis, published by Cambridge University Press. Professor Lee has won a UC Santa Barbara Academic Senate Distinguished Teaching Award for 2003-2004 and the University's Harold J. Plous Award for 2005-2006, which is given to the outstanding Assistant Professor for performance and promise as measured by creative action and contribution to the intellectual life of the college community. Professor Lee has conducted field research and has led travel-study groups in Greece and Turkey. He is currently director of the Ancient Mediterranean Studies program at UC Santa Barbara and co-organizer of the University of California Multi-Campus Research Group on Ancient Borderlands.

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Reviews

Rated 4.5 out of 5 by 44 reviewers.
Rated 5 out of 5 by Great content - even better presenter. I've now listened to and enjoyed quite a few Great Courses audio courses, and all along I've been impressed with the content as well as the professors I've encountered - but this is my first review. This is also my first experience with Mr. Lee as Professor. I was actually quite disappointed when I finished this course and searched only to find out this is the only TGC course he's produced so far. I sincerely hope there will be more in the future! This course has given me an expanded understanding of the timelines involved - not only the Persian Empire itself, but how they related to the surrounding civilizations of the time. As with anyone else interested in ancient history, I've come into contact with many of the ideas and writings mentioned in the course previously - but this is absolutely the first time that anyone has been able to show me both sides of the story by comparing the Greek historians to what other information is available on the Persians - and attempting to throw in some reality for good measure. This approach and the overall presentation made the entire time period - and those peoples - seem to come alive for me. The information is put together in a very relaxed manner, presented in a clear and concise speaking style, yet somehow almost forces you to be a part of all sides of the stories being told - stories which the professor obviously finds interesting and meaningful. Highly recommended! November 21, 2014
Rated 5 out of 5 by Eye opener! Ok so I had completed several of the lectures on ancient empires so I decided to include the Persians just to be complete. Great choice! This lecture offers a unique perspective on a supposedly familiar topic. Professor Lee is fantastic. He challenges your preconceptions and explains why he does so. He makes his lectures interesting by asking you to compare those events long ago to recent ones and occasionally asks "what would you do" and "what if questions" which keeps you engaged throughout this series. His passion and enthusiasm for this topic is clear. I believe he achieved his goal of providing a thought provoking presentation about an often overlooked and interesting topic. Highly recommended! November 16, 2014
Rated 4 out of 5 by Compare and contrast Audio download (heavily supplemented with online material). This interesting lecture series provides a different point of view of the Achaemenid Empire (roughly 550 to 330 BCE), often attempting to draw from sources other than the usual suspects (e.g. Herodotus & Plutarch). Characteristically (?) these sources appear to be much kinder to the 'Great Kings', down playing the (traditional?) brutality and emphasizing the kinder, gentler side (gardners? Really?) Dr. Lee presents in a clear and measured fashion, obviously integrating visuals into his presentation (since I was listening to the audio version I had to improvise...to those of you on a treadmill or driving this might create a challenge. Apparently other reviewers' compliments about the visuals suggest that the video versions might be better). By following online, I was not only able to visit those cities Lee noted on his travelogue, but I was able to get a bit more dialogue about the characters who built them and lived there. It took a bit longer, but it made the 'compare and contrast' aspect of the course that much more interesting. Good course (I intend to follow it up with 'Greek and Persian Wars' and ...just for grins, 'Peloponnesian War')...and, it's a great bargain when you can get it for less than $1/lecture October 7, 2014
Rated 4 out of 5 by the other side of the story it’s always enlightening to hear a familiar tale from a different point of view, and so if you’re like most of us and have only ever heard about the persian empire from the greek perspective—i.e., that of their mortal enemies—this course will be a great eye-opener. the professor is at pains from the beginning to expose and debunk our myths and stereotypes about the ancient persians, and he replaces them with a refreshingly balanced and comprehensive account of who they were and what their empire was like. and given the limited number of sources we have available to us i was impressed by how much can actually be said. the professor is clearly enthusiastic about the subject, and this is helpful because it has the potential to be fairly dry. as we’re dealing with an empire which left us no indigenous narrative histories we’re obliged to reconstruct the story from whatever fragments we can find, and this runs the risk of turning into a dreary collection of random facts. in the case of achaemenid persia it’s impossible to dispel that odour entirely, but the professor organizes the material well and does his best to find ways to make it engaging. he makes use of greek narratives for example and even greek gossip, although he makes sure to carefully identify both; he highlights exciting recent discoveries; and wherever he can he fleshes out the ancient names so that they become real, three-dimensional human beings. i feel like i actually know each of the great kings now, as opposed to merely knowing a sequence of names. moreover his strategy of illustrating the persian economy by recounting the histories of two actual families from babylonia took what could have been dry as dust and brought it—and those families—alive. i bought the audio format for this course, and this seemed to be working well until lectures 6-7, which consist entirely of site descriptions of five persian capitals, and lectures 8-9, which take us on a tour through the provinces. these lectures are still functional as simple audio, but all the way through you’re keenly aware that you can’t actually see what he’s describing. this sense of missing out on key visuals recurred to a lesser extent in subsequent lectures, but had more or less disappeared by the last third of the course. i don’t know whether these four lectures are reason enough to go with the video—if i had to buy the course again i’m not sure what i would do—but if you choose the audio be aware that these lectures are coming. this course will be of great interest to anyone who wants to see the ancient world from a fresh perspective, but it’s got a more contemporary relevance as well. though he never quite explicitly says so, by helping us come to know the ancient persians the professor is also introducing us to their modern descendents. one can’t help but suspect that he’s so committed to humanizing the ancient persians at least in part because a more human, less stereotypical view of modern iranians could have a huge impact on how events play out in our own day. and if this course is even partly the professor’s own quiet attempt to help make peace in the middle east, then one can only commend him for it. September 18, 2014
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