10. The Old World Empires

10.5 Persia: the first colonial empire

10.5.1 The colonial spirit: union instead of unity

Most human groups assert themselves as being the only “men” (e.g. Frank means Free Man). Every other human group is considered infrahuman, not composed of “men” and labeled “barbarian” because barbarians do not follow the same standards of life as one’s own group (barbar means foreigner in Greek, as does Hyksos in Egyptian and Aryan in Aramean).

To claim a difference and excellence for oneself does not, however, necessarily entail a belief in the absence of humanity for the others. Barbarians are not entitled to belong to a society of “men” but are still recognized as people. Barbarians are foreigners, not animals. They are not subhuman but infrahuman. This distinction may appear subtle and even specious but is very important because it makes the difference between savagery and civilization. For example, in Athens, slaves could – and very often were – franchised. Once freedom was acquired, a former slave could fulfill all his aspirations in accordance with his merits. Nothing was denied him, with the exception of citizenship that he could not gain even through a marriage. The same rules applied to foreigners who chose to live in Athens. These foreigners (meteques) were well protected and the State went out of its way to insure that the properties of these free men would remain safe, even during or after political upheavals but they were not allowed to join the community of the Hellenes.

The desire of distinction is best known from the Scriptures and Judaism. Yahweh is the fearful God of Israel only, Jews are the people elected by their God and Judaism, with its profound sense of election and its elaborate system of taboos, tends to segregate per se Jews into a people living apart. Hebraic tribes after their voluntary exile from Egypt as well as Indo-European tribes wandering in Eurasia developed strong cohesive forces broken only through overpopulation plus political ineptness as the one displayed by Solomon. This cohesion tended to be maintained after the invasion of settled lands. The cohesion of an invading group can be maintained through racial distinctions as in India but can be established on other bases also. Germans were different in their physical aspect from the Gallo-Roman populations but Normans were hardly recognizable from Anglo-Saxons, or Germans from Slavs. In these cases, distinction is based on religion (e.g. Ostrogoths in Italy and Visigoths in Spain), cultural habits (Italians, Irish and Greeks in the contemporary United States) or even habitat (Salian and Ripuarian Franks). An integration of different ethnic groups often occurs rapidly at the economic plane, where the differences so strenuously desired will lead to various distinct occupations. The best example of this segregation into various activities was found in the Turkish Empire, where Turks fulfilled the administrative role, Lashkars (Indian tribesmen) were sailors, Armenians bankers and businessmen, Albanians soldiers, Kurds shepherds, Greeks sailors and businessmen. Distinction produced by a different language and/or culture was thus reflected into a different economic activity. The armies of the Roman and Persian Empires were divided into national corps, each of them using a special armament and, for the Persians, its own language. The Ottoman navy was commanded in Italian. This respect for individuality of different national, cultural and occupational entities is the characteristic of colonial empires that appeared with the advent of Cyrus, “to whom no one resisted, not even the Armenians”.

10.5.2 The Achemenid Emperors

The Assyrian Empire was reconstructed by a Babylonian dynasty. This Semitic Chaldean Empire was itself soon superseded by the Persian Empire. The Achemenid conquerors of the Empire abandoned the old fashionable way of ruling. While the Emperor (the King of Kings) was still an absolute despot, the success of Cyrus in his endeavor to control the world was largely due to his humanness. Surrendering soldiers and cities knew that their lives, families and customs would be respected. The first humane colonial empire appeared on earth in 539 BC (fig. 10.22).


Figure 10.22. The first colonial empire appeared in 539 BC. It was built by Cyrus the Great. The Empire extended from Macedonia in the West to the Indus in the East. Vassal nations such as the Phoenicians, Carthaginians, Ionians, extended the boundaries as far as Spain, Ireland and Southern Russia.

Daniel (VI, 8) speaks of “the Law of the Medes and Persians, that is immutable”. This is because the king, still a tyrant ruling through terror, is the incarnation of Ahura Mazda: his edicts are holy and cannot be questioned again. This is an extraordinary advance over our modern politicians who change the rules as they see fit to further their own interests. With the Persians, the first colonial Empire based on stability and predictability appears. The Persians brought to their new subjects many technological advantages: road construction, the use of pen and parchment, and an alphabet of 36 letters only. These are all signal advances in means of communication and show, if need be, that the Neolithic tribes dwelling on the fringes of Empires were by no means barbaric (in the modern sense of the term).

Once Cyrus took hold of the Empire, he set out to subjugate the other competing tribes that had invaded the realm on the shores of the Mediterranean, as the Lydians, Phrygians and Ionians. Soon, the Celtic Thracians and the Greek Macedonians were also vassalized. These Indo-Europeans were as civilized as the Persians. The Lydians had put in practical use the old Indian invention of minting of money (fig. 10.23).

Figure 10.23. Greek piece of money found on the island Thasos. The Thasos piece represents a bearded aroused nude carrying a woman.


The first pieces of money were simply pieces of metal exchanged by princes as signs of respect, as they also exchanged potteries, swords, women and cattle. Lydia introduced its use as money made of “electrum”, which is a mixture of silver and gold. This alloy was rapidly abandoned in favor of less expensive silver and bronze.

The Semitic Phoenicians, on their side, had perfected the alphabet that was rapidly taken over by the Greeks.

At the fringes of the Western part of the Empire, the Phoenicians, in their search for metallic ores, broke new ground. These vassals of the King of Kings colonized North Africa and Spain, whose inhabitants were reduced into slavery. Other colonizers were the Greeks. The most active were the Ionians, i.e. Greek Achaeans who had relocated in Asia Minor and were thus vassals of the King of Kings. All these subject tribes were ransomed by the central government and the Persian dynasty accumulated a huge treasure.

The Persians respected the customs of their subjects. For themselves, they had reduced the myriad of divinities to only two: a supreme God of Goodness and Liberty, Ahura Mazda, and a sub-God of Malevolence, Ahriman. The slow quest of the Jews for a unique divinity had been jeopardized by their attempt at pharaonizing. Salomon had, it is true, built the Temple. It is also true, but not so loudly heralded, that he built for himself a harem four times bigger than the Temple. He filled the harem with 400 women, including Pharaoh’s daughter, and allowed these women to introduce their Gods into the harem, with their possessions. He bled his subjects white and was the direct cause of the revolt of the majority of Jewish tribes. This induced a fatal weakness when facing the Assyrians and Babylonians. The Chaldean Empire took Jews in exile to Babylon, in 587 BC. Fifty years later, Cyrus ordered their return to Israel. They took with them the Persian notion of a God of Liberty, Ahura Mazda, preached by Zaratustra.

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