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The Persian Empire: Religion & Social Structure

Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

The Persian Empire was sophisticated and complex in many ways. In this lesson, we'll talk about two of the biggest influences on Persian lives, their religion and their social status.

The Persian Empire

It was one of the first truly international empires in the world. It was a dominant cultural and economic center. It was one of the first governments in the world to adopt a policy of religious tolerance. That's right, we're talking about the Persian Empire, sometimes called the Achaemenid Empire, a powerful military state that ruled from modern day Iran from roughly 550 BCE until being conquered by Alexander the Great around 330 BCE. The Persian Empire was sophisticated and complex, but two forces that greatly impacted daily life in the empire were religion and social structure. One defined the place of people within the empire, the other defined their place in the cosmos.

Persian Empire
Persian Empire

Persian Religion

In the ancient world, most cultures followed a polytheistic religion, or one featuring several deities. The Babylonians had many gods, the Egyptians had many gods, and the Sumerians had many gods. The Persians, however, did not. Around 600 BCE, a Persian prophet named Zoroaster began preaching a new ideology, based around a single god called Ahura Mazda. This was one of the world's first monotheistic religions, recognizing only a single deity. His teachings, contained in a series of poems called the Gathas and later the sacred book called the Avesta, spread quickly across Persian society.

Ancient carving believed to be of Zoroaster
Zoroaster

According to Zoroaster, and the religion based on his teachings called Zoroastrianism, earthly life was a constant struggle between good and evil. All people suffered, and this suffering was to prepare people for a future life. In the afterlife, humans would have to choose between god and evil in a final judgement. Ultimately, good would triumph over evil. This final judgment, and all of the world, was watched over by Ahura Mazda, who was the very embodiment of goodness and wisdom. If these ideas sound familiar, some scholars believe that Zoroastrians influenced the ancient Hebrews and their concepts of faith.

Zoroastrianism was the official religion of the Persian Empire, and was practiced widely by the Persian people. However, it was not the only religion of the empire. Mesopotamian and Egyptian empires forced conquered people to adopt their religions, but the Persians embraced a much more tolerant policy. As long as conquered peoples paid their taxes and recognized Persian control, they would be allowed to practice their own religions. The Persian emperors even rebuilt local temples that had been destroyed in wars to conquer a city. It was the first system of religious tolerance in the world.

Persian Social Structure

Religion was very important to the ancient Persians, and it dominated lots of their time and attention. It was not, however, the only influence on their lives. Persian cities also had rigid social structures that organized people into various classes.

At the top were the royals, consisting of the king and his family. Royalty, and other noble titles, were passed on hereditarily, so there was little hope of joining this class outside of marrying into it. Below the royals were the priests. Again, religion was very important, and priests were the most important advisors to the emperors who assisted in nearly every important decision. Groups of aristocratic nobles and military officials came next, who were in charge of the daily, bureaucratic administration of this complex empire. Most of society was composed of merchants, craftsmen/artisans, and peasants. Those who worked for themselves, like merchants and artisans, held higher social status than the peasants who worked the land owned by nobles. At the very bottom of society were slaves, who were generally enslaved during war or as a form of punishment for breaking the laws or defaulting on a debt.

Persian society was strictly organized into classes
Persian relief

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