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When we as Westerners think of antiquity’s greatest civilizations, surely classical Greece comes to mind. Many aspects of ancient Greek culture survive today in various facets of our modern society: democracy, drama and western philosophy, just some of the first few that come to mind. As paramount as these contributions are, surely we as Westerners should be grateful the Greeks won against the barbarian horde. There would be conquerors, at the Battles of Marathon, and Thermopylae, as well as at Salamis and Plataea; or perhaps not. These famous battles have become legendary as the conflicts that saved Western civilization, and it easy to see why. Had the Greeks, the forefathers of Western society, lost these battles, it is likely that they would have been conquered; despite how foreboding the mountainous Balkan Peninsula is for a conquering army. The error in thinking of it that way is that the aforementioned “barbarians” were no ordinary conquerors, but rather one of the greatest civilizations in history. The Achaemenid Persian empire isn’t revered or thought about today the same way classical Greece is. It has only been within the past century or so that we even know anything substantial about the ancient Persians that wasn’t derived from what was basically Greek propaganda. This being the case, it comes as no surprise that ancient Persia has been undervalued as a civilization. Upon analyzing the Achaemenid Empire in greater detail, it becomes evident that these ancient Persians had formed a civilization based largely on the principle of tolerance that was as great if not greater than that of the classical Greeks and because of this the Greco-Persian wars should not be seen as the conflict that saved Western civilization.
One particularly important area where Ancient Persia was superior to classical Greece was in the area of religious tolerance. In ancient Persia, subjects would not be executed for heresy, blasphemy, or apostasy. Subjects of the empire were free to practice their own beliefs (Reiss, 160). This may seem minute, but in that day and age it was very forward thinking, and actually much more tolerant than that region is modern day. Compare this to Ancient Greece, where it was “Socrates, who was executed in 399 BCE for “not believing in the gods of the city” and “corrupting the young” (Whitmarsh, 55). The Persian’s implementing religious tolerance wasn’t just the right thing to do, it was smart. Trying to enforce any kind of strict religious regulations in such a vast and diverse empire would have only resulted in a plethora of rebellions for the Persians to quell. Rather than waste resources on trying to change subjects customs, the Persians simply did not care to enforce religious restrictions. This Persian innovation has been put to use in varying degrees within many of the world’s greatest empires ever since.
Simply allowing religious freedom was not the limit to Persian kindness upon subjects of the empire, in most aspects, Persian rule was very lenient and fair. Life in the Persian empire was pretty good for conquered peoples, for the most part, the various civilizations under Achaemenid rule were allowed to continue their way of life as usual but with the added benefit of stability. For instance, conquered kingdoms were even allowed to keep their kings (Crash Course, 2012). This is why the Achaemenid monarch was revered as the “king of kings”. With stability within the regions that Persia ruled, these now united civilizations were allowed to flourish without the threat of war.
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