HIS101 logo Background to
Persian Customs by Herodotus

by Jim Jones, West Chester University of Pennsylvania (c.2013)
Return to the Syllabus

As described in the reading on The Egyptians customs, Herodotus was a Greek born in Persian territory about 484 BCE who created a history of the war between the Greeks and the Persian Empire. In this section, he describes some of the customs of the Persians, who ruled the largest empire in Herodotus' world.



Before the Persians, the largest states in the "Intercommunicating Zone" (where Asia, Europe and Africa come together) were kingdoms, ruled by members of a royal family who were related to (most of) their subjects. That started to change around 2300 when the Kingdom of Akkad conquered the city-state of Sumer in Mesopotamia. That created a new kind of state -- an empire -- whose ruler was NOT related to all of his subjects. Other conquerers followed (Babylonians, Hittites, Assyrians, Chaldeans, etc.), creating larger and larger empires in Mesopotamia, until the Persians conquered everything from the Indus River to the Nile River, including the Tigris and Euphrates river valleys.

Before 600 BCE, the Persians were not even the strongest group in their region. They were a nomadic tribe that inhabited the southern part of the area dominated by the Medes, in what is the modern country of Iran. After king Cyrus became the leader of the Persians around 550 BCE, they attacked the Medes and their allies, the Chaldeans (a.k.a. "New Babylonians") of Mesopotamia. Part of the story is mentioned in the Old Testament book of Ezra, which describes how Cyrus rewarded the Hebrews for their assistance against the Chaldeans by allowing them to return from exile in Babylon to Palestine after the war.

Map of Persia
Homeland of the Persians and Medes

During Cyrus' lifetime, the Persians eventually dominated Mesopotamia and Anatolia as far west as the River Halys. Further west, descendants of the Hittites called the Lydians controlled the western part of Anatolia (modern Turkey). After the Persians defeated the Lydians under King Croesus in 546 BCE, they controlled everything as far west as the Mediterranean Sea except for the coast and some islands in the Aegean Sea, which were under the control of the Greeks.

The Greeks were not a united people, but rather a collection of city-states like Athens, Sparta, Thebes, Corinth, etc. Some Greek city-states established colonies along the coast of Anatolia during the 6th century BCE, and they resisted the expansion of Persia. The Greek colonies were finally defeated by the Persians following a revolt in 499-494 BCE, but the mainland Greeks remained beyond Persian control, and thus the Persians regarded them as a threat.

After Cyrus died in 529 BCE, his descendants continued to expand the Persian empire. Cyrus' son Cambyses (ruled 530-522 BCE) conquered Egypt in 525 BCE, and Cyrus' grandson Darius conquered the Indus River valley as far north as the Hindu Kush mountains. Darius also completed the conquest of Anatolia and lived long enough to launch the first invasion of the Greek mainland in 490 BCE. His son Xerxes launched the second invasion of Greece in 490 BCE.

Darius ruled the longest, from 521 to 486 BCE, and he was able to complete the construction of important public works projects like a canal from the Nile River to the Red Sea, irrigation projects in many areas, a new capital at Susa, and the "Royal Highway" from Susa to Sardis. Darius also created an imperial administration by dividing the conquered territory into provinces called "satrapies," each of which was run by a governor known as a Satrap chosen from among the Medean or Persian nobles. Each Satrap was supported by a local military commander and tax collector, and subject to intermittent royal inspection. Darius also introduced a money system based on that used in Lydia.

Persian Religion

Zoroastrianism, the Persian religion, was based on practices that originated around 1600 BCE, but did not become organized until the lifetime of Zoroaster, who lived around 600 BCE. Persian deities were associated with fire, and Persian worship sites often had someone who maintained a continuous fire. The Persians also recognized a sun god named Mithria, and other gods that were associated with natural phenomena. Their priests were known collectively as the Magi.

In Zoroastrianism, the metaphysical world is organized into two parts -- good and evil -- which battle for control of the physical world where humans live. The name of the force for good was Ahuramazda while Ahriman was the force for evil. Zoroastrians believed that individuals could have a "personal relationship" with a deity, and that the afterlife was accessible to all individuals. That was different from Old Kingdom Egypt, where only the pharaohs could hope for an afterlife.

Zoroastrianism also offered a moral code for life in the physical world. That code favored truthfulness and charity, prohibited specific sins, forbade personal enrichment or earning interest on loans, and included a sort of "Golden Rule." These ideas appeared later in Hebrew theology, possibly stemming from the time when the Hebrews were exposed to Persian ideas during their exile in Babylon in the 6th century BCE.


Although this, the first Persian empire, lasted only 220 years, it provided an example for all subsequent empire builders, in the same way that 19th century Great Britain provided an example for the rest of Europe and the USA. In its day, Persia was largest, richest, mightiest, and greatest of all states. To the inhabitants of the ancient world, the Persian governors were representatives of an emperor who was strong enough to overcome the ancient kingdoms of Mesopotamia and Egypt. For peasants, Persian governors were the highest authority that they might encounter personally, with power over their elders, local chiefs and even their kings.


  1. Why might someone think of fire as a source of spiritual (metaphysical) power?
  2. Why did Persians consider Greek cuisine to be boring and their meals "unfinished"?
  3. Where did Herodotus get the information that appears in this reading?
  4. Did Herodotus like Persian society? How did the fact that he lived under Persian rule affect what Herodotus said about the Persians?
Return to the Syllabus