Episode 19: Three Kings and The Magi

Gaumata trampled under Darius’s foot as depicted in the Behistun Inscription. From Livius.org via Wikimedia Commons under Creative Commons CC0 1.0 Universal Public Domain Dedication.

In 522 BCE, the Persian Empire sat on the edge of Chaos. Between March and September of that year, 3 men sat on the Persian throne, and according to the official royal history one of those kings was actually impersonated by a couple of magi. This episode is the first to really question who the Magi were. This episode also discusses the many theories of what really happened that year.
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Aspects of History and Epic in Ancient Iran: From Gaumāta to Wahnām

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Episode 18: The Tyrant and The Kings

Polykrates by Mikhail I. Kozlovsky, 1790 in bronze, in the Russian Museum. The piece depicts the crucifixion of the tyrant. From Stebanoid via Wikimedia Commons under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported

The story of Polykrates, the Tyrant of Samos, intersects repeatedly with the history of the Persian empire during his life. From his rise to power in the vacuum left when Miletus was conquered, to his alliance with Egypt against the Persians, and finally to his death on the orders of a Satrap. His story feeds directly into the history around Oroites, the Satrap of Sparda (the kingdom formerly known as Lydia). Oroites tried to seize some power for himself in events that prepare our narrative for the chaotic years following Cambyses’ death.
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Episode 17: The Mad King

Cambyses killing the Apis Bull as depicted in a sketch from the 1881 Illustrated History of the World from Ward, Lock, and Co.

The story of Cambyses isn’t just the conquest of Egypt, but also the dark side of it. According to Herodotus Cambyses was a mad king, driven to paranoia and acts of terrible violence while he was Egypt. The Greek Historian, as well as the Behistun Inscription, tell how Cambyses II murdered his family members and drove his own empire into open revolt. This episode describes the Persian tragedy of the King of King’s fall into madness.

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Episode 16: Pharaoh Cambyses

In 525 BCE, the Persian army crossed into Egypt, in what seems to have been the culmination of years of antagonism between the the new empire and the last great kingdom of the Near East. To accomplish his task, the new King of Kings, Cambyses, mustered all his resources. He assembled a huge land army, constructed Persia’s first navy, and formed alliances from the Greek islands in the Aegean to tribal kings in Arabia. Over the following three years, he established and consolidated Persian rule over the kingdom of the two lands, bringing one of the oldest civilizations in the world under Persian domination.
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Episode 15: The Army That Conquered The World

The Immortals at court as depicted on the walls of Darius I’s palace in Susa with colored bricks. You can see the elaborate colors and patterns of their robes and what equipment they carried. If you look on their front feet, you can see the silver counterweight that gave them the name “Apple Bearers.” Photo from Jakob Harlun via Wikimedia Commons under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license

In preparation for Cambyses’ invasion of Egypt, we’re covering the early Persian armies. These are the armies that helped Cyrus the Great conquer the known world. They started as troops levied from Persia and Media, but grew to incorporate every facet of the empire and built on the history of Near Eastern warfare to form a disciplined and organized system.

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Episode 14: Princes, Princesses, Kings, and Queens

Bardiya/Smerdis (left) and Cambyses (right) as depicted in the 15th century by William Caxton.

The narrative lurches forward again with a discussion of the new cast, so to speak. Meet Cambyses, Atossa, Bardiya, Artystone, and Roxane: the children of Cyrus the Great and the new royal family of the Persian Empire. This time I’m breaking down marriage customs, inheritance rights, and political training. Or to put that another way: incest, dividing the empire, and the next round of political power plays. Cyrus the Great is gone, and his empire would never be quite the same again. 

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Episode 13: Kingship 101

One of the possible locations for Cambyses’ tomb: a ruined tower at Pasargadae, also called the Prison of Solomon. Credit to Soroush90gh via Wikimedia Commons under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported.

What did it mean to be an early king of Persia? They were divine, but not quite. Warriors and economists. The king of Persia, but also Babylon, Egypt, and many other lands. Legitimacy came in many forms, and this episode explores them.

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Episode 12: Iranian Religion

Artists depiction of Zoroaster, founder and prophet of Zoroastrianism, in Yazd, Iran. Image credit: Msanta20 via Wikimedia Commons under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic

It’s time to introduce religion into the mix, starting with the origins and background of ancient Iranian traditions in general, and then narrowing in on the most famous and significant: Zoroastrianism. This episode explores the traditions and gods of the Indo-European steppe peoples as they migrated and became the Iranians, Persians and Medes included. I’ll also discuss the reforms and doctrines of the ancient prophet Zoroaster who established a religion centered around a single supreme god, Ahura Mazda.

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Episode 11: King of Kings

Tomyris dipping the head of Cyrus the Great in a dish of blood. Queen Tomyris Receiving the Head of Cyrus, King of Persia by Mattia Preti, 17th century.

Returning to the narrative, it’s time to see what Cyrus got up to in the final decade of his rule, after conquering Babylon. He traveled around his empire, between a collection of important capital cities, founded cities, and constructed monuments. He also conquered. This episode pushes the narrative eastward into the provinces of Iran, Afghanistan, and Central Asia and explores some of the events that happened there. Then it’s time to finish the story of Cyrus the Great, with one last campaign on the northeastern frontier.

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Episode 10: Governing An Empire

King Cyrus (front) with future Satrap Harpagus (back) as depicted in the 18th Century Tapestry: The Defeat of Astyages. Designed by Maximilien de Haese, Woven by Jac. van der Borght (1771-1775). Currently housed in the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

What exactly is a Satrap? Is there such a thing as a Satrapy? How did all of these people manage to talk to one another? All this, and more as the History of Persia celebrates double-digits with a break down of how the Persian Empire was actually organized and managed during the Teispid Period.

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