A painting of celebrating Persian heritage. Jabbar-beik, Ibrahim. A banquet of song and dance, 2005, Hotel Abbasi, Isfahan, Iran.

By  M. Ahmadi, T. Goerz, N. Jafarnejad, M. Scott-Cordes

This essay looks at and critiques the views and representations of Persia — both from a Persian perspective and a Western perspective. The constructed dichotomy of the East and West situates Persia, now Iran, as the antithesis to the West. Persian interpretations can be negative. Yet, the same ambiguity can be used to highlight the rich heritage of Persia’s cultural past. In effect, claiming the time as a Golden Age for the Persian-Iranian ethos. With scholarship rooted in Orientalism, Classical discourse, and Romantic Nationalism, this essay explores how Persia’s classical interpretation has been used by varying viewpoints. This essay argues and contrasts the classical interpretations of Persia with the modern, to explore their differences, as well as to give understanding and context to modern Iran. In the classical world, through antiquity, views of Persians were ambivalent, including critical and positive receptions, however, modern representations use the ambiguity of classical writings to affirm ideological biases over historical accuracy.

Modern authors Benjamin Isaac and Erich Gruen emphasize the disparity between Persian and Western culture. While differences described in Persian culture were at times critical and proto-racist, there were some aspects of Persian culture that the West commended. This conveys the uncertainty in the viewpoint of the West toward Persia, which is transparent in Herodotus’ writing. In the Invention of Racism in Classical Antiquity, Benjamin Isaac discusses how Asia Minor and the Near East were seen as sources of corruption. Inhabitants of the Near East were viewed as inspiring evil for their role in “corrupting” the Roman army to “to indulge in women and drink; to admire statues, painting, and chased vases, to steal them from private houses and public places” (Isaac 2004, 305). Sallust, who accused the inhabitants, also declares his belief that one of the first imperialists of the world was Cyrus in Persia (Isaac 2004, 306). Essentially, Asia is summed up as being “a land of luxury, softness, and lack of morals” (Isaac 2004, 305). Romans feared that contact with the East would corrupt them. Such Roman beliefs express negative aspects of the East, which enables Romans to highlight their feelings of superiority.

Image of a Greek Hoplite vs. Persian Soldier on a mug from c. 520-480 BCE. The Persian Soldier on the right is shown as wearing feminine clothing and being less powerful than the Greek Hoplite.

Beliefs of the East as corrupted were still held a century later and found in the work done by Florus, “it was the conquest of Syria which first corrupted us, followed by the Asiatic inheritance bequeathed by the king of Pergamon. The resources and wealth thus acquired spoiled the morals of the age and ruined the State” (Isaac 2004, 306-307). This is significant because it conveys how beliefs held about the East did not change decades later.  Although the depictions of the Near East were not racist, a gap was created early on between the Western world and the East. This gap still exists today and cultural differences have turned into dislike, hence it is a form of proto-racism. Today, the Western world is often still seen as more advanced and Eastern countries are constantly pressured to become more Western.

In Rethinking the Other in Antiquity, Erich Gruen discusses how Herodotus draws upon differences of customs between the Hellenic and Persian people — specifically differences in religion and government systems. Herodotus notes that Greeks have a range of gods which are praised in the forms of temples, statues, and altars. On the other hand, Persians have customs such as aniconism, appraisal of the sun and moon, and a supreme God (Gruen 2010, 32). This was looked down upon because the Greeks strongly believed in a multitude of Gods rather than one. Herodotus also notes the differences in the political system of the Hellenic and Persian people. The Persians had a monarchy system in place, as autocracy was not a significant element in their national identity. However, the Greeks wanted a system where freedom and power were in the hands of the people. The Persians were condemned due to the lack of freedom given to people. In fact, the Persians were mentioned as similar to “a slave” with “no taste of freedom” (Gruen 2010, 23). This is a form of proto-racism because differences in religion and negative connotations toward non-democratic countries still exist today, though to a greater extent. While the Greeks condemned the Persians for their monarchy system, today, there remains a division between the government system of the West and East. Democratic countries are seen as good and westernized, while the Near East is often depicted negatively. Moreover, the Middle East is linked with the Islamic government, which is viewed as menacing in the West due to stereotypes of terrorism. Initiated in the Western world, prejudice against Muslims is termed as Islamophobia, and is largely a result of the September 11 attacks.

Painting done in the 19th century by Philipp Foltz depicting Athenian democracy. Athenian politician Pericles delivers a famous speech.

Although Gruen’s Rethinking the Other in Antiquity clearly shows proto-racism, it also shows Herodotus’ appraisal of some aspects of Persian culture. This accentuates the ambivalence present towards the East — some aspects of Persian culture were praised. In particular, it seems that the aspects applauded by the West were ones that did not clash with Western ideology.

According to Gruen, Greeks showed a regard for “Persian practices, principles, and history, so Persians exhibited an engagement with Hellenic traditions and art—a reciprocity that coexisted” (Gruen 2010, 52). Gruen’s argument is interesting because readers are able to see Western ambivalence regarding the East and that there are indeed aspects of Persian culture that were praised. Although the monarchy system was spoken poorly of, Herodotus admires the Persians for having a strong army and overall being honest people. For instance, Herodotus calculates the “astonishing numbers that made up Xerxes’ army, navy, support personnel, and camp followers” (Gruen 2010, 36). In addition, he states his opinion that “there was not a single man more worthy, in grace and stature, to hold the power than Xerxes (Gruen 2010, 36). Xerxes is praised by Herodotus for being powerful. Though the Persians and Greeks were very different, Gruen concludes that the two disparaging cultures showed regard for each other; this mutualistic appreciation is more important than the clashes between Hellenic and Persian culture.

While analyzing how Herodotus’ accounts of foreign areas of the world reflect Greek presumptions and prejudices, the extent to which Herodotus announces persuasive and historically accurate information is often not recognized. It is important to explore the accuracy of Herodotus’ information because a great amount of scholarship is based on Herodotus’ sources. For instance, Gruen’s Rethinking the Other in Antiquity largely focuses on Herodotus’ representations of the Persians.

Rosario Vignolo Munson, author of Who are Herodotus’ Persians? explores the accuracy of his representations of the Persians. Munson claims that Herodotus is particularly accurate in his way of describing Persian people and their culture, “the Persians do not represent gods in human form and consider foolish those who do so” and “ they sacrifice with no fires, no libations, no pipes, no fillets or barley” (Munson 2009, 466). This is an interesting note by Herodotus because the Greeks condemned the Persians for not only representing gods in human form but also for not having a multitude of gods. Additionally, Greeks were believers in sacrificial rituals, and therefore, they critiqued Persians for not doing so. Persians are also described as very honest, “they think that lying is the worst possible behavior” (Munson 2009, 466). Additionally,  Persian men “value courage in battle and teach their sons only three things – archery, riding and telling the truth” (Munson, 2009, 466). This in itself displays the ambivalence of Greeks toward Persians, because while Herodotus condemns the Persians for a lack of sacrificial rituals and not representing gods in human form, he praises them for having good morals.

In modern representations of Persia, many depictions portray Persia as the exotic other. The modern representations of classical Persia draw on the ambiguity of the classical world, using classical authors writing to fit their modern agenda. Consistent with Edward W. Said’s theories in Orientalism, the ancient Persians portrayed today through a modern viewpoint build upon the ambiguity of their depictions in the classical world (Isaac 2004, 1; Said 2014, 1) to vilify them. In Orientalism, Said’s explorations of the theories, that the West used to control and take control of the East, are echoed in modern interpretations of classical Persia. These ideas, which are highlighted in Orientalism, were used as direct agents in colonialism; the discourse and dichotomy of East and West were formed from these classical sources. The truth and accuracy of these sources are important too — especially when considering the impact that these retellings of Persia have.

In A Companion to Classical Receptions, Achaemenid Persia and its relationship to the West is characterized as one of ideological domination (Hardwick and Stray 2011, 50). Still, further, Persia is said to be the first ever representation of what modern Orientalism would come to be — specifically going all the way back to Classical Greek representations (Hardwick and Stray 2011, 51). This type of ideological dominance and control delineates a thread from ancient views to modern prejudice. Similarly, this ambiguity is used as a tool for erroneous and malicious claims as mentioned in Orientalism. A Companion to Classical Receptions also points out how the nature of the Persian record of history is somewhat constructed (Hardwick and Stray 2011, 51). The nature of the Persian empire is problematic because the classical writings and descriptions cast a wide variety of perspectives and inconsistencies — none of these sources provide a completely accurate view into how classical Persia was actually like. Even further, this casts doubt on the validity of Greek authors, and by definition the ascribed value and authority of their views on classical Persia.

The West’s view of Persia in the modern-day builds upon misinformation and exoticization of Orientalist writings and material from the classical past. For example, in Zack Snyder’s 2007 film, 300, Persia is represented as a mythical other, and a monstrous mass of henchmen for the Spartans to fight. Lloyd Llewellyn-Jones argues in Trouble in the Tehran Multiplex about the specific impacts of the movie in Iran and the way that the movie’s particular portrayal of Xerxes is misrepresentative and historically inaccurate. “The victory over Persia was a brilliant moment in the triumph of reason in the face of dark Eastern backwardness and sinister mysticism,” writes Llewellyn-Jones — the movie makes the Persians seem so distant and evil from the West, especially in contrast to the Spartans (Llewellyn-Jones 2018, 191). The specific type of bigotry presented here builds upon the idea of not only ignoring the more sinister aspects of Sparta but also in the way that Persia is portrayed as inhuman and thus used as a justification for the Spartans fight against them. This type of dichotomy separates Persia from the West and portrays a cartoonish picture of Persia’s history.

Referring back to Orientalism, in the film the Persians are portrayed as weak, pale and effeminate, without any backbone compared to the Greeks who are stoic and masculine warriors (Llewellyn-Jones 2018, 191). Llewellyn-Jones points out that like in antiquity the Persians are also portrayed as being repressed by their leader, completely clothed, and only seen as subservient to their master: Xerxes (Llewellyn-Jones 2018, 192). Therefore, like the justification for colonialism that is explored in Said’s work, the movie’s representation of Persia works to set up a story emboldening the Greek’s to conquer the ideologically backward Persia. Using classical history, this allows the West to construct an idea of Persia that is substantiated by the past.

Xeres I of Persia, author unknown, date unknown, Persepolis, Tomb.

As aforementioned, the Persians are clothed and are represented as repressed, in contrast to the Greeks, with their bare chests and muscles. In contrast, as Llewellyn-Jones points out, Xerxes is unclothed for the most part. King Xerxes is portrayed as a monster, standing 8 feet tall. In 300, Xerxes is a hairless giant of ambiguous sexuality (Llewellyn-Jones 2018. 192). Apart from the problematic representation, or ambiguous and possibly bisexuality being associated with villainy — 300’s depiction of Xerxes orientalizes him; in essence, he is made to be unreal and inhuman. By doing this, Xerxes interpretation casts Persia as an unstoppable force, which the viewer can side against without considering that they are real people with real culture. In particular, Xerxes is an interesting character, because, in both this depiction and other depictions, he is about as contradictory as one person could get not only with Herodotus’ depiction of him but also in modern reinterpretations. A Persian Life? by James Romm explores again the modern representation of classical Persia through a biography by Richard Stoneman. Stoneman draws on Herodotus’ accounts of the Persian King, which Romm points out are all built on a series of imagined encounters (Romm 2015). The sheer questionable validity casts doubt on the depictions of Persians that the Greeks wrote. Romm criticizes Stoneman’s account because, in his view, this is just the same depiction that was already there, “This lack of self-revealing sources is an even more acute problem for Persian figures, as Stoneman observes than for Greeks and Romans.” (Romm 2015). The portrayal of Xerxes here fits in with a distinct problem of classical representation — since Herodotus was unable to go interview Xerxes when writing about him, Romm conjectures that portraits of him in a classical Greek view can only be considered so accurate. Furthermore, when reinterpreted, Romm notes that classists, especially Stoneman, rarely confront the veracity of these historical sources they are building their discourse on when considering it a biography (Romm 2015). A troubling theme emerges — the representation of Persians is deeply rooted in inaccuracy. Especially when considering that biographies like Stoneman’s are marketed as being historically accurate.

Similar to Said’s writings in Orientalism, we can see the foundations of modern racism emerge in the way that the Persians are written about and re-interpreted. According to Said, to know the exotic other gives the conqueror a tool to justify control over them. This same type of damaging and demonizing portrait is also true for Snyder’s Xerxes. While Stoneman’s Xerxes suffers from a less overt problem as Snyder’s there are still many issues and questions about the representation of Xerxes.

Extrapolating on that, we can see in both robust scholarly work and in pop-culture, that Orientalist themes persist. This dichotomy is further continued because of this cultural ubiquity, which to the untrained eye can pass under the radar. In these modern representations, the characterization of the East as a dark and misunderstood evil that is devoid of being or sympathy works against the people that that culture actually represents.

The classical heritage of Persia informs modern-day Iran by drawing on classical heritage in a positive way. Meanwhile, they used the ambiguity of Persia’s classical past as a tool for Orientalism and colonialism. In modern contexts, Iran has made a more positive image out of Persia’s past which is contrary to Western depictions. Iran highlights themes and ideologies from Persia to inform their ideology today.

“Persian Culture.” Learn Farsi Step by Step, 14 Dec. 2018, Isfahan Jame’ Mosque, http://www.iran-daily.com/News/118363.html.

Responding to current challenges, some Persians turn to stories of their past, specifically identifying the 8th century to the 14th century as a ‘golden age.’ According to Ahmad, Persians’ search “for the primary soul of organic entity with its own instinct culture was natural for the early natural proponents of nationalism in Iran” (Ahmad, 2006). In Iran, the modern nationalism has created its own “domain of sovereignty”, decades before the political struggle against European domination began (Mehrdad, 1998, p.1-2). Persian nationalism has divided the institutions and ideas into two domains: institutions including the modern sciences, political and technology as well as ideas including the spirituals (Mehrdad, 1998, p.1-2).

The Greek perspective through cartoonish films such as 300 vilified the Persian Empire. The film essentially revolves around the power of Western civilization compared to the “barbarian” Easterners. Persians felt attacked by 300, and it immediately caused an outcry in Iran. Azadeh Moaveni, a native of Tehran, talks about how outraged Iranians were after the film was released, “Everywhere else I went, from the dentist to the flower shop, Iranians buzzed with resentment at the film’s depictions of Persians” (Moaveni, 2007). This conveys how many people felt saddened by the false depiction of Persians. Everyone felt the impact, ranging from higher class citizens to lower class citizens. One thing was certain for the majority of Persians following the release of the film — the world around turned them dark and they felt targeted by the United States. People were so infuriated in Iran that they believed 300 was secretly funded by the U.S. government in hopes of preparing the U.S. for war against Iran (Moaveni, 2007). It is understandable that Persians would hold this belief, given the rocky relationship between the U.S. and Iran.

Ralph Peters, the author of The Iranian dream of a reborn Persian Empire, emphasizes how the Greek perception of Persians is inaccurate. In fact, he claims that “even Alexander the Great was awed by the lifestyle of Persians, and it was the “coming of Islam in the next millennium that triggered Persian decay” (Peters, 2015). This quote sums up the misrepresentations from the Western point of view. It seems like the West has confused the time period of the Muslim conquest with the time period of the Persian Empire. The Persians had a great deal of power up until Muslim conquest in 651. Peters cites a notable Greek king, Alexander the Great, who was well aware of Persians and their culture due to his lasting presence in Persia during conquest. Peters agrees that the Persians are depicted in a cynical light and the West continuously fails to recognize the rich and civilized Persian culture.

In the West, Iran is overwhelmed with negative modern depictions, particularly after the Iran hostage crisis, and more recently the 9/11 attacks. It also does not help that Iran does not have good relations with Europe and North America. Rick Zand argues how “it has been difficult for many in the West to see beyond these identities perpetrated by politicians, the news media, and popular culture” (Zand, 2010). This quote sums up about how Iran is perceived negatively by the West through many outlets, which can even be traced back to the classical world. Because news media plays a large role in our world today, many people have access to it and believe everything that is said in the news — whether it is accurate or inaccurate. Overall, many Persians think that the dismissive aspects of Iran presented by the West have overwhelmed the goodness in Persian culture. As a result, a lot of Persian culture is unknown (Zand, 2010).  

The rich culture and ancient history of the Persian empire have been covered up with all the recent negative titles that have been linked to Iran. Zand discusses how modern-day Iranians strive to end the inaccurate Western perceptions of Iran: “Protests, demonstrations, and the price paid by many Iranians in liberty and life has broken through the cultural barrier and allowed, or perhaps forced, Westerners to peer past the romanticized Persia and the vilified Iran to see the humanity of the country’s people” (Zand, 2010). Zand makes an interesting point by stating the contrast between Persia and Iran. Iran used to be called Persia before it changed in 1935. While Persia was viewed as feminine, Zand refers to Iran as its “evil twin.” Iran represents the “masculine — rebellion and revolution, threat and terror” (Zand, 2010). While Persia was Greek-named and romanticized, the same land has an updated meaning in modern society. Today, the meaning has turned more aggressive  — the West has “demonized Iran by media and polity,” similar to media used to push the U.S. to go against Japan in World War II (Zand, 2010). Zand calls for such stereotypes of Iran and Persia to be broken.

It is apparent that views originating in antiquity have persisted and had considerable influence in the development of contemporary views on the Persian peoples. The nuance with which ancient authors depict the Persians when taken at face value suggests a form of prototypical racism harshly critical of the “orientalist” luxuriousness and servitude, but upon closer inspection adopt a sense of ambivalence and at times even praise. This ambiguity leaves open the opportunity to exploitation especially in the later East and West beginning in the 19th century to affirm and support their own ideologies.

In the West, European powers would focus upon the classical commentary in which authors such as Herodotus and Aristotle warn of the corrupting power of Persian lavishness, and especially decry their complete servitude to their kings serving as an antithesis to superior Greek values of personal liberty and democracy. In describing Aristotle’s view on the form of governance Rolando Minuti states, “Despotic monarchy is precisely distinguished from tyranny, which is exercised over people against their will and consequently is illegitimate, whereas despotism is exercised over people who voluntarily or passively accept this kind of power.” This East/West divide served conveniently for colonial powers who tarred inhabitants of the former Persian Empires with identical language as justification for their subjugation. Minuti further states, “Marx thought the European domination of the colonies – particularly the British involvement in India – to be a necessary measure or, in his words, a “double mission […]: one destructive, the other regenerating the annihilation of old Asiatic society, and the laying of the material foundations of Western society in Asia.” We see the extrapolation of this idea of “orientalism” as justification for Western subjugation of the Middle East who cannot without Western intervention modernize or adopt superior Western characteristics.

Picture of the Shah after the 1953 coup that installed him for which the CIA has recognized responsibility. 1953, Tehran, Iran.

   In a manner eerily similar to the ambiguity with which classical authors represented the Persian peoples we see the same utilization of these sources to meet an ideological end, but in the complete opposite direction. The Iranian peoples instead interpret their ancient heritage primarily through the representation of a world power able to check what is often depicted as the civilizational peaks that are embodied by the Graeco-Roman world. This is especially emphasized in a militaristic respect, where Ashraf references the effort of Iranians to connect themselves with Parthian origins who were able to exact harsh defeats against the Romans at the Battle of Carrhae, and avoid Roman subjugation at the peak of their power. This development of Romantic nationalism can be surmised by Ahmad Ashraf stating, “There developed a belief in the idea that there had been continuity in Iran’s history from the immemorial past to modern times with a romantic view of a pre-Islamic golden age.” To the Iranian people, a strong identification with their rich cultural heritage is not seen as a source of derision or servility, but a source of national pride and a call to reclaim their place as a world power.

In conclusion, the ambiguity with which Persia is represented beginning in the Ancient World lays the framework for an East/West divide that has persisted well into the modern era having a significant impact on the development of the contemporary Middle East. The mix of hostility and begrudging respect serve conveniently on both sides of the spectrum in subjugating what the West would perceive as an inferior people possessing an inferior set of values, who could only be democratized under European control. This trend correlates directly to the modern day with depictions such as 300 exemplifying a hostile and inaccurate view that cherry-picks prototypically racist assumptions mirroring Western geopolitical efforts beginning in the colonial era to undermine the Middle East and especially the Iranian government. In stark contrast, interpretations in the East use identical sources as an affirmation of strength adopting a sense of national romanticism encouraging national unity choosing instead to emphasis affiliations with Alexander the Great, reciprocity of Greek values through cultural exchange, and especially depictions of Persian militaristic strength. This dichotomy displays how ideas of race and ethnicity consistently evolve with the times, but at the same time shows a strong tendency to build off prior assumptions in which exploitation of nuance opens the opportunity for ideological affirmation over historical accuracy.  

Works Cited

Ashraf, Ahmad. 2006. “IRANIAN IDENTITY iv. 19TH-20TH CENTURIES.” Encyclopaedia Iranica, December 15, 2006.

Hardwick, L. and Stray, C. (2011). A companion to classical receptions. Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell, 50-71.

Isaac, Benjamin. The Invention of Racism in Classical Antiquity. Princeton University Press, 2004. http://www.jstor.org/stable/j.ctt4cgcwr.

Ashraf, Ahmad. 2006. “IRANIAN IDENTITY iv. 19TH-20TH CENTURIES.” Encyclopaedia Iranica, December 15, 2006.

Kia, Mehrdad. 1998. “Persian Nationalism and the Campaign for Language Purification.”  Taylor and Francis, Ltd. Apr, 1998. https://www.jstor.org/stable/4283935

Llewellyn-Jones, Lloyd. “Trouble in the Tehran Multiplex: Xerxes, 300, and 300: Rise of an Empire in Iran.” In Epic Heroes on Screen, edited by Augoustakis Antony and Raucci Stacie, 191-205. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2018.

Minuti, Rolando. “Oriental Despotism, in: European History Online (EGO), published by the Leibniz Institute of European History (IEG), Mainz 2012-05-03.

Moaveni, Azadeh. “Sparks an Outcry in Iran.” Time. March 13, 2007. http://content.time.com/time/world/article/0,8599,1598886,00.html.

Munson, Rosario Vignolo. “Who Are Herodotus’ Persians?” The Classical World 102, no. 4 (2009): 457-70. http://www.jstor.org.offcampus.lib.washington.edu/stable/40599878

Peters, Ralph. “The Iranian Dream of a Reborn Persian Empire.” New York Post, 1 Feb. 2015.

Laina, Farhat-Holzma.”The Persistence of Cultures in World History: Persia/Iran”.Civilizations Review, No. 79 , Article 17.https://scholarsarchive.byu.edu/ccr/vol79/iss79/17

Romm, J. (2015). A Persian Life?. Eidolon. [online] Available at: https://eidolon.pub/a-persian-life-b18334ee81cf [Accessed 24 Feb. 2019].

Zand, Rick. “Breaking the Stereotypes of Persia and Iran.” PBS, Public Broadcasting Service, 12 Mar. 2010, www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/tehranbureau/2010/03/the-green-movement-breaking-the-stereotypes-of-persia-and-iran.html

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