The centre of Asia has served as an incubator for the creation of empires and one of the greatest of all was that of the Persians. Expanding quickly in the sixth century B.C from their homeland in the area known today as southern Iran, they came to dominate their neighbours reaching the Aegean Sea to the west and ruling over Egypt, while expanding to the east as far as the Himalayas.
Rather than imposing their own way of life on the captured territories, the Persians were eager to adopt foreign customs that they deemed superior to their own. The Greek historian Herodotus wrote that Persians admired the fashion sense of the Egyptians as well as that of the Medes from Northern Iran. The willingness to adopt new ideas and practices was an important factor in enabling the Persians to build an administrative system that allowed the smooth running of an empire that incorporated many different peoples.
A highly educated bureaucracy oversaw the administration of the day-to-day life of the empire, recording everything from payments made to workers serving the royal household, to validating the quality and quantity of goods bought and sold in market places; they also took charge of the maintenance and repair of a road system connecting the empire that was the envy of the ancient world. The Persians had achieved what many states today still fail at accomplishing: acceptance of different cultures, an organised and effective taxation system and substantial provisioning of public goods.
An empire has many mouths to feed and investment in agriculture and the development of pioneering irrigation techniques were crucial to improving crop yields enabling increasingly large populations to be supported from surrounding fields. Trade flourished in ancient Persia, providing revenues that allowed rulers to fund military expeditions targeting locations that brought yet more resources into the empire.
Greek commanders looked east with a combination of fear and respect, seeking to learn from the Persians’ tactics on the battlefield and to adopt their technology. The Greek playwright Aeschylus used successes against the Persians as a way of celebrating military prowess, commemorating heroic resistance to the attempted invasions of Greece, most notably in his oldest surviving play aptly named The Persians.
Cyrus II of Persia, the architect of the Persian empire, was the first to use the title of ‘the Great’. For a young Alexander, it was evident that to establish himself he would have to concentrate all of his energy and skill towards victory in the east. After dislodging the Persian governors of Egypt in a lightning strike in 331 B.C, Alexander set off for an all-out assault on the empire’s heartlands. He did not disappoint. He inflicted a decisive defeat upon the vastly superior army of Darius III later that same year while in short succession one city after another surrendered to him as he took over the territories controlled by his defeated rivals.
When Babylon surrendered, its inhabitants covered the road leading to the great city with flowers, while silver altars heaped with perfumes were placed on either side. Cages with lions and leopards were brought to be presented as gifts. Once Alexander had conquered Central Asia, he embraced many of the ideas that had served the Persian empire so well before. Alexander accepted and respected local religious beliefs and practices. He ensured that Darius III was given a worthy funeral and was buried alongside other Persian rulers after his body had been found dumped in a wagon following his murder by one of his own lieutenants. The tomb of Cyrus the Great was not only restored but those who had defiled the shrine were punished. Alexander was clearly appreciative for the wealth and beauty that had fallen before him. For he saw himself not so much as an invading conqueror but as the latest heir of an ancient realm.
Alexander was willing to allow the existing elites and officials to continue to govern the territories in order to maintain the status quo. He assimilated himself by adopting traditional titles and wearing Persian clothing to underline his acceptance of local customs. He wanted to hold on to Asia, not just to pass through. But these were no transitory achievements; they were the start of a new chapter for the region lying between the Mediterranean and the Himalayas.
In the decades that followed Alexander’s mysterious death at the age of thirty-two, the ideas, themes and symbols from ancient Greece flowed across the east. The Greek language penetrated as deep as the Indian subcontinent. The Mauryan ruler Ashoka, who controlled almost all of the Indian subcontinent from 268 to 232 B.C, made statements with parallel Greek translations.
Statues of the Buddha started to appear only after statues of Greek deities became established in Afghanistan, Pakistan and Western India. Buddhists felt threatened by the success of new religious practices and began to create their own visual images. Buddhists had actively refrained from visual representations but competition now forced them to react, to borrow and to innovate. Even religions need good marketing.
According to Plutarch, who wrote a biography of Alexander, Greek theology was taught as far away as India, and young men in Persia and beyond were brought up reading Homer, Sophocles and Euripides. Influences and inspiration flowed in the other direction too, with some scholars arguing that the Aeneid – a story of a Trojan who travelled to Italy, where he became the ancestors of the Romans, was in turn influenced by Indian texts.
The speed and extent of Alexander’s conquests were staggering. What was no less impressive – though much more often ignored – is the scale of the legacy he left behind, and how the influences of ancient Greece blended with those of Persia, India, and Central Asia.