The Achaemenid Empire (c. 550-330 BC) – also known as the First Persian Empire – of Western Asia founded by Cyrus the Great/Cyrus II (c. 590-530 BC), was a significantly large ancient empire covering parts of north-east Africa and Eastern Europe and stretching all the way till the Indus valley and central Asia. “Achaemenid”, about whom little is known, was supposedly an ancestor of Cyrus the Great and had lived around the 7th century BC. Cyrus the Great is mentioned in the Bible as a deliverer of the Jews from Babylonian captivity.
Now the Persian nation is made up of many tribes. Those which Cyrus assembled and persuaded to revolt from the Medes were the principal ones on which all the others are dependent…
The customs which I know the Persians to observe are the following: they have no images of the gods, no temples nor altars, and consider the use of them a sign of folly. This comes, I think, from their not believing the gods to have the same nature with men, as the Greeks imagine. Their wont, however, is to ascend the summits of the loftiest mountains, and there to offer sacrifice to Zeus, which is the name they give to the whole circuit of the firmament. They likewise offer to the sun and moon, to the earth, to fire, to water, and to the winds. These are the only gods whose worship has come down to them from ancient times. At a later period they began the worship of Urania, which they borrowed from the Arabians and Assyrians. Mylitta is the name by which the Assyrians know this goddess, whom the Arabians call Alitta, and the Persians Mitra.
To these gods the Persians offer sacrifice in the following manner: they raise no altar, light no fire, pour no libations; there is no sound of the flute, no putting on of chaplets, no consecrated barley-cake; but the man who wishes to sacrifice brings his victim to a spot of ground which is pure from pollution, and there calls upon the name of the god to whom he intends to offer. It is usual to have the turban encircled with a wreath, most commonly of myrtle. The sacrificer is not allowed to pray for blessings on himself alone, but he prays for the welfare of the king, and of the whole Persian people, among whom he is of necessity included. He cuts the victim in pieces, and having boiled the flesh, he lays it out upon the tenderest herbage that he can find, trefoil especially. When all is ready, one of the Magi comes forward and chants a hymn, which they say recounts the origin of the gods. It is not lawful to offer sacrifice unless there is a Magus present. After waiting a short time the sacrificer carries the flesh of the victim away with him, and makes whatever use of it he may please.
There is no nation which so readily adopts foreign customs as the Persians. Thus, they have taken the dress of the Medes, considering it superior to their own; and in war they wear the Egyptian breastplate. As soon as they hear of any luxury, they instantly make it their own: and hence, among other novelties, they have learnt unnatural lust from the Greeks. Each of them has several wives, and a still larger number of concubines. Next to prowess in arms, it is regarded as the greatest proof of manly excellence to be the father of many sons. Every year the king sends rich gifts to the man who can show the largest number: for they hold that number is strength. Their sons are carefully instructed from their fifth to their twentieth year, in three things alone—to ride, to draw the bow, and to speak the truth. Until their fifth year they are not allowed to come into the sight of their father, but pass their lives with the women. This is done that, if the child die young, the father may not be afflicted by its loss.
They hold it unlawful to talk of anything which it is unlawful to do. The most disgraceful thing in the world, they think, is to tell a lie; the next worst, to owe a debt: because, among other reasons, the debtor is obliged to tell lies. If a Persian has the leprosy he is not allowed to enter into a city, or to have any dealings with the other Persians; he must, they say, have sinned against the sun. Foreigners attacked by this disorder, are forced to leave the country: even white pigeons are often driven away, as guilty of the same offence. They never defile a river with the secretions of their bodies, nor even wash their hands in one; nor will they allow others to do so, as they have a great reverence for rivers.
~ As mentioned in Readings in Ancient History: Illustrative Extracts from the Sources, Vol. 2: Greece and the East (1912) by William Stearns Davis
The Achaemenid capital of Persepolis, now in ruins, contains an impressive architectural testament to the centrifugal cosmopolitanism of the ancient Persians – “The Gate of All Nations” built under the supervision of King Xerxes I (518-465 BC). Jenny Rose of Claremont Graduate University explains the significance of the structure in her book Zoroastrianism: A Guide for the Perplexed (2011):
On the Gate of All Nations, through which all visitors to the royal palaces of Persepolis would have had to pass, Xerxes had inscribed: “I built this Gate of all Lands. Much else that is good was built within this Persepolis, which I built and my father built. Whatever good construction is seen, all that we built with the aide of Ahura Mazda [chief deity of the ancient Persian religion Zoroastrianism]”. The gateway represents both a physical and figurative threshold expressing the Persian king’s function as perpetrator of “the good” throughout all the lands of the realm, not just Persia. The implication is that this good activity, generated with the aid of Ahura Mazda, functions against both external and internal enemies including the forces of evil. Imagery on the stone doorjambs of Persepolis of the Achaemenid king killing a lion or a bull may illustrate this idea.
This is a wonderful documentary on the Achaemenid Empire and Persepolis. Note, though, that the narrator makes a lousy mistake between 0:04-0:06 when he points at a relief and identifies the figures are “Shiites”. This is way before the rise of Islam – how can there be “Shiites” in ancient Persia?’
Ancient Persia (2001) by Josef Wiesehöfer
The Persians (Peoples of the Ancient World) (2006) by Maria Brosius
Persian Fire: The First World Empire and the Battle for the West (2007) by Tom Holland
The Everlasting Flame: Zoroastrianism in History and Imagination (2013) by Sarah Stewart