The second volume in a series (Asia in Europe and the Making of the West
) that examines the spread of cultures from the East into Europe
The Persian Empire was the first major eastern power to actually extend its borders into Europe. Unlike the Phoenicians before them who came as merchants and settlers, the Persians came in the 6th century BC as a great power seeking to incorporate parts of south-eastern Europe as provinces into a centrally ruled and administered empire. Yet Persia's foothold in Europe was tiny, distant and brief: of all the peoples from the East who entered Europe, the Iranian presence appears the least, covering little more than sixty years-Phoenicians, Arabs, Turks, Mongols, all remained longer or still remain. Furthermore, the contact is usually viewed in terms of conflict: the Graeco-Persian wars, the conquests of Alexander, the numerous wars between Rome and Iran. But Europe's contact with ancient Persia was neither short-lived nor conflicting: it was the beginnings of a complex interaction between East and West that continues to this day. This book explores that relationship.
The main people in Europe with whom the Persians came into contact were the Greeks, a contact that was not nearly so one-sided-nor as conflicting-as is thought, and both the Graeco-Persian wars and the conquests of Alexander the Great can be viewed in a radically different light. The contact was as fundamental for the Romans too: it was a neo-Persian kingdom centered on the Black Sea that came close to stemming the emerging power of Rome in the first century BC, and it was the continued existence of Iran as a great power and its relationship with the Roman Empire that brought about a war at the end of antiquity that wrought more change than any other war in history, with a ripple effect from North Africa to China. Throughout antiquity, Iranian religious ideas came west to profoundly influence the beginnings of Christianity, and continued to flow west to culminate in the greatest religious upheaval in Western Europe before the Reformation.
More than anything else, what Iran contributed to posterity was an idea. In articulating the concept of a single universal creator, ancient Persian civilization was the first to grope towards the idea of a single universal world and put in place "the base of a future world civilization" in the words of J M Roberts. The idea of one world was to persist. Today, the ancient Persian idea of a single world transcending political and ethnic boundaries is embodied in an inscription over the entrance of the United Nations building in New York-the words of a Persian poet.