Do you agree with the many historians who consider Persia and China to be two of the greatest empires of the ancient world?

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I would agree with that view. There were many great empires in the ancient world, and each had their own unique contributions to their regional development and history. We know a lot about the Persians because the Greeks wrote so much about them, and Alexander the Great had many notable interactions with them. This does, however, mean we are left with a largely ethnocentric view of the ancient Persians, whom the Greeks loved to call “barbarians.” China, on the other hand, has an impressive ancient historical record that is often overshadowed because the Far East is often given inadequate attention in Western mainstream education and popular history. Although Persia and China may not be as “famous” as the more popular examples like the Delian League and Roman Empire, they were both massively influential on global history and civilization.

Cyrus the Great established the first Persian Empire, which is also known as the Achaemenid Empire. Cyrus had amazing military prowess, but what made his conquests especially successful was his compassion and ability to demonstrate empathy for the people he conquered. Sicker writes that Cyrus

went out of his way to show particular sensitivity to the religious traditions and practices of the peoples who had become subject to his rule. Rather than characterize his victory as a defeat of the enemy, he portrayed himself as the successor of the national rulers he had displaced, making appropriate gestures of affiliation to their gods. He made it appear that all that had happened was a change of dynasty, with social and economic life being restored to its traditional patterns (Sicker 78-79).

More importantly, the people were able to observe before their very eyes that Cyrus was not just full of empty promises.

The Achaemenid Empire would eventually become the largest empire in ancient history, but would not have accomplished that without the administrative expertise of Darius the Great. Darius created a much-needed centralized government and built an impressive transportation and communication infrastructure, which included an innovative postal system and the implementation of Aramaic as the official language throughout the Empire. Essentially, Cyrus’s unprecedented benevolent leadership and policymaking during his conquests laid the groundwork for Darius to organize and implement an impressively effective system of administration and network throughout Persia’s massive territory.

Persian culture flourished under the Achaemenid Empire. The Persians had a knack for intellectualism and were especially skilled in science and mathematics. They were known for their beautiful libraries, botanical gardens, and sophisticated medical practices. In addition to traditional Babylonian pagan traditions, the Persians also practiced Zoroastrianism—the world’s first monotheistic religion. Their political and cultural influence spread throughout Western Asia, Eastern Europe, and the Indus Valley.

There were other substantial advancements happening farther east. One of the greatest dynasties of ancient Imperial China was the Qin. The Qin government—specifically under the leadership of its first emperor, Qin Shihuang—was both administratively and militarily skilled, which allowed them to conquer Warring States and replace the outdated feudal governments with one centralized state. According to Wright, this success had a lot to do with the Qin's geographic advantages, which “made it easy to defend but very difficult to capture” (Wright 45). In addition, Imperial China’s economy thrived under the Qin. They developed a written language that included means of measurement and currency, allowing them to create a network of roadways and an amazingly productive trade system throughout the empire.

The Qin’s concept of a centralized government also led to the creation of a unified legal code, which gave the emperor supreme power. This Legalist ideology, though very effective at the time, would eventually lead to the demise of the Qin dynasty. Wright notes, “The Qin was undone and overthrown because of the very Legalist ideology that had helped establish it in the first place. In retrospect, it seems that the main contribution of Legalism and the Qin state that applied it was the unification of China and the creation of a structural model for future dynastic governments” (Wright 50). In addition, Qin Shihuang was extremely brutal and despotic (an interesting opposite to Cyrus the Great), which did not necessarily bode well for the dynasty’s survival. Nonetheless, the contributions of the Qin had a significant and lasting impact on Imperial China.

Persia and China, therefore, share many attributes that made their ancient empires successful, most notably their creation of centralized governments and wide expansion of trade routes.

Works cited:

Sicker, M., The pre-Islamic Middle East (Westport, CT: Greenwood Publishing Group, 2000) 71-108. 

Wright, D., The History of China (Westport, CT: Greenwood Publishing Group, 2001): 45-98.

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team

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