Stefania Lapenna wrote in her recent article The Ancient Persian Empire that we in the West suffer from "ignorance, as well as the lack of a deep knowledge of Iran's history, society and culture." She also eloquently defends what she feels are the unheralded achievements of ancient Iranian civilization.
Some of her points are well-taken. Some are exaggerated. Some are simply mistaken.
Ms. Lapenna first takes issue with the movie 300, calling it "highly flawed factually" and saying that "the Iranian community voiced dismay at what they see as an insult to Iran's pre-Islamic past." She is right but her point is irrelevant. Such criticisms could be made about every film ever made that concerns some aspect of history. 300 makes no pretense at being a documentary. Neither does it claim historical accuracy. Its purpose is to entertain and thus generate income. In this the film succeeded beyond the dreams of its makers. And in fact 300 did receive praise from none other than historian Victor Davis Hanson.
Ms. Lapenna herself makes some wild claims about ancient Persia. She says that one of king Xerxes' wives, Esther, was "the Queen of Israel." There never has been any ‘queen of Israel.' Esther was a Jewess who had been forced into Xerxes' harem but won his heart. Esther used her position to save her people from destruction. To put the matter plainly Esther used her sexual favors to lead Xerxes around by his nose. Such a weakness is understandable but hardly flattering to the Persian king.
According to Lapenna Xerxes (484-465) was known for his tolerant behavior. Such a claim would have been surprising to those both foreign and Persian who knew him. In fact Xerxes was a typical Persian monarch---tyrannical, arrogant and vain, and highly intolerant to those who would criticize him. We hear of this tolerant fellow sawing in two the son of the richest man in his kingdom because the father had requested that Xerxes not send all of his sons off to the war with Greece. Xerxes attitude toward those who failed him or resisted him were in the style of all Iranian monarchs. We read of destroyed cities, slaughtered and enslaved populations, castrations, beheadings and all manner of political and sexual intrigue not only in the reign of Xerxes but in that of every Persian king before and after.
Lapenna's next claim is astounding: "Unlike all the other empires, the Persian distinguished itself by never owning slaves." In reality all of the inhabitants of the domains of the Persian king were his slaves to do with as he pleased. We have mentioned the harem, but we need to also mention that thousands of young male captives---those unlucky enough to be attractive---were castrated by having their testicles crushed between two rocks and then made to serve the king and guard his women. Persian soldiers many times had whips used against them by their officers to encourage them to fight.
There was nothing like the Athenian assembly or Roman Senate in Persia. All Persian kings practiced a grotesque cruelty when it served them. It was said that one would know when he was coming upon one of the Persian capital cities by the thousands of mutilated men wandering the road---men without ears or noses or lips or eyes, all of which had been removed at the whim of the ‘tolerant' kings of Persia. In one outburst of fanaticism Xerxes' own father Darius crucified 3000 of the most prominent men of Babylon. Not for nothing did the Persian rulers call themselves the ‘king of kings.'
Lapenna writes as a buttress to her claim of Persian tolerance that it "was Cyrus the Great, not the Greek Alexander, who liberated the Jews from slavery in Babylon." Alexander was Macedonian not Greek. Cyrus entered Babylon in 539 BC, almost 200 years before Alexander was born.
She writes that "Women enjoyed equal opportunities and prominent roles and were granted the right to vote, hold custody of their children and contribute to the decision process. In addition, the empire used to respect the religious, social and political freedoms of the populations they conquered." Nobody voted in Persia. Nobody really votes in Persia today. Women in the ancient Persian Empire could be kidnapped at the whim of the king and forced to spend the rest of their lives in the harem waiting for one night in the king's bed. As far as respecting the "religious, social and political freedoms of the populations they conquered" let us recall the religious outrages perpetrated upon the Egyptians by Xerxes' grandfather Cambyses, and that Xerxes himself burned Athens to the ground---twice.
She asks us not to forget the contributions of ancient Persia but is a little too enthusiastic about these contributions, most of which pre-date Persia---things such as the brick, the ziggurat and the windmill. She mentions the Cyrus Cylinder Seal which she claims to be "the first Universal Declaration of Human Rights in history." In reality it is nothing but a listing before the people of Babylon of Cyrus' own accomplishments. It is filled with the usual braggadocio common among kings from all places and all eras. No universal claim of any rights was noted by Cyrus or any other Persian king.
Stefania Lapenna has her heart in the right place. She wants liberation for the peoples of Iran from their ghastly oppressors. So do we all. Such a liberation can only occur when the regime of the mullahs experiences exactly what the regime of the Persian king Darius III experienced at the hands of Alexander the Great.