Power and Propaganda in The Persian Empire


How do you get people to do what you want? This question is particularly important for people in positions of authority and especially those who control whole nations. There are lots of different options, of course: you can use force (or the threat of force), you can use incentives (most obviously money, but also other expensive goods or privileges), but you can also use persuasion. The latter is an attractive option – after all, constantly having to fight is a major drain on resources, and there’s always the danger that you might lose.

Propaganda is the name that we give to material produced by a government which is designed to influence the way in which people think about the world and it is a very useful way to persuade people to do what you want and to accept your authority. This resource is all about the propaganda produced by the kings of the ancient Persian Empire.

Historical Background

Between 539 and 330, the Achaemenid Persian Empire was the most powerful geo-political force in the world. From his capital cities in modern Iran, the Achaemenid king ruled a realm which stretched from Pakistan and Afghanistan in the East, to Turkey, Egypt, and Greece in the West.

Ruling this empire was a significant challenge – not just because of its vast size, but also because the empire was populated by incredibly diverse peoples with fundamentally different worldviews: more than 30 different languages were spoken, for instance, and tens of different religions were followed. To remain in power, the king had to be accepted by all of these societies.

Of course, the powerful Persian army could help to maintain order, but should more than a couple of the thirty plus countries ruled by the king rise in rebellion at any one time, things would be very difficult for the king; relying on force alone was risky, therefore.

But the Persian Empire survived for almost two centuries – clearly the Persian kings found a successful way to bring together their disparate subjects into one, unified Empire. One of their key methods was the creation of a powerful propaganda campaign, which was designed to persuade people right across the empire to support the king.

This resource explores some of the artwork made as part of this campaign – you will uncover the key messages that the kings communicated to their subjects, and you will begin to learn how to analyse images.

Now check out the activities below!

Video Resource

Resource activities

Greek Sources and the Persian Empire

When historians begin to examine a new society, the starting point is usually a contemporary (or near-contemporary), written, narrative source. By a ‘contemporary, written, narrative source’ I mean a piece of literature that describes the events of a particular period in the order that they happened, and which was produced close to the events described. Such sources are usually considered reliable because they were produced at a time when memory of the events were available and facts could not be distorted easily; such material is important because it helps historians to contextualise major events and develop a basic understanding of the period in question. 


The Persepolis Tribute Frieze

Persepolis was the main capital of the Persian Empire, located in the south of modern-day Iran close to Shiraz. The city was founded about 515 BC by Darius I, who constructed a monumental palace complex on a man-made platform which towered more than 15 metres above the surrounding plain. The buildings on this terrace formed the administrative heartland of the Empire: it was here that the king met his subjects in formal audiences, here that valuable objects from around the Empire were stored, and here that fate of the 30 million people within the Empire was decided. 


The Tombs of the Kings

From Darius I onwards, all of the Persians kings were buried in identical tombs and each tomb was decorated with the same relief. The relief shows the king standing on top of a platform, with his hand raised in a greeting that is directed towards Ahuramazda, the most important Persian god. Underneath the platform, a number of the peoples of the empire are represented. Consequently, these reliefs were another way in which important messages about the nature of the empire were communicated by the Persian kings.


Answer Sheet


Reflective questions

To answer and record these questions you will need to have an account and be logged in.

Task 1

What are the key arguments, concepts, points contained within it?

Task 2

What are you struggling to understand?

What could you do to improve your understanding of these concepts/terminology etc.?

Task 3

What further questions has this resource raised for you?

What else are you keen to discover about this topic and how could you go about learning more?

Can you make any links between this topic and your prior knowledge or school studies?

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Further reading

  • Marathon 2500 Project

    The Marathon 2500 Project was created for the anniversary of the Battle of Marathon, a series of lectures which are a lot shorter than The Histories itself (although it still should be read!) and focus on numerous aspects of the Greco-Persian War, the respective Greek and Persian perspective as well as the historiography of Herodotus.

  • The Persians by Aeschylus

    Online reading of The Persians by Aeschylus, a tragedy and the oldest surviving account of Greek history, centred on the Greek defeat of Xerxes' armies from the perspective of the Persians. Interesting to see how Aeschylus presents the Persians, having fought in the Greco-Persian war himself. Plays are a great source and this one especially, because it is one of the few that comments on contemporary events.

  • The History of Media Use by Propaganda Purposes

    Some more examples of propaganda, a fair few from the Persian Empire.