History 131B – Ancient Iran

This course is a survey of the history and civilization of the ancient Iranian world, encompassing the modern day nation-states of Iran, Afghanistan and the surrounding areas. The course will concentrate on several themes in Iranian history which include the Elamite empire, the arrival of the Indo-Europeans and their settlement; Persian social and political history; the Zoroastrian religion and mythology; critique and interpretation of the literary sources from the Avesta to the royal inscriptions; studying and using primary sources such as coinage and pottery for writing and understanding Persian cultural and social history. The course will concentrate on the cultural contacts between the Iranian, Indian, Greek, Roman and the Turkic world and how they have influence one another. The course will also include analysis of primary sources and their importance for understanding ancient Iranian history.

  1. Lindsay Allen, The Persian Empire, Chicago, 2005.  -
  2. Touraj Daryaee, Sasanian Persia: The Rise and Fall of an Empire, London, 2009. -
  3. Dick Davis, Shahnameh: The Persian Book of Kings, Publisher: Penguin, 2009. -
  4. Mary Boyce, Textual Sources for the Study of Zoroastrianism: Chicago, 1990. -
  5. Articles and Primary Sources in PDF format: Provided by the professor

Students will be assessed on their ability to absorb, assess, critique, and communicate the main themes and interpretations found in the assigned reading. There will be a midterm and a final. Graduate Students enrolled are expected to do extra work.



Grade breakdown: There will be a midterm and final worth 80% of your grade. The remaining 20% of the grade will be based on a short research paper (3-4 pages, footnotes and bibliography).

Week 1: The Iranian World-View in its Final Form: The Shahnameh of Ferdowsi (September 28, 30)

Reading assignment: Davis: Shahnameh of Ferdowsi (Headings: The First Kings; The Demon-King Zahak; The Story of Feraydun and His Three Sons: The Story of Iraj; Rostam, the Son of Zal-Dastan; Rostam and His Horse Rakhsh; The Tale of Sohrab)

Lecture and Reading Topics: Iranians and their beliefs; The Dualistic World-View; From the Avesta to the Shahnameh: Iranian Literature

Week 2: The Avesta: Origins of the Iranian Zoroastrian World-View (October 5, 7)

Reading assignments: Boyce 1.1; 1.2; 1.3; 1.5 / Boyce 2.1; 2.2 / Boyce 3.3; 3.5 / Boyce 4.1 4.4 / Boyce 5.1; 5.2; Boyce 7.4

Lecture and Reading Topics: Ancient Iranian belief system; Zarathushtra / Zoroaster the Reformer Prophet of Ancient Iran; The Gathas of Zarathushtra; The Avesta: The Collection of ancient Iranian Knowledge; Ahura Mazda and the Beneficent Spirits; Zoroastrianism.

Week 3: The Achaemenid Empire: (October 12, 14)

Reading assignments: Allen Chapters 1, 2, 3, 4 / Boyce 10.1

Lecture and Reading Topics: The rise of Persis, Cyrus the Great; Cambyses and the conquest of Egypt; Darius I and the Achaemenid Empire in Crisis; The Organization of the Empire; Darius and his successors: The two images of Xerxes: The Greek and Persian views; Artaxerxes I & II; Cyrus the Younger and Civil War; Did Women bring down the Achaemenid Empire? Was there a decline in the Achaemenid Empire?

Week 4: Religion and the Empire (October 19, 21)

Reading assignments: Allen Chapter 5

Lecture and Reading Topics: Ahura Mazda; Mitra; Anahita; Baga; Other deities and demons; Early Zoroastrianism; The destruction of idol temples; Zoroaster and his message; monotheism vs. dualism; the Avesta; Later Achaemenid Zoroastrianism; Jews in the empire; From Judaism to paganism in Achaemenid provinces.

Week 5: The End of the Empire, Alexander, the Seleucids (October 26, 28)

Reading assignments: Allen Chapter 6

Lecture and Reading Topics: The fall of the Achaemenid empire; Alexander the Great and his legacy, Seleucid centralism; The Hellenistic heritage; The extended cultural area; The Graeco-Bactrians; Gandhara and Western influences; The harvest of Hellenism; the impact of Hellenism on daily life, language and culture.


Week 6: MIDTERM (November 2)


Week 6: The Parthians: Hellenism and the Roman Nemesis (November 4)

Reading assignments: Boyce 10.2

Lecture and Reading Topics: The road westwards; Parthia and Rome; The government and bureaucracy of the empire; Literature and culture; The Kushans and the East; The testimonies; The king and his Subjects; The Sistanic epics and the heroic era. Zoroastrianism; Parthian Satraps; Army and the Cults; Mithra.

Week 7: The Sasanian Empire (November 9, 11)

Reading assignments: Daryaee Political and Religious History / Boyce 10.3

Lecture and Reading Topics: The Elamayis and their kingdom; Persis and tradition; Religion under the Persis kings; Ardashir and the cycle of history; The imperialism of Shapur I; Divine kingship; The church and State; The search for identity; the three Bahram’s and the power of Shapur II; From the lineage of gods to the Kayanid kings.

Week 8: Religion and Empire: Judaism, Christianity, Mazdaism (November 16, 18)

Reading assignments: Daryaee Religions of the Empire

Lecture and Reading Topics: The foundation of Zoroastrianism; The surviving documents; Mazdaism; Kerdir and Adurbad i Mahrspandan; Mani and his religion; Jews and Christians in the empire; Heresies and the church; Mazdak and his movement; The Roman Empire as an adversary. Rome and Persia: friend and foe.

Week 9: The Late Sasanian World (Nov. 23)

Reading assignments: Daryaee Political and Economic History

Lecture and Reading Topics: The zenith of the empire; Xusro I and his reforms; Xusro II and the conquest of Egypt and Byzantium; Disorder and disintegration of the empire; fratricide and civil war; The rule the two queens: Buran and Azarmiduxt; the Perso-Byzantine wars and the destruction of the Near East. Yazdgird III and the Arab Muslim Conquest; Local reaction and apocalyptic expectations; Islam versus Iran; Central Asian particularism; Orthodoxy in Fars; The new Persian renaissance; Zoroastrians under Arab rule; the landed gentry and the survival of old traditions The compilation of the Avesta; The compilation of Xwaday-namag and epic; Pahlavi texts record on history and society; Royal records and material evidence for imperial ideology; secular literature; minstrels and singers; games and chivalry.

Research Paper Due (Nov. 23)

Thanksgiving Holiday Nov. 24th

Week 10: Society, Women, Literature & Culture (Nov. 30th, Dec. 2nd)

Reading assignments: Daryaee Language and Literature

Lecture and Reading Topics: Eranshahr: The Empire, its Inhabitants and their Way of Life; Women's law and women's rights; marriage and divorce; class and caste; who can own property ? foreigners and citizens; Christians, Jews, Manicheans, Mazdakites and the Zoroastrians; Cults, local and foreign.

Final EXAM: Thursday, December 9 / 1:30-3:30