Pacific Ancient Numismatists (PAN)
Hosted by Pacific Northwest Numismatic Association

PNNA Home / Clubs / PAN / Persian

Our Persian Heritage by Joseph Kleinman

In my first submission, I wrote an introduction to ancient numismatics. In it I said that our cultural and political institutions are based primarily in those developed by the ancient Greeks and Romans. That statement is essentially true. However, there is an element that is not studied very often as an academic subject and that is our religious heritage which although transmitted to us by the Romans, did not originate with them.

As the title of this submission is our Persian Heritage, it is now necessary to recount the historical events which would establish our connection to ancient Persia. In the year 586 BC the Kingdom of Judah was conquered by Babylon and its people were driven into exile. Not many years later, Babylon was in turn conquered by Cyrus the Great of Persia and the Jews began their long association with an Aryan people who like them practiced a monotheistic religion. Although some of the Jews returned to their homeland to rebuild Jerusalem (this time as a Persian outpost), many of them stayed behind and established their communities within this new empire.

The rest of the history in short order goes like this. Alexander the Great conquers Persia, Parthia replaces the Syrian Greeks in Asia, Rome conquers Syria but not Parthia and this situation doesn’t alter until the third century. In AD 226 the Sassanian monarchy establishes the Neo-Persian Empire. The state religion of this Neo-Persian Empire is Zoroastrianism, the monotheistic religion of ancient Persia.

Zoroastrianism is a religion that still exists in Iran and parts of India. Its basic belief is centered around the notion of a struggle between the forces of good and evil. The good being the wise lord Ormuzd who is opposed by the evil spirit Ahriman. One may suppose that the Christian concept of the Devil is a variation if this evil spirit. The good and evil in the world is represented by the presence of light and darkness. Accordingly, the worship of the faithful takes place around a Fire Altar. Some of the qualities associated with the religion are that its adherents practice hospitality, philanthropy and benevolence. Zoroastrianism had a spin-off in a faith that was to have a profound influence on Western Civilization, the cult of the god Mithra. Mithra was created by Ormuzd so like Jesus did not come into being as the result of a sexual union. He was looked upon as the god of faithfulness, purity and the protector of men. The cult was brought to Rome in the first century BC and became prevalent throughout the empire but especially in the army. Recruits, after undergoing a period of trial were baptized into a brotherhood with a “Father” at its head. This cult may well have become a world religion had it allowed women to take a more active part but that is only my opinion. It was supported by the military emperors of the third century and a similar cult, that of SOL INVICTO, the unconquered sun was established as a state religion by the Emperor Aurelian (AD 270-275). At this point in our story we connect the dots and follow it to its logical conclusion when in the fourth century, following the lead of Constantine, the Roman Empire became officially Christian. So now, we have established a connection or rather a link between what was believed in ancient Persia to what has become the prevalent religious doctrines associated with the Christian faith.

The coin is a Silver Sassanian Drachma showing the Zoroastrian Fire Alter (on the reverse) with two attendants.

Images courtesy of Thomas K. Mallon-McCorgray. Website
Click on photos to enlarge.