When Roman “Barbarians” Met the Asian Enlightenment

The article When Roman “Barbarians” Met the Asian Enlightenmentwas first published by The Strange Continent.com. A portion of that article has been printed below which has been edited. Commentaries have also been inserted for reference. Kindly note that the article printed below features a number of additional images and accompanying captions that do not appear in the original article in The Strange Continent.

Consistent with this topic, a lecture entitled Civilizational Contacts between Ancient Iran and Europe during the Classical Era will be offered by Kaveh Farrokh at the University of British Columbia, Department of Asian Studies Alireza Ahmadian Lectures in Persian and Iranian Studies (November 29, 2019, 6:30-8:30, Room 120, CK Choi Building) … for further details kindly click the image below …


This week, the BBC announced the discovery of two “ethnically Chinese” skeletons at an ancient Roman burial site in England. Who were they? What drove them to the far end of the world? We don’t know, yet.

But for once, an article’s clickbait headline may not be exaggerating. If the genetic identity of these skeletons can be confirmed, it could indeed “rewrite Roman history” — or at least, a whole lot of long-held assumptions about who was in contact with whom in the days of the Roman Empire.

Oh, we’ve known for a long time the ancient Romans were aware of China’s existence — in fact, Chinese silk was such a drain on the Roman economy that the senate tried to outlaw it in the year 14 CE. And the Chinese emperors of the Han dynasty were certainly aware of Rome — they called it Da Qin and repeatedly tried to reach it with envoys and missionaries.

No one disputes the fact that these two cultures had centuries of indirect contact, via trade routes through India and Persia. Roman coins have been found as far east as Japan where Persians were teaching mathematics to the locals.

Sassanian influences upon Japanese arts: the case of the metalwork plate of Shapur II hunting lions (Hermitage Museum, St. Petersburg – Inv. S-253) and motif-parallels in Japanese textile arts (Source: Fall 2014 course on the Silk Route at the University of British Columbia).

DNA evidence seems to suggest that Europeans settled on the western fringes of China as early as the 200s BCE.

COMMENT BY Kavehfarrokh.com: The sentence “Europeans settled on the western fringes of China as early as the 200s BCE”  is somewhat misleading. First, there are common Indo-European ancestors for the Europeans, Indians and Iranians. The peoples the writer is referring to may have been variously proto-Iranian or Tocharian – the dress found among their mummies in Urumchi for example bear striking resemblance to the later attire of the Medes, Achaemenids, Scythians, Sarmatians, Parthians and Sassanians. Second, these settlements in northwest China appear to have taken place earlier before the reign of the Medes and the succeeding Medo-Achaemenids.

What’s much less clear, though, is whether Chinese or Roman diplomats ever managed to achieve direct contact on each others’ native soil.

Until these Chinese skeletons were unearthed in England — at the far-western end of the Roman Empire, no less — no one had ever found any proof that a single Chinese envoy ever made it to Rome; or that a Roman envoy reached China. Which would mean…Romans were largely locked out of the civilized world. But wait… wasn’t Rome “the civilized world?”

That’s certainly what most of us (in the West, anyway) are taught in school. Back in my school days, I was taught a fair amount about Rome, a tiny bit about China, even less about Persia, and nothing at all about the Kushans, or the Axumites, or any of the other powerful empires that controlled large chunks of the globe — and often helped shape the cultures and fortunes of European nations. Maybe you can relate.

The truth is, though, that Rome’s Asian contemporaries completely dwarfed Rome in many respects: heritage, population density, cultural diversity, technology, architecture, medicine, philosophy, poetry… I could go on, but you get the idea. During the Roman period, the Asian continent was by far the wealthiest, most advanced, most culturally diverse place on earth. Imperial Rome was a dim backwater by comparison.

Ever since I’ve learned that fact, it’s always made me sad to think of the Romans being largely cut off from the main action on the world stage.

If researchers can verify the ancestry of these skeletons in England, maybe Rome wasn’t quite as cut off as we always believed. It’s an exciting thought. But it doesn’t change the fact that, on the whole, contact between Rome and the East — and thus, between Eastern and Western cultural legacies — was mostly indirect, mediated by third (and often fourth and fifth) parties.

Who were these vast empires of Asia? What was it like to live in them? Where did they come from, and what legacies did they leave?

I’m glad you asked. Let’s take a journey to the East.

Before we begin our tale, we first need to briefly set our stage, and make sure all our actors are on their marks.

In the 200s to 400s CE (the range of dates during which the owners of those Chinese skeletons made their way to Roman Britain) the map looked something like this:

A map of the Three Great Empires of Antiquity in c. 200 CE: Rome, Persia (Parthians followed by Sassanians) and China (Source: The Strange Continent).

I say “something like this” because a lot was going on during those centuries:

  • Rome’s legions were fighting fiercely for control of Gaul (modern France and Germany), Britain, Egypt, and various parts of the Balkans; while a succession of (often unfairly maligned) emperors scrambled to hold Rome together through an endless series of famines, wars with the East, coups d’état, refugee crises, and revolts.
  • The steppe horsemen known as the Parthians lost control of Persia, which entered a great classical age under the Sassanian dynasty.
  • The Han dynasty lost its grip on China, which split into three powerful warring kingdoms.
  • Vast tracts of southern Asia were changing hands among a dozen or more competing empires, each with its own rich culture.

Since we don’t know exactly when those Chinese travelers (whoever they were) left China and arrived in Roman Britain, it’s hard to say exactly what kind of “China” they left, what kind of “Rome” they arrived in, or what kind of “Persia” — or what other empires, exactly — they had to pass through.

With that in mind, let’s spend some time in a few of those Asian empires, and get to know their people a little better.

The Sassanians

The Sassanians could trace their cultural ancestry all the way back to the primordial mists of recorded history, to the dawn of civilization itself.

Ancient Persian traditional music as posted by The Strange Continent.

They had taken Persia from the Parthians, who’d taken it from the Seleucids — descendants of Alexander; an infamous villain in Persian eyes to this day — who’d ripped it from the hands of the glorious Achaemenid dynasty, who’d freed Mesopotamia from the brutal yoke of the Assyrian Empire, back when Rome was an unknown village.

The Assyrians, of course, had been just the latest in a line of conquerors reaching back through the Babylonians, though many long centuries, to the Akkadian Empire of Sargon the Great — the first documented multi-ethnic empire in world history, which owed its own cultural legacy, in large part, to the Sumerians.

Sargon of Akkad, circa 2250 BCE  (The Strange Continent).

By the time they met Rome, the Sasanians could look back through no less than 3,000 years of literate, urban society. The oldest works of poetry and sculpture in their treasure-houses were as ancient, for them, as the Iliad and the Odyssey, or the Old Testament, are for us today.

In fact, Babylon had long ago been ruled by yet another dynasty from the Persian region. The Elamite people, whose own literate culture was as ancient and venerable as that of the Sumerians, had conquered large swathes of Mesopotamia in the 1800s BCE, holding dominion until they were thrown out by an invading king called Hammurabi.

A bust of Sassanian Shahanshah Shapur II (The Strange Continent).

At its height, the Sassanian Empire spanned all of today’s Iran, Iraq, Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatif, Qatar, UAE, Syria, Palestine, Lebanon, Israel, Jordan, Armenia, Georgia, Azerbaijan, Dagestan, South Ossetia, Abkhazia, Egypt, large parts of Turkey, Afghanistan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Yemen and Pakistan. It was geographically smaller than the peak-size Roman Empire— but it was more urban, and far more densely populated.

The Sassanian Empire at its greatest extent c. 620 CE, under Shahanshah Khosrau II (The Strange Continent).

The Sassanian Empire’s subjects hailed from uncounted hundreds of tribes and peoples. They practiced at least ten different major religions, including Judaism, Hinduism and Buddhism; along with a late, decadent form of the religion of ancient Babylon.

The state religion, however, was Zoroastrianism — as it had been since the Achaemenid dynasty, five centuries before, and would remain until the coming of Islam (while many practicing Zoroastrians still live in the region, and around the world, today).

Though the empire’s people spoke dozens of languages, the tongues of the court were Greek and Aramaic, along with an ancestor of the Farsi language now spoken in Iran.

At the head of the Sassanian state sat the shah-en-shah — the King of Kings, a title borrowed from the Achaemenid Persian emperors like Darius and Xerxes.

Below the shah-en-shah, a meticulously organized pyramid of governors and viziers extended down to the powerful nobility of land-holding feudal aristocrats, who oversaw the middle castes of priests, warriors, commoners, and artisans.

Court of Khosrow II and his queen Shirin – Smbat Bagratuini (Figure 4) was to replicate the spectacular successes of the Sassanian military against a renewed Turco-Hephthalite invasion of the Sassanian empire from the northeast in 618-619 CE (For more information on color plates and sources consult: Plate F, pp.53-54, 62, Elite Sassanian Cavalry-اسواران ساسانی-).

The upper classes enjoyed the first recognizably “Persian” culture: brocaded silks, floral tapestries, ornate goblets, sumptuous carpets, intricate mosaics, and the styles of music, food and poetry that would so captivate their Islamic conquerors a few centuries hence — just as they would later captivate the Seljuks, the Mongols and the Ottomans; and that continue to lend their distinct influences to Turkish and Iranian culture, even today. Any time you savor a bite of baklava or sip a glass of dark tea, thank the Sassanians.

Sassanian influence remains strong in this painting of King Bahram V Gur, from the mid-16th-century Safavid era (The Strange Continent).

You can also thank the Sassanian aristocracy for much of (what would later become) the medieval European aesthetic. Look at this Sasanian rock engraving, for example, and you’re essentially looking at a medieval European king …

Rock-face relief at Naqsh-e Rustam of Sassanian emperor Shapur I (on horseback) capturing Roman emperor Valerian (standing) and Philip the Arab (kneeling), suing for peace, following the victory at Edessa (The Strange Continent).

…except that this engraving depicts the Sassanian shah-en-shah Shapur I, and dates from around 260 CE — a full thousand years before the European medieval period, when the height of Roman fashion was still togas and sandals. It’s like Shapur time-traveled to Rome from the future.

Regal Sassanian figures (middle and right) with the ray-headed Mithras holding a ceremonial sword or barsom at Taghe Bostan (The Strange Continent).

The Sassanian aristocracy, like their later medieval imitators, wore ankle-length robes and pointed slippers, tunics and trousers— more borrowings from the Achaemenids, Assyrians and Babylonians before them.

They rode into battle on famously enormous horses, outfitted in full suits of chain-mail armor, wielding broadswords and longbows, carrying jousting lances. For more see:

Ever wondered how Roman legions would fare against medieval knights? You don’t have to wonder — the Romans fought hundreds of battles against the Sassanians, and the Sassanians often beat the Roman legions to a bloody pulp; especially when fighting on the defensive.

When the Roman army started incorporating their own armored heavy cavalry, they got better at fighting back against the feudal knights of the Sassanian aristocracy — but the Romans never made any permanent incursions into Sassanian territory, or inflicted many serious defeats. The Sassanians never made it very far into Roman territory, either. For hundreds of years, the two armies held each other, in large part, at a stalemate.

Sassanian forces counterattack the invading Turco-Hephthalites in the Sassanian Empire’s northeast; the figures in the above plate (1-late Sassanian Savar-Framandar, 2-Kanarang, 3-Paygospan and 4-Turkic Gok warriors) are based on reconstructions from Sassanian archaeological data such as the grotto of the armored knight inside the vault or Iwan at Taghe Bostan, the (post-Sassanian) metalwork work plate of Pur-e Vahman as well as East Iranian sources (For more information consult: Plate C, pp.53-54, 60-61, Elite Sassanian Cavalry-اسواران ساسانی-).

It wasn’t only in military matters that the  were centuries ahead of their time. Their scholars translated the works of Plato and Aristotle — preserving many books that were later lost to the West — and organized debates between sages and scholars of dozens of philosophies and religions, from all across Asia.

The shah established a “Grand School” at the capital city of Ctesiphon (in modern Iraq), where more than 30,000 pupils studied astronomy, architecture, medicine and literature. In fact, a few centuries later, when the Roman emperor Justinian forcibly closed all the Greek schools, the Sassanians would welcome the fleeing Greek philosophers with open arms.

A detail of the painting “School of Athens” by Raphael 1509 CE (Source: Zoroastrian Astrology Blogspot). Raphael has provided his artistic impression of Zoroaster (with beard-holding a celestial sphere) conversing with Ptolemy (c. 90-168 CE) (with his back to viewer) and holding a sphere of the earth. Note that contrary to Samuel Huntington’s “Clash of Civilizations” paradigm, the “East” represented by Zoroaster, is in dialogue with the “West”, represented by Ptolemy.  Prior to the rise of Eurocentricism in the 19th century (especially after the 1850s), ancient Persia was viewed positively by the Europeans. For more see Ken R. Vincent: Zoroaster-the First Universalist 

Long after the Western Roman Empire fell beneath waves of attack from the Huns and Goths, the Sassanian emperors continued to hold their own against the Eastern Roman Empire, slowly growing weaker under relentless losses against the Byzantines, the Turks, the Khazars, and hordes of other enemies.

By the time the armies of Islam rode out of Arabia, the once-great Sassanian Empire was fragmented and exhausted. An army led by Caliph Umar ibn al-Khattāb captured city after Sassanian city throughout the mid-600s; and by 651, the remains of the knightly and priestly aristocracy fled, in despair, into the vastness of the Central Asian steppe-land.

The remains of the Sassanian royal palace at Ctesiphon, in modern Iraq (The Strange Continent).

It’s often been said, though, that no one truly captures Persia. Instead, Persia captures her conquerors. There’s no doubt that she captured the Arabs. Much of what we think of as “Arabian culture” today — the distinctive styles of art, food, architecture and music; the tales of The 1,001 Nights; the wealth and opulence of Middle-Eastern monarchs— owes far more, in fact, to the Sassanian palace gardens than to the deserts of Arabia.

To read more on this topic, consult The Strange Continent …

Documentary Film Production: the UNESCO Sassanian Fortress in Darband

Pejman Akbarzadeh is making a new documentary about the Sassanian fortress Darband in Daghestan, which is the largest known (pre-Islamic) Iranian defensive structure in Caucasus. Despite being registered as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, the latter remains (excepting among specialized scholars) remarkably unknown internationally, even among contemporary Iranians.

A view of a section of Darband in winter season (Source: Public Domain).

The Persian Heritage Foundation, founded in the 1980s by the late Ehsan Yarshater (1920-2018; one of the primary editors of the Encyclopedia Iranica) has agreed to cover 50% of the production costs. Pejman will be traveling to Daghestan in October 2019 in order to film the fortress and to interview Murtazali Gadjiev (The Institute of History, Archeology and Ethnography of the Daghestan Scientific Centre of Russian Academy of Sciences).

More support however is needed in order to sustain the remaining costs of this important project. For more information on supporting this project on Crowdfunding, click here …

A view of a section of Darband in the summertime (Source: Public Domain).

Pejman’s previous project, was the successful documentary on the Sassanian archway of Taghe Kasra (Taq Kasra) and its critical situation in Iraq. The film has been screened at various museums, universities and international conventions around the world. This documentary film has been cited as an “impressive film” by the BBC.

Fall 2019 Iranian Studies Initiative Lectures at the University of British Columbia

The University of British Columbia’s Persian and Iranian Studies Initiative of the Department of Asian Studies at the University of British Columbia will be providing a series of lectures by prominent Iranian Studies scholars in the Fall of 2019. All of these lectures will be Free and open to the general public. As seen further below, the lecturers shall be Mahsa Rad, Dominic P. Brookshaw, Shahzad Bashir, Farzan Kermani, Morteza Asadi and Kaveh Farrokh.

The planned lectures and specific dates for these are as follows:

Mahsa Rad, Ph.D. Candidate in Psychology, Tarbiat Modares University, Tehran; Visiting International Research Student at UBC: Loneliness and  Struggle: Self-Narratives of Iranian Trans People’s Livesروایت  زندگی ترنس های ایرانی (in Persian)[13 Sept. 2019, 6:00 – 8:00 p.m., lecture hall to be announced]

Dominic P. Brookshaw, Ph.D., Associate Professor of Persian Literature at The Oriental Institute, Oxford Semi-Annual Lecture in Persian/Iranian Studies: One Poet Among Many: Hafez and the Transregional Literary Networks of 14th-Century Iran (in English) – [Sept. 27, 2019, lecture hall to be announced]

Shahzad Bashir, Ph.D., Aga Khan Professor of Islamic Humanities, Professor of Religious Studies, Brown University: Imagining Time in India: Persian Chroniclers and their Interpreters (in English) – [11 Oct. 2019, 6-7:30 p.m., lecture hall to be announced]

Farzan Kermani, Ph.D. in Design, IIT Bombay: Iranian Art After Islam: With a Look at Some Renowned Iranian Calligraphersهنر ایران پس از اسلام: با نگاهی به سرگذشت چند خوشنویس بلندآوازه – (in Persian) – [25 Oct. 2019, 6:00 – 8:00 p.m., lecture hall to be announced]

Morteza Asadi, Ph.D., Visiting Scholar at the School of International Studies, Simon Fraser University, Vancouver, BC; former Assistant Professor of Economy at Kharazmi University, Tehran: Political Economy of Oil Curse: The Case of Post-Revolutionary Iran (in English) – [8 Nov. 2019, 6:00 – 8:00 p.m., lecture hall to be announced]

Kaveh Farrokh, Ph.D., Professor of History & Academic Advisor for Analytica Iranica, Methodolgica Governance University, Paris, France: Civilizational Contacts between Ancient Iran and Europa during the Classical Era (in English) – [29 Nov. 2019, 6:00 – 8:00 p.m., lecture hall to be announced]

Readers further interested in Kaveh Farrokh’s upcoming lecture are encouraged to download two of his peer-reviewed articles as well as the Dissertation of Sheda Vasseqhi below:

Farrokh, K. (2016). An Overview of the Artistic, Architectural, Engineering and Culinary exchanges between Ancient Iran and the Greco-Roman World. AGON: Rivista Internazionale di Studi Culturali, Linguistici e Letterari, No.7, pp.64-124.

Farrokh, K. (2009). The Winged Lion of Meskheti: a pre- or post-Islamic Iranian Legacy in Georgia? Scientific Paradigms. Studies in Honour of Professor Natela Vachnadze. St. Andrew the First-Called Georgian University of the Patriarchy of Georgia. Tbilisi, pp. 455-492.

PhD Dissertation by Sheda Vasseqhi (University of New England; academic supervision team Academic advising Team: Marylin Newell, Laura Bertonazzi, Kaveh Farrokh): Positioning Of Iran And Iranians In  the Origins Of Western Civilization.

See also:

A detail of the painting “School of Athens” by Raphael 1509 CE (Source: Zoroastrian Astrology Blogspot). Raphael has provided his artistic impression of Zoroaster (with beard-holding a celestial sphere) conversing with Ptolemy (c. 90-168 CE) (with his back to viewer) and holding a sphere of the earth. Note that contrary to Samuel Huntington’s “Clash of Civilizations” paradigm, the “East” represented by Zoroaster, is in dialogue with the “West”, represented by Ptolemy.  Prior to the rise of Eurocentricism in the 19th century (especially after the 1850s), ancient Persia was viewed positively by the Europeans.

Rumanian Scholar’s views of Ancient Europa-Iran Ties

The below ideas were expressed to Kavehfarrokh.com by Romanian scholar Dr. Dan Tudor Ionescu (ISACCL-Institutul de Studii Avansate pentru Cultura și Civilizația Levantului Centru de excelență al Academiei Mondiale de Artă și Știință) in response to the following posting on Kavehfarrokh.com provided on July 9, 2018:

King Arthur [Part I]: Some Literary, Archaeological and Historical Evidence

For more on this topic:

Europa & Eire-An

Kindly note that the text of Dr. Ionescu’s response below has been provided with various inserts of links, images and accompanying caption descriptions.


Thank You very much! I find it always interesting to explore connections between Celts and Iranians (Alans-Sarmatians-Parthians, Sassania Persians, Ossetians), as well as between these Northern Iranian nomadic tribes and the Dacians and the old Germainic tribes (Goths, Vandals, Heruli, Gepids,, Burgundians, but also Langobards, Franks, Anglo-Saxons, and even Vikings).

The Iranian Kandys cape and its legacy in Europe (click to enlarge). (A) Medo-Persian nobleman from Persepolis wearing the Iranian Kandys cape of the nobility 2500 years past (B) figure of Paul dressed in North Iranian/Germanic dress from a 5th century ivory plaque depicting the life of Saint-Paul (C) reconstruction by Daniel Peterson (The Roman Legions, published by Windrow & Greene in 1992, p.84) of a 4th-5th century Germanic warrior wearing Iranian style dress and the Kandys. The Iranian Persepolis styles of arts and architecture continued to exert a profound influence far beyond its borders for centuries after its destruction by Alexander (Pictures used in Kaveh Farrokh’s lectures at the University of British Columbia’s Continuing Studies Division and Stanford University’s WAIS 2006 Critical World Problems Conference Presentations on July 30-31, 2006).

There are so many elements of common myths: the cult of the sword extracted from stone or coming from a fairy/goddess of the lake (Arthur)/Caspian Sea (Batradz from the Ossetian and Caucasian Narts), the Dracones (the drake either a huge serpent or a wold headed drake with a snake body, like the Dacian, the Sarmatian, and the Frankish Carolingian types of dracones), the Cup/Cauldron of Immortality (from Dagda’s cauldron in the Irish Gaelic myth to Jamshid’s/Kay Khusraw’s/Sikandar’s cup which reflects the world as it truly is in Persian legend) etc.

Sassanian court of Khosrow II and his queen Shirin (Source: Farrokh, Plate F, p.62, -اسواران ساسانی- Elite Sassanian cavalry, 2005); note the monarch who sits with his ceremonial broadsword. The Sarmatians shared the culture and martial traditions of their Iranian kin, the Parthians and the Sassanians. Many Iranian traditions were to transmitted to the Europeans by way of the Scythians and Sarmatians, notably the cult of the broadsword.

It is however almost impossible to say with any certainty what is a common Indo-European element from the Early Bronze Age and what was a borrowing or influence and who truly influenced whom; whence a mythologem originated is very tricky to acsertain. Before the Sarmatians and Alans to become the common mobile element linking together people as different as the Brythonic Celts and Romano-Britons, Anglo-Saxons, Goths, Vandlas, Lombards, even Huns, Avars, Proto-Bulgars, Proto-Magyars, and Slavs, long before the Germanic and Slavic migrations of the Voelkerwanderungszeit, there were the Celts moving all over Europe and meeting in the East with the Dacians, the Getae, the Thracians, and the Scythians (the Dacian-Thracian being Indo-Europeans heavily influenced by the Iranian Scythians). So, who took from whom, where and when and especially why and how are a set of question still unsolved.

Scythians on the steppes of the ancient Ukraine. Scholars are virtually unanimous that the Scythians were an Iranian people related to the Medes and Persians of ancient Iran or Persia (Painting by Angus McBride). A branch of the Iranian-speaking Scythians were to arrive in the northwest regions of the Indian subcontinent, to be then known as the “Sikh” (from Iranian Saka=Scythian).

Note also the following connections:

  • Ire=Ireland (Old Gaelic/Erse)
  • Airyanam Vaeja, Airyanam Kshatram=iryanam=Eran=Iran
  • Wonderful! There was also an Irish mythical King called Eremon (Vedic Aryaman?)

Other Indo-Iranian-Celtic connections. Vide Jean Markale, L’ Epopee Celtique en Irlande, Paris, Payot, 1971; Idem. L’Epopee Celtique en Bretagne; Idem, Le Roi Arthur et la Societe Celtique, Paris, 1977; G. Dumezil, Mythe et Epopee, Paris, 1981-1986 (3vols.) I do not remember the precise quotations, so passim.

With great pleasure always to read You Sir, Sincerely,

Dr. Dan Tudor Ionescu (ISACCL-Institutul de Studii Avansate pentru Cultura și Civilizația Levantului Centru de excelență al Academiei Mondiale de Artă și Știință)

Persian Influence on Greek Thought

The article “Persian Influence on Greek Thought” by Jacques Duchesne-Guillemin was originally posted on the Encyclopedia Iranica on December 15, 2002 and last updated on February 23, 2012. This article is also available in print (Vol. XI, Fasc. 3, pp. 319-321). Kindly note that the images and accompanying captions inserted below do not appear in the original version by the Encyclopedia Iranica.

As this posting has arrived prior to Nowruz March 21, 2019, the article “Happy Nowruz! نوروز خجسته باد” by Dr Mohammad Ala is being shared as well. Dr Mohammad Ala is the winner of Cinema Vérité Award on December 16, 2018, The Panda Award in October 19, 2018, and The Grand Prix Film Italia Award in June 19-23, 2013.


The idea of oriental, and especially Iranian, origins of Greek philosophy was endowed by antiquity with a legendary aura, either by declaring that Pythagoras had been Zoroaster’s pupil in Babylon (a city where neither of them had probably ever been), or by writing, as did Clement of Alexandria (Clement of Alexandria, 5.9.4), that Heraclitus had drawn on “the barbarian philosophy,” an expression by which, in view of the proximity of Ephesus to the Persian empire, he must have meant primarily the Iranian doctrines.

A drawing of Zoroaster that was made by a Manichean initiate at Dura Europus (Source: Clioamuse); for more on the creed of Mani, see here…

The problem, studied seriously since the beginning of the 19th century, has often been negatively solved by the great historians of Greek philosophy; but it seems, nevertheless, repeatedly to rise anew like the Phoenix from its ashes, as though the temptation to compare the two traditions and discover a bond of interdependence between them periodically became irresistible.

Map of the Achaemenid Empire drafted by Kaveh Farrokh on page 87 (2007) for the booShadows in the Desert: Ancient Persia at War-Персы: Армия великих царей-سایه‌های صحرا-. The empire’s vast network of roads and communications facilitated economic contacts between different geographical regions. These same networks appear to have also facilitated the exchange of ideas between the Hellenic and Iranian worlds.

Pherecydes of Syros was one of the first Greek prose writers and may be considered, as the author of a theogony-cosmogony, to have been a precursor of the Ionian philosophers. He told of the marriage of Zās and Chthoniē. Zās, genitive Zantos, is a conflation of Zeus with the Luvian god Šanta, which points to a region in western Asia Minor from which Pherecydes’ father Babys or Babis originated (West, p. 243). A third god in Pherecydes’s narrative was said to have produced from his own seed, fire, wind, and water; he is called in some sources Kronos, in others Chronos. Both gods were later identified, but we do not know which of the two Pherecydes meant. If he meant Chronos, the question arises of a borrowing from Iran. Zurvan, mentioned as a minor deity in the Avesta (see Zaehner, p. 57; Gray, Foundations, p. 124), was ignored by Zarathushtra, perhaps on purpose, as Mithra was also omitted. Anyhow, Zurvan is attested in Elamite tablets (509-494 B.C.E.) in the name Izrutukma (i.e., *Zru[va]taukma “descended from Zurvan”; see Schwartz, p. 687). The myth of his giving birth to Ohrmazd and Ahriman as recounted by Eznik Kołb in the 5th century (q.v.; see Zaehner, pp. 60-61) and not attested, indirectly before Eudemus of Rhodes (4th century) may, however, have had Indo-Iranian roots, for in India Prajāpati, connected with time, offered sacrifice, like Zurvan in Iran, in order to get a progeny and, just like him, doubted once about the efficacy of his ritual. Pherecydes may therefore, if he wrote about Chronos, have borrowed him from the Magi who, perhaps under the threat of Cyrus, had emigrated to Asia Minor.

The celebration of “Surva” in modern-day Bulgaria. Local lore traces this festival to the Iranian God Zurvan. This folklore system appears to be linked to the Bogomil movement. Interestingly, much of the Surva theology bears parallels with elements of Zurvanism and Zoroastrianism (Picture Source: Surva.org).

Anaximander, according to Hippolytus’ evidence (Refutatio omnium haeresium1.6), taught that the spheres of the heavenly bodies followed one another in this order, starting from the earth: the stars, the moon, and the sun. The Avesta (Hādoxt nask 2.15; Yt. 12.9 ff.) teaches that the souls of the dead reach paradise through three intermediate stages: humata (good thoughts), huxta (good words), and huuaršta (good deeds). Now, according to the Pahlavi books (e.g., Mēnōg ī xrad57.13), each of these stages is respectively identified with the place of the stars, the moon, and the sun.

Anaximander (c.610-c.546 BCE) wielding a sundial, as represented by a 3rd century CE Roman mosaic in Germany, city of Trier at Johannisstraße (Johannis street) (Source: Public Domain & NYU Exhibitions).

It is obvious that the stars, the moon, and the sun follow each other in the order of increasing light, and this progression is completed in a fourth and final stage, which is the destination point of the soul’s journey; one of the Pahlavi names of Paradise is, in fact, anaγrān “beginningless (lights)” (Frahang ī pahlavīk 28). To each stage there corresponds a category of living beings: to the stars, the plants; to the moon, the animals; to the sun, man; to the beginningless lights, the gods or God. The hierarchy between these beings is obvious. So we can explain, through Iran and by means of an organic body of beliefs, Anaximander’s doctrine on the spheres of the stars, the moon, and the sun (see also Panaino, pp. 205-26).

A detail of the painting “School of Athens” by Raphael 1509 CE (Source: Zoroastrian Astrology Blogspot). Raphael has provided his artistic impression of Zoroaster (with beard-holding a celestial sphere) conversing with Ptolemy (c. 90-168 CE) (with his back to viewer) and holding a sphere of the earth. Note that contrary to Samuel Huntington’s “Clash of Civilizations” paradigm, the “East” represented by Zoroaster, is in dialogue with the “West”, represented by Ptolemy.  Prior to the rise of Eurocentricism in the 19th century (especially after the 1850s), ancient Persia was viewed positively by the Europeans.

Everything that exists comes, according to Anaxi-menes (Diels, I, p. 22) from a single substance, aēr, which notably means wind. In Iran it is said in the Dēnkart (278.14) that “He who quickens the world and is the life of living things is Wāy, etc.” The existence of a great god Vayu, already Indo-Iranian, is warranted by similar testimonies in the Rig Veda (4.46 etc.).

Anaximenes’ explanation of eclipses as being caused by dark bodies has its counterpart in Dāmād nask, in Šāyest nē šāyest (12.5). These dark sun and dark moon are not mentioned in the Avesta, but, as writes West (p. 108), “One would not expect to find a theory of eclipses in the Avesta,” at least not in the extant, liturgical part of it.

The Vendidad Sadeh manuscript copied in 1647 CE from Yazd Iran housed in the British Library (Source: Religiondocbox.com).

The question of an Iranian origin of Heraclitus’s doctrines was raised by Friedrich Daniel Schleiermacher, whose work as well as that of his successors Friedrich Creuzer, August Gladisch, etc., have been reviewed by Martin Lutchfield West (pp. 166 ff.). There are several fragments which expound Heraclitus’s reflections on fire. “This cosmic order, which is the same for all, was not made by any of the gods or of mankind, but was ever and is and shall be ever-living fire, kindled in measure and quenched in measure” (Fr. 29); “the transformations of fire: first sea, and of sea, half is earth, half fiery water spout” (Fr. 32); “all things are counterparts of fire, and fire of all things, as goods of gold and gold of goods” (Fr. 28). According to Heraclitus, “fire lives the death of the earth, and air lives the death of fire, water lives the death of air, and earth that of water” (Fr. 76). Another fragment names lightning: “The thunder-bolt steers all things” (Fr. 64). And another one says that fire is to judge all things at the end of the world (Fr. 72).

Depiction by Dutch baroque painter Johannes Moreelse (c. 1603–1634) made in 1630 of Heraclitus (c.535-c.475 CE) (Source: Public Domain).

In the Gāθās the role of fire is fundamental. Twice Zarathushtra calls upon “the fire of Ahura Mazdā,” either to make offerings to it (Y. 43.9) or to acknowledge its protection (Y. 46.7). In all the other passages, fire is an instrument of ordeal. Ordeal is found only once in the Gāθās (Y. 32.7) as an actual practice, but several times there is reference to a future ordeal which is to be made by means of fire to separate the good from the wicked. Here fire is the instrument of truth or justice (aṧa, q.v.), from which it derives its power (hence the epithet aṧa-aojah). This connection of fire with aṧa is constant, e.g, “I wish to think, insofar as I am able, of making unto thy fire (O Ahura Mazdā!) the offering of veneration for Aṧa” (Y. 43). And when each of the elements are placed under the protection of the Aməṧa Spəntas, who surround Ahura Mazdā (qq.v.), Aṧa is the patron of fire.

The main fire altar at the Atash-kade (Zoroastrian Fire-Temple) of Baku in the Republic of Azerbaijan (known as Arran and the Khanates until 1918) (Picture Source: Panoramio). This site is now registered with UNESCO as a world heritage site. For more on Zoroastrian and Mithraic temples in the Caucasus, see here…

There was also a doctrine of cosmic fire. Fire penetrated all the six stages of creation. Although this is not attested before Zādspram’s Wīzīdagīhā (1.25), its antiquity is proven by the appearance, both in Iran and in India, of two equivalent classifications, one in three fires, one in five.

Zoroastrian magi from Kerman during the Jashne Sadeh ceremonies (Source: Heritage Institute).

Parallel to the relationship of fire with Aṧa is Heraclitus’s doctrine that fire is ruled by Dikē “Justice” (not by the Logos as is the case in the Stoic interpretation of Heraclitus). As West writes (p. 137), “the sun’s measures are maintained, through the Erinyes, by Dikē, and since the sun’s measures cannot be isolated from the measures of the world at large, it must be possible to say that Dikē governs the whole process.” Heraclitus’s god watches men the whole time, not only by day. Ahura Mazdā sees all that men do (Y. 31.13) and is not to be deceived (Y. 45.4). He is never asleep and never dulled by narcotics (Vd 19.20). “Heraclitus’ conception of the soul’s history is, from a Greek point of view, novel. It has a deep ‘account’ that increases it-self . . . According to the Pahlavi books [e.g., Mēnōg ī xrad 2.118 ff.], at death, the soul’s good and bad deeds are counted up, and determine its fate” (West, p. 184).

The investiture of Sassanian monarch Khosrow II (r. 590, interregnum, 591 – 628 CE) at Tagh-e-Bostan (Photo: Shahyar Mahabadi, 2004).  Note the broadsword held by Khosrow II at center, flanked by Ahura-Mazda at right and Goddess Anahita to the left. The straight broad sword appears often in Sassanian arts. It is worth noting that the Qajars also carved reliefs  at Tagh-e-Bostan, perhaps in an aendeavor to associate their dynasty with more ancient Iranian icons.  

The fravašis (q.v.) are parallel to Heraclitus’s hero-spirits and to the immortals “that live the death of mortals.” “Heraclitus’ novel emphasis on the function of Eris or Polemos in determining the apportionment of the natural world, his conviction that opposition is the essence of the universe has long seemed to comparativists a counterpart of the Zoroastrian doctrine of agelong war between Ahura Mazdā and Aŋra Mainiiu. Heraclitus strikes a prophetic note that has reminded more than one reader of Zoroaster” (West, p. 186).

A marble representation of Greek philosopher Plato (428/427 or 424/423-348/347 BCE) housed at the Musei Capitolini (Accession number: MC1377) in Rome, Italy (Source: Marie-Lan Nguyen in Public Domain). Plato is known as one of the primary founders of Western philosophy.

Pausanias attributed to the Chaldaeans and the Magi an influence on Plato’s teachings. And Aristotle at one time considered Plato the founder of a religion of the Good and therefore a continuator of the work of the ancient prophet (Jaeger, pp. 13 ff.). In the myth of Er, the souls must choose between two paths: on the left is the way to descend from heaven to hell, on the right is the ascent of the souls who rise from the Tartarus up to the stars (Replica 614 CD). The very idea of this ascension was quite new in Greece and must have come from the Zoro-astrian belief in the primeval choice and in the Činuuatō Pərətu (see ČINWAD PUHL) separating the good from the wicked. Plato may have heard of it through Eudo-xus of Cnidus, who was well aware of the doctrines of the Magi. In the myth of the Politic, Plato envisaged the idea of an alternate predominance of a good god and an evil god, an idea he may have learned from the Magi. But he decidedly refused it. In the Timaeus time is given as the mobile image of immobile eternity, maybe a Platonic transposition of the Iranian distinction between “time long autonomous” and “time infinite” (Av. zurvan darəγō.xᵛaδāta– and zurvan akarana-; see Air Wb., cols. 46 696). The Timaeus owed much to Democritus, whose relationship with the teachings of the Magi is well attested. In the Phaedrus, Plato, with reference to Hippocrates, views man as an image of the world, a microcosm, an idea propounded in the Dāmdāt nask, a lost part of the Avesta summarized in the Bundahišn and whose antiquity is proved by the Indo-Iranian myth of a primeval man sacrificed and dismembered to form the different parts of the world (Duchesne Guillemin, 1958, pp. 72 ff.).

Léon-Alexandre Delhomme’s 1868 statue at the Lyon Museum of Fine Arts in France depicting Democritus (Source: Jean-Louis Lascoux in Public Domain).

Empedocles already shared the microcosm idea, which governed the conception of medicine he had inherited from the Cnidian school, influenced by Iran. He also declared that “the general law is widely extended through the ether of the vast dominion and the immense brightness of the sky,” (Fr. 38), which harks back to Heraclitus and, through him, to Zarathushtra proclaiming the coincidence of Aṧa with the light (Y. 31.7).

An engraving of Empedocles (c.490-c.430 BCE) as featured in the 1655 book “The History of Philosophy” (Source: Public Domain). Like the Hindu philosophers, Empedocles believed in the concept of reincarnation.

The Chaldaic Oracles, despite their fire-cult, probably owe nothing to Iran (contra: des Places, p. 13). Greek mágosmagikósmagía come from Old Persian maguš, but how to trace Iranian elements in Greek magic? The Zoroastrian pseudepigrapha were not written by Hellenized Magi, who may never have existed (R. Beck apud Boyce and Grenet, Zoroastrianism, pp. 491-565). Three kinds of medicine were distinguished, through spells, the knife, or herbs, both in Iran (Vd. 7.44) and in Greece (Pindar, 3.47-55), not elsewhere; borrowing seems, therefore, plausible, either way (Dumézil, pp. 20 ff.).

The Three Magi as depicted in Ravenna (Sant’Apollinare Nuovo), Italy (Source: Public Domain). Note the European depiction of Partho-Sassanian Iranian dress, caps and cloaks.


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