A Conversation with Dr. John Lee, about his Lecture on The Persian Empire for the “Great Courses” Series, August 29, 2013
Tonight I’ll be having a conversation with Dr. John Lee about the ancient Persian Empire.
I’ll never forget the moment when Michael Wood in his wonderful program “In the Footsteps of Alexander the Great” tells how in some places in the Middle East parents still use Alexander as a threat when their children misbehave. How he’s been the “bogey man” for generation upon generation of youngsters in that part of the world. How differently we see Alexander. Of course, our opinion of him here in the West is not a constant. In a generation he may be seen as a savior, a murderous drunk or the greatest military mind—ever—depending upon which historian’s, or biographer’s interpretation is currently trending.
That’s one of the reasons why I listened to Dr. Lee’s impressive 24 lectures (12 hours) about the Persian (or Achaemenid) Empire. I realized most of what I knew about the ancient Persian Empire was based on information I’d gleaned from historians like Herodotus or film makers like Zack Snyder (Producer/Director of “300”). Now don’t get me wrong, I didn’t believe for one moment that I was watching a historically accurate account of the Battle of Thermopylae as I watched “300”. No, I was well aware that I was seeing a very much “over-the-top” representation of that battle. It wasn’t meant to be history it was meant to be wildly exaggerated entertainment. I mean does anyone really have abs like all the Spartan warriors had unless they’re in a film or a bodybuilding competition? And what about Ephialtes, the traitor, whose name means “nightmare”—could he have been anymore nightmarish in his appearance then he was in “300”? Again, don’t get me wrong, I enjoyed “300” but I didn’t take it portrayal seriously. It was pure entertainment.
But how much have Herodotus and things like “300” informed my concept of what the Persian Empire was? It’s always portrayed as a wicked, decadent, decaying society—think of how extravagant in the extreme Xerxes is in “300”. Is that how I and many others think of it?