Ancient History Sourcebook:
On The Customs of the Persians, c. 430 BCE
Now the Persian nation is made up of many tribes. Those which
Cyrus assembled and persuaded to revolt from the Medes were the
principal ones on which all the others are dependent. These are
the Pasargadae, the Maraphians, and the Maspians, of whom the
Pasargadae are the noblest. The Achaemenidae, from which spring
all the Perseid kings, is one of their clans. The rest of the
Persian tribes are the following: the Panthialaeans, the Derusiaeans,
the Germanians, who are engaged in husbandry; the Daans, the Mardians,
the Dropicans, and the Sagartians, who are nomads.
The customs which I know the Persians to observe are the following:
they have no images of the gods, no temples nor altars, and consider
the use of them a sign of folly. This comes, I think, from their
not believing the gods to have the same nature with men, as the
Greeks imagine. Their wont, however, is to ascend the summits
of the loftiest mountains, and there to offer sacrifice to Zeus,
which is the name they give to the whole circuit of the firmament.
They likewise offer to the sun and moon, to the earth, to fire,
to water, and to the winds. These are the only gods whose worship
has come down to them from ancient times. At a later period they
began the worship of Urania, which they borrowed from the Arabians
and Assyrians. Mylitta is the name by which the Assyrians know
this goddess, whom the Arabians call Alitta, and the Persians
To these gods the Persians offer sacrifice in the following manner:
they raise no altar, light no fire, pour no libations; there is
no sound of the flute, no putting on of chaplets, no consecrated
barley-cake; but the man who wishes to sacrifice brings his victim
to a spot of ground which is pure from pollution, and there calls
upon the name of the god to whom he intends to offer. It is usual
to have the turban encircled with a wreath, most commonly of myrtle.
The sacrificer is not allowed to pray for blessings on himself
alone, but he prays for the welfare of the king, and of the whole
Persian people, among whom he is of necessity included. He cuts
the victim in pieces, and having boiled the flesh, he lays it
out upon the tenderest herbage that he can find, trefoil especially.
When all is ready, one of the Magi comes forward and chants a
hymn, which they say recounts the origin of the gods. It is not
lawful to offer sacrifice unless there is a Magus present. After
waiting a short time the sacrificer carries the flesh of the victim
away with him, and makes whatever use of it he may please.
Of all the days in the year, the one which they celebrate most
is their birthday. It is customary to have the board furnished
on that day with an ampler supply than common. The richer Persians
cause an ox, a horse, a camel, and an ass to be baked whole and
so served up to them: the poorer classes use instead the smaller
kinds of cattle. They eat little solid food but abundance of dessert,
which is set on table a few dishes at a time; this it is which
makes them say that "the Greeks, when they eat, leave off
hungry, having nothing worth mention served up to them after the
meats; whereas, if they had more put before them, they would not
stop eating." They are very fond of wine, and drink it in
large quantities. To vomit or obey natural calls in the presence
of another is forbidden among them. Such are their customs in
It is also their general practice to deliberate upon affairs of
weight when they are drunk; and then on the morrow, when they
are sober, the decision to which they came the night before is
put before them by the master of the house in which it was made;
and if it is then approved of, they act on it; if not, they set
it aside. Sometimes, however, they are sober at their first deliberation,
but in this case they always reconsider the matter under the influence
of wine. When they meet each other in the streets, you may know
if the persons meeting are of equal rank by the following token:
if they are, instead of speaking, they kiss each other on the
lips. In the case where one is a little inferior to the other,
the kiss is given on the cheek; where the difference of rank is
great, the inferior prostrates himself upon the ground. Of nations,
they honor most their nearest neighbors, whom they esteem next
to themselves; those who live beyond these they honor in the second
degree; and so with the remainder, the further they are removed,
the less the esteem in which they hold them. The reason is that
they look upon themselves as very greatly superior in all respects
to the rest of mankind, regarding others as approaching to excellence
in proportion as they dwell nearer to them; whence it comes to
pass that those who are the farthest off must be the most degraded
of mankind. Under the dominion of the Medes, the several nations
of the empire exercised authority over each other in this order.
The Medes were lords over all, and governed the nations upon their
borders, who in their turn governed the States beyond, who likewise
bore rule over the nations which adjoined on them. And this is
the order which the Persians also follow in their distribution
of honor; for that people, like the Medes, has a progressive scale
of administration and government.
There is no nation which so readily adopts foreign customs as
the Persians. Thus, they have taken the dress of the Medes, considering
it superior to their own; and in war they wear the Egyptian breastplate.
As soon as they hear of any luxury, they instantly make it their
own: and hence, among other novelties, they have learnt unnatural
lust from the Greeks. Each of them has several wives, and a still
larger number of concubines. Next to prowess in arms, it is regarded
as the greatest proof of manly excellence to be the father of
many sons. Every year the king sends rich gifts to the man who
can show the largest number: for they hold that number is strength.
Their sons are carefully instructed from their fifth to their
twentieth year, in three things alone---to ride, to draw the bow,
and to speak the truth. Until their fifth year they are not allowed
to come into the sight of their father, but pass their lives with
the women. This is done that, if the child die young, the father
may not be afflicted by its loss.
They hold it unlawful to talk of anything which it is unlawful
to do. The most disgraceful thing in the world, they think, is
to tell a lie; the next worst, to owe a debt: because, among other
reasons, the debtor is obliged to tell lies. If a Persian has
the leprosy he is not allowed to enter into a city, or to have
any dealings with the other Persians; he must, they say, have
sinned against the sun. Foreigners attacked by this disorder,
are forced to leave the country: even white pigeons are often
driven away, as guilty of the same offence. They never defile
a river with the secretions of their bodies, nor even wash their
hands in one; nor will they allow others to do so, as they have
a great reverence for rivers. There is another peculiarity, which
the Persians themselves have never noticed, but which has not
escaped my observation. Their names, which are expressive of some
bodily or mental excellence, all end with the same letter---the
letter which is called San by the Dorians, and Sigma by the Ionians.
Any one who examines will find that the Persian names, one and
all without exception, end with this letter.
Thus much I can declare of the Persians with entire certainty,
from my own actual knowledge. There is another custom which is
spoken of with reserve, and not openly, concerning their dead.
It is said that the body of a male Persian is never buried, until
it has been torn either by a dog or a bird of prey. That the Magi
have this custom is beyond a doubt, for they practice it without
any concealment. The dead bodies are covered with wax, and then
buried in the ground.
The Magi are a very peculiar race, different entirely from the
Egyptian priests, and indeed from all other men whatsoever. The
Egyptian priests make it a point of religion not to kill any live
animals except those which they offer in sacrifice. The Magi,
on the contrary, kill animals of all kinds with their own hands,
excepting dogs and men. They even seem to take a delight in the
employment, and kill, as readily as they do other animals, ants
and snakes, and such like flying or creeping things. However,
since this has always been their custom, let them keep to it.
Buying and selling in a marketplace is a custom unknown to the
Persians, who never make purchases in open marts, and indeed have
not in their whole country a single market-place.
From: William Stearns Davis, Readings in Ancient History: Illustrative
Extracts from the Sources, Vol. 2: Greece and the East (Boston:
Allyn and Bacon, 1912), pp. 58-61.
Scanned by Jerome S. Arkenberg, Dept. of History, Cal. State Fullerton
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© Paul Halsall May 1998