Power and Propaganda: The Persian Empire

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Introduction: Power and Propaganda

How do you get people to do what you want? This question is particularly important for people in positions of authority and especially those who control whole nations. There are lots of different options, of course: you can use force (or the threat of force), you can use incentives (most obviously money, but also other expensive goods or privileges), but you can also use persuasion. The latter is an attractive option – after all, constantly having to fight is a major drain on resources, and there’s always the danger that you might lose. Propaganda is the name that we give to material produced by a government which is designed to influence the way in which people think about the world and it is a very useful way to persuade people to do what you want and to accept your authority. This resource is all about the propaganda produced by the kings of the ancient Persian Empire.

Historical Background

Between 539 and 330, the Achaemenid Persian Empire was the most powerful geo-political force in the world. From his capital cities in modern Iran, the Achaemenid king ruled a realm which stretched from Pakistan and Afghanistan in the East, to Turkey, Egypt, and Greece in the West. Ruling this empire was a significant challenge – not just because of its vast size, but also because the empire was populated by incredibly diverse peoples with fundamentally different worldviews: more than 30 different languages were spoken, for instance, and tens of different religions were followed. To remain in power, the king had to be accepted by all of these societies. Of course, the powerful Persian army could help to maintain order, but should more than a couple of the thirty plus countries ruled by the king rise in rebellion at any one time, things would be very difficult for the king; relying on force alone was risky, therefore. But the Persian Empire survived for almost two centuries – clearly the Persian kings found a successful way to bring together their disparate subjects into one, unified Empire. One of their key methods was the creation of a powerful propaganda campaign, which was designed to persuade people right across the empire to support the king. This resource explores some of the artwork made as part of this campaign – you will uncover the key messages that the kings communicated to their subjects, and you will begin to learn how to analyse images.

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