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Does Media do justice to the Persian Empire?

THE VILIFICATION OF PERSIANS BY THE MEDIA A comparison between the portrayal of Persians in Western films ‘300’ and ‘Intolerance’ from reality



It struck me that our understanding of the Persians[1] as an empire and culture is wholly and singularly based on movie portrayals - or one movie in particular - the 2007 American epic fantasy war film ‘300’ which is a fictionalised retelling of the Battle of Thermopylae in around 480 BC. I wondered if other, perhaps less mainstream and more cinematographic, productions such as the 1916 European silent masterpiece, Intolerance, which tells the story of the Battle of Opis in 539 BC, portrayed the Persians any differently.

The consistent thread running between these Western productions was the vilification of Persians as barbaric, power-hungry conquerors that engaged mercilessly in battle at all costs. Is this a factually accurate portrayal of the Persians?


Seeing the Persian warriors in Intolerance, I felt a sense of foreboding doom given the representation of the army as a wave of darkness conveyed using  “hundreds if not thousands of extras”.


This feeling of impending evil took a whole new level in 300. Firstly, many Persians there were played by black-African actors despite the fact that Persians then and now are fair-skinned with Caucasian features. The Persian warriors in 300 are “Asiatic hordes” of “racially inferior”wild beasts, giants, and fang-toothed men”. Contrastingly, a 2000 study found that Persians were found to have “high incidences of...genes common among modern day Europeans”.

This depiction of the Persians was so outrageous that Iran officially denounced the film.


In 300, the Persian King Xerxes, appeared to an “eight feet tall, clad chiefly in body piercings and garishly made up, but not disfigured” (as pictured below) which is a fantastical, stark misrepresentation of the noble, “bearded figure perched on his throne as depicted on the walls of Persepolis” in reality.




Admittedly, Intolerance does a better job than 300 in terms of visually casting actors with racial features bearing significantly more resemblance to real-life Persians. Unfortunately,  this is nullified by character portrayal. in Intolerance, King Cyrus the Great, founder of the Persian Empire appeared as a an ”authoritative and unforgiving” dictator, a "ruthless barbarian” who is stated in the movie to “sweep onto Babylon’s destruction”.


This tyrannical depiction of Cyrus was “contrary to the historic accounts of a benevolent Cyrus who freed the Jews from their captivity and proclaimed the world's first declaration of human rights”.

The Cyrus Cylinder (as pictured below) is one of the few reliable pieces of primary evidence retrieved from the time which chronicles this declaration. The Cyrus Cylinder describes how the Cyrus did not conquer Babylon through adversary and battle but instead liberated the Babylonians from the tyranny, plague and famine which festered under the existing ruler of Opis. While this a hotly debated academic point, what remains is that there does not exist any other direct evidence of equal reliability suggesting anything otherwise.




“Esther and the King”(1960), a movie which was released over half a century ago, depicts how a young Jewish woman born in the ancient Persian empire was supposedly a catalyst for a change. An explicit example in the film would be when it was implied that a taxation system did exist in the Persian empire, with fixed levies, and following Esther’s ‘mentoring and tutelage’ of the empire’s ruler , the taxation system was subject to a drastic change. This would suggest that these rulers were not opposed to accepting women of other cultural backgrounds as legitimate royal consorts, whom they commune with intimately.

In the film he was hailed as “The most powerful man on earth” and as the “Taker of the earth”. However, it was frequently mentioned how efforts to conquer Greece remained a challenge and that was the only hurdle to be considered as supreme ruler of “lands across the seas”.

Moreover, a process by which the fairest women in the land were forcefully taken from their homes against their own will to be added as commodities in the Persian King’s harem was outlined. These women, one of whom was Esther, were groomed, educated and prepared to be presented to King Ahasuerus. The harem was filled with a diverse ‘collection’ of local women who were of different ethnicities slightly suggesting the multi-cultural interests of this ancient empire (as learnt in our lectures).

King Ahasuerus is often identified/associated with more than one historical figure in the Hebrew bible. It is worth to note that this movie delineates how a Jewish community was allowed to retain and practise their traditions and customs with no prohibitions under the blessing of the Persian King. It is mentioned that Esther had never set foot onto her ‘motherland’ and she was born and bred in Persia her entire life. This substantiates that Persia was indeed an avenue for varying cultures to co-exist without compromising faith, possibly a cosmopolitan melting pot. There were also gifts and treasures from Nubia and the Far-east being acquired - indulgence in newly conquered lands.

The King’s minister, Haman (antagonist) is also referred to as ‘Prince’. This was not inaccurate as co-ruler (not an equal in hierarchy ) was indeed referred to as such. Interesting how such a practice was in use then too, possibly brought forth from this civilization and inspiring others to apply the same?

The cast, however, did not appear as exotic as how the media today has depicted people of this ancient empire. In fact, the ‘jewellery’ and wardrobe patronized by nobility appeared similar to that of representations of aristocracy and royalty in movies depicting Greek society. Would this mean that it was actually a result of the ancient Persian Empire absorbing foreign elements of luxury and opulence as learnt in class? Or it was probably just the lack of details/knowledge of their authenticity that led to this.