Back to Chapter Listing
Continue Reading

But there are some remarkable instances in which Zoroaster lays aside the prophet , assumes the legislator, and discovers a liberal concern for private and public happiness, seldom to be found among the grovelling or visionary schemes of superstition. Fasting and celibacy, the common means of purchasing the divine favor, he condemns with abhorrence, as a criminal rejection of the best gifts of Providence. The saint, in the Magi an religion, is obliged to beget children, to plant useful trees, to destroy noxious animals, to convey water to the dry lands of Persia, and to work out his salvation by pursuing all the labors of agriculture . * We may quote from the Zendavesta a wise and benevolent maxim, which compensates for many an absurdity. "He who sows the ground with care and diligence acquires a greater stock of religious merit than he could gain by the repetition of ten thousand prayers." 15 In the spring of every year a festival was celebrated, destined to represent the primitive equality, and the present connection, of mankind. The stately kings of Persia, exchanging their vain pomp for more genuine greatness, freely mingled with the humblest but most useful of their subjects. On that day the husbandmen were admitted, without distinction, to the table of the king and his satraps. The monarch accepted their petitions, inquired into their grievances, and conversed with them on the most equal terms. "From your labors," was he accustomed to say, (and to say with truth, if not with sincerity,) "from your labors we receive our subsistence; you derive your tranquillity from our vigilance: since, therefore, we are mutually necessary to each other, let us live together like brothers in concord and love." 16 Such a festival must indeed have degenerated, in a wealthy and despotic empire, into a theatrical representation; but it was at least a comedy well worthy of a royal audience, and which might sometimes imprint a salutary lesson on the mind of a young prince.
Footnote *: See, on Zoroaster 's encouragement of agriculture , the ingenious remarks of Heeren, Ideen, vol. i. p. 449, &c., and Rhode, Heilige Sage, p. 517 - M.
Footnote 15: Zendavesta, tom. i. p. 224, and Precis du Systeme de Zoroastre, tom. iii.
Footnote 16: Hyde de Religione Persarum, c. 19.
Had Zoroaster , in all his institutions, invariably supported this exalted character, his name would deserve a place with those of Numa and Confucius, and his system would be justly entitled to all the applause, which it has pleased some of our divines, and even some of our philosophers, to bestow on it. But in that motley composition, dictated by reason and passion, by enthusiasm and by selfish motives, some useful and sublime truths were disgraced by a mixture of the most abject and dangerous superstition. The Magi , or sacerdotal order, were extremely numerous, since, as we have already seen, fourscore thousand of them were convened in a general council. Their forces were multiplied by discipline. A regular hierarchy was diffused through all the provinces of Persia; and the Archimagus, who resided at Balch, was respected as the visible head of the church, and the lawful successor of Zoroaster . 17 The property of the Magi was very considerable. Besides the less invidious possession of a large tract of the most fertile lands of Media , 18 they levied a general tax on the fortunes and the industry of the Persians. 19 "Though your good works," says the interested prophet , "exceed in number the leaves of the trees, the drops of rain, the stars in the heaven, or the sands on the sea-shore, they will all be unprofitable to you, unless they are accepted by the destour, or priest. To obtain the acceptation of this guide to salvation, you must faithfully pay him tithes of all you possess, of your goods, of your lands, and of your money. If the destour be satisfied, your soul will escape hell tortures; you will secure praise in this world and happiness in the next. For the destours are the teachers of religion; they know all things, and they deliver all men." 20 *
Footnote 17: Hyde de Religione Persarum, c. 28. Both Hyde and Prideaux affect to apply to the Magi an the terms consecrated to the Christian hierarchy.
Footnote 18: Ammian. Marcellin. xxiii. 6. He informs us (as far as we may credit him) of two curious particulars: 1. That the Magi derived some of their most secret doctrines from the Indian Brachmans; and 2. That they were a tribe, or family, as well as order.
Footnote 19: The divine institution of tithes exhibits a singular instance of conformity between the law of Zoroaster and that of Moses. Those who cannot otherwise account for it, may suppose, if they please that the Magi of the latter times inserted so useful an interpolation into the writings of their prophet .
Footnote 20: Sadder, Art. viii.
Footnote *: The passage quoted by Gibbon is not taken from the writings of Zoroaster , but from the Sadder, a work, as has been before said, much later than the books which form the Zendavesta. and written by a Magus for popular use; what it contains, therefore, cannot be attributed to Zoroaster . It is remarkable that Gibbon should fall into this error, for Hyde himself does not ascribe the Sadder to Zoroaster ; he remarks that it is written inverse, while Zoroaster always wrote in prose. Hyde, i. p. 27. Whatever may be the case as to the latter assertion, for which there appears little foundation, it is unquestionable that the Sadder is of much later date. The Abbe Foucher does not even believe it to be an extract from the works of Zoroaster . See his Diss. before quoted. Mem. de l'Acad. des Ins. t. xxvii. - G. Perhaps it is rash to speak of any part of the Zendavesta as the writing of Zoroaster , though it may be a genuine representation of his. As to the Sadder, Hyde (in Praef.) considered it not above 200 years old. It is manifestly post-Mahometan. See Art. xxv. on fasting. - M.
These convenient maxims of reverence and implicit were doubtless imprinted with care on the tender minds of youth; since the Magi were the masters of education in Persia, and to their hands the children even of the royal family were intrusted. 21 The Persian priests, who were of a speculative genius, preserved and investigated the secrets of Oriental philosophy; and acquired, either by superior knowledge, or superior art, the reputation of being well versed in some occult sciences, which have derived their appellation from the Magi . 22 Those of more active dispositions mixed with the world in courts and cities; and it is observed, that the administration of ArtaXerxes was in a great measure directed by the counsels of the sacerdotal order, whose dignity, either from policy or devotion, that prince restored to its ancient splendor . 23
Footnote 21: Plato in Alcibiad.
Footnote 22: Pliny (Hist. Natur. l. xxx. c. 1) observes, that Magi c held mankind by the triple chain of religion, of physic, and of astronomy.
Footnote 23: Agathias, l. iv. p. 134.
The first counsel of the Magi was agreeable to the unsociable genius of their faith, 24 to the practice of ancient kings, 25 and even to the example of their legislator, who had a victim to a religious war, excited by his own intolerant zeal. 26 By an edict of ArtaXerxes , the exercise of every worship, except that of Zoroaster , was severely prohibited. The temples of the Parthians, and the statues of their deified monarchs, were thrown down with ignominy. 27 The sword of Aristotle (such was the name given by the Orientals to the polytheism and philosophy of the Greeks) was easily broken; 28 the flames of persecution soon reached the more stubborn Jews and Christians; 29 nor did they spare the heretics of their own nation and religion. The majesty of Ormusd, who was jealous of a rival, was seconded by the despotism of ArtaXerxes , who could not suffer a rebel; and the schismatics within his vast empire were soon reduced to the inconsiderable number of eighty thousand. 30 * This spirit of persecution reflects dishonor on the religion of Zoroaster ; but as it was not productive of any civil commotion, it served to strengthen the new monarchy , by uniting all the various inhabitants of Persia in the bands of religious zeal. !
Footnote 24: Mr. Hume, in the Natural History of Religion, sagaciously remarks, that the most refined and philosophic sects are constantly the most intolerant. Note: Hume's comparison is rather between theism and polytheism. In India, in Greece , and in modern Europe, philosophic religion has looked down with contemptuous toleration on the superstitions of the vulgar. - M.
Footnote 25: Cicero de Legibus, ii. 10. Xerxes, by the advice of the Magi , destroyed the temples of Greece .
Footnote 26: Hyde de Relig. Persar. c. 23, 24. D'Herbelot, Bibliotheque Orientale, Zurdusht. Life of Zoroaster in tom. ii. of the Zendavesta.
Footnote 27: Compare Moses of Chorene, l. ii. c. 74, with Ammian. Marcel lin. xxiii. 6. Hereafter I shall make use of these passages.
Footnote 28: Rabbi Abraham, in the Tarikh Schickard, p. 108, 109.
Footnote 29: Basnage, Histoire des Juifs, l. viii. c. 3. Sozomen, l. ii. c. 1 Manes, who suffered an ignominious death, may be deemed a Magi an as well as a Christian heretic.
Footnote 30: Hyde de Religione Persar. c. 21.
Footnote *: It is incorrect to attribute these persecutions to ArtaXerxes . The Jews were held in honor by him, and their schools flourished during his reign. Compare Jost, Geschichte der Israeliter, b. xv. 5, with Basnage. Sapor was forced by the people to temporary severities; but their real persecution did not begin till the reigns of Yezdigerd and Kobad. Hist. of Jews, iii. 236. According to Sozomen , i. viii., Sapor first persecuted the Christians. Manes was put to death by Varanes the First, A. D. 277. Beausobre, Hist. de Man. i. 209. - M.
Footnote !: In the testament of Ardischer in Ferdusi, the poet assigns these sentiments to the dying king, as he addresses his son: Never forget that as a king, you are at once the protector of religion and of your country. Consider the altar and the throne as inseparable; they must always sustain each other. Malcolm's Persia. i. 74 - M
Part III.

ArtaXerxes , by his valor and conduct, had wrested the sceptre of the East from the ancient royal family of Parthia. There still remained the more difficult task of establishing, throughout the vast extent of Persia, a uniform and vigorous administration. The weak indulgence of the Arsacides had resigned to their sons and brothers the principal provinces, and the greatest offices of the kingdom in the nature of hereditary possessions. The vitaxoe, or eighteen most powerful satraps, were permitted to assume the regal title; and the vain pride of the monarch was delighted with a nominal dominion over so many vassal kings. Even tribes of barbarians in their mountains, and the Greek cities of Upper Asia, 31 within their walls, scarcely acknowledged, or seldom obeyed. any superior; and the Parthian empire exhibited, under other names, a lively image of the feudal system 32 which has since prevailed in Europe. But the active victor, at the head of a numerous and disciplined army, visited in person every province of Persia. The defeat of the boldest rebels, and the reduction of the strongest fortifications, 33 diffused the terror of his arms, and prepared the way for the peaceful reception of his authority. An obstinate resistance was fatal to the chiefs; but their followers were treated with lenity. 34 A cheerful submission was rewarded with honors and riches, but the prudent ArtaXerxes suffering no person except himself to assume the title of king, abolished every interMedia te power between the throne and the people. His kingdom, nearly equal in extent to modern Persia, was, on every side, bounded by the sea, or by great rivers; by the Euphrates, the Tigris, the Araxes, the Oxus, and the Indus, by the Caspian Sea, and the Gulf of Persia. 35 That country was computed to contain, in the last century, five hundred and fifty-four cities, sixty thousand villages, and about forty millions of souls. 36 If we compare the administration of the house of Sassan with that of the house of Sefi, the political influence of the Magi an with that of the Mahometan religion, we shall probably infer, that the kingdom of ArtaXerxes contained at least as great a number of cities, villages, and inhabitants. But it must likewise be confessed, that in every age the want of harbors on the sea- coast, and the scarcity of fresh water in the inland provinces, have been very unfavorable to the commerce and agriculture of the Persians; who, in the calculation of their numbers, seem to have indulged one of the nearest, though most common, artifices of national vanity.
Footnote 31: These colonies were extremely numerous. Seleucus Nicator founded thirty-nine cities, all named from himself, or some of his relations, (see Appian in Syriac. p. 124.) The aera of Seleucus (still in use among the eastern Christians) appears as late as the year 508, of Christ 196, on the medals of the Greek cities within the Parthian empire. See Moyle's works, vol. i. p. 273, &c., and M. Freret, Mem. de l'Academie, tom. xix.
Footnote 32: The modern Persians distinguish that period as the dynasty of the kings of the nations. See Plin. Hist. Nat. vi. 25.
Footnote 33: Eutychius (tom. i. p. 367, 371, 375) relates the siege of the island of Mesene in the Tigris, with some circumstances not unlike the story of Nysus and Scylla.
Footnote 34: Agathias, ii. 64, and iv. p. 260. The princes of Segestan de fended their independence during many years. As Romance generally transport to an ancient period the events of their own time, it is not impossible that the fabulous exploits of Rustan, Prince of Segestan, many have been grafted on this real history.
Footnote 35: We can scarcely attribute to the Persian monarchy the sea-coast of Gedrosia or Macran, which extends along the Indian Ocean from Cape Jask (the promontory Capella) to Cape Goadel. In the time of Alexander, and probably many ages afterwards, it was thinly inhabited by a savage people of Icthyophagi, or Fishermen, who knew no arts, who acknowledged no master, and who were divided by in-hospitable deserts from the rest of the world. (See Arrian de Reb. Indicis.) In the twelfth century, the little town of Taiz (supposed by M. d'Anville to be the Teza of Ptolemy) was peopled and enriched by the resort of the Arabian merchants. (See Geographia Nubiens, p. 58, and d'Anville, Geographie Ancienne, tom. ii. p. 283.) In the last age, the whole country was divided between three princes, one Mahometan and two Idolaters, who maintained their independence against the successors of Shah Abbas. (Voyages de Tavernier, part i. l. v. p. 635.
Footnote 36: Chardin, tom. iii c 1 2, 3.

Back to Chapter Listing
Continue Reading

To cite original text:

Gibbon, Edward, 1737-1794. The history of the decline and fall of the Roman Empire. 1st ed. (London : Printed for W. Strahan ; and T. Cadell, 1776-1788.), pp. 205-209.

Log in or register to write something here or to contact authors.