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Mar 19 2013

Jefferson Influenced by Persian King

BBC News has an interesting article with information that, with all the study I’ve done of Thomas Jefferson, I had never come across before. One of the influences on him when it came to religious and political liberty was Cyrus, the Persian king who conquered Babylonia in the sixth century BC.

As the Cyrus Cylinder begins its US tour, BBC Persian’s Khashayar Joneidi explores how the reputedly liberal monarch who gave his name to the ancient Persian artefact inspired US founding father Thomas Jefferson…

Referred to by some scholars as the “first bill on human rights”, the cuneiform inscriptions on the cylinder appear to encourage freedom of worship throughout the Persian Empire and to allow deported people to return to their homelands…

In addition to the objects borrowed from the British Museum, a copy of Cyropaedia, Xenophon’s book on Cyrus, is on display at the exhibition in Washington DC.

The book, a bilingual Greek and Latin version published in Europe in 1767, is one of the two copies of Cyropaedia belonging to Thomas Jefferson that is currently held at the Library of Congress.

A contemporary of Socrates, Xenophon wrote on how Cyrus ruled a diverse society based on tolerance…

The book became popular during the Enlightenment among political thinkers in Europe and America, including those who drafted the US Constitution in 1787.

“In the 18th Century, that model of religious tolerance based on a state with diverse cultures, but no single dominant religion, became a model for the founding fathers,” said Mr Raby…

Jefferson not only studied the book in detail, but also advised his family to read it, according to Massumeh Farhad, Freer and Sackler’s chief curator.

Ms Farhad said Jefferson in a letter had asked his grandson to study Cyropaedia.

“He wrote. ‘when you start learning Greek, the first book you should read is Cyropaedia,’” Ms Farhad said.

Although a source of inspiration for European and American philosophers, the state model created by Cyrus, based on diverse cultures, but no single dominant religion, was only picked up on in the 18th Century United States.

That’s very cool, I think.

21 comments

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  1. 1
    Thorne

    That’s very cool, I think.

    Think so? Just wait until David Barton hears of it! It’ll either be, “Jefferson was a secret Ay-rab! Separation of Church and State a Mooslim plot!” or “Liberal Mooslim lefties call Jefferson an Ay-rab! Lock them away in their own FEMA camps!”

    And Glenn Beck? I can’t even imagine!

    Somebody pass the popcorn!

    (WTF? I don’t even LIKE popcorn!)

  2. 2
    Poggio

    sure sure…freedom for all, as long as you pay fealty to Babylon. Just ask the Ionians about Babylonian ‘liberality’ lol, =))

  3. 3
    DaveL

    Referred to by some scholars as the “first bill on human rights”, the cuneiform inscriptions on the cylinder appear to encourage freedom of worship throughout the Persian Empire and to allow deported people to return to their homelands…

    I found an actual translation of the Cyrus Cylinder text, and I have to say referring to it as a bill on human rights is laying it on a bit thick.

  4. 4
    Raging Bee

    sure sure…freedom for all, as long as you pay fealty to Babylon.

    Well, yeah, you do need a strong government to enforce people’s rights, especially when all those people are looking for ways to take away their neighbors’ rights; and that kind of government has to be paid for somehow. Freedom isn’t free and all that.

  5. 5
    Hercules Grytpype-Thynne

    @Thorne:

    Not so fast. Barton may grab this and run with it. Cyrus is credited with ending the Babylonian captivity of the Jews, and was therefore considered to be a servant of Yahweh and even referred to as “the Anointed of the Lord”. So we have Jefferson being influenced by God’s anointed: one more arrow in Barton’s quiver.

    Also I don’t think even Barton believes Cyrus was an Arab or that there were Muslims 1200 years before Muhammad. But I’ll admit I could be wrong about that.

  6. 6
    dingojack

    Poggio – But was it better or worse than under the Sea People, Hittites, Achaeans, Macedonians, Athenians, Romans…
    ;) Dingo

  7. 7
    marcus

    “Although a source of inspiration for European and American philosophers, the state model created by Cyrus, based on diverse cultures, but no single dominant religion, was only picked up on in the 18th Century United States.”
    According to Jack Weatherford author of Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World, a retelling of the biography written by the Great Khan’s son, the Khan allowed the subjects of his far-flung empire cultural and religious freedom also. This was of course dependent upon the celerity of their surrender to his army and their continued dedication in the payment of their tributes. I imagine that this was the result of sheer pragmatism on his part and probably Cyrus’ as well.

  8. 8
    Raging Bee

    DaveL: I kinda agree. Basically it’s a boast that he let people worship as they pleased and created a bigger state to rebuild fortifications and enforce peaceful hegemony. The freedom of religion isn’t as unusual as some people today think it is (not all religious societies were as intolerant as the Abrahamic ones). But the bigger state would have been a big step toward greater freedom in itself.

  9. 9
    Raging Bee

    Yeah, and +1 to marcus: Genghis Kahn is responsible for a lot more “new” innovations than people tend to give him credit for: freedom of religion, national parks, a national postal service, passports…

  10. 10
    kantalope

    I’m not a big Jefferson guy – but you could probably make a legitimate history career out of all the books Jefferson recommended to people. We already have access to the list of books he sold to re-start the Library of Congress (6000 some odd) and then all his letters where he was always mentioning some book or another. Not as lucrative or as easy as just making stuff up like Barton but still a legit line of scholarship.

  11. 11
    greenspine

    @Raging Bee and Marcus: Hitler, Stalin, Mao, etc. all managed to complete great projects during their tenure too. There’s a real tendency among modern historians (including Jack Weatherford) to highlight Genghis Khan’s accomplishments, while downplaying or ignoring the atrocities. Let’s not forget that the Mongol empire was built on the corpses of millions of the conquered. The people who were slaughtered on a nearly industrial scale didn’t get much chance to enjoy their new-found religious freedoms.

  12. 12
    dingojack

    And don’t forget Gengis Khan’s invention of paper, gunpower, drycleaning, superglue, velcro and the Internet!
    Dingo

  13. 13
    Raging Bee

    Hitler, Stalin, Mao, etc. all managed to complete great projects during their tenure too.

    Other nations — in and before the same era as that lot — completed great projects without having to commit the atrocities they committed. Those dictators were behind their times, while Ghengis Kahn was ahead of his.

    There’s a real tendency among modern historians (including Jack Weatherford) to highlight Genghis Khan’s accomplishments, while downplaying or ignoring the atrocities.

    That could be because the atrocities weren’t that unusual in that much more primitive time; while the accomplishments were unusual for that time and thus deserved mention.

    Your comparison is invalid, because Ghengis Kahn’s rule was a net step forward, while Hitler, Stalin, Mao, etc. all represented a step BACKWARD for their subjects.

  14. 14
    greenspine

    You can only view Genghis Khan as a “net step forward” if you disregard or ignore the millions of people slain by the Mongol invaders. The Mongols opened trade routes and established communications between East and West, among other accomplishments. When placed on a scale opposite genocide, do those balance? I submit that you can only think so because you have the luxury of viewing the Mongol invasions from a great remove in time, space, and culture. In the parts of the world that were decimated by the Mongols (how long did it take Baghdad to re-attain the population it had before the Mongols destroyed it?), you don’t get this hand-waving on the subject of the genocides.

    The scale of the Mongol atrocities *were* unusual, even for the time. European powers went to war and lots of people were killed, but they didn’t walk the populations of entire cities outside the walls, assign ten captives to each soldier, and tell them to get to work chopping heads off. That’s why the Mongols were regarded with such terror by contemporary historians. Like I said, this rosy view of the “progressive” Mongol empire is very much a modern conceit.

  15. 15
    cottonnero

    Genghis Khan and Gandhi are the two biggest victims of the “I have no idea where the H goes” phenomenon. When people talk about Genghis (or Ghengis) Kahn, I always assume he’s married to Madeline.

  16. 16
    Francisco Bacopa

    The quickest way to build an empire is to promote peace and tolerance. The Persians understood this after they conquered Babylon. “Be who you are, we ask little of you except tribute and a small contingent of soldiers” was their message. Yes, they helped Babylonian Jews move back to Israel to form a strong buffer state on their borders. Greek and Persian sources agree with The Bible here, one of the few cases where the bible is confirmed by outside sources.

  17. 17
    Pierce R. Butler

    Little-known fact with which to bedevil Twoo Believers: in response to receiving permission to return to Jerusalem from Babylon, the Hebrew priesthood of his time named Cyrus as – ta dah! – Messiah.

    (The King James Version of the O.T., and no doubt many others, skirt this simply by saying that Cyrus was “anointed”, though I doubt he ever allowed any of them to rub their grease on his body.)

  18. 18
    Curt Cameron

    Pierce Butler just posted what I wanted to point out: The Jews called Cyrus “messiah.”

    He delivered them from the Babylonians. That’s what they meant when they used the word, not some hippie dude who gets executed within days of showing up. Now Cyrus – there was a messiah!

  19. 19
    bad Jim

    I just wish there were only Two Believers.

    The classical Greeks weren’t quite as fond of the Persians as the Jews. In contrast, Alexander attempted to marry the two dynasties every which way.

    Jefferson was not alone among the founders in ecumenical outreach. Washington said, roughly, that the Christian, Jew, Mahometan and Hindoo alike worship the same God.

  20. 20
    sc_770d159609e0f8deaa72849e3731a29d

    Also I don’t think even Barton believes Cyrus was an Arab or that there were Muslims 1200 years before Muhammad. But I’ll admit I could be wrong about that.

    Does Barton know muslims believe there were muslims before Muhammad, Hector? The standard muslim doctrine is that all the earlier prophets were also muslims. Given that Muhammad took a lot from judaism, including the named prophets, it’d be interesting to know muslims’ attirude to Cyrus. The present Iranian government demands that the British Museum returns ‘their’ scroll, even though it was found in Iraq.

  21. 21
    Nick Gotts

    Genghis Khan and Gandhi are the two biggest victims of the “I have no idea where the H goes” phenomenon. – cottonnero

    The usual scholarly spelling these days seems to be Chinggis – easy as long as you remember the double “g”. I think the question of whether he was a “net positive”, taking into account the genocide but also the subsequent trade and technical exchanges, is still disputed; I’d come down on the negative side for the same reason as greenspine, plus the end of the innovative Southern Song era in China, but one region that definitely benefited was western Europe: no invasion (probably thanks to the death of Chinggis’ son and successor in 1241, leading to the expedition that had already trashed Poland and Hungary being called off when the news reached it, so the troops could go home to vote*), but an opening to China, from which came gunpowder, the compass, and possibly the idea of printing, among other innovations.

    *Take part in the kuriltai, the assembly that chose the next Khan. Not one man (let alone one person) one vote, but mass political participation of a kind.

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