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Birkbeck Lectures 2023: ‘The first Iranians – religion, empire, and ethnicity in late antiquity’ by Professor Richard Payne

Professor Richard Payne of the University of Chicago will give the Birkbeck Lectures 2023 on ‘The first Iranians: religion, empire, and ethnicity in late antiquity.’ Below he outlines the series.

My lectures will explore the origins of the idea of an Iranian people and its role in the formation and endurance of an empire in late antiquity. After conquering the formally Parthian Empire, from Arabia to Central Asia, the so-called early Iranian court introduced an entirely new vision of political community: ērānšahr, or the ‘territory of the Iranians.’ The Iranian people thus evoked not a pre-existing ethnic group, but an imagined community within the oral tradition of the Zoroastrian religion.

The lectures will demonstrate how the religion provided an identity and a set of institutions in the service of what proved the most successful imperial order of the ancient Middle East, 224-636 CE.

For the 12 October lecture I will centre on development and propagation of an Iranian identity as a framework for political cooperation among the notoriously fractious aristocratic communities of the Parthian Empire now integrated into an Iranian Empire, with a focus on the third century. The subsequent lectures will reveal the role of Zoroastrian institutions in sustaining the Iranian framework.

2 November lecture will examine the reproductive politics of the empire, demonstrating how Zoroastrian jurists innovated juridical institutions guaranteeing the intergenerational reproduction of aristocratic males and their lineages.

16 November lecture will focus on the politics of patrimonies: these self-same jurists developed mechanisms for the preservation and sacralization of aristocratic landholdings in fire temple endowments and their intergenerational transmission.

23 November lecture will return to the theme of the processes of coalition building in the first lecture, considering the luxury arts for which the empire is best known – elaborate silver vessels and silk garments – as political products. The great Zoroastrian feasts came to serve as moments of political convention at which gift exchange and the participation in shared pleasures constituted a collective performance of the Iranians as an elite, aristocratic community. The empire was theirs, just as the name of the political project – ērānšahr – suggested.

The Birkbeck Lectures take place at 5pm on the above dates in the Winstanley Lecture Theatre. Open to all, no booking required.

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