Crispin Andrews sees children re-create the might of the Persian empire as they join in a workshop linked with the British Museum exhibition
"So this is democracy? Everybody talking at once; no one heard or understood!"
Irregular banter gradually falls into attentive silence. Certain of his audience, Darius II, King of Kings, divine ruler of the second Persian empire, continues with his denunciation: "I have heard that, in your country, a great many hours are wasted in this way."
While their teachers smile at the classroom management technique of actor Andrew Ashmore, the Year 4 class from Yerbury Primary School in Tufnell Park, London, awaits its fate.
Clad in replica chitons, the pupils are playing the part of Athenian envoys. They are taking part in a project on the Persian Wars at the British Museum, arranged to coincide with the exhibition, Forgotten Empire - the World of Ancient Persia. The year is 489bc and, after winning the battle of Marathon, Athens is wary of another attack from the mighty empire on its doorstep, and has sent a delegation to Persepolis to seek an audience with the king. For his part, Darius is more concerned with securing immediate acquiescence to Persian rule. His ultimatum to Athens is clear: join us or be defeated.
At first, Darius threatens to have all the envoys put to death in retaliation for the fate that befell his own ambassadors at the hands of the Athenians several months earlier. Protestations from the children that they should not be held accountable for the deeds of others are met by another stern rebuke to the democratic system.
"You do not obey a king but prefer to decide things together - yes? In that case, as you all decided together to put my people to death, you are all guilty."
Aiming to help the children understand that perspectives on historical events can vary, the king goes on to challenge many typical Greek - and, subsequently, Western - notions. First, he castigates the concept of freedom, asking if the children would prefer to be poor and have nothing or wealthy and protected like his own subjects, free from the threat of invasion. How can it be, he demands, that the voice of a man who is wise counts the same as that of a man who is a fool? Surely it is better to be ruled by the best man in the land - the king, he who is born to rule, he who is possessed of the spirit of god. Majority rule? How can the spirit of god be in everyone?
Who is the mightier, continues Darius: an army of farmers or one in which the king's personal bodyguard alone is 10,000 strong? Can a region such as Attica, at a mere 450 square miles, be greater than a vast empire such as his own that covers an astonishing three million square miles? Disputing another commonly held perception, he asks why it is so good to be Greek when having so many gods makes Greek provinces weak, divided and easy to pick off, while his own vast empire remains united under one god and one king. Even the great Olympic legacy is derided: "So you run around naked in front of everyone, do you?"
Next, invited by the king to take a look around Persepolis in the hope that they might at last understand the city's splendour and realise the futility of any opposition, the children embark on a guided investigation of the exhibition itself.
Armed with a range of prompt cards, they discover the wealth, grandeur and might of Darius's great empire. One pupil finds that the king's cups and bowls were made of silver, gold or polished stone. Looking at a carving on a cast made from a section of the city wall, another discovers that all the people in the empire had to pay regular tribute to the king to retain his favour. Having seen countless artefacts detailing every aspect of life in the empire, the children leave the exhibition in no doubt that Ancient Persia was a place of legendary power and wealth, not to mention legendary kings.
Teacher Josh Franks, who plans to develop opposing historical perceptions in subsequent Year 4 lessons, says: "Being personally involved in the day has engaged the children, enthusing them to learn. As the session contained elements of looking, doing, listening, talking and moving around, many learning styles have been catered for."
Nigel Tallis, curator at the British Museum, explains how the project and display have been designed to challenge existing assumptions.
"The Greeks constructed an image of their Persian enemy as a despotic and ruthless people, thereby defining themselves as free and heroic," he says.
"With the present high level of public interest in the Middle East, it is now more important than ever that children learn about our debt to their culture and its vital importance to the development of civilisation."
lForgotten Empire - the World of Ancient Persia runs until January 8.
Films, documentaries, study days, talks, lectures, workshops, conferences and family days are included in the diary of events.
Tel: 020 7323 8000 www.thebritishmuseum.ac.ukpersia
* The Persian empire was founded in 550 bc by Cyrus the Great. At its height, it stretched from Libya to India and from the Aral Sea to the Persian Gulf. Conquered peoples were allowed to keep their own religion and culture, but had to provide soldiers for the Persian army.
* When building his palace at Persepolis, Darius used the finest craftsmen from all over his empire. For this reason Persian architecture has an eclectic feel to it.
* The royal road stretched more than 1,600km from Susa to Sardis, allowing a fast, efficient postal system to operate.
* The King's 10,000-strong personal bodyguard were known as the Immortals.
Any who died in battle were immediately replaced.
* Persian kings worshipped only one god, Ahura Mazda, the Wise Lord, god of absolute goodness, wisdom and knowledge, creator of the Sun, stars, light and dark, humans and animals, and all spiritual and physical activities. He opposed all evil and suffering.
* Themost iconic object to have survived from Ancient Persia is the Cyrus Cylinder. It records a decree enabling deported peoples to return home.
Placed in the foundations of Babylon's city wall soon after Cyrus's conquest of the city in 539bc, the Cyrus Cylinder has been seen by some as an early charter of human rights.
* In 331bc Alexander the Great conquered the Persian empire and burnt Persepolis.
* The costume worn by Andrew Ashmore, and his throne, came from the set of the recent film, Alexander, staring Colin Farrell. They were donated by Warner Brothers.
John Curtis' British Museum handbook on Ancient Persia is a good introduction. There are many popular works on the Greek and Persian wars, eg The Persian Empire from Cyrus II to Artaxerxes I by Maria Brosius, produced by the London Association of Classical Teachers - www.kcl.ac.ukhumanitiescchlactor