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The Persian Empire

The Persians built one of the greatest empires in world history. Here’s its story.


The Iranian people had originated as part of the Indo-European peoples of the steppes, and had spread down into central Iran around 1000 BCE. They consisted of different tribes – Medes, Parthians, Sogdians – and Persians. From the 8th and 7th centuries the Iranians began to spread towards southwestern Iran, with the Persians at the fore. Here they encountered the kingdom of Elam. This had existed in the area for two thousand years or more, but was now weak and fragmented.

The ancient accounts of the origins of the Achaemenid state are confused, but the main outlines seem clear. The Persians, under their leaders of the royal Achaemenid clan, took the city of Anshan from the Elamites in the mid-7th century BCE.

The principality thus formed seems to have played a minor part in the turbulent events leading to the fall of the Assyrian empire, in the late 7th century BCE. These events left another Iranian people, the Medes, in control of a huge territory in Iran, and they soon established themselves as one of the great powers of the Middle East. Their king took the title “king of kings”, and the Achaemenid kings of Anshan were one of their many vassals – but presumably quite prominent ones, as in the early 7th century one of them, Cambyses, was married to one of the daughters of the Mede “king of kings”.

In c. 559 one of the great figures of world history, Cyrus the Great, succeeded as vassal king of Anshan.

Cyrus the Great

According to the Greek historian Herodotus, in 553 BCE Cyrus rebelled against the Mede king (and his grandfather-in-law) Astyages, and defeated him in two battles, aided, it seems, by other rebels. These actions brought the huge empire of the Medes under his control, and he adopted the Mede title of “King of Kings” to enshrine his claim to be their successor.

In 549-8 BCE the Persians occupied the rest of Iran, and Armenia; then Lydia, in Asia Minor (547 BCE). Cyrus entrusted the conquest of the rest of Asia Minor, including the Greek cities on the west coast, to his gener­als, while he conquered eastern territories including Bactria, Sogdiana, parts of central Asia and northwest India.

In 539, Cyrus entered the city of Babylon, the capital of the Babylonian empire. Mesopotamia, Elam, Syria, and Judaea seem to all have submitted to Cyrus as well. By 535 at the latest he controlled all the lands up to the borders of Egypt.

Cyrus’ rule

After the conquest of Babylon Cyrus styled himself “king of Babylon, king of the lands.” He ruled his multinational conquests through the governing structures already in place in the different nations. In Babylonia he maintained the traditional bureaucratic apparatus which had grown up there over the centuries; in the Phoenician cities of Syria and the Greek cities of Asia Minor he installed native “tyrants” ( a word which did not then carry the pejorative implications it has today) as rulers; elsewhere he often kept the previous rulers in place, on condition that they remained obedient to him. Over them he apparently placed Persian and Mede governors (satraps) who had almost compete power over large portions of the empire.

Cyrus followed a policy of religious toleration throughout his empire, although he himself was almost certainly a devotee of the chief god of the Iranians, Ahura Mazda, and indeed may have been a follower of Zoroastrianism (which had probably been spreading amongst the Iranians since the 7th century) and therefore a monotheist. Nevertheless, he presented himself to the Babylonians as the one appointed by their god, Marduk, to restore his religion (after neglect by the last Babylonian king, Nabonidus).  He reinstalled the statues of the gods which Nabonidus had brought to Babylon from various Mesopotamian cities to their former sanctuaries. He ordered the reconstruction of temples in Mesopotamia and Elam which had fallen into ruin. Most famously, he allowed the Jews to return to their homeland and restore the temple to Yahweh in Jerusalem. The book of Isaiah, in the Jewish and Christian Bible, refers to Cyrus as the “anointed one (messiah) of Yahweh”.

Cyrus, therefore, seems to have gone out of his way to respect the customs and religions of conquered peoples. This is perhaps reflected in the judgement of the Greeks, the long-standing enemies of the Persians, who considered him both a great conqueror and a wise statesman.

In 530 BCE Cyrus went on a campaign against the Massagetae tribe, in central Asia, who were raiding the northwest frontier of his empire, and was killed in battle. His body was brought back to the new capital he had founded, Pasargadae, for burial.

Cambyses II

Cyrus was succeeded by his son, Cambyses II, who invaded Egypt in 525 BCE, and defeated the pharaoh, Psamtik III, at the battle of Pelusium. He then had himself crowned as Pharaoh, and adopted the titles and practices of a native ruler of Egypt. Despite the claims of Greek and Roman writers, there is no evidence that he despoiled Egyptian temples, though he did apparently limit the amount of tribute they could demand from their countrymen. Perhaps it was this – and of course a desire to break free of alien rule – that led to an Egyptian revolt against him, which he put down with great severity.

He spent the rest of his reign there. In 522 he heard news of a rebellion back in his homeland of Iran, but died (probably of accidental causes) on his way back to deal with it.

It is tempting to see in this revolt as a nationalist Iranian (or particularly Medean) reaction against being sidelined by the centralizing policies of Cyrus and Cambyses (especially the latter). It seems that the Iranian priesthood, the magi, were involved, and large sections of the Iranian nobility lent their support. However, the details are obscure and it is dangerous to overstep the evidence. What does seem clear, however, was that there was widespread resentment at the high taxation which Cambyses was levying on the Iranians.

The rebels put a man called Gaumata on the throne, who shored up support for the rebellion by granting the Iranians three years remission of taxes. Gaumata ruled for seven months before being overthrown in 522 BCE by a counter-coup organized by a group of leading Persian nobles. According to the Greek historian Herodotus, the leaders of this coup, having achieved their aim of getting rid of Gaumata, then debated the best form of government to adopt for the empire. Rejecting the rule of the nobles as it would lead to factionalism, and the rule of the people, as it would lead to anarchy, they chose monarchy, and elected one of their number, Darius, as king.

Darius the Great

Darius was a member of the Achaemenid royal clan, though only distantly related to Cambyses and his father, Cyrus. Unsurprisingly, his claim was challenged by numerous rebels, and his first years as king were spent fighting for his throne. Rebellions in Elam (southwest Iran), Sardis, Phyrgia (both in western Asia Minor), Afghanistan, and central Asia all had to be put down. In 517 he went to Egypt to deal with trouble there.

Once his hold on power was secure, he expanded Persian power in western India, and into Europe. He led an expedition to the mouth of the river Danube, intent on reaching the steppes to fight against the Scythians (a constant threat to the empire). Venturing only a little further, he then returned, accepting Thrace and Macedonia into his empire. He also consolidated Persian control over the Greek cities of western Asia Minor (Ionia), through tyrants appointed (or at least, approved) by himself.

These actions set the stage for the Greek-Persian Wars, the first round of which was fought under Darius’ rule. When the Ionian Greek cities revolted against their Persian-appointed tyrants in 499 BCE, Darius’ generals spent six years bringing them back under Persian rule.

The Greek cities in Greece itself, particularly Athens, had lent much support to their cousins in Asia Minor. This made Darius realize that they posed an ongoing threat to the stability of empire. He therefore decided on the conquest of all Greece. He first sent an expeditions to reimpose firm Persian control over Thrace and Macedonia, which had been weakened by the Ionian revolt. He then sent a joint naval-military expedition to take Athens; this was defeated at the famous battle of Marathon (490 BCE).

Darius died before he could renew war against the Greeks, in 486 BCE, though not before presiding at the opening of a new canal in Egypt which linked the Red Sea with the river Nile.

Darius’ reforms

Darius is noted above all for having regularized the Persian administration of their empire, and thus putting it on a firmer footing. Cyrus and Cambyses had left the empire as a somewhat loose federation of self-governing satrapies, subject to irregular tribute and relying largely on pre-existing institutions and personnel. Unsurprisingly, the empire had almost fallen apart after Cambyses’ death. Darius had virtually to reconquer the satrapies; he then decided to weld them together into a strong, integrated empire.

His first task was to create a centralized standing army which was answerable to the king alone. He raised this in Iran, and at its core was a powerful elite corps of 10,000 Persian (and probably Mede) troops, the famous “Immortals”. These came under the king’s direct orders, and functioned as a royal guard.

In terms of provincial administration, Darius divided the empire into twenty satrapies. The governors (satraps) were appointed directly by the king, and were mostly Persian nobles or members of the royal house. The satrapies were subdivided into smaller administrative units, with their own governors either nominated by the central government or by the satraps.

Each satrapy had to pay a fixed annual tribute to the central treasury. The amount of tribute was set by a commission appointed by Darius, who visited the satrapies to determine the revenues of each district.

The system which Darius created was full of checks and balances, to prevent too much power concentrating in the hands of the satraps. Roving inspectors. the “eyes and ears of the king”, who reported directly to the king, visited each satrapy on a regular basis, to see that all was in order.

Darius improved the network of roads and way-stations throughout the empire, the better to extent his control over his far-flung territories. A system of government couriers carried messages speedily from his capital (or wherever he happened to be) to provincial officials. These measures of course stimulated long-distance trade, and to facilitate this Darius introduced a new silver coinage. He built and upgraded canals and underground waterways, and introduced some standardization to weights and measures.

He also built a new capital at Persepolis, with Ecbatana, in central Iran, serving as the summer capital. He chose Susa, however, to be the administrative seat of power, because of its accessibility and strategic location in relation to the rest of the empire.

Like Cyrus and Cambyses before him, Darius exercise toleration of the varied beliefs of his subjects. Indeed he patronized cults and temples other than his own; most famously he funded the rebuilding of the Jewish temple in Jerusalem.

By these measures, Darius placed the empire on foundations that would last for nearly two centuries.

Darius’ successors


Xerxes I (reigned 485-65 BCE), the son of Darius, inherited a revolt in Egypt, which had flared up right at the end of Darius’ reign. He put down the revolt with great severity and, abandoning any pretense of ruling the country as a pharaoh, absorbed it into the empire as just another satrapy. A little later a revolt in Babylonia led to the same outcome there.

Xerxes also inherited the task of bringing Greece under Persian control. He led a massive expedition into Greece in 480 BCE, but both his army and navy were defeated in a series of battles with the Greeks (480-79). As a result, the Persians lost all of their territories in Europe, and the Greek cities in Asia Minor again revolted. This time they were assisted by a powerful alliance of Greek cities under the leadership of Athens, called the Delian League. Greek successes against the Persians continued, until, after the battle of Eurymedon (466 BCE), active hostilities ceased.

Xerxes was murdered in a place coup in 465, and his son Artaxerxes I came to the throne (reigned 465-425 BCE).

Artaxerxes I

The troubled succession had a ripple effect throughout the empire, and rebellions broke out in Bactria and Egypt. The rebellion in Egypt took ten years to put down. Artaxexes’ reign was later troubled by another revolt, in Syria (c. 455).

Despite coming to the throne very young, Artaxerxes was a capable and humane man, though he gained a reputation (perhaps fabricated after his death) for being under the thumb of his wives and concubines. In his dealings with the Greek cities, he pursued a policy of weakening the Persian’s arch-enemy, Athens, by funding that city’s enemies in Greece. The Athenians responded by attacking the Persians in Egypt in Cyprus, but failed to achieve much. Artaxerxes negotiated a peace with the Greeks (the Peace of Callias) in 449-8 BCE, which effectively restored the situation which had prevailed before the Greek-Persian wars, with the Persians giving up their ambitions in Greece but retaining their control of the Ionian cities.

Darius II

Artaxerxes’ death in 424 BCE was followed by a period of instability, featuring coups and counter-coups, until one of Artaxerxes’ illegitimate sons, Ochus, took the throne. He assumed the royal name Darius II, and restored stability after this turbulent time. He pursued a policy of supporting Sparta against Athens, and the latter was decisively defeated in 404 BCE. In that year, however, Darius died; and at his death a major rebellion in Egypt led to that country breaking free of Persian control for several decades.

Artaxerxes II

Darius II was succeeded by his son, Artaxerxes II. His brother, Cyrus, satrap of Lydia, in Asia Minor, hired ten thousand Greek mercenaries and rebelled. He marched on Babylon (at that time serving as the imperial capital), but was stopped by the royal Persian army at the battle of Cunaxa (401). Cyrus was killed, and the ten thousand Greeks, now far from home, fought their way back to Greek territory over hundreds of miles of hostile territory. An account of their adventures was produced by one of their commanders, Xenephon; this would have an important influence on later generations of Greeks, including a young Macedonian prince called Alexander, who would wonder whether the mighty Persian empire was as powerful as it seemed.

Artaxerxes reigned for 45 years (404-358 BCE), the longest of any Achaemenid monarch. He failed in an attempt to reconquer Egypt (373 BCE), but was more successful in his dealings with the Greeks. When Sparta invaded Asia Minor, he funded Sparta’s enemies, and this had the desired effect of provoking war between the Greek cities. Artaxerxes was able to conclude a peace with them (in Greek history called the “King’s Peace“, 387 BCE) which recognised Spartan dominance on the Greek mainland while restoring full Persian control over the Greek cities of Asia Minor. Artaxerxes also had to campaign against steppe nomads on his central Asian frontier, whom he soundly defeated.

In 372 BCE a number of satraps in Asia Minor rebelled, and it took ten years to overcome them, by a mix of military action, diplomacy and compromise (362 BCE).

Artaxerxes III

In 358 BCE Artaxerxes II died and was succeeded by his son Artaxerxes III (reigned 358-337 BCE). His reign was one of constant struggle to keep the empire together, as centrifugal forces tried to tear it apart. Like most of his predecessors, he had troubles with the Greeks, this time Athens again, but forced this city to a peace which reduced her power considerably (355). Like his father, he had to campaign on his central Asian frontier. But it was the satraps, particularly of Asia Minor and other western provinces, who caused him most problems. He faced repeated rebellions from this source, and he even ordered the demilitarisation of the satrapies of Asia Minor. This order was ignored, of course, but in 353 BCE the royal forces defeated the satraps’ armies and they were disbanded.

In 351 BCE, Artaxerxes attempted to recover Egypt, but this ended in a heavy defeat for his army there. This encouraged the satraps of Phoenicia, Asia Minor and Cyprus to rebel. It took Artaxerxes and his generals until 343 BCE to suppress it (which they were only able to do with the help of large numbers of Greek troops). In the course of this war, the historic Phoenician city of Sidon, the center of the revolt, was utterly destroyed.

Artaxerxes followed the ending of this revolt by another attempt to reconquer Egypt. He collected a huge army, whose troops had been hardened in the fierce war against the western satraps, and containing large contingents of Greeks, and marched into Egypt. He defeated the Egyptian pharaoh, Nectanebo II, at the second battle of Pelusium (343). The Persian forces were then quickly able to occupy the rest of the country.

Artaxerxes, who seems to have become somewhat unhinged by the opposition he had encountered throughout his reign (he had inflicted frightful revenge on the people of Sidon after its fall), set about looting temples, raising city walls and terrorising the people of Egypt. He seems to have been aiming at systematically weakening the country through very heavy taxation, persecution of the priests and other methods so that it would never again revolt against Persia.

The whole empire was now at last firmly under Artaxerxes’ control, and the remaining years of his reign were stable and peaceful.

The fall of the Persian empire

One development worried the Persian king, however. This was the growing power of Macedonia under its able and ambitious king, Philip II. Artaxerxes employed diplomacy to try and limit Philip’s influence, and sent troops to aid his enemies to resist Macedonia’s advance.

In 337 BCE Artaxerxes was murdered along with most of his family by his vizier, Bagoas. After the brief reign of Artaxerxes IV (also murdered) Bagoas engineered the rise of Darius III, a nephew of Artaxerxes IV, to the throne. Darius III forced Bagoas to swallow poison.

In 334 BCE, king Alexander III, the youthful king of Macedonia (who would become known to history as Alexander the Great), invaded Asia Minor. He defeated Persian armies at Granicus (334 BCE), Issus (333 BCE) and Gaugamela (331 BCE). Susa and Persepolis surrendered in 330 BCE. He then headed to Ecbatana where Darius III had fled. Darius was taken prisoner by his relative, Bessus, satrap of Bactria. As Alexander approached, Bessus had Darius murdered. He then declared himself Darius’ successor, as Artaxerxes V, before retreating into Central Asia. However, he was intercepted, and brought to Alexander. He was put on trial and executed. Meanwhile Alexander had had Darius’ body given an honorable burial in Persepolis.