FC15: The Persian Empire (c.550-330 BCE)




Few people today can boast a longer and prouder history than the Iranians, descendants of the ancient Persians.  Not only did they build the greatest empire of the ancient Near East, but they also absorbed the ancient civilizations they ruled, in particular that of Mesopotamia.  They then added their own distinctive touches and passed them on to Islamic civilization, still one of the main cultural traditions of modern times.  Therefore, this remarkable people who have survived and flourished from antiquity to the present have been a major connecting link with our past.

We first encounter the Persians around 2000 B.C.E. emerging from the grassy steppes of Central Asia in the north.  At that point, they were closely associated with two other peoples: the Medes and Aryans. The latter of these turned eastward, crossed the Hindu Kush Mountains, and overthrew the Indus River civilization.  Eventually these nomads would settle down and build Indian civilization upon the foundations laid by the Indus culture.  Meanwhile the Persians and Medes were turning westward where they encountered the Elamites, a people whose extended contact with Mesopotamia had influenced them to absorb the culture of the "Cradle of Civilization".

The Medes and Persians in turn started absorbing Elamite culture.  One need only look at the relief sculptures of the Persians, with their curly beards and stiff formal poses, to see the connection with Mesopotamia.  However, the process of becoming civilized was a long one for these people, since they were still on the northeastern fringes of the older Near Eastern cultures.  When they emerge fully into the light of history in the pages of the Greek historian Herodotus, they are still very nomadic in their customs and values.  According to Herodotus, the nomadic Persians had only three simple goals in educating their sons: "to ride a horse, to draw a bow, and to speak the truth."  What more did nomads need? The Medes were actually the first of these nomadic peoples to establish an empire when they joined forces with Babylon to overthrow the Assyrian Empire in 6l2 B.C.E.  In the aftermath, Babylon took the richer civilized lands of the Fertile Crescent, while the Medes took the more extensive but wilder lands to the north.  Among their subjects were their compatriots, the Persians.  It is here that we encounter the founder of the Persian Empire.

Cyrus the Great and the Rise of Persia (c.550-522 B.C.E.)

Herodotus gives us a detailed and somewhat fanciful account of Cyrus the Great's rise to power.  As in the stories of so many great men and legendary figures in history, from Sargon of Kish and Moses to Oedipus and Romulus and Remus, Cyrus barely survived infancy due to a royal death sentence from a king nervous about the child's destiny.  In each story, someone saves the baby, who grows up and comes back to overthrow the king who tried to do him in.  What does seem clear is that Cyrus led the Persians in revolt against the Medes and overthrew them around 550 B.C.E.

Although the Medes' old neighbors were certainly glad to see the powerful Median state overthrown, they soon found their new neighbor, Persia, was an even more dangerous foe.  Cyrus first turned westward against Croesus, king of Lydia in Asia Minor, a land renown for its wealth, as seen in the old saying "rich as Croesus" to denote how wealthy someone is.  In order to deal with the tough Lydian cavalry, Cyrus placed camels in front of his lines.  The Lydian horses, unused to the camels' strange smell, panicked and bolted, giving Cyrus the victory and Lydia.  Cyrus next turned south against Babylon, whose empire was seething with revolt.  Herodotus claims that Cyrus had his troops divert the course of the Euphrates so they could march into the city's unguarded river gates.  However true that may be, Babylon's empire collapsed like a house of cards, leaving Cyrus the master of a huge empire.  Still, he pressed onward, this time into the vast and wild expanses of Central Asia.  His intentions here were probably defensive, to protect the frontiers of civilization from the swarms of nomadic horsemen to the northeast.  It was here in 530 B.C.E. that Cyrus died in battle against a tribe known as the Massagetae. In his twenty-nine year reign, he had built the largest empire in history up to that time.

Cyrus' son and successor, Cambyses (530-522 B.C.E.), is mainly remembered for his conquest of Egypt in 525 B.C.E.  His attempts to conquer the Nile further south and the desert oases of the Sahara met with less success.  Supposedly, one of Cambyses' armies was swallowed up by a desert sandstorm.  Cambyses was especially unpopular with the Egyptians, who claimed he committed various atrocities, including the slaying of the sacred bull of Apis. Since our main source for his life is Herodotus, who relied heavily on Egyptian sources for his book, we have a picture of Cambyses as a drunken lunatic,.  Cambyses died in 522 B.C.E on his way to Babylon to crush a revolt led by his cousin, Darius, who then succeeded him as the next Great King of Persia.

Darius I "the Great" and the consolidation of the Persian Empire

Although Cyrus had founded the Persian Empire, Darius I (522-486 B.C.E.) gave it the internal organization and structure that allowed it to last for 200 years.  His accomplishment is all the more impressive when we consider the empire's enormous size, the scale of which no one had ever dealt with before.  Darius dealt especially with three areas: organization of the empire's provinces, keeping the provincial governors under control, and maintaining communications with his far flung empire.

Organizing the provincial government presented two options. Darius could either create small provinces with governors too weak to rebel, but also too weak to defend their provinces against invasion.  Or he could create large provinces able to defend themselves, but also more capable of defying his authority.  He created about twenty large provinces, called satrapies.  These ensured that he would not have to race from one end of his empire to the other defending it against every little tribe that decided to attack.  Each such campaign might involve years of preparation, marching and fighting.  Meanwhile, other frontiers would be vulnerable to attack, involving more years of campaigning and leaving the king with little time for other duties.

Since larger provinces gave the governors, known as satraps, a lot of power, Darius took several precautions to keep his satraps from rebelling.  For one thing, he had the provincial treasury officials, secretaries, and garrisons answer directly to him, not to the satraps, except in emergencies.  This generally deprived the satraps of the money and troops they needed to revolt while ensuring the defense of the satrapies.  There were also officials known as the "King's Ears".  These personal agents of the king would travel to the various satraps' courts to check up on their behavior and official records.  The King's Ears commanded a great deal of fear and respect, sometimes showing up with no armed escort, but still being able to put down rebellious satraps before the revolts went beyond the planning stages.

Communications in such a far-flung realm was another major problem.  Here the Persians adopted the Assyrian practice of setting up a system of relay riders, much like the old Pony Express in American history.  Each horse and rider would carry a message for a day and then pass it on to the next horse and rider.  In order to speed things along, the Persians established a road system to tie the empire together.  The most famous of these was the King's Highway, which stretched 1677 miles from the Persian capital of Susa to Sardis in Asia Minor.  It had patrols against bandits, relay stations with fresh horses for the royal messengers, and 111 inns for travelers, placed about one day's journey apart from each other.  Another road going through the desert to Egypt had underground cisterns with water for travelers.  Although these roads helped trade and travel, their main priority was for the relay riders who could carry a message from Sardis to the king in Susa within seven days, an amazing speed for back then.  As Herodotus described these riders: "Nothing stops these couriers from covering their allotted stops in the quickest possible time--neither snow, rain, heat, nor darkness."

In general, Darius took existing practices and institutions and adopted them on a larger scale.  However, in one respect, he differed quite markedly from previous Mesopotamian rulers.  That was in his treatment of Persia's subjects.  Darius realized that there was no way his far-flung empire could survive constant revolts such as had plagued the Assyrians. Therefore, he followed a policy of tolerance toward his subjects' customs and religions.  For example, the Jews were allowed to return to Israel from their Babylonian captivity, causing them to sing the Persians’  praises in the Bible.

Darius and other Persian kings also adopted local titles, such as pharaoh in Egypt, to win popular support.  Sometimes they also kept local rulers in power as Persian vassals, such as in the Greek cities in Asia Minor.  This hopefully would ensure them more loyalty, although it could backfire if those rulers were unpopular to begin with.  While Persian rule may not have been wildly popular, most people tolerated it as an improvement over the harsher rule of the Assyrians and Babylonians.  Keeping their subjects happy went a long way toward keeping the Persian Empire intact.  It also ensured the cooperation of the Syrians and Babylonians, whose scribes and administrative skills were badly needed to keep the government running smoothly.

The Persians also worked hard to promote economic prosperity.  Their roads, strong government, and stable coinage encouraged trade.  They also promoted agriculture with irrigation projects and the introduction of new crops to different areas, such as sesame to Egypt and rice to Mesopotamia.  Of course, increased prosperity also generated more taxes.  The Persians also kept their subjects happy by charging moderate tax rates, about twenty per cent of a person's income.  Despite this modest tax rate, the Persian kings were fabulously wealthy.  By the time Alexander the Great took over the Persian Empire in 330 B.C.E., the Persian kings had reportedly amassed a treasury of 5500 tons of silver.

Darius and other Persian kings further enhanced their authority by assuming divine or semi-divine status to overawe their subjects. In certain provinces, such as Egypt, they took the titles of local rulers who were often seen as gods.  They also built a fabulous capital, Persepolis, in the middle of the desert, and adorned it with magnificent government buildings.  The Persians also adopted the elaborate court ritual of their subjects.  One had to go through a virtual army of officials before getting an audience with the king.  When one approached the king, he performed a rite known as proskynesis, which involved throwing oneself at the king's feet.  It was a great honor just to be allowed to kiss the hem of his garment and a serious offence for anyone outside the king's closest friends and advisors to look him in the eye.  Such elaborate ritual could enhance the king's authority, but it could also cut him off from the day-to-day realities of empire.


The Persians, like most ancient peoples, started out with a polytheistic religion to account for the forces of nature.  However, around 600 B.C.E., a new religion emerged, called Zoroastrianism after its founder, Zoroaster.  This was a dualistic religion, which meant it saw life as a constant struggle between the forces of good and evil.  In the end people would all be held accountable for their deeds in a judgment day when they would go to heaven as a reward for good deeds or suffer eternal punishment for their sins.  Zoroastrianism seems to have had some influence on Judaism.  In the book of Daniel, which takes place at the Persian court, the ideas of Heaven and Hell and of Satan as a force always opposed to God first appear in the Bible.  Both of these ideas have become central to Christianity and Islam as well as Judaism.

Decline and fall (c.464-330 B.C.E.)

Any state needs a strong ruler to keep things running smoothly.  After the death of Xerxes (486-464 B.C.E.), the Persian Empire lacked that strong hand.  As a result, various problems developed that fed back upon one another and led to Persia's decline and fall.  For one thing, weak rulers led to numerous provincial revolts, especially in Egypt, which always had detested Persian rule.  Secondly, the provincial satraps also became more independent, ruling their satrapies more as kings than as the king's loyal subjects.  They even carried on their own foreign policies and waged war on each other, which only added to Persia's problems.

Revolts and unruly satraps caused serious economic problems for the empire.  Persian taxes became heavier and more oppressive, which led to economic depression and revolts, which in turn led to more repression, heavier taxes and so on.  The Persian kings also started hoarding gold and silver rather than re-circulating it.  This created economic turmoil without enough gold and silver for doing business.  As a result of this economic turmoil, the Persian kings got weaker still, which fed back into the problem of revolts and powerful satraps and so on.

Around 400 B.C.E., Cyrus the Younger, a royal prince, rebelled against his brother and king, Artaxerxes.  Although Cyrus was killed in battle, his force of 10, 000 Greek mercenaries survived only to find themselves stranded in the heart of Persia.  In order to get home, they marched and fought their way through a good part of the Persian Empire.  This exploit, known as the March of the Ten Thousand, exposed the weakness of the Persian Empire.  This encouraged Alexander the Great to invade Persia, which he conquered in a remarkably short time and with a remarkably small army.

Nevertheless, the Persians survived and reestablished their empire under the Sassanid dynasty around 200 C.E.  Around 650 C.E., they fell once again, this time to the Arabs inspired by their new religion, Islam.  Still, Persia survived, passing its culture on to the Arabs.  Thus the Islamic culture which emerged was very much Persian, and ultimately Mesopotamian, in origin.  The Persian Empire revived once again around 1500 under the Safavid dynasty, and its culture and traditions live on today in modern Iran.