The International History Project, 2004

Edited By: Robert Guisepi

The History Of the Ancient Persian Empire From Rise To Fall

A history of the Persians including their empire, rulers like Cyrus, Darius and Xerxes as well as their cities, rise and fall

Persia, conventional European designation of the country now known as Iran. This name was in general use in the West until 1935, although the Iranians themselves had long called their country Iran. For convention's sake the name of Persia is here kept for that part of the country's history concerned with the ancient Persian Empire until the Arab conquest in the 7th century AD.

An Overview of the The Persian Empire

Cyrus the Persian was the greatest conqueror in the history of the

ancient Near East. In 550 B.C. he ended Persian vassalage to the Medes by

capturing Ecbatana and ousting the Median dynasty. The Medes readily accepted their vigorous new ruler, who soon demonstrated that he deserved to be called "the Great." When King Croesus of Lydia moved across the Hals River in 547 B.C. to pick up some of the pieces of the Median empire, Cyrus defeated him and annexed Lydia, including those Greek cities on the coast of Asia Minor

that were under the nominal control of Lydia. Then he turned east,

establishing his power as far as the frontier of India. Babylon and its empire

was next on his list. Following the death of Cyrus, his son Cambyses conquered

Egypt. The next ruler, Darius I (522-486 B.C.), added the Punjab region in

India and Thrace in Europe. He also began a conflict with the Greeks that

continued intermittently for more than 150 years until the Persians were

conquered by Alexander the Great. Long before this event the Persian nobility

had forgotten Cyrus the Great's answer to their suggestion that they "leave

this small and barren country of ours" and move to fertile Babylonia:

Do so if you wish, but if you do, be ready to find

yourselves no longer governors but governed; for soft

lands breed soft men; it does not happen that the same

land brings forth wonderful crops and good fighting men. ^29

[Footnote 29: Herodotus History 9.122, trans. A. R. Burn, Persia and the West

(New York: St. Martin's Press, 1962), p. 61.]

Persian Government

Although built upon the Assyrian model, the Persian administrative system

was far more efficient and humane. The empire was divided into twenty

provinces, or satrapies, each ruled by a governor called a satrap. To check

the satraps, a secretary and a military official representing the "Great King,

King of Kings" were installed in every province. Also, special inspectors,

"the Eyes and Ears of the King," traveled throughout the realm.

Imperial post roads connected the important cities. Along the Royal Road

between Sardis and Susa there was a post station every fourteen miles, where

the king's couriers could obtain fresh horses, enabling them to cover the

1600-mile route in a week. "Nothing mortal travels so fast as these Persian

messengers," wrote Herodotus. "These men will not be hindered..., either by

snow, or rain, or heat, or by the darkness of night." ^30 These words were at

one time used as the motto of the United States Postal Service.

[Footnote 30: Herodotus History 8.88, trans. G. Rawlinson.]

The Persian empire was the first to attempt to govern many different

racial groups on the principle of equal responsibilities and rights for all

peoples. So long as subjects paid their taxes and kept the peace, the king did

not interfere with local religion, customs, or trade. Indeed, Darius was

called the "shopkeeper" because he stimulated trade by introducing a uniform

system gold and silver coinage on the Lydian model.

Persian Religion And Art

The humaneness of the Persian rulers may have stemmed from the ethical

religion founded by the prophet Zoroaster, who lived in the early sixth

century B.C. Zoroaster sought to replace what he called "the lie" -

ritualistic, idol-worshiping cults and their Magi priests - with a religion

centered on the sole god Ahura-Mazda ("Wise Lord"). This "father of Justice"

demanded "good thoughts of the mind, good deeds of the hand, and good words of the tongue" from those who would attain paradise (a Persian word). The new religion made little progress until first Darius and then the Magi adopted it. The Magi revived many old gods as lesser deities, added much ritual, and replaced monotheism with dualism by transforming what Zoroaster had called the principle or spirit of evil into the powerful god Ahriman (the model for the Jewish Satan), rival of Ahura-Mazda, "between which each man must choose for himself." The complicated evolution of Zoroastrianism is revealed in its holy writ, the Avesta ("The Law"), assembled in its present form between the fourth and sixth centuries A.D. Zoroastrian eschatology - "the doctrine of final things" such as the resurrection of the dead and a last judgment - influenced later Judaism. Following the Muslim conquest of Persia in the seventh century A.D., Zoroastrianism died out in its homeland. It exists today among the Parsees in India.

In art the Persians borrowed largely from their predecessors in the

Fertile Crescent, particularly the Assyrians. Their most important work was in

palace architecture, the best remains of which are at Persepolis. Built on a

high terrace, the royal residence was reached by a grand stairway faced with

beautiful reliefs. Instead of the warfare and violence that characterized

Assyrian sculpture, these reliefs depict hundreds of soldiers, courtiers, and

representatives of twenty-three nations of the empire bringing gifts to the

king for the festival of the new year.


The Iranian plateau was settled about 1500BC by Aryan tribes, the most important of which were the Medes, who occupied the northwestern portion, and the Persians, who emigrated from Parsua, a land west of Lake Urmia, into the southern region of the plateau, which they named Parsamash or Parsumash. The first prominent leader of the Persians was the warrior chief Hakhamanish, or Achaemenes, who lived about 681BC. The Persians were dominated by the Medes until the accession to the Persian throne in 550 BC of Cyrus the Great. He overthrew the Median rulers, conquered the kingdom of Lydia in 546BC and that of Babylonia in 539BC and established the Persian Empire as the preeminent power of the world. His son and successor, Cambyses II, extended the Persian realm even further by conquering the Egyptians in 525BC. Darius I, who ascended the throne in 521BC, pushed the Persian borders as far eastward as the Indus River, had a canal constructed from the Nile to the Red Sea, and reorganized the entire empire, earning the title Darius the Great. From 499 to 493BC he engaged in crushing a revolt of the Ionian Greeks living under Persian rule in Asia, and then launched a punitive campaign against the European Greeks for supporting the rebels. His forces were disastrously defeated by the Greeks at the historic Battle of Marathon in 490BC. Darius died while preparing a new expedition against the Greeks; his son and successor, Xerxes I, attempted to fulfill his plan but met defeat in the great sea engagement the Battle of Salamís in 480BC and in two successive land battles in the following year.

The forays of Xerxes were the last notable attempt at expansion of the Persian Empire. During the reign of Artaxerxes I, the second son of Xerxes, the Egyptians revolted, aided by the Greeks; although the revolt was finally suppressed in 446BC, it signaled the first major assault against, and the beginning of the decline of, the Persian Empire.


Between 560 and 500 BC the eastern Mediterranean and the Near East underwent great political changes. Under Cyrus the Great Persia grew into the largest empire the Near East had ever seen. Centered on the Persian homeland on the northeastern shore of the Persian Gulf, it stretched from present-day Pakistan in the east to the Balkan Peninsula in the west and from the Persian Gulf in the south to Central Asia in the north.

In the same period, a number of small city-states consisting of an urban center and its surrounding territory had developed over a large part of the Greek mainland and the islands of the Aegean Sea. For the most part they were governed by local aristocracies, but the city-state of Athens had already begun a series of changes that would lead to the emergence of democratic government. Politically, the most important was Sparta, on the Peloponnesian peninsula. It had become the strongest land power in Greece and controlled an alliance of other city-states that extended over much of southern Greece. However, in terms of population, resources, and organization, the Greek states were no match for the immense empire they were to fight.

The wars between them had important consequences. Politically, they ended Persia’s expansion to the west and led to its loss of control of the western coast of Asia Minor (present-day Asian Turkey). The struggles deeply affected the Greeks. Sparta and Athens emerged as the leading powers, eventually dominating the Greek world. Athens became the dominant Greek sea power and created an empire that extended over the eastern and northern coasts of the Aegean. Culturally, the wars made the Greeks much more conscious of their identity as a separate, and in their minds, superior people.


In 521 BC the Persian king Darius I crushed all resistance to his accession to the throne after a brief but bloody civil war. While playing a central role in reorganizing the empire, he also worked to secure and expand its outer borders. In 513 BC the Persians captured the major Greek islands of Khíos, Sámos, and Lésvos. Also in 513 BC Darius himself crossed over to Europe and conquered the area between the Danube and the Aegean coast to the borders of Macedonia. Many historians believe that these gains were part of the normal process of imperial expansion and that Darius eventually intended the conquest of Greece and the Aegean.

In 499 BC his forces attempted to capture the island of Náxos as a first step towards dominating the central Aegean. This attempt failed and it helped to precipitate a revolt of the Ionian Greeks living along the coast of Asia Minor. This revolt, caused by dissatisfaction with economic and political conditions under the Persians, lasted from 499 to 493 BC. The revolt was at first successful but the Ionians were eventually thwarted by a crucial defeat at sea and the immense superiority of Persian numbers and organization.

Athens and the lesser mainland state of Eretria had provided naval help to the Ionian rebels during the revolt. This intervention convinced Darius that Greece itself must be subdued to guarantee Persian security in the west. In 492 BC the Persians launched an expedition to gain control of the central Aegean and to punish Athens and Eretria for assisting the Ionian rebels. After initial successes in northern Greece the Persians moved against Athens but were turned back when most of the ships were lost in a storm. In the summer of 490 BC a second Persian expedition sacked Eretria and then landed at Marathon less than 40 km (25 mi) northeast of Athens. The Athenians had appealed for help to other Greek states and especially to Sparta, but in the deciding battle faced the Persian force almost alone. Due to the strategy of Athenian general Miltiades, the force of about 10,000 Greek infantrymen defeated a much more numerous enemy. The battle showed the decisive superiority of the heavier armored Greek infantry over their Persian opponents in close combat.


This failure led Darius to begin preparing a much larger force for a second and final invasion. But rebellion in Egypt and other events delayed matters. In 486 BC Darius died and was succeeded by his son Xerxes I. After reconquering Egypt Xerxes was ready to take up his father’s plans for Greece. The army he assembled was far larger than any the Greeks had seen before. Estimated in the millions by Greek historian Herodotus, it probably actually consisted of between 200,000 and 300,000 infantry and cavalry and more than 700 warships. The size of this force, the need for steady supplies, and the rugged nature of the Greek landscape led the Persians to develop a strategy that depended on cooperation between the army and the fleet. The army would provide bases for the fleet while the fleet would allow the army to bypass obstacles on land. In the spring of 480 BC the immense expedition set out from Sardis in western Asia Minor.

The Greeks were not united in their attitude toward the Persian invasion. Many of the states saw their position as helpless and were ready to surrender. Those determined to resist met in the fall of 481 BC and made an alliance to fight the invasion. In May 480 BC Sparta was given command on land and sea despite the fact that the Athenians provided the majority of ships. After an initial failure to hold the Persians the Greeks decided to meet the invader on land at Thermopylae and at sea at Artemisium in central Greece. This was the strategic point to meet a combined sea and land attack by much larger forces, as the approaches to it by both land and sea were narrow and difficult and would favor Greek infantry and the heavier and slower Greek ships. The Persian army far outnumbered the Greek force of between 6000 and 7000 infantrymen. After several days of battle by both land and sea the Persians surrounded the Greek position at Thermopylae. Though most of the Greeks escaped, the commander, Spartan king Leonidas I, and most of his fellow Spartans died. The Greek navy was now in a helpless position and withdrew south.

The road to central Greece now lay open and Xerxes advanced south, sacking Athens and occupying its territory. The Greek fleet had withdrawn and lay at anchor at Salamís, an island close to Athens. The Greek leaders were divided on what to do as the Persian fleet took up a position just outside the narrows that separate Salamís from the Athenian coast. The Spartans and other southern Greeks advocated withdrawing but the Athenians under the command of their general Themistocles successfully opposed a retreat and prepared to face the Persians. The Greek fleet numbered about 378 warships and faced a Persian force of about the same size. In late September 480 BC, as the Persian fleet attacked through the narrow straits, the Greek ships pretended to scatter at its approach. The Persians, with their ranks thrown into confusion by the narrowness of the straits and the feigned Greek retreat, were decisively defeated by the ramming of the heavier Greek ships.

This battle proved decisive for the outcome of the war, destroying any hope that the Persians could continue their combined strategy of attack by land and sea. Their navy had suffered heavily and its morale was broken. Xerxes, afraid that his defeat might be followed by another rebellion of the Ionian Greeks, returned home but left his army behind under his general Mardonius. Mardonius spent the following winter trying to split the Greek coalition by offering the Athenians amnesty if they allied with Persia against Sparta. After this attempt failed Mardonius decided to bring the Greeks to battle in the early spring of 479 BC.

He first recaptured Athens to draw out the Athenians, who pressured the Spartans into helping them fight back. Mardonius then moved his forces north to southern Boeotia (in present-day central Greece) near the town of Plataea. The sides were evenly matched with about 110,000 men. After maneuvers on both sides lasting more than a week the battle was fought and the Persian force was destroyed. This defeat marked the complete failure of the invasion, and the surviving Persians withdrew suffering further heavy losses. By the next year the Greeks were successfully attacking the Persians on their own territory in Asia Minor.


The Persians were never again able to threaten another invasion. The Greeks moved to the offensive and over the next decades liberated the islands of the Aegean and large areas along the western and northern coasts from Persian control. The most important direct result of the wars was to establish Athens as the dominant Greek naval power. This gave Athens the opportunity to create an extensive empire over the newly won territories that had no parallel in earlier Greek history. A new political order emerged among the Greek states centered on the two great powers of Athens and Sparta that was to have a profound effect on later Greek history. Another effect of the wars was to produce the first large scale Greek historical work, the History of Herodotus, written in the second half of the 5th century BC. It serves as the most important source for the events of the wars and for evidence of the wars’ effect on the Greek intellect and culture.


Many revolts took place in the next century; the final blow was struck by Alexander the Great, who added the Persian Empire to his own Mediterranean realm by defeating the troops of Darius III in a series of battles between 334 and 331BC. Alexander effected a temporary integration of the Persians into his empire by enlisting large numbers of Persian soldiers in his armies and by causing all his high officers, who were Macedonians, to wed Persian wives. His death in 323BC was followed by a long struggle among his generals for the Persian throne. The victor in this contest was Seleucus I, who, after conquering the rich kingdom of Babylon in 312BC, annexed thereto all the former Persian realm as far east as the Indus River, as well as Syria and Asia Minor, and founded the Seleucid dynasty. For more than five centuries thereafter, Persia remained a subordinate unit within this great realm, which, after the overthrow of the Seleucids in the 2nd century BC, became the Parthian Empire.


In AD 224 Ardashir I, a Persian vassal-king, rebelled against the Parthians, defeated them in the Battle of Hormuz, and founded a new Persian dynasty, that of the Sassanids. He then conquered several minor neighboring kingdoms, invaded India, levying heavy tribute from the rulers of the Punjab, and conquered Armenia. A particularly significant accomplishment of his reign was the establishment of Zoroastrianism as the official religion of Persia. Ardashir was succeeded in 241 by his son Shapur I, who waged two successive wars against the Roman Empire, conquering territories in Mesopotamia and Syria and a large area in Asia Minor. Between 260 and 263 he lost his conquests to Odenathus, ruler of Palmyra, and ally of Rome. War with Rome was renewed by Narses; his army was almost annihilated by Roman forces in 297, and he was compelled to conclude peace terms whereby the western boundary of Persia was moved from the Euphrates River to the Tigris River and much additional territory was lost. Shapur II (ruled 309-379) regained the lost territories, however, in three successive wars with the Romans.

The next ruler of note was Yazdegerd I, who reigned in peace from 399 to 420; he at first allowed the Persian Christians freedom of worship and may even have contemplated becoming a Christian himself, but he later returned to the Zoroastrianism of his forebears and launched a 4-year campaign of ruthless persecution against the Christians. The persecution was continued by his son and successor, Bahram V, who declared war on Rome in 420. The Romans defeated Bahram in 422; by the terms of the peace treaty the Romans promised toleration for the Zoroastrians within their realm in return for similar treatment of Christians in Persia. Two years later, at the Council of Dad-Ishu, the Eastern church declared its independence of the Western church.

Near the end of the 5th century a new enemy, the barbaric Ephthalites, or "White Huns," attacked Persia; they defeated the Persian king Firuz II in 483 and for some years thereafter exacted heavy tribute. In the same year Nestorianism was made the official faith of the Persian Christians. Kavadh I favored the communistic teachings of Mazdak (flourished 5th century), a Zoroastrian high priest, and in 498 was deposed by his orthodox brother Zamasp. With the aid of the Ephthalites, Kavadh was restored to the throne in 501. He fought two inconclusive wars against Rome, and in 523 he withdrew his support of Mazdak and caused a great massacre of Mazdak's followers. His son and successor, Khosrau I, in two wars with the Byzantine emperor Justinian I, extended his sway to the Black Sea and the Caucasus, becoming the most powerful of all Sassanid kings. He reformed the administration of the empire and restored Zoroastrianism as the state religion. His grandson Khosrau II reigned from 590 to 628; in 602 he began a long war against the Byzantine Empire and by 619 had conquered almost all southwestern Asia Minor and Egypt. Further expansion was prevented by the Byzantine emperor Heraclius, who between 622 and 627 drove the Persians back within their original borders. The last of the Sassanid kings was Yazdegerd III, during whose reign (632-651) the Arabs invaded Persia, destroyed all resistance, gradually replaced Zoroastrianism with Islam, and incorporated Persia into the caliphate.

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