Persian Empire Research Paper

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The creation of the Persian Empire in the sixth century BCE—the largest empire the world had yet seen—brought together two of the four early, major river civilizations (those of the Tigris-Euphrates and Nile). Under the rule of Darius I the empire became highly organized, systematic, and efficient. The empire ended with the defeat of Persian forces by Alexander the Great in 330 BCE.

Cyrus II (c. 585–c. 529 BCE) established the Persian (or Achaemenid) Empire in 550 BCE. It included the Plateau of Iran, northern India, Central Asia, Arabia, Mesopotamia, the Caucauses, Syria, Palestine, Anatolia (Asian Turkey), Egypt, Nubia, Cyprus, and parts of northern Hellas (Greece). The last Persian king, Darius III (reigned 336–330 BCE) was defeated by Alexander of Macedon (Alexander the Great) in 330 BCE. The Persian Empire brought a period of peace to the areas in its sway for two centuries.

The Rise of the Persians

The Persians were a confederation of tribes who, along with other Iranian-speaking peoples, had moved into the Plateau of Iran in the first millennium BCE. They established their stronghold in such locations as Anshan in the southwestern portion of the plateau, in what came to be known as Persis or Fars Province. Cyrus II was able to unite the Persian tribes by 559 BCE and became king of Anshan. A decade later, in 550 BCE, he was able to defeat the last king of the Medes, Astyages (reigned c. 584–550 BCE). He then moved on to Anatolia and defeated King Croesus (reigned c. 560–546 BCE) of Lydia, taking his capital, Sardis, in 547–546 BCE. His conquest of Mesopotamia and the city of Babylon in 539 BCE followed. Upon entering, Cyrus honored the Babylonian god Marduk and paid for the rebuilding of the temple of Marduk. He also freed the Hebrews who had been held captive in Babylon and paid for the rebuilding of their temple in Jerusalem, for which the Old Testament remembers him and the Persians kindly (Isaiah 35:40–55; Ezra 1). He left behind a firsthand account in the Akkadian language of his tolerance—the “Cyrus Cylinder.” By the time of his death at the hands of nomadic Saka people around 529 BCE, his empire stretched all the way from the Plateau of Iran to the Mediterranean Sea.

Cyrus’s son, Cambyses II (reigned 529–522 BCE), is known for conquering Egypt and incorporating it into the Persian Empire in 525 BCE. Just as his father had been respectful of the Babylonian deities, Cambyses respected Egyptian ceremonies and religion and was accepted as the pharaoh of the twenty-sixth dynasty of the New Kingdom. From Egypt the Persian forces made inroads into Libya, another force went southward from Egypt toward Ethiopia, and although the Persians were unsuccessful in their military campaign, through negotiations they were able to draw that region into their empire. Upon the death of Cambyses, his brother Bardiya (according to some accounts) or an imposter impersonating Bardiya (according to other accounts) came to the throne. Bardiya—or his impersonator—forgave taxes and initiated land redistribution. It was not long, however, before Darius I (reigned 522–486 BCE), who was married to Cyrus’s daughter, staged a coup de’etat with the backing of the Persian nobility and brought his line of the family into dominance.

Darius I and the Organization of the Empire

Darius is responsible for the organization of the Achaemenid Persian Empire. He unified the empire in many ways. For example, he created a uniform system of measurement and weights throughout the empire for better trade and economic activity; Darius also instituted a unified monetary system; gold coins called darics became the recognized coinage in the empire. To govern his unified realm, Darius divided the empire into twenty-three administrative units known as satrapies, each to be overseen by a provincial governor, or satrap.

His public works projects included the building of a royal road, which stretched some 2,560 kilometers from his winter residence in Susa (southwestern Iran) to Sardis; it was just one of the many roads that were constructed in the Achaemenid period. Darius also instituted a postal system along the royal road; through a system of 111 stops and hostels, men and fresh horses transmitted royal decrees and proclamations. Another major public works program was the building of a new capital, known to the Greeks as Persepolis (City of the Persians). Darius brought together craftsmen, engineers, and materials from all the satrapies to symbolize the coming together of all parts and peoples of the empire. Persepolis was a ceremonial capital, at which during the Persian New Year Darius received guests and ambassadors, who came to pay homage and tribute to the King of Kings. Darius also finished an Egyptian project, the building of a canal in the Suez that connected the Mediterranean to the Red Sea more than two thousand years before the British accomplished the same task in 1866. He then set out to make known to the people under what circumstances he had come to power—his version was that he had wrested the throne from an imposter who was impersonating Bardiya—leaving us a long cuneiform inscription (the Bisitun inscription) in the modern-day province of Kermanshah in northwestern Iran. (That inscription, when deciphered in the 1840s, made possible the translation of Assyrian and Babylonian records.) He then had copies of this inscription translated into different languages of the empire on parchment and leather and sent to the different areas to be read to his subjects.

The Greco-Persian Wars

During the rule of Darius I, the Ionian Greeks revolted against Persian rule and asked aid from the Athenians on the Greek mainland. This action started off the long period of warfare known as the Greco-Persian Wars. Darius’s son, Xerxes I (reigned 486–465 BCE) had to retake Egypt, which had revolted, and then set out to conquer Greece in 480 BCE. While he was successful initially, he was later defeated at the battles of Thermopylae, Salamis, and the Plataea. In order to destabilize the Greeks, the Persians then developed the strategy of using the Greek city-state rivalries to their advantage, now supporting one side, now the other. It is important to note that while for the Greeks the battle with the Persians was a threat to their very existence, the Persians thought it not worthy of mentioning in the imperial inscriptions.

Later Achaemenid Rule

The rule of Xerxes ushered in the later part of Achaemenid Persian Empire, during which religious toleration began to wither away. Xerxes I was killed in 465 BCE; he was succeeded by Artaxerxes, who reigned until 424 BCE. He was followed by Darius II (423–404 BCE), and Artaxerxes II, also called Mnemon (404–359 BCE), who had the longest rule of any Persian ruler.

At this time two important women of the court, Stateira and Parysatis, attempted to exert influence on the king. Artaxerxes II’s wife, Atossa, also was to become quite powerful. The reign of Artaxerxes III Ochus (reigned 350–338 BCE) was dominated by the suppression of revolts and the reconquest of Egypt and the conquest of Phoenicia and Cyprus. The last Achaemenid king of kings was Darius III (reigned 336–330 BCE). It was at this time that Philip II of Macedon (reigned 359–336 BCE) conquered the Greek city-states. His military innovations greatly improved the Macedonian (and then Greek) military, and under the command of Alexander of Macedon (Alexander the Great, reigned 336–323 BCE), they became a potent force. Alexander is said to have wanted to take revenge for what the Persians had done in Greece a century earlier. He was able to defeat the Persian forces at three decisive battles at Granicus, Issus, and Gaugamela. Darius III fled to eastern Iran and was murdered there by his own countrymen.

Persian Society

The basic unit of the Persian family was known as tauma. Several taumas formed a clan, and a conglomeration of clans formed the Persian tribe. At the court the king of kings reigned supreme. An important office below the king was the chiliarch, the go-between for the king of kings and those who wanted to seek an audience with him. Then there were the royal princes who lived at the court who were from the clan. The elite of the Achaemenid Persian society was the Persian and the Median nobility, and royal princes were granted a special position. Part of the warrior class of the Iranians, they were exempt from paying taxes, and many served as commanders of the army and the cavalry. The king possessed a special force, ten thousand men strong, known as the Immortals, dedicated to his protection. These Persian royal princes along with the king were the elite rulers. The royal women lived in the private quarter or harem and were protected by eunuchs. They traveled with the king and the nobility in battle and were allowed to own property.

Slavery was a fact of life. Slaves worked mainly as laborers, both on land as harvesters and as manual workers. However, they were paid for their labor when they were working on the land of the Persian nobility and to a lesser extent on the land of small farmers.

Zoroastrianism (Mazdaism) was the dominant religion of the Persians, and Zoroastrian priests (magi) memorized the sacred hymns and kept the rituals alive. The magi are believed to have been a Median tribe who became the religious doctors of the empire. Darius I mentions the great deity Ahura Mazda more than sixty times in his Bisitun inscription alone. Later on the Iranian deities Mithra and Anahita come to be mentioned and honored by the kings as frequently as Ahura Mazda.

For the most part, the Achaemenid Persians were quite tolerant of other religions. Cyrus II paid homage to the Hebrew god Yaweh and to the Babylonian god Marduk. Economic tablets from Persepolis reveal that the state allotted food for non-Zoroastrian sacrifices. Thus, it appears that although the Achaemenid Persians honored Ahura Mazda at their capital and in their homeland, they did not proselytize.

Significance of the Persian Empire

With the creation of the Persian Empire—the largest empire the world had yet seen—in the sixth century BCE, for the first time two of the four early major river civilizations (those of the Tigris-Euphrates and Nile) were practically unified, and their two civilizations brought into contact with one another. This resulted in the exchange of ideas. It also brought about a period of peace (Pax Persica) in those portions of the world controlled by the Persians for two centuries—something that had not been experienced in the past. Although not remembered fondly by contemporary Greeks, the Persians are remembered with respect and admiration by contemporary Hebrews and Mesopotamians.


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