Monday, December 31, 2018

Rise and Fall of the Persian Achaemenid Empire

The Achaemenid ruled the earliest largest Empire in the ancient world dominating the Middle East, Anatolia, and Northern Africa from their rise in 559 BCE until their downfall in 330 BCE.

Foundation and Rise

The Persians began as a nomads in the Zagros Mountains in the Iranian Plateau. By developing water tunnels carved out of mountains called qannats, the Persians turned into sedimentary and agricultural. During the fall of the Assyrians, the Persians became a subject another great power – the Medes.

Under the Medes, Achaemenes or Hakhamanish in Assyrian ruled a minor Persian kingdom called Anshan. From him emerged the ruling dynasty of the Persian Empire – the Achaemenids. However, many questioned the existence of Achaemenes suggesting his existence created by King Darius I to legitimize his claim to the throne.

From Achaemenes emerged King Teispes from whom 2 lines that produced the Kings of Persia. The 1st line produced the Kings Cyrus I, Cambyses I, Cyrus II the Great, and Cambyses II. The 2nd line said to have produced Darius I and his successors.

Persians went from a subject people to a major player in the region and history under Cyrus II the Great (r. 559 – 529 BCE).
Cyrus the Great
Reign of Cyrus II

Cyrus II founded the Persian Empire. He rebelled against his Mede overlords and embarked in successful military campaigns cementing the empire he built through a policy of tolerance.

The Persian King fought for dominance against the Mede King Astyages who he defeated in the Battle of Pasargadae. From then on, the Persians and the Medes united laying the foundations of the Empire.

He then turned his attention to expanding his dominions beyond and marched against Anatolia. There he defeated the powerful Kingdom of Lydia and its legendary wealthy King Croesus. To consolidate his rule in Anatolia, instead of slaying his beaten foe, he befriend King Croesus who later became advisor. After Anatolia, he then conquered another prosperous city – Babylon. After the city fell, Cyrus did not sack the city, rather he respected the people of Babylon and their religion by paying homage to the Babylonian deity of Marduk.

Cyrus pacified conquered territories through the practice of tolerance that united the Empire into a single realm despite differences in culture, religion, and language of its population. He respected local culture and even took part himself. The empire turned multilingual with several languages used from Old Persian language to various others such as Elamite, Akkadian, and Aramaic. It later expanded with Greek and Egypt as the Empire expanded. This created an atmosphere of security and status quo. Hence, toleration and embrace of diversity contributed to the success of the Empire.

Jews also fared better under the Persians. Cyrus the Great liberated them from the Babylonian yolk and allowed them to return to their homeland Israel. He also promised to them to return their treasures plundered by the Babylonians from their conquest decades ago.

Cyrus the Great’s reign ended with his fall in battle in 529 BCE during a campaign to crush the Scythian tribe called Massageta.
Lost army of Cambyses
Reign of Cambyses II

Cambyses II (r. 529 – 522 BCE) reigned after the brilliance of Cyrus the Great’s rule and continued the empire’s expansion. In 525 BCE, he annexed the fertile lands of Egypt. From there, Cambyses desired to conquer more lands in Northern Africa. Plans for further lands in region never materialize. His plans of conquest of Ethiopia and Carthage ended without much success.

Cambyses, however, ensued controversy over the nature of his reign. Some called him mad and brutal while other saw him tolerant and respectful. Much of criticism of his reign came from the major source in Persian history – the Greek Historian Herodotus. On the other hand, Egyptian sources portrayed him as respectful and tolerant of locals following in the footsteps of his father.

His reign, however, ended in disaster. A pretender, a magi with the real name of Gaumata according to Darius, took power by claiming to be Cambyses II’s brother Bardiya (Smerdis). Gaumata took control of the capital Susa gained support by promising a break from taxation and conscription for 3 years. Cambyses left Egypt to dash to the capital and end the pretender’s reign. On the way though, Cambyses passed away.

Height of Persian Glory
Reign of Darius I
Darius I
The Persian interlude lasted for few months before it ended with the rise of King Darius I (r.522 – 486 BCE). His reign saw the apex of Persian power, wealth, and influence, but also saw the greatest challenge to its position sowing the seeds to a long conflict – the Greco-Persian War.

In 522 BCE, with Cambyses dead and a pretender seating in the throne, Darius successfully plotted with other Persian nobles and deposed Gaumata. He then cunningly took power and established his reign. However, with the temporary unrest within the monarchy, rebellions erupted across the Empire. According to the Behistun Inscription, Darius embarked in a campaign to reestablish control over the whole Empire.

Darius quelled numerous rebellion in every corner of the Empire then turning his attention in consolidating his power. He enacted profound reforms of the Empire’s administration and security.

In this light, he increased the number of Satraps or provinces of the Empire. From 10 Satraps during the reign of Cyrus the Great, he raise it to 20. He appointed satraps or governors to oversee day to day affairs and make sure to deliver designated tribute and taxes to the King.

He also improved government bureaucracy. He made records keeping a duty of government officials. He also maintained stifling supervision and strict discipline through employment of spies and inspectors.

He then strengthened the military preparing it ready to quell any rebellions. He established a special unit of elite soldiers called the Immortals numbering to 10,000. He had local granaries built to provide supplies to army units deployed in provinces.

He then improved the Empire’s communication and infrastructure. He improved the Royal Road that connected the capital Susa to the western major city of Sardis in Anatolia. The development of the Road connected provinces through a postal service.

To keep the population content, he delivered prosperity. Economic prosperity came through robust trade of different resources under the Empire’s fold. A standard currency called Daric based on silver and gold supplemented payments made in kind. Infrastructure projects stimulated further trade and employment. The Royal Road already demonstrated it. Another came in form of the Suez Canal that connected the Nile River and the Red sea. Multiple irrigation projects, in form of canals and qannats, increased food production throughout the Empire.

Cultural Development
Washed with tremendous wealth from the Empire’s resources, the wealthy and powerful financed great cultural and artistic endeavors that displayed the majesty and sophistication of the Persians.

Architecture bloomed. Kings and nobles ordered palaces built. Susa and Pasargadae displayed elements of Persian architecture that blended different styles from the diverse culture of the Empire. In 518 BCE, Darius ordered the construction of a new capital aimed to dwarfed previous capitals in splendor – Persepolis.

Persian gardens became a common site in the homes of the elite. The basic design of gardens called the Chahar Bagh or 4-part garden became the basis of garden design through ages outliving even the Empire that started it. The design included a central intersection from which it divided an area into 4 or divisible by 4 segments with each being treated as a separated garden. The marvelous use of irrigation and display of order created an effect of paradise on earth.

Under Darius, the religion of Zoroastrianism saw a rise in prominence. From the Behistun Inscription, it saw the piety of the Persian king to the god of the Zoroastrians – Ahura Mazda. It displayed the earliest monotheistic idea along with Judaism and ahead of Christianity. Though Zoroastrianism became de facto state religion, tolerance of religion continued.

Military Campaigns

With much of the rebellions and domestic issue being dealt with reforms, Darius turned his attention in fulfilling his kingly duty of being a conqueror. He brought the Empire’s energy in expanding to the lands east until it reached the Indus Valley. He also had the Persian army cross the Dardanelles and attacked the European Scythians. Thrace and Macedonia submitted to Persian suzerainty that made Persia virtually controlling the access to the Black Sea.

His latest military and diplomatic achievements, however, sparked a conflict that would threatened the supremacy of the Empire.
19th century engraving of Greeks
fighting Persians
Greco-Persian War (490 – 449 BCE)

Unbeknownst to the Persians, their control of access to the Black Sea threatened the trade routes of the Greeks who began to plan to undermine Persian rule in Anatolia. In 499 BCE, Athens and Eretria supported the revolt of the Ionians in the region. Eventually, the revolt ended with Persian victory in 493 BCE. The Persians wanted to punish the Greeks for their support of the revolt and sent a fleet and established control over the whole Aegean Sea.

In 490 BCE, Persian forces landed in the coast of Marathon threatening to march into Athens by land. But the Persian suffered defeat against a successful defense by the Greeks. Though defeated in Marathon, the whole Empire saw it only as a minor defeat. The objective of subjugating the Greeks failed to be seen by Darius who passed away in 486 BCE.

Reign of Xerxes I

Xerxes I (r. 486 – 465 BCE) succeeded his father Darius I. His reign saw several rebellions against the monarchy as well as a change in policy of tolerance. Moreover, he also inherited a punitive war against the Greeks that challenged Persian might in 490 BCE.

Upon his ascension, Xerxes received reports of rebellion from Egypt and Babylonia – the 2 richest regions of the Empire. It took 5 years to crush the rebellion in both regions and ended with brutal reprisals. At this end, Xerxes abandoned the titles from the 2 regions. He abolished Babylon as a separate Satrap and merged it with the Satrap of Assyria. Worst, he also desecrated the venerated god of the Babylonians Marduk by destroying his palace and melting his idols.

The reprisals also displayed a changed in the policy tolerance within the Empire. Xerxes demonstrated further zeal in promoting Zoroastrianism than his father. His inscription suggested the Persian King aimed to promote Ahura Mazda at the expense of other religion. His order of demolishing the temple of Marduk reflected such views.

War Continues

With the rebellions quelled, 10 years after the Battle of Marathon, Xerxes and the Persian Empire reignited the conflict with the Greeks. For the campaign, the Persians exerted tremendous effort and feats to throw an overwhelming might against the Greeks. They conscripted a quarter of a million men. They enlisted a multinational naval force composed of about 1,000 ships from different ethnicities, such as Phoenicians, Egyptians, and even Ionian Greeks. Xerxes ordered the construction of 2 great bridges in the treacherous and choppy waters of the Dardanelles. He had a canal near Mt. Athos dug to bypass the dangerous peninsula where mountain sat.

For all their effort, the Persian scored victories against the Greeks. In August 480 BCE, the Persians crushed the Greeks in the twin battles of Thermopylae and Artemisium. By the following month, none stopped their advance to the city of Athens. Their capture of the city culminated with the burning of it and its main center – the Acropolis. However, after victories, the hubris of Xerxes led to a disastrous defeat in the Battle of Salamis.

Decline of the Persian Empire
Xerxes Reign Continues

Xerxes dragged the war on. However, his spending in the war along with other decadence led to the mismanagement of the imperial coffers. The Persian court saw rise in opulence and immorality that led to Xerxes’ untimely downfall.

The Greco-Persian War continued after the disaster in Salamis. With the navy destroyed and the remaining incapable of defending the King, Xerxes returned to Persia and left his commanders to continue the war. Soon after, the Persian military loss the Battle of Plataea which left the commander of the Persian expeditionary force dead. Persian naval dominance over the Aegean ended with the Battle of Mycale which later inspire a 2nd Ionian Revolt. The war dragged on with no sure victor in sight.

After his return from Greece, Xerxes descended into decadence. He spent for a building spree by improving palaces and constructing greater halls. His lust for women became notorious that led to intrigue and infighting within the royal family and the court as a whole.

Ultimately, palace intrigue brought Xerxes to his end. In 465 BCE, a favorite courtier assassinated Xerxes while in his sleep. He became among the first in a series of assassinations of reigning Kings in the later history of the Persian Empire.

Xerxes’ Successors

After the reign of Xerxes, his son Artaxerxes (r. 465 – 424 BCE) reigned as King of Persia. Under his reign the Persians made peace with the Greeks losing the Ionian provinces as the cost. With the successful cessation of Ionians under Persian rule, other provinces went into rebellion. Egypt and Bactria became major centers of descent.

Under Artaxerxes successors, the imperial court descended into intrigue and infighting among ambitious officials and courtiers. The empire’s local administration turned rogue as some Satraps rebelled with impunity calling for independence from the Empire.

Artaxerxes III (r. 359 – 338 BCE) successfully salvaged the monarchy and restore some order within the Empire. However, the core of the Empire remained to rot as intrigue and power play continued. The Kings’ favorites such Mentor of Rhodes and Bagoas moved to secure power and influence within the court. His reign ended with his assassination orchestrated by Bagoas who elevated Prince Arses (r. 338 – 336 BCE) as the new king – a mere puppet for the ambitious favorite of the King.

The weak Arses made a botch attempt to take power from then Vizier Bagoas. Bagoas discovered the plot and assassinated Arses. Eventually, he elevated another Prince who reigned as Darius III (r. 336 – 330 BCE). Darius III fared better than Arses when he successfully overthrew the Machiavellian Vizier.
Alexander the Great
His reign and name, however, failed to resurrect the powerful Persian Empire. Rather, he became the fiercest enemy and the main antagonist in the story of the legendary conqueror Alexander the Great. He failed to defeat the Macedonian general in the fields of Gaugamela despite levying the largest army in the Empire that number to quarter of a million. After his defeat, one by one, rich satraps surrendered to Alexander. Ultimately, his reign and the saga of the Achaemenid Persian Empire ended with his death in 330 BCE.

Summing Up

The Persian Empire dominated the ancient world for its sheer size and influence in history. It inspired great conquerors and became a model for administration and governance. The Empire showed the strength of tolerance, but also showed the downside of success. Wealth and power corrupted men, especially Kings and nobles. Eventually hubris brought the descent of the Empire and finally its downfall.
“Achaemenid Empire.” In Iran Chamber Society. Accessed on Septmeber 23, 2018. URL:

The Editors of Encyclopedia Britannica. “Achaemenian Dynasty.” In Encyclopedia Britannica. Accessed on September 23, 2018. URL:

General Reference
“Introduction.” In The Persian Empire: A Historical Encyclopedia. Edited by Mehrdad Kia. Santa Barbara, Californi: ABC-CLIO, 2016.

“Achaemenids (Achaemenians).” In Encyclopedia of the Peoples of Africa and the Middle East. Edited by Jamie Stokes. New York, New York: Facts on File, Inc., 2009.