Persia Expands the Boundaries of Empire, Exploration, and Organization

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Persia Expands the Boundaries of Empire, Exploration, and Organization


At the time of its establishment in the sixth century b.c., the Persian Empire was the largest known, and it gave southwestern Asia and adjoining regions an unprecedented degree of organization. The Persians built roads, dug canals, and established the first important postal system in history to maintain communication between the emperor and his satraps, or governors. Known for their religious tolerance, at least in the early days of the empire, the Persians respected the traditions of the people they conquered, for instance allowing the Israelites to rebuild their city of Jerusalem. Through Judaism and later Christianity, their Zoroastrian faith would have a powerful if indirect effect on the spiritual life of the West. Likewise, Persia would exert an enormous political impact through its influence on Greece.


In about 3000 b.c. groups of tribes today known as Indo-Europeans began moving outward from their homeland in what is now south-central Russia. Little is known about these groups, who ultimately scattered from India to Europe; in fact, the only evidence that they even existed is the strong relationship between the languages of Iran, India, and Europe. One group of Indo-Europeans, the Aryans, began moving into the region of modern-day Afghanistan, and between 2000 and 1500 b.c. they split into two groups. Some migrated eastward, where they conquered the peoples of the Indus Valley and established the Hindu civilization of ancient India, while others moved southward, into what is now Iran—a land to which they gave their name.

Eventually the Iranians further divided into groups, the most notable of whom were the Medes along the Caspian Sea in the north, and the Persians across the mountains to the south. At first the Medes were the dominant group, but they suffered a defeat at the hands of the Scythians, a seminomadic people from what is now the Ukraine, during the mid-seventh century b.c. They recovered, however, and reassumed control over the region after 625 b.c., when the Median king Cyaxares (r. 625-585 b.c.) drove out the Scythians and began making war on Assyria. At that time the latter controlled the largest and most powerful empire in the region, but Cyaxares joined forces with another emerging power, Babylonia, to destroy Assyria in 612 b.c. After that, the Medes and Babylonians divided the Near East between them, and for a time Median influence extended all the way to Lydia in Asia Minor (modern Turkey).

In fact, the Medes and their Babylonian allies had paved the way for a new dynasty, led by the Achaemenid ruling house of Persia. This might not have happened, however, without the emergence of a strong leader: Cyrus II, better known as Cyrus the Great (c. 585-529 b.c.; r. 559-529 b.c.). Cyrus united the Persians against the Medes and defeated them in 550 b.c., thus bringing into being the Persian Empire.


Cyrus next waged war against Lydia, defeating it and capturing its king, Croesus (r. c. 560-546 b.c.), in 546 b.c., before moving on to wage war against the Ionian city-states of Greece. The latter event was significant in several regards. This was the first time a Mesopotamian power had penetrated the edges of Europe: indeed, the empires of the Assyrians, Babylonians, and Medes, though more multinational in character than those of the Egyptians and Hittites before them, had still been largely local in scope, drawing in peoples of relatively similar linguistic background. Thus the Ionian incursion marked the opening salvos in an attempt to forge an inter-continental realm—an effort that, in Greece at least, would fail, resulting in one of antiquity's most important conflicts.

In the meantime, Cyrus turned his attention toward Babylon, which he captured in 539 b.c. With this conquest, an event depicted in the biblical book of Daniel, the Persians controlled the largest empire that had existed up to that time, encompassing much of modern-day Iran, Iraq, Syria, Israel, Lebanon, and part of Turkey. With the later addition of Egypt, this would constitute the third-largest realm in Western antiquity; and the two larger ones—built by Alexander the Great (356-323 b.c.) and later the Romans—owed their existence in part to the example set by the Persians.

But the Persian Empire was more than merely a large political unit. As would be the case with the Mongols, who built the largest empire in all of history 17 centuries later, the Persians had no highly advanced civilization to impose on the world. Instead, they were more than happy to adapt and borrow from others, and they allowed their new subjects to go on with their lives much as before. Thus the Assyrians and Babylonians continued to worship their gods, and Cyrus even restored the Babylonians' temples. He also permitted the Jews to return to Israel and begin rebuilding their temple and their holy city, Jerusalem.

Cyrus met his end in battle in 529 b.c., and was succeeded by his son, Cambyses II (r. 529-522 b.c.), who conquered Egypt in 525 b.c. After Cambyses's death in the midst of an uprising, a general named Darius (550-486 b.c.; r. 522-486 b.c.) took the throne, and promptly set about dealing with the enemies of Cambyses. It took a year to subdue the insurrection, after which Darius marched into northern India and added large areas of land to his territories. This, too, marked an important event in the forging of multinational realm: never before had conquerors from southwestern Asia marched so far east, and here again the Persians set the example for Alexander.

Indeed the Persians, like the Medes and Babylonians before them, literally paved the way for their successors, and in part this occurred because Persia and Greece became embroiled in a long, bitter struggle that left the Greeks eager for retribution. Though Cyrus had been first to prosecute this conflict, it fell to Darius to fan the flames. In 516 b.c. he marched against the Scythians to stop them from supplying the Greeks with grain, and was prepared to attack Greece itself. As it turned out, the affairs of ruling his empire kept Darius busy for many years, but in 499 b.c. the Ionian city-states forced the issue by revolting against Persian rule. Soon the Athenians, Spartans, and others on the mainland joined their neighbors in Ionia against him, and the conflict came to a head in 490 b.c. with the Battle of Marathon, which ended in a Greek victory. Darius retreated, hoping to attack Greece again, but he died four years later without achieving his goal.

During his long reign, however, Darius had done much to transform the life of Persia. Unlike Cyrus, who does not seem to have held a strong religious belief, Darius accepted and sought to propagate the belief system taught by the prophet Zoroaster, sometimes called Zarathustra (c. 628-c. 551). Zoroastrianism proclaimed that the god Ahura-Mazda was supreme above all others, and it depicted his opponent Ahriman as the embodiment of evil: in other words, the Devil. This idea would have an enormous impact on the Israelites, many of whom had stayed in Persia, and all of whom remained under Persian rule in any case. Old Testament passages written prior to the Captivity certainly discussed the nature of evil; but only in the Book of Isaiah and other later works did the figure of Satan (a name derived from the Persian Shaitan) appear in the Jewish scriptures.

Nonetheless, the idea of a Devil never fully took hold in Judaism, a faith that generally depicts God as the father of all things, both good and evil. But as Christianity emerged from Judaism many centuries later, the concept of Satan as a distinct being became fixed. So too was the idea of the struggle between good and evil, which (with its implication that the struggle would eventually come to a head at the world's end), fueled Christians with a sense of mission. This in turn influenced the Christian zeal for hard work and productivity, attitudes that would ultimately propel the societies of Western Europe to unparalleled successes in the period after c. 1450 a.d. (Symbolic of the connection between Zoroastrianism and Christianity was the appearance, as recorded in the Gospels, of three Magi or Zoroastrian priests who followed a star to find the baby Jesus.)

As Ahura-Mazda provided a heavenly order, Darius sought to ensure the earthly order through what was by far the most efficiently organized empire up to its time. He set out to establish a system of justice that would be uniform throughout the empire, yet would also take into account local customs. Under his legal reforms, the provinces had two types of courts: one to administer law under the Persian legal code and one to deal with local matters according to the local system. A system of some 20 satrapies, or provinces, also allowed a measure of local rule. The satrap, who was usually a member of the royal family, had a free hand in ruling his local area, but of course he was expected to remain loyal to the emperor in Susa, the Persian capital.

In fact the Persians had three capitals. Susa, the winter capital reserved for reception of foreign visitors, lay at the end of the "Royal Road," which ran for 1,500 miles (2,400 kilometers) from the former Lydian capital at Sardis; but Darius built his palace and many other great structures at Persepolis, a springtime capital hidden away to the southeast. In summertime he used Hamadan or Ecbatana in Media. As for the Royal Road, at the time of its construction it was one of the longest in the world, and even compared with the interstate highways of the United States today, it is impressive. Interstate 75, which runs from the Canadian border in Michigan all the way to the southern end of Florida, is barely as long.

The Royal Road made possible one of the world's first postal systems. Along it lay some 80 stations, where one horse-bound mail carrier could pass the mail to another, a system not unlike the Pony Express used in the American West during the 1860s. The Persian messenger system was so efficient that Herodotus (c. 484-c. 420 b.c.) later wrote, "Neither snow, nor rain, nor heat, nor gloom of night stays these couriers from the swift completion of their appointed rounds." Today these lines are inscribed on the front of the central post office building in New York City.

Mail in the Persian Empire was only for the use of the king and satraps, and Darius maintained order by visible displays of military might. Behind the scenes, he employed one of the world's first intelligence networks to keep him informed of goings-on within the empire. Yet the Persian system of taxation was relatively liberal, at least at first. Subjects of the Persian Empire were taxed a flat 10% of their income, a system that would be adopted by the Islamic caliphates a millennium later. By contrast, the ancient Egyptians paid fully one-third of their income to the government (and of course, most Americans today have to give up more than 10%); but later, as taxes rose, the crippling effect on the Persian economy helped bring about the empire's downfall.

Throughout conquered lands, the Persians introduced a method of irrigation that helped to render areas in Egypt and central Asia fertile. Furthermore—and in another foreshadowing of Mongol rule—the stability provided by their empire facilitated hitherto unprecedented trade between India, central Asia, and the Mediterranean. Later, when Darius's son Xerxes (r. 486-465 b.c.) and his armies marched against the Greeks, Herodotus's catalogue of the assembled fighting force testified to the multinational character of the Persians' vast realm: there were Medes, Persians, Assyrians, Indians, Scythians, Thracians, and Africans.

But with Xerxes, the Persian Empire passed its summit. A less tolerant ruler than his predecessors, he ruthlessly suppressed revolts in Babylonia and Egypt, and tried to do the same in Greece when in 480 b.c. he launched the second attack his father had never lived to make. He defeated the Spartans at Thermopylae and burned Athens, but his navy lost the Battle of Salamis, and by 479 b.c. the conflict had fallen to the Greeks. Thereafter Xerxes lost interest in imperial expansion and spent most of his time in his palace, where he met his death by assassination in 465 b.c.

During the Peloponnesian War (431-404 b.c.) and its aftermath, the Persians tried to play Athens and Sparta off against one another. Though Persia in 387 b.c. signed a peace treaty with Sparta respecting Persian control over Asia Minor, Artaxerxes III (r. 359-338 b.c.) became embroiled in another Balkan conflict. This time he faced a challenger more formidable than any Greek: the Macedonian military leader Philip II (382-336 b.c.; r. 359-336 b.c.), who swore he would conquer the Persians' empire. Philip did not live to do so; instead the job fell to his son Alexander.

Thanks to the conquests of Alexander the Great, the Achaemenid empire of Persia came to an end in 330 b.c., yet it lived on through the empires that took its place. The Persian realms formed the backbone of Alexander's empire, and of that established by his general Seleucus (c. 356-281 b.c.) In 129 b.c. the Seleucid Empire fell to the Parthians; meanwhile, the example of Alexander had influenced the creation of India's own Mauryan Empire. By then, however, an even greater realm was on the rise, one whose leaders had also learned from the conquests of Alexander and the Persians before him: Rome.


Further Reading


Neurath, Marie. They Lived Like This in Ancient Persia. New York: F. Watts, 1970.

Persians: Masters of Empire. Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1995.

Internet Sites

"Persian History."

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Persia Expands the Boundaries of Empire, Exploration, and Organization

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