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The Persian Empire

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By — McGraw-Hill Professional
Updated on Feb 3, 2012

The Persian Empire

The first Persians came to the Fertile Crescent around 2000 BC from the north (present-day Russia). Many of them settled on the Iranian plateaus, where they bred cattle and horses; others roamed farther east, eventually finding their way to the Indus Valley and present-day India. In both areas, Persians merged with the local populations, imposing their own languages on them and thus disseminating the Indo-European language family.

The Assyrians controlled the Mesopotamian region until the seventh century, when the Assyrian Empire fell to the Second Babylonian and Median empires. The Medes were themselves of Persian origin; the Median Empire was the first great success of the Persian peoples on the Iranian plateau. In 559, Cyrus succeeded to the throne of the small kingdom of Persia, united the other Persian tribes against the Medes, and in 550 declared himself king of a united Persian empire. This success against the Medes was the result of Persian military superiority. Cyrus is known to history as “the Great”; the title pays tribute to both his military skills and his charitable and just policies toward conquered peoples. These took the shape of tolerance and encouragement of local customs, beliefs, and laws.

Cyrus hoped to secure the eastern borders of the new Persian Empire and expand his territory into the west. In 547, a Persian victory over the Lydians extended Cyrus’s control over the Anatolian peninsula (present-day Turkey), including the Ionian city-states of the Greek civilization. The next step was to conquer the Second Babylonian Empire. Cyrus was killed in battle in 530; his son and heir Cambyses carried out his father’s ambitions, extending the Persian Empire into Egypt, Libya, and the Sudan. He also oversaw a buildup of the Persian fleet.

Cambyses died in 522 BC with no direct heir. After a period of factional squabbling, Darius I assumed control of the empire. Under his rule, the Persians conquered Macedonia and expanded their control into the Indus Valley. This made the Persian Empire the largest in the ancient world; it included more than twenty-five different ethnic groups.

Darius, who became known as Darius the Great, followed the pattern of most of the successful ancient empires. As emperor, he ruled by divine right. Local authority in the empire’s twenty provinces was in the hands of royal governors, called satraps, who were personally loyal to the emperor (often through family ties). Each satrap was all-powerful in his own province, collecting the tributes due to the emperor and maintaining the laws. The Persian army, which was loyal only to the emperor, was deployed throughout the empire both to protect the borders from outside invasions and to guard against the possibility of internal rebellion.

Darius established Aramaic as the official language of the Persian Empire. Under his rule, the Persians built a highway system and established a postal service, both of which eased communication throughout the empire. A uniform system of weights and measures ensured fair trade between and among the provinces.

The Persian Empire was mighty and vast, but it contained the seeds of its own destruction. First, government by an absolute monarch depends largely on the personality and talent of that monarch. Many of Darius’s successors were weak or incompetent. Second, the empire was physically too large for central control in an age of slow communication and travel. Third, the empire was too diverse for its own stability. Persians were a small minority within their own empire, which was also home to Phoenicians, Israelites, Medes, Assyrians, Egyptians, and so on. There was plenty of resentment and irritation present among these varied ethnic groups (see Figure 3.1).

Ancient Middle East Persian Empire Persian Wars Map

By the time of Darius, the Greek civilization had grown so much and become so prosperous that it became a distinct threat to the supremacy of the Persian Empire. In 499 BC, the Greek city-states rose up in rebellion against Persia. The rebels proved unexpectedly stubborn, but Persian troops succeeded in stamping out all resistance by 493—except in Athens and Sparta, which refused to give in. The enraged Darius sent his ships out against Athens and Sparta in 492, but nature intervened on the side of the Greeks, and storms off Mount Athos destroyed most of the Persian ships.

Darius, however, had no intention of accepting Greek defiance. In 490, the Persians sacked Eretria. Soon after, the Athenian army faced the Persians at Marathon and defeated them. Darius’s successor, Xerxes, rallied the Persians in a full-scale invasion of Greece, which proved to be a serious strategic error. The Greeks took an important step forward in their civilization by unifying all their armies against the Persians. Before this, each state had fought its own battles without the help of the others.

The Greek army was under Spartan command. Meanwhile, the Athenian leader Themistocles ordered a massive buildup of the Athenian navy, which he believed would be crucial in the fight against the Persians. The Persians defeated the Greek troops under Leonidas at Thermopylae in 480; the Athenians took this as a sign that they would never be able to win a decisive victory against the Persians on land and retreated from their city. The Persians swept into Athens and burned it to the ground, but it was not long before the Athenians drove the Persian ships out of Greek waters. The war ended in 479 when the Spartans defeated the Persians on land at Plataea and Mount Mycale.

The Persian Empire, greatly weakened by the Greek victory, was finally vanquished in the fourth century under Alexander the Great. Alexander’s Macedonian Empire did not long survive his death in 323; the former Persian Empire broke up into smaller kingdoms, which were eventually absorbed into the Roman Empire.

Practice questions for these concepts can be found at:

The Ancient Middle East Practice Test

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