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The Rise of Persia


  • The Achaemenid Persian Empire first expanded under the leadership of Cyrus the Great, who utilized a strategy of religious and cultural toleration to maintain order.
  • Darius the Great further expanded the empire and introduced reforms such as standard currency and satraps—provincial governors—to rule over smaller regions of the empire on his behalf.
  • The increased wealth and power of the empire allowed Darius to construct a brand new capital city, called Persepolis.
  • The Achaemenid Empire fell when it was conquered by Alexander the Great.

Creation of the Achaemenid Persian Empire

The probable extent of the Median Empire. Image credit: History of Persia, CC BY-SA 4.0
In 559 BCE, a man named Cyrus became the leader of Persia. He was the great-great-grandson of the first Persian king, Achaemenes—whose name is why historians call this the Achaemenid Persian Empire!
Prior to Cyrus’s rule, Persia was a small tributary state to the Median Empire, which happened to be ruled by Cyrus’s grandfather, Astyages. Persia paid the Medes for protection and to maintain a level of independence.
Cyrus came into conflict with his grandfather—for reasons that are unknown—and initiated a rebellion that ultimately succeeded in 550 BCE. Cyrus commemorated his victory over Astyages by building a city on the site of the battle and naming it Pasargadae, after his tribe.
By defeating Astyages, Cyrus took on his role as ruler of what had been the Median Empire. Not everyone who had been paying tribute to Astyages accepted Cyrus as their new ruler, however. In order to solidify his power, Cyrus had to find ways to bring lesser rulers under his control. His success earned Cyrus the title of "Cyrus the Great."

Religious toleration and maintaining local traditions

Cyrus was a successful military commander, but he also recognized the need to leave the regions that he conquered in good economic order if they were going to provide him with tribute revenues. To achieve this, Cyrus left local rulers in place after conquering a region, and he allowed the local population to continue practicing their preferred religious traditions. These policies ensured that conquered regions continued to function economically and reduced the chance that they would rebel against him.
In ancient Mesopotamia, a common imperial strategy was to relocate conquered populations to new areas in order to break up their political and cultural unity and make them less dangerous to the ruling power. Cyrus reversed this practice by allowing the Jews, who had been relocated by the Babylonians, to return to Israel and establish a tributary state. While this might appear to be an act of generosity, it was probably a calculated move on the part of Cyrus to help ensure Jewish loyalty, and thus a continuation of his general policy of tolerance.
What did Cyrus hope to achieve by leaving local rulers in charge after he conquered them?
Why might this have been an effective strategy? Why could it have been dangerous?

Political developments

Cyrus’s son, Cambyses II, added to the Achaemenid Empire by conquering Egypt. While Cambyses II was away in Egypt, a man pretending to be his brother tried to take control of the empire. Cambyses died in 522 BCE while returning from Egypt to remove this pretender and was succeeded by a general named Darius.
Although Darius had a legitimate claim in that he was distantly related to Cambyses II, several other claimants to the Persian throne challenged Darius. Many regions saw the resulting chaos as an opportunity to rebel against Achaemenid rule.
Darius eventually established himself as the sole ruler of Persia and reconquered the rebellious regions, growing the Achaemenid Empire to its greatest extent. Partly as a response to the initial challenges that he faced, Darius reorganized the empire by dividing it into satrapies, or provinces. For each satrapy, Darius appointed a satrap—a political governor—and a military commander.
The division of military and political power was meant to prevent regional leaders from becoming too powerful. Unlike the system of local control employed by Cyrus, Darius appointed these satraps directly, meaning that their loyalty was to him.
Like most ancient rulers, Darius used religion to justify his power. He claimed that the Zoroastrian god, Ahura Mazda, had appointed him to rule the world. To emphasize his power over his appointed satraps—and also to demonstrate that he was ruler of a diverse empire, rather than of a single kingdom or people—he took the title of Shahanshah, King of Kings. The idea here was to avoid the appearance of favoring a particular group or region within the empire.

Economic reforms

Darius introduced a standard currency—a gold coin known as a daric. Having a standardized currency encouraged more economic activity within the empire by making transactions easier. Unlike specific goods and services, money was accepted by almost everyone in exchange for almost anything and was also easier to transport than most goods. A standardized currency also allowed Darius to collect taxes and tributes in coin rather than in goods or services, which allowed him to concentrate the empire’s wealth where he chose.
How did a standard currency allow Darius greater control over his empire’s resources?
The ability to concentrate wealth combined with the expansion of the territory under Achaemenid control allowed Darius to pay for the construction of an impressive new imperial capital, called Parsa, better known to history as Persepolis, which in Greek means city of the Persians. The city incorporated artistic and architectural styles from throughout the empire and, because it was built in a mountainous region with elaborate defenses, was home to Darius’s imperial vault.
The construction of Persepolis represented the growing power of the Achaemenids not only in terms of its art and grandeur, but also because of its location. Darius chose the site of Persepolis specifically because it was difficult to access. The Achaemenids already had several capital cities, all of which were better placed in terms of accessibility and economic potential. Persepolis was only possible because of the wealth and power Darius had gained and he may have built it to emphasize precisely this point.
The Behistun Inscription was carved along a road between the cities of Ecbatana and Babylon, the capitals of Media and Babylonia, respectively, during the reign of Darius I. The inscription recorded the history of the Persian kings in three languages: Elamite, Babylonian, and Old Persian. Image credit: Hara1603, public domain
What does the fact that the inscription is written in three languages tell us about the composition of the Persian Empire?
Besides building an entirely new city, Darius also worked to improve many existing cities with repairs and new construction. One particularly ambitious project was digging a canal between the Nile River and the Red Sea to make trade easier. All of these improvements were made possible by the increased wealth that came with imperial expansion.
The Royal Road—a highway running from the city of Sardis in the west to Susa in the east, see map—was completed during Darius’s reign. Darius created a spy network to ensure that satraps were carrying out his orders and to watch for signs of rebellion. A system of messengers and horses along the Royal Road allowed for the speedy transmission of information to and from Darius. In an age when overland transport was expensive and dangerous, the road also offered traders a relatively safe and efficient route.
The Royal Road. Image credit: Fabienkhan, CC BY-SA 2.5-2.0-1.0
How would the Royal Road have facilitated trade? How would it have helped the king run the empire?

Decline of Achaemenid power

In 499 BCE, the Greek city-states in Ionia—the western region of modern-day Turkey, represented by the red dots on the coast near Sardes on the above map—rebelled against Achaemenid rule. They were supported in their rebellion by city-states in Greece, which led to retaliatory Persian invasions of Greece.
In 490 BCE, Darius’s army was famously defeated by the Greeks at the Battle of Marathon. Between 480 and 479 BCE, Darius’s son, Xerxes, was more successful, but he ultimately failed to subdue the Greeks as well.
Xerxes’s failure to defeat the Greeks marked the end of Achaemenid expansion. Over the following century and a half, the Achaemenid kings increased taxes and continued to interfere in Greece via economic and political strategies, rather than military invasions. With the end of expansion came more attempts by regional rulers to escape from Achaemenid control; many of the distinct groups within the empire saw less and less reason to remain a part of it.
In 334 BCE, Alexander of Macedon invaded the Persian Empire, and by 330 BCE, the Persian king, Darius III, was dead—murdered by one of his generals. Alexander claimed the Persian throne. Alexander left the officials and institutions of the cities he captured in place to manage his massive empire. After his death, one of his generals, Seleucus, gained control of much of the territory that had been the Achaemenid empire.
Why might Achaemenid power have started declining around the same time that imperial expansion ended?

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