Empire: 486 BC


The Persians were Mesopotamians in Iran who began to expand their society in c3000 BC. The Persian Empire was a series of historical empires that ruled over the Iranian plateau, the old Persian homeland, and beyond in Western Asia, Central Asia and the Caucasus. The Persian empire has become what we know today as Persia or more commonly, Iran.

The most widespread entity considered to have been a Persian Empire was the Achaemenid Empire (648–330 BC), famous in antiquity as the foe of the classical Greek states. Persia was a united Aryan kingdom that originated in the region now known as Pars province of Iran. The Persian Empire was formed under Cyrus the Great, who overthrew the empire of the Medes, and conquered the entire Middle East, including the territories of the Babylonians, the Phoenicians, and the Lydians. Babylonia was the only part of the Assyrian empire that had not been conquered by Cyrus' Mede grandfather, Astyages. Cyrus' son, Cambyses, continued Cyrus' conquests by conquering Egypt. The Empire reached its greatest extent under Darius I the Great.

Persian Empire: 550-330 BC


Most of the successive states in Greater Iran prior to March 1935 are collectively called the Persian Empire by Western historians. Virtually all the successor empires of Persia were major regional and some major international powers in their day. The earliest known record of the Persians comes from an Assyrian inscription from c. 844 BC that calls them the Parsu and mentions them in the region of Lake Urmia alongside the Medes. For the next two centuries, the Persians and Medes were at times tributary to the Assyrians. The region of Parsuash was annexed by Sargon of Assyria around 719 BC. Eventually the Medes came to rule an independent Median Empire, and the Persians were subject to them.

The Achaemenids were the first rulers to create a centralized state in Persia, founded by Achaemenes (Hakhamanish), a chieftain of the Persians c 700 BC. Around 653 BC, the Medes came under the domination of the Scythians, and Teispes, the son of Achaemenes, seems to have led the nomadic Persians to settle in southern Iran, eventually establishing the first organized Persian state in the important region of Anshan as the Elamite kingdom was permanently destroyed by the Assyrian ruler Ashurbanipal (640 BC). The kingdom of Anshan and its successors continued to use Elamite as an official language for quite some time after this, although the new dynasts spoke Persian.

Teispes' descendants branched off into two lines, one line ruling in Anshan, while the other ruled the rest of Persia. Cyrus the Great united the separate kingdoms around 559 BC. At this time, the Persians were still tributary to the Median Empire ruled by Astyages. Cyrus rallied the Persians together, and in 550 BC defeated the army of Astyages, who was then captured by his own nobles and turned over to the triumphant Cyrus, now Shah of a unified Persian kingdom. As Persia assumed control over the rest of Media and their large empire, Cyrus led the united Medes and Persians to still more conquest. He took Lydia in Asia Minor, and carried his arms eastward into central Asia. Finally in 539 BC, Cyrus marched triumphantly into the ancient city of Babylon. After this victory, he set the standard of the benevolent conqueror by issuing a declaration of religious tolerance and returning the Jews to Jerusalem, recorded in clay as the Cyrus Cylinder. On October 29 539 BC, Cyrus himself entered Babylon, assuming the titles of "king of Babylon, king of Sumer and Akkad, king of the four corners of the world." The Cyrus Cylinder was placed under the walls of Babylon as a foundation deposit, following a long Babylonian tradition. Cyrus was killed in 530 BC during a battle in northen Iran.

Cyrus' son, Cambyses II, annexed Egypt to the Achaemenid Empire. The empire then reached its greatest extent under Darius I. He led conquering armies into the Indus River valley and into Thrace in Europe. A punitive raid against Greece was halted at the 490 BC Battle of Marathon. His son Xerxes I tried to subdue the Greeks, but his army was defeated at the Battle of Plataea 479 BC.

The Achaemenid Empire was the largest and most powerful empire the world had yet seen. More importantly, it was well managed and organized. Darius divided his realm into about twenty satrapies (provinces) supervised by satraps, or governors, many of whom had personal ties to the Shah. He instituted a systematic tribute to tax each province. He took the advanced postal system of the Assyrians and expanded it. Also taken from the Assyrians was the usage of secret agents of the king, known as the King's Eyes and Ears, keeping him informed.

Darius the Great


Darius improved the famous Royal Road and other ancient trade routes, thereby connecting far reaches of the empire. According to the Greek researcher Herodotus of Halicarnassus (fifth century BC) the Royal Road connected the capital of Lydia, Sardes, and the capitals of the Achaemenid empire, Susa and Persepolis.[3] Darius may have moved the administration center from Fars to Susa, near Babylon and closer to the center of the realm. The Persians allowed local cultures to survive, following the precedent set by Cyrus the Great. This was not only good for the empire's subjects, but ultimately benefited the Achaemenids, since the conquered peoples felt no need to revolt.

It may have been during the Achaemenid period that Zoroastrianism reached South-Western Iran, where it came to be accepted by the rulers and through them became a defining element of Persian culture. The religion was not only accompanied by a formalization of the concepts and divinities of the traditional (Indo+

-)Iranian pantheon but also introduced several novel ideas, including that of free will, which is arguably Zoroaster's greatest contribution to religious philosophy. Under the patronage of the Achaemenid kings, and later as the de-facto religion of the state, Zoroastrianism would reach all corners of the empire. In turn, Zoroastrianism would be subject to the first sycretic influences, in particular from the Semitic lands to the west, from which the divinities of the religion would gain astral and planetary aspects and from where the temple cult originates. It was also during the Achaemenid era that the sacerdotal Magi (priests of ancient Persia and advocates of Zoroaster's wisdom) would exert their influence on the religion, introducing many of the practices that are today identified as typically Zoroastrian, but also introducing doctrinal modifications that are today considered to be revocations of the original teachings of the prophet.

The Achaemenid Empire united people and kingdoms from every major civilization in south west Asia. For the first time in history, people from very different cultures were in contact with one another under one ruler. Moreover, the rulers continued local customs and laws, while tolerating a wide range of religions. This continued until expansion brought conflict with Greece. The later years of the Achaemenid dynasty were marked by decay and decadence. The greatest empire of the time collapsed in only eight years, when it fell under the attack of the young Macedonian king, Alexander the Great.

The Achaemenid Empire's weakness was exposed to the Greeks in 401 BC, when a rebel prince, Cyrus the Younger, hired 14,000 Greek mercenaries to help secure his claim to his imperial throne. This act exposed the political instability weakness of Achaemenid State during a crisis of succession. Philip II of Macedon, leader of most of Greece, decided to take advantage of the Persian weakness when, after the death of Artaxerxes III Ochus in 338 BC, the Persian Empire had no strong leader. After Philip's death in 336, his son and successor Alexander landed in Asia Minor in 334 BC and won a key battle at Issus in 333 BC . His armies quickly swept through Lydia, Phoenicia, and Egypt, before he defeated Darius III at Gaugamela in 331 and captured the capital at Susa. The last Achaemenid resistance was at the "Persian Gates", a strategic, very narrow, mountain pass (a Persian Thermopylae) between Susa and near the royal palace at Persepolis.

The Parthians

As the Greeks grew weak, a Iranian tribe called the Parthians seized power. The Parthians declared their independence from the Seleucids in 238 BC, but they were unable to unify Iran until c170 BC.

The Parthian Confederacy shared a border with Rome along the upper Euphrates River and the two became major rivals and frequently battled, especially over control of Armenia. Heavily-armoured Parthian cavalry supported by mounted archers defeated the Roman legions at the 53 BC Battle of Carrhae. Wars were very frequent, with Mesopotamia serving as the battleground.

During the Parthian period, Hellenistic customs partially gave way to a resurgence of Persian culture. However, the empire lacked political unity, as administration was shared between Seven Parthian clans. By the 1st century BC, Parthia was decentralized, ruled by feudal nobles. Wars with Rome to the west and the Kushan Empire to the northeast drained the country's resources. In 224, a final revolt led to the beginning of the third Persian Empire, ruled by the Sassanid kings.

The Sassanids

Sassanid Empire

Shapur I defeated Roman Emperors Valerian & Philip the Arab


Sassanid Empire: 226-651. Medium green contested, light temporarily annexed


The Sassanid dynasty were native to the same Pars province as the Achaemenids and saw themselves as the successors of Darius and Cyrus. The Sassanids pursued an aggressive expansionist policy and recovered much of the eastern lands lost to the Kushans. The Sassanids continued to fight against Rome; a Persian army even captured the Roman Emperor Valerian in 260.

The Sassanid Empire, unlike Parthia, was a highly centralized state. The people were rigidly organized into a caste system of priests, soldiers, scribes, and commoners. Zoroastrianism was made the official state religion, and spread outside Persia proper and into the provinces. The Sassanids sporadically persecution other religions; and the Eastern Orthodox Church was particularly persecuted, perhaps due to its ties to the Roman Empire. The Nestorian Christian church was tolerated and sometimes even favored by the Sassanids.

The wars and religious control that had fueled The Sassanid empire's early successes eventually contributed to its decline. The eastern regions were conquered by the White Huns in the late 5th century. Adherents of a radical religious sect, the Mazdakites, revolted around the same time, but empire expanded into the Christian countries of Antioch and Yemen. Between 605 and 629, Sassanids successfully annexed the Levant and Roman Egypt and pushed into Anatolia.

However, a subsequent war with the Romans utterly destroyed the empire. In the course of the protracted conflict, Sassinid armies reached Constantinople, but could not defeat the Byzantines. Meanwhile, the Byzantine Emperor Heraclius had successfully outflanked the Persian armies in Asia Minor and attacked the empire from the rear while the main Iranian army along with its top generals were far from battlefields. This resulted in a crushing defeat for the Sassanids in northern Mesopotamia. The Sassanids had to give up much of their conquered lands and retreat.

Following the advent of Islam and collapse of the Sassanid Empire, Persians came under the subjection of Arab rulers for almost two centuries before native Persian dynasties could gradually drive them out. In this period a number of small and numerically inferior Arab tribes migrated to inland Iran. Some Turkic tribes also settled in Persia between the 9th and 12th centuries.

Islamic Persia

The growth of Islam


The explosive growth of the Arab Caliphate coincided with the chaos caused by the defeat of Sassanids in wars with the Byzantine Empire. Most of the country was conquered between 643 to 650. Persia's conquest by Islamic Arab armies marks the transition into mediaeval Persia.

Yazdgerd III, the last Sasanian emperor, died ten years after he lost his empire to the newly-formed Muslim Caliphate. He tried to recover some lost territory with the help of the Turks, but they were easily defeated by Muslim armies. Then he sought the aid of the Chinese Tang dynasty; but the Chinese were finally defeated in the 751 battle of Talas.

The Umayyad Arab empire stretched from the Iberian Peninsula to the Indus River, from the Aral Sea to the southern tip of the Arabian Peninsula. The Umayyads borrowed heavily from Persian and Byzantine administrative systems and moved their capital to Damascus, in the center of their empire. The Umayyads ruled Persia for a hundred years. Arab conquest dramatically changed life in Persia. Arabic (temporarily) displaced Farsi, but Shi'ite Islam displaced Zoroastrianism and mosques were built.

In 750 the Umayyads were ousted by the Abbasid dynasty and Persians had come to play an important role in the bureaucracy of the empire. The caliph Al-Ma'mun, whose mother was Persian, moved his capital from Damascus to Merv in eastern Iran. In 819, the Persian Samanids created an independent state in eastern Persia. The Samanids made Samarkand, Bukhara and Herat their capitals and revived the Persian language and culture. In 913, western Persia was conquered by the Buwayhid, a Deylamite tribal confederation from Caspian Sea area and made Shiraz their capital. Rather than a province of a united Muslim empire, Iran became one nation in an increasingly diverse and cultured Islamic world.


1          Adapted from Grahame Clark, World Prehistory, In New Perspective, pp. 61-83; and Crystalinks, Persian Empire at,; Architectural Marvels of Ancient Mesopotamia at,; Amazeingart at,; Ur at,; Dilmun at,; Persian Empire at,; Farsi - Persian Language at,; Islamic conquest of Persia at,; Mongol Empire at,; Livius, Persia at,

2          Maps from Darius: the list of satrapies at,; and Israel Science and Technology Homepage, the University of Oregon Historical Atlas Resource at,

3          This road must be very old. If the Persians had built this road and had taken the shortest route, they would have chosen another track: from Susa to Babylon, along the Euphrates to the capital of Cilicia, Tarsus, and from there to Lydia. This was not only shorter, but had the additional advantage of passing along the sea, where it was possible to trade goods. The route along the Tigris, however, lead through the heartland of the ancient Assyrian kingdom. It is likely, therefore, that the road was planned and organized by the Assyrian kings to connect their capital Nineveh with Susa. There are some indications that the site of Persepolis was already a government's center under Cyrus the Great (559-530) and his son Cambyses II (530-522), but there are no archaeological traces of this older phase. However this may be, it seems as if Darius 'invented' Persepolis as the splendid seat of the government of the Achaemenid empire and as its center for receptions and festivals. The wealth of Persia was to be visible in every aspect of its construction. Persepolis was a showcase.

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