The Persian Empire of Ancient Iran

Pre-Achaemenid Iran, the Medes and the Persians

Pre-Achaemenid Iran

Iran's history as a nation of people speaking an Indo-European language did not begin until the middle of the second millennium B.C. Before then, Iran was occupied by peoples with a variety of cultures. There are numerous artifacts attesting to settled agriculture, permanent sun-dried- brick dwellings, and pottery-making from the sixth millennium B.C. The most advanced area technologically was ancient Susiana, present-day Khuzestan Province.

By the fourth millennium, the inhabitants of Susiana, the Elamites, were using semipictographic writing, probably learned from the highly advanced civilization of Sumer in Mesopotamia (ancient name for much of the area now known as Iraq), to the west.

Sumerian influence in art, literature, and religion also became particularly strong when the Elamites were occupied by, or at least came under the domination of, two Mesopotamian cultures, those of Akkad and Ur, during the middle of the third millennium. By 2000 B.C. the Elamites had become sufficiently unified to destroy the city of Ur. Elamite civilization developed rapidly from that point, and, by the fourteenth century B.C., its art was at its most impressive.

Immigration of the Medes and the Persians

Small groups of nomadic, horse-riding peoples speaking Indo-European languages began moving into the Iranian cultural area from Central Asia near the end of the second millennium B.C.

Population pressures, overgrazing in their home area, and hostile neighbors may have prompted these migrations. Some of the groups settled in eastern Iran, but others, those who were to leave significant historical records, pushed farther west toward the Zagros Mountains.

Three major groups are identifiable--the Scythians, the Medes (the Amadai or Mada), and the Persians (also known as the Parsua or Parsa).

The Scythians established themselves in the northern Zagros Mountains and clung to a seminomadic existence in which raiding was the chief form of economic enterprise. The Medes settled over a huge area, reaching as far as modern Tabriz in the north and Esfahan in the south. They had their capital at Ecbatana (present-day Hamadan) and annually paid tribute to the Assyrians. The Persians were established in three areas: to the south of Lake Urmia (the tradional name, also cited as Lake Orumiyeh, to which it has reverted after being called Lake Rezaiyeh under the Pahlavis), on the northern border of the kingdom of the Elamites; and in the environs of modern Shiraz, which would be their eventual settling place and to which they would give the name Parsa (what is roughly present-day Fars Province).

During the seventh century B.C., the Persians were led by Hakamanish (Achaemenes, in Greek), ancestor of the Achaemenid dynasty. A descendant, Cyrus II (also known as Cyrus the Great or Cyrus the Elder), led the combined forces of the Medes and the Persians to establish the most extensive empire known in the ancient world.

Next Page: The Achaemenid Empire, 550-330 B.C.

Data as of December 1987
Source: Library of Congress Country Studies

You are here: Pre-Achaemenid Iran and Immigration of the Medes and the Persians
The Achaemenid Empire, 550-330 B.C.
Darius
Alexander the Great, the Seleucids, and the Parthians
The Sassanids, A.D. 224-642

By 546 B.C., Cyrus had defeated Croesus*, the Lydian king of fabled wealth, and had secured control of the Aegean coast of Asia Minor, Armenia, and the Greek colonies along the Levant. Moving east, he took Parthia (land of the Arsacids, not to be confused with Parsa, which was to the southwest), Chorasmis, and Bactria. He besieged and captured Babylon in 539 and released the Jews who had been held captive there, thus earning his immortalization in the Book of Isaiah.

When he died in 529**, Cyrus's kingdom extended as far east as the Hindu Kush in present-day Afghanistan.

His successors were less successful. Cyrus's unstable son, Cambyses II, conquered Egypt but later committed suicide during a revolt led by a priest, Gaumata, who usurped the throne until overthrown in 522 by a member of a lateral branch of the Achaemenid family, Darius I (also known as Darayarahush or Darius the Great). Darius attacked the Greek mainland, which had supported rebellious Greek colonies under his aegis, but as a result of his defeat at the Battle of Marathon in 490 was forced to retract the limits of the empire to Asia Minor.

The Achaemenids thereafter consolidated areas firmly under their control. It was Cyrus and Darius who, by sound and farsighted administrative planning, brilliant military maneuvering, and a humanistic worldview, established the greatness of the Achaemenids and in less than thirty years raised them from an obscure tribe to a world power.

The quality of the Achaemenids as rulers began to disintegrate, however, after the death of Darius in 486. His son and successor, Xerxes, was chiefly occupied with suppressing revolts in Egypt and Babylonia. He also attempted to conquer the Greek Peloponnesus, but encouraged by a victory at Thermopylae, he overextended his forces and suffered overwhelming defeats at Salamis and Plataea.

By the time his successor, Artaxerxes I, died in 424, the imperial court was beset by factionalism among the lateral family branches, a condition that persisted until the death in 330 of the last of the Achaemenids, Darius III, at the hands of his own subjects.

The Achaemenids were enlightened despots who allowed a certain amount of regional autonomy in the form of the satrapy system. A satrapy was an administrative unit, usually organized on a geographical basis. A satrap (governor) administered the region, a general supervised military recruitment and ensured order, and a state secretary kept official records. The general and the state secretary reported directly to the central government. The twenty satrapies were linked by a 2,500-kilometer highway, the most impressive stretch being the royal road from Susa to Sardis, built by command of Darius. Relays of mounted couriers could reach the most remote areas in fifteen days. Despite the relative local independence afforded by the satrapy system however, royal inspectors, the "eyes and ears of the king," toured the empire and reported on local conditions, and the king maintained a personal bodyguard of 10,000 men, called the Immortals.

The language in greatest use in the empire was Aramaic. Old Persian was the "official language" of the empire but was used only for inscriptions and royal proclamations.

Next Page: Darius

Data as of December 1987
Source: Library of Congress Country Studies

Corrections

*Jona Lendering points out that a 547/546 date for the fall of Croesus is based on the Nabonidus Chronicle whose reading is uncertain. Rather than Croesus it may have been the ruler of Uratu. Lendering says the fall of Lydia should be listed as the 540s.

**He also advises that cuneiform sources start to mention Cambyses as sole ruler in August 530, so the date of his death the following year is wrong.

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Darius revolutionized the economy by placing it on a silver and gold coinage system. Trade was extensive, and under the Achaemenids there was an efficient infrastructure that facilitated the exchange of commodities among the far reaches of the empire. As a result of this commercial activity, Persian words for typical items of trade became prevalent throughout the Middle East and eventually entered the English language; examples are, bazaar, shawl, sash, turquoise, tiara, orange, lemon, melon, peach, spinach, and asparagus.

Trade was one of the empire's main sources of revenue, along with agriculture and tribute. Other accomplishments of Darius's reign included codification of the data, a universal legal system upon which much of later Iranian law would be based, and construction of a new capital at Persepolis, where vassal states would offer their yearly tribute at the festival celebrating the spring equinox. In its art and architecture, Persepolis reflected Darius's perception of himself as the leader of conglomerates of people to whom he had given a new and single identity. The Achaemenid art and architecture found there is at once distinctive and also highly eclectic. The Achaemenids took the art forms and the cultural and religious traditions of many of the ancient Middle Eastern peoples and combined them into a single form. This Achaemenid artistic style is evident in the iconography of Persepolis, which celebrates the king and the office of the monarch.

Next Page: Alexander the Great, the Seleucids, and the Parthians

Data as of December 1987
Source: Library of Congress Country Studies

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Envisioning a new world empire based on a fusion of Greek and Iranian culture and ideals, Alexander the Great of Macedon accelerated the disintegration of the Achaemenid Empire. He was first accepted as leader by the fractious Greeks in 336 B.C. and by 334 had advanced to Asia Minor, an Iranian satrapy. In quick succession he took Egypt, Babylonia, and then, over the course of two years, the heart of the Achaemenid Empire--Susa, Ecbatana, and Persepolis--the last of which he burned.

Alexander married Roxana (Roshanak), the daughter of the most powerful of the Bactrian chiefs (Oxyartes, who revolted in present-day Tadzhikistan), and in 324 commanded his officers and 10,000 of his soldiers to marry Iranian women. The mass wedding, held at Susa, was a model of Alexander's desire to consummate the union of the Greek and Iranian peoples. These plans ended in 323 B.C., however, when Alexander was struck with fever and died in Babylon, leaving no heir. His empire was divided among four of his generals. Seleucus, one of these generals, who became ruler of Babylon in 312, gradually reconquered most of Iran. Under Seleucus's son, Antiochus I, many Greeks entered Iran, and Hellenistic motifs in art, architecture, and urban planning became prevalent.

Although the Seleucids faced challenges from the Ptolemies of Egypt and from the growing power of Rome, the main threat came from the province of Fars (Partha to the Greeks).

Arsaces (of the seminomadic Parni tribe), whose name was used by all subsequent Parthian kings, revolted against the Seleucid governor in 247 B.C. and established a dynasty, the Arsacids, or Parthians. During the second century, the Parthians were able to extend their rule to Bactria, Babylonia, Susiana, and Media, and, under Mithradates II (123-87 B.C.), Parthian conquests stretched from India to Armenia.

After the victories of Mithradates II, the Parthians began to claim descent from both the Greeks and the Achaemenids. They spoke a language similar to that of the Achaemenids, used the Pahlavi script, and established an administrative system based on Achaemenid precedents.

Meanwhile, Ardeshir, son of the priest Papak, who claimed descent from the legendary hero Sasan, had become the Parthian governor in the Achaemenid home province of Persis (Fars). In A.D. 224 he overthrew the last Parthian king and established the Sassanid dynasty, which was to last 400 years.

Next Page: The Sassanids, A.D. 224-642

Data as of December 1987
Source: Library of Congress Country Studies

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The Sassanids established an empire roughly within the frontiers achieved by the Achaemenids [c, 550-330 B.C.; see Ancient Persia Timeline], with the capital at Ctesiphon. The Sassanids consciously sought to resuscitate Iranian traditions and to obliterate Greek cultural influence. Their rule was characterized by considerable centralization, ambitious urban planning, agricultural development, and technological improvements.

Sassanid rulers adopted the title of shahanshah (king of kings), as sovereigns over numerous petty rulers, known as shahrdars. Historians believe that society was divided into four classes: the priests, warriors, secretaries, and commoners. The royal princes, petty rulers, great landlords, and priests together constituted a privileged stratum, and the social system appears to have been fairly rigid. Sassanid rule and the system of social stratification were reinforced by Zoroastrianism, which became the state religion. The Zoroastrian priesthood became immensely powerful. The head of the priestly class, the mobadan mobad, along with the military commander, the eran spahbod, and the head of the bureaucracy, were among the great men of the state. Rome, with its capital at Constantinople, had replaced Greece as Iran's principal Western enemy, and hostilities between the two empires were frequent.

Shahpur I (241-72), son and successor of Ardeshir, waged successful campaigns against the Romans and in 260 even took the emperor Valerian prisoner.

Chosroes I (531-79), also known as Anushirvan the Just, is the most celebrated of the Sassanid rulers. He reformed the tax system and reorganized the army and the bureaucracy, tying the army more closely to the central government than to local lords.

His reign witnessed the rise of the dihqans (literally, village lords), the petty landholding nobility who were the backbone of later Sassanid provincial administration and the tax collection system. Chosroes was a great builder, embellishing his capital, founding new towns, and constructing new buildings. Under his auspices, too, many books were brought from India and translated into Pahlavi. Some of these later found their way into the literature of the Islamic world. The reign of Chosroes II (591-628) was characterized by the wasteful splendor and lavishness of the court.

Toward the end of his reign Chosroes II's power declined. In renewed fighting with the Byzantines, he enjoyed initial successes, captured Damascus, and seized the Holy Cross in Jerusalem. But counterattacks by the Byzantine emperor Heraclius brought enemy forces deep into Sassanid territory.

Years of warfare exhausted both the Byzantines and the Iranians. The later Sassanids were further weakened by economic decline, heavy taxation, religious unrest, rigid social stratification, the increasing power of the provincial landholders, and a rapid turnover of rulers. These factors facilitated the Arab invasion in the seventh century.

Data as of December 1987
Source: Library of Congress Country Studies

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Iran, Library of Congress Country Studies. "The Persian Empire of Ancient Iran." ThoughtCo, Feb. 3, 2017, thoughtco.com/ancient-iran-persia-112508. Iran, Library of Congress Country Studies. (2017, February 3). The Persian Empire of Ancient Iran. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/ancient-iran-persia-112508 Iran, Library of Congress Country Studies. "The Persian Empire of Ancient Iran." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/ancient-iran-persia-112508 (accessed October 22, 2017).