Important Kings of the Ancient Middle East

Persian and Greek Empire Builders

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Major Ancient Near and Middle Eastern Kings

The Persian Empire, 490 B.C.
The Persian Empire, 490 B.C. Public Domain/Courtesy of Wikipedia/Created by West Point's History Department

The West and Middle East (or Near East) have long been at odds. Before Mohammed and Islam—even before Christianity—ideological differences and desire for land and power led to conflict; first in the Greek-occupied territory of Ionia, in Asia Minor, and then, later, across the Aegean Sea and onto the Greek mainland. While the Greeks favored their small, local governments, the Persians were empire builders, with autocratic monarchs in charge. For the Greeks, banding together to fight a common foe presented challenges both for individual city-states (poleis) and collectively, since the poleis of Greece weren't unified; whereas Persian monarchs had the power to demand the support of however many able-bodied men they required.

The problems and different styles of recruiting and managing armies became important when the Persians and Greeks first came into conflict, during the Persian Wars. They came into contact again later, when the Macedonian Greek Alexander the Great began his own imperial expansion. By this time, however, the individualistic Greek poleis had fallen apart.

Empire Builders

Below you will find information on major empire building and consolidating monarchs of the area now described as the Middle East or Near East. Cyrus was the first of these monarchs to conquer the Ionian Greeks. He took control away from Croesus, King of Lydia, a rich local king who had demanded little more than tribute from the Ionian Greeks. Darius and Xerxes came into conflict with the Greeks during the Persian Wars, which soon followed. The other monarchs are earlier, belonging to the period before the conflict between Greeks and Persians.

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Assyrian king Ashurbanipal on his horse thrusting a spear onto a lion’s head
Assyrian king Ashurbanipal on his horse thrusting a spear onto a lion’s head. Osama Shukir Muhammed Amin FRCP(Glasg)/([CC BY-SA 4.0)

Ashurbanipal ruled Assyria from about 669-627 B.C. Succeeding his father Esarhaddon, Ashurbanipal expanded Assyria to its broadest, when its territory included Babylonia, Persia, Egypt, and Syria. Ashurbanipal was renowned also for his library at Ninevah containing more than 20,000 clay tablets written in the wedge-shaped letters called cuneiform.

The clay monument shown was written by Ashurbanipal before he became king. Usually, scribes did the writing, so this was unusual.

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Tomb of Cyrus the Great, Iran
Andrea Ricordi, Italy / Getty Images

From an ancient Iranian tribe, Cyrus formed and then ruled the Persian Empire (from c. 559 - c. 529), extending it from Lydia through Babylonia. He is also familiar to those who know the Hebrew Bible. The name Cyrus comes from an ancient Persian version of Kourosh (Kūruš)*, translated into Greek and then into Latin. Kou'rosh is still a popular Iranian name.

Cyrus was the son of Cambyses I, king of Anshan, a Persian kingdom, in Susiana (Elam), and a Median princess. At the time, as Jona Lendering explains it, the Persians were vassals of the Medes. Cyrus revolted against his Median overlord, Astyages.

Cyrus conquered the Median Empire, becoming the first Persian king and founder of the Achmaenid dynasty by 546 B.C. That was also the year he conquered Lydia, taking it from the famously wealthy Croesus. Cyrus defeated the Babylonians in 539, and is called the liberator of the Babylonian Jews. A decade later, Tomyris, Queen of the Massagetae, led an attack that killed Cyrus. He was succeeded by his son Cambyses II, who expanded the Persian empire into Egypt, before dying after 7 years as king. 

A fragmented inscription on a cylinder written in Akkadian cuneiform ​describes some of the deeds of Cyrus. [See The Cyrus Cylinder.] It was discovered in 1879 during a British Museum excavation in the area. For what may be modern political reasons, it has been used to champion Cyrus as the creator of the first human rights document. There is a translation deemed by many to be a false one that would lead to such an interpretation. The following is not from that translation, but, instead, from one that uses more circumspect language. It does not, for instance, say Cyrus freed all the slaves.

* Quick note: Similarly Shapur is known as Sapor from Greco-Roman texts.


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Relief sculpture from Tachara, Darius the Great's private palace at Persepolis.
Relief sculpture from Tachara, Darius the Great's private palace at Persepolis. Major Ancient and Near Eastern Kings | Ashurbanipal | Cyrus | Darius | Nebuchadnezzar | Sargon | Sennacherib | Tiglath-Pileser | Xerxes. dynamosquito/Flickr

An in-law of Cyrus and a Zoroastrian, Darius ruled the Persian Empire from 521-486. He expanded the empire west into Thrace and east into the Indus River valley—making the Achaemenid or Persian Empire the largest ancient empire. Darius attacked the Scythians, but he never conquered them or the Greeks. Darius suffered a defeat in the Battle of Marathon, which the Greeks won.

Darius created royal residences at Susa, in Elam and Persepolis, in Persia. He built the Persian Empire's religious and administrative center in Persepolis and completed the administrative divisions of the Persian Empire into the units known as satrapies, with the royal road to quickly route messages from Sardis to Susa. He built irrigation systems and canals, including one from the Nile in Egypt to the Red Sea

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Nebuchadnezzar II

Nebuchadnezzar's dream comes true (Daniel 4,30), wood engraving, published 1886
ZU_09 / Getty Images

Nebuchadnezzar was the most important Chaldean king. He ruled from 605-562 and was best remembered for turning Judah into a province of the Babylonian empire, sending the Jews into the Babylonian captivity, and destroying Jerusalem, as well as his hanging gardens, one of the seven wonders of the ancient world. He also expanded the empire and rebuilt Babylon. Its monumental walls contain the famous Ishtar Gate. Within Babylon was an impressive ziggurat to Marduk.

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Sargon II

portal jamb statues of Dur-Sharrukin, Palace of Sargon, Khorsabad, Iraq
NNehring / Getty Images

King of Assyria from 722-705, Sargon II consolidated the conquests of his father, Tiglath-pileser III, including Babylonia, Armenia, the area of the Philistines, and Israel.

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Sennacherib and His Queen

An Assyrian king and son of Sargon II, Sennacherib spent his rule (705-681) defending the kingdom his father had built. He was renowned for enlarging and building up the capital (Ninevah). He extended the city wall and built an irrigation canal.

In November-December 689 B.C., following a 15-month siege, Sennacherib did almost exactly the opposite of what he did at Ninevah. He sacked and razed Babylon, destroying buildings and temples, and carrying off the king and the statues of the gods they didn't smash (Adad and Shala are named specifically, but probably also Marduk), as was inscribed in the cliffs of the Bavian gorge near Ninevah. The details include filling the Arahtu canal (a branch of the Euphrates that ran through Babylon) with bricks torn from the Babylonian temples and ziggurat, and then digging canals through the city and flooding it.

Marc Van de Mieroop says that the rubble that went down the Euphrates into the Persian Gulf terrified the residents of Bahrain to the point of volunteering submission to Sennacherib.

Sennacherib's son Arda-Mulissi assassinated him. Babylonians reported this as an act of revenge by the god Marduk. In 680, when a different son, Esarhaddon, took the throne, he reversed his father's policy towards Babylon.


  • "Revenge, Assyrian Style," by Marc Van de Mieroop Past and Present 2003.
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Tiglath-Pileser III

From the Palace of Tiglath-Pileser III at Kalhu, Nimrud.
From the Palace of Tiglath-Pileser III at Kalhu, Nimrud. Detail from a relief from the palace of Tiglath-Pileser III at Kalhu, Nimrud. CC at

Tiglath-Pileser III, predecessor of Sargon II, was the Assyrian king who subjected Syria and Palestine and merged the kingdoms of Babylonia and Assyria. He introduced a policy of transplanting the populations of conquered territories.

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Bas-relief in Persepolis, Iran
Catalinademadrid / Getty Images

Xerxes, son of Darius the Great, ruled Persia from 485-465 when he was killed by his son. He is well known for his attempted conquest of Greece, including his unusual crossing of the Hellespont, a successful attack on Thermopylae and a failed attempt at Salamis. Darius also suppressed revolts in other parts of his empire: in Egypt and Babylonia.

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Gill, N.S. "Important Kings of the Ancient Middle East." ThoughtCo, Mar. 7, 2018, Gill, N.S. (2018, March 7). Important Kings of the Ancient Middle East. Retrieved from Gill, N.S. "Important Kings of the Ancient Middle East." ThoughtCo. (accessed March 17, 2018).