The Persians were originally one of several Aryan tribes that migrated into modern Iran from the plains of southern Russia around 1400 BC (the word Iran is derived from Aryan). They settled the southwest corner of the Iranian plateau, on the north shore of the Persian Gulf, on lands vacated by the Elamites who had been conquered and enslaved by the Assyrians. The Persians were separated from the great civilizations of Mesopotamia by the Zagros Mountains.At its peak, the Persian Empire stretched from the Indus River across the Near East to the eastern Mediterranean coast, south into Egypt along the Nile to Sudan, across Anatolia, and into Thrace and Macedonia.
During the history of the Persian Empire, five cities served as the royal capital. The first was Pasargadae, built by Cyrus to commemorate his victory over the Medes. It was remote and impractical as an administrative capital. Babylon was rebuilt by Cyrus as a royal capital for his use when affairs brought him to Mesopotamia. Darius moved the empire’s administration to Susa, the old Elamite capital, perhaps for efficiency. It was well-located at the hub of a road and water transport network.The extreme summer heat of Susa drove the Persian court first to the higher altitudes of Ecbatana, the old Median capital in the Zagros Mountains. In 520 BC Darius began building the greatest of the Persian capitals at Persepolis. Construction of Persepolis was interrupted for long periods and was not completed nearly 200 years later when the city was sacked and burned to the ground by Alexander.
Rise to power
The Persians settled on relatively poor and remote lands where they were little troubled by first the Elamites to their west, then the Assyrians who destroyed the Elamites around 640 BC, and then the Medes (to their north) and resurgent Babylonians who conquered Assyria in 609 BC. Throughout this period, the various petty Persian kings were vassals of the richer and more advanced Medes.Cyrus II became king of the small Persian kingdom of Anshan in 559 BC. Within ten years he had subjugated the eastern part of Persia and established a reputation among even his rivals as a natural leader to whom men gravitated. When the Median king attempted to reassert control over Persia around 550 BC, the Median army revolted on the battlefield, handing over their king to Cyrus and surrendering their own capital at Ecbatana. The Median Empire, stretching across northern Mesopotamia into Anatolia, underwent a nearly bloodless change of management. Cyrus II was now Cyrus the Great, founder of the Persian Empire.Cyrus then conquered in quick succession the Lydians of Asia Minor (led by the King Croesus of legendary wealth who had invented coins), Greek colonies on the Aegean coast, the Parthians, and the Hyrcanians to the north. In 541 BC he marched into the steppes of Central Asia, establishing a fortified border along the Jaxartes River. In 540 BC, his 19th year as king, Cyrus turned on his onetime ally, Babylon. After one battle, the army and people of Babylon surrendered their king, city, and empire that stretched from southern Mesopotamia to Phoenicia. Before Cyrus could expand into Egypt or toward Greece, however, he was killed fighting nomadic tribesmen who were threatening his eastern provinces.The first successors to Cyrus conquered Egypt, gathered new provinces in North Africa, and extended the empire into India to the Indus River. They turned next against the Greeks who were commercial rivals of Persian Phoenicia. In 513 BC a huge floating bridge was built across the Bosphorus Strait, linking Asia and Europe. The Persian army took Thrace and Macedonia to cut off grain to the Greeks, but could not subjugate the elusive Scythians. This was the peak of the Persian Empire. The stage was set for the mighty struggle with the city-states of Greece that lasted 50 years.
The early Persian economy was based on herding because the land was so poor for agriculture. The Persians attributed their toughness to the meager lifestyle to which they had been acclimated for generations.The sudden acquisition of the Median Empire, Lydia, Babylon, Egypt, and gold-rich areas in India made Persia an economic powerhouse. It controlled the rich agricultural areas of Mesopotomia, the grasslands of Anatolia, the trade routes in every direction, and rich deposits of metals and other resources. Great King Darius instituted many economic innovations and reforms: systematized taxation; standardized weights, measures, and monetary units (the first successful widespread use of coins); improved transportation routes, including the 1600-mile Royal Road from Susa to Sardis and an early Suez Canal; royal trading ships; promotion of agriculture; a banking system; and promotion of international trade.
Religion and culture
The Persian kings and nobility were Zoroastrians, a religion named after its founder, Zarathustra, called Zoroaster in Greek. Zarathustra conceived his religion around 600 BC, and it had great influence later on Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.Zoroastrianism was monotheistic, centering on one supreme god who created everything material and spiritual. The powers of good and evil worked on humans who had to choose constantly between the two. An eternal afterlife of pleasure or torment were the possible results of god’s judgment after death. These concepts of monotheism, good versus evil, free will, and posthumous reward or punishment were a departure from the polytheistic religions prominent in the area previously. These concepts greatly influenced religions that followed.
The head of the Persian government was the king whose word was law. His authority was extended by a bureaucracy led by Persian nobles, scribes who kept the records, a treasury that collected taxes and funded building projects and armies, and a system of roads, couriers, and signal stations that facilitated mail and trade. In the early years when the army was predominately Persian, it capably preserved the internal and external peace.Much of the empire was divided into provinces called satrapies, ruled by a satrap. All of Egypt was usually a single satrapy, for example. The satraps were normally Persians or Medes to help ensure their loyalty. They ruled and lived like minor kings in their own palaces. Some satraps became strong enough to threaten the king. Strong kings kept their satraps in check by holding close the reins of the armies and the treasury.
Persian soldiers recruited from among the vast Persian Empire.
All Persian men to the age of 50 years were obligated to serve in the armies of the Persian Empire. Greek historians report that boys were trained in riding, archery, hand-to-hand combat, and mounted combat. At the age of 20 they were eligible for military service.The army consisted mainly of four types of units: spearmen for infantry shock combat, foot archers to act as skirmishers, light cavalry armed mainly with bows, and heavy cavalry that wore some armor and carried spears. In the early years of the empire, the predominantly Persian army was highly motivated and responsive on the battlefield, making it a dangerous foe.The elite of the Persian army were the Ten Thousand Immortals, so called because the unit was always kept at a full strength of 10,000 men. The loss of any man to death or incapacitation was immediately made good by promotion from another unit. One thousand of the Immortals were the king’s personal bodyguards.In its later years, the ratio of Persians to provincial levies declined. The hardened army of disciplined and well-trained Persians was replaced by a mixture of formations, weapons, and methods. These troops lacked the discipline of the Persians and proved difficult to maneuver and employ on the battlefield.
The Persian Empire peaked around 500 BC, although the seeds of its decline were planted earlier. A recurring problem was court intrigue and ill-defined rules for succession. The death of a king often triggered a scramble for the throne that exhausted the treasury, eroded morale, and loosened the governmental hold on the provinces. Wasteful spending led to inflation and unpopular tax increases. Disputes in the provinces, usually over taxes, were often settled brutally, further increasing dissatisfaction. Five of the six kings that followed Xerxes’ death in 464 BC were weak leaders that held the empire together only by increasingly harsh measures.The Greeks and Persians had been on a collision course for many years when conflict began between the two cultures in 499 BC. Despite what appeared to be overwhelming strength and economic resources, the Persians failed to defeat the Greeks in 50 years of war on land and sea. The Greeks, though victorious, were not capable immediately of carrying the war into Persia.Following the Greco-Persian Wars, the weak Persian kings concentrated on maintaining their ever more tenuous hold on the empire. Recurring revolts in outlying provinces, especially Parthia, Lydia, and Egypt, weakened the economy and military. Before the empire could dissolve from within, it was dispatched by Alexander the Great in an amazingly short period of time. Alexander invaded in 334 BC, captured Lydia by 333, took Egypt in 332, and became king of Persia in 331.
The Persians are best remembered in the West as the antagonists in the dramatic Greco-Persian Wars, from which so much history has been preserved. The most famous events from this period are the bridging of the Hellespont, land battles at Marathon, Thermopylae, and Platea, the great sea battle at Salamis, and the sacking of Athens. Most of this history is biased, however, because we have mainly the Greek accounts to study.The Persians are also remembered in several Biblical accounts for the tolerance of their wise early kings and the decadence of their later courts. Cyrus the Great is remembered especially for freeing the Hebrews held prisoner in Babylon when he took that city and allowing them to return to Israel.The greatest legacy of the Persians was the aggregation and mixture of Asia and African cultures. Most of the advances of civilization to that point had come from these areas. This cultural gift was preserved by the Persians and passed on first to the Greeks and then to Europe and the West.
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