The Achaemenid Persian empire was the largest that the ancient world had seen, extending from Anatolia and Egypt across western Asia to northern India and Central Asia. Its formation began in 550 B.C., when King Astyages of Media, who dominated much of Iran and eastern Anatolia (Turkey), was defeated by his southern neighbor Cyrus II (“the Great”), king of Persia (r. 559–530 B.C.). This upset the balance of power in the Near East. The Lydians of western Anatolia under King Croesus took advantage of the fall of Media to push east and clashed with Persian forces. The Lydian army withdrew for the winter but the Persians advanced to the Lydian capital at Sardis, which fell after a two-week siege. The Lydians had been allied with the Babylonians and Egyptians and Cyrus now had to confront these major powers. The Babylonian empire controlled Mesopotamia and the eastern Mediterranean. In 539 B.C., Persian forces defeated the Babylonian army at the site of Opis, east of the Tigris. Cyrus entered Babylon and presented himself as a traditional Mesopotamian monarch, restoring temples and releasing political prisoners. The one western power that remained unconquered in Cyrus’ lightning campaigns was Egypt. It was left to his son Cambyses to rout the Egyptian forces in the eastern Nile Delta in 525 B.C. After a ten-day siege, Egypt’s ancient capital Memphis fell to the Persians.
A crisis at court forced Cambyses to return to Persia but he died en route and Darius I (“the Great”) emerged as king (r. 522–486 B.C.), claiming in his inscriptions that a certain “Achaemenes” was his ancestor. Under Darius the empire was stabilized, with roads for communication and a system of governors (satraps) established. He added northwestern India to the Achaemenid realm and initiated two major building projects: the construction of royal buildings at Susa and the creation of the new dynastic center of Persepolis, the buildings of which were decorated by Darius and his successors with stone reliefs and carvings. These show tributaries from different parts of the empire processing toward the enthroned king or conveying the king’s throne. The impression is of a harmonious empire supported by its numerous peoples. Darius also consolidated Persia’s western conquests in the Aegean. However, in 498 B.C., the eastern Greek Ionian cities, supported in part by Athens, revolted. It took the Persians four years to crush the rebellion, although an attack against mainland Greece was repulsed at Marathon in 490 B.C.
Darius’ son Xerxes (r. 486–465 B.C.) attempted to force the mainland Greeks to acknowledge Persian power, but Sparta and Athens refused to give way. Xerxes led his sea and land forces against Greece in 480 B.C., defeating the Spartans at the battle of Thermopylae and sacking Athens. However, the Greeks won a victory against the Persian navy in the straits of Salamis in 479 B.C. It is possible that at this point a serious revolt broke out in the strategically crucial province of Babylonia. Xerxes quickly left Greece and successfully crushed the Babylonian rebellion. However, the Persian army he left behind was defeated by the Greeks at the Battle of Plataea in 479 B.C.
Much of our evidence for Persian history is dependent on contemporary Greek sources and later classical writers, whose main focus is the relations between Persia and the Greek states, as well as tales of Persian court intrigues, moral decadence, and unrestrained luxury. From these we learn that Xerxes was assassinated and was succeeded by one of his sons, who took the name Artaxerxes I (r. 465–424 B.C). During his reign, revolts in Egypt were crushed and garrisons established in the Levant. The empire remained largely intact under Darius II (r. 423–405 B.C), but Egypt claimed independence during the reign of Artaxerxes II (r. 405–359 B.C). Although Artaxerxes II had the longest reign of all the Persian kings, we know very little about him. Writing in the early second century A.D., Plutarch describes him as a sympathetic ruler and courageous warrior. With his successor, Artaxerxes III (r. 358–338 B.C), Egypt was reconquered, but the king was assassinated and his son was crowned as Artaxerxes IV (r. 338–336 B.C.). He, too, was murdered and replaced by Darius III (r. 336–330 B.C.), a second cousin, who faced the armies of Alexander III of Macedon (“the Great”). Ultimately Darius III was murdered by one of his own generals, and Alexander claimed the Persian empire. However, the fact that Alexander had to fight every inch of the way, taking every province by force, demonstrates the extraordinary solidarity of the Persian empire and that, despite the repeated court intrigues, it was certainly not in a state of decay.
Department of Ancient Near Eastern Art, The Metropolitan Museum of Art
Cyrus The Great Essay
Cyrus the Great Builds the Persian Empire
by Governing With Toleration and Kindness
The greatest leaders in history often leave behind some sort of legacy. Cyrus the Great was the founder of the Persian Empire around 500 B.C., which was the largest empire of its time (Cyrus II, the Great). The empire stretched from ancient Iran, and grew to include an area reaching from Greece to India (Persian Empire). Cyrus’ reign saw some of the first contacts between Persia and Greece, and helped Persia gain the political power that had once been held by the people of Mesopotamia (Cyrus, the Great). Cyrus the Great proved to be an effective leader who developed a strong military that was stationed strategically throughout the empire to stop rebellions and keep trade routes safe, treated captives like the jews kindly, and implemented an organized administration of government that included satraps who governed locally.
Cambyses I, one of the earliest Achaemenid kings, ruled Persia around 600 B.C. Upon his death, his son Cyrus II took over as king in 559 B.C., and later became known as Cyrus the Great. As the ruler of Persia at the age of 41, Cyrus wanted to gain more power to strengthen the Persian Empire. He started by negotiating an alliance with the Babylonians against the Medes, who at this time were being ruled by Cyrus’ grandfather Astyages (Cyrus, the Great). Around 550 BC Astyages was worried that his grandson might be trying to form an alliance with his enemy Nabonidus, King of Babylon. Astyages called for Cyrus to come to him in the capital of Ecbatana to discuss the matter, but Cyrus would not (Pettman). With the support of the Babylonians, Cyrus led a revolt and defeated the Medes (Cyrus II, the Great). The Nabodinus Chronicle states that Cyrus was helped to win the battle by some of Astyages’ own soldiers. “Astyages mustered his army and marched against Cyrus, king of Anshan, for conquest...The army rebelled against Astyages and he was taken prisoner” (Cyrus II, the Great). Persia took over the Medes' kingdom, thus beginning the rise in power of the Persian Empire. Cyrus established a new capital at Pasargadae to commemorate his victory (Cyrus II, the Great).
Cyrus was very ambitious, so he continued to work on increasing his empire. In 547 B.C. he went to war against the wealthy King Croesus of Lydia and defeated him at the Battle of Ptyerum. He went on to capture the Greek city states along the coast of Anatolia. At this point Cyrus’ empire was 3,000 miles wide, but Cyrus was most interested in capturing Babylon because of the power and importance it represented. In 540 B.C., Cyrus set his sights on Babylon, which had been his ally up to that time. The people of Babylon were unhappy with King Nabonidus because he did not honor the God Marduk (Pettman). Without warning, the King left for Arabia, and in his ten-year absence left his son Belshazzar in charge. King Nabonidus eventually returned to Babylon in 543 B.C. and brought...
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