Persia

The Achaemenids

By the 6th cent. B.C. the early Persians were established in the present-day region of Fars and were benefiting from the decline of Elam. Fars (or Persis to the Greeks) was a recognizable district of the Assyrian Empire (see Assyria) like the neighboring but greater Media. The Persian rulers, claiming descent from one Achaemenes, or Hakhamanesh (see Achaemenids, were associated with the Medes, who created a strong state in the 7th cent. Cyaxares, son of Phraortes, founder of Median power, was one of the kings who brought about the fall of Nineveh (612 B.C.) and broke the hegemony of the Assyrians. The Persian ruler of about the same time, Cambyses I, was vassal to Cyaxares. According to Herodotus he married the daughter of the Median ruler Astyages (Cyaxares' son), and his son Cyrus was thus also grandson of Cyaxares; this account has been branded by some scholars as a pious attempt to falsify genealogy.

Cyrus the Great

After the Persians had aided the Medes in establishing the power of the Medes, Cyrus, who later became known as Cyrus the Great, took over the rule of Media from Astyages in the middle of the 6th cent. B.C. In an amazingly short time Cyrus had extended his conquests from Elam and Media west and north. He pushed into Asia Minor, where Croesus, the king of Lydia, vainly sought by an alliance with Nabonidus of Babylonia and Amasis II of Egypt to withstand the conqueror. Cyrus crushed the coalition, and by 546 B.C. the greatness of the Persian Empire was established. It was to endure long under his successors, the Achaemenids. From the beginning the Persians built on the foundations of the earlier states. The organization of the Assyrians was taken over and improved, and Cyrus himself imported artists and artisans from Babylonia and Egypt to create his palace and tomb at Pasargadae.

Darius I and His Immediate Successors

The dynamic new state was, however, troubled almost from the start by dynastic troubles. Cambyses II, son of Cyrus, did away with Smerdis, another son of Cyrus, in order to have unchallenged power, but when Cambyses was absent on a successful raid into Egypt, an imposter claiming to be Smerdis appeared, and usurped the throne. A civil war ensued, and after Cambyses died, a new claimant, Darius I, appeared against the false Smerdis and made his claims good. After putting down disorders, Darius molded the administration of the empire into a centralized system that was remarkable for its efficiency. Satraps, or governors, were set up to rule firmly and arbitrarily over the various regions, but to keep check on the satraps, who were potential aspirants to central power, each was accompanied by a secretary and a military commander who were responsible to the great king alone. This centralized system was supported by an intricate and excellent system of communication, for the Persians were the first important ancient people to use the horse efficiently for communication and transport.

Darius also continued and broadened Cyrus' policy of encouraging the local cultures within the empire, allowing the people to worship their own gods and to follow their own customs so long as their practices did not conflict with the necessities of Persian administration. Despite this tolerance there were rebellions by the Egyptians, Lydians, and Babylonians, all of which Darius ruthlessly suppressed. The religion of Persia itself was Zoroastrianism, and the unity of Persia may be attributed in part to the unifying effect of that broadly established faith. Darius was also a patron of the arts, and magnificent palaces standing on high terraces beautified the capitals of Susa and Persepolis (see Persian art and architecture). His conquests to the east extended Persian rule beyond the Arius (Hari Rud) River into modern Afghanistan and Pakistan. Egypt had already been attacked by Cambyses, and although it was to prove recalcitrant and rebellious, succeeding Persian kings were to maintain hegemony there. Darius pushed as far north as the Danube in his exploits, but the fighting against the Scythians was obscure and certainly unfruitful.

Even more unprofitable for Persia was its embroilment with the Greeks. The Persians in taking over Lydia had come into contact with the Greek colonies in Asia Minor (Ionia). There were Greeks (notably the exiled Athenian tyrant Hippias) at the court of Darius, and the Persians immediately began to borrow from Greek art and thought, as they did from all advanced cultures to the enrichment of Persia. At the beginning of the 5th cent. B.C., however, the Ionian cities were involved in trouble with the great king. Darius put down their rebellion, then organized an expedition to punish the city-states in Greece proper that had lent aid to the rebellious cities. This expedition began the Persian Wars. Ultimately Darius' army was defeated at Marathon, and his son Xerxes I, who succeeded to the throne in 486 B.C., fared no better at Salamis. The Greeks had successfully defied the power of the great king.

The effects of the Greek victory were, however, confined to Greece itself and had no consequences in Persia. Nor did the Greek triumph exclude Persia from taking part in the affairs of the Greek world. Persian influence was strong, and Persian gold was poured out to aid one Greek city-state or another in the interminable struggle for power. It is noteworthy that when Themistocles, the victor of Salamis, was exiled from Athens, he took refuge at the court of Artaxerxes I, who had succeeded Xerxes I in 464 B.C.

Decay of the Empire

In the time of Artaxerxes the difficulties of maintaining so wide an empire had begun to appear. Some of the satraps showed ambitions to rule, and the Egyptians, helped by the Athenians, undertook a long rebellion. Violence against the great king himself was a disturbing factor. Xerxes I had been murdered, and Xerxes II, son of Artaxerxes, was killed after a reign of 45 days by a half-brother, who was in turn overthrown by another half-brother, Darius II. In the reign of the second Darius the power of the satraps was shown in the careers of Pharnabazus and Tissaphernes, who interfered with some effect in the affairs of Greece.

When Darius II died, the most celebrated of the dynastic troubles occurred in the rebellion of Cyrus the Younger against Artaxerxes II, which came to an end with the death of Cyrus in the battle of Cunaxa (401 B.C.). Cyrus' defeat was recorded in Xenophon's Anabasis, and although the importance of Cyrus' revolt may be exaggerated it cannot be denied that there were signs of decay in the empire. Although Evagoras of Cyprus was brought to heel after the Peace of Antalcidas (386 B.C.; see Corinthian War) was dictated to Greece by the great king, Egypt, which had become independent again in 405 B.C., continued to revolt and the efforts of the armies of Artaxerxes II to reassert control were fruitless. Artaxerxes III, who gained the throne by massacring his brother's family, was more successful in Egypt, but his triumph was brief. He was himself killed by his counselor, the eunuch Bagoas.

Darius III in turn murdered Bagoas and ruled with considerable splendor after 336, but only for a short period. In 334, Alexander the Great and his Macedonian army crossed the Hellespont and routed the Persians on the Granicus. The battle of Issus followed in 333, and in 331 the battle of Gaugamela brought an end to the Achaemenid empire. Darius, last of the great kings, fled east before the conqueror to the remote province of Bactria, where he was assassinated by his own cousin, Bessus. Alexander also came east and, defeating Bessus, had the whole empire in his grasp. Alexander went on to India and created the greatest empire the world had yet seen. It lasted, however, only for the brief period of his life and then was torn apart by the quarrels of his successors (the Diadochi).

The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.

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