From 539 BC to 331 BC, the Persian Empire was the most powerful state in the world. Ruled from Persia (now Iran), it stretched from Egypt to India. It had rich resources of water, fertile farmland, and gold. The Persians followed the Zoroastrian religion.
Persian rulers claimed the proud title of “King of Kings” and demanded total obedience from their subjects. Under King Darius, the empire was divided into 20 provinces to try to stop any single region from becoming too powerful. Each province was ruled by a governor, called a SATRAP.
This was the longest highway in the Persian Empire. It ran for more than 1,550 miles (2,500 km) from Sardis, in western Turkey, to the empire’s capital, Susa, near the Persian Gulf. A giant network of roads linked the empire’s provinces. Messengers traveled on horseback to deliver urgent royal commands or news, while merchants used camel trains to transport goods.
In 520 BC, King Darius gave orders for a magnificent new palace to be built at Persepolis, in Persia. He commanded leaders from all over the empire to bring tributes (forced gifts) to him there.
Known as Darius the Great, Darius I reorganized the Persian government, won great victories in Turkey, and led an invasion of Greece. But his army was defeated by Greek soldiers at the famous battle of Marathon in 490 BC. This started a long-lasting war with the Greeks that eventually brought down the Persian Empire.
Satraps were local rulers appointed by the king to govern individual provinces. Their job was to enforce law and order, and to collect taxes and tributes. They worked with Persia’s army commanders to defend the empire’s frontiers from enemy attack.
Persian kings did not trust the satraps. They employed special spies, known as “the king’s ears,” to make sure that the satraps were not stealing taxes and tributes. But some satraps did become powerful, and plotted against the king. Some joined with enemies of the empire, such as Alexander the Great, the Greek leader who conquered the Persian Empire in 331 BC.