Parthian Empire

(250 BC–AD 226)

The Parthian Empire.

Metallic statue of a Parthian prince (thought to be Surena), AD 100, kept at The National Museum of Iran, Tehran.

Its rulers, the Arsacid dynasty, belonged to an Iranian tribe that had settled there during the time of Alexander. They declared their independence from the Seleucids in 238 BC, but their attempts to unify Iran were thwarted until after Mithridates I advent to the Parthian throne in about 170 BC.
The Parthian Confederacy shared a border with Rome along the upper Euphrates River. The two polities became major rivals, especially over control of Armenia. Heavily-armoured Parthian cavalry (cataphracts) supported by mounted archers proved a match for Roman legions, as in the Battle of Carrhae in which the Parthian General Surena defeated Marcus Licinius Crassus of Rome. Wars were very frequent, with Mesopotamia serving as the battleground. The family of the Persian Empire now goes by the name of Rahbar.
During the Parthian period, Hellenistic customs partially gave way to a resurgence of Persian culture. However, the empire lacked political unity. The administration was shared between Seven Parthian clans who constituted the Dahae Confederation, each of these clans governed a province of the empire. Suren-Pahlav Clan, Karen-Pahlav Clan and Mihran Clan were the most influential ones. By the 1st century BC, Parthia was decentralized, ruled by feudal nobles. Wars with Rome to the west and the Kushan Empire to the northeast drained the country’s resources.
Parthia, now impoverished and without any hope to recover the lost territories, was demoralized. The kings had to give more concessions to the nobility, and the vassal kings sometimes refused to obey. Parthia’s last ruler Artabanus IV had an initial success in putting together the crumbling state. However, the fate of the Arsacid Dynasty was doomed when in AD 224, the Persian vassal king Ardashir revolted. Two years later, he took Ctesiphon, and this time, it meant the end of Parthia. It also meant the beginning of the third Persian Empire, ruled by the Sassanid kings. Sassanids were from the province of Persis, native to the first Persian Empire, the Achaemenids.

Sassanid Empire (226–651)

‘The Sassanid Persian Empire’ in 610.

The ‘Sassanid Empire’ or ‘Sassanian Dynasty’ ( []) is the name used for the fourth imperial Iranian dynasty, and the second Persian Empire (226–651). The Sassanid dynasty was founded by Ardashir I after defeating the last Parthian (Arsacid) king, Artabanus IV ( ”Ardavan”) and ended when the last Sassanid Shahanshah (”King of Kings”), Yazdegerd III (632–651), lost a 14-year struggle to drive out the early Islamic Caliphate, the first of the Islamic empires.
Ardashir I, led a rebellion against the Parthian Confederacy in an attempt to revive the glory of the previous empire and to legitimize the hellenized form of Zoroastrianism practised in south western Iran. In two years he was the Shah of a new Persian Empire.
The Sassanid dynasty (also Sassanian) (named for Ardashir’s grandfather) was the first dynasty native to the Pars province since the Achaemenids; thus they saw themselves as the successors of Darius and Cyrus. They pursued an aggressive expansionist policy. They recovered much of the eastern lands that the Kushans had taken in the Parthian period. The Sassanids continued to make war against Rome; a Persian army even captured the Roman Emperor Valerian in 260.
The Sassanid Empire, unlike Parthia, was a highly centralized state. The people were rigidly organized into a caste system: Priests, Soldiers, Scribes, and Commoners. Zoroastrianism was finally made the official state religion, and spread outside Persia proper and out into the provinces. There was sporadic persecution of other religions. The Eastern Orthodox Church was particularly persecuted, but this was in part due to its ties to the Roman Empire. The Nestorian Christian church was tolerated and sometimes even favored by the Sassanids.
The wars and religious control that had fueled The Sassanid empire’s early successes eventually contributed to its decline. The eastern regions were conquered by the White Huns in the late 5th century. Adherents of a radical religious sect, the Mazdakites, revolted around the same time. Khosrau I was able to recover his empire and expand into the Christian countries of Antioch and Yemen. Between 605 and 629, Sassanids successfully annexed Levant and Roman Egypt and pushed into Anatolia.
However, a subsequent war with the Romans utterly destroyed the empire. In the course of the protracted conflict, Sassinid armies reached Constantinople, but could not defeat the Byzantines there. Meanwhile, the Byzantine Emperor Heraclius had successfully outflanked the Persian armies in Asia Minor and attacked the empire from the rear while the main Iranian army along with its top Eran Spahbods were far from battlefields. This resulted in a crushing defeat for Sassanids in Northern Mesopotamia. The Sassanids had to give up all their conquered lands and retreat. This defeat was mentioned in Qur’an as a “victory for believers,” referring to the Romans, who were monotheists, in contrast to the pagan Sassinids. (Note: The official religion of the Sassanid empire was Zoroastrianism. It is not an Abrahamic/Semitic religion like Christianity or Islam, so it would be classified as “Pagan” by the followers of those religions even though it was monotheistic).
Following the advent of Islam and collapse of Sassanid Empire, Persians came under the subjection of Arab rulers for almost two centuries before native Persian dynasties could gradually drive them out. In this period a number of small and numerically inferior Arab tribes migrated to inland Iran. [3]
Also some Turkic tribes settled in Persia between the 9th and 12th centuries.[4]
In time these peoples were integrated into numerous Persian populations and adopted Persian culture and language while Persians retained their culture with minimal influence from outside.[5]

Achaemenid Empire (550 BC–330 BC)

Apadana Hall, Persepolis: Angra Mainyu kills the primeval bull, whose seed is rescued by Mah, the moon, as the source for all other animals.

The earliest known record of the Persians comes from an Assyrian inscription from c. 844 BC that calls them the ”Parsu” (Parsuash, Parsumash) and mentions them in the region of Lake Urmia alongside another group, the ”Madai” (Medes). For the next two centuries, the Persians and Medes were at times tributary to the Assyrians. The region of Parsuash was annexed by Sargon of Assyria around 719 BC. Eventually the Medes came to rule an independent Median Empire, and the Persians were subject to them.
(”Hakhamanish”), chieftain of the Persians around The Achaemenids were the first to create a centralized state in Persia, founded by Achaemenes700 BC.
Around 653 BC, the Medes came under the domination of the Scythians, and Teispes, the son of Achaemenes, seems to have led the nomadic Persians to settle in southern Iran around this time — eventually establishing the first organized Persian state in the important region of Anshan as the Elamite kingdom was permanently destroyed by the Assyrian ruler Ashurbanipal (640 BC). The kingdom of Anshan and its successors continued to use Elamite as an official language for quite some time after this, although the new dynasts spoke Persian, an Indo-Iranian tongue.
defeated the forces of Astyages, who was then captured by his own nobles and turned over to the triumphant Cyrus, now Teispes’ descendants may have branched off into two lines, one line ruling in Anshan, while the other ruled the rest of Persia. Cyrus II the Great united the separate kingdoms around 559 BC. At this time, the Persians were still tributary to the Median Empire ruled by Astyages. Cyrus rallied the Persians together, and in 550 BCShah of a unified Persian kingdom. As Persia assumed control over the rest of Media and their large empire, Cyrus led the united Medes and Persians to still more conquest. He took Lydia in Asia Minor, and carried his arms eastward into central Asia. Finally in 539 BC, Cyrus marched triumphantly into the ancient city of Babylon. After this victory, he set the standards of a benevolent conqueror by issuing the Cyrus Cylinder, the first charter of human rights. Cyrus was killed in 530 BC during a battle against the Massagetae or Sakas.

Darius I of Persia.

Achaemenid empire at its greatest extent.

Cyrus’ son, Cambyses II, annexed Egypt to the Achaemenid Empire. The empire then reached its greatest extent under Darius I. He led conquering armies into the Indus River valley and into Thrace in Europe. A punitive raid against Greece was halted at the Battle of Marathon. His son Xerxes I tried to subdue the Greeks, but his army was defeated at the Battle of Plataea 479 BC.
The Achaemenid Empire was the largest and most powerful empire the world had yet seen. More importantly, it was well managed and organized. Darius divided his realm into about twenty satrapies (provinces) supervised by satraps, or governors, many of whom had personal ties to the Shah. He instituted a systematic tribute to tax each province. He took the advanced postal system of the Assyrians and expanded it. Also taken from the Assyrians was the usage of secret agents of the king, known as the King’s Eyes and Ears, keeping him informed.
Darius improved the famous Royal Road and other ancient trade routes, thereby connecting far reaches of the empire. He may have moved the administration center from Fars itself to Susa, near Babylon and closer to the center of the realm. The Persians allowed local cultures to survive, following the precedent set by Cyrus the Great. This was not only good for the empire’s subjects, but ultimately benefited the Achaemenids, since the conquered peoples felt no need to revolt.

Persian and Median soldiers with Farvahar in center.

It may have been during the Achaemenid period that Zoroastrianism reached South-Western Iran, where it came to be accepted by the rulers and through them became a defining element of Persian culture. The religion was not only accompanied by a formalization of the concepts and divinities of the traditional (Indo-)Iranian pantheon but also introduced several novel ideas, including that of free will, which is arguably Zoroaster’s greatest contribution to religious philosophy. Under the patronage of the Achaemenid kings, and later as the ”de-facto” religion of the state, Zoroastrianism would reach all corners of the empire. In turn, Zoroastrianism would be subject to the first sycretic influences, in particular from the Semitic lands to the west, from which the divinities of the religion would gain astral and planetary aspects and from where the temple cult originates. It was also during the Achaemenid era that the sacerdotal Magi would exert their influence on the religion, introducing many of the practices that are today identified as typically Zoroastrian, but also introducing doctrinal modifications that are today considered to be revocations of the original teachings of the prophet.
The Achaemenid Empire united people and kingdoms from every major civilization in south west Asia. For the first time in history, people from very different cultures were in contact with one another under one ruler.

Cyrus The Great

Cyrus II, Kourosh in Persian, Kouros in Greek

Artistic portrait of Cyrus the Great

Cyrus (580-529 BC) was the first Achaemenid Emperor. He founded Persia by uniting the two original Iranian Tribes- the Medes and the Persians. Although he was known to be a great conqueror, who at one point controlled one of the greatest Empires ever seen, he is best remembered for his unprecedented tolerance and magnanimous attitude towards those he defeated.

Upon his victory over the Medes, he founded a government for his new kingdom, incorporating both Median and Persian nobles as civilian officials. The conquest of Asia Minor completed, he led his armies to the eastern frontiers. Hyrcania and Parthia were already part of the Median Kingdom. Further east, he conquered Drangiana, Arachosia, Margiana and Bactria. After crossing the Oxus, he reached the Jaxartes, where he built fortified towns with the object of defending the farthest frontier of his kingdom against nomadic tribes of Central Asia.

The victories to the east led him again to the west and sounded the hour for attack on Babylon and Egypt. When he conquered Babylon, he did so to cheers from the Jewish Community, who welcomed him as a liberator- he allowed the Jews to return to the promised Land. He showed great forbearance and respect towards the religious beliefs and cultural traditions of other races. These qualities earned him the respect and homage of all the people over whom he ruled.

Bas-Relief of Cyrus the Great, in Pasargad, Iran

The victory over Babylonia expressed all the facets of the policy of conciliation which Cyrus had followed until then. He presented himself not as a conqueror, but a liberator and the legitimate successor to the crown. He also declared the first Charter of Human Rights known to mankind. He took the title of “King of Babylon and King of the Land”. Cyrus had no thought of forcing conquered people into a single mould, and had the wisdom to leave unchanged the institution of each kingdom he attached to the Persian Crown. In 539 BCE he allowed more than 40,000 Jews to leave Babylon and return to Palestine. This step was in line with his policy to bring peace to Mankind. A new wind was blowing from the east, carrying away the cries and humility of defeated and murdered victims, extinguishing the fires of sacked cities, and liberating nations from slavery.

Cyrus was upright, a great leader of men, generous and benelovent. The Hellenes, whom he conquered regarded him as ‘Law-giver’ and the Jews as ‘the annointed of the Lord’.

Prior to his death, he founded a new capital city at Pasargade in Fars. and had established a government for his Empire. He appointed a governor (satrap) to represent him in each province, however the administration, legistlation, and cultural activities of each province was the responsibility of the Satraps. Accoding to Xenophon Cyrus is also reputed to have devised the first postal system, (Achaemenide achievements). His doctrines were adopted by the future emperors of the Achaemenian dynasty.

Ancient Persia Empire

The First Persian Empire

Persia was settled by a people called Iranians who spoke an eastern Indo-European language. They originated somewhere to the northwest and about 1000 B.C. occupied the area between the Caspian Sea and the Persian Gulf. Their territory extended westward to the region of the older Mesopotamian civilizations. Among the major states established were Persis, along the northern shore of the Persian Gulf; Anshan, at the head of the gulf; and Media to the north, at the end of the Caspian Sea. Persis and Anshan were inhabited by Iranians called Persians; Media, by Iranians called Medes.

Cyrus, Darius, and Xerxes

Western Asia was dominated in the ninth to seventh centuries B.C. by the Assyrians. In 612 B.C., the Medes, allied with the Chaldeans (Babylonians), overthrew the Assyrians and destroyed their capital city of Nineveh. Media became the ruling Iranian state, with dominion over Persis and Anshan. In 550 B.C., Cyrus, king of Anshan and Persis, united all the Persians under his leadership and overthrew the Medes. He made himself Shahanshah (“King of Kings”) of all the Iranians.

Cyrus (called “the Great”) defeated the king of Lydia and gained control of all Asia Minor, including the Greek city-states of Ionia. He conquered the Chaldeans and occupied their capital, Babylon, in 539 B.C. Soon his empire extended to the border of Egypt, with its capital at Susa (the Biblical Shushan). Egypt was conquered under Cyrus’ son Cambyses (529–521 B.C.)

Darius I (ruled 521–486 B.C.) extended the empire eastward to beyond the Indus River, and built the new royal city of Persepolis. He built an extensive system of roads and speeded communications by using relays of mounted couriers. In establishing firmer control over his immense domain, he aroused the Ionian cities to revolt and soon found himself at war with Greece. Darius was defeated at Marathon, Greece, in 490 B.C. His son Xerxes (ruled 486–465 B.C.) renewed the campaign and defeated the Greeks at Thermopylae in 480 B.C., but the Greek navy routed the Persian fleet at Salamis, and the following year the Greeks drove the last of Xerxes’ army out of Greece.

Decline of the Empire

Persia made no further efforts to expand its boundaries. However, the administrative policies set up by Darius were effective in holding the empire together for more than 150 years. Persian assistance to the Greek city-state of Sparta in the Peloponnesian War helped destroy the Athenian empire. When Cyrus the Younger attempted to seize the Persian throne from his brother Artaxerxes II in 401 B.C., the king crushed the revolt.

Meanwhile, Persian strength was diminishing. In the fourth century B.C. the Phoenician cities began to break away. The Persians were defeated by Alexander the Great in 333 B.C.

The distinctive feature of the first Persian empire was the just and reasonable manner in which subject territories were ruled. Native laws, customs, and religions were permitted; native leaders often held high official positions. The empire was divided into provinces called satrapies under satraps (governors) responsible to the king.

Takht-e Suleiman- Ancient Iran

Sacred lake of Takht-e Suleiman
(Order Fine Art Print)

Located in a mountainous area of northwestern Iran and 42 kilometers north of the village of Takab, Takht-e Suleiman (the ‘Throne of Solomon’) is one of the most interesting and enigmatic sacred sites in Iran. Its setting and landforms must certainly have inspired the mythic imagination of the archaic mind. Situated in a small valley, at the center of a flat stone hill rising twenty meters above the surrounding lands, is a small lake of mysterious beauty. Brilliantly clear but dark as night due to its depth, the lake’s waters are fed by a hidden spring far below the surface. Places like this were known in legendary times as portals to the underworld, as abodes of the earth spirits.

Archaeological studies have shown that human settlements existed in the immediate region since at least the 1st millennium BC, with the earliest building remains upon the lake-mound from the Achaemenian culture (559-330 BC). During this period the fire temple of Adur Gushasp (Azargoshnasb) was first constructed and it became one of the greatest religious sanctuaries of Zoroastrianism, functioning through three dynasties (Achaemenian, Parthian, Sassanian) for nearly a thousand years. In the early Sassanian period of the 3rd century AD, the entire plateau was fortified with a massive wall and 38 towers. In later Sassanian times, particularly during the reigns of Khosrow-Anushirvan (531-579 AD) and Khosrow II (590-628), extensive temple facilities were erected on the northern side of the lake to accommodate the large numbers of pilgrims coming to the shrine from beyond the borders of Persia. Following the defeat of Khosrow II’s army by the Romans in 624 AD, the temple was destroyed and its importance as a pilgrimage destination rapidly declined. During the Mongol period (1220-1380), a series of small buildings were erected, mostly on the southern and western sides of the lake, and these seem to have been used for administrative and political rather than religious functions. The site was abandoned in the 17th century, for unknown reasons, and has been partially excavated by German and Iranian archaeologists in the past 100 years.

Ruins of Takht-e Suleiman

Ruins of Takht-e Suleiman