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.
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.
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.