The Ancient Persian Empire

Parthian Prince, from Sham-Izeh, Malamir, 50 BCE
Parthian Prince, from Sham-Izeh, Malamir, 50 BCE

The early history of man in Iran goes back well beyond the Neolithic period, it begins to get more interesting around 6000 BC, when people began to domesticate animals Continue reading The Ancient Persian Empire

The Life of Cyrus The Great

[1.1.1] The thought once occurred to us how many republics have been overthrown by people who preferred to live under any form of government other than a republican, and again, how many monarchies and how many oligarchies in times past have been abolished by the people. We reflected, moreover, how many of those individuals who have aspired to absolute power have either been deposed once for all and that right quickly; or if they have continued in power, no matter for how short a time, they are objects of wonder as having proved to be wise and happy men. Then, too, we had observed, we thought, that even in private homes some people who had rather more than the usual number of servants and some also who had only a very few were nevertheless, though nominally masters, quite unable to assert their authority over even those few.

[1.1.2] And in addition to this, we reflected that are the rulers of their horses, and that all who are called herdsmen might properly be regarded as the rulers of the animals over which they are placed in charge. Now we noticed, as we thought, that all these herds obeyed their keepers more readily than men obey their rulers. For the herds go wherever their keeper directs them and graze in those places to which he leads them and keep out of those from which he excludes them. They allow their keeper, moreover, to enjoy, just as he will, the profits that accrue from them. And then again, we have never known of a herd conspiring against its keeper, either to refuse obedience to him or to deny him the privilege of enjoying the profits that accrue. At the same time, herds are more intractable to strangers than to their rulers and those who derive profit from them. Men, however, conspire against none sooner than against those whom they see attempting to rule over them.
Continue reading The Life of Cyrus The Great

Achaemenid Empire

Achaemenid Empire

Cyrus Cylinder,
The First Charter of Human Rights

By 546 BCE, Cyrus had defeated Croesus, the Lydian king of fabled wealth, and had secured control of the Aegean coast of Asia Minor, Armenia, and the Greek colonies along the Levant. Moving east, he took Parthia (land of the Arsacids, not to be confused with Parsa, which was to the southwest), Chorasmis, and Bactria. He besieged and captured Babylon in 539 and released the Jews who had been held captive there, thus earning his immortalization in the Book of Isaiah. When he died in 529, Cyrus’s kingdom extended as far east as the Hindu Kush in present-day Afghanistan. Continue reading Achaemenid Empire

Achaemenid Army

By: Professor A. Sh. Shahbazi

These life sized “Immortal Guard” in richly ornamental robes wear the twisted headband typical of native Iranians from Susa.

The Achaemenian/Achaemenid Army is well known through descriptions by Herodotus, Xenophon, and Arrian as well as by illustrations on Persepolitan and Greco-Persian monuments. Of particular importance for the topic are the Greek representations of Persian warriors and the evidence of the so-called Alexander Sarcophagus from Sidon. The Persians whom Cyrus the Great united did not possess a professional army: as in days of old, the “people” of a region was represented by its backbone, the “military force,” so the two words were used synonymously in one Old Persian term, kara (cognate with Lithuanian karias/karis “war, army,” Gothic harjis “army,” and German Heer “army,”), a sense still retained in the New Persian term kas-o kar “relatives and supporters.” Continue reading Achaemenid Army

Cyrus The Great

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.

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.