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The Persian Empire: Definition & Facts

Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

The Persian Empire was the largest the world had seen to that point, and it left some important legacies. In this lesson, we'll talk about this mighty empire and see how it maintained its power.

The Persian Empire

If I asked you to find Persia on a map, you couldn't do it. It's not because you're no good with maps; I'm sure you are. It's because Persia no longer exists. Today we call it Iran. Iran has been one of longest continually inhabited places on Earth and has seen some incredible firsts. Some of the first agriculture occurred in this part of the world. Some of the first cities formed here, as did some of the world's first empires. Based in these hot but fertile lands, the Persian Empire dominated the ancient world between 539 and 330 BCE. It was the largest empire the world had seen, stretching west into Egypt, east into India and north through Turkey. So even if you can't find Persia on a map today, you can find its legacy written across Eurasia.

Persian Empire

Expansion

The Persian Empire began with the rise of a ruler named Cyrus II (the Great). Cyrus was a Persian king who began expanding the borders of this relatively small kingdom. He defeated another Iranian king, Astyages of Media, around 550 BCE, setting off a power struggle across the Middle East. The Persians continually emerged victorious, but the true start of the Persian Empire begins with Cyrus' battle against the mighty city of Babylon.

At the time, Babylon was one of the most powerful cities in the world. It was the center of a mighty Mesopotamian empire and controlled most of the eastern Mediterranean. Cyrus defeated the Babylonian army in 539 BCE and marched into the great city, presenting himself as a traditional Mesopotamian conqueror.

Cyrus later expanded the borders of his empire across the Middle East. His son, Cambyses, captured Egypt's capital city of Memphis and brought the Nile under Persian control. The next king, Darius I (the Great), pushed into modern-day Turkey, India, and Kazakhstan. It was an empire unlike anything the world had ever seen.

Sphinx from the palace of Darius
Darius

Administration

What makes the Persian Empire so remarkable was not just its size, but the sophistication of its administration. As the first empire of its size, the Persians set precedents that would be followed by empires for centuries to come. The entire empire was divided into 20 provinces, managed by governors loyal to the Persian Emperor. Local lords in conquered territories were given land and other benefits in exchange for their loyalty and a number of soldiers for the Persian army. A complex tax system was also implemented to keep the empire running.

To keep all of this functioning, Cyrus developed an early mail system that delivered messages to imperial centers around the empire. Darius expanded upon this and built a system of roads to connect these cities, the most impressive being a 1,600-mile-long stretch from the important city of Sardis (in modern-day Turkey) to the Persian city of Susa. Interconnected administrative centers, a focus on roads…sound familiar? Like I said, many later empires, including the Romans, took lessons from the Persians.

The Persian Empire was characterized by another trait as well: fairness. Cyrus set an important precedent, followed by later Persian emperors, that conquered cities would be treated with respect and dignity. The laws of the Persian Empire were applied equally to all people, regardless of whether they were Persian, Babylonian, or from any other conquered city. The Persians did not make slaves out of conquered soldiers, and were careful to rebuild any temples and buildings that had been destroyed in the fighting.

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