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The Persian Empire: Economy & Trade

Instructor: Emily Teater

Emily currently is a substitute teacher, and has taught a variety of K-12 courses. She has a master's degree in Mythological Studies.

In this lesson, you'll learn about the Persian Empire's natural resources and economy. At the same time, the Persian Empire was known for its extensive trade system, and you'll learn about how the trade affected the economy.

The Persian Empire at a Glance

The Persian Empire, which began in what is modern-day Iran, was at its height from 550 to 330 BCE. Its territory expanded until the empire reached from Greece to India. During this high period, the Persian Empire was ruled by the Achaemenids, one of the most famous being King Darius. The only other civilization to surpass its size and power was the Roman Empire. Can you imagine what it must have been like to rule an empire that large? The power of the Persians was well known. They were able to allow many different cultures to live and thrive within its borders yet maintain a centralized government all the while.

From a mosaic depicting Alexander the Great defeating the Persians, we have this image of King Darius of Persia.
King Darius

Agriculture in the Empire

Due to its incredible size, the overall status of the Persian economy was incredibly varied. At its height, the Persian Empire included economically advanced civilizations, such as the Egyptians, the Phoenicians, and the Babylonians, as well as some civilizations still transitioning from a tribal stage, such as the Libyans and the Nubians. Where would one even begin to organize an economy with so many differing styles and cultures?

A map of the Persian Empire in the middle of its height
The Persian Empire 490 BCE

The Persian Empire obtained much of its wealth as a result of its prolific crops. Even some of the most urban cities in the empire relied on agriculture. Barley was the main cereal staple of Persian agriculture, being easily grown in most areas of the empire. However, there were a great many other crops grown throughout differing regions. Wine production also became one of Persia's more common commodities. Government programs worked towards expanding agricultural production in the empire. Government money was invested in improving irrigation, the quality of the crops, and the latest farming techniques.

How all the land for agricultural pursuits was divided is still a complicated matter. Given the sheer size of the empire, deciding how to divide and use the land must have been a big responsibility. A significant amount of the land, in the main portion of the empire, was seized by the Persian government after conquering neighboring lands. Soldiers who served in the Persian military were given some of this state land to farm themselves or to rent to others. So long as proper payment for caring for the state land was made, everything was fine.

In the regions that had formerly belonged to Egypt and Babylon, it was the economic sector, run primarily by the religious officials, who controlled most of the state land. However, without agricultural workers of their own to farm the land, the religious officials leased the lands to families in the area. Families either worked the lands themselves, or hired laborers, even from nearby countries, and used their landholdings and the crops they produced on them to pay taxes and send tribute to the king.

The Persian Government and Taxes

While agriculture may have been the main source for basic resources and the use of state lands, funds for the Persian government were mainly earned through taxes and tribute. Taxes were primarily paid in unminted silver, and just how much had to be paid was based on how heavy and pure the silver was. Some areas of the empire, mostly those on the farthest edges paid the government in tribute, typically, a predetermined weight of a product produced in the region. Some frequent tributes included ebony, ivory, and horses.

Persian citizens and the royal classes were exempt from taxes, but did often pay the government in small gifts. At the same time, Persian citizens were not part of the forced labor that some of the Persians used for building state works. Considering the Persian government allowed the civilizations they conquered to continue to live their ways of life and practice their religions freely as long as they paid taxes, this seemed like a fair exchange.

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