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The Persian Empire: Government & Army

Instructor: Daniel McCollum

Dan has a Master's Degree in History and has taught undergraduate History

For centuries, the Persians ruled one of the largest empires the world had ever seen, stretching from Turkey in the west to Afghanistan in the east. This lesson examines the government of the Persian Empire, as well as its intimidating army which helped hold it together.

Who were the Persians?

The Persians came from the nation that we now call Iran. Beginning in 550 BC, the Persian Emperor Cyrus the Great launched a series of stunning campaigns that brought much of the Middle East and Anatolia under his control. Future rulers, such as Darius I and Xerxes, would attempt to expand the Empire. However, their expansion brought them into conflict with the city-states of Greece who twice turned back a major Persian invasion. Despite these failures, at its greatest extent, the Empire stretched from modern day Turkey in the west to Afghanistan in the east and Egypt in the south. This Empire was ruled by a vibrant and well-managed government and held together by one of the most powerful armies of the era.

Map of the Persian Empire description=

Emperors and Satraps

At the top of the Empire stood the King of Kings, or 'Shahenshah' in the Persian language, which is often translated into English simply as 'Emperor.' The Emperor, in theory, held all of the power within the Empire; however, in practice, powerful nobles and court officials were able to challenge the Emperor during periods of instability. Under Cyrus the Persians organized their Empire into a series of satrapies, or provinces. Each of these provinces was ruled by a governor known as a Satrap, as well as a General and a Secretary. The General oversaw the military, organizing the defense of the province and raising troops, while the Secretary maintained official documents and administrative notes. Although the Satrap received assistance and counsel from the other two officials, he was the main administrator of the province. He ruled in the name of the Emperor, and was an Imperial vassal. In order to efficiently manage these provinces, the local bureaucracies that had existed before conquest were often maintained. The Persians made a policy of respecting the cultures and religions of conquered peoples, and sought to integrate these people into their empire as near equals. Not surprisingly, this system required a strong Emperor to hold it together and prevent rebellions. For instance, following the death of Cyrus' son Cambyses, a series of major revolts broke out.

Cyrus the Great
Cyrus the Great

It fell to the next Emperor, Darius I to knit the Empire back together and reform its government. One of Darius' greatest reforms was the creation of a long highway called the Royal Road, or the 'King's Road'. This road was manned by a series of mounted messengers that allowed information and communications from the Emperor to travel from one side of the Empire to the other in a mere nine days. Darius reformed the tax system, requiring different amount of taxes for each province based upon its wealth and what it produced. He also issued a law code that would apply to all residents of the Empire, and built a new capital called Persepolis from which to administer the Empire. Although Satraps were still allowed freedom to manage their provinces, checks were placed on their power. Darius implemented these checks in the form of inspectors that would to travel the provinces and report back to him, acting as the eyes and ears of the Emperor. These reforms centralized the state to a greater degree than it had been before.

Immortals and soldiers

In its early years, the Persian Empire formed a professional army to help defend the realm and help it expand. The military would have been headed by the Emperor himself, who appointed numerous commanders to oversee and lead the soldiers. These commanders, especially those successful in combat, often became highly influential political figures in their own right. The infantry was broken into three parts: the Sparabara, the Takabara, and the Immortals. The Sparabara were the backbone of the Persian military and made up the bulk of the Persian forces. They trained from childhood to be soldiers but also acted as farmers during times of peace. The Takabara were light infantry soldiers that were often used to garrison different cities and forts throughout the Empire and helped maintain the local peace. Finally, there were the Immortals, the most famous soldiers of the Persian Empire, and were featured in the comic and film '300'. According to the Greek historian Herodotus, the Immortals always numbered 10,000; when one died in combat or became injured, they were immediately replaced to keep their numbers constant. They were heavy infantry and considered the army's most elite soldiers; known for their wicker shields, scale armor and being heavily armed with a spear, sword, dagger, and bow-and-arrow.

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