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The Rise & Fall of the Persian Empire

Instructor: Christopher Muscato

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

The Persian Empire was one of the greatest military states of the ancient world. In this lesson, we'll talk about its rise and fall, and see what became of this ancient empire.

The Persian Empire

Memory is a funny thing. What some people remember as great, others remember as terrible. For example, according to ancient Greek traditions, the Persians were not great people. That's probably because the Persians tried to invade the Greek territories around 480 BCE. However, to other cultures, the Persians represented one of the first international military powers in the world, were seen as protectors of the rights of conquered people, and advocates of the law. As historians, let's just start be recognizing that from about 539 to 330 BCE, the Persian Empire (based in modern-day Iran) was one of the dominant powers on the globe. It covered what is now the Middle East and West Asia, stretching as far as Egypt, India, Turkey, and even at times pushing into Europe. That's a lot of cultures who were impacted by the Persians, and a lot of ways for the Persians to be remembered.

The Persian Empire
Persian Empire

The Rise of the Persian Empire

So, how did this mighty empire get off the ground? In the 6th century BCE, the Persian people of the Ansan tribal kingdom lived under the rule of another Iranian ruler named Astyages, of the city and tribal kingdom of Media. Ansan and the other Persian tribes were forced to pay tributes to Media, which they weren't too happy about. Around 559 BCE, a man named Cyrus II rose to power as king of Ansan, replacing his father, Cambyses I. Cyrus immediately set to organizing a coalition of the Persian tribes and declared rebellion against the Medes, the people and rulers of Media. Astyages sent the Median army to quell the rebellion, but his main general, Harpagus, actually ended up defecting and joining the Persians. Under Cyrus' control, the unified Persians defeated Media and captured Astyages around 550 BCE.

Cyrus the Great

This was the rough start of the Persian Empire. By capturing Media, Cyrus and the Persians not only took control of that city but of all the areas under their control. However, the people of Media may have seen Cyrus as more than just a foreign conqueror. According to the ancient Greek historian Herodotus, Cyrus' mother was Median. So, this may have been seen more as a uniting of kingdoms under a shared ruler more than imperial conquest.

Either way, Cyrus' power had grown immensely. He quelled rebellions around what is now Iran, and soon had that entire region under his control. What many historians consider to be the true founding of the international Persian Empire, however, was when Cyrus took his armies beyond Persia. Where did he go? To Babylon, arguably the greatest military power of the time and center of a mighty empire. Babylon was in Mesopotamia, modern-day Iraq, and is one of the oldest cities in the world. Cyrus' armies conquered Babylon in 539 BCE, incorporating all of the Babylonian Empire into Persia. This was an important moment. As Babylon was sort of the definitive power before the rise of the Persians, they had set a lot of precedents. After conquering Babylon, Cyrus began behaving and dressing as a Babylonian emperor, and even began adhering to Mesopotamian laws.

Decline of the Persian Empire

Cyrus II, often called Cyrus the Great, started the Persian Empire. His son (Cambyses II) and Cambyses' replacement (Darius the Great) pushed the borders of the empire into Egypt, India, and Turkey. After Darius died in 486 BCE, however, the empire began to fall into decline. Darius' son and successor, Xerxes, had the non-enviable task of quelling the many rebellions that broke out across the empire upon Darius' death and a brief succession crisis that followed. To rebuild the reputation of the empire, Xerxes first captured several Greek colonies in Asia Minor, then invaded the Greek Peloponnesian islands. His invasion had the undesired effect of unifying the quarreling Greek city-states into a single and powerful military, and as a result the Persian navy was nearly obliterated (something you probably remember from the film 300, one of the few things that movie got historically correct).

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