History of the Persian Empire

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  • 0:01 Founding
  • 1:08 Expansion
  • 2:10 Politics
  • 3:35 Later Shahanshahs
  • 4:07 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Kevin Newton

Kevin has edited encyclopedias, taught middle and high school history, and has a master's degree in Islamic law.

The Persian Empire has all the great aspects of an amazing story - an unlikely rise to power against an evil king, a ruler who is beloved by his people, and a military that was centuries ahead of its time.


The Persian Empire began in a very unlikely way. For years, the Persians had been partners with a more powerful group of people known as the Medians, who lived to the north of the Persians on the Iranian Plateau. The partnership between the Persians and the Medes was generally a very good one, until an evil Median king made his daughter marry the king of the Persians. The evil Median king declared that any children of his daughter should be killed, as they would overthrow him. As often happens in this sort of story, the grandson of the evil king, a boy named Cyrus, was not only hidden, but also did come back to revolt against his Median grandfather and start his own Persian Empire.

While we don't know for sure if that story is true, we do know that by 550 BC, a great Persian king named Cyrus had not only conquered the Medians, but also much of Mesopotamia, including the realm of the Neo-Babylonians, who ruled almost all of that region. Cyrus would go on to conquer east, into India, as well as all the way west to the border of Egypt and Greece. The first great Persian Empire was born.


Cyrus was a very different leader than other emperors in the ancient world. He often portrayed himself as someone who had come to save the common people from their oppressive rulers. After all, Cyrus himself had known what it was like to be oppressed, having been nearly killed by his own grandfather. To this end, Cyrus granted a level of freedom that did not exist in the world before, or for hundreds of years after. In fact, Cyrus liberated enslaved peoples, such as the Jews, while he also provided Persian Imperial funds to rebuild their cultural buildings.

Of course, not all expansion is peaceful, and Cyrus fought in many battles. However, unlike leaders before him, Cyrus started to use a professional army. Known as the Immortals, this unit of 10,000 of the bravest soldiers in the empire received the best armor and weapons and were trained to be the best soldiers in the world. Part of their training, called Zorkhaneh (Zor-khan-nae), was a cross between karate and medieval chivalry, and is still taught today as a sport in Iran.


Conquering such a massive empire was relatively easy for Cyrus. Maintaining it was going to be the real challenge. Luckily, the new Shahanshah, or King of Kings, was not going to let administration stop him. Cyrus soon divided the empire into a number of provinces, known as satrapies, each ruled by a satrap, or governor. These satrapies were further organized into smaller satrapies, meaning that a government official was never far away from any situation that required attention. To reduce the risk of rebellions or unrest, Cyrus gave people religious freedom throughout the Persian Empire, allowing people to live largely as they had lived before.

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