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Kings of the Persian Empire: Cyrus, Cambyses II & Darius I

Instructor: Christopher Muscato

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

The First Persian Empire, also known as the Achaemenid Empire, was one of the largest in history. In this lesson we'll explore it's first three rulers and see how they impacted world history.

The Achaemenid Empire

One of the problems with living in a really nice area is that everyone wants to take it over. If history has taught us anything, it's to live in a terrible place so no one will bother you. Well, the area between the eastern Mediterranean and Western Asia is not a terrible place. In fact, it's really a nice place to be, especially if you're an early agricultural society. With a temperate climate, several major rivers for trade and resources, and reliable seasons for agriculture, it's no surprise that this region housed some of the oldest major civilizations in the world. However, it also housed some of the oldest empires.

One of those was the Achaemenid Empire, also called the First Persian Empire. Of the many ancient civilizations to develop in this region, none would truly conquer it until the Persians swept over and unified it all under their leadership. Lasting from roughly 550-330 BCE, the Achaemenid Empire was the largest empire in the ancient world.

Achaemenid Empire. Key: green=empire; white=bodies of water; grey=other land
Achaemenid Empire

Cyrus the Great

So, let's get to know some of the Persian kings who ruled over this massive empire. We start, of course, with the founder. Cyrus the Great, who ruled from roughly 559-529 BCE, first came to power not as an independent king but as a vassal of the Median Empire, based in modern-day Iran. Rather than remain a subject, Cyrus led his people in rebellion, overthrowing the Median emperor and uniting the two Iranian tribes of the Medes and Persians into one new empire. For the rest of his reign, Cyrus expanded his empire, conquering the Babylonians, Lydians, and the Greek cities of Asia Minor (modern-day Turkey).

However, Cyrus wasn't some tyrant megalomaniac. As he incorporated various cities into his empire, he guaranteed their rights to speak their own languages, practice their own religions, and maintain their own customs. The Cyrus Cylinder, a tablet created after Cyrus captured Babylon, promised racial, linguistic and religious equality for the conquered people, the rights of slaves to return to their homes, and that all temples destroyed in the fighting would be restored. It is considered to be the world's first charter of human rights.

Cuneiform writing, from the Cyrus Cylinder
Cuneiform

So, Cyrus is remembered in history as a pretty good guy. In fact, to the Jewish people he is remembered as a liberator, who freed them from Babylon and not only let them return to Jerusalem but commissioned the rebuilding of their temple.

Cyrus the Great, the liberator of the Jewish
Cyrus the Great

Cambyses II

Cyrus left some big shoes to fill. However, his son felt he was up to the challenge. Cambyses II, who ruled the Achaemenid Empire from 529-522 BCE, was in charge of Babylon during his father's reign and learned the art of empire. Upon assuming the throne, Cambyses put into action Cyrus' plan to invade Egypt. Now, I'm sure you've heard of ancient Egypt, so you can appreciate what a major undertaking this was.

Cambyses managed to capture the major Egyptian cities of Memphis and Heliopolis after a decisive victory at the Battle of Pelusium, and soon all of Egypt fell. Cambyses adopted the title of pharaoh, but soon learned that a Persian imposter had seized his throne back home. According to some sources, Cambyses killed himself due to the betrayal; according to others, he died of an accident while returning home. Either way, he never made it back to Persia, but died having greatly extended the reach of his empire.

Cambyses II
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