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The Achaemenid Empire: History, Region & Timeline

Instructor: Flint Johnson

Flint has tutored mathematics through precalculus, science, and English and has taught college history. He has a Ph.D. from the University of Glasgow

Learn about the Achaemenid Empire, or First Persian Empire, how it worked, its cultural and political achievements, and its downfall against Alexander the Great. When you are finished take the quiz and see what you've learned.

What was the Achaemenid Empire?

Map of the Persian Empire at its greatest extent
Persian Map

If you've heard anything about the battles of Marathon, Salamis, or Thermopylae, you know something about the Achaemenid, or Persian, Empire. At its greatest extent, it ranged from India to Thessaly and south into Egypt.

But how did it start? It wasn't under Achaemenes, the legendary ancestor of the dynasty. Instead it was Cyrus the Great who revolted from the Median Empire, defeated it, and took control of its provinces in about 543 B.C.E. Cyrus introduced the idea of equal responsibilities and rights to all provinces of his empire. As long as a region paid its taxes and kept the peace, he didn't interfere with its customs, religion, or trade. In that spirit, he freed all slaves. Slavery would generally be banned during the Persian Empire. Cyrus also recognized the need for a professional army and a system of communication, so he organized the Immortals, a unit of 10,000 highly trained warriors. He also created a postal system. It was possible to go from one end of the empire to the other in fifteen days.

Darius the Great and the Pinnacle of the Persian Empire

Cyrus' successor was Cambyses II (529-522), who managed to conquer Egypt in 525 but died while suppressing a revolt led by Zoroastrian priests.

He was followed by Darius the Great (522-486), who was the high point of the Persian Empire. Darius ended the revolt and then focused on building Persepolis (518-516), his capital, and expanding the summer palace of Ecbatana. When the Greeks of Asia Minor revolted in 499 B.C.E., he defeated them. Even more bizarre, he offered them a fair settlement. When he found out that Athens had supported them, he invaded Greece. In a lucky battle the Athenians defeated him at Marathon in 490.

During his reign he revolutionized the Persian economy by introducing gold and silver coinage. He set up a regulated tax system that adjusted to each province's strengths and what they could produce. He also built the Royal Road from Susa to Sardis, a highway that was 2500 kilometers long. Finally, Darius built the first Persian navy. It was based on Sidonian and other Phoenician ships and sailors, but it gave him access to the Mediterranean and the Persian Gulf.

Downfall

Xerxes, his son, would eventually succeed Darius (485-465). The most important part of his reign was the second invasion of Greece. He barely won Thermopylae, but was defeated at Salamis (480). His defeat ended the Greco-Persian Wars. It also ensured that Europe would be influenced by Greek philosophy, not Persian.

Xerxes was followed by Artaxerxes I, who focused more on the Persian culture than conquests. In his time, the capital was moved to Babylon, the official language became Aramaic, and the religion became Zoroastrianism. By creating several unifying factors, Artaxerxes I probably helped to give the empire a unity that hadn't been possible before.

After him, the empire steadily declined. Darius II supported both Sparta and Athens before finally sticking with Sparta in the Peloponnesian Wars. But he never took advantage of the war to bring a Persian presence into Greece. Artaxerxes II (404-358) focused on building monuments, moved the capital back to Persepolis and expanded it. Both moves might have reinvigorated the empire, but he also constructed Zoroastrian temples. Using an old Babylonian custom, one tenth of each citizen's income went to the temple and the empire received a percentage of that.

Artaxerxes II left the empire poor and ready for rebellion. There were two quick successions before Darius III (338-330), who was defeated by Alexander the Great and executed by one of his governors. Darius III was the last emperor of the Achaemenid Empire.

Culture and Legacy

One of the unique pieces of Persian culture was their love of truth. Usurpers were not known as traitors, but liars. Lying was considered a cardinal sin and in some cases could get a person executed. A large percentage of Persian names from the time include art, the Persian word for truth.

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