The Persian Empire: Location, Geography & Maps

Instructor: Christopher Sailus

Chris has an M.A. in history and taught university and high school history.

In this lesson we explore the ancient Persian Empire. We discuss its rise, expansion, and eventual decline before it was wiped off the map by Alexander the Great.


Over the course of centuries, groups of people have developed ways of living together. These groups have evolved from small farming communities to large cities, complete with governments, social groups, activities, and religion. In an ideal world, these cities would live peacefully together. But humanity is not perfect. Some communities have sought to expand for money, power or both, and through invasion or diplomacy have taken over multiple cities and states, forming what is known as an empire.

In this lesson, we will explore the historical Persian Empire, as ruled by the Achaemenids, and discover the characteristics of the empire and area that it controlled.

Persian Empire

Historically, the term 'Persian' refers to a group of people that originated in a region of what is today Iran. The word 'Persia' was first used to describe an ethnic group called the Achaemenids around Lake Urmia in the 9th century B.C. In the mid-7th century these people moved south and established their own independently-controlled territory in what is today southern Iran. The Achaemenids spent the next century vying for regional power as a tributary state of the Median Empire until the rule of Cyrus the Great. A tributary state is one that owes 'tribute', usually in the form of money or goods to a more powerful state in order for protection.

Lake Urmia in top right
Iran with Lake Urmia

Cyrus the Great

In the mid-6th century, Cyrus defeated the Medians and conquered their empire, making the Achaemenids the premier power in the region. He consolidated his forces with the Medians and captured more territory east and west, taking the famed ancient city of Babylon in 539 B.C.

Persian Empire at Cyrus

At Cyrus' death, the Achaemenids ruled vast stretches of the Middle and Near East. Their empire stretched from the Indus River in the east (in modern Pakistan), stretched south and east to the Persian Gulf and north to the Caspian Sea. It stretched into the Middle East, controlling territory now parts of the modern states of Iraq, Armenia, and even eastern Turkey. His successors continued expanding the Empire, conquering Egypt and as far east as parts of modern Pakistan and India.

Darius I and Xerxes

Under Darius I the Persians invaded ancient Greece in the early 5th century B.C. Despite having a much larger force, the Persians were defeated by the Athenians at the Battle of Marathon. Darius' son, Xerxes, attempted to avenge his father's defeat with another invasion in 480 B.C., which included the costly victory against the Spartans and Athenians at Thermopylae. The following year, the Persians were defeated on land and sea, at Plataea and Salamis respectively, and the Persian Empire grew no further.

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