The Persian Empire

The Persian Empire (554–330 B.C.E.)

According to Greek sources, which, along with Neo-Babylonian documents, are frequently the only material available to trace the history of the Persians, the latter hailed from southwest Iran and were led by a man called Achaemenes, after which the Achaemenid dynasty takes its name. Initially vassals of the Medes, the Persians, under Cyrus the Great (r. 559–530 B.C.E.), defeated the Medes in about 550 B.C.E. and captured their king, Astyages.

Cyrus thereupon assumed the kingship of the Medes as well, absorbing them and the territory they controlled into an empire that would rapidly expand during the next 20 years. The Persians, at least in the beginning, ruled in an almost indistinguishable style from the Medes, so much so that the Greeks referred to them as Medes (Van de Mieroop 2004, 268).

There may also have been other reasons for that. According to Greek historian Herodotus, Cyrus’s mother was actually a daughter of Astyages, thus making Cyrus in part a member of the tribe. Another ancient Greek historian, Ctesias of Cnidus, who stayed at the Persian court around 400 B.C.E. and wrote several histories of the Persian Empire, claimed that it was Cyrus who had married one of Astyages’s daughters.

If either or both of these accounts is legendary, they may have been propagated to justify Persian rule over the Medes and their lands. Further contributing to their legendary aspect is an account by the thirdcentury B.C.E. Babylonian priest Berrossus, who placed Astyages at the beginning of the Chaldean period (Sack 1991, 7).

During the course of the next 20 years, Cyrus overran Greek-speaking Anatolia (the Asian part of Turkey), eastern Iran, parts of Central Asia, and the Neo-Babylonian Empire, which controlled much of the Fertile Crescent, an arc-like area stretching from the Persian Gulf through Mesopotamia and into Upper Egypt. In 539 B.C.E., Cyrus defeated the army of the last Babylonian king, Nabonidus (r. 556–539 B.C.E.), and made his son, Cambyses, king of Babylon.

Historians have speculated that Cyrus, aware of the power of the priestly hierarchy, made Cambyses king to ensure the proper continuation of the Akitu festival since Cyrus, himself, would be gone for long periods on the battlefi eld. Like his Chaldean predecessors, Cyrus (as well as later Achaemenid emperors) held Babylon in high esteem as the cultural center of the ancient Near East.

Not only did he preserve the city, but in an echo of the rationalization used to justify his triumph over the Medes, the royal inscription on what has become known as the Cyrus Cylinder, a cylindrical clay tablet, has it that the Babylonian high god, Marduk, chose Cyrus to reign over the empire. The Cyrus legend extends further.

Biblical accounts (among others) describe that the year after Cyrus occupied Babylon, he allowed the Jews to return to Judah after their nearly 50-year exile, begun during the reign of the Babylonian king Nebuchadnezzar II. However, this is not confi rmed by the Cyrus Cylinder. According to ancient historical texts, Cyrus led military expeditions as far east as India.

In 530 B.C.E., Cambyses (r. ca. 530–522 B.C.E.) inherited the throne of the Persian Empire and fi ve years later, conquered Egypt, becoming its king. Cambyses remained in Egypt until 522 B.C.E., when he returned to Babylon to oust a usurper of his throne (here the historical record is unclear): either the magian (an expert in religious traditions) Gaumata or his own brother Smerdis.

Some accounts declare that Cambyses had had Smerdis secretly murdered and that Gaumata assumed the throne as the dead brother, while most claim that Smerdis briefl y held power. Soon after his return to Babylonia, Cambyses died—whether of natural causes, suicide, or at the hand of another is unclear—before removing the usurper. That task was left to the man who became the next Persian ruler, Darius I (r. 521–486 B.C.E.), also referred to as Darius the Great.

Darius was not a direct member of the royal line but claimed Achaemenid kinship through his father, Hystaspes. The fi rst years of Darius’s reign were marked by civil war throughout the empire. The fi rst region to rebel was Babylonia, where a local leader “called NidintuBêl recruited an army by declaring that he was ‘Nebuchadnezzar, son of Nabonidus’ and seized kingship in Babylon” (Roux 1980, 376). Darius led an army against Nebuchadnezzar III (who ruled Babylon for approximately two months) before destroying his army and executing him in Babylon.

The following year, yet another claimant to the throne appeared, naming himself Nebuchadnezzar, but he met the same fate as his predecessor. The unrest spread to other parts of the empire as local tribes sought to take advantage of the disarray in Babylon. By 518 B.C.E., however, Darius had secured control over the empire. He then set about expanding it, overwhelming parts of Africa, including Libya, and annexing western India.

Darius also set his sights westward where the Hellenic city-states, just beyond the empire’s border, were the next logical step. Part of Darius’s (and his successor Xerxes’) strategy in the area was to pit the Greek city-states against one another, for “having watched the Iraqi cities hack one another to pieces and so make their conquest easy, Darius and Xerxes tried to apply the Iraqi lesson to Greece.

In one of the great turning points of history, they failed . . .” (Polk 2005, 32). Darius was twice thwarted in his attempt at Greek conquest: fi rst, when a Persian fl eet was destroyed in a storm in 492 B.C.E. and then, when his army was defeated by an Athenian army at the Battle of Marathon in 490 B.C.E., which halted the Persian advance in its tracks. Thereafter, the goal of conquering the whole of Greece became one of the defi ning visions of the Persian rulers, attempted by practically every one of them after Darius.

By the end of Darius’s reign, the Persian Empire stretched over thousands of miles, from the Aegean Sea eastward to the Indus River, and from Armenia in the north to Lower Egypt. Its rulers governed a multitude of men and women and coexisted with several different religions and cultures. The Persian Empire exerted infl uence on its contemporaries as well as its successors; for example, its lingering effects were evident on the Sassanian Empire that followed in its wake, which contributed to world civilization through its emphasis on the divine rule of kings and the construction of imperial authority.

The Persian Empire under the Achaemenids was famous for its building activities. In much the same vein as all the rulers and dynasts that preceded them, the Persians built magnifi cent administrative capitals, such as Persepolis (begun in 518 B.C.E.) and Susa, which consisted of several palaces and large gardens. The most celebrated tradition associated with some, if not all the rulers of the Persian Empire, however, was the policy of toleration for all ethnic, religious, and social groups.

According to historian Marc Van de Mieroop, “it was the fi rst empire that acknowledged the fact that its inhabitants had a variety of cultures, spoke different languages, and were politically organized in various ways” (Van de Mieroop 2004, 274). The Persians’ keen interest in promoting effi cient government allowed them to retain the administrative languages used by different peoples so as to be able to use them in local affairs; as well, the inscriptions on the walls of temples or on monuments were in several different languages, testimony to the diversity of the empire, which at its height contained more than 70 ethnic groups.

Imperial expansion aside, Darius left his mark on the empire through its internal reorganization. Van de Mieroop theorizes that as a result of the civil war and provincial uprisings, “Darius regularized control once he was fully in charge. . . . [T]he empire was turned into a uniform structure of about 20 provinces” (Van De Mieroop 2004, 272). The provinces, or satrapies, were each ruled by a satrap, or governor.

Over time, those satraps became rival contenders for power because some of them developed their own local power bases. Meanwhile, Babylonian revolts and Egyptian insurrections strained the empire’s resources and ate into its revenue. Equally signifi cant was the outsourcing of the army, which went from a relatively professional organization to a body composed almost entirely of mercenary troops, some of whose members were Greek.

Ultimately, the empire was too large to be controlled exclusively by one dynasty, and in the end, it was a case of the middle nibbling at the edges. By the end of the fourth century B.C.E., this deterioration made the Persian Empire ripe for conquest.

In the rough and rude environment of Macedonia (northern Greece), a ruling family emerged that threatened the Persian Empire’s hold on power. Taking a leaf from the Achaemenids’ book, Alexander of Macedon, who became king in 336 B.C.E., started his long march toward the formation of yet another sprawling empire, this time joining Persian administrative experience to Hellenistic traditions.

Reverting to local legacies of imperial rule, he made Babylon his capital and restored the temple of Marduk, Babylon’s reigning god. His practice of melding local institutions with imperial rule, entirely in keeping with ancient precedent, marks him as yet another proponent of the cultural unity of the region, of which ancient Iraq, with its fl uctuating frontiers but its vastly absorptive civilization, was perhaps a notable example.

Alexander the Great (r. 336–323 B.C.E.) Alexander was born in Pella in 356 B.C.E., the son of the Macedonian king Philip II, who had seized power just three years earlier. Alexander’s mother, Olympias, was also of royal blood, being the daughter of the king of Epirus. As a young man, Alexander was a student of Aristotle and by the age of 16 was standing in for his father as leader of Macedonia when Philip was off fi ghting against Byzantium.

At age 18, Alexander was a commander in his father’s army and played an important role in Philip’s victory in the Battle of Chaeronea, in which the Macedonians defeated an alliance of Greek city-states led by Athens and Thebes. Following the victory, Philip founded the Corinthian League, named for the city where representatives of the city-states met with the Macedonians to unite Greece. The exception to the league was Sparta, which rejected the terms imposed on the city-states by the victor. The true purpose of the Corinthian League was to make war on the Persian Empire.

In 337 B.C.E., Philip divorced Olympias; during the feast celebrating his father’s new marriage, Alexander and Philip quarreled so violently that the former and his mother sought refuge in her family homeland of Epirus. Alexander also traveled to Illyria during this sojourn. The enmity between father and son ended soon enough, although Alexander’s position was less secure than it had been.

In 336 B.C.E., Philip sent an army of approximately 10,000 men, led by his general, Parmenion, to capture the Greek cities in Anatolia under Persian control. At the time, the Persian Empire was undergoing its death throes. Not only had the satrapies of Babylonia and Egypt revolted, but assassination had made the throne of Cyrus and Darius unstable. Before Philip could join his army and lead it in conquest, he was assassinated by his guard. Alexander, at age 20 and with the backing of the army, ascended to the throne as Alexander III.

Alexander spent the next few years securing his hold on the kingship by forming alliances with important generals, including Antipater, who became the second most powerful man in the kingdom, and Parmenion, who still commanded the forces in Anatolia. He also made war on recalcitrant Greek city-states. By 334 B.C.E., he was ready to turn eastward and continue the war against Persia.

No sooner had Alexander begun his long quest for glory than the great king of Persia, Darius III Codomannus, tried to make peace, but Alexander preferred to have the Persian Empire. His fi rst battle pitted his army against a Persian army made up largely of Greek mercenaries. Alexander’s victory at the Granicus (Kocabas) River resulted in the slaughter of many of the mercenaries, and those who managed to survive the defeat were sent to Macedonia as prisoners and subsequently slaves.

Over the course of the next two years, Alexander battled in and conquered western and westcentral Anatolia (Phrygia). Then, in 333 B.C.E., he defeated the Persians at the Battle of Issus, nearly capturing Darius III in the process. By fl eeing the battlefi eld (and sacrifi cing his family to be captured), Darius brought humiliation upon himself, as later ancient Greek historians depicted his action as cowardice.

However, his action preserved the Persian Empire (at least for a few more years), which would not have been the case had he been captured or killed. Darius even tried to ransom his family at one point, offering to Alexander all satrapies west of the Euphrates River. In a famous anecdote, Parmenion is quoted as saying, “I would accept [this offer] were I Alexander.” Alexander replied, “I too if I were Parmenion.

Alexander then proceeded to pick off Persia’s Mediterranean satrapies: Syria, Phoenicia (modern Lebanon), and Egypt all fell to his army over the next two years. In Egypt, he founded the city of Alexandria. In 331 B.C.E., with the eastern Mediterranean seacoast fi rmly under Macedonian control, Alexander headed for Mesopotamia.

The decisive battle of Gaugamela took place on October 1, 331 B.C.E. When it was over, it “opened for Alexander the road to Babylonia and Persia” (Roux 1980, 381). Prior to the battle, Alexander had the option of marching straight to Babylon, engaging a Persian army under the Babylonian satrap Mazeus, or turning north to engage Darius in Assyria. He chose the third option. Although the Macedonian army was numerically inferior to the well-supplied Persian forces, they again won the battle.

How the battle was fought was unclear. Greek accounts say that Darius fl ed the battlefi eld once again, while the Babylonian account lays the blame on the Persian soldiers for having deserted the king. At any rate, the Macedonians were free to take Babylon and the entire satrapy of Babylonia, the wealthiest province in the empire. One of the unintended consequences of Alexander’s marching into Babylon was the discovery of Babylonian astronomical tables that were more accurate than those the Greeks used, forcing the latter to revise their calendar.

According to the classical Greek historians, Alexander was hailed as a liberator by the Babylonians, who only a few years earlier, had had their own revolt put down by the Persians. Yet, as Van de Mieroop points out, these accounts are “to a great extent Macedonian propaganda . . . and most people probably saw little difference between the old and new regimes” (Van De Mieroop 2004, 279).

Possibly one of the reasons for this was because Alexander retained Mazeus as satrap of Babylonia. Nevertheless, Alexander followed Cyrus’s lead in gaining favor with Babylon’s aristocracy, especially the religious elites, so as to make his kingship more acceptable to the people. He especially paid homage to the Babylonian supreme god, Marduk, by undertaking the rebuilding of the temple dedicated to that god. Alexander remained in Babylon for approximately one month, before turning toward Persia itself.

Alexander’s campaign into Persia marked (at least superfi cially) a departure from what had preceded it. Whereas the dismantling of the Persian Empire in Anatolia, Egypt, and Babylonia had been under the guise of liberation, the same could not be said of Persia. Though they were no longer fi ghting against mercenaries or overlords but against people whose sole aim now was to protect their homeland, the Macedonian army was invincible.

One by one the great cities fell: Persepolis, Susa, and Pasargadae (Cyrus’s capital, founded near the site of his victorious battle against the Medes and where all subsequent Persian kings were invested). Persepolis, in particular, was laid to waste, presumably in retribution for the Persian attack on Athens. Despite these successes, Alexander had not managed to capture Darius, who was king of the Persians in name only.

His base of power nonexistent, Darius fl ed eastward, where he was eventually held captive by the satrap of Bactria, Bessus; however, before Bessus could bargain with Alexander, the Macedonians attacked, in July 330 B.C.E. Darius was killed during the ensuing battle, most likely by his captors. This worked to Alexander’s advantage as he was able not only to give Darius a state funeral but to legitimately—from his perspective—claim the crown.

For the next six years, Alexander continued his eastward campaign, reaching as far as the Indus River. His conquests were brought to a halt not by a superior army but by his own soldiers, who in 324 B.C.E., refused to continue making war. Far away from their homeland and exhausted by more than 10 years of conquest and putting down revolts among already conquered peoples, the Macedonians revolted against Alexander, essentially forcing him to turn back. He reached Susa later that year and married two Achaemenid princesses so as to cement his claim to the throne.

Meanwhile, the Macedonians were becoming alarmed as Alexander increasingly assumed the trappings of the Persians.Early in 323 B.C.E., Alexander returned to Babylon, which he decided to make his capital. Following a night of heavy drinking, Alexander fell ill; he died a few days later, on June 11, 323 B.C.E. Although it has never been proven, historians lean to the theory that Alexander was murdered, most likely by disenchanted comrades, although he had made enemies among the so-called religious elite of Babylon, too. Whatever the truth, Alexander’s death spared Arabia from Macedonian conquest; Alexander had been eager to begin a campaign in that region.

Alexander’s empire was the fi rst spread of Hellenistic culture outside of western Anatolia and the Mediterranean area. However, the farther from Macedonia it expanded, the weaker it became—and this was seen after Alexander’s death—which was probably Alexander’s main reason for deciding to make Babylon his capital. One of the world’s great cultural cities, Babylon would remain important for nearly another millennium.

The claim that the Macedonian conquests helped invigorate the ancient Near East has come under revision in the past 20 years. Some historians have gone so far to regard this notion as “an example of, and justifi cation for, nineteenth-century European colonial enterprise in regions that had known a glorious past but had not modernized” (Van De Mieroop 2004, 280). Still, Alexander did not pursue only warfare and conquest; he was a founder of cities.

Alexander’s death left the empire without a clear successor, and the Macedonian generals immediately conferred in hopes of coming up with an amicable solution. They were unsuccessful. The result was not only civil war but revolt in the eastern satrapies. From the time of Alexander’s death until the end of the fourth century B.C.E., the Diadochi, or “successors,” engaged in four wars: in 322, 318, 314, and 307 B.C.E.

By 320 B.C.E., the various Macedonian factions had briefl y exhausted themselves and met at Triparadisus (in Syria) to hash out an agreement as to how the empire should be divided, with each of the various generals reigning as satraps. While many areas were parceled out to various generals, essentially Antipater became regent for Alexander’s young son, Alexander IV, and would control Macedonia and Greece.

Meanwhile, Ptolemy was to get Egypt, where he established a dynasty that lasted until the late fi rst century B.C.E., when the last of the Ptolemaic rulers, Cleopatra, committed suicide and Egypt became a Roman province. Antigonus controlled Syria. And the fi nal prize, Babylon, went to Seleucus, who would himself establish a dynasty and empire.