Ancient Persia


Persia (pûr´zhə, –shə), old alternate name for the Asian country Iran. The article Iran contains a description of the geography and economy of the modern country and a short account of its history since the Arab invasion of the 7th cent. This article is concerned with the history of the ancient Persian Empire, in which present-day Iran has its roots.

Origins of the Persian Empire

The speakers of Iranian languages may have migrated into that part of Asia as early as 1500 BC Presumably they were originally a nomadic tribe who filtered down through the Caucasus to the Iranian plateau. They apparently subjugated peoples already there and mingled with them, but their dominance of particular areas is recorded in the place names Parsua and Parsumash. The Assyrian rulers were by the 9th cent. BC sending expeditions against them, and the recurrence of those campaigns is evidence of the strength of the early Persians.

The Achaemenids

By the 6th cent. BC the early Persians were established in the present-day region of Fars and were benefiting from the decline of Elam. Fars (or Persis to the Greeks) was a recognizable district of the Assyrian Empire (see Assyria) like the neighboring but greater Media. The Persian rulers, claiming descent from one Achaemenes, or Hakhamanesh (see Achaemenids, were associated with the Medes, who created a strong state in the 7th cent. Cyaxares, son of Phraortes, founder of Median power, was one of the kings who brought about the fall of Nineveh (612 BC) and broke the hegemony of the Assyrians. The Persian ruler of about the same time, Cambyses I, was vassal to Cyaxares. According to Herodotus he married the daughter of the Median ruler Astyages (Cyaxares' son), and his son Cyrus was thus also grandson of Cyaxares; this account has been branded by some scholars as a pious attempt to falsify genealogy.

Cyrus the Great

After the Persians had aided the Medes in establishing the power of the Medes, Cyrus, who later became known as Cyrus the Great, took over the rule of Media from Astyages in the middle of the 6th cent. BC In an amazingly short time Cyrus had extended his conquests from Elam and Media west and north. He pushed into Asia Minor, where Croesus, the king of Lydia, vainly sought by an alliance with Nabonidus of Babylonia and Amasis II of Egypt to withstand the conqueror. Cyrus crushed the coalition, and by 546 BC the greatness of the Persian Empire was established. It was to endure long under his successors, the Achaemenids. From the beginning the Persians built on the foundations of the earlier states. The organization of the Assyrians was taken over and improved, and Cyrus himself imported artists and artisans from Babylonia and Egypt to create his palace and tomb at Pasargadae.

Darius I and His Immediate Successors

The dynamic new state was, however, troubled almost from the start by dynastic troubles. Cambyses II, son of Cyrus, did away with Smerdis, another son of Cyrus, in order to have unchallenged power, but when Cambyses was absent on a successful raid into Egypt, an imposter claiming to be Smerdis appeared, and usurped the throne. A civil war ensued, and after Cambyses died, a new claimant, Darius I, appeared against the false Smerdis and made his claims good. After putting down disorders, Darius molded the administration of the empire into a centralized system that was remarkable for its efficiency. Satraps, or governors, were set up to rule firmly and arbitrarily over the various regions, but to keep check on the satraps, who were potential aspirants to central power, each was accompanied by a secretary and a military commander who were responsible to the great king alone. This centralized system was supported by an intricate and excellent system of communication, for the Persians were the first important ancient people to use the horse efficiently for communication and transport.

Darius also continued and broadened Cyrus' policy of encouraging the local cultures within the empire, allowing the people to worship their own gods and to follow their own customs so long as their practices did not conflict with the necessities of Persian administration. Despite this tolerance there were rebellions by the Egyptians, Lydians, and Babylonians, all of which Darius ruthlessly suppressed. The religion of Persia itself was Zoroastrianism, and the unity of Persia may be attributed in part to the unifying effect of that broadly established faith. Darius was also a patron of the arts, and magnificent palaces standing on high terraces beautified the capitals of Susa and Persepolis (see Persian art and architecture). His conquests to the east extended Persian rule beyond the Arius (Hari Rud) River into modern Afghanistan and Pakistan. Egypt had already been attacked by Cambyses, and although it was to prove recalcitrant and rebellious, succeeding Persian kings were to maintain hegemony there. Darius pushed as far north as the Danube in his exploits, but the fighting against the Scythians was obscure and certainly unfruitful.

Even more unprofitable for Persia was its embroilment with the Greeks. The Persians in taking over Lydia had come into contact with the Greek colonies in Asia Minor (Ionia). There were Greeks (notably the exiled Athenian tyrant Hippias) at the court of Darius, and the Persians immediately began to borrow from Greek art and thought, as they did from all advanced cultures to the enrichment of Persia. At the beginning of the 5th cent. BC, however, the Ionian cities were involved in trouble with the great king. Darius put down their rebellion, then organized an expedition to punish the city-states in Greece proper that had lent aid to the rebellious cities. This expedition began the Persian Wars. Ultimately Darius' army was defeated at Marathon, and his son Xerxes I, who succeeded to the throne in 486 BC, fared no better at Salamis. The Greeks had successfully defied the power of the great king.

The effects of the Greek victory were, however, confined to Greece itself and had no consequences in Persia. Nor did the Greek triumph exclude Persia from taking part in the affairs of the Greek world. Persian influence was strong, and Persian gold was poured out to aid one Greek city-state or another in the interminable struggle for power. It is noteworthy that when Themistocles, the victor of Salamis, was exiled from Athens, he took refuge at the court of Artaxerxes I, who had succeeded Xerxes I in 464 BC

Decay of the Empire

In the time of Artaxerxes the difficulties of maintaining so wide an empire had begun to appear. Some of the satraps showed ambitions to rule, and the Egyptians, helped by the Athenians, undertook a long rebellion. Violence against the great king himself was a disturbing factor. Xerxes I had been murdered, and Xerxes II, son of Artaxerxes, was killed after a reign of 45 days by a half-brother, who was in turn overthrown by another half-brother, Darius II. In the reign of the second Darius the power of the satraps was shown in the careers of Pharnabazus and Tissaphernes, who interfered with some effect in the affairs of Greece.

When Darius II died, the most celebrated of the dynastic troubles occurred in the rebellion of Cyrus the Younger against Artaxerxes II, which came to an end with the death of Cyrus in the battle of Cunaxa (401 BC). Cyrus' defeat was recorded in Xenophon's Anabasis, and although the importance of Cyrus' revolt may be exaggerated it cannot be denied that there were signs of decay in the empire. Although Evagoras of Cyprus was brought to heel after the Peace of Antalcidas (386 BC; see Corinthian War) was dictated to Greece by the great king, Egypt, which had become independent again in 405 BC, continued to revolt and the efforts of the armies of Artaxerxes II to reassert control were fruitless. Artaxerxes III, who gained the throne by massacring his brother's family, was more successful in Egypt, but his triumph was brief. He was himself killed by his counselor, the eunuch Bagoas.

Darius III in turn murdered Bagoas and ruled with considerable splendor after 336, but only for a short period. In 334, Alexander the Great and his Macedonian army crossed the Hellespont and routed the Persians on the Granicus. The battle of Issus followed in 333, and in 331 the battle of Gaugamela brought an end to the Achaemenid empire. Darius, last of the great kings, fled east before the conqueror to the remote province of Bactria, where he was assassinated by his own cousin, Bessus. Alexander also came east and, defeating Bessus, had the whole empire in his grasp. Alexander went on to India and created the greatest empire the world had yet seen. It lasted, however, only for the brief period of his life and then was torn apart by the quarrels of his successors (the Diadochi).

The Seleucids and the Parthian Empire

After Alexander the Great's death, Persia fell for the most part to Seleucus I and his successors (the Seleucids), but their grasp on the vast territories was weak administratively, although they did introduce a vital Hellenistic culture, mingling Greek with Persian elements. Media Atropatene (see Azerbaijan) was never really under Seleucid rule. The rulers of Bactria from the beginning were at least quasi-independent and in the middle of the 3d cent. revolted and established absolute independence.

At the same time Parthia under the leadership of the Arsacids (see under Arsaces) cast off Seleucid rule and established a Parthian empire as a sort of successor to the old Persian Empire. Although even under the greatest of the Parthians (Tiridates, Mithradates I, and Mithradates II) the realm did not have the old extent, it was formidable and was a rival to Rome. The Romans in almost continuous warfare failed to halt the Parthian drives to the west, which were often supported by local ambitious or frightened rulers under Rome. Only in the 2d cent. AD did the Parthian rule begin to wane.

The Sassanid Dynasty

The Parthians were replaced (c.AD 226) by the more vigorous Sassanid dynasty, when Ardashir I (whose name is another form of Artaxerxes) ousted and killed the last Parthian ruler and built a new empire out of the ruins of Parthian and Seleucid power. The Sassanids were the true heirs of the Achaemenids. Ardashir I, Shapur I, and Shapur II all were strong kings, able and successful opponents of the Romans. Ctesiphon became the center of a magnificent state that persisted while the Roman Empire was whittled away. The Byzantines were unable to match them. Khosrow I in the 6th cent. invaded Syria, and under Khosrow II (whose affairs were linked with those of the Byzantines) the Sassanid court was legendary in its splendor. Ctesiphon and Firuzabad were magnificent cities, the administration of the empire was efficient, the productivity of the cities was remarkable, and the art in metalwork, in architecture, in sculpture, and in textiles was superb.

Persia developed as a strong centralized state, based on a revived Zoroastrian religion and a class society. Shortly after the death of Khosrow II, however, the old Sassanid power toppled. Invading Arabs succeeded in taking Ctesiphon in 637. Islam replaced Zoroastrianism, and the caliphate made Persia a part of a larger pattern, from which later was to emerge modern Iran.


See E. E. Herzfeld, Archaeological History of Persia (1935); G. G. Cameron, History of Early Iran (1936, repr. 1969); P. S. R. Payne, The Splendor of Persia (1957); A. T. Olmstead, History of the Persian Empire (2d ed. 1969); R. Girshman et al., Persia, the Immortal Kingdom (1971); and M. W. Shuster, The Strangling of Persia (1912, repr. 1987).

The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright© 2018, The Columbia University Press.

Ancient Persia: Selected full-text books and articles

King and Court in Ancient Persia 559 to 331 BCE By Lloyd Llewellyn-Jones Edinburgh University Press, 2013
Women in Ancient Persia, 559-331 B.C By Maria Brosius Clarendon Press, 1998
Volatile State: Iran in the Nuclear Age By David Oualaalou Indiana University Press, 2018
The Persians By E. Denison Ross Clarendon Press, 1931
The King Is Dead: Studies in the Near Eastern Resistance to Hellenism, 334-31 B. C By Samuel K. Eddy University of Nebraska Press, 1961
Librarian's tip: Chap. I "The Persians" and Chap. II "The Persian Kingship"
FREE! The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam: The Astronomer Poet of Persia By Omar Khayyam; Edward Fitzgerald John C. Winston, 1898
A primary source is a work that is being studied, or that provides first-hand or direct evidence on a topic. Common types of primary sources include works of literature, historical documents, original philosophical writings, and religious texts.
The Legacy of Mesopotamia By Stephanie Dalley; A. T. Reyes; David Pingree; Alison Salvesen; Henrietta McCall Oxford University Press, 1998
Librarian's tip: Includes discussion of ancient Persia in multiple chapters
The Origins of War: From the Stone Age to Alexander the Great By Arther Ferrill Westview Press, 1997 (Revised edition)
Librarian's tip: Chap. Three "Assyria and Persia: The Age of Iron"
The Arabian Gulf in Antiquity By D. T. Potts Clarendon Press, vol.1, 1990
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