The Achaemenid Empire, 550-330 B.C.
By 546 B.C., Cyrus had defeated Croesus, the Lydian king of fabled
wealth, and had secured control of the Aegean coast of Asia Minor,
Armenia, and the Greek colonies along the Levant . Moving east,
he took Parthia (land of the Arsacids, not to be confused with
Parsa, which was to the southwest), Chorasmis, and Bactria. He
besieged and captured Babylon in 539 and released the Jews who
had been held captive there, thus earning his immortalization
in the Book of Isaiah. When he died in 529, Cyrus's kingdom extended
as far east as the Hindu Kush in present-day Afghanistan.
His successors were less successful. Cyrus's unstable son, Cambyses
II, conquered Egypt but later committed suicide during a revolt
led by a priest, Gaumata, who usurped the throne until overthrown
in 522 by a member of a lateral branch of the Achaemenid family,
Darius I (also known as Darayarahush or Darius the Great). Darius
attacked the Greek mainland, which had supported rebellious Greek
colonies under his aegis, but as a result of his defeat at the
Battle of Marathon in 490 was forced to retract the limits of
the empire to Asia Minor.
The Achaemenids thereafter consolidated areas firmly under their
control. It was Cyrus and Darius who, by sound and farsighted
administrative planning, brilliant military maneuvering, and a
humanistic worldview, established the greatness of the Achaemenids
and in less than thirty years raised them from an obscure tribe
to a world power.
The quality of the Achaemenids as rulers began to disintegrate,
however, after the death of Darius in 486. His son and successor,
Xerxes, was chiefly occupied with suppressing revolts in Egypt
and Babylonia. He also attempted to conquer the Greek Peloponnesus,
but encouraged by a victory at Thermopylae, he overextended his
forces and suffered overwhelming defeats at Salamis and Plataea.
By the time his successor, Artaxerxes I, died in 424, the imperial
court was beset by factionalism among the lateral family branches,
a condition that persisted until the death in 330 of the last
of the Achaemenids, Darius III, at the hands of his own subjects.
The Achaemenids were enlightened despots who allowed a certain
amount of regional autonomy in the form of the satrapy system.
A satrapy was an administrative unit, usually organized on a geographical
basis. A satrap (governor) administered the region, a general
supervised military recruitment and ensured order, and a state
secretary kept official records. The general and the state secretary
reported directly to the central government. The twenty satrapies
were linked by a 2,500-kilometer highway, the most impressive
stretch being the royal road from Susa to Sardis, built by command
of Darius. Relays of mounted couriers could reach the most remote
areas in fifteen days. Despite the relative local independence
afforded by the satrapy system however, royal inspectors, the
"eyes and ears of the king," toured the empire and reported on
local conditions, and the king maintained a personal bodyguard
of 10,000 men, called the Immortals.
The language in greatest use in the empire was Aramaic. Old Persian
was the "official language" of the empire but was used only for
inscriptions and royal proclamations.
Darius revolutionized the economy by placing it on a silver and
gold coinage system. Trade was extensive, and under the Achaemenids
there was an efficient infrastructure that facilitated the exchange
of commodities among the far reaches of the empire. As a result
of this commercial activity, Persian words for typical items of
trade became prevalent throughout the Middle East and eventually
entered the English language; examples are, bazaar, shawl,
sash, turquoise, tiara, orange, lemon, melon, peach, spinach,
and asparagus. Trade was one of the empire's main sources
of revenue, along with agriculture and tribute. Other accomplishments
of Darius's reign included codification of the data,
a universal legal system upon which much of later Iranian law
would be based, and construction of a new capital at Persepolis,
where vassal states would offer their yearly tribute at the festival
celebrating the spring equinox. In its art and architecture, Persepolis
reflected Darius's perception of himself as the leader of conglomerates
of people to whom he had given a new and single identity. The
Achaemenid art and architecture found there is at once distinctive
and also highly eclectic. The Achaemenids took the art forms and
the cultural and religious traditions of many of the ancient Middle
Eastern peoples and combined them into a single form. This Achaemenid
artistic style is evident in the iconography of Persepolis, which
celebrates the king and the office of the monarch.
Data as of December 1987