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The Persians were one of several Iranian language groups who migrated onto the Iranian plateau from lands east of the Caspian Sea, perhaps as early as the mid-second millennium BCE. These Old Iranians are divided into three sub-language groups: Old Northeast Iranian (known from Gathic Avestan); Old Northwest Iranian, or Median (known from Persian personal names and loanwords); and Old Southwest Iranian (known from Old Persian cuneiform inscriptions, the ancestor of modern Persian).


By the mid-ninth century BCE, Mesopotamian records attest the presence of both the Medes and the Persians in the central western Zagros Mountain region. After these sources fall silent (c. 640 BCE), the Persians appear in the southwestern Zagros, in the land of Parsa, modern Fars. The possible relationship between ninth-century BCE Parsua/Parsumash and sixth-century BCE Parsa is a matter of debate. There is no consensus on whether the Persians migrated from north to south; whether two Persias existed at the same time; or which Persia Herodotus described as a Median vassal (7702). The best explanation may be that there were indeed two groups of Persians, one in the central western and one in the southwestern Zagros. The former may have been tributary to, and eventually absorbed by, the Medes. The latter, under Cyrus II, may have either rebelled against the Medes, or may, as an independent Iranian group, have attacked them.


Efforts to trace these migrations in the archaeological record have met with little success. One hypothesis, that the radical shift from painted to plain gray-black and buff ceramics at the end of the Bronze Age in central and northwestern Iran represents the arrival of Iranians in about 1450 BCE, is not widely accepted (Young, i967). Others have suggested that the appearance of the distinctive plain buff pottery of the Iron Age III period in central-western Iran in the ninth century BCE marks the appearance of Iranians in the Zagros. This hypothesis has also gained little support. More widely accepted is the proposition that the rapid spread of Iron III pottery throughout the Zagros in the seventh century scE may be archaeological evidence of the rise of the unified and powerful Median kingdom that is documented textually (Young, >;988).


In Parsa, the Achaemenid Persian homeland, there is almost no archaeological evidence for the centuries immediately preceding the rise of the Persians to imperial power. This may indicate that these early Persian tribes were tent-dwelling pastoralists.


Rise to Imperial Power. Cyrus II (559-53o BCE) was the first great king of the Persian royal house, the Achaemenids. His initial task was to unite the Persian tribes. He then successfully attacked the Median king Astyages (SSo BCE). Among Iranians this event may have been seen as nothing more than an internal dynastic power struggle, for the Medes became so closely allied with the Persians that the Greeks often had difficulty distinguishing between them.


In 547 BCE Cyrus defended himself against Lydian attack, and after an inconclusive battle, successfully besieged the Lydian capital, Sardis. Shortly thereafter, all of Asia Minor came under Persian rule (Herodotus, r.74-84). In October 539 BCE, Cyrus invaded Babylonia, where he fought only one battle, at Opis; the Persians then marched unopposed into Babylon. Cyrus performed the religious rituals required of a Babylonian king and returned confiscated deities to their native Mesopotamian cities. That same year, his decree (Ez. i-4) permitting the Jews to rebuild the Temple in Jerusalem established the Persian custom of ruling with religious and cultural tolerance.


Cyrus died in 530 BCE, fighting the Scythian Massagetae on the northeastern frontier of the empire. His conquests included all of eastern Iran, Afghanistan, much of central Asia, Anatolia, and all of the Babylonian Empire. Of the four kingdoms that held the balance of power in the Near East at the time of Cyrus's succession, only Egypt remained independent.


Cambyses II (530-522 BCE), Cyrus's son, conquered Egypt in 525 BCE in a well-planned campaign. He remained there for three years, extending Persian conquest south into Nubia and west into North Africa. He ruled in Egypt as a legitimate pharaoh, but, probably because of a reorganization of the Egyptian religious establishment, gained a poor historical reputation. While he was in Egypt, rebellion broke out in Persia. He turned homeward in 522 BCE but died en route. It fell to Darius I to suppress the rebellion and to restore the Achaemenid family to power.


Darius I (52i-486 BCE) dealt first with the rebellion of Gaumata (Bardiya/Smerdis). The story of the rebellion in Herodotus (3.67-88) and in Darius's Bisitun inscription is that Cambyses killed his brother Bardiya before leaving for Egypt. Then Gaumata (Greek Smerdis), a Magian (Median) priest, claiming he was Bardiya, rebelled. Darius and six other nobles were the only Persians willing to challenge the false Bardiya. They killed him and the kingship was given to Darius. He then restored the sanctuaries Gaumata had destroyed, returned confiscated private property, and "re-established the people on its foundation, both Persia, Media, and the other provinces" (Bisitun inscription, I. y-72). Clearly, this was more than a palace coup. The empire had been shaken to its foundations by issues involving Mede versus Persian, "haves" versus "have nots," upper versus lower social orders, and different religions.


These confusions provided the climate for widespread rebellion in the first year of Darius's kingship. Elam and Babylon rebelled first but were quickly retaken. In the meantime, Armenia, Persia, Media, Assyria, Parthia, Margiana, Sattagydia, and Scythia rebelled. Subordinate generals were sent to deal with distant trouble spots; the king himself concentrated on the most dangerous core rebellion, in Media and neighboring regions. Once those provinces were under control, troops were available to crush rebellion elsewhere. Darius won because he retained control of the professional army, used his central position to prevent rebel coordination, and was a first-class general.


After an administrative reorganization of the empire, Darius turned to further expansion. Sometime between 520 and 513 BCE, India (the Punjab) was conquered. By 517 BCE Persia controlled the Ionian islands, and in 5 13 BCE Darius campaigned, with some success, against the Black Sea Scythians and conquered European Thrace and most of the northern Aegean.


In 499 BCE peace in the west was disturbed by the Ionian Revolt. Fierce fighting restored the power of Persia throughout western Asia Minor and northern Greece by 494 BCE. In response to Athenian support for the Ionians, Darius decided to invade mainland Greece, which the Persians did in 490 BCE, only to lose the battle at Marathon. The Persians retired to Asia. Darius was determined to return, but he died before he could do so, in 486 BCE.


Xerxes (486-465 ME), Darius's son, assumed the task of conquering Greece. First, however, he had to put down rebellions in both Babylon and Egypt. The invasion of Greece began in 480 BCE, with initial success for the Persians: they outmaneuvered the Spartans at Thermopilae, conquered Attica, and burned the Acropolis in Athens. Their navy, however, was defeated in the confined waters of the Bay of Salamis. Xerxes returned to Persia, leaving general Mardonius in command. In spring 479 BCE, Persians and Greeks fought a close battle at Plataea. Only when Mardonius himself was killed did the Persians collapse and flee both the field and Greece. In the decade that followed, Persian power in western Asia Minor and the Aegean was at its nadir. Xerxes was effectively not heard of again until he was assassinated in 465 BCE.


Late Empire

The Persian Empire survived for 134 years after the death of Xerxes, but its days of expansion were over. Persia continually intervened, to her advantage, with diplomacy and bribery in the internecine wars in Greece. The Peace of Callis was signed with Athens in 448 BCE by Artaxerxes I (464-425 BCE), which left Asia Minor to Persia and the Aegean to the Greeks. The agreement broke down, however, and in 400 BCE Persia and Sparta were at war. Persia supported Sparta's enemies with gold, and eventually Artaxerxes II (405-359 BCE) was invited by the Greeks to mediate their disputes. The result was the so-called King's Peace of 387-386 BCE, with which the Persian Empire firmly re-established its hold on Asia Minor.


Artaxerxes II had to deal with two major challenges from within. His brother, Cyrus the Younger, rebelled but was defeated at the battle of Cunaxa in 401 BCE. Then, in 373 BCE, the Revolt of the Satraps ("protectors of the Kingdom/ Kingship") began. Several satraps, mainly from Asia Minor, combined in rebellion. The rebels, however, fell out among themselves and Artaxerxes triumphed.


Egypt had successfully rebelled in 405 BCE and was not brought back into the empire until 343 BCE under Artaxerxes III (359-338 BCE). The real threat to the Persian Empire by this time, however, was not from rebellion but from the growing power of Macedonia. By the time Darius III (336331 BCE) was on the throne, Alexander the Great was ready to invade Asia. Alexander won his first battle at the Granicus River in 334 BCE. Victory also went to the invaders at a second battle shortly thereafter, near the Cilician Gates. Alexander spent the next two years consolidating his hold on the Levant and Egypt. The final Persian defeat took place on 1 October 331 BCE, at Gaugamela, near modern Erbil. Alexander captured Persepolis in April 330 BCE, and the fleeing Darius was murdered that summer.


Government and Society

The royal court was the center of imperial government. At its center was the king, so that the capital was wherever the king was. Fixed capitals were Susa, Persepolis, Ecbatana/Hamadan, and sometimes Babylon. King, court, and government were supported by a large scribal bureaucracy concentrated in the treasuries of the empire, for which the best evidence comes from Persepolis. The treasuries were repositories from which stores of imperial wealth in kind were administered. The Persepolis texts tell of provisions issued to work parties, craftsmen, travelers, treasury officials, priests, members of the royal household, and the king himself. These texts make clear that the central government was highly organized and accountable to a hierarchy of officialdom, ending with the king.


Into the reign of Xerxes, the language of the treasury at Persepolis was Elamite. The end of the Elamite record suggests that the language of the treasury became Aramaic, the lingua franca of the empire, which was written not on clay tablets but on perishable materials. The language of the royal inscriptions was alphabetic Old Persian, probably invented under Darius I in order to write the Bisitun inscription (see above).


Provincial organization

The empire was organized into provinces (satrapies), each ruled by a satrap. This system existed under Cyrus II but was restructured by Darius I. Satraps were appointed by the king, often from among his relatives. Except for certain royal fortresses, the satrap was both the military and civil commander of his province. Representatives of the king, however-the "king's eyes" or "king's ears"-traveled in the provinces and reported directly to him. Control of the empire was also facilitated by an extensive system of "royal roads," the most famous of which ran from Susa to Sardis.


Military forces

The military was divided into the army and navy. At the core of the standing army were the ten thousand Immortals, a thousand of whom formed the king's elite bodyguard. There were also ten thousand cavalry in the standing army. Troops of the standing army-exclusively Persians, Medes, Elamites, and perhaps Scythians-were often permanently stationed in the satrapies. Provincial forces were supported by native troops and long-term mercenaries, such as the Jewish soldiers stationed at Elephantine on the southern Egyptian frontier. In time of full-scale war, the army was augmented by a levy called up from almost all of the empire's subject peoples. The standing forces in the navy were supplied by Phoenicians, Egyptians, and perhaps Cypriots. Ionian Greeks often participated. All marines were Persians, Medes, or Scythians.


Law and the economy

Little is known of ancient Persian law. Following the model set by Cyrus II, the Achaemenids generally governed with tolerance of, and respect for, the customs, traditions, and laws of its conquered peoples. The best evidence comes from Babylonia, where, in the main, legal affairs were conducted according to longstanding Babylonian law and custom. There is, however, evidence of what might be a "king's" law administered in a "king's" court, though the available texts suggest that even there the Persians were introducing new economic and administrative arrangements rather than rewriting law.


The wealth of the empire was founded on agriculture, but manufacturing and commerce played important roles in the economy. The government taxed with vigor. State and royal properties were rented, funds were collected in lieu of obligations, tribute was paid by peoples outside the provincial structure, customs charges were collected, and selected sales taxes were levied. Most taxes were paid in kind. Some of this wealth, however, went back into the economy. Seed grain and seedlings (probably fruit trees) were issued to private estates by the treasuries. Archaeological evidence demonstrates that state investment in irrigation systems greatly increased productivity in Mesopotamia. Manufacturing, at least in cottage industries, was encouraged by payments from the treasuries, and exploratory sea voyages were undertaken at government expense to discover trade routes. Darius dug a canal from the Nile River to the Red Sea, and on land the state-supported road network allowed the peoples of the empire to benefit from what was, for ancient times, a very large common market.


Social organization

Persia's tolerance of the customs of her subjects precludes speaking of an imperial social organization. There were two reasons for that tolerance: it was a realistic policy, given the empire's size and cultural diversity; and such a policy fit the Persians' own sense of social structure. Their vertical view of society began at the base, with the family, and progressed upward through the levels of clan, tribe, and country, to culminate in a people or nation. Viewed horizontally, Persian society had four classes: priests, warriors, scribes, and artisans/peasants. At the summit of society was the king, surrounded by the concept khvarna, or "kingly glory," that attached itself both to the man and the office. Thus, the king functioned only at the highest level: he was king of countries, peoples, and nations; it was therefore logical that imperial policy not interfere with the affairs of tribes, clans, and families. If the peoples of the empire remained loyal and functioned well, how they did so was not the business of the central government. Tolerance was built into the Persian concept of how the world was organized.



As wide a variety of religions were practiced in the empire as there were subject peoples. From the Persepolis texts we know that a number of different beliefs and practices were found even in Persia. The critical question, however, remains whether the Achaemenid kings were Zoroastrians, in terms of what Zoroastrianism may have been like in the sixth-fourth centuries BCE. Zoroaster was a great ethical prophet who preached in northeast Iran sometime prior to the rise of the Achaemenids. In due time his message triumphed over the polytheism of the Iranian world, and Zoroastrianism eventually became the state religion of Iran in Sasanian times.


There are no data on the religion of Cyrus. Darius I, in several of his inscriptions, uses wording compatible with Zoroaster's teaching, however: truth (arta) is in conflict with the lie (druj). Ahuramazda is the supreme and only god mentioned. Darius may have been a Zoroastrian. Xerxes elevated Arta to the role of a deity and seemed particularly concerned about devil worship, as Zoroaster was. The relapse into polytheism must have continued under Artaxerxes I, as the goddess Anahita and the god Mithra appear in royal inscriptions. Yet, with the imperial adoption of the Zoroastrian religious calendar, a clear commitment to Zoroastrianism is made under this king. Thus, beginning with Darius I, the Persian kings seem to move steadily toward a Zoroastrian theology.


Evidence of ritual practice from Persepolis confirms this drift. That fire, whose purity and importance Zoroaster emphasized, was central to Persian royal religious ritual can be seen in the royal tomb reliefs and the great fire altar at Pasargadae. There also appears to have been no animal sacrifice at court-a practice Zoroaster had condemned. The Persepolis texts yield evidence of offerings only of wine, beer, wheat, and flour. Zoroaster had preached against the Haoma cult, a drunken pagan ritual; however, textual and archaeological evidence from Persepolis indicates that the cult was practiced. Nevertheless, on balance, Persian royal religious ritual seems to have come close to Zoroastrian practice at the time.


Art and Architecture

Achaemenid Persian art is a blend of two elements: the experiences Persians had with material culture on the Iranian plateau during the centuries prior to the rise of Cyrus II, and the material culture of the empire's conquered peoples. These elements are most evident in architecture. The artists who decorated the great imperial capitals of Pasargadae, Susa, and Persepolis came from every corner of the empire. Their influence on individual elements is so great as to lead some scholars to argue that Achaemenid art and architecture are only eclectic. A closer look at Pasargadae and Persepolis shows that this is not true.


At Pasargadae, founded by Cyrus II, a clear Egyptian and Mesopotamian influence is evident and a considerable amount of decorative detail; Greek influence is also patent. The layout of the site and the conception of the "whole" is entirely Persian, however. The Pulvar River, which runs through the site, is the key to understanding the plan of the "city": the tomb of Cyrus, the main gate, two major palaces, two pavilions, a bridge, the so-called Zendan, the sacred precinct, and the hilltop fortress, the Tall-i Takht. Most of these structures were oriented to life in the open air. The various water channels feeding off the river and running among the buildings make it clear that the site was in fact a great park, not a city: a physical manifestation of a Persian paradise.


The concept and the details-of the columned halls and pavilions-are fundamentally Persian. Although the columned hall was foreign to the ancient Near East outside of Egypt, it was an architectural tradition that can be traced back in western Iran to Median times at such sites as Tepe Nush-i Jan and Godin II and from there back to the Early Iron Age at Hasanlu V (r4go-i tso BCE). It was an architectural concept the Persians brought with them to Parsa. Pasargadae remains a superb expression in stone, wood, and brick of what the city of the king of a new empire (only recently the ruler of tent-dwelling pastoralists) might look like.


That imperial authority was yet more forcefully expressed at Persepolis and Susa-the former grander and better preserved. At Persepolis Darius built a great stone platform jutting westward from the base of the Kuh-i Rahmat ("mountain of mercy"). Xerxes expanded the platform and completed buildings his father had begun and added others. Construction continued under Artaxerxes, and, in a more desultory way, under even later kings. Two large columned audience halls (the Apadana and the Hall of a Hundred Columns), a columned gateway (Gate of All Nations), private columned residence palaces, a treasury, and a harem were the main structures on the platform.


Some of the most remarkable reliefs ever carved in the ancient Near East adorn the walls of these structures. Again, foreign influence is clear, but the basic Persian conception of the totality is equally clear. The carving was done by a team of artisans: a master craftsman working with others, each assigned special elements of each figure. In short, the reliefs were created in an assembly line-the master artist(s) was not the carver of the reliefs (where foreign influences show). Rather, the master was he who conceived, designed, and decided on the final layout of the reliefs. He was a Persian, for the story he told, and the way he told it, was an original contribution of the Achaemenid Persians to the art of the ancient world.


The reliefs are unhistorical. Unlike those of Egypt and Assyria, they tell no story. Instead they are a static picture of accomplishments-they are not scenes of warfare, of the king's conquests, or of enemies defeated, but of contented subject peoples paying homage to their ruler. The king is the central focus, but he is not an individual: he is not Darius or Xerxes or Artaxerxes, but the image of khvama, of the glory of kingship in the abstract. The reliefs are a sculptured statement of the philosophy behind the tolerance of Persian imperial rule, the perfect pax persica.


Achaemenid sites have produced few small objects from foreign countries, for the Persians preferred their own products. Relatively plain stone and pottery vessels, with an emphasis on crisp shapes derived from metal prototypes, are common. Bird and animal heads are used as decoration, often on handles-a tradition going back to Median times. Stone-seal cutting was a consummate art, as were metalwork and jewelry. Metal vessels were practical, even when ornate, with an emphasis on intricate, repetitive, and highly geometric decorative elements; animal motifs, long a tradition on the plateau, also were common. Achaemenid jewelry and tableware represent some of the most delicate achievements in ancient metalwork.


Almost nothing is known outside of ceramics of the material culture of the common people for excavation has concentrated on royal sites. At Persepolis the platform was only the acropolis of a large city which may have spread north and west as far as the royal rock-cut tombs at Naqsh-i Rustam. Excavations off the terrace revealed some palaces of the nobility, but no peasant or artisan compound.


The Achaemenids combined the art of others before them with traditions of their own. In doing so they produced an art which, like their empire, marked the end of the ancient world and the beginning of something new.



·          Balcer, Jack Martin. "The Athenian Episkopos and the Achaemenid `King's Eye."' American Journal of Philology 98 (1977): 252-263.

·          Burn, Andrew R. Persia and the Greeks: The Defense of the West, c. 5¢6¢78 B. C. 2d ed. London, 1984. Authoritative study of Persian-Greek relations from the time of Cyrus to Xerxes.

·          Cook, J. M. The Persian Empire. London, 1983. Expansion of his essay in Gershevitch (below); some excellent insights, but uneven in quality.

·          Dandamaev, Muhammad A., and Vladimir G. Lukonin. The Cultural and Social Institutions of Ancient Iran. Translated by Philip L. Kohl. Cambridge, 1989. Stimulating, somewhat idiosyncratic discussion, very worthy but sometimes marred by factual inaccuracies.

·          Frye, Richard N. The History of Ancient Iran. Handbuch der Altertumswissenschaft, IIL7. Munich, 1984. The most recent statement on ancient Iran by a distinguished American scholar.

·          Gershevitch, Ilya, ed. The Cambridge History of Iran, vol. z, The Median and Achaemenian Periods. Cambridge, 1985. Uneven but very useful series of articles, with an excellent bibliography.

·          Miroschedji, Pierre de. "La fin du royaume d'An"san et de Suse et la naissance de (empire perse." Zeitschrift fur Assyriologie 75 (t985): z65-3o6. Excellent discussion of the relationship between the Late Elamites and the rise of the first Persian Empire.

·          Roaf, Michael. "Sculptures and Sculptors at Persepolis." Iran 21 (1983). Definitive work on the reliefs at Persepolis.

·          Schmidt, Erich F. Persepolis, vol. r, Structures, Reliefs, Inscriptions. Oriental Institute Publications, 68. Chicago, 1953. The first volume on the University of Chicago excavations at Persepolis. Superseded in some details since, but the starting point for any understanding of the site.

·          Schmidt, Erich F. Persepolis, vol. 2, Contents of the Treasury and Other Discoveries. Oriental Institute Publications, 69. Chicago, 1957. Final report on the small finds of the Chicago Persepolis expedition.

·          Schmidt, Erich F. Persepolis, vol. 3, The Royal Tombs and Other Monuments. Oriental Institute Publications, 70. Chicago, 1970. The final report on the excavations and investigations of the Achaemenid royal tombs at Naqsh-i Rustam and related structures (some dating to the Sasanian period).

·          Stronach, David B. Pasargadae: A Report on the Excavations Conducted by the British Institute of Persian Studies from 1961 to 1963. Oxford, 1978. Definitive excavation report, incorporating all previous work at the site.

·          Summer, William M. "Achaemenid Settlement in the Persepolis Plain." American Journal of Archaeology 90 (t986): 3-3t. Poses the problem of the lack of archaeological evidence for any settled village life in the Persepolis area immediately prior to the foundation of Persepolis under Darius I.

·          Vogelsang, W. J. The Rise and Organisation of the Achaemenid Empire: The Eastern Iranian Evidence. Leiden, 1992. Stimulating, thoughtful, but not always convincing argument on the organization of the eastern Achaemenid Empire and the role played by the Scythians in the first Persian Empire.

·          Young, T. Cuyler, Jr. "The Iranian Migration into the Zagros." Iran 5 (t967): t t-34. Attempt to demonstrate that both the Medes and the Persians came to western Iran from the northeast, and that their appearance can be traced in the archaeological record; dated but useful.

·          Young, T. Cuyler, Jr. "The Persian Empire." In The Cambridge Ancient History, vol. 4, Persia, Greece, and the Western Mediterranean, edited by John Boardman, pp. t-253. Cambridge, 1988. Narrative report on the early history of the Medes and the Persians to the death of Xerxes, with an excellent bibliography.




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