Formation of Persian Tribes
Persians, like other Iranian groups, formed a tribal confederacy. Each of these tribes inhabited a certain part of Persia, and their territories were well defined. Their social formation does not seem to be much different from their Indo-European ancestors, being a basic patriarchal system based on several blood related families forming a tribe, and the tribes ultimately forming the confederacy. There seems to have been a firm oligarchic system in place in which the heads of tribes would make all large decisions regarding the general conduct of the society. These Elders belonged to an upper level of the society, the “ruling class”, whose members held the chief positions by the right of birth.
Membership in other social classes – clergy, artisans, herdsmen – was also hereditary, although Iranian tribes in general seem to have avoided the experience of their Indian cousins in creating an untouchable class, mostly consisting of the natives. Persians, as well as Medians and Parthians, easily married with the local population, whom they probably served initially as mercenaries and herdsmen when they first arrived in the plateau. By the time Persians formed their empire, they seem to be a good mix of Aryan and native Iranian stocks.
We have a fair idea of the territories where each of the Persian tribes inhabited, especially the one that supposedly found the Persian Empire, known to us through Greek historians as the Pasargedae tribe. This is the tribe that inhabited the northern Persian plain and the area of the present day Bakhtiari Mountains, and immediately bordered the Neo-Elamite kingdom in its eastern extent, the city of Anshan. From very early on, Persians started to mingle with the Elamites and entered the social formation of the very advance Elamite Kingdom
At some point close the foundation of the Median Empire (mid 8th century BC), Persians had gotten strong enough in Anshan to have one of their own rule the city. This person was called Kurash, son of Chish-pish in the Elamite tablets, he and his father bearing unmistakeable Elamite names. No mention of his Persian background is of course provided, but we make this assumption from the words of his grandson of the same name. This Ku-rash, or Kurosh as he was known in Old Persian, was succeeded by his son, Kabujia, who bore an equally Elamite name. Kabujia was marriedto the daughter of Ishto-vigo/Astyages, the king of Media, named Kasandra.
At the time that Kambujia was ruling in Anshan, another Persian family ruled in Pasargadae proper. These were the descendants of a man called Hakhamanesh /Achaemenes, and their king at the time was called Arsham (Arsames), son of Aryaramna (Ariaramnes), son of Hakhamanesh (Achaemens). Later sources, most importantly the rock carving of Arsham’s grandson, Darius the Great, would claim that Chish-pesh, the father of Ku-rash, was also son of Achaemenes, and thus Kabujia was made to be a second cousin of Arsham (for a detailed discussion of the family tree of the Persian/Achaemenid Emperor’s, please see the present author’s article, to be published soon). Arsham/Arsames, was bound to be the last king of Parsa, as Kabujia was the last king of Anshan. The events that followed the succession of Kabujia’s son, Kurosh II (Cyrus), would determine the future of the Anshan and Persia, as well as most of West Asia.
Cyrus the Great and the Persian Empire
Cyrus, or more exactly Kurosh (Elamite: Kurash), first comes to our attention as the ruler of the Elamite highland capital of Anshan (alt. Anzan) (ca. 559 BC). In this position, he was succeeding his ancestors, Cambyses/Kabujia I, Kurosh I, and Chishpesh/Tespes who all styled themselves King of Anshan.
History, mainly through its Greek interpreters, tells us that Cyrus was the maternal grandson of the Media Emperor Astyages or Ishto-vigo, (see Chapter III). He was always very ambitions to be more than the king of Anshan, a desire that led him to conquer and depose his father’s cousin, Arsham, the ruler of Parsa, from his position, thus gaining the control of the Persian “heartland”.
Cyrus’ advancement coincided with the decline of the Median Empire and descent of its emperor into decadence and the negligence of his duties. The story of Cyrus’ life, transmitted to us mainly by Xenophon’s Cyropedia, mentions that the unhappy Median nobility, headed by an important official named Harpag, “asked” Cyrus to challenge the old emperor and take over the empire. Media at the time was an ally of Babylonia, an alliance remaining from the time of Cyaxares and Nabopulassar’s successful attempt to destroy Assyria. However, at the time of these events, the king of Babylonia, Nabunid, had priorities in his mind other than the security of Media. Nabunid, a deeply religious person who came from an Aramaic background, had dreams of restoring the Babylonian might in the Mesopotamia and taking over the commerce of the region. He was also planning to rebuild the city of Ameda(Harran) that was destroyed by Assurhaddon and construct a temple to his favourite god, Sin, the god of the moon. Generally, due to his Aramaic background and the pressure on his territory from the west (by Arabs especially), Nabunid’s foreign policy was more westward looking. He also did not mind that one Iranian kingdom (Parsa) was trying to destroy the other (Media), making the field clear for the rise of Babylon. As a result, left without any strong allies and weakened by mismanagement, Medes were finally defeated by the young and motivated army of Cyrus.
Cyrus’ quick defeat of Media must have given him the support he needed from his Persian base to continue the conquests. We can well imagine that his ultimate goal must have been the conquest of Babylonia, the glorious sign of the Mesopotamian power. However, the obvious burdens put on the Persians by the conquest of Media most likely left them too weak to attack the Babylonians who were at the time enjoying a revival of their power under the rule of Nabunid. Cyrus probably realised that in order to take on Babylonia, he needed a large source of funding, one bigger than the one offered to him by the Median treasury. His gaze around for locating the source of this needed money surely fell upon an obvious choice, the kingdom of Lydia in Asia Minor.
Lydia, a small kingdom ruling over the western territories of Phrygia in Asia Minor, was one of the wealthiest kingdoms in the world. The king of this land, Croesos, was supposedly a granduncle to Cyrus and was aware of his rapid advancements. There is a famous story about this episode in Greek legend that tells us of a consolation from the Oracle of Delphi by Croesos. As the story goes, the king asked the Oracle of Apollo about the outcome of the war at hand, and the ever enigmatic Oracle answered that a great king will fall. The Lydian monarch interprets this as the fall of Cyrus, a greater king than himself. Unfortunately, but not surprisingly, the interpretation proves wrong, and the Oracle indeed had flattered Croesos, since Cyrus succeeds in subduing the Lydian king and further enlarging his empire.
We are not supplied by the full report of the conquest of Lydia, but all evidences seem to suggest a rather peaceful and bloodless conquest. It is well imaginable that the armies of Lydia, a strictly commercial empire, did not stand much chance against the horse riding Persians and Medes, and they probably gave up their defence in order to save their capital city, Sardid, from destruction and thus losing its position as a financial centre. Croesos was reported to have attempted suicide, but was rescued in time, and very conveniently, by Cyrus, who chose him as his advisor, a choice that can account for excellent financial formation of the Persian territories. Cyrus was now secure as far as finances were considered, and only needed to supply proper troops for his attempt at subduing Babylon.
Although enjoying a commercial revival, Babylonia’s power in the region was never really recovered after the death of Nebuchadnezzar II. Nabunid’s obsession with religion, his frequent absences from Babylon itself, his psychotic fascination with Babylonia’s ancient glamour, and his negligence in protecting Babylonia’s interest, was unavoidably driving his kingdom to a state of ruin. It was not long before the power of Nabunid did not stretch far beyond the walls of Babylon itself.
It was in these conditions that Cyrus fought with the Babylonians and reached the walls of the great and ancient city. As the story goes, Cyrus found the walls impossible to penetrate. So, he figured out a way to enter the city without destroying the walls. He ordered a new canal to be dug around the walls, and then changed the course of the river Euphrates that ran through the city, making it flow in the newly dug canal, thus opening an entrance under the city walls.
When Cyrus invaded Babylonia, he treated the locals honourably and in contrast to the common practice, did not order any massacres. He set free the Jewish captives that had been moved to Babylon since the time of Nebuchadnezzar, and gave back the stolen ornaments of the Temple of Jerusalem and money to rebuild that Temple. This made him into a much praised personality in the Old Testament. Also in Babylon, Cyrus issued a decree that guaranteed social and religious freedoms of the Babylonians and is much praised as being the first ever declaration of human rights. A copy of this decree, known as the Cyrus Cylinder and carved in Neo-Babylonian, is kept in the British Museum.
After this victory, Cyrus returns to his homeland of Persia and orders the building of a palace in Pasargadea, around 100 km north of present day Shiraz. During the time of this construction, Cyrus sets of for another war, this time with the nomadic Massaget tribes that lived to the north of Parthia. It is at some point in this not so grandiose war that Cyrus receives an arrow that ends his legendary life.
The above are the stories of the life of Cyrus told by Greek historians such as Herodotus and Xenophon and cultivated by the Persian court during the centuries following his death. Although we are not to dispute these stories on the lack of sufficient sources that tell us any different ones, we can still try to take some of the more legendary details away and present a more realistic and less legendary picture of the man in question. It is true that some might consider this harmful to the image of the most popular person in the Iranian history, and as we see that any attempt to make Alexander less legendary is met with utter resistance, this might indeed be harmful; nevertheless, we still see the speculation due for the sake of a fair presentation of history.
First, the fact that the local ruler of Persia, deposed by Cyrus, is presented as a cousin to Cyrus’ father might well be a later fabrication, as we shall discuss later. Second, the circumstances that led to the invasion of Media are indeed dubious, so much that it does not need a great deal of evidence to see its purely legendary side. One can easily see that the supposed weakness of Astyages and the request of Median nobility for the assistance of Cyrus are justifications later provided by the Persian court to paint a more convincing and less usurping picture of Cyrus and his take over of the Median throne.
On the matter of Babylon, the issuance of the famous decree, more than being a declaration of human rights, shows Cyrus’ great vision for his empire. He had well observed the known fact that an empire conquered on horse cannot be ruled on the one. Cyrus knew that the survival of his empire depended as much on wealth as military power. Babylon at the time was the largest centre of trade, and Babylonian merchants were the most seasoned of traders in Mesopotamia. So, keeping Babylon as a free city with freedom of religious and social practice meant a continuation of trade and a further thriving of the city as a commercial centre.
Whatever the details of his life might have been, it certainly holds true that Cyrus was a great military commander and an ingenious politician who knew how to conquer and govern a vast empire, the largest that the world had seen until that time.
Children of Cyrus and the Ascent of Darius
The sudden death of Cyrus presented the first major test for the newly founded empire. After such character as Cyrus, who should replace him as both the emperor and military commander? This call fell upon Cyrus’ eldest son, Cambyses II (Kabodhia).
Again, the stories told mainly by Greek historians and the one we get through Darius’ Behistun inscription, tells us of Cambyses’ ambition to continue his father’s conquests. So, he decided to conquer Egypt, the only remaining empire to the west of Persia. Prior to his departure, Cambyses murdered his younger brother, Bardia or Smerdis, for the fear of usurping the throne in his absence.
Cambyses’ Egyptian campaign went successfully and he managed to conquer and enter Thebes. It is at this time that he heard of a Mogh (a Magi, see chapter III) who claimed he was Bardia and had usurped the throne. According to various legends, Cambyses either committed suicide due to depression or injured himself while trying to mount a horse and ride back to Persia.
In any case, the throne was now held by a mogh called Gaumata who also had the approval of Hutusa, the sister of Bardia and Cambyses. Apparently the rule of the Gaumata was not popular by the people since he had reversed the rules of the empire and restored the old regulations.
It was because of this unpopularity that seven young men from the highest noble families of Persia tried to topple the usurper. The group, initially led by Zupir and later by Darius the Achaemenid, succeeded in its attempt and braught the mogh down from the throne. Darius, the leader of the seven families and a grandson to the king of Persa that was deposed by Cyrus, and also a cousin of Cambyses, naturally became the new emperor.
Darius’ Claim to the Throne: A deeper look
The above story is widely accepted in most historical texts written about the Persian Empire, and considered as the truth by all but a few of historians and archaeologists. The details of this story are mentioned in Darius’ famous Behistun inscription that in addition to the story of his succession to the throne, also tells us about his campaigns against rebellions around the country and his formation of the Persian Empire as we know it. These details, told by Persian courtiers to Greek historians, decades after the events, have entered the pages of our “original” sources like Herodotus, and have thus become the historical “truth”.
However, there are reasons to believe that this story is not quite the truth, as far as many details go. First matter to consider is the issue of Darius’ family relation with Cyrus and Cambyses, a matter he uses well in order to legitimise his claim to the throne of Cyrus. Darius repeatedly calls himself an Achaemenid, in all of his inscriptions. He explains to us that he is the son of Wishtaspa who later becomes the governor/satrapi of Parthia. Wishtaspa was son of Arsham, king of Parsa who was deposed by Cyrus. Arsham was the son of Aryaramna, king of Parsa, and he was the eldest son of Chishpesh, or Tespes, King of Anshan and Parsa, and great grandfather of Cyrus the Great. Tespes in turn was the son of Hakhamanesh/Achaemens, the leader of Persians after whom the dynasty is named. Thus, the kingdom held by Tespes, that of Anshan and Parsa, had been divided between his two sons, the elder son (Aryaramna) getting the heartland, and the younger one (Cyrus I) receiving the mountain city of Anshan. (Family Tree)
We can argue the above by many parallels. First of all, other than the above genealogy, some archaeological evidence has convinced many historians to believe Darius’ story. On some statues of Cyrus found in Pasargadea, his palace, we see the words: “I, Cyrus, the Achaemenid”. Many interpret this as being the proof of Cyrus’ descent from Achaemens and thus his relation to Darius. However, all of these inscriptions are carved in Old Persian cuneiform. We have evidence (including Darius’ straight out admittance in column five of Behustun inscription) that the Old Persian cuneiform did not exist prior to the time of Darius and that it was created during or shortly before the carving of the said inscription. Unlike all other multilingual inscriptions from the Achaemenid times, in Behistun we see the presence of the Old Persian text at a position lower than the Neo-Babylonian and Elamite texts. We know that Old Persian version of the text was carved later than the other two, since a rewriting of the Elamite text, under the Neo-Babylonian one and to the left of the Old Persian text, mirrors the Old Persian version more closely and is obviously more detailed than the two older texts.
So, if the Old Persian cuneiform was created during the time of Darius, Cyrus could obviously not have used it to carve his name on his statues. This is in addition to the fact that inscriptions were only carved after the completion of a palace, and we know that Pasargadea was left unfinished due to the death of Cyrus. Thus, we can conclude that the inscriptions that called Cyrus an Achaemenid were actually carved later by Darius and his successors.
Furthermore, in the two inscriptions we have from Cyrus the Great and his grandfather, Cyrus I, we see the family tree as: “Cyrus, son of Cambyses, son of Cyrus, son of Tespes” (in case of Cyrus the Great), and “Cyrus, son of Tespes” (in case of Cyrus I), both failing to name Achaemenes as their ancestor. Consequently, we can establish that Cyrus’ descent from Achaemens is a matter fabricated by Darius in order to legitimise his claim to the throne.
Having established that, we can embark upon the tale of Gaumata, the Mogh, and his usurpation of throne by claiming to be Bardia, the younger son of Cyrus, who in fact was murdered by his older brother Cambyses prior to the latter’s campaign against Egypt. Again, the story is told by Darius in Behistun and all consequent Greek versions have their source in this official version of the events.
We should start discussing this matter by considering Cambyses’ motives in murdering his brother. The act was unparalleled in the Persian and Median courts, in addition to being unreasonable, since Cambyses was the rightful heir to the throne and there was no evidence to suggest that Bardia was a threat. Assuming that the threat was real and Bardia was killed, we should wonder why Cambyses became depressed upon hearing the news of usurpation, if he knew the usurper is not his real brother. It is also worth noticing that Hutusa, the sister of Cambyses and Bardia, did recognise the usurper as her real brother. Even if the original murder took place in secret, Hutusa as a member of the family would have known about it and would not have been fooled by a pretender.
Further on, Darius, as a member of the seven noble families, was at Cambyses’ side in Egypt and was present at the side of his deathbed. He later arrives back in Persia, and starts conspiring to dethrone the pretender. The initial leader is Zupir, not Darius, a further proof that he was not related to the dead emperor and not considered the “obvious” choice for replacing him. Then, Darius pushes Zupir aside and gains the control of the band. He gathers a force and faces Gaumata/Bardia in open field were he kills the usurper. He is then elected as the emperor, moves to the palace, and marries Hutusa in order to have a descendant of Cyrus in his household and produce an offspring who is descended from Cyrus, as indeed happens with Xerxes.
The reason Darius mentions for the unpopularity of Gaumata is his restoration of the old laws, worshiping of old gods, and tax cuts. From a popular point of view, Bardia was the ideal king who eased the restraints caused by the new imperial regulations and gave tax cuts to a population that had been paying for military campaigns since the time of Cyrus. The matter of worshiping old gods might be a pure concern of Darius. We have no evidence to think that Cyrus or Cambyses were Zoroastrians and thus believed in Ahura-Mazdah and the “new” religion. In fact, Cyrus’ crowning in Babylon under the blessings of Marduk, the Babylonian god, shows us his belief in polytheism. On the other hand, Darius and his successors are firm believers in Ahura Mazdah and Zoroastrianism and they mention this belief in many of their inscriptions, including Behistun. Thus, Gaumata’s worship of old gods was probably the common practice of the time that only coincided with Darius’ Zoroastrian belief.
In short, we can rewrite the story of Darius’ ascent to the throne as follows. Gaumata was indeed Bardia and the true brother of Cambyses. Probably because of his personal beliefs, Bardia enjoyed a greater popularity than his older brother and was seen as a potential threat to the throne of Cambyses. When in Egypt, Cambyses hears of his brother’s usurpation of the throne, and since he knows that considering Bardia’s popularity, he does not have much chance of regaining the throne, he falls into depression and dies. Seeing the whole young Persian Empire in danger of falling apart by the popular but limited-in-scope policies of Bardia, seven noble families decide to restore the empire. Darius, as the most ambitious and resourceful of the seven, and probably a confidant of Cambyses in Egypt, succeeds in toppling Bardia, and pronounces himself emperor. He then goes on to fabricate his family ties to Cyrus in order to explain his own usurpation of the throne.
Reign of Darius
Darius the Great (Dayara-Vahusha) was the Greatest ruler of his time. He created a major road system for Iran, coined money (Darik), and finished Cyrus’ incomplete job of invasion. He conquered North India and some parts of Greece, as well as whole of Asia minor and southern Europe. He also re-captured Egypt, and ordered the first version of Suez Canal to be dug! In one case, he even ventured to Northern Black Sea region and fought the Scythians, who in turn retreated from his sight and made him realise that conquering steppe is not a good idea! Darius captured all of southern Europe and established his Eskodara Satrapi (province).
The famous account of Darius’ unbelievable defeat in the Marathon from the Athenian army is well known. This “defeat” has been immortalised by the myths about the runner who ran to Athens to give the news of the victory. Although widely accepted as fact, I doubt these accounts, which have been mainly retold by Herodotus. Generally what is known to the Greek and western world as “Great Persian Wars” is nothing more than a footnote in the Achaemenid governmental records. Marathon, although most likely happened the way it was told, has been greatly exaggerated. The army of Darius was certainly not as large as reported, since Darius used much smaller armies for invading countries like Egypt, and Greeks were not particularly repudiated for being invincible! The battle of Marathon was not a struggle for the Persian emperor to invade Athens, since it was financially and strategically insignificant. It was, as reported by other historians and witnesses, motivated by a deposed Athenian official and the desire of the Great King to support him in regaining his position. Anyway, this battle has become a major chapter in the history of the west, as the small but much exaggerated defeat of Roland became a legend for Charlemagne and French history.
At this time, Darius was the master of the largest empire the world had ever known to itself . Having one end by the banks of the River Indus to Nile on the other end, and from the Nobian desert to Volga and Danube, administering such a gigantic land was the job of a wise ruler, and Darius was just that. Maybe not a great army general, but certainly the greatest of politicians, Darius recognised the first need for the rule of his empire, and that was roads. Wide and long roads connected all of the Persian empire together, and along with the first postal system in the world (Barid), helped facilitate the communication. His political plays with his neighbours like Greek chiefs and Scythian kings and Indian Raja’s show the extent of his political knowledge. He established the institution of political marriage by marrying his son and his brother to minor foreign sovereigns. He conquered Massagets through marriage to their Queen, and he was more successful in that than Cyrus. He also was the first ruler to ask for sons and heirs of the defeated kings as the hostages and guarantors of their father’s loyalty. By educating these sons in the Persian way, he created a network of Perso-phile kings who were always faithful the the Great King. Darius is known in Iranian history as the greatest of the politicians.
Iran at the Dawn of Xerxes’ Succession
Based on Babylonian economic tablets, Darius passed away in December of 485 BC. Immediately, the tablets were dated by the regal year of Xerxes, who previously occupied the role of the viceroy of Babylon. The same economic tablets portray a picture of a prosperous country with the lowest interest rates during the one and a half centuries that had passed from the golden days of Nebuchadnezzar I.
The transfer of power from Darius to Xerxes was largely peaceful and calm. We know that although Darius died in Persepolis, the official accession ceremonies of Xerxes were conducted at the Apadana palace of Susa, and that city became the de facto capital of the Achaemenid Empire during the reign of Xerxes. Other than a small rebellion in the Satrapi of Bactria, led by Xerxes’ older brother Ariamenes, we have no report of any further uprisings against the new emperor. The Bactrian rebellion was peacefully suppressed when Xerxes bought loyalty of his brother by offering the governance of Bactria and Sogdiana, as well as the supreme command of the royal navy.
The rise of Susa as an important political centre also marked the increasing importance of the former Elamite and Persian provinces as the trade centres of the empire. Our information about the economic situation of Bactria, Sogdiana, and other Central Asian provinces are minimal due to lack of any firsthand evidence. Still, based on their Middle Iranian parallels, we can imagine that these provinces were already gaining importance as trade stations between China and West Asia. This is further evident by Xerxes’ early campaigns in that region and establishment of two new Satrapis called Dahae and “Mountain Satrapi”, located to the east and northeast of Sogdiana and Bactria. These two Satrapies formed the new frontier of the Persian Empire against the nomadic tribes of Steppes and created a buffer zone between the nomads and the settled population of the empire.
We also have no information about the economic situation in the Median and Parthia, but we can imagine that their economy was based on settled agriculture and cattle herding. Parthia in particular played an important role in breeding horses for the use of the famed Persian cavalry.
Almost immediately after Xerxes’ accession, a rebellion in Egypt, which soon expanded to Palestine, consumed the westernmost satrapis of the empire. Xerxes himself led the small army that was sent to pacify this uprising. Egyptian papyri show the re-establishment of Persian power over the Lower and Upper Egypt as early as 484 BC. Xerxes appointed his brother, Acheamenes, as the new ruler of Ehypt, but refused to be crowned in the Egyptian style. This action resulted in a dissatisfaction of the Egyptian clergy with Persian rule for the first time since Cambyses invasion of the kingdom.
The rule of Xerxes
Xerxes’ policies generally followed that of his father Darius and his reforms. With the establishment of new satrapies, Xerxes would follow the same pattern of appointing a mixed government of local and Persian rulers and to grant local independence to the rulers. However, in his religious policies, Xerxes greatly differed from Darius. As mentioned before, Darius was a strict follower of Zoroastrianism and constantly reminds us of the will and favour of Ahuramazda and Arta (“rightness”, see chapter on Zoroastrianism) behind his every action. However, we have no evidence that Darius ever tried to force his beliefs on the people of his empire, and he is generally considered a generous ruler in the matters of religious freedom.
On the other hand, Xerxes, in one of his inscriptions, tells us “… and in one of these countries, there places where false gods were worshipped. Afterward, with the favour of Ahuramazda, I destroyed the sanctuaries of the demons and I declared that demons should not be worshipped. Where before demons were worshipped, I worshipped Ahuramazda…” (Kent, XPh). This is the first time an Achaemenid Emperor tells us about forcing his beliefs on part of his population. In this case, the people in question were probably the “Kafir” people of the newly conquered “Mountain Satrapi” (ancestors of Nouristanis in present day Afghanistan who kept their “demon worship” religion until the late 19th century AD).
Xerxes’ strong religious beliefs also caused the alienation of the Egyptian clergy when he refused to be crowned with the Egyptian traditions and with the blessing of the god “Amon-Ra”. Although the immediate outcome, the refusal of the clergy to inscribe Xerxes’ name on the coffin of Ra’s bull, were minimal, this event can be credited for the re-emergence of Egyptian opposition that eventually separated Egypt from the rest of the empire.
The most serious episode of Xerxes’ prejudice occurred in the case of the rebellion in Babylon. From August 10-29th of 482 BC, a local Babylonian nobleman called Bel-Shimanni, declared himself the king of Babylon and killed Satrap Zopyrus. In the same year, economic documents of Bar-sippa and Dilbat were dated by his reign. On September 22, Shamash-eriba deposed and replaced Bel-Shimanni in Bar-sippa and Babylon itself. Megabyzus, Xerxes’ brother-in-law and general, immediately descended upon Babylon with a huge force and crushed the rebellion. As punishment, Xerxes started a campaign to destroy Babylon’s independence and central role in the empire’s financial system. After destroying the magnificent fortification of Babylon, and confiscating the property of the local nobility, he separated Syria from Babylon and make it into a separate Satrapi. He also joined Babylon with the Satrapi of Assyria, and the province was renamed Chaldea. But the most severe punishment was the removal of the golden statue of the god Marduk from the Esagila temple which ended Babylon’s role as the centre of power in Mesopotamia.
Xerxes’ Greek Campaign
For many historians, Xerxes’ campaigns in Greece and the consequent defeats that he faced formed the most important episode of the Emperor’s reign. However, the exaggerated significance of these campaigns can be attributed to their importance for the Greeks, who also wrote the narrative history of the Greco-Persian wars. Basically, from the Persian point of view, the Greco-Persian wars constituted a local confrontation in the north-western corner of their empire. On the other hand, for Greeks, the struggle against the Persian Empire and their eventual victory meant saving their independence, as well as guaranteeing their power in the Aegean.
As we mentioned before, Xerxes was greatly uninterested in foreign campaigns and other than suppressing local uprisings, seldom attempted the continuation of his predecessors’ conquests. History tells us that the motivation behind the Greek campaign was provided by the former Athenian exiles in the court of the Great King who found an ally in the person of Mardonius, Xerxes’ friend and commander. The concern was that with the formation of the Delian League, the Ionian colonies in Asia Minor might also be tempted to join the European Greeks and a general rebellion against the Persian rule could develop.
The activities of the Delian agents in Ionia initiated the first wave of Persian offence, led by Megabyzus, another of Xerxes’ commanders and close relatives, in 479 BC. The Persian army soon advanced to the European Greece and was stopped by a collected Spartan-Corinthian force at the Thermopylae Pass. The Greek accounts tell us that Xerxes himself was commanding the armies at this point, having led the troops over a boat-bridge made over the Hellespont Strait. However, there is no reason to believe that the Great King himself would have felt the need to command his armies in such a small scale campaign. The fact that in the later stages of the campaign we only hear of Mardonius and Xerxes’ brother can lead us to believe that the presence of Xerxes himself might have been added by the Greeks to increase the dramatic narrative of events.
After a stand-off in Thermopylae and the defeat of the Greeks, the Persian army advanced on Athens, the leader of the Delian League. The high point of the campaign came when Mardonius ordered the burning of Acropolis of Athens, a move that might not have bothered the Persians much, but certainly remained in the Greek minds until Alexander took revenge by setting Persepolis on fire. At this point, the Greeks gathered a navy with the help of all members of the Delian League and challenged the Persians in a sea battle in the Bay of Salamis. The Persian navy, mainly consisted of Phoenician and Cypriot ships, was caught in the bay and badly defeated.
This event carried significant results for the Greeks, since it guaranteed their dominance in the Aegean and central Mediterranean. In the concept of world history, the rise of the Greek naval power probably brought the fall of Phoenician influence in the Western Mediterranean and the independence of Carthage which claimed the title of the new power in that region. On the other hand, the defeat of the Persian army, coupled with the decline of power in the Persian court, marked the extent of the Persian Empire to the west.
Xerxes in Iran
The rule of Xerxes in Iran is marked by his determination to erect palaces and buildings in various cities of his Empire. In fact, this rapid building activity was so effective that most of what we know today as Achaemenid sites can be dated back to the time of Xerxes. In his early years, Xerxes completed his father’s Apadana palace in Susa, making it a one of the most important royal centres for the Empire. His further building activities can also be seen in Ecbatana, the summer residence of the Persian Emperors since the time of Cyrus.
The foundations of the Persepolis platform on the foot of the Mount of Mercy in Persia were built by Darius who also constructed at least two palaces there. Xerxes in turn took the Persepolis cause to his heart and built no less than three palaces, as well as the famous staircases, the Gate of All Nations, and the building known as the Treasury. From the Persepolis fortification tablets (a series of financial tablets in Neo-Elamite), we can see the extended effects of Xerxes’ building activities. Wood carvers, stone cutters, painters, jewellers, weavers, and all other artisans from around the empire were called to Persepolis and paid handsomely to create great palaces for the Great King. Although the purpose of Persepolis buildings have never been quite clear-since it is certainly not the ‘capital’ of the empire-it is obvious that their significance as the royal palace complex was known in the antique world.
Other than the usual business of maintaining irrigation canals of Mesopotamia, we can imagine that Xerxes might have continued to expand the Royal Road of Susa-Sardis to facilitate the communication and trade. Although not mentioned in Greek sources, the existence of such roads in the east, particularly in the economically important areas of Elam, Persia, Karmania, and Drangiana, is also quite conceivable.
The building activities of Xerxes also affected his Satraps around the empire. Achaemenid buildings in Asia Minor, particularly the Satrapies of Capadocia and Pontus are still visible. Generally, the relative peace and prosperity of Xerxes’ reign contributed to the expansion of trade and culture around the empire. Many pastoral tribes in Parthia, Sogdiana, Khwarazmia, and Bactria started to settle and for the first time, we have signs of the rise of local aristocracy. Hyrcania, previously part of Parthia, developed into a prosperous new Satrapi that specialised in trade with the north, probably via the eastern Sakas, and also supplied a famous regiment of cavalry to the royal army.
The prosperity of the empire, along with the Great King’s tendency to surround himself with close friends, gave rise to palace intrigues and conspiracies in the royal Harem. Stories about Xerxes’ seduction of his eldest son’s wife present us with the picture of a wealthy and secure empire that was entering the first stages of decline and corruption. In fact, the parallels between this decline in the Persian Empire with what happened in the Roman Empire about 500 years later is striking.
Xerxes’ own end is too similar to the end of many Roman Emperors. After 20 years of prosperous reign in which his territories grew from a conglomerate of conquered states to a cohesive empire, Xerxes was murdered in 465 BC by the commander of his royal guards, Artabanes (OP. Artawan). The rumours of the involvement of the chief eunuch and even one of Xerxes’ wives survived until the Herodotus’ times. Whatever the case, this event, like many others in Xerxes’ reign, can be marked as the first serious consequence of court power struggles on the politics of the Persian Empire. Artawan, along with his allies, chose Artaxerxes, Xerxes’ second son, to replace his father, although soon they realised their mistake and decided to remove him as well. Artaxerxes’ exceptional abilities pacified Artwan and other court conspirators, but it by no means was successful in putting an end to the similar events in the latter half of the Persian Empire.
Note on Achaemenid Names
A future chapter, prior to the story of the Sasanians, will be dedicated to the concept of the “National Iranian History”. Here it suffices to point out that as far as we can observe, the memory of much of the Achaemenid history was lost by people of the Sasanian and post-Islamic times. Among the forgotten items were the names of some of the kings, which never developed into their Middle and New Persian forms. Today in Iran, the names of some of the Achaemenid Emperors are either used in the original format, such as Kurosh for Cyrus (O.Per. Kurosh), or some reconstructed formats based on Greek or even French parallels. Among the latter, we can point out Dariush (from Greek Darius; O.Per. darya-vahaush) or Kambiz (Fr. Cambis, from Gr. Kambyses; O.Per. Kambujia).
The name of Artaxerxes (O.Per. arta-xshathra “king of rightness”) survived as a common name for the rulers of Persis during the Seleucid and Arsacid times, eventually given to the founder of the Sasanian Empire, Ardashir. Darius, daryavahaush of Old Persian, developed to Dārā, surviving into Classical Persian works. The case of Xerxes is most peculiar. There is no general agreement among linguists on how Greeks created this name from the original Old Persian khshayarshan (“King of Good Men”). The name, with all its glory, almost completely disappeared from any local Iranian records until the early 20th century when it was reconstructed from O.Per. as Khashaayaarshaa (sic.). It further underwent the dropping of the last section, mistaken for “shah” or king, and was shortened to Khashayar, commonly used in Iran today. It is indeed one of the most interesting linguistic events in the Iranian philology!
Reign of Darius II Nothos
Artaxerxes I (arta-xsaça) died sometimes between the December of 424 BCE and March 423 BCE. He was immediately replaced by his eldest son, Xerxes II who ruled only for 45 days and was murdered by his courtiers. A second brother, Sekondianus in Greek texts, and sometimes Sogdianus (maybe a reference to his place of rule in Sogdiana?), was chosen to occupy the throne. This ruler enjoyed minimum popularity and could only count on the loyalty of a eunuch and the son of the Satrap of Babylonia. Shortly after ascending the throne, his half brother Vahuka (Gr.: Ochus; son of Artaxerxes and a Babylonian concubine, hence the nickname of Nothos), the Satrap of Hyrkania who at the time resided in Babylon, declared his own claim to the throne. Sekondianus abdicated the throne on the favour of Vahuka, hoping lenience from the new king, but finding little of it indeed, since he was executed immediately.
Vahuka crowned himself Darius II and promptly proceeded to execute the rest of his relatives whom he saw as danger to his sovereignty, establishing the unpleasant tradition in the Achaemenid household. His reign began by general strike of satrapies around the empire, particularly the ones in Asia Minor from whom we have sufficient data. With the proceeding of the Peloponnesian Wars, the Achaemenid Emperors found the time to reorganise their rule in the Ionian satrapies. The relationship with Cyprus was improved and Phoenician power in the Mediterranean helped the spread of Achaemenid power. Ionian trade was once again controlled by the Persian court, and new Satraps established their local power. However, these new establishments provided a local base for the Satraps, and soon rebellions, made in alliance with Sparta and other Greek city-states, became the norm. Pharnabazus, Satrap of Phrygia, was among the local rulers who undertook a rebellion against Darius II, and after his defeat, he was again re-appointed to the same position!
Our knowledge of central and eastern Iran during this time is minimal. We can only guess that traditionally loyal satrapies such as Parthia, Zrankia, Hyrcania, and Media, were ruled by the members of the royal household and this stayed largely calm and faithful to the Great King. Provinces of Transoxiana (Bactria, Sogdiana, Chorasmia) were most likely semi- autonomous, as evidenced by the meagre discovery of Achaemenid influence on their archaeological remains. They probably were already establishing their trade-routes that would become prominent in the Middle Iranian period, and local dynasties were starting to form, as we will see in their resistance against the forces of Alexander.
The most significant rebellion of Darius’ time took place in Egypt. Around 410 BCE, the people of Lower Egypt who traditionally lived in clam and friendly relations with the Jewish garrison of Elephantine, suddenly destroyed the Temple of the Jews. The cause does not to seem to be one of religious intolerance (Egyptians and Jews shared many religious traditions), rather a sign of Egyptian frustration from the chaotic Persian rule, embodied by the Jewish garrison who were vassals of the Persians. The Jews, complained to the local commander who took the side of the Egyptians, probably due to financial dealings of his family with the Egyptians. The conflict arose and reached the attention of Arsames, the Satrap of Egypt. The Persian commander of Elephantine was promptly removed, but a rebellion had already started and it soon found a leader in the person of Amyrtaeus of Sais. By 402, Amyrtaeus had already conquered all of Upper Egypt and by 400, he was the ruler of both Egypts and first and last Pharaoh of the 28th dynasty. Persians were unable to recover Egypt until 65 years later, during which Egypt experienced 3 dynasties. Although these local rules managed to improve Egypt’s economy, especially since silver, the currency of the kingdoms, was no longer being taken to Persia, nonetheless, none managed to return Egypt to its previous glory.
Reign of Artaxerxes II Mnemon
Darius II died in the March of 404, right before the final victory of Amyrtaeus in Egypt. His successor was his eldest son Arsames who was crowned as Artaxerxes II in Pasargadea and received the title of Menomn from Greeks who found his memory exceptional. Even before his coronation, Artaxerxes was facing threats to his rule from his younger brother, Cyrus the Younger.
Four years earlier, Cyrus was appointed by his father as the supreme governor of the provinces of Asia Minor. There, he managed to pacify the local rebellions and become a popular ruler among both the Iranians and Greeks. Around the end of 405 BCE, Cyrus got news of his father’s illness. By gathering support from the local Greeks and by hiring Greek mercenaries commanded by Clearchus, Cyrus started marching down towards Babylonia, initially declaring his intention for crashing the rebellious armies in Syria. At the time of Darius II’s death, Cyrus had already succeeded against the Syrians and Cilicians and was commanding a large army made up of his initial supporters plus those who had joined him in Phrygia and beyond. Upon hearing of his father’s death, Cyrus the Younger declared his claim to the throne, based on the argument that he was born to Darius and Parysatis after the former’s decent to the throne, while Artaxerxes was born when Vahuka was only the satrap of Hyrcania.
Artaxerxes initially wanted to resolve the issue of his brother’s claim via peaceful negotiations, but these tactics failed, as did minor conflicts with Cyrus’ army by local rulers faithful to Artaxerxes. Finally, in third of September of 401 BCE, the armies of the Great King and his younger brother met near the village of Cunexa in Babylonia. Despite Cyrus’ superb command and total devotion of Greek mercenaries and their leader, Clearchus, to Cyrus, the result favoured Artaxerxes who personally participated in the battle. Cyrus was killed during the battle and the Greek mercenaries started a hasty retreat to their homeland whose account, along with much of Cyrus’ story, is preserved by Xenophon who personally witnessed all of the adventures.
Much has been written about Parysatis, the King’s mother, who apparently favoured his younger son Cyrus and was even accused by Artaxerxes’ queen, Stateira, of conspiring against Artaxerxes in favour of Cyrus. Tales of her cold blooded revenge against those who caused the death of Cyrus, particularly the famous general Tissaphernes, have been the subject of many Greek histories. We know that she preserved a large amount of influence on the court of Artaxerxes and with the help of eunuchs, who since the time of Xerxes I were important players on the courtly power struggles, managed to turn many fortunes in her own favour.
The first consequence of the defeat of Cyrus’ army was the Spartans fear of Artaxerxes’ revenge for their support of his brother. Incidentally, such revenge does not seem to have been in the mind of Artaxerxes who generally preferred to manage the court and devoted more time to spirituality than affairs of the state. Nonetheless, the Spartans entered a war against the Persian Empire that was to consume much of Aratxerxes’ reign and which finally ended, without much victory for either side, with the Peace of Antalcidas in 386 BCE, commenced in Susa.
The rest of Artaxerxes rule was spent in pacifying various rebellions around the empire. Unlike his ancestors, Artaxerxes was far removed from the day to day running of the country and was instead interested in his harem and his religious beliefs. The general policy of Achaemenid emperors in finding local allies for their rule, providing freedom of religion and conduct, and establishing the rules of the Ordinance of Good Behaviour, was ignored by Darius II and Artaxerxes II. Instead, the use of military power for restraining insurgencies and extraction of high taxes became the normal practice of the empire. Local rulers, mostly Persian satraps, eventually gained large amounts of personal wealth and property and managed to make their rules virtually hereditary, this establishing the basis of post-Achaemenid dynasties such as the Persian rulers of Pontus and Phrygia. The rise of local powers, financial corruption, and general dissatisfaction throughout the empire was slowly dissolving the unity of the Empire and providing a context of its final collapse. Only temporarily could this be restrained, as we will see from the rule of Artaxerxes III, but the empire’s fall was unavoidable.
Artaxerxes finally died in 459 BCE after 45 years of inglorious rule, and not before making a final mistake. His involvement in another court conspiracy, brewed by his third son Vahuka, ended up in the execution of his eldest son, Darius, and suicide of his second son, Arsames, leaving the throne to Vahuka, a remarkable, albeit not likeable, Great King.
Life, Art, and Religion During the Rule of Artaxerxes II
Early Achaemenid Emperors, Darius I and Xerxes I in particular, were avid builders of monuments and palaces, as attested by great royal complexes in Susa and Persepolis. They also left many detailed inscriptions of their activities and even their personal beliefs, giving us a glimpse of their royal minds. Darius II and his son Artaxerxes on the other hand have barely left us enough to prove their rule. It is speculated that they probably never lived in Persepolis and thus did not construct anything in that site; while in Susa we can name the completion of one palace to the reign of Artaxerxes. The tombs in Persepolis and Naqsh-i Rustam, assumed to be that of Darius and Artaxerxes, are other constructions of their reign, although since they never lived in Persia, we have no reason to assume these tombs really belong to them. Their inscriptions are also clumsy copies of Darius’ inscriptions, sometimes with obvious grammatical and spelling mistakes. This phenomenon has been related to the fact that cuneiform was becoming obsolete by this time and that Old Persian was in its early stages of turning into Middle Persian (as attested by confusion or dropping of grammatical endings and case markers).
In religious terms however, we see the keen attention of Artaxerxes to divinities not mentioned by his ancestors, particularly Mithra and Anahita, the god of social contracts and the goddess of fertility and rejuvenation respectively. Much has been said about the religion of Darius and Xerxes. Their constant mention of Ahura-Mazda and obsession with the very Zoroastrian concepts of Rightness (rta) and Wrongness (drauja) has convinced many of their Zoroastrian beliefs. On the other hand other scholars prefer to think of these Emperors as adherents to an ancient thought system that was also taken by Zarathushtra, but not necessarily Zoroastrians per se. An argument can be presented when we notice that the province of Persis becomes the stronghold of Zoroastrianism during the Macedonian and Parthian times, and the very Zoroastrian family of Sasanians also rise from this province. It is fair to conclude that the ruling class of the Persis province adhered to some form of Zoroastrianism and in all likelihood the latter Achaemenid Emperors also followed the same religion.
However, Artaxerxes’ apparent fondness for Mithra and Anahita become problematic if we notice Zarathushtra’s strong opposition to worship of gods other than Ahura-Mazda. Different accounts tell us about the Temple of Anahita that was built by Artaxerxes, and he himself mentions Mithra and Anahita in his inscriptions along with Ahura-Mazda. It is not known to what extent this would have created a problem with the Zoroastrianism of his time, as we can see that Sasan, the grandfather of Ardeshir I, founder of the Sasanian Dynasty, was also a priest of the Temple of Anahid in Staxr, near Persepolis.
Our knowledge of the life of the common people during this time is very minimal. The position of Babylon as the centre of Empire’s economy was slowly deteriorating, as evidenced by the confused state of remaining economic inscriptions. We can assume that the lack of central authority contributed to a neglect of irrigation systems and thus a plunge in the Babylonian agriculture. Amassing of local autonomy and the loss of Egypt also contributed in weakening of trade and economy of the empire, giving rise to popular rebellions like that of Cadusians (see next chapter).
In short, the disorganised state of the Empire made it a faded picture of its former glory under the rule of Darius I and Xerxes I. The temporary successes of the rule of Artaxerxes III would only delay the final collapse of the Empire, but could in no way prevent it altogether.
The chaotic rule of Darius II and Artaxerxes II saw a sudden calmness throughout the empire. Various rebellions started by Satraps, mostly those of Asia Minor, and the eminent danger of an Egyptian attack were suddenly appeased by a series of fortunate incidents. The reign of Artaxerxes II Ochus brought further organisation to the declining empire. For a while, it seemed as if the empire was going to return to its glory. However, as we will see, these promising events were only a temporary break in the process of the Persian Empire’s demise.
Iran at the End of Artaxerxes II’s Reign
Near the end of the long reign of Artaxerxes II (404-359 BCE), a wave of serious revolts started to threaten the continuation of the Achaemenid Rule. The lack of central authority, the gradual rise of local powers, especially that of the Satraps, and the virtually hereditary nature of the governmental positions, had created a basis of rebellions against the throne. Around 365, Persian satraps of Asia Minor had risen into a general revolt under the leadership of Datames, satrap of Cappadocia (Katpatuka in Old Persian).
Datames was a successful career politician who had risen to importance during wars against the Cadusians who lived around the Caspian Sea around 378. After that, he had become the governor of several districts in Cappadocia, and following some court conspiracy against him, managed to enlarge his territory and become almost independent. By 365 BCE, Datames was in control of most of Cappadocia and was already minting Achaemenid style coins in his own name. His successful rebellion brought many of other satraps, including Ariobarzanes of Phrygia and Mausolus of Halicarnassus. By the beginning of 364, the whole of Asia Minor as well as some parts of Phoenicia were in open war against the Achaemenid throne, with the exception of Autophradates of Lydia who initially fought the rebels, but later joined them.
The rebel army, joined by many Spartan and Athenian mercenaries, started to march towards Susa, hoping to overthrow the king. However, during the course of 363 BCE, Sparta suffered a humiliating defeat in the hand of the pro-Persian Thebes. The defeat caused the return of a number of Spartan mercenaries to Sparta. On the other hand, Ariobarzanes of Phrygia was betrayed by his son Mithradates and was murdered, leaving a gap in the leadership of the revolt. On the other hand, Autophradates and Orontes of Ionia defected to the side of Artaxerxes, leaving Datames alone. By the end of 363, Datemes was killed and Mausolus, the only remaining rebel who had never publicly joined the satraps, was pardoned. He was reinstated in his position as ruler of Halicarnassus and after his death in 353 BCE, his “Mausoleum” which was modelled after the tomb of Cyrus in Pasargadae, became one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World.
At the same time, the Egyptian Pharaoh Tachos, was in the process of conducting a campaign against “Asia” as well. In order to provide for the cost of his campaign, Tachos had sought the help of Greek bureaucrats to help him raise taxes and fill out the royal treasury. These Greek financiers, without considering the state of Egyptian economy after centuries of foreign rule and the drainage of silver out of the country in form of tribute, started to tax laws. These laws were designed to extract money from every aspect of people’s life, including the burial of their dead. These policies proved to be successful and provided Tachos with the money he needed to ‘restore the Egyptian might’, but they would come back to haunt him.
Around 361 Tachos and his nephew Nekhet-har-hebi left Egypt for Syria at the head of a large army of Egyptians and Greek Mercenaries. Much of Phoenician city-states joined the Egyptian army and the danger for the Empire seemed eminent. Artaxerxes sent his third son, Vahuka, to stop the advance of Tachos and himself started to assemble an army to meet the Pharaoh. As luck would have it, the internal politics of Egypt made it unnecessary for Artaxerxes to actually meet and defeat Tachos. The rising dissatisfaction with the ‘reforms’ had caused Tachos’ brother and other Egyptian nobles to depose Tachos and declare Nekht-har-hebi as the new Pharaoh. Nekht-har-hebi rose against his uncle in Syria and chased him to Persia, where he was received well. The Egyptian army promptly returned to Egypt and the Greek mercenaries and financial advisers were dismissed, much to the delight of the Egyptian people. For the time, it seemed as if the reign of Artaxerxes II is going to end peacefully.
The Reign of Artaxerxes III Ochus
Artaxerxes II had more than 115 sons from 350 wives, but Queen Stateira, had given him three sons, Darius, Ariaspes, and Vahuka (Ochus). Tired of waiting for his turn at the throne, Darius, the eldest of the sons, entered a conspiracy to murder his father, an unfortunate plan that was leaked the king probably by Vahuka. The royal court sentenced Darius to execution and the position of heir to the throne went to Ariaspes, a calm and popular prince. However, the co-conspirators that included Vahuka, the king’s third son and one of the commanders of the royal guard named Tiribazus, convinced Ariaspes of the king’s suspicion about him, a thought that caused him to commit suicide. The old king’s hopes were now directed towards his fourth son, Arsames, as he held no special place for Vahuka in his heart. Arsames too was murdered, as did Artaxerxes who could not stand the loss of his son.
Now Vahuka, crowned as Artaxerxes III, was the ruler of the Achaemenid Empire and proved himself to be one of the most effective and bloodthirsty characters of his royal house. His first act was to execute all members of the royal family, starting with his siblings. This act proved to be most effective in preventing future plots against the king and also in creating a fear of the new emperor in the hearts of the subordinates. His first official action was to raise a campaign against the constantly rebellious Cadusians whose revolts was a proof of the reversal of Darius and Xerxes’ homogenisation policies. Unlike the previous campaigns, Artaxerxes seems to have been completely successful in appeasing both of the Cadusian kings, as we see the presence of Cadusians in royal armies from now on. A successful character emerging from this campaign was Darius, a great-grandson of Darius II and one of the few survivors of Artaxerxes’ family cleansing project, who later occupied the throne as Darius III.
Next, Artaxerxes ordered the dismissal of all Greek mercenaries from the satrapal armies of Asia Minor. The order proved effective and many Greek mercenaries were returned to Athens and Sparta. The order was however ignored by Artabazus of Lydia who asked for the help of Athens in a rebellion against the king. Athens considered the request and sent the assistance to Sardis. Orontes of Mysia also came to Artabazus and the joined forces managed to defeat the forces sent by Artaxerxes in 354. However, in 353 they were defeated by Artaxerxes’ army and were disbanded. Orontes asked for pardon and received it, while Artabazus fled to the safety of court of Philip of Macedonia.
The Recovery of Egypt
After proving his iron will and making certain that his enemies know the fierceness of the new emperor, Artaxerxes seems to have turned towards Susa and have taken up an internal reform, probably trying to rejuvenate the royal treasury. In 350 BCE, he started a campaign to recover Egypt, but despite early successes in Palestine, he was stopped by the Red Sea. A year later, the confederacy of Phoenician city-states, headed by Tennes of Sidon, declared its independence from the Persian Empire. Centred in Tripolis, the geographical heart of Phonicia, the confederated cities gathered to review their forces against the Great King. Nekht-har-hebi of Egypt aided the rebels by sending troops, as did the nine Cypriot city-states who joined the Phoenicians and twice defeated the armies that had come to pacify them (346 BCE).
In 345, Artaxerxes III himself took the command of the armies and advanced towards Sidon. The joined forces of Phoenicia fought the imperial army, but as Tennes had already realised, his army could not stand the full force of the Achaemenid Empire. Sidon was defeated and razed to the ground, and the rest of the Phoenician city-states gradually gave up their claims, as did eight of the nine Cypriot city-states. Phoenicia was united with Cilicia in one satrapy and it was put under the control of Mazaeus.
The attention of Artaxerxes was now turned towards Egypt. An overwhelming force crossed the Sinai into Egypt and met the combined army of Egyptians, Lybians, and Greek mercenaries. Artaxerxes’ early battles were all successful, despite the strong Egyptian naval force. In 343 he managed to occupy the Delta and march towards the capital in Memphis. In 342, the Persian reached Memphis and forced Nekht-har-hebi to Nubia, were he ruled as an independent king as is evident by his inscriptions in the temple of Edefu. Artaxerxes’ punishment of Egypt was serious and included the destruction of the fortification in the Delta and around Memphis, as well as several temples. He found the 31st Dynasty in Egypt, the so-called “Second Persian Dynasty” and appointed Pherendates as the satrap of the country.
Artaxerxes’ success in Egypt brought a new sense of revival to the empire. Neighbouring countries again realised the power and influence of the Persian Empire. Persian forces in Ionia and Lycia regained their control of the Aegian and the Mediterranean and took over much of Athen’s former island empire. Isocrates of Athens started his speeches calling for a ‘crusade against the barbarians’ but there was not enough strength left in any of the Greek city-states to answer his call.
In 341, Artaxerxes returned to Babylon where he apparently proceeded to build a great Apadana whose description is present in the works of Diodorius (II 7). The Persian Empire was once again occupying its old borders and proving its ability to rule over a very large territory. Unfortunately, in 338 BCE Artaxerxes III was poisoned by his eunuch Bagoas, who by murdering one of the most able Achaemenid emperors, unknowingly facilitated the fall of the Persian Empire. Artaxerxes III was apparently buried in a tomb in Persepolis, where he had most likely never lived during his life time.
The Rule of Arses and the Early Macedonian Threat
Bagoas, the murdered and the king maker, appointed Arses, Artaxerxes’ young son, to the throne of the Achaemenids. Arses, probably a young man, has left us no significant monuments or even an inscription, as he was apparently nothing but a puppet in the hands of Bagoas.
During Arses reign, Philip of Macedonia started his first campaigns into Asia Minor. Philip, a very ambitious man, had styled himself the saviour the Greeks and the Greek culture during the previous decade, despite the fact that he was only a Hellenised Macedonian himself. His diplomatic moves, as well as his forces, had won him much of European Greece and he now ruled over the formerly proud and strong Thebes, Argos, Athens, and Sparta.
Answering the constant calls to start a crusade against the barbarians, Philip asked for the support of the Greek city-states. Despite the fact that some politicians such as Isocrates saw Philip as the instrument of the crusade against the Persian Empire, some politicians such as Demosthenes found Philip to be a greater threat to the survival of Greek independence and culture than the Persians.
Nonetheless, in 337 BCE, the forces of Philip occupied Byzantium and entered Ionia in Asia Minor. The advance of Macedonian forces was quick and on the way, it attracted the alliance of local Greek rulers. In one case, the Ionian governor offered the hand of his daughter to Philip’s younger son, Areaus. Alexander, the eldest of Philip’s children and Olympia, Alexander’s mother, became concerned about the position of Alexander. Consequently, Alexander presented himself as a candidate for the royal engagement, and the Ionian governor happily agreed. But the arrangement was not favoured by Philip who apparently did not want Alexander as his successor. Shortly afterwards, Philip was dead of poisoning, an affair of which Alexander and Olympia must have been aware. Alexander replaced his father and quickly realised the instability of his rule and thus returned his troops to Macedonia to prepare for a strong attack against the Persian Empire.
At the meantime, Arses was also poisoned by Bagoas who now was entertaining the thought of claiming the throne for himself, but temporarily installed Darius III Codomannus, the veteran of the Cadusian campaign, to the throne. Darius proved to be more durable than Bagoas had wanted and he survived to face the end of his dynasty.
The successful rule of Artaxerxes III and his achievements in reinstating the power of the Persian Empire was almost entirely over turned by his murder and the pursuing chaos that accompanied it. However, the proper end of the empire was still in the future and awaited the meeting of Alexander and Darius III.
Accession of Darius III Codomannus
After poisoning Arses, the successor of Artaxerxes III, the kingmaker-eunuch Bagoas, proceeded to put Darius III Codomannus, a great-grand child of Darius II, on the throne (336 BC). Shortly after, Bagoas tried to poison Darius as well and claim the throne for himself, and act that would have been unprecedented if successful, since only members of the Achaemenid family could become emperors. We shall not know the possible outcome of this attempt at changing the system, since apparently in this case Darius was more cunning and managed to force Bagoas himself to drink the poison, and thus removed him from the power struggle of the time.
Our first mention of Darius III comes from the accounts of Artaxerxes III’s campaign against the Cadusians, were Darius, a distantly related prince, gained decisive victories against the rebellious Cadusians. The fact that Darius III was even chosen to become a king shows the extent of Artaxerxes III’s slaughter of the members of his family, leaving Darius, son of Ostanes, son of Arsames, son of Darius II as the only possible contender to the throne.
Darius initial act as the emperor was to put down a rebellion in Egypt. During his time, Phoenicia, formerly the greatest naval power in the Mediterranean started to lose its power in face of the growing power of its daughter state, Carthage. This managed to drive Phoenicia ever closer to the Persian Empire, as it needed the support of the Persian power if wanted to retain its power in that area. Consequently, Phoenicia became the only loyal subject of the Persian Empire in face of almost unanimous independence movements in Asia Minor and the rest of West Asia.
Not much is known about the reign of Darius III outside the context of Alexander’s campaign. Darius himself has left no inscriptions for us, and Alexander’s burning of the Persepolis treasury later means that know records from the Iranian side has survived to give us a glimpse of Darius’ court. However, from its outcomes, it is not hard to imagine that much of his short reign was spent in courtly intrigues and the loss of central authority, making it only too easy for Alexander to proceed with his conquests. But before Darius and Alexander, there was Philip II.
Philip of Macedon and the Greek Union
Philip II inherited the Macedonian throne in 360 BC. His country, a vast and rich in the north of the Balkan Peninsula, provided much opportunity for the creation of a powerful military state, an objective of Philip’s predecessors, aggressively pursued by Philip himself. Under Philip’s instruction, Macedonian soldiers soon became the most skilled of their times, incorporating various combat techniques, from Greek Phalanx to Persian Cavalry, and armed with the best weapons of the time. In order to further strengthen his army, Philip provided large sums for the development of better swords, lances, bows, siege engines, and other personal and mass weapons.
Philip’s political ambition was to establish his control over the whole Balkan Peninsula and Greece and to proceed to wage war against the aging the aging Persian Empire. His initial campaigns, to subdue the states around Macedonia, were successful, although at times, like his conquest of Thrace, it put him at odds with the Persian Empire. But the empire seemed too busy dealing with internal struggles to bother with Philip and his ‘minor threat’.
Still, Philip’s most difficult challenge was to establish his dominance over the independent and always fighting Greek city-states. The Hellenised Macedonians, headed by Philip, pretended that they are the sole saviours of Greek culture and values, and that their policy of ‘uniting’ the Greeks under the leadership of Macedonia, was indeed the only way for the Greeks to survive in face of the Persian power. In fact, Persia had not been a threat to the Greeks for quite some times, and the Greek city-states had easily managed to keep their independence during the 200 years of Persian power.
Nonetheless, Philip’s ideas seemed to have some followers in Greece, most noticeably Isocrates the leader of the ‘Unionist Party’ in Athens who encouraged the union of Greek city-states in order to attack the “Barbarians” of the east. On the other, majority of the Greeks and their leaders such as Demosthenes, tended to regard the Persians as less of a threat for the Greeks than Philip’s Macedonian soldiers. Instead, they championed an alliance with Persians against Macedonia to limit its expansion southwards. The unionists instead accused Demosthenes of receiving bribe from the Persians, an obvious slander campaign recognised even in the ancient times.
Finally, following the attack of an Argos-Messina allied army against Athens and its allies, Philip entered the internal fights of Greek. His move against Athens resulted in the Battle of Chaeronea in 338 BC that effectively ended the Greek independence. Under the auspices of Philip, a pan-Hellenic congress was formed in 337 BC in Corinth, attended by representatives of all Greek city-states with the exception of Sparta which still resisted the Macedonian dominance. A ‘Peace’ was established in Greece and Philip became ‘strategos-autokrat’ and the supreme commander of the united Greek forces. Macedonian camps were settled near major Greek towns, and the ‘Union of Greece’, which Macedonia did not formally join, was established.
Soon afterwards, General Parmenion and 10,000 Macedonian soldiers entered Asia Minor under the context of liberating the Greek states of Ionia. Many of these cities welcomes the Macedonian forces, and Pixodarus of Caria even promised his daughter as the bride of Philip’s younger son. This raised the suspicion of Philip’s elder son, Alexander, and in 336 BC, Philip II of Macedon was murdered by conspirators who themselves were immediately killed by royal guards, thus burying the secret of their conspiracy.
Alexander thus became the king of Macedonia, and he recognised that the Macedonian army is not ready for a campaign against Persia and recalled the soldiers from Asia Minor. This gave the Persian court two years to prepare for the onslaught of Alexander, a period ignored and wasted by the Persian court on internal power struggles and intrigues.
Campaign of Alexander
The details of Alexander’s attack on the Persian Empire are beyond the bounds of this chapter and they have been discussed by various military historians. Most of these details have reached us via the accounts of Greek and later Roman historians such as Arrian, Diodorus, and Curtius Rufus. Modern historians have also analysed the details of these accounts and have given us some enlightening insights into these accounts. These include intelligent and realistic interpretations of the number of the soldiers reported, based on consideration such as the amount of supplies required and even the size of the battlefields. Consequently, we can imagine that when a total force of 200,000 soldiers are reported, the real number was probably much closer to 15 to 20 thousand or less.
One aspect of Alexander’s campaign that is of interest to modern observers is his careful planning of the formation of the army besides the fighting forces. Historians and writers accompanied the army in order to write their version of the battles, hence the almost monotonous report of victories and the curious absence of defeats. Geographers and naturalists also were present to map the conquered areas and evaluate them for the settlement of the Greek settlers. Indeed, one socio-economical reason for the sudden outpour of Greeks behind Alexander was the over-population of the Greek peninsula and the need for its poorer classes to move and settle in other areas. Consequently, we see the almost immediate creation of Greek and Macedonian settlements in the areas conquered by Alexander.
In the spring of 334 BC, Alexander and his Macedonian forces entered Asia Minor with the declared goal of taking revenge for Xerxes’ campaign against the Greeks 150 years before. Alxander’s army was the largest that had ever come of out of Greece and it enjoyed supremacy in both fighting skills and weapons over their projected Persian rivals. The only week part of the Macedonian-Greek military force was its naval power which was far inferior to the joined Persian-Phonician fleet. As a result, Alexander stayed away from naval battles and continued on land towards Asia Minor. It is reported that the general of the Greek mercenaries in the Persian army, Memnon, suggested that the Persians avoid facing Alexander in open fields and to take the battle over to the Balkans. However, his suggestion was denied by Persian satraps who felt their forces were superior to Alexander’s. Consequently, the first battle, beside the river Granichus in May 334 BC, was commenced with initial Persian success, but was finally won by the Macedonians.
Memnon and Persian satraps took refuge in various fortresses and towns, with Memnon abandoning Miletus for an attack on Lesbos and Chios, then dying suddenly of mysterious circumstances. Eventually, Alexander captured Ionia and was welcomed in Sardis, and managed to conquer Cappadocia and Phrygia as well. As reported by Greeks, the Persian navy curiously refrained from capturing mainland Greece and cutting Alexander’s contact with home.
The first major clash with the Persian army took place in Issus on November of 333 BC, after Alexander’s conquest of Cilicia. The Persian army, commanded by a boastful and over confident Darius III, was badly managed and lacked morale, and thus suffered a serious defeat. Much of Darius’ household, including daughters of Artaxerxes III, were captured by Alexander after the Darius fled the scene. Shortly after, Damascus opened its gates to Alexander and the treasury was given to him. Conquest of much of Phoenicia came quickly, with the exception of the brave resistance put on by Tyre. After an eight months siege, Tyre was conquered (July 332 BC) and razed to the ground, its inhabitants were executed, and many of them were sold into slavery, putting an effective end to one of Near East’s most ancient commercial and cultural centres.
From Phoenicia, Alexander turned towards Egypt which was conquered quickly 331 BC. Before the Egyptian campaign, Darius III offered to recognise Alexander’s supremacy in the lands west of Euphrates and to offer 10,000 Talents of silver for the release of his family. Alexander rejected, requesting that Darius himself appear in Alexander’s court, recognising him as the ‘King of Asia’, a condition naturally refused by Darius.
After Egypt, Alexander turned towards Mesopotamia, conquering the rest of Syria and savagely punishing the people of Samaria who refused to submit to him. Further on, the Macedonians faced Darius’ new army (reported to include over ‘One Million’ soldiers by the Greek historians of the time) in Gaugamela on October 1, 331 BC. The Persian army was again commanded by Darius himself, and it was badly rooted by the Macedonian cavalry, resulting in a disastrous defeat by the Persian army. Darius again fled the battlefield, taking refuge inside Iran and moving towards the east to gather a new force. Meanwhile, Alexander marched down the Euphrates to Babylon, where he was received with royal welcomes and crowned as the ‘King of Babylon’ and made sacrifices to Marduk.
After Babylon, Alexander moved towards Elam and invaded Susa, where he captured the Persian ‘emergency’ treasury, containing an enormous amount of gold and silver. Subsequently he proceeded towards Persia itself and captured the magnificent Persepolis palaces, taking the treasury as booty. It is during this time that Alexander is reported to have burned the palaces in a bout of intoxication (May 330 BC). The motives for this act have perplexed a lot of historians since that time, mostly suggesting that he made the act as a revenge for Xerxes’ burning of Athens’ Acropolis. This would sound unusual since the equivalent of Acropolis would have not been Persepolis, rather the palace complex of Susa or the Temples of Ecbatana. It can be suggested that since Alexander’s attention towards leaving his own account of history is well-known, the burning of the Persepolis Palaces (particularly the treasury, which contained invaluable records of Achaemenid administration and history, as witnessed by Ktesias) can be part of a systematic campaign to destroy all records of history that might conflict with Alexander’s version.
At this time, Darius III who was taking refuge with Bessus, satrap of Bactria, was murdered by his courtiers. Bessus declared himself emperor under the name of Artaxerxes IV. In 329 BC, Alexander conquered Bactria and savagely executed Bessus. From there, he moved against Central Asia were he faced the resistance of local ruler such as Spithamates. It took Alexander until 327 to establish his rule over Central Asia, during which time he committed many inhumane acts of massacre, destruction of cities, and enslavement of populations. His acts are considered savage and senseless even by many Greek and Roman accounts of the wars and they seem to have been solely taken up to depopulate the conquered areas and prepare them for the settlement of Greek mercenaries.
Alexander’s final campaign in Iran was conquest of Drangiana in 326 before proceeding to a campaign in Norther India (present day Northern Pakistan). After his return to Babylon in 324 BCE, Alexander died of mysterious causes and left his generals to fight over the conquered lands. His failure to establish a proper civil system to rule his empire resulted in its immediate disintegration and partition to several smaller empires and petty kingdoms.
Alexander’s Image in Iran
Alexander’s conquest of the Persian Empire ended the reign of the first successful power to unite almost all of West Asia under one political system. The Achaemenid Empire managed to create a sense of unity in the core of its lands, mainly what is historically known as Iran: the land between Tigris and Oxus. On the other hand, out of all of Alexander’s claims about his aim in spreading the Greek culture, he managed to introduce the Greek ‘Polis’ system to the former Achaemenid lands, a system that became prominent during the next 500 years.
The mixed results of Alexander’s conquest produced two images of him inside Iran. One version, apparently taken up by the religious establishment, made Alexander an agent of Ahreman (the Evil Spirit) and called him “Gojastak Aleskandar”: Alexander the Damned. Another version, which survived in popular tales and immortalized in “Eskandar Nameh” and Ferdowsi’s Shahnameh, relates that Alexander was the son of “Dara”, the Persian Emperor, when he impregnated Olympia, mother of Alexander, before giving her as a gift to Philip. This story, curiously reflected in Egyptian accounts where Alexander is son of Pharaoh Nekht-har-hebi, legitimates Alexander’s conquest as him reclaiming his heritage from Darius III -the distantly related usurper. Furthermore, in the Islamic times, Alexander is matched with “Dhul-gharnin”, the legendary king who accompanied prophet Khedr in his journey to the Darkness, and thus provides a religious character for Alexander as well.
In the modern times and with the renewed interest in the ancient Iranian history and with the nationalistic and patriotic feelings that were attached to it, many popular ‘studies’ proceeded to reject the whole story of Alexander. These works tried to prove that Alexander did not ever exist or that the extent of his campaigns was fictional. While Alexander’s existence can be proven via his coins and the extent of his conquests via archaeological means, there is something to be considered from these attempts.
Alexander for long has been held as the hero of the Western World. His campaigns are seen as the spread of Civilisation among the Barbarians, even by those who admit to the naivety of calling the Persians Empire, with its roots in Elam, Babylon, and Zoroastrianism, “Barbarian”. Nonetheless, his campaign is held high as the victory of west against the east, and he is called the greatest general of all times. On the other hand, Alexander’s complete lack of knowledge about the countries he was conquering (he kept on insisting that the Balck, Caspian, and Aral seas where all the same), his cruelty and massacres, and his destruction of the centres of culture like Tyre, makes him more a predecessor of Tamerlane and Ghenghis Khan than Nelson Mandela! Also the almost unbelievable speed of his actions (conquest of Egypt, Syria, Mesopotamia, Elam, Persia and Ecbatana all in the period of one and half year?!), makes it likely that his successes have been largely exaggerated. It might be wiser to imagine that the conquest of Eastern Iran and Central Asia or the campaigns of Egypt and Syria should be credited to his generals and they might have even taken place after his death.
Whatever the character of Alexander or the nature and tactics of his conquests might have been, it is obvious that the Achaemenid Empire, the first empire to unite all of West Asia, was defeated and removed. This success was not to repeat other than small periods, until the Saljuqid era, almost 1,000 years later. Alexander’s campaign also marked the first appearance of a large army from Europe in Asia.
The Legacy of the Achaemenids?
Many political historians, archaeologists, and art historians have pointed out that much of what we know as Achaemenid, at least early Achaemenid, art and administration was in fact borrowings from the well established empires that preceded them. Indeed, this is a point easily understood and fairly taken: as we look, most of the ancient civilisations borrowed cultural and political characteristics of their forerunners. Babylonians famously adopted much of the Sumerian culture, even their language, and Assyrians in turn borrowed many of Babylonian niche and inventions. The early Indo-Aryans absorbed the Harappan Culture of the Indus Valley, and so it is only logical to think of the Persian borrowings from all or most of these earlier cultures. However, our focus here is mostly on the Achaemenid inventions that managed to penetrate the administrative and cultural system of the empires that followed them.
Probably the basic Achaemenid borrowing from the earlier civilisations of Mesopotamia was the concept of kingship, especially hereditary kingship. Most philologists agree that the Indo-European languages lack an original word meaning “king” in their common background. The Persian word “shah” is a modern development of Old Persian “xšaya-θiya-” itself a borrowing from Median. The word cognates with Indic/Sanskrit “kśatriya-“ (name of one of the castes) and provides an original meaning of “(owner of) land or territory”. The word was probably developed during the Median times and under the influence of Assyrians and Elamites to mean a singular ruler.
Still, the concept of hereditary rule was largely unknown in the tribal Iranian society prior to its arrival in the Iranian Plateau. It was by adopting the great dynastic traditions of the Mesopotamian kingdoms that Medes, and by extension Persians, first created hereditary kingship. The foreign origins of the concept can be further explored by observing the Parthian Empire and its apparent preference for elected kingship as opposed to the hereditary one.
Other than the basic administrative and bureaucratic systems that the Achaemenids borrowed from Elamites and Babylonians, one of the most important contributions of earlier empires to the Achaemenids was their royal art. In short, the Achaemenid kings, starting with Darius the Great, realised the importance of art and architecture in the establishment and strengthening of a royal image. The magnificent and towering buildings of Assyria and Babylon were adopted by Achaemenids and were given a distinctly Persian character to create the easily recognisable Achaemenid architecture. Winged bulls, kings combating supernatural animals, and many other motifs were adopted from Assyria and even the Mitanni, all aiding the establishment of Persian royal power. In Egypt, the adoption of local art and architecture helped the acceptance of Achaemenid rule. The creation of this holistic and centralised power and the culture and art associated with it also contributed to the creation of a separate identity for the central parts of the empire, the area between Tigris and Oxos whose population eventually entered the history as “Iranians”.
Some of Achaemenid adoptions were dictated by the geographic and social pressures of the areas under their rule. For example, their achievement in the irrigation of the Euphrates-Tigris plain was in fact inherited directly from the Babylonians. Achaemenids easily understood the importance of this irrigation system and rose to maintain it, while later arriving powers such as the Seleucids who failed to grasp the concept, caused great damage to the economic output of the area.
Administration of the Achaemenid Empire
As mentioned before, much of the basic administrative and bureaucratic systems of the early Achaemenid Empire were borrowings from the Babylonian, Assyrian, Median, and Elamite administrations. Elamite, and later Aramaic, scribes controlled the Achaemenid bureaucracy and shaped it
development. They are even responsible for the creation of the Old Persian cuneiform – most likely cuneiform representation of an essentially alphabetic, Aramaic influenced writing system. Aramaic, the language of the dominant administrators of the late Babylonian times, itself became the administrative language of the Achaemenids and lent its writing system to Persian and other Iranian languages.
On the other hand, the most important achievement of Darius, as the chief reformer of the Achaemenids, was the expansion of the satrapal system established by Cyrus. Based on this system, the empire was divided into administrative sections with the considerations of geographical boundaries, cultural traits, and the economic output. Each satrapy was rule by a satrap, appointed by the central government and sent from the capital. The satrap was accompanied by a centrally appointed chief judge, commander of satrapal troops, administrative officer, financial officer, and a “King’s Eye”, responsible for relaying the news of the satrapy to the capital. Maintenance of an exact number of the population of the satrapy was an important task of the financial officer, a practice mirrored in Rome and most famously in William the Conqueror’s “Doomsday Book”.
The satrapy was run by the central administrators according to the local traits and established practices, and as usual, not much pressure was applied to change long operating rules. The autonomous, and simultaneously central, nature of the satrapal system aided the successful control and operation of the vast Achaemenid Empire for a long time, and was indeed so successful that it was preserved by subsequent power holders, from Alexander to the Sasanians.
The greatest achievement of Darius I was his creation of the “Guidance of Good Conduct”, a series of laws applicable equally throughout the empire. These laws were obviously influenced by the comprehensive laws of Mesopotamian kingdoms, most famously that of the Hammurabi. At the same time, they took presented a new possibility in the use of law. Mesopotamian laws were largely local and country bound sets of regulations that more or less applied to the “heartland” of the Assyrian or Babylonian empires. Local laws of the conquered lands were maintained by the conquerors and no set of universally applicable regulations were available. With the Guidance of Good Conduct, Darius established a universal set of laws applicable equally throughout his empire. While local laws of old countries such as Egypt and Babylon were respected and preserved, the prevailing set of legally bounding regulations were dictated by Darius’ Laws.
The outcome of the application of the Guidance of Good Conduct was different in various parts of the empire. Apparently many copies of the laws were made and sent to all the satrapies were they were preserved by the central judge and used for reference. While in places such as Babylon these laws might have managed to create stability in social conduct, the existence of the laws inside the Iranian Plateau helped develop the Iranian identity between various cultures of the area. On the other hand, the universal application of the Guidance was adopted by the succeeding Roman Empire and created the famous “Roman Law”, renowned for its binding power and its influence even in the areas of scientific inquiry.
Preservation of Achaemenid administrative system by the Seleucid Empire, as well as Iranian petty kingdoms of Asia Minor such as Pontus and Phrygia, helped their survival. Many administrative traits such as the satrapal system, coinage, road building and irrigation (discussed later) and the universal law, were continued by all of the succeeding governments and even those far beyond the borders of the Achaemenid lands.
Society and Economy
The Achaemenids were certainly not the first government to note the importance of trade in West Asia. Assyrians and Babylonians had thrived in trade and fought for it, while the Elamite and Hittite Kingdoms were created almost as a reason to control parts of the trade and trade routes. Still, the Achaemenids were the first empire to control the entire area between the River Oxos and the Mediterranean Sea, and as thus, paid special attention to the promotion of the overland and sea-faring trade.
The issue of coins, adopted apparently from Lydia, by the central government with a standard weight was one of the means of promoting the trade. Indeed, the existence of Daric coins much facilitated the trade of Phoenician and Greeks of Asia Minor with Mesopotamia. Although the coinage – as a way of establishing royal power – was later abused by rebellious satraps of Asia Minor, still the existence of a universal means of exchange contributed much to the promotion of trade.
One of the most significant achievements of the Achaemenid administration was the establishment of the Royal Road that connected Susa to Sardis. This road, at the beginning used exclusively by the royal messengers (Barid; see below), eventually developed into the main communication nerve of the empire. Major trade routes were connected to the Royal Road and it might have extended eastwards from Susa as well, although no Greek accounts confirm such suspicion. The Achaemenid Royal Road was clearly a sign of the administration’s awareness of the need for quick communication routes and the importance of road-making, a trait continued by most subsequent rulers. It can also be credited at the first clear forerunner of the famous Via Apia of the Roman Empire that formed the major road system of that empire.
An immediate use of the Royal Road was made by the members of the postal system. The Achaemenid postal system established by Darius I was set up to facilitate the communication between the central and the satrapal governments. All satrapies and local governments had the duty of providing fresh horses and amenities for the postal messengers. Satraps and King’s Eyes sent regular reports of the state of their satrapies to the Imperial Court in Persepolis and Susa, where detailed records of the empire were kept. Sadly, with Alexander’s burning of the Persepolis Treasury and pillage of the Susa Treasury, none of these records survived to our time and we can only speak of their existence based on various archaeological findings and the records of Greek historians.
Although the post was used for the purpose of imperial communication, it use later became less exclusive and included personal and business communications. Postal messengers became the bearers of information much sought after around the empire, including price information for various tradable goods. In this way, the Achaemenid postal system played a role similar to modern postal system and is indeed considered as a forerunner of later Iranian communication and postal systems.
Other Achaemenid innovations, particularly in the field of art and architecture obviously require a more learned and detailed study outside the scope and ability of the present work. In the matters of language and writing systems, Achaemenid creation of Old Persian cuneiform marked the foundation of the first writing system for an Iranian language. Later adoption of the various forms of Aramaic script for other Iranian languages was also initiated by the Achaemenid use of Aramaic scribes.
In the matters of philosophy, it is conceivable to say that the multicultural Achaemenid society provided a fertile ground for the mutual affect of Indo-Iranian mind centred worldview and Semitic religious philosophy. Other effects of the Achaemenid Empires on religions such as Judaism, including the establishment of a monotheistic version of Judaism under the Achaemenid auspices in the hands of Ezra, are also worth noticing. Appearance of the concepts of hell, angels, halo, and such into Judaism can also be dated back to the Achaemenid times. Effects of Zoroastrian and Iranian philosophy on Greek philosophy, as well as introduction of new religious cults such as Mithraism into Greek culture are also worth noting.
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