Understanding the Persian Empire

Cher Yi
Cher Yi
Mar 12, 2018 · 13 min read

At its peak, the Persian Empire spanned 5.5 million square kilometers. For a modern day comparison, it is equivalent to approximately two times the size of Argentina. This might seem small (Russia occupies 17 million square kilometers), but one should be careful to avoid judging history by today’s standards.

The Persian Empire was centered in Persia, modern day Iran, and ruled over the Anatolian Pennisula, Egypt, much of today’s Middle East, Afghanistan and Pakistan…just stopping shy of crossing the Indus Valley into India. It was the greatest empire to exist hitherto.


The name “Persian” was adopted by historians to describe the ethnicity of the legendary founder Cyrus the Great and for convenience sake, to associate the empire with the capital (Persis/Persia).

In its heyday, however, the Persians identified themselves as part of Achaemenid Empire. This period of Achaemenid dominance, from 550 — 330 BCE, is what people refer to when they say “THE Persian Empire”. It is an important distinction to make, for, there was an earlier Iranian Empire called the Median Empire that subsumed the state of Persia, and it is there we turn to to uncover the origins of the great Achaemenid dynasty.

The Median Empire and Cyrus the Great

As with all great legends, the story of the Persians proper begins with a rebellion against the incumbents.


The first Iranian (or Persian, whatever floats your boat) Dynasty was the Median Empire. The Medians were an ancient Iranian tribe that inhabited the mountainous area of northwestern Iran (in Media) along with many others. Until about 605 BCE, this region was dominated by a foreign power — the Mesopotamian-based (Neo) Assyrian Empire. However, her domination was brought to an end during the rule of Cyraxares of Media, who destroyed the weakened Assyrians with some help from the Babylonians. The Medians then asserted their domination over majority of the Iranian tribes and formally became a mini empire.

Their rule did not last long, however. Just 50 years after Cyraxares’ victory, the Medians came under fire again. This time, it was from within.

Cyrus the Great — Totally History

Cyrus the Second (later, the Great) was born in Ansan, Persia, which was then a subject kingdom of the Medians. But Cyrus had no ordinary beginnings; he was royalty. Cyrus was in fact the son of Cambyses I, king of Ansan, and crucially, grandson of Astyages, king of Media.

So the legend goes that Astyages received a prophetic dream about Cyrus even before he was born. According to the Greek historian Herodotus, Astyages interpreted it as an omen that the unborn grandson would one day revolt and replace him as king. Feeling threatened, he sent men to kill the foetus. Out of compassion, perhaps, Cyrus was let off by one of Astyages’ servants Mithradates, who raised Cyrus in secrecy.

Eventually, Cyrus succeeds his father as King of Persia in 560 BCE but remains subject to Median rule. Astyages discovers his true identity, and launches a campaign against Cyrus putting his general Harpagus in charge. In a historic turn of events, Harpagus defects along with his army to the Persians, encouraging Cyrus to revolt against his grandfather. The rebellion culminates in Persian victory during the Battle of Ecbatana and Cyrus succeeds Astyages as ruler of the Median Empire in 550 BCE.

Of course, this is the stuff of legend, and its accuracy must be taken with a more than just a pinch of salt. But, stories are what connects much of history together, and sometimes though facts are lost in time, the themes of the past are preserved forever through legend.

As with many great transitions of power, the first order of business of any new ruler is to rebrand himself (we see this echo in Trumpian politics today). Cyrus distances himself from his grandfather, and claims the ancestry of Achaemenes, an earlier ruler of Ansan, thus establishing the Achaemenid Empire. He also relabels himself Cyrus the Great, ‘king of kings’.

This title ‘king of kings’ (Persian: shahanshah) is not without justification. Under Cyrus, the Achaemenids expand their territory, assimilating the vassals of Media, then conquering the Lydians (in Asia Minor; modern day Turkey) and eventually the Babylonians.

Persian Expansion and Rule

The two major expansions of Persian territory was in Lydia and Babylonia

Cyrus’ expeditions — Ralph F. Wilson

At around 550–546 BCE, Cyrus begins his campaign in Lydia in response to a Lydian attack on the Achaemenid city of Pteria. He marches his army west to meet the Lydians at Pteria, but the ensuing battle was a stalemate with both sides incurring heavy casualties. The Lydians retreat, and the conquest culminates in the Battle of Thymbra between the two rulers.

Like in the stuff of movies, Harpagus, now advisor to Cyrus, advises him to place his camels in front of his soldiers because the Lydian horses were rumoured to recoil at a foreign smell. The strategy worked and the Lydian cavalry is sent into a frenzy, allowing the Persians to capitalise and chaos and conquer Lydia once and for all.

Harpagus, now a famous aide to Cyrus, is sent to continue the westerly Persian expansion into Asia Minor, conquering Phoenicia, Caria and Ionia (famous for the Ionian revolt later on) using ingenious military tactics like using ramps and mounds to scale seemingly insurmountable city walls. He returns to the Empire in 542 BCE with his head held high after a successful Persian campaign in Asia Minor.

Elsewhere in Babylonia in 539 BCE , another of Cyrus’ generals Gubaru steals the limelight. Though Cyrus himself leads the successful Battle of Opis against the Babylonian ruler Nabonidus near the Tigris River north of Babylon, it is Gobryas who subjugates the city of Babylon. Herodotus writes of Gubaru ingeniously diverting the Euphrates river into a canal, thus allowing the Persian forces to enter the city at night. Rather surprisingly, the Babylonians give up without a fight, and Nabonidus is captured by Cyrus, thus ending the Neo-Babylonian empire.

Standard of Cyrus — Wikipedia

Certain characteristics of Cyrus’ foreign policy might explain why. Firstly, the Persians had trapped the Babylonians by occupying its north, east and west. Tales of the ever expanding rich Persian empire might have intimidated the Babylonians too. Secondly, the neo-Babylonian empire under Nabonidus was already tearing at the seams. The empire suffered from plagues, famines and bad governance. This was the push.

The pull came from Cyrus’ famed publicity campaign to portray himself as an enlightened, quasi-deistic figure who embraced religious toleration. Such a humane policy was unsurprisingly welcomed in the oppressed kingdom that the Babylonians lived in.

Politically, he knew that a great empire could not be sustained with a centralised dictatorship. Instead, he established local “satraps”, which was the Persian predecessor to federalism. This preserved the local customs and traditions making it easier for the subject kingdoms to swallow Persian rule. It also recognized that for citizens to accept foreign rule, it had to be as abstract and distant to their daily lives as possible.

He was also seen to have championed human rights though it is nowhere near to the modern conception.

I am an Iranian, a descendant of Cyrus the Great. This emperor proclaimed at the pinnacle of power 2,500 years ago that he “would not reign over the people if they did not wish it”. He promised not to force any person to change his religion and faith and guaranteed freedom for all. The Charter of Cyrus the Great should be studied in the history of human rights.

Shirin Ebadi Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech in 2003

Cyrus’ Cylinder — British Museum

His rule was summarised in an ancient document known as Cyrus’ Cylinder, which survives till today in the British Museum. It is written on cuneiform tablets which was the earliest form of writing in Mesopotamia. In it, the Babylonian king Nabonidus was condemned for his unenlightened policies while Cyrus was hailed as the favourite of the gods. It also documents his humane Babylonian policy and how he improved the lives of his subjects especially the Jews.

In fact, Cyrus became the only non-Jewish figure in its Bible to be anointed as messiah because of his famous freeing of the subjugated race.

According to the Bible, the Babylonian King Nebuchadnezzar II had once destroyed the holy city of Jerusalem, killing many Jews in the process and holding them captive in Babylonia. When Cyrus eventually conquered Babylon, he freed the Jews and allowed them to return to Israel to rebuild their cities. He also issued an edict ordering the reconstruction of the Temple in Jerusalem, an institution the Jews deemed sacred.

The Jews return to Jerusalem — Wikipedia

This was but a manifestation of Cyrus’ liberal foreign policy, but it was so significant as it affected a highly religious people. The Jews were eternally grateful for Cyrus’ leniency, and rewarded him with an explicit connection with God despite him being a gentile.

“I will raise up Cyrus in my righteousness: I will make all his ways straight. He will rebuild my city and set my exiles free, but not for a price or reward, says God Almighty.”

The Egyptian Campaign

To recap, up till now, Persia under Cyrus the Great successfully conquered the Babylonians and the Lydians. Naturally, they set their eyes on the Egyptian horizon south of Asia Minor. Unfortunately, Cyrus dies in action in 530 BCE, 9 years after the successful campaign in Babylonia. He is succeeded by his son Cambyses II who becomes the new King of Kings.

Herodotus’ account on this conflict was that the pharoah Pharaoh Amasis II of Egypt and Cambyses were initially on good terms. However, things turned sour when Cambyses decided to request Amasis’ daughter’s hand in marriage. Unwilling to let his daughter be wed to a Persian, Amasis sent another girl instead, who betrayed Amasis and revealed the Egyptian’s deception. Naturally, Cambyses was infuriated.

Moreover, Cambyses was assisted by one Phanes of Halicarnassus. Phanes was once advisor to Amasis, but things turned sour and Amasis sent killers after Phanes, forcing him to flee to Lydia. He was caught by the Egyptians there, but managed to escape his captors’ and seek refuge in Babylon as Cambyses’ advisor. Phanes egged Cambyses on to conquer Egypt perhaps out of spite. Coupled with a growing appetite for conquest and the unsettled personal dispute with Amasis, Cambyses relented, leading the Persian Army west and eventually engaged the Egyptians at Pelusium.

Cambyses’ army tread through parts of the Arabian kingdom. He made an alliance with its king, himself an enemy of Amasis too, for safe passage. Arabia even supplied some of its own troops.

The Battle of Pelusium — Wikipedia

Eventually, the Egyptians and the Persians met at Pelusium in 525 BCE. However, by then it was no longer Amasis II in power, but his son, Pharoah Psamtik. Accounts of the ensuing battle are disputed. Some believe that the Persians used the sacred Egyptian cats as shields to deter the Egyptians from indiscriminately firing arrows for fear of killing the animals (shown hilariously in the picture). Others wrote that Cambyses committed a Persian sin by burning the mummy of Amasis II. Ultimately, however, the Persian victory was a decisive one, and Egypt fell to the Achaemenid Empire that same year.

With a large empire in hand, the next order of business for the Persians was establishing trade and economy. They did so firstly through the minting of a Persian currency — the daric.

More famously, the Persians under Darius the Great (Cambyses II’s successor) built a highway called the Royal Road that spanned the empire. Actually, certain sections of the road had been developed by previous rulers like the Assyrians, but it was under Darius that this highway was formally reconstructed and consolidated.

The Royal Road

The Royal Road made up part of the legendary Silk Road, lasting from the Western limit of Sardes to the Eastern limit of Susa. It allowed for rapid communication within the empire, which was important for the administration over such a large area. Persian couriers could make the journey in just seven days, a huge improvement that drew the praise of Herodotus.

There is nothing in the world that travels faster than these Persian couriers.

Not only did this highway allow for political messaging, it also engendered inter-continental trade of products and ideas. As a result, we find many Greek artifacts throughout the Persian empire.

In all, the Persians fundamentally understood the need to stay connected to prevent disillusionment at the far corners of the empire. For example, Darius was immediately notified when the Ionians in the Anatolian Pennisula (Turkey) staged a revolt, and immediately marched West to quell the rebellion and invade Greece (the Greco-Persian Wars).

However, after a 300 year stint, the Achaemenid empire finally began to show signs of decline starting with Darius the Great. The Persians under Darius the Great decided to invade Greece but lost the first Greco-Persian Wars rather decisively due to Greek military prowess and bad weather.

This was seen to be an embarrassment to the Persians, after all, the Greeks were then but a bunch of uncoordinated city states that counted for nothing against the great Persian Empire. Darius’ son, Xerxes, takes over the helm, and invades Greece for a second time to finish what his father has started. But yet again, David triumphs Goliath, and Xerxes himself is sent packing back home.

Greco-Persian War, Persian (left) vs Greek (right) — Wikipedia

The Persians loss at the Greco-Persian war marked the beginning for the golden age in Greece. Athens developed a strong navy and political culture, Sparta had their armies, Thebes had a vibrant economy and so did Corinth. In contrast, their disgraced opponents experienced social decline.

Xerxes strayed from his predecessor’s, Cyrus, liberal form of management. He was cruel and corrupt, hoarding gold supplies and not distributing them with the people. Subsequent Persian kings also raised taxes and kept the profits, leaving its people disenchanted. The lack of a strong leader in Persia meant that locals began turning to their satrap governors, allowing the satraps to gain more and more autonomy.

The satraps even begun waging wars amongst each other, acting more like kings of their own lands rather than emissaries of Persia. Revolts became more frequent and popular, eventually weakening the Persian social structure and leaving it ripe for conquering by Alexander the Great in 331 BCE.

The so called second-wave civilisations began with a small subjugated kingdom called Persis, right smack in modern day Iran. But while trade, cultural vibrancy, wealthy individuals and military prowess characterised the Middle East then, today we associate the same region with strife, backwardness, oppression and inhumanity.

Doesn’t this map look eerily similar with the map of the Persian empire? — GeoExPro

In fact, if anything, the Middle East then had even less of a geographical advantage than today. These countries are fortunate to sit on top of huge oil wells. In other words, energy, which happens to be the currency of today, unlike the Persians.

GeoExPro, a petroleum geoscience magazine, estimates that ten countries in the Middle East occupying only 3.4% of the area contain 48% of the world’s known oil reserves.

Admittedly, some Middle Eastern countries have struck it rich — think Saudi Arabia (Aramco’s IPO being valued at $1.6 trillion) and the UAE (Dubai’s excess of really fast cars and beautiful islands). But the rest?

Syria, Iran, Iraq, even Afghanistan, are too busy dealing with corrupt dictators unnecessary conflict, and foreign intervention. The fact that so many other players (Russia and US) are involved in their domestic business is testament to poor governance (a euphemism) and a poor people.

So what happened?

I believe the main difference between the Persians under Cyrus and the Middle East under (insert corrupt dictator’s name) is their social policies — whether they were inclusive and exclusive. Sure, the Persians were tactically brilliant and managed to conquer territories at an alarming rate. But under Cyrus, they stumbled upon a very important realisation that I think was key to their success.

They understood the practical value of preserving diversity.

Cyrus didn’t try to rule his empire with an iron fist. He knew it was impossible because the area was simply too large for one man to administer. Instead, he gave local satraps sufficient autonomy to govern their own territories and allowed them to preserve their local cultures. Though he was Zoroastrian, he didn’t try to force his own beliefs down the throat of others. Perhaps he knew that imposing a foreign culture indiscriminately would attract the ire of the people. As a result, under Cyrus, the subjugated were remarkably content with a Persian citizenship. His liberal domestic policy was admired by many.

In contrast, the governments of Iran, Iraq etc. today think of themselves as the ultimate ambassador of their religion. Being Shia in nature, Iran has attempted to spark proxy wars throughout the Middle East to overthrow Sunni governments. And its main contender, Sunni Saudi Arabia, funds Sunni governments/hardline rebels throughout the region. Saudi Arabia and Iran are the two main hegemons that are trying to force their religion down everyone else’s throats.

Perhaps one could argue that they are doing so in response to the other. In other words, as an act of self-defence to secure a limited national interest. But still, the more irrational hardliners like ISIS (of course, accepting that ISIS doesn’t even come close to representing the Muslim majority) are intent on spreading their religion to the world and eliminating the non-believers.

So I think the difference between Cyrus and today’s Middle East becomes clear. And this fall from grace serves as a cautionary tale for the rest of us. If a region that had a remarkable historical track record, that brims with scholarly talent, that sits atop fertile ground for agriculture and majority of the world’s oil reserves can suffer such a remarkable twist of fate, then any one of us can. We need to be careful when we think about our own domestic and foreign policies and remember whose liberties we are choosing to ignore in the process.

Cher Yi

Written by

Cher Yi

I like learning about the past, thinking about the present, and dreaming about the future. 20, law student at Cambridge.