The Empires of Persia The Persian Empires



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The Empires of Persia

The Persian Empires

  • Intro

    • The Persian empires arose from arid Iran

      • Had been under the shadow of Mesopotamia for centuries

      • Also had been absorbing migrations and nomadic invasions from central Asia

    • During the 6th century bce, rulers of the province of Persia in SW Iran began a series of conquests

      • Resulted in the formation of a massive empire

    • Four more than a millennium, four dynasties maintained imperial rule in most of SW Asia

      • The Achaemenids (558-330 bce)

      • The Seleucids (323-83 bce)

      • The Parthians (247 bce-224 ce)

      • The Sasanids (224-651 ce)

  • The Achaemenid Empire

    • The Medes and the Persians

      • Origins of Persian society trace to the late stages of Mesopotamian society

      • Before 1000 bce, the Medes and Persians migrated from central Asia to Persia

        • Lived loosely subjected to the Babylonian and Assyrian empires

        • Spoke Indo-European languages, part of their larger migrations

        • Pastoralists w/limited agriculture

        • Organized in clans, yet recognized leaders who collected taxes and brought tribute to Mesopotamia

      • Had considerable military power

      • When the Assyrians and Babylonians weakened in the 6th century bce, the Medes and Persians started their own imperial venture

    • Cyrus’s Conquests

      • Cyrus the Achaemenid (ruled 558-530 bce) began the imperial expansion

        • Laid the foundation for the Achaemenid empire (his tribe’s name)

      • In 558 bce, Cyrus became the king of the Persian tribes

        • Ruled from the mtn fortress Pasargadae

        • 553, initiated a rebellion against his Median overlord; defeated within 3 yrs

        • 548, controlled all of Iran

        • 546, conquered Lydia in Anatolia

        • 545-539, conquered parts of central Asia and Bactria

        • 539, quickly seized Babylonia

          • Their vassal states immediately recognized him as their lord

      • In 20 years, Cyrus went from minor regional king of a tribal people to the ruler of an empire that stretched from India to Egypt

    • Darius

      • Cyrus’s empire survived and expanded after him

        • His son Cambyses (r.530-522) conquered Egypt in 525 bce

      • The greatest of the Achaemenid emperors was Darius (r.521-486 bce)

        • Pushed into NW India to the Indus river

        • Captured Thrace, Macedonia, and the west cost of the Black Sea in SE Europe

      • By the end of the 6th century, Darius ruled an empire over 3k kilometers large

        • Ruled a socially and geographically diverse area

        • With 35 million ppl, Darius’s realm was the largest empire the world had ever seen

      • Darius was much more important as an administrator than conqueror

        • Presided over more than 70 distinct ethnic groups

        • Needed to create lines of communication with all parts of the realm

        • Design institutions to tax and administer their territories

      • In successfully navigating these issues of ruling such a large empire, Darius and the Achaemenids pioneered administrative techniques that would influence political life for centuries

    • Persepolis

      • As soon as he rose to power, Darius began to consolidate his administration

        • Around 520 bce he built a new capital at Persepolis near Pasargadae

        • Was to be an administration center and monument to the Achaemenids

      • Served as the center of the empire for 200 years

    • The Satrapies

      • The gov’t of the Achaemenids depended on a balance between central initiative and local administration

        • Appointed governors (satraps) to serve as agents of the central admin and oversee affairs in the various regions

        • Darius divided the realm into 23 satrapies- administrative and taxation districts governed by the satraps

      • While most of the satraps were Persians, the empire did not push direct rule on to their subjects

        • Local officials filled almost all of the administrative posts below the satrap

      • Since the satraps were so far away, there was always the worry that they would ally with local groups and become independent of imperial authority or even threaten the empire

      • The Achaemenids relied on two measures to discourage that possibility

        • 1- the satraps had a contingent of military officers and tax collectors

          • Served as a check on the satraps’ power and independence

        • 2- the empire created “the eyes and ears of the king”- imperial spies

          • Traveled throughout the empire with their own military

          • Conducted surprise audits of accounts and procedures and collected intelligence

        • These two checks helped the Achaemenids maintain control over a vast empire that would have typically split into its ethnic groups and formed their own kingdoms

    • Taxes, Coins, and Laws

      • Darius improved efficiency by:

        • Regularizing tax levies

        • Standardizing laws

      • Cyrus and Cambyses accepted periodic “gifts” of tribute from subject lands and cities

        • The gifts were lavish but did not provide consistent and reliable income for rulers to finance a large bureaucracy and army

      • Darius replaced irregular tribute with formal tax levies

        • Required each satrapy to pay a set quantity of silver, sometimes along with horses and slaves, that was delivered annually to Persepolis

      • Darius also copied the Lydian king Croesus and issued standardized coins

        • Wanted to foster trade

      • In 520 bce, Darius moved to unify the many legal systems of his empire into something resembling a standard law

        • He did not abolish the laws of individual lands or peoples

        • Did not impose a uniform law code

        • Did direct legal experts to study and codify the laws of his subject people

          • Did have to modify them when necessary and at odds with the empire’s laws

    • Roads and Communication

      • The Achaemenids also took measures to knit their realm into a coherent whole

        • Built good roads along their realms, notable the Persian Royal Road

          • Stretched 1,600 miles with some sections made of stone

          • Took 90 days for caravans to travel the road

          • Built lodges and kept the route well-policed

        • The imperial gov’t also created a courier service

          • Built 111 postal stations every 25-30 miles along the route

          • Each station kept a supply of fresh horses and food for couriers

          • Estimated to carry letters across the empire in two weeks’ time

          • (The United States Postal Service take their moniker from these imperial servants: “Neither snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom of night”)

      • These roads helped facilitate trade and helped integrate the empire’s various regions into a larger economy

  • Decline of the Achaemenid Empire

    • The Achaemenid Commonwealth

      • The roads and robust administration of the Achaemenids allowed them to govern a vast empire and extend their influence throughout the territories

      • Political stability also made it possible to undertake large public works projects

        • The qanat, underground canals, to enhance agricultural production and population growth

      • Iron metallurgy spread to all parts of the empire

        • Became common in all Persian farming areas by the end of the empire

      • Eventually, difficulties between rulers and subjects undermined the integrity of the Achaemenid empire

        • Cyrus and Darius pursued tolerance in administering their vast and diverse empires

          • To the Mesopotamians, did not portray themselves as conquerors but legitimate Babylonian rulers

          • Darius allowed the Jews to return to Jerusalem and rebuild the temple that had been destroyed by the Babylonians

        • Xerxes (r.486-465 bce), successor of Darius, had worse relations with the subjects

          • Mesopotamia and Egypt especially became heated, frequently rising up in rebellion

          • Xerxes harshly repressed rebellions, gaining a reputation for cruelty

    • The Persian Wars

      • The Achaemenids especially had a hard time with their ethnic Greek subjects

        • Inhabited many of the cities of Anatolia (esp. Ionia on the Aegean coast)

        • Maintained close economic and commercial ties w/their cousins in the Greek peninsula

        • In 500 bce, the Ionian cities rebelled, expelling or executing the satraps (who they called “tyrants”), and asserted their independence

        • This rebellion would launch a series of conflicts the Greeks called the Persian Wars (500-479 bce)

      • The conflict expanded when the peninsular Greeks sent fleets to aid their Ionian kinsmen

      • Darius managed to put down the rebellion, but his successors became entangled in a difficult and ultimately destructive effort to extend their power to the Greek peninsula

        • Darius wanted to end all future problems by conquering the wealthy Greek cities

      • Though larger and more powerful than the disunited Greek city-states, they had to content with:

        • Thin supply lines

        • Hostile environment

      • After early success, the Persians suffered a rout at the battle of Marathon (490 bce), returning home without achieving their goals

        • Xerxes sent another expedition 10 years later, but failed again both on land (Thermopylae) and at sea (Salamis)

      • For almost 150 years, the Persian empire sparred with the Greeks

        • Never again engaged in large-scale campaigns

        • The Greeks were too small and disunited to pose a serious challenge

          • What if they became unified?

    • Alexander of Macedon

      • The standoff between the Greeks and Persians ended with the rise of Alexander of Macedon

        • In 334 bce, Alexander invaded Persia w/48k battle-hardened Macedonians

        • Despite being far smaller in numbers, they had heavier arms and employed more sophisticated military tactics

        • Advanced almost at will through the empire, and in 331 defeated the Persian army at the battle of Gaugamela

          • Within a year, the empire had dissolved

      • Alexander led his forces to Persepolis, confiscated the wealth of the treasury, and paid his respects at the tomb of Cyrus in Pasargadae

        • Proclaimed himself heir to the Achaemenids

        • Ignited a blaze that destroyed Persepolis

      • While the empire had crumbled, the Achaemenid legacy continued on

        • Alexander retained the administrative structure

      • Alexander died in 323 bce, but the states that succeed him continued to employ the same administrative structure

        • The Seleucids, Parthians, and Sasanids

  • The Seleucid, Parthian, and Sasanid Empires

    • The Seleucids

      • After the death of Alexander, his generals fought over who would take over the realms

      • In Persia, Seleucus took over and ruled (r.305-281 bce)

        • Retained the Achaemenid admin structure, taxation, imperial roads and postal services

      • The Seleucids created new cities throughout the realm and attracted Greek colonists

        • The establishment of new cities stmulated trade and economic development

      • As foreigners, the Seleucids faced opposition from native Persians and especially their ruling classes

        • The satraps often revolted against the Seleucids

        • Soon lost their holdings in Northern India

      • The semi-nomadic Parthians slowly took over Iran during the 3rd century bce

        • The Seleucids ruled a smaller empire until 83 bce, when the Romans ended their empire

    • The Parthians

      • The Parthians established themselves as rulers of a powerful empire in Iran

        • Extended to wealthy Mesopotamia



      • Retained many of the customs and traditions of nomadic peoples from the central Asian steppes

        • Did not have a centralized gov’t, but organized themselves politically through a federation of leaders who met in councils to jointly decide policy for all groups

        • Skillful warriors, accustomed to defending themselves from the nomads in the east

      • As they settled and turned to farming, the Parthians created an effective means to resist the eastern nomads

        • The nomads allowed their horses to graze on the steppes for winter, since they had no access to feed grains

        • The Parthians figured out that if they fed their horses alfalfa sprouts during the winter, their animals would grow much larger and stronger than the small horses of the steppes

          • These larger animals could support heavily armed warriors with metal armor

        • Few existing forces could stand up to the Parthian cavalry

    • Parthian Conquests

      • As early as the 3rd century bce, the Parthians began to wrest their independence from the Seleucids

        • The Parthian satrap revolted against the Seleucids in 238 bce and gradually enlarged their holdings

      • Mithridates I, the Parthians greatest conqueror, came to the throne about 171 bce

        • Transformed his state into a mighty empire

        • By 155 bce, had consolidated their hold on Iran and extended Parthian rule to Mesopotamia

    • Parthian Government

      • The Parthians portrayed themselves as the enemies of the foreign Seleucids and the restorers of rule in the Persian tradition

        • As they expanded, they largely followed the Achaemenid tradition of gov’t

          • Used satraps, employed their taxation, built a capital city at Ctesiphon on the Euphrates

        • They also retained many aspects of steppe traditions

          • Not nearly as centralized as the Achaemenids

          • Put a great deal of authority into their clan leaders

            • Often served as satraps and worked to build independent bases of power in their regions

            • Frequently mounted rebellions with little success

      • Had a powerful empire for about three centuries from India to the Med

        • Beginning in the 1st century bce, they faced pressure from the west from the Roman empire

          • Never were in danger of falling to them, but on three occasions Ctesiphon was captured by the Romans

      • Combined with internal difficulties due to the rebellious satraps, the Roman pressure weakened the Parthians

        • During the early 3rd century ce, internal rebellion brought it down

    • The Sasanids

      • The tradition of imperial rule would continue under the Sasanids

        • Came from Persia and claimed direct descent from the Achaemenids

        • Toppled the Parthians un 224 ce, ruling until 651 ce

      • Ruling from Ctesiphon, the Sasanid kings provided strong rule

        • Rebuilt the elaborate admin system

        • Founded or rebuilt several cities

      • Sasanid merchants traded actively east and west

        • Introduced new crops to Iran (rice, sugarcane, citrus fruits, eggplant, cotton)

      • During the reign of Shapur I (r.239-272 ce), the Sasanids stabilized the western frontier and created buffer states between them and Rome

        • Even defeated several Roman armies

      • After Shapur, the Sasanids did not expand but entered into a standoff relationship with the Kushans to the east and the Romans/Byzantines to the west

        • None of these empires was strong enough to overcome the other

        • Engaged in lengthy and bitter disputes, sapping the energies of all those involved

      • These continual conflicts seriously weakened the Sasanids empire in particular

        • The empire ended in 651 ce under the heel of Arab warriors

        • Was incorporated into the rapidly expanding Islamic empire

      • The administrative history of the Persians was so strong that the Arab conquerors would adopt them to use in building a new Islamic society

Imperial Society and Economy

  • Intro

    • During the classical era, public life and social structure became more complicated than previously

      • Centralized imperial gov’ts needed large numbers of administrators

        • Led to the emergence of an educated class of bureaucrats

      • Stable empires enabled many ppl to engage in trade or other specializations

        • Artisans, craftsmen, or professionals of any kind

        • Some of them accumulated vast wealth, leading to tensions between rich and poor

      • Slavery became more common

        • Due partly to the expansion of the imperial states, but it also reflected the increasing gulf between rich and poor

    • All of this had implications on the social structure of classical societies

  • Social Development in Classical Persia

      • For centuries before their development into an empire, the Medes and Persians maintained steppe traditions

        • Social structure was similar to that of the Aryans w/warriors, priests, and peasants

        • Family and clan relationships were important

        • Male warriors headed the clans

    • Imperial Bureaucrats

      • The creation of a cosmopolitan empire brought considerable complexity to Persian society

        • The creation of a new class of educated bureaucrats undermined the old warrior elite

        • Even though they didn’t directly challenge the patriarchal warriors, their role in the setup of the gov’t gave them importance

    • Free Classes

      • The bulk of Persian society was free individuals who had little of the privileges the bureaucrats and clan leaders had

        • Included artisans, craftsmen, merchants, and low-level bureaucrats in the cities

        • Also included priests and priestesses

      • Free classes participated in religious services and could share in the income that temples generated from the agricultural operations and craft industries of the temple

      • In the country, free classes included peasants who owned land and landless cultivators

        • Free residents of rural areas could marry and migrate as they wished

        • Could seek better opportunities in the city or the military

        • Rural work included cultivation and the building and maintaining of irrigation systems due to the arid climate

      • Most impressive of these was the qanat, underground canals

        • Allowed cultivators to distribute water to fields w/out losing a lot to evaporation

        • Extreme scarcity motivated the development

        • Free labor contribute much of the work to the building of the qanat

    • Slaves

      • Slavery came about in two main ways

        • Most were prisoners of war who were slaves for their survival

          • Usually from the military, but sometimes civilians who resisted or rebelled

        • Others came from the free ranks who accumulated debts they could not satisfy

  • Economic Foundations of Classical Persia

      • Farming was the economic foundation of Persia

        • Needed to support their large military and bureaucracy as well as the specialists in the cities

    • Agricultural Production

      • In most years farming production exceeded the needs of the farmers, creating sizable surpluses for sale in the city or distribution to the state servants

        • The state owned land cultivated by slaves or leased out for a portion of the harvest

      • Satraps even benefited although not as much as the emperor

    • Standardized Coins

      • While farming was the base, empire often encouraged the development of trade and rapid economic development

        • With political stability and an elaborate road network, Achaemenid rulers laid a foundation for economic prosperity and secure transportation of goods

      • Trade also benefited from the invention of standardized coins

        • First appeared in Lydia around 640 bce

        • Was much simpler for merchants to exchange standardized coins than to weight metals

      • When Cyrus invaded Lydia and absorbed the kingdom of King Croesus, he brought standardized coinage to his empire

      • Markets were found in all of the large cities and the largest had banks and companies that invested in commercial ventures

    • Trade

      • Long-distance trade grew rapidly during the Persian empires, linking Egypt to India

        • Trade traveled over land routes, such as the Persian Royal Road

        • Over sea routes, such as the Red Sea, the Persian Gulf, and the Arabian Sea

      • Each part of the Persian Empire contributed to trade

        • India- gold, ivory, aromatics

        • Iran/Central Asia- lapis lazuli, turquoise

        • Mesopotamia- Textiles, mirrors, jewelry (finished products)

        • Anatolia- goal, silver, iron, copper, tin

        • Phoenicia- Glass, cedar, timber, dyed woolen fabrics

        • Egypt- grain, linen textiles, papyrus, gold, ebony, ivory

        • Greece- Oil, wine, and ceramics

      • Long-distance trade was especially prominent during Alexander and the Seleucids

        • Greek migrants facilitated cultural and commercial exchanges by encouraging the mixing of religious faiths, art styles, and philosophical speculation

Religions of Salvation in Classical Persia Society

  • Intro

      • Cross-cultural influences were especially evident in Persian religion

        • Their earliest religion resembled that of the Aryans of India

        • During the classical era, the new faith of Zoroastrianism emerged, becoming widely popular in Iran

        • Would later influence the beliefs and values of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam

      • During the late centuries of the classical era, three missionary religions- Christianity, Buddhism, and Manichaeism- found their way into the empire

  • Zarathustra and his Faith

      • The earliest religions in Persia were cults of the elements and earthly features

        • Recognized many of the gods as the Aryans w/similar sacrificial ceremonies

        • Glorified strength and martial virtues

    • Zarathustra

      • During the classical era, Persian religion changed dramatically

        • Moral and religious thinkers attempted to adapt their messages to the circumstances of a complex, cosmopolitan society

      • One result was the appearance of Zoroastrianism

      • Bred from the teachings of Zarathustra

      • When he was about 20, Zarathustra left home and traveled in search of wisdom

        • After 10 years, he experienced a series of visions

        • Became convinced the supreme god Ahura Mazda had chosen him as his prophet to spread the message

    • The Gathas

      • Many of the teachings have perished because the priests (magi) at first transmitted them orally

      • Known as the Gathas, hymns that Zarathustra composed in honor of the various deities he recognized

      • The arrival of Islam in the 7th century ce meant the loss of many of the Zoroastrian works

    • Zoroastrian teachings

      • Zoroastrians recognize Ahura Mazda as a supreme deity, the creator of all good things

        • There are six lesser deities

      • Zarathustra also believed Ahura Mazda was in a cosmic conflict with an independent adversary

        • The evil spirit Angra Mainyu

        • Believed Mazda would prevail after a 12,000 year battle

      • At that time, individual human souls would undergo judgment and would experience rewards or punishments according to their holiness

        • Good people would enter into a heavenly paradise, bad people would be cast into a hellish realm of pain and suffering

    • Popularity of Zoroastrianism

      • Did not call for ascetic renunciation of the world

        • Considered the material world a blessing of the benevolent Ahura Mazda

        • Could enjoy the pleasures of the world as long as they did so in moderation and behaved modestly towards each other

      • His teachings began to attract large numbers of followers in the 6th century bce

        • Esp among Persian aristocrats and ruling elites

        • Wealthy patrons donated land and established endowments for the support of Zoroastrian temples

      • Achaemenid era saw a rise of a sizable priesthood, who conducted religious rituals, maintained a calendar, taught Zoroastrian values, and preserved the doctrine

      • Cyrus and Cambyses likely observed Zoroastrian rites

      • With Darius, the Achaemenids closely associated themselves with the religion

        • Claimed divine sanction of their rule

      • He did not attempt to suppress other gods or religions

        • Tolerated the established faiths in his empire despite personally regarded Ahura Mazda as superior

      • W/imperial sponsorship, Zoroastrian temples cropped up throughout the Achaemenid realm

        • Was most popular in Iran, but had followings elsewhere

        • No organized effort to spread, yet it spread

    • Officially Sponsored Zoroastrianism

      • The arrival of Alexander hurt Zoroastrianism

        • They burned many temples and killed many magi

        • Since it was still told orally, many hymns and holy verses disappeared

      • The Parthians cultivated Zoroastrianism to rally support against the Seleucids

      • During the Sasanids, the religion saw a revival

        • They identified closely w/the religion as the self-proclaimed heirs to the Achaemenids

        • Often persecuted other faiths if it was becoming too popular

      • With imperial backing, the faith and magi flourished

        • Prepared written versions of the holy texts, collecting them in the Avesta

      • The faith faced severe difficulties in the 7th century ce when Islamic conquerors defeated the Sasanids

        • They did not outlaw the religion, but they placed political and financial pressure on the magis and temples

        • Some fled to India where their descendants (Parsis) continue to observe the traditions

        • Many stuck around and eventually converted to Islam

      • Zoroastrian numbers progressively dwindled

    • Influence of Zoroastrianism

      • The cosmopolitan nature of the Persian empires allowed Zoroastrianism to affect many different faiths

      • Jews living in the Persian empire adopted several specific teachings of Zarathustra, which later found their way into the faiths of Christianity and Islam as well

        • Idea of an omnipotent and beneficent deity that was responsible for all creation

        • A purely evil being against the creator god

        • Conviction that evil will ultimately be defeated by the forces of good

        • Idea that human beings must strive to observe the highest moral standards

        • Idea that humans will undergo judgment where the good will go to heaven and the bad will go to hell


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