Clas 0810A: Alexander the Great and the Alexander Tradition Feb. 4, 2011: Greeks and the Persian (Achaemenid) Empire

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CLAS 0810A: Alexander the Great and the Alexander Tradition

Feb. 4, 2011: Greeks and the Persian (Achaemenid) Empire

556-549 BC King Cyrus, one of 10 Persian vassal states in SW Iran, rebels against the Medes, captures Median capital at Ecbatana, and annexes Median kingdom to Persia, founding new capital city at Pasagardae, as the seat of a new Achaemenid Dynasty.

539 BC Cyrus moves against Babylon. Babylonian king Nabonidus taken prisoner; vassals of the Babylonian kingdom come to kiss the feet (do proskynesis) of their new sovereign. The whole of the Near East now Persian. Rapid and easy expansio, probably due in part to fervor in the cause of Zoroastrian religion, patron deity Ahura-Mazda, etc. (but also to brilliant diplomacy and careful administration, corruption, bribery etc.)

530-522 BC Egypt conquered by Cyrus' son Cambyses; follow-up conquests in India, as far as the river Jaxartes.

522-486 BC Darius I, the first "Great King", usurps throne. Age of consolidation, with ruthless suppression of local uprisings that threatened the unity of the Achaemenid empire. [See representation on the Behistun Inscription, 521-519 BC].

499 BC Revolt against Persian rule by Ionian Greeks (in coastal Turkey), with limited help from mainland Greeks. Failed, but Persians take a decade to regain control. Followed up with a Persian sea-borne invasion against Athens and Eretria, repulsed at the Battle of Marathon (490 BC).

486-465 Darius' son Xerxes attempts more organized land-based invasion. Northern states such as Macedon and Thrace frightened into surrendering, while the Greek poleis rallied around the dual leadership of Athens and Sparta. Athens sacked; but Persians repulsed in major battles at Salamis (480) and Plataea (479), thanks to good strategy, hoplite superiority, and Athenian naval strength. Oath of Plataea vows eternal hatred and contempt for the barbarian.

479 BC Formation of a defensive league (Delian League) against Persians, under Athenian leadership; removal of its treasury from Delos to Athens in 454 BC acknowledges that it had by then become an Athenian empire. After treaty of 449/8, in which Greeks and Persians agreed to respect each others' territorial sovereignty, funds diverted to the glorification of Athens under Pericles (building of Parthenon, etc.).

Later 5th century BC sees internal unrest in Persian empire and the start of its weakening under Artaxerxes I (465-423 BC) and Darius II (423-404 BC).


An important consequence of these events was that Greece gained an enhanced consciousness of nationality and conviction of superiority to orientals. The notion of a "holy war of revenge" on the Persians for sacking their cities and desecrating their holy places was still a lively issue (e.g., in the speeches of the Athenian orator Isocrates) even at the time of Philip II and Alexander, 150 years after the Battle of Marathon.
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