Persian Empire

Persian Empire
   The imperial realm that conquered and replaced those of the Medes and the Neo-Babylonians in Iran and Mesopotamia and territorially the largest native empire to ever encompass the lands of the ancient Near East. At its height, the Persian realm, ruled by members of the Achaemenid dynasty, stretched from the shores of the Mediterranean and Aegean seas in the west to the borders of India in the east. Nearly thirty separate nations and peoples fell under the authority of the Persian kings.
   The Persians had originated as nomads from the central-Asian steppes who had descended into Iran in the late second millennium b.c. They identified themselves as Aryans, and the name Iran is derived from the word aryanam, meaning "land of the Aryans." One group of Persians became the Medes; the other, called the Parsua, settled in the region of Fars, just north of the Persian Gulf. For a long time the
   Persians remained more or less in the shadow of the great nations and empires of the Near East - those of the Assyrians, Babylonians, Elamites, Medes, and Egyptians.
   Cyrus the Great In about 559 Achaemenid nobleman ascended the throne of Fars, then a Median province, as Cyrus II. In a startlingly short span of time, he led his followers in a rebellion against the Medes, captured the Median capital of Ecbatana, deposed the Median ruler, Astyages, and established the Persian Empire. Recognizing that the Persians and the Medes shared the same ancestry, Cyrus showed deference to his conquered enemies, giving numerous Median nobles high positions in the Persian army and royal court. Media became a province, or satrapy, of the new empire, and Ecbatana became a secondary Persian capital. (Cyrus's main capital was Pasargadae, in the hills of Fars.)
   The Persians borrowed many Median customs, including a number of clothing styles. Cyrus and later Persian rulers and officials also wisely adopted ideas and customs of other formerly successful peoples in the region. Indeed, the Persians, like the later Romans, became highly adept at cultural borrowing. As the Greek histo-rianHerodotusputsit, "Noraceisso ready to adopt foreign ways as the Persian; for instance, they wear the Median costume because they think it handsomer than their own, and their soldiers wear the Egyptian corselet." (Histories 1.136) Thus, Persian society became in many ways a fusion of the cultures of various earlier Mes-opotamian and Iranian peoples. The upland Persians bred horses in imitation of earlier Iranian nomads; the lowland Persians farmed the Mesopotamian plains like the Babylonians; and Cyrus modeled his military in large degree on that of the Assyrians, although he improved on some of their ideas. The Assyrian Empire also inspired Cyrus's political organization. Like the Assyrian monarchs, he divided his own realm into provinces, each administered by a governor, called a satrap, who was subordinate to the king. A Persian satrap held considerable power. So Cyrus made sure his authority would not be threatened by having a satrap's secretary, financial officer, and chief military officer all report directly to Cyrus himself.
   With the basics of an effective imperial government in place, Cyrus initiated a series of conquests designed to expand his new realm. Turning westward, he entered Anatolia and swiftly brought the kingdom of Lydia to its knees. In absorbing Anatolia, Cyrus also gained control of the Greek cities on that peninsula's western coast, including Miletus, Ephesus, and Halicar-nassus (Herodotus's hometown). Next, CyrusreturnedtoFarsand beganworkon his new capital of Pasargadae. Then he marched his army eastward and conquered the peoples of what are now eastern Iran and Afghanistan, bringing him to the borders of distant India. Finally, Cyrus overran Babylonia and absorbed its lands, including all of southern Mesopotamia and most of Palestine. That left Egypt as the only one of the former great Near Eastern powers that had not yet fallen under the Persian yoke.
   Cambyses and Darius I Before Cyrus could march on Egypt, however, he died in 530 B.C. and the responsibility of the Egyptian campaign fell to his son, Cambyses. After raising a huge new army, Cambyses attacked Egypt in 525 b.c. Near Pelusium, located on the seacoast just east of the Nile delta, he soundly defeated the Egyptian military forces. Cambyses remained in Egypt for nearly three years and then died on the way back to Persia. In 522, after an impostor pretending to be Cambyses' brother, Bardiya, had ruled the empire for several months, a group of Persian nobles slew the usurper and placed another Achaemenid, Darius, on the throne. The new king found himself facing some major challenges. Hearing that the impostor had been removed, a number of provincial governors rebelled; Darius had to put down these revolts before he could address his own plans for the empire.
   Those plans included more conquests like those of Cyrus and Cambyses. In 519 B.C. Darius led an expedition against the Saka, a people who inhabited the remote, rugged region northwest of India. After its fall to the Persians, the area became the empire's newest satrapy. The following year Darius initiated construction of a new city, Persepolis in Fars, which in time replaced Pasargadae as Persia's capital. Then he turned his attentions westward, seeing the absorption of Europe as a tempting goal. Darius sent out ships manned by scouts, who first cruised and mapped the Greek coasts and then pushed on to southern Italy. Though the king never gained a fully clear picture of the large size of the Mediterranean-European world, the data gathered by his scouts indicated that it was rich in natural and human resources and was ripe for the taking. So in 512 B.C. Darius crossed what is now the Bosporus Strait and entered Thrace, the rugged, sparsely inhabited region lying along the northern rim of the Aegean Sea. The Thra-cians submitted without a fight. But the Scythians, who lived farther north, employed a scorched-earth campaign and denied Darius a clear-cut victory. A few years after this initial and only partly successful Persian foray into Europe, the Anatolian Greeks rebelled against Persian rule. Darius was forced to expend time and resources to quash the revolt, which ended with a decisive Persian naval victory in the eastern Aegean Sea in 494 b.c.
   Because some of the mainland Greeks had helped their Anatolian brethren during the rebellion, in 490 b.c. Darius ordered two of his generals, Datis and Artaphernes, to sail across the Aegean and sack the cities of Athens and Eretria. They captured Eretria, but soon afterward the Persian army was defeated on the plain of Marathon near Athens. Up to this time, the Greek military system, which relied on heavily armored infantrymen called hop-lites, was untested in a large open battle with Persian troops, who had a reputation for fighting skill and ferocity that made them feared far and wide. Apparently Darius and his advisers thought the Athenian win was a fluke and prepared for a full-scale attack on Greece.
   Second-Rate Rulers Darius died in 486 b.c. before he could mount his great expedition. His son, Xerxes, did so in 480 B.c., leading some two hundred thousand land troops and almost a thousand ships against the tiny Greek city-states. The superiority of the Greek military system now became clear as the Greeks crushed the invaders in a series of hard-fought battles that have since become the stuff of legend.
   In the wake of his failure to penetrate Europe,Xerxeswasforcedtoreturntohis homeland, and the remainder of his reign was largely undistinguished. In 465 B.c.he was assassinated by the captain of the palace guard and other conspirators, who placed the dead king's son, Artaxerxes, on the throne. The intrigue-filled reign of Artaxerxes in many ways typified those of his successors, who were largely self-absorbed, second-rate leaders. They were unable to deal effectively with some of the serious problems the empire faced. These problems included the toll taken by frequent internal power struggles; mounting discontent among the empire's subject peoples, especially those far from the Persian heartland; more and more military use of paid Greek mercenaries, whose loyalty to Persia was practically nil; and a loss of interest in expanding the realm. Under these mediocre rulers the Persian Empire's political stability, structural integrity, and reputation as a great military power steadily deteriorated. And the degeneration of the high moral ideals of cyrus and the first Darius continued.
   When Artaxerxes died in 424 b.c., a new power struggle brought to the throne his son, Xerxes II, who lasted only a few months before he was murdered. Another of Artaxerxes' sons, Ochus, then became King Darius II, whose mediocre reign ended in 404 B.c., precipitating still another royal power struggle. Darius's eldest son, Arsaces, succeeded him as Artaxerxes II, much to the regret of the second son, Cyrus, usually called "Cyrus the Younger" to distinguish him from the founder of the empire. In 401 b.c. Cyrus launched a rebellion against Artaxerxes. Hiring thousands of Greek mercenaries to supplement his Persian troops, the would-be usurper fought his brother at Cunaxa in Mesopotamia and met with defeat and death. The Greeks then fought their way out of Mesopotamia, showing Greeks everywhere the damage that even a small Greek army could incur inside the decaying Persian colossus. Artaxerxes himself knew this better than anyone. He had witnessed firsthand the formidable charge of the Greek hoplites at Cunaxa and saw that he must do whatever was necessary to keep the Greeks out of his realm. Among other things, in 387 b.c.heconcludedthe Peace of Antalcidas, or King's Peace, with the major Greek states of the day. Artaxerxes agreed to recognize the sovereignty of these states and to stay out of their affairs, as long as they stayed out of his.
   The Empire's Decline and Fall But the safety of the empire was an illusion, as the seeds of its destruction had already been planted by decades of internal corruption and decline. The central authority continued to weaken, rebellions increased in frequency, and in some cases the king had to resort to bribing the rebel leaders to get them to stop fighting. After Artaxerxes died in 358 b.c., his son, Artaxerxes III, managed to reconquer Egypt, which had rebelled, but only with great difficulty. And large parts of the empire remained independent of his control.
   This was the sad state of affairs that the last Persian king, Darius III, faced when he ascended the throne in 336 b.c. In that same year, in faraway Greece the Macedonian king Philip II, who had recently brought most of the Greeks under his control, was assassinated. His son, Alexander III, then followed through with his father's plans to invade Persia. After Alexander's rapid capture of the eastern third of that realm, he and Darius faced each other in a huge battle fought in October 331 b.c. at Gaugamela, a few miles southeast of the ruins of the Assyrian city of Nineveh. Darius was defeated and fled the field. By the time Alexander had caught up with him, the Persian king was dead, having been murdered by his own followers. Alexander soon completed the conquest of Darius's realm, laying the groundwork for nearly two centuries of Greek rule in Mesopotamia and much of the rest of the Near East.

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