The Persian Empire

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Part 2: Rise and Fall

Cyrus's son became Cambyses II in 529 B.C. and ruled for seven years. He conquered Egypt but, neglecting to shore up his home situation, left the door open for takeover. A pretender briefly seized the throne, and Cambyses undertook a forced march back home to reassert his authority. He died before he could return.

Darius the Great

A general and also one of his distant relatives, Darius reached the Persian capital, killed the pretender, and took the throne for himself. This was the famous Darius I, also known as Darius the Great, who proved a worthy successor to the void left by Cyrus's passing. Darius proved an able administrator, creating the satrap system that served the expansive empire so well for two centuries. Each satrapy, or province, had a ruler, the satrap, who ruled in the emperor's name and functioned much as a modern governor would have. Darius, just to make sure that everyone remembered who the real ruler was, appointed a military commander for each satrapy as well and stipulated that that commander report only to the emperor.

Darius also had a ring of spies who traveled along the Royal Road and elsewhere, keeping him advised of economic progress, military readiness, and political unrest. The Royal Road was a creation of Cyrus, who also established a postal system, which involved a series of couriers who traveled on horseback, going from station to station, each of which was about a day's ride apart. The Royal Road stretched more than 1,300 miles from Sardis, the royal capital, to Susa, an administrative capital.

Darius took the tribute money that his own client kings and conquered peoples paid into the royal treasury and plowed it back into the landscape, funding irrigation schemes and roading projects and even a canal between the Red Sea and the Nile River. What Darius also did to cement Persian common purpose was institute a common currency and a common language, Aramaic.

Some of the royal treasury went toward the emperor's own projects, of course, and one of those was a new royal capital, at Persepolis. This became one of the most wealthiest cities in the world.

In 499 B.C., a large number of people who lived in Ionia, in colonies that used to be Greek, rose up against Persian rule. Athens supported the revolt, and Darius resolved to punish Athens for its interference.

A very large fleet, supported by a very large army, sailed for Greece. Darius was supremely confident in the abilities of his armies and their commanders in what came to be known as the Greco-Persian Wars. He (and many other leaders at the time) were quite surprised when the Athenian forces won at the Battle of Marathon, in 490 B.C.

Darius was also the ruler who ordered the production that has come to known as the Behistun Inscription. Carved into the mountain of the same Behiston Inscriptionname, the inscription describes Darius's ancestry and details events that occurred during his struggles to repulse rebellions in the wake of the deaths of both Cyrus the Great and Cambyses II. The very large inscription included words carved in three languages: Babylonian, Elamite, and Old Persian. Later historians made use of the inscription in order to understand cuneiform in the same way that others used the Rosetta Stone to understand hieroglyphs.

Darius died in 486 B.C., and his son became Xerxes I, who resolved to succeed in Greece where his father had not. He instituted new taxes, which created revolts, none moreso than in Babylon. The king responded with brute force, ordering his troops to sack the city, wreck the major temple, and melt down a large gold statue of the chief local god, Marduk, for the wealth that the gold would bring.

Persians crossing the Hellespont

Xerxes assembled an army and navy larger than his father had and invaded Greece, in 480 B.C. His invasion was notable for his method of transporting his troops across the Hellespont: He ordered more than 300 ships to be lined up side by side and then ordered built a bridge made of flax and papyrus. (Xerxes displayed his famous temper by, after being informed that the waters of the Hellespont had washed away one of the "pontoons," ordered the sea whipped for insubordination.) The army was so large that it took seven days and nights for all of them to cross. After an initial yet militarily expensive victory at the Battle of Thermopylae, Xerxes himself watched the Greeks outsail and destroy the Persian fleet at Salamis and then took a large part of his army home. The Persian army that stayed behind found itself defeated again, at the Battle of Plataea in 479 B.C.

No further Persian invasion of Greece was forthcoming. The successors to Xerxes I, who died in 465 B.C., kept to themselves, focusing on strengthening the existing empire. Four Artaxerxes (one of them, the II, on the throne for 45 years), two Darius, and one Xerxes later, the leader of the Persian Empire was Darius III. This was the King of Kings who ended up handing over his kingdom to Alexander the Great. In a series of stunning defeats (Granicus, Issus, Gaugamela), Darius lost control of the war and then lost his kingdom and, ultimately, his head. He ruled for only six years, from 336 B.C. to 330 B.C. The Persians officially had one more king, Artaxerxes V, but Alexander was very much in charge and remained so for the seven years that followed his conquest of the Persians.

The death of Alexander left a vacuum that his top generals tried to fill. A series of regents served a sort of caretaker role at the head of the Persian hierarchy until Seleucus I took over in 311 B.C. A series of successors kept a grip on things for a time, but the Parthian Empire eventually absorbed the geography, wealth, and peoples of the once-dominant Persia.

The Persian Empire was also notable for its religion, specifically the monotheistic teachings of Zoroaster, whose name in Old Iranian was Zarathustra. The supreme being at the head of this religion was Ahura Mazda. One of the main tenets of what became the religion of Zoroastrianism was the idea that the world was a continual struggle between good and evil. Ahura Mazda was the personification of good. Later teachings introduced the idea of a powerful spirit named Ahriman (whose name in an earlier incarnation was Angra Mainyu) who was the champion of evil. The Persian emperors were notable in their promotion of this religion but also their belief that conquered peoples should be free to continue to practice their own religions.

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