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The Persian Empire

The giant Persian Empire that was conquered by Alexander remains one of the great enigmas of history. The Persian Great Kings had been the indisputed rulers of most of the known civilised world for over two centuries: from the accession of Cyrus the Great in 559 BC until the death of Darius III in 330 BC. Under King Darius I the Great (around 513 BC) the empire expanded to its widest extent: from the Danube River in eastern Europe to the shores of Indus in India. Arabians, Greeks, Scythians and even Ethiopians appeared as mercenaries and levies in the King's armies. Alexander's huge empire by the time of his death in 323 BC was still slightly smaller than Persia was in its prime.

Unwritten History

Still, the empire of Persia under the glorious Achaemenid dynasty has slipped away from the attention of modern historians for a very long time. In general, scholars studying the ancient Babylonian and Assyrian empires perceive the year of 612 BC - the fall and destruction of Nineveh, capital of Assyria - as the end of their period of interest. Classisists studying the Antique Mediterranean world tend to 'confisquate' the history of the East by the year of 334 BC, the onset of Alexander's invasion. The period in between has virtually remained a black box.

This neglect of old Persia is also the result of the very nature of the Achaemenid dynasty: the Achaemenids themselves did not record the history of their empire. Apart from very few accidental inscriptions - the most prominent being the relatively short Behistun inscription of Darius I (ca. 519 BC) - there is no Persian narrative at all. Almost everything we know about ancient Persia comes from surviving texts written by enemies or subject peoples of the empire. However, the Achaemenids were tenacious bookkeepers. Those excavated tablets that we possess from the Achaemenid era, show a fascination with recording transactions: who paid how much for what? But not a tendency to preserve the chronicles of the development of Achaemenid rule over their vast territories.

The awesome gap in our knowledge was first boldly tackled by Olmstead in 1948. In retrospect, even if one admires Olmstead's groundbreaking initiative, his study appears quite unsatisfactory in our modern eyes. From the 1970s onwards more scholars have dedicated themselves to the mysterious Achaemenid period. The most prominent representatives of this movement may be the late Heleen Sancisi-Weerdenburg (Leiden University, The Netherlands), Amélie Kuhrt (University College London, U.K.), Josef Wiesehöfer (Germany) and Pierre Briant (France). A conference held in 1979 at Groningen University, The Netherlands, for the first time brought together a small group of scholars whose primary field of interest was Achaemenid Persia.


The research of Achaemenid Persia so far has only revealed more mysteries than answers. For starters: the sudden appearance of the empire under its founding father Cyrus the Great is still something to be explained. Cyrus - whose roots and genealogy are still subject to debate - became the ruler of what allegedly was a just an alliance of Persian nomadic tribes in 559 BC. But by 539 BC he could already rightfully claim to be "king of the world".

On top of that, Pierre Briant has stressed that any equivalent of the modern word 'empire' simply did not exist in the ancient Persian world. Our Greek sources talk about the 'power' of the Great Kings and the Achaemenid inscriptions talk about those 'countries' and 'kings' that were obedient to the Great King. However difficult to grasp through our modern perception, we are facing an empire without a defined boundary. It is probably better to think of Achaemenid Persia as a diverse collection of races and subjects living 'under the sway' of the Great Kings than as a territorial nation state which primary interest it was to 'defend its frontiers'. Macedonia, Alexander's homeland, declared itself a Persian vassal state in 512 BC. Athens, the prominent city state of Greece, sent tokens of submission to Persia in 507 BC but joined a revolt in 499 BC, leading to the famous battle of Marathon (490 BC) and the final destruction of Athens (480 BC). In summary: it is quite difficult to determine exactly which regions belonged to the 'empire' and which did not, certainly through the eyes of the supreme Achaemenids.

Also the cultural framework of the Achaemenid world, its morals and values, is still an enigma that we have not really come to understand. Scholar Josef Wiesehöfer concludes that Persian women were "positively active, enterprising and resolute", even "both attractive and dangerous". This is a world apart from the backward position of women in the traditional Greek Mediterranean civilisation. The Achaemenid empire did not have a true administrative center: there was no proper capital. Persepolis and Pasargadae had ceremonial palaces while the court traveled between the Royal cities of Susa, Babylon and Ecbatana on a repetitive year-round schedule. The empire was thoroughly multilingual - e.g. Aramaic was the written administrative tongue, not Persian. Achaemenid kings fostered and encouraged the rituals of different local religions within the empire (e.g. Cyrus ordered the temple in Jerusalem to be rebuilt). And these are just a few examples of the many aspects in which the 'concepts of empire' in East and West appear irreconcilable. Though we have enough evidence in our sources about Macedonians objecting to Persian customs, we are rarely told about the reverse situation - which provides some food for thought to say the least.

The Last Achaemenid

Recent studies of the Achaemenids (Wiesehöfer 2001, Briant 1995/2002) have tried to do away once and for all with the persistant myth of Persian "decadence". This popular image of Persia as a superpower corrupted by abundant luxury and excessive wealth has had some prominent advocates in the old Greek world, Xenophon (Cyropedia; book VIII) and Plato being its foremost exponents. Briant points out that Alexander as an empire builder relied heavily on copying the effective Persian system of administration. The structure of Achaemenid government provided the Greek-Macedonian conquerors with the means to rule a vast empire that they had never developed on their own account, says Briant. The modern view is that Alexander took over a vibrant and strong empire, with an excellent system of roads and communications and a solid administrative and financial foundation. Alexander's celebrated 'brotherhood of man' policy might have been a rather opportunistic move to secure the co-operation of the Persian nobility, rather than a visionary concept.

In Alexander's time there was one single Great King that rose far above all others in terms of glory, power, status, might and authority. He was the Achaemenid hegemon of the world. In the terms of J.M. Cook (1983): 'the king was the fountainhead of justice who by definition could do no wrong'. Rather than seeing Alexander's campaigns as an attempt to overthrow or eliminate the Persian regime, it might be more appropriate to view his wars as an (successful) way to transfer the undisputed omnipotence of the Achaemenid kings onto his own person. Alexander might justfully be called "the Last Achaemenid". The final detorioration of the Achaemenid empire was not marked by the death of Darius III in 330 BC, but by Alexander's death in 323 BC. Peter Green says that Alexander thought of Greece and Macedon as 'disposable' even in the early stages of conquest, as long as the effort to replace the Great Kings would prove fruitful. Even after Alexander's death, scholars have argued, the Seleucid empire was just as much a continuation of Achaemenid rule as it was the result of Macedonian victory.

The Persian Great Kings were praised for their benign treatment of subjugated nations. Cyrus defeated and captured Astyages (king of Media), Croesus (king of Lydia) and Nabonidus (king of Babylonia). All of them were spared. Cyrus in-married into Astyages' dynasty of Medes and he provided Croesus with a realm of his own to continue a lifestyle appropriate to royalty. If - indeed - Alexander wanted to be the new legitimate Achaemenid, it must have been a great blow to him that Darius III was murdered before his eyes and that he could never pay honours to the former Great King in the way that would have befitted his new status. Persian history indicates that the eastern Achaemenid satrapies (provinces) - peopled by Bactrians, Sogdians and Scythians - seldomly accepted the authority of a new king before he had showed up in person with a grand army to claim what was rightfully his. Alexander's exhaustive campaigns on the eastern edges of his empire might be just a mirror of the exploits of Darius I and Cyrus the Great - two centuries earlier.

Great Links; Pierre Briant's scholarly website (French/English) about modern Achaemenid studies.; Darius III tribute site including an attempt to analyse the old Persian culture.; probably the best website doing justice to an overall overview of the enigmatic Achaemenid empire.

Great Books

amazon.comJ. Wiesehöfer, Ancient Persia, 2001. 332 pages.
Discusses Persia from 550 BC to 650 AD - so you'll get much more than the Achaemenids and Alexander. But this is the finest, to-the-point concise modern treatment of the old Persian dynasty.
You can buy it now with or

amazon.comP. Briant, From Cyrus to Alexander, 2002. 1196 pages.
1196 pages? Yes, 1196 pages. Don't buy this one if you are new to the subject. Wiesehöfer is a far more convenient start. But if you really want to know 'everything'... Merde!
You can buy it now with or

Why these links? Please check Support pothos.

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