The Persians: empire of the greats
Not even a 2,000-year smear campaign, instigated by the Greeks, can obscure the staggering achievements of the ancient Persians. Lloyd Llewellyn-Jones tells the story of the Iranian dynasty that forged the greatest empire the world had ever known
Around 1943, Robert Graves penned a poem. In it he took his customary sideways glance at the world of antiquity and chose as his theme the subject of war and propaganda. He focused on the battle of Marathon, fought in 499 BC between the forces of Athens and Persia. Hailed as a magnificent triumph for the Athenians, Marathon had quickly become mythologised in the Greek-speaking world. When the Persians were repelled from Greek soil, the legend of the heroic fight for freedom over despotism was born.
And that’s not all. For Europe, in this reading of history, was also born at Marathon. So was the British empire. This is why, writing in 1846, John Stuart Mill could claim that, “even as an event in English history”, the battle of Marathon was “more important than the battle of Hastings”.
Robert Graves questioned that stance and preferred to read the fallout of Marathon as the ultimate triumph of a successful and long-lived Athenian propaganda campaign.
The poem that Graves penned in 1943 – The Persian Version – is therefore written from the viewpoint of the “truth-loving Persians” themselves. For them, he stresses, Marathon was little more than a “trivial skirmish” at the western fringes of their empire and certainly not the “grandiose, ill-starred attempt / to conquer Greece” that had been dreamed up by the Athenians and sold lock, stock and barrel to British public schoolboys for generations.
Take a look at a map (below) of southeast Europe, north Africa and western Asia at the start of the fifth century BC, when the battle of Marathon was fought, and it’s hard not to conclude that Graves was on to something. Between the rise of Cyrus the Great in the mid-sixth century BC and the death of his descendant Darius III two centuries later, the Persians (with the formidable Achaemenid dynasty at their head) presided over the greatest empire the world had yet seen.
At its greatest extent, the Achaemenids’ territory stretched from Libya in the southwest to the Indus Valley in the north-east, encompassing modern-day nations including Pakistan, Iran, Iraq, Turkey and Greece. This was an empire built on an advanced infrastructure, a degree of tolerance towards diverse cultures and religions and, when required, overwhelming force. Given the immense power that they wielded for 200 years, is it any surprise that Graves concluded that the Persians may well have regarded their entanglements with the Greeks as a mere sideshow?
Graves was, however, swimming against the tide. During the Enlightenment two centuries earlier, intellectuals had begun to theorise as to why the west had become so dominant in the world order and had been so successful in the spread of white civilisation. They came up with a radical theory: European superiority came not from Christianity, as had previously been thought, but from a cultural tradition that began in ancient Greece. The Greeks, they stipulated, invented freedom and rationality, and Rome then spread these precious gifts across Europe in a series of civilising imperial conquests. Other cultures on the fringes of Greece and Rome were barbaric. The worst and most threatening of the barbarians were the Persians, with their quest for world domination.
Since the era of the Greco-Persian Wars, the Persians have been at the receiving end of a smear campaign in which they have been cast as the tyrannical oppressors of the free world. This has been hugely damaging for the study of the history of ancient Persia – and it’s a problem that’s been compounded by the fact that the Persians never wrote narrative history in the way that the Greeks did, instead relying on oral storytelling, poetry and song to transmit their past.
Saved from tyranny
So what to do? How can historians go about liberating the Persians from the tyranny of the classical tradition? How can we relate the rise and fall of their remarkable empire from a perspective that was for so long written out of history – their own? The answer is provided by a dizzying, but wonderfully illuminating, assortment of genuine sources. There are royal inscriptions in the Old Persian language; there are rich archives of cuneiform documents written on clay which tell us about the workings of the empire, its economy and its civil service; there is a dossier of art – wall reliefs, textile designs, gold and silver work – and a magnificent heritage of archaeology to tell the inside story of Persia’s past. Thanks to the emergence of those historical treasures, we have finally been able to give the Persians a platform from which to tell their own story.
A king on the rise
That story begins in the middle of the sixth century with the rise of one of the most remarkable rulers of the ancient world: Cyrus II, or “the Great”. When Cyrus came to power in 559 BC, Persia was a small kingdom located in south-west Iran, one of several Iranian tribes in the vassalage of the kingdom of the Medes. By the time he died in 530 BC, it was well on its way to superpower status.
The breakthrough moment came in 550 BC when Cyrus, supported by a coalition of south Iranian tribes, marched north to attack the Medes and sacked their capital, Ecbatana. He then moved against the powerful kingdom of Lydia in Asia Minor, capturing its wealthy capital, Sardis – a victory that cleared the path for him to seize other important cities along the Ionian coast.
Another milestone in Persia’s rise arrived in 540 BC when Cyrus launched an attack on the Neo-Babylonian empire, centred in Mesopotamia, and entered the fabulously wealthy city of Babylon. The Persian ruler apparently met no military or political resistance, and maintained the status quo by allowing Babylonian officials to continue in their governmental and religious offices.
Much of our knowledge of the fall of Babylon comes from the Cyrus Cylinder, composed on Cyrus’s orders, although written from a Babylonian perspective. As a piece of imperial propaganda, the Cylinder attempts to legitimise Cyrus’s conquest of Babylon by representing the king as the chosen champion of the god Marduk.
Following the conquest of Babylonia, Cyrus forged a truly international empire. At Pasargadae in Iran, the king built a tomb and a palace planted with a formal garden irrigated by a myriad of water-channels. The result was nothing short of a desert paradise – one that, with its architectural representations of the cultures now under Persian rule, acted as an empire in miniature. The royal rhetoric emphasised that all conquered nations of this empire were united in service to the Great King, whose laws they were required to obey and whose majesty they were obliged to uphold. The king was championed by the great god Ahuramazda, who granted the monarch the gift of kingship in order to stabilise world order, since unrest and rebellion were linked to cosmic disorder. Rebellion against Persian authority was seen as a revolt against divine authority because the Great King served Ahuramazda’s will on Earth.
Rites and rituals
Cyrus the Great died in war, fighting a central Asian tribe called the Massagetae. The king’s demise would no doubt have dealt a heavy blow to the Persian imperial project, but it wasn’t enough to reverse the empire’s expansion. In fact, Cyrus’s successor, Cambyses II, added a significant prize to Persia’s imperial possessions: Egypt.
Greek sources portray Cambyses as a mad despot, tyrannically oppressing his subjects and impiously debasing the religious traditions of his conquered nations, but archaeological evidence from Egypt paints a different picture. It suggests that the king adopted a policy of religious harmony: inscriptions from the Serapeum in Memphis (dated 524 BC) confirm that he honoured the death of a sacred bull with due rites and rituals.
- Read more | Your guide to the battle of Thermopylae
The laissez faire attitude to diverse religious and cultural beliefs exhibited by Cambyses appears to have been a hallmark of Persian rule. Yet the Achaemenids could quickly employ brute force to get their own way – as is proven by the rise of the man who would rival Cyrus II as the most accomplished of all Persian rulers, and preside over the empire at its zenith: Darius the Great. Darius seized power in 522 BC from Cyrus’s son Bardiya in a bloody palace coup, and was utterly ruthless in bringing the empire to heel when it was rocked by a wave of revolts. In little more than a year, he had defeated, captured and executed the rebel leaders and for the rest of his 36-year reign he was never threatened with an uprising again.
Contemporary Persian texts attest to the scope of Darius’s power, and his ferocity in defending it. According to one source, Ahuramazda himself had given to Darius “the kingship of this wide Earth with many lands in it – Persia, Media, and the other lands of other tongues, of the mountains and the plains, of this side of the ocean and the far side of the ocean, and of this side of the desert and the far side of the desert”.
In another text, the king himself warns of the dire punishments he was prepared to mete out to those who dared to rebel. “I am furious in the strength of my revenge with both hands and both feet,” he is said to have declared.
Rebellion against Persian authority was seen as a revolt against divine authority
Yet Darius’s formidable reputation wasn’t just built on raw military might. He was particularly concerned with implementing empire-wide building and engineering projects. In Egypt he built a canal between the Nile and the Red Sea. In the Iranian heartland he started a mammoth building programme at Persepolis, which would become the ceremonial capital of his empire. The Elamite city of Susa (western Iran) was given a new lease of life when it became the administrative capital.
- Read more about how Persepolis became the Persian empire's foremost citadel
Presiding over a 2-million-square-mile empire presented an enormous logistical challenge, even for a ruler as capable as Darius. His solution was to divide the empire’s territories into administrative satrapies (provinces) and to hand out the top posts to a tiny group of men drawn exclusively from the highest echelons of the Persian aristocracy. These satraps attempted to foster healthy interactions with local elites and they often used well-established regional administrative systems to work for them. The smooth running of the empire relied on their ability to ensure that the levy of tribute required from each region was maintained – and, for the most part, they appeared to have achieved that. In fact, the satrapy system is one of the chief reasons why the Persians were able to control such a vast empire for so long.
Another factor that gave the Persian empire a critical competitive edge was the quality of its infrastructure. First-rate roads connected the main satrapal centres with the imperial core. These were measured in 3.7-mile intervals (known as parasangs), while road-stations were set up around every 17 miles to accommodate the quick change of fresh horses for any imperial messenger carrying official documents. Herodotus estimated that the distance from Susa to Sardis in western Anatolia (450 parasangs – or 1,700 miles) could be covered in just 90 days.
The sheer vastness of Darius’s empire is also reflected in Achaemenid art. This was essentially an eclectic mix of styles and motifs drawn from different parts of the empire, but fused together to produce a distinctive and harmonious look that was distinctly Persian. Egyptian and Assyrian motifs (like solar disks and winged genii) were melded together to reflect in material form both the diversity and unity of the empire.
In a way, Achaemenid art was always royal art since the motifs created for the glorification of the king are found time and again in almost all Persian material artefacts, ranging from vast rock cut sculptures – such as those found at Bisitun or the tombs of the kings at Naqsh i-Rustam and Persepolis – to miniscule engravings found on gemstones.
For all his accomplishments as a warrior and an administrator, Darius the Great is chiefly remembered, in the west at least, as the despot whose designs on Greece were brought to a bloody end at the battle of Marathon. While Darius may have had ambitions to incorporate Greece into his empire, Herodotus’s account of Greco-Persian tensions wildly exaggerates the Persian response to the Greek resistance.
Darius died in 486 BC, and the task of expanding the empire was left to his son Xerxes. Xerxes could show ruthlessness when required, swiftly stamping out rebellions in Egypt and Babylonia. But like his father, the new king also found the Greeks a tough nut to crack. Although he captured Athens in 480 BC, Xerxes’ forces suffered damaging defeats to the Greeks both at sea (Salamis) and on land (at Plataea and Mycale). Faced with the reality that Greece would never be incorporated into his empire, Xerxes elected to abandon his invasion and march home.
The Achaemenids ran their empire as a family business – that’s why the Persian empire lasted so long
The following century and a half witnessed palace coups, internal rebellions, the loss and reconquest of Egypt, and the crushing of a revolt in Sidon (in modern-day Lebanon). But, for all these crises, Persia’s primacy continued unchallenged – until, in the 330s BC, a figure emerged in Greece who would topple the entire Achaemenid edifice in a few short years: Alexander the Great.
The king charged with halting the Macedon juggernaut was Darius III. That he failed to do so has proven a stain on his reputation ever since, but in reality Darius was a brave soldier and an able administrator who posed a serious threat to Alexander’s dreams of glory. But not even Darius could prevent two major losses to Alexander in battle – at Issus in 333 BC and again at Gaugamela in 331. Following the second defeat, Darius fled to Ecbatana in western Iran to try to raise fresh troops, and from there to Bactria, where he was killed by his own cousin, Bessus. Darius’s death in 330 BC marked the end of the Persian empire, and a new phase in world history – one that would see Alexander the Great build an empire that would eclipse even that of the Persians.
Despite revolts, frontier problems, succession struggles and regicides, the Persian empire had held onto its enormous territories and diverse subject populations for more than two centuries. The question that inevitably arises of these facts, therefore, is not why did the Persian empire come to an end, but rather how did it stay successful for so long? There is one fundamental answer to that question: the Achaemenid family never lost its exclusive hold on the kingship. The Achaemenids ran their empire as a family business. There were rebellions within the imperial house, it is true, but they never focused on establishing separatist states, only on who should sit on the throne as the head of the Achaemenid family.
Today the study of the Persian empire is expanding and flourishing as never before. Textual studies of indigenous Persian sources continue to appear, and since the 1930s the archaeology of the empire has been producing unexpected finds which constantly force scholars to rethink our definitions of empire. To borrow from Robert Graves, it is now possible to tell the genuine Persian Version of Iran’s rich history.
539 BC | Cyrus marches on Babylon and begins to rule there.
525 BC | Cyrus’s son Cambyses II conquers Egypt, north Africa and Nubia.
522 BC | Darius I (the Great), seizes the throne and establishes the Achaemenid dynasty.
c515 BC | Darius begins works on the construction of the great citadel of Persepolis in south-west Iran.
499 BC | Darius crushes an uprising in Lydia, western Anatolia, but is defeated by the Greeks at the battle of Marathon.
480 BC | Darius’s successor, Xerxes, captures Athens but is forced to quit Greece after a succession of military reversals.
423 BC | Darius II ascends the throne. His reign is marred by a series of revolts in the western satrapies.
343 BC | Artaxerxes III reconquers Egypt following its break from the empire at the beginning of the fourth century BC.
336 BC | Darius III ascends the throne. His reign coincides with the rise of Alexander the Great, who defeats the Persians in battle at Issus in 333 BC and Gaugamela in 331.
330 BC | Alexander the Great destroys Persepolis. Darius III, the last Achaemenid Great King, is murdered by his cousin Bessus.
Lloyd Llewellyn-Jones is professor of ancient history at Cardiff University and the director of the ancient Iran programme for the British Institute of Persian Studies (BIPS). His latest book is Persians: The Age of the Great Kings (Wildfire 2022)
This article was first published in the May 2022 issue of BBC History Magazine