The Achaemenid Empire the First Ever Persian Glory

  November 25, 2023   Read time 4 min
The Achaemenid Empire the First Ever Persian Glory
In order to understand what Achaemenid history entails and to study it in a meaningful way, the interdisciplinary approach which began with the Achaemenid History Workshops is key, for we are dealing not only with a vast range of different languages and scripts, from different periods.

The first Persian empire, which is known as the Achaemenid empire after the eponymous ancestor Achaemenes, was founded in 550 by Cyrus II. He is one of the few rulers in world history who received the epithet ‘the Great’. It is more than apt. Cyrus II established an empire which, at its largest extent, stretched from Egypt and the eastern Mediterranean to the Indus River. It included the whole of modern Turkey and Europe to the Danube River; it controlled the lands of Central Asia now bordering on Russia. If the conquests themselves were an impressive achievement, it was at least equally formidable that this empire remained in the control of one dynasty for over 200 years, until its conquest by Alexander III of Macedon and the death of its last king, Darius III, in 330. It was Cyrus II who set the course for the success of a political concept which ensured the longevity of his empire, which, at its core, was characterised by tolerance: the subject peoples of the empire were allowed to continue their own way of life, adhere to their own languages, follow their own religious cults and practices and maintain their own cultural habitat. This is not to claim that Cyrus II and his successors, far ahead of their time, were enlightened or humane rulers. Rather, their decision to tolerate other peoples’ and nations’ beliefs and cultural habits was anchored in the concept of political expediency. The less state force was used on the inhabitants of any land, the less likely was the chance of opposition to the governing power. Permitting people their own language, culture and religion greatly reduced the grounds for resistance to Persian rule.


There were two areas where this political tolerance met its limits: in the payment of taxes and tribute, and in rebellion. While there is no record that any of the lands of the empire ever refused the former, rebellions did happen, and they were severely punished. Persian kings did not tolerate disloyalty or disobedience, and any land which tried to secede from the empire faced a relentless Persian might, no matter how long it took to recover a province. The most extreme case undoubtedly was Egypt, never a willing subject of the Persian king, but which began a revolt in 404 which was only quashed in 343/2 by Artaxerxes III. While such rebellions were staged in a bid for independence, others were directed at the king, challenging his authority. Several revolts occurred in the period between the death of one king and the accession of his successor. If that succession was not clear‐cut, that is, if there was no son alive born to the king and his Persian queen, the succession was fought over by half‐brothers, leading to rebellion or, in the case of Artaxerxes II and his brother Cyrus the Younger, to war. Yet despite these upheavals, royal power remained within the same dynasty and often led to long reigns, such as that of Artaxerxes I, who ruled for 40 years, or that of Artaxerxes II, whose reign lasted 45 years.

Royal inscriptions and the palatial building programme reflect an inherent sense of continuity among the Achaemenid kings and an awareness of the place they took within their own imperial history. The ‘king of kings’ was eager to manifest his heritage and his position within the line of kings his family had created. Building projects begun by his predecessor were proudly completed, and existing palaces restored, remembering the ancestor who had built it. At their investiture, the kings observed a ritual in Pasargadae, the first royal city of the Persians, in commemoration of the founder of the empire, Cyrus II.

For many scholars, students and general readers, especially in the western world, the Persian empire conjures up two images in particular: firstly, the Persian Wars against Greece in 490 and 480/79, and secondly, the conquest of Persia in 330 by the Macedonian king Alexander the Great. The focus on the Persian defeats in the Greek sources which reported them led to the overwhelming impression of a weak empire in a perpetual state of decline. This view finds its origin in our earliest surviving Greek sources on Persian history, the Histories of Herodotus (lived c.484–425), and the tragedy The Persians written by Aeschylus (lived 525/4–456), first performed in 472. Both works created, in the aftermath of the Persian War of 480/79, the antithesis between Greeks and barbarians, the latter becoming a stereotyped reference to the Persians in the fifth and fourth centuries in Greek written and visual arts. Together, these sources shaped the idea of the antithesis between (Greek) freedom and (Persian) despotism, as well as between Europe and Asia. This theme found itself perpetuated in classical scholarship for about 200years, educating generations of students of Classics and Ancient History to accept the ‘traditional’ view as given.

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