The Persian Empire

By Tim Lambert

The Persian Empire was created by Cyrus II, known as Cyrus the Great (559-529 BC). Cyrus first defeated another Iranian people called the Medes, then in 547 he defeated the kingdom of Lydia (in what is now Turkey) at the battle of Pterya and he became the ruler of most of Asia Minor. Soon afterward Cyrus also defeated the Greek cities on the Turkish coast. (These had been founded by the Greeks as colonies many years before).

However, Cyrus adopted a policy of allowing conquered areas autonomy (a certain amount of independence) provided they paid their taxes. The Persians were also very tolerant of local religions. Later Persian rulers also followed this policy. Under Darius, the Persian Empire was divided into areas called satrapies and each was ruled by a man called a satrap.

In 539 BC the Persians conquered the rich and powerful city-state of Babylon. The king of Babylon had ruled Syria and Phoenicia (modern-day Lebanon) and both of these were now added to the Persian Empire.

Cyrus was followed by Cambyses II (529-522 BC). In 525 BC he conquered Egypt. He died in 522 BC and was replaced by Darius.

For the first part of his reign, Darius had to deal with rebellions in his empire. He then fought wars with Greece. In 499 BC the Greek cities on the coast of Turkey rebelled. Darius quickly crushed the revolt but in 490 BC he decided to invade Greece to punish the Greeks for assisting the rebels. However, the Persians were defeated by the Athenians at the Battle of Marathon.

In 480 BC another Persian ruler, Xerxes, invaded Greece. This time the Persians captured Athens and burned the Acropolis. However, their fleet was crushed at a naval battle at Salamis. In 479 BC the Greeks won a decisive battle at Plataea, which assured Greek independence. Xerxes was assassinated in 465 BC.

Despite its brilliance, the Persian Empire declined after 400 BC. For one thing, the empire suffered from its sheer size, which made it difficult to control. The empire suffered a series of rebellions. It also suffered from political instability. Another ruler, Artaxerxes III, was assassinated in 338 BC. Finally, the great Persian Empire was destroyed by Alexander the Great in 331 BC.

To deal with the arid climate the Persians developed an irrigation system. They built underground canals. These irrigation tunnels were often several kilometers long. They sloped slightly so gravity moved the water.

Persian farmers grew wheat, barley, olives, and wine. They raised cattle, goats, and sheep. Hunting and fishing were also important sources of food. (Rich Persians also enjoyed hunting wild animals).

Moreover because of the vast size of the Persian Empire crops from one region were introduced to another. Rice and flax were introduced into Mesopotamia. Sesame was introduced into Egypt.

Rich Persians lived in palaces of timber, stone, and brick. They had comfortable upholstered furniture such as beds, couches, and chairs. Tables were overlaid with gold, silver, and ivory. The rich also owned gold and silver vessels, as well as glass vessels. They also owned tapestries and carpets.

Rich people in the Persian empire also had beautiful gardens. (Our word ‘paradise’ comes from the Persian word for garden).

For the ordinary people in Persia, things were quite different. They lived in simple huts made from mud bricks. If they were quite well off they might live in a house of several rooms arranged around a courtyard. However poor people lived in huts of just one room. Any furniture was very basic.

Last revised 2023