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Very few empires of the ancient period had the same grandeur and prestige as that of the ancient Persian Empire.
The Persian Empire is known variously as the Achaemenid Empire or the First Persian Empire. At its peak, the realm of the Persian kings extended from the Balkans to the east in mainland Europe to the banks of the Indus River in the Indus Valley of the Indian sub-continent.
The Persian rulers had control over an area measuring almost 2.1 million sq mi (5.5 million sq km). The ancient Persians were also part of an empire that housed roughly 44% of the then world population!
Most of the information gathered about the first Persian Empire comes from an amalgamation of sources. Although there is a dearth of written records from this period, archaeological excavations have revealed some valuable insights about the Achaemenid Empire.
Experts in Persian history agree that what we call the 'Achaemenid Empire' begins when the historical figure of Cyrus II emerged on the scene. Cyrus II, or Cyrus the Great, is credited with having been the founder of the Achaemenid Empire. Only after he conquered the empire of the Medians that lay next to his kingdom did the Persian Empire begin to take shape. This event took place sometime between 559 and 550 BC.
In many ways, the Achaemenid Empire was a successor to the older empires of the Mesopotamian region, such as the Assyrian Empire. Still, the former was more organized and far better connected. One of the most essential features of the Achaemenid Empire was that it was able to unite the various nomadic tribes that lived in the far-flung areas of the empire. The kings of this empire were also comparatively more benevolent and understanding than the kings who ruled the same land before them.
Even though the ancient Persians, including the royal family, were worshipers of the religion called Zoroastrianism and followers of the Zoroastrian law, which was most likely the oldest monotheistic religion of the world, they never subjected the people following other faiths and beliefs to follow the Zoroastrian faith. Understandably, the emperors knew that to maintain their grip over such a diverse population, they had to allow freedom to choose which religion to practice.
The power of the kings of the first Persian Empire began to wane during the time of King Xerxes. He had inherited a rich and potent empire from his father, King Darius. Still, he failed to control the royal expenditure in the wasteful wars against Greece. Although it would not be correct to blame only Xerxes for the fall of this great empire, he mainly went after the near-impossible task of conquering the whole of Greece.
In this quest, Xerxes lost a considerable part of the Persian Army, which his later efforts could not recover. Later kings such as Artaxerxes I and Darius II tried their best to stop the erosion of imperial resources; the gaping hole set by Xerxes was too great a task for these later kings. So, by the time Alexander the Great of Macedon set his sights on the Achaemenid Empire in the 330s BC, the empire had grown weak amidst internal strife and revolts in different parts of the realm. The Persian army was still the largest in the world when it faced Alexander's Macedonian and Greek forces in 331 BC.
Despite having far superior numbers and the advantage of having to fight on familiar territory, the ancient Persians proved no match for the military genius of Alexander at the decisive Battle of Gaugamela in 331 BC. The Persians were routed entirely on the field of battle, and King Darius III had to flee the battlefield to escape death. Persia would remain under Macedonian rule until 129 BC after that defeat.
Talk of ancient Persians is never complete without talking about their considerable strides in building magnificent buildings in the imperial cities of Persepolis, Susa, Babylon, Ecbatana, and Pasargadae. At its very best, the exquisite garden at Pasargadae is an example of Persian architecture.
It is important to understand that the core of the empire of the Persians lay in present-day Southern Iran, where the climate is harsh, and the weather remains dry for most of the year. Under such circumstances, it was only quite natural for the kings and emperors to want to build elaborate gardens to provide relief from the sun's scorching heat.
From the historical point of view, it is important to note that when the Islamic forces took over the administration in the latter half of the first millennium AD, they were thoroughly impressed by the work of the Persians in the field of garden construction. When we look at the architectural history of the Islamic empires of the early to the late medieval periods, we find similar characteristics between the Islamic gardens and the earlier Persian gardens.
Another important characteristic of the Persian kings lay in the fact that they were invested in the welfare of their subjects. In an astonishing discovery of the 19th century, an artifact of immense importance was found in the ruins of the ancient city of Babylon that were named appropriately named the 'Cyrus Cylinder'.
This discovery, made in 1879, proved to the whole world that the concept of 'human rights' was not of modern origin. But, in fact, the inscriptions carved on the Cyrus Cylinder were proof enough that ideas of freedom and citizen rights existed in ancient West Asia. The cylinder holds writings indicating the style of rule that was favored by Cyrus the Great. The carvings speak of Cyrus's lenient behavior towards conquered people and the happenings of 539 BC, the year when the great king annexed the kingdom of the Jewish people but refrained from enslaving them. Instead, it was Cyrus who allowed the Jewish community to return to their ancient homeland in the province of Judea to reconstruct their holy temple.
The freedom to follow and practice the religion of one's choice was one of the essential elements of this period. The primary religion of the Persians at this period was Zoroastrianism, which was a monotheistic religion dating back to 4000 BC. Most of the ruling classes were followers of this religion. The bedrock of the religion of Zoroastrianism was based on the Zoroastrian Law of Asha, which rested on the twin pillars of truth and righteousness.
However, historical records have revealed that under the rule of not a single Persian emperor, the subjects were threatened to be advised to discard their indigenous religions and take up the rulers' faith. This also paints a picture of the type of rulers that these kings and emperors were, one that stands the testimony of time.
The Achaemenid Empire was controlled from the center, with around 20 governors ruling their respective provinces or 'satraps' individually. The empire was divided into distinct regions or 'satrapies' during the reign of Darius I.
The empire expanded in all directions under the first four emperors, Cyrus the Great, Cambyses II, Bardiya, and Darius I or Darius the Great. Soon it was near impossible to rule such a vast empire using the existing administrative styles prevalent during that time.
Darius the Great is identified as the king who came up with the structure that would go on to govern the empire for the rest of its time in history. He gave them the power to collect taxes and maintain law and order to the governors or satraps in the provinces. In exchange for territorial autonomy, the central government would sometimes fix a sum of money to be paid at a specified time. To keep the satraps under check, the kings had a mechanism in place that made all the governors answerable to a centralized audit system.
The empire did not have one capital but four imperial capitals. These were Susa, Pasargadae, Ecbatana, and Babylon. From this, it can be ascertained that the Persian kings preferred to move the court across the empire routinely. It may have helped the ruling elite to keep an eye on the day-to-day administration of the kingdom from close range.
The most prominent representative of the king at the regional level was the satrap. Each satrap had to govern a province and was generally very powerful. Satraps enjoyed royal privileges and were selected primarily by the kings themselves. All the essential administrative machinery was allocated to each satrap of the empire for the smooth running of the administration. Sometimes these satraps became too powerful and had to be removed by the king.
Since the empire of the Persians was the largest in the ancient world, it covered millions of miles of surface area. It is no wonder then that a vast population nestled under the watchful eyes of the Persian emperors. According to some historical sources, close to half of the world's total population resided within the borders of the first Persian Empire.
Q: What is the Persian Empire known for?
A: Some of the things that the Persian Empire is known for are its achievements in science and technology, large-scale construction activities, art and architecture, and exquisite craftsmanship, the last of which can be seen in the surviving pieces of ancient Persian rugs.
Q; How large was the Persian Empire?
A: The empire of the ancient Persians was enormous. It had its focal point on the Iranian plateau and, from there, stretched out in all directions. In the east, it had borders next to the Indus Valley and the Indus River; to the north, it covered parts of Central Asia; to the west, it reached the gates of the Balkans, and to the south, its territories reached up to the Persian Gulf. It is estimated that the total area ruled by the Persian rulers measured around 2.1 million sq mi (5.5 million sq km).
Q: Which Persian ruler started the empire?
A: The foundation of the Achaemenid Empire was laid by the Persian king Cyrus the Great.
Q: Who ruled the Persian Empire?
A: The first Persian Empire was ruled by a line of kings belonging to the Achaemenid dynasty.
Q: Why was the Persian Empire so special?
A: The Ancient Persian Empire was special because it was the first 'great empire' in recorded human history. It encompassed three continents- Asia, Europe, and Africa, and Persian culture contributed immensely towards enriching other contemporary cultures in West Asia and the Middle East.
Q: What were the two main things that connected the Persian Empire?
A: The two main things that connected the vast Persian Empire were the trade routes and the postal system. Both were systematically controlled by the central government.
Q: Was the Persian Empire the biggest?
A: The Persian Empire was the biggest until it existed. Later, the empire of the Mongols far surpassed that of the ancient Persians.
Q: How long did the Persian Empire last in years?
A: The Persian Empire lasted from approximately 559 to 331 BC.
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