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::: Ancient Persian Imperial History :: pt 2 :: The Empire’s Peak

Forgotten Empire: The World of Ancient Persia, eds. John Curtis and Nigel Tallis.  Berkeley Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2005.

The following material is a summary of the contents on page 13.  Pictures shown below are not from the book.

The Empire’s Peak Under the Reign of King Darius (522-486 BC)

The imperial domination of the Persians underwent its first serious crisis during the two years immediately following the death of Cambyses: 522 to 520 BC.  A member of the priestly class of the Medes (now known as Gaumata) usurped the throne, seizing power in Persia and legitimizing his right to rule by taking the name Smerdis who was a son of Cyrus the Great.  A Persian by the name of Darius also linked himself to the royal line and launched a counter attack and removed the threat within just 7 months. 

After subjugating Gaumata, however, Darius and his generals had to spend the next year taking up arms against a series of revolts within the Empire.  Darius was able to dominate the opposing armies and take control of the empire.  To commemorate his victories and make an example of those who would rebel against the King, he ordered the construction of a relief with trilingual inscription on the cliff at Bisitun in Media.  The relief depicted Gaumata lying on his back under the foot of King Darius.  Behind Gaumata are a line of the rebellious kings whom Darius had overcome, each bound to each other by a chord that passed around their necks.  All of them are paraded in front of their triumphant conqueror. 

Darius Relief at Bisitun

Not only did Darius stamp out these revolts, he expanded his empire in Central Asia by overthrowing King Skunkha (also later added to the Bisitun relief, depicted on the extreme right) and by annexing the Indus valley to the empire by 518 BC.  Although the empire faced its first crisis at the beginning of Darius’ reign, the Persian empire reached its peak under the reign of Darius. 

At one point the empire was so vast, and the Persian army so strong, that while  Darius’ generals led a campaign against Cyrenaica in North Africa, Darius led armies into Europe conquering the western coast of the Euxine Sea (the Black Sea) pursuing the Scythian armies beyond the River Danube (Istros).  After this campaign Darius left a strong army in Europe and charged them to annex Thrace and Macedonia.  Darius’ empire was beyond anything the ancient world had seen; it was unparalleled by any empire or kingdom to this point in history. 

The revolt of the Greek cities of Asia Minor in 499-493 BC did not spoil Darius’s track record.  What we term the first Persian War cannot simply be reduced to the defeat at Marathon in 490 BC, since another consequence was the subjugation of the Aegean islands.  By this date the empire extended from the Indus to the Balkans (13).  




  1. Enjoyed your historical sketch of the Persian Empire.

  2. Bradley says:

    Thanks Dr. Willingham. I’ll take that as a high compliment given the fact that you have five degrees!


  3. […] king who ruled after the golden period (see last post) was the famous king Xerxes (486-465 BC).  Perhaps he is more famous for the defeats he suffered […]

  4. Roham says:

    I just wondering When we had Arabian Sea???
    they had 2 remind Cyrus 2 name Persian gulf instead of Arabian Sea….
    unfortunatly i guess u have 2 change ur pic or write the reall name!

    Best regards!

  5. Roham,

    Thanks for your contribution to this discussion. Where do you live?

    Are you saying “Persian Gulf” was the most commonly used name for the sea labeled “Arabian Sea” on this map during the time of the Persian Empire? Or are you saying that nobody during that time period referred to that sea as the “Arabian Sea?”

    I would be interested to discover what historical claim you might be making.


  6. sepenta===Im persian boy says:

    just persian gulf for ever.we are give freedom to all of human of the world.
    The world must be know cyrus=king of kings.

  7. sattar says:

    All of the seas named in the map but you didnt write the name of persian gulf. And this is unbearable.

  8. Alec says:

    does anyone here know a site with a map of ancient Greece and persia before and after alexander the greats conquest

  9. I couldn’t find any maps specifically fitting a “before Alexander / after Alexander” schema, so I guess you will just have to use maps of ancient imperial Persia and maps of post-Alexandrian Greece and Persia.

  10. Taylah says:

    I know nobodies probably going to read this but I am doing an assignment on the Persian religion Zoroastrianism and one of my sub questions is when and where were Mesopotamia and the persian empires at their heights. I needed to get some reliable sources for my answers preferably primary sources but I don’t know where to look.

  11. Taylah,

    There was no such thing as “the Mesopotamia Empire,” but the Persian, Assyrian, Babylonian, and Egyptian empires were all in the Mesopotamia region (for dates, see: http://www.flowofhistory.com/units/pre/2/fc10).

    For the the answer to the question: “When and where were … the Persian empires at their heights?” – see my first line of this post, which reads: The Empire’s Peak Under the Reign of King Darius (522-486 BC). This empire as it existed under King Darius was the most powerful ancient Persian empire that ever existed.

    Thanks for visiting, and I wish you well on your assignment.

    T h e o • p h i l o g u e

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