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::: Ancient Persian Imperial History :: pt 4 :: The Decline of Persian Domination

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

**The following material comes from pages 14-17 of the above cited work.

Artaexerxes II (below): “A plaque from Achaemenid times depicting … Artaxerxes II (404-359 BC ) being faced with the figure of goddess Anahita who is dpeicted as riding a lion – in the background (of Anahita) is the clear depiction of the sun.”  (HT: KavehFarrokh.com

Artexerxes II, achaemenid-plaque

Artaxerxes II’s reign is the last stable reign that did not end in an assassination.  Between civil wars, assassinations of kings, and alliances among the Greeks, the tide of Persian dominance over the Mediterranean would begin to subside.  Although Artaxerxes II would overcome the civil war that marked the beginning of his reign as well as the strap revolts toward the end of his reign, and would go on to have the forty six years of power as the sole ruler of the largest Empire in the world, he would be the last of the ancient Persian kings to enjoy such stability. 

His son, Artaxerxes III (359/8—338 BC), would control the Empire for a considerable twenty years, even gaining back control of Egypt and putting down a revolt at Sidon in Phoenicia.  A little over ten years after this accomplishment, however, he would suffer the fate of assassination by a eunuch named Bagoas who at first appointed one of Artaxerxes III’s sons to the throne (Artaxerxes IV, 338—336 BC).  After a meager two short years on the throne, however, Bagoas changed his mind, removed him from power, and promoted Artashata under the respected name Darius (Darius III, 336 BC—330 BC). 

If Artaxerxes III’s reign was less than half that of his father (who enjoyed the longest reign of all the Ancient Kings in Persia), his son suffered a much worse fate, and illustrates the point I made in my last post about how fragile these dynasties became during times of power transition.  Whoever controlled the armed forces controlled the Empire, and dynastic successions only worked when those succeeding the throne were successful in military relations and battle. 

Darius III did not fair much better than Artaxerxes IV.  Egypt revolted again during his reign.  He was assassinated after only six years on the throne (330 BC) by his close relations.  Considering that Alexander took control of Egypt just two years later (332 BC) it has been commonplace to assume that the Persian Empire was by that time in full decline, but in reality the situation was much more complicated.  When Darius III’s imperial military reserves faced the Macedonian army at Granicus their navy was undeniably superior—even though, for some strange reason, they did not oppose the Macedonian landings. 

Finally, however, in 333 B.C., Alexander defeated the Persians at Issus and in 331 B.C. the Macedonians defeated the King’s troops in Upper Mesopotamia (Gaugamela).  The conflict appears to betray the reality that although the Persian empire had almost an inexauhstable amount of reserves of soldiers and funds for war, the Macedonians were better at military tactics and war strategy.  It was only after Alexander won the loyalty of the satraps in the Western empire that Darius III’s chances of maintaining control were hindered.  Defections only occurred little by little as Alexander won the loyalty of the satraps whose lands he conquered one by one (first the governor of Sardis, then the governor of Damascus).  When the satrap Mazaeus struck a deal with Alexander in exchange for the post of satrap of Babylon his example was followed by the satrap of Susa, then by the commanders of Persepolis and Pasargadae. 

Through this kind of political maneuvering, Alexander was able to finally put the Persian rule on the defense.  Even then, however, the Persian king Darius III had an impressive amount of satraps and strategists all ready to serve him and many of the places Alexander conquered put up stubborn resistance in loyalty to the Persian king (e.g. Tyre & Gaza). 

Whilst the Greek and Latin texts like to testify to the triumphal entry of Alexander into Egypt and Babylon, and to explain that the populations were delighted to be rid of their Persian oppressors, the situation was not like this in reality.  In the course of his conquests, Alexander faithfully adopted the strategy followed by the Achaemenid kings since Cyrus: to make alliances with the local elites, to recognize the position and the privileges which they enjoyed in their own countries, and to respect their sanctuaries, gods and local cults. … In other words, the reception which Alexander received in various cities does not reflect how the people felt about Achaemenid domination. … Alexander decided very early (from the capture of Sardis in 334 B.C.) to propose to the Iranian nobility that they work with him and in collaboration with the Greeks and the Macedonians. (17)

After 330 B.C. when Darius III was assassinated, Alexander presented himself as the avenger of Darius and re-established the borders of the Persians at Syr Darya in the north and the Indus in the east before imposing imperial domination on the Persian gulf. 

With this in mind, the true end of the Achaemenid imperial ideal should be dated not to 330 B.C. but to 323 B.C. when Alexander died: after this fighting broke out between the Diadochi (the Successors), which eventually led to the creation of competing and hostile kingdoms (the Hellenistic kingdoms), instead of the united empire created by Cyrus and his successors, and then revived by Alexander. (17)         



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