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:: Ancient Persian Imperial History :: pt 5 :: Videos


::: 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).  


::: Ancient Persian Imperial History :: A Summary :: pt 1

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

The following summary comes from the material on page 12.

Because Classical texts have little to say about the Persians until the heroic origins of the empire’s founder Cyrus the Great (557-530 bc) who became king of Persia around 557 bc, the origins of the Persian people remains shrouded in mystery.   Cyrus descended from a line of kings who ruled the country of Anshan east of the Persian Gulf.  The kings of Anshan had close ties with the kings of Susa, another great city between Anshan and Babylonia (east of Babylonia and northwest of Anshan), and maintained a cultural and political relationship with the Medes whose heartland was caught between the Persians and Babylonia (northeast of Babylonia and northwest of the Persians). 

Cyrus conquered The Median Empire (625-550 bc) around 550 bc before going on to subjugate the kingdom of Lydia and Asia Minor around 546 bc, and finally the Babylonian king Nabonidus around 539 bc.  After his conquest of Babylonia, Cyrus authorized the Jewish Community to return to Jerusalem and rebuild the Temple of Yahweh and expanded his kingdom to the northeast as far as Bactria-Sogdiana, establishing forts along the left bank of the River Jaxartes which would be regarded as the northern border of the empire. 

Cyrus disappeared during this campaign and was buried at Pasargadae in the heart of the Persian empire.  By the time of his death, Cyrus had expanded a once small kingdom of Persia into a dominant empire that encompassed most of the Ancient Middle East, although Egypt was still left as the last large independent kingdom of the Middle East.  Pharaonic Egypt was soon conquered by Cyrus’ son and successor—Cambyses (530-522 bc), although Cambyses died on his way back from his victory in Egypt. 

In next post we will discuss the Empire’s first major setback. 

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