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


::: 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)         


:: Ancient Persian Imperial History :: pt 3 :: Xerxes to Artaxerxes II

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 my summary of context on pages 13-16 of the above cited work.

The 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 in the second Persian War (480-479 BC) than for anything positive (e.g. the action movie 300).  In spite of the creation of the Delian League in 478 BC under the control of Athens that seriously threatened Persian control in the eastern Aegean, the Achaemenid Empire did not enter into a long period of decline during Xerxes reign.  Such is a Greek-centered view of the Persian Empire, and does not bear up to analysis of Elamite documentation from Persepolis. 

It is true, however, that the Persian Empire was not a monarchy of the constitutional type where the ultimate word lies with a stable body of decision makers rather than the standing army.  Because of this, “the dynastic succession was very frequently called into question by plots and assassinations.”  Xerxes was assassinated by plotters and his death was followed by a violent dispute among his sons.  Although his successor, king Artaxerxes (465-424 BC) was not assassinated and enjoyed a long reign, his successor Darius II (424-404 BC) gained power by force after his death in a similar situation.  Likewise, Darius’ successor, Artaxerxes II (404-358 BC) had to defend his claim to power against Cyrus the Younger who raised an army including soldiers from as far as Greece and advanced as far as Babylonia in hopes to seize power.  Because the Persian king was king over lands that extended so far, rebellions were inevitable—especially once the Delian League mustered alliance insecurities around Mediterranean Sea.  Unfortunate for Cyrus, Artaxerxes II defeated him at the battle of Cunaxa and enjoyed the longest reign of any Achaemenid king—forty-six years in total.  See Tomb of Artaxerxes II below (picture not from book).   

Tomb of Artaxerxes II

One of the consequences of this civil war was the loss of Persian control in Egypt.  Between 404 and 400, Egypt was able to pose a threat to Persian control.  At the end of this period, control in Egypt had been successfully seized by an Egyptian dynasty.  Although Artaxerxes II was unable to give his full attention to Egypt at the time and lost control, this was the greatest loss for the duration of his power.  He is also responsible for stamping out the so-called “great revolt of the satraps,” the most serious incident occurring between 366 and 359 BC in the western coastal areas.  Satraps were provincial governors of the Persian Empire, so this was a united rebellion of certain western parts of the empire.  The uprising ended pitifully according to the Greek author Diodorus of Sicily.  Orontes, their leader, found it more convenient to deliver his companions to the royal government.  The central government of the Achaemenid dynasty was never seriously threatened by the rebellion of the satraps.

::: 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. 

Forgotten Empire: The World of Ancient Persia

The following is the first of series of posts about the Ancient Persian Empire as summarized in the following book: 

Forgotten Empire Icon

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

Forgotten Empire is named after an exhibition of the British Museum accomplished with the cooperation of the National Museum of Iran and therefore not only incorporates the contributions of a host of scholars, historians, archeologists, and museum directors, but also features hundreds of color photos of artifacts of some of the wonders of ancient Persia.  With each contributor focusing on a different aspect of the famous Achaemenid empire, each chapter is independent, leaving the reader with the option of exploring the chapters in whatever order she prefers.  Not only this, but every chapter is furnished with a multitude of visual illustrations from maps, artifacts, and reconstructive sketches.  The experience is like walking through a museum with expert scholars giving live commentary; this book has all the perks one could ask for in a treatment of Ancient Persia.  Because it would not be possible to summarize each chapter individually in this short review, I will focus on content from the book that I found most interesting.

It appears to be part of the conscious agenda of the various contributors to correct false impressions about ancient Persia by recognizing that the perspective of the Greeks—particularly Herodotus’ writings—about the ancient Persians was not only limited but also bias, as most ancient historians were. 

Ancient Persia is perhaps best remembered in the west for its war with Greece and for the later invasion by Alexander of Macedon in 334-330 bc, culminating in the gratuitous destruction of Persepolis.  For the Persians, however, the Graeco-Persian Wars were probably little more than a troublesome frontier skirmish that took place nearly 2,000 miles away from Persepolis, and native Iranian sources are largely silent on this question.  Instead, our information about the wars and about much else in connection with the ancient Persians comes from Greek authors such as Herodotus.  These accounts are inevitably written from a Greek rather than a Persian perspective, and it is because of them that the conflict is often represented as a contest between freedom and democracy on the one hand, and tyranny and despotism on the other.  One of the aims of the exhibition will be to redress this negative Eurocentric view of the ancient Persians (9). 

In our next post, we will begin to summarize the history of the Persian Empire.

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