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:: 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 :: 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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