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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).  


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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