History of the Persian Empire Until the sixth century BC, they were a people shrouded in mystery. Living in the area east of the Mesopotamian region, the Persians were a disparate group of Indo-European tribes, some nomadic, some settled, that were developing their own culture and religion unique from that of the great cities to their west. Sometimes history is about ideas, and nothing more clearly emphasizes this aspect of history than the sudden eruption of Persians on to the world stage, or at least the world stage as it centered around Mesopotamia. For the sudden rise of Persian power not only over Mesopotamia, but over the entire known world, has its center of gravity in a new set of ideas constellating around a new religion. For the Persians would become the largest and most powerful empire ever known in human history up until that point. By 486 BC, the Persians would control all of Mesopotamia and, in fact, all of the world from Macedon northeast of Greece to Egypt, from Palestine and the Arabian peninsula across Mesopotamia and all the way to India.
The Persians throughout their history, such as we know it, lived peacefully in the region just north of the Persian Gulf (modern day Iran). For the most part, they were left unbothered by the epic power struggles broiling to the west in Mesopotamia, Palestine, and Egypt. They were Indo-European peoples who spoke a language similar to Sanskrit and who worshipped gods very similar to the gods of the Vedic period in India. Life was hard in the region they controlled; the coastline afforded no harbors and the eastern region was mountainous. Only a few interior valleys supported the peoples; in part because of the geography, the Persians never really united into a single peoples but rather served as disparate vassal states to the Medes, who, from their capital at Ecbatana, controlled the area east of the Tigris river.
In this state, somewhere around 650 BC, a new religion suddenly took hold. While we know little or nothing about the Persians in this period, we know the man who invented this new religion. Called Zarathustra (Zoroaster in Greek), his new religion and new gods captivated the spiritual and social imagination of the Persians. In its roughest outlines, Zoroastrianism is a dualistic religion; in Zarathustra’s cosmos, the universe was under the control of two contrary gods, Ahura-Mazda, the creating god who is full of light and good, and Ahriman, the god of dark and evil. These two evenly matched gods are in an epic struggle over creation; at the end of time, Ahura-Mazda and his forces will emerge victorious. All of creation, all gods, all religions, and all of human history and experience can be understood as part of this struggle between light and dark, good and evil. Zoroastrianism, however, is a manifestly eschatological religion; meaning and value in this world is oriented towards the end of history and the final defeat of Ahriman and all those gods, humans, and other animate forces arrayed on the dark side of creation.
It is not possible to underestimate how Zoroastrianism changed the Persian world and its sense of its own community. If the world and human history could be understood as an epic struggle between good and evil, a struggle whose ultimate trajectory is the establishment of good throughout the universe and the defeat of evil, then one’s own role, as an enlightened people, in the world becomes vastly different. This political role in the world was put together by Cyrus, called The Great.
Cyrus was a first in human history, for he was the first to conceive of an idea that would forever fire the political and social imaginations of the people touched by the Persians. That idea? Conquer the world.
Up until Cyrus, no culture or individual had ever really thought this one up. Territorial conquests, like monarchical power, were justified on religious grounds, but these religious grounds never gave rise to the notion that one’s religious duty was to conquer the whole of the world as you knew it.
In 559 BC, Cyrus became the chief of an obscure Persian tribe in the south of Persia. A devoted Zoroastrianism, he believed that his religious duty was to bring about the eschatological promises of Zoroastrianism through active warfare. If the universe was an epic struggle between the forces of Ahura-Mazda and the forces of evil, Cyrus his job as personally bringing about the victory of his god. As an extension of this, Cyrus would bring Zoroastrianism to all the peoples he conquered; he would not force them to become Zoroastrian, though. For Zoroastrianism recognized that all the gods worshipped by other peoples were really gods; some were underlings of Ahura-Mazda and some were servants of Ahriman. Cyrus saw as his mission the tearing down of religions for evil gods and the shoring up of religions of gods allied with Ahura-Mazda.
By 554 BC, Cyrus had conquered all of Persia and defeated the Medes for control of the region. He soon conquered Lydia in Asia Minor, Babylon in 539 BC and, by the time he died in 529 BC, he had conquered a vast territoryâin fact, he probably was the greatest conqueror in human history.
As one aspect of the religious eclecticism of Zoroastrianism and Cyrus’s intentions, the conquest of Babylon led to the immediate freeing of the Hebrews who had been exiled in Babylon by Nebuchadnezzar. Cyrus claimed to have been visited in a dream by Yahweh, the god of the Hebrews. Aligned with Ahura-Mazda, Yahweh demanded to be worshipped in the land of Judah; Cyrus freed the Hebrews with the specific intent that they reintroduce the proper worship of Yahweh in the Temple at Jerusalem. The Hebrews, however, took several Zoroastrian ideas with them; alhtough these religious ideas simmered and brewed as unorthodox ideas among common people, they would eventually resurface with a vengeance in Christianity.
Although the internal structure of the Persian imperial government was somewhat shaky, the conquests and fire for conquest continued after Cyrus’s death. His son, Cambyses, conquered Egypt in 525 BC, but the Chaldeans revolted in Mesopotamia and the Medes revolted east of the Tigris. Cambyses’s son, Darius I (reigned 522-486 BC; pronounced like “dry as,” only with an unvoiced s), or Darius the Great, quelled the Chaldeans and Medes and worked on firming up the state. His great innovation was to divide the huge empire into more or less independent provinces called satrapies.
Darius extended the Persian empire to its farthest reaches, extending through his conquests all the way into Macedon just northeast of Greece. When the Greek cities of Asia Minor revolted against the high tributes demanded of them by the Persian empire, the Athenians joined in and conquered and burned Sardis, the capital of Lydia, in 498 BC. The Athenians, however, lost interest in the Greek struggle against Persia and, by 495 BC, Darius had reconquered Asia Minor. Eager to prevent any future threats to the empire by Athens or any other Greek city, Darius set out to conquer the whole of Greece. And he almost made it.
So in 490 BC, the Persians launched an expedition against Athens. They were met, however, by Miltiades, who had been an outstanding soldier in the Persian army but ran for his life when he angered Darius. Unlike other Athenians, he knew the Persian army and he knew its tactics. The two armies, with the Athenians led by Miltiades, met at Marathon in Attica and the Athenians roundly defeated the invading army. This battle, the battle of Marathon (490 BC), is perhaps the single most important battle in Greek history. Had the Athenians lost, the Persians would have installed Persian government and culture as the norm in Greece long before the classical period in Greek history. All subsequent culture influenced by the Greeks would have been Persian culture.
Only a decade later, Xerxes I, the successor to Darius I, was driven out of Europe completely by the Greeks. Over the next few years, all of the Greek cities in Asia Minor would become independent and Athens, which had led the fight against the Persians, would become the dominant political force in the Greek world. The Persian empire, however, hung on for another century and a half, surviving numerous revolts and succession problems. In 340 BC, Alexander the Great set out to conquer the Persians in his own punitive expedition. Even though the ruler of Persia, ironically named Darius II, had a much superior force, Alexader manage to win battle after battle against the Persians until, in 331 BC, he crossed the Euphrates into Mesopotamia. In 330 BC he entered Babylon after Darius II had fled (eventually to be assassinated) and the infinitely long history of Mesopotamia folded into a new history, that of the Hellenistic period and the Greek and later Roman domination of the land between the Tigris and the Euphrates.