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READ: The Persian Empire

About 2,300 years ago, the Persian Empire covered over two million square miles and held nearly half the world’s population. Whatever Alexander tells you, this was the world’s first great empire.
The article below uses “Three Close Reads”. If you want to learn more about this strategy, click here.

First read: preview and skimming for gist

Before you read the article, you should skim it first. The skim should be very quick and give you the gist (general idea) of what the article is about. You should be looking at the title, author, headings, pictures, and opening sentences of paragraphs for the gist.

Second read: key ideas and understanding content

Now that you’ve skimmed the article, you should preview the questions you will be answering. These questions will help you get a better understanding of the concepts and arguments that are presented in the article. Keep in mind that when you read the article, it is a good idea to write down any vocab you see in the article that is unfamiliar to you.
By the end of the second close read, you should be able to answer the following questions:
  1. How did the Persians successfully incorporate conquered peoples into their empire?
  2. How did the Persian Empire expand regional trade?
  3. How would you describe the role of women in Persian society?
  4. Where does the Mazda car company get its name?

Third read: evaluating and corroborating

Finally, here are some questions that will help you focus on why this article matters and how it connects to other content you’ve studied.
At the end of the third read, you should be able to respond to these questions:
  1. You read an article about authority and control in empires. What are some methods of control mentioned in that article that you see reflected in the Persian Empire? Do you see any Persian methods of control that weren’t mentioned in the earlier article?
  2. You’ve read some definitions and characteristics of an empire. What aspects of the Persian Empire seem characteristic of all empires? What seems unique to Persia?
Now that you know what to look for, it’s time to read! Remember to return to these questions once you’ve finished reading.

The Persian Empire

Detailed stone carving shows three men, standing before a ruler seated in a throne. One of the men holds his fingertips to his mouth.
By Mike Burns
About 2,300 years ago, the Persian Empire covered over two million square miles and held nearly half the world's population. Although Alexander the Great may have disagreed, this was the world's first great empire.

Background

Imagine having your life story written by your enemies. That's how it's been for the Persian Empire for thousands of years. Much of what we know about this great empire (559 BCE-331 BCE) came from the works of the Greek historians Herodotus and Xenophon. We're grateful for their work, but they had some issues. Herodotus is known as both the "Father of History" and the "Father of Lies." And Xenophon was a mercenary soldier on the losing side of a Persian civil war. Between their work and what other conquered peoples wrote about Persia, it's no surprise they were so badly portrayed. For example, Herodotus wrote "they have no images of the gods, no temples nor altars, and consider the use of them a sign of folly." This was in stark contrast to the Greeks, who worshipped many gods in many different temples. Herodotus continued, "There is no nation which so readily adopts the foreign customs as the Persian." Today, we might think of that as being tolerant and welcoming of new ideas and cultures. But to the Greeks, it was a sign of weakness, and Herodotus was happy to call attention to it.
In the last two centuries, archaeologists, linguists, and historians have been able to find, read, and interpret new Persian sources. In some cases, what they learn aligns with other sources. Except when it doesn't. This is a reminder that when reading historical sources, we must ask who wrote them and why.
With this in mind, let's investigate the Persian Empire.
Photograph of an inscribed and carved wall. The carving shows several men lining up to greet another man, who is much taller. There is text on the wall all around them.
The Behistun Inscription in western Iran. This inscription includes three different languages and helped historians and archeologists finally translate ancient Persian scripts. It was the Persian “Rosetta Stone”. By Hara1603, Public domain.

Formation

It's no surprise that the first great world empire arose in the same area that witnessed the emergence of increasingly complex societies. The Persian people were originally steppe nomads from the Iranian Plateau who settled in southwestern modern-day Iran. In the mid-sixth century BCE, the collapse of the Assyrian Empire opened the door for the Persian people to rapidly conquer competing empires. In less than a century, they conquered the Medes, Lydians, Neo-Babylonians, and eventually, the Egyptians.
At its height in 500 BCE, the population of the Persian Empire was around 50 million. This figure would have made the empire one of the largest in history, at least in terms of its percentage of the world population at the time, which was somewhere between 100 and 160 million.
Map shows the Persian Empire covering a vast expanse of land, all the way from Libya to India.
*Map of the Persian Empire at its greatest extent c. 500 BCE. By Mossmaps, CC BY-SA 4.0.

Administration

"Keep your friends close, keep your enemies closer." The first Persian king, Cyrus the Great, never saw the gangster film that line comes from, but he understood the concept. Highly skilled at incorporating conquered peoples into the Persian Empire, Cyrus used tolerant yet practical methods to legitimize Persian rule. First, he brought conquered kings into his government. This made the transition to Persian rule smoother and helped keep the government and conquered peoples loyal to the emperor. Cyrus and his son, Cambyses II, established the geographic boundaries of the empire. The third king, Darius, ensured that it would endure, by establishing the governing institutions that allowed continued success. The Persians were respectful of local traditions and did not exile (send away) conquered peoples. In the Hebrew and Christian Bible, Cyrus is best known for allowing the Jewish people to return home to Jerusalem from their exile in Babylon. On one hand, this was a generous move, but it was also practical, as it insured a cooperative Jewish kingdom in the western reaches of the empire. However, it did not end well for Cyrus, as he attempted to subdue the horse-rich, nomadic Scythians. "[He] was killed trying to subjugate the Scythians; his head was then carried around in a skin filled with blood, said one writer, so that the thirst for power that had inspired him could now be quenched."
Drawing of a Persian king. The king is drawn in profile, depicted with an elaborate headdress and very large wings.
A depiction of the first Persian king, Cyrus. By Ernst Wallis et al, Public domain.
There is a maxim (general truth) in history that an empire's size must be limited by the distance you could travel in two weeks… by horse. Any larger, and the empire becomes simply too big to rule effectively and efficiently. But the Persians incorporated a variety of ideas to do so. First, they utilized cavalry as part of their army and had a steady supply of horses. Second, they rebuilt, and expanded a 1700 mile "Royal Road" to make it easier to communicate, travel, trade, and move their army. So instead of limiting expansion, they made it so two weeks of horse travel was a much greater distance. Third, they used the satrapy system inherited from the Assyrians. Satrapies were regional governments, each ruled by a governor the Persian king appointed. Frequently, these governors rose from the ranks of the conquered peoples. The Persians were well-known for their tolerance of local customs, traditions, and religions and generally ruled with a light touch, all of which helped support the legitimacy of their rule.

Trade

The horses, roads, and regional governments of the Persian Empire united distant lands both politically and economically. The Persians' administrative innovations also linked Mediterranean, Indian Ocean, and Central Asian societies into a long-distance trading network. The Persian emperor, Darius, also facilitated trade by standardizing the gold coin that bore his name, the daric. This meant that merchants now had a common measure of value wherever they went in the empire.

Women in society

In the Persian Empire the roles and experiences of women had much in common with other ancient societies, like the Greeks and Romans. Being a mother, especially to sons, was a priority for most women and an absolute must for royal women. Only males from one of the king's wives were eligible to inherit the throne.
However, Persian women weren't as restricted as in the Ancient Greek and Roman world. In fact, Persian women had responsibilities and freedoms that more closely resembled what women in Egypt had. Royal women, in particular, had great power in the Persian Empire because their society used a rigid social hierarchy. The king was always at the top of this pyramid-like structure. Under the king were male and female nobles. That meant the king's mother, wife, sisters, and daughters were one step from the top of the social ladder. The non-aristocratic members of society were ranked by occupation. Women could gain high positions in their professions and many were managers who were paid more than their male workers. Women could also own property and businesses. Some of these women had large estates and they directly managed this property and their workers. These women were also free to move about the empire on their own in order to attend to their estates. By contrast, in the Ancient Greco-Roman world, women often needed a male escort to leave the home and could only own property in limited circumstancesstart superscript, 1, end superscript. This last point is important to consider when reading Greek writers commenting on Persian gender roles. The freedoms enjoyed by Persian women seemed very foreign to the Greeks, and this greatly influenced their often negative portrayal of Persians.

Religion/systems of belief

Historical sources are also a challenge when studying the emergence of the Persian religion of Zoroastrianism. This religion is named after the sage (wise man) Zardusht to the Persians, but better known as Zoraster by Herodotus, (also known as Zarathsutra.) Zoraster took one god, Ahuramazda, (and yes, this is where the Mazda car company derived its name) from the many the Persian people had worshipped and declared him to be the supreme god. He claimed Ahuramazda created people, and gave them free will, leading to the eternal struggle between truth and lies, good and evil. There was a belief in a judgment day, where the good went to paradise, and the evil went to hell. Although Zoroastrianism eventually became a prominent religion, it never became the "official" religion of the state.squared And contrary to Greek writers (and Hollywood) Persian kings were never considered divine, nor did they demand worship. However, like many rulers around the world throughout history, they attempted to legitimize their rule by claiming divine favor. So they were less "I'm a god" and more "God likes me best."
A sculpture of musician Freddie Mercury. He is standing in a powerful position with one arm raised in the air.
Zoroastrianism is one of the world’s oldest systems of belief. This statue honors music icon Freddie Mercury (1946-1991), who was of Parsi descent, and whose family followed the Zoroastrian faith. Sculptor: Irena Sedlecká. By Bernd Brägelmann, CC BY-SA 3.0.

Decline and fall

Why were the Greeks so critical of the Persians? Many Greeks had migrated from the various Greek city-states and set up colonies in Asia Minor (now Turkey) or settled in cities of earlier empires. As the Persian empire expanded, those Greek cities came under Persian rule. Like many non-Persians, Greeks were respected and served many roles in the Persian empire, including as soldiers and as physicians to Persian kings. But Athens and some Greek city-states persuaded one of these colonies, Ionia, to revolt against the Persians. Understandably, the Persians retaliated with an invasion of Greece. This led to a surprising Greek victory at Marathon (490 BCE), some 25 miles from Athens. The Persians did eventually put down the Ionian Revolt. Then ten years later (480 BCE) Xerxes I, son of Darius, returned to Greece to settle the score. Initial Persian success at the battle of Thermopylae was followed by a naval disaster at Salamis. The Greeks defeated the stranded Persian army at Plataea. Persian attacks on Greece were over.
Some one hundred fifty years later (334 BCE), the legendary Macedonian king, Alexander the Great, invaded Persia with his army of Macedonians and Greeks. Alexander smashed the Persians in battle after battle over a ten-year period. Ultimately, the land controlled by the Persians fell under the control of Alexander's generals, setting up a 300-year Hellenistic (Greek influence) period, prior to Roman expansion.
Author bio
Mike Burns holds an M.A. in Global History, and loves teaching World History and Big History. An AP World History Consultant for the College Board, Burns has also served on the Executive Council of the World History Association. As an international educator, he has taught in Qatar, China, and Vietnam, and led workshops in Asia, Europe and Africa.

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  • blobby green style avatar for user Stephanie Akande
    You read an article about authority and control in empires. What are some methods of control mentioned in that article that you see reflected in the Persian Empire? Do you see any Persian methods of control that weren’t mentioned in the earlier article?
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    Why do you think that Zoroastrianism never became as global a religion as Christianity or Islam? It was one of the first monotheistic religions.
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    When was this electronically published (for citations)?
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