Nipissing University

History 2055 -- Ancient Civilizations

The Persian Empire

Steve Muhlberger

For three lectures, we have been talking about Greece in the Archaic age as though it were isolated from the rest of the world.  The Greeks were  somewhat out on the fringes,but certainly knew that the core areas were there, and interacted with them.

In the years around 500, however, the contact became intimate, as the Greeks came face to face with the Persians, the latest representatives of triumphant monarchical power.

This lecture will be a discussion of the early history and structure of the Persian empire.
It will connect the history of early Mesopotamia and the Middle East to Greek developments.

Who were the ancient Persians?

One view is that they were part of a wave of Iranian-speakers which originated in central Asia, a  horseriding aristocracy who invaded, took over more sedentary groups and imposed their language and culture on them.

We are on safer ground to say that the Persians were one of several groups Iranian-speaking peoples known to the Assyrians. The Persians, who lived in the Iranian province known as Fars today and Persis in the past, were enemies of the Assyrians, and not the most important ones.

Far more worrisome were the Medes, who lived in what is now the center of Iran, from the borders of Mesopotamia east to where Teheran is now. The Medes played an important role in the final destruction of Assyria; as a result they came to rule Iran, parts of modern Afghanistan and Pakistan, parts of northern Mesopotamia, and west into Anatolia.

During this period of Median glory, between the fall of Nineveh in 612 and about 550, the Persians and their kings were junior partners of the Medes. In 550 B.C., Cyrus, vassal king of Persis, revolted against the Median king Astyges, defeated him, and deposed him.  The Median nobles were allowed to keep much of what they owned, and remained partners in empire.

Cyrus added significantly to the empire. He conquered Babylonia in 539, which eliminated the rival empire of the Chaldaeans.  An earlier victory over the legendary king Croesus of Lydia brought the Persians into direct contact with the Greeks. Greek cities in of Ionia, western Anatolia, which had been under Croesus's overlordship, now paid tribute to Cyrus.

Cyrus died fighting, but survived Cyrus's death in battle. His son and successor Cambyses continued to extend it. He conquered Egypt in 525. But he was disliked enough by important Persian nobles that there was a revolt in his absence from the heartland. After a civil war that killed Cambyses and his brother Bardiya or Smerdis, a man named Darius ended up as king.

Darius also saw himself as a conqueror.  Around 514 Darius had one of his Greek subjects, Madrokles of Samos, build a boat bridge across the Bosphorus. Then Darius took a great army into Thrace, attacking first the Getae and then the Scythians, a nomadic group that lived north of the Danube.    To find the source of Scythian gold?

The campaign gave Persia control of the north coast of the Aegean, and Macedonia became a tributary state.

The Median-Persian empire was far larger than any other we have seen. Except for the western Mediterranean, it included all the countries we have discussed this term and more. Besides the Fertile Crescent and Iran, the Persians ruled Egypt, Libya, Cyprus, Anatolia, Bactria, the Indus Valley, and Central Asia. With the help of their sea-going subjects, notably Greeks and Phoenicians, they dominated the seas around Arabia, and drew tribute from Ethiopia. The Persians ruled part of Greece and were breathing down the necks of that part of the Greek homeland that remained free.

Darius rode his power for all it was worth. He played the part of world monarch very convincingly.  Various monuments and projects show he had an impact.

But how real was his power? It is hard to say that the Persians ran a government. Rather, they had a large number of adhoc arrangements to maximize loot and tribute. At this, Darius and his predecessors were reasonably successful.

Persian kings extracted wealth in a variety of ways.

First, They and their families directly owned large estates, even whole villages and districts, which were obligated to supply them with various things the royalty needed. Herodotus tells us that the city of Anthylla in Egypt was required to provide the Persian queen with all of her shoes.  In north Syria, a district was named "Parysatis' girdle," after one queen who was supplied with belts and cummerbunds. Plato says that the district "was a rich country nearly a day's journey in length;" apparently there was another called "the queen's veil." {Cook, 135-136} J.M. Cook compares this situation to one in the 18th century, where the Turkish Sultan assigned the city of Athens to his harem, where all its revenues went.

Second, On a rather grander scale, very large areas, entire countries or groups of countries were assigned to royal officials called satraps. Satraps, who were royal princes or great nobles, were expected to defend and police their areas and provide to the palace a certain revenue every year, mostly in silver, but sometimes in other things too. Herodotus preserves a list of satraps' tributes, which tells us, for instance, that Phoenicia, Palestine and Cyprus paid 350 talents or silver, and that Babylonia and Assyria paid 1000 talents and 500 eunuch boys.

The satrap was an important man with troops and followers of his own. He did not, however, have any kind of settled administration. He had to depend on a large number of deputies and district governors, many of whom were defeated princes or their relatives. He also could call on vassals, men (or in one case at least, a Greek woman named Mania {Cook, 177-178}) who had been assigned estates or revenues and were expected to help police their areas.

Many vassals were of course Medes and Persians who streamed out to the more desirable parts of the empire where they could set up pleasant houses surrounded by hunting parks, orchards and gardens. Other vassals were taken from the subject peoples. We know quite a bit about Greek and Jewish members of the Persian hierarchy. Mania owed her position to her marriage to a Greek who had built up a little principality under the Persian satrap of Daskyleion. She took it over when her husband died, and like him, supplied troops to the satrap when the hill tribes inland got out of hand. The famous Athenian politician Themistocles, whom we will discuss again later, went into exile in Persia and wangled a fief on the river Maeander. He was given three towns to provide him with bread, wine and fish and maybe bedding and plaid, too

The favor that some Jews enjoyed under the Persians is well-documented in the Bible. Cyrus and his successors showed favor to the Jews who had been brought to Babylon by the Assyrians. Several different groups of Jews, led by Sheshbazzar, Zerubabel (note the Mesopotamian names), Nehemiah and Ezra returned to Judaea under royal Persian protection, and were allowed to rebuild first the temple and then the walls of Jerusalem. (More details in class.)

Third (and last), there was one part of the empire that was not under a satrap: Persis, the homeland of the Persians. But it did not avoid exploitation. It seems that the country was largely owned by the king, who had many agents who sent food and other goods to the capitals and palaces. There the king used them himself or redistributed them to his followers as rations.  Many specialized workers were employed in Persis, many of them imported into Persis from foreign countries. The Persians and Cyrus in particular get credit in the Bible for allowing Assyrian deportees to return home; but they themselves used the same kind of labor. Documents at Persepolis show the use of Egyptians, Indians, people from Eastern Iran, Arabs and perhaps Hittites. Some were uprooted as a punishment for revolt. It seems as if Persis was one big supply operation for the support of the king. {Cook, 89- 90}.

The Persian court had a name for extravagance under Greek writers, and they may well be right. One later writer,  Plutarch,  said that a later king, Artaxerxes II, wore jewelry worth 12,000 talents (3 million pounds, 6 million dollars. One dinner for 15,000 guests was supposed to cost 400 talents, or $600,000. But the author may have confused the amount with a figure Herodotus gave for the cost of feeding the whole army. In any case, the author says that even a 400 talent dinner was a bargain:

In fact the cost of the dinner will be found on examination to have been calculated economically; and the same applies with other Persians of the ruling class. A thousand animals are slaughtered daily for the King; they comprise horses, camels, oxen, donkeys, deer, and above all sheep. Much poultry also is consumed -- ostriches, geese, and cocks. Modest helpings are set before the diners, and each carries away what is lest over at the breakfast. The greater part of the roasts and breadstuffs, however, are carried out into the courtyard for the guards and light infantry that the king maintains, and they divide it up into equal portions of meat and bread. So they are paid in rations by the King whereas in Greece mercenaries get their pay in money. In the same way other Persians of the ruling class have all the foodstuffs put on the table at once. When the guests have dined, what is left, which is mainly meat and bread, is given by the table superintendant to the servants, so that in this way each gets his daily food. The most honorable of the King's guests get leave to attend at breakfast only, thus avoiding a second journey and being free to entertain their own guests. {Cook 139-140}
This seems to me to be the heart of the Persian system, and it doesn't look all that sophisticated to me.  The running of the empire required them to take goods from some groups (subject villages and cities) and physically give them to others: soldiers, courtiers, workers in the imperial service. The main alternative was to assign goods from various estates or districts to someone who was expected to render some service or other. In the same way, if the Persians wanted a certain kind of labor done in a given location, they transferred the workers and their families, perhaps people who had been troublesome at home, to the spot. This applies to soldiers as well. The Persians settled their problems on the Central Asian frontier by recruiting the nomads of that area into their forces and sending them to another area, where they would benefit the empire instead of harm it.

Like many empires ancient and modern, the Persian empire was simpler and even weaker than it looks. It was capable of mustering many men to fight, to punish those who resisted royal commands. It collected goods and compelled service on a large scale. But it put the manpower and wealth to very simple purposes, most of the time: feeding the court and the army.

One question that should be addressed is: Why was the Persian empire so big, far bigger than the empire of Assyria, for instance, which never reached beyond the oldest civilized lands? Perhaps the evident spread of civilization had made more surplus wealth available, ready to be grabbed -- by the way, grab is a favorite word in Darius' descriptions of his victories. "I grabbed Egypt," he said, which was an outright lie, since Cambyses had done it {Cook, 66}.

Also, the preceding cycles of imperialism had cosmopolitanized large parts of civilization -- in the sense that deportations and war had mixed people up and spread them all over the map. The Jews are the most famous example: once nearly restricted to Judaea, they now had large communities in Palestine, Egypt, Babylonia and elsewhere, all in close communication with each other. Such groups -- and the Jews were far from unique -- may have seen some advantage in a large empire imposing some kind of unity. And the support of cosmopolitan, commercially active groups would have been an advantage to the rulers.

A last point is that this empire was based neither on Mesopotamia or Egypt. Both were included, and great sources of imperial wealth, but they were neither the organizational basis of the state. In fact, Mesopotamian culture was a victim of Persian imperialism. The Persian monarchs had made an initial gesture to the gods of Babylon right after the conquest, but found their religious duties too burdensome or distasteful. After the reign of Cyrus, Persian kings just wanted the taxes from Babylon, which were very heavy, and no hassles. The Persians did not adopt either the Akkadian language nor the cunieform script. Aramaean and the alphabet pushed the old imperial media aside, as being more flexible and widely understood. Babylonia was slowly turning into a cultural backwater, if still a rich one.

It was in the later years of Darius that the Greeks attracted the attention of the king of kings, as the Persian ruler was called.

In 499 B.C., the Greek tyrants of Ionia revolted against Darius. Apparently they thought the supervision of the satraps was too harsh to be borne. Once the Ionians had risen, they realized that they would need help.

Aristagorus, the tyrant of Miletus, went first to Sparta, and tried to convince the kings that soldiers as tough as the Spartans could easily conquer wide provinces from Persian and make themselves incredibly wealthy. The Spartans turned down the offer, as too likely to corrupt them.

But Athens and Eretria, both maritime cities, sent some ships to help. This expedition succeeded in looting Sardis, the western headquarters of Persian rule. After the first setback, the Athenians and Eretrians pulled out, leaving Ionia to fight for six more years before being reconquered. Despite their early desertion of the rebellion, Athens and Eretria had now made themselves a very dangerous enemy. It would not be long before Darius tried to exact vengeance from these tiny cities who had dared to attack him.


J.M. Cook, The Persian Empire
Nicholas de Lange, Atlas of the Jewish World
H.D.F. Kitto, The Greeks

This site has been visited times since September 1, 1998.

Copyright (C) 1998, Steven Muhlberger.