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The Achaemenids

Iranian History - The Achaemenids

The Achaemenids

The Achaemenid dynasty arose from the ashes of the Elamite Empire in the 7th century BC.

After the Elamite stronghold of Anshan had fallen to the Assyrians, it was King Teispes of Parsa (r. 675-640 BC) who took control of the city.

It was his father, Achaemenes, who had trained and organised the army that made this possible and who gave his name to the dynasty.

Cambyses (r. 600-559 BC), the grandson of Teispes, already ruled over a sizeable kingdom when he married a Median princess and united the two royal lines.

Thus, when his son, Cyrus II (r. 559-530 BC) overcame the Median army of Astyages in 550 BC, he spared the Median capital of Ecbatana and was easily accepted as ruler of the combined lands and forces of both Persia and Media. On the site where he overcame Astyages, Cyrus established the Persian capital of Pasargadae.

National Museum of Iran, Tehran.

Achaemenid Period Inscription from the National Museum of Iran, Tehran

Seated Figure, Relief, National Museum of Iran, Tehran.

Seated Figure, Relief, National Museum of Iran, Tehran

From this point, Cyrus II, also known as "Cyrus the Great", began a conquest that resulted in the largest empire that the ancient world had by then seen. It was to remain intact for two centuries until the successors of Alexander the Great divided it among themselves.

Starting in the west, Cyrus halted the advance of the Lydian forces of Croesus and gained control of large parts of Asia Minor including the Lydian capital of Sardis and the wealthy Ionian cities, thus gaining access to the Aegean Sea.

Moving west, Cyrus captured Bactria, Sogdia, campaigned in India and captured Syria and Palestine. He took the city of Babylon in 539 BC, naming himself "King of Babylon" and "King of Kings".

Under Cyrus, conquered nations were given a considerable amount of autonomy; some kingdoms were under obligation to provide only tribute and conscripts. He was also tolerant of the different religions of his kingdom, well aware that among the nations of his empire were civilisations far older and more advanced than his own.

One of his most important acts was to release the Jewish exiles of Babylon, allowing them to return to their homes, thus earning him immortality in the Old Testament book of Isaiah. Cyrus issued what is considered to be the first declaration of human rights, inscribed on a clay barrel which was discovered in Babylon in 1879 and is now on display at the British Museum.

Cyrus died while on campaign in Central Asia leaving the throne to his son Cambyses II (r. 528-522 BC). His body was cremated at Pasargadae in 528 BC where his imposing stone tomb still remains.

In stark contrast with his father, Cambyses II was a wild despot given to drunkenness and suspicion. The Bisotun inscription tells us that Cambyses, fearing the possibility of rebellion, had his own brother killed in secret before embarking on his Egyptian expedition.

In addition, Herodotus lists a number of crimes committed after his conquest of Egypt which he takes as signs of madness. He writes that Cambyses killed the Apis bull, considered divine by the Egyptians, on a holy feast day, having been jealous that such celebrations did not accompany his investiture.

He is also said to have exhumed the corpse of the last pharaoh and violated it in unspeakable ways in spite of his efforts to appear as an Egyptian pharaoh, just as Cyrus had presented himself as the King of Babylon.

Cambyses II was not, however, to return from his Egyptian exploits. In 522 BC, news of a rebellion spread throughout the kingdom and he was forced to cut short his time in Egypt. As written in the Bisotun inscriptions and the histories of Herodotus, a certain Magian priest named Gaumata usurped the Achaemenid throne, claiming that he was Smerdis, the son of Cyrus that Cambyses had put to death.

History of Iran.

Freize from the Achaemenid Dynasty

History of Iran.

Freize from the Achaemenid Dynasty

The absence of the true king and the repealing of three years of taxes and military service by Gaumata made it easy for the impostor and his allies to take power.

Hearing the news, Cambyses began his journey homeward but only reached as far as Syria where, and sources are not conclusive on this point, he either died of an accidental wound caused by his unsheathed sword or deliberately by his own hand. On his death, a general named Darius took over the leadership of the returning expedition and led the army against the forces of Gaumata.

The impostor reigned for seven months before he was surprised and killed by Darius and six of his allies at a Median stronghold to which the seat of government had been moved. This moving of the capital and the repealing of taxes and military service suggests that Gaumata was a Mede with little attachment to Persia.

After some debate, Darius was crowned king of the empire. However, Darius was not a close relative of Cambyses and his claim was a tenuous one. There were almost certainly others who had closer blood ties with the royal line.

It took a number of swiftly concluded strategic marriages and much compromise with his six allies before his reign was secured. In addition, the empire itself was threatening to disintegrate with several regions taking the opportunity to challenge Persian sovereignty. It was not until 519 BC that Darius had succeeded in putting down the rebellions that followed his accession.

The rule of Darius I (r. 522-486BC) was an enlightened one. He enacted reforms of government, taxes and coinage and had roads and granaries built – all of which served to vitalise the Persian state and usher in an era of prosperity. The construction of new capital cities at Persepolis and Susa also date back to his reign.

Ancient bracelet, part of the Oxus Treasure.

An ancient bracelet, part of the Oxus Treasure, from the Achaemenid Dynasty

In cultural life too, Darius was aware that, in reigning over a multicultural kingdom, it was wise to encourage the cross fertilisation and tolerance of different religions. There is evidence that the god of the Jews was recognised by Darius as identical with Ahuramazda and that the Greek god Apollo received large sacrifices from the Persians. In turn, fire temples in Anatolia suggest that the exchange went both ways.

In war, Darius led expeditions east to India and as far west as the Danube, waging a series of ultimately unsuccessful campaigns against the Greeks. Neither did his successors, Xerxes I (r. 486-465 BC) and Ardeshir I (r. 465-424 BC), manage to defeat them. It was not until Darius III (r. 335-330 BC) that the Achaemenids had any success against the Greeks and it was he that eventually fell to the all conquering army of Alexander the Great.

At its peak, the Achaemenid Empire stretched from Pakistan in the East to the borders of Greece in the west and from the southern steppes of Russia to Egypt, Libya and the Arabian subcontinent.

It was the largest empire that the ancient world had ever seen with a total of 28 different nations living under one rule and speaking the international language of Aramaic. Alexander and his successors, the Seleucids, ruled over what was effectively the same empire, with its boundaries and institutions intact.

Will Yong and Kazem Vafadari

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