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Overview of the Persian Empire - History

Overview of the Persian Empire - History

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Overview of the Persian Empire

The Iranians were originally polytheistic. They had a number of gods, the most important being Ahuramazda who was the benefactor of all living beings. They also however believed in the sun god as well as a host of other dieties. Fire became a source of prayer.
Many Persians took up the beliefs of Zoroaster. Zorasterism believed there was a constant battle between good and evil. Good was embodied by the god Ahuramazda and evil by the god Ahrimamn.. According to Zoraster man has the choice of choosing either, and will be judged on judgement day on whether he or she will go to heaven or hell, depending on what path they have picked. Zorosterism gain the support of Emperour Darius, and although he did not try to impose it on the inhabitants of the Empire his support insured its wide spread.

Rulers of the Persian Empire: Expansionism of Cyrus and Darius

At its height, in about 500 BCE, the founding dynasty of the Persian Empire called the Achaemenids conquered Asia as far as the Indus River, Greece, and North Africa including what is now Egypt and Libya. It also included modern-day Iraq (ancient Mesopotamia), Afghanistan, as well as probably modern-day Yemen and Asia Minor.

The impact of the expansionism of the Persians was felt in 1935 when Reza Shah Pahlavi changed the name of the country known as Persia to Iran. "Eran" was what the ancient Persian kings called the people they ruled that we now know as the Persian Empire. The original Persians were Aryan speakers, a linguistic group that encompassed a large number of sedentary and nomadic people of Central Asia.

4.3 The Persian Empire History Presentation

Mr. Harms has designed a number of PowerPoint and Keynote presentations with key Social Studies Concepts and Critical Thinking Skills to help students understand history. Designed by a teacher for teachers, this PowerPoint focuses on "The Persian Empire".

This presentation is designed to give students an overview of how The Persian Empire developed and expanded. Students will be shown maps, animations and descriptions of some of the major events of The Persian Empire.

The presentation is totally customizable, allowing you to add your own pictures, graphics and animations to take what we've done even farther.

What is your time worth? Our basic pricing system for History Presentations is 10 cents per slide. Some title slides may only take 30 seconds to create, but complex slides with animations and coordinated builds for complicated topics may take 30 minutes or more. It's not unusual for a presentation to take between 3 and 7 hours of work. What could you do with 6 or 7 free hours?

Topics Included
Topics include: Persia, Medes, Chaldeans, Iran, Migration, Trade, Cyrus The Great, Cambyses, Darius, The Royal Road, Zoroaster, Tolerance.

Included in The Presentation Package:
1. Keynote Presentation
2. Power Point Presentation
3. Text edit file of the outline of the presentation and presenter's notes. The package is a digital download (Zip File) of these three items.

Ancient World History Presentations
We have a number of PowerPoints related to Ancient World History. These units are proven to engage students in a way that text books and documentaries can’t. Hundreds of teachers are using these lesson plans to bring history to life for students. It’s a unit you’ll use year after year.

Click The Link Below To Get Your Copy

McDougal Littel's World History: Patterns of Interaction
Unit 1 Beginnings of Civilization
Chapter 4 First Age of Empires 1570 BC-200 BC
Section 3 "The Persian Empire"

​​These materials were prepared by Harms LLC and have neither been developed, reviewed, nor endorsed by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company, publisher of the original WORLD HISTORY: Patterns of Interaction work on which this material is based.

The stages of the Persian Empire were:

  • Medical wars: wars between Persians and Greeks to dominate the cities of Asia Minor. The end of these wars made the Persians spread to Europe.
  • From Xerxes I to Artaxerxes II: it was a period of expansion and loss of some territories. With the death of Artaxerxes, I the capital was moved from Persepolis to Babylon. Aramaic began to be spoken and the solar calendar was introduced.
  • End of the Persian Empire: Bagoas caused Darius III to occupy the throne but he had no experience as a ruler. Alexander the Great entered Egypt and was seen as a liberator of the Persians.

Persian Empire Was Already in Decline

Darius III, King of Persia.

Hulton Archive/Getty Images

But there were also signs that the Persian Empire was already in decline. After suffering humiliating back-to-back defeats in Greece in the 5th-century B.C., Persia stopped expanding. In the century leading up to Alexander’s reign, Persia was furthered weakened by a civil war and other internal rebellions. Darius still commanded a massive army, but Persia was receding on the world stage while Macedon had the momentum of an ascendant military super power.

After quickly dispatching a small regional army near the town of Granicus, Alexander had his first real test against Darius and his Persian Royal Army near the coastal city of Issus. Darius’ strategy was to cut off Alexander’s supply lines from behind and force the Macedonian troops to turn around and face off. But Darius botched the location of the battle, which ended up being a narrow strip of land between a ridge and the sea that neutralized his numbers advantage.

At Issus, Alexander debuted the battle strategy that would assure him victory after victory during his remarkable reign of conquest. Knowing he would be outmatched in manpower, Alexander relied on speed and distraction. He would draw enemy troops toward one flank, then wait for a momentary gap to open up in the center of the enemy lines for a head-first cavalry charge.

Just as he did with his father at Chaeronea, Alexander personally led the Macedonian cavalry charge at Issus, which cut right to the heart of the Persian defenses, just as planned. A stunned Darius reportedly hopped on his horse and fled, with the rest of his army close behind.

The two armies wouldn’t meet again for another two years. In the interim, Darius regrouped and called in reinforcements from the East, while Alexander marched his army South into Egypt. When Alexander returned to Persia from his Egyptian conquests, Darius tried to delay the inevitable clash as long as possible, eventually deciding that if there was going to be a rematch, it would be on Daruis’ terms.

Darius and his generals chose a battle site near the town of Gaugamela. It was a wide, flat valley that, unlike Issus, would allow the Persians to take full advantage of their lopsided numbers, an estimated 250,000 Persian troops facing off against Alexander’s 50,000.

�rius even flattened the ground so that his scythe chariots could charge at the Macedonians,” says Wrightson.

Ancient Persia, an introduction

The heart of ancient Persia is in what is now southwest Iran, in the region called the Fars. In the second half of the 6th century B.C.E., the Persians (also called the Achaemenids) created an enormous empire reaching from the Indus Valley to Northern Greece and from Central Asia to Egypt.

A tolerant empire

Although the surviving literary sources on the Persian empire were written by ancient Greeks who were the sworn enemies of the Persians and highly contemptuous of them, the Persians were in fact quite tolerant and ruled a multi-ethnic empire. Persia was the first empire known to have acknowledged the different faiths, languages and political organizations of its subjects.

The Persian Empire, 490 B.C.E.

This tolerance for the cultures under Persian control carried over into administration. In the lands which they conquered, the Persians continued to use indigenous languages and administrative structures. For example, the Persians accepted hieroglyphic script written on papyrus in Egypt and traditional Babylonian record keeping in cuneiform in Mesopotamia. The Persians must have been very proud of this new approach to empire as can be seen in the representation of the many different peoples in the reliefs from Persepolis, a city founded by Darius the Great in the 6th century B.C.E.

Gate of all Nations, Persepolis (photo: youngrobv, CC BY-NC 2.0)

The Apadana

Persepolis included a massive columned hall used for receptions by the Kings, called the Apadana. This hall contained 72 columns and two monumental stairways.

Assyrians with Rams, Apadana, Persepolis (photo: CC BY-SA 3.0 )

The walls of the spaces and stairs leading up to the reception hall were carved with hundreds of figures, several of which illustrated subject peoples of various ethnicities, bringing tribute to the Persian king.

View of the eastern stairway and columns of the Apadana (Audience Hall) at Persepolis, Iran, 5th century B.C.E. (The Oriental Institute, University of Chicago)

Conquered by Alexander the Great

The Persian Empire was, famously, conquered by Alexander the Great. Alexander no doubt was impressed by the Persian system of absorbing and retaining local language and traditions as he imitated this system himself in the vast lands he won in battle. Indeed, Alexander made a point of burying the last Persian emperor, Darius III, in a lavish and respectful way in the royal tombs near Persepolis. This enabled Alexander to claim title to the Persian throne and legitimize his control over the greatest empire of the Ancient Near East.

The ancient Persian empire - beginnings of Persian Architecture

In school we learn about the Roman empire and the ancient Greeks in great detail, but how much do we know about the Persian empire?

Well, for starters, it was one of the greatest and mightiest empires in history. In fact, during the reign of Cyrus the Great and Darius the Great, it occupied 40% of the world population. To be more precise, the Persian empire encompassed parts of Asia, Africa and Europe.

The name “Persia” was more frequently used until the first half of the 20th century. In 1935, the country started to be known as Iran.

Believe it or not, Persia is actually one of the oldest occupied territories on the entire planet. It comprises a history of great proportions, spanning areas from Egypt and Greece, to India and Turkey.

The most prominent era of the Persian empire, otherwise known as the Achaemenid empire, began in the 6th century BCE. It was established by Cyrus the Great, who made it the vastest realm in history up to that point.

But prior to this period of prosperity, Persia was actually just a vassal state, under the rule of a much larger power- Media. When Cyrus the Great took control of Media, he formed a new immense kingdom, with the ancient city of Persis (Persepolis) as its capital. This long forgotten city was once known as the richest city under the sun.

Another powerful ruler of Persia was Darius I, otherwise known as Darius the Great. Along with making some significant changes to the political system, he also started the Greco-Persian War, resulting in 50 years of conflict. Darius the Great was also known as the Shahanshah, which basically meant “the King of Kings.”

His son, Xerxes also had a futile attempt of defeating the Greeks. His failure signified the end of the Achaemenid empire. The kingdom was ultimately conquered by Alexander the Great, who triumphed over Darius III in battle.

What succeeded was the Selucid, Parthian and finally the Sasanian era, which was the final Persian power before the Muslim Arab conquest that began in the 7th century.

Government and Trade in the Achaemenid Empire

Emperors Cyrus II and Darius I created a centralized government and extensive trade network in the Achaemenid Empire.

Learning Objectives

Discuss how the central government provided cultural and economic reform

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • Cyrus the Great maintained control over a vast empire by installing regional governors, called satraps, to rule individual provinces.
  • When Darius the Great ascended the throne in 522 BCE, he organized a new uniform monetary system and
    established Aramaic as the official language of the empire.
  • Trade infrastructure facilitated the exchange of commodities in the far reaches of the empire, including the Royal Road, standardized language, and a postal service.
  • Tariffs on trade from the territories were one of the empire’s main sources of revenue, in addition to agriculture and tribute.

Key Terms

  • Cyrus Cylinder: An ancient clay artifact that has been called the oldest-known charter of human rights.
  • Behistun
    : An inscription carved in a cliff face of Mount Behistrun in Iran it provided a key to deciphering cuneiform script.
  • satrapy: The territory under the rule of a satrap.
  • satrap: The governor of a province in the ancient Median and Achaemenid (Persian) Empires.

The Achaemenid Empire reached enormous size under the leadership of Cyrus II of Persia (576-530 BCE), commonly known as Cyrus the Great, who created a multi-state empire. Called Cyrus the Elder by the Greeks, he founded an empire initially comprising all the previous civilized states of the ancient Near East and eventually most of Southwest and Central Asia and the Caucus region, stretching from the Mediterranean Sea to the Indus River. Control of this large territory involved a centralized government, territorial monarchs who served as proxy rulers for the emperor, and an extensive system of commerce and trade.

Government Organization

Cyrus, whose rule lasted between 29 and 31 years, until his death in battle in 530 BCE, controlled the vast Achaemenid Empire through the use of regional monarchs, called satrap, who each oversaw a territory called a satrapy. The basic rule of governance was based upon the loyalty and obedience of the satrapy to the central power, the king, and compliance with tax laws. Cyrus also connected the various regions of the empire through an innovative postal system that made use of an extensive roadway and relay stations.

Cyrus the Great was recognized for achievements in human rights and politics, having influenced both Eastern and Western Civilization. The ancient Babylonians called him “The Liberator,” while the modern nation of Iran calls Cyrus its “father.”

Cyrus Cylinder

The Cyrus Cylinder is an ancient clay artifact, now broken into several fragments, that has been called the oldest-known charter of universal human rights and a symbol of his humanitarian rule.

The cylinder dates from the 6th century BCE, and was discovered in the ruins of Babylon in Mesopotamia, now Iraq, in 1879. In addition to describing the genealogy of Cyrus, the declaration in Akkadian cuneiform script on the cylinder is considered by many Biblical scholars to be evidence of Cyrus’s policy of repatriation of the Jewish people following their captivity in Babylon.

The historical nature of the cylinder has been debated, with some scholars arguing that Cyrus did not make a specific decree, but rather that the cylinder articulated his general policy allowing exiles to return to their homelands and rebuild their temples.

In fact, the policies of Cyrus with respect to treatment of minority religions were well documented in Babylonian texts, as well as in Jewish sources. Cyrus was known to have an overall attitude of religious tolerance throughout the empire, although it has been debated whether this was by his own implementation or a continuation of Babylonian and Assyrian policies.

Darius Improvements

When Darius I (550-486 BCE), also known as Darius the Great, ascended the throne of the Achaemenid Empire in 522 BCE, he established Aramaic as the official language and devised a codification of laws for Egypt. Darius also sponsored work on construction projects throughout the empire, focusing on improvement of the cities of Susa, Pasargadae, Persepolis, Babylon, and various municipalities in Egypt.

When Darius moved his capital from Pasargadae to Persepolis, he revolutionized the economy by placing it on a silver and gold coinage and introducing a regulated and sustainable tax system. This structure precisely tailored the taxes of each satrapy based on its projected productivity and economic potential. For example, Babylon was assessed for the highest amount of silver taxes, while Egypt owed grain in addition to silver taxes.

Persian reliefs in the city of Persepolis: Darius the Great moved the capital of the Achaemenid Empire to Persepolis c. 522 BCE. He initiated several major architectural projects, including the construction of a palace and a treasure house.

Behistun Inscription

Sometime after his coronation, Darius ordered an inscription to be carved on a limestone cliff of Mount Behistun in modern Iran. The Behistun Inscription, the text of which Darius wrote, came to have great linguistic significance as a crucial clue in deciphering cuneiform script.

The inscription begins by tracing the ancestry of Darius, followed by a description of a sequence of events following the deaths of the previous two Achaemenid emperors, Cyrus the Great and Cyrus’s son, Cambyses II, in which Darius fought 19 battles in one year to put down numerous rebellions throughout the Persian lands.

The inscription, which is approximately 15 meters high and 25 meters wide, includes three versions of the text in three different cuneiform languages: Old Persian, Elamite and Babylonian, which was a version of Akkadian. Researchers were able to compare the scripts and use it to help decipher ancient languages, in this way making the Behistun Inscription as valuable to cuneiform as the Rosetta Stone is to Egyptian hieroglyphs.

Behistun Inscription: A section of the Behistun Inscription on a limestone cliff of Mount Behistun in western Iran, which became a key in deciphering cuneiform script.

Commerce and Trade

Under the Achaemenids, trade was extensive and there was an efficient infrastructure that facilitated the exchange of commodities in the far reaches of the empire. Tariffs on trade were one of the empire’s main sources of revenue, in addition to agriculture and tribute.

The satrapies were linked by a 2,500-kilometer highway, the most impressive stretch of which was the Royal Road, from Susa to Sardis. The relays of mounted couriers could reach the most remote areas in 15 days. Despite the relative local independence afforded by the satrapy system, royal inspectors regularly toured the empire and reported on local conditions using this route.

Achaemenid golden bowl with lion imagery: Trade in the Achaemenid Empire was extensive. Infrastructure, including the Royal Road, standardized language, and a postal service facilitated the exchange of commodities in the far reaches of the empire.


Cyrus the Great created an organized army to enforce national authority, despite the ethno-cultural diversity among the subject nations, the empire’s enormous geographic size, and the constant struggle for power by regional competitors.

This professional army included the Immortals unit, comprising 10,000 highly trained heavy infantry. Under Darius the Great, Persia would become the first empire to inaugurate and deploy an imperial navy, with personnel that included Phoenicians, Egyptians, Cypriots, and Greeks.

Introductory Works

There are few general reference works that explore the impact of Ancient Persian rule on the Near East of biblical times and texts. The first volume of the Cambridge History of Judaism (Davies and Finkelstein 1984) contains a multichapter entry with topics that involve the political and social history of “Persian Palestine,” including its archaeology and religious life. Much of this material has been augmented by further research in the intervening years. Yamauchi 1990 provides a useful list of relevant academic works and scholarship regarding biblical and nonbiblical Jewish sources. Iranist contributions include Frye 1984, a narrative of Iranian history Curtis 1997, which considers the connections between the Iranian heartland and Mesopotamia Wiesehöfer 1996, a chronological and thematic overview of the political, social, and cultural aspects of the Achaemenid empire and Briant 2002, a comprehensive work, now translated into English. Waters 2014 looks to Greek historiography, archaeology, and ancient Near East (ANE) texts, to provide a historical and political narrative of the Ancient Persians.

Briant, Pierre. From Cyrus to Alexander: A History of the Persian Empire. Translated by Peter T. Daniels. Winona Lake, IN: Eisenbrauns, 2002.

Substantial sections of this text detail the sociopolitical interactions of the Persians and Jews, although there is little discussion of their respective theologies. Over a hundred references to biblical sources are included.

Curtis, John, ed. Mesopotamia and Iran in the Persian Period: Conquest and Imperialism, 539–331 BC. London: British Museum Press, 1997.

A collection of five papers, by Walker, Haerinck, Stronach, Boucharlat and Mitchell, considering the interaction of the Persians with the political, economic, and material culture of Mesopotamia. Boucharlat focuses on Susa (biblical Shushan), and Mitchell on the Book of Daniel (See Daniel).

Davies, W. D., and Louis Finkelstein, eds. The Cambridge History of Judaism. Vol. 1, Introduction: The Persian Period. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1984.

Chapters, written by experts on Jewish, biblical, and Zoroastrian studies, cover a wide range of topics under the heading “The Persian Period.” Naveh and Greenfield consider the development of Hebrew and Aramaic, while Ackroyd explores the concept of “Jewish community” from exile to return. Boyce’s article, “Persian Religion in the Achaemenid Age,” has been a key source for biblical scholars.

Frye, Richard N. The History of Ancient Iran. Munich: C. H. Beck, 1984.

A focused presentation on aspects of the political and social history of Iran not covered in depth by previous scholars. Hence, there is only a cursory overview of the archaeology of Iran, and very little material relating to the Zoroastrian religion, but there is a concentration on the history of eastern Iran.

Waters, Matt. Ancient Persia: A Concise History of the Achaemenid Empire, 550–330 BCE. Cambridge, UK, and New York: Cambridge University Press, 2014.

A historical overview of epigraphic finds, classical texts, and archaeological sources that situates Ancient Persia within a broad cultural and political context. The author incorporates discussion of the interpretive problems inherent in any study of the Achaemenids, and considers the ramifications and reverberations of their rule in the subsequent history of the Middle East.

Wiesehöfer, Josef. Ancient Persia from 550 BC to 650 AD. Translated by Azizeh Azodi. London and New York: I. B. Tauris, 1996.

Part One, “Iran from Cyrus to Alexander the Great,” is a systematic study of the history and culture of the first Persian empire, prefaced with introductory surveys of contemporary testimonies, and highlighting the significance of passages from the Hebrew Bible in providing details about the Ancient Persians.

Yamauchi, Edwin M. Persia and the Bible. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 1990.

Presents a broad, generally clear survey of the history of the Medes and the ancient Persians, referring to biblical, Iranian, and Greek sources and relevant ANE documents. Concludes with chapters on Zoroastrianism, the Magi, and Mithraism. Rejects the possibility of Zoroastrian influence on Jewish thought in the Hebrew Bible, using the arguments of predecessors and, more recently, of Hanson 1979 (cited under Biblical Concepts: Cosmology and Eschatology) and Barr 1985 (cited under Zoroastrian and Jewish Interaction). Despite several dubious etymologies and misleading statements, particularly relating to the interpretation of some Iranian concepts and artifacts, the book’s comprehensive scope is useful to scholars in the field.

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The Achaemenid Empire, also known as the first Persian Empire or Medo-Persian Empire was a major ancient civilization that was based in modern day Iran around 600 BC. The Achaemenid Empire is famous in the western world for having been the archetypal foe engaged against the Greek city-states in many famous ancient battles over territory and sovereignty known as the Greco-Persian Wars. It also later famously conquered by Alexander the Great.

The name Achaemenid comes from the name of a hypothetical king Achaemenes who ruled the Persis region from 705-675 BC. The Persian Empire was known to have been founded by a man named Cyrus II the Great who unified many of the tribes throughout the region in order to create a massive unified empire.

Persians and Medes - A History of Costume (1861-1880)

Achaemenid Empire (500 BC) - Historical Atlas (1923)

Eventually the Achaemenid Persian Empire would grow to own the territory previously occupied by the Median Empire as well as expand to encompass nearly all of Mesopotamia and even include Egypt. One major reason for the Achaemenid Empire's success lay in the sophisticated development of its roads and postal system for transport of trade goods and the military that also allowed messages to be carried successfully across great distances. Massive public works projects going back to the Akkadian Empire helped facilitate the movement of military units and communication in order to maintain the vast territories conquered.

Overview of the Persian Empire - History

The first Persian Empire took control of the Middle East after the fall of the Babylonian Empire. It is also called the Achaemenid Empire.

The empire was founded by Cyrus the Great. Cyrus first conquered the Median Empire in 550 BC and then went on to conquer the Lydians and the Babylonians. Under later kings, the empire would grow to where it ruled Mesopotamia, Egypt, Israel, and Turkey. Its borders would eventually stretch over 3,000 miles from east to west making it the largest empire on Earth at the time.

Under Cyrus the Great, the Persians allowed the peoples they conquered to continue their lives and cultures. They could keep their customs and religion as long as they paid their taxes and obeyed the Persian rulers. This was different from how earlier conquerors such as the Assyrians had ruled.

In order to maintain control of the large empire, each area had a ruler called a satrap. The satrap was like a governor of the area. He enforced the king's laws and taxes. There were around 20 to 30 satraps in the empire.

The empire was connected by many roads and a postal system. The most famous road was the Royal Road built by King Darius the Great. This road stretched around 1,700 miles all the way from Sardis in Turkey to Suza in Elam.

Although each culture was allowed to keep their own religion, the Persians followed the teaching of the prophet Zoroaster. This religion was called Zoroastrianism and believed in one main god called Ahura Mazda.

Under King Darius the Persians wanted to conquer the Greeks who he felt were causing rebellions within his empire. In 490 BC Darius attacked Greece. He captured some Greek city-states, but when he attempted to take the city of Athens, he was soundly defeated by the Athenians at the Battle of Marathon.

In 480 BC Darius' son, Xerxes I, attempted to finish what his father started and conquer all of Greece. He amassed a great army of hundreds of thousands of warriors. This was one of the largest armies assembled during ancient times. He initially won the Battle of Thermopylae against a much smaller army from Sparta. However, the Greek fleet defeated his navy at the Battle of Salamis and he was eventually forced to retreat.

Fall of the Persian Empire

The Persian Empire was conquered by the Greeks led by Alexander the Great. Starting in the year 334 BC, Alexander the Great conquered the Persian Empire from Egypt all the way to the borders of India.